Saturday, November 12, 2005

Look, Over There!

Montaigne begins his essay "On Diversion" by insulting women everywhere. He writes about having recently been trapped into consoling a lady who was in genuine distress, an uncommon occurrence since women have a reserve of tears ready to flow on command. He admits that he is no good at persuasion and so, until help arrived, he managed to calm the lady down by by diverting her attention from her distress. It didn't solve the problem, but it did get her to stop crying. What is it with men and a crying woman? Why do we scare them so much? They obviously don't realize that a good cry is a great stress reliever. Better to get all that pent up emotion out than to keep it locked inside where it can do irreparable harm. But I digress. Diversions are also good for things other than crying ladies in distress, they can get haughty women like Atalanta to marry you. Or at least, that's what Montaigne's recounting of the race with Hippomenes and the golden apples he used as a diversion so he could win seems to be saying. The greatest, and perhaps most common, use of diversion is to avoid thinking about death. We can't all be Socrates, so folks during Ptolemy's time followed Hegesias who didn't think about the dying but focused their attention on the new existence they would have after the fact. Or there are the zealots on the scaffold who make a big show of their faith, but really all they are doing is trying no to think about the fact that they are about to be hung. A big battle is also a diversion--in the heat of it soldiers don't think about death for themselves, they are too busy killing the enemy. We can, unfortunately, divert ourselves from life too:

Our thoughts are always elsewhere. The hope of a better life arrests us and comforts us; or else it is the valour of our sons or the future glory of our family-name, or escape from the evils of this life or from the vengeance menacing those who are causing our death.
We don't pay attention to the here and now because we are too busy thinking about the past or the future. We excite our souls with disembodied fancies based on nothing. Montaigne recounts the story of Cambyses who dreamt his brother would become king of Persia so he killed him. And then there is Aristodemus, King of the Messenians, who got the idea in his head that his howling dogs were an ill omen and so killed himself. Even King Midas killed himself because of a bad dream. "Abandoning your life for a dream is to value it for exactly what it is worth," concludes Montaigne. But not all diversions are bad. If you are feeling melancholy, diverting your thoughts can lighten you mood. Likewise if you are in pain. Montaigne, who suffered from gallstones, found diversions useful. He gives us way too much information about them:
The stubborn nature of my stones, especially when in my prick, has sometimes forced me into prolonged suppressions of urine during three or four days; they bring me so far into death that, given the cruelty of the strain which that condition entails, it would have been madness to hope to avoid dying or even to want to do so.
During such times, he found some relief in thinking about things like "a hound, a horse, a book, a wine-glass and what-not." If Montaigne found so many diversions in the 1580s, how many more diversions do we have these days? We can live our entire lives as one big diversion; we don't even need a dream in order to abandon life anymore. What do all of our diversions tell us about the value we place on our lives? What would our lives be like if we refused to be distracted? Next week, Montaigne writes over 50 pages "On Some Lines of Vrigil"