Thursday, August 18, 2011


Most of the time I can find bookstores anywhere--my book radar is a powerful sensory perceiver, and as small as Cashiers, North Carolina is (population of 1,974 "full-timers"), I discovered a bookstore in the small mall near an Ingle's grocery that advertised new and used books. The shelves were well-stocked with both, as advertised, and as I'm reading about the art of essay writing, my radar led me to a new title about Montaigne, the master of the "essais" or essayer which means, in French, "to try." In my opinion, all writing for consumption by the public is an "attempt" to entice readers.

According to Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live or A Life of Montaigne, if Montaigne were alive today, he might take up blogging, for he wrote solely about his own experiences, the experiences of being human, "writing about myself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity." Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a nobleman, government official, and wine grower of the sixteenth century carried out that idea by writing "exploratory, free-floating pieces;" e.g., "Of Friendship," "Of Cruelty," "Of Diversion," "How We Cry and Laugh for the Same Thing," etc. Bakewell says Montaigne's big question was: "How to Live?" a question that confronts most people living in the twenty-first century.

Bakewell writes that Montaigne doesn't offer general answers, but he relates what he did and records all the details, even trivial ones, about his search for meaning, telling us his preference for melons, that he doesn't know how to sing, about how it feels to be lazy, about what he experienced when he felt obsessive fear, and other everyday occurrences, the content of which should be a consolation to contemporary bloggers. I mean, bloggers have been labeled everything from narcissists to gossips, but Montaigne redeems them in his "attempts," providing conversations, people, and settings of all types to corroborate the validity of his experiences.

An interesting chapter on "Guard Your Humanity," which sums up Montaigne's attitude about social duty, provided a response for my blog yesterday regarding "dominionists" who think the world is out of joint, and only Christians as a dominating group should govern institutions worldwide to get people back in sync. Bakewell says that Montaigne advocates "for each person to get himself back in joint to learn how to live, beginning with the act of keeping his feet on the refrain from murder or the pretense of pleasing God and to resist the urge that periodically makes humans destroy everything around them and set life back to its beginnings..." Further, Montaigne asserts that no one could ever gratify heaven and nature by committing massacres and homicides, a belief that Dominionists want to reinforce by destroying certain marginal groups.

After watching a documentary about Gloria Steinem last night, I became interested in Montaigne's pro-feminist views in a chapter entitled "Keep A Private Room Behind the Shop" which were in alignment with many of Steinem's ideas. He wrote that women aren't wrong when they reject rules of life that have been introduced in the world because men are the ones who have made these rules without women. He also advocated that by nature "males and females have been cast in the same mold..."

Author Blakewell's writing encompasses the thought of William James, Descarte, Virginia Woolf, Pascal, and other philosophers and thinkers, some of whom influenced Montaigne's writing. In a chapter entitled "Be Convivial With Others," she tells us "we do not live immersed in our separate perspectives like Descarte in his room. We live porously and socially," emphasizing that perhaps we can only occupy another's point of view for a few moments, but the ability to do so is the meaning of being convivial...and "is the best hope for civilization."

This is only the tip of the iceberg and not a formal review of Bakewell's work about a book that was a best seller during the Renaissance. It's a mind-boggling work written by a consummate scholar and biographer. Bakewell, who spent five years of what she calls "voluntary servitude to Montaigne," discovered that she believes in the Montaignean truth "that the best things in life happen when you don't get what you think you want."

And to wax Montaignean by writing minute detail, this blog is composed on a rented deck in the shade of a catalpa and several tulip poplar trees, while I am yet in my pajamas, observing a small chipmunk foray for food who must be pondering the eternal question "How to Live?"

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