Monday Morning Montaigne: Of diversion

I was flummoxed by Of diversion (pp. 764-774) and tempted to skip writing about it. Problem is, the next essay, On some verses of Virgil, is

  1. 50 pages long, and
  2. about a poet I’ve never read.

So you’re stuck with Of diversion this week. The first two-thirds of this one discuss the various ways that individuals and the polis can be, well, diverted from unpleasant thoughts or feelings. Montaigne begins by telling us how he once consoled a sad woman, not by telling her that her sorrow was useless, but “very gently deflecting our talk and diverting it bit by bit to subjects nearby, then a little more remote, as she gave me more of her attention, I imperceptibly and entirely soothed for as long as I was there.” Once he left, she showed no improvement.

He brings up similar cases of diverting attention from a singular topic. M. being M., that subject tends to be death. He thinks there’s a rare person who can look death square in the eye; most men on the gallows will begin “praying aloud, with a violent and continual excitement,” and “busying their senses . . . as much as they can.” Facing death, we put ourselves elsewhere, in diversions of escape, or our children’s futures, or the lasting glory of our works.

The last third of the essay, as I said, goes off the rails for me. M. explains, “It takes little to divert and distract us, for it takes little to hold us.” From there, he launches into a digression about how we’re moved by lamentation in fiction, how actors and orators convince themselves of the sorrow of their speeches, and how people will mourn when they see a funeral procession, even if they don’t know who’s in the casket. He makes good points about the ease with which we get preoccupied, but it seems out of place in an essay that focuses on the implacability of grief and the difficulties we have diverting it.

Still, he offers up a wonderful little portrait of Keeping It Real after a loved one’s death:

In a region near our mountains the women play the part of Prester Martin [who spoke both parts at Mass]; for even as they magnify their grief for their lost husband by remembering the good and agreeable qualities he had, at the same time they also assemble and proclaim his imperfetions, as if to bring themselves to some sort of balance and to turn themselves aside from pity to disdain; with much better grace, at that, than we who, at the loss of a casual acquaintance, pride ourselves on lending him new and undeserved praises and making him quite another man, when we have lost sight of him, than he seemed ot use when we were seeing him. As if regret were an instructive thing, or tears enlightened our understanding by washing it. From this moment I renounce any favorable testimonials that anyone may want to give me not beause I shall deserve them but because I shall be dead.

On to Virgil!

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