With Montaigne in Barn Boots
November 1, 2017 § 5 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
Here at Brevity, we’ve known Michael Perry — humorist, radio show host, recidivist memoirist, volunteer firefighter, and intermittent pig farmer — for more than twenty-years, before he wrote his first wonderful memoir, Population: 485- Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. He graced Brevity early on, back when we had around ten readers, with his essay “Boat People,” and, shucks, we just love the guy.
And now he was written the alarmingly thoughtful (but still funny) Montaigne in Barn Boots and we thought, “Geezus Weezus, let’s interview him already.” So we did:
1. Do you entirely believe Montaigne? You fill the readers in on his extreme wealth, the constant tutoring, and the trailing zither players, but does knowing of this extreme privilege ever lead you to doubt his sincerity? I mean, really, the guy was a prince.
In the main, I don’t doubt his sincerity. But he must still be read through a lens that corrects for parallax.
For starters, there is no getting around the fact that he was an uber-privileged rich male European dude. He was furthermore, as the excuse and epithet has it, “a man of his times.” There was mitigation in the fact that his wealthy father chose poor villagers to be Michel’s godparents, and then sent him to live in a small cottage with paupers for the first few years of his life. This didn’t likely do much for the peasants and comes with its own set of problematic assumptions, but the fact remains that his father wanted him to confront his privilege, and take that privilege into account when dealing with others. That he shouldn’t be blithe about it. This is reflected in much of Montaigne’s writing, and some of his insights outside of his class are powerful, including the way he addresses ethnocentric bigotry in his essay “On Cannibals,” and how he used his experience as a judge to write bluntly of how little hope those trapped in poverty have for true justice. So, yep: Super-privileged, but capable of useful self-examination. None of this means you’d have wanted to be his manservant. Or his maid.
Montaigne also openly admitted his honesty had practical limits. That you can’t serve princes and tell only the truth. Others have noted that for all his self-revelation, he tends to describe personal faults that place him in the lovable goofball category. More troubling things may have been left in the dark. But even this tendency I have tried to leverage, for instance, by writing about my comical absentmindedness in contrast with the fact that for my wife, the cumulative effects of my behavior are not comical at all. There is no punchline.
I also believe–and hoo boy am I under-weaponized and in over my head here–that he never completely showed his hand regarding the Catholic church. One gets the sense that he was covering his bases.
- As you mention in your “Shame” chapter, Montaigne once wrote that “our life is part madness, part wisdom.” Is that still true in the age of Trump, or has madness finally won the day?
Well, I’ve lately been reading Voltaire, and he fashions a frame that fits a little too easily around our daily news. It seems we are deep into the golden age of gas-lighting. I come from blue-collar roots. Tend to kick my foot in the dirt and be all diffident. Properly so, in most instances. But there’s a huge gulf between being ignorant (as I am, to great depth, and across vast expanses) and proudly ignorant. I love big ol’ pickup trucks, but they wouldn’t be the same if some European polytechnic math whiz hadn’t worked out that whole turbocharger thing. I dunno. I know what it is to be condescended to in certain artful circles because I deign to pay half the mortgage telling cow jokes. But the effects of anti-intellectualism are insidious and currently flowering up in big fat rot-blossoms. That’s why I spend time in the book exploring the great debt non-academic me owes the academy. Sticking up for the perfessers. It’s so hard not to sound preachy, and I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime. But lately–including this week down at the fire hall–I have taken to reminding some of my buddies, “Them founding fathers we all hear so much about? They were farmers who studied French philosophy.” In the end, I don’t know if madness has won the day, but what Montaigne teaches me is I’ll be double-damned if I’ll let it win me.
- Do you think Montaigne, if he had been born in rural Wisconsin, could have raised chickens?
In fact he did have chickens. And pigs. Alain de Botton reckons Montaigne’s frankness about sex came from watching barnyard critters doing it (Mr. de Botton would want you to know that is a paraphrase, not a direct quote). Key difference is, I doubt Montaigne cleaned his own chicken coop. Speaking of rural Wisconsin, it is a pinnacle achievement of my literary life that the cover of the book features the great philosopher/essayist wearing a blaze-orange ear-flapper cap, standard issue around these parts come late November so as to keep you from being shot by some rifle-toting roughneck mistaking a sixteenth-century philosopher for a deer.
- The book is funny, of course, because that’s who you are, but to be honest, I was surprised how spiritual it became, and in the end, how positive. It made me feel as if I could be a better person. Were you surprised as well?
I was raised in an obscure fundamentalist Christian sect. These days I’m a bumbling agnostic with traces of amateur existentialism. I ain’t lookin’ for trouble, I’m just lookin’. But despite where I’m at now, and despite the profound misrepresentation of Christ’s spirit and intent by those who wield the Gospels like a cudgel dipped in spit and fear, my “fundamentalist” childhood was filled with love, peace, songs, and joy. These were (and are) people of charity and humility. So my enduring yearning for spiritual ties doesn’t come as a surprise to me. It’s always there. I’m just wary of where it leads, and how much good it does in the face of all the blow torches and barbed wire. And that tricky bit where faith transmutes into an abdication of responsibility for our neighbors, or for that matter, our own behavior. Or the behavior of our leaders.
In the book I quote former Black pentecostalist Ashon Crawley on the joy black gospel music still brings him, and I quote Bill Friskics-Warren on how Johnny Cash navigated his own contradictions of doubt and belief, of rectitude and misbehavior. Even when we leave our faith–even as we wallow in our contradictions–we trail the threads of that prayer rug. Even if I no longer buy the whole program, I am open to the idea of my insignificance. To the hope of being lifted up by something bigger, something purer, something more timeless, than I. In the end, even this ragged spirituality is a form of hope, and as grim as I find things to be, I want to fight for hope to the very end. Even if it’s only making one more ambulance call. Or sticking up for one more persecuted person. Even if I’m throwing cotton candy at a steamroller.