Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Sarah Bakewell – ‘How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’

Stoics and Epicureans […] thought that the ability to enjoy life is thwarted by two big weaknesses: lack of control over emotions, and a tendency to pay too little attention to the present. If one could only get these two things right – controlling and paying attention – most other problems would take care of themselves. The catch is that both are almost impossible to do. (p. 110)
From chapter 6, ‘Q. How to live? A. Use little tricks’. It rings true: the things that are worth doing cannot be approached directly, you have to trick them into happening. The Sundays’ song ‘When I’m Thinking About You’ says much the same thing:
When you’re searching your soul, when you’re searching for pleasure
How often pain is all you find
But when you’re coasting along and nobody’s trying too hard
You can turn around and like where you are
I’ve always thought, too, that My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless embodies this kind of insouciance, in the way it manages to be so overwhelming with apparently no physical effort. And – last ’90s music reference point – Momus seems supremely Montaignian, for his insatiable but detached curiosity. It isn’t that things don’t matter to him, they just generally don’t matter too much. What an efficient, interesting way to live that must be. So how’s it done?

The twenty chapter titles of this book give various answers, including ‘Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted’, ‘Philosophise only by accident’, ‘Reflect on everything; regret nothing’ and ‘Do a good job, but not too good a job’. Montaigne’s father, an energetic man given to half-completed projects, would not have been sympathetic to this goal-free (or trick-goal) outlook, but his decision to have his son brought up with Latin as a first language nonetheless fitted in with it. Montaigne absorbed the language from a tutor before he knew what was happening, and so was perfectly placed, once he had rejected the school curriculum Horace and Cicero, to wander off into the richer pastures of Ovid and Plutarch, in distinctly un-academic fashion:
he took up books as if they were people, and welcomed them into his family. […] He collected unsystematically, without considering fine bindings or rarity value. Montaigne would never repeat his father’s mistake of festishising books or their authors. (p. 67)
The man who venerates literature doesn’t appreciate it; the man who loves it knows that veneration is not a fertile attitude to take. It’s a dead end, a goal, and why bother with those when there are so many interesting digressions to explore?

How to Live
doesn’t just tell you how Montaigne thinks you should live, it is also a biography (as advertised); a history of the times, covering the Catholic / Protestant civil wars that ran from 1562-98; a history of the philosophy which led to Montaigne’s book, the Essays; a history of the book itself, as attitudes towards it shifted. The Essays influenced Descartes and Pascal (who fought against its insights into human fallibility) and Rousseau, in contrast to whom Montaigne
does not want to show that modern civilisation is corrupt, but that all human perspectives on the world are corrupt and partial by nature. (p. 192)
In its own time, the Essays met with the approval of the Catholic Church, which in its antipathy towards Protestantism wanted to discourage enquiring thought in favour of faith. Montaigne’s undermining of reason, as long as it was not applied to the Church itself, could be interpreted as support for the elevated position of priests, cardinals, the pope. A century later, in Pascal’s time, attitudes were different: doubt ‘belonged to the Devil’ (p. 143), and Montaigne’s insurmountable insistence on it, and the ‘disreputable crew of fops, wits, atheists, sceptics and rakes’ (p. 152) which constituted much of its seventeenth century readership, meant that it was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books in 1676, where it remained until 1854.

Montaigne did not see doubt this way, of course. For him it was a constant pleasure to be able to re-examine subjects from different angles, which may have been inconsistent but which could never be wrong. Doubt was liberating, and liberal:
The qualities he valued were curiosity, sensibility, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and ‘goodwill’ – none of which is compatible with the fiery furnace of inspiration. (p. 200)
Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning.


Chris said...

I'd been debating whether to read this, or get stuck into actual Montaigne, first. Concluding that this was exactly the sort of internal debate that has prevented me from reading Proust for a decade, I retreated back to Cervantes and focused on imaginary giants, side-saddle shitting, and general insanity instead.

Time well spent; but having read your review, I probably need to man up, accept that I'll never read actual Montaigne, and get stuck into the Bakewell book. As a slow-witted man who forgets most of what he reads almost immediately, I feel a kinship with him.

I'm presuming you heard the Winston / Bakewell Great Lives, but if not, here's the link...


Chris said...

And there was, also, this...


Chris said...

I'd missed that 'Great Lives', actually, thanks for the link. It was a 'Start the Week' last year which made me want to read it. Thoroughly recommended, anyway.

Now, pronunciation. Is Matthew Parris right to rhyme it with 'lasagne', or the other two with 'Puddin N' Tain'?

Chris said...

I have no truck with Parris, really; but in hindsight, with 'Puddin' N' Tain' blaring in glorious mono, I do wonder how he could have got it quite so wrong.

By which I mean, as ever: if Spector is wrong (homicide, notwithstanding), I don't want to be right.

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