I began “On the Power of the Imagination” expecting a treatise of some sort on why imagination is important and got something else entirely. The essay starts off just fine with a note from the editor to explain in Montaigne’s time imagination meant thoughts, concepts, ideas, opinions and mental pictures. “Ah,” I thought, “this will be an essay on thought then.” And I found myself even more interested.
The essay begins with a medieval philosophical axiom, “A powerful imagination generates the event.” “Oh yes,” I thought, “our imagination can make things happen, can make things real.” I squirmed, this was going to be good. Montaigne follows with a short discussion about how the imagination can bring “fevers and death to those who let it act freely and who give it encouragement.” Classic hypochondria.
Montaigne then begins a discussion, innocently enough, about how we can imagine for ourselves horrible things, get ourselves worked up into a trembling sweat, make ourselves go pale or flush red, make ourselves so emotionally agitated that we feel ill. “Been there done that,” I thought.
But suddenly we take a turn to “boiling youth” soiling the sheets in wet dreams and men and women spontaneously changing their sex. I’m sure modern transgender folks will be glad to know that the ability to physically change into the opposite sex can be achieved without surgery if only they have a strong enough imagination.
The essay seems to get back on course when Montaigne begins talking about religious ecstatics and miracles and visions as being mainly derived “from the power of the imagination acting mainly on the more impressionable souls of the common people.” And just when I thought it was safe, he tosses out this zinger: “I am moreover of the opinion that those ridiculous attacks of magic impotence by which our society believes itself to be so beset that we talk of nothing else can readily be thought of as resulting from the impress of fear or apprehension.” As proof he goes on to tell the story of a good friend of his who was worried about being able to perform on the wedding night. He gave his friend a piece of gold that had celestial symbols engraved on it and told him to tie it with a ribbon on his person on his wedding night and he would be able to perform. His friend was then able to do his husbandly duty with confidence.
From here the essay slips into a discussion of the causes of impotence and Montaigne becomes a lawyer arguing for his client, the penis, and it’s often unpredictable behavior:
We are right to note the licence and the 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 authority with our will: it stubbornly and proudly refuses all our incitements, both mental and manual. Yet if this member were arraigned for rebelliousness, found guilty because of it and then retained me to plead its cause, I would doubtless cast suspicion on our other members for having deliberately brought a trumped-up charge, plotting to arm everybody against it and maliciously accusing it alone of a defect common to them all. I ask you to reflect whether there is a single part of our body which does not often refuse to function when we want it to, yet does so when we want it not to. Our members have emotions proper to themselves which arouse them or quieten them down without leave from us.
What’s that I hear? Is that the sound of women laughing?
Montaigne doesn’t stop there. He is a lawyer now arguing for his penis and must present evidence against the prosecution. So he charges the face for revealing secret thoughts, hair for standing on end when we are afraid, voices for failing and the ass for farting. Yes, Montaigne, great essayist and thinker, degenerates into writing about farting: “In addition I know one Behind so stormy and churlish that it has obliged its master to fart forth wind constantly and unremittingly for over forty years and is thus bringing him to his death.”
Thankfully the man is able to get himself together and bring the essay back to a more civilized accounting of how the imagination works in favor of doctors of medicine. I admit, after the penis and farting bit I was not able to concentrate much on the last part. It was also hard to see through all the tears stuck to my eyelashes from laughing so hard. But we are left at last with careful dignified thoughts on the difficulty of writing about current and past events with all the overactive imaginations working so hard as to make a reliable accounting nearly impossible.
Overactive imaginations indeed.