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Good Letters

20111104-back-to-school-by-lindsey-crittendenWhen I was a freshman at UC Berkeley, I took a yearlong Western Civ. class. We began with the ancient Greeks and ended somewhere after Freud. (I probably kept that syllabus, the way I keep everything, but where?)

Of all that I read and wrote about that year, here’s one sentence that has stuck with me: The surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.

Michel de Montaigne wrote those words sometime in the second half of the sixteenth century. The sentence appealed to me, the way all pithy statements that captured some Life Truth appealed to me.

I was an ardent eighteen-year-old, prone to long journal entries about self-knowledge and “congruence.” Being true to yourself. (Did we read Hamlet that same term? No, I think it was Macbeth. Too bad, because if we had I might have paused to consider that the ultimate Congruent Message—“to thine own self be true”—is said by Polonius, termed by Hamlet himself “a tedious old fool.”)

At eighteen, I loved discovering Montaigne, and while I didn’t then have time to delve into the many other essays he wrote—Macbeth and Dr. Faustus would have been right around the corner, the following week’s assignments—I bookmarked him as someone to come back to.

And, of course, in every personal essay I’ve written, in every Creative Nonfiction class I’ve taught, I have. Montaigne was the one to use the word “essay” for the kind of rambling explorations he wrote—from the French, “essayer,” to try. I love this definition of essay—not the five-paragraph formula we learn in high school, but exploration, attempt, trying out.

But the essais themselves? I haven’t gone back to them. Until last week, when I went to the Mechanics’ Institute Library to hear Sarah Bakewell talk about Montaigne. Bakewell is the author of How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

I bought the book and started reading it that night. I also pulled out my college edition of Montaigne—the Donald Frame translation, which Bakewell recommended.

I no longer adhere so naively to the notion of “congruence” as I once did; now I enjoy Montaigne not for the statements that sound so sure of themselves but for the way he punches holes in his very assurances, the way he (like Whitman, three hundred years later) not only contradicts himself but admits doing so, happily. Montaigne wrote in a stream of consciousness long before William James coined the phrase or modernists used it in novels.

So much of college was lost on me the first time round. Oh, sure, I learned a great deal, and probably retain more than I know. But so much material slid by. I must’ve learned the term “modernist,” for example, but didn’t truly understand it until I had started writing fiction seriously.

I must’ve also learned, in that Western Civ. class, why Julius Caesar was killed in the Senate house, and how his great-nephew Octavian became the first emperor. But I didn’t know it until watching the HBO series Rome with Craig.

And what a thrill, in Rome three weeks ago, on our honeymoon, to pass by the Largo Argentina at least once a day on our way to the Spanish Steps or the Vatican or a really good trattoria, to look out at the ruins now home to a cat sanctuary, the Largo’s perimeter clotted with bus stands, and know that, in that sunken rectangle of ground, right there, is where Caesar was assassinated.

When my mother urged me, in the summer of 1979, to enroll in the yearlong Western Civ. class, I hesitated. “You’ll use it your whole life,” she said—advice not so dissimilar from her urgings that I go through sorority rush.

She was right on both counts, actually, though not in ways I could’ve predicted. When I think back on Western Civ., I recall the old wooden desks in the lecture hall as the afternoon light slanted on their worn surface; I remember pining and grieving with Dido, when Aeneas left Carthage; I remember squirming at Freud’s treatment of Dora, and discovering the opportunities of the dependent clause in writing an effective introduction.

How I use this knowledge can’t be teased out in direct cause-and-effect, but it’s there. Not the stuff of scholarship, but no less relevant, in its way.

What I’d give to go to college again, I’ve often exclaimed. Oh, to take Western Civ. again! But what Montaigne—or more aptly, Sarah Bakewell—has reminded me is that I already am.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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