Friday, February 11, 2011

Wanted: an elderly, relaxed sloth

The main character in the 1983 German novel The Discovery of Slowness is described as an elderly sloth after a long massage and a pipe of opium--a wonderful image from Sarah Bakewell's book on Montaigne.

Montaigne, the 16th century French writer, retired at 37 to a tower in his chateau to write, to observe, to slow down and look. He found a much-needed kind of wisdom and moderation that contrasted with the turmoil of his times; he did so by writing his essays.

Bakewell suggests that Montaigne would be a good model for today's Slowness Movement, inspired by the 1983 German novel and centered in Italy, found today in many places, in many publications, not just as a reaction against fast food but as a reminder to live fully in the present. This is a type of spirituality for our times, though not often called such, a needed response to the hectic pace of lives measured by megabytes and iPods, where the slow pace of a massaged sloth is the last thing anyone would admire.

One key result of slowing down, or perhaps a concomitant part of it, is the ability to pay attention to each aspect of daily life, something that Montaigne mastered. Nothing escaped his gaze or his pen. He writes in a memorable passage taken from Bakewell's biography, How to Live:

"If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves,
as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Getting rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off--though I don't know."

Note the typical note of skepticism at the end and the humility as the author honestly examines his life. What results are not quick and glib insights, as we are likely to find on blogs (not this one!) today but a mellow kind of wisdom.

As Virigina Woolf, one of Montaigne's many admirers, said, he attained happiness by analyzing the details of his life and gave coherence to all that make up the soul.

So Montaigne is a model of what so many seekers are talking about now, as they have in the centuries past: mindfulness. Paying attention to the fullness of the present moment before it is gone, savoring it slowly--even though the human impulse is to hurry. And finding a bit of happiness in the process.

I can envision signs on the highway: Slow down and live: the life you save may be your own. But Flannery O'Connor already thought of that.

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