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.

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WTF is wrong with people these days?

What's wrong with people these days?Into everyone’s life comes the realization that we are not young and in between the time when we were, the world has changed. Not always for the better, either. In fact, it’s hard not to conclude the whole world has gone to shit since the internet arrived.

Aging is not something that, as a culture, we embrace. After all, who wants to be old? Being a senior today is way too often portrayed in the media as being vulnerable, out of touch and cranky, as if we emerged from the chrysalis of middle age into a hunched curmudgeon shuffling along with a walker, incontinence and a squint, grouching about how we miss rotary dial phones.

No, mostly we’re too busy to notice that it’s been a gradual but inexorable slide. We have jobs, hobbies, entertainment, pets, families, and even ukuleles to keep us from noticing the daily drift. We’re forever young as long as we don’t look inward. Then suddenly we look up and WTF? How did things get this way? How did I get this way? It’s like waking up with a start when you hear a door slam in the night.

I was a skeptic from an early age, but of late it seems I shake my head at human follies more often than I nod in appreciation of our accomplishments. But we all have more and more reason to be angry and astounded at human stupidity. Just spend an hour on social media or watching YouTube videos and you’ll be saying “You gotta be kidding!” so often that your Google Home device will start telling you to shut the fork up.

For me – and maybe for many of my readers – when I read headlines and news stories these days, or watch YouTube videos like those above, they are often followed in my head with a simple question: “What’s wrong with people these days?” And it’s not a once-and-a-while thing. It’s several times a day. I mean, just look at these recent stories and headlines and try not to ask yourself that question:

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Wrinkles: a review

WrinklesAbandon all hope, ye who enter here. It’s the phrase that highlights the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Inferno. It could just as easily by carved above the entrances to many nursing and retirement homes. I recalled that phrase as we watched the 2011 animated film, Wrinkles, last night.

Susan thought it the most depressing film she’d ever seen. I rather liked it: it was honest and artistically interesting. But not uplifting, I’ll agree. There is a sense of redemption at the end, but it is not the happily-ever-after sort of ending that most film redemption brings. It’s more of the shake-hands-with-reality sort of acceptance that things don’t change.

From Wikipedia:

The story is set in a retirement home and revolves around the friendship between two elderly men, one of them in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

There aren’t many happy endings in any film about dementia or Alzheimer’s. The 2006 Canadian movie, Away From Her, captured it beautifully and poignantly. The 1981 film On Golden Pond did too, from another angle. But no matter how artistically rendered, it’s an uncomfortable, sad story in any situation.

Then there’s the whole matter of people putting their aging parents into nursing homes. Even when done for the best of reasons – care, safety, oversight, concern, love and the inability of modern, working adults to cope effectively with the demands of an ill or aging parent- it still feels to many of the elderly that they have been abandoned. Shuffled off to wait out their inevitable death away from all the people they knew, the places they knew and the daily routines of their lives to a place devoid of romance, of passion, of familiarity.

Is this what we live our lives for? That question haunts the film.

You can’t feel the same depth of emotion with an animated film, so perhaps it’s the better vehicle for exploring the theme. It doesn’t wrench the tears from viewers the same way human actors can. Still, it has its moments.

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