By the time Michel de Montaigne wrote “Of Experience,” the last entry in his third and final book of essays, the French statesman and author had weathered numerous outbreaks of plague (in 1585, while he was mayor of Bordeaux, a third of the population perished), political uprisings, the death of five daughters, and an onslaught of physical ailments, from rotting teeth to debilitating kidney stones.
All the while, Montaigne was writing. From a tower on his family’s estate in southwestern France, he’d innovated a leisurely yet commodious literary mode that mirrored—while also helping to manufacture—the unpredictable movements of his racing mind. Part evolving treatise, part prismatic self-portrait, the essai, in Montaigne’s conception, was the antidote to self-isolation, a recurring conference in the midst of quarantine, perhaps even a kind of textual necromancy—his best friend and intellectual sparring partner, the poet Étienne de La Boétie, had died of plague in 1563.
“Of Experience” is about how to live when life itself comes under attack. Because life as we’ve known it is on hold at the moment, because sickness and confusion are everywhere, and because one of the things books are good for is reminding us that we aren’t alone in history or consciousness, reading “Of Experience” right now feels like an analogue to experience; not a cold study of a distant artist’s late style so much as wisdom lit for wary souls unresigned, as of yet, to world-weariness.
Given the subject matter, “Of Experience” has about it a remarkably buoyant magnitude. Take, for instance, the following passage, as translated by Donald Frame in The Complete Essays of Montaigne:
It takes management to enjoy life. I enjoy it twice as much as others, for the measure of enjoyment depends on the greater or lesser attention that we lend it. Especially at this moment, when I perceive that mine is so brief in time, I try to increase it in weight; I try to arrest the speed of its flight by the speed with which I grasp it, and to compensate for the haste of its ebb by my vigor in using it. The shorter my possession of life, the deeper and fuller I must make it.
Propelled by verbs—perceive, arrest, grasp, make, try, try—the sentences wheel and wrestle across the page, resisting stasis at every turn, refusing to wait around. They achieve that mimetic, nearly miraculous work of performing the very action they describe. Here and elsewhere, Montaigne’s musings on mortality, his gripes about illness and aging, his love-hate relationship with the natural order, not to mention his fervent epistemological stocktaking, make for a stubborn blueprint for life in the red zone, an operative action plan for how to wring futility’s neck.
The ubiquity of suffering heightened Montaigne’s attentiveness to the complexity of human experience. Pleasure, he contends, flows not from free rein but structure. The brevity of existence, he goes on, gives it a certain heft. Exertion, truth be told, is the best form of compensation. Time is slippery, the more reason to grab hold.
In each of these apothegms, we find evidence of what Keats would later call, in a letter to his brothers, “negative capability,” a notion that F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his essay “The Crack-Up,” summarized as the capacity to embrace two contradictory ideas at the same time and go on functioning. “Of Experience” is one of Montaigne’s gravest works—“We must learn to endure,” he writes, “what we cannot avoid”—but the writing is so vigorous, so uninterested in despair. In the end, we get the sense from the writing that the writing was Montaigne’s method of magnifying enjoyment. Reading him might be as good a way as any to suspend life’s flight.
Drew Bratcher was born in Nashville. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. He lives in Chicagoland.