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Montaigne in Barn Boots

November 12, 2017

Since I have enjoyed the essays of both Montaigne and Michael Perry in the past (like the one I called his “armchair farming book,” Coop), I said yes to the HarperCollins offer of an advance proof of Perry’s new collection of essays about reading Montaigne as a writer and rural dweller in mid-America, entitled Montaigne in Barn Boots. It’s not bad, but some of it seems like a bit of a stretch—like Perry would be more at home in the boots without having to worry about making connections to the sixteenth-century French philosopher. In the end, though, the conceit pays off, as Perry’s train of thought has a destination that lifts it above the mundane, at least some of the time.

Perry’s “aw, shucks” persona seems unnecessarily exaggerated from the start, when he compares himself to Montaigne by saying:
“He was a nobleman born to nobility; I was born to a paper mill worker and a nurse. He was privately tutored in Latin from the age of two and enrolled in the University of Toulouse to study law when he was fourteen; I matriculated as a barn-booted bumpkin who still marks a second-place finish in the sixth-grade spelling bee as an intellectual pinnacle.”

But I kept reading, because I like what he says about how neither he nor Montaigne is trying to get the last word about anything:
“Over the course of Montaigne’s life, civil tensions erupted into civil war. Montaigne responded as a citizen by meeting his public duties….In private, he wrote essays that for all their meandering always traced threads of kindness, tolerance, and compromise.
Now and then I receive communication from a reader gone all hurt and purple over something I’ve written, as if I had donned my titanium underpants, declared myself THE ALL-CAPS INCONTROVERTIBLE KING OF THINKING, and dropped the mic, when in fact I was attempting to round out my mind whilst mumbling around clad in the patchy bathrobe of diffidence.”

As a blogger, of course, I adore the part where Perry admits “I offer things in print I would never offer in conversation, as did Montaigne” who he quotes as saying:
“Many things that I would not want to tell anyone, I tell the public; and for my most secret knowledge and thoughts I send my most faithful friends to a bookseller’s shop.”

And I liked the chapter on “Roughneck Intersectionality” in which he describes taking his daughters to a performance of Twelfth Night on the same weekend he took them to a demolition derby, “hoping my daughters might intuit that cultural consumption can be effected on a sliding scale, including down there where it’s greasy. That both couplets and carburetors sing.”

Later in that same chapter he gets around to wondering what so many Americans have been wondering lately, whether there’s some rottenness in the heart of our national experience, and I think he puts his finger on one of the problems when he says
“By surrendering our independent thought to ‘interlocutors’ (be they talk show hosts, pundits, blog blasters, or Top Commenters) we bypass our neighbors, and thus their humanity….We are excused to mock the movement without giving consideration to the people. To spit criticism without context.”

It seems to me that this passage from Perry captures the spirit of exploration of thought that Montaigne’s essays exemplify so well:
“If I have the phrase right, it’s Check your privilege, not abandon it. It’s not really much of an ask. To disrupt the canon is not to destroy it but rather recast it. To—this word again—amplify it. I want every day to remember that mine may not be the definitive perspective. That this country may have arisen from something other than bald eagles, gumption, and pickup truck commercials.”

About halfway through this book, however, Perry starts to pick out passages from Montaigne so he can complain about his health in the extended way my parents, living in a retirement home, used to refer to as an “organ recital.” We have to hear about erectile dysfunction, kidney stones, anxiety, and “proctalgia fugax” which is a literal pain in his anus. So even though there are two more parts which I not only very much like but agree with, I lost a lot of my interest in the book at that point.

One of the parts I like from the second half, though, is about appreciating beauty in its full context, without enlarging or cropping the frame to focus on the part that strikes us as beautiful:
“Lately whenever I invoke the word ‘artisinal’ it tilts toward pejorative. I’m still struggling with how to remain a sensible and unpretentious fellow while celebrating the civilizing power of aesthetics. I’m striving for a point of equidistance between snark and sanctimony. Perhaps this was what Terry Teachout had in mind when he wrote that we must be careful not to become ‘terrible simplifiers.’ As a critic, says Teachout, part of his job is to accept and revel in complication.”

And the other part I very much agree with is about being a person in her fifties, in this country and at this time. Perry says
“As I type these words, I am fifty-one years old. Middle-aged, late middle-aged, whatever…. Raised to respect my elders, I have now watched many of them grow brittle of thought and bitter of mind. It seems that somewhere around my current life stage, people make one of two moves: Some stiffen, dig in their heels, and attempt to block the future; others reinvigorate life by blending it with the spirit of youth. I hope I will—and I am working to—bend toward the second. I am not talking here about the embarrassment of an oldster trying to vibe with the kids. Nor am I talking about abdicating principles. I am talking about offering a hand, opening new doors, and sometimes—when new blood is best—stepping aside and standing down. ‘Youth is making its way forward in the world and seeking a name: we are on our way back,’ said Montaigne, who felt that too much was made of mere seniority and often punctured the idea that age automatically conferred wisdom.”
I love the phrase “brittle of thought and bitter of mind.” It does seem to describe more than a comfortable number of my contemporaries.

There are a number of great phrases in this book, from Perry and from Montaigne. But too many of Perry’s are buried in the personal. Although–as you know–I’m a champion of the personal essay, perhaps it’s good to get an occasional reminder that it doesn’t take much for personal anecdotes and references to become too much of a good thing.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2017 2:10 pm

    I very much like that quotation about surrendering independent thought to interlocutors. Having recently given up Facebook (3 weeks and counting!) I am doing a lot of thinking about social media and how being addicted to it skews one’s worldview. What if social media and cable news vanished? Would we be more involved with and at the very least civil to one another?

    • November 13, 2017 2:20 pm

      Some of us might be more involved and civil, but I wouldn’t. Social media–Facebook especially–helps me connect with people. I do more stuff in person because of invitations, organization, and people I get to know on Facebook.
      On the other hand, I mostly get my news from newspapers. I never watch tv news and only rarely look up video clips on the internet. I have a friend in CA who talks a lot about Rachel Maddow and seems to get a lot of her news through her, so I looked up the name to see who she is and why my friend thought I would know about her.

  2. November 13, 2017 8:03 pm

    I just read a book called, The Bright Hour, about a woman with breast cancer who found solace in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Montaigne. It’s good to see Montaigne making a comeback in contemporary fiction…I guess?!!

    Oo, Rachel! I was just saying to someone that I hope she has body guards, because she is a big lie-disposer. You can google MSNBC and get clips of The Rachel Maddow Show.

    • November 13, 2017 9:57 pm

      Yes, it is always fun to see someone getting interested in Montaigne’s essays (most of why I requested the advance copy).
      A lie-disposer. Hmm. Interesting job.

  3. November 16, 2017 2:08 pm

    I like the idea of this book but I think the folksiness would drive me nuts. I just reread Montaigne instead 🙂

    • November 16, 2017 3:23 pm

      Of course, Montaigne could be “folksy” for his time. He’s the one that said “I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.”

      • November 17, 2017 12:11 pm

        True. I wonder how many of his contemporaries found his folksiness grating? Maybe that’s another reason he liked to hang out with the peasants 😉

  4. November 24, 2017 8:29 am

    I had high hopes for this book but I’ve tempered them after reading your thoughts. It sounds like the book is worth reading but won’t knock my socks off.

    • November 24, 2017 8:50 am

      It’s fun to about halfway through, when the “organ recital” began. So your high hopes won’t be utterly disappointed.

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