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the best example of the sane mind and liberal spirit  

2012-07-21 04:21:03|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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The Evening Redness in the West

The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I'd have them all in zoos.—Judge Holden

"the best example of the sane mind and liberal spirit:" guy davenport's montaigne

The Evening Redness in the West - the best example of the sane mind and liberal spirit: guy davenports montaigne - tuotuofly - 墨·色

When, in the good September weather of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne's medicine-and-book-laden coach set out for Rome by way of Austria and Switzerland and all the sights and spas along the road, Shakespeare was a loud sixteen (given to making speeches in a high style, Aubrey records) in the country town of Stratford, and Ben Jonson was a cunning little schoolboy of seven in London, learning Latin and Greek. Michelangelo had died the year Shakespeare was born. The springtime of the Renaissance was over. It was in its high summer, and its energies were moving outward from the Mediterranean. Raleigh and Drake were on the seas, copies of North's Plutarch on their cabin tables. Elizabeth, the Protestant queen of the English, who was the same age as Montaigne, had translated Boethius. A few months before his journey Montaigne had seen the first edition of the Essais through the press in Bordeaux.

With the Essais the Renaissance leaves its long period of fervent rediscovery and invention, and enters the moment when classical attitudes have become an habitual climate for the arts and education. Montaigne's first language was Latin. His mind was speculative in the manner of the Hellenistic age: eclectic in philosophy, skeptical in religion, Stoic in the conduct of life. Montaigne's emulator in the eighteenth century, the Danish humanist Ludvig Holberg, would write, "If a man learns theology before he learns to be a human being, he will never become a human being." In the travel journal we see Montaigne again and again trying to find the man beneath the theology, the human reality beneath the trappings of office and position. He admires the affable humility of an innkeeper who is also a town councilman and who abandons his civic duties to wait at table, while finding a grand duke a snob. In Ferrara he may have seen Tasso insane, and in the next edition of the Essais speculated on how ambition and genius can destroy the mind.

The account of a journey by a wide-awake traveller rarely fails to make good reading. In his ability to convey a sense of place with a few deft details (a topiary garden, an historical site, local anecdotes) Montaigne can be compared to Basho, whose Journey to the Far North is the ideal form of all journeys of passionate pilgrims to shrines and to places which they have already visited in their imagination. Other than the meditations of his contemporaries Pierre de Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay on the ruins of Rome and the remoteness in time of the Golden Age, Montaigne had no Romanticism to color his response to Italy. His eye is practical, curious, ironic.

He is, in a surprisingly modern sense, a tourist, with a tourist's interest in the amenities of the table and the bedroom. He is also, as we are never allowed to forget, a man in pain looking for a cure. His body cannot use certain minerals, such as calcium, which accumulate as pellets in his kidneys and bladder. The pain of a kidney stone is fierce, and in a male can be comparable to a woman's labor. The frequent "colic" in this journal (assuming that to be Montaigne's word for an attack of the stone) is a severe nausea in combination with the feeling that one's back is broken and that one's bowels need to move. Montaigne was fortunate in being able to pass his kidney stones. Another sufferer, Sir Walter Scott, could not, and abided pain of excruciating intensity for as long as two weeks at a time, helplessly screaming and hearing the New Testament read to him. Montaigne's constant scrutiny of his urine in a chamber pot, his colics and dizzy spells, his ability to drink heroic amounts of hot sulfurous water, locate his journal in a time when the body was still part of personality. Later, it would disappear. Dicken’s characters, for instance, have no kidney stones because they have no kidneys. From Smollett to Ulysses, there is not a kidney in English literature.

With the occlusion of the body there is an anaesthesia of sensibilities. Montaigne's curiosity is omnidirectional. An aristocrat with inbred self-assurance, he is unhampered by the timidities that bedevil the modern tourist. With what cool aplomb does Montaigne arrange a beauty contest and a dance for young folk at a spa, inquire vigorously of Protestants their differences sect by sect, kiss the Pope's slipper, master the social ins and outs of the Roman ricorso, and talk with people in every level of society, from children to cardinals.

A lively conversation with a craftsman in Pisa causes an invisible event which we read over in innocence unless alerted to what's happening. When, on Saturday, 8 July 1581, Montaigne in Pisa learned "that all trees bear as many circles and rings as they have lasted years," he is recording that fact for the second time in history. Until recently, we thought it was the first time.

On this particular day he was, like any tourist, shopping for things he would probably have other thoughts about back in Bordeaux. He bought a little cask of tamarisk wood with silver hoops, a walking stick "from India," a small vase, a walnut goblet also "from India." The man who sold him these things made mathematical instruments and fine cabinets. He knew wood. We can imagine the conversation between the craftsman and the polite foreigner with such curiosity about everything. Did the French gentleman know that in a cross section of a tree trunk the number of concentric rings gives the age of the tree?

He did not, but was careful to make note of the fact. And there it is, in the essayist's journal, between a passage about a gift of fish to an acting company in Pisa and a passage about a laxative for his debilitating constipation, seemingly the first notation of a fact we might have supposed that everyone had always known. Historians of science used to assure us that until this nameless woodworker imparted the fact to Montaigne we had no evidence of it.

Ninety-two years afterwards, in one of those collisions that seem to plague scientific discoveries, the secretary of the Royal Society in London received two manuscripts of botanical studies. One was from the Italian anatomist and botanist Marcello Malpighi, the founder of modern physiology. The other was from an Englishman with the wonderful name of Nehemiah Grew. The advantage that these two Renaissance botanists had over the ancients was the microscope, and between them they added as much to information too minute for the eye as their contemporary wielders of the telescope added to information too remote. And in both their manuscripts was the fact that the rings of trees in a cross section of tree trunk tell us the tree's age.

Montaigne's recording of this fact would not be published until 1774, when the manuscript of the journal was found in a chest at the ch?teau. So Malpighi and Grew, neck and neck, beat Montaigne into print. Let's, briefly, follow this one detail of the journal into its reverberations, if only to show how Montaigne's acute and voracious attentiveness can steer us along a current of the times. Malpighi had been a professor at the University of Pisa, where he was a friend of the mathematician Giovanni Borelli. Now earlier in the century Borelli's professorship had been held by one Luca Pacioli (he invented double-entry bookkeeping, if you want something to remember him by), a friend and associate of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo drew the illustrations for Pacioli's geometric study De Divina Proportione. Leonardo's best-known drawing, that of a man with his arms and legs in two positions inside a circle and a square, derives from his work with Pacioli.

When, in 1771, subscribers to the first Encyclopaedia Britannica could read, in the article "Agriculture," that "annual rings, which are distinctly visible in most trees when cut through, serve as natural marks to distinguish their age," they were being given a fact culled from Nehemiah Grew's Anatomy of Plants, one of Johnson's authorities for the Dictionary. Only recently have scholars knuckled down to sorting out everything in Leonardo's extensive notebooks, new volumes of which keep turning up. The Italian scholar Antonio Baldacci noticed that Leonardo recorded, and most probably discovered, some eighty years before Montaigne had his conversation at Pisa with the maker of mathematical instruments, that a tree's age can be told from its annual rings. It would seem, as Pisa keeps bobbing up in the history of this fact, that Pacioli learned it from Leonardo, Borelli from Pacioli. Did Malpighi learn it at Pisa, or discover it on his own? Montaigne's woodworker would have learned it from one Pisan professor or another.

Thus we can trace Leonardo's "obstinate rigor of attention" (the phrase is Paul Valéry's) to one fine detail of nature as it caught the sharp eye of Montaigne. Just as we have to be alerted age after age by our own new concerns to go back to Leonardo to see if he wasn't there first, so must we reread Montaigne, the travel journal along with the inexhaustible Essays, with fresh eyes every generation. Fernand Braudel found a mine of information in the journal for his studies of everyday life in the sixteenth century. The historian of religion, of Renaissance Italy, of medicine, of economics—Montaigne's obstinate rigor of attention serves them all.

The emotional center of gravity of the journal is, I like to think, the day in the Vatican library when Montaigne, having gazed lovingly at a manuscript Vergil and other treasures, falls into a conversation with scholars and gentlemen about Plutarch. It was his opinion that Amyot's recent translation of the Parallel Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans (1559) and of the Moralia (1572) had "taught us all how to write." Plutarch had indeed taught Montaigne how to write. It is a common error to say that Montaigne invented the essay. Plutarch invented the essay, and wrote seventy-eight of them; Montaigne invented its name in French and English.

Renaissance, rebirth. But most of the rebirths were also transformations. Phidias is not reborn in Michelangelo, nor Ovid in Poliziano. For accuracy of regeneration we have to turn to Plutarch and Montaigne. There is an uncanny resemblance between the mayor of Chaeroneia in the first century and the mayor of Bordeaux in the sixteenth. Both retired early from public life after a thorough formal education and a taste of metropolitan business and court intrigue. In his life of Demosthenes, Plutarch notes that Greek opinion held that "the first requisite of a man's happiness is birth in a famous city." Virtue, however, can flourish anywhere, Plutarch says, and as for him, "I live in a small city, and I prefer to dwell there that it may not become smaller still." So the Lives and Moralia were written by a family man in a small town in Boeotia, and the Essays were written on a wine-growing estate outside Bordeaux, both by men of the most honest introspection in the history of letters, both skeptics with Stoic minds and well-tempered good natures. It has been said of Montaigne, and can be said of Plutarch, that in reading him we read ourselves.

We all lead a moral inner life of the spirit, on which religion, philosophy, and tacit opinion have many claims. To reflect on this inner life rationally is a skill no longer taught, though successful introspection, if it can make us at peace with ourselves, is sanity itself. The surest teachers of such reflection, certainly the wittiest and most forgiving, are Plutarch and Montaigne.

Montaigne's stately tomb (with effigy in marble, his Essays on his chest, and with the inscription in Greek, a Latin translation being provided beneath for the illiterate) is in the Municipal Building at the junction of the rue Pasteur and the cours Victor Hugo, in Bordeaux. Montaigne's even temperament and habitual affection for life in all its forms was shaped by the ancient, even prehistoric, spirit of Bordeaux, one of the most cultivated provincial towns of the Roman Empire. In its first distinguished literary figure, Ausonius (fourth century A.D.) we can make out affinities with Montaigne. He was half pagan, less than half Christian. He read everything, quoted everybody, and sported an erudition that clearly had for its message that although he lived at a great remove from Rome, Alexandria, and Athens, nevertheless we Bordelais are right up with everything. We read books. We have a university. We have travelled. We are witty and well-mannered.

Bordeaux is still a gracious, very beautiful provincial city, which has been chosen down through history to be the city to which the government in Paris retires in time of trouble. It therefore considers Paris imprudent and a bit vulgar, looking to London through ancient allegiances as its spiritual capital.

A Roman tombstone in the Museum of Aquitania states the persistent symbol of Bordeaux: a society of people and animals. This steleis a sculpture of a child holding a rooster whose tail a puppy is pulling. An hour's drive brings you to the prehistoric caves in the Val Dordogne with their murals of thousands of animals painted and engraved. A city bus takes you to Montaigne's ch?teau, where he wondered if he played with his cat or his cat with him. Bordeaux is the birthplace of Rosa Bonheur. Did she know that she was continuing the business of the painters of Lascaux? Goya died there, having restated in The Bulls of Bordeaux a subject native to the region for thirty thousand years. Every Bordelais has a dog for a companion. The local strays have evolved a breed over the years, the Bordeaux Dog, an affable boulevardier of considerable charm and friendliness. Every restaurant and café has its cat (even the bar at the Thé?tre, where John Adams saw his first play). It is wonderful that Montaigne lies at the corner of the rue Pasteur (doctor of men and animals) and the cours Victor Hugo, whose favorite dog was named Senate. The nostalgia we feel in reading Montaigne, the sense that he was more comfortable in his world than we can ever be in ours, is in part that he knew without embarrassment the animal body in which the human spirit lives. In Switzerland we watch him listening to the doctrines of Zwingli as if he were a very intelligent horse, his common sense as unassailable by Zwingli as a mountain by a snowflake.

It is his poor animal body whose urine is full of painful sand that he takes from spa to spa on his journey. It is with a tame animal's willingness to play his master's games (sit up, roll over, heel) that he kisses the Pope's foot (thinking God knows what in the inviolable privacy of his mind). He thought for himself, Monsieur Montaigne of Bordeaux. And thought so well, so searchingly, with such wit and intelligence, that he remains for us the best example of the sane mind and liberal spirit.

—from Every Force Evolves A Form: Twenty Essays (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987)

Posted on Mar. 24th, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Link | Leave a comment | Add to Memories | Share

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