Dec 052010

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.

To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.


Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
– Semisonic, “Closing Time”

On this, the last for now of my studies of Montaigne’s motifs, I thought it fitting to discuss his dislike for succinctly wrapping things up. It makes sense, then, that the last of Montaigne’s Essays is also the least singular in topic, and the most far-ranging in scope. And it’s also interesting that the first in order of Montaigne’s Essays, written more than a decade earlier, is titled “We Reach the Same End by Discrepant Means” – even then, when his essays were generally shorter and more singular in topic and theme, he was pushing the singularity of individual experience as the most important facet of truth (a notion much less popular in the late sixteenth century than it is now). This is perhaps one reason he’s now accepted as the fountainhead of the form – he put the “personal” in the personal essay.

That I am ending my Montaigne series on the fourth entry, one short of the promised five, only serves to reinforce this point – one cannot predict where our own experience will take us, or for how long, which Montaigne essentially says in “On Experience,” the final in his Essays:

I, unconcerned and ignorant within this universe, allow myself to be governed by this world’s general law, which I shall know sufficiently when I feel it.    (374)

Personal, learned experience as the only conveyor of truth is an idea Montaigne examines playfully through much of “On Experience”:

Oh what a soft and delightful pillow, and what a sane one on which to rest a well-schooled head, are ignorance and unconcern…Is a man not stupid if he remembers having been so wrong in his judgement yet does not become deeply distrustful of it afterward?…To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing: we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads. (375-376)

With this we come to perhaps an important attribute of the personal essay, and nonfiction in general, which sets it apart from the novel for instance, which serves its reality in a delineated framework, as Nabokov describes in “Good Readers and Good Writers” from his Lectures on Literature:

We should always remember that the work of art [Nabokov is referring to the novel here, specifically Madame Bovary] is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. (1)

This, to me, is one of the great pleasures of the novel – at the end of a great (or even good) novel, one feels a sense of loss at having finished it, at leaving the fictional world it’s created. But unlike the novel as Nabokov describes it here, the essay never ends at its end. There is always another essay to write, as long as there is another human to write about human experience, continuing to assay and refine our collective understanding through the individual thought and expression of that understanding. Closure, then, is not something essayists, and essay readers, try to find in the essay, but rather what they try to escape.

This brings us, again, back to “Of Experience.” In it Montaigne ponders verisimilitude and enstrangement (“Nature does not makes things ‘one’ as much as unlikeness makes them other: Nature has bound herself to make nothing ‘other’ which is not unlike”), gives opinions on law which seem to predict Locke’s, ponders whether truth is watered down in interpretation and fragmentation, of course contemplates himself extensively (herein lies the line, reacting to Aristotle, “I study myself more than any subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.” ), repeats his distrust of medicine he began in earlier essays, and stresses the importance of habit in sleeping, diet, and bowel movements.

I’d like to focus the last of my commentary on the last 20 or so pages of the essay, as Montaigne weaves a few threads together here, providing a thematic crescendo for both the essay and his Essays, without ever acknowledging an end to his work. For 10 pages, he directly alternates a rather lighthearted discussion of food, class and serenity with a frank meditation on his own aging; some highlights:

I have decided never again to run: it is enough for me if I can drag myself along. Nor do I lament the natural decline which has me in its grip – no more do I lament that my lifespan is not as long and massive as an oak’s. (404)

There are men who groan and suffer for want of beef or ham in the midst of partridge! Good for them: that is to be a gourmet among gourmets: it is a weak ill-favored taste which finds insipid those ordinary everyday foods…The essence of that vice consists in failing to enjoy what others do and in taking anxious care over your diet…let boys be fashioned by fortune to the natural laws of the common people; let them become accustomed to frugal and severely simple fare, so that they have to clamber down from austerity rather than scrambling up to it. (405-406)

God shows mercy to those from whom he takes away life a little at a time: that is the sole advantage of growing old; the last death which you die will be all the less total and painful: it will only be killing off half a man, or a quarter…Everywhere death intermingles and merges with our life: our decline anticipates its hour and even forces itself upon our very progress. (407-408)

A man who wants a regimen which serves him must not allow it to go on and on; for we become conditioned to it; our strength is benumbed by it…Thus are men undermined when they allow themselves to become encumbered with restricted diets and to cling to them superstitiously. They need to go farther and farther on, and then farther still. There is no end to it. (410)

Perhaps I should apply Montaigne’s advice to my quoting, though I might like to continue further with the juxtaposition as his two intertwined conversations dovetail into a beautifully rendered exposition on the last few pages of Montaigne’s philosophy of the essay’s, humanity’s, and time itself’s boundless nature:

I who boast that I so sedulously and individually welcome the pleasures of this life find virtually nothing but wind in them when I examine them in detail. But then we too are nothing but wind. And the wind (more wise than we are) delights in its rustling and blowing, and is content with its own role without yearning for qualities which are nothing to do with it such as immovability or density. (413-414)

This meditation gains a great splendour by a comparison of my condition with that of others. And so I pass in review, from hundreds of aspects, those whom fortune or their own mistakes sweep off into tempestuous seas, as well as those, closer to my own case, who accept their good fortune with such languid unconcern. Those folk really do ‘pass’ their time: they pass beyond the present and the things they have in order to put themselves in bondage to hope and to those shadows and vain ghosts which their imagination holds out to them – the more you chase them, the faster and farther they run away…so too your only purpose in chasing after them, your only gain, lies in the chase. (421)

*            *            *

Albert Goldbarth’s “Griffin,” like Montaigne’s “Of Experience,” is more interested in connections than endings. Like Joe Brainard, who was a visual artist first and a writer second, Albert Goldbarth is not known primarily as an essayist but as a poet. I haven’t read any of his poetry, but that presumption surprises me, especially since the Wikipedia on him entry notes his “distinctively ‘talky’ style,” which could also be said about Montaigne. I discovered Goldbarth while reconning’s “hybrid essay” contest last year; I had no idea what a hybrid essay was, and TheDiagram recommended that anyone who, like me, wasn’t familiar with the loose formal requirements of the form read Goldbarth’s “Griffin.” So I did.

The griffin, or gryphon, is a mythical lion/eagle hybrid, and Goldbarth uses it to explore the beginnings and endings of things – relationships, civilizations, boundaries – using the Griffin’s own lack of a clear, defined type or species as the archetype of transcendence – in being two things at once, it is neither and both of them, and something more than either:

And in fact the griffin and all of its kin – all of the hybridizedopposites, from real-life hermaphrodites to the fabled goat-footed people of northern Scythia and the dog-headed tribes of western Libya – hold a psychological value. They lead us through the horrors and astonishments of realizing that all of us lead dichotomized lives, and all of us…are the stuff of amazing weddings, some metaphorical, some literal. (22)

The essay, a meditation on convergence and divergence, floats associatively through time, space, and tone. Starting with “This seems to be the summer of com-, recom-, and uncombining,” Goldbarth introduces the reader to his friends Arthur and Martha, who are recently separated. Arthur has moved out and Goldbarth is taking a walk with Martha, who is telling him about Arthur’s stated need to find himself. Throughout the essay Goldbarth recounts the jolt this separation gives to the stability of his circle of friends – they had, after all, merged Arthur and Martha linguistically, calling them Marthur and Artha. In a moment of especially close self-examination Goldbarth, speaking of his friends, intimates a sense of the role of the nonfiction writer that echoes Montaigne:

Ah, yes. If only friends were characters, whose lives abide by authorly rules of beauty and whose suffering could, at the very least, be explained away in those acceptable terms. But I’m at a loss for advice, now, here, in the park, as the light and the branches deal out the scenery of our friendship. (10)

Goldbarth also explores the erotic poetry of Catullus and Ovid in an attempt to contextualize his friends’ breakup, but also to explore whether it’s ever possible, or advisable, to completely merge oneself with another:

So: what is and what isn’t a proper coupling? We could say that the definition of those two states is what a culture exists for. (5)

Besides the Griffin, Goldbarth explores some more popular myths – Adam and Eve, vampires, werewolves, Springsteen’s New Jersey – in an attempt to justify and/or nullify humanity’s tendency toward wedlock, and its attendant fear of death. This makes me think of Olympia Dukakis’s famous interaction with Danny Aiello in Moonstruck, when she asks him why men chase women – he evades the question by alluding to Adam’s missing rib then finally, when she continues pressing him, he says, “I dunno. Maybe because they fear death?” “That’s it!” she says. “That’s the reason. Thank you – thank you, for answering my question.” Of course, her question was also her answer. I bring this in because Goldbarth spends a substantial portion of the essay exploring our connections with each other as attempts to connect with something greater than ourselves, something that perhaps is as conflicted as we are:

Maybe a people’s God is required to be so whole, and his people so unreservedly pledged to a mimetic wholeness, only because some last remaining intention-node in the back of the brain suspects that in reality the Creator of this universe is conflicted in his own wants and intentions. To suspect such a frightening thing is to need immediately to deny it, with every atom of our zealousness. (37)

I’m listening to Bruce’s song “The River” right now, from the album of the same name – by a strange coincidence, they’re playing it at the coffee house while I’m writing about an essay that devotes multiple pages to Bruce’s Jersey mythology. Like many of the songs on the album, it’s about an unhappy marriage. In the climactic verse leading into the last chorus, the narrator remembers taking his wife to the reservoir in the summer before their discontent:

At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And hold her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?

Perhaps I’ve gone a little off topic. But perhaps not – perhaps, by diverting from the stated topic, I’ve attempted what both Montaigne and Goldbarth do. Allowing free rein to thought is, perhaps, an escape from the beginnings and the ends – a chase after the thoughts that will escape into the ether if they don’t cross the boundary, as Lou Reed once said, of the lifetime between thought and expression.

—John Proctor

See also Part One of the series.

Part Two.

Part Three.

  One Response to “Montaigne’s Motifs, Part 4: We Reach the Same End by Discrepant Means, Looking Also at Albert Goldbarth’s ‘Griffin’ — John Proctor”

  1. John,

    Very nice, and thanks for introducing us to these writers and keeping us up to date on the form. I’ve put their names on a list, and one of these days. . . .

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