A quick note on Montaigne on nostalgia

Alas, Janus, you creepy double-dude
Source: Wikimedia Commons

[not a scholar, just a casual reader who read that, and wrote this, still half-asleep]

After my post last week about time and nostalgia in the anime short Daicon IV, I was glad to come across this passage about the topic while trying to put myself to sleep with Montaigne’s Essays. Via the Screech translation of Book 3, Essay 5, “On some lines of Virgil”:

I turn very gently aside and make my eyes steal away from such stormy, cloud-wracked skies as lie before me: which, thanks be to God, I can contemplate without terror but not without strain and effort; and I find myself spending my time recalling periods of my past youth:

[Quoted from Petronius’s Satyricon:] “My mind prefers what it has lost and gives itself entirely over to by-gone memories”

Let babes look ahead, old age behind: is that not what was meant by the double face of Janus? The years can drag me along if they will, but they will have to drag me along facing backwards. While my eyes can still make reconnaissance into that beautiful season now expired, I will occasionally look back upon it. Although it has gone from my blood and veins at least I have no wish to tear the thought of it from my memory by the roots.

[Quoted from Martial’s Epigrams:] “To be able to enjoy your former life again is to live twice”

I understand the sentiment, but I do not feel it myself. Like I said in the previous post, I don’t enjoy nostalgia. Maybe I’m still just too young to relate to an “old” like Montaigne. But I think it goes a little beyond that. Plenty of young people feel the creeping appeal of nostalgia and crave some idealized past (hello, HD remastered re-releases of every classic video game ever). Instead, the difference might not be one of age, but rather wealth.

Montaigne belonged to the lower French aristocracy that served in local city parlements and, despite the swirling civil violence of the thirty-ish-year-long French Wars of Religion (which may have killed around 3 million people!), he made a peaceful retirement to his family estate at the Chateau de Montaigne at the not-exactly-elder age of 38. Unlike many of his contemporaries then, fighting, scheming, and dying in the civil war, or the common folk suffering from famine, disease, and displacement, Montaigne had the security to contemplate the past. He could let the future drag him forward “facing backwards” only because he did not much need to look where he was going. The servants that managed his estate and the peasants that worked it watched for him (along with his political patrons in the high nobility; at the king’s behest he returned to active life to hold two terms as mayor of Bordeaux, though after a brief imprisonment in Paris, he retired again).

In that sense then, nostalgia may be a luxury, something that only people who feel sufficient security in the present can make time for. However, in moments of misfortune, the future becomes more pressing. I doubt that Montaigne bothered to think fondly of his past while he sat in prison or negotiated with bandits that kidnapped him for ransom. To the contrary, he probably fretted about the possibility of his execution or murder! At least though, he seems to recognize his unusual privilege when he thanks God for the freedom to contemplate his life “without terror” while others suffered during the war. He sees “stormy, cloud-wracked skies” in his future, but likely of the natural kind brought about by old age and his painful kidney stones. Given his secure social standing, Montaigne does not embrace nostalgia out of some anxiety about civilizational decadence and decline, but simply because he enjoyed his past.

On that point, neither does Montaigne engage in the sort of prideful, toxic nostalgia along the lines of Grandma’s “We walked to school uphill, both ways, and we liked it” or Grandpa’s “We gave ourselves maybe-brain-damage playing high school football, and we liked it.” Or otherwise directed at their twiggy, bookish, millennial grandson, ‘We suffered and we liked it‘ …as if suffering was somehow a good thing. No, Montaigne remembers fond times fondly. His essays are full of loving gratitude to his father, who arranged his happy childhood and erudite education. When Montaigne indulges his nostalgia then, he looks back to a genuinely better time before violent sectarian strife split France and families in two (unlike my grandparents’ habit of glorifying their adversity while wishing it on the modern youth like some sort of intergenerational hazing ritual …and before even touching the issue that their past, more inflected by the likes of racism, homophobia, and misogyny, was so much worse for so many Americans).

So anyway, even if I resist nostalgia myself, I won’t deny that the feeling can express itself in healthy ways like in the passage above. But Montaigne has also infected me with a persistent skepticism. I still worry that excessive indulgence in the nostalgia of my grandparents’ sort will only hold back progress because it sometimes seems to insist that nothing should change. Nostalgia’s selective memory promises that things were better then — even if they weren’t — thus leading some people to conclude that if we suffered then, we should suffer now. And uh… double-check, pinch myself awake… nope!, I don’t like suffering. I’m not going to walk up two hills when I could walk up one. If regression is a risk of nostalgia then, I would rather abstain.

And then there’s that issue of wealth again. As much as I’d like to take Montaigne’s advice and use my youth to find a “beautiful season” ahead of me rather than rely on the past for fulfillment, I declined to renew my teaching contract and I’ll be unemployed by next month. Ooo that scares me. I don’t trust in a better future… nor, at the moment, do I feel secure enough to look back.

…Oh, and from a little later in the essay, an interesting, maybe obsolete word:

Ratiocination, rigorous reasoning, as in “My philosophy lies in action, in natural and present practice, and but little in ratiocination.”

…maybe ironic coming from a man who retired himself to his comfortable estate against the civil strife of the French Wars of Religion to read books and write essays, eh? It reminds me of one of Rousseau’s criticisms of Montaigne — quoted in Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day, from the 1995 Kelly translation of the Confessions (Montaigne might appreciate such a chain of citation!):

“I had always laughed at the false naivete of Montaigne, who, while making a pretense of admitting his flaws, takes great care to give himself only amiable ones.”

Montaigne often contrasts himself to those stuffy intellectuals cooped up in their library-towers, going blind by the candlelight while extolling the virtues of reason without any vigorous practice of such virtues in the real world. Nay, Montaigne insists, he prefers action! But then in his retirement, didn’t he do much the same as the scholars he scorns?

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