Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 20: Of The Force Of Imagination (3 of 3)

In the final part of this essay, Montaigne muses a bit more about the human body. Then, he shares some surprising examples of the power of the human mind. He ends with a discussion on his own writing

'the bird at last fell dead into the cat’s claws, either dazzled by the force of its own imagination or drawn by some power of the cat'

St. Augustine said he had seen a man who could command his rear to discharge as often as he pleased. Vives provided another example, of a man who could break wind in tune. But these cases don’t provide proof of control over one’s body, for is anything more disordered or indiscreet than these acts? Let me add an example of my own – I know a man so rude and ungoverned that for forty years has been expelling one continuous, never-ending wind, and he’ll probably continue to do so until he dies. I also know men who have fallen very ill because their stomachs have not allowed them to break wind.

We have liberty to break wind whenever we want, but so often this happens irregularly and disobediently. We are unable to will our bodies to do what we want them to do, or to forbid them from doing something.

As for our (male) member, nature has endowed it with particular privilege; it is the author of the sole immortal work of mortals, a divine work, according to Socrates.

But more about the imagination – I know a man who was cured of stones with injections that he thought contained strong medicine but in fact did not. Also, a woman, thinking she had swallowed a pin, cried about an intolerable pain in her throat. A gentleman had her vomit and secretly threw a bent pin into the basin. As soon as the woman saw the pin she was eased of her pain. I also know a man who jokingly bragged to his dinner-guests that he had fed them a baked cat. A young woman was so horrified at this that she fell into violent vomiting and fever.

Animals are also subject to the force of imagination: think of the dogs who die in grief at the loss of their masters, and bark and tremble and cry in their sleep. Horses also kick and whinny in their sleep.

This could all be attributed to the close relationship between the soul and the body, but sometimes, the imagination works not only on one’s own body but even on others. Just as an infected body can transfer its disease onto those nearby, the imagination, becoming vehemently agitated, darts out infection capable of affecting foreign objects. The ancients reported that certain women of Scythia could kill a man just with their looks. Tortoises and ostriches hatch their eggs only by looking at them, as if their eyes have some ejaculative virtue. And the eyes of witches are said to be harmful.

Some time ago there was, in my house, a cat watching a bird on the top of a tree. For some time, they had their eyes fixed on each other. Then, the bird at last fell dead into the cat’s claws, either dazzled by the force of its own imagination or drawn by some power of the cat.

Someone told me of a falconer who brought down a kite from the air just by fixing his eyes upon it. However, I must say here, for the stories that I borrow I rely on the consciences of those from whom I have them. But you know, in the subjects that I speak of – our manners and motions, testimonies and experiences – some stories, as fabulous as they are, provided that they are possible, it does not matter whether they are true or not. Whether they happened in Rome or Paris, to John or Peter, as long as they are within the verge of human capacity, they serve their purpose. I see and make advantage of them as well as I can, and amongst the various readings in old books, I cull out the more rare and memorable to fit my purposes. There are some authors whose only purpose is to give an account of things that have happened. My purpose is to talk about what may happen. There is a freedom allowed in schools to make up examples when you have none at hand. I do not make use of this privilege, and in fact avoid things like superstitious religion. In the examples I bring in, of what I have heard, read, done, or said, I forbid myself from altering even the smallest detail. That my ignorance may do so anyway, I cannot say.

This is why I sometimes wonder how priests and philosophers are fit to write history, for how much can they stake their reputations on a popular faith? How can they be responsible for the opinions of men that they don’t even know? And with what assurance do they deliver their ideas? For my part, I think it is safer to write of the past than the present. That way, the writer only gives account of things everyone knows he must borrow upon trust.

Friends sometimes tell me to write of the present, because they feel I look upon our times with an eye less blinded than others, and that I have a clearer access to the minds of others. They don’t consider that I wouldn't put myself through the trouble, sworn enemy that I am to obligation, difficult work, or attentiveness. There is nothing as contrary to my style as an uninterrupted narrative. I often interrupt myself and am no good at composition or explanation. I am more ignorant than a child of the proper words and phrases to express the most common things, and that is why I only undertake to say what I can say, and have accommodated my subject to my strength. 

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