The stats tell me that no one reads my blog on Mondays, which makes this the perfect opportunity to drop an essay about sex while no one is looking. Montaigne was considered a groundbreaking writer on the subject, one who introduced many risqué subjects into French literature long before it became synonymous with bawdiness.  His essay On Some Verses of Virgil is especially famous (or perhaps notorious) for its subject matter.

Some of it is really funny.  Such as this:

Foods taste better when they are dear. Think how far kisses, the form of greeting peculiar to our nation, have had their grace cheapened by availability: Socrates thought they were most powerful and dangerous at stealing our hearts. Ours is an unpleasant custom which wrongs the ladies who have to lend their lips to any man, however ugly, who comes with three footmen in his train. “Cold leaden snot drips from his dog-like conk and bedews his beard. Why, I would a hundred times rather go and lick his arse” (Martial.)

I also like this little disconnected thought of his:

In short we bait and lure women by every means. We are constantly stimulating and overheating their imagination. And then we gripe about it.

Which isn’t to say that I admit to doing this. But I don’t exactly deny it either — I simply have no idea. I am both very fortunate to get along with women easily and very unfortunate to have no clue what they actually think of me most of the time. Perhaps it is better that way. I get the sense that Montaigne had a similar characteristic:

It pains me that my Essays merely serve ladies as a routine piece of furniture — something to put into their salon. This chapter will get me into their private drawing-rooms; and I prefer my dealings with women to be somewhat private: the public ones lack intimacy and savor.

Speaking of which, I spent nearly the full day today interviewing prospective new therapists, which of course in my case meant talking to four women. I have had enough therapy to know that I’m simply incapable of talking about anything important with another man. If I want to argue about politics or debate who was the best relief pitcher of the 1980s, a man will suit my purposes.  But if the goal is to figure out what emotions are elicited via 24/7 cloistering with my family, I have to speak to a woman about it, even if she offers no opinion in return.

It was an exhausting day, recalling many of the same stories multiple times. I don’t enjoy presenting myself as needing help, which Montaigne would understand:

I loathe a morose and gloomy mind which glides over life’s pleasures by holds on to its misfortunes and feeds on them — like flies which cannot get a hold on to anything highly polished and smooth and so cling to rough and rugged places and stay there; or like leeches which crave to suck only bad blood. I have moreover bidden myself to dare to write whatever I dare to do: I am loath even to have thoughts which I cannot publish. The worst of my deeds of qualities does not seem to me as ugly as the ugly cowardice of not daring to avow it.

Now that is a place where I would like to dwell and perhaps it is the only reason that I remain in therapy — because I have stories that I can, sometimes freely, sometimes reluctantly, share in that room and nowhere else. Perhaps it is cowardice.  Perhaps I just don’t like being chided by loved ones for revealing too much about myself in public forums.

My mother, for example, knows that if she really wants to dig into me painfully, she can just drop a line such as “it’s really too bad that you’ve never written a book.” I’ve never had the heart to reply that my reluctance might be to spare her feelings. But then again, it’s highly unlikely that she’d actually read it. But note to anyone else wishing to give voice to similar opinions about my writing: I don’t really need to hear my mother’s voice in stereo.

Well, since we’re deep in the psychodynamic muck by this point, might as well throw out another piece of Montaigne controversy:

A love-affair is based on pleasure alone: and in truth its pleasure is more exciting, lively and keen: a pleasure set ablaze by difficulties. It must have stabs of pain and anguish. Without darts and flames of desire Cupid is Cupid no longer.

I recently had the “pleasure” of discovering a type of relationship filled with no sexual pleasure and only fleeting liveliness, but all of the stabs of pain and anguish of an actual affair. The disciples of Freud call it transference and for me, it felt like taking every close relationship I’ve had in my life and compressing it into a Super Ball that was bounced off my head repeatedly, much like in Chinese water torture. By the end of my three month game of human paddleball, I was enmeshed in what felt like the worst dating relationship  in my life with someone billing BCBS $135 per session and me kicking in an extra $15. The worst part is, now that the torture is over, I’m still mourning the loss.

Ok, Montaigne, that last paragraph was for you.  Try to call me a coward now.

Anyway, moving on … despite his earlier boasting, Montaigne agrees that there are some subjects we really need to keep to ourselves:

Wise men keep secret both the sweets of marriage and its bitterness. For a talkative man like me, of all the distressing disadvantages of marriage one of the principal is the fact that custom has made it indecorous and obnoxious to discuss with anyone whatever all that we know and feel about it.

This is still true to an extent for men, but certainly not for women. Women seem to speak of all aspects of their marriage freely and openly with their friends and have a hard time believing that we really aren’t going into as much detail about them when we gather to play sports or engage in other pointless manly acts.

Montaigne in his old age finally felt comfortable writing about sex and love, probably because he saw it slipping away from him:

I have absolutely no other passion but love to keep me going. What covetousness, ambition, quarrels and lawsuits do for men who, like me, have no other allotted task, love would do more suitably: it would restore me to vigilance, sober behavior, graceful manners and care about my person; love would give new strength to my features so that the distortions of old age, pitiful and misshapen, should not come and disfigure them; it would bring me back to wise and healthy endeavors by which I cover make myself better esteemed and better loved, banishing from my mind all sense of hopelessness about itself and about its application, while bringing it to know itself again.

It’s one of Montaigne’s most beautiful thoughts and it touches on some of the reasons why I am engaged in this project. It is, in many ways, an undirected, purposeless act of love. There is rationality in every post, but a touch of madness as well, which Montaigne would find completely appropriate:

Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom: whoever writes about it merely respectfully and by rule leaves more than half of it behind. I address no apologies to myself; were I to do so I would apologize for those apologies more than anything else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picking up on yesterday’s theme, Montaigne had much to say about the connection between melancholy and anger. Today it is common to consider depression to be anger turned back upon itself. But in Montaigne’s time, this was a remarkable insight:

Another great man boasted to me of the gentle correctness of his manners, which was truly unique. I replied that, especially in one of so eminent a rank and on whom all eyes were turned, it was indeed something to present oneself always moderate to the world, but that the main thing was to provide inwardly for oneself: to my taste a man was not managing his business well if he was eating his insides out. I am afraid that he was doing just that, so as to maintain the mask of that outward appearance of correctness.

This also harkens back to Montaigne’s view of moderation. It underscores just how radical his moderation project is — it’s not even possible to sublimate the passions, you have to conquer them completely within or they will return to do damage.

By hiding our choler we drive it into our bodies: as Diogenes said to Demosthenes, who kept drawing back further inside so as not to be spotted in a tavern: ‘The more you draw back, the further in you go!’ I would advise you to give your valet a rather unseasonable slap on the cheek rather than to torture your mind so as to put on an appearance of wisdom; I would rather make an exhibition of my passions than brood over them to my cost: express them, vent them, and they grow weaker; it is better to let them jab outside us than be turned against us: “All defects are lighter in the open:… they are most pernicious when concealed beneath a pretence of soundness.” — Seneca

This seems contradictory to me. Montaigne made a strong case that many of our strongest passions, especially the aggressive ones, are irrational reactions invited in by mood or physical sensations. This being the case, you’d think we would be wise to ignore angry thoughts, not express them  But there is a subtle difference. If you can let angry thought sit until a mood passes and it disappears, then it is better off left unsaid. But if this thought turns to brooding, then it has done internal harm and might be better off expressed. How it is expressed, of course, is important.

Writing comes easily and freely to me, which makes it all too simple for me express strong feelings through email. Over the years, I’ve learned that this is one of the worst ways to express anger for several reasons. First, people generally do not like email. They associate it with work and obligation. Adding emotional work to the medium does not improve matters. In addition, email is permanent and too easily shared, creating context and tone issues. Finally, even the greatest email ever composed can be destroyed by one ill considered line or phrase. It is in my best interests to use email sparingly, but my passions sometime get the best of me

Montaigne also advises to keep anger focused and specific, otherwise it is remembered purely for the anger and not the content:

I advise those of my family who have the right to show their anger, firstly to be sparing of their choler and not to scatter it abroad no matter what the cost, since that thwarts its action and its weight; even the anger you vent on a servant for a theft makes no impression then: it is the same anger he has seen you use against him a hundred times already, for a glass badly rinsed or a stool left out of place. Secondly, let them not get angry in the void; let them see that their reprimand falls to the one they are complaining about, for as a rule they are yelling before he has answered their summons; and they go on doing so for ages after he has gone.

I would not say that I have a general problem with anger, but I am still working on how to use it productively. My tendency is to not use it often, but when I finally feel the need to lash out (when it takes on that brooding quality Montaigne mentioned,) I tend to scare the hell out of people. Much of this is simple contrast. A usually calm person seems like a totally different human when enraged, while someone who vents often (think Joe Pesci in ‘GoodFellas’) can even seem humorous when out of control.

But before you conclude that Montaigne has this all figured out, notice how he closes On Anger — with a typical Montaigne touch. He doesn’t explicitly say “what do I know?” here, but it is heavily implied:

One more word to close this chapter. Aristotle says that choler sometimes serves virtue and valour as a weapon. That is most likely; nevertheless those who deny it have an amusing reply: it must be some new-fangled weapon; for we wield the other weapons: that one wields us; it is not our hand that guides it: it guides our hand; it gets a hold on us: not we on it.

I don’t normally quote sources other than Montaigne in my essays, but today I’m going to lead off with M.E. Screech, a Montaigne scholar and perhaps his most famous English language interpreter. Screech writes that Montaigne first conceived of his essays as a project of quiet, joyful contemplation. That did not last long:

Montaigne’s project of calm study soon went wrong. He fell into an unbalanced melancholy; his spirit galloped off like a runaway horse; his mind, left fallow, produced weeds not grass. The terms he uses are clear: his complexion was unbalanced by an increase of melancholy ‘humour’. His natural ‘complexion’ – the mix of his ‘humours’ – was a stable blend of the melancholic and the sanguine. So that sudden access of melancholy humour (brought on by grief and isolation) was a serious matter, for such an increase in that humour was indeed inimical to his complexion, tipping it towards chagrin, a depression touched by madness. Such chagrin induced rêveries, a term which then, and long afterwards, meant not amiable poetic musings but ravings. (The Rêveries of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, are his ‘ravings’, not his ‘day-dreams’.) So at the outset otium brought Montaigne not happy leisure and wisdom but instability. Writing the Essays was, at one period, a successful attempt to exorcize that demon. To shame himself, he tells us, he decided to write down his thoughts and his rhapsodies. That was the beginning of his Essays.

Montaigne takes the most time to discuss his view of melancholia and how it alters thought processes in An Apology for Raymond Sebond. My first time through the essays, I was a bit overwhelmed by rich material in this essay and the scant amount of time I had to process it, and completely overlooked this fascinating section on mood and reason.

He starts out with a clear, simple thesis: people are fallible and their thoughts are often filled with errors and biases. What goes on inside our bodies often plays a major role in how we perceive events:

Our condition is subject to error: that ought, at very least, to lead us to be more moderate and restrained in making changes. We ought to admit that, no matter what we allow into our understanding, it often includes falsehoods which enter by means of the same tools which have often proved contradictory and misleading. It is not surprising that they should prove contradictory, since they are so easily biased and twisted by the lightest of occurrences. It is certain that our conceptions, our judgement and our mental faculties in general are all affected by the changes and alterations of the body.

I don’t know how others are taking the current state of social distancing and global fear of the COVID-19 virus, but personally, I have felt some periodic melancholy. It has seemed to hit the strongest over weekends, which seem little different from the “work days” before it. And it also seems to me that these dark moods are getting a little darker each week. Montaigne would expect this:

It is not only fevers, potions and great events which upset our judgement: the lightest thing can send it spinning. If a continual fever lays our minds prostrate, you can be sure that a three day fever will have a proportionately bad effect on them, even though we are not aware of it. If apoplexy can dim and totally snuff out our mental vision, you can be sure that even a cold will confuse it. Consequently, there can hardly be found a single hour in an entire lifetime when our powers of judgement are settled in their proper place; our bodies are subject to so many sustained changes and are composed of so many kinds of principles that there is always one pulling the wrong way –I trust the doctors over that! This malady, moreover, is not so easy to detect unless it is extreme and past all cure; Reason always hobbles, limps and walks askew, in falsehood as in truth, so that it is hard to detect when she is mistaken or unhinged.

We like to think of reason as being something solid and unshakable. But to Montaigne, it is always a bit of a facade. We never reach pure reason, we only make our best attempt at all times to be as reasonable as possible.

By reason I always mean that appearance of rationality which each of us constructs for himself – the kind of reason which can characteristically have a thousand contrary reactions to the same subject and is like a tool of malleable lead or wax: it can be stretched, bent or adapted to any size or to any bias; if you are clever, you can learn to mould it.

I have already discussed elsewhere my personal abilities in moulding reason to my needs. It is interesting that while Montaigne was critical of that ability in other essays, here he seems to view a malleable approach to reason with kinder eyes. 

I am tempted here to unload a bit and explain what it is that is bothering me in today’s fit of melancholia, but I think Montaigne is onto something — it honestly does not matter. Often our thoughts in times like these are servants to physical feels and moods that invite the least cordial interpretations and invite anger and resentment. Perhaps it is best in a time like this to acknowledge the mood, observe the thoughts and let them pass without expression. Then I can hope to wake tomorrow with a brighter complexion and less need to express ideas that I could regret later.

This week I have veered off the path of solitude by feet here and yards there. Now I feel the need to take the project fully off trail. Friendship has been on my mind lately. It is something we’re all craving now. We can still work in our homes. If we are lucky, we are surrounded by family or companions, or at least our animal friends. But the emptiest spaces for many of us now are for the people with whom, to paraphrase Lana Del Rey, we miss doing nothing most of all.

Being separated from friends now also makes me think of those I’ve lost along the way. I think of my dear friend Chip, who died four years ago. I think of people I’ve lost touch with or who I decided had become too much work to keep close. I remember an important friendship with a woman I once foolishly (decades ago) threw away by half heartedly pursuing her romantically, and even, in a strange way, my father, who was an utter failure to me as an authority figure and role model, but oddly enough filled a vital role in my life for many years by being someone much more akin to a friend.

Montaigne claimed to have a special talent for friendship. I cannot claim the same. For too many years, I was too careless with all but my closest relationships and figured I could always find replacements. As I grow older, friendships have become more important to me than all other types of relationships, and I hope I have learned from my many mistakes.

I have probably “friended” more people on social media this week than ever before. Also, I have begun re-evaluating relationship, past and present, realizing that it’s the elements of friendship — of shared laughs, outrages, and enthusiasms — that endure even the bitterest memories, and if only humanity had a natural process for returning people to their proper roles after others were deemed a poor fit, we might all find ourselves a little more loved, or at least less heartbroken.

Montaigne had so many beautiful words about friendship that he doesn’t require the lengthy setup I just gave him. I’ll let this paragraph speak for itself:

Common friendships can be shared. In one friend one can love beauty; in another, affability; in another, generosity; in another, a fatherly affection; in another, a brotherly one; and so on. But in this friendship love takes possession of the soul and reigns there with full sovereign sway: that cannot possibly be duplicated. If two friends asked you to help them at the same time, which of them would you dash to? If they asked for conflicting favours, who would have the priority? If one entrusted to your silence something which it was useful for the other to know, how would you get out of that? The unique, highest friendship loosens all other bonds. That secret which I have sworn to reveal to no other, I can reveal without perjury to him who is not another: he is me. It is a great enough miracle for oneself to be redoubled: they do not realize how high a one it is when they talk of its being tripled. The uttermost cannot be matched. If anyone suggests that I can love each of two friends as much as the other, and that they can love each other and love me as much as I love them, he is turning into a plural, into a confraternity, that which is the most ‘one’, the most bound into one. One single example of it is moreover the rarest thing to find in the world.

Montaigne is writing here about Etienne de La Boetie. His friendship with La Boetie was so important, and Montaigne’s grief so deep, that you could read his entire project as an effort to continue their conversations after death. I cannot claim to have one single friendship that fills up as much space as the Montaigne/La Boetie diad. For me, that role seems to have shifted through time and even across roles. At times it was filled by my father, my wife, my mentor, perhaps even by a therapist.

What’s interesting to me is that, in many cases, I would not even consider these bonds to be friendship at the time they were strongest. And yet, when a relationship disappears, fades or destructs, it is the friendship elements that I have missed the most and they have been the parts of my life I have looked most readily to fill.

Montaigne did not believe that such a friendship was possible between fathers and sons:

From children to fathers it is more a matter of respect; friendship, being fostered by mutual confidences, cannot exist between them because of their excessive inequality; it might also interfere with their natural obligations: for all the secret thoughts of fathers cannot be shared with their children for fear of begetting an unbecoming intimacy; neither can those counsels and admonitions which constitute one of the principal obligations of friendship be offered by children to their fathers. There have been peoples where it was the custom for children to kill their fathers and others for fathers to kill their children to avoid the impediment which each can constitute for the other: one depends naturally on the downfall of the other.

Montaigne is not wrong here. It is true that my father was not able to share secret thoughts with me. To be honest, I wouldn’t have wanted him to do so. On the other hand, I readily offered my father counsel and admonitions. By the time we formed a closer bond later in his life, all hierarchy had been obliterated. He readily accepted my role as an equal or better. In friendship, I rediscovered elements of my father that had been lost since early childhood. 

It is strange that a female therapist recently evoked some of these same feelings in me, which left me bewildered during and after our time together. She wasn’t experienced or skilled enough to look beyond the transference affection that I was expressing towards her to find my genuine yearning. However, I now see that the grief I have experienced recently was for my father, both the loss of his companionship and the deeper regret of missing out on a guiding force in my life, a role my father could not or would not play.

Friendships give us the opportunity to recreate families to the lives we have chosen. Some of us choose to keep friends that remind us of simpler times in life. Others gather new ones as their interests change in time. I prefer the latter course, while doing the best I can to find ways to fit old friends into the new pattern. I do not always succeed. 

If it seems like I am just riffing off of Montaigne today and not really engaging him, that’s because it’s true. He too is an old friend, and I no longer feel obliged to follow him like another substitute guiding force in my life. We can now argue productively or even hold two conversations at once.  Friends can do that. Friends don’t make too much of a bad day, they eagerly turn the page and get back to the important work of doing little more than being there. 

Two days ago, I wrote about Montaigne’s eloquent call for taking the middle path in life and avoiding the edges and boundaries. Today I want to dig a bit deeper into what Montaigne means by moderation, because there’s a fascinating oxymoron within it — Montaigne is a moderation zealot.

By that I mean, if you take his ideas about moderation to their natural conclusion — and he does, very specifically — you end up endorsing behaviors that seem nothing like the accepted mainstream. But let me ease into that point at Montaigne’s speed.  Here again is his main thesis:

I like natures which are temperate and moderate. Even when an immoderate zeal for the good does not offend me it still stuns me and makes it difficult for me to give it a Christian name. Neither Pausanias’ mother (who made the first accusation against her son and who brought the first stone to wall him up for his death) nor Posthumius (the Dictator who had his own son put to death because he had been carried away by youthful ardour and had fought – successfully – slightly ahead of his unit) seem ‘just’ to me: they seem odd. I neither like to advise nor to imitate a virtue so savage and so costly: the archer who shoots beyond his target misses it just as much as the one who falls short; my eyes trouble me as much when I suddenly come up into a strong light as when I plunge into darkness.

This is all very easy to understand. Extreme actions, even when backed by virtuous goals, are troubling to Montaigne. He sees philosophy itself, when taken too literally, as equally dangerous

(T)aken in moderation philosophy is pleasant and useful, but it can eventually lead to a man’s becoming vicious and savage, contemptuous of religion and of the accepted laws, an enemy of social intercourse, an enemy of our human pleasures, useless at governing cities, at helping others or even at helping himself – a man whose ears you could box with impunity …. in its excesses philosophy enslaves our native freedom and with untimely subtleties makes us stray from that beautiful and easy path that Nature has traced for us.

But what is that beautiful and easy path that nature traces? Here is where Montaigne gets radical. He believes that the moral and legal constraints of marriage are a setup and if we actually follow the rules, we do grave harm to ourselves and our spouses:

I want to teach husbands the following – if, that is, there are any who are still too eager:  even those very pleasures which they enjoy when lying with their wives are reproved if not kept within moderation; you can fall into license and excess in this as in matters unlawful. All those shameless caresses which our first ardor suggests to us in our sex-play are not only unbecoming to our wives but harmful to them when practiced on them. At least let them learn shamelessness from some other hand! They are always wide enough awake when we need them. Where this is concerned what I have taught has been natural and uncomplicated.

Maybe we need a proxy debate between Montaigne and Esther Perel. Montaigne seems to be endorsing Perel’s “mating in captivity” thesis, while rejecting her prescription for breaking out of it. He certainly would not agree that spouses should look to bring eroticism into long-term relationships and says so explicitly:

Marriage is a bond both religious and devout: that is why the pleasure we derive from it must be serious, restrained and intermingled with some gravity; its sensuousness should be somewhat wise and dutiful. Its chief end is procreation, so there are those who doubt whether it is right to seek intercourse when we have no hope of conception, as when the woman is pregnant or too old. For Plato that constitutes a kind of of homicide. There are whole peoples, including the Mahometans, who abominate intercourse with women who are pregnant, and others still during monthly periods. Zenobia admitted her husband for a single discharge; once that was over she let him run wild throughout her pregnancy, giving him permission to begin again only once it was over. There was a fine and noble-hearted marriage for you!

I am less interested here in the alternative lifestyle angle that Montaigne is suggesting here (which actually puts him more in line with Perel’s most recent work than the previous paragraph suggests) and more interested in how all of this thought springs from Montaigne’s embrace of moderation. When we think of moderation in contemporary terms, we think of social norms, splitting the difference and taming our most aggressive impulses.  But Montaigne isn’t saying that at all. He argues that there are irrational and animal forces within us that inevitably push us towards act of folly. Pretending that they can be channeled in a socially acceptable way, for Montaigne, is just as immoderate as acting out on those passions in explicitly disallowed ways. And just in case you don’t get his point, he cites some historical examples, such as this one:

The kings of Persia did invite their wives as guests to their festivities, but once the wine had seriously inflamed them so that they had to let their lust gallop free, they packed them off to their quarters so as not to make them accomplices of their immoderate appetites, sending instead for other women whom they were not bound to respect.

Montaigne uses these illustrations to argue against literal marital law and ethics, but he is not explicitly endorsing the actions of the Persian kings.  Here is how he wraps up the point:

In short there is no pleasure, however proper, which does not become a matter of reproach when excessive and intemperate. But, seriously though, is not Man a wretched creature? Because of his natural attributes he is hardly able to taste one single pleasure pure and entire: yet he has to go and curtail even that by arguments; he is not wretched enough until he has increased his wretchedness by art and assiduity.

“The wretched paths of Fortune we make worse by art.” — Propertius

Human wisdom is stupidly clever when used to diminish the number and sweetness of such pleasures as do belong to us, just as she employs her arts with diligence and fitness when she brings comb and cosmetics to our ills and makes us feel them less. If I had founded a school of philosophy I would have taken another route – a more natural one, that is to say a true, convenient and inviolate one; and I might have made myself strong enough to know when to stop.

That last note is important, because Montaigne is not suggesting that we freely give in to these wild forces and animal pleasures, he’s actually suggesting that we train ourselves to know when to stop, even if we have already created an ethos that would make those actions permissible.

It is difficult to follow Montaigne’s path and still lead a passionate, fulfilling life. Maybe it is not a path anyone under a certain age should attempt, it could be purely for those taking the final turn in life.  I will have more to say on that subject in the next essay.

Having squeezed some insights about mental health and moderation out of Montaigne’s closing essay On Experience yesterday, I have decided to stay on that piece to discuss physical health today. It is basically all that anyone can think and talk about now. The news about the COVID-19 pandemic grows more grim every day. With more information about the disease also comes confusion — witness the proliferation of stories about “atypical symptoms” of the disease that will make anyone feeling under the weather frightened that they too have the dreaded coronavirus.

I have fallen into this category, I am sorry to say. Two days ago, I started having some gastrointestinal issues while running. I have since picked up some malaise and muscle aches. I also feel a headache coming on. Normally, I would just say that I caught a stomach bug, which brought on some dehydration, which made my muscles feel a little more sore than usual post run and could trigger a headache. I am not running a fever nor have I developed a cough. In short, by the CDC description of COVID-19 symptoms, I shouldn’t worry. But those stories ….

We are being told every day to act as if we have the virus, so I suppose my actions going forward shouldn’t change much at all.  I have been tethered to the house for three weeks now. I believe that I have followed the best advice in keeping distance, avoiding physical contact, washing hands, and not touching my face. But who knows — I have made many trips to Mariano’s and Target, perhaps I caught something when I grabbed an item off the shelf or when I used the payment card processor.

At first glance, it does not appear that Montaigne would have taken too well to developing new social distancing health habits:

My regimen is the same in sickness as in health: I use the same bed, same timetable, same food and same drink. I add absolutely nothing except for increasing and decreasing the measure depending on my strength and appetite. Health means for me the maintaining of my usual route without let or hindrance. I can see that my illness has blocked one direction for me: if I put trust in doctors they will turn me away from the other, so there I am off my route either by destiny or their Art; there is nothing that I believe so certainly as this: that carrying on with anything to which I have so long been accustomed cannot do me harm. It is for custom to give shape to our lives, such shape as it will – in such matters it can do anything. It is the cup of Circe which changes our nature as it pleases. How many peoples are there, not three yards from us, who think that our fear of the cool evening air – which ‘so evidently’ harms us – is ludicrous; and our boatsmen and our peasants laugh at us too.

I am not one to pull wisdom from the ancients when it comes to science. Montaigne had many wise things to say about mental health, but his admonition to ignore doctors and stick to routines is just flat out wrong. Neither should we take our lead from the Bible when it comes to most health advice or even a medical textbook from 100 years ago.

In fairness to Montaigne, he did admit that as he grew older, he tempered many of his habits, even if it meant giving up some of his favorite pastimes:

Although I was brought up, as much as is humanly possible, for freedom and flexibility, nevertheless as I grow older I am becoming through indifference more fixed in certain forms (I am past the age for elementary schooling; now old age has no other concern than to look after itself); without my noticing it, custom has imprinted its stamp on me so well where some things are concerned that any departure from it I call excess; and I cannot, without turning it into an assay of myself, sleep by day, eat snacks between meals, nor eat breakfast, nor go to bed after supper without having a considerable gap, say three hours or more, nor have sexual intercourse except before going to sleep, nor do it standing up, nor remain soaking with sweat, nor drink either water or wine unmixed, nor remain for long with my head uncovered, nor have my haircut after dinner. I would feel just as ill at ease without gloves or shirt, or without a wash on leaving the table and when getting up in the morning, or lying in a bed without canopy and curtains, as I would if forced to do without things which really matter.

I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time getting past the sex standing up part.  Believe it or not, this is not the only reference to that position in Montaigne’s essays — he was a fan. I wonder, does that mean both are standing? Because I’m not sure that I’ve ever done that.  Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yes, health. Montaigne was a believer in habits, but was flexible enough to change when conditions warranted. So maybe, if the crowds swayed him to follow their wisdom, he too could have taken up the social distancing habits and become a proper scold like the rest of us. If he could give up sex standing up, who knows, maybe he would have been ok always wearing a mask in public too.

Today I considered taking a day off from my project. I thought that perhaps I am writing too much too soon, that none of my Facebook friends are clicking through — maybe they’ve ignored me enough that the algos are now hiding me. Perhaps I needed a day to let them discover me.

But then I thought about Montaigne in the early days of his project and considered his reasons for writing. It wasn’t about an audience, it was about him. The writing was purely an expression of his thoughts, it wasn’t a toy to amuse his cat. So, I complete my seventh day of the renewed project, and instead of resting, perhaps a diversion is more in order.

So far I have stuck closely to the solitude theme and I am not quite done with the subject. But Montaigne rarely spent much time focused on one thought and it isn’t doing justice to his style to focus too intensely on one area. So I’m going to move off on a tangent. Perhaps it will be a day trip, perhaps it will take longer. I’ll let the writing decide for itself.

Once you have dedicated yourself to Montaigne’s approach, you have embraced his solitude and are playfully alive in his examination of personal folly, you inevitably reach a fork in the road. Do you express yourself in moderation or do you take an edgier approach? For modern writers, that’s not even a serious question. There is no audience for moderation. Or to put in political terms, moderation may be popular, but it lacks an enthusiastic base.

It is unsurprising where Montaigne lands on this matter:

You can indeed, using artifice rather than nature, make your journey more easily along the margins, where the edges serve as a limit and a guide, rather than take the wide and unhedged Middle Way; but it is also less noble, less commendable. Greatness of soul consists not so much in striving upwards and forwards as in knowing how to find one’s place and draw the line. Whatever is adequate it regards as ample; it shows its sublime quality by preferring the moderate to the outstanding.

Nearly 20 years ago, a man who I consider my mentor — one who was responsible for landing me a few of the most important jobs of my early career — told me that I resembled the Leonardo DiCaprio character in “Catch Me If You Can.” He also said that I bore a strong physical resemblance to DiCaprio, which I probably should have just taken as a compliment, but I saw rather as foolish flattery that made his whole theory suspect. I was, in fact, a bit offended by his comment. The character of Frank Abagnale Jr. was a con-man and a fraud, and I did not think of myself that way.

But perhaps my mentor was on to something and his gentle scold/flattery stuck with me for many years. He probably was aware that I was in the workforce several years before I formally acquired my bachelor’s degree. I let it sit two credits short of graduation requirements for a few years before finally doing the work, then went a few more years before settling the bill with a university so that my credits could be transferred and applied, my diploma finally issued.

Beyond this one devious act which I for the most part got away with, I started to notice a personal tendency to cut corners, go around normal chains of command and succeed with flash over hard work and substance. Abagnale pulled off his con jobs by impersonating pilots, doctors and lawyers. I made a career by appropriating the voice and writing style of political and business leaders. I had never been a governor, mayor or CEO, but through speechwriting, I had impersonated all of them effectively.

A few months ago, I sat with a therapist and discussed my mentor’s insight and what I took from it. I walked her through the hard work it has taken me over many years to become more authentic and less manipulative. A few weeks ago, that same therapist decided to terminate my care, without much explanation, but she made a point in wrapping up our therapy of re-raising the “Catch Me If You Can” reference and asked if maybe there was an element of it in the work we had done together.

I don’t really know what she was getting at, but I do know that at some point, my therapy with her became a farcical mess. Instead of trying to solve real life problems, sessions became about managing our relationship, and sometimes about a group therapy that I was attending and the therapist in charge of that. I joked to friends that the only real reason I was in therapy was to deal with the stress of therapy, but that’s exactly how it played out from January to early March. My therapist pointed out that I was triangulating her with my group therapist, which was true. I became so confused by my therapist’s statements and reactions that I felt the need to ask other therapists what it might mean. But at the same time, she was triangulating me with a supervisor, which explains why she would periodically begin sessions with odd theories that sounded nothing like what we had discussed in the room. She never told me that she was required to report to this supervisor under her limited license. Well, she never told me until the final session, that is.

My therapist also seemed to exaggerate her experience, talking about clients she has seen for many years and a whole range of long-term therapy relationships, none of which were possible under the limited license that she acquired in only September of 2019. In all likelihood, there is a honest explanation for it all. The most likely scenario is that she left practicing years ago to have children and only recently restarted — and for some reason had to start at the bottom.

Part of me, however, wonders if her story was more similar to mine, that she brought up “Catch Me If You Can” as a breadcrumb of confession to help me find my circumstance a bit less confounding. This led me to watch the movie again for the first time in 18 years, where I found no obvious clues about my therapist, but recognized just how similar Abignale’s story was to mine — not so much the career part, but the family dynamic. The way Frank interacted with his charming but disappointing father and narcissistic mother, the way he tried to bring them back together and behaved like a surrogate dad to his own father, that was my story. And I also recognized that the Tom Hanks character, who not only pursued and caught Frank, but eventually hired and tamed him, was a wonderful analogue for my mentor.  He saw the Leonardo DiCaprio character in me because he also noticed the Hanks character in himself.

In the end, my therapist did leave me with one last useful insight and maybe she had rewatched the movie recently and saw elements of my personal life in the story too. I still admire her work. And I believe my last therapy relationship ran upon the rocks because I did not, to paraphrase Montaigne, find my place and draw a line. Our relationship danced on edges and boundaries and seemed to revel in its foolish pointlessness. There is a bit of the folly that Montaigne writes about in there, and perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to judge that most human of tendencies to avoid work with play.

What Montaigne says about moderation, however, in his final and greatest essay On Experience holds great wisdom for me. Striving towards flashy rewards, whether in an early career where corners are cut, or in therapy where playacting a fake relationship takes precedence over working on a real one, might give an adrenaline rush for a time. It is not a sustainable way to live, however, and is not a real way of using your inner world and solitude effectively.

 

Having circled around solitude for the past five days, I can now return to Montaigne’s original essay on the subject, On Solitude, and look to fill in some of the detail. One of the weaknesses of my original approach to Montaigne — in addition to treating all essays as if they deserved equal treatment when clearly they do not — is that I did not have the ability to go back to previous essays and tease out more meaning after reading further down the line. I will try to avoid that mistake this time out.

On Solitude is not a simple prescription for everyone to follow Montaigne’s lead, quit your job and start writing. He spends quite a bit of time in the essay observing what solitude might mean for different types of people — whether it is a career or life change, retirement, or adopting different types of activities that could fill up the days spent alone.

Montaigne also asserted that it is possible for solitude to fail, if not lived properly:

Seek no longer that the world should speak of you, but how you should speak to yourself. Retire into yourself, but first prepare to receive yourself there; it would be madness to trust in yourself if you do not know how to govern yourself. There are ways to fail in solitude as well as in company. Until you have made yourself such that you dare not trip up in your own presence, and until you feel both shame and respect for yourself “let true ideals be kept before your mind” (Cicero.)

That last line is very interesting to me — dare not trip up in your own presence.  What does that mean? It evokes for me a feeling that started to build about seven years ago and only seems to be fading now. For most of my life, I was very comfortable being alone, working alone, and tending to hobbies alone. I enjoyed reading, writing, running, and any number of solo activities. But something in me started to change around the time my children were born, and it really clicked in once I started to develop more social hobbies, like taking music classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

I began to enjoy social activities more and to seek out opportunities to be with other people. As this became more deeply ingrained in me, I started to build up a fear of being alone. Business trips would become scary — I hated nothing more than being in those sterile rooms with nothing but my thoughts, even though they promised a rare opportunity for uninterrupted sleep. I could still write freely, but needed a little more distraction than before. I would often seek out coffee shops or later coworking spaces when I was freelancing. While music took on an increasingly important role in my leisure life, practicing alone was something I avoided, partly because it was so difficult for me to find solitary time in my crowded house, but also because I associated music with being in a group and playing it alone didn’t recreate that joy.

Much of the social shift has been very positive for my life, and I am significantly happier now than I was before it happened. But I would still like to overcome that fear so that I could enjoy a more social life but not fear solitary moments that might spur creativity and renewed energy. The social distancing crisis of 2020 seems to be doing the trick. I was forced back into many of the routines and habits that I shed in the past decade and am discovering new joys in them. I appreciate the time that I get to listen to music or podcasts uninterrupted as I run, something that I cannot do during group exercises. I like being able to write for long stretches without having to worry about buying another expensive coffee. I do miss people and cannot wait to return to my old habits, but I hope that I have now reacquired some even older habits that I can reintegrate into my life so that I can feel more balanced and capable of adapting.

I feel like I am well on my way to not tripping up in my own presence. But what about the second half of Montaigne’s line — the one about shame and respect for yourself? These are two concepts that are very rarely held in unity. Shame is very often felt as a personal disrespect. As I have already discussed in previous essays, Montaigne is not preaching here about living a perfect moral life. He clearly doesn’t believe that’s possible. But he does believe in self control and a big part of that self control, especially for someone in solitude who is examining his or herself freely, is knowing what and when to share.

This is part of what makes Montaigne’s form of self examination different from modern forms of therapy, and a lot of the personal blogging that takes place on sites such as Medium. The modern ethos is all about free disclosure — let your desires loose, share them and hope to find kinship with others who share that outlook. Perhaps for younger people, this is a perfectly valid and necessary form of expression. However, for the people who Montaigne is hoping to reach, that brand of free expression doesn’t show proper shame and respect for self. Someone the age of, say, Donald Trump is acting undignified if he takes up the social media habits of Kanye West. Part of the culture may embrace this, but it makes an older man seem shameless and lacking personal respect.

Turning it back to myself, if I were to use my essays as an opportunity to hurl invective at whoever was annoying me that day or to go into embarrassing detail about personal desires, I would not only be violating the spirit of Montaigne’s work, I would be engaged in an act of self harm. It’s something I have been able to avoid in my essays so far, but I feel the need to be on guard, because I cannot claim to always be so careful in other media, such as email. One to one, I am sometimes tempted to overshare my feelings, both good and bad. Focusing my creative energies in this direction is one way that I can hope to fight those temptations.

Even Montaigne felt this tug from time to time. Part way through his massive essay An Apology for Raymond Sebond, Montaigne has this astonishing moment of clarity, where he recognizes that he’s writing in an unusual style for him that could leave him open to attack. I need to paste this quote on my wall as a reminder the next time I am tempted to lead with my (usually angry or hurt) feelings while writing:

For your sake, Patroness, I have abandoned my usual practice and have taken some pains to make this into a very long chapter. Sebond is your author; you will, of course, continue to defend him with the usual forms of argument in which you re instructed every day; that will exercise your mind and your scholarship. The ultimate rapier-stroke which I am using here must only be employed as a remedy of last resort. It is a desperate act of dexterity, in which you must surrender your own arms to force your opponent to lose his. It is a covert blow which you should only use rarely and with discretion. It is rashness indeed to undo another by undoing yourself. We must not seek to die as an act of revenge.

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?

 

After focusing briefly on the negative, reactive reasons for withdrawing from the world, Montaigne concluded that same essay On Vanity with the positive, by focusing on what there is to gain by muting the outside world. First, he lets out one of his most endearing bits of self criticism:

Being a citizen of no city, I am very pleased to be one of the noblest city that ever was or ever will be. If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off –though I don’t know.

For some reason, that little “though I don’t know” at the end makes the whole paragraph for me. Montaigne built up a nice little head of steam turning his personal project into a model for a well-lived life, but in typical Montaigne style, refused to own it that way. He never did. It was always idiosyncratic for him, and that’s why he’s so much fun to read. His inanity and nonsense were his alone, and anyone copying his route would be sure to provide their own version of it, not his.

How many of us these days feel like we are inhabiting our own noble city, one with different borders than in our routine lives? Perhaps you have already created your own new routines in this new city. You may even be in contact with people you had “seen” less often in the past, but have now become an essential part of your virtual life. In these circumstances, it is interesting to me that I sought out Montaigne’s comfort. I could have chosen another writer I love and recreated my Montaigne approach — perhaps with a modernist like Nietzsche or Proust, or a postmodernist like DeLillo or Gaddis.  With Montaigne, I never feel like I am on the outside looking in on his work. His thoughts feel more like an extension of my own, even when I disagree with them.

Montaigne moves on to a similar point next:

The common attitude and habit of looking elsewhere than at ourselves has been very useful for our own business. We are an object that fills us with discontent; we see nothing in us but misery and vanity. In order not to dishearten us, Nature has very appropriately thrown the action of our vision outward. We go forward with the current, but to turn our course back toward ourselves is a painful movement: thus the sea grows troubled and turbulent when it is tossed back on itself. Look, says everyone, at the movement of the heavens, look at the public, look at that man’s quarrel, at this man’s pulse, at another man’s will; in short, always look high and low, or to one side, or in front, or behind you.

This is such a powerful point Montaigne is making and it feels especially poignant to me now. Montaigne’s project is very much a solitary pursuit, but there is no question that what it amounts to is akin to psychoanalysis. What he can elicit alone, in conversation only with himself and the voices of dead authors in the books that surround him, is remarkable. Many of us try to find similar insights by sitting with a solitary trusted analyst or therapist.

I have tried various forms of therapy for a number of years and while I have gained some important insights along the way, I have also held back and felt resistant to fully sharing parts of myself that might reveal hidden parts of me. Very recently, I surrendered to trusting a therapist in this way and the result was exactly as Montaigne described — it was a troubled and turbulent sea turning back upon itself. Feeling a kinship for another inside of this maelstrom was especially strange and I had no foundational basis for interpreting the relationship. Freud called it transference and said the feelings are just an extension and replacement of feelings we have for other important people in our lives. Sometimes it felt that way.  Sometimes it felt like romantic love. Sometimes it felt like talking to a mirror image of myself. Sadly, the process ended abruptly and not well, leaving me with this interior storm and no one to help me navigate it.

Nearly simultaneous to this interpersonal storm, the world began retreating into social distancing isolation. And as Montaigne might have anticipated, there has been a strange comfort in slowly shifting my focus away from the deeply personal and painful internal conflict to the external one we are all living within now. I have found additional comfort in reaching out and trying to help others in this time. The outward gaze has saved me from an internal struggle that I am not prepared to handle.

This, of course, is directly the opposite of what Montaigne suggests, and I am not taking issue with him. Ultimately, I come down on his side of the argument and took enough positive away from my first intimate relationship with a therapist to see the value of going back there, someday, when I am ready to face those storms again. For now, I have retreated, to paraphrase Elliott Smith, to the “cold comfort of the in between.” I look partially outward to Montaigne and how his words might help the outside world deal with these seemingly unique times, and I let Montaigne tease out of me some of those interior stories I might not be so willing to tell publicly without his cover.

Montaigne closes On Vanity with a beautiful wrap up of it all, a perfect explanation for why a mission of solitude offers rewards that cannot be found in the external world. I doubt many of us are willing to fully go there in a time like this, but if we are willing to devote just a little bit of this time alone in such a way every day, perhaps we can have a taste of what Montaigne is describing: that we can become creatures who are a little less needy of earthly desires by first identifying and acknowledging their source.

It was a paradoxical command that was given us of old by that god at Delphi: Look into yourself, keep to yourself, bring back your mind and your will, which are spending themselves elsewhere; into themselves; you are running out; your are scattering yourself; concentrate yourself; resist yourself; you are being betrayed, dispersed, and stolen away from yourself. Do you not see that this world keeps its sight all concentrated inward and its eyes open to contemplate itself? It is always vanity for you, within and without; but it is less vanity when it is less extensive. Except for you, O man, said that god, “each thing studies itself first, and, according to its needs, has limits to its labors and desires. There is not a single thing as empty and needy as you, who embrace the universe; you are the investigator without knowledge, the magistrate without jurisdiction, and all in all, the fool of the farce.”