THE CEREMONY OF THE INTERVIEW OF PRINCES
There is no subject so frivolous that does not merit a place in this rhapsody.
Thus opens the thirteenth essay- which is on the ceremony of interviewing princes.
If I were a contributor to Buzzfeed, this sentence would be the crowning entry in a listicle with the clickbait (in my imaginary universe) title 11 times a quote from Michel de Montaigne caused us a frisson of joy. Here the other ten although I could pick from hundreds.
1. When he noted that a wise man never loses anything if he has himself.
2. The observation that the most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness
3. When he recommends rubbing and polishing our brains against the brains of others.
4. His belief that stubborn and ardent clinging to one’s opinion is the best proof of stupidity.
5. That we can quote him as saying ‘ I quote others only in order the better to express myself.’
6. And this- No man is so exquisitely honest or upright in living, but that ten times in his life he might not lawfully be hanged.
7. And what someone should tell all those people killing each other in Westeros: On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottoms.
8. Counting all the times he said What do I know?
9. When he bids the reader so long in the INTRODUCTION to the entire work. And therefore, Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain. Therefore, Farewell:”
10. And this, said during a time of religious warfare “It is setting a high value upon our opinions to roast men and women alive on account of them.”
And you get the picture. Except you can’t because there are no pictures, which is one reason, among many, that this will never be a listicle on Buzzfeed. o (However, there IS a listicle posted on Thought Catalog — miracolo!)The only visuals are in the mind’s eye, which I had to use extensively to get anything out of Montaigne’s thirteenth essay, a rumination on the etiquette of receiving royalty, indeed generally entertaining one’s betters. I don’t think that, I, a 21st century white Americans (yes, I’m going there, white privilege is real, so don’t even start with me, in my youth I un-ironically retorted “It’s a free country! “ when a playmate took issue with an action of mine and I now say that to you!) can really absorb the concept that some people are better than I am are just by accident of birth. I subscribe to the sentiment sung by Auntie Eller, in Oklahoma!
I’m gonna tell you all a little story
now learn these words by heart the way you should,
I don’t say that I’m better than anybody else,
But I’ll be darned if I ain’t jest as good!
Which could be seen as a ringing endorsement of mediocrity, but I prefer to think of it as a statement of my right to exist happily in my own skin. But here’s what interests me about Montaigne’s comment about the frivolity of this concern- that even though he is taking note of the strict rules surrounding the meetings of such notables as Popes and Emperors (and FYI, it is generally excepted that the lesser -in this case the Emperor- comes to the greater, the Pope, even if it means the Emperor has to leave his own home to let the Pope arrive there and get settled in before any confabbing takes place,) he thinks that au fond, they are merely conveniences. Nice to have, and worth attending to, but not to be followed slavishly. It was an odd notion then, and I think still might still be odd today, from what little I know of modern day France.
I spent the better part of a year in Dijon, SE of Paris, in the mid 1980s with David, Andrew and Liz. It was a sabbatical for David, and we put the kids in the local schools and essentially camped in our apartment for a year. We were befriended by French people who were intrigued by these Americans who couldn’t be bothered buying beds, and I got the distinct sense that I was entertainingly foreign. I didn’t know enough to care about where I belonged, and I certainly couldn’t, with my primitive HS French, discern any subtleties of tone or deference. I had enough trouble trying to figure out if something had happened, was going to happen, or was in the process of happening to worry about offending someone by assuming, falsely, that we were social equals. I couldn’t order one baguette without being handed two, and it was worth my life to pronounce the word recu distinctly enough to get a receipt at the PO, but it didn’t faze me. I la di dahed my way through that entire year, with “France, I’m living in France!” humming in my mind, low level, ever present amazement drowning out any snubs received or faux pas committed. One woman, who had lived in Palo Alto for a few years, sighed as she told me that she loved the US because there, unlike in her native Burgundy, she felt free of “les poids des siecles”, the weight of the centuries.
I have had some occasion to spend time in Taiwan, where Penn State has ties with educational institutions in Taipei. Talk about centuries. Chinese culture has records going back thousands of years. There I KNOW that people just forgive me my complete lack of anything resembling finesse because what can be expected of a barbarian? I have basic manners and am as curious as any primate about my surroundings, and I can eat anything put in front of me with chopsticks. That’s sufficient to pass as a tolerable guest. I once set off a frightening blaring alarm in a ladies room stall, guessing wrongly that is was a flush button. I thought it was a fire alarm; I was told it was meant to scare off peeping Toms. When I tried to apologize, my host said, please don’t worry. Foreigners make that mistake all the time. In China, I don’t even have to know how to use a toilet, a low bar
But, another quote from Montaigne is in order. Not every country only, but every city and every society has its particular forms of civility. I live in a university town, there is definitely a pecking order. Instead of Popes and Emperors, you have Provosts and Deans, and if anyone doubts that there is anything applicable to the modern reader in this essay, never had a spouse who grimaced, when asked what was on tap for the day, “I have a meeting in (the central admin building) Old Main.” And lord help a lecturer who doesn’t know her place vis a vis a tenured professor. When I first came to PSU, I went to talk with such a notable about a book he had written that I enjoyed. As I prepared to leave after what I thought was a discussion between two people interested in the same topic, he looked at me quizzically, plaintively asking , Don’t you want me to sign your copy? Which is how I ended up with an autograph I didn’t know I was supposed to want.
I am a grown up, I know the rules. I follow them, as best I can. I agree with Montaigne that they help the world go around, or rather that we think they help the world go around. The world, of course, is turning perfectly well on its own.