Montaigne was a strong believer in taking indirect routes to pain management, both physical and mental. Kidney stones plagued him most of his adult life and he had numerous (quack?) remedies for diverting his attention from them.
I actually shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss. For roughly six years, I was on the medication Lexapro to manage anxiety. For at least three of those years, I really wanted to stop taking the drug, unsure if it was doing me any good and sure that it was making me lethargic, apathetic and fat. I tried weaning off the medication several times and once succeeded in exiting for a short time — only to be hit with horrible delayed onset withdrawal symptoms.
What finally got me off Lexapro in the spring of 2018 was a Montaigne-like diversion — I decided to quit the medication and simultaneously begin an extremely restricting almost no carb diet. I was so chronically hungry and miserable that I couldn’t tell whether my body was craving bread or meds. And it worked. It kicked off an extremely virtuous cycle in my life where I loss all the Lexapro weight and more and was able to refocus my career.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Montaigne didn’t just see diversion as a tool for getting past physical pain, he also saw it as a means of alleviating psychic pain, such as grief or heartbreak:
If your passion in love is too powerful, disperse it, they say; and they say true, for I have often tied it with profit. Break it up into various desires, of which one may be ruler and master, if you will; but for fear it may dominate and tyrannize you, weaken it, check it by diddling and diverting it. And see to it in good time, for fear it may be troublesome to you if once it has seized you.
This is rather dangerous advice — Montaigne is basically saying don’t get too attached and go find a sexual diversion if necessary to keep yourself from being swept away by a passion out of your control. And he throws in a couple quotes from Persius and Lucretius that make it plain this is his intention. (They’re actually so explicit that I’ll spare you.)
But Montaigne sees love as a potential form of diversion too:
I was once afflicted with an overpowering grief, for one of my nature, and even more justified than powerful. I might well have been destroyed by it, if I had trusted simply to my own powers. Needing some violent diversion to distract me from it, by art and study, I made myself fall in love, in which my youth helped me. Love solaced me and withdrew me from the affliction caused by friendship.
And then Montaigne walks into my backyard and praises the orators for their ability to elicit emotions that they do not feel themselves, saying that this is a most useful skill that could be put to good use
The orator (says Rhetoric) when acting out his case will be moved by the sound of his own voice and by his own feigned indignation; he will allow himself to be taken in by the emotion he is portraying. By acting out his part as in a play he will stamp on himself the essence of true grief and then transmit it to the judges (who are even less involved in the case than he is); it is like those mourners who are rented for funerals and who sell their tears and grief by weight and measure: for even though they only borrow their signs of grief, it is nevertheless certain that by habitually adopting the right countenance they often get carried away and find room inside themselves for real melancholy.
Plato was angered by these rhetorical tricks, which he considered a tool of sophistry, but Montaigne is far more accepting of it:
Quintilian says that he had known actors to be so involved in playing the part of a mourner that they were still shedding tears after they had returned home; and of himself he says that, having accepted to arouse grief in somebody else, he had so wedded himself to that emotion that he found himself surprised not only by tears but by pallor of face and by the stoop of a man truly weighed down by grief.
But isn’t there artifice to this? Why turn away from the sorrow and genuine pain and seek out either diversions to it or histrionic, even insincere, expressions of it? Montaigne sees something important in these kinds of expression:
Abandoning your life for a dream is to value it for exactly what it is worth. Listen though to our soul triumphing over her wretched body and its frailty, as the butt of all indispositions and degradations. A fat lot of reason she has to talk! “O wretched clay which Prometheus first moulded! How unwisely he wrought! By his art he arranged the body but saw not the mind. The right way would have been to start off with the soul.” — Propertius.
In other words, it is in our idealism that we find our true expression, not in the mundane details of life. The aspirations that we give voice to in these moment of rhetorical excess speak to our deepest yearnings and should not be dismissed as mere stories. They are, in fact, the world as we wish to see it and, therefore, the one we most comfortably inhabit even when the world of harsh reality continues to intrude.
I do realize that I have not actually addressed the point implied in my headline — what is a person to do when harsh reality snaps away many of the most pleasant diversions available? If you were to follow Montaigne’s lead, I would say that it is a time to go even deeper within and not fear seeming foolish or ridiculous. In fact, it is a time to treasure your ridiculousness. This is where the world of your dreams and ideals live and they may be the best friends you have as the real world continues to draw in tightly.