Post Road Magazine #1

Recommendation: Michael de Montaigne

by Rick Moody

I got my first copy of the Essays from the novelist Jim Lewis when I was in the psychiatric hospital in 1987, and I didn’t pay any attention to the book then, because Jim was always telling me to read things and becoming irritated with me when I wouldn’t (How German Is It, for example). Once we had such a violent argument about Samuel Beckett that we didn’t speak for several months. The main reason I didn’t read the Essays was that it was huge, and I was depressed and couldn’t concentrate on anything. Too bad, because there is consolation in Montaigne for every type of physical suffering (the author himself catalogued many of his own, including kidney stones), as well for every state of mind. That’s one of the great pleasures of reading the Essays, it describes all of us. Our interior states, our struggles, our lapses, our varieties (Truly man is a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object).

I could never tell if this one guy on my ward was asleep or awake. In the meetings we had upstairs, he would sit in the front row with his legs outstretched and his eyes open and never say anything. He seemed asleep, in his motionlessness, and when the meetings were over he would struggle up from his chair and trudge wordlessly back down the hall. Normally, you could tell what drug had brought a certain addict into the hospital; there were vestigial traces. A certain cocaine addict chattered away. The drunks were always maudlin. And this guy seemed to have the hallmarks of someone on the nod, though he had already been in the hospital some weeks when I met him. There was also a woman in the detox who was a PCP addict. Very hard to imagine. I took PCP twice and puked both times and felt like I had been transported down the evolutionary chain to where I was a proto-hominid. On PCP, one time, I spent an evening (after puking) listening to “A Day in the Life,” by the Beatles, over and over and over.

Some books can’t be read from front to back, because they resist being assembled that way. And yet my devotion to them is complete. On what basis am I devoted? I would rather simply observe that I am devoted, that I return to these reservoirs without hesitation, again and again. (I can’t say this of some novels that were once important to me.) Anatomy of Melancholy, by Burton is one of these books. It’s very difficult to read straight through, and yet there are beautiful passages throughout, great laugh lines, much poignance. Certain essays of Montaigne I have read dozens of times (“Of a Monstrous Child,” for example, which mentions, among other things, a hermaphrodite that Montaigne saw once), others I have never opened yet. But even were I to glance at one of these unread essays now, for the first time, and to quote from it, I could guarantee that it would be incredibly memorable and beautiful and paradoxical, as in the following line from “Of Three Good Women”: In our age women more commonly reserve the display of their good offices and the vehemence of their affection toward their husbands until they have lost them. And as with many of the essays this passage has later material glued into it, because Montaigne was constantly revising and adding. Which reminds me of a remark by Yeats: It is myself that I revise.

The first essay in Montaigne’s book is called “By Diverse Means We Arrive at the Same End.” It begins thus: The commonest way of softening the hearts of those we have offended, when vengeance in hand they hold us at their mercy, is by submission to move them to commiseration and pity. However, audacity and steadfastness—entirely contrary means—have sometimes served to produce the same effect. Which is a perfect illustration of the reasoning mind as it performs its job. A thesis and its antithesis, a conclusion that contains each in a paradox. The paragraphs that follow thereafter may or may not further elucidate the stated theme.

Which brings me to Mike Piazza getting beaned by the Roger Clemens fastball. I saw only the replay. Piazza motionless beside home plate, sprawled in the dirt. Trainers clustered around him. Did Clemens strike him on purpose? Was he just trying to pitch an aggressive hitter inside? That each possibility has its plausibility and each its adherents strikes me as the one true remark you can make in this our cavalcade of individualities here in the West. Many stories, many paradoxes, many philosophies. Incredible that Montaigne seems already to have dealt with them all.

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