Monday Malaise: Montaigne on Love and Madness

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.