Finding my muse in Montaigne


Montaigne

Muse: a source of inspiration; especially a guiding genius; the imaginary force thought to provide inspiration to poets, writers, artists, etc.

A muse, for modern writers, is that indefinable force that drives us to write. It’s part imagination, part inspiration. I suspect there’s a heady brew of psychology and biology at work, too.

Why write instead of, say, paint? Or sculpt? Or compose? I don’t know. It just is, for me, the thing my muse – however you define that – compels me to pursue. It compels others, though in different ways, and many in much more creative and innovative ways than I have in me. But nonetheless, writing fulfills a basic need in me. Scripturient, after all.

The inspiration part is easier to explain, I suppose, at least from my perspective. It’s a long list of people whose work, whose writing, whose ideas, whose politics, art, music, lives and contributions move me. My problem has always been my eclectic tastes and interests, and my grasshopper-like habit of jumping from topic to topic (albeit passionately).

What do Darwin, Chaucer, Machiavelli, Thucydides, Cliff Edwards, Ana Valenzuela, Han Shan, Gandhi, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Napleon, the Three Stooges, Shakespeare, Monty Python, Emanuel Lasker, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, my father, Henry Hudson, the Beatles, Frank Herbert, Don Marquis, Eric Clapton and Omar Khayyam have in common?

Not much – except that they are inspirational to me. For very different reasons, of course, in different ways and touching very different parts of my life and my activities. They are, of course, a mere handful of the total; the list is far too long to present here. Inspiration is composed of many fine details; a multitude of threads that weave our lives, not just big swatches.

Michel de Montaigne joins that list, a recent addition, thanks to two books I recently bought: Montaigne’s Complete Works (translated by Donald Frame, Everyman’s Library, New York, 2003) and How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sara Bakewell (Vintage/Random House, London, 2010).

(To be fair, I have only begun to read them, but found myself immediately drawn in – and inspired – by both).

Why Montaigne? Because I came across him on a shelf at a local Chapters store while browsing and he intrigued me, in part because I knew virtually nothing about him and his works (and that always invites examination); in part because he lived and wrote in the Renaissance, a period that interests me; in part because, after doing some online research prior to my purchases, I thought I could see some resonance between his work and my own writing.

(Not that I compare myself with his lofty work, rather that much of what interested him to write about seems to interest me as well, and his approach to writing parallels my own. However, Montaigne is very approachable to that sort of ‘He’s one of us’ comparisons among many of his current readers…)

Montaigne might be described at the world’s first blogger, if that term can be adequately but anachronistically applied to someone more than four hundred years past. While he didn’t have the technology or audience of today’s online bloggers, he still managed to write about himself, his ideas, his feelings, and about his world, in ways that are very reminiscent of today’s bloggers.

Montaigne is the first (at least the first Westerner, since my knowledge of Eastern writers is weak) to examine his own life as an ongoing, continual activity, rich in emotions, self-analysis, and contradictions. He wrote not in a journal, but in “essays” – pieces of varying length that were published in three books (today they’d be blog posts).

His focus wasn’t what was found in the usual printed fare of the day: in that first century of the printed book, most works were comprised of the sweeping issues of politics and religion (especially the point-counterpoint between Reformation and Counter-reformation forces). Solid, serious, often dreary stuff.

Montaigne’s writing was mostly about his daily, his ordinary life. He writes about friends, food, pets, clothes, on what he was thinking, feeling, or reading. His essays are sometimes focused, other times meandering. Most are very personal, some to the point of being trivial; some reach deep into the great themes of humanity: faith, death, evil, good, love, sex. He’s light, somewhat self-deprecating, easy to read even if the style is old and awkwardly formal at times.

His first book of essays was published in 1580, two years before a young Will Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway (and many years before his work works were published). Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne of England. Francis Drake returned that year after his circumnavigation of the globe.

Montaigne began writing a few years earlier, in 1572, at a point in his life that Dante would describe of himself in the opening verses of The Inferno:

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

A point of self-doubt, an epiphany on his personal road to Damascus. He would continue to write in this vein for 20 years. Do we all have these moments? Do we all have the drive to write for the rest of our lives?

(In our age of lurid tell-all autobiographies, of “leaked” sex tapes that bare the most intimate details and acts in biological detail, of rampant pornography and intrusive paparazzi who leave no private moment uncaptured, of professional gawkers, invasive bloggers and public fascination with even the most trivial aspects of celebrity lives, Montaigne seems remarkably self-controlled and modest. The difference, I suppose, is that he actually thought about the things in his life; he pondered their meaning, their consequences, their role in his existence.)

As such, his work was revolutionary because no one had ever done that before. No one had ever published a book about what he or she was thinking before, or about personal feelings around everyday activities. Groundbreaking.

There were no diarists or journalists in his day. There were no autobiographies or collections of candid musings such as his. His was truly the first of its kind. The original blogger.

Were there days, I wonder, when he despaired of writing, wearied of committing to paper his thoughts on whatever reared its head that morning? I do, sometimes. I can’t imagine Montaigne was not equally torn between dedication and doubt, days when he wondered why his muse compelled him to jot down his feelings and thoughts in such a personal and intimate manner. Days when he wondered what his contemporaries would think and say about his candid, personal descriptions.

(I have not been able to yet find any contemporary anti-Montaigne works written and published to counter his notions. Had he lived today, I have no doubt he would be subject to the irate vituperations of petty anti-Montaigne bloggers who felt threatened by his intellectualism, his philosophic bent, his reading and his politics. He might have been vilified by these negativist, often semi-literate bloggers, as are current writers of this bent, but I trust he would rise above their level and not respond to their jealous, mean chatter.)

I’ll have a lot more to write about Montaigne as I read deeper into his own words, and into works about him. But my introduction to him has been very pleasant and enjoyable. I suspect the deeper woods of his works will be, too.