In order to contemplate [my wandering thought’s] ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself. – Montaigne, The Complete essays of Montaigne, from Of Idleness (21)
One of the wonderful things about Montaigne is his prodigious use of ancient writers to shape his ideas. He flings one quote after another onto the page at a furious pace. In the essay That our desire is increased by difficulty there is this gem:
The courtesan Flora used to say that she had never lain with Pompey without making him carry away the marks of her bites:
They hurt the longed-for body with their viselike grip,
And with their teeth they lacerate the tender lip,
Goaded by the secret stings to hurt the very thing,
Whate’er it be, from which these germs of madness spring.- Lucretius (464)
I found this essay particularly interesting having recently finished Love in the Western World because Montaigne discusses the same subject but his conclusion is slightly less hysterical.
What is allowed, we scorn; what’s not allowed, we burn for. – Ovid (466)
Rather than Rougemont’s pointing the finger of blame for this inclination at a “Pagan” mindset, which he argued had loose ideas about love and marriage that now makes us all confused by an addiction to the “pain of passion,” Montaigne describes the very same pain of passion as belonging to all time and all men (I have to resist my temptation to italicize the word men, but if woman had written more history and philosophy would we constantly be having this argument?).
Considering Montaigne’s liberal use of ancient sources, it is clear- if it’s true- we are and have always been warped, nothing particularly Christian or Pagan about it. Never the less, Montaigne very soon gets a little off the track of love, and uses this principle for a diversion into social engineering. He argues it is the bars on the windows, so to speak, that increases the desire to do wrong. If you do not want your house to be robbed- don’t lock it. If you do not want someone to walk across your garden, better to put a little silk cord across it than a tempting fence which will perversely induce the desire.
Locked places invite the thief. The burglar passes by what is open. -Seneca (467)
I hesitantly agree with much of this principle- forbidden things are given allure that they do not necessarily possess. But, as I mentioned in my ramblings regarding Love in the Western World, the I love her more because I can’t have her meme is as insulting as it is immature. Obviously there are plenty of odious rakes throughout history that are only occupied with their ennui and narcissism: those that seek merely to play with other people’s hearts until they are captured, only to be abandoned. But isn’t it possible that there is a lot written and thought about the pain of love because it’s often…painful? Real hearts get broken. This is life. Whether by death, circumstances, or simply unrequited (although that last one I am not convinced of – seems more a form of masochism than true love), a broken heart is the sort of pain that is so excruciating the only means of encompassing the throbbing aura of ache is art- consequently the intensity of poetry looms large in this domain. I will go out on a limb and suggest that Montaigne might agree, which may be why he wanders away from love in his essay and widens the scope to the dangers of unnecessarily forbidding our desires to more mundane aspects of life.
There are many thought provoking pieces in this collection, but I will mention just one more, because I loved the humor and truth (those two are always hand in hand in my mind). Of liars begins with a discourse on memory, as Montaigne puts it, It is not unreasonably said that anyone who does not feel sufficiently strong in memory should not meddle with lying (23) He bemoans his own inferior power to recall, but then adds a couple of silver linings, one being:
My second consolation is that I remember injuries received less, as that ancient said; I should need a prompter, like Darius, who, so as not to forget the harm he had received from the Athenians, had a page come every time he sat down to table and sing three times in his ear: “Sire, remember the Athenians.” (23)
That one made me laugh aloud because, while I am sadly lacking in servants, I should at least probably make a note or two for myself to try to counter-act my failures of memory. I have more than once had to stop myself whilst talking with someone (usually my children) and exclaim, “Wait a minute, I forgot- I’m mad at you!” Instead of Sire, remember the Athenians, mine will be- Jessica, remember the child that finished all the milk so you had none for coffee this morning.
It is always a marvel to me that from before the time that we humans had even begun putting pen to paper we have puzzled over the same unanswerable questions. It is never enough that someone else has done it before me, it’s not even enough that I have done it before. Whoever I will be tomorrow, the next day, and beyond, will continue mulling over the sometimes beautiful and sometimes painful mystery of life.
I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with natural drunkenness. I take it in this condition, just as it is at the moment I give my attention to it. I do not portray being: I portray passing. Not passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. My history needs to be adapted to the moment. I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention.
– from Of repentance (611)
*The Complete Essays of Montaigne translated by Donald M. Frame