Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Journey to the North

I use Wade-Giles romanization following the practice of Gary Seaman’s Journey to the North (Berkeley: University of California, 1987). The self-indulgent digression on Modern Library Giants has, I am aware, little excuse. I might argue that biblio-nostalgia is the more useful as books are ever more eclipsed.

It is a curiosity of literature that, whereas early European works of fiction masqueraded as fact [1], in Chinese fiction overtly fantastic elements play an important role. There is, nonetheless, a continuum from the recording of precise details of everyday life in The Plum in the Golden Vase (Chin P’ing Mei) or the Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng) to utterly implausible tales such as the Journey to the West (Hsi Yu Ki or Monkey, in Waley’s version) with material drawn from fanciful folktales. The anonymous Journey to the North (Pei Yu Chi) translated by Gary Seaman falls clearly into the latter category. Though Seaman includes an “ethnohistorical analysis,” his work rewards the common reader as well as the specialist, with its stories of marvels staged around the borderline of the divine and human realms.

Just as in the West, the novel in Chinese has had a long path to literary respectability. Written in vernacular rather than literary language and often arising from oral narratives, until the twentieth century, fiction could not aspire to the prestige of poetry. [2] Still, for the reader fatigued with the pellucid nature images and intricate intertextuality of Chinese poetry and the terrifically challenging conundrums of the Zen masters, Ming and Ching fiction continues to offer first-rate entertainment, whether from a realism that reminds the Western reader of Balzac or a fantastic imagination something like the world of the Odyssey.

I myself have always felt a particular kinship with a broad range of the old Chinese poets and storytellers. [3] Reading Chuang Tzu or Wang Wei I have the illusion that the cultural and temporal distance between me and these old worthies has vanished. As a child I read Joseph Gaer’s How the Great Religions Began and the Life book The World’s Great Religions, which allowed my belated sensibility to glimpse now and then a numinous glow in spite of my rejection of my culture’s Christianity. While fascinated by the theater and complexity of Indian myth and the powerful hammerblows of the Buddha’s story, I felt at once most at home with Lao Tzu. In that grand period of inexpensive classics, I soon progressed to certain Dover reprints of Max Müller’s Sacred Books of the East series and to a Modern Library giant, Lin Yutang’s The Wisdom of China and India.

(The Modern Library giants, for many years of my youth, cost $2.95. Lin’s book had almost eleven hundred pages. Could there have been a better bargain? I value still my copy of Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essayes and a complete Donne and Blake bound up together, as are Keats and Shelley – what dizzying riches! I have others as well. A copy of Ulysses, once a close companion, now unread for decades, a complete Lewis Carroll which served me and two younger generations to date, complete novels and selected tales of Hawthorne, but Lin’s is the one to which I have returned more often than any other. It was in this most accessible form that I first encountered the Vedas, the Ramayana, Shen Fu’s Floating Life, and even Lu Xun [or Lusin as he is called here].)

Grateful as I must be to Lin (and to Waley and Pound and D. T. Suzuki, among others), as a popular work, the volume is at times, reductive, even misleading. In introducing the Chinese texts in his anthology, Lin notes the influence of the social Confucian “religion” and comments that China is generally regarded as “human, rational, and easily understandable,” more pointedly, “non-mystical.” [4] Lin does differ from this supposed consensus in several ways, but in fact Chinese writing of every era except the most recent has gloried in a vast body of fanciful supernaturalism.

Though philosophical Taoism may well seem a sort of “natural religion” even when borne aloft by a certain afflatus, popular Taoism has always offered magicians, alchemy, divination, and an elaborate cast of supernatural beings. Zen (chan in Chinese) may itself face life straight on, offering the most austere of practices, but in China it became conflated with Pure Land Amidism (Jìngtǔzōng) which imagines access through the recitation of a spell to a fabulous realm with all sorts of exotic divinities, flora and fauna. Much Chinese fiction consists of stories of sorcerers, ghosts, gods, fairies, and semi-divine figures of all sorts [5] and even the histories commonly feature interventions from heaven and other fantastic explanations. While it is difficult to determine to what extent author and audience accepted these marvels literally, [6] they contribute whimsy, entertainment, and metaphorical value. Surely such fanciful tales have a good deal in common with the horror and science fiction films of today.

The Journey to the West (Pei-yu chi), an anonymous novel published in its current form in the early 17th century, [7] originally appeared as one of a set of four journey narratives, one for each direction. [8] The book contains wonders enough for any fantasy film fan. Not only amazing transformations, but the most peculiar self-confrontations insist that even one’s own ego, the last retreat against the skeptic, may be questioned, divided, and exploded. The human reincarnation of the heavenly ruler, the Jade Emperor, practices austerities with such assiduity that he fails to notice when his guts are removed. His stomach becomes an independently acting turtle demon and his intestines a snake demon. (112) His meditations are so effective that the Emperor promotes him in a bureaucratic interoffice memo to “the ranks of Heavenly officials.” [9] Conquering his own innards, he makes them his generals in the service of order and virtue.

Chen Wu is repeatedly characterized as a sort of intermediary between heaven and earth. In one version [10] he is a reformed sinner, a butcher who attracts the attention of Kuan Yin when he wraps his cleaver in his own bowels before tossing it to ensure that it is not used for slaughter in the future. In the Journey to the North he appears as the Jade Emperor, a heavenly ruler who nonetheless willfully descends to a human consciousness since he covets a beautiful plaything. At times his celestial form communicates with his human one. (109) Despite his superhuman status, he not only may be tempted; he can also be injured (132). The same is true of other figures. Kuan Yü, for example, though an immortal, still studies sutras to continue on the road to enlightenment. (134-5)

Furthermore, the book’s translator, an anthropologist, seeks at length to demonstrate that the text is a transcription of spirit voices delivered through a shamanic medium. Whether this be in fact true or not, the book confines itself for the most part to Amazing Stories [11], while there is little of revelation or moral exhortation. The primary focus, judging from internal evidence and much of Seaman’s own contemporary findings, is to establish the bona fides of Chen Wu, the true warrior, a deity also called the Emperor of the Dark Heavens (Hsüan-t’ien Shang-ti), worshipped at Wu-tang Shan in Hupei Province and in a great many other temples. His authority is manifested in episodes resembling other superheroes, vanquishing one foe after another, while occasionally lapsing into weakness himself and slipping through his own error some rungs down the karmic ladder. He continues to climb, though, and his setbacks doubtless only endear a divinity to the fallible human, while his every triumph is a sort of plaintive wish for similar success on the more contested earthly field.

The notion that narrative arises when the divine and the mundane mix is symbolically represented in a number of Chinese novels. For instance, the text of the Dream of the Red Chamber is supposed to be transcribed from a divine stone descended to earth to enter human form, and Water Margin’s hundred and eight heroes are onetime demonic overlords, now repentant and reborn as virtuous outlaws. Sun Wukong in Journey to the West is repeatedly exiled from celestial realms only to be readmitted until his ordeal-filled quest to fetch scriptures if finally successful. As in the Hebrew scriptures, it is when the divine and the human interact that action follows. Before the Fall, Eden must have been altogether uneventful.

If one is accept Seaman’s theory of the ritual role of the story, Chen Wu is a sort of culture hero/savior/granter of wishes, a wonder-working yet accessible deity not unlike Jesus. He is said to have subdued the malign forces just as he had defeated the barbarians (112), even if the latter campaign seems more to do with worldly goals than with enlightenment. Despite the rarified air of frothy fairy fancies, the hero returns to the human-centered Confucian values of filial piety and just rule. (86)

In one of the most striking images of the book Chen Wu, in the role of the Venerable Teacher who has abdicated rule to pursue meditation in the mountains, encounters an old woman rubbing an iron pole on a boulder with the aim of wearing it down to an embroidery needle (102). Next an old man “pecking” at a cliff with an awl, intending to construct a canal tells his that “the heart is harder than stone.” (103) He persists in his work. The image encapsulates the vision of the virtual impossibility of achievement in the human realm while insisting on the value of constant striving, the continual if never wholly successful effort to exert one’s will in the face of what Marvell called “the iron gates of life.”

The reader of this volume appreciates Wu Cheng-en’s Journey to the West all the more for its clear focus throughout on enlightenment and its consistently scintillating humor. Though the Journey to the North is a markedly less satisfying narrative, it shares to some extent Wu’s delight in wonders and his absolute confidence in the rightness of the cosmos. Here Taoism is a wondrous intersection of philosophy, superstition, and a delightfully whimsical play of imagination.

Yet the book amounts to something more eloquent and poignant than entertainment. For me the current popular cult practice Seaman studied in which Chen Wu is yet today the goal of pilgrimages, the patron of exorcisms, the prophetic voice that continues to speak through the mouths of possessed shamans is more significant than any of the cult’s details. The story’s simple reinforcing fables, so repetitively iterated, constitute a sort of entertainment that reinforces cult practices and social attitudes through a simple sympathetic magic. Our hero wins, and thus we all win. Retributive justice prevails in spite of upheavals and struggles. As in any superhero story, the end is never really in doubt. Surely the people Seaman accompanied on pilgrimages to temples of Chen Wu in Taiwan were seeking similar reassurance. If such supernatural reassurance escapes the contemporary reader, he can still appreciate the deeply human yearning behind such a wildly fabulous story, and join with Chen Wu’s devotees in relishing a ripping tale.

1. All the epistolary novels include this pretense of lived reality as do works like Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and many others.

2. Lu Hsun’s A Brief History of Chinese Fiction provides a detailed historical account.

3. Lao-Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and Lieh Tzu remain for me the wisest sages. I count a small group of Tang Dynasty Buddhist poets among the world’s greatest. I find in the Transmission of the Lamp (Ching-te Ch'uan teng lu) the most profound sublimity. The appeal of Confucius and Szu-ma Chien continues to elude me.

4. See page 567, though in his introduction to “Chinese Tales” (937) he notes that “Chinese literature abounds in tales of ghosts, goblins, fox spirits, genii, and double personalities.”

5. Ling kuai is the genre of specifically supernatural narratives.

6. The same problem, of course, exists in European texts. While Homer, Sappho, and Hesiod are likely to have been religious “fundamentalists” in this sense, what of Euripedes, Plato, or Ovid?

7. Yü Hsiang-tou was apparently the editor and publisher, the source of several interpolations. See Seaman’s introduction, also published as “The Divine Authorship of Pei-yu chi [Journey to the North]” in the Journal of Asian Studies, XLV, 3 (May 1986), 483-497.

8. Ssu-yu chi, the four journeys. Among them is a version of the story of Monkey, the Journey to the West.

9. p. 109.

10. See Seaman’s introduction, page 2.

11. Amazing Stories was the pioneering pulp magazine first published by Hugo Gernsback in 1926.


It is to me a puzzle of human evolution that people should have hair atop the head that grows and grows. The hair of our armpits, pubes, and elsewhere grows to a short and convenient length and then is replaced, while above our ears it does not stop. Until tools were made that might trim this growth, it was surely inconvenient for our remote ancestors to find their hair tangled in knots, infested with vermin, or flopping in front of the eyes. Yet has there been a single culture in which everyone shaves the head? Rather than following this sensible recourse, people have made the hair of their heads the focus of the elaborate practices, starting from the most basic males/short, females/long distinction and extending though the curling and scenting of antiquity to the salons and youth fashions of the present day.

The facial hair that appears on men at sexual maturity provides further opportunities for the semiotic signaling of style. Like the head-hair shared by men and women, it grows almost without limit, [1] far beyond the point where it would be an impediment, and thus it is that virtually every society trims the beard and some have shaved it off entirely.
We have reached a relaxation in this twenty-first century of America’s near prohibition on beards during my youth. During the time they were so very rare a beard was generally sorted among just a few possibilities according to specific characteristics. To see a beard would set off a chain of associations: of other eras or other lands, add a robe and you have Christ; a tousled appearance indicates a bum; a beret a bohemian; tweeds and glasses, a professor; a VanDyke means a psychiatrist; overalls a hillbilly; long hair above would indicate a nature boy.

Even the simple binary opposition beard/no beard has accumulated considerable signification through the centuries. In ancient Greece the beard was simply the sign of the adult man, distinguishing an individual from women and boys. In many cultures the beard was the badge of full civic membership and frequently people would or point to the beard as evidence of their responsibility. Plutarch tells of a Spartan who was asked why he wore a long beard, replied “So that I may see my grey hairs and do nothing unworthy of them.” [2] It seems also to have been customary to swear by the beard. In As You Like It [3] Touchstone says, “Stroke your chins, and swear by your beards that I am a knave” and in Troilus and Cressida, Nestor vows “By this white beard, I’ld fight with thee to-morrow.” [4]

Having naturally acquired associations with masculinity and thus strength, the beard was worn by soldiers until Alexander forbade them among his troops in 354 BCE, but, then, perhaps he just preferred a shorn look. The same military style was endorsed by Scipio Africanus among the Romans. After a time, many citizens, especially in cities, took to shaving and during the latter part of antiquity, beards then became associated with philosophers. Epictetus thought a beard “more beautiful than a cock’s comb” which should be preserved in part to clarify “the distinctions of the sexes.” “Adorn yourself then” he advises, “as man, not as woman. . . . Woman is naturally smooth and delicate; and if she has much hair (on her body), she is a monster and is exhibited at Rome among monsters. And in a man it is monstrous not to have hair; and if he has no hair, he is a monster; but if he cuts off his hairs and plucks them out, what shall we do with him? where shall we exhibit him? and under what name shall we show him? I will exhibit to you a man who chooses to be a woman rather than a man.” [5]

Instead of gender identity, the philosopher’s beard may signify, as it did for Diogenes, a disregard for social norms and in particular for artificial fussing over appearance. The association with philosophy was insufficient to protect the beard-wearer from satire. Poets made fun of beards not only with gibes about lice, goats, and dirt, but pretensions to wisdom as well in a way quite similar to Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy cartoons featuring beatniks. [6] Even in societies where beard-wearing was the norm, such a secondary sexual characteristic may not necessarily be an erotic ornament. Many ancient gay Greek lyrics admonish the adolescent to make hay while the sun shines, warning that soon his beard will come and he will no longer be so attractive. [7]

From the philosopher to the man of religion may seem a small step, but the religious have struggled around the issue of beards for millennia. A beard may be a sign of asceticism or luxury, of unconcern for personal appearance or the excuse for elaborate trimming, scenting, and grooming. The somewhat obscure prohibition in Leviticus [8] against rounding “the corners of your heads,” and marring “the corners of thy beard” follows rules against divination and precedes an interdiction of cutting oneself “for the dead” and tattooing. (This has led some commentators to suggest it has more to do with avoiding pagan practices than with Jehovah’s preferences in hairstyle.) Every day on my bicycle route, I encounter Hasidic Jews whose beards provide visible signs of the strictness of their observance of those mysterious ancient lines.

Clement of Alexandria calls the beard “the mark of a man” and says “it is therefore unholy to desecrate the symbol of manhood.” [9] The beard was the mark of the Desert Fathers and other ascetics as it is today of the the Amish, Orthodox priests and monks, saddhus, and Sikhs. While the encouragement of Islam for facial hair is historically based in Mohammed’s beard, [10] the Christian Rascolniks in Russia so valued their own that they rebelled against Peter the Great’s condemnation of facial hair, saying they would rather lose their heads than their beards.

Though the Desert Fathers wore beards, many hermits and monks do not and indeed shave their pates as well as their chins. (In Thailand Buddhist monks go further yet, shaving even their eyebrows.) The Roman Emperor Julian grew a beard specifically to distinguish himself from the shaven Christian emperors before him, and to mark his connection to pagan Roman religion. The Western Church came to be very suspicious of beards, and they are forbidden for Roman Catholic clergy by a good many authorities, including the Canons of Edgar, the Council of Bourges, and an edict of Pope Alexander III. The disagreement was sufficiently strongly felt that it constituted part of the split between Eastern and Western churches in 1054.

My own beard feels a badge neither of religion nor irreligion. It is to some extent a fruit of laziness and the fact that my easily cut skin shrinks from the blade. It has the inconvenience of overdetermination in that it seems to some to tell more about me than it in fact does. Yet I would deceive myself if I did not acknowledge that the old connotations bore undeniable weight. Surely in the sixties beards were at once sensual and philosophical, artistic and counter-cultural, a sign both of hedonism and spiritual aspiration. It is a satisfyingly dense symbol, so comfortable that it is, I think, about fifteen years since I last shaved. Perhaps in another five I shall feel like having another unobstructed look at my own face.

Apologia for Shaving after Twenty Years

Because outward alteration can stimulate changes within,
and it is salutary now and then to seek to surprise
oneself and even the best of neighbors;
because too many people looking my way saw only the beard
and nothing else and we have regardless too many
barriers to the soul,
and bearded men, it is well known, are far too easy to draw;
for it was a sorry thing at best: worn, patchy, insecure, and
with little voice in the congresses of beards,
and thus even as it asserted my maturity, it conceded
that adolescence was still upon me;
because I suffer willy-nilly from excesses, and among those
excesses are pedantry and poetry, and I need no
signifiers to push the point;
for a smooth chin is a feminine thing, and the world would
still do well to be a bit more womanly;
for my masculinity is adequately evinced by impatience in
stores and traffic jams, and by my iron resolution
that no one should pass me on the bicycle path,
and thus the beard was superfluous;
for mine was a beard that meant youth and not age, and now
I am no longer young;
because after even more than twenty years the shock of seeing
my own face may have been -- oh! -- too great to bear;
for already the beard had grown white enough to show
the shadows of my own ghost too clear, and I fled,
I fled at last.

1. The longest recorded beard is generally conceded to be that of Hans Langseth which reached 17’ 6” (18’ 6” in some accounts). Contemporary contenders reach barely half that heroic length.

2. Plutarch, Apophthegmata Spartika 4.

3. 2. I, ii.

4. IV, v.

5. Arrian, Discourses of Epictetus, Book I.16 Book III.1.

6. A number of such mocking poems have been gathered at http://laudatortemporisacti.blogspot.com/2006/04/beards-and-philosophers.html.
For Bushmiller’s work see his Bums, Beatniks and Hippies/Artists & Con Artists.

7. V 277 “I hate the unkind hair that begins to grow too soon.” (Eratosthenes Scholasticus.

8. Lev. 19:27.

9. The Instructor, Bk III, Ch 3, 2.276 and 2.277.

10. Oddly, Muslims must not shave their beards (moustaches can go) yet they do shave public hair

Rereading the Classics [Montaigne]

Page references in the notes in parentheses are to the Modern Library Giant with the 1603 translation by John Florio, the friend of Giordano Bruno and very likely of Shakespeare. My own copy, purchased well-used, already browning and worn fifty years ago, is still quite serviceable.

Montaigne’s attitude does not vary through the thousand pages of his essays. His curiosity, learning, skepticism, tolerance, and taste are all evident from the first essay (on “By Divers Means Men Come to a Like End”) to the last (“Of Experience”). The reason for this consistency is announced at the outset of his work when he declares to his readers “it is my selfe I pourtray.” He aims not at sublimity but rather “mine owne genuine, simple and ordinarie fashion, without contention, art or study.” For this project he found it necessary to invent a new form, the essay and a new formulation of skepticism based on “natural judgement.”

Though born to a high position and corresponding social responsibilities, he retired from public life in his late thirties [1] to cultivate his private studies and to record his thoughts in an ever-growing volume.
For the reader this desertion of many social duties and the resulting introspection resulted in the most delightful of books. Since Montaigne is primarily interested in his own regard for what he studies rather than in final truths about the object itself, all topics come to seem equally fruitful and all conclusions tentative. Freed from the Procrustean demands of dogma to regularize his vision, which he recognizes as inherently flawed, he may, like a poet, be loyal to the precise recording of impressions. In this way he produced an altogether new sort of prose, a candid “trail map” of consciousness utterly absorbing to any reader who finds pleasure in meditative ratiocination or who relishes the sensibility of others.

What other volume can one open at random to find such entertaining and irresistible data as these, chosen only just now and wholly, I guarantee, at random.

1) With a vivid and persuasive image, he says our unnecessary appetites crowd out the natural like visitors outnumbering the residents of a city. A few lines later, Montaigne provides a series of stories of beasts in love with humans. (418)

2) “A physitian boasted unto Nicocles, that his Arte was of exceeding great authority, It is true (quoth Nicocles) for, it may kill so many people without feare of punishment by Lawe.” (690) [2]

3) He sketches out a marvelous set-piece, the description of a performance
sponsored by the Roman emperor Probus featuring first, thousands of ostriches,
bucks, stags, and boars imported to be hunted by the common people, followed by a day of lions, leopards, and bears “to be baited and tugged in pieces,” and finally three hundred pairs of gladiators. (817)

Sauntering through his pages is, so far as I am concerned, the best way to read Montaigne, with little concern for form and less for conclusions, but with a continual delight in his unpredictability, erudition, candor, and style. Only a relaxed and expectant audience can appreciate the divagations of the scant two page account “Of Smels and Odors.” (Bk. 1, Ch. LV) The essay begins not from direct observation, but from a book, noting Plutarch’s report that Alexander’s body had naturally a “sweet smelling savour,” but this bookish opening, it seems, was designed to lead directly to its inverse in all-too-real lived experience. Most people, Montaigne says, are “cleane contrarie” to Alexander, which is to say, they stink. He continues to develop the polarity between unpleasant body odor and a “clean” smell, which is to say, no smell at all. He indicts perfumes as a partial mask of fouler scents. Then succeeds a whimsical account of his mustaches as guardian of his nostrils of service in avoiding not only stench but even contagion. This suggests Socrates’ reputation for resisting plagues, implying that not only world conquerors but also wise men may develop semi-supernatural powers. Physicians might, he thinks, make better use of what today enjoys a bit of a vogue as aromatherapy. This leads to a recognition of the role of incense in religion which slides rapidly into the use of spices in cuisine. The reader next relishes a snapshot of the extravagant kitchen of Charles V, the vapors from which would perfume the whole neighborhood of the palace. He concludes by noting his distaste for the “fennie and marish” location of Venice and the “durtie uncleannesse” of Paris. The rapidly shifting focus is reminiscent of montage in filmmaking or successions of images in poetry.

His style, too, is lush and sensual, though at the same time colloquial. Montaigne indulges to the full a “late” fondness for citation, bricolage, architectural sentences, and endless paragraphs, running for pages, as though they confess their inability ever quite to contain their meaning, but which approach ever closer with each telling detail. He cites the ancients because he realizes we have no evidence for anything beyond our own experience and what we can learn of the experience of others. He piles one quotation upon another, knowing that it is never enough, the case will not be settled, we will be collecting evidence to the end of our days, and, if we reach no satisfying conclusion, we will at least have diverted ourselves in the most human of ways.

Montaigne’s method led to an extraordinary modernity, not just in the assumption that the subjective is for better or worse inevitable and not a choice at all, but also in its complement, a tolerant pluralism, both ethnic and religious. His essay “On the Canibales” goes so far as to treat the West Indian natives as representatives of a better-than-golden age, “little bastardized” by civilization. (164) Even their poetry he finds to have the loveliness of ancient Greek. (170) Though they killed and ate captives of war, they were impressed that the Portuguese were yet more “smartfull” and “cruel” and had to teach the Indians ingenious methods of torture. (436)

There is however, a philosophic basis for Montaigne’s sensibility, though it is not my project here to refine the schema of some critics that portrays him moving from Stoicism through Skepticism to Epicureanism. I am a tourist only in philosophy, satisfied to call him a skeptic throughout. What matters to me in his thought I hardly distinguish from Richard Rorty. In my own figure I would call his philosophy consistently paradoxical in that it requires a rejection of the ordinary claims of philosophy, a rejection the Renaissance Frenchman shares with Zen and Dada but with few in his own day. What could be plainer than the personal medal he had coined engraved with the maxim of the great skeptic Pyrrho “epecho” (“I abstain” or “withhold judgment”) and the French “Que sçay-je?” The likeness of Pyrrho’s expositor Sextus Empiricus was prominent among the savants he had carved in the woodwork of his personal library. His Christianity was sufficiently doubtful that his book spent centuries on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. [3]

The fullest exposition of his skepticism and the longest individual essay is “An Apologie of Raymond Sebond.” Sebond, a professor of theology at Toulouse, had argued that reason was not incompatible with faith. To him illumination can arrive only through divine revelation, primarily in scripture, but, once one has learned the basic facts of god’s reality, the entire creation will testify further to the divine will. Similarly, human logic, once harnessed to the Church’s teachings, can amplify and reinforce religious truth. Montaigne’s father had, toward the end of his life, asked that his son undertake a translation of Sebond’s Theologia Naturalis, perhaps to strengthen his own faith as well as the faith of other French readers. Montaigne praises Sebond’s wit and piety, and, after translating the work, went on to write his own defense of the theologian’s ideas, ostensibly adding another polemical work on behalf of Christianity. But he deviated considerably from his learned and orthodox source.

For Montaigne grace is more elusive and reason more deeply suspect than it was to Sebond. Montaigne argues for a radical skepticism that insists we cannot know anything at all. Though he makes occasional orthodox obeisances to Christian doctrine, his rhetoric mounts an ever more devastating attack against the possibility of attaining any sort of truth at all. Backed into a corner of utter unknowing, he will then plaintively note that only through god’s favor can one be sure of the indubitable truths of religion. But to the reader, and, one suspects, to the author, they did not seem at all so certain.
Montaigne speaks to us directly, and many have commented on the extraordinary modernity of his colloquialism (and eloquent it is) and his lack of ethnocentrism. Perhaps even more dramatically contemporary is Montaigne’s desperation in his final grasp after some sort of redemptive assurance which seems always futile, Sisyphean, Existential. It is both a cliché and a fact that Montaigne exemplifies the Renaissance assertion of the individual. His break with the corporate body of the Church and his wavering faith are part of the price he paid for his integrity.

The result, however, is a thoroughly radical doubt. With charming modesty he says, though “Knowledge is, without all contradiction, a most profitable and chiefe ornament . . . yet I doe not value it at so excessive a rate as some have done.” (385) This elegantly understates his view. For Montaigne the celebrated case of Martin Guerre whose impersonator deceived even his wife for years suggests that nothing can be certainly known. (933) He cites Plato saying that nature, far from shadowing forth eternal truths is “nothing but an aenigmaticall poesie,” which he describes, in a compressed version of Plato’s cave [4] as “an overshadowed and darke picture, enter-shining with an infinit varietie of false lights.” All philosophy, he concludes, is itself no better than a “sophisticated poesie” whose propositions “are all dreames and mad follies.” (481)
He concedes that “Atheisme” is, course, “execrable” (386), yet he finds no reason whatever to embrace religion’s dogmas. Even Augustine, he notes, admitted that “many things may be, and have been, whereof our discourse can never ground the nature and the causes.” (398) His voice seems more desperate than confident when he argues that only the divine can make man more than man (547) and that “it is faith onely, which lively and assuredly embraceth the high mysteries of our Religion” (388) Faith itself can be suspect, too. For Montaigne the fact that children and the aged tend to piety implies that religion were “bred by imbecility.” (393) Similarly those who find god only in times of affliction have a flimsy sort of belief. (392) A pretense to certainty may cloak what amounts to nothing more than a means of social control. (457) Well aware that god has been conceived in a great variety of forms (459), he expresses a sympathetic awareness of non-Christian religious systems, declaring that due to the “generall blindnesse” of our minds, humans must have images to worship. “As for me,” he continues “I should rather have taken part with those who worshipped the Sunne.” Heliolatry is at least potentially monotheistic, but Montaigne further says he prefers to follow “those that worshipped the Serpent, the Dogge, and the Oxe” than to credit the “hurly-burly of so many Philosophical wits” (461) Quoting Xenophanes’ celebrated claim that the beasts would imagine beast-gods, he extends it to imagine the theology of a pious goose. (477)

How feeble, he says, is religious belief when everyone can see that people pay more regard to the opinions of their neighbors, kinsmen, and masters than they do to what they claim to believe to be god’s will. The universality of a fear of death indicates men do not truly believe. (391) Montaigne agrees with Hamlet that only “feare” “keepes a foole joined to his bodie.” (443) It is clear that in general Christians behave no better than Turks or pagans, and the organized church is notoriously corrupt. [5] Most people merely “perswade themselves” that they believe. “Justice . . . is used but for a cloake and ornament.” (389) For him conviction – of anything at all, mind you, and not just the consolations of faith -- is nothing but accommodation to our own weakness and ignorance, asserted in the interests of pitifully egocentric opportunism. He categorically declares that it is beyond human power to know “the least part” of the universe. (396) All opinions are but “smoke and wind.” (435) All the great thinkers have “sported themselves with reason, as of a vaine and frivolous instrument, setting forth all sorts of inventions, devices, and fantasies, sometimes more outstretched, and sometimes more loose.” The whole is endlessly variable, amounting to nothing but “dreames” and “devises.” (490)

His own intellectual lineage is obvious since his pages throng with classical citations while Biblical ones are all but absent. He admits to being “altogether ignorant” of Scripture, (387) though he scrupulously shrinks from explicit agnosticism or heresy. His closest ancestor in thought is surely Pyrrho, (449) the radical skeptic for whom the knowledge that we can know nothing at all leads to a relaxation, a release of mental tension that allows the ataraxia sought by Epicureans and Stoics as well as by Buddhist monks and Shaivite saddhus. For him the celebrated glories of philosophy seem nothing more than parlor tricks to pass the time. “Difficulty is a coin that wisemen make use of, as juglars do with passé and repasse.” (453) He mercilessly pares away pride, insisting on “ the emptinesse, vacuitie, and no worth of man.” (395) The demonstrations of philosophers may be at first appealing, but fact is that their opposites could be proven just as convincingly. “Nothing seemeth true, that may not seeme false.” (his italics, 451) Where can truth be sought, when no two sages agree, and “reason yeeldeth appearance to divers effects? (525-531) There is little room for compromise when “humane science cannot be maintained but by unreasonable, fond, and mad reason.” (535) “Philosophie presenteth unto us, not that which is, or she beleeveth, but what she inventeth.” (484) He cannot remind us often enough that the dubious consolations of philosophy amount to nothing but “foolish vanitie” built upon “fond ridiculous foundations.” (436)

Much of the essay, in fact, goes beyond even skepticism to a chastening of all human pretensions. For Montaigne people cannot even claim an intellectual advantage over beasts. “What sufficiency is there in us, that we must not acknowledge from the industry and labours of beasts?” Apart from the fact that we cannot make out their consciousness with any precision, they clearly have superior senses in some ways. Even the activities of spiders have depths we cannot plumb. (401-3, 541) A hog may act is a more sensible manner than people. (436) The mad may indeed enjoy greater felicity than the sane, (442) and the naked cannibals are at least as civilized as Europeans. The “primitive” New World natives are calmer and happier than over-sophisticated European hypochondriac neurotics. (438, 444) Whatever powers our minds may possess are as often as not overturned by illness, intoxications, and stupefaction. (494) The “spittle or slavering of a sick dog” can vanquish even Socrates’ reason. (495) “The least things in the world wil turne [our reason] topsy-turvy.” (509)

Not knowing even themselves, (505-6) people’s opinions are a sort of natural phenomenon like winds (519) and for this reason, acceptance of generally received truths is the best policy. “Keepe your selves in the common path, it is not good to be so subtill, and so curious.” (503) In fact the ignorant and the foolish are not only happier than people of a more intellectual cast, they are also better lovers. (437) Montaigne quotes Horace to the effect that the illiterate’s erection is the equal of his better’s. (433)

The picture is bleak indeed, though balanced by the writer’s evident delight in the multifarious and endlessly fascinating world about him. He argues along with the ancient Stoics and Epicureans that positive pleasure is a phantom; the best one can experience is a lack of pain. He quotes Ennius: Nimium boni est, cui nihil est mali. Even sex is only a release of tension; true ataraxia is undesirable if not unattainable. (439)

Montaigne approaches a sort of via negative mysticism, but he is far too susceptible to emotion to find real transcendence. He does indeed call man “a thing of nothing,” (445) but nirvana means nothing, an it may well be that Ultimate Reality is better known by our not knowing, by the divine “cloud of unknowing,” as the medieval author had it. When Montaigne condemns any proposition – especially anthropomorphism -- about the divine, citing Cicero and Plato, he might also have noted the line from Exodus . [7] “but my face shall not be seen” or Maimonides or Aquinas, for that matter.

Montaigne concludes his third and last book with a citation from Horace which from his pen is far from dryasdust, but rather poignant, and heart-felt, and touching. The author hopes in his “old yeares” to be sound of mind “nor wanting musicke to delight my eares.” He had spent his entire life in the energetic exercise of that definitive human characteristic, adeptness at manipulating symbols, both in the exhilaration of composition and in the connoisseurship of appreciation of his fellow humans. The ancient concept of philosophy, in Greece as in China and India was the study of how to live a good life. In this sense Montaigne was among the wisest of philosophers.

1. He was persuaded to assume the local role of mayor of Bordeaux.

2. Montaigne had a suspicious distrust of doctors and for years refused their treatment of his kidney stones.

3. Among the authors forbidden by the Church before the end of the list in 1966 were Dante (only the Monarchia), Rabelais, Descartes, Hume, Pascal, Rousseau, Flaubert, Balzac, and Stendhal.

4. Bk. V, the Republic.

5. Montaigne ingeniously notes that, though this fact might lead one to unbelief, another might find it miraculous that so crime-ridden a body as the Catholic Church can maintain its sacred role. This becomes then another instance of wholly ambiguous truth, both substantial and empty at once. (I am thinking of Nagarjuna with those adjectives.)

6. Odes, Bk. I, 31.

7. Exodus 33:20. For Maimonides see, for instance, The Guide for the Perplexed, I, 37; for Aquinas Summa Theologica, I, Q, 3.