Animal Companions: Solitude and Folly

There’s always this tension in Montaigne’s discussions of solitude between the negative reasons for seeking it and the positive results that can come of it. I sometimes wonder which one is the rationale and which is the rationalization. Does he come up with positive attributes of solitude to put a happy face on his need to pull away from the messy entanglements of crowds? Or does he just enjoy the freedom of his solitude and feels like he has to give a more well-rounded explanation for pulling away, lest people will think he’s just become grumpy and anti-social?

Last night I watched the last film of Luis Bunuel from 1977 entitled “The Obscure Object of Desire.” It belongs to my least favorite genre of story, regardless of medium — the aging man in pursuit of a coquettish young woman. This movie in particular was even more annoying than usual, because it used two different actresses to play the object of desire, without any apparent reason why this stunt was necessary. The fact that the movie is considered a classic I just chalk up to Bunuel’s well earned reputation (I especially love “The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoise”), nostalgia for his final film, and the fact that every adult in the 1970s seemed to be creepy in their own way.

Anyway, the movie reminded me of Montaigne and his desire to pull himself away from social entanglements and his embrace of solitary folly. The protagonist of Bunuel’s film seemed similar to Montaigne in age and social status at the time he retreated from the world and started his deep dive within. What Montaigne might say about the movie is that foolish pursuits should be expected of people at every age, but past a certain point, they just become embarrassing and perhaps it is best for the aging man with childish longings to keep them to himself. Here is Montaigne describing the folly of humankind:

Presumption is our nature and original malady. The most vulnerable and frail of all creatures is man, and at the same time the most arrogant. He feels and sees himself lodged here, amid the mire and dung of the world, nailed and riveted to the worse, the deadest, and the most stagnant part of the universe, on the lowest story of the house and the farthest from the vault of heaven, with the animals of the worst condition of the three; and in his imagination he goes planting himself above the circle of the moon, and bringing the sky down beneath his feet.

I’m breaking this very long quote into parts because I need to point out another movie reference buried within — Montaigne’s analogy closely mirrors the plot of “Parasite.” Montaigne sees humanity as the people trapped in the basement of existence, echoing both the main situation of the movie that pushes towards its climax, but also the ending, where one of the movie’s protagonists has now escaped to a hardscrabble existence in the basement. The daydream that ends the film is nearly the same as the imagination described by Montaigne, a vain hope about reaching the highest floor of the house, bringing sky down to his feet.

The father in “Parasite” escapes to a basement, Montaigne sought refuge in a tower. Whether high or low, both made humble escapes from social orders where they could no longer function. But what of those who remain embroiled in the turmoil?

It is by the vanity of this same imagination that he equals himself to God, attributes to himself divine characteristics, picks himself out and separates himself from the horde of other creatures, carves out their shares to his fellows and companions the animals, and distributes among them such portions of faculties and powers as he sees fit. How does he know, by the force of his intelligence, the secret internal stirrings of animals? By what comparison between them and us does he infer the stupidity that he attributes to them?

Montaigne is writing in the 17th century, when most human commerce still consisted of agriculture. So it is not surprising that he sees the human folly in taking charge of the animal kingdom. In today’s more complex economy, the same type of division is made between fellow humans. How much of contemporary life consists of a small percentage of people acting like gods and dividing the rest of the world up to their purposes? These gods take many forms — gods of the economy, politics, sports, entertainment. All of them, regardless of whether they reached their station by birth, luck, theft or merit, believe that it was their unique personal attributes that brought them success, that they indeed deserve to live like gods among us. To rationalize this, it must follow that others who do not share their good fortune must lack a work ethic, proper morals, talent or intelligence, and most likely all of the above.

I didn’t intend this essay to become so heavily political.  It just turned out that Montaigne’s thoughts about the folly of humanity naturally lead to the folly of our current predicament. What makes Montaigne most interesting to me is that he doesn’t preach about folly and demand we change our ways. Montaigne would consider that a hopless quest. He believed that folly is forever within us and not only should we accept it, we should find ways to embrace it.

That returns us to solitude. By removing ourselves from the chaotic throng of society, we have an opportunity to embrace folly for our own amusement, not as an opportunity to inflict harm on others. It’s like the much-maligned final episode of “Seinfeld” — after years of dissecting how to navigate the rules of modern society and doing harm, big and small, to others along the way, the four protagonists are thrown into jail, where they can begin the same cycle of jokes among themselves into eternity. And life goes on pretty much the same as it was.

Montaigne did not seek refuge with three joking companions, but he had his own friends to converse with and with whom to ponder the big questions of the universe. And so he closes this large quote within the epic Apology for Raymond Sebond essay with perhaps his most famous line:

When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?