Sunday, April 4, 2010

Montaigne, Woolf, and the Will to Live

I was reminded while walking one week ago of two reasons why I live. One reason came to me when I was reminded of a sense I had that containing myself within myself, if possible, was among the highest joys imaginable. Negotiating myself with myself has always been a difficult proposition - and an abstract one - but I have for years now turned to Montaigne to help me on my way. Montaigne, the most honest of all men, is captured in essence by Virgina Woolf in her peerless essay on the man and the writer:

For beyond the difficulty of communicating oneself, there is the supreme difficulty of being oneself. This soul, or life within us, by no means agrees with the life outside of us. If one has the courage to ask her why she thinks, she is always saying the very opposite of what other people say.

-Montaigne, 1925

Another reason why I live is to attempt to merge an unadulterated life of both sense and mind while confronting the omnipresent sad fact of mortality. Of course I reject the antiquated idea of any such dualism of mind and body. When Oscar Wilde reminds us in The Picture of Dorian Gray that one of the great secrets of life is "to cure the soul by means of the senses, the senses by means of the soul", he is reminding us that abstract notions and sensual immediacy coexist and inform each other not as opposed halves but as a seamless whole. Again, Virginia Woolf heroically captures the essence of this in describing the Greeks:

With the sound of the sea in their ears, vines, meadows, rivulets about them, they are even more aware then we are of a ruthless fate. There is a sadness at the back of life which they do not attempt to mitigate. Entirely aware of their own standing in the shadow, and yet alive to every tremor and gleam of existence, there they endure, and it is to the Greeks that we turn when we are sick of the vagueness, of the confusion, of the Christianity and its consolations, of our own age.

-On Not Knowing Greek, 1925

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