Aging Brains, de Montaigne, and Exquisite Pain

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June 22, 2015 by libroshombre

Some things do improve with age. In a psmag.com report by Nathan Collins last March, titled “Intellectual Abilities Don’t All Follow The Same Trends As We Age,” he cites a study of 21,926 people, Featured imagemost of whose mental powers peaked around age 20 in some respects, as in “the ability to encode strings of numbers into symbols.” And “[w]orking memory peaked between the mid-20s to mid-30s before a relatively slow decline.” Aging readers can take heart, because, “[v]ocabulary, meanwhile, climbed with the participants’ age, and gave little sign of slowing down.”

A recent Dilbert comic strip featured the CEO holding out a cat and telling an underling, “Remember, intern, you can’t spell delegate without some of the letters of ‘El Gato.’” The wide-eyed intern replies, “Your saying is ridiculous and yet I find it compelling because it came from a leader.”

I greatly admire the rambling, stream-of-consciousness essays Michel de Montaigne wrote in the late 1500s. In “On the Art of Conversation,” for example, he notes how we “see a man raised to great dignity; even though we knew him three days before to be a negligible man, there seeps into our opinions, unawares, a notion of greatness, of talents, and we convince ourselves that by growing in style and reputation he has grown in merit.” Montaigne was an effective, and reluctant, counselor to several kings, and was in position to observe that, “by keeping a watchful eye on men of extraordinary rank I have discovered that they are, for the most part, just like the rest of us.”

Montaigne had a fascinatingly individualistic life, as Sarah Bakewell detailed in her excellent biogFeatured imageraphy, “How To Live, How To Write.” His library, where he wrote his masterpiece, occupied the third floor of a tower attached to his chateau near Bordeaux, and it’s still standing. Visiting there was a major objective of my a recent trip to Southwestern France, and it was fully realized, complete with Montaigne’s favorite classical quotes written on the beams in Greek and Latin.

Clare and I were the library’s only visitors, for while Montaigne is respected in France, he’s not as adored and emulated there as has been the case in English-speaking lands. “Remarkably modern to readers todFeatured imageay, Montaigne’s attempt to examine the world through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly – his own judgment – makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance,” according to Wikipedia.

Reading Montaigne in English requires translation, though, and a lot depends on whose brain it’s being filtered through. It was M.A. Screech’s 1991 translation that brought Montaigne to life for me, but it was John Florio’s 1603 translation that lit up the English literary scene. Florio spiced up Montaigne’s lean prose; for example, where Montaigne wrote of “Our Germans, drowned in wine,” Florio said, “our carousing tosspot German soldiers, when they are most plunged in their cups and drunk as Rats.”

The Dictionary of Literary Biography noted that “[a]mong his contemporaries, Florio’s translation was an immediate success. Writers such as Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, and Robert Burton drew upon it.” In fact, some of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” had to be lifted from Florio’s translatioFeatured imagen, and shades of Montaigne echo in “Hamlet.” Essay writing soon became all the vogue in England.

After butchering the French tongue during last May’s visit, an article in TheLocal.fr (“France’s News in English”), titled “Top 10 ‘Untranslatable’ French Words,” caught my eye. A translation-related example was “yaourter,” French for “to yogurt,” used to describe “someone trying to sing in a foreign language and getting the words wrongs and filling in the words with tra-la-la sounds.”

Another, “depaysement … describes the feeling of disorientation and bewilderment one might feel upon being in a totally foreign environment.” It reminded me how glad Clare and I were to have not crossed trails with the 6,400 Chinese employees whose millionaire boss had given 4-day tours of France that required 4,760 rooms in 79 hotels, and 146 tour buses. As much as I enFeatured imagejoyed lovely France, I experienced white-knuckle French driving first-hand, and the mere thought of passing 146 tour buses fills me with what the French call “la douleur exquise,” “the exquisite pain.”

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