Before I begin, a hat tip is in order to one of my readers for pointing a recent story in Wired from Virginia Heffernan that quotes Montaigne. Finding Montaigne stories in the wild and commenting on them isn’t a bad future use for this blog, so I thank the reader for pointing it out and encourage others to do the same. And for anyone feeling jealous that one reader has moved to the head of the pack, I just want to assure you that I love all of my readers and wish you could all be Bart’s People.
As someone who has eaten many plant-based burgers in his day (I was a full-on vegetarian from 1993-1996, slowly adding fish and poultry into the mix over the next decade), I’m especially interested in the linked story, but have to admit that I haven’t read it yet. That normally doesn’t stop one on the Internet (especially a man) from opining, but I will defer to a future time.
Instead, I am going to use this essay to wrap up my 20-day project about Montaigne and Solitude. Yes, I am bringing this series of essays in for a landing, even though we are all still sequestered, even though I haven’t actually written about the subject of solitude since week one, even though I’ve promised before to write less often but have churned out a post a day anyway. I may still keep posting daily, it’s better that I don’t try to predict my behavior, but I can see now that this particular well has run dry.
Montaigne actually doesn’t have a whole lot of reassuring or even useful things to tell us about our current predicament. He was basically retiring from a life that he found too beyond his control and felt the need to retreat to his tower. Talk about privilege — what a life you live when you have the option of retiring to ponder only yourself and how you relate to all the other great men and thoughts in history. The fact that something valuable came out of it was good fortune for the world, but Montaigne’s life provides no useful model for any human who has to earn a living and care for others.
So the question of Montaigne’s utility to us ends up being not about solitude at all — it has to do with introspection. Does it have any real purpose in our lives? I believe it has, but it also carries significant risks if carried on for too long. Introspection must be the opposite of rumination. It cannot get stuck on a single subject matter or event and endless turn it around until it becomes a mystical object. Introspection has to keep moving, it has to touch on multiple subjects and conditions — and it has to reach a definitive end point. This piece by psychologist Tasha Eurich does a really nice job of explaining the difference between the two. At the risk of oversimplifying her thoughts, it comes down to introspecting just long enough to find insight and not a moment more.
I could keep this version of the Montaigne Project going indefinitely. The first time through, I wrote essay to essay, creating an end point for the project. This quote-by-quote approach, on the other hand, is open ended to the point of absurdity. Even after all the quotes are dried up, I could just change the configurations of the quotes to examine a completely different issue. And maybe there is value in doing something like that for Montaigne scholars. As someone with a pathetic knowledge of French and no hope of translating renaissance era French, I couldn’t begin to pretend that kind of expertise. (See this essay for more background on that personal trait.)
But ultimately, this project runs the risk of keeping me in a state of endless introspection at a time when the world is changing rapidly, and it seems a bit foolish to be so focused on the self. We’re still in this state of isolation, but we will soon come out of it and into a different world, one that has seen the most massive economic contraction in our lives. We really have no idea how quickly — even if — the world will rebound from this. The early signs from the U.S., where the first efforts at economic protection have benefitted the wealthy very well and have been scattershot for everyone else, signal great danger ahead.
Even that economic recovery is contingent on the world eventually getting a handle on this public health catastrophe. How many people may die in the Southern Hemisphere in coming months when COVID-19 roars across Africa and Southern Asia? In what form might it return — which it will — before we have an effective vaccine? And how quickly will we be able to manufacture and distribute that vaccine? How many more periods of quarantine do we have ahead of us before the world reached herd immunity? Given all this, this is a time for thoughts to flow outward.
For me, this is especially the case because of the temptation of reliving, even as a form of tortured escape, what I’ve gone through the past several months. After years of trying, I finally found a therapy relationship that started to work for me. A Pandora’s Box opened, I felt completely disoriented, then the relationship fell apart. There’s ample material there to ruminate upon endlessly and to relate it to everything I come across daily. Or it might just be better to declare myself bored with the subject and move on.
There’s another risk involved in continuing the current series of essays — I could contaminate the memory of the previous essays. The main reason that I returned to writing about Montaigne was to create a new forum for the old work that I did — basically a new hook for discovering the old work. But if this work just drags on and on with tedious over examination of material no one but me should care about, it could very well make people less likely to take a look at the old work. Trust me on this — the old work is better.
So, mymontaigneproject.org is not going away and neither is the Facebook page. I will likely continue to publish new essays when I feel like it. I will probably shift the focus of the pieces outward, which is very much not in the spirit of Montaigne … and it’s possible no one will read them.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I glad that I returned to this project, and I consider it time well spent. Thanks for reading.