As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I had some trepidation going into On some verses of Virgil (pp. 774-831 in the Everyman’s edition), because it’s more than 50 pages long and I’ve, um, never read Virgil. My fears were unwarranted; “some” verses turned out to be 8 lines, and those 8 lines turned out to be the launching pad for a fantastic essay on love, sex and marriage. I should know better by now.
The actual verses he quotes are:
The goddess [Venus] ceased to speak, and snowy arms outflung
Around him faltering, soft fondling as she clung.
He quickly caught the wonted flame; the heat well-known
Entered his marrow, ran through every trembling bone.
Often a brilliant lightning flash, not otherwise,
Split by a thunderclap, runs through the cloudy skies
[. . .]
Gave the embraces that she craved; then on her breast,
Outpoured at last, gave himself up to sleep and rest.
With age and ill-health are wracking him, Montaigne uses those verses to explore the passions of his past, and sums up early that erotic love has no place in marriage. Not if you want your wife to keep her wits about her. “I see no marriages that sooner are troubled and fail than those that progress my means of beauty and amorous desires,” he tells us. “It needs more solid and stable foundations, and we need to go at it circumspectly, this ebullient ardor is no good for it.”
That said, M. doesn’t portray women as scheming, evil creatures. If anything, he finds them to be victims of the rules set up by men. His women have needs, desires, and sometimes make decisions as irrationally as his men do. By essay’s end, he contends that men and women “are cast in the same mold; except for education and custom, the difference is not great.” It’s a wonderful journey to this point, as M. uncovers the parts we keep covered and shows how we’re all prisoners of sex.
What makes this essay such a joy to me isn’t just M.’s hip take on gender issues, but his explanation for why he needs to write about the topic.
I am annoyed that my essays serve the ladies only as a public article of furniture, an article for the parlor. This chapter will put me in the boudoir. I like their society when it is somewhat private; when public, it is without favor or savor.
[. . .] What has the sexual act — so natural, so necessary and so just — done to mankind, for us not to dare talk about it without shame and for us to exclude it from serious and decent conversation? We boldly pronounce the words “kill,” “rob,” “betray”; and this one we do not dare pronounce, except between our teeth. Does that mean that the less we breathe of it in words, the most we have the right to swell our thoughts with it?
It’s as if he’s building Howard Stern’s platform, four hundred years early. Later in the essay, he even complains to Nature about being unable to satisfy a woman because his penis is too small: “Certainly she has treated me unfairly and unkindly, and done me the most enormous damage.”
In Howard Stern fashion, he explains his openness:
I owe a complete portrait of myself to the public. The wisdom of my lesson is wholly in truth, in freedom, in reality; disdaining, in the list of its real duties, those pretty, feigned, customary provincial rules; altogether natural, constant and universal; of which propriety and ceremony are daughters, but bastard daughters.
[. . .] Our life is part folly, part wisdom. Whoever writes about it only reverently and according to the rules leaves out more than half of it.
I wish I had time and space to write more about M.’s character. I feel like that’s my biggest failure with these writeups: an inability to convey the joy of meeting this man through his essays.