member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Slideshow is of Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Montaigne, Your Life and The End of the World

Gormenghast Castle, by Su Blackwell

All Images in this post by Su Blackwell.

As a younger man, in his twenties and thirties, Montaigne was gripped by a terror of death and a semi-constant absorption with its lurking shadows, threats and assaults. All of his favorite philosophers seemed to suggest that the more one imagined one’s own death, the better prepared one would be to have a “good” death, which meant a brave countenance and several manly, well-timed speeches; but the more he thought about death, the more he brooded, the less lively and alive he was. On top of this philosophical difficulty was the disastrous events of his early thirties, in which his best friend was killed by the plague, his father passed, his perfectly healthy younger brother was killed by a minor blow to the head in a sporting match, and his first child died at two months of age. Death was everywhere, and thinking about it philosophically brought him no peace.

What did finally bring him peace was his own brush with death, when one of his own men accidentally knocked him off of his horse. Sarah Bakewell describes the incident in her book, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer:

“During what followed, as witnesses later told him, Montaigne thrashed about. He ripped at his doublet with his nails, as if to rid himself of a weight. ‘My stomach was oppressed with the clotted blood; my hands flew to it of their own accord, as they often do where we itch, against the intention of our will.’ It looked as if he were trying to rip his own body apart, or perhaps to pull it away from him so his spirit could depart. All this time, however, his inward feelings were tranquil.
The servants continued to carry him towards the house, in this state of inward languor and outward agitation. His family noticed the commotion and ran out to him—’with the outcries customary in such cases,’ as he later put it. They asked what had happened. Montaigne was able to give answers, but not coherent ones. He saw his wife picking her way awkwardly over the uneven path and considered telling his men to give her a horse to ride. You would think that all this must have come from ‘a wide-awake soul,’ he wrote. Yet, ‘the fact is that I was not there at all.’ He had traveled far away. ‘These were idle thoughts, in the clouds, set in motion by the sensations of the eyes and ears; they did not come from within me’—chez moi, a term usually meaning ‘at home.’ All his actions and words were somehow produced by the body alone. ‘What the soul contributed was in a dream, touched very lightly, and merely licked and sprinkled, as it were, by the soft impression of the senses.’ Montaigne and life, it seemed, were about to part company with neither regret nor formal farewells, like two drunken guests leaving a feast too dazed to say goodbye.”

Gormenghast Castle Detail

“His return to life was as violent as the accident: all jostlings, impacts, flashes, and thunderclaps. Life thrust itself deeply into him, whereas death had been a light and superficial thing. From now on, he tried to import some of death’s delicacy and buoyancy into life. ‘Bad spots’ were everywhere, he wrote in a late essay. We do better to ‘slide over this world a bit lightly and on the surface.’ Through this discovery of gliding and drifting, he lost much of his fear, and at the same time acquired a new sense that life, as it passed through his body—his particular life, Michel de Montaigne’s—was a very interesting subject for investigation. He would go on to attend to sensations and experiences, not for what they were supposed to be, or for what philosophical lessons they might impart, but for the way they actually felt. He would go with the flow.”

The Raven, by Su Blackwell

It’s an important detail, that comment about making yourself a subject for investigation. If all possibilities are happening at once, by living your life you are choosing one to investigate, to experience, to immerse yourself in, the same way that some part of you chooses a dream to immerse yourself in, whether that dream is a path through an impossibly lush landscape full of intensely magical fauna or a horrifying race through twisting, dark forests with monsters on your trail. Some part of you has chosen, and I believe that that part of you is Habit. There you are: head down, pencil clenched in your hand, berating yourself silently for having managed to somehow miss the majority of the semester’s classes and then forgetting to study, while your whole future depends on this exam you’re about to fail. You can’t even keep the options straight on the paper. What is this nightmare about? It’s a habitual way of thinking, of responding to the world, of translating the events in front of you: you’re never prepared, you can’t keep things straight, you don’t understand your options, etc. To look up from that test and think: this is a dream, I don’t have to feel like this--that would be a simple thing. But you don’t. Why? Because you believe. You readily accept that you do have to. And here’s the suggestion I’m making: at any time, when something is happening that’s unpleasant, or even just mildly annoying, look down at your hands. Mess with some talisman that you’ve chosen to carry, feel its weight, recall where you got it and why. This will take your focus off of the unpleasant thing, the annoying circumstances, the fight that all the boiling blood in your body is furiously prepared and eager to be a part of (but which I can bet you will regret later), and put it on something else. This permits you a moment of distance, which can result in several things, two of which I’ll mention here: one, if you’re dreaming, taking your focus off of the event often allows for a total change of venue. You look away, and the set changes, that’s how these things work. Two, if you’re not dreaming (but are you *sure*?), it gives you the opportunity, as I mentioned, for a moment of distance, which can allow for a change in perspective. Recall, in Mastermind, the fly-on-the-wall trick, which suggests that you relive an argument or regretted moment as if you were not one of the people involved but rather a fly on the wall:

“It’s a process of picturing something vividly but from a distance, and so, from a perspective that is inherently different from the actual one you have stored in your memory. From scenario one to scenario two, you have gone from a concrete to an abstract mindset; you’ve likely become calmer emotionally, seen things that you missed the first time around, and you may have even come away with a slightly modified memory of what happened. In fact, you may have even become wiser and better at solving problems overall, unrelated to the scenario in question. (And you will have also been practicing a form of meditation. Sneaky, isn’t it?)” Konnikova, Maria (2013-01-03). Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (p. 148).

This is something like what happened with Montaigne. He had a very close brush with death, and experienced that distance via the time it took his body to decide whether it was staying or going. In that distance, he both lost his overwhelming fear of death and came to appreciate the fact that he could, from such a distanced vantage point, study all his own emotions and internal experiences. Thus the essay was born: Montaigne was the first person to study human thought and feeling in this way, and he was exceptional at it. He began a life-long study of what it was to live as a human, and how to do so well. Sarah Bakewell’s book pulls together some of his ideas, along with information about his time period and other biographical details, as a sort of guidebook through his massive tomes of essays. The first two chapters stood out to me as being astonishingly well-matched companions to the first two installments of the Last Policeman Trilogy by Ben H. Winters (the third is to come out this summer), which I’ll come to in a moment.

What Montaigne expresses, in his description of his brush with death, is much like what one experiences in a moment of lucid dreaming: you relinquish your grip on whatever habit is holding you to the action, and are filled with such a sense of relief, it’s much like floating.
It's a un-focusing of attention on certain things, and that is sometimes most easily-managed by the next title in the Montaigne book-- by paying attention to something else, to its every detail.

Detail: Wildflowers of the British Isles, by Su Blackwell

His mode of focus was writing:

“The trick is to maintain a kind of naive amazement at each instant of experience—but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are. To look inside yourself is to open up an even more fantastical realm. The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty called Montaigne a writer who put ‘a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence.’ More recently, the critic Colin Burrow has remarked that astonishment, together with Montaigne’s other key quality, fluidity, are what philosophy should be, but rarely has been, in the Western tradition.”

The Baron in the Trees, by Su Blackwell

In The Last Policeman, Henry Palace, along with everyone else on the planet, has just been given the date of his death. In a matter of months, a 6.5-kilometer-wide comet, known generally as Maia, has a 100% chance of colliding with Earth, thus destroying a large portion on impact and setting in motion the slow death of everything that survives that first bit. Because so many people decide to kill themselves (in Concord, where he lives, the method of choice is hanging) or “go Bucket-list,” there are a lot of openings among the detectives’ ranks, and Henry gets a promotion to his dream-job surprisingly early in his career. In the background, the selfish aspects of society go about responding the way you’d expect, dismissing promises, abandoning loved ones, walking away from their jobs and heading for the beach or trying out heroin or just doing whatever catches their (shallow) interest of the moment. Policing itself is not done with much finesse--there’s no concern with lengthy trials, and not much concern with investigation, but if you’re caught doing something against the law, they toss you in the can, where you’ll stay till the end. There still is a small detective squad, though, and one of the tasks before those detectives is to determine whether a death is clearly suicide, or if there might have been foul-play. As the story opens, Henry Palace sits before his cadaver, a hanger in a McDonald’s bathroom, and he says to himself, Holy Moly--this is it. My first murder.
No one else thinks so, but that doesn’t bother him. Henry Palace always wanted to be a detective, and Henry Palace wants to be a good detective. The world is falling to pieces around him, but that’s a lot of information, and there don’t seem to be many things he can do with all that information. This information in front of him, however, he figures he can do something with. He figures he can find out who killed Peter Zell, and let his family and the world know that this particular guy didn’t give up. He wasn’t a hanger.
And he does it a lot like Montaigne does it: he writes down all the details and then tests out the image, the experience of that information in his head:

“I write quietly for a minute, faster and faster, the pen scratching in the silence of the lobby, the old man looking abstractedly at me, head tilted, eyes distant, like I’m something in a museum case. Then I thank him and put away my blue book and my pen and step out onto the sidewalk, the snow falling on the red brick and sandstone of downtown, and I’m standing there for a second watching it all in my head, like a movie: the shy, awkward man in the rumpled brown suit, climbing up into the shotgun seat of a shiny red pickup running a converted engine, driving off into the last hours of his life. {...] Now, driving slowly in the direction of the Somerset Diner, I’m trying to capture the memory of someone else’s feelings, trying to decide exactly what Peter Zell was experiencing in that moment.”

Detail: The Baron in the Trees, by Su Blackwell

Detail: The Baron in the Trees, by Su Blackwell

Henry Palace does a lot of that, of trying to see events that already happened unfolding before him, trying to feel the emotions of someone no longer present, and where those emotions might have pushed them. And when someone is talking to him, maybe in a threatening manner, he often sits deep inside himself and lets his consciousness float up like a fly on the wall, and his response is therefore generally much more useful than the standard use-of-force. For example, in the second book, Countdown City, in which there is no longer a detective squad, but there is still Henry Palace, who will do the right thing and do it well for a friend in need, he comes up against a woman who holds huge power in the “Free Society” in which he’s found himself, a place where he spends his entire visit inside sweating the realization that he could be executed at any moment. She has just called him out in the midst of a meeting in which a man’s life hangs in the balance, and she’s removed him from the room for a private chat about why he’s inside their walls under false pretext. The man on trial was accused of stealing, and Henry, waiting in the background, trying to figure out a way to speak to the ‘witness’ for his own case, had found himself asking what he was accused of stealing. He was told that it didn’t matter, and the attention he drew to himself with his arguments to the contrary led to this private chat. As he faces the woman, Julia, he is very aware of his tenuous grasp on life as long as he’s within these walls, and especially while in her presence.

She tells him:
“I’m answering your question from downstairs. How can we pass sentence on someone who might be innocent?” She glares at me through the thickness of her glasses. “Wasn’t that your question?”
“Sort of.”
“No, it was, that’s what you asked. Don’t backtrack. He didn’t do it, by the way.”
She thrusts out her chin, waiting for astonishment, anger, argument. And in fact I am a little astonished; I can see him clearly, the shivering nervous defendant, barely out of his teens, hands bound, waiting for the punishment of the mob.
But I hold my peace, I just raise my eyebrows, go, “Oh, really?”
“Yeah. Really. I set him up.” She’s pushing, she’s feeling me out, and I know exactly why. She thinks that she hates me and she wants to make sure. I come to her tainted by my association with Martha, with “the wife,” and Julia Stone would therefore prefer to tell me to fuck off back to copland or wherever I came from. I therefore need to play it slow, hang back, save my questions until I think there’s a chance she’ll answer them.”

He does, and she does. And they part on good terms, which is the only spoiler I’ll give you. This is why he’s such a good detective: he hangs back where we would expect him to lunge forward, he treads lightly, tilts his perspective this way and that, and always notes things down in his little notebook, for the focus, the detail. He tells us:

“There is an aspect of my character that tends to latch on to one difficult but potentially solvable problem, rather than grapple with the vast and unsolvable problem that would be all I could see, if I were to look up, figuratively speaking, from my small blue notebooks. There are a million things I might be doing other than putting in overtime to make right one Bucket List abandonment, to heal Martha Milano’s broken heart. But this is what I do. It’s what makes sense to me, what has long made sense. And surely some large proportion of the world’s current danger and decline is not inevitable but rather the result of people scrambling fearfully away from the things that have long made sense.”

Detail: The Baron in the Trees, by Su Blackwell

Detail: The Baron in the Trees, by Su Blackwell

At another moment, as he struggles to remain upright and conscious, bleeding heavily from an arterial wound in his arm, he explains a central reality to human life--even for those of us who are, right now, unaware of the comet hurtling towards us:

“Because a promise is a promise, Officer Cavatone, and civilization is just a bunch of promises, that’s all it is. A mortgage, a wedding vow, a promise to obey the law, a pledge to enforce it. And now the world is falling apart, the whole rickety world, and every broken promise is a small rock tossed at the wooden side of its tumbling form.”

The Book of the Lost, by Su Blackwell

These two apocalyptic detective novels are surprisingly uplifting; the single man’s willingness to do the right thing, the example of his focus and the unexpected way that it changes eddies and then flows (and one day, maybe currents?) in the universe makes you believe. And it’s not that we have to put on the grim suit of the detective and step forward into danger to be a part of what he’s doing. In the astonishing way of these things, I was given as a gift a book called The Little Locksmith, a memoir written by Katharine Butler Hathaway, who also focused on these two ideas in order to make her life into something of genuine magic.
The Beginning of Something Beautiful by Su Blackwell

When she was five, Katharine came down with a variant of tuberculosis that settles in the spine, and in an effort to keep her from becoming a “hunchback,” her doctors and parents had her strapped flat to a board, which is how she lived the next ten years of her life. When she got up, at age fifteen, she still had the dreaded curve to her spine, and she never grew out of the body of her ten-year-old self.  She went on to do much, however, and in this memoir, which is a jewel--a treasure on par with Unexpected Journeys--she describes her life as if it were a miracle she had been given. But she does not downplay the terrors that came with all that time tied to the bed, often--as at night--alone, and acutely aware of terrible possibilities lying ahead of her:

Creature from the Sea by Su Blackwell

“I had two hideous familiars, two fiendish jailers, who with the sudden onrush of darkness and solitude leapt on me every night and seized me on on each side and would not let me go. These two were two Awful Thoughts which my mind had hit upon in its childish explorings and had been poisoned by and made sick and swollen by, as if one of them had been a snake that had bitten me and the other an evil plant that had stung me. One of the two Awful Thoughts was the endlessness of Space, and the other was the endlessness of Time. Every night, held in the grip of these two horrors, my little brain rolled over backward in humble, piteous convulsions of fear, and my body trembled and shook with the hideous disaster of having been born into this awful universe, of being forced to exist in the very arms of these two unthinkable things.[...] Each night the whole terrible realization would spread slowly and surely to the very edges of my body and mind, soaking me, cooking me, in the pure poison of horror. [...]Every night, as if I were compelled as a sort of punishment, I went over and over the same hopeless path, climbing up to the brink of unthinkableness and then tumbling back again, up and back, up and back--until I could actually feel the aching groove the repetition made inside my head...”

During the day, she was able, by turning an intimate focus upon objects brought to her, or plant-life outside her window, or her own collection of talismans, to construct a sense of wonder at the universe in all its details, and this focus came together with the discovery of writing and art to save her:
Book illustration by Su Blackwell

“Although my back was imprisoned, my hands and arms and mind were free. I held my pencil and pad of paper up in the air above my face, and I wrote microscopic letters and poems, and made little books of stories, and very tiny pictures. I sewed the smallest doll clothes anybody had ever seen, with the narrowest of hems and most delicious little ruffles. I painted with water colors and made paper dolls and dollhouse furniture out of paper. I loved paper, colored paper, fancy tissue, and crepe paper and ordinary white or brown paper too. The commonest substance in the world, it had for me an uncommon charm because of all the things it suggested to my mind that could be made out of it. I used to hold a piece of paper in my hands up above my face and let my eyes dwell on it in a sort of trance until, like the Japanese flowers, it would begin to bloom. Appearing on it, in my mind’s eye, some little object would take shape which to me seemed the most adorable little object in the world--a house, a box, a fan, or a screen. Then, having seen the image of it, I would put my scissors and paints and paste and fingers to work in order to bring that darling little object into being. It was surely the magic of transformation in this performance that made it so delightful, and almost awe-inspiring. Paper was the nearest thing to nothing in the way of material, and yet it was possible to make it into something that people would exclaim over and fall in love with--something that had a shape, something that opened and shut or stood up. It was something precious made out of nothing.”

Book Illustration by Su Blackwell
Book Illustration by Su Blackwell

Later, when she was up and out of the bed, she began to explore the evenings with her brother Warren, discovering a new sense of night which would be followed by a curious buzzing and odd sensation that, as she waited with pencil and paper, would turn into poems or stories, writings that would form the focus of her adult life, which led her, among other things, to Paris, where she became a part of the Surrealist circle, and also to love--something she never thought possible for someone “like her”--and a happy marriage.

And for those who find it unlikely that the fictional Henry Palace’s method of dealing with aggression should be effective in real life, Katharine had yet another surprise. She described her time as a young teenager, first out of bed and unaccustomed to the attentions of anyone other than the loving family members who surrounded her, discovering just how horrible and frightening people can be. As she walked along the street, people would stop and stare, children would jeer and assault her, and laugh hatefully:

“One day I suddenly realized that I had become so self-conscious and afraid of all strange children that, like animals, they knew I was afraid, so that even the mildest and most amiable of them were automatically prompted to derision by my own shrinking and dread. As soon as this dawned upon me I began to try to charm them like a lion trainer.
By main force I began to lift the focus of my own attention, and consequently theirs too, off of myself and place it gently but firmly upon them instead. When they glanced up as I approached along the sidewalk they found me looking with interest into their own faces, as if I had noticed something quite astonishing and amusing in them. If they stared back without smiling I still managed to compel myself to look into their faces invitingly while I still pretended to be unperturbed and lightly amused.
This method worked on them, and it worked on me. For I discovered that it was ridiculously easy to bend their soft and pliable attention back upon themselves, and then to make them unconsciously begin to feel a pleasant warmth being shed upon them, something even desirable and fascinating. At first it was only by a most desperate effort of imagination that I managed to summon up this ray of love and deep interest and direct it upon my enemies; but as soon as I saw that it worked my technique improved, and the charm worked better all the time until it suddenly merged into naturalness and was no longer a charm but the expression of real feeling. After that there was no fear or distrust left in me, and no child ever shouted at me again or, if any did, I didn’t hear it or know it.”

Each of these books thoroughly investigate and develop the ideas of a little distance, a lot of attention, and a wonder at the details of the universe, and they all face down terrors in  a way that gives a unique sense of hope, wonder and strength to the reader. Enjoy them!


  1. magnifiques créations..( juste maintenant je peins un tableau avec les fleurs sauvages) et les scènes sont extraordinaires! il me faut un peu plus de temps pour lire...

    1. i'll be heading right over to see those fleurs sauvages, elfi, your creations are always so magical!

  2. Amazing timing, I'm just revisiting Montaigne - he's one of those very interesting thinkers who ought to be around today to cut through all the gobbledygook we get fed from on high.

    My fav from him "nothing is so fully believed as that which is least known..."

    He was a true seeker of the truth

    now I'm going back to look at those wonderous paper creations ... Smiles*!*

  3. Gosh, the power of imagination and where it can take people - Katharine BH was a wonder in herself and it's hard to get my head around Su Blackwell's paper art - thanks for the intro to these two ladies.

    Just noticed my brain and finger malfunction in the Montaigne quote ... should read

    "nothing is so fully believed as that which least is known..."

    1. i have really been fascinated by everything i've read of him so far... you'd think his policies of openness, for example, would have been impossible in his time, with roving bands of thieves and the particular viciousness of the religious battles, but there he was with open gates, and people came and went and stayed in his house!
      as for katharine, you're right, she was a wonder. her writing is astonishing, i've just started her journals and letters, some people are just so much greater than human. and i find that a lot of her writing touches on the same ideals montaigne wrote about.
      i felt su blackwell's art was pretty good evidence of what katharine said about paper as a material and detail in general :D
      i'm really glad you enjoyed the post :)

    2. Here is a link to a discussion between the author of montaigne's book and my fav aussie radio host

      in it they mention how montaigne's servant had been instructed to wake him in the night in the hope of catching a glimpse of his own unconsciousness as it left him...

      I love how he just decided he'd had enough of his roles of office and retired to his library tower to read his books and contemplate everything

    3. i've got the program open on my desktop and i swear i'm going to listen to it... but when??... yes, i loved that passage, his poor servant, it's like the beginnings of sleep science--i hope the servant was as interested in the results as montaigne was :D
      i would like to know how one goes about having a library tower which attends to itself and your need for food so i can retire to it :D

  4. I JUST DISCOVERED!! At the Open Library online, you can find an e-copy of The Little Locksmith, by Katharine Butler Hathaway--the link is in the "library" list under the image links on the right side of this page. My copy is a used book, but I know some have had trouble finding a copy. What luck! :)

    1. Great discovery - you're building a very interesting library tower of your own over on the side there*!*

  5. It frustrates me to no end that google likes to eat my comments. Sometimes it lets me and sometimes It doesn't. GRRR
    My 3rd attempt to leave a comment.
    I had totally forgotten about Montaigne!! I am hunting through my bookcases trying to see if I have anything left by him. ( I am terrible about lending books and never remembering to whom) I know I still had essays some where...
    Thank you! This was a Terrific reminder of a treasure I don't have to hunt for ( at amazon or world Library!)

    1. i'm so happy you enjoyed it :D i'm sorry about the comments, i don't know why--for some reason, i wasn't notified of your comment, either, just by accident saw it :P
      i love the bakewell book (puts things into context very well), and everything i've read of montaigne...what a fascinating guy, and always a good reminder to take a breath, back up, and look at the situation from some other angle. one of these days, i have to get that, right? :D

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