• On Experience

I’m back reading Montaigne (earlier posts: On Idleness and On Three Interactions), partly because he challenges me to think, partly because he was one of Lutosławski’s favourite authors.  I’ve just started reading ‘On Experience’, which fittingly was his last essai (Book III/13).  This morning, I was brought up sharp by these two neighbouring though characteristically tangential passages early in the essay:

Les hommes méconnaissent la maladie naturelle de leur esprit.  Il ne fait que fureter et quêter.  Et va sans cesse, tournoyant, bâtissant, et s’empêtrant en sa besogne : comme nos vers de soie : et s’y étouffe : Mus in pice.  Il pense remarquer de loin, je ne sais quelle apparence de clarté et vérité imaginaire : mais pendant qu’il court, tant de difficultés lui traversent la voie, d’empêchements et de nouvelles quêtes, qu’elles l’égarent e l’enivrent.

Men mistake the natural ailment of their mind.  All it does is ferret and quest.  It ceaselessly keeps whirling, constructing, and entangling itself in its task – like our silkworms – and there it suffocates itself: Mus in pice (‘A mouse in pitch’ [Erasmus, Adages, II/iii/68]).  It thinks it notices some sort of clarity and imaginary truth from afar. But while it runs on, so many difficulties cross its path, so many impediments and new quests, that they lead it astray and intoxicate it.

…..

Ce n’est rien que faiblesse particulière qui nous fait contenter de ce que d’autres, ou que nous-mêmes avons trouvé en cette chasse de connaissance.  Un plus habile ne s’en contentera pas.  Il y a toujours place pour un suivant.  Oui et pour nous-mêmes, et route par ailleurs.  Il n’y a point de fin en nos inquisitions : Notre fin est en l’autre monde.  C’est signe de racourciment d’esprit quand il se contente : ou de lasseté.  Nul esprit généreux ne s’arrête en soi.  Il prétend toujours et va outre ses forces.  Il a des élans au-delà de ses effects.  S’il ne s’avance et ne presse et ne s’accule et ne se choque, il n’est vif qu’a demi.  Ses poursuites sont sans terme, et sans forme : Son aliment, c’est admiration, chasse, ambiguïté …

It is nothing but personal weakness that makes us content with what others or we ourselves have found in this hunt for knowledge.  An abler man will not be content with this.  There is always room for someone to follow on. Yes, even from us, and by another route.  There is no endpoint to our inquiries: our end is in the next world.  It is a sign of incapacity or exhaustion when the mind is content.  No generous spirit comes to a standstill within itself.  It always asserts and goes beyond its own strengths.  It leaps further than its capabilities.  If it does not advance, does not press on, does not stand and fight, it is only half alive.  Its pursuits are boundless, and formless.  Its sustenance is wonder, the chase, ambiguity …

I admire Montaigne’s ability to give free reign to his thoughts, even though he recognises the pitfalls of this approach. Without an enquiring mind we are nothing.  It’s the ‘journey’, to use that clichéd word of our own times, which is more important than a hard-and-fast conclusion.  I’m sure that Lutosławski understood such ideas.  In important ways he brought them to bear on his creative processes and in the early sections of many of his finished compositions.

• On Three Interactions

Tout lieu retiré requiert un promenoir.  Mes pensées dorment si je les assis.

Having spent three glorious days out walking with family, it’s time to get back to my books.  But, as Montaigne discoursed, there’s no point in sitting immured with books if you don’t give yourself and your reflections some exercise (perhaps an argument for the iPad over the desktop …).  The books will still be there when you get back.  So today it’ll be a good few hours of study and writing, interlaced with a bit of (Voltaire’s) tending to the garden, while the rain stays off.

The following excerpts come from the final third of Montaigne’s essay (Book III, no. 3) ‘De Trois Commerces’, which I have translated as ‘On Three Interactions’.  The title is a little unclear in English, so other translations include ‘Of Three Commerces or Societies’ (Florio, 1603), ‘On Three Kinds of Relationships’ (Cohen, 1958) and ‘On Three Kinds of Social Intercourse’ (Screech, 1991).

Ces deux commerces sont fortuits, et dépendants d’autrui : L’un est ennuyeux par sa rareté, L’autre se flétrit avec l’âge : Ainsi ils n’eussent pas assez pourvu au besoin de ma vie.  Celui des livres, qui est la troisième, est bien plus sûr et plus à nous.  Il cède aux premiers les autres avantages, Mais il a pour sa part la constance et facilité de son service : Cettui-ci côtoie tout mon cours, et m’assiste partout.  Il me console en la vieillesse et en la solitude.  Il me décharge du poids d’une oisiveté ennuyeuse : Et me défait à toute heure, des compagnies, qui me fâchent.  Il émousse les pointures de la douleur, si elle n’est du tout extrême et maîtresse : Pour me distraire d’une imagination importune, il n’est que de recourir des livres, Ils me détournent facilement à eux, et me dérobent : Et si ne se mutinent point, pour voir que je ne les recherche, qu’au défaut de ces autres commodités, plus réelles, vives et naturelles.  Ils me reçoivent toujours de même visage.

These two interactions [(male) friendship and with beautiful and honourable women] are fortuitous and depend on others.  One is tiresome for its rarity, the other withers with age, so they have not adequately provided for the wants of my life.  [The interaction with] books, which is the third, is more certain and more our own.  It cedes other advantages to the first two, but for its part it has constancy and an easiness in its service: this [interaction] has been at my side all along my way and assists me everywhere.  It consoles me in old age and solitude.  It unburdens me of the weight of tiresome idleness: it releases me at any time from offensive company.  It takes the edge off the pangs of grief if it is not too extreme or masterful.  To distract me from an unwelcome thought, I only have to resort to books.  They easily divert me towards them and rescue me.  And yet they do not mutiny when they see that I reach for them only in the absence of other comforts that are more real, alive and natural.  They welcome me always with the same face.

…..

… Chez moi, je me détourne un peu plus souvent à ma librairie, … Elle est au troisième étage d’une tour.  … Tout lieu retiré requiert un promenoir.  Mes pensées dorment si je les assis.  Mon esprit ne va si les jambes ne l’agitent.  … La figure en est ronde et n’a de plat que ce qu’il faut à ma table et à mon siège, et vient m’offrant en se courbant, d’une vue, tous mes livres, rangés à cinq degrés tout à l’environ.  Elle a trois vues de riche et libre prospect, et seize pas de vide en diamètre.

… At home, I repair a little more often to my library, … It is on the third floor of a tower.  … Every place of retreat requires somewhere to walk.  My thoughts sleep if I sit them down.  My mind does not work if my legs don’t jog it.  … The shape [of the library] is round and has no straight wall except what is necessary for my table and my chair, and in curving round it offers me, in one glance, all my books, arranged on five shelves all about me.  It has three handsome and open views and is sixteen clear paces in diameter.

…..

… Les livres ont beaucoup de qualités agréables, à ceux qui les savent choisir.  Mais aucun bien sans peine : C’est un plaisir qui n’est pas net et pur, non plus que les autres.  Il a ses incommodités, et bien pesantes : L’âme s’y exerce, Mais le corps, duquel je n’ai plus oublié le soin, demeure cependant sans action, s’atterre et s’attriste.  Je ne sache excès plus dommageable pour moi, ni plus à éviter, en cette déclinaison d’âge.

… Books have many agreeable qualities, for those who know how to choose them.  But there is no gain without pain: [reading] is a pleasure which is not clean and pure, no more than any other.  It has its inconveniences, and heavy ones too: the soul is exercised, but the body, of which I have not forgotten to take care, meanwhile remains inactive, becomes stupefied and sad.  I know no excess that is more harmful to myself or more to be avoided in these declining years.

• 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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