Back to Montaigne

When I find myself in times of trouble,
I go back to read Montaigne.
Seeking words of wisdom,
Read some more…
(to the tune of Let It Be, with apologies to the Beatles)

Michel de MontaigneI was up late these last few nights reading Michel de Montaigne into the wee, dark hours. Although I used to read him rather frequently and found him an inspiration for several posts, some years back, I hadn’t picked him up in ages. But a passing mention in Sterne’s Tristam Shandy made me pick him up again starting with his long essay (69 pages in the Screech edition; 57 in the Frame translation) of “some verses of Virgil.” Which, in typical Montaigne fashion is less about the poet Virgil than about his views on aging, dying, sexuality, religion, marriage, virtue, honesty, and more. Strands of seemingly random thoughts woven into a longer piece. And, of course, abundantly sprinkled with quotations from a wide range of authors.

Montaigne’s greatness doesn’t lie with scientific breakthroughs, astounding discoveries, feats of endurance or strength: it lies with his ability and willingness to both question everything and to think through to his answers. Clearly, reasonably, openly, creatively. And then to put pen to paper and collect his thoughts for the world to read (the printing press has only been in use for just over a century when, in 1580, the Essays were first published). His essays are marvellously witty, thoughtful,  insightful, and remarkably down-to-earth, even more than 400 years later.

You have to admire his willingness to commit to paper his doubts and uncertainties, as well as his passions and his views. This was the century of the Reformation, the Counter-reformation, of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Martin Luther. The Roman Inquisition was in full swing, snaring Galileo, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, and others in its repressive, orthodox net. Yet Montaigne wrote a spirited defense of the fifteenth-century theologian, Raymond Sebond, whose views about the nature of Christianity were under attack by church conservatives. That was a bold, and dangerous act.

Montaigne was, almost unheard-of for his time, frank and honest (sometimes brutally so) about his views, even when they ran counter to popular, church, or official opinions. His range of interests is broad, and he delights in throwing in tidbits from history, geography, agriculture, war, economics, fashion, philosophy… and in doing so gives us a picture of the 16th-century worldview (complementing that of my other favourite 16th-century author, Niccolo Machiavelli; but Montaigne is even more well-read — and even mentions Machiavelli twice).

Even when I don’t share his views, his faith, or his perspective — often, although not surprising given the chronological divide — I can respect his honesty, his integrity, and his passion for truth and understanding. But the sheer breadth of his vision and his willingness to ponder and question so many things and ideas accepted or rejected in his culture makes him heroic.

Continue reading “Back to Montaigne”

The Cancer Diaries, Part 11

Three Stooges, nyuck, nyuck, nyuckAnaesthetic must be one of the most remarkable inventions of the 20th century. While various forms of anaesthesia have been used since the ancient Egyptians (with varying degrees of effectiveness), it really wasn’t perfected  until the last century. It’s difficult to imagine the horrors of surgery before it became commonly used and as effective as it is today.

Here I was, lying on a table in the operating room, Thursday morning, being covered with a warm blanket by one nurse, while another nurse held a mask over my face to breathe from, and a third prepared to administer my anesthetic via the IV drip (that spelling is for my American readers). The latter nurse said, “In the next thirty seconds you’re going to drift off to sleep…” And then I did. Lights out, like flipping a switch.

Sleep. Mercifully deep and absolute. No dreams, no tossing and turning. No having to get up to pee three or five times. No pushing the cat or dog off my legs. Don’t feel a thing as I am poked and prodded internally. Just sleep.

And then I awoke. Just like that: bang the shutters of the eyelids popped open and I was awake. No slow rise to consciousness, no lingering dream state. No memories either, just a sort of ellipsis between the operating table and the recovery room. And just like that, my surgery was over. Amazing stuff, anaesthetic. Where was I? Ah, yes, my latest surgery.

I know there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people in it, who are no readers at all, who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of everything which concerns you.

That’s from Chapter IV of Laurence Sternes’ delightful 18th-century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, more commonly simply referred to as Tristam Shandy. I’m reading it right now, among other books, and this bit amused me. He continues, apologetically, 

It is in pure compliance with this humour of theirs, and from a backwardness in my nature to disappoint any one soul living, that I have been so very particular already. … [I] therefore must beg pardon for going on a little farther in the same way: For which cause, right glad I am, that I have begun the history of myself in the way I have done; and that I am able to go on, tracing everything in it, as Horace says, ab Ovo.

From the egg, that Latin bit from Horace’s Ars Poetica; means from the beginning. So to follow in Shandy’s (or rather Sterne’s) literary footsteps I must go back a bit and explain for those who have not read the previous ten pieces on my cancer, why I was on the operating table again. Put it all in perspective, as it were. I do recommend you read the previous entries, however, to get a more robust story than this precis.

Continue reading “The Cancer Diaries, Part 11”

Bring Back the Salons

Salon culture
Today if someone mentions a “salon” you probably think about a haircut or manicure. But in the 18th century, prior to the French Revolution, salons were the focus of civil debate, intellectual curiosity, and culture. They were  centres of discussion on everything from manners to literature to philosophy to science. And they were run by women. Salons were the bright stars of the Enlightenment; cauldrons of intellectual, cultural, and social development.

More than ever, we need a salon culture today. Social media is driving us to ignorance, stupidity, rigidly polarized views, and a culture of confrontation and abuse.

Guests to salons were invited to attend by the salonnières who ran them, and meetings were held in the host’s home, often in her bedroom. Should a guest engage too loudly, exhibit bad manners while there, express themselves too foolishly or show ignorance of the topics under discussion, they were not invited back. And in a highly social society like 18th-century France, to be exiled from participation was a humiliating loss of face. To be well-regarded, one needed to be an active and engaging participant in the salon culture: you gained more points for being amusing, witty, well-read, well-spoken, and polite.

Participants weren’t selected simply for their charm or wit: hosts wanted challenge, lively discussion, and even controversy. They chose people who could offer contrast; those who could speak to opposing views and raise difficult questions for proponents to wrestle with. Salons were even places for musicians, composers, painters, and poets to show off their work and have them critiqued by the guests.

Salons were egalitarian: men and women both participated and engaged in the discussions, breaking away from the male-dominated society of the time, and providing both an informal education for women and an opportunity for them to develop their own views. Women could engage in political discussion in salons while they were barred from them outside. But they also allowed the aristocracy and the bourgeoise to mix and mingle; to engage in ways they could not do outside the salon, breaking down the social barriers.

Continue reading “Bring Back the Salons”

The Imperialist Economics of Blueberries

Blueberries from PeruThere was a cooler right at the front of the fruit and vegetable section of the local Walmart store packed with clear plastic containers of blueberries. Plump, dark, fresh-looking berries. And value-priced at $2.87 a container. I love blueberries on my morning cereal; these looked inviting, and so inexpensive! Who can resist such a bargain? I put a container in my shopping cart. Only when I got home did I read the label: product of Peru.

Peru lies more than 6,000 km away from me by air; more than eight hours’ flying time from Toronto, plus a two-hour drive north to here.  Not to mention the time to pick, package, sort, distribute, and shelve them. Yet here was a container of what appeared to be recently-picked blueberries selling for less than a cup of coffee, and less — perhaps less than half — than I usually pay at the local farmers’ market for a similar or even smaller amount. How can that be?

How is it possible to pick these fruit, wash, sort, package, refrigerate, ship to a warehouse, sort, distribute, ship to a store, then stock in that store for as little as $2.87? Along that route are hundreds of people, all of whom need to be paid, from pickers to loaders to pilots, drivers, and store personnel. There’s a whole chain of dependencies in getting them from Peru to my local grocery store while still edible, and a staggering cost in fuel.*

Peru, is, of course, just one South American country sending blueberries worldwide, but this year has become the largest exporter of blueberries: 165,000 metric tonnes in 2020, up from 120,000 in 2019. Half of which goes to the USA. Blueberries — native to North America, not Peru— are also grown in Mexico and South Africa. And how convenient for us here that they do so: we can enjoy these fresh fruit well outside our own limited growing season, as we do with so many other vegetables and fruit. And we can enjoy hundreds of others that can’t possibly grow here: limes, grapefruit, avocados, bananas, lychee, kiwi fruit; our grocery stores are well-stocked with all sorts of imports for our eating pleasures. And often so inexpensive.

Yet again: at what cost? Not to us, of course: our grocery and box stores are locked in a penny-pinching competition to offer us the lowest prices, to lure us in with bargains like these, understanding that while we’re here we’ll also buy more. Yet to enjoy our $2.87 package of ripe blueberries, we must accept that we benefit from the cheap labour and even poverty in the home countries where these are picked; wages we could not possibly live on here. And along with those low wages come predictable lower standards of health, quality, and safety: foods contaminated with pesticides and herbicides, or some noxious or even lethal bacteria are, sadly, rather too common (as of Oct. 9, 2020, the Canadian government site listed 4,012 food recalls; however not all of which are for imported produce).

Continue reading “The Imperialist Economics of Blueberries”

The Cancer Diaries, Part 10

My father died of esophageal cancer several years ago. It was a horrible, lingering death, and I watched him shrivel and die, in constant pain towards the end. On one of my last visits to his bedside, he asked me whether I thought it was better to die with the full knowledge of what was happening to you, or to be unaware.

It was a startling, unexpected question. My father and I had had few, if any, philosophical discussions in our lives together. Without giving it a lot of thought, I replied, “With knowledge.” I probably thought he was talking about the pain-killing drugs he could ask for, the sort that also numb your mind and make you oblivious, put you into a narcotic coma that takes away the pain and stress.

I have always wanted to know what is happening to me, to be aware of everything around me. I would hate to be unable to read as I do every day now. I would have assumed he would too — both my parents were voracious readers — but he never gave me back his own response, just looked up at the ceiling. I probably thought he was having a pain spasm and didn’t try to pursue it further. I should have noticed then that he was reading less and less as the cancer progressed.

But later I thought more about it, about his question and my response. I still do, but he died before I could return to discuss it with him.

By the time my father was sent to the hospital for his remaining time palliative care, my mother had already been placed in a nursing home. My father had resigned himself to the fact he could no longer care for her as she needed. She had had a stroke in 1960, leaving her left side paralyzed, and by the mid-1990s, was pretty much wheelchair-bound. My father continued to care for her every day, stoic and uncomplaining as he had for almost four decades, but at 92 he simply didn’t have the strength to move her in and out of her chair or bed, or lift her when she fell. The move to a care facility was mandated by both their ages and declining health.

Continue reading “The Cancer Diaries, Part 10”