Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) is the father of the literary essay. His three books of essays, all but one of these essays are relatively short, cover just about anything you can think of. His influence on writers and thinkers who came after him is immense. These sophisticated and learned musings are ideal bedtime reading, because of their brevity. The English speaking reader in some ways has an easier time with them than a native French speaker as the French language has changed a lot over the four and a half centuries since Montaigne composed his essays. Translators, I have MA Screech’s, convert them to modern English. Interestingly, Montaigne himself wasn’t a native French speaker. His first language was Latin!
Writing an essay about an essay, much less one by the greatest master of the genre, is a risky business. But age forgives literary sins, so I’ll go where angels won’t.
Essay 21 of Book 1 is called On the power of the imagination. Here Montaigne anticipates much of modern psychology. His subject is the power of the mind over the body. One of the examples he uses to illustrate this mental dominance over the corporeal is male sexual performance, or the lack thereof. As an example of this phenomenon he says, “And boiling youth so hot in its armour-plate that it consummates its sexual desires while fast asleep.” He then quotes Lucretius in the original Latin without a translation to the vernacular. Screech translates the Latin thusly: “So that, as though they had actually completed the act, they pour forth floods of semen and pollute their garments.” Montaigne then generalizes: “It is likely that the credit given to miracles, visions, enchantments and such extraordinary events [on human behavior] chiefly derives from the power of the imagination acting mainly on the more impressionable souls of the common people.”
Then he turns to what we would now term psychological sexual impotence. He debunks what apparently was the prevailing attribution of the cause of this disorder – magic. He tells of a friend he knows as well as himself, whom I suppose was himself. This poor soul was suddenly rendered impotent merely by hearing the story of another man who was so afflicted. He finally cured himself by telling everyone that he was impotent. This confession so unencumbered his anxiety and relaxed him such that when the occasion arose he found himself in good trim and was cured clean of that condition, and permanently so.
“This misfortune is only to be feared in adventures where our souls are immoderately tense with desire and respect; especially when the opportunity is pressing and unforeseen, there is no means of recovering from this confusion.” He further observes that growing older quiets the ardour of this frenzy; one is less impotent for being less potent.
He tells of another friend, it seems there was an epidemic of impotence in Montaigne’s circle of friends, who believed his impotence or fear thereof was caused by magic. Montaigne had a charm the effectiveness of which he acknowledges was lunacy. This friend, a Count, was marrying a very beautiful woman and said Count was full of performance anxiety. Montaigne told him to give him a sign if things had not gone well. Apparently, there were a lot of guests in the vicinity of the marriage bed. When failure loomed, Montaigne describes what happened.
“He was then to get up…under pretence of chasing us out, playfully seize the nightshirt I was holding…and wear it until he had followed my prescription – which was as follows: as soon as we had left the room he was to withdraw to pass water: he was then to say certain prayers three times and make certain gestures: each time he was to tie round himself the ribbon I had put in his hand and carefully lay the attached medallion over his kidneys, with the figure in the specified position. Having done so, he should draw the ribbon tight so that it could not come undone: then he was to go back and confidently get on with the job, not forgetting to throw my nightshirt over the bed in such a way as to cover them both.” Mission accomplished. Montaigne adds the following, “It is such monkeyings-about which mainly produce results.”
Montaigne, who I suspect had a lot of fun writing this essay, goes on to consider the opposite problem from that which had occupied him until this point in the essay. “We are right to note the license and disobedience of this member which thrusts itself forward so inopportunely when we do not want it to, and which so inopportunely lets us down when we most need it; it imperiously contests for our authority with our will.” In other words, there’s a lot more to our minds, thoughts, and psychology than that which is open to our conscious will. One could persuasively argue that Montaigne was one of the earliest founders of modern psychology.