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By John Helmer, Moscow

Aestivation in August is something to be shared with the African lungfish, alfalfa weevils and salamanders. For them, in the hottest season of the year it’s obligatory to conserve energy and retain water in the body for unluckily long periods. If they don’t wish to die, they must be taught to lower their metabolic rates. This is why August is a holiday month in civilized Europe, including Russia.

The organ most resistant to slowing down is the one which must keep up practicing what it does best; otherwise it loses its capacity to function altogether. The fingers of pianists, for example, must never stop practicing the piano, however hot August gets. The fingers of writers are the same. Even the lady bug and the cane toad usually handle the mortal risk of August aestivation better than people can. In August beasts worry about plain death.  People worry about living death; that’s when the brain slows down to the point of realizing that the fingers and other things work with embarrassing clumsiness, or not at all. (This isn’t about erectile dysfunction; the children in the audience may stay on the page and read on.)

Every year for the past thirty in Moscow, this little piece is a sign-off for what you are told is my R&R, to use the old Vietnam War term.

It means no publishing what I practice. It doesn’t mean no practising fingers, no drop in brain metabolic rate. The latter causes a lot of maxim-coining to coax the fingers along — “There’s no rest for the weary”, “No rest for the wicked”, etc.

In medieval August our ancestors thought up this poem, “Sumer is incumen in”, for jingling the brain (words) to fingers (tune) and feet (percussion). They didn’t know about the aestivational imperative; they also got their animal summer habits mixed up:

Summer has arrived, Sing loudly, cuckoo!
 The ewe is bleating after her lamb,
 The cow is lowing after her calf;
 The bullock is prancing,
 The billy-goat farting,
 Sing merrily, cuckoo!

At this time of the annual cycle, only one of these medieval lines applies to me.

For me too, the solution most compatible with climate warming and caprine relaxation is reading books in the supine position. Not new books flogged by newspapers which have a commercial interest in sales of authors they already employ, publishers whose advertising revenue they collect, or editorial writers whose opinions about Russia, MH17, the Skripal affair, the Syrian war, or Ukraine they promote. This August these are the three I shall be reading; actually, reading again. The Psychology of Military Incompetence first appeared in London in 1974; The Pleasure of Hating in 1826;  Michel de Montaigne’s Essays in 1580; and Antoine Compagnon’s radio broadcasts in 2013 (the English translation, A Summer with Montaigne, On the Art of Living Well,  was published this year).

Left: https://www.amazon.com/dp/ Centre: https://www.amazon.com/Pleasure-Hating-William-Hazlitt  Right: https://www.europaeditions.com/

The first starts with cases of British military failures from India, Crimea, and South Africa, to the  World War II battles at Arnhem and Singapore. Military incompetence is in the title, but the clinical diagnosis applies to political leaders and intelligence operatives just as well as it does to uniformed practicioners of brute force. There’s no comparison between the British and their enemies – Americans, Boers, Indians, Russians, Japanese, Germans – though if the psychological conclusions are true, they ought to be universal.

Ten lessons of military incompetence are presented, but they are variations on just two  – the conviction that the more force applied to the enemy, the surer he will be defeated (either by destruction or capitulation);  and the conviction that the enemy is inferior in brains, resources, or backing from God. Combine the two convictions, and you have the man, woman, army or state headed for an invariable outcome – defeat, accompanied by terrible loss of life.

Contemplating whether to squash a spider on his London wall in 1826, William Hazlitt (right) explained that hating is so pleasurable, it almost always defies reasoning. “I bear the creature no ill-will,” Hazlitt thought. “The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it. We learn to curb our will and keep our overt actions within the bounds of humanity, long before we can subdue our sentiments and imaginations to the same mild tone. We give up the external demonstration, the brute violence, but cannot part with the essence or principle of hostility. We do not tread upon the poor little animal in question (that seems barbarous and pitiful!) but we regard it with a sort of mystic horror and superstitious loathing. It will ask another hundred years of fine writing and hard thinking to cure us of the prejudice…”

Well, Hazlitt got that about as wrong as it’s possible to get. We’re almost at the 200-year mark, and writing hasn’t proved to be so fine, nor thinking so hard as to have relieved the spider or humanity of either the practice of brute force or the spirit of malevolence. Hazlitt failed to understand (admit) that what counts as fine writing is as barbarous and prejudicial as squashing spiders. Spider squashing is also money-making, in print if not under foot. For example, this was the Guardian’s selling-point on March 15, 2018. 

Though hating is pleasurable, Hazlitt didn’t recognize how much more pleasurable it is than other human pleasures, such as eating (which requires money) or sex, which requires consent (usually). Norman Dixon, author of the military psychology, was on the right track in his chapter on the intimate habits of his selected British generals, except that he went to their privies, when he should have gone to the bedrooms.

And so to Montaigne, who worked as a Bordeaux city politician and magistrate, Paris courtier and diplomat, as well winegrower and herring exporter. His time was the French civil war between Catholics and Protestants in the second half of the 16th century.  Montaigne had no doubt about the problem of summer, aestivation, R&R. For comparison to himself he picked a runaway horse, not a farting goat.

“Lately, when I retired to my home, determined  so far as possible  to bother about nothing  except spending the little life I have left in rest and seclusion , it seemed to me  I could do my mind no greater favour  than to let it entertain itself  in full idleness…But I find that, on the contrary, like a runaway horse, it gives itself a hundred times more trouble  than it took for others, and gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, …that in order to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness  at my pleasure, I have begun  to put them in writing, hoping in time  to make my mind ashamed of itself.”

About writing, this is modesty indeed. And so it is remembered after Hazlitt is forgotten.

Montaigne is also famously deferential about his penis — “it imperiously contests for authority with our will” — and what he discreetly called “the French impetuosity”: “we give the last charge at the first onset.” 

Montaigne’s estate account books have never been found; or at least no historian has thought them worth analyzing for the mind behind the money. There was a lot of the latter, and even more, as Montaigne acknowledged, earned by his father and his grandfather.  This put  Montaigne and the estate at constant risk of attack from military units and bandits.

Wine was Montaigne’s principal business, but about the drinking of it he was dismissive of his fellow Frenchmen’s taste. “To be a good drinker one must not have so delicate a palate. The Germans drink almost all wines with equal pleasure. Their aim is to swallow rather than to taste. They have much the better of the bargain. Their pleasure is much more plentiful and ready at hand.”

He writes a great deal about war-making; more about negotiating peace. He esteems the latter more highly than the former, while acknowledging that force may be more effective in dissuasion and deterrence than treaties in persuasion and trust. He lacks confidence in the technological advances of weaponry and the energy of force. “As for the pistol… I think it is a weapon of very little effect and hope that some day we shall abandon the use of it.” He is contemptuous of anger, including anger among military men, as “a passion that takes pleasure in itself and flatters itself.” His diagnosis of its source is fear and cowardice; low self-esteem is the modern psychologist’s term. Not to be risked in lives, plans, interests of state, Montaigne thought.

Antoine Compagnon is a French academician who is unlike others who have spent, or are still scribbling away at their Montaigne careers, envious of their subject. Commissioned to produce 7-minute radio broadcasts about Montaigne’s essays each weekday over two summer months, Compagnon came on during cocktail hour. His forty scripts have now been compiled into a book that is compact and light enough to be held at eye-level for a long time without pain; eight hundred pages of the original Essays are much too heavy for a reader in the supine position. 

Left:  Montaigne’s study where he sat up to write; there was a separate bedroom for being supine. Right: Compagnon broadcasting.

Swimming, drinking, or sleeping can be refreshed by each new Montaigne thought – new after 440 years. And more than enough of them to last until September, when spider-squashing starts again.


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