Saturday, June 18, 2005

Choice and Desire

This week I read two Montaigne essays, "How Our Mind Tangles Itself Up" and "That Difficulty Increases Desire." The first is just over one page in length, the second just over seven. But it has ended up that they go together quite nicely. In "How Our Mind Tangles Itself Up" Montaigne takes on the philosophical idea of choosing between two things which are indifferent. By indifferent he means that neither is good nor bad in themselves and of equal value. For instance, you are at the bookstore and you find two new books on sale, each by a favorite author. You have only the money for one book. You like each author exactly the same and the cost of each book is exactly the same and each book just happens to be the same number of pages. How do you choose when in choosing you will give one of the books a higher value than the other? The Stoics get their panties in a bunch over this conundrum because in their philosophical framework you would not be able to choose. Either you'd have to walk out of the store with neither book or you'd be made to buy one or the other through the intervention of an outside force (in this case a sudden attack of book locusts consuming one of the books forcing you to buy the remaining one). Montaigne has a good laugh at their expense by making fun of their pride and reasoning abilities (or lack thereof). He concludes:

It seems to me that we could say that nothing ever presents itself to us in which there is not some difference, however slight: either to sight or touch there is always an additional something which attracts us even though we may not perceive it.
So maybe, barring book locust intervention, you choose one of those books over the other because one has a cuter author photo, or you just read a glowing review, or the cover art on one is too ugly for words. Whatever it is, you do make a decision and walk out of the store with one of those books because you are not the kind of person who goes to a bookstore with cash in her pocket and walks out empty handed. Which leads us to the next essay, "That Difficulty Increases Desire." Perhaps the impetus for the book you choose to buy has something to do with it being hard to get. Perhaps one of those sale books has been out of print and your library doesn't have it, you couldn't get it on ebay and a search of online used books shows that it is ridiculously expensive. You've been wanting that book for months, maybe even years. Wherever you've traveled and whatever used book shop you've gone into you've looked for it and it hasn't been there. The more you can't have it, the more you want it. Montaigne understands this. From women who play hard to get to increase the desire of their male pursuers to a little pain to increase the pleasure. From something being forbidden to a fear of losing what you have. Montaigne knows that "by nature there is nothing so contrary to our tastes than that satiety which comes from ease of access; and nothing which sharpens them more than rareness of difficulty." So now here is another conundrum. Of those two books the one you have been wanting badly and could not have but now you can because it has been brought back into print by a small publisher. But the other book, you've been waiting for since you read an interview with the author a year ago and found out that she was in the middle of writing this new book and it is the first new book by this author since nearly ten years ago. You thought this author would never write another book, and now, here is, a new one in your hand. Which book do you choose and why? Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Glory"