An essay by Michel de Montaigne
written in white chalk by Mike Schertzer
Nuit Blanche 2014 (Paris)
October 4th, 19h -7h
4 rue des Irlandais,
5th arr. Paris
My literary interventions are characterized by their fugacity. They are ephemeral, as are all of our efforts. In On Solitude Michel de Montaigne wrote, “In solitude be a crowd unto yourself”. This phrase, this command, has always been a touchstone for me. In this generalized insomnia that is our contemporary world, how can one nurture our capacity to dream? In this world where we all must submit to the dictature of time, how much time is necessary to express and transmit the essential ? Is it possible to stimulate the impulsion to dream, or inspire a creative desire in the blink of an eye? A man, alone— writing the words of an essay composed in the sixteenth century in chalk on a wall… is this enough to overcome the tyrrany of the quotidian? How can one humiliate all that seeks to eradicate our capacity to dream? Such is the nature of my effort, mon essai.
In my work I approach and become intimate with absurdity, futility… because often beauty is not far from such things.
Montaigne wrote, “In solitude be a crowd unto yourself”. In retracing the words of Montaigne my dream is to render his thoughts on the subject of solitude present to all those who pass by, to all those who should never forget that they will always merit their own solitude.
choose the good solitude (Nietzsche)
some words on philosophy, health, solitude… and Michel de Montaigne
"The soul that lodges philosophy, ought to be of such a constitution of health, as to render the body in like manner healthful too".
Philosophy, health, solitude… these are subjects of prime concern for the sixteenth century philosopher and writer, Michel de Montaigne. Moreover, his treatment of these themes is still of interest to us today. “My work, and my art, it is to live” is a sentiment that merits not only our attention, but our admiration. His thinking and his essays remain contemporary and accessible. To visit his writing is to be welcomed with an unequalled generosity.
When Montaigne speaks of sickness and suffering, he speaks of a subject which concerns him intimately. As did his father, Montaigne suffered from kidney stones— an extremely painful ailment that, in the sixteenth century, was fatal. No proven cure existed for his ailment and there were as many remedies as there were doctors— a fact which explains the well-known disdain Montaigne expressed towards doctors.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that Montaigne encourages a rejection of medicine. Instead he favours a profound personal engagement with one’s illness and one’s suffering. “I carry within me my means of preservation, which are determination and patience”. Such a stoic response is founded upon Montaigne’s conception that the soul and the body are indivisible. “It is not a soul, and it is not a body which is our basis: it is a man”. The body is not against me, the body is me! When we are sick, as when we are in perfect health, it is not only the body that speaks to us.Health is often conceived as an empty concept, as an absence of illness… as goodness may be conceived as the absence of evil, or happiness as the absence of sadness. Such a conception banishes health from our lives so long as there persists the least trace of illness or unease. But is this justified… does illness possess the right to occupy and tyrannize every minute of our lives? For Montaigne health is not the absence of illness, but has a value in itself, “health, I say, I the most beautiful and the most rich gift that nature can offer us”.
Nevertheless, illness is ever-present. It has the ability to find a way into our lives in unnumerable disguises; we even suffer anxieties for the illness that we sense but that has not arrived. “Anyone who is afraid of suffering suffers already of being afraid”. In other words, we are never beyond the reach of illness but it is within our power to resist its advances and limit its authority.
But how does one confront pain and illness ? It is not a pharmacological question, but a moral question… and it is precisely the complexities of this question that Montaigne explores, and shares with us. In his essay On Solitude Montaigne writes, “You are no more to concern yourself how the world talks of you, but how you are to talk to yourself. Retire yourself into yourself, but first prepare yourself there to receive yourself”. The body in illness speaks to us in a voice we cannot ignore. Nevertheless, we must find a way to respond, to continue the conversation with ourselves, in a meaningful and creative way. Pain (like pleasure), illness (like health), “demands an even more profound engagement with our singularity” wrote Charles Taylor. Montaigne would have been in complete agreement. It is a fidelity with oneself which bears the key to health… and to our irreparably human life.
Montaigne does not just write for those who are suffering from illness, but also for those who assume the responsibility of caring for the ill, for those who dare to cure them. For such people the thinking of Montaigne offers cautions regarding the limits of our knowledge, humilty in the face of our science, and courage when confronted with our ignorance. In fact, whether doctor or patient, our responsiility to ourselves remains the same : know yourself.
We speak to break our solitude;
we write to prolong it.
- Edmond Jabès
... I would lke to thank Solène Dubois, Cécile Charré, Selma Mutal,
la ville de Paris, et l'Institut Curie—
la ville de Paris, et l'Institut Curie—
who were indispensable for this adventure.
this work was realized with the support of the Institut Curie (Paris) www.curie.fr