Where do you start with a book about Michel de Montaigne’s essays? The anthropologist would argue for his “Cannibals” essay. The Romantics would want to start with his beautiful tribute to Estienne de La Boetie. The theologian might jump right into his massive treatment of Raymond Sebond. As for me, I think the best place to begin is with his penis.
Not exactly his penis, actually, but all of them. Cloaked within a more general discussion of human imagination and psychosomatic disorders, his essay “On the power of the imagination” gives us a lengthy treatment of erectile dysfunction and why men should not blame sorcery for their failure to perform. Blame your brain, not the witches’ brew, Montaigne tells us. As an aside, towards the end of the essay, Montaigne writes:
“Were I to choose a subject where I had to be led, my capacities might prove inadequate to it.”
Inadequacy is a good word for this subject. To give proper treatment to this work, I’d need the skills of the young Philip Roth or, better yet, Howard Stern. Montaigne wrote about subjects every human being could understand, appreciate and laugh about uncomfortably. It may seem like a frivolous subject for the Montaigne scholar today, but bear in mind that the essays were widely popular in his day, not only in French but also in English translation, not because the literate classes of the 16th century wanted to contemplate philosophy. The essays were popular because Montaigne was entertaining … and often bawdy.
I dare Howard Stern to compete with this:
“We are right to note the license and disobedience of this member which thrusts itself forward so inopportunely when we do not want it to, and which so inopportunely lets us down when we most need it; it imperiously contests for authority with our will: it stubbornly and proudly refuses all our incitements, both mental and manual. Yet if this member were arraigned for rebelliousness, found guilty because of it and then retained me to plead its cause, I would doubtless cast suspicion on our other members for having deliberately brought a trumped-up charge, plotting to arm everybody against it and maliciously accusing it alone of a defect common to them all.”
From there, Montaigne proceeds to stage a mock trial against the penis and serves as the penis’s attorney. This line-of-defense is especially brilliant, because it foreshadows mind-body arguments that rage to this day:
“Our members have emotions proper to themselves which arouse them or quieten them down without leave from us. How often do compelling facial movements bear witness to thoughts which we were keeping secret, so betraying us to those who are with us? The same causes which animate that member animate – without our knowledge – the heart, the lungs and the pulse: the sight of some pleasant object can imperceptibly spread right through us the flame of a feverish desire. Is it only the veins and muscles of that particular member which rise or fall without the consent of our will or even of our very thoughts? We do not command our hair to stand on end with fear nor our flesh to quiver with desire. Our hands often go where we do not tell them; our tongues can fail, our voices congeal, when they want to. Even when we have nothing for the pot and would fain order our hunger and thirst not to do so, they never fail to stir up those members which are subject to them, just as that other appetite does: it also deserts us, inopportunely, whenever it wants to. That sphincter which serves to discharge our stomachs has dilations and contractions proper to itself, independent of our wishes or even opposed to them; so do those members which are destined to discharge the kidneys.”
That’s right, Montaigne wrote about the sphincter. Earlier there was a paragraph about farting as well. My favorite part of the essay involves a “cure” that Montaigne devised for a friend to rid him of his dysfunction. The ritual included a gold amulet, a ribbon to tie around his member and some kind of nonsense chanting. It brought to mind the variety of random rituals Annie Savoy taught Nuke LaLoosh to cure him of his pitching wildness in “Bull Durham.” Montaigne wasn’t proud of himself for these ideas, but it didn’t stop him from writing them down and publishing them anyway:
“I am opposed to all feigned and subtle actions; I hate sleight of hand not only in games but even when it serves a purpose. The way is vicious even if the deed is not.”
Maybe true, but it’s very funny and I’m sure it worked. As Crash Davis said in “Bull Durham:”
“If you believe you’re playing well because you’re getting laid, or because you’re not getting laid, or because you wear women’s underwear, then you are.”