One way that I’ve always related to Montaigne is the way he talks about his memory. He describes having a bad memory in general and how that’s been beneficial for him in life because it’s made it really hard for him to lie, he just can’t keep cover stories straight, so why bother? His anecdotes about memory are amusing, kind of like the running joke on The Simpsons where Homer declares something to be his boyhood dream, then Marge reminds him that he had another boyhood dream (eating the world’s largest hoagie, running on the field in a baseball game) and he’s already done it.
Yeah, so, speaking of already done it, I was looking back through my old essays and came across the one about “Some Lines of Virgil,” where Montaigne has his most extensive discussion about sex. And I start reading it and am really surprised that I wrote it. It’s gushing with praise for Montaigne for his treatment of the subject. It was weird, because I vaguely remembered reading that Montaigne essay recently and thinking it was kind of ridiculous. And I had a vague thought that I’d written about it.
Sure enough, I wrote a blog post entitled “Monday Malaise” in April, but I didn’t criticize the original Montaigne essay so much as throw in my own gripes about various subjects. I’m not going to link to it, because it’s really not worth reading. Gripe posts are therapeutic for about 12 hours, then probably need to evaporate. But I do find it interesting that when I first wrote about this essay in 2011, I focused completely on Montaigne’s view of sex, but when I returned to it this year, I saw it through the frame of love.
I think that’s a fairly healthy evolution. I’m a little surprised that Montaigne would bother devoting one of his final essays to sex, because I just can’t imagine looking back on my life close to the end and thinking it’s something I have lots of profound thoughts about. But one thing that always jolts me when I think about it is that sex is one of the few aspects of the human condition that is pretty much the same now as it was thousands of years. What other human activity can we say that about? Not much, actually.
Of course sex has been affected by technology, especially in the area of birth control, and which types of sexual acts happen with what frequency is greatly affected by the culture. But on a really simple level, every mechanical act we can perform now could have been performed 5000 years ago. And who knows, with fewer distractions in life, they could have on average been a lot better at the performative aspects of the act than we are.
To me, it’s a kind of thought experiment that invites a certain humility. We like to think we are better than previous generations in every way. Perhaps in this one area, we’re not. But those are my thoughts on the subject for now. I’m sure to come back to it someday when I’ve long forgotten ever writing these words.