Posts Tagged ‘Michel de Montaigne’

Happy birthday, William Shakespeare! The bard on freedom, imitation, and coronavirus

Thursday, April 23rd, 2020

On thinking? He had a lot to say about it.

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday, so it only seems appropriate that we baked him a little cake. There’s an even better way to celebrate, however, and that’s to bring our readers’ attention to Scott Newstok‘s How to Think Like Shakespeare, just published by Princeton University Press.

Newstok’s thing is education, and contrary to all-too-commonly held views, Shakespeare got a top-notch one. Newstok outlines the basic principles Shakespeare learned in a Chronicle of Higher Education essay:  a grounding in rhetoric (which has gotten a rather bad name in our time), imitation, inventio, traditio. (Well, honestly, they’ve all gotten a bad name.)

On rhetoric:

Antonio Gramsci described education in this way: “One has to inculcate certain habits of diligence, precision, poise (even physical poise), ability to concentrate on specific subjects, which cannot be acquired without the mechanical repetition of disciplined and methodical acts.” You take it for granted that Olympic athletes and professional musicians must practice relentlessly to perfect their craft. Why should you expect the craft of thought to require anything less disciplined? Fierce attention to clear and precise writing is the essential tool for you to foster independent judgment. That is rhetoric.

On imitatio:

As Michel de Montaigne put it: “The bees steal from this flower and that, but afterward turn their pilferings into honey, which is their own. … So the pupil will transform and fuse together the passages that he borrows from others, to make of them something entirely his own; that is to say, his own judgment. His education, his labor, and his study have no other aim but to form this.”

To add to our little mini-celebration, here’s an excerpt from Newstok’s interview with Scott Jaschik‘s over at the current Inside Higher Education:

Q: And on freedom?

A: When Caliban cries out for freedom, he falls for a drunk Stephano, who sings, “Thought is free.” Yet at this moment, Caliban’s not free — he’s just transferred his bondage to “a new master.” Real freedom would demand not only being slave to no one, but being his own master.

I’ve come to believe that a better translation of the emancipatory artes liberales would be the “crafts of freedom.” These practices cultivate a thinking citizen — the bane of every despot. Such an educational program presumes that freedom is fragile, demanding endless exertion: “there is nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty.”

I end the book with the fantastic James Baldwin essay “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” which concludes, “My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past.” At first, Baldwin sought freedom from having to read Shakespeare, yet he came to relish the freedom to make Shakespeare his own. In doing so, Baldwin achieved a mutual recognition in Shakespeare that few of us ever reach – “an inner freedom which cannot be attained in any other way” than by inhabiting other minds through art.

“I feel like the crisis has given us a kind of X-ray into everyone’s souls”

Q: What do you think your book can offer today, when we are focused on the coronavirus?

A: That’s kind of an up-to-the-minute version of the utility question, isn’t it? We quickly exhausted the “What Shakespeare Did During the Plague” takes. The plaintive cry of Sonnet 65 comes to mind:

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

I’m starting to feel like the crisis has given us a kind of X-ray into everyone’s souls. To cite one of countless examples I’d never thought I’d see laid so bare: Do you think the postal service should be privatized, or are you grateful for its countless daily decencies? In terms of education, would you cheer if half of all universities went bankrupt, or do you cherish close learning? Should we only read contemporary prose, or might poets from the past have something to offer us?

On a more mundane level: my chapters are mercifully short, well suited to “this distracted globe”! And the book’s packed with apt quotations. At the least, they might provide a momentary stay against confusion; at best, an inspiration to seek out “the treasures that prevail,” a handbook for what matters once we emerge from the wreckage.

Oh yes, the cake… we just pulled it out of the oven!

Janet Lewis’s Wife of Martin Guerre and the cold, cold face of justice

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

He got around.

The second event in the “Another Look” book club (I’ve written about it here and here and here) is drawing nigh:  The event will take place next Wednesday, on the 20th of February.  The book is Janet Lewis‘s The Wife of Martin Guerre – well, I’ve written about that here.  (And did you know that Michel de Montaigne attended Martin Guerre‘s trial?)

I’d welcome some of your thoughts on the book before the event – or even afterward.  Meanwhile, here are a few of my own about the calculated lie that sets the plot in motion and the cold, cold face of justice.  The rest is on the “Another Look” website here.

The movie version

A calculated lie is at the center of Janet Lewis’ The Wife of Martin Guerre, and the lie explodes the life of everyone around it.  The novel is a brutal tour de force, defying reader expectations.

“Another Look” seeks out short masterpieces forgotten, neglected or overlooked.  In the case of The Wife of Martin Guerre, we didn’t have to look farther than home.  The 1941 book was born at Stanford, and the author taught in its English Department.  Hailed as one of the top books of the last century, it’s too little-known today. The story has become famous, but the book has not.

The short novel, about a 16th-century case of imposture in southwestern France, has been made into a play, an opera, several musicals, and most notably The Return of Martin Guerre, a 1982 movie with Gérard Depardieu in the title role.

The story is a tragedy, and like all great tragedies, has a lie at its core.  Oedipus is not a stranger who rolled into town; he’s the son of the city’s murdered king.  Claudius is not the unexpected beneficiary of a throne and wife, he’s guilty of regicide and fratricide.  King Lear’s eldest daughters do not love him, despite their protestations.  But these lies are quickly overwhelmed by their effects; in Lewis’s novel, the lie is the hard, unbudgeable kernel of destruction that no one wants to examine.

The judge’s version

Like Agamemnon, Macbeth, and so many tragic heroes, the “new Martin” resolves, “If only I can keep this, all will be well, I’ll make everything else right in the end.” But the lie he wishes to keep eventually damns any possibility of a future or peace.

The heroine, Bertrande de Rols, is initially the passive prisoner of the thing she most wishes to be true, but doubts in her heart.  In the world Lewis creates, the greatest enemy is not a person or a judicial decision: it is in the thing we do not wish to be fact – the unbearable truth just around the corner, the truth seen with peripheral vision, just by the tail as it goes down a hole.  The lie at the core of the book gives rise to a welter of smaller daily lies, which, in turn, buttresses the great one.

The characters move seamlessly from victim to perp, from perp to victim, and back again.  As poet Tim Steele, a friend of Lewis, writes in Numbers (1989-90), the book is a psychological study of “people who betray others or who are themselves betrayed in the course of the interpretation of evidence.”  When Bertrande finally turns to the truth, it turns her to stone; Lewis hints it may even lead to her death. … Read the rest here

Villerouge Termenes and the last of the Cathars

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

Exploring a Cathar stronghold with a Bengali friend (Photo: My Droid)

“It is rating one’s conjectures at a very high price to roast a man alive on the strength of them,” wrote Michel de Montaigne, and the 16th Frenchman from Dordogne, in the foothills of the Pyrénées, knew what he was talking about.

This is “Pays Cathare,” as mentioned a few days ago, which is a source of local pride and defiance.

No fool.

So my Bengali friend took me to Villerouge Termenes, a castle and military stronghold that dates back to the 13th century, about a dozen kilometers or so from Lagrasse.  The castle has a grisly backstory:  Guillaume Bélibaste, said to be the last Cathar “parfait” in Languedoc, was burned at the stake here, in 1321. That terrifying death would have been the last gasp of Catharism in the Aude region; by the turn of the 14th century, the Church had successfully suppressed the quasi-gnostic heresy with hundreds of burnings and hangings.  A revival of the movement was largely beaten back by about 1310.

“He was the last in a long line of those fervent believers, of those Cathars, who now go by the name of the Perfect ones,” says the rather tendentious sign outside the castle.  “Yes, Bélibaste was the last Perfect Cathar, and he wasn’t cut out for this overwhelming role.  A peasant, that’s what he was…” says the sign (ellipsis and all).

The ellipses continue in another sign: “…A peasant who tended the family’s flocks, a family of heretics, that’s to say people who mistrusted everything at the end of the 13th century. The Catholic church reigned. The Inquisition burned anything suspect. The last heretics were hounded beasts. Which is undoubtedly why Guilhem, around 1305, ended up killing a man…”

Huh?  A quick recourse to Wikipedia:  Bélibaste was the son of a rich farmer. For reasons apparently unknown, he killed a shepherd and was forced to flee his native Cubières.  He then became a shepherd himself, and then a Cathar preacher and parfait.  More signs:

“A Perfect one, Philippe d’Alairac, visited the Bélibaste family in secret of course … and said to Guilhem, ‘You can escape and drag a useful life behind with you, or you can follow me, and come to Rabastens.’ And Bélibaste chose, he left with Philippe, and there in his home, Philippe d’Alairac talked to Guilhem the shepherd.  He initiated him, he made him a perfect one.”

“Fermé.” Castles in these parts don’t keep to regular hours. (Photo: My Droid)

The Cathars were non-violent, and perhaps among the West’s first vegetarian and pacifist movements.  In the usual gnostic fashion, they were, on the whole, somewhat against sex, believing that the world of the flesh was intrinsically evil and stemmed from an evil demi-urge. Undoubtedly, if this were better known, it would put off a lot of those modernday romantics who get misty-eyed about gnosticism.

The Cathars were also against marriage vows, which put them in something of a bind.  So what little is known about Bélibaste concerns a rather tangled and deceitful incident, involving Pierre Maury. His own backstory from Wikipedia:

In Catalonia he came in contact with the small group of Cathar exiles led by the parfait Guillaume Bélibaste. Over the next several years Maury traveled through Catalonia and the eastern Pyrénées. As a skilled shepherd, his services were in demand and he could find work throughout the region. Maury became comparatively wealthy for a peasant due to his skill, hard work, and ability to find the best paying employers. Despite his many travels he frequently met up with Bélibaste, who pressured the nomadic shepherd to settle down. At one point, Belibaste prevailed on him to marry Raymonde Piquier, a blacksmith’s daughter, who was Belibaste’s lover and pregnant with his child. Pierre agreed and the pair were married. But the marriage lasted only a few days. Bélibaste then told Maury to have it annulled. Months later Raymonde gave birth to a child. Most of Maury’s friends were convinced that the parfait had used Pierre to cover the breaking of his own vow of chastity. Maury however, continued to trust the parfait.

As the signs at the castle tell us, spies were everywhere.  Eventually Bélibaste was betrayed by the spy Arnaud Sicre, an agent of the Inquisition.  Maury was imprisoned in 1324, and then disappears from history.  I wonder what became of the blacksmith’s daughter, and her baby.