French Literature Reads

Literary works I’m noting here to read in future from ‘French Literature’ – a very short introduction by John D. Lyons

  1. The Life of Saint Alexis (c. 1050) – married in his adolescence, fled the night of marriage, telling his bride that in life there’s no perfect love. He travelled across seas to reach Syria and lives there anonymously for 17 years in ascetic spirituality. As he becomes honored, fled and returns Rome where lives for another 17 years at the doorstep of his father. He’s recognized only during his death
  2. Montaigne’s The Essays
  3. Rabelais’s Mysterious giants – Gargantua and its prequel – Pantagruel
  4. Moliere’s The Misanthrope
  5. La Fontaine’s Fable
  6. Maria-Madeleine de Lafayette’s La Princess de Cleves
  7. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Discourses on the Origins of Inequality
  8. Voltaire’s Candidae

Michel De Montaigne–Part 2

The Exercises of Venus:

Montaigne prefers ‘wit rather than prudence’ at the dinner table and ‘beauty before goodness’ in bed. He discusses ways to procrastinate ejaculation: is to cast the soul back to other thoughts at this very instant – perhaps to War Horses, or Whether a ruler should go out to parley? It should neither be rushed nor attempted if unprepared.

On turning his attention to sperm and pondering on the extrapolations of the ancients: Is it the forth of the best of our blood, as Pythagoras says, or the marrow from our backbone, as according to Plato it is here that we first begin to ache during sex? Is it part of the substance of the brain since those who are sex-addicted have eyes that are curiously bedimmed? Unlike other forms of interaction, sex is based on ‘mutual exchange and reciprocity’’; it ‘can be paid in the same coin’. By contract he castigates, the hypocrisy and cruelty of what passes for the conventional virtue, his indignation captured in the fervent additions he makes to his text:
Everyone runs from seeing a man born, everyone queues to see him die. To destroy him they search for a spacious field in clear daylight; to create him they creep into a dark and narrow ditch, It is a duty to hide and to blush in making him, but it is glorious and the seed of may virtues in to unmake him.


Of Experience:

Mathematician Descartes expects to find truths that are as ‘clear and distinct’ as geometrical proofs, Montaigne exemplifies the idea of a patient, tentative, cumulative sampling o life:

I’ve a vocabulary all of my own. I ‘pass the time’ when it is bad and inclement; but when it is good, I don not wish it to pass, I re-taste it, I cling to it…..This common phrase of pastime, and passing time, represents the usage of those wise sort of people who do not think they can do better with their lives than to let them run away and escape….

On his own virtue – his hatred of cruelty – is not something that he arrives at by reason, but simply arises in him instinctively:

The good that is in me….is in me by the chance if my birth….Amongst other vices I cruelly hate cruelty both by nature and by judgment, as the most extreme of all vices. But it is to a point of such softness that I cannot see a chicken’s neck twisted without being distressed, and I cannot bear to hear the crying hare between the teeth of my dogs, even though chase is a violent pleasure.

Montaigne relates 2 incidents where his firmness, frankness and innocence rescued him. A neighbor entered his mansion to be let in and asked for time to stay put as an ambush is going outside and also let all his armed guards to be in as in well in a similar guise and after staying for some time left the place without exploiting his advantage of seizing the entire property. In another occasion, he was waylaid by bandits in forest, whereupon he openly confessed what party he belongs to and what road he is gong to take. And it this honesty that precipitates a matching honesty in the assailant. 

The lesson here is ‘Our conduct and our demeanor go before us, and exert a power over others. Moreover in this cynical, skeptical Machiavellian age, where all appearances are to mistrusted, Montaigne attempts to show that in the primal scene of knowledge – a man meeting another man – certain value still inhere: ‘Pure naturalness and truth, in whatever age, still find an opportunity and an opening’. The face may offer a weak security, but it counts for something all the same’. Appearances may sometimes be deceptive, but as Montaigne says elsewhere: ‘there is nothing useless in nature, not even uselessness itself’. His unwillingness to be inhospitable and uncharitable to his assailant compels his assailant to do the same; in Montaigne’s phraseology, it wrestles the treachery from his hands