Le Horla by Guy de Maupassant

“What a wonderful day! – Quelle journée admirable!”

What a lovely start to the story.  The narrator describes himself reclining on the lush grass of his yard under a gorgeous plane tree.  He loves his house and the region of his forebearers close to Rouen. The Seine flows lazily alongside his garden and in early afternoon he spots a parade of ships drawn by a tugboat, including an impressive Brazilian three-mast ship, gleaming white and he is filled with such joy at the sight that he salutes the magnificent vessel.

Five days later, he claims that he has been seized by a fever, a mysterious force that makes him feel rather sad more than sick.  His despair grows and in spite of seeing a doctor, it continues to worsen.  Finally, he decides to take a short trip to set him aright, visiting Monte St. Michel, and while he does return refreshed and certain that he is cured of his malady, he relates a curious experience that he had at the monastery.

While being guided by a resident monk, the monk tells him that at night the local folk often hear two goats bleating, one with a strong voice and one with a weak voice, and while some people discount the tale, fishermen have seen a faceless shepherd leading two arguing goats, one with the head of a man and one with the head of a woman.

Monte St. Michel
source Wikipedia

Our narrator is perplexed.  Surely if rational beings other than ourselves existed we would have encountered them by now.  The monk, however, gives a perceptive reply:

“Do we see even the hundred-thousandth part of what exists?  Take the wind, for example, which is the greatest force in nature, which knocks men down, demolishes buildings, uproots trees, sends up the sea in mountains of water, wrecks cliffs, and throws mighty ships against the shoals, the wind that kills, that whistles, that moans, that groans —- have you ever seen it, and can you see it?  It exists, regardless.”

With the sickness coming back upon him, the man agonizes with nightmares, and the unexplained consumption of water and milk from his carafes in the morning.  Escaping to Paris, he has an unsettling experience with a doctor, a clairivoyant, which further cements his mental exploration of other-worldly phenomenon.  Yet again when he returns home he experiences an increasing unease and a consciousness of an entity which has invaded his home, apparently from the Brazilian schooner that he glimpsed months ago.  He is distaught, deranged and we can only guess at the outcome as he attempts to dispose of this being who has not only penetrated his home but his soul.

“Woe to us!  Woe to man!  He has come, the … the … what is his name … the .. it seems as if he’s calling out his name to me, and I can’t hear it … the … yes … he’s calling it out … I’m listening … I cannot … say it again … the … Horla … I heard it … the Horla … it is he … the Horla … he has arrived!”

It may sound odd to say, but this was one of the more delightfully suspenseful short stories that I’ve read in awhile.  While I believe that we cannot control what happens to us in life, we can control our reactions to it, yet in this story, the man’s self will is appropriated to an extent that he loses part of who he is.  His mind, while not necessarily possessed, is subjugated by a force that is able to manipulate his thinking and apprehending.  What could be more terrifying? Complete loss of control.  It makes an extraordinarily creepy tale.

Next week, I have a children’s classic on slate, The Tanglewood Secret by Patricia St. John.  With my unexpectedly busy life that has left me little time for reading, I just hope I can finish it and review it in time!

*** Note:  I did read ¼ of this short story in French before my brain gave out and time began to run away from me.  An accomplishment nonetheless, but it made me realize that I need much more practice with this excellent language!

Week 3 – Deal Me In Challenge – Four of Clubs

The Morning of Life by Victor Hugo

My ninth choice for my Deal Me In Challenge comes from “diamonds,” my poetry section.  I have completely avoided my short story section so far, not out of design, but out of fate.  I just haven’t chosen a club yet.  In any case, for this choice we move to France and the poetry of Victor Hugo.

Le Voile du Matin
by Victor Hugo
Le voile du matin sur les monts se déploie.
Vois, un rayon naissant blanchit la vieille tour ;
Et déjàdans les cieux s’unit avec amour,
Ainsi que la gloire àla joie,
Le premier chant des bois aux premiers feux du jour.
Oui, souris à l’éclat dont le ciel se décore ! –
Tu verras, si demain le cercueil me dévore,
Un soleil aussi beau luire à ton désespoir,
Et les mêmes oiseaux chanter la même aurore,
Sur mon tombeau muet et noir !
Mais dans l’autre horizon l’âme alors est ravie.
L’avenir sans fin s’ouvre à l’être illimité.
Au matin de l’éternité
On se réveille de la vie,
Comme d’une nuit sombre ou d’un rêve agité.
Skylark
source Wikipedia
The Morning Of Life (an ode)
by Victor Hugo
The mist of the morning is torn by the peaks,
Old towers gleam white in the ray,
And already the glory so joyously seeks
The lark that’s saluting the day.
Then smile away, man, at the heavens so fair,
Though, were you swept hence in the night,
From your dark, lonely tomb the owlets would stare
At the sun rising newly as bright.
But out of earth’s trammels your soul would have flown
Where glitters Eternity’s stream,
And you shall have waked ‘midst pure glories unknown,
As sunshine disperses a dream.

This is a beautiful poem, but this was the only English translation that I was able to find, and the poem really suffers in the translation.  From the French (keeping in mind, my French is adequate, but I’m certainly not fluent),  the reader is assailed wtih images of newness and light and birth and song, but there is also a reference to an old tower.  Yet in the second stanza the poet mentions that though he may be found in a coffin (I suspect that he is the “old tower” from the first stanza), the sun will continue to shine and that same bird will sing on his tomb.  And should the reader be saddened by his death?  The third stanza indicates not, as the poet will have an endless horizon as he awakens in the light of eternity.  The first life now appears as a dark night or restless dream in comparison to this new everlasting life.

Ai-ya!  I was able to pull very little of that explanation from the English translation.  The French says “mon tombeau” (my tomb), not your tomb, and with the English second person pronouns in the third stanza, it is very confusing as to who is speaking.  Anyone with more adequate French skills than I have, is welcome to comment.

For those of you who didn’t know that Hugo was also a recreational artist, producing more than 4000 drawings, I’ll leave you with one of them:

The Wave of My Destiny (1857)
Victor Hugo
source Wikiart

Deal Me In Challenge #9

Montaigne’s Essays – Part Three

Finally, this is the last of my postings on Montaigne’s selected essays, which I started at the beginning of my WEM Project.  I’ve enjoyed his unique character and passionate zest for all his topics that I plan to try to read through all his essays at some point.  Montaigne has the ability to mesmerize you, yet I could sometimes find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him in the same sentence.  His approach is so singularly charming, a mixing of intellect with storytelling, which make (most of) his essays a joy to read. 

On Freedom of Conscience:  Quite an unusual essay.  Montaigne examines Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate, so called for having abandoned Catholicism. Nevertheless, Julian had a very tolerant view of religion and allowed all religions equal status.  Montaigne appears suspicious of these motives, claiming that this permissive action can have two outcomes:

1) “to give a loose rein to the factions to hold to their opinions, is to sow and scatter division, and almost to lend a hand to increase it, there being no barrier and restraint of the laws to check and impede its course.”

2)  “to give the factions the reins to hold to their beliefs is to render them soft and lax through ease and facility, and to blunt the edge which is sharpened by rarity, novelty and difficulty.”

Again, Montaigne shows the reader his ingenuity at being able to see more than one possibility.

We Can Savour Nothing Pure:  This is a somewhat melancholy essay. Montaigne reveals that because of the “feebleness of our condition”, we can experience nothing in its natural purity and that all the pleasures or goods that we enjoy are “compounded with some evil or injury.”  Every virtue is tainted with vice, every justice with injustice.

I love his example from Socrates: when Socrates said that the gods wished to join pleasure and pain together, but when they were unsuccessful, they decided to join them by their tails.

Est quædam flere voluptas ~ There is a certain pleasure in our tears.  (Ovid)

The Pilgrim at the Gate of Idleness (1875-93)
Edward Burne-Jones
source Wikiart

Against Indolence:  Montaigne gives examples of kings who, even though they were in situations that might work agains them, did not allow themselves to become slaves to idleness:

“…… there is nothing that can so justly disgust a subject, and make him unwilling to expose himself to hardships and dangers in the service of his Prince, as to see him all the while lolling in idleness, or busy over paltry and frivolous things ….”

As usual, Montaigne digresses, or perhaps, his topic deconstructs, as he begins with the offense of idleness in leaders, and moves on to how a man should die valiantly and how to meet death.

“……. bravely meeting death, is to look upon her not only without dismay, but unconcernedly, freely continuing one’s wonted course of life even into her very lap.”

And, oh my goodness, the sarcasm!!  He makes me laugh:

“Those who would number Kings of Castile and Portugal among warlike and great-hearted conquerors, because at twelve hundred leagues distance from their abodes of idleness, by the skin of their agents, they made themselves masters of the East and West Indies, may seek some other than myself to agree with them; since it is doubtful whether they would even have had the courage to go in person to take possession of their conquests.”

On Virtue:  With regard to actions spurred by emotion versus actions performed because of resolution or habit, Montaigne maintains that some great deeds can be accomplished by the former, but to truly gage the measure of a man, one must look to his common behaviour.

I was somewhat following him when he gives the example of Pyhrro distrusting human instinct, and so resolutely living by his philosophy, but I was completely confused by the example of a man, winning his love and then, when unable to perform, cutting off his penis and sending it to his mistress.  Further examples of maiming, suicide and death follow; Montaigne appearing to be lauding the people’s premeditated fortitude.

I can hardly make head nor tail of this essay, but is he possibly saying that virtue needs to be cultivated?  He later makes reference to fate, of everyone’s final hour being known, therefore nothing can prolong or shorten our lives.

Anger or The Tussle (1516)
Dosso Dossi
source Wikiart

On Anger:  Montaigne is upset that many places leave the governing of wife and children to the husband, who could be stupid and evil, instead of to the state (who obviously is completely pure and omniscient — do you sense my sacrasm?). He is often seeing children beaten in the street and justice does nothing.

As much as I disagree with the first part of Montaigne’s essay, the next part has some wonderful quotes:

“There is no passion that so disturbs the clearness of our judgement as anger.”

“Faults, when seen through passion, appear greater to us, like bodies seen through a mist.”

Children, servants, etc. should be punished thoughtfully and by using discretion, and thus, the punishment will be taken more to heart and have more effect.

Withheld anger, simmering under the surface is dangerous too, and it is better to have an outburst than have it fester and grow within.  Otherwise, make sure that your anger is controlled, short, and to the point, with no undisciplined passions, resulting in tirades or violence.

On the Useful and the Honourable:  Political office is often filled with lies, betrayal and violence.  Montaigne, however, has always conducted himself with an ingratiating and mildness of manner, and the utmost candour and disinterestedness.  He is not swayed by political passions nor private interest. He could play both sides, but he refuses.

I quite liked this quote:

“When one’s country is disturbed and the people are divided I think it neither handsome nor honourable to be a wobbler and a hybrid, to be unmoved in one’s affections and to incline to neither side.”

Montaigne dislikes war and prefers to be of use to both parties, but his methods of negotiating have not been appreciated, and therefore he prefers working in a private, as opposed to public, manner.

Leadership can require treachery and dishonourable action, but while the person may think that they’ll profit by this behaviour, the end may prove otherwise.

Repentance (1917)
Nicholas Roerich
source Wikiart

Of Repentance:  This essay was extremely difficult but I’ll give it a shot.  Montaigne announces that he very seldom repents. If you show vice, you will be troubled by it, if you show virtue, you will receive the award of its goodness.  To base your actions on other people’s opinions is to build an unsteady foundation. You alone know yourself.  There are base actions ingrained by habit in our will that we cannot fully escape, and are part of our nature, so what is the use of repenting them?

An evil person can be inspired to do good, just as a virtuous person can be inspired to act evilly.  To truly judge a man, one must see him at work at home, or at least in a state of repose.  Montaigne says that to act out a sin, the sin must have lived in the heart of a man and he must consciously will it, therefore, I wonder if he is implying that to repent is almost an insincere act? The disease itself needs to be thrown off.  God must work in our hearts and the conscious must be truly amended.  Wishing to be different is not true repentance.

Montaigne claims to take very little advice, but he gives even less.  He knows of nothing that his advice has benefitted and people do not often act on it, in any case.  Drawing upon a Stoic mindset, the universe unfolds as it may, and Montaigne is happy to be self-contained away from others and any responsibility concerning them.

My favourite quotes:

“Many a man has been a wonder in the eyes of the world in whom neither his wife nor his valet have ever detected anything even remarkable.  Few men have been admired by their own household.”

“To enter a breach, conduct an embassy, rule a people, are conspicuous actions.  To chide, laugh, sell, pay, love, hate, to live in communion with one’s people and oneself, pleasantly and correctly, not to give way to passion, not to contradict oneself; that is more rarely seen, more difficult and less remarked.”

On Experience:  Man has a great natural desire for knowledge but when reason fails, he looks to his experience.  Experience is not the greatest way to knowledge but in the noble search for truth, one may use any option at his means.  Montaigne uses examples from law, science, philosophy and religion to explain that as soon as you attempt to define truth through numerous different perspectives, truth itself is lost.  By spreading it out, we dilute it.

“Men do not realize the natural infirmity of their mind; it does nothing but ferret and hunt around, incessantly like a silkworm, and there suffocating.”

Death and Life (1908-16)
Gustav Klimt
source Wikiart

He has more wise words concerning life and death:

“But you do not die because you are ill; you die because you are alive.  Death will kill you right enough without the help of sickness.  And maladies have kept death away from some who have lived the longer for thinking they were dying. Besides, there are maladies, as there are wounds, that are medicinal and health-bringing.

…… Nature has given it (life) into our hands, trimmed with so many and such happy surrounding, that we have only ourselves to blame if we feel it a burden, and if we waste it unprofitably ….. And yet I am resigned to lose it without regret; but as a thing that is by its nature losable, not as if it were a troublesome burden …. Not to hate the idea of death is properly becoming only in those who enjoy life ……. It needs good management to enjoy life.  I enjoy it doubly as much as others, for the measure of enjoyment depends upon the more or less attention we give to it …… The shorter my possession of life the fuller and deeper must I live it …… Rather should we study, relish and ruminate it, in order to give adequate thanks to him who bestows it upon us.”

This last essay of Montaigne’s marries ideas contained in his former essays, showing through his life experience, as he uses various culinary, emotional, and especially physical examples, how life can be best approached and enjoyed.  It’s a fitting end to my reading of his selected essays!

L’Argent (Money) by Émile Zola

“The clock on the Bourse had just struck eleven when Saccard walked into Champeaux’s, into the white and gold dining-room, with its two tall windows looking out over the square.”

Aristide Saccard is on the move again. Brought low by ruinous business practices (see La Curée or The Kill), his wife dead, and his estate sold, Saccard winds calculatingly through Paris like a snake looking for an opportunity to strike. At first, he is certain that his brother, the government minister, Eugène Rougon, will come to his assistance, but when he hears that his sibling wishes to remove him from Paris for fear of embarrassment, Saccard makes a precipitative move, declaring he will open a bank that will be the financial success of Paris, a venture in which everyone will be clamouring to be involved.  His passion and sheer energy sweeps people along with him, including Lady Caroline and her brother, Hamelin, honest and respectable souls, who admire Saccard’s genius.  Yet in the world of big money and La Bourse (the French equivalent to Wall Street), allegiances can fluctuate, affiliations change, and behind every corner is the face of your own demise.

Celebration in the Streets of Paris (Montemarte) (1863)
Vasily Perov
source Wikiart

“The Bourse is a real forest, a forest on a dark night, in which people can only grope their way along.  In all that darkness, if you’re foolish enough to take heed of everything, however inept and contradictory, that you’re told, then you’re sure to break your neck.”

Zola paints an excellent representative portrait of Paris’ frantic and unscrupulous financial world of 1863-during the reign of Napoleon II of the Second Empire.  We see how alliances and loyalties are formed only on the basis of financial gain, yet human concern or family loyalties have little value.

“In these covert and cowardly financial battles, in which the weak are quietly disembowelled, there are no more bonds of any sort, no kinship, no friendship, only the atrocious law of the strong, those who eat so as not to be eaten.”

La Bourse (1900)
source Wikimedia Commons

Zola demonstrates through his narrative and his colourful characters, how the lust for money, greed and power are not merely promoted, but in fact, worshiped.

“His wife was never seen, being unwell, said the Marquis, and kept to her apartment by infirmity.  However, the house and furniture were hers, and he merely lodged there in a furnished apartment, owning only his personal effects, in a trunk he could have carried away in a cab; they had been legally separated ever since he started living on speculation.  There had been two catastrophes already, in which he had blankly refused to pay what he owed and the official receiver, having taken stock of the situation, had not even bothered to send him an official document.  The slate was simply wiped clean.  As long as he won, he pocketed the money.  Then, when he lost, he didn’t pay:  everyone knew it and everyone was resigned to it.  He had an illustrious name, he made an excellent ornament for boards of directors; so new companies, looking for golden mastheads, fought over him:  he was never unemployed.”

As Saccard cleverly constructs his colossal financial empire, he is captivated by money but he is captivated by power more.  The thrill of financial battle is as addicting as as drug, and he is high on the power and the ultimate campaigns fought to gain it.  It is a house of cards and each trade, each purchase, each decision, is perhaps the one that will cause its downfall.

“Wealth for him had always taken the form of that dazzle of new coins, raining down through the sunshine like a spring shower and falling like hail on the ground, covering it with heaps of gold that you stirred with a shovel just to see their brightness and hear their music ……… But he had always been a man of imagination, seeing things on too grand a scale, transforming his shady and risky deals into epic poems; and this time, with this really colossal and prosperous enterprise, he had moved into extravagant dreams of conquest, with an idea so mad, so huge, that he did not even formulate it clearly to himself.”

Panorama of Paris, 1865
Charles Soulier
source Wikimedia Commons

Also explored are the feelings on anti-Semitism prevalent during the time.  Jews were often seen as good for loans but with little else to their character or worth to recommend them.  In a world were humanity is held in so little regard, this racism is another head on the monster of greed, power and manipulation.

With his usual descriptive flair and creative technique, Zola allows the reader to skim along the surface of the narrative, to first get your bearings, before he draws you into the story and you are held captive by the machinations of the characters, the vivid depictions of Paris and the power of that elusive yet ever-coveted currency, money.

This book was not Zola’s favourite to write.  “It’s very difficult to write a novel about money.  It’s cold, icy, lacking in interest ……”  Zola said in an interview, but he declined to demonize it, instead choosing to show the effects of its worship in a work that would “praise and exalt it’s generous and fecund power, it’s expansive force.”  His technique certainly worked, as the reader becomes the observer of an inanimate object that effectively controls the lives of an empire.

Other Reviews of the Rougon-Macquart Series (Zola’s recommended order):

Further Reading:

The Plague by Albert Camus

“The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194-, at Oran.”

Albert Camus was born in 1913 in Algeria.  His father was killed at the Battle of the Marne in World War I and he and his brother were raised by their mother in a state of poverty.  He became a journalist, and during World War II, moved to Paris where he worked for an underground newspaper, and it was then that he began to craft his “philosophy of the absurd.”  The Stranger, published in 1942, was followed by The Plague in 1947, and in 1957 Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Tragically he died in a car accident in the south of France at only 46 years old.

Often Camus is lumped in with the existential philosophy, but he rejected that appellation, claiming himself an absurdist.  What is an absurdist?  Well, I like to think of them as existentialists with hope.  Absurdism is an idea that man is longing for meaning and clarity in a world that contains neither.  The conflict between the search for a purpose and the lack of one, creates absurdism.  Yet while Camus felt a meaninglessness in life, he wondered if man could create his own morality and follow it, even though his achievements would be fruitless.

St. Macarius of Ghent giving aid
to the plague victims (1672)
Jacob van Oost
source Wikimedia Commons

The Plague is set in the town of Oran in Algeria, a town perhaps like any other, yet the citizens are so ingrained in their day-to-day activities, there is no real life or passion within its walls.  When the plague arrives, their lethargic outlook and self-centred actions initially prevent them from seeing the danger that is so obviously present, as evidenced by the number of rats dying throughout the town.  As the plague is finally realized and claims its victims, Camus employs a scientific and philosophical examination of how the people react to the pestilence, what emotions and actions are brought to the forefront and the significance of their struggle to survive, not only the plague but the day-to-day trials that they must face.

The Plague (1898)
Arnold Böcklin
source Wikimedia Commons

Camus shows the futility of attempted comprehension of the events, when the priest, Father Paneloux, declares the plague a judgement from God on the sins on the people.  In reality, the plague is not a moral judgement, nor anything that can be explained rationally, and therefore it is futile to try to rationalize it; one must simply accept the circumstances.  The plague means death, no more nor less than any other death, and the only reaction should be to battle against it.  Another character, Grand, decides to write a story perfect in its execution, but finally realizes his hopes are impossible.  As we meet more and more characters in Oran, we see its paralysis in the life of these men and women who choose actions that are meaningless and therefore self-isolating.  Because perfection cannot be obtained, a type of helplessness is portrayed, yet in a few characters we see another option.  While some victims have quietly succumbed to the inescapable death, others choose to fight, which gives their struggle significance within the inevitable.

Each character plays an important part in Camus’ philosophy, almost like a symphony, as Camus presses the loud pedal with one, and the soft with another. I’m still not sure how I feel about this tactic.  On one hand, it really gives the reader the ability to scrutinize each person’s part in the plague and, of course, Camus’ philosophy, but on the other, the story perhaps suffers. With such close dissection, the humanness fades into the background as the emphasis is given to worldview over plot, and in some cases the plausibility of the character and his/her actions is sacrificed to communicate Camus’ pet beliefs.

 

Plague in Ashod (1629)
Nicolas Poussin
source Wikimedia Commons

With the existentialist worldview, the novel would have signified defeat in the face of a world devoid of hope and purpose, but Camus spurs us to vigilance and action. He may not believe in truth or God, but one gets the feeling that he wants to believe.  It is as if he is waiting …… waiting for a sunbeam in a storm or a flower in the desert, and while he waits, he fights for the right to hope in what he tells himself is impossible.

Ultimately Camus struggled against his own belief system.  When the Nazi’s invaded France, he actively worked against them.  He made a judgement that their actions were wrong and attempted to stop them, showing that he did indeed believe there was something worth fighting for in the world.  Unlike the existentialists that I’ve encountered, Camus confronted the implications of his unbelief — and ultimately offered a solution, or at least a compromise with regard to his dilemma: while he still held to the absence of meaning within life, that did not mean that the search could not be rewarding.  At the end of his book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus concludes, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”


A Read-Along with Bookstooge – January 2015

 

Meditations by René Descartes

“My reason  for offering you this book is very persuasive, and I am confident that you will have an equally strong reason for defending it once you understand why I wrote it; thus the best way of commending it to you is to say a few words about my objective in writing it”

Descartes set out to examine how “everything that can be known about God can be shown by reasons that derive from no other source but our own mind, …. and how God can be known more easily and more certainly than worldly things.”  However even as he claims his investigations as “certain and evident,” he is concerned that not everyone has the ability to grasp them.  Right then, I knew I was in for a philosophically dense read.  Yet while I trembled, I soon began to realize that Descartes splits his meditations into manageable chunks and, if you employ your brain for short periods, his explanations and arguments can penetrate.  I also realized that the title of the book could be of assistance.  These thoughts of Descartes were ideas that were probably products of hours and days and years of pondering and questioning and seeking.  If it took him that long to produce the ideas, I’d have to be willing to meditate on them if I wanted to develop a basic understanding.  And so I went on ….

First Meditation:  Things which can be called into Doubt

Descartes explores false knowledge, which he distinguishes from the unknowable: “there is nothing among my former beliefs that cannot be doubted and that this is so not as a result of levity or lack of reflection but for sound and considered reasons.”  It is necessary to discard all beliefs that aren’t absolute to determine what is known for certain.  There are many comparisons to thought while asleep and thought while dreaming.  He concludes with:

“I am like a prisoner who happens to enjoy an imaginary freedom in his dreams and who subsequently begins to suspect that he is asleep and, afraid of being awakened, conspires silently with his agreeable illusions.  Likewise, I spontaneously lapse into my earlier beliefs and am afraid of being awakened from them, in case my peaceful sleep is followed by a laborious awakening and I live in future, not in the light, but amid the inextricable darkness of the problems just discussed.”

Second Meditation:  The Nature of the Human Mind, and that it is better known than the Body

Descartes thoughts continue from his supposition from his first meditation and he decides that everything is false.  Yet if all he believes is false, he does conclude that one thing is true:  he exists.  His reasoning is something like this:

  1. He exists if he is not being deceived.
  2. He exists if he is being deceived.
  3. Therefore, if he is being deceived or not being deceived, he exists
  4. He is either being deceived or not being deceived.

Interestingly, St. Augustine also argued “fallor ergo sum”, or “I am being deceived, therefore I exist”.

I think here Descartes arguments are of a personal and not necessarily a general nature:  his mind exists because his thoughts exist.  However, he still hasn’t proven that he exists.

Rene Descartes with Queen
Christina of Sweden
source Wikipedia


Third Meditation:  The Existence of God

Descartes starts to lose me here.  He examines the dream state and questions how we can know it from reality and then he discusses the all-powerful God which we know and how we could be deceived in our perception of him (I think).  Very logically he states that if he is being deceived, that very fact proves his existence.  He comes to the conclusion that God is not a deceiver but leaves the door open to accept that there is something that is.

I was fascinated by Descartes exploration into ideas.  There are ideas which come to us that do not originate with us and, in fact, sometimes impose themselves on us.  If they are not products of our will, does that not point to there being something other than us?

“But if I derived my existence from myself, there would be nothing that I would either doubt or wish for, nor would I lack absolutely anything.  For I would have given myself every perfection of which I have some idea and thus I would be God himself.”

Whew, that’s certainly something to think about!

Fourth Meditation:  Truth and Falsehood

Yikes, and even deeper we go ……..  Descartes concludes that God exists and his existence depends on Him.  God cannot deceive because deception involves some sort of imperfection and God is perfect.  When Descartes focuses on God he finds no error in himself, but when he focuses on himself, he is full of errors.  He calls himself an intermediate being between God and nothingness.

With regard to errors, he proposes that two faculties come into play:  the faculty of knowledge and the faculty of choosing from his own free will, in other word, intellect and will.  Through his intellect he perceived ideas but through his will he can make judgements.  There is a problem though:  his intellect is limited —- it cannot perceive all ideas and it does not always perceive clearly and distinctly —– whereas his will is unlimited —- it can make, deny or suspend judgements on anything.  Yet as long as he does not make wrong judgements in his will, he is safe …… if he simply suspends judgement on ideas he’s not certain of, he cannot be wrong.

Descartes at Work
source Wikipedia


Fifth Meditation:  The Essence of Material Things, Another Discussion of God’s Existence

Descartes provides a new argument for the existence of God, in that if he thinks that he exists, existence in inseparable from God and therefore He exists …… or at least, I think that’s what he’s saying.  Such as:

1.  God is a being that has all perfections
2.  Existence is a perfection
——>   God exists

There are three famous arguments about Descartes’ position (one of them being Kant’s argument that existence isn’t a perfection) but none hold up to logical examination, so I guess Descartes is still the winner.

Sixth Meditation:  The Essence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction Between Mind and Body

Wow, this is getting challenging!  To argue for a material world, Descartes examines what is contained in his own soul.   There is a delineation between imagining and pure understanding.  He concludes he could exist without imagining, therefore imagining must be outside his mind and connected to the body.  Next he examines the senses, which he feels come involuntarily and therefore connect ideas to the mind.  The next puzzle is why the mind is connected to the body ………  With all these quite impressive logical acrobatics, he begins to believe material objects exist but perhaps not in the way he has always believed.  There are a number of other investigations into our senses and their role, why we make unwise decisions, and that the body is divisible, yet the mind is not.  He ends by stating:

” For from the fact that God is not a deceiver it follows that, in such cases, I am completely free from error.  But the urgency of things to be done does not always allow us time for such a careful examination; it must be granted, therefore, that human life is often subject to mistakes about particular things, and the weakness of our nature must be acknowledged.”

As much as it completely strained my brain, the Sixth Mediation really resonated with me.  I remember as a small child wondering why I was me. How was it that I felt contained in this particular body and not another?  Why was I chosen to be me?  How?  Why was I a soul living in Canada and not somewhere else?  I think this was the start of realizing that I had a soul and was something more than just a mechanical shell or a biological entity.  And if that was true, then where did I come from and who made me?  Perhaps not original questions, but ones that I think we should think about more in life.  Yes, we should all be philosophers!

Philosopher in Meditation
Rembrandt (1631)
source Wikipedia

Getting back to the book, it continues with “objections” or responses from Johan de Kater, a Catholic theologian from Holland; Fr. Marin Mersenne; Antoine Arnauld, a Jansenism theologian; Thomas Hobbes; and Pierre Gassendi, a priest, scientist, astronomer and mathematician.  I really had to laugh reading some of these objections.  In fact, the Catholics were the ones who questioned the logic Descartes used to prove the existence of God.  So curious from a modern prospective but it appears that the church was willing to ask tough questions during these times and wasn’t afraid of searching for the truth.  So interesting!

Descartes’ Replies to the Objections are also very enlightening but so very deep.  A course in logic would have been very useful before reading this book, however, I think I’ve covered enough for now.  Descartes obviously liked to think and had alot of time to do it.  It was mental gymnastics to try to follow him but good for the brain.  To really understand it though, you need to have read Aristotlean philosophy along with a number of other more recent philosophies, as Descartes thoughts sprung from that already anchored base.  At least my understanding, while minuscule, is more than when I started.  Thanks, Descartes!

Montaigne’s Essays – Part Two

Oh, Montaigne!  The more of his essays that I read, the more I like him.  He’s inquisitive, does not let anything get in the way of giving his opinion on absolutely any subject, has a clever but disordered mind, and because of the last point, really makes you engage your brain as you read.  I would have loved to meet him in real life, but, I get the impression that we’d probably have occasionally annoyed each other.  

Some of the readings for this section were:

On The Vanity of Words:  After reading Montaigne’s essay On Education, I suppose this attack on rhetoricians can’t come as much of a surprise.  To be eloquent is to foster a type of deception, and Montaigne is scathing in his condemnation of it.

Cicero & the magistrates disovering the
tomb of Archimedes
Benjamin West
source Wikiart

On the Inconsistancy of Our Actions:  This one is very interesting. Montaigne laments the inconsistency of men, stating that instead of following a path to wisdom throughout their lives, they are ruled solely by their appetites, living for the here-and-now and are merely motivated by opportunity, very much like animals. They blow with the winds.  He gives various examples on inconstancy, leading us to believe that consistency as Montaigne defines it, is virtually impossible.  One must plan one’s life to the utmost and follow the course, not being swayed by emotions or outside forces to be consistent and, as Cicero says, “For nothing can be consistent that has not reason for its foundation.”  Therefore, in Montaigne’s eyes, everyone is lacking true reason.  This is one of the few essays that I’ve read so far where Montaigne actually managed to keep on track with his subject.  Bravo!  This is certainly one of my favourites.

On Conscience:  Even if one finds pleasure in their vices, their conscience will always convict them, says Montaigne.  With one of his usual unexpected leaps of thought, he discusses the futility of torture, labelling it a means of testing endurance rather than a means to ferret out truth.  He uses some fun examples in this one, my favourite being Scipio tearing up his account books before the court when accused of dishonesty with regard to the money entrusted to him.  According to Montaigne, his actions declared him an honest man because his big heart could not bear to be accused of such a vulgar crime. Perhaps one should be grateful that Montaigne did not choose to be a judge as his profession.

Portrait d’un homme portant un exemplaire des
Essais de Montaigne
Johann Anton de Peters
source Wikiart

On Rewards for Honour:  Basically I understood that Montaigne feels that rewards should not be given out too liberally or their value is decreased. He’d rather not give out rewards at all, than have too many people get them.  Not a very modern viewpoint, Montaigne, when we presently strive to give everyone a reward for anything.  I tend to side here with Montaigne.

On Books:  Montaigne employs a coyness in this essay, stating that he reads books for pleasure only and has little desire to truly exercise his brain.  His goals in reading are to learn to know himself, and to learn to live and die well. His self-deprecation is quite startling as he confesses to having little knowledge and once again admits to having a poor memory.  Elaborating on his poor memory, he ends by giving a number of examples of literary criticism (not his title for it) that he has written at the ends of books, so if he picks them up again, he is able to ascertain why he liked them or not, and if he would read them again.

On Presumption:  It is not good to think too highly of ourselves, nor is it beneficial to think of ourselves worse than we are.  Montaigne advocates for balance and a practical self-knowledge.  Yet Man has such a variety of differing opinions, there is a “maze of obscurity” which makes the school of Wisdom uncertain, and this gets on Montaigne’s nerves.  He then meanders through a lovely forest of subjects, from self-deprecating statements to mediocre poetry to appearances of famous men, etc., finally ending with his disdain for modern education, in that it teaches learning instead of wisdom and goodness.

” It seems to me that the nursing mother of the most erroneous ideas, both of men in general and of the individual, is the exaggerated opinion man has of himself.”


On Giving the Lie:  Montaigne indulges in more modesty (false-modesty?) and finally gets to the title of the essay, lamenting that lying has been turned into a virtue by modern society.  He strongly condemns it:

“Lying is an ugly vice, which is painted in its most shameful colours by an ancient writer (Lysander) when he says that ‘to lie is evidence that we despise God and at the same time fear men.'”

To be honest, I feel that Montaigne could have benefited highly from the type of education that he despised, however, then he wouldn’t have been Montaigne and only another highly intellectual rhetorician with the same habits as all other rhetoricians.  And our Montaigne is unique, that is certain!  Not always simple to follow, but unique!


Montaigne’s Essays – Part One

Oh, Montaigne!  What a character!  I’m reading a series of recommended essays, and my plan is to split them into three posts.  So far my introduction to Montaigne has been pleasurable, but taxing to the brain.  His language and progression of ideas, examples and testimonies are not for the faint of heart.  In hindsight, it was wise to take him in measured doses.


On Sadness:  I felt that Montaigne was saying that the deepest sorrows often could not be expressed with outward emotions.  But then he ended by saying that he is little bothered by such violent passions;  I then wonder what gives him the authority to speak on sorrow if he knows nothing of it.  Hmmmm ……..

Our Fortune Must Not Be Judged Until After Death:  Well, this was not an uplifting little essay.  Montaigne believes, drawing from the tale of Croseus and Solon in the stories of Herodotus, that a man cannot be judged as fortunate until his death, because various calamities and suffering can plague him until the end.  Your final day tells all.  Nice.  Fortunately he appears to have amended his views on this subject later in life.

The Death of Socrates
Jacques-Louis David
source Wikipedia

To Think As A Philosopher Is To Learn To Die: Yikes!  Another death essay.  Montaigne emphasizes the need to learn to lose the fear of death.  Death is inescapable and it is a piteous error to try to avoid it by any means, as the hour is determined for everyone.  He tosses in Socrates rather wise and pithy remark:  to the man who said “The thirty tyrants have sentence you to death,” Socrates replied, “And Nature to them.”

Of The Powers of Imagination:  I’m somewhat perplexed as to where to begin with this one.  This essay is supposed to (I believe) explore the relationship of imagination to the mind and body, but Montaigne rather vividly gets into a discussion of the “male member” and “passing wind”.  I was laughing so hard I was crying at the end of the “passing wind” section.  I don’t think hilarity was intended by the author.  😉  Apparently though, people in Montaigne’s time wouldn’t have blinked an eye at these references, showing that they were much more mature and less sensitive than modern people. And since I was very surprised by his frankness given the era, it also demonstrates that our preconceived ideas can be less than accurate.

On Educating Children:  I have an interest in education, so this essay was perhaps the most interesting for me, if not the most amusing (see above).  Montaigne felt that an instructor of good moral character and sound understanding was much more valuable than one with founts of knowledge.  He emphasized the value of knowledge for its own sake, and was repelled by the thought that learning should be used to earn profit. The ancient Greeks would understand his dismay; only slaves were schooled to work, not free men.  Montaigne proceeds to say that he does not wish for an educational system that makes children parrot back what they have learned but rather that they are taught to make ideas their own.  He then expands his argument to suggest tossing out the classical education model in place of simply teaching children to philosophize.  He seems to forget that the classical model contains the building blocks that give the student the tools to be able to discuss topics philosophically, not to mention that young minds have to mature to be able to understand the abstract concepts which are required in philosophy.  He supports, as well, exercise and entertainment, but suggests training peculiarities and eccentricities out of people, as they are “a foe to intercourse and companionship of others”. Well, okay …….  I do understand Montaigne’s main point though.  He is advocating for the teaching of a virtuous character over that of intellectual learning.  In fact, this should be the goal of every teacher, however I believe that there should be a balance between the two, whereas Montaigne seems to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Bartolome Esteban Murillo
source Wikiart

On the Affection of Fathers for Their Children:  In this case, Montaigne means male children but he does share some good advice. A man should not marry too early and responsible thought should be given to the purpose of having children, realizing that they will owe you much more than they can ever pay back.  Instead of forcing the son to be dependent on him when he comes of age, the father should share his wealth and guide him in the use of it, teaching the son to run the estate.  Now Montaigne claims if this is not done, the sons have no other recourse than to become thieves, a habit that will be nearly impossible to break.  I’m not sure I follow his rationale in this case, and cannot agree with it as an excuse, but hey, it’s Montaigne, right?  It just doesn’t feel normal if he doesn’t hit you with some sort of idiosyncratic reasoning.

In spite of some peculiarities, Montaigne has a charm that cannot be denied.  Perhaps Madame de Sévigné characterizes best what his readers experience:  “I have found entertainment in a volume of Montaigne that I did not think I had brought with me.  Ah, the charming man!  What good company he is!  He is an old friend of mine, but by dint of being old, he is new to me. …….. Mon Dieu!  how full this book is of good sense!”

La Parure (The Necklace) par Guy de Maupassant

“C’etait une de ces jolies et charmantes filles, nées, comme par une erreur du destin, dans une famille d’employés.”

Yes, she certainly was a pretty and charming girl who was born by a mistake of destiny into a family of office workers.  Mathilde would dream of riches and fame and jewels, covering her life of drudgery in a tapestry of fantasies and longings.  Finally, one day, her husband arrives with an invitation to a party.  Mathilde manipulates this honest, hard-working man into purchasing a new elegant dress for her, but when she complains of a lack of jewels, he has the answer: borrow some from her wealthy friend Madame Forestier!  A lovely diamond necklace of Madame’s catches Mathilde’s eye and she must have it.  Her friend, generous to the end, gladly loans it and the evening of her dreams begins.  She is admired, she is catered to, she is wrapped in a heavenly realm of blissful wealth and prestige.  Late do she and her husband return home, reluctant to leave the party until the end but, oh no!  The necklace has disappeared and she is sure that she left it in the taxi.  Days of searching yield nothing and finally there is only one thing to do.  Withdrawing their life savings and taking out a loan, they replace the necklace, hoping that Madame will not notice.  But this painful action causes them ten years of needless toil and suffering.  Why is it needless?  Well, you will have to read the tale to find out!

This short story was really a gem and, in spite of having an inkling of the final twist, it still held my attention to end.  In fact, I had expected to get fatigued by reading such a long (for me) story in French and I had planned to take a break, but instead, I was held rapt until the end.

I did wonder at the title of this story.  In the tale, the necklace is mostly referred to as “la rivière“, yet the title is “la parure“.  When I looked up “la rivière” in my French dictionary it says “river“, and “la parure“means “finery” or “jewelry“.  So then I looked up necklace and it had “le collier“.  What?  Do any of you Francophiles understand the distinction between these terms? Help!

In any case, this story has definitely been a huge incentive to read more of Maupassant.  His short stories are very readable and a good way to keep improving my French.  I certainly struggled here and there in parts of it and learned a number of new words, yet I was also pleased with my progress.

This will probably be the last book for my Summer Freak Language Challenge, unless I can squeak in a short children’s book before the end. Thanks Ekaterina, for holding this wonderful challenge.  It’s given me a chance to practice languages that I wouldn’t normally read in.  I’m already looking forward to next year’s challenge!