It would be many years before I began to understand that all of life is practice: writing, driving, hiking, brushing teeth, packing lunch boxes, making beds, cooking dinner, making love, walking dogs, even sleeping. We are always practicing.
Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy for us to think nothing is going to get any better. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience.
Alex Steffen, The Bright Green City
“Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way,”
Alan Watts (a philosopher) says.
Although the mustachioed Michel has never once invited me to his tower retreat, I am drawn to the way Michel effortlessly slips words of wisdom about impotence in between puns about derrieres.
I sat down with the very deceased author of the essay “That to Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die” and the man who said “upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses”.
M: Please, call me Michel.
M: Please, call me de Montaigne,
A pause, but not necessarily an awkward one.
Y: Thank you for taking these 3 minutes to talk to me. To kick off our interview…
M: Who’s kicking whom?
Y: Forget it. Let’s talk about your style.
M: Ah oui. I desire therein to be viewed as I appear in mine own genuine, simple, and ordinary manner, without study and artifice . . . I seldom wear other than black or white.
Y: I dig it, but I meant your writing style. You are considered the inventor of the essay.
M: History is more my quarry, or poetry, which I love with particular affection… it seems to me that a thought, when compressed into the numbered feet of poetry, springs forth much more violently and strikes me a much stiffer jolt. But, to follow the road you’re trying to lead me down, I write so that I do not speak the minds of others except to speak my own mind better.
Y: You have said before that one should look to oneself for answers just as much – if not more – than one looks to “experts”.
M: If we allow existing thinkers to define the boundaries of our curiosity, we will needlessly hold back the development of our minds. We are richer than we think, each one of us.
Y: So through thinking we are richer than we think? Thus the truth lies close to us, not far from us?
M: Oui. Do you ever have the suspicion that our tutors never stop bawling into our ears, as though they were pouring water into a funnel; and our task is only to repeat what has been told us?
Y: Only to repeat what has been told us. That’s very wise.
M: If man were wise, he would gauge the true worth of anything by its usefulness and appropriateness to his life. The wisest man that ever was, when asked what he knew, replied that the one thing he did know was that he knew nothing.
Y: Isn’t there the promise of some deep well of inner tranquility that comes with knowing a lot about a lot?
M: Put a philosopher into a cage of small thin set bars of iron, hang him on the top of the high tower of Notre Dame at Paris. He will see, by manifest reason, that he cannot possibly fall. And yet he will find (unless he has been trained as a plumber) that the sight of the excessive height will frighten and astound him…
Y: If not wisdom, what should we value?
M: Friendship. In the friendship which I am talking about, souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found.
Y: On a slightly different tangent, what is your perfect date?
M: It may be when I wrote Essays on the first day of March, fifteen hundred and eighty.
Y: Oh Michel, I meant a romantic date.
M: Every strange woman appears charming. The pleasure I give tickles my imagination more sweetly than that which I feel. But as for marriage, being continually together is not so pleasing as to part for a time and meet again.
Women, all alone, produce mere shapeless masses and lumps of flesh, but that to create a good and natural offspring they must be made fertile with a different kind of seed; so it is with minds.
Y: Ok…Michel, yes, let’s return to the mind. Actually, we’re running out of time so if you could just sum up…
M: Where are we running to? What are we running from?
Y: We’re running from fear?
M: The thing I fear most is fear.
Y: I fear it’ll take too long for us to go into that, Michel. I’m afraid we have only 30 seconds to finish up this conversation.
M: More than enough time! 30 seconds! Why, a man must design nothing that will require so much time to the finishing, or, at least, with no such passionate desire to see it brought to perfection. We are born to action:
I would always have a man to be doing, and, as much as in him lies, to extend and spin out the offices of life; and then let death take me planting my cabbages, indifferent to him, and still less of my gardens not being finished.
Full name: Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust
Nickname: my dear Marcel Proust
Life Dates: 1871 to 1922
Claim to fame: Widely acclaimed French novelist. His first novel was “In Search of Lost Time”.
I’ll let Marcel speak for himself as “one must never miss an opportunity of quoting things by others which are always more interesting than those one thinks up oneself.”
Yes, that quote comes from Marcel and I’m happy to finally have a place to use it.
Let’s talk about Marcel Proust behind his back!
Marcel Proust was a “poseur”
“At the end of 1921, his work now widely acclaimed, Proust received a letter from an American, who described herself as twenty-seven, resident in Rome and extremely beautiful. She also explained that for the previous three years she had done nothing with her time other than read Proust’s book. However, there was a problem: ‘I don’t understand a thing, but absolutely nothing. Dear Marcel Proust, stop being a poseur and come down to earth. Just tell me in two lines what you really wanted to say’.”
Marcel Proust was a mama’s boy
“Mme Proust loved her son with an intensity that would have put an ardent lover to shame, an affection that created or at the very least dramatically aggravated, her eldest son’s disposition toward helplessness.”
The feeling was mutual. “In answer to a questionnaire asking Proust for Your notion of unhappiness, he replied, “To be separated from Maman.”
Marcel Proust was possibly a hypochondriac
And was called “a man born without a skin” by the French writer Léon Daudet, which was a rather unkind thing to say.
What did Proust have to say about this? He thought that suffering had the potential to be productive.
“Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strength of the mind,” and that “infirmity alone makes us take notice and learn, and enables us to analyse processes which we would otherwise know nothing about.”
A quick list of some of Proust’s physical afflictions:
- unable to eat more than a single heavy meal a day, which had to be served no less than eight hours before bedtime,
- constant constipation,
- very sensitive skin (used up to twenty towels for one bath),
- fear of mice,
- altitude sickness,
- noise sensitivity,
- bad eyesight,
- elbow ache,
- and last but not least, complained of an occasional inability to swallow.
Proust’s view about acquiring wisdom was that it (1) came with great pain via life (he thought this was the superior path) or came (2) without pain via a teacher or via the glory that is online education when there is a good WiFi connection.
Marcel Proust was on everyone's guest list
As a friend Marcel Proust was devoted to nurturing his friendships. He was entertaining at dinners (maybe he was glad he was finally eating?) and invited to many parties. However, he was not so popular romantically and notes the “succession of crushes on young men who didn’t call back.” Same, Marcel. Same.
In his writer friend Georgis de Lauris’ French words, Marcel was “the best of listeners” and “passionately interested in his friends. Never have I seen less egoism, or egotism…”
And from Marcel (this is a different one) Plantevignes, “one can never say it enough: Proust’s conversation was dazzling, bewitching.”
Proust valued his friends and above all was curious about their inner lives. “When we discover the true lives of other people, the real world beneath the world of appearance, we get as many surprises as on visiting a house of plain exterior which inside is full of hidden treasures, torture-chambers or skeletons”.
Though Marcel Proust was exquisitely, even painfully, detailed about his friends’ shortcomings he nonetheless had reasonable standards for his friendships. “I do my intellectual work within myself, and once with other people, it’s more or less irrelevant to me that they’re intelligent, as long as they are kind, sincere, etc.”
Marcel Proust doesn't skip a beat, instead it goes on...and on...
Seriously… a chapter in Marcel’s book could have ten pages (too much, say some) of exhaustive observations and long explanations. That being said, I like how thorough he is about reading the newspaper:
“Thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last twenty-four hours, the battles which cost the lives of fifty thousand men, the murders, the strikes, the bankruptcies, the fires, the poisonings, the suicides, the divorces, the cruel emotions of statesmen and actors, are transformed for us, who don’t even care, into a morning treat, blending in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommend ingestion of a few sips of cafe au lait.”
Why so long-winded even with caffeine in hand, dear Marcel? Well, the man thought it was important to pay as much attention as needed to the things that mattered. In this case, the daily news is what truly matters. You see, he thought that “the more an account is compressed, the more it seems that it deserves no more space than it has been allocated.” And with that said, you and I will move on to the things that matter.
Marcel Proust is Instagrammable
“You have a lovely soul, of a rare quality, an artist’s nature, don’t ever let it go without what it needs.” What a sweet-talker.
Pair that caption with a photo of a painting by Jean-Baptiste Chardin. As you gaze at the words and the still life painting think about how “when you walk around a kitchen, you will say to yourself, this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin.” You’re becoming just like Marcel now.
Courting Marcel Proust (surely by now you're on a first name basis)
Before your first date with Marcel, you should complete his questionnaire: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proust_Questionnaire and above all, you should refrain from using any cliches. He loathed them like white on rice.
As a thoughtful gift you can hand Marcel a book, which he considers “is the product of another self to the one we display in our habits, in society, in our vices.” If you’re meeting at his home in Paris make sure to ignore the mess, don’t dare open the blinds, don’t consider cracking open a window.
Equally important, don’t tell Marcel of your new year’s resolution to make reading daily a habit. He just might scoff and tell you that “to make [reading] into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.”
To win him back you could impress him by bringing up John Ruskin, “the English art critic renowned for his writings on Venice, Turner, the Italian Renaissance, Gothic Architecture and Alpine landscapes,” you quote to Marcel.
After he smiles widely pour both of you a hot cup of cafe au lait. Marcel Proust is yours until a cold kills him.
Sources: Botton, Alain De. How Proust Can Change Your Life. Picador, 1997.
Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1. Penguin Classics. 2004.