Saturday, November 05, 2005

Friends, Sex and Books, What More Could Anyone Want?

Montaigne's essay "On Three Kinds of Social Intercourse" is both entertaining and infuriating. The three kinds of private intercourse Montaigne finds most worthy are:

  1. Loving friendship (as opposed to ordinary friendship)
  2. Loving relationships with "ladies" (it helps if they are beautiful and intelligent)
  3. Reading books
The essay begins with loving friendship. Montaigne had one of those soul-mate kinds of friendships with Etienne de la Boëtie who died in 1563. To this friendship Montaigne compares all others. He readily admits that he has been ruined by it, unable to accept anything less. He has difficulty mixing with people and needs to handpick his companions. The conversation of low caliber company leaves him dozing or silent. By nature Montaigne finds it "hard to impart [him]self by halves, with limitations and with that suspicious vassal-like prudence prescribed to us for our commerce with those multiple and imperfect friendships--prescribed in our time above all, when you cannot talk to the world in general except dangerously or falsely." He would much rather be alone than among people he does not respect. Here! Here! Next, Montaigne moves on to loving relationships. Have you already guessed that this is the infuriating part of the essay? Montaigne believes that sexual intercourse has a higher purpose than procreation and sexual fulfillment. He believes that Venus is a goddess that represents both beauty and spirit. A man should not have sex just to fill a physical appetite, he should be in love too. Montaigne tried the former with prostitutes a few times and while it felt good, his mind was not stimulated and he caught syphilis. When it comes to having a loving relationship with a woman, "Pearls and brocade certainly add to the pleasure; so do titles and retainers." Montaigne declares that he likes wit in a woman, but if he had to choose between a woman with wit and a woman with a body that is not wanting, then he'd go for the latter. He declares, "where love is concerned--a subject which is mainly connected with sight and touch--you can achieve something without the witty graces but nothing without the bodily ones." Beauty is the privilege of women and Montaigne wonders what more they could want than to "live loved and honoured?" Reason, wisdom, and loving-friendship are to be found in men and that is why "they are in charge of world affairs." Now I know it is only the late 1580's when Montaigne wrote this and feminism was a long way from becoming a movement, but come on! He had friendships he valued with intelligent and talented noblewomen, he even dedicated a few of his essays to one of them. How could a man so smart be so stupid? Just when I'm about to explode with righteous indignation, Montaigne changes the subject to books. Books are good for the soul, and Montaigne even admits that it's okay for women to read certain things but only in French, not in Latin. Books according to Montaigne, console in old age and in retreat, relieve the weight and distress of idleness, blunt the stab of pain, distract from morose thoughts, and best of all, rid the reader of boring company. With obvious pleasure and pride, Montaigne describes the location of his library--third story of a tower-- and details of the room--round, table and chair, five shelves of books, a circle of free space 16 yards in diameter, and an unhampered view in three directions. But books aren't all good:
Books have plenty of pleasant qualities for those who know how to select them. But there is no good without ill. The pleasure we take in them is no purer or untarnished than any other. Reading has its disadvantages--they are weighty ones: it exercises the soul, but during that time the body remains inactive and grows earth-bound and sad.
So in other words, no matter how much we want to sit around reading all day, we need to get up off our backsides and get a little exercise. I had a professor in college who noticed that I biked to class. She told me that exercising the body is good for the mind too. At that time I just nodded and smiled because if I had a car I would have been in it. Now I have a car and I bike to work because I want to. I also enjoy long walks, especially to clear my head after reading or writing. Nonetheless, I still begrudge my body the time it takes away from my books. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Diversion"