In the Bordeaux region of France, there is a wine producer by the name of Château Eyquem. The producer is older than the vines themselves and in one form or another have been producing wine since the 1400s.
The man who really kicked things off for the Château Eyquem was Ramon Felipe Eyquem. Eyquem’s son Pierre added ‘de Montaigne’ to his name and gave his wife two sons.
The first son was named Michel de Montaigne, the other was called Captain Saint-Martin (that’s a title but it’s the only name I could find for him). Saint-Martin was killed in a tennis accident.
A ball hit him on his ear. Several hours later, with no warning, he died of an apoplexy.
The incident, together with a few other deaths of close friends and a brush with death of his own, led Michel de Montaigne to make a close examination of life.
His collection of Essays is an honest and wild summary of Montaigne’s thoughts on life. And, in particular in the essay How we weep and laugh at the same time, an examination of death.
Make no mistake, Montaigne was a philosopher but one who viewed the world with warmth and even embraced his own mortality with light heartedness. He included details that you may look at as trivial or whimsical:
“He provides all the details we need to make it real, and sometimes more than we need,” writes Sarah Bakewell in her joyous book How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. “He tells us, for no particular reason, that the only fruit he likes is melon, that he prefers to have sex lying down rather than standing up, that he cannot sing, and that he loves vivacious company and often gets carried away by the spark of repartee.”
I’ll confess that I’ve only read single essays from his only book (which took him his whole life to complete) and extracts from other people’s writing on him, but every time I read one, I get the feeling that somehow Montaigne has looked ahead almost half a millennium and seen how I might feel about life.
Timelessness is the quality that I most admire in cultural works.
Each moment in a period of time comes with its own set of gaudy ideas – all perfectly valuable in their own right – but the best ideas are the ones that will still matter in 500 years.
I was sat thinking about Montaigne’s writing at breakfast this morning, enjoying the sun on my face as he might have in Bordeaux in the 1500s. And the Bruce Springsteen track Secret Garden came on the television which was on in the background.
Springsteen in his own right is comparable to Montaigne. Here is a man who has lived through tumultuous times in the world. A native of New Jersey, Springsteen has experienced the death of many close friends and band members, love, struggle, riches, contradiction.
And, just like Montaigne, has shared his thoughts on life without fear of judgement or rejection.
These songs sound like my childhood. They sound like being a teenager. They sound like trying to find my way as a person. They sound like becoming a father. They sound like everything I will ever experience.
The dogs on main street howl
'Cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister, I ain't a boy, no, I'm a man
And I believe in a promised land
A few years ago, I saw Bruce Springsteen on his first tour since his life long friend and saxophonist Clarence Clemons died. Clemons’ nephew had joined the E-Street Band on tour that year and at the moment in 10th Avenue Freeze Out when Clarence used to sing ‘Kid you better get the picture’ in a voice deep and reverberating, his nephew replaced it.
And I wept and laughed at the same time.
From Montaigne’s essay How we weep and laugh at the same time
If only talking to oneself did not look mad, no day would go by without my being heard growling to myself, against myself, ‘You silly shit!’ Yet I do not intend that to be a definition of me.
The worst of these wars is that the cards are so mixed up, with your enemy indistinguishable from you by any clear indication of language or deportment, being brought up under the same laws, manners and climate, that it is not easy to avoid confusion and disorder.
‘Suffundere malis hominis sanguinem quam effundere.’ [Make the blood of a bad man blush not gush.]
Yes, but all leave life in the same circumstances, young and old alike. Everybody goes out as though he had just come in. Moreover, however decrepit a man may be, he thinks he still has another twenty years to go in the body, so long as he has Methuselah ahead of him.
It’s macabre, but I love hearing about how famous people died. Particularly interested in comic deaths:
Leaving aside fevers and pleurisies, who would ever have thought that a Duke of Brittany was to be crushed to death in a crowd, as one was during the state entry into Lyons of Pope Clement, who came from my part of the world! Have you not seen one of our kings killed at sport? And was not one of his ancestors killed by a bump from a pig? Aeschylus was warned against a falling house; he was always on the alert, but in vain: he was killed by the shell of a tortoise which slipped from the talons of an eagle in flight. Another choked to death on a pip from a grape; an Emperor died from a scratch when combing his hair; Aemilius Lepidus, from knocking his foot on his own doorstep; Aufidius from bumping into a door of his Council chamber. Those who died between a woman’s thighs include Cornelius Gallus, a praetor; Tigillinus, a captain of the Roman Guard; Ludovico, the son of Guy di Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua; and – providing even worse examples – Speucippus the Platonic philosopher, and one of our Popes. Then there was that wretched judge Bebius; he was just granting a week’s extra time to a litigant when he died of a seizure: his own time had run out. Caius Julius, a doctor, was putting ointment on the eyes of a patient when death closed his. And if I may include a personal example, Captain Saint-Martin, my brother, died at the age of twenty-three while playing tennis; he was felled by a blow from a tennis-ball just above the right ear. There was no sign of bruising or of a wound. He did not even sit down or take a rest; yet five or six hours later he was dead from an apoplexy caused by that blow.
From Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer
This, for Woolf, was the way people respond to each other in general: As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror … And the novelists in future will realize more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number; those are the depths they will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue.
Nice way to think about it quoting Montaigne:
Death is only a few bad moments6 at the end of life. If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.
From Bruce Springsteen’s works:
Born to Run:
Oh, someday girl, I don't know when
We're gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go, and we'll walk in the sun
But till then, tramps like us
Baby, we were born to run
Blinded by the Light:
Some silicone sister with her manager's mister told me I got what it takes
She said I'll turn you on sonny, to something strong if you play that song with the funky break
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Livin’ in the Future:
Tell me is that rollin' thunder
Or just the sinkin' sound
Of somethin' righteous goin' under
Don't worry, darlin'
No baby, don't you fret
We're livin' in the future
And none of this has happened yet