A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Montaigne’

I Have Great Slack.

In Dogs, Wisdom, Writing on March 13, 2013 at 6:15 am

I’m suffering from what Susan Sontag called slack mental condition. I have great slack.

Every morning holds promise–and with it, usually momentum. I got up at 5:30 as I always do, which, by the way, is a hell of a thing, up so early every day. I don’t set an alarm, I just wake up–even with daylight savings time and darkness again in the morning. Tangent: How does Daylight Savings save anything if the day begins in darkness? My day is front-loaded, mornings making the difference. With DST, I’ve saved nothing, indeed, by this man-made intrusion on my cicada rhythm I have lost dawn to darkness. I can’t blame the shortage of morning light on my slack condition, but it does not help.

I don’t believe in forcing a thing, be it a nut rusted on a screw thread or a word on a page. There is that wonderful Taoist metaphor, inviting one to be the river flowing downstream. Encountering a boulder, the river does not attempt to move it, but simply flows around it, continuing. That is my philosophy. I’m done moving rocks. Flow is my current state.

So, I won’t force the words. Instead, dear reader, you are being subjected to flow. It’s not a writing exercise so much as a state of being. There are natural limitations, Montaigne reminds us, that not even wisdom can overcome. Wisdom is in shortage around here, but even if I had enough to employ I would not waste it on words, as I know words are the least efficient method of exercising it. Anyway, wisdom’s a thing more akin to active verbs, and by definition slack lacks the active.

Lucy–now there is wisdom, curled up on a bed. No force. No slack. Pure intention: a good nap. As you are aware, I turn to dogs for guidance. You must see where I am headed, yes? Of course you do…

Montaigne

In Books, Philosophy, Writers on March 7, 2013 at 6:00 am
Montaigne

My drinking buddy, Michel de Montaigne

Let me begin by recommending a book: How to Live, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell. Before I go too far afield allow me to delineate Bakewell’s subtitle. The one question is: How to Live? And the twenty attempted answers:

  • Don’t worry about death
  • Pay attention
  • Be born
  • Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
  • Survive love and loss
  • Use little tricks
  • Question everything
  • Keep a private room behind the shop
  • Be convivial; live with others
  • Wake from the sleep of habit
  • Live temperately
  • Guard your humanity
  • Do something no one has done before
  • See the world
  • Do a good job, but not too good a job
  • Philosophize only by accident
  • Reflect on everything; regret nothing
  • Give up control
  • Be ordinary and imperfect
  • Let life be its own answer
How to Live, Sarah Bakewell

How to Live, Sarah Bakewell

In a review of Bakewell’s book (2010) I wrote the following by way of introduction:

I was first introduced to Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) about thirty years ago. I was in graduate school. I don’t remember the class, nor the other required readings. But I remember Montaigne. I eventually dropped out of graduate school, but Montaigne stayed with me. It was, perhaps, and I honestly mean this, the most important contribution to my intellectual development from that period. If not the most important, certainly the most long-standing. In fact, when this book came to my attention, How to Live, and I received the reader’s advance copy, I happened to be reading Montaigne yet again, as I have done off and on since we were introduced.

I say, “since we were introduced” purposely, for that is what it felt like at the time. I read him in that class and recall thinking, Who is this, this kindred spirit, this wise new friend? And the magic of that moment continues to this day. I read him still. I read him this morning. Over and over again, I turn to my old French friend.

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We reject the impersonal and the arbitrary here at “…the house…“; so rather than paste a bunch of internet-farmed imgres-3Montaigne quotes on the page, I thought I would share with you some of the passages outlined in my personal copy of The Essays. Here goes:

“If we have not known how to live, it is wrong to teach us how to die, and make the end inconsistent with the whole. If we have known how to live steadfastly and tranquilly, we shall know how to die in the same way….Among the many other duties comprised in this general and principal chapter on knowing how to live is this article on knowing how to die; and it is one of the lightest, if our fear did not give it weight.”

“Those who know me…know whether they have ever seen a man less demanding of others. If I surpass all modern examples in this respect, it is no great wonder, for so many parts of my character contribute to it: a little natural pride, inability to endure refusal, limitation of my desires and designs, incapacity for any kind of business, and my favorite qualities, idleness and freedom.”

“The only thing I aspire to acquire is the reputation of having acquired nothing.”

“The discomforts of old age, which need some support and refreshment, might reasonable make me wish to be a better drinker; for drinking is almost the last pleasure that the years steal from us.”

“If we sometimes spent a little consideration on ourselves, and employed in probing ourselves the time we put into checking up on others and learning about things that are outside us, we would easily sense how much this fabric of ours is built up of feeble and failing pieces.”

“Our appetite is irresolute and uncertain: it does not know how to keep anything or enjoy anything in the right way. Man, thinking that it is the fault of these things, fills and feeds himself on other things that he does not know and does not understand, to which he applies his desires and his hopes….”

“Things are not that painful or difficult of themselves; it is our weakness and cowardice that make them so. To judge of great and lofty things we need a soul of the same caliber; otherwise we attribute to them the vice that is our own. A straight oar looks bent in the water. What matters is not merely that we see the thing, but how we see it.”

It is my hope that, if you’re not familiar with Montaigne, you might be compelled to rectify that. If you already count the man among your literary friends, then you are already fortunate. I’ll leave you with a last quote: “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.”

Thanks for reading!

D

Sunday Repost: A Call From the Fog

In Technology, Thinkers on March 3, 2013 at 6:00 am

A repost from three years ago:

The Sirens--Who Can Resist Them?

The Sirens–Who Can Resist Them?

We’ve had a couple of days of snow. And more falling–with fog. Maggie and I, as always, walked the Eastern Prom this morning, post-holing our way. There came a call of the fog-horn from the bay, the sound rolling in from the South. I thought perhaps it was Bug Light, but I’m given to understand Bug is only an optical warning. Regardless, it was haunting. The water, the fog, snow, and the warning call.

I find it refreshing that technology hundreds of years old–the harbor bell, the fog horn, the light house–is still used in the age of satellite navigation and GPS. I stood in the snow and listened quietly. It seemed more a beckoning than a warning. Famously, Odysseus was curious as to the call of the Sirens. He had his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast. He wisely ordered his men to leave him there, no matter how much he begged. And beg he did. But that isn’t the fatalism I’m suggesting. This wasn’t a siren’s death call.

It seemed more a beckoning than a warning. (History is filled with such confusion. Philosophy is doubt, said Montaigne.) But that’s not where I’m heading. Two things. Small things. One: Old technology can still work. Perhaps in the long run we will discover it works best. Secondly, more importantly, stand in the snow, stop and listen. You might be beckoned. Or perhaps warned. Either way, you will miss it with ear buds in.

A Little Recompense.

In Death, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on February 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

The loss of my friend Michael is proving difficult. I observe that I cannot fully discern the undercurrents of emotion in the immediate. The deepest current is revealed slowly, a bit at a time. To paraphrase Tolstoy, we are joyous in the collective, but can only realize sorrow alone.

I am reminded of a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, who upon learning of the death of one of his monk disciples, broke down and wept. His students were shocked, expecting that the Lama would be above such stark emotionalism. He was, after all, living a life of purposeful un-attachment. “But I miss him,” replied the tearful Lama with beautiful simplicity. Perhaps a part of us thinks that others more enlightened, more wise, have learned a fashion of dealing with grief that will guide us. But I don’t think so. We can seek and find comfort, certainly, however ultimately we sit as the Lama sat and can only say, “I miss him.”

The Stoics devised mind games and mental tricks to jog our thoughts out of grief, but acknowledged that, in the main, we are impotent in our efforts to control our emotions. This lack, they held, as well as the human tendency to ignore the present moment, is what thwarts consistent human happiness. A Stoic behaves like the strong man who tenses his stomach muscles and invites a punch. But grief sneaks up and throws a fist before we have a chance of bracing for it. Despite that, I like Seneca‘s approach to dealing with matters out of his control. He was asthmatic, and attacks brought him close to death on several occasions. But he learned to treat each attack philosophically. While gasping for breath, he would release himself into the attack, saying yes to it. He would think himself dying from it, giving himself up to it, almost willing it. And when it receded he enjoyed the strength of winning the battle. He had defeated fear. This, I acknowledge, is little recompense in the face of grief. But it is something.

Likewise, Montaigne, upon losing his dear friend, La Boétie, creatively embraced his grief, declaring that when “a painful notion takes hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than to subdue it.” Thus he spun the dross of grief into threads of gold. It is not an overstatement to say that his great literary contribution, The Essays, resulted directly from the loss of La Boétie. In his great essay, Of Friendship, Montaigne famously writes

If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.

And though history is grateful at the monumental effort that is The Essays, such a creative response did not assuage fully Montaigne’s grief. Indeed, eighteen years later, while traveling abroad, he wrote in his diary, “This same morning, writing to Monsier d’Ossat, I was overcome by such painful thoughts about Monsieur de La Boétie, and I was in this mood so long, without recovering, that it did me much harm.”

The difficulty of my philosophy is that I shall not choose when to be present and when to run. How can one fully realize what human existence holds, if when it deals you a blow, you turn away? When I sat down at breakfast with Michael two weeks ago, the first words out of his mouth were, “I’m leading the examined life!” It was in this fashion he declared himself a member of our tribe. He would, I know, be the first to reprimand me if I turned away.

From a letter to a friend

In Books, Death, Life, Memoir, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 6, 2013 at 6:00 am

This is a repost. I put it up starting a Sunday tradition of reposting a favorite past entry. This particular post was brought to my attention by a close reader of …the house…. After yesterday’s post, Gravity Probe B, the wisdom of dogs, and other notions, this reader–paying extraordinary attention!–suggested I go back and read this piece, posted in August, 2010. It was particularly interesting to see the parallel between the two posts, spanning more than twenty-four months.  (Thanks, Kevin, for bringing it to my attention. You get an A!)

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“…it’s because we live too long, was, I think, what I said exactly. We live too long and thus have these artificial parts of which you speak and this scree (now there is a word I have not encountered since on the side of a mountain in Ecuador, the name of which escapes me, just remembering ropes and snow and a field of said scree), this scree, as I was saying, that inhabits our aging body–and mind, scree of the mind is, in particular, that of which I spoke to my beloved, commenting exactly, if memory serves, that one reason the practice of therapy is exercised is due to living long enough so as to grow concerned about what is happening between our ears. Our ancestors running full-bore across the savanna plains, just a foot-step in front of some hunger-dripping monster, never would think such a thing necessary; all that was necessary being a tall tree or a field of hidden peers with chiseled spear tips awaiting a fine meal of monster served up raw, or at least medium and pink in the center. Ero vero me minus diu senem esse mallem, quam esse senem antequarm essem. Or, before you go find your latin grammar: For my part, in truth, I would rather be old less long that be old before I am old. Ancient wisdom compliments of my man Montaigne, quoting Brutus. As I was about to say, we are terminal, it’s just a matter of degrees, or so I was reminded this afternoon while taking a stress test because I was experiencing stress of the cardiac nature, only to now better understand, I am/was experiencing stress of the stress nature. So, the pipes are clean and the stress is environmental and thus I am even better positioned to consider the nature of the immortals.

The way I see it, the only way to accomplish such a feat–immortality, the fruit of your low hanging branch–should one be inclined, is to put time in its rightful place, to stop the right-ward nature of that continuum and take notice of such a thing when it happens. The cliché of the Heraclitian river–a cliché becoming a cliché through the test of history and earning the degree–still holds. And that seems to be the nature of reality. Chaos is evident at the quantum level, but who really wants to go there? –particularly when young ladies full of blossom walk the streets of Portland, tan and lightly dressed, and of interest to the gods above who swoop down on them in slumber? What does it mean to say it is a good time to be mortal? When is it a bad time? Germany 1941? They didn’t think so, I suspect. When would it be a good time to be immortal? Oh, to be a god and swoop on young maidens!

There is only a finite amount of matter–carbon–in the universe. When you die you will continue in some fashion, albeit, one you won’t necessarily appreciate. Yet you will carry on, at least your atoms will, chaotic as they are, as you point out. And then, at some time when the river has flowed downstream and around the rock in the right bend, your parts will flow to some other place and you will continue. Little satisfaction in that, indeed.

Just because we have self-reflection and think we’re special because of it, we deem we should be bestowed with a soul, or some other medieval notion and that as a result, surely we are going to continue on somehow. Fertilize an acorn with my remains and I will carry on as an oak. And then perhaps I will be felled and made into pulp, from which I will be processed and pressed and used to absorb ink and bound with others of my ilk and will go into the world as a fashion of wisdom distribution. But then, I write like Dan Brown, so alas wisdom is not my venue, but entertainment. So, that’s settled. Let’s be entertained everyone. Cheers, and many happy returns,
Immortality, indeed.”

Blog as metaphor.

In Life, The Examined Life, Writing on May 26, 2012 at 6:00 am

Büyük Menderes River in Turkey (Meander River)

I read recently that a successful blog should have a core theme or topic, and that the postings should not stray far from the topic. Scanning the blogosphere I see the common wisdom in this. You can find and read a blog on any and all manner of themes. Yes, it appears that the successful blog stays on message: cooking, travel, sex, love, health, family, and so forth. It must be refreshing to be so singular. So limited.

Fortunately–or unfortunately–I have taken a different approach. Long before reading Nietzsche, I recognized the stink of the herd and trained myself to move in opposition. I confess to nurturing the contrary, seeking out the different. There is truth in resisting the pull of the common. If my blog is a metaphor for my life, I am a trained generalist, specializing in the nature of the other.

I have identified thirty themes to “…house….” (Located at the bottom of the home page.) They are:

I like that alphabetically dogs follows depression and precedes faith. At any point a reader can click on a theme and will be directed to relative posts. Of course it is a mishmash. I’m not a scholar or academic, given to a trained mind. Rather, I’m a person who embraces the meandering, nurtures a tangent, and exercises walking the crooked line. I realized years ago that I would never be really good at any particular thing. No matter my pursuit, falling short of mastery was to be my fate.

I am grateful that my major interests can be captured in thirty simple categories. A herd cannot navigate thirty options, ensuring that I’m free to make my own way. To this end, Harrison observed that the writer’s gift was one of “excessive consciousness.” Perhaps that is the difference between blogging and writing. But that is a stale semantic.

The generalist does not know what he thinks about a subject until he writes about it. This is the lesson of Montaigne and is the raison d’être for “…house….” I was asked recently about the title of this place, “…the house I live in….” A house is where we keep our junk, as well as our prized possessions. It’s where we sleep and shit and fidget and relax and ponder and love. A house is a place of refuge. It can be private or shared, boisterous or quiet, filled with light, or a place of lurking darkness. Pick a room in the house and you have a speciality, a kitchen, or a bedroom–but the architecture of house is encompassing. That’s why I titled this place as I did. I want to be encompassing.

It seems to have resonated with some. Readership has climbed significantly since the resurrection of the site. I find great comfort in this. One might avoid the herd, yet still appreciate the assurances of company. I salute my fellow generalists and applaud the meandering life.

Thanks for reading.