Monday Morning Montaigne: Of the resemblance of children to fathers

With Of the resemblance of children to fathers (pp. 696-725), Montaigne closes out Book Two of the essays by ranting against medicine and the doctors who practice it. M. uses his standard practice of springboarding from his own experience into the wisdom and anecdotes of the ages. That portion of the essay takes up a full 20 pages, which I found way too long. I mean, as a man in my mid-to-late-30s, I can understand reticence about going to a doctor, but I don’t ramble on about the topic.

If the body of the essay was a bit tiresome, its introduction managed to catch my attention. M. starts out the piece by discussing his process of writing his essays. I quoted one bit a few weeks ago:

This bundle of so many disparate pieces is being composed in this manner: I set my hand to it only when pressed by too unnerving an idleness, and nowhere but at home. Thus it has built itself up with diverse interruptions and intervals, as occasions sometimes detain me elsewhere for several months.

In the seven or eight years since beginning the project, he tells us, he has made a “new acquisition”:

I have in that time become acquainted with the kidney stone through the liberality of the years. Familiarity and long acquaintance with them do not readily pass without some such fruit. I could wish that, out of many other presents that they reserve for those who frequent them long, they had chosen one that would have been more acceptable to me. For they could not have given me one that I had had in greater horror since my childhood.

M. tries to find an upside to his experience with the stone:

I have at least this profit from the stone, that it will complete what I have still not been able to accomplish in myself and reconcile and familiarize me completely with death: for the more my illness oppresses and bothers me, the less will death be something for me to fear.

That is, it’s not that he craves death to escape the pain; rather, the pain helps him lessen his fear of the end. He writes about other sufferers through history and their willingness to cling to life no matter how horrible their afflictions. It’s as if the immediacy of the body solves the questions of philosophy. Or, as Mike Tyson put it, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”

This “news” of M.’s kidney stone put me in mind of the close of Quicksilver, the first book of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. After a lavish and drunken party, Daniel Waterhouse awakes to find himself strapped into an operating table in Bedlam hospital, about to be “cut for the stone.” This being the late 17th century, there’s no anesthesia for the procedure. His friend Robert Hooke prepares him for the surgery, calmly telling Daniel, “Please do not go insane.”

M. contends that the pain doesn’t exactly unman him, that his years of studying and thinking have left his mind “in a considerably better condition of life than a thousand others, who have no fever or illness but what they give themselves by the fault of their reasoning.”

This brings M. to the ostensible topic of his essay. See, M.’s dad also suffered from the stone, although he didn’t develop it until he was 67, more than 25 years after M.’s birth. And so, M. asks:

Where was the propensity to this infirmity hatching all this time? And when he was so far from the ailment, how did this slight bit of his substance, with which he made me, bear so great an impression of it for its share? . . . [H]ow did it remain so concealed that I began to feel it forty-five years later, the only one to this hour out of so many brothers and sisters, and all of the same mother?

His father’s legacies play out in other essays — in fact, it was at his father’s behest that he translated Raymond Sebond’s work, which led to my least favorite portion of the Essays — but this is the first time that he explores this aspect of parents and children. Sadly, he doesn’t stick with the subject, soon launching into his 20-page diatribe against medicine.

On to Book Three! Let’s hope he doesn’t end it with Of airplane food.

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