ESSAY, n. This word came to English from French. The verb essayer means “to try.” An essay is an attempt. It’s also a thing you write, thanks to sixteenth-century French thinker Michel de Montaigne, who wrote three volumes called Essais.
I didn’t revisit Essais on purpose. I didn’t intend for this to be my Capital-R Romance reading this week (though it does contain two Romance languages, French and Latin). It just happened. I pulled it off my shelf because Montaigne is quoted at the beginning of Moby-Dick, which I have also been reading, and I didn’t remember any whales in Montaigne. (Plenty of cannibals, though.)
Turns out the whales are in the essay called “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” which is the one that’s like three hundred pages of Montaigne trying to reconcile his humanist love of reason and philosophy and his Christian faith, and I extremely did not have time for that. I’m getting calls two or three times a day to translate school documents or mail and (remotely) solve minor crises for the refugee family I work with. And honestly, even if I weren’t, this quarantine hasn’t been that long yet. I got romance novels to read.
Montaigne does have Big Quarantine Energy, though. I read selections from the Essais in many different college and grad school classes, but most memorably was with a graduate school professor who we all loved and feared in equal measure, a compact Polish man who I think is still the single most energetic human I have ever met, Prof. M. When we started reading Montaigne in his class, Prof. M told us the story of how many of his friends had been imprisoned in Warsaw in the 80s for their political activism. He had tried to bring a stack of books to one of his locked-up friends. The prison guards sternly informed him that this was against the rules. Prisoners were only permitted one book. So Prof. M left a copy of Montaigne’s Essais.
My French copy, printed on Bible-thin paper, is just shy of 2,000 pages. My battered English copy, a translation by M.A. Screech, is thicker than a brick.
Obviously if you can only give your locked-up friend one book, you pick the longest book. But Montaigne as prison reading made us laugh for another reason—to be locked up with the Essais was like being in a jail within a jail. Even if you love Montaigne (don’t tell anyone, but I do), there is an undeniable circularity to the essays. They wander. They contradict themselves. The relationship of the ending and the beginning is obscure.
“A regular essay,” Prof. M once told us, “is like a bicycle. You can ride it from Madison to Fitchburg. It transports you from one point to another. A Montaigne essay is a stationary bike. You can pedal as hard as you want, but you will never get to Fitchburg.”
Prof. M was full of metaphors like this, and we loved them. Our class collected as many as we could in a long Facebook post that I still treasure, things he’d said in class or in individual meetings or in passing by in the hallway. Probably his comparisons were refined over years of thinking and teaching, but they always felt spontaneous. And maybe he did generate them on the spot. He seemed to find them as entertaining as we did.
I have never forgotten the stationary bike, but it feels especially relevant now that I’m stuck at home. You know what’s great about a stationary bike? It keeps you from going nuts. And who cares about Fitchburg, anyway? As Prof. M concluded, the point is to think.
Montaigne composed his essays after he retired from an active life where he had been, among other things, the mayor of Bordeaux. He withdrew to his home in the countryside and began to write. He wrote at length, as I’ve already said, and over the course of many years. He revised with enthusiasm, leaving long handwritten comments in the margins of early volumes. (The first publication date is 1580, but there are also 1588 and 1595 publications. The 1595 version incorporates the handwritten comments. Modern editions sometimes mark the changes and additions with brackets or footnotes.)
I didn’t have the attention span for “Apology for Raymond Sebond” or “On Cannibals,” though Moby-Dick made me think of both, but I did reread the very short “On Idleness” (I, 8) in which Montaigne discusses his project. Here are the final few paragraphs in M.A. Screech’s translation:
Recently I retired to my estates, determined to devote myself as far as I could to spending what little life I have left quietly and privately; it seemed to me then that the greatest favour I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself. I hoped it could do that more easily from then on, since with the passage of time it had grown mature and put on weight.
But I find—
Variam semper dant otia mentis [Idleness always produces fickle changes of mind]
—that on the contrary it bolted off like a runaway horse, taking far more trouble over itself than it ever did over anyone else; it gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at my ease their oddness and their strangeness, I began to keep a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.
(The Latin is from Lucan’s Pharsalia. Montaigne interpolated tons of citations without translating them or identifying them.)
Quarantine is idle for some of us and not at all idle for others. Lots of people are suddenly expected to work from home and take care of family members who can’t look after themselves. There is no withdrawing to the estates for quiet and private time. Still, this passage captures the unbridled (heh) anxiety of contemplating the unknown future, a dread none of us can escape no matter how busy we might be. Your brain is a runaway horse that is also pregnant with monsters. It’s a bad scene in there.
Montaigne is discussing his own propensity toward what he would have called “melancholy.” He copes by writing. It’s a means of imposing order and fitness, or at least, as much order and fitness as he’s capable of. Even messy, the draft is always better than what’s in your brain.
When I was suffering from more frequent post-traumatic-stress nightmares, my therapist told me that every time I woke up from one, I should grab a notebook and scribble down what happened. Not to write something good. Not for later reading, private or public. Not even to keep. She suggested crumpling up the page and throwing it away after the fact, or burning it, if I wanted to. But the important thing was to write it down. Get it out of your brain and onto the page. Impose order and fitness. I like that my therapist and Montaigne, though separated by centuries, have essentially the same solution to this problem. Fantastic monstrosities loose in your mind? Write it down.
Four-hundred-some years (maybe more, if you include that citation from Lucan) is a pretty good run for a piece of advice. I exorcise things from my brain via writing all the time now. I exercise via writing as well. Not the kind of writing you show to other people, but the kind you do privately, desperately—a to-do list item that is just “get out of bed,” a note that says “get off twitter”—to impose a little order and fitness. My brain, like Montaigne’s, will run wild given the least bit of idleness, and life is easier if I tire it out. I need that stationary bike.
“On Idleness” is short and inconclusive. It’s not clear if Montaigne can “make [his] mind ashamed of itself.” His metaphors—the runaway horse, the chimeras—don’t suggest a creature with a sense of shame. Can Montaigne or I or anyone alive change the nature of their mind? That’s a question for a different kind of essay, one that takes you to Fitchburg. We don’t have the right vehicle for that. We’ll probably never get there. All we can do is keep trying.
This week in small-r romance, I read…
The Ultimate Pi Day Party (m/f, both cis and het, contemporary) by Jackie Lau. This is fun and comforting and welcoming. It was like a mood-boosting vitamin. The main characters are sweet and likable and all of the comedy comes from them being goofy—falling in love makes you ridiculous. And I love how much Jackie Lau loves food and specifically Toronto’s food scene. This book made me dream of going out for pies and dim sum, but until I can do that again, this is the next best thing. Content warnings: a main character’s father hasn’t spoken to him in years, teen pregnancy/abortion.
Jackpot (m/f, both cis and het?, contemporary, young adult) by Nic Stone. I picked this up from the library after buying a copy for a teen reader in my life who is stuck at home with nothing to read, and it’s a delight. It’s very grounded and real, dealing with issues of money and class, but it’s also zany and fun—the main character and a cute boy from her school set off on a quest to find the little old lady who might have bought the winning lottery ticket from the convenience store where the main character works. They get up to hijinks. Some chapters of the book are narrated from the point of view of inanimate objects, which was a bold stylistic turn. Content warnings: a child gets hospitalized, stress over medical (and other) bills, there is one scene where the protagonist drinks and can’t remember what happens to her (nothing, other than falling asleep).
In things that are neither romance nor Romance, I picked up Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone this week and read a few chapters. I can’t leave my house but I can go to space.
As mentioned above, I’ve also started reading Moby-Dick, and if anyone had told me that Herman Melville had spent so many pages delving into the Only One Bed trope, I think I would have done so way sooner.
More on both of these books later.
If you’re celebrating a spring holiday today, I wish you a good one! We had a seder (with participants in four different time zones) over Zoom last night, and while it wasn’t the same as being together, it was far better than being alone. Next year in person.
Next week in your inbox!