Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Book 1, Chapter 2: Of Sorrow

Montaigne discusses the nature of sorrow, sadness, and grief. Also those of love, and joy, and of emotions so strong that they cannot be expressed. 

I never feel sorrow. Sorrow is overrated. I hate it when the world respects sadness, seeing 'wisdom, virtue, and conscience' to lie within. 'Foolish and sordid guise!' I say. Italians call this word 'la tristezza', which translated as 'evil'. I think this is apt. Sadness is hurtful, idle, cowardly, and mean.

But of course, there's much more to say on sadness. I have some stories:

- The King of Egypt was taken prisoner by Persia. He saw his daughter pass before him; she was a prisoner too. She carried a bucket, and she looked terrible. His friends around him wept. The King remained unmoved. Immediately after, he witnessed his son being led to execution. Still, he didn't react. Finally, he saw a fried being dragged away among the captives. He began to wail and cry and tear his hair.

And a similar one:

- Our own prince was told his elder brother had died. Soon after, he learned his younger brother had also died. He 'withstood these two assaults with exemplary resolution'. Then, one of his servants died. He was overcome with sorrow and mourning. As if he had been 'brimful of grief' and this last addition had tipped him over. But also, there's another explanation. This is important:

'only this last affliction was to be manifested be tears, the two first far exceeding all manner of expression'.

Yes. The strongest emotions cannot be expressed in tears, I say. Two legends of my time to illustrate:

 An ancient painter wanted to represent the death of a woman and its effect on those around her. He drew each of her acquaintances with grief-stricken, sad faces, but over the face of her father, he drew a veil. Meaning it was impossible to express the deep sorrow that he felt. Similarly, the poets represent the mother Noebe, who lost seven sons and seven daughters, as being transformed into a rock.

The rock represents the stupefaction, the numbing of our faculties, when we are faced with more sadness than we can bear. Excessive grief astonishes the soul, renders us incapable of ordinary functioning. When we're faced with truly terrible news, we are 'surprised, stupefied, and in a manner deprived of all power of motion'. When we cry, it seems we are able to vent, and release tension, and allow ourselves to work out the problem within.

I will tell you a very sad story now

- A soldier, who had been admired for his exceptional bravery, had fought a particularly valiant battle. When the armour was removed off the body of the person he had killed, he found that it was his own son. Without saying a word, he turned away his eyes, stood fixedly contemplating the body, until the sorrow overcame his vital spirits and he fell to the ground 'stone-dead'.

So you see, true, pure grief is unspeakable. It cannot be articulated.

Let's talk about love now; I have beautiful things to say about the unspeakable qualities of love:

'He who can say how he burns with love, has little fire'

In the throes of love, we are unable to express it. The soul at that time is 'over-burdened, and labouring with profound thoughts; and the body dejected and languishing with desire'

'all passions that suffer themselves to be relished and digested are but moderate.'

So think again, when you hear, 'I love you'. Seneca said, 'Light griefs can speak: deep sorrows are dumb.'

Unexpected joy, by the way, produces the same effects. A Roman lady died for joy to see her son return from war. I have several other examples of people, overcome with joy at hearing some wonderful news, die.

one last - 'a testimony to the imbecility of human nature':

A scholar called Diodorus was being debated with, in his own school, in front of a great authority. Unable to win the argument, he died on the spot, from shame.

This is how I end the essay - read into it what you like:

'I, for my part, am very little subject to these violent passions; I am naturally of a stubborn apprehension, which also, by reasoning, I every day harden and fortify.'


1 comment:

  1. The last lines remind us of what makes Montaigne precious: his constitutional aversion to the sudden,unpredictable, and generally destructive changes that we call "violence."

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