• On Idleness

In preparing my study on Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto, I’ve been reading some of the books which he read and for which he expressed admiration.  Lutosławski was well versed in philosophy and one of his favourite authors was Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), whose Essais were on his reading list.  Montaigne has been a new and absorbing adventure for me.  Some of his essays have struck a special chord, partly because I recently chose to follow Montaigne’s path (‘Dernièrement que je me retirai chez moi’) and partly because they resonate down the centuries, not least with regard to Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto.  Here’s a wonderfully expressed account of how the mind, if left untended, can develop a mind of its own.  It’s an excerpt from Book I, no. 8, ‘On Idleness’.

It’s translated by John Florio, whose vivid if sometimes, by today’s standards, impressionistic English-language version appeared in 1603, just eleven years after Montaigne’s death.  More recent translations include those by Charles Cotton (1877), J. M. Cohen (1958) and M. A. Screech (1991).

… Dernièrement que je me retirai chez moi, délibéré autant que je pourrai, ne me mêler d’autre chose, que de passer en repos, et à part, ce peu qui me reste de vie : il me semblait ne pouvoir faire plus grande faveur à mon esprit, que de le laisser en pleine oisiveté, s’entretenir soi-même, et s’arrêter et rasseoir en soi : Ce que j’espérais qu’il peut meshuy faire plus aisément, devenu avec le temps, plus pesant, et plus mûr : Mais je trouve, variam semper dant otia mentem, que au rebours, faisant le cheval échappé, il se donne cent fois plus d’affaire à soi-même, qu’il n’en prenait pour autrui : Et m’enfante tant de chimères et monstres fantasques les uns sur les autres, sans ordre, et sans propos, que pour en contempler à mon aise l’ineptie et l’étrangeté, j’ai commencé de les mettre en rôle : Espérant avec le temps, lui en faire honte à lui-même.

Of Idlenesse

… It is not long since I retired my selfe unto mine owne house, with full purpose, as much as lay in me, not to trouble my selfe with any businesse, but solitarily and quietly to weare out the remainder of my well-nigh-spent life : where me thought I could doe my spirit no greater favour, than to give him the full scope of idlenesse, and entertaine him as he best pleased, and withall, to settle him-selfe as he best liked : which I hoped he might now, being by time become more setled and ripe, accomplish very easily : but I finde, Evermore idlenesse doth wavering minds addresse (Lucan, iv. 704).  That contrariwise playing the skittish and loose-broken jade, he takes a hundred times more cariere and libertie unto himselfe, than hee did for others, and begets in me so many extravagant Chimeræs, and fantasticall monsters, so orderlesse, and without any reason, one hudling upon an other, that at leisure to view the foolishnesse and monstrous strangenesse of them, I have begun to keepe a register of them, hoping, if I live, one day to make him ashamed, and blush at himselfe.


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