My father-in-law often speaks to Joan and me, though he has been gone for years. He was an inveterate writer of letters, composer of sermons and maker of notes. Even in the small things he left a record.
We still find his words, written in tiny, careful script on the backs of photographs, taped to the objects he left us and in the boxes of papers that remain. It's as if he's found a way to pop up and say hello now and then. In a dusty album there's a photograph of three little boys and their pet, circa 1911, when he was 9 years old. On the back of the photo, he'd written, in a child's hand, "Theodore, Ridgeway, me and the dog." At the bottom of a shoe box I found a snapshot of him 65 years later, with two little children -- my children. The three of them are staring at an overgrown shrub. On the back of the snapshot he'd written, "Teddy and Susannah and I search for raspberries, 1976."
My children have children of their own now. The years have gone by and I've been wondering how to speak to the little ones when they're grown. My newfound friend, Michel de Montaigne, whom I first encountered in Western Civ when I was 18, has come back to help me.
I had no use for Montaigne in college. His portrait revealed to me a severe-looking French guy in a ruffled collar, bald, with a pencil mustache. I thought his essays, full of Latin quotations and rarely to the point, were as boring and impenetrable as he seemed.
Forty years later, in aching awareness of time passing, I've taken another look at Montaigne's essays. "I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory," he says, in an introductory note to the reader. His sole aim is to reveal himself honestly to his family and friends, "so that when they have lost me (as soon they must), they may recover here some features of my habits and temperament, and by this means keep the knowledge they have had of me more complete and alive." In these few words he's suggested to me what I must do.
I've wondered lately how I could have missed so much about Montaigne in college. Perhaps I had a bad translation. More likely, I was just too young to appreciate him. When you're 18 there are activities more urgent than rumination.
Now I'm more patient, and things seem very different. Of course I couldn't handle Montaigne: I had no time to think. There would be a quiz, and I was trying to absorb every word, every paragraph and every quotation in such a way as to expeditiously complete my assigned reading before the Midway Inn, a few miles down the road, stopped serving beer.
It's not that I couldn't see the forest for the trees in that first reading, though I didn't. It's as if I marched purposefully through the forest, keeping my eyes on the path, and missed not only the forest but also the strange and wonderful creatures I might have seen from the trail if only I'd taken a few moments and looked around.
Montaigne writes about anything he pleases, large or small. He writes Of Smells; Of Prayers; Of The Art of Discussion; Of Cannibals; Of Glory. On and on he goes, to speak of women, thumbs, nakedness, cripples, liars and books. These topics don't seem to have been part of a grand design -- he appears to have just sat down and written about them as he felt the urge. Montaigne considers topics at his own pace; circles around them, pokes at them, goes where his curiosity leads. He speculates.
As I wrote that last paragraph I picked up my copy of the essays, turned to a random page and read this sentence, from his essay, "Of Drunkenness": "The pleasure we want to reckon on for the course of our life should occupy more space in it." In such observations lies much of what I love about Montaigne. Cannibals and drunkenness are simply tools for him, ways to get at the one real topic: Montaigne, the man, and how he should live.
When Montaigne writes he's not telling us what we should think, or what he claims to think. He's thinking. He's allowing us a peek at all the twists and turns of his thought, the quirks, the flaws, the flip-flops. He writes, "I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth, as Demades said, I do not contradict."
We're bombarded, as Montaigne must have been, by the exaggerations and lies of people seeking political favor, financial reward, the admiration of others. As it has ever been, many people are so thoroughly seduced by these treasures that without shame or apology they will say and do anything to attain them. By the time he wrote his essays Montaigne had said goodbye to all that. He craved straight talk, and he found it in candid observations about a host of small things.
Montaigne's essays were a substitute for Etienne de La Boetie, who had died, leaving Montaigne without a confidant. I try to keep that in mind when I read his essays: They're letters to a lost friend. When I read them, I'm the friend. I read them now and then, one per sitting, as if they'd just arrived in the mail, postmarked Chateau Montaigne, Bordeaux, 1580.
If you're very lucky you reach a point in life when you recognize, as Montaigne must have, that spin won't work forever; that no matter what you say and do the truth about you will become apparent to anyone who cares to reflect about you. My friends and family are well aware of my imperfections; they catch me in my exaggerations with ease. There seems no way but Montaigne's -- the way of candor and curiosity -- to be remembered well by the people I care about.
My grandchildren are tiny now, but as I write I can see them as young people, perhaps graduating from college, getting married, raising their own families, reading what I've written and remembering me. Or possibly, as has been my experience with Montaigne, rapport will come slowly. Some cold evening in their middle age, when no letters have come in the mail, perhaps a grandchild or two will sit by the fire and read something I've written.
In this way, the way of words and imagination, we'll cross time and space together.