an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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me and Montaigne

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Montaigne’s better half

 

I have no more made my book than my book has made me

Michel de Montaigne 

Before I start on Montaigne, some remarks on the title of this essay. Many English teachers are wont to correct it to ‘Montaigne and I’, hohum, but as an English teacher myself and an iconoclast of minuscule proportions, I beg to differ. The idea is that ‘me’ is an object pronoun, and that using it as a subject pronoun (as in ‘me and Montaigne is good mates’) is simply incorrect. This is bullshit, technically speaking. There’s no such thing as correct English, or correct any other language. I’ve had run-ins with fellow teachers on this, and it’s very headache-inducing. One argument is ‘How can you call yourself an English teacher if you don’t believe in the rules?’ But the rules of grammar aren’t delivered from on high, by lofty teachers or grammarians. They emerge in a community of like-minded souls who want to communicate effectively. There are some 7000 languages (and falling) in the world, setting aside dialects within particular languages. Less than half of these have a written form that’s utilised regularly by the language-users. So they don’t have grammar books telling them what the rules are. The first English grammar book, which was little more than a pamphlet, was published in 1586, obviously long after the language started on the evolutionary path that it’s still on.

All of this is not to say that language teachers are redundant. Sticking with English, what we teach is standard English, the English that’s found in current grammar books and written in works of fiction and non-fiction currently. It has two slightly divergent forms – British and United Stater English. Now anyone who’s an avid reader of English literature, going back to Shakespeare, Chaucer and so on, and forward to Milton, Austen and Eliot (George or T S), will notice subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the language – in orthography as well as syntax. And with the spoken form we’re less structure-driven, we change our language depending on who we’re talking to, and we accompany our speech with a variety of paralinguistic features. Language is as alive as we are, it grows and changes, and in ye olde days grammar texts and dictionaries had to be renewed regularly to keep up, but now we have the magic of the internet…

But getting back to ‘me and Montaigne’, this is now acceptable in speech, and mostly in writing, because it involves no ambiguity whatsoever, and, more importantly, because it has become common usage. On the contrary, to say ‘me went for a swim’ also involves no ambiguity, but it sounds wrong, for the sole reason that it hasn’t become common usage, though it might, sometime in the future. To argue that ‘me went for a swim’ is simply wrong because me is always an object pronoun is just a statement about current usage. ‘You’ is currently used as both a subject and and object pronoun, why not ‘me’? Of course, saying ‘me and…’ is more plebeian, while saying ‘…. and I’ means you’re more likely to have a six-figure income and live in a gated community (not a gaol), but unfortunately ‘speaking the King’s English’ won’t guarantee you a place at court, so don’t worry about it.

So, getting back to Montaigne and me, I first read a selection of his essays in my early twenties, and he’s been a touchstone for me ever since. I need to thank him for encouraging me to become a writer. His mixture of me me me together with reflections on history, politics, science (insofar as there was much decent science in his time) and human behaviour really struck chords with me. I think he once wrote something like ‘I write not just to explore myself but to create myself’, though I can’t now find the reference – but the epigraph to this essay comes close enough. Anyway, I think he also wrote something like ‘whenever I learn of another’s good or bad behaviour, I think ‘how is it with me?”, and if he didn’t write that, it’s clear from his writings that this ‘egoism’ is a major focus. It’s what inspired me – a positive egoism – and I’ve followed him in trying to create a better self through reading, learning, and writing about it all.

There’s a vas deferens, of course, between me and him. He inherited a castle and a whole lotta land from his dad, who was clearly the dominant parent for him. My dad once bought me a motorbike, and to my shame I never thanked him for it. By that time my parents had separated. My mother was the head of our household, the breadwinner, the disciplinarian and influencer, and sadly for me, very much the enemy. To use the phrase of the day, I came from a broken home. The major result of the various minor traumas I experienced at home and school was an excessive hatred of being told what to do. My mother, sensing that I needed some ‘male discipline’, and with a mortal fear that I might be homosexual, tried to interest me in a manly career in the military, or the police perhaps. I would have preferred a quick, painless death. Sometimes mine, sometimes hers. All the same she was a hard-working, successful woman, who turned her children into feminists without ever saying a word on the subject.

Anyway, I read, and lived in the different countries of the past. And so it continues, though over time I’ve moved from the worlds of Hardy, Austen and Stendhal (fond memories) to the Big Issues of politics, science and How We Are to Live, and I started to write, and to like myself as a writer, while always being a bit ashamed of my hubris.

And I encountered Montaigne. Thoroughly egoistic and yet kind of self-effacing. Que sais-je?, his Socratic motto, sort of summed it up, especially as it was worn as a medallion around his neck (but perhaps this was a conceit of the artist who painted his portrait). It made so much sense to me – I loved it. Now I’m trying to mine his essays for anything faintly bonoboesque, with little success so far. Montaigne, typically for his time, was absorbed in the affairs of men, and in his essay-writing retirement he loved to consult the ancient classics, all written by men. Montaigne did marry and have children, but we know little more than that. His father seems to have been a much more significant influence on him, at least as far as he understood it, than his mother, whom he barely mentions – but then, he seems to have been the subject of his super-rich dad’s humanist experiments. He was literally farmed out as a baby to one of the peasant families his father owned, presumably to experience the sweated labour of the indigent, but it’s doubtful that he learned much since he was back in the castle by age three. Another of his dad’s brilliant ideas was to force the lad to learn Latin by having all his servants and teachers speak to him solely in that language. Then at age six he was shuffled off to a boarding school headed by the leading Latin scholar of the day. He apparently performed well in his studies, perhaps on pain of death, albeit a very humane one. So with his aptitude, and especially his connections, he became a rising star in the legal and administrative world of his day, and was a member of the French king Charles IX’s court before he was thirty. He hob-nobbed with the aristocracy, finessing the then-toxic Catholic-Protestant skirmishes, and earned the respect of Charles’ successor, Henry III, as well as the future Henry IV, France’s greatest monarch.

Now when I look at Montaigne’s life and achievements, I think ‘how has it been with me?’ But seriously, what has always attracted me in Montaigne’s writing and outlook (exemplified also in Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker – I had considered using a variant of Rousseau’s title for these essays, just altering one letter in the word ‘walker’), mutatis mutandis, is its discursiveness, its apparent willingness to follow a thought into all sorts of by-ways, so that you look up from the screen – in my case – and wonder, Jeez, how did I get here?

In any case, Montaigne’s marriage is a bit of a black box, and he has little to say of women in general. The upper aristocracy in those days tended not to marry for love of course, and his relations with his wife appear to have been cordial – if overly diluted cordial. There is at least one extant letter to her (Françoise de la Chassaigne by name, of doubtless unimpeachable pedigree), a short piece enclosing, for her own consolation, Plutarch’s consolatory epistle to his wife upon the death of their young daughter (Françoise ultimately gave birth to six daughters from two marriages, but only one lived to adulthood, and none outlived her). It’s a friendly if rather formal letter, and includes the line ‘Let us live, my wife, you and I, in the old French method’. I believe the French method may refer to cunnilingus, but perhaps not in this instance.

But this merry thought brings me back to bonobos. We’re emerging from millennia of patriarchy, in which men have been instructing their female inferiors how to behave. Plutarch, in the above-mentioned epistle, praises his wife for her womanly restraint in attending to her baby’s funeral – no over-the-top female caterwauling, an obvious sign of vainglorious insincerity etc etc. For some reason it all made me think of those bonobo females biting the penises of uppity males. And of the SCUM manifesto….

Written by stewart henderson

October 13, 2021 at 6:20 pm

a bonobo world? 10 – the clothed ape

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Michel de Montaigne, aka Monty, endlessly honest, curious, humane and inspiring – to whom I dedicate my work, such as it is

I’ve observed that some humans don’t like being reminded that they are apes. They become scornful and dismissive, even while admitting that this might be so. I presume they consider it irrelevant. We’ve fallen far from the monkey puzzle tree after all. 

Of course we’ve built universities and particle accelerators and space stations, and ribbonworks of roads and rails connecting city to blazing city, but on sports fields we inflate ourselves and bump chests and chew cud and suck on straws and huddle together like a few other primates I know. So I often like to undress people, so to speak, in pubs and restaurants and classrooms and city streets, picturing them naked and never-shaven, with wobbly and dangly bits, flabby or skeletal, greying or balding, or pre-pubescently hairless, exposed, vulnerable, yet still humanly savvy. 

Michel de Montaigne wrote an essay, On the custom of wearing clothes, which I was keen to read in my twenties, both as a fanboy of Monty and as someone who’d long wondered about this custom myself. As children we come at some stage to the liberating realisation that we can question everything in the great sanctuary of our heads, where nobody else can trespass. At least, this happened to me. So I enjoyed this question – why do we wear clothes? And of course, I rehearsed the typical adult answer. We wear them for warmth, comfort and protection. But on a warm day, on the front lawn where we always run barefoot anyway? Or indoors, where there were no thistles, three corner jacks or rusty nails? And I knew that these were mostly bogus reasons, that there was a tabu about exposing ourselves – ‘Quick, we’re having visitors, go to your room and make yourself decent’. To be naked, or even half-naked, was indecent. Why? Of course as I grew older I realised it had much, perhaps everything, to do with sex. Sex was naughty, diabolically naughty, I knew that even before I knew what it was. It certainly involved the private parts, for decency was all about hiding those parts. Wearing a swimsuit was fine, at the beach and other appropriate places, and girls could wear bikinis, even though they actually accentuated the parts that we weren’t supposed to think about, but revealing or displaying those parts in public was verboten as verboten could be. 

And so I learned that sex was private, and perhaps rare.

But what if it wasn’t? What if people walked around naked in public, and had sex in public too? Presumably, that would be the end of civilisation. We would become like animals. But then, we are animals.

I really felt that I’d hit upon something profound, if perhaps a bit too obvious to be really profound. Could it be that the whole of civilisation depended on us wearing clothes, or at least covering up our supposedly naughty bits? And yet it was about more than just the naughty bits. Teachers didn’t teach us in their underwear after all. But could it be that adults wore full, formal outfits to teach classes or to work in offices or department stores, to disguise the fact that they were really just hiding their naughty bits? I mean, were those bits really so dangerously naughty? Bonobos seem not to think so.

Montaigne’s clothes essay, though as fascinating as any other of his other essays, is more titillating in its title than its contents (I’m easily titillated), which are mostly about weather conditions, class, and the best kits for warfare. A lot of modern essays on the topic, however, fare no better in addressing the clothing-and-sex issue. Of course it’s true that clothing would’ve been protective against bugs as well as animal bites – attacking and scavenging animals tend to go for the dangly bits – and that over time clothing would have had important decorative purposes, associated with in-group hierarchy as well as raising humans in their own eyes above their ape and animal nature. We’ve been doing this for at least 100,000 years. 

So human clothing has become habitual and near-universal over time. It’s embarrassing to be different, not only in going naked – which is also illegal, and the term indecent exposure is more revealing than anything that’s exposed – but in wearing the wrong outfit. Clothing has become extremely complex in that regard. I’ve lived long enough to observe my slight elders from the early seventies, with fabulous flowing locks and dazzlingly vibrant embroidered shirts, scarves and flares, gradually transforming into besuited computer techies and company directors, with children kitted out in Edwardian beards and long-suits, which somehow lack the sparkle of sexual spontaneity. 

And yet, we did undergo a sexual revolution, allegedly, which coincided with second-wave feminism, if I’m not mistaken. Widely available contraception helped, presumably, to allow women as much or little philandering as males. All-female sex parties have become fashionable, as have orgy-style sex parties with male strippers and female perps, victims and happy-clapping onlookers. But these are very much niche scenes, somewhat ritualised and behind closed doors, nothing like the bonobo world of spontaneous, open, all-community based sexual healing that is but one characteristic of a caring and sharing environment. The closest I’ve seen to this bonobo world is observing young women out on the town in supportive gangs, arms linked, laughing and chatting, rosy and cuddling. Males form their own groups, loving or at least appreciating each other in their own noli me tangere way. Not quite so inspiring. 

The problem of returning to our naked original state is, of course, the problem of returning the omelette back to the state of the uncracked egg. It ain’t gonna happen, and it’s arguable that this is a good thing. But that won’t stop me dreaming about a bonobo world, unclothed or otherwise, and finding and encouraging instances of bonobo behaviour among humans anywhere. And also trying to identify and critique trends that militate (good word) against the bonobo lifestyle, such as extreme libertariansm, macho-thug political leaders, zero-sum nationalism and divisive religious zealotry. Altogether, with of course many notable exceptions, there are encouraging signs. We are family, after all.   

References

https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/210885

https://www.popsugar.com.au/love/What-Like-All-Female-Sex-Party-43589464

http://essays.quotidiana.org/montaigne/custom_of_wearing_clothes/

Written by stewart henderson

November 12, 2020 at 4:51 pm

a change of focus, and Charlie Darwin’s teenage fantasies

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He's just so moi, though I'm more rough than ruff

He’s just so moi, though I’m more rough than ruff

“bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal”

Michel de Montaigne, ‘Myself’

Sitting at my computer with the ABC’s ‘Rage’ on in the background, when on came a video by an artist who’s taken the moniker ‘Montaigne’, and how could I not be attracted? Good luck to her. I first stumbled on the original Montaigne decades ago, and like thousands before and since, I was fairly blown away. He’s been an inspiration and a touchstone ever since, and to think I’m now approaching his age at his death. One thing he wrote has always stayed with me, and I’ll misquote in the Montaignian tradition, being more concerned with the idea than the actual words – something like ‘I write not to learn about myself, but to create myself’. This raises the importance of writing, of written language, to an almost ridiculous degree, and I feel it in myself, as I’ve sacrificed much to my writing, such as it is. Certainly relationships, friendships, career – but I was always bad at those. All I have to show for it is a body of work, much of it lost, certainly before the blogosphere came along, the blogosphere that retains everything, for better or worse.

The New Yorker captures the appeal of Montaigne well. He wasn’t an autobiographical writer, in that he didn’t dwell on the details of his own life, but as a skeptic who trusted little beyond his own thoughts, he provided a fascinating insight into a liberal and wide-ranging thinker of an earlier era, and he liberated the minds of those who came later and were inspired by his example, including moi, some 400 years on. So, I’d like to make my writings a bit more Montaignian in future (I’ve been thinking about it for a while).

I’ve been focussing mainly on science heretofore, but there are hundreds of bloggers better qualified to write about science than me. My excuse, now and in the future, is that I’m keen to educate myself, and science will continue to play a major part, as I’m a thorough-going materialist and endlessly interested in our expanding technological achievements and our increasing knowledge. But I want to be a little more random in my focus, to reflect on implications, trends, and my experience of being in this rapidly changing world. We’ll see how it pans out.

what's in that noddle?

what’s in that noddle?

Reading the celebrated biography of Charles Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, I was intrigued by some remarks in a letter to his cousin and friend, William Darwin Fox, referring to the ‘paradise’ of Fanny and Sarah Owen’s bedrooms. This was 1828, and the 19-year-old Darwin, already an avid and accomplished beetle collector and on his way to becoming a self-made naturalist, was contemplating ‘divinity’ studies at Cambridge, having flunked out of medicine in Edinburgh. Fanny was his girlfriend at the time. These bedrooms were

‘a paradise… about which, like any good Mussulman I am always thinking… (only here) the black-eyed Houris… do not merely exist in Mahomets noddle, but are real substantial flesh and blood.’

It’s not so much the sensual avidity shown by the 19-year-old that intrigues me here, but the religious attitude (and the fascinating reference to Islam). For someone about to embark on a godly career – though with the definite intention of using it to further his passion for naturalism – such a cavalier treatment of religion, albeit the wrong one, as ‘inside the noddle’, is quite revealing. But then Darwin’s immediate family, or the males at least, were all quasi-freethinkers, unlike his Wedgewood cousins. Darwin never took the idea of Holy Orders seriously.

Written by stewart henderson

February 8, 2015 at 10:53 am