Saturday, July 16, 2005

Nothing Pure

I take a break from a lazy, way too hot to do anything else afternoon of reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to bring you Montaigne's essay " We Can Savour Nothing Pure." If you are a pessimistic or melancholy type, an Eeyore sort of person, then this essay is for you. Because of the "feebleness of our condition" as humans we can make use of "nothing in its natural unsophisticated purity." Of all the pleasures and things that we enjoy, there is not one that is not tainted in some way with some kind of evil or injury. A cheery thought! Perhaps because Montaigne is a man he thinks that the greatest pleasure is sex (sorry guys, sex is really great and all but it is not the greatest pleasure there is). But Montaigne mustn't have had very good sex because he thinks that it has "an air of groaning and lamentation." Since he was a sixteenth century gentleman I suppose there were all kinds of taboos and strictures surrounding sex. Even so, groaning and lamentation sounds a bit melodramatic to me. Maybe Montaigne had frequent mind-blowing sex but is just saying this to put the kibosh on the neighborhood gossip from the few times he forgot to close the windows. It's not just sex that is ruined by this duality. Montaigne insists, "Deep joy has more gravity than gaiety; the highest and fullest happiness, more calm than playfulness. Eases crushes us." Montaigne suffered from bouts of melancholy from time to time and it appears he must have been suffering through one when he wrote this. Yes, deep joy does have more gravity than gaiety and full happiness is calm but this is not a bad thing. The gravity of the joy and the calm of happiness comes from the depth of emotion and permeates a person's entire being so that they glow. There is a brief moment when you think that everything is perfect and that if you died just now you would die as the happiest person in the world. Deep joy and full happiness comes less often than gaiety which is light and airy as is playfulness. Both babble like a small stream or tinkle like a wind chime. They give us fond memories to talk about with friends over coffee. While there may be no pure pleasure for Montaigne, there is no pure pain either. Not much of a consolation if you ask me. Pleasure and pain are not the only things that lack purity. Everything does. Montainge even insists that justice cannot exist without injustice. There are people who have greater clarity than others and who therefore can experience things more purely. But, Montainge believes, it is best to not be one of these people because they are not suited for anything. The best people for getting things done are those who do not think too much. Because they do not think too much, they can make decisions faster since they do not spend quantities of time weighing consequences and looking at the problem from every possible angle, "He who seeks out all the circumstances and grasps their consequences impedes his choice." I think Montaigne has this one wrong. I think we can experience and savor things with purity. Granted it doesn't happen often, but I think it happens. And as for people who are thoughtful in making decisions, we have far too few of those in the world. Perhaps if more people spent more time thinking then there would be more moments of purity for everyone. Next week's Montaigne essay: "Against Indolence"