Montaigne’s essay “On Some Lines of Virgil” isn’t about Virgil at all. Sure, he threads Virgil quotes throughout this lengthy essay, but it’s not about the quotes. It’s about sex. Montaigne was a randy guy and even owns up to accusations that he is–or was–a womanizer. That was in his bachelor days. As an old and ailing married man, things have changed.
Montaigne sets up the reader for the controversial topic he is about to embark on. He pulls us in, taking sympathy on an old man who declares, “there is great silliness in extending by anticipation our human ills; I do not want to be old before my time; I prefer to be old for a shorter one. I grab hold of even the slightest occasions of pleasure that I come across.” We feel sorry for him–or at least I did–and gladly went along with him, allowing the old man some fun. But while his body might not be able, his mind is as sharp as ever and I fell for his “golly gee” trap.
Montaigne undertook the project of his essays using himself as a subject in order to try and understand humans in a more universal sense, so he admits that it is not right for him to hide anything. Therefore, “as a courtesy to the Huguenots who damn our private auricular confession I make my confession here in public, sincerely and scrupulously.” Maybe it’s because I’ve been with Montaigne for so long, and I realize that, you, reading this, may not find this line all that funny, but I had a good laugh when I read it. And I laughed even more when he finally turns his essay in the direction he intended all along:
It pains me that my Essays merely serve ladies as a routine piece of furniture–something to put into their salon. This chapter will get me into their private drawing-rooms; and I prefer my dealings with women to be somewhat private: the public ones lack intimacy and savour.
Two more sentences follow and then we are plunged into the discussion of “the genital activities of mankind.” Montaigne wonders why, though it is the most natural thing in the world and everyone is doing it, everyone is embarrassed to talk about it. And isn’t it interesting that those naughty words that are least spoken and made such a fuss over are known by all–“No one of any age or morals fails to know them as well as he knows the word for bread.”
With that in mind, let’s talk about marriage, shall we? Montaigne thinks basing a marriage upon good sex is a bad idea. “Marriage requires foundations which are solid and durable; and we must keep on the alert. That boiling rapture is no good at all,” writes Montaigne. A good marriage must strive for loving-friendship. It is a union that should be a “pleasant fellowship for life,” and be filled with constancy, trust, and a myriad of other “useful services and mutual duties.” You can’t build this kind of relationship on sex. Hot sex is for love affairs which are based only on pleasure. Montaigne would be shocked at all the books available these days to help couples improve their sex lives. He would be equally surprised that we consider good sex to be part of a good marriage. Montaigne is not against passionate married sex, but if you have a good marriage, good sex is merely a bonus.
Now Montaigne makes a move to dicey territory. He acknowledges that women have a greater capacity for sex then men do and desire it just as much, perhaps more. There is a bit of the “women as sex fiends” element here and throughout the essay that patriarchal society so loves using to turn women into animals or slaves of satan. Montaigne may believe it but he decides that it is not a bad thing. He suggests that “women are not entirely wrong when they reject the moral rules proclaimed by society, since it is we men alone who have made them.” Men believe sex is their right and that they should be able to have as much or as little of it as they want and when they want. If a woman’s desire doesn’t match then she is a bad wife or if unmarried a whore or a tease. Montaigne asserts that this is the fault of men:
And then we go and assign sexual restraint to women as something peculiarly theirs, under pain of punishments of the utmost severity. No passion is more urgent than this one, yet our will is that they alone should resist it–not simply as a vice with its true dimensions but as an abomination and a curse, worse than impiety and parricide. Meanwhile we men can give way to it without blame or reproach.
Montaigne chides men for wanting their wives to be both lusty and chaste at the same time, it’s like wanting women to be “both hot and cold at once.”
Men bring on the scorn and laughter of women by their own stupidity. They brag of their endowments. Boys graffiti walls with enormous genitals. Statues are made to wear clothes. Women are not allowed to see a man naked and so their imaginations are left to run wild. Is it any surprise then when a woman finally has sex and is disappointed by the size of a man’s penis? Men should either wear clothes that reveal to everyone their true size, or women should be allowed to see men naked. It is not right to “bait and lure women by every means,” not right to stimulate and overheat their imaginations and then gripe about how unimpressed they are with the real thing.
Montaigne continues the essay, spending much time and effort discussing how silly jealousy is in both sexes, how silly chastity is and all the rules and restrictions we place around the very natural act of sex. “Perhaps we are right to condemn ourselves for giving birth to such an absurd thing as a man; right to call it an act of shame and the organs which serve to do it shameful,” suggests Montaigne. Man is a wretched creature but he doesn’t have to be in the case of sex. He then goes on to suggest the proper way of making love and all of the delights that could be had by both men and women. Montaigne rebukes men and women for dressing themselves up in clothes and laws. Such things are “but shadowy pretences with which we bedaub each other and repay our mutual debts; but we cannot repay them, but increase rather, the debt owed to that Great Judge who rips our tattered rags from our pudenda and really sees us through and through, right down to our innermost and most secret filth.”
Montaigne has much to say in this essay and I highly recommend it. For all it’s seriousness, it is also quite humorous. It is clear from his thoughts and insights that even over 400 years later, we have not learned a thing in regards to sex. Sure, the prohibitions are not as strict, but women are still burdened by a degree of chastity. If this is not so, then why are women still labeled loose, slut or whore with no equivalent terms for men? I could go on, but won’t. I am sure there are plenty of examples you can supply on your own.
Montaigne concludes his essay, and concludes it rightly:
I say that male and female are cast in the same mould: save for education and custom the difference between them is not great. In The Republic Plato summons both men and women indifferently to a community of all studies, administrations, offices and vocations both in peace and war; and Antisthenes the philosopher removed any distinction between their virtue and our own.
It is far more easy to charge one sex than to discharge the other. As the saying goes: it is the pot calling the kettle smutty.
In next week’s Montaigne essay, it appears he has much to say “On Coaches”