This week in The New York Review of Books, the debate continues about whether Montaigne preferred to have sex standing up. I can understand that in his day, Montaigne’s writings must have been rather scandalous and that probably accounted for a lot of his early popularity.
But in this post-Hefner age, where everyone blathers on about their sex lives in public endlessly, why should we care what a 16th century man had to say about it? I’ve already noted from previous essays Montaigne’s stark opinions about marriage … and this essay seems to equate marriage with a form of imprisonment:
“We thought we were tying our marriage-knots more tightly by removing all means of undoing them; but the tighter we pulled the knot of constraint the looser and slacker became the knot of our will and affection.
“By nature there is nothing so contrary to our tastes than that satiety which comes from ease of access; and nothing which sharpens them more than rareness and difficulty: In all things pleasure is increased by the very danger which ought to make us flee from them.
“Our appetite scorns and passes over what it holds in its hand, so as to run after what it does not have: He leaps over what lies fixed in his path, to chase after whatever runs away. To forbid us something is to make us want it.”
Is Montaigne talking about human nature or just about himself? I’ll leave that to you.
What I find more interesting is that Montaigne makes a radical turn in this essay away from a question of sexual allure and towards the question of security. His point is that whenever we endeavor to make ourselves safer from harm, we actually end up making ourselves less safe.
The most interesting aspect of this turn is that most of the material about security was added decades after the original essay, toward the end of Montaigne’s life. On one hand, I imagine that Montaigne was bored by this time with the sexual intrigues of his younger days and found the higher questions of liberty and justice more worthwhile. His closing paragraph is touched with Proustian wistfulness:
“In the midst of so many fortified houses, I alone of my rank in the whole of France as far as I know have entrusted mine entirely to the protection of Heaven. I have never removed from it either silver spoon or title-deed. I will never fear for myself, nor save myself, by halves. If God’s favor is acquired b a complete confidence in it, it will endure unto the end for me; if not I have myself already endured long enough to render that length of time remarkable and worth recording. What! It has been thirty years or more!”
But there’s a dark side to Montaigne’s late additions too. The early version of the essays ended with a discussion of vice and how punishments may serve to sharpen vices rather than blunt them. The implication is that marriage vows are a form of punishment and that they are an ineffective means of enforcing fidelity.
The abrupt turn of the revised essay to a discussion of homestead security deepens the imprisonment analogy. What Montaigne is basically saying in the new material is that he will not turn his own home into an armed fortress just to make himself feel safer. It will not actually work to make him safer, it will only heighten the desire of would-be attackers.
Many scholars believe that Montaigne found peace in his marriage later in life and softened many of his beliefs. This essay would suggest otherwise — that not only did he continue to believe it to be a form of punishment, he grew to think of it as imprisonment.