Thursday, 25 April 2013

Montaigne, Proust and mindfulness

This morning, on In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg was being peremptory and testy with one of my former professors and mentors, Terence Cave. The subject was Montaigne, death, friendship, the essai, stoicism and living in the moment.

I do need to digress to poke a stick at some Braggadocio. Thank goodness the man exists so that this programme itself can — but, oh, the misogyny, the pomposity and the insecurity! He speaks over any woman he has on the show and is rude to anyone more intellectually prestigious than himself. Quite often he behaves like a second-year student, who got drunk the night before and only has half an essay, and so is compensating by being bloody-minded. Hearing him order Professor Cave to "go on, tell us what Montaigne was on about, then," was excruciating.

Professor Cave and his excellent Renaissance companions teased out how Montaigne harnessed and channelled his classical education and his experience of public life into his writing. Unlike anyone writing around him, he decided, at 38, to withdraw to his library in a tower (I'd like one of them, please) write in the first person, and attempt to capture what was passing through his mind.

Given his privileged education and career, what passed through Montaigne's mind was a lot more interesting than what passes through most people's (although he would probably dispute this). The point for him was a preparation for a good death, and to grapple with his attachment to things in this life.

What makes him extraordinary is the fluency and range of what he writes about, beginning usually with a tiny detail, and flowing associatively from thought to thought. Many readers feel that he is writing what they have felt but not expressed in words, and feel an uncanny closeness with him. His is a mode of emergent truth — 'que sais-je?' being the hallmark of his style and content. He is always hoping to find out who he is.

As the speakers were talking, I kept finding myself wanting to shout, "Proust!" at the radio. There are so many parallels and continuities between the two men, even though they are separated by nearly three and a half centuries. At the most basic level, there is the exclusive classical education, the love of travel, the hypochondria, the public life and then withdrawal from it to a tower or bedroom, the pleasure in minute details, and the capacity to extrapolate associatively from them.

Both men both wrote in the first person, but also invented a new genre: Montaigne's essais, his tests or attempts, are not autobiography, philosophy or factual account, but a uniquely voiced blend of all three. Proust's novel hesitates between fiction and autobiography — and began life as a conversation with his mother, which was to have been an argument with a literary critic: it was an essay.

Proust was known to be able to recite chunks of Montaigne by heart — yet this inveterate mimic and recycler of literary forebears does not actually name his sixteenth-century precursor in A la recherche. Perhaps the connections are so many and so intense that he could not, for fear of becoming overwhelmed by another writer's identity. Whether he names him or not, however, his novel is saturated with Montaigne's spirit.

In the end, what I wanted to shout loudest of all at the radio was, "Mindfulness!" All right, Montaigne and Proust weren't exactly Buddhists. Yet there are striking points of connection. Both Montaigne and Proust privileged the evanescent present moment, as well as observation and detail at their finest granularity, sensed through the body rather than the intellect.

Privileging the present moment, though, was an almost inaccessible ideal to the two men, steeped as they were in Western doubt.

Montaigne is one of the avenues through which classical Stoicism and Scepticism are transmitted to modernity. The motto of the former might be 'accept what you cannot change', while the watchword of the latter might be 'don't believe anything you can't verify yourself'. This battle between acceptance and refusal can be heard all the way through the centuries in Western thought. It comes out everywhere in Proust, in a tension between accepting himself enough to start writing, and an obsessive refusal to take anything for granted. Living in the present, accepting our thoughts and feelings, that was a bridge too far for Marcel, and we have 3000 pages of prose to show for the struggle.

Yet perhaps we need to be grateful that they would both have been absolutely terrible at mindfulness. Too busy trying to write down everything their minds wandered to, to be able to lie on their yoga mats and just be in the present.