18 “The Desperate Modern Need to Connect:” On Fear

It’s a question everyone who writes faces often: why must I do this? If the answer is that it pays the bills, the motivation is obvious. But for many writers today who spend their free time blogging, often for no compensation, it’s not entirely obvious to others, and sometimes to you, why you must do this.

As someone who has written a blog on and off for eight years, someone who has both cultivated and chased away an audience more than once and is now eager to find another, the question has taken many years to answer. For much of this time, I felt a certain resentment that my essay writing could not earn me a full-time living, that I would be forever condemned to earn a living by writing about uninteresting things for barely-interested audiences.

But recently, I’ve had a change of heart about what I must write and why. And I’ll get to that epiphany in a moment. First, I want to address an essay in The American Interest, written by Ian Brunskill, senior editor of the London Times, about Montaigne.

In this piece, Brunskill takes issue with the idea that Michel de Montaigne was something of a protoblogger. He writes:

Montaigne’s literal self-centeredness has more in common with the self-portraits of the Renaissance painters who created the form (one element in an evolving complex of ideas about Man and his place in the universe), than with the compulsive exhibitionism of today’s Facebook or Twitter users. For Montaigne it’s a matter not of self-display to the world, but of self-discovery in the world and through engagement with it. Writing in the way he does is essential to that process, as he quietly contemplates the workings of his own mind. He has none of the blogger’s fear of silence or the desperate modern need to connect and communicate.

That’s an interesting phrase, “the blogger’s fear of silence.” And fortunately for me, the 17th Montaigne essay just happens to be about fear. Let’s see what he has to say about it.

I have hardly any idea of the mechanisms by which fear operates in us; but it is a very odd emotion all the same; doctors say that there is no emotion which more readily ravishes our judgement from its proper seat. I myself have seen many men truly driven out of their minds by fear, and it is certain that, while the fit lasts, fear engenders even in the most staid of men a terrifying confusion.

Notice how Montaigne is keeping a distance from the subject here. It’s his default stance in most of the early essays. Building on what Brunskill said, Montaigne’s essays are not confessions, as in Augustine, they are examinations of his thoughts. And quite often, especially early in the essays, he requires a certain detachment from the theme to begin a proper examination.

This leads Montaigne to his second thought about fear — that it serves a powerful purpose:

Fear reveals her greatest power when she drives us to perform in her own service those very deeds of valour of which she robbed our duty and our honour.

As he often does, Montaigne here is applying a principle of Stoic philosophy to his examination. He argues that fear, while a great motivator, is dehumanizing, because it steals from us positive motivations for our actions.

But then Montaigne arrives at his most interesting thought about fear: that it is the comfortable who are most at risk of fear. Bruce Springsteen famously misunderstood Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” and felt the song spoke to his hungry ambition in the line “how does it feel, to be on your own, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.” That helped inspire his own rock epic “Born to Run,” where Springsteen celebrated riding “the mansions of glory in suicide machines.”

Here’s Montaigne’s take on that thought:

People with a pressing fear of losing their property or of being driven into exile or enslaved also lose all desire to eat, drink or sleep, whereas those who are actually impoverished, banished or enslaved often enjoy life as much as anyone else. And many people, unable to withstand the stabbing pains of fear, have hanged themselves, drowned themselves or jumped to their deaths, showing us that fear is even more importunate and unbearable than death.

Exuberance for life requires a certain hunger and a certain fearlessness. That’s what Montaigne believed (and what Springsteen sings about.) And that brings me back to Ian Brunskill and the blogger’s fear of silence.

I cannot speak for anyone but myself, but I have never written a word — published on the Internet or scribbled into a notebook — because I feared silence. Have I wanted my words to be read? Absolutely. Well rewarded? Even better. If I could do nothing but write my own thoughts for a good living the rest of my life, that would be wonderful.

But it is not my motivation to write, it’s not why I must write. About six months ago, amid deep self examination, I came to the conclusion that no matter how frustrated I may be with my career, I have a burning need to write. I need to write to know what I think and what I believe. I need to write so that I can continue to write better. It’s as important to me as eating, breathing and sleeping.

Having worked through 17 of Montaigne’s essays so far and found a mirror of my thoughts in them, I cannot speak to why Montaigne felt compelled to write. But for myself, I can assure Mr. Brunskill that fear has nothing to do with it. These essays do for me what Springsteen’s cars did:

Sprung from cages on Highway Nine, chrome wheeled, fuel injected and stepping out over the line.

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