54 Halfway Home: On Vain Cunning Devices

Today was an auspicious day at the Conley household — our baby Quinn turned one today. Between the days activities and the junk food, it’s hard to sit down and write a late evening essay.

But on the other hand, today also marks the halfway point in my project, Montaigne’s 54th essay out of 107. And it also happens to be one of his best. In fact, this fairly short essay is so quotable that I’ve highlighted roughly 2/3 of the text. He starts from an unusual vantage point, talking about artists who achieve fame with clever stunts. He described them here as poets who compose entire works from lines all beginning with the same letter; and we can see that by increasing or shortening the length of their lines the ancient Greeks would form poems of various shapes such as eggs, balls, wings and axe-heads.

A modern equivalent in my mind is film director M. Night Shyamalan, who burst onto the scene with “The Sixth Sense,” but soon revealed himself as being a one-trick pony director, churning out one “shocking surprise” ending movie after another. Montaigne has no respect for this kind of stunt:

It is a wonderful testimony of the weakness of Man’s judgement that things which are neither good nor useful it values on account of their rarity, novelty and, even more, their difficulty.

What Montaigne does not write — but is clearly hinting at — is a concern that his essay project is nothing but that kind of stunt, a thing that is novel and difficult, but in the end meaningless and not very good. I have to wonder the same myself about my project … churning out one essay a day doesn’t really accomplish anything if the work is mediocre and unenlightening. It’s a fair point for Montaigne to make and something for me to keep in mind every day.

Having set up the essay this way, Montaigne takes a fascinating turn. He’s going to make the case that his work of art — and perhaps all art in general — bears a relation to the way that Christians worship God. The religious claim he makes is that the most devout followers are the simple minded naive believers and the highly educated followers of church theology. The danger comes from the people in between. But before he can get to that argument, he’s going to make a physiological case that cowardice and courage are the emotions that drive the acts of the naive and the devout.

He starts this off by comparing the devout with gods and the naive with beasts:

Democritus said that gods and beasts have senses more acute than men, who are at the stage in between. The Romans wore the same clothes for days of mourning and for festival-days. It is certain that extreme cowardice and extreme bravery disturb the stomach and are laxative.

He extends this point by noting the physical sensation of facing up to fear. Whether the response is brave or cowering, the sensation is often the same:

Boldness can make your limbs shake just as much as fear. And the man whom his squires assayed to reassure by minimizing the dangers as they helped him into his armour and saw his flesh a-quiver said to them: ‘You know me badly: if my skin realized where my heart was soon to take it, it would fall flat on the ground in a faint.

And it’s not just in moments of fear where these acute feelings take over — sexual attraction can have the same affect on people:

That incapacity which comes over us in the sports of Venus from lack of ardour or attraction can also do so from too ecstatic an ardour or too unruly a passion. Food can be roasted and cooked by extreme cold as well as extreme heat: Aristotle says that lead ingots will melt and turn liquid with the cold in a rigorous winter as readily as in an intensely hot summer. The stages above pleasure and below pleasure can be filled with pain by both desire and satiety.

Those who respond best in these situations are those who are either ignorant of the risks, and who just react in an animalistic manner, or those who have taken a philosophy, stoicism again, to heart and have mastered these fears. So when Montaigne here separates the wise who bully the tides of fortune from the ignorant who are on the side of misfortune, he’s not making a value judgment:

Wise men bully misfortune and master it: the others ignore it; the latter are on this side of misfortune so to speak: the former are beyond it; they first weigh and consider what misfortunes are and then judge them for what they are; they leap above them by the force of a vigorous mind; they despise them and trample them underfoot; they have souls so strong and so solid that when the arrows of Fortune strike against them they can only bounce back and be blunted, having met an obstacle which they cannot dent …. there is an infant-school ignorance which precedes knowledge and another doctoral ignorance which comes after it, an ignorance made and engendered by knowledge just as it unmade and slaughtered the first kind.

Montaigne has set up the naive and the learned as the people most capable of overcoming the travails of life. Now it’s time to apply his view of Christian faith to this dichotomy:

Good Christians are made from simple minds, incurious and unlearned, which out of reverence and obedience have simple faith and remain within prescribed doctrine. It is in minds of middling vigour and middling capacity that are born erroneous opinions, for they follow the apparent truth of their first impressions and do have a case for interpreting as simplicity and animal-stupidity the sight of people like us who stick to the old ways, fixing on us who are not instructed in such matters by study. Great minds are more settled and see things more clearly: they form another category of good believers; by long and reverent research they penetrate through to a deeper, darker light of Scripture and know the sacred and mysterious secret of our ecclesiastical polity.

So the people who are most virtuous are the naive, simple-minded peasants … and their worldly opposite, the philosophers, with strong natures enriched with wide learning. As for everyone in between:

Half-breeds who have turned with contempt from the first state (illiterate ignorance) and who are incapable of reaching the other (their arses between two stools, like me and lots of others) are dangerous, absurd and troublesome: such men bring disturbances to the world. That is why, for my part, I draw back as far as I can into that first and natural state, which I had vainly made an assay at leaving behind.

It’s interesting to read this now because Montaigne is unquestionably in the class of the philosophers. But in his day, philosophy was still mired in the dark ages, and for Montaigne to find any audience for his essays, he had to aim at the middle brow and below. Over time, the great middle brow works tend to become high brow. Homer began as mass entertainment. Shakespeare’s plays were broadly popular, as was the music of Mozart and Beethoven. Perhaps someday The Beatles will be revered and studied the way that we study classics today, having made the transition from the middle to the high.

As much as Montaigne wants to find kinship with the peasants, they’re not his natural audience and I doubt that his essays have ever been widely read among working classes. So Montaigne is being a bit harsh when he writes:

That middling poetry which remains between the two is despised and is without honour or price.

And Montaigne understands this … he gets that the people who will probably discover his art are exactly those that he’s insulting:

Once our mind has found an opening we have, as usual, mistaken for a difficult task and a rare topic something which is nothing of the sort, and that once our capacity for research has been aroused we can find an infinite number of like examples, I will merely add the following: that if these Essays were worthy of being judged, it could turn out in my opinion that they will hardly please common vulgar minds nor unique and outstanding ones: the former would never get enough of their meaning; the latter would understand them only too easily. These Essays might eke out an existence in the middle region.

On one hand, Montaigne is being modest as usual. But he’s also saying something important — that it’s pointless and maybe even dangerous to ever create art with a target audience in mind.

Yesterday I wrote about Nietzsche’s paradox of happiness, in which he argues that the only way to find true happiness is to focus your passions and energies somewhere else … happiness comes through the striving and the labor-of-love, not by seeking happiness itself. A corollary to that theory would be the paradox of art: if you wish to find an audience, ignore it. Make your work meaningful and it will create its own readers, viewers or listeners.

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