Saturday, November 26, 2005

Baby You Can Drive My Car

Montaigne's essay "On Coaches" pretends to be about animal-drawn transport that runs the gamut from war chariots to posh carriages, but is really a criticism of ostentation and cruelty. I love how Montaigne rarely approaches a subject head-on. He begins by talking about something seemingly unrelated and circles round and round until you are caught and don't even know it. In this essay he begins by discussing causes, as in cause and effect. He makes fun of "great authors" (including himself, perhaps?) who, when they write about causes, "not only marshal those which they reckon to be true but also those which they do not believe, provided that they have some originality and beauty." The reason "we" do this, Montaigne believes, is because "we cannot be sure of the master-cause, so we pile cause upon cause, hoping that it may happen to be among them." Then he gives us some examples. The first is why we say "bless you" when someone sneezes. Montaigne suggests it is because we break three kinds of wind: "the one which issues lower down is very dirty; the one which issues from the mouth comports an element of reproach and gluttony; and the third is sneezing, which, since it issues from the head and is blameless, we give that an honourable greeting." Who knew? I always thought it had something to do with the soul temporarily leaving the body and "bless you" some magic words to keep the devil from popping in before your soul can return. Or something like that. His second example is much more reasoned. Montaigne suffered from motion sickness, particularly sea sickness. Since he didn't have Dramamine or a patch, he toughed it out. There was a prevailing theory that sea sickness was caused by fear, but through personal experience and anecdotal research among people he knew, Montaigne proves that fear has nothing to do with it and might even help alleviate it. What does any of this have to do with coaches? Turns out Montaigne is just softening us up because he is about to throw some causes together in hopes of proving something. There is a right usage of a coach and a wrong usage of a coach. Montaigne begins by explaining that it is useful to use a coach--a chariot--in war. A coach also comes in handy as a means of conveyance if you are an invalid and can't sit a horse. He draws a sharp line between this kind of usage and the uses to which kings and princes and the well off put them. Those who use coaches as a means to show off are bad news. Mark Antony had a coach drawn by lions, Heliogablus sometimes used tigers, sometimes stags at other times dogs. And once he had his coach drawn by naked women. The Emperor Firmus used ostriches. What novelty! What spectacle! But Montaigne sees it as a sign of a "sort of lack of confidence in monarchs, a sign of not being sure of their position, to strive to make themselves respected and glorious through excessive expenditure." Similarly, he thinks it quite silly when gentlemen take too much care over their dress when they are at home. A gentleman's house, servants and food should be enough to vouch for him. Here Montaigne admits that when he was a young man he fell short on this. Since he had no other glories, he gloried in fine clothes. But we are to forgive him for this because in his case "they were quite becoming; but there are folk on whom fine clothes sit down and cry." It is interesting that he wrote this because even in Clarissa, Anna Howe and Clarissa Harlowe spend quite a bit of time discussing in detail the clothing of Lovelace and other gentleman callers. Lovelace tends to show elegance and taste while the same outfit on someone else might show a lack of discretion and a certain vanity and dandification. Montaigne views excessive expenditures on something as insubstantial as clothing a waste of money. It should instead be used for something more lasting and sensible like roads or bridges, churches of hospitals. And public figures who waste money on festivals and rich gifts, are even worse. The money they are spending is not their own, it came from the pockets of the citizens and should not be used frivolously. Next we move to considering the conquering of the New World. Montaigne read Lopez de Gomara for his information and was horrified by what Europeans did in South America and Mexico. Montaigne has a rather Romantic view of the natives as Noble Savages. They were peace-loving, kind and generous people. They were smart, they had a civilization and art. They were like children and the Europeans took advantage of their ignorance when they should have taught them how to be good Christian Europeans. But in spite of Montaigne's being mired in a European superiority complex, he did take an uncommon stance against the atrocities perpetuated against the people of the New World. But what do coaches have to do with it? The "Indians" didn't have horses nor, to Montaigne's knowledge, did they have anything with wheels. They got around on foot and their kings were conveyed on litters, not by slaves, but by men who considered it an honor. These people were not corrupted by pomp and circumstance, did not lust for gold--they used it only for art--and clothed themselves in simple garments. The Europeans, on the other hand, ruined themselves with greed and cruelty. It began with coaches which led to ostentatious displays which led to greed which led to cruelty. Got it? 400 years later, I can't say that things have changed much. Our horses have turned into oil and our coaches to cars. Compare the world view of someone who drives a Hummer to work in the city to someone who drives a hybrid, or better yet, takes public transport or rides a bicycle. Compare the greed and cruelty of a country who needs oil so its people can keep driving their Hummers to work to a country that is less concerned about its coaches and more concerned about the welfare of its people (Sweden perhaps?). Montaigne may not have found the master-cause, and I doubt that anything can be said to have one cause only, but he certainly found a contributing factor. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On High Rank as a Disadvantage"