Quotes & Commentary #44: Montaigne

Quotes & Commentary #44: Montaigne

Who does not see that I have taken a road along which I shall go, without stopping and without effort, as long as there is ink and paper in the world?

—Michel de Montaigne

One thing above all attracts me to Montaigne: we both have an addiction to writing.

It is a rather ugly addiction. I personally find those who love the sound of their own voice nearly intolerable—and unfortunately I fall into this category, too—but to be addicted to writing is far, far worse: Not only to I love airing my opinions in conversation, but I think my views are so valuable that they should be shared with the world and preserved for future generations.

Why do I write so much? Why do I so enjoy running my fingers over a keyboard and seeing letters materialize on the screen? What mad impulse keeps me going at it, day after day, without goal and without end? And why do I think it’s a day wasted if I don’t have time to do my scribbling?

In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell famously answered these questions for himself. His first reason was “sheer egoism,” and this certainly applies to me, although I would define it a little differently. Orwell characterizes the egoism of writers as the desire “to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death,” and in general to live one’s own life rather than to live in the service of others.

I would call this motivation “vanity” rather than “egoism,” which is undeniably one of my motivations to write—especially the desire to seem clever, one of my uglier qualities. But this vanity is rather superficial; there is a deeper egoism at work.

Ever since I can remember, I have had the awareness, at times keen and painful, that the world of my senses, the world that I share with everyone else, is separate and distinct from the world in my head—my feelings, imagination, thoughts, my dreams and fantasies. The two world were intimately related, and communicated constantly, but there was still an insuperable barrier cutting off one from the other.

The problem with this was that my internal world was often far more interesting and beautiful to me than the world outside. Everyone around me seemed totally absorbed in things that were, to me, boring and insipid; and I was expected to show interest in these things too, which was frustrating. If only I could express the world in my head, I thought, and bring my internal world into the external world, then people would realize that the things they busy themselves with are silly and would occupy their time with the same things that fascinated me.

But how to externalize my internal world? This is a constant problem. Some of my sweetest childhood memories are of playing all by myself, with sticks, rocks, or action figures, in my room or my backyard, in a landscape of my own imagination. While alone, I could endow my senses with the power of my inner thoughts, and externalize my inner world for myself.

Yet to communicate my inner world to others, I needed to express it somehow. This led to my first artistic habit: drawing. I used to draw with the same avidity as I write now, filling up pages and pages with my sketches. I advanced from drawings of whales and dinosaurs, to medieval arms and armor, to modern weaponry. Eventually this gave way to another passion: video games.

Now, obviously, video games are not a means of self-expression; but I found them addicting nonetheless, and played them with a seriousness and dedication that alarms me in retrospect—so many hours gone!—because they were an escape. When you play a video game you enter another world, in many ways a more exciting and interesting world, a world of someone’s imagination. And you are allowed to contribute to this dream world—in part, at least—and adopt a new identity, in a world that abides by different rules.

Clearly, escapism and self-expression, even if they spring from the same motive, are incompatible; in the first you abandon your identity, and in the second you share it. For this reason, I couldn’t be satisfied for long with gaming. In high school I began learn guitar, to sing, and eventually to write my own songs. This satisfied me for a while; and to a certain extent it still does.

But music, for me, is primarily a conduit of emotion; and as I am not a primarily emotional person, I’ve always felt, even after writing my own songs, that the part of myself I wanted to express, the internal world I still wanted to externalize, was still getting mostly left behind. It was this that led me to my present addiction: writing.

I should pause here and note that I’m aware how egotistical and cliché this narrative seems. My internal world is almost entirely a reflection of the world around me—far, far less interesting than the world itself—and my brain, I’m sorry to say, is mostly full of inanities. I am in every way a product—a specifically male, middle-class, suburban product—of my time and place; and even my narrative about trying to express myself is itself a product of my environment. My feeling of being original is unoriginal. My life story is a stereotype.

I know all of this very well, and yet I cannot shake this persistent feeling that I have something I need to share with the world. More than share, I want to shape the world, to mold it, to make it more in accordance with myself. And my writing is how I do that. This is egoism in its purist form: the desire to remake the world in my image.

A blank page is a parallel world, and I am its God. I control what happens and when, how it looks, what are its values, how it ends, and everything else. This feeling of absolute control and complete self-expression is what is so intoxicating about writing, at least for me. Once you get a taste of it, you can’t stop. Montaigne couldn’t, at least: he kept on editing, polishing, revising, and expanding his essays until his death. And I suspect I’ll do the same, in my pitiful way, pottering about with nouns and verbs, eventually running out of new things to write about and so endlessly rehashing old ones, until I finally succumb to the tooth of time.

After mentioning the egoism of writers, Orwell goes on to mention three other motivations: aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. But I think he leaves two things out: self-discovery and thinking.

Our thoughts are fugitive and vague, like shadows flickering on the wall, forever in motion, impossible to get hold of. And even when we do seem to come upon a complete, whole, well-formed thought, as often as not it pops like a soap bubble as soon as we stretch out our fingers to touch it. Whenever I try to think something over silently, without recording my thoughts, I almost inevitably find myself grasping at clouds. Instead of reaching a conclusion, I get swept off track, blown into strange waters, unable to remember even where I started.

Writing is how I take the fleeting vapors of my thoughts and solidify them into definite form. Unless I write down what I’m thinking, I can’t even be sure what I think. This is why I write these quotes and commentary; so far it has been a journey of self-investigation, probing myself to find out my opinions.

When I commit to write, it keeps me on a certain track. Unless you are like Montaigne and write wherever your thoughts take you, writing inevitably means sticking to a handful of subjects and proceeding in an orderly way from one to the other. Since I am recording my progress, and since I am committed to reaching the conclusion, this counteracts my tendency to get distracted or to go off topic, as I do when I think silently.

This essay is a case in point. Although these are things I have often talked and thought about, I had never fully articulated to myself the reasons why I write, or strung all my obsessions into a narrative with a unified motivation, as I did above, until I decided to write about them. No wonder I’m addicted.

Review: Orwell’s Essays

Review: Orwell’s Essays

A Collection of EssaysA Collection of Essays by George Orwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.

George Orwell is one of the inescapable writers of the last century. Far from becoming irrelevant, his works seem to become more significant with each passing year (as most recently evidenced by the present administration’s strained relationship with the truth). Orwell himself said that the “final test of any work of art is survival,” and his works seem on track to pass this final test. His dystopian novel recently became a surprise best-seller, almost seventy years after its initial publication. That is more than mere survival.

And yet it isn’t for his political insights that I opened this collection of essays. It was rather—and I feel somewhat silly saying this—for his writing style. Orwell’s writing is, for me, a model of modern prose. His style can accommodate both the abstract and the concrete, the homely and the refined, the pretentious and the vulgar; his prose can satisfy both the academic and the artist, the intellectual and the layperson, the Panurge and the parish priest. It is unmistakably modern, even sleek, while obviously informed by the tastes and standards of the past. It is fiery, angry, and political, while remaining intimate, human, and honest.

Something that repeatedly struck me while reading this collection was an inner conflict in Orwell’s worldview. There are two sides of the man, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes at odds: the writer and the activist. Orwell the writer is captivated by the rhythms of words, the sounds of sentences; he loves ruminating on a strange personality or a memorable story; he is enchanted by the details of daily life. Orwell the activist is outraged at injustice and uncompromising in his moral sense; he sees people as a collection of allies and enemies, taking part in a grand struggle to bring about a better society.

Orwell himself discusses this tension in his little essay, “Why I Write.” In a more peaceful age, he thinks, he could have been an entirely aesthetic writer, perhaps a poet, not paying much attention to politics. It was his firsthand experience of imperialism, poverty, and fascism that activated his political conscience. Specifically, it was the Spanish Civil War that “tipped the scale” for him: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”

Be that as it may, Orwell seems to have repeatedly struggled to reconcile this aim with his more humanistic side. In his brilliant essay on Dickens, for example, he spends page after page trying to analyze Dickens as a kind of social philosopher, examining Dickens’s views on work, on the state, on education, and so on. Since Dickens was anything but a philosopher—as Orwell himself admits—this repeatedly leads to frustrating dead ends, and fails completely to do justice to Dickens’s work. It is only in the last section, where Orwell drops this pretense and treats Dickens as a novelist, that the essay becomes deeply insightful. Indeed, it soon becomes clear—it seems clear to me, at least—that Orwell likes Dickens for his writing, and not his activism, however much he may wish to think otherwise.

Other essays exhibit this same tension. In his essay on vulgar postcard art, for example, he notes how backward is the social worldview expressed in the cards; but he is obviously quite fond of them and even ventures to defend them by likening their humor to Sancho Panza’s. His essay on boy’s magazines follows an identical pattern, exposing their conservative ideology while betraying a keen interest, even a warm fondness, for the stories. In his appreciative essay on Rudyard Kipling’s poems, he even goes so far as to defend Kipling’s political views, at least from accusations of fascism.

It is largely due to Orwell’s influence, I think, that nowadays it is uncontroversial to see the political implications in a movie cast or a Halloween costume. In all of these essays, Orwell worked to undermine the naïve distinction between politics and everyday life, showing how we absorb messages about standards, values, and ideologies from every direction. He did not merely state that “All art is propaganda,” but he tried to show it, both in his analyses and his own works. At least half the time, he is utterly convincing in this. (And indeed, Orwell was such a brilliant man that, even when I think he’s involved in a pointless exercise, he makes so many penetrating observations along the way— incidentally, parenthetically—that his writing fully absorbs me. )

We owe a tremendous debt to Orwell for this insight. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that there is something terribly limiting about this perspective. All art may be propaganda, but it is not only propaganda; it is not even primarily so. There needs to be room in criticism, as in life, for the non-political. We need to be able to enjoy a novelist because of his characters and not his views on the state, a poet for his lines rather than his opinions, a dirty joke or a trashy magazine just because we want a laugh and a break. Orwell would agree with me up to a point, I think, but would also say that every decision to be “non-political” implicitly accepts the status quo, and is therefore conservative. This may be true; but it is also true that such “non-political” things are necessary to live a full life.

Where I most disagree with Orwell is his conviction that the media we consume—magazines, post cards, popular novels, television—nefariously and decisively shape our worldview. For my part, I suspect that people absorb their opinions more from their community, face-to-face, and then seek out media that corresponds with their pre-existing views: not the reverse. Media may reinforce these views and give them shape and drive, but I don’t think it generates them.

All this is besides the point. I admire Orwell, for his fierce independence, for his sense of outrage and injustice, for his facility with words, for his attempt to blend art and truth. In sum, I admire both the writer and the activist, and I think his work should be read until judgment day.

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