1. Essays? After Montaigne?
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Essay 1. Essays? After Montaigne?
My Essays are inspired by the famous Essays of Michel Montaigne (1533-1592), one of the three favorite books of my youth. Hiawatha by Henry Longfellow and Dhammapada, a book of Buddhist ethics, were the other two.
Montaigne’s book of essays remains a monument to human intelligence with its two polar points: common sense and independence of mind. This alone could be a starting point for a discussion: how can one be independent and at the same time adhere to common sense if common sense is the way of faceless crowds? Let us leave this apparent controversy until some later essay. Here I would like to explain why I believe my essays could be of interest for anybody except myself. Otherwise, I would not attempt this venture because I know myself all too well and have nothing to gain from spilling my knowledge out in an electronic form.
I submit here two reasons.
The first reason is my quadruple identity.
I was born in 1936 in the former Soviet Union, the year preceding the beginning of the Stalin’s terror. I was brought up and educated in the Communist society. I wept when Stalin died in 1953, but thirty years later I was arrested and put into a labor camp for anti-Soviet behavior. I left USSR for USA in 1987, the year of the beginning collapse of Communism. In short, I have lived in both worlds. Like an amphibian, I lost my Soviet gills and learned to breathe with lungs. I remember Communism as it was, frozen in my memory, while the memories of my generation living in Russia are overlaid by subsequent events. By Russia I mean here the former Soviet Union, the heir of the Russian Empire of the czars.
In a sense, I am a living fossil. To talk to me about Russian Communism is like talking to an alien from a distant galaxy whose planet does not exist anymore. Who needs Communist Russia in 2000?
Yet as we enjoy reading Montaigne who lived half millennium ago, we may need to read about Communism in another half millennium. Some human creations are as lasting as human nature itself: they are part of the social genome.
My interests have never been limited either by my immediate environment or the official curriculum of my education. Since my early childhood, as soon as I had learned to read, I was eagerly interested in America and life abroad, as well as knowledge in general. One of my first books ever, at the age of eight or nine, was a Russian Geographical Yearbook (something like National Geographic) with several illustrated reports about America of the mid-30’s. With time my interests expanded over many subjects well beyond my chemical profession, covering art, natural sciences, philosophy, history, and sociology. I proudly call myself an amphibian in a metaphorical rather than biological sense.
Equipped with both scientific gills and humanitarian lungs (which a true amphibian can never have at the same time but only at different stages), I felt comfortable in both sciences and humanities, the price being the lack of any profound and extensive knowledge of both, as well as the lack of any significant personal, social, or professional achievements. I am in no sense a match to Montaigne who was a two term mayor of Bordeaux. I have never had many friends and acquaintances and by my nature I am rather asocial. The company of four is the maximal radius of social comfort for me. Yet that was exactly Montaigne’s idea: to portray not a public figure but a private person observing the world and himself.
Having come to America, I saw the New World with the eyes of a Martian, adapted to a different spectrum. Unlike most immigrants, however, I was much better prepared by my previous interests and knowledge and I knew what to look for. I was interested in all aspects of my new habitat in the same amphibian way, including its possible future. Although thirteen years of my American life is a pretty short time as compared with fifty years of my Soviet life, I instinctively feel that this might be the right time to spawn, albeit simply because there are not many springs left.
In addition to space, there is yet another dimension to these essays: time. In my Russian childhood, even automobile and telephone were exotic contraptions. I still remember my ride in a taxicab somewhere around 1940 as an exciting adventure. When my mother and I returned to my native city in 1944, after it had been freed from the Nazis, a horse cart carried our baggage from the railway station.
I am certainly not unique in this aspect among my generation, but throughout my life I have been closely watching the development of the new science and technology—modern physics, chemistry, biology, TV, nuclear energy, and computers—not just from the media but from in-depth accounts, until their depth extended well beyond my reach. Most of all I was interested in general laws of nature that govern the course of everything.
The media provided me with a wide picture of the world events such as the end of colonialism, the fall of Communism, creation of global economy, rise of Islamic nationalism, evolution of Israel, India, and China, and the advent of other forces of global magnitude or long term consequences, such as the pressures of energy, environment, and a visible balkanization of USA.
In short, I believe that because of my multiple identities—plus a definite arrogance—I might occasionally run into a non-commonsense opinion. It was different in the times of Montaigne and up to most of the twentieth century, but in our electronic age and with Encarta at the tips of your fingers, erudition, factual knowledge, and learning in general has lost most of its value. A snapshot from a fresh angle, however, may still be of merit: photography combines art and science.
The second reason is simply my admiration for Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and a conscious desire to follow the pattern of essays that he invented, developed, and elaborated. I see this pattern as just following the impulse and whim of my own mind and will. The difference, however, will be obvious.
The form of my Essays is purely electronic: I am planning to put them out on my Web site one by one for as long as I can.
English is not my native language and the readers (if there are any) are encouraged to offer editorial suggestions and criticism.
The texts may not be final. I will be returning to some of them, and this, too is a part of my experimentation with electronic publishing and its enormous, possibly, even self-destructive freedom. Hypertext is a powerful and irresistible novelty, which I will try to use sparsely.
My essays, as well as their prototype, are born from a deep melancholy—a beautifully sounding word (mela of black, resonates with mela of honey) which in modern language has a sinister and totally undeserved meaning of depression, aggravated by its social connotation.
Montaigne, having finished his career in 1570, was anxious to start his golden years of leisure and learning, but he missed his friend Etienne de la Boëtie who died in 1563, and felt very lonely. His Essays turned out a self-cure.
Some essays, but not the complete Montaigne, are available on the Web. There is an excellent translation into modern English:
Michel de Montaigne, The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, Translated and edited with an introduction and notes by M. A. Screech, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London, NY, Toronto: 1991.
There is a complete original French text online.
NOTE (2016): After many years, a large number of the original links in my Essays are dead, which in an oblique way confirms that ideas are a form of life and, therefore, mortal. As patterns, they are as long-lasting as arthropods or mammals.
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