3 Reagan at 100: Our Emotions Get Carried Away

I often felt I had to check my natural sarcasm and sense of absurdity at the door for fear of inducing in him a fit of psychological disequilibrium –Ron Reagan, speaking of his father, former President Ronald Reagan.

I admire Ron Reagan for that phrase, psychological disequilibrium, which he evokes in a new memoir of his father. The phrase makes me think of Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo” having an instantaneous feeling of terror, brought on by a distorted concept of your environment. Or even Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation,” where the discontinuity builds slowly from being in a strange environment that makes him lose his bearings in life.

Michel de Montaigne has a talent for bringing on that psychological disequilibrium both immediately and more acutely, the more you analyze what he writes. As I noted yesterday, his second essay ends with a macho pose – he declares that “my sense of feeling has a hard skin.” But don’t get too comfortable with that definition, because he comes right back in the third essay, “Our emotions get carried away beyond us,” with this seeming contraction:

We are never ‘at home’: we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, impel us towards the future; they rob us of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be – even when we ourselves shall be no more.

So which is it – does Montaigne favor a certain emotional detachment from the world or doesn’t he? We’ll get better answers as the essays progress, but for now we’re left to analyze a puzzling figure taking us on an intellectual whirlwind journey. And that brings us back to Reagan.

Although I’ve never been a political admirer of Reagan, I’ve found him to be a psychologically fascinating character ever since reading Gary Wills’ book “Reagan’s America” 24 years ago. To me, the most apt and hilarious examination of Reagan came from Johnny Depp, who modeled his impersonation of infamous film director Ed Wood on our 40th President. (I can even picture President Reagan adapting some of Depp’s dialogue, saying to Tip O’Neill “Really? Worst tax bill you ever saw. Well, my next one will be better.”)

I’d never compare Reagan to Montaigne intellectually, but the two share a certain emotional detachment from the world that probably drove their loved ones mad. Montaigne writes in later essays about his incredibly bad memory and how he would routinely forget important days and events. Ron Reagan describes something similar about his dad, well before the Alzheimer’s:

Occasionally, he seemed to need reminding about basic aspects of my life — like birthdays, who my friends were or how I was doing in school. I could share an hour of warm camaraderie with Dad, then once I’d walked out the door, get the uncanny feeling I’d disappeared into the wings of his mind’s stage, like a character no longer necessary to the ongoing story line.

We tend to call people who act that way “spacey.” My son Finn, three and a half years old so maybe he’ll grow out of it, gets into those moods pretty often. He seems to be inhabiting his own universe, one that consists purely of YouTube videos of Toyota cars and trucks and the occasional break for more Goldfish crackers and pleas for “two minutes” of freedom before bedtime. Finn’s reaction to being snapped out of that world, in typical three year old style, is often crankiness. But at other times, it’s a blank stare … a puzzled look of psychological disequilibrium.

Perhaps if Ronald Reagan had written extensive personal essays we’d have a better understanding of him now. But I suspect the opposite would be true, that we’d actually find him ever more puzzling and otherworldly. Towards the end of this essay, Montaigne writes a fairly chilling passage where he admires those who live their lives eager for posterity and capable of dancing on their own graves. Somehow I suspect that Reagan would have understood what Montaigne is saying here:

If I had to trouble myself further, I would find it more worthy to imitate those who set about enjoying the disposition and honour of their tombs while they are still alive and breathing, and who take pleasure in seeing their dead faces carved in marble. Happy are they who can please and delight their senses with things insensate – and who can live off their death.

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