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Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Review: Sarah Bakewell, How to Live or a Life of Montaigne



I read this book after giving up on Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers, which I found intolerable. Heilbroner’s leading idea seems to be that you spin out a noisy yarn about your subject of the moment (I got no farther than Adam Smith – absent minded, he was, did I already tell you that? Well, he was absent minded. D’you know what he did one day? No? Well, I’ll tell you   …) and then, when the reader is open-mouthed with amazement, you shove a spoonful of disgusting Economic Theory down their throat. Not painful at all, you see, give it a Human Interest and, see, you’re away.

So Sarah Bakewell’s book was something of a welcome contrast. It is not technical or difficult and it provides a Life of Montaigne. At the same time it seeks to engage us with his writings in an organised and developed manner. I think it works very well. You get a strong sense of how writings celebrated for their digressiveness are held together by a fairly coherent body of thought.

I’ve never read Montaigne’s Essais, but I now know that I owe to Montaigne an idea I have liked and deployed on several occasions – but drawing on a version of Montaigne’s thought found in Malebranche. It’s the idea that paying attention – being able to pay attention, being in the habit of doing so, valuing the time it takes – expresses a natural piety of the soul. It’s a way of acknowledging the importance of the world and our own unimportance in face of it. It may be a phenomenon of nature or a work of art or simply another person – but if we can’t or don’t stop, look, listen - then we are not only letting down the object which invites our attention but ourselves. Maybe you could say: we don’t live our lives unless we pay attention to our situation at this or that moment in time.

I always think of very young children, capable of extraordinary absorption in tasks they have set themselves and at which they persist until disturbed, usually by some adult in a hurry.

Then I am reminded of something in my life which provided me pleasure but which now, in retrospect, makes me feel a bit proud. I once had a lover who after showering in the mornings, plumped herself down on the bed  to dry her hair. She had lots of hair and drying it was a serious business. I always sat and watched, at a distance and without speaking. I never tidied away the breakfast things, read the newspaper or otherwise distracted myself. It was such a pleasure just to sit and watch, her and all the intricate work involved in drying that hair. I was very happy.

I digress from Sarah Bakewell’s book. It runs to over 300 pages, has a fine Apparatus of Notes and References but isn’t written by an academic – the outside funding to assist the work’s completion came from literary Funds. You may take that as a recommendation.


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