All this happened in the span of thirty minutes:
...I packed up my 3-year-old niece and 3-month-old nephew into my mother’s car and drove them the fifteen minutes to their house, after a day of babysitting them;
...while I’m standing in my sister’s foyer (with my brother-in-law), my father calls to say they’d just gotten the news that my godfather, a dear friend of my mother’s from college (married to her college roommate), died this morning from a heart attack at the age of 63;
...on the drive back to my parents’, two cop cars and an ambulance taking care of a bad accident on 42nd St. in Robbinsdale.
The grief is intense right now, but that’s not why I feel the need to write right now. It’s because today has been full of those little moments, my nephew’s volcanic puking and my niece’s cheeky adorability, my dad trying to get Henry to sleep, my mother painting with Cora, the brightness of the flowers I brought to my sister’s work to cheer her on her first day of work back from maternity leave, my parents’ dipsy goldendoodle playing ball by herself outside and refusing to come in. The reason I need to put this all to paper (cyberspace?) right now is because I’ve just finished Sarah Bakewell's National Book Critic Circle Award winning book, How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, and as I close the back cover, I’m responding to this truly excellent biography of Montaigne as a human being as well as an essayist myself.
I foresee that I’m going to be recommending this book to everyone I see, both writers and non-writers. Bakewell’s book is gorgeously multi-layered: to learn about the writing means learning about the man and learning about the writing and why his Essais were so brilliant and revolutionary (in terms of writing, not necessarily their ideas, though there is argument for that) is that their purpose spans time and place: I find echoes of current political attitudes towards civil rights in the rights taken away during Montaigne’s time; Bakewell also mentions Tiananmen Square in the context of Montaigne’s philosophies. Bakewell’s weaving of biography and criticism and such here is exactly what Montaigne’s essays are supposed to do—and they exist both in and out of space and time. Especially in light of those three moments of this evening—the children, my godfather’s death, and the car accident—the question of How to Live? is particularly poignant. And Montaigne’s approach fills in some of the gaps that need to be filled, not just in my life, but others’ too.
But because I am a writer, an essayist, I keep coming back to the writing aspect of things, Bakewell’s discussion of Montaigne and his writing: “The idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity—has not existed forever. It had to be invented. […] Unlike most memoirists of his day, he did not write to record his own great deeds and achievements. Nor did he lay down a straight eyewitness account of historical events, although he could have done…” Montaigne, Bakewell argues, "was the first writer to create literature that deliberately worked in this way, and to do it using the plentiful material of his own life rather than either pure philosophy or pure invention." I’m in the midst of writing a critical article on two Irish essayists (the essay is very, very rare in Irish literature) and it’s been very interesting to recognize aspects of Robinson and Arthur’s philosophies of writing craft in Bakewell’s observations of the 16th century Montaigne: the belief in the local, the ordinary, the purpose in getting to the minutiae so as to show the universal in a specific place, the specific in the universal experience.
That’s why my niece and nephew matter, that’s why Bruce matters, it’s why the people still dazed from their car accident matter. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know any of them—if I write my joy in my family right, if I write my grief right, if I write the fear of uncertainty right, you’ll recognize your universal in my specific. And if I write an essay that tries to work through my godfather’s sudden death, the grief that my godmother must be feeling, the grief that my mother must be feeling, I will naturally return to the everyday memory-making that is forming my (and my parents’) relationship with Cora and Henry, how it’s the everyday memories of Bruce that will linger longest, how the car accident and Bruce’s heart attack are reminders not just of how quickly life can turn—but why it’s not the dramatic moments that are important. We won’t talk about Death when we gather to remember Bruce—we’ll talk about his life, the quirks that made him absolutely unique. And if I wrote that essay, if I wrote it right, you could substitute any name you wanted for the people I’ve mentioned, and the ideas should still work.
This is why essays matter. This is why essays are essential. Joan Didion wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live—but we write essays in order to live, as well.
The whole point of Bakewell’s book—and of Montaigne himself and his writings—is to learn to pay attention. No other writing form does this in quite the way the essay does. The uncertainty that the essay relies on—Montaigne’s classic “though I don’t know”—is amplified by the Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptic philosophies that prized different perspectives as a way to understand the interactions of self and world. What made Montaigne great—and his Essais what they are—is his absolute commitment to refusing to commit to a side. His are not arguments—they are explorations. The multiplicity of perspectives he considers is absolutely unique at this point and this is what allows his work to find that specific in the universal and the universal in the specific. (Even though it could get him in trouble.) To find the value in the ordinary, rather than in the dramatic and impressive, is a good lesson for all of us. She writes of Montaigne using Plutarch’s (fictional) techniques of “stuffing in fistfuls of imagination, conversations, people, animals, and objects of all kinds, rather than by coldly arranging abstractions and arguments.”
But I keep returning to Montaigne’s belief in the power of the ordinary, the power of considering all possible perspectives. These are the things that are important to me right now, the making of memories with Cora, so that some of her earliest memories of me are things like cooking and baking, even to painting our toenails (like we did a couple of days ago). Cora was quite upset that I’d taken our matching polish off my fingernails, so it might have to go back on when she gets up. But this is my life, nothing new under the sun, but it still feels special and wonderful. Why that is is the beginning of an essay.
Joe Bonomo, in a recent post to the Brevityblog, observes, “Essayists like to quote this line of Vivian Gornick’s, and for good reason: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.” Those quoting her often overlook Gornick’s next sentence: “For that, the imagination is required.” This isn’t the imagination that we associate with a fiction writer conjuring up invented experience; this is the imagination required to see actual experiences as threads in a larger fabric, experience that until it is shaped in language and reflection remains private, the equivalent of the scrapbook or Instagram photo that means so much to me, yet so little to you.”
When Bakewell writes, “Montaigne reminded his contemporaries of the old Stoic lesson: to avoid feeling swamped by a difficult situation, try imagining your world from different angles or at different scales of significance.” Bonomo, likewise, has a similar perspective: " It’s the charge of the autobiographical essayist to turn himself slightly, to alter his gaze so that it faces a direction other than inward, to merge with language and another’s self to produce something fresh, startling, and vividly human." But what the essayist attempts is different, because what we do is not invented. It may be a play of the imagination, but the purpose is different. It is a matter of paying attention, at a different angle than what fiction writers or poets do. All genres are necessary.
I take a break from this to try to convince my parents’ dog, an adolescent, overly-exuberant doodle, to come in and stop barking at people walking by—she won’t—and I spend a good twenty minutes failing to catch her. (She’ll listen to my parents, but they’re not here.) I come in—without her—and my irritation is poisonous. Maybe it’s better that I don’t catch her while I’m in this mood.
Then, Bakewell in one of her delightful Montaignian moments, reminds me, “We understand nothing of a dog’s experience: of ‘the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts.’ They understand nothing of ours, when for example they watch us stare interminably at the pages of a book. Yet both states of consciousness share a certain quality: the ‘zest’ or ‘tingle’ which comes when one is completely absorbed in what one is doing. This tingle should enable us to recognize each other’s similarity even when the objects of our interest our different. Recognition, in turn, should lead to kindness. Forgetting this similarity is the worst political error, as well as the worst personal and moral one.”
The same is true of joy as it is of grief. All that binds the two are the ordinary moments of life, both absolutely universal and absolutely unique. And in the waning light of this day, as I sit at my parents' dining room table as rain moves in, a male cardinal on the fence, fire-bright.