Mondays with Montaigne, #2: "Of sadness"

February 09, 2015

Mondays with Montaigne is a (hopefully) weekly feature about the essays of Michel de Montaigne, French humanist and skeptic of the Renaissance and father of the modern essay. Each Monday, I'll mull over a piece from The Complete Works. I might do this in the order the essays appear in; I might not.

I was a bit nervous to read this week's essay, "Of sadness" (or, depending on the translation, "Of sorrow"). I grapple with anxiety on a near-daily basis, though I have become much better at coping with it than I was when it first reared its ugly head during my middle school days. Anxiety and depression tend to go hand-in-hand—not a big surprise. All of this is to say that after my difficult December, I wasn't sure how I would react to a piece all about the blues.

I shouldn't have worried. As with his other essays so far, Montaigne examines sadness through a historical lens, recalling kings who went to war and watched their children die or become captive with stoic faces, only to melt down at the death of a friend or comrade. Extreme grief, Montaigne says, is a "bleak, dumb and deaf stupor that benumbs us when accidents surpassing our endurance overwhelm us" (pg. 7). The pain we feel after great tragedy is too paralyzing to express, and sometimes only a lesser hurt can finally summon tears.

He reflects on the assertion that those who do not struggle to put their feelings into words may not be feeling that deeply. While I don't agree wholeheartedly, it reminded me of an article I read on TED earlier today about how to have meaningful conversations about mental illness. This quotation in particular resonated:
In Solomon’s words: “Wittgenstein said, ‘All I know is what I have words for.’ And I think that if you don’t have the words for it, you can’t explain to somebody else what your need is. To some degree, you can’t even explain to yourself what your need is. And so you can’t get better.”
I can entirely relate to feeling so full of worry, panic or sorrow but not having the words to describe it. As Montaigne puts it, "In truth, the impact of grief, to be extreme, must stun the whole soul and impede its freedom of action..." (pg. 7). I dare not try to speak for all who have experienced depression, but that's a pretty damned good description of it.

As for Montaigne's own experience of sadness?
"I am one of those freest from this passion. I neither like it nor respect it, although everyone has decided to honor it ... They cloth wisdom, virtue, conscience with it: a stupid and monstrous ornament!" (pg. 6)
OK, down with that, but then comes this:
"I am little subject to these violent passions. My susceptibility is naturally tough; and I harden and thicken it every day by force of reason." (pg. 9) 
To me, this reads a bit suspect. I know that Montaigne fell into deep depression after the death of his close friend and colleague, Étienne de la Boétie (side note that I'm sure will come back in future posts: Montaigne's intimacy with Boétie and apparent lack of interest in his marriage and family have led some scholars to believe he was queer), so for him to assert how "free" he is of it feels much like someone trying to put a melancholic past behind him. I suppose, ultimately, I can't blame him for that.

Any thoughts for me today?

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