Montaigne and the Buddha

montaigneI understand The Odd Couple is back on television with a new version of the old classic. As is true with most all television, I won’t view it, but reading about it brought to mind the essay by Montaigne I was reading this morning: “Of Presumption.” I marked these words by the French essayist in particular:

“I feel myself oppressed by an error of my soul which I dislike, both as unjust and, even more, as troublesome. I try to correct it, but uproot it I cannot. It is that I lower the value of the things I possess, because I possess them, and raise the value of things when they are foreign, absent, and not mine. This humor spreads very far. As the prerogative of authority makes husbands regard their own wives, and many fathers their children, with wicked disdain; so it is with me, and between two similar works I should always decide against my own.”

The bird not in the hand — foreign, absent, not ours — is most coveted, and I could not help but think of the Buddha and his warning about wanting things, about desire being the root of misery, about possessions having the ironic ability to possess us. I don’t think Montaigne, vigorous though his mind was, knew about the Buddha. Mostly he was steeped in the western classics of ancient Greece and Rome.

Still, his is an honest voice, and I cannot help but admit it is true — we judge ourselves and our own most harshly and assume the best of others’ possessions and creations. That is human nature.

Montaigne goes on to talk of his own art: “For in truth, as regards any kind of products of the mind, I have never brought forth anything that satisfied me; and the approbation of others does not repay me. My taste is delicate and hard to please, and especially regarding myself; I am incessantly disowning myself; and I feel myself, in every part, floating and bending with weakness. I have nothing of my own that satisfies my judgment.”

Is it any wonder Montaigne was an inveterate reviser? His essays were rewritten over and over throughout his lifetime. Now we know the driver. The critic riding shotgun in his soul.

Finally, and humorously, Montaigne treats on poetry writing and lousy poets. Nerve, meet hit:

“My sight is clear and controlled enough; but when I put it to work, it grows blurred, as I find most evidently in poetry. I love it infinitely; I am a pretty good judge of other men’s works; but in truth, I play the child when I try to set my hand to it; I cannot endure myself. A man may play the fool anywhere else, but not in poetry:

‘For Gods and men and booksellers refuse/To countenance a mediocre Muse’ (Horace)

“Would God that maxim were written on the front of all our printers’ shops, to deny entrance to so many versifiers:

‘No man has more assurance than a bad poet.’ (Martial)”

So perhaps Martial law is in order: Bad poets should be prevented from inflicting their poetry on us. Period. But hold on here. It is trickier than first believed to identify the good and the bad. Sure, truly bad poetry is obvious, and it grows like kudzu thanks to the Internet, but what happens when we read published poets in such esteemed journals as Poetry and we say to ourselves, “Really? This is good poetry? Good enough to be published?” Rhetorical question, I’m sure.

Bottom line: If you want to be published, be careful what you wish for. Think of poor Montaigne. Think of all the poetry posers with their for-hire Muses. And think of the Buddha tsk-tsking from under his tree: Yes, grasshopper, wanting to write good poetry is just another source of misery.

And inspiration, I might add.


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