Letters to Montaigne (2003 - 2004)

The following entries are excerpts from my first book
entitled Letters to Montaigne. Completed in 2004, each
essay is written in the form of a letter and is addressed
to the 16th Century French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Informal in tone, they cover a variety of philosophical subjects.



Sunday
Jul172011

On Style and Substance

Monsieur Montaigne,

I have just been thumbing through the notebook that I keep next to your essays, but at the moment, I can't find the quotation I've been looking for. Didn't you once write,

"Boring books are unwise."

Perhaps not. To be honest, I don't really remember. Maybe Seneca wrote it. If I ever consider publishing these letters, I guess that I will have to do more research. But, then again, I don't think that I'm going to do that . For me, internalizing knowledge seems more important than cataloging it. Besides, I can't really claim to be the inventor of great ideas. It seems to me that the most worthwhile ideas and concepts have already been conceived. Maybe the best I can offer the world is my strange and unique personality and the rambling of my active imagination.

Perhaps my personality is the reason why I have been so annoyed with editors in the past. I simply don't like for others to interfere with my work. I guess I would rather be imperfect and completely myself than be perfect with the help of someone else. Essentially, you could say that my personal thesis statement might read:

"Here I am with all of my faults. Take me or leave me, but do not try to change me. When I am ready to change, I will change myself."

For some reason, my writing seems to suffer greatly when I imagine anyone reading what I write. I tend to become self-conscious and uable to think clearly. I suppose that I am extremely private about certain things, and I've never really been a big fan of any official or formal writing styles. Often, I find that formalities are quite boring and lifeless. In your essay OF BOOKS you quoted a passage by Plutarch.

"I would rather choose to know truly the conversation he held in his tent with some one of his intimate friends on the eve of a battle than the speech he made the next day to his army; and what he was doing in his study and his chamber than what he was doing in the public square and in the Senate."

Well, I certainly agree. I believe that unrehearsed situations are more interesting and informative than affected or staged performances. In fact, the tone and content of these very letters is purposefully informal. After having written for a newspaper for a short time in the past, I can't imagine doing it again. I am often amazed by what some people call serious writing. In my country, some newspaper journalists actually believe that they are able to write "objectively." This I find highly amusing.

I think that many writers and self-proclaimed philosophers are actually quite delusional really. How could someone possibly believe that he could remove himself completely from his work? And, why on earth would he want to do such a thing? To me, personality is everything, and the most beautiful thing we can share with one another is the gift of ourselves.

Why would anyone want to write a long and tiresome treatise filled with an abundance of large and pointless words? Why not just speak in clear terminology - honestly and truthfully from the heart? Besides, aren't the most intelligent people able to get their point across to anyone - no matter how uneducated? Or is wisdom reserved for the pompous few who memorize dictionaries in their spare time? I suppose I would just rather focus on the message the words convey than on the words themselves. While browsing through a bookstore recently, I actually came across a DICTIONARY OF PHILOSOPHY. Now this is just plain silly. No one should have to learn a whole new vocabulary to understand wise ideas. On the contrary, I would maintain that the wisest ideas are easily communicated using everyday language. Confusing language is simply used by confused philosophers. Just like my carpenter friend, Eric, once said,

"If you muddy up the water, it looks deep."

And just like you wrote,

"Those who have slim substance swell it out with words."

And,

"Excellent memories are prone to be joined to feeble judgments."

So, with that in mind, perhaps I shall keep this letter short and sweet. After all, it wouldn't make sense to write a long and wordy letter about being simple and direct. OK, before I say goodbye, I can't help but remind you of another one of your wonderful and direct statements.

"I offer myself meagerly and proudly to those to whom I belong."

Well Monsieur... so do I. I will write again soon.

Your friend,
Brian

Sunday
Jul172011

On Art and Intimacy 

Monsieur,

I was just thinking more about my last letter to you. Do you remember how I mentioned that we seemed to have the same interest in what goes on during informal situations? Well, that got me thinking about some of my favorite artists and how they seemed to be interested in the same thing - hidden moments as opposed to staged performances.

It’s funny really. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the artists whom I respect the most have all been interested in intimate imagery.

Jan Vermeer, a Dutch painter from the 16th century, was certainly interested in what goes on behind closed doors. His wonderfully detailed oil paintings usually depict one or two people absorbed in some sort of quiet or private activity - a woman holding pearls, a young girl receiving a love letter, or even a scientist studying a globe. His paintings are so suggestive and well-considered. I’ve often thought of painting an homage to Vermeer, since I also have a background in the visual arts.

Edgar Degas is an artist I think you would appreciate as well. Like you, he was French, but he lived mostly during the 19th century. He was a private man and was equally fascinated by the hidden moments of life. Though he lived the life of a solitary bachelor, it seems obvious to me that he actually longed to be a family man. He filled hundreds of drawings and paintings with women and children.

Many of his images depict women bathing or dressing themselves, and others depict little determined ballerinas as they prepare for their performances. Because he spent so much time with his female models, he obviously became quite perceptive regarding their thoughts and feelings. As I’m sure you are aware, a woman’s relationship with her body is a focus throughout her life. And, a little girl’s relationship with her mother is often filled with a complexity that few men ever notice. I believe that Degas, in addition to being a virtuoso artist, was also a perceptive psychologist.

From what I have read, I think many people have misunderstood his personality however. Though he had a reputation for being a big grump, he certainly expressed his sensitivity through his work. Deep down, I think his grumpiness was just a defense mechanism. Perhaps when people feel so deeply, they tend to feel vulnerable. And, I’m sure that Degas was only surly to the people he considered offensive.

While I attended graduate school and studied fine art, I was often short with anyone who misinterpreted my work. I think it is common for artists to fend off annoying and insensitive criticisms – no matter how well meaning they are. In the end, I suppose people can only understand art that is created on their own level of consciousness. Subtle art for subtle minds and obtuse art for obtuse minds.

Two other French artists I think you might enjoy are Eduard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Like Degas, they were also Parisians, and they each lived and worked mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their style even became known as Intimism, and, rightfully so. Like Vermeer and Degas, they mostly depicted quiet interiors and solitary moments. Although their painting style was generally less detailed and often filled with more imaginative color, they also seemed fascinated by the interior life of women. Bathing and sewing, subtlety and nuance were their primary interests and specialty.

Lately, I’ve been reading a book by Lord Avebury called The Pleasures of Life, and so far, I really like it. Though the author seems more interested in science than I currently am, he still wrote a very nice chapter on Art that I think you might have enjoyed reading. Didn’t you have an interest in theater as a young boy? From what I remember of your essays, it seems like you had some respect for the arts. And, given the amount of time and energy that you dedicated to your essays, I can’t imagine that you would not be interested in other forms of creative expression.

As Lord Avebury wrote in his book,

As the sun colors flowers, so does art color life.

And,

To see clearly is poetry, prophesy, and religion all in one… Those who love beauty will see beauty everywhere.

Speaking of poetry, Lord Avebury also had some perceptive thoughts here as well.

A true poem is a gallery of pictures.

The Hebrews called their poets ‘seers,’ for they not only perceive more than others, but also help men to see much which would otherwise be lost to us.

To appreciate poetry we must not merely glance at it, or rush through it, or read it in order to talk or write about it. One must compose oneself into the right frame of mind.

This last quotation seems especially pertinent to me. Earlier in this letter, do you remember how I complained about the clueless criticism I encountered in art school? This is exactly what I’m talking about. A clueless critic is just the type of person who foolishly rushes through life – interested in only cursory understanding and crude classifications. A person who does not take the time to slow down and ponder something in a more imaginative way, to me, isn’t worth my time. And, I certainly am uninterested in their boring and usually sophomoric commentaries. I’m sorry if that sounds arrogant or dismissive. I guess sometimes I just get frustrated that so many people are unable to see so many wonderful things.

OK Monsieur. I suppose that’s enough for today. Take care. I will write again soon.

Your friend,
Brian