Saturday, August 20, 2005

Calling in Sick

Montaigne's essay, "On Not Pretending to Be Ill", is a superstitious warning to those who would feign illness in order to get out of doing something. We've all done it at one time or another, to get out of work, to get out of going to a party, or to get out of meeting people we didn't want to meet (the in-laws?). "Sorry, I've got a cold/migraine/mysterious stomach flu." Which always leaves us feeling perfectly fine the next day, or even that very afternoon with no lingering after effects (a miraculous recovery! Amazing what a little rest will do for a person!). Montaigne, of course, frowns upon such behavior. His little essay is rife with examples of people who played sick and then got sick for real. Like the guy Coelius whose story Montaigne lifts from Martial. Coelius pretended he had gout so he wouldn't have to pay court to some of the Roman grandees. He even went so far as to put ointment and bandages on his legs and walk with a limp. In this manner he got out of all kinds of courtly and social obligations. But Fortune got back at him because eventually he really did get the gout. I imagine Montaigne sitting in his library having a good chuckle at that one. He also writes about quite a few men who pretended to be blind or partially blind to get out of fulfilling a duty or in order to trick someone with their disguise and then ended up truly blind. The superstition really shows through when he says that "Mothers are right to scold their children when they play at being one-eyed, limping or squinting or having other such deformities; for, leaving aside the fact that their tender bodies may indeed acquire some bad habit from this, it seems to me that Fortune (though I do not know how) delights in taking us at our word: I have heard of many examples of people falling ill after pretending to be so." Think twice before you pick up that phone to call in sick to work or school or when a strange tickle suddenly develops in your throat when a friend or acquaintance invites you out for drinks after work. Fortune, or your immune system, might decide to give you what you think you are only pretending to have. Next week's Montaigne essay will not likely be so amusing: "On Cowardice, the mother of Cruelty"