Montaigne wrote a lot about being at home and finding your own place of comfort. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, in part because it relates to the experience we’re all sharing this year, spending so much time in one place, and that widely-embraced, surprisingly-uncontroversial concept of introverts and extroverts. That’s a lot to spill out in one sentence, so let me just set the stage with a quote from one of Montaigne’s earliest essays:
We are never ‘at home’: we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, impel us towards the future; they rob us of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be – even when we ourselves shall be no more.
I’m never sure what to make of it when Montaigne uses the first person plural. His project is so idiosyncratic that it’s jarring when he makes pronouncements beyond himself. As for me, I agree with what he’s saying here and probably take it to a far more radical place. I would rather live in a broom closet in Paris than on Montaigne’s estate, that’s how much discomfort I have with social isolation. But that’s also a bit besides the point because he’s really not talking about actual homes, he’s talking about our comfort levels with ourselves. How well can we sit alone and exist without hope or expectation of what that moment will open up in the future or how it will help us escape the past?
I have regained much of my ability to spend time alone during the pandemic, but I retain my odd quirk of preferring to spend alone time in public. It helps me focus if there is an active world around me, just as long as it’s not an active world of people I know and whose expressions might command my actions. But again, I’m getting a bit off point — this place Montaigne writes of is metaphorical, perhaps even metaphysical. How do we stay grounded in the moment and not rush ahead to what’s next? How can I continue to concentrate on what Montaigne is saying here without checking my Twitter feed or thinking ahead to the next step in this piece which will allow me to move forward and get closer to hitting the publish button, earning myself a check box even if I ultimately fail to address the issue of mindfulness at the core of this idea.
That last phrase from Montaigne is critical, the concept that we complete things in a race toward death. Other philosophers have gone there, but I’m not going to get distracted by comparisons here. The idea is what matters and I think Montaigne is correct. There’s a silly scene in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” where Mike tries to tutor Rat on how to make a girl feel like a date is going well. Most of the advice is really stupid, but it includes a thought that’s actually kind of profound— no matter where you are, act like this is THE place to be. Perhaps we need to do a little of Mike’s salesmanship on ourselves, that whatever we are engaged in at a moment, no matter where it is, this is the best. We couldn’t possibly want anything else or want it to come to an end.
So, I’m on board with Montaigne and mindfulness, what else does he have to say? He gets closer to the value of a physical place with this:
For this project of mine it is also appropriate that I do my writing at home, deep in the country, where nobody can help or correct me and where I normally never frequent anybody who knows even the Latin of the Lord’s Prayer let alone proper French. I might have done it better somewhere else, but this work would then have been less mine: and its main aim and perfection consists in being mine, exactly.
On this point, I’m in complete disagreement with Montaigne, because not only do I prefer that blur of unimportant activity around me, I post my sentiments in public in real time. This has led to some bad outcomes, as I have noted before, and I truly hate it when people draw personal judgments from my work. But also as noted before, I really don’t mind a little conflict about the ideas expressed in my text and actually wish there were more of it. I’m confident that I would be far less interested in the raw numbers of who comes to visit this place day by day if I had some thoughtful interactions with my readership. As a speechwriter, it’s a little uncomfortable for me that this project is mine and mine alone.
And then there’s this amusing anecdote about the philosopher Lycas:
Lycas … was a man of very orderly habits, living quietly and peaceably at home; he failed in none of the duties he owed to family and strangers; he guarded himself effectively from harm; however, some defect in his senses led him to imprint a mad fantasy on his brain: he always thought he was in the theatre watching games, plays and the finest comedies in the world. Being cured of this corrupt humour, he nearly took his doctors to court to make them restore those sweet fantasies to him:
Poor Lycas, if only he had lived in our age, where it is perfectly sane to sit at home and have the entire history of human entertainment at your fingertips. Now our mad desire is to be Lycas in reverse, to be able to visit a theater or concert hall and to be out in the world again. Or wait, am I adopting Montaigne’s imperial we without evidence? Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps people really don’t want that anymore and will be content to stay home and have the world beamed to them.
I do look forward to the world returning again, even though I find much of the labor of social interaction exhausting. I want to be in the world, I just don’t want it to bother me. I don’t really want to meet strangers or consider the opinions of waiters and bartenders. I want the world to go about it’s business and leave me and whoever I’m out in it with on our own, free to shape our own experience.
Perhaps this is the wrong attitude and to be genuinely mindful while out in the world, you need to be open minded towards it and fully engaged in it. Well, if so, that’s work for a later time. It’s not a genuine option now. For now, whatever pointless, random moments I find to do things I enjoy, wherever they are, are the best things in the world at the best possible moments.