Corpses, Memories and Spying Out the Land

I write essays that are, I hope, reflective of and meditations on reality. They are not fiction. Even when I write about my dreams, the essays are generally recordings and/or reflections on those dreams and not a mystical claim that those dreams reflect or inform reality. In a very recent blog on Montaigne, entitled “Sense and Sensibility,” I included the following assertion: “I remember counting the 17,000+ corpses removed from a mass grave in Rwanda and lined up on the benches of a technical school.”

My Norwegian colleague, with whom I authored our study of the role of the nations of the West and the international community in the Rwanda genocide, wrote me to question when I had been to that technical school site and whether I possibly dreamt it or incorporated the event into real history from a story that I was told.

The irony is that last week’s parashah was not only about the majority of the Israelite spies viewing themselves and being viewed as inyenzi, as grasshoppers, but about spying out the land. That is what I claimed to have done in the above quote. It is possible that I had misrepresented what I claimed to have seen and even possibly misconstrued that I had actually seen anything at all.

Spying and imaginative creations are, as it turns out, related. For to be a spy, you have to create an artificial world. But it has to be a fictional world that feels and sounds real and must certainly be convincing to those being spied upon. I think of the Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, who spied on Syria before the 1967 war. He had to invent and construct a past and continuously fabricate in the present. The spies Moses sent had no such onerous task. They did not interact with the enemy and did not have to fool them. They simply had to report back accurately on what they had seen.

The story of Caleb, Joshua and the ten dissident spies is a spy story bar none, about loyalty and betrayal, about intelligence and rejection of intelligence, and mostly about the complicated and fascinating world where observation and speculation interact. The Torah repeatedly portrays the Israelites as engaged in a double life, longing for freedom while nostalgic for the security of the past, risk-takers and cautious, trustful but mistrustful. All perfect ingredients for a great spy story.

On the other hand, in any deeper sense, the Israelites made lousy spies, at least most of them – too histrionic, insufficiently hypocritical, lacking in the necessary charm, too many with bleeding rather than frozen hearts usually because of parents and sisters who doted on them too much. For a spy, it is insufficient that there be a promised land in the future; there must be a wasteland inherited on the inside. The Israelites seemed to lack the deeper cultivation of deceit required of real spies.  

However, what they can do, and do to an extraordinary degree, is empathize with the other, crawl into and under the skin of the other to imagine their likely behaviour. They are able to imagine themselves as other. This is in fact what the Dissenting Ten do. And it is for that trait that they are punished. Why? They abandoned blind obedience. Their sin – the sin of uncertainty. Nay, the evil of uncertainty. Their God demanded total obedience and trust and not evidence. To be a true spy for God and for Moses, you had to absolutely report only what you were sent to observe and not your actual experience.

You had to suppress your humanity. You had to bracket any sentiments for those who would be bound to die and for the daughters who could be raped. Caleb and Joshua were not interested in defending their interpretation of what they saw, only in blackening the names of the dissenters. Truth and validity of interpretation were bracketed in the name of loyalty.

The reality – betrayal did not constitute the essence of the Ten. They never gave a sign of disloyalty. But the demand for total loyalty is the demand of an authoritarian system of any kind which breeds into each and every member of society a sense of betrayal. However, as Montaigne wrote, the real objective should be to reveal one’s contradictions and become mature enough to face the truth about yourselves even when looking is akin to peering through a glass darkly. As Montaigne advised, personal truth is about finding all the possibilities that reside within your character, a very difficult task when the certainties of liberalism and tolerance and truth and individual freedom lay around you like shattered glass. And climate change undermines faith in purpose and direction. Perhaps it was that fear and bewilderment that God was trying to counter.

In the response to my Montaigne blog and my reference to the 17,000+ corpses that I counted in Rwanda, my colleague asked: “Did you go back to Rwanda after we were there? You probably told me, but I have forgotten. When was that, and for how long?”

I wrote back:

As far as counting bodies, it was at the Technical School in either Butare or Murambi. My memory says the former but the history indicates that it must have been the latter. If you were not there with me, I do not recall the circumstances under which I was there. I do remember driving along the ridge of dusty red-earthed hills at a fast clip, and, on urging the driver to slow down, he told me that he had to drive that fast because that was the speed at which the trucks carrying soldiers positioned before and after providing our security were driving. Up until that point, I had no idea we were being escorted by soldiers.

The huge hole, which I looked down into when we arrived and from which the bodies had been dug up, I was told, had been excavated by a French contractor three weeks before the commencement of the genocide there. There was no imaginable purpose for such an enormous hole. 

I remember the very crazed old Tutsi woman who lived on the property; she had evidently survived the massacre. In every school room in the multiple one-story class rooms, bodies were laid out neatly on slat benches. They had very recently been excavated; they were bodies with rotting flesh, not skeletons. What I remember most vividly is the horrific smell as well as the sight of small children’s bodies and some women with staves still remaining up their vaginas. 

As for the circumstances that brought me there, I cannot recall. I presumed in my memory that it was when we were doing our study, but it seems not. On the other hand, it could not have been much later. If I knew when the mass grave had been dug up, I would have a better idea. However, the research was likely related to my studies of objective counts during conflicts and humanitarian crises.

As for the numbers, the official records show many more killed at the technical school at Murambi than the counts when I was there, if that is where I did the count. It would take a more involved retrospective research to determine why the Murambi Technical School memorial indicates 45,000 were slaughtered. Perhaps other mass graves were discovered after my visit. Or perhaps it was indeed a school in Butare.

In any case, the reason I was there was to check whether the actual bodies laid out corresponded to the official figure at the time. That official figure was just over 17,000. By counting 5% of the bodies and then multiplying by the average number of bodies per bench times the total number of benches, the figure seemed to be about dead on. I was totally satisfied that the authorities who dug up the bodies and laid them out had been scrupulous in their counting.

My colleague wrote back:

Your Rwandan experience is strange. I am quite sure I was not with you and witnessed what you describe. I am also sure you have not told me about this before, not when we were doing the research for the report and not when we were writing the report.  It is such a significant event that I certainly would have remembered, particularly as we were talking a lot about figures and how they were estimated.

I am also quite sure that we did not go to Butare or Murambi. Both those cities are in southern Rwanda and quite a distance from Kigali. It would have taken a couple of days to travel there and get back to Kigali. I am quite sure that you were not away for a whole day, let alone two, when we were in Rwanda. And if you had gone, you would probably have told me. We did not travel outside Kigali.

Murambi is the site of the genocide memorial, which includes a large museum, that was created by the RPF government after it came to power. The Murambi memorial has exhibits like those that you describe. The memorial and its horrific exhibits are described in some detail by Timothy Longman in his book Memory and Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda.

I then think there are three possible explanations for what you experienced:

a) You went back to Rwanda after we had been there, either on your own or on fieldwork for another project. But it is strange you did not tell me, as we were working hard on the report and the book as soon as we got back from our visit and kept in close contact. Hence this scenario is very unlikely. 

b) Your recollections are from a vivid dream. It is quite common to have so vivid recollections from a dream that they become “memories” of events actually experienced when awake. (Oliver Sacks has written quite nicely about that). And, as you wrote recently, you have vivid dreams.

(c) Your memory is of descriptions you have read or have been told to you by other people. Such transformation of information into “memories” of events experienced is also common. I remember we talked at length with a woman who described counting bodies floating down Lake Victoria. (It was such a powerful experience I can even remember we were sitting outside, it was late afternoon, she was a Tutsi from Uganda, and I can still “see” the bodies floating in towards the lake shore). We also talked to some NGO persons who had been at Kibeho, where bodies were laid out and counted in the way you described. 

I responded:

“…though I have had vivid dreams that feel real, I have never had an experience where I dreamt something and thought it was real. I simply know this actually happened. The puzzle is the circumstances and the timing. In my memory, I do not recall you being there; I simply assumed you were. Do you recall our having to check the figure of 800,000 and the new government’s counting, or did this occur later? Do you know when the mass grave at Murambi was uncovered? What really puzzles me most is that of the two possible locations in my memory, I privileged Butare in my memory and left the location vague because I was not sure in my recollection.

As for being told the story or had read it, I never read Longman’s book, but I did read about the memorial at Mugambe much later, well after I had told Nancy and my kids about the experience. Precisely because in that memorial they said there were 45,000 or 50,000 killed, I thought it must have been Butare or an experience at Mugambe well before it became a museum. As I understand it, the museum has skeletons, but the technical school I visited had rotting corpses that had very recently been dug up.

But memories and stories do play tricks. This one, though, is too sequential and too precise, I believe, to have been a dream in my mind.

I only vaguely recall the story told by the Tutsi woman from Uganda, and I mean vaguely.

Thanks for the feedback. Maybe I will figure it out. If I do, I will let you know.

She wrote:

I hope you figure it out. But I am absolutely sure that I was not with you in this experience, and also pretty sure that you were not away from Kigali when we were in Rwanda. If you had gone to Butare, I certainly would have known and remembered (it is several hours drive south of Kigali). In fact, I remember we worked so closely together that there was only one occasion when I was on my own, and that was for a few hours one day when you had a separate meeting, and that’s when you asked me to buy masks for you. (I bought two, as you had asked, but liked them so much I kept one for myself. It is hanging by our entrance door now) We kept talking about numbers and how to arrive at the best estimate, but we worked from various estimates made by others, as I recall.

As it turns out, when I informed my wife about the exchange, she confirmed that I had indeed gone back to Rwanda at least one other time. It was unlikely a dream or a construction based on someone else’s stories. Nevertheless, we must all be wary of spy stories, of descriptions of information possibly when there was no direct experience. The interpretations are most susceptible to partiality and distortion. We must recall that ideologies and faith systems inherently lack any heart of their own. To quote John Le Carré once again, blind faith, closed belief systems and ideologies are “the whores and angels of our striving selves.” 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Inyenzi: Parashat Sh’lach L’cha, Numbers 13:1−15:41

לב  וַיֹּצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר תָּרוּ אֹתָהּ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר:  הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ, אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא, וְכָל-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ, אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת. 32 And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature.
לג  וְשָׁם רָאִינוּ, אֶת-הַנְּפִילִים בְּנֵי עֲנָק–מִן-הַנְּפִלִים; וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים, וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.’

Kinyarwanda is the language spoken in Rwanda. In that language, inyenzi are cockroaches, like grasshoppers, to be feared, especially in large numbers. This was the name the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda, Hutu Power, gave to the Tutsis. 800,000 were slaughtered in ten weeks. The spies in the Tanach, in response to anticipatory fears of his people, were sent by Moses to the Land of Canaan to “spy out” that land. Upon their return, 10 of the 12 called themselves grasshoppers. They felt like inyenzi. According to some Talmudic commentaries, they may even have been called inyenzi by the inhabitants.

For the residents of the land, from the distance, they must have looked as small as grasshoppers. In their own thoughts and from the perspective of those on whom they spied, they felt like grasshoppers. In Ecclesiastes, grasshoppers are characterized by a lack of vitality, a lack of energy, perhaps even an absence of sexual potency. “The grasshopper shall drag itself along.” (12:5)

Reports include not only observations but experiences, not only experiences of the outside world but of one’s response to that world. Reports, especially those of spies, always include interpretations and evaluations. Were the 10 of the 12 spies erroneous in their depiction of the inhabitants as tall and strong? Did they exaggerate? Whether the descriptions were or were not accurate, based on their appraised strength, were they justly to be feared? The most fascinating part is, as John Le Carré once wrote, that the world of spies is “such a reflection of the society it serves. If you really want to examine the national psychology, it’s locked in the secret world.”

What was the national psychology of the Israelites, the majority of whom were punished by God because the reports of ten of the spies pointed to a distrust of God and Moses himself as leader? Sent to spy out the land, by a 5:1 ratio, the spies urged extreme caution and communicated a sense of fear. They were not trained spies, but political leaders of the different tribes. They were specifically asked to appraise the numbers and strength of the foe. Were the inhabitants strong or weak? Were their cities well-fortified or not? Was the land fertile? In the latter case, the spies returned with grapes slung between two poles, a symbol in contemporary Israel, to prove the abundance of the land and that it was indeed flowing with milk and honey.

However, the land was reportedly also occupied by fierce peoples – Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites and Canaanites. Without contradicting that main objective impression, Caleb, however, urged an attack by the Israelites. He was a hawk. “We should go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” (13:30) The issue was not the strength of the inhabitants, but the strength and will of the Israelites. The dissenters opposed to an attack urged, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.”

In the Midrash, the Ten are considered cowards and sinners for delivering a negative report. Caleb and Joshua are portrayed as heroes. Caleb was fortified by faith, for he allegedly traveled all the way to Hebron on his own to pray at the Cave of Machpelah where the forefathers were buried.

To repeat, the difference between Joshua/Caleb and the Dissident Ten did not seem to be over the strength of those who then dwelled on the land. Why then did the narrator insert the judgement that the Group of Ten, the dissenters, those wary of initiating a war rashly, “spread an evil report of the land”? After all, it was just their observation and interpretation. How could that be “evil”?

The view that the inhabitants were tall and strong was not contradicted by either Caleb or Joshua. The report that the land “eateth up its inhabitants” was challenged. There was no report of either collusion among the various peoples inhabiting the land or any preparations underway to obstruct a return of the Israelites. What is meant by, “the land eateth up its inhabitants?”

Numbers 14:36 and 37 make clear that the debate was not over the strength of the inhabitants, but about “bringing a bad report about the land.” The punishment for giving a bad report was that God struck down the dissident spies with the plague. But, again, what did it mean that the land “eateth up its inhabitants?” Ezekiel in 36:13-14 described such a land as devouring men and depriving the nation of its children. Was that a projection of huge casualties no matter who won? Or of impotency? Or of both?

There is absolutely no suggestion of infertility of the land itself, as suggested in many commentaries, for the spies, as a group of 12, brought back lots of fruit to prove the abundance the land yielded. However, there is another interpretation beside considerations of the costs and possibilities of victory. It was based upon likely after-effects – the fear of assimilation, of the Israelites losing their distinctiveness. Did the spies see a great deal of intermixing of the peoples? For they reported seeing, “the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim.”

In Genesis 6:1-6, the Nephilim are referred to as “sons of God” who married the beautiful daughters of men, of humans. “The Nephilim on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God (bene Elohim) came into the daughters of men.” If the inhabitants were akin to the Nephilim, the fear was that they would rape, seduce or marry the daughters of the Israelites. But if the Nephilim were considered something like fallen angels, as in parts of the Christian tradition, who bred with human females, or even as descendants of Seth, the fear that the Dissident Ten reported was about how attractive the residents would appear to the Israelite women and not just the physical strength of the inhabitants. Why was this regarded as such a heinous piece of intelligence and interpretation?

It would appear that the Dissident Ten had a double fear. “And wherefore doth the LORD bring us unto this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey; were it not better for us to return into Egypt?” (14:3) Their instinct for survival, deeply rooted in the slavery that they escaped, underpinned a wariness, a sense of suspicion.

How did Moses and Aaron respond to the report of Caleb and presumably Joshua to go on the attack versus the urge for caution by the other ten spies? Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb went into mourning. After all, they had gone through so much, had travelled so far only to learn that their weakness lay in their own fears. They urged that the people put their faith in God rather than surrendering to the angst, despair and trepidation of the other ten spies.

“If the LORD delight in us, then He will bring us into this land, and give it unto us–a land which floweth with milk and honey. Only rebel not against the LORD, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us; their defence is removed from over them, and the LORD is with us; fear them not.” (14:8-9) Simply put, “Have faith.”

The response? The people threw stones at Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb. No reasoned counter-evidence to still the fears of the populace were offered by either Caleb or Joshua. God was simply revolted by their panic and lack of faith in His leadership. He promised to send pestilence to destroy them. In other words, no toleration for dissent. The response to dissent should be destruction of the Nay-sayers.

But, if you destroy Your own people, You will lose face before the Egyptians and their gods, said Moses. You led them. You lived in the midst of them. And at the last minute, they chickened out. But the failure would be assigned to God, Moses argued. Moses then appealed to God’s other side, his human kindness.

The Lord, who presumably had cooled down by then, pardoned the people for their lack of faith. No capital punishment. But they, and their children over twenty years of age, would have to live out the next forty years in the wilderness, a home when there is no home. Except Caleb, Joshua and each of their sons over twenty years of age; they would eventually enter the Promised Land. They would get home.

Clearly dissent, even grumbling and murmurings, would not be tolerated and would be regarded by God as evil. This was the case even if the Dissenting Ten were influenced by religious concerns as well as fears, such as an anticipation that even if this nomadic people won and settled down, they would lose their religious fervour developed in the wilderness. This was the case even if the Dissident Ten were correct in their fears and anticipations concerning the physical might of the existing inhabitants. After all, when the zealots, without Moses’ authority, attacked and were roundly defeated, they were not punished.

In other words, I, God, do not want to hear about your fears and trepidations or even your abstract faith divorced from politics and war. If your faith will not or cannot overcome hesitation, then that is the end of it. You lose. There is no acknowledgement of any right of dissent or even any consideration of what turns out to be the majority argument. Either you are for Me or against Me. I demand absolute loyalty and trust. Even though you predicted defeat correctly, it is I, your God, who caused the Amalekites and the Canaanites to attack the Israeli encampment and create mayhem and wonton destruction.

“And they [the zealots, the ma’apilim, the defiant ones] rose up early in the morning, and got them up to the top of the mountain, saying: ‘Lo, we are here, and will go up unto the place which the LORD hath promised; for we have sinned.’ And Moses said: ‘Wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of the LORD, seeing it shall not prosper. Go not up, for the LORD is not among you; that ye be not smitten down before your enemies. For there the Amalekite and the Canaanite are before you, and ye shall fall by the sword; forasmuch as ye are turned back from following the LORD, and the LORD will not be with you.’ Then the Amalekite and the Canaanite, who dwelt in that hill-country, came down, and smote them and beat them down, even unto Hormah.” (14:40-45)

What was missing? Why did they lose? Not even faith in the end. It was God who had to lead His people into battle. The conviction of the zealots was that God and Moses were just discouraging them. Their bravery and resort to action would prove their greater faith, that is, proof that they could overcome the test God put before them. However, what was required was not bravery, but loyalty. Neither dissent on one hand nor rash action on the other hand could or should instigate the direction of an action.

The irony, of course, is that it is God who treats the majority of the people as inyenzi, as grasshoppers, to be left out to die in the cold wilderness. On the other hand, it is the same God who will insist that strangers who live among the Israelites be treated like citizens and be subject to the same law. One law forbids working on shabat for Israelite and stranger alike. How are genocidal actions and the profession of humanitarianism and universal values to be reconciled?

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part III: Montaigne – Style and Substance (Literature)

Montaigne called himself—“bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal.” He considered himself a bundle of opposites. I do as well. As he said of his own use of anecdotes and quotations, they are not employed by me simply as examples, for authoritative support or for ornament, though hopefully, especially when quoting Montaigne, they do all three. I use quotes for contrast and no longer use quotes as authoritative sources because the source of a quote can be found so easily on the internet. I quote Montaigne mostly to illustrate writing that is both direct and enriched. His style delights and inspires and sets a target for myself which I will never reach. Or even come close. But the effort is worth it.

For Montaigne, the first principle of reading is pleasure. The world is also “a strange and magical place, constantly changing.” In that, he echoed Bruno, but he was concerned about the minutiae of life as well as violent conflict and uninterested in any portrayal of the cosmos, though he did appear to prefer Copernicus to Ptolemy. His style is always energetic, even when it is laid back and quiet. But what most stands out in Montaigne is that style, the manner of expression, is every bit as important as the substance expressed. I just wish I was as patient and as creative.

Montaigne did not invent the essay form; he gave it its name and set a model for anyone after to follow. An essay is relatively short. It is usually informal. It is intended to instruct, to stimulate and to entertain. I personally always remember the first purpose and just as often forget the second and third. Some of the best contemporary examples are found in The New Yorker, but the ones in The New York Review of Books often have the same shortcomings as my own essays do. The best part of an essay is its flexibility because it can be used for a movie or book review, a report on a music performance or an excursion, sports reporting or discussions of a serious ethical issue.

Essays are also easy to change: “in truth, what are these things I scribble but grotesque and monstrous bodies pieced together of sundry members, without any definite shape, having no order, coher­ence, or proportion, except by accident?” But you cannot say in a prose essay what you can say in poetry – see the end of my discussion of the Sotah ritual as being about jealousy rather than infidelity and see how the Browning poem, which ends the essay, says what I wanted to say so much more directly, more pithily, more briskly, livelier and with greater compression and usually much more energy. 

I try to copy Montaigne by inserting casual anecdotes, but just as often forget to do so. Sometimes I engage in personal recollections, but I do so fearfully, with hesitation and guardedness. I do have digressions, but often the whole blog or essay is a digression for what I often set out to write. And I very much try to achieve a degree of intellectual insight. That is the value of comparison – to show differences and respect differences, not only in style but in quality. How else can we learn? But I am like a golfer who gets a score of 94, not too bad, when Montaigne scores 62 on a par 65 course.

My children and some readers want me to write more from experience, but I lack Montaigne’s boldness. They argue, with some justification, that an essay is impersonal and my dips into a few personal stories are just a tease. Even worse, it is an impersonal form with a pretence of intimacy. They believe it is a reflection of a refusal to engage personally on a deeper level.

That’s not quite or always true and there are different forms of intimacy than the interpersonal kind. When I was an undergraduate in Pre-Meds and had just been woken up to the vast literature that I absolutely personally had to read, especially poetry which I had lost touch with since Grade Six when I had Elsie Pomeroy as my teacher. (She wrote the biography of Charles G.D. Roberts.) I wrote an essay for my English professor who was an expert on T. S. Eliot.

I claimed that, after reading a great deal of his poetry and many of his essays on the quality required of poetry, that, except for his early poems, Eliot was just a master technician and craftsman. The reasons could be found in his antisemitic essays and his contempt for the very audience he said poetry had to reach. I fell totally and absolutely in love with the university when my professor, who, given his own writings and absolute love for Eliot, did not share my conclusions, nevertheless gave me an A+.

In an essay that T. S. Eliot wrote on Montaigne, which I never read when I was an undergraduate, in 1925 he opined, as Adam Gopnik pointed out, “Montaigne is just the sort of writer to provide a stimulant to a poet; for what the poet looks for in his reading is not a philosophy—not a body of doctrine or even a consistent point of view which he endeavors to understand—but a point of departure.”

But whoever treats Montaigne as simply a stimulant, as a substitute for pot or alcohol, for “uppers”, opioids or opium, misses the point. Montaigne did not write primarily to stimulate you, but to invite you to enter his world of colours and shapes and sizes and weights and a vast world captured by an incisive eye and mind totally willing to tolerate and confront the contradictions and contrariness of his own character. Only an egoist would use Montaigne primarily as a stimulant for one’s own thoughts and imagination. That is the Montaigne I would like to imitate, but recognize I do not come close. 

I recognize that bracketing tales of personal intimacy is a con job for it implies indirectly that my readers are my true intimates even though I repeatedly insist that I really, in the end, only write for myself, to clarify my own thinking. When I read Montaigne and find he thought the same, I am emboldened.

Montaigne, however, unlike myself, is a brilliant wit. He pursued health like a hypochondriac, but he had good reason since he suffered from the same medical problems as his father, especially kidney stones; doctors then were mostly quacks. Therefore, he loved health but hated doctors. As he wittily commented, Doctors “are lucky: the sun shines on their successes and the earth hides their failures.” He also wrote, “Super-celestial opinions [was he mocking Bruno?] and under-terrestrial manners [this could easily be Martin Luther] are things that amongst us I have ever seen to be of singular accord.” He could have made a fortune as a stand-up comic or a comedy store writer. But he didn’t need the money.

As far as I am concerned, Montaigne’s most brilliant insight was to challenge the concept of essences in each of us, namely that each individual had a true essence, sometimes phrased, as in Aristotle, as a potential unique to oneself. That is, we have the duty and responsibility to bring out this quality. Instead, he threw out that idea that he had expressed in earlier writings and became convinced that each of us is a bundle of contradictions.

“All contrarieties are found . . . according to some turn or removing, and in some fashion or other. Shame-faced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, laborious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, forward, humorous, debonair, wise, ignorant, false in words, true speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself. . . . We are all framed of flaps and patches, and of so shapeless and diverse a contexture, that every piece and every moment playeth his part.”

What a contrast with shorthand judgements that I myself frequently make, namely that some people are introverts and others extroverts, some risk-prone and some risk averse. Instead, these people should be viewed as expressions of the self, suited to a particular time and circumstances, or unsuited if they are on a self-destructive trajectory,

I myself am prone to ferret out the shortcomings of writers and commentators. When I read a book or hear a dvar Torah on a passage, my critical antennae grow sharp, my intellectual nails become like talons and I become impatient to rip into the inconsistencies and inadequacies of an author. And so I often fail to grasp and appreciate any rich nuggets of wisdom that may happen to be there.

As readers should know by now, I have a soft spot for lists and charts and comparative tables. In spite of the distortions that result, I take pride in the revelations that I have assembled. However, as Adam Gopnik, one of the best imitators of the Montaigne style in contemporary prose, noted in a review of a book on Montaigne, “Lists are the giveaways of writing. What we list is what we love, as with Homer and his ships, or Whitman and his Manhattan trades, or Twain and steamboats. That beautiful and startlingly modern list of mixed emotions suggests a delectation of diversities—he likes not knowing what he feels or who he is, enjoys having ‘wise’ and ‘ignorant,’ insulated by nothing but a comma, anchored together in one soul’s harbor. They bang hulls inside our heads.” What a delight to read such excellent prose!

Look at this observation on Montaigne. “Although those epigrammatic sentences can be arresting—’Nothing is so firmly believed as that which a man knoweth least’—Montaigne doesn’t think epigrammatically. What makes him astonishing is a sort of ‘show all work’ ethic that forced thought as it really is, mixed in motive and meanings, onto the page. He seems wise, more than smart or shrewd—wise without being smart or shrewd. He can be embarrassing, as he was often thought to be in his time, in a way that recalls less a polished columnist than a great diarist, like James Boswell or Kenneth Tynan, incapable of being guarded, the way shrewder people are. When he writes about the joys of having sex with cripples, we feel uneasy, nervous, and then enlightened. Whatever he’s telling, he’s telling it, as Howard Cosell used to say, like it is.” Gopnik is a contemporary Montaigne.

His observation: essayists may tread where scholars dare not. And thus they convey wisdom more than truth, insight more than syllogistic argumentation, and thereby demonstrate that the fictional imagination can be very grounded and not necessarily soar into flights of fancy or magical worlds.

“Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation of ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen-sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting. Hamlet says:

“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. And the balancing of opposites, the rhythm of assertion and counter-assertion, the sudden questioning turns, all of it seems irresistibly like Florio’s Montaigne, notably in the springy, self-surprised beat:

How often do we pester our spirits with anger or sadness by such shadows and entangle ourselves into fantastical passions which alter both our mind and body? What astonished, flearing, and confused mumps and mows doth this dotage stir up in our visages! What skippings and agitations of members and voice!”

What better an introduction to Shakespeare – and to Marlowe.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part II: Montaigne – Sense and Sensibility (Political Action)

Adam Gopnik, in a 2017 essay, claimed that Montaigne was the inventor of liberalism. What is more, he did so in a time of enormous conflict and violence as well as enormous changes. To the west, Hernán Cortés had conquered New Spain. From the east, Suleiman the Magnificent brought the Ottoman Empire almost to Vienna. Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots lost their heads. There were martyrs galore in a century of turmoil and upheaval. Tyndale died for his Bible. Bruno died for questioning the dogmatic interpretations of the Bible.

But the central conflict was the war between Protestants and Roman Catholics for supremacy. In 1588, King Philip II of Spain assembled an enormous 130-ship naval fleet with the intention removing Protestant Queen Elizabeth from the throne and restoring the Roman Catholic faith in England..

Like Machiavelli, Montaigne lived through a period of tumultuous politics but on a national rather than municipal level. The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants began in the 16th century but continued in one form of another for another two centuries, though by the 17th century, power conflicts, revolts by subject peoples and struggles over land led to odd alliances. In The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), with Protestants as allies, Catholic France fought against the Catholic Hapsburg monarchy. Though class revolts by the guardian class of knights and by peasants may have set the stage in the early part of the 16th century, the counter-Reformation by the Roman Catholic Church initiated in 1545 raised the level and extent of violence to a pan-European war.

In his civil service career, Montaigne became the ambassador to the Parisian court representing the Parliament of Bordeaux. As a mediator, Pyrrhonic scepticism generally served him in good stead, but not always as we shall see. It also meant that he could not remain passive. As his best friend and fellow diplomat, La Boétie, wrote in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, passivity is a kind of personal tyranny. The latter’s liberalism did not entail considering hate speech as free speech. It did not dictate inaction and non-intervention in a polity engaged in the brutal suppression of its own people because of absolute sovereignty. Further, engaging in politics was an effort to activate Bruno’s stress on prophecy and the use of the fictional imagination of possibilities rather than the cognitive imagination of Bruno’s subjectus. Montaigne’s imagination, however, was stimulated by what he saw, what he heard, what he thought and what he experienced rather than vast portraits of the cosmos.

Montaigne followed the example of La Boétie who had mediated the conflict between the Protestant uprising in Agen and the Catholic court. He was not a peacenik because of passivity, for he went into an enormous rage at the French imperial efforts, as its presuned moral duty, to civilize the savages. Montaigne was very wary of practices and thoughts determined by habit. Further, he claimed that knowledge of the devastating effects of vice would “excite an aversion to vicious habits.”

“Again with politics, statesmen are always praising the greatness of Empire, and preaching the moral duty of civilizing the savage. But look at the Spanish in Mexico. So many cities levelled to the ground, so many nations exterminated. . . and the richest and most beautiful part of the world [Asia?] turned upside down for the traffic of pearl and pepper! Mechanic victories!” Montaigne was what we would call today an empath. He extended his mind and heart, his friendship and his knowledge to all of humanity. (See “On the Education of Children.”)

“Among other vices I cruelly hate cruelty, both by nature and judg­ment, as the extreme of all vices. But it is to such a degree of softness that I cannot see a chicken’s neck slit without trouble, and I cannot bear to hear the cry of a hare beneath the teeth of my dogs, though the chase is a stirring pleasure.” Montaigne despised religious divisions, tribalism and global instability. His abstention from joining any political party was not a freedom from conviction, but from partisanship.

Montaigne despised psychopathic murderers. “I could hardly persuade myself, before I had seen it with my eyes, that there could be found men so monstrous who would wish to commit murder for the sole pleasure of it, would hack and lop off limbs of others, sharpen their wits to invent unusual torments and new kinds of deaths, without hatred, without profit, and for the sole end of enjoying the pleasant spectacle of the pitiful gestures and motions, the lamentable groans and cries of a man dying in anguish.” I read this and I cry. I remember counting the 17,000+ corpses removed from a mass grave in Rwanda and lined up on the benches of a technical school. The smell comes back every time I recall the experience. And it was after the genocide, not during it.

Montaigne was thrust into the centre of the Catholic-Protestant wars in France, for he was one Catholic that the Protestants trusted. Further, in his own priorities, he refused to belong to any party or take part in theological debates that might presume that one party was absolutely right and the other absolutely wrong (which may explain why he preferred to continue as a Catholic rather than join his mother and two siblings in converting to Protestantism). For Montaigne, religious belief was purely customary. “We are Christians by the same title as we are either Périgourdines or Germans.” Montaigne did believe, like Erasmus, that the question of how we ought to act, how we implement policy in practice and express our wisdom best, took precedence over his pursuit of small truths, even in the face of profound scepticism.

Montaigne played the role of introducing common sense when the French ruling political class sought to preserve the monarchy as Catholic and when the possibility of a Protestant heir, Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot who married Charles IX’s sister in August 1572, loomed before them. The Huguenots had fought against the ruling regime of Catholic King Henry III.

As a brief background, in 1572, Admiral Gaspard II de Coligny, a Huguenot, supported the uprising in the Netherlands against Spain to prevent any imminent resumption of civil war fostered by Charles IX of France (1550-1574). In that summer, in light of Admiral Coligny’s initiative, Catherine de Médici, Charles’ mother, who believed Coligny had too much influence over her son, planned his assassination (a previous attempt having failed) as well as that of a large contingent of Huguenots who had come to Paris for the royal wedding. The result – the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. On 23 August 1572, the massacre, approved by Charles IX, was put in place in the evening. The next day, in Paris, a wave of assassinations of Huguenots by Catholics began; Coligny was one of the first victims. It was Kristallnacht for the Huguenots; their homes and shops were pillaged, the occupants were brutally murdered and their bodies thrown in the Seine.

The 25th of August royal order to stop the killings was ignored and the massacres spread to Rouen and Lyon, Bordeaux and Orléans and other French cities. As usual, the Catholics played down the numbers killed – only 2,000 – while the Huguenot, Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully, who barely escaped, claimed 70,000 had been killed. My own experience in doing counts of genocidal deaths suggests that the latter figure was much more likely to be closer to the truth.

There were a number of consequences. Philip II of Spain and Pope Gregory XII applauded the massacre and supported Charles IX’s false claim that the murders were a response to a Huguenot uprising. Second, many Huguenots turned to terrorism and gave up on John Calvin’s dictum that Protestants were to be loyal to the magistrate in power. Third, the first very large wave of refugees fled France to the German states and the exodus gave the name of “refugee” to those who flee persecution.

Montaigne was sent to mediate between Henry II and Henry of Navarre. The Protestants were the first to imprison him, suspecting he was a spy. Then the Catholics turned against him as his efforts to explain the position, fears and complaints of the Huguenots simply instilled distrust in his peace initiative. He was arrested and briefly placed in the Bastille until he could demonstrate without qualification that he was a believing and practicing Catholic. Sometimes, sympathy for the other can be hazardous to your health. His effort at peacemaking was a failure.

Nevertheless, I am a huge admirer of his peacenik efforts. But do I admire his admonitions against ambition and greed? Do I admire his love of freedom from family and the demands of one’s surroundings? I have 6 children, 12 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren. I would not give that up for all the wealth of King Midas or for all the glory of Kawhi Leonard of the Raptors. Montaigne constantly asserted that he was lazy, feckless, and irresponsible. But his learning and his literary productivity tells a different story.

For Montaigne, the central question of freedom came in many variants: “How do I preserve my true self?” “How do I avoid losing my soul?” he asked. He no sooner wrote this, than he contradicted himself to insist that there was no “true” self, but many selves. And he queried the nature of the soul. He was concerned with not giving offence while feeling free to express himself. “How do I ensure that I go no further in my speech or actions than I think is right?” Then he wrote about his joy at fucking a cripple. Although he asked above all: “How do I remain free?” he was aware that freedom entailed boundaries and had to be given direction by a sense of responsibility.  

I do not believe I have a true self but many selves and I try to push some and limit others as I choose among both possibilities and demands. Further, I have a terrible habit of not limiting my speech; as a Canadian ambassador once told me while we were working together on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, “Howard, you will never make a diplomat. You want clear and distinct ideas whereas the art of diplomacy is based on equivocation.” I have, however, never thought of Montaigne as an equivocator, though he certainly made great efforts not to give offence. Finally, I have never feared losing my soul. Perhaps, that is my deepest failing.

In the movie that takes place in Toulouse, The Return of Martin Guerre, Michel de Montaigne is an observer of the trial of Martin Guerre or of a man who pretended to be Martin Guerre. He actually attended the proceedings in reality and not just in the movie. In his essay, “Of the Lame,” he wrote about the need in trials, especially of people accused of capital crimes, to provide evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. He did not write about the treatment delivered to women accused of infidelity when there was neither any evidence nor witnesses as I discussed in a recent biblical commentary. However, based on the case of Martin Guerre, he did argue that witches should not be burned because it is impossible to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that someone is a witch. It is too bad that the Puritans in Salem Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693, over a century later, never likely read Montaigne. They would have gained so much by so doing. Of course, those condemned as witches would have realized the largest gains.

Humility and scepticism were the proper qualities of a judge and jury at such a trial. Giordano Bruno would have benefitted from precisely such an approach. In the excellent movie Indian Horse about the residential school system in Canada to which our indigenous peoples were subjected for well over a century to enforce assimilation and which only relatively recently were closed, the last one in 1996, we witness a system of cultural genocide implemented by Canadian church officials, priests and nuns, purportedly of good will, to eliminate parental involvement in the spiritual, cultural and intellectual development of their children.

In the film, the narrator proved false the premise that the church was out to exorcise pride from the spirit of a people. The narrator observed that when we are attentive to the absolute vastness and beauty and bounty of nature, then and only then can we be humble. The church was obsessed with its own dogmas and the individuals with their own disciplinarian and even “loving” ways. The sin of pride was to be found in the Church, not in the children.

150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were literally abducted from their parents, forced to attend these “schools” of indoctrination where the children were forbidden, at the cost of corporal punishment, from speaking their own native languages. The systemic racism was intended to “kill the Indian in the child.” Montaigne incisively recognized that the war on pride and the celebration of humility was really intended to foster a false and destructive pride and to squash genuine humility.

“When the present doesn’t recognize the wrongs of the past, the future takes its revenge. For that reason, we must never turn away from the opportunity of confronting our history together – the opportunity to right an historical wrong.” Governor General Michaëlle Jean, 15 October 2009.

The reason: sensibility and reason are both flawed. “Truth and falsehood have both alike countenances…Wee beholde them with one same eye.” That is why a principle of modern science is falsifiability, namely that one tries to create experiments to prove a hypothesis false in order to establish the truth.

In the time of Donald Trump, the conclusions of La Boétie that influenced Montaigne so much are relevant. La Boétie contended that average people cannot apprehend their own interests and easily develop a crush on a strong leader. As Bakewell put it, “La Boétie believes that tyrants somehow hypnotize their people,” and they love and follow him when his “qualities they should not love, since he is savage and inhuman towards them.”

Lest one think that this is only a problem in America today, in France, mistreatment of Jews is coming from below. There are many examples. I cite only one, that of the famous French-Jewish philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut. Believe it or not, he is now afraid to leave his home. At a recent rally in Paris, marchers yelled at him: “F*** off, you dirty piece of s*** Zionist”. A Salafist shouted: “France belongs to us! You racist! You hater! You’re going to die!” “In 2016, Finkielkraut was violently ejected from a public gathering in Paris. He was heckled by protesters shouting ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’ at a rally organized by the Nuit Debout, or White Night.”

It is not just Muslim extremists. The intolerance has infected the Left in both France and Britain. “Alain Finkielkraut spread hatred in France, against young people in the suburbs, against Muslims, against national education,” tweeted Thomas Guénolé, a leftist political scientist close to Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Former president Hollande’s lawyer, Jean-Pierre Mignard, said that “Finkielkraut is an apologist for the conflict.” It is not as if Finkielkraut is the only one. Robert Redeker and Éric Zemmour, both Jewish Conservative intellectuals, have been attacked.

The circumstances may have changed, but intolerance and hatred continue to be pervasive in France today. Reading Montaigne in the French school system is totally insufficient. One should learn to essay Montaigne.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part I: Montaigne – The Question of his Jewishness

There is a possibility that Giordano Bruno was descended from a family of Conversos, Jews forcefully converted by the Inquisition. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), by contrast, was definitely Jewish even though he may not have known that. His mother, Antoinette de Louppes de Villeneuve, was descended from a forcefully converted Spanish Jewish family who remained Marranos, secret Jews behind a Christian façade. However, Antoinette did marry a Catholic, Eyquem de Montaigne, a business partner of her father in Toulouse. Born near Bordeaux in a town now called Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, Michel de Montaigne’s great grandfather on his mother’s side had become a very wealthy herring merchant and bought an estate. His maternal grandfather, Pedro López, officially converted to Catholicism. His mother married a soldier, Pierre Eyquem, who for a time served as Mayor of Bordeaux. He too, Sophie Jama (2001) argued, was descended from Marranos. (L’Histoire Juive de Montaigne)

From an early age, his parents, servants and teachers spoke to him only in Latin. Montaigne wrote:

. . . in my infancy, and before I began to speak, he [his father] committed me to the care of a German (who since died a famous physician in France), totally ignorant of our language and very well versed in Latin. This man, whom he had sent for specially and whom he paid extremely well, had me continually with him. With him there were also two others, of less learning, to attend me and to relieve him. They conversed with me in no other language but Latin. As to the rest of the household, it was an inviolable rule that neither himself, nor my mother, nor any valet or maid should speak anything in my company but such Latin words as everyone had learned in order to gaggle with me. It is wonderful how much everyone derived from this.

He also learned Greek as a child. He was brought up listening to music almost all the time and encouraged to be a self-disciplined free spirit rather than a dominated, repressed one. Michel de Montaigne began his studies of law at Toulouse University at the age of thirteen after attending the Collège de Guyenne, a Portuguese New Christian (Marrano) school (1539-1546).

Like Machiavelli, he became a civil servant but never held the lofty positions of his Italian predecessor, though he was awarded the collar of the Order of St. Michael, the highest honour that a French noble was eligible to receive. He was very proud of that award. I recognize what it means since receiving the Order of Canada made me very proud even though I am very reluctant to wear the pin except on very special occasions. Montaigne joked about his award as saving the bother of anyone ever having to review his efforts and accomplishments ever again. He had no idea of the enormous number of biographies that would be written about him after he died. I list a select few in English only.

Montaigne’s books

Donald M. Frame (1983) (tr. & intro.) Montaigne’s Travel Journal

Donald M. Frame (1989) (tr. & intro.) The Complete Essays of Montaigne

Books on Montaigne 

John O’Neill (1982) Essaying Montaigne: A Study of the Renaissance Institution of Writing and Reading.

Hugo Friedrich and Philippe Desan (1991) Montaigne

David Quint (1998) Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy

Lawrence D. Kritzman (2009) The Fabulous Imagination: On Montaigne’s Essays

Sarah Bakewell (2010) How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

Philippe Desan (2017) (tr. Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal) Montaigne: A Life.

St. John Bayle (2019) Montaigne the Essayist: A Biography.

Essays on Montaigne

Richard H. Popkin (1966) “The Apology for Raymond Sebond,” in his edited volume, The Philosophy of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Kramer, Jane (2009) “Me, Myself, And I,” New Yorker, March.

Adam Gopnik (2017) “Montaigne on Trial,” New Yorker, January.

After fourteen years of service and some initial translation and editing work, he retired from the civil service and wrote his famous Essais as well as originating the genre as a literary form. Ten years after his retirement, he followed in his father’s footsteps, entered politics and was elected Mayor of Bordeaux in 1581 (1581-1585). In 1592, the same year that Shakespeare produced what I regard as his greatest historical play, Richard II, Montaigne died. On the 417th anniversary of Montaigne’s death in 2009, I was in Lucca when the conference on Montaigne was being held from which I obtained the two posters, now framed, that hang on my wall.

Like Erasmus, Montaigne was a sceptical humanist but without the former’s theological trappings. As we shall see, among those whom he influenced can be found Shakespeare who cites Montaigne in several of his plays. When Montaigne worked as an editor, he translated a Catalan philosopher who had taught at the University of Toulouse in the early part of the 16th century, Raymond de Sabunde, who wrote Liber Naturae Sive Creaturarum, etc (or Theologia Naturalis or Natural Theology (1434–1436). Montaigne translated the work from a Catalan-infused Latin into French (1568). Similar to Bruno, but without the mystical accoutrements, Sabunde held that both Nature and the Tanach were divine and that reason and faith were complementary and compatible. Montaigne in his Essays (ii:xiii) argued that the work established and verified “all the articles of the Christian religion.”

The remainder of his essays he wrote when he retired in 1570, having inherited the family estate. He not only retired, he retreated to the tranquility and leisure of his library in 1571 with what was then a massive collection of 1,500 volumes and published the first volume of his essays in 1580, many based on his travels and the notes he made as an early quasi-anthropologist. Gopnik in his review essay of Desan asked whether Montaigne’s withdrawal was really a retreat to safety from the enormous challenges of political life at the time, in particular, the “unimaginable massacre and counter-massacre between Protestants and Catholics.” After all, he was not really a devoté of solitude; he took a position as Mayor of Bordeaux and fled his post in 1585 when there was an epidemic of the Black Death.

As far as Jews and Judaism were concerned, he was not only a critic of their persecution, but expressed a positive attitude towards their devotion to their religion in spite of pogroms and other forms of discrimination. (Essais 1:14) His posthumous work, Travel Journal or Diary, was first published in English in 1774, just over two hundred years after his death and two years before the American Revolution broke out. Like many if not most Jews who travel, including those who are secular, he made a practice of visiting synagogues when he visited towns and cities throughout Italy and writing up his observations and thoughts. He went to services and talked to Jews. He even attended a circumcision and wrote empathetically and positively about the ritual. He also directly witnessed Jews being persecuted and heard a sermon by a converted Jew, the subject of which was why Jews should convert to Christianity.

What is not clear is whether he knew he was Jewish and not whether he regarded himself as Jewish. He did not. He professed his Catholic faith. Further, there is never any acknowledgement by him that his mother was Jewish. Other than his sympathy and interests in Jews and Judaism, there is no evidence that he recognized himself as Jewish. His siblings as well as his mother converted from Catholicism to become Protestants. Finally, although he approached Jews and Judaism with empathy, sympathy, curiosity and objectivity, he did the same with every other matter that he investigated.

Several items, however, point to something more than empathy and objectivity. He was, as mentioned, supportive of the ritual of circumcision and attended a New Christian elementary school and then a university populated with New Christians. In the Essais, he expressed his support and understanding of Portuguese Jews who killed their own children rather than permit their conversion. Further, he suggested that the Romans were punished by God for the way they treated the Jews.

My own conviction is that he was a humanist Catholic and, like Erasmus, since reason could not deliver certainty, faith would. Scepticism reinforced the faith option. On the other hand, in 1563 he was at the bedside of his best friend, the poet Ėtienne de la Boétie, whom he had known since he was a young civil servant and with whom he had formed an intellectual and emotional intimacy and reciprocity. As he was dying, Boétie said to the priest offering him a final confession: “I declare that I was christened and I have lived, and that so I wish to die, in the faith in which Moses preached in Egypt.” Montaigne, in his long essay on Ėtienne de la Boétie called, “On Friendship,” never mentioned that Boétie was Jewish. In contrast, on his own death bed, he requested and died while celebrating Mass.

An enormous admirer of Montaigne, the Austrian Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig, before he took his own life in 1942 “exhausted by the long years of homeless wandering,” summed up Montaigne in terms of eight freedoms:

  1. Freedom from vanity and false pride;
  2. Freedom from both belief and disbelief, from convictions and from parties;
  3. Freedom from habit;
  4. Freedom from ambition and greed;
  5. Freedom from family and surroundings;
  6. Freedom from fanaticism;
  7. Freedom from fate;
  8. Freedom from a death that depends on others rather than oneself.

It is an excellent summary for it captures the central thesis and focus on freedom while dissecting the concept into its manifold of expressions. The first was unquestionably true. As he introduced the irony of writing on the topic. “There is, peradventure, no more manifest vanity than to write of it so vainly.” Ecclesiastes includes the well-known aphorism, “Vanity of vanities: all is vanity.” (1:2) Montaigne never wrote an autobiography even though he was so personally revealing about his thoughts and feelings. He did not do so because “fortune has placed them (his personal activities) too low.” However, he does so by inadvertence, by indirection and by fancy.

My children, particularly my two youngest sons, have pushed me to write my autobiography or, at the very least, to tell personal stories about myself and my activities in my blog. I have not. It seems I cannot. I have sometimes tried. It is not my opposition to vanity that holds me back, but in every activity in which I participated, whether for good and bad, I find there is an over-estimation in the role I played. And to repeatedly write this about each action is, ironically, a form of vanity in the guise of false modesty. Further, I do not possess the wisdom let alone the wit of Montaigne. Montaigne wrote, “I have seen a gentleman who only communicated his life by the working of his belly.” I love his style and self-deprecating humour.

Look at this portrait about Montaigne’s own reminiscing. “Here, but not so nauseous, are the excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always indigested.” And thus, even as you may display all you write about in the most guttural way, the art of writing is itself vain for to put it on display requires enormous talent. Hence, vanity; all is vanity. As he concludes his writing about vanity:

It was a paradoxical command anciently given us by that god of Delphos: “Look into yourself; discover yourself; keep close to yourself; call back your mind and will, that elsewhere consume themselves into yourself; you run out, you spill yourself; carry a more steady hand: men betray you, men spill you, men steal you from yourself. Dost thou not see that this world we live in keeps all its sight confined within, and its eyes open to contemplate itself? ‘Tis always vanity for thee, both within and without; but ’tis less vanity when less extended. Excepting thee, O man, said that god, everything studies itself first, and has bounds to its labours and desires, according to its need. There is nothing so empty and necessitous as thou, who embracest the universe; thou art the investigator without knowledge, the magistrate without jurisdiction, and, after all, the fool of the farce.

I will cover other freedoms of Montaigne in the next two blogs.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Day I Could Not Get Home

I returned to bed, as I often do when I finish writing in the morning, to get an hour and a half more of sleep. Instead, I awoke 23 minutes later, literally shaking. Actually, 23 minutes had elapsed between the time I left my computer and the time when I reopened it. I remember my dream very well, almost the whole of it.

By way of explanation, I have an abnormal sleep pattern. I sleep fewer hours. When I wake up, I go from a deep sleep to a wide-awake state almost instantly. Between the time I am awake and the time I turn my computer on, perhaps a minute has lapsed. More if I pause for a pit stop.

My REM sleep comes at the beginning of a sleep cycle rather than at the end. Most people begin their sleeping with non-REM sleep. Excuse the technical babble, the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) part of sleep is when a person dreams. When I am at the sleep clinic overnight (I have been there three times and the doctor is scheduling a fourth, this time, for a 24-hour period rather than the usual overnight stay in the sleep clinic), I usually leave at about 3:30-4:00 a.m., though last time, at the request of the technician, I stayed until 6:00 a.m. Because of the positioning of my REM cycle, I rarely remember my dreams.  I don’t mind. I hate dreaming.

I am sure the following has plenty of scientific errors because I have not read up on the subject, but this is my impression of the science of sleep. I have based it on my talks with the sleep technician more than my medical sleep specialist. I used to say that I rarely dreamed. My REM portion of my sleep cycle tends to be shorter – usually 15 minutes compared to a normal period of about 30 (or even 45) minutes. When I am in REM sleep, the graph produced on the EEG machine, the electroencephalograms, shows small but much more frequent waves.

During the REM phase, I exhibit sleep apnea – a very short period when there are no waves at all. Usually, during my REM period, I have about 1 episode of sleep apnea per minute of sleeping.

When I am on a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine at night to ensure more regular breathing, these short sleep interruptions are reduced by 25%. The CPAP machine increases the air pressure in my throat to prevent the collapse of my airway when I breathe by feeding humidified air under pressure through a mask to my throat. It usually stops or reduces snoring. But I do not generally snore. I have stopped using the CPAP machine because the decrease in apnea is too little to offset the inconvenience and discomfort of putting on a sleep mask and taking care of the machine. In any case, my apnea is very mild. And it now seems unlikely, at least to me, that my apnea results from temporary closure of my airways, but is more likely strictly a neurological problem.

My NREM (non-REM) cycle is not abnormal, at least I have not been told it is abnormal, except, if I recall correctly, the deep sleep of the NREM cycle takes five-sixths of a full cycle rather than an average of about two-thirds. Further, I have fewer cycles per night before I wake up, only this is somewhat offset by the 2 or even 3 short naps I take during the day. To simplify, the two columns – and they really are a gross oversimplification – compare the two different NIGHT sleep patterns:

                                        Normal                            Mine

                                        (in minutes)                     (in minutes)

NREM Sleep                   60                                    75

REM sleep                       30 (vary in length)           15

Total sleep cycle (ave.)   90                                     90

Number of cycles/night    5 (or 4 = 7.5 hrs.)            3

Total night sleep          540 min. = 9 hours              270 min. = 4.5 hrs.

I think I have engaged in enough techno-babble in an effort to stall writing about the dream itself. The latter is so vivid in my memory, both in the details and in the emotional effect. I present a very much shortened version.

In the dream, I went out in the morning to explore different parts of the city – the Brickworks where there was an artisan’s market, the stores along Queen St. W., the new park under the Gardiner Expressway (which I have never seen so I am curious about how the real one compares with my imagined park), the ferry across to the island, Fort York. I even got out to the zoo. And other spots. All in a few morning hours. And I do not drive. That is one great advantage of dreams – you cover a great deal more territory than in real life.

The last spot was on Queen St, in Parkdale. Somehow, I had managed to gather a group of people to follow me. We were in a partying mood. I think this scene was influenced by the early scene of the series I started to watch last evening, When They See Us, about the Central Park Five wrongly accused and convicted of raping a female white jogger in 1989.

If you recall, Trump put full page ads in the newspapers advocating that those convicted be given capital punishment. He has never retracted that advocacy, even though the five were freed because the convictions were trumped up and the five teenagers were all exonerated.

In the early scene of the series, young Blacks and Latinos from Harlem in New York City gather together in a festive mood to go into Central Park in New York. I abandoned watching the film because it was too painful to watch the manipulation and threats to which the young boys were subjected by the police, the manipulation of the parents as well, the lies, etc. They had no legal representation when they were being bullied and questioned (lied to). It was torture for me to watch and I went to bed.

In my dream, I do not know how many people collected behind me – perhaps 15 or 20. We went from place to place. In our perambulations around the city, I ran into two medical doctors who had taught at UofT who were friends and they joined the pack. Suddenly, I decided we should all go back to my house for refreshments. As I led them up and down the street where I said I lived, I could not find my house. I was on Robert Street, just north of College. As I went up and down in my vain search, my followers dropped away. Eventually, only the two doctors were left. We were on College Street and I got down on my haunches and wept. I wailed. I cried. I was totally disconsolate. I could not find my home. It had disappeared.

Then I remembered my wife’s phone number. I would call her to ask what happened to our house. I borrowed a cell phone. I did call. She was at home. I said that I had been walking up and down Robert Street looking for our house. It had gone. It had disappeared. “But it is here,” she replied very frightened. “We live on 66 Wells Hill Avenue, not Robert Street.”

I woke up.

If I typed quickly as I usually do – I am a two-finger typist – I would often hit the wrong letter. I was making at least 3-4 mistakes per line. Sometimes I would conk out for a short few seconds and recognize that I had done so because the letter I was typing – say a “c” – would be typed right across the screen: ccccccccccccccccccccccccc. At other times, I would repeat the 3-5 word phrase. It was very hard to keep focused and to keep a moderate rather than my usual fast pace. Even then, sometimes I forgot where the letter was and I would have to quickly look for it. Or I would forget to type a letter. The above should have been written in 20-30 minutes at most. This piece has taken me two hours to write.

Part IV: Bruno – Science, Magic and Memory

In his 1582 volume, Shadows, Bruno openly alludes to the magic statues of Asclepius, seen on medical symbols holding a staff with a serpent wrapped around it. Asclepius was the Greco-Roman god of medicine and son of Apollo, the god who could see through all time – past, present and future. He gave birth to five daughters, each one expressing a different aspect of the healing profession – hygiene and prevention, treatment and recuperation, its process, its signs (e.g. red cheeks) and, last but not least, panacea, the goddess of cure-alls. Asclepius was the god not only of healing but of truth and prophecy as well.

It was those lesser and more hidden features of Asclepius to which Bruno was really referring, for they were about magic while healing was about science. Bruno in his life unequivocally swore absolute obedience to both truth and prophecy. Recall though that Zeus, the chief god, who feared that Asclepius might teach humans immortality, executed him with a thunderbolt. The Catholic Church would use the more mundane means of fire to murder Bruno. Further, unlike the funeral pyre Apollo built for his only true love, Coronis, whom he had murdered in a fit of jealousy, Bruno was burned alive. In contrast, Apollo saved the life of the unborn foetus of his love for Coronis who grew up to be Asclepius. After Asclepius’ medical training under a centaur, he joined Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece before he set up his medical practice. For Bruno, the Golden Fleece would always be both truth and Truth.

And the magic? It was concerned with Truth. Not science but herbs, herbs that could not only heal but could bring the dead back to life. Asclepius learned this magic when he was in a jail cell of King Minos of Cretewhere he was cast because he could not bring the son of the king back to life. The king had murdered his son in a fit of rage. In jail, Asclepius saw the mate of a snake bring her crushed and chopped up partner back to life (hence the two snakes wrapped around the staff of healing that is the symbol of medicine). After first disappointing King Minos, Asclepius learned the art of resurrection. For learning this latter magical art, Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt.

Hence, the reality that medicine is both an art and a science. The art requires intuition and empathy with the other rather than the objectivity and detachment of science. The art requires humility whereas it is the scientific, not the magical side of medicine, employed by itself that can turn doctors into gods. Unfortunately, as we shall see, Bruno’s objectivity made him extremely arrogant while his love of mysticism never seemed to teach him the importance of humility and identification with the problems of the other.

In Shadows, the skill in memory is based on a fundamental division between rules for places or locus, that he calls subjectus, and the image that he calls adjectus. They appear to correspond to what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called the cognitive and the fictional imagination – except Bruno’s names seem counter-intuitive because the fictional imagination would seem to be subjective while the cognitive imagination is objective. However, Bruno calls the latter adjectus, in Latin, ‘to add to,” not objective. Further, subjectus in Latin means “to place under.” The cognitive imagination is indeed subjectus because it begins, as Adam does, with categorization. In contrast, adjectus refers to the fictional imagination, the characterization of which is breaking rather than imposing boundaries.

It seems clear then that cosmology relies on subjectus while mysticism relies on adjectus, the objective world of science and the subjective world of the magically animated imagination respectively. The former characterized Bruno’s Aristotelian inheritance, except that he combined it with empirical observation. For him, the senses and the understanding were two necessary sides of the same activity. Hence, his respect for Aristotle and for his acolyte, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who, however, had framed his memory rules to exclude magic, to exclude the Ars Notoria.

The Dominicans trained Bruno in his skill of memory. Further, that is also why readers generally ignore the credit that Bruno gives to the objective or cognitive imagination because Bruno concentrated on offering much more material on the innovation of the Renaissance and its focus on the occult. That focus was presented in Shadows by the figure of Hermes Trismegistus. Nevertheless, Bruno never backs away from his praise of Aquinas and Aristotle even though he insisted that he went well beyond them.

Thus, in his dialogues, Hermes Trismegistus is in conflict with rationalists like Logifer the Pedant, Vigilius and Erasmus. The works of the former are seen to be akin to religious revelation. Adjectus is unerring, akin to the insights of the Egyptian priests and captured by the image of the rising sun. Later in the 19th century, Hegel would identify subjectus with the setting of the sun at which time the Owl of Minerva appears. The wise Owl of Minerva looks backward in time. In contrast, the rising of the day focuses on adjectus; it is prophetic and announces the world that will be unfolding before our eyes. It captures the Truth because it avoids the fallacious senses.

The great teacher of the art of memory was Giulio Camillo whom Bruno studied in the Dominican monastery. Camillo was a polished Venetian orator, always well-organized and neoclassical in his presentation even when he insisted that the core of his rational system was esoteric and occult. Bruno, on the other hand, even though he had mastered logic and reason, was unrestrained and wild, passionate and inventive and inverted the Camillo memory system into a mystery cult.  The south of Italy, the world of Naples, was envisioned as superseding the Venetian (later Milanese) north.

Astrology offers a cosmological system, but one which does not separate the heavens from the earth as in the Torah, but insists that there is a correspondence between the order of the upper world and that of the lower. Alchemy was another occult “science” for it claimed to be in pursuit of the secret by which one thing could be transformed radically into another. Another pseudo-science developed during the sixteenth century was physiognomy whereby facial characters are used to reveal character – big noses mean that a person is greedy. These were pseudo-sciences because they relied on an admixture of subjectus and adjectus. Bruno insisted that the two methods of memory belonged to two radically different worlds and he did not buy into the Magia Naturalis of the famous magician of the mid-16th century, Giovanni Battista della Porta.

Della Porta distinguished natural from artificial memory. However, the latter, associated with what Bruno called adjectus, was entirely confined to order and system that merely used rooms of pictures, especially those of Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, or the insides of palaces or geometric figures or even human figures as a means of arranging memories in a systematic order. Magic was excluded.

Bruno was possibly most influenced by Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) who had an epiphany and replaced his subjectus memory with a new emphasis on adjectus. He broke the stranglehold of rationalists like Aquinas; Bruno undoubtedly read Agrippa’s manual on magic. This was the real Hermetic secret of memory. Towards the latter part of the 16th century, the occult tradition became more daring.

Since we are largely descended from the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment Talmudists, this romance with the occult may seem strange. Stranger still, why is it that an occultist like Bruno learned to love Jews through the Kabbalah while rationalists from Erasmus to Voltaire found them so repulsive? Instead, Bruno used incantations and the signs of the zodiac, the magic of the alphabet used by Hebrew mystics and the correlation of letters with numbers, to stretch the mind and create perhaps the most powerful expression of the art of memory in history.

“A wheel within a wheel,” but is it the rational will used in service of the imaginative one or is the imaginative wheel subordinated to the cognitive imagination? Bruno specifically cited De auditu kabbalistico as a source of inspiration. In the Torah, and in many rabbinic commentaries, the number 40 has a magical quality. For Bruno it was the number 30. As he wrote, “the Jewish Cabalists reduce to ten sephiroth” the realm that he expanded by a multiple of three. But why not four? After all, the secret name of God is a tetragram. For the Kabbalists, the world has four cardinal points.

The secret is found in cosmology. For the inanimate world is created in the first three days – correcting for slipshod copiers – and the animate world in the next three days. A week consists of 3+3+1 days. A lunar month, however, consists of 4×7 or 28 days. What is the source of 30? Judas sold out for 30 shekels of silver. The secret may be that the figure of four belongs to the realm of rationality. Thus, rational decisions themselves have to encompass four quadrants as follows:

A Frame for comprehending rational decisions:

  Present Future
Abstract Intentions & categorical imperatives
fundamental principles
Goals and ideals
Concrete Particular circumstances Consequential
calculations

In contrast, in the world of magic, in the world of evil, three is the predominant number. In the Garden of Eden there were three characters: Adam, Eve and the Serpent. But the tale began with one and then only two. Further, the creation of the world began with two elements, water and wind (air) and from those two, by distillation, we got earth by evaporation and excluding water. With blowing wind and lots of rain, the earth is lit on fire and rises as lightning criss-crosses the heavens.

All systems in all cultures begin with a fundamental duality, a Yin and Yang by which the basics of the world can be understood. That complementary duality becomes a polarity when one pole can be converted to another as we move along a scale with the two opposites as poles rather than two mutually exhaustive realms (Yin and Yang). The two becomes four when one duality is married to another to produce four quadrants. Magic is found in the three and rationality in the four.

In the magical realm of Bruno it works by creating sets of thirty (3 x 2 x 5 (3+2)) = 30 and 30 x 5 = 150. That is Bruno’s magical wheel. Once one understands the basis of the system, once one learns to file everything in terms of this system, then memory becomes relatively easy.

I should have been born in the Middle Ages then I would not have to look up and check everything. Perhaps I too could have married rational and intuitive thought.