that's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Riffing and digressions

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Readers of this column will be aware that, from the start, its patron saint has been Michel de Montaigne, whose great essays began with commentaries on quotations that he had grown fond of.

And that is pretty much what I have been doing here. The reason I haven’t written much lately, though, is that I think I have discovered why Montaigne didn’t continue his essays as he began them. It isn’t so much that, sooner or later, you run out of quotations — you can always find one if you look hard enough — but rather that having to look for one is different from riffing on one that you’ve been thinking about for years.

And therein lies the clue to how Montaigne’s essays developed as they did. Riffing on the quotations that he had thought about for so long seems to have got him to thinking about things that had been on his mind for a while, things that weren’t connected to any quotation in particular. Moreover, the riffing on those quotations had taught him how to explore the contents of his consciousness.

In Literature and Western Man, J.B. Priestley points out that “men had written about themselves before Montaigne. But they had presented themselves for a purpose outside self-discovery, to make a confession, to prove something; and what they had revealed had not been a true self but a faked image, a persona.”

I’m not sure that he’s entirely right about that. I think Augustine’s Confessions and Abelard’s Historia Calamitatis are pretty authentic. But Priestley is surely right in describing what exactly it was that Montaigne did: “Amused, tolerant, neither well-pleased nor angry with himself, Montaigne the observer regards and considers Montaigne the observed as he might look at a pear ripening on the wall or the summer’s crop of hay.” And while Priestley may not quite be right that “this had not been done by anybody before” Montaigne, it is certainly true that “it has rarely been done as he did it, perhaps never in his prevailing spirit.”

Odd though it may seem, riffing on favorite quotes is actually a good way to get at that spirit. Or so I’ve learned from writing this column. Favorite quotes are things you tend to take for granted. You refer to them off and on from time to time, whenever it seems appropriate, without really giving them even much of a first thought, let alone a second. Then you take a closer look and realize they may not quite mean what you took them to mean.

I wrote one of these columns about Lord Falkland’s pronouncement that “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” It wasn’t until I wrote that piece that I realized how ambiguous — indeed evasive — that pronouncement is. It is easy to agree that a change should not be made unless it is necessary, that one should not change just for the sake of changing. But in agreeing to that, one also is agreeing that change may sometimes be necessary. And that is where the problem lies, in determining whether a proposed change is necessary or not.

But I think the principal reason riffing on quotes led Montaigne into writing his longer, more discursive essays is that the riffing made him acquainted with how his mind worked, which is how I suspect most minds work. It is certainly the way mine does.

And how might that be? Associatively. I don’t think our minds are naturally inclined to linear, logical thinking. One thought leads to another not in the sense that the succeeding thought follows logically from the preceding one, but because the first thought brings to mind something perhaps quite different but related tangentially. A mention of French marigolds, for instance, may prompt a memory of childhood that becomes more vivid by far than the leaves and petals one originally had thought of.

We need to be trained to think logically, and it is very useful training. But logic has its limits. Basically, it enables us to tease out the implications of what we know, so that we can know a little more. But it is certainly not the only way to arrive at the truth. Tracking our digressions, which is what I think Montaigne was doing, can lead us to a greater understanding of who we are, and since we are not all that much different from others, it also enables us to learn some things about human nature.

At any rate, following my digressions is what I now propose to do with this column. In fact, I may have already begun to do it with this one. Interestingly, I think it represents a logical progression.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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