Reading Montaigne 1.21: Of the power of the imagination

I am one of those who is very much influenced by the imagination. Everyone feels its impact, but some are overthrown by it. Its impression on me is piercing.

Talk about a change of pace. From the deep, somewhat disturbing meditation on learning how to die, Montaigne delves into human imagination… mostly in the form of a discussion of the imagination’s influence on sex and the “unruly liberty” of the penis. In telling a variety of stories of sexual function and dysfunction of his own, as well as stories from friends and historical persons, we find that some things really never change, our imaginations being more than enough to quell or restore sexual vigor.

Montaigne goes so far as to put the penis on trial, noting that there is hardly a part of our body that does not, at one time or another, act of its own accord: hair stand on end, the tongue becomes tongue-tied, a face betrays a secret. He even manages to bring the anus into his argument:

The organs that serve to discharge the stomach have their own dilatatations and compressions, beyond and against our plans, just like those that are destined to discharge the kidneys.

His closing argument is to appeal to the emotion of we the jurors to recognize that not only is the member in question not guilty of unruliness or misbehavior, but unfairly maligned by man and nature:

Indeed, she [Nature] would have done no more than is right if she had endowed with some particular privilege this member, author of the sole immortal work of mortals. Wherefore to Socrates generation is a divine act; and love, a desire for immortality and itself an immortal daemon.

Montaigne goes on to bring up many more instances of the power of the imagination over both man (hypochondriacs, the condemned dying of fright before the fatal act) and animal (dogs dying of grief for their master, horses twitching in their sleep), but the extended meditation on the penis is the most (ahem) potent.

Montaigne concludes his essay with thoughts on the the responsibility we have–and don’t have–toward the imagination. He defends his working from stories and his own imagination rather than “writing the events of his time,” as some have recommended:

… I refer the stories that I borrow to the conscience of those from whom I take them. The reflections are my own, and depend on the proofs of the reason, not of experience; everyone can add his own examples to them; and he who has none, let him not fail to believe that there are plenty, in view of the number and variety of occurrences. If I do not apply them well, let another apply them for me.

For Montaigne, writing about himself and his present life and experience is preferable to writing of the past because it is his own story, his own account of truth, the only one he can honestly stand behind without trying to make it into a truth that would satisfy, succor, and teach other people. Montaigne summons the spirit of Plutarch to defend the idea of a relativistic conception of truth, and thus–not being the equal of Plutarch as a historian–support his own inward gaze:

Plutarch might well say to us, concerning his accomplishments in this line, that the credit belongs to others if his examples are wholly and everywhere true; but that their being useful to posterity, and presented with a luster which lights our way to virtue, that is his work.

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