The Man in the Mirror

michel-de-montaigne1It is said that every person who reads Montaigne looks into a mirror and sees himself.  “Every man has within him the entire human condition,” he said.  One 16th century admirer said that anyone reading Montaigne’s Essays might feel as if he himself had written it.  Over two centuries later Emerson would say that it seemed to him that he himself had written the book in some former life.  Stefan Zweig, World War II exile: “Here is a ‘you’ in which my ‘I’ is reflected; here is where all distance is abolished.  Four hundred years disappear like smoke.”  Of Montaigne’s timeless appeal, William Hazlitt says in his preface to The Complete Essays of Montaigne, “this is true fame.  A man of genius belongs to no period and no country.  He speaks the language of nature, which is always everywhere the same.”

Montaigne sought answers to the same questions that we all ask.  They were not so different in the sixteenth century – what to make of our experiences, how to endure grief and misfortune, whether it’s more enjoyable to have sex standing up or lying down (he preferred the latter), how to reassure a friend who thinks a witch has cast a spell on him (how many of us have tried to help a friend through that!), and what was going through his cat’s mind when he played with her.

Montaigne was intensely curious about human nature.  He believed that a man’s life is not the sum of his deeds, but of his thoughts.  He questioned and wondered ceaselessly about what people thought, how they felt, and why they did what they did.  And because he himself was the specimen closest to hand, he focused the microscope on himself, a subject on which, as he put it, he was “the most learned man alive.”  He deconstructed his mind, his feelings, his experiences in the most minute and astonishingly frank detail and delivered every bit of it to us in his Essays.

In his thirties, Montaigne became obsessed with death.  He lost his father in 1568.  The following year, his 27-year old brother Arnaud was struck in the head by a ball while playing jeu de paume,(an early version of tennis) and died a few hours later.   Montaigne’s first child died at the age of two months – he would bear the deaths of five of his six children.  The most painful loss of Montaigne’s life was the death of his closest friend, Etienne de La Boetie, at the age of 32.

With such frequent and ordinary examples passing before our eyes, how can we possibly rid ourselves of the thought of death and of the idea that at every moment it is gripping us by the throat.   At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects.  At the stumbling of a horse, the fall of a tile, the slightest pin prick, let us promptly chew on this:  Well what if it were death itself?

By his forties and fifties, however, Montaigne’s essays reveal a more sanguine state of mind.   Montaigne himself had come very close to death in a riding accident.  Carefully recorded by Montaigne, based on what he remembered and the observations of those around him at the time, it may be the most famous near-death experience in literature.  As recounted in Sarah Bakewell’s lively biography of Montaigne, “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (a title which Montaigne would surely have approved), he remembered clearly what he felt when he regained consciousness.  His servants were carrying him back toward his chateau, his wife struggling over the rough ground to get to them.  His vision was blurry, but he could see that his clothes were bloody from the clots of blood he had vomited.  Inwardly, he felt very calm and langorous, vaguely aware of his body, but as though from a distance.

It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go.  It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.

He felt no pain.  He was aware of but unconcerned by the efforts and anxiety of those around him.  As his servants settled him into bed, he recalled “ ‘I felt infinite sweetness in this repose, for I had been villainously yanked about by those poor fellows, who had taken the pains to carry me in their arms over a long and very bad road.’  He refused all medicines, sure that he was destined just to slip away.  It was going to be a ‘very happy death.’”  Later, however, when he had recovered, the servants and family members who had been present during and after the accident told a completely different story.  Witnesses said that he had “thrashed about, ripping at his doublet with his nails, as if to rid himself of a weight.  ‘My stomach was oppressed with the clotted blood; my hands flew to it of their own accord, as they often do where we itch, against the intention of our will.’  It looked as if he were trying to rip his own body apart, or perhaps to pull it away from him so his spirit could depart.”

Meticulously recreating his sensations, in dying, he now realized, you do not encounter death at all, for you are gone before it gets there.  You die in the same way that you fall asleep: by drifting away.  If other people try to pull you back, you hear their voices on ‘the edges of the soul.’  Your existence is attached by a thread; it rests only on the tip of your lips, as he put it. Dying is not an action that can be prepared for.   It is an aimless reverie.”   From then on, Montaigne refused to worry about death.   “In one of his last added notes, he wrote that death is only a few bad moments at the end of life, and not worth wasting any anxiety over.

It is impossible to read Montaigne’s account of his brush with death and not feel consoled.  It is equally impossible to read his essais and not be entertained and warmed by his friendly understanding, or, as journalist Bernard Levin said “not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity, ‘How did he know all that about me?'”   Hazlitt captured this reader experience perfectly:  “Montaigne took the world into his confidence on all subjects.  Few men have left so much of their life behind them in their writing.”

“Cut these words,” Emerson said, “and they would bleed.”

Platero and I


PlateroPlatero is small, fluffy, soft; so soft on the outside that one would say he is all cotton, that he carries no bones.  Only the jet-dark mirrors of his eyes are hard as two scarabs of black crystal.

I let him loose and he runs to the meadow; warmly, hardly touching them, he brushes his nose against the tiny pink, sky-blue and golden yellow flowers . . . I call him sweetly:  “Platero?” and he comes to me at a gay little trot as though he were laughing, I do not know within what fancy world of jingles.

He eats whatever I give him.  He likes oranges, tangerines, muscatel grapes, all amber, purple figs with their crystalline tiny drops of honey.

He is tender and cuddly, as a little boy, as a little girl . . . but inside he is strong and dry as a stone.  When I ride him on Sunday through the last alleyways of the town, the men from the fields, dressed neatly and slow moving, stand still watching him.

“He’s got steel.”

Steel, yes.  Steel and moon silver at the same time.

Platero and I, written in the early 1900’s by Juan Ramón Jiménez, is a Spanish classic, a shimmering lyrical prose poem made up of short vignettes. Platero is the poet’s beloved burro.  Together Jiménez and Platero walk the fields and meadows of Andalusia and the alleyways of the author’s home village of Moguer.   The poet observes life, its joy and pain, in simple, ordinary occurrences, daily routines, the changes of seasons, and muses aloud to Platero, dumb and innocent witness.  Ordinary life takes on a poignant intensity.  As Louis Simpson remarks in the Introduction, “life is open to the earth and sky, whatever one sees.  Some things are terrible to see.”

I do not know how to leave here, Platero.  Who can leave him there, poor thing, without guide and protection?

He must have strayed from the boneyard.  I believe he does not see or hear us.  You saw him this morning by that same fence, his sad, dry misery lighted under the white clouds by the radiant sun and covered by moving islands of living flies, alien to the prodigious beauty of the winter day.  He would turn once around slowly, disoriented, lame on all four legs, and he would come around again to the same spot.  He has done nothing but shift his flank.  This morning he was facing west, now he faces east.

What a hurdle old age is, Platero!  There you see that poor friend, free and unable to move, even when spring is moving towards him.  Or is he already dead, like Bécquer, and remains still standing?  A child could draw his fixed outline against the evening sky.

There you see it . . . I have tried to push him but he does not move . . . Nor does he pay attention to my calls . . . It looks as if the agony of death has planted him to the ground . . .

Platero, he is going to die of cold against that high fence, tonight, as the north wind sweeps . . . I do not know how I can leave here; I do not know what to do, Platero.

But there is joy in living, all the same:

One day, the green canary, I do not know how or why, flew from his cage.  He was an old canary, a sad memento from a dead woman, and I never set him free for fear he might die of hunger or cold, or that the cats might eat him.  He flew about all morning among the pomegranates in the orchard, in the pine by the door, among the lilacs.  The children too remained all morning long sitting on the porch, fascinated by the brief flights of the yellowing bird.  Free, Platero idled among the rosebushes, playing with a butterfly.

In the evening, the canary came to the roof of the big house, and there he remained for a long while, shaking in the mild setting sun.  Suddenly, and without anyone knowing how or why, he appeared in his cage, joyful again.  What excitement in the garden.  The children jumped, clapping hands, laughing . . . Platero, touched by it all, in a surge of silvery flesh, like a tiny little goat, thrust his hoofs in the air, turned around on his legs in a crude waltz, and standing on his front legs, kicked the clear and warm air  . . .

Platero and I  is a wonderful and moving meditation on love, life, and the full acceptance of life, with all of its joy, its pain, and its finality.  Platero wishes only to live, enjoying everything gaily; the taste of a pomegranate, the yellow lilies and singing orioles in the orchard of La Piña where he is buried.   We are held close, lovingly, by Jiménez and Platero.  Simpson says it so perfectly – before such love the mental barrier we think of as death must fall.