Montaigne bookends this short essay with observations about his own relationship to sadness: “I am one of those freest from this passion,” he says at the beginning, but notes in closing that though his “susceptibility” is “naturally tough” he nevertheless attempts to “harden and thicken it every day by force of reason,” establishing as his own one of the classic—often titanic—themes in literature… the complex relationship between sadness and passion or joy and despair.
Simultaneously reading Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne1 while delving into his essays has given me reason to doubt his initial self assessment, though not his conclusion. Montaigne retreated to his château and eventually started writing the essays as an antidote to the sadness and malaise that had come upon him following the death of his closest friend Étienne de La Boétie, belying the idea that he is one of those freest of sadness (or saying something tragic about the lives of everyone else at the time) while exemplifying his attempt to establish his defense of reason.
This essay, one of his briefest, nevertheless demonstrates the manner and method employed by Montaigne throughout the essays.
First, while the title of the essay is “Of sadness,” Montaigne characteristically finds himself exploring beyond that emotion and into one that might be seen as the opposite, “the ardent heat of passion.” At this point Montaigne doesn’t explore their potential symbiosis, but instead their similarity, observing that in both times of great sadness and great passion, the soul is “burdened with deep thoughts.” In fact these passions, at either end of a spectrum, both naturally represent the unspeakable or, as Montaigne puts it, “All passions that allow themselves to be savored and digested are only mediocre.”
Second, Montaigne supports and expands his words with a melange of history, myth, and the fitting words of others. Ancient Greeks and Egyptian Kings appear here alongside philosophers and a Pope. True stories are told alongside stories that might (or should) be true. Montaigne weaves in quotations like accent threads setting apart a dense weave, in this case bringing Virgil, Catullus, and Petrarch into the fray on the same page2.
Third, while Montaigne embraced the contradictions of his own intellectual multitude of one long before Whitman, he didn’t focus solely on himself, but turned his eye to the world around him as represented through that history, myth, and art. Montaigne draws a wonderful parallel between an ancient painter who, having “exhausted the utmost powers of his art” portraying the grief surrounding the sacrifice of Iphigenia, effectively had no choice but to paint her father “with his face covered,” and Ovid’s telling of the story of Niobe who, having lost seven daughters and seven sons, was transformed into stone or, as Ovid put it, “Petrified by her woes.”
The first time I read Montaigne was struck by how much (and how forcefully) he wandered—he wasn’t kidding when he noted that his pieces were “essais” or trials—and how exploratory and free-form those essays felt. I might have considered “Of sadness” then as mistitled; isn’t Montaigne really talking about intense emotions of all kinds? But I realize that Montaigne is being almost methodical in this essay, not exploring intense emotion randomly, but bringing forward the dialectic in the emotional context in which we can truly feel grief. As part of that he looks at the emotions that take us beyond the grip of reason3, to the place where joy, despair, and passion–each of which depend on the other for their very existence–can exist at all.
in the latter case through one of my favorite brief quotes: “He who can say how he burns, burns little” ↩
incidentally, it is in this part of the essay that Montaigne evidently felt he’d gone too far in the personal, writing of the state of “languishing in love,” adding “And from that is sometimes engendered the accidental failing that surprised lovers so unreasonably, and that frigidity seizes them by the force of extreme ardor in the very lap of enjoyment. An accident that is not unknown to me.” It is that last sentence that he struck out but is thankfully preserved ↩