Monday, December 19, 2005

In Which Montaigne Reveals His Lack of Ambition and His Bovine Desires

Montaigne's essay "On Vanity" is, as Montaigne describes it, "a motley of ideas." He acknowledges that frequently the names of his essays have nothing or very little to do with the contents. But he knows what he is writing about an can follow his leaping ideas from sentence to sentence. It is on the "undiligent reader who loses" the subject, not Montainge. Vanity, as in useless, worthless, futile, is indirectly the topic here. Montaigne "strives to give worth to vanity itself--to doltishness--if it affords [him] pleasure." A good portion of the essay is about travel and Montaigne's love of leaving town. He defends his wanderlust from accusations of vanity by outlining the innumerable benefits of travel. Variation and change is a delight, plus it's a great escape from the, albeit lackadaisical, running of his estate. Travel is also a great way to escape an unhappy political climate for while. It is also a great escape from his wife ("Everyone knows that seeing each other all the time cannot provide the same pleasure as is given by alternately going away and coming together" --in other words, absence makes the heart grow fonder!) And besides, traveling does no harm except to the wallet. And if you have the good fortune of being able to visit someone else's house where you are the honored guest and they have to do all the work of running the household, all the better! Montaigne writes, "when asked what kind of wine he thought best, Diogenes replied, 'Someone else's.' I agree with that." Of course, travel is an enriching experience. And travel for the sake of travel is pleasing too. Montaigne also hopes to die while away from home. He has much to say about being among strangers when the Grim Reaper comes to collect. Dying is a lonely thing anyway and having people around is only a distraction from the big event. Plus you have to console them and tell them that everything is great. Besides, Montaigne declares, "this event is not one of our social engagements: it is a scene with one character." Montaigne admits to being lazy, and all he wants is to be "indifferent and bovine." He decides that he was made for living off somebody else as long as it could be done without servitude and obligation. Sometimes he does "feel some temptations towards ambition smouldering in [his] soul" but he resists and eventually the feeling goes away. There is much in this essay about writing and Montaigne's reasons for writing. He is quite self-deprecating and the result is some good laughs. Early on he observes, "Scribbling seems to be one of the symptoms of an age of excess," and goes on to complain how many people seem to be writing. He decides that "such busy idleness arises from everyone slacking over the duties of his vocation and being enticed away. Each individual one of us contributes to the corrupting of our time: some contribute treachery, others injustice, irreligion, tyranny, cupidity, cruelty: the weaker ones like me contribute silliness, vanity and idleness." Later in the essay he is back to the quantity of books that are published and wonders why is it "the worst books which come top in popular approbation?" Something many readers and literary writers are still wondering today. I could go on and on. There is much in this lengthy wide-ranging essay. But I will leave you here and encourage you to read it for yourself sometime. Next week's (or I should say this weekend's) essay: "On Restraining Your Will"