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Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles…

Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles Through Philosophy

by Michael Perry

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…”The worst of my actions and qualities do not appear to me so evil and base not to dare to own them, “ wrote Montaigne. “If a man does all for honor and glory what does he think he gains by appearing before the world in a mask, concealing his true being from the people’s knowledge?”

The most rewarding and exciting thing I do as a reader is in discovering a writer I never knew existed. And what makes that even better is then realizing by finding this guy results in not only a singular book of first-rank interest, but several more he has already penned for me in which to engage. This is not to say his earlier work will reach the same pinnacle of delight as this Montaigne book did, but based on the way Michael Perry writes and what he puts pen to paper, my bet is his previous work might even be better. Hard to stay new and original after already composing so much and making oneself so publicly available. But there is much to be admired in Perry’s courageous and heart-felt expressions on the page. Michael Perry lives on a farm but should not be branded the stereotypical pig-farmer and country bumpkin so often discounted in our writerly world, but instead considered a well-read and reflective man examining every facet of his life. But he speaks like most of us whose hands in life get dirty. He isn’t perfect either, and has no pretensions to that effect.

…I can do no one else any good if I pretend some perfection…

To this day it still amazes me how wrong we sometimes get our words. One small example is bistro. Last week I was reading a book by Lily Tuck, her first novel actually, and her character Molly was offering an anecdote, a digression in the conversation between two women on the phone over how these Russians were getting impatient in a French cafe during the war of 18-something and yelling at the servers to hurry. The Russian word for hurry is bistro and since then, in that part of the world, the word stuck. I never knew that bit of etymology. And I am still not sure if what Tuck was having Molly relate to her friend in her novel was even true. But Lily did teach me something I did not know and possibly had wrong all these years. I always thought a bistro was a French cafe. And it turns out Lily was right. I looked it up. According to an entry in Wikipedia the word bistro derived from the Russian bystro (быстро), "quickly". It entered the French language during the Battle of Paris (1814). Russian officers or cossacks who wanted to be served quickly would shout "bystro". I cannot tell you how often this has happened to me, finding out about a word I for years took for granted. And I credit this to wanting to learn everything I can, and to check out what I think I already know, or was taught, perhaps wrongly, so many years ago.

Listen long enough to the man yelling from a distance and you come to trust him more than the man in the boat beside you.

In our socio-political environment these days it is obvious the people are listening to the loudest voices. On the radio and TV, pundits are spreading their doctrines and the masses are believing them. For years I have observed the religious ones among us enlisting volunteers to promote their guilt and fears until these stains become permanent marks upon us. Serving and doing the Lord’s work becomes paramount to just being true to oneself and getting by unscathed while simply treating others as you would yourself. Life is, instead for many, an unhealthy following of a herd mentality. Citizens no longer satisfied to learn about life from those who came before and had honestly examined it, but rather receiving their instruction from a screaming pontificating interpreter of verse from a book they claimed was the word of God. Frightening to think of the damage that book has done in the long run. And now today it seeps into the tenants of our government. Seems everybody is flying their flags now, similar to the wave of mothers and fathers resorting to having bumper stickers made touting the honor roll achievements of their sons and daughters. Sickening to think of ways this makes our country greater.

In my day-to day interactions with the world, I comport myself with reliable restraint. In fact, I have been told by those who love me that I am overly laid-back in this respect and get run over in the process, but I have no appetite for fighting. Even when cut off in traffic I opt for the sardonic aside over cursing and flying the bird. During blood pressure-busting customer service phone calls I choose dispassion over harangue. But when the idiot is within, I am merciless.

Not me. But obviously I can relate to Michael Perry. The way he can’t remember things just after he hears them, and if I do not take notes I am sure to forget what it was I heard or read forever. And the way I remember really dumb things, which in fact makes me a most valuable player on a traveling Trivial Pursuit competitive team as I can recall the stupid shit nobody pays any attention to and couldn’t care less about. I harbor long-forgotten songs in my head, and their singers. Long discarded home and business phone numbers and telethons that featured Jerry and that number to call SW34500.

I once termed an offensive action I made with my hand as flying a double bird. And to think Perry called it the very same thing in this book, back in his footnotes, even though he also claims he rarely conducts himself as inappropriately as I generally do. I did not flip off that awful woman driving her dangerous car beside us on the expressway like Perry did in his example, using both hands and his knees holding the steering wheel. Instead, I aggressively gave her the single hand bird at the exact same moment my son in the passenger seat beside me flipped her off with one hand as well. And both of us giving our singular birds a vigorous pump action. Hence, the term of what I called my version, a more appropriate and astounding double bird. But I mean to not cloud nor take anything away from Perry’s use of Montaigne to explain much of his thinking and behavior. His examples are impressive and vastly more intelligent than what I come up with typically. I was constantly thinking as I read this how clever Michael Perry is as I connected his digressions to the quotes lifted from his studies due to the many translations of the works of his subject Montaigne. No matter how odd Perry might have considered his personal thoughts and feelings regarding so many matters, there is a Montaigne quote available to support the idea he is not alone in his thinking. And that is comforting, especially to someone like me who struggles with the same self-doubts that Perry ascribes to. I, perhaps delusional, consider myself a scholar based on the sheer numbers of philosophical and literary pages consumed by my voracious reading. But I have no official credentials in which to prove I know anything. I am self-taught and always learning. So there are times when I too might come across as daft, or even I might add, a bit stupid. And the more I learn convinces me that in the grand scheme of things I really know next to nothing.

…If Montaigne reveals his aesthetic preferences through a filter of self-deprecation, as an “ordinary” guy, he does so in part and in the hope that he might speak to an audience wider than just the self-appointed arbiters…

Glad to have finally been introduced to the musings of Michael Perry. And I am looking forward to reading all he has to say.
( )
  MSarki | Jan 7, 2018 |
This is my first book by Michael Perry, but I loved Sarah Bakewell's book on Montaigne, “How to Live,” and have enjoyed the essays by Montaigne that I've read, and... it looked fun. But I was a little concerned that it would be too much “aww shucks humor” and too little about what Montaigne has to offer modern readers. And, in fairness, Michael Perry does take the spotlight a bit more than Michel Montaigne. But for me the balance between personal anecdote (a kidney stone attack led Perry to Montaigne) and philosophical pondering was just right. And I was delighted to find that his impetus in studying Montaigne is a desire to be a better person so that he can help make the world a better place – as he says, “jolting me out of my absentminded musing and into the recognition that through the examination of my imperfections I can better serve my obligations to others.”

A quick read, this is often laugh-out-loud funny, but also touching and thoughtful. And though he repeatedly reminds us that he is Not an “expert,” Perry's clearly read widely and deeply about Montaigne. Thanks to his references I've now added Roxane Gay's “Bad Feminist” and James Miller's “Examined Lives,” but, probably most valuably (and certainly most economically), I'm eager now to dive again into Montaigne's Essays. I don't suppose I'll ever read them all, but Perry's descriptions of a number of the essays are irresistible! ( )
  meandmybooks | Jan 3, 2018 |
Michael Perry is a hick. An NPR listening one, but a bonafide bumpkin from rural Wisconsin. And his approach as a writer is a wonderful blend of Dave Berry-esque humor and E. B. White’s reflective essays on life at his farm in Maine.

But don’t be fooled by Perry’s “Aw shucks” demeanor. He dives deep into not only the works of the 16th Century French nobleman-essayist, but also into his translators, devotees, and critics, flipping through each and finding the humor and wisdom for consideration in each encounter. Honestly, I thought Perry’s book would be a collection of Montaigne’s greatest quotes with a few essays built around them, but it’s much more than that.

Read the rest of my review at: Montaigne in Barn Boots
  benjclark | Dec 15, 2017 |
Three words for Michael Perry: Socrates, MFT, and pacing. ( )
  m.belljackson | Oct 6, 2017 |
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The author reflects on the lessons he has gleaned from French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, contrasting his own life to that of the intellectual and explaining how de Montaigne's views shaped his perspectives on everything from faith to race to sex.… (more)

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