Montaigne in the Age of Trump

1. Awakening

My neighbor across the marsh keeps on hammering.

There is a new president this morning, my daughter can’t stop crying, and still my neighbor hammers on.

It is possible this is celebratory hammering.

I woke this morning of November 9, 2016, to the sound of my thirteen-year- old daughter slamming her fist into the wall. She couldn’t believe it. Join the club. The only way I managed to fall asleep last night was thanks to the doggie Xanax my wife had procured from the vet. She had seen this coming a long time before I did. She was still suffering from PTSD from an earlier election, when she blissfully went to sleep thinking that the craven frat boy had been exorcised and that she would wake to a boring but acceptable president-elect, and then was woken up by none other than me at 2 a. m. to tell her that no, the boring guy actually hadn’t won. So this time she was ready. This time she went to the vet and explained that our anxious Labrador (who was also the smarter Lab, by the way, and who, unlike the other Lab, would do okay on her dog SATs) was feeling even more anxious. The vet never suspected that when my wife said the word Labrador it was a code word for me. And so during the last month, the home stretch, as the strange and terrify­ing election built up like a Poseidon-flipping wave, she has been occasionally nibbling on little quarters of our dog’s drugs. It seemed to work well, and I didn’t notice any hair growing on the backs of her hands, so last night I broke off my own little piece and finally fell asleep.

This morning, after trying to calm my daughter and driving her to school, I briefly turned on the TV. Then I shut it off and recognized an impulse that would become familiar to me over the next year: the urge to retreat. Approximately 447 years before this election morning, a man named Michel de Montaigne wrote these words: “We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude.” Luckily, I have just such a back shop. Mine is not a particularly large backyard but it does border a tidal marsh, and it does have a small copse of trees in the far corner where I built an eight-by-eight outbuilding that I’ve come to call the shack. The shack is where I go to get away in the evenings, books and a beer in hand, to spend an hour or two thinking and bird-watching and cultivating a corresponding mental back shop, and it is here I came this morning, eager to escape the world. No electricity means no cable news, which means that the angry jabbering that has become the baseline of our lives is, for me, at least sometimes replaced by what Montaigne called the conversation “between us and ourselves” in a place private enough that “no outside association or communication can find a place.” 

The long view is the books on my shelves that span centuries. The even longer view is the marsh and the rising seas.

This morning I find it harder than ever to really get away. A great blue heron flies past, silvery and ghostlike, but then I hear the hammering from across the way. The view from the shack used to face out on a hundred yards of marsh and a line of trees on the opposite bank. Now, courtesy of a loud and bullying neighbor who moved in across the water, it faces a construction site, the trees mowed down, the hammering and chain-sawing and wood-chipping never stopping. There is a new dock that juts in my direction and stares in on me where I sit. 

I should say another word about the setting. The tidal creek the shack sits next to is named Hewlitts, and the state we are in is North Carolina, the home of the new civil war, where I, this morning, stand on one side of the marsh while my neighbor, a local guy who looks like Biff of the Back to the Future movies, stands on the other side and hammers away. That he and Trump are one and the same seems obvious to my tired mind. We, on our little marsh, are the United States. We are on opposite sides. He is happy. I am sad. But we both are fucked. 

I draw in a deep breath and try to take the long view. I look past his house, farther down the marsh toward the ocean. The short view is the election. The long view is the books on my shelves that span centuries. The even longer view is the marsh and the rising seas that fill it and empty, then fill it and empty again, twice a day, having done exactly that for thousands of years.

I manage to carve out a moment of calm. But only a moment. A thought pops into my head: I could gather provisions and spend the next four years down here in the shack, hiding out. But I know it is not a serious idea. The real world, and the television, already beckon. The hammering won’t stop. 

Over the next twelve months contrary impulses will stir in a thousand chests. One is to fight back, despite a deep and growing sense of impotence, a call to arms to be part of the so-called resistance. But the other impulse is just as strong.

Run away. Run away.


2. Retreat

A year has passed. A surrealistic year. In much the same way that pinging texts or emails demand our attention, so too now our new president has proven almost impossible to ignore. We must ask each other every day what the Trump news is, must swallow his latest tweet or tantrum as if were not news but something integral to our personal lives. Because it is, of course. How odd that this most public of humans can invade our most private places.    

Here is one small and personal consequence of this man becoming president: I have started to read Montaigne again. It began slowly, gradually, and grew out of the same impulse that sends me down to the shack: a desire to get away, to escape the fractured present. But that desire is also laced with a growing sense that it is becoming harder and harder to get away, both physically and mentally.

The broad outlines of Montaigne’s life, which feel at once mythic and ordinary, are known to many readers, and have been known to many readers now for hundreds of years. Born in 1533 to a noble family in southeastern France, he was quirkily educated by a father who insisted he learn to speak Latin before French. As a young man he worked in law and then politics in Bordeaux, less than thirty miles from the chateau where he was raised, but it was not for work but for his withdrawal from work that he would become best known. The great moment came when he decided to pull back from the world and take up residence on the family estate. When he did, he inscribed these words on the wall of the study next to his library:

In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, not more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure. 

There were several layers to this retreat, not just from Bordeaux to the estate, which has the four-cornered look of a fortress, but then from the estate and his wife and family to a tower within the estate, and then, within the tower to his library, with its quotes from Greek and Latin sages inscribed in the beams. It would take a little while for Montaigne to understand that he was not really ceasing to work but trading in his old public job for a new private one, and even after he understood what that job was, it took a while longer to get the hang of it. But once he did, the essais rolled out. The new job involved both studying himself and talking to himself, and then scribbling those sentences down on the page. The sentences went wherever they pleased, often swirling around and turning back on themselves, but what they always swirled around was Montaigne, his likes and dislikes, his ideas and opinions, but mostly his consciousness, his self. Readers today report the same things that readers over the last four centuries—including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Virginia Woolf—have said: that when reading those sentences, they feel like they are in the presence of a living being. Sometimes that living being is described as a close friend, but sometimes he is described as one’s self, as if Montaigne were taking our most private thoughts and speaking them out loud. Many have reacted with some variation of what Emerson wrote: “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience.”

While Montaigne is quick to share details about his height, hygiene, and bowel movements, it is not these that make us feel close to the man, and obviously not why so many readers think “He is me.” What we recognize in him is not those particulars, or the fact that he is a dead Frenchmen from the 1500s, but the living landscape of his mind. In this landscape the weather is always changing, so that one moment we feel warmed when the sun shafts down, and in the next things grow darker as winds blow in from the north. Like Montaigne, we are at once observers of the weather and participants in it, drenched by rains and dried by the sun, and the ground shifts as soon as we think it solid. There is movement—often sudden unexpected movement—and our “thoughts are elsewhere,” moving wherever they please in the same way Montaigne’s sentences do. Both the sentences and ideas mimic the way thought occurs to many of us, not in a rational march in a predetermined direction toward a goal, but a directionless ramble with one thing leading to another in associative jumps.

It is a psychological landscape where we are always contradicting ourselves, always of two minds at least. And in this landscape, to resolve hard in one direction is the surest way to end up heading in another. “But we are, I know not how, double within ourselves, with the results that we do not believe what we believe, and we cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn,” he writes. We may make vows to action and tell self-stories of free will, but deep down we know it is all a little messier than that. Montaigne gets at what it feels like to be inside our minds, and one tool he finds indispensable in doing this is honesty. To be honest is never simple, with self-delusion and self-blindness always lurking, but we must try. As we watch Montaigne’s own efforts to face and describe himself, we see he is not just a master of describing the movements of mind but a gentle teacher, by example, of how to surf on this seeming chaos of consciousness.  

With honesty as our main tool, the first order of business is to accurately assess the landscape, admit our flaws and acknowledge how little we know. The next step is to understand that the self won’t be easily or happily bullied by a drill sergeant called the will. Nor will that self regularly fall in line with its own grander ideas. “Between ourselves,” he wrote in his book’s final essay, “On Experience,” “these are two things that I have always observed to be in singular accord: supercelestial thoughts and subterranean conduct.” Gentle nudging seems to work better than bludgeoning. After all, a human being is just another animal, and one handicapped by an overworking brain. Openness and honesty—and moderation—are our best guides, as are always keeping an eye on our very human limits and remembering that “on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting on our own rump.”    

But I am making Montaigne too simple. As if he had an answer, or worse, a program. He does not prescribe even when seeming to, because he always sees the other side, the way we contain our opposites, and he understands the complexity of even seemingly simple psychological situations, the way that our minds have minds of their own. He doesn’t propose a solution—there isn’t one—so much as a general openness to the whole mess of it. An openness to others and their diverse points of view and an openness to the sometimes warring parties within us. And treating all these factions, both internal and external, with fairness, for though he was skeptical of reason, he was (almost) always reasonable. There is a world between these two words. Reason means to be guided by rational thought, and Montaigne was skeptical of our ability to do so for very long. Being reasonable, on the other hand, means to treat others, and oneself, fairly and with an openness to seeing things from perspectives beyond oneself. That was Montaigne’s great skill.


3.  That Trumpy Feeling

If there were a literary tournament to determine our patron saint of retreat, secular division, Montaigne could at least be expected to reach the finals. There he might meet Mr. Thoreau, a man who had clearly read Montaigne’s Essais before conducting a similar experiment in withdrawal, adding in some trees and squirrels, a couple hundred years after Montaigne. Thoreau is not a bad antidote to our moment, with his scorn for the daily news, but his extremism is unattainable for most of us. For him, spending the Trump years out in the shack would not be a whimsical thought but a game plan. Montaigne, on the other hand, provides a more workable model, a retreat that takes place both apart from and amid family, friends, the duties of life and, yes, even the swirling world of politics. Montaigne’s retreats were, unlike Thoreau’s, temporary: he went out, but he always came back.      

Over the past year I’ve lived my life between two poles, those of Trump and Montaigne. Reading Montaigne down in the shack, trying to really understand the way he thinks and who he is, it has occurred to me more than once—in fact maybe a hundred times—how he was, in almost every possible respect, the complete opposite of the man who has been elected president. You could argue that we could teach our children to be good people by telling them to do every­thing that Trump doesn’t. I think of the Goofus and Gallant cartoons in the old Boy’s Life magazines: Gallant speaks quietly and listens to others, Goofus speaks loudly and brags about himself, and so on. We have elected Goofus president.

It is almost too easy to compare and contrast the first essayist with the current president. One an internal man who made it his life work to reveal himself, a great believer in honesty and openness, who liked to admit his flaws (he tells us he is lazy, has a bad memory, and can be long-winded), who is less interested in self-inflation than self-accuracy—“I want people to see my natural and ordinary pace, however off the track it is”—and who read constantly, believing in the wisdom of those who came before him. The other . . . well, you know.

We can start with almost any quality, but maybe a good starting place would be with each man’s attitude toward certainty, or the seeming lack of its opposite, uncertainty. Trump is not the only politician to have learned the lesson that it is best to never waver, to say the same thing emphatically and often, but he has taken this unwillingness to bend to new heights. In contrast Montaigne asked himself, “What do I know?” and concluded that, in the larger scheme of things, the answer was not a lot. He wouldn’t have fared well on CNN or Fox News; he would have refused to be emphatically one way, would have peppered his interviews with howevers and buts and on the other hands. This is not because he did not know his own mind but because he knew it well, in all its knotty contradictions, and cultivated the art of keeping that mind open.

But this game, as I say, is too easy. What I am really after is something more. It was in his description of subjective states that Montaigne made his great breakthrough. His language was earthy and physical—“succulent and sinewy,” in his own words—the images casual and playful and ever changing.  He shared with William James an ability to describe psychological states in vivid ways that make them seem more physical than mental. Here is what Emerson said of his sentences: “If you cut them they would bleed.”

If Montaigne creates a place apart, a private place, then Trump’s great skill is to break into that private place, plunder it, and so render it public.

In Montaigne’s company, I find myself challenged to accurately describe both the subjective experience of the Trump presidency and my attempts to escape it through the essayist’s work. These states, it seems to me, are just as clearly in opposition as the two men’s characters. Montaigne, up in his study with his Roman and Greek inscribed above him, could look back over fifteen hundred years or so and try to converse with Plutarch, with the hope that, despite his own inconsistencies, he could occasionally achieve something like calm detachment. And I, reading Montaigne’s work over four hundred years after his death, beer in hand and great blue herons flying by on the marsh, sometimes feel something similar coming over me. A sense that this crazed moment that we live in is just another in a series of crazed moments—some equally or more crazed—throughout human history. But that is too grand. It is the actual sensation of calm I go back to, the effect—not all that dissimilar to doggie Xanax, now that I think of it—of being peacefully removed, not just from the world’s troubles, but from my own thought-emotions, those cunning phantoms that seem always eager to pry their way into my mind and destroy my peace. With this calm can come acceptance. Readers encountering Montaigne’s sentences for the first time may experience what I sometimes do: a feeling of relief, a willingness to forgive my own inconstancy just as he forgives his own. Finally, there is the sense of companionship that so many readers, famous and otherwise, have mentioned since the book was published: the sense that, despite the gap of centuries, we are talking not to a ghost but a friend. All of these contribute to the greater sense of calm. 

If I then want to experience the exact opposite of this sensation, I can close the Essays, leave the shack, walk across the lawn to the house, and turn on cable news to see what our president has been up to. Trump’s gift, it seems to me, is a kind of invasiveness, an ability to work his way past our defenses and into our psyche. If Montaigne creates a place apart, a private place, then Trump’s great skill is to break into that private place, plunder it, and so render it public. What he creates, or rather what we have created for ourselves by allowing him in, is an almost constant state of unease. If anxious thoughts can be said to pry, he is a human pry bar. And after a while we want him to pry. We have grown used to it, we are addicted. In fact Trump is an almost perfect embodiment of the way we communicate now—of his chosen medium, Twitter, of course, but also of all social media and email and texting and the rest. Think of the way we used to get mail, once a day, or even better, the way we got mail as kids at camp, the excitement of it, the anticipation. Now we get mail every minute, every second it seems, and live in a jacked-up state on the edge of expectation. So with our daily, our hourly, Trump fix. It can’t get any more outrageous, we tell ourselves, more infuriating, more bizarre. And yet it does. But strangely we grow hungry for this, not unlike our hunger for social media and email itself. We want more, we need more, our thoughts are ever elsewhere. The words breaking news run across the bottom of our mind-screens. We are hungry to find out what he has done now, what is the latest. At down moments at work I google “Trump news” and then go to tools and add “Last Hour.” While Montaigne puts me in the mind of centuries, here I am thinking of minutes, seconds even. There is no time to brood, to read, to digest, to think deeply. As if that were part of the overall plan.  

And what does this experience feel like? A lack of peace, yes. But also a kind of mildly anguished, engaged but troubled sense of excitement, with spikes of elation, or relief, when something goes against the president and it appears his blustery reign will end. But that is not it exactly either. I find myself wondering how Montaigne would describe it. I miss his succulent language. I am sure he would be able to pin the sensation down exactly—the particular Trumpy feeling that we experience.

If I cannot exactly describe the feeling, I can tell you my threefold reaction to having felt it. As I have already said, I sometimes want more of it. But at the same time I want to escape it, to return to the shack and an earlier century where I am no longer plagued by these disrupting sensations. And finally, another reaction, one to which I have given short shrift up to this point: I want to find a way to fight back. That is, despite a sense of my own impotence and my unimportance in a drama going on far beyond me, usually on the screen of my computer or television, I want to have some agency, to actually do something that registers the deep displeasure I feel.

The easy knock on Montaigne, over the years, is that his philosophy leads to a kind of passivity. That if we simply retreat and accept life, as Montaigne seems to counsel, we can never change the world around us. What does the maintenance of my little calm feeling down in the shack matter if the world is in flames? Why should I be calm anyway in a time that demands its opposite? How nice to retreat to your library and chateau, but what of the world, and what of those who can’t retreat? Why retreat when a counter-attack is required? And isn’t retreat itself a cowardly word? 


4. Taking the Inner Self Out

There is a certain type of reading I love more than any other. I have a hunger for lives, for biographies and personal narratives, and particularly for the parts of these books that can, to echo Samuel Johnson, be “put to use.” What can we steal from what we read to use in our own lives? How can what we find help us through our perilous journeys, journeys that all end the same way? These were the kind of questions that my college professor, Walter Jackson Bate, asked, and the kind of writing he produced to answer them in his great bio­graphies of Johnson and John Keats. And it is why I keep returning to Montaigne. We read him the way he read others: “I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself and instructs me in how to die well and live well.” Not just reading for pleasure, for distraction, for learning, but for use.

I have had my copy of Donald Frame’s translation of The Complete Essays of Montaigne for thirty-five years now. It smells musty and moldy, but it’s a Stanford University Press paperback, well-built, and it has survived both the assaults of multiple underlinings and the weather in the screened-in, but permeable, shack. Since I have always read Montaigne just as he advised, by inclination, never pushing it too hard, there still remain vast areas of the book that are unmarked and unexplored. It would not make sense to approach the book systematically, to read it from start to finish, but this year I have set out to explore those undiscovered pages. I also reread Frame’s biography of Montaigne, and stumbled upon a wonderful book, a life of Montaigne called How to Live by Sarah Bakewell.

What makes Montaigne’s ability to see beyond his times all the more impressive is the fact that so many thought there was nothing beyond them. Zealots were everywhere and people saw portents in the bloodshed and disease, sure signs that the end was nigh.

I had heard of Bakewell’s book when it first came out in 2010, but I avoided it, in part because I worried that her Montaigne would not be my Montaigne. By the end of the first page I knew I had been wrong to worry. Each chapter of the book weaves a Montaignian theme, in the spirit of the book’s title, with biography and a continuing history of Montaigne’s book, and the way its ideas spread, from his time to the present. How to Live made for hours of hungry reading on my part, but it also did something else. More than anything I had read, it placed Montaigne firmly in his time and in his place, and, lo and behold, his time was like our time and his kings were (mostly) Trumps. 

In doing this, Bakewell didn’t just add new dimensions to a writer I’ve been reading for decades, she also gave me a usable Montaigne for our troubled times. I had already read, long ago, this quote from Emerson: “In the civil wars of the League, which converted every house into a fort, Montaigne kept his gates open, and his house without defense. All parties freely came and went, his courage and honor being universally esteemed.” Openness as a reaction to crisis. What a bracing thought. However, it also seemed to me this must be an exaggeration. 

Bakewell tells me otherwise. Montaigne did indeed keep his gates open even in the worst of times. It seems he took the honesty and openness, the same amiability and lack of rigidity, that he had cultivated in private on his pages and went outward with it, listening to all factions in what was a violent, doctrinal, and fractious time. In fact, the man who was perhaps the literary world’s most famous retiree and retreater was also a man of the world and a politician who played a key role in his country at a time of crisis. He had spent his younger years as an in-court counselor and, later, after his supposed retirement into the bosom of the learned virgins, became mayor of Bordeaux in 1581 at the age of forty-seven. Three years later the future king, Henry IV, stayed at his estate and sought his advice. And throughout this time period he served as an adviser to Henry’s politically influential mistress, Diane de Gramont. (A fact that gives me a jolt of coincidental pleasure, as I am married to Diane’s direct descendent, Marina Diane de Gramont.) 

The world that he lived in puts ours in perspective. It is easy to fall into the old apocalyptic trap, thinking of ours as the one and only End Time, even if we avoid the religious trappings of this sort of thinking. But Montaigne, like us, lived in a world that seemed on the edge of doom. Disease and civil war ravaged the countryside of sixteenth-century France. Plague killed many thousands, driving Montaigne from his estate and at one point all but emptying Bordeaux. Troops gathered in the fields outside the estate, and the country’s Catholics and Protestants spent most of the 1500s not just warring with each other but playing a game of oneupmanship when it came to atrocities. What makes Montaigne’s ability to see beyond his times all the more impressive is the fact that so many thought there was nothing beyond them. Zealots were everywhere and people saw portents in the bloodshed and disease, sure signs that the end was nigh. Bakewell writes, “Both Catholics and Protestants thought that events were approaching a point beyond which there could be no more normal history,” and quotes Montaigne: “There is no hostility that exceeds Christian hostility.” 

Montaigne did not respond to this burning world by simply running way. Or, if he ran away, it was only partly. What he contributed to his national dialogue was the opposite of extremism. While others were closing their gates he was opening his, and for the most part this seems to have worked. Bakewell tells the story of some blackguards who barge into the estate, intent on robbing Montaigne, but instead, charmed by his welcoming openness, leave him be.

Maybe he was just lucky. Lucky not to get sick or get killed—as many of his neighbors were. But I will take some solace in my own time from the ways he approached his. I like that he was double within himself in this regard too: that the inward man could go outward. In this way I can see him as an exemplar of advance as well as retreat. As with any life, his pulsed between the private and public, between retreat and advance.

Bakewell writes: 

The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life, and, in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could use his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgement, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict.

To which I can only say Amen. 

I find Bakewell’s words, like Montaigne’s own, reassuring. They remind me I can keep retreating to the shack, or at least its mental equivalent, but after I must also return to the world. And hopefully when I do, I will return with my shack mind. 

The challenge remains: to say goodbye to the herons and the marsh and my books but to keep them with me when I walk back to the house to face their opposite. To not let the president in his bluster and unquestioning certainty reduce me to his tone and terms as I try to find ways to fight him. 

It is not an easy challenge and I often fail in it. But how fine that Montaigne can now serve as a model not just for how to retreat from the world, but for how to engage it.