Montaigne’s Experience of Mortality

A Man of The Mind

Today I fear that I will bore most readers, but such endeavor is my privilege, earned through labor of an old man’s need for solitude and introspection. And, of course, your privilege is to read ahead or not, for I am not so fearful as to edit my intentions to suit yours; nor am I meaning to show you disrespect by way of my selfish pursuit. More simply put, today I do not want to write a modern novel.
This past weekend, exhausted by my own depressed mood, I took once again to reading the more uplifting words of Michel de Montaigne. I first read Montaigne when I was a student studying the French language at the tender age of fifteen. I managed then to acquire a limited ability to speak a certain French dialect, more to acquire a thirst for languages in general, and most of all to acquire a lifelong love of examining my own mind.
If you will and if you are able, then imagine a man named Michel who exits the womb in the early sixteenth-century year of 1533. He is born to wealth, although this wealth cannot afford him a toilet or any form of what we today name indoor plumbing. His father, proprietor of the family Chateau de Montaigne, near Bordeaux, sends his son Michel to live — until that son is six years of age — with a family of peasants in order that the boy might learn the nature of life outside the ivy-covered walls.
Michel’s first language is Latin (this, another system of communication that I once knew well), his second is Greek, and his eventual tongue is French.
Michel is an intelligent boy, but not a person prone to brag of knowledge that is in fact beyond his grasp.
For sake of brevity herein, as well as for sake of the inpatient state of a twenty-first-century western mind, move ahead with Michel some twenty-five years hence, and find a man of thirty-one. By this time Michel has become a lawyer and a “romantic friend” (please don’t misconstrue the term to express what it might mean today) of the humanist writer Etienne de la Boetie.
Michel sits beside the deathbed of Boetie and listens to his friend reminisce, remind and make his final wishes known. Boetie, at turns, calls to his side his wife, his niece, his daughter, his uncle and several friends. At the moment most immediate to his departure, it is Michel whom Etienne requests to remain.
Montaigne’s account of this event is not one included in his book of essays. On the contrary, I read this tale as being as close to that of our current sense of “story” as Michel de Montaigne ever penned.
Much of the chronicle, then, includes Etienne’s thoughts regarding his own life and his impending demise. I’ll not repeat the fable word-for-word, nor even thought-by-thought, because you can read the yarn yourself should you feel curious by my mention of the same. But just now rather to comment on what struck me in a profound manner yesterday as I read.
Boetie says to Montaigne, “Brother, friend, there are many acts in my life, I think, which have caused me as much difficulty as this one is likely to do, and after all, I have been long prepared for it, and have my lesson by heart. Have I not lived long enough? By the grace of God, my days so far have known nothing but health and happiness; but in the ordinary course of our unstable human affairs, this could not have lasted much longer; it would have become time for me to enter upon graver avocations, and I should thus have involved myself in numberless vexations, and among them the troubles of old age, from which I shall now be exempt.”
Long enough, of course, in parlance common to the sixteenth century. For Etienne de la Boetie died of dysentery and its complications, just short of his thirty-third year.
If you’ve read this far into my minor reflection, then you might wonder why these recorded comments of a sixteenth-century writer, and the thoughts of his heartfelt friend, fascinate me here and now. I have lately felt imposed upon to consider my own mortality, and to guess about what one man’s life can be worth after he becomes a part of mad oblivion.
One dear friend of mine seems to maintain a positive view of his future as he grows old; he speaks of writing a book in which he apparently believes a reader will discover interest. Another friend, seventy-five years old and precious inside my heart, just this morning, before the sun had seemed to rise, rode as a passenger in my dark-blue pickup truck as I steered him toward a hospital where he this moment undergoes a surgeon’s knife. A smile remained upon my companion’s face for the entirety of our journey.
And I? Meanwhile, I complain of worthlessness.

No author as fine as Michel de Montaigne will ever write about me. No book’s cover will ever display my name. No great romance to match my youthful dreams will ever entertain my soul.

Yet, Montaigne teaches me, each time I read his words, that peasants and La Noblesse alike need not fear death at the expense of what remains of life.
Now if only I could stop talking to myself about myself.
In any event, I’d look silly in Montaigne’s clothes.

Time to leave a bed not quite ready for my final journey.

Time to trim the ivy from the walls with which I surround myself.
Time to feel grateful for what talent I own, as small a space as that talent occupies.
Time to appreciate my friends, to cherish those who led me to reach such obvious conclusions.

Go Ahead, Invade My Body

I just a few minutes ago finished re-reading Jack Finney’s classic tale, Invasion of The Body Snatchers. In book form, this story was first published in 1955. I enjoyed the year 1955, except for the hysterical parts which, of course, I failed to enjoy.

During that year, my dad worked for the railroad, the Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line. I loved my dad, and so I grew to love the railroad. I am to this day what you might call a railroad buff. I collect N Scale model trains decorated to imitate those of the PRSL. This hobby is not one that many people who know me, I suspect, would associate with the bookish, verbose and sometimes haughty person who is Anthony V. Toscano; but the hobby is indeed part of who I’ve become in old age.

I didn’t begin this article, however, with the intention of talking about model trains and assumed images, but so it goes, and let it go where it may.

Back to the black-and-white year of 1955. I was a child then, and my mother wore polka-dot house dresses and aprons when she cooked. I liked the polka dots and the aprons, but I did not like my mother. Nonetheless, that summer I recall that my dad worked as a switch-man, which meant that for most of the day — as he waited for locomotive whistles to signal trains’ arrivals, he raked gravel off the metal rails, pulled weeds along the route, and sat inside a small wooden shack, there ready to yank a metal arm in order to see the next train along its proper track. Then after the train passed, he’d yank the arm back again and watch the tracks pull themselves into a different direction.

My mother oftentimes would prepare his summer lunch. She and I together would walk the mile or so, meal packed tight and covered with fresh-washed towels, to meet my dad inside his assigned hut. Always on our arrival Dad smiled wide, the false teeth he’d earned by way of the Veterans’ hospital after World War II, glimmering wet with heated sunlight, the few metal hinges that held those ersatz teeth in place against his real ones glinting with the same light that reflected itself off his over-thick eyeglasses. A lot of love inside those pale-blue Sicilian eyes.

And what has any of this to do with Jack Finney’s book, other than the year that all these details hold in common?

Newness, romance, hope and ambition. Hard work and a boy’s poetic vision of polka dots, that’s what.

I enjoyed reading Finney’s book more than I felt entertained by the Hollywood version of the same title, although the movie was mostly loyal to the book’s details (that type of close similarity between the two a rarity in today’s world of tired computer animation). But then I’m an avid reader, as so many writers are apt to be — I actually held the pages of this book close to my face and breathed in deep, this a lust-filled sin I so often committed when I was a kid — and smelled the aroma of my past, back in the day when I first read of The Hardy Boys’ adventures, of Heidi and her grandpop living somewhere in the Alps, of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and such and so on. And who dares blame me for such an innocent sense of the erotic?

The DVD version of The Invasion of The Body Snatchers includes the de rigeur interview, this particular discussion with the star of our show Kevin McCarthy, thirty years after the movie’s initial release, appearing grey and dignified and comfortably paunchy.

Kevin speaks of Finney’s story as if it were about the vacuity of certain lives, empty, devoid of hopeful expression for a future time. And I agree. The pod replacement creatures who so resemble the once nerve-wracked and ruddy-faced citizens of Mill Valley, although they understand that life is short, fail to suffer the results of any emotion.

“I don’t want to live without love,” whimpers an apparently doomed Becky Driscoll, and Dr. Miles Bennell, who in the book has sexual intercourse — oh dear, in 1955? — with sweet Becky, nods in agreement.

Yet I, at my age, and living inside my current set of circumstances, can understand the other side of the same pod from Outer Space, if you will. What if Mother’s polka-dot dresses elicited no emotional reaction from my little boy’s soul? And what if the aroma of creosote along the railroad tracks — tar and kerosene, after all is said and done — gave me no pause today, no reason to collect my model trains? Might today I suffer nothing of regret or sadness as I face my own mortality, and that of my dying brother? Might I even better yet — free from the fear of failed ambition — write a novel and see it sitting on a bookstore shelf before I die?

Sometimes I wonder.