Reel Around the Montaigne

Albrecht Dürer was on tour recently and played the National Gallery in DCDürer is an unimpeachable master, whose genius we won’t go into, suffice it to say that the dude knew how to dress! (Those sleeves!) For all his ability, however, Dürer had the strange habit of giving the most misfortunate lil’ scrunch-faces to his ladies. (See, for example, Eve.) One of the misfortunate-faced gals on display at the National Gallery was that of the quasi-mythic Lucretia.

The Suicide of Lucretia (1518). Not among Dürer’s Greatest Hits, not least because of the uneven length of her arms :-(

The Suicide of Lucretia (1518). Not among Dürer’s Greatest Hits, not least because of the uneven length of her arms :–(

Lucretia’s suicide was a popular & enduring motif in medieval & renaissance art, variously employed with sexual and/or political overtones. In the classical narrative, Lucretia was raped in her bedroom by the son of Lucius Tarquinius, the seventh and soon-to-be-final king of the Etruscan dynasty that ruled over Rome. In horror at the incident, and to demonstrate her resolute chastity, Lucretia took her own life with a dagger. Lucretia belonged to a prominent Roman family and they, outraged, vowed to avenge her death. The native leading men of Rome, who swore an oath while hoisting Lucretia’s bloodied dagger, led a revolution to overthrow the Etruscan king and banned forever any king from entering Rome. Thus, Lucretia, who would rather die than suffer the shameful subjugation of tyrants, is a heroine of both chastity and Republicanism. And her suicide is entwined with the birth of Rome.

Dürer considered her self-sacrifice so momentous & so redeeming that he portrayed Lucretia’s wound to exactly mirror that of Christ. Compare with Lamentation of Christ, for Albert Glim (1503). (That the wound which birthed Rome should match the wound that Jesus received from a Roman soldier is a symbolism-ouroboros for abler mind-snake charmers!) Apparently, however, Dürer’s idealization of Lucretia was not reverent enough for the viewing public of “prudish Catholic Munich around 1600”. The authorities felt that for a symbol of ultimate chastity Lucretia’s loincloth was not adequate. And so, more than half a century after Dürer’s death, Lucretia’s loincloth was “expanded upwards”! What’s funny here is that church censors were not the only ones who saw it necessary to further cover Lucretia’s (fictional) flesh. In Chaucer’s dream-vision poem The Legend of Good Women (c. 1380) Lucretia, that “noble wyf”, is presented as so modest & dignified & chaste that as she lay dying she took care to adjust her gown to cover her ankles!

“Be as be may,” quod she, “of forgiving,

I wol nat have no forgift for no-thing.”

But prively she caughte forth a knyf,

And therwith-al she rafte her-self her lyf;

And as she fel adoun, she caste her look,

And of her clothes yit she hede took;

For in her falling yit she hadde care

Lest that her feet or swiche thing lay bare;

So wel she loved clennesse and eek trouthe.

[“Be as it may,” she said, “as to forgiving, / I will by no means have forgiveness.” / And secretly she snatched forth a knife, / And with it slew herself. / And as she fell, she looked / And still paid attention to her clothes; / For as she fell down she still remained mindful / Lest her feet or the like would be bare, / So well she loved purity and fidelity.]

(BTW Consider yrself warned: Ezra Pound, in ABC of Reading, when his fascist tendencies were still charming, writes, “Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books forever.” Well then! Later he goes on to offer some justification for his claim: “From Chaucer you can learn (1) whatever came over into the earliest English that one can read without a dictionary, but for which a glossary is needed; (2) and the ENGLISH quality or component.” Ezra seems so mad that you don’t appreciate Chaucer that he later uses Chaucer to bludgeon your precious Shakespeare (you left him no choice!): “Chaucer wrote when reading was no disgrace. He had forty books, gathered probably at considerable trouble and expense. Shakespeare had at least six good ones…. Chaucer had a deeper knowledge of life than Shakespeare. Let the reader contradict that after reading both authors, if he chooses to do so.” For my part, I hav kno diff’kulty reeding Chaucer becuz it basic’ly reesembls evry txt msg evr sent by Tristan after mid-nyt.)

Back to the topic at hand!: Lucretia was held in high esteem throughout medieval Europe. In Book IV of Inferno she is one of the few pre-Christian pagans allowed to inhabit Limbo, the outermost/comfiest ring of hell, and her name is mentioned along with Big Cats like Homer, Horace, and Ovid. (Not to mention Old Testament heavy-hitters like Noah, Abraham, and King David… sorry, bros, should’ve gotten baptized! Born a few centuries too early? Sounds like a YP.) Longfellow—such a Dante fanboy that he kept a splinter in his office he claimed to be a relic of Dante’s coffin—translates for us that Lucretia’s digs in hell aren’t all that bad: A noble castle “Seven times encompassed with lofty walls, / Defended by a fair rivulet”. Though you know what they say LocationLocationLocation and Longfellow isn’t coy about the neighborhood, an “abysmal valley dolorous / That gathers thunder of infinite ululations”. Heavy duty.

But (finally getting on track here!) when doomspirals’ Eye-balls saw Dürer’s celebration of Lucretia the first thought was of our first-rate homeboy Montaigne. Montaigne has an entertaining essay On Three Good Wives (1580) relating the stories of three wives from antiquity. Can you hazard a guess as to what Montaigne’s three exemplars of wifery have in common? THEY ALL KILLED THEMSELVES. Y’see, in Montaigne’s time wives had gone soft. Their lamentations had fallen into a lamentable state. Sure they put on a great show of grief when their husbands croak, but you can’t fool Montaigne!—he sees those plump rosy cheeks under that black veil! Plump rosy cheeks that “speak to us in the kind of French we can understand! There are few widows who do not go on improving in health: and health is a quality which cannot lie.”

Given the sad state of 16th century wifedom, overrun with obdurate widows inexplicably fixated on living, let us look then, briefly, at Montaigne’s Three Good Wives.

(1) Montaigne finds in the writings of Pliny the Younger the tale of an uncommon woman of the common class, whose husband was “appallingly tormented by ulcers which appeared on his private parts”. After conducting her own examination of the sensitive situation, she concluded that a cure was impossible and that he could expect only a long languishing life. “And so she advised him, as the surest, sovereign remedy, to kill himself.” For some obscure reason the husband was hesitant about performing so stark a deed, so the wife, ever the steadfast companion, assured him, “We shall go happily away together”. She bound their waists together with rope—as she bound together their fates—and they “cast themselves into the sea from a window in their house which gave on to it”. Problem solved.

(2) Arria was the wife of Caecina Paetus, who lent his support to a failed rebellion during the reign of Emperor Claudius and thus could expect a death sentence. Arria was separated from Paetus and, morbidly despondent, was placed under guard. “One day she said to those who were set to guard her: ‘It is no good, you know. You can force me to make the death I die much harsher: you cannot stop me from dying.’ She madly darted out of the chair she was sitting in and, with all her might, bashed her head against the nearby wall.” Shortly thereafter, Arria was released and rejoined her husband, who, despite her “appropriate arguments and exhortations… did not have the courage to kill himself”. And so

…she seized the dagger which her husband was wearing, drew it, held it in her hand and concluded her exhortation thus: ‘this is the way to do it, Paetus.’ And that same instant, having struck herself a mortal blow in the bosom, she wrenched the dagger from her wound and offered it to him, ending her life as she did so with these noble words: ‘Paete, non dolet.’ Those three words so full of beautiful meaning were all she had time to utter: ‘You see, Paetus: it doesn’t hurt.’

“Paetus at once struck himself through with that same blade, feeling shame, in my judgment, at having needed so costly and so precious a lesson.”

(3) Our third doom’d wife is Pompeia Paulina, a very high-born Roman matron who married Seneca in his extreme old age. BadBoy Nero, a pupil of Seneca in his youth, sent a courtier to his old teacher to announce that, shokrun for nuthin’, he was sentenced to death. In Roman times, when men of quality were sentenced to death they were typically afforded the “courtesy” to have their own surgeons carry out the deed + a short period to get their papers/household affairs in order. Seneca received the news stoically (duh!) and turned to his young wife, now distraught, and asked her not to dishonor his death by her tears. But fear not, dear reader, mighty Paulina rebounded from her petty emotions!

Paulina replied, having somewhat recovered her composure and brought warmth again to her magnanimous heart by her noblest love: ‘No Seneca. I am not one to leave you companionless in such great need. I do not want you to think that the virtuous examples of your life have not yet taught me to know how to make a fine death. When could I ever die better, or more honorably, or more as I would wish to, than together with you?’ … Whereupon Seneca, welcoming such a beautiful and glorious resolve in his wife, and also to rid himself of his fear of leaving her to the tender mercies of his enemies after death, replied: ‘I once taught you, Paulina, such things as served you to live your life contentedly. Now you prefer the honor of death: truly I will never begrudge you that. The constancy and the resolve of our common end may be equal: but allow that on your side the beauty and the glory are greater.

“That done they both slashed the veins in their arms…” I love Montaigne’s routine transition—That done—in the midst of such arch emo grim action! That done = Now that that’s wrapped up, let’s get a cheesesteak.

We tease Montaigne—and perhaps his wife-death admonition/tutorial was not his finest hour—but taken together with the larger body of his work we can appreciate the underlying virtues extolled here. He closes the essay with a lofty ode to Friendship; suggesting that marriage is but one particular type of friendship; and that we should order our lives (and deaths) for the benefit of those we love. Tru Marriage/Friendship is a ButchCassidy/SundanceKid running-together-toward-death. Anyway: If you are interested to judge a book by its cover, might I recommend this one:

Montaigne essays cover

Compositionally, Montaigne’s Essays were sort of like (in the American context) Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: A collection of writings that the author tinkered with, added to, emended/amended, and republished through the years. The brilliance of M.A. Screech’s collection for Penguin Classix is how he stitches together the best passages from Montaigne’s various iterations—from 1580, 1582, 1588, and 1592.

The title calls out to that older meaning of ‘essay’ as in ‘attempt’, as in each essay is the author’s attempt at his subject. The delight of reading Montaigne’s essays—on idleness, on drunkenness, on solitude, on cannibals—is tracing his thought as it meanders toward, and at tangent to, his topic. Thus, in On some lines of Virgil, his broad reflection on human sexuality, we read for pages & pages and begin to wonder when we might encounter, y’know, some lines of Virgil.

It is fitting then that Emerson’s essay on Montaigne wanders & builds for pages & pages before even mentioning his hero’s name. You’re happy to read along, but also like: OK, gotcha, alright, good point, where is this going? In keeping with humans’ fondness for lists, below is a list of a twenty-two twisty sentences pulled from the essay “Montaigne; or, the Skeptic” (1850) to illustrate the vast ground Emerson covers before he gets his man. (Smokin’ mad quill ink out by Walled-In Pond!)

1. Hot life is streaming in a single direction.

2. After dinner, a man believes less, denies more: verities have lost some charm…. Are you tender and scrupulous,—you must eat more mince-pie.

3. Life is eating us up.

4. They believe that mustard bites the tongue, that pepper is hot, friction-matches incendiary, revolvers are to be avoided, and suspenders hold up pantaloons; that there is much sentiment in a chest of tea; and a man will be eloquent, if you give him good wine.

5. Read the haughty language in which Plato and the Platonists speak of all men who are not devoted to their own shining abstractions: other men are rats and mice.

6. Spence relates that Mr. Pope was with Sir Godfrey Kneller one day, when his nephew, a Guinea trader, came in. “Nephew,” said Sir Godfrey, “you have the honor of seeing the two greatest men in the world.” “I don’t know how great men you may be,” said the Guinea man, “but I don’t like your looks. I have often bought a man much better than both of you, all muscles and bones, for ten guineas.”

7. The ward meetings, on election days, are not softened by any misgiving of the value of these ballotings.

8. Is his eye creative?

9. Keep cool: it will be all one a hundred years hence.

10. “There is so much trouble in coming into the world,” said Lord Bolingbroke, “and so much more, as well as meanness, in going out of it, that ‘tis hardly worthwhile to be here at all.”

11. These strings, wound up too high, will snap.

12. And the reply of Socrates, to him who asked whether he should choose a wife, still remains reasonable, that “whether he should choose one or not, he would repent it.”

13. The studious class are their own victims; they are thin and pale, their feet are cold, their heads are hot, the night is without sleep, the day a fear of interruption,—pallor, squalor, hunger and egotism.

14. You believe yourselves rooted and grounded on adamant; and yet, if we uncover the last facts of our knowledge, you are spinning like bubbles in a river, you know not whither or whence, and you are bottomed and capped and wrapped in delusions.

15. Come, no chimeras!

16. A world in the hand is worth two in the bush: Let us have to do with real men and women, and not with skipping ghosts.

17. [Pun intended?] “Men are a sort of moving plants, and, like trees, receive a great part of their nourishment from the air. If they keep too much at home, they pine.”

18. You that will have all solid, and a world of pig-lead, deceive yourselves grossly.

19. If there is a wish for immortality, and no evidence, why not say just that?

20. He is the considerer, the prudent, taking in sail, counting stock, husbanding his means, believing that a man has too many enemies than that he can afford to be his own foe; that we cannot give ourselves too many advantages in this unequal conflict, with powers so vast and unweariable ranged on one side, and this little conceited vulnerable popinjay that a man is, bobbing up and down into every danger, on the other.

21. Culture, how indispensable!

22. Some wise limitation, as the modern phrase is; some condition between the extremes, and having, itself, a positive quality; some stark and sufficient man, who is not salt or sugar, but sufficiently related to the world to do justice to Paris or London, and, at the same time, a vigorous and original thinker, whom cities can not overawe, but who uses them,—is the fit person to occupy this ground of speculation.

✓. These qualities meet in the character of Montaigne.

[“…since the personal regard which I entertain for Montaigne may be unduly great, I will, under the shield of this prince of egotists, offer, as an apology for electing him as the representative of skepticism, a word or two to explain how my love began and grew for this admirable gossip…”]


p.s. On the subject of Durer’s placement of Lucretia’s wound: Compare against his contemporaries, who typically posed their (also fugly!) Lucretias on the cusp of the act—sans wound. (As opposed to Durer, who portrays Lucretia’s dagger, literally, in media res. #toosoon)

p.p.s. Speaking of Lucretia poses: What up with sultry Benjamin Britten on an invisible chaise longue?

Is that baton his "dagger"?

Is that baton his “dagger”? Don’t go through with it, Benny!


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