28 September, 2008
"What do I know?"
Michel de Montaigne had this phrase, ("Que sais-je?") engraved on the door of his library, back when he was mayor of Bordeaux, in the late 1500s. Back when he was expected to know it all. Back when he would write things like, "Kings and philosophers shit, and ladies, too." Back when he would make the argument that it was important to enjoy bad wine, because wine is for having fun, and if you get really snotty about wine then there's less you can enjoy the snottier you get and that's just no fun. Back when he was from Bordeaux. Now, evidently he also had a small pendant that he wore that said the same thing. The good monsieur had travelled, thought, and seen enough that this classic question of skeptic philosophy came to be something of a motto for him. He sort of wore it on his sleeve.
Me too, in a way. When I turned fourty, in september, I got this tattoo'd on my left arm. I'd realized that my normal levels of arrogance had reached wild excess and so it seemed as good a means as any of keeping my hubris and pomp at least minimally tamed. My way of reigning in my disdain and insolence. As Montaigne says, "One may be humble out of pride." Of course I manage to use this inverted humility against myself since now, some months later, when folks (that dont speak French) ask me what it means I like to make things up.
"Oh, it says, 'Tough I Am?'" or "It means, 'Your sister's a poop bucket.'" or "I think it says, 'How Love Me?'" or "That's French for, 'Am I Queer?'" or other nonsense that entertains. I like the fact that people - most of them - don't question that. They live in the question. What do I know, they seem to think, as they say, "Hm, .. hmmgrhh.. ok."
But these are all just ways of saying the same thing, which is that we never, any of us, really know what's in front of us, and whether its a tattoo, the descending night, a driver in a car, or something we've already seen that we're rethinking, we all live in a state of shallow ignorance and high confusion, unmoored, coordinates lost to the wind, true north obscured by the ground, head in the sand, whether we admit it or not. And that's a pretty good notion to keep in mind. Or wear on your arm.
So the day before, during, and following, my birthday I got this tattoo. At Tintin's. In Paris. Then I got another. And later a friend said to my wife, "It's weird Mark is getting tattoos." and Wife replied, "No, what's weird is that Mark never got a tattoo before now; what's weird is that he's not covered." It's true that I had to rebel, even, against the rebels. But I'm older now, and I know less, so I gave that up, too. What do I know? I'll probably get another tattoo in the next month. Maybe I'll hate them all in a couple years, and cover myself in bleached scars for my 50th.
But for now my days are all quite silly.
For the rest of my birthday we went to a 24-hour raga festival. My wife led me there, on the metro, blindfolded. And she gave me a Melodica for my birthday, so maybe I'll post some more silly songs here. And we rode around on the electric skateboard. And that was silly. And we drank wine, and then went to a restaurant with Chris, my mysterious friend who is a descendant of Merlin, and the three of us ate dinner. I had pigeon, which was a greasy, thick rich meat much like quail and it came with some liver and mashed potatoes, and puree. And I ate snails for an appetizer (but as usual, they were so soaked in butter that I could hardly taste them - I suspect they taste a bit grassy, and bitter [I have ambitions to collect my own snails some day and solve this]). The Bergerac with it was sharp enough to keep it feeling like a meal instead of a punch in the face. It was Catholic.
But since this is less about my 1/2 point on the highway of life than it is about Montaigne, here's a few other things that he had to write,
- Human understanding is marvellously enlightened by daily conversation with men, for we are, otherwise, compressed and heaped up in ourselves, and have our sight limited to the length of our own noses.
- Even on the highest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our ass.
- Experience teaches that a strong memory is generally joined to a weak judgment.
- I like the company of bums because they haven't been sufficiently educated to reason incorrectly.
- I write to learn.. I write to keep from going mad from the contradictions I find among mankind - and I write to work some of those contradictions out for myself.
- If ordinary people complain that I speak too much of myself, I complain that they do not even think of themselves.
- My trade and art is to live.
- I quote others only in order to better express myself.
Here's a picture of a statue of The Man himself, here in paris, across the street from the Sorbonne. You may notice how his foot has been polished gold by the adoring hands of students, professors, and fans like myself.
May his shoes stay shiny.
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