Montaigne's Lute

Patricia Hampl

     Piano. Originally pianoforte. But by the twentieth century the loud register had been dropped from the word. The idea of quiet was left to carry the whole bulky piece of musical furniture. Piano. Montaigne never knew one, never heard one. He was a century too early. His father, Pierre, would certainly have been an early-adopter. But lacking a piano, Pierre chose the lute, most medieval of instruments, to provide the sound track for his boy’s life.
     He hired a lute player to awaken his child every morning because, Montaigne explains, Pierre followed a theory he had picked up, probably during his military years in Italy, “that it troubles the tender brains of children to wake them in the morning with a start, and to snatch them suddenly and violently from their sleep, in which they are plunged much more deeply than we are.” The lute followed him around the chateau—“I was never without a man to do this for me.”
     A very pianissimo childhood.

     Though he reports that his nature was “gentle and tractable,” Montaigne confesses he was “withal so sluggish, lax, and drowsy,” that he was a poor student when lessons required memorization or serious application. No one, he claims, “could tear me from my sloth, not even to make me play.”
     There was fugitive genius in his indolence. “What I saw, I saw well,” he says, “and beneath this inert appearance nourished bold ideas and opinions beyond my years.”
The job description of a daydreamer. In his lethargy the boy displayed the requirements of his future as the particular kind of writer he became—disregard for received knowledge and a mandarin disdain for received form, coupled with acute observation and the punch and fluency of expression on the fly. He found his métier early—the essay.
     Except the métier didn’t yet exist. He found his talent, then. And awaited its purpose and its form. Waiting suited his temperament—sluggish, lax, drowsy. As it would suit the voluptuous unspooling of his apparently artless art, a mind awakened every morning not by command, not even by thought, but by a melody.

     Piano, piano! The entreaty of the long-suffering Bernard Weiser. We sat side-by-side, he at his grand, I at mine, both of us enduring the weekly lesson in his cramped Scott Hall studio. Gently, gently! Every week he urged me down from my wrestling matches with Bach, with Scarlatti. But nothing could tame my melodramatic relation to music.
     It was my single year as a music major, the year the jig was finally up. My high school musicianship (much indulged, much inflated) gave way in college to the truth of mediocrity, and late that year I skulked off to Vincent Hall to join all the other lost souls in the English Department.
     But think of the years of piano practice that preceded that final descent from music into language, into sentences and paragraphs. Into this.
     All the years alone in little rooms with music. The snug living room on Linwood where the baby grand crouched in its shiny chestnut coat, the biggest thing we owned except for our Ford. But even more, the studio cells of my girls’ school, the cloistered nuns of an old French order presiding serenely, where one day a week in the refectory (not “the lunchroom” or “cafeteria”) we spoke only French. Puis-je avoir les cornichons, si vous plait, ma soeur? And the little sour pickles in a cut-glass dish were handed over with an approving smile. Bien sur, ma chère.
     The building, rosy brick with a soaring campanile, the nuns in their Renaissance gowns gliding from the cloister with its bewitching sign—ENCLOSURE—we students wearing our Madeleine uniforms, the entire atmosphere that the shadowy marble halls held in a fierce embrace—none of it would have been foreign to Montaigne. His religion, his nation, shades of his ancien regime.
     But it’s wrong to say that the embrace was fierce. It was piano, pianissimo. As if lute music followed us too, up and down the worn marble staircases. The gentleness insinuated itself, wielding the power of assumption and custom, not crude might. Gentleness was the paradoxical strength of the place, the reason the word fierce, though inaccurate, comes to mind. There was no threat of violence in that muscle, but muscle it was. Nobody was a bully. An unchallenged chatelaine authority ruled. We, in our blue serge uniforms, formed a well-behaved estate.

     The piano lessons started early, age eight—mine was another father determined to fill his child’s mind with music. Not long afterwards, the Sunday dinner recitals begin, aunts and uncles sitting docilely with their coffee. I’m told to go to the piano, my father pulls rosin along the bow of his violin. How about a duet for everyone, Patricia? We seesaw our way along Dvorak’s Humoresque #9.
     These domestic displays were only the tip of my iceberg. Hours of practice, of daydream repetition, led me along the narrow creaking corridor of my convent school, to the little cell filled up with a grand piano. The window overlooked the cloister garden, a nun drifting below, reading her breviary. Angelus time, after lunch, everyone else playing softball, screaming madly in the distance.
     I could hardly wait to get to that room. Not to practice. I just played, reinscribing errors and miscues and erratic tempi. Sister Mary Louise, preternaturally patient, did what she could. I was supposed to use the metronome, but I almost never did, maddened by its pedantic tic-tocking. It was interrupting me. Interrupting what, ma chère? Daydreams, the mind cantering over its landscape like an unbroken pony. The piano was a romantic sound track, not work I was doing. I was toiling elsewhere. Well, I wasn’t toiling. That was the point, that was the pleasure. I was swooning. I was—how did he put it?—sluggish, lax, drowsy.
     Music made these travels possible. My hands moved over the keyboard, my mind went…anywhere it wanted to go. Paris and New York were familiar destinations, all the more vivid for knowing nothing about them, not even anyone who had seen them. I also visited, revisited, the insides of certain books—the coach Becky Sharp throws Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary out of, Tennyson’s flower plucked, root and all, from the crannied wall, Blake’s grain of sand, Ezra Pound’s petals on a wet, black bow—Sister Maria Coeli introduced all of them to us in English class.
     They pulled me, pulled me back—or maybe they pushed me forward. I circled around them, kept circling. I also had to build a case against my brother who was a bully and against my mother who sided with my brother. I had to wonder why I wasn’t one of the pretty ones. Or was I? Awaiting the right person to see beneath the surface (think Jane Eyre). I was busy. I wrote poems up there, and kept a diary.
     I didn’t think of any of these sketchy bits of writing as essays. I called them nothing at all. It wasn’t writing. It was me. Ainsi, lecteur, je suis moy-mesmes la matiere de mon livre. So, reader, I am myself the material of my book. Montaigne’s inaugural words are the motto of every diary.
     Montaigne warned the reader against reading someone else’s musings—his own—even while knowing very well he was going to publish his book, offer it for sale to the public. “You would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject,” he says in his opening address to the reader.
     But who has not been tempted to open a journal, a letter left on a hallway table—for those convinced of their honor, a postcard left face-up? Montaigne knew his essays presented a fascination, even a slightly illicit one. He knew his reader perhaps better than he knew himself—as writers do, being passionate readers before they become writers. And therefore knowing what allures, what enchants.
     It had a lock and a key, the first book I wrote. A red leatherette five-year diary. The lock and key were the most important part—absolute privacy, the invitation to candor. A book that was a room to live in alone, speaking (my) truth to…well, to myself.
     So writing was not fundamentally story-telling. It was attention. The hunting and gathering stage of civilization, the collecting of…what? Truth. Not “the truth” as it was purveyed in religion class, swanning forward, immutable, grandiose, the brittle carapace of dogma holding it aloft. This other truth was fluid, the mote in the eye, the sniff of the nose, the stroke of the hand reaching out. It was the truth of noticing, bits and pieces, the patchwork of reality. It had no superstructure, no system. Its order was the integrity of the eye, moving over chaos, but repudiating chaos by the fact of its attention. The mind, displayed in a tumble of sentences, was the world’s organizing angel, the companion of a life. To notice was to follow faithfully. A faithful companion. Whither thou goest, I will go.

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