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By John Helmer, Moscow

A man who hates the subject of his writings is as pitiable as a coprophagic with haemorrhoids. The more he consumes of what he desires, the more painful he knows will be the consequence.

Termites and rabbits do plenty of the former, but Mother Nature has relieved them of the latter.  Russia-hating writers on Russia are not so favoured; they are the only cases I know which combine, and enjoy,  the perversity with the pain. In their cases, there’s always been something missing between their upper and lower holes – I mean more is missing than a sense of taste and a sense of humour.

Michel de Montaigne, the French politician and writer of sixteenth century France – inventor of the essay – is their antithesis. He deserves to be remembered for two mottoes we shall need in 2018. Re-read the essays in the translation by Donald Frame here.  Ignore the recent biography by a Chicago professor of French origin named Philippe Desan; he has spent an academic career and eight hundred fresh printed pages revealing his envy that Montaigne will be read for longer than Desan will be forgotten.  Envy like this will also have to be overcome to get through the coming year; more of that in a moment.

ἐποχή (EPOKHE, I ABSTAIN)  and QUE SAIS-JE (WHAT DO I KNOW) were the mottoes Montaigne adopted for himself, and cast on either side of a medallion he wore around his neck; on  one side, the more literary and contemplative second replacing the more politically active one which came first.  In his attempts to make a political career (fame, money, glory) at the municipal, regional and national level, Montaigne claimed that mediating between parties in conflict and abstention from taking sides would be the successful lines to advance himself. They weren’t.  It was a time of civil war, the French Wars of Religion.

Source: http://www.eoht.info/page/Michel+Montaigne

Along the way, Montaigne started dictating his reflections on success and failure. Then, noticing these collections of thoughts, cribbed quotes, and primers from the Greek and Latin classics were more esteemed by those he wanted to impress than the political power he wanted to exercise, he kept writing more essays. He also kept trying to do better politically. The more frustrated he grew, the more essays he wrote. Montaigne was also racing his mind against his body, as he knew the symptoms of kidney disease would kill him, as it had his father.  It did.

WHAT DO I KNOW was a pose, and almost a half-millennium later, a marvellously successful one. That’s because everyone can join in, though not everyone can be so stylish as Montaigne was in holding the pose. By pretending his penis was independent — “it imperiously contests for authority with our will” – he gave all of us, hmmm, those of us with penises, an alibi for our fantasies, and our failures. Not everyone needs a penis; everyone needs an alibi.

Actually, Montaigne was making the case for his exceptional self, and that’s a pretence. No, for Montaigne it was a paradox – the more ordinary his personality, the more exceptional his expression of it. As a national ideology, exceptionalism is nothing more than a pretence for force, fraud, subversion aimed against other people and their property. Everybody tries it, some several times – Athenians, Spartans, Israelites, Romans, Germans, French, British.

Exceptionalism is the doctrine which motivates Russia-hating as US Government policy for this war which cannot be negotiated to a conclusion; and which will destroy the world if it escalates to nuclear arms.  Exceptionalism is also the ideology of envy for what another has, and the alibi for stealing it.

Russians are human, so exceptionalism is also a Russian doctrine.  But since December 25, 1991, the day the Soviet flag came down in Moscow, Russians have all  wished  to be loved by Americans; especially, the Russian oligarchs,  the Church, the intelligentsia, the Kremlin. The reason is that once the mental discipline and conviction of the communist period evaporated, what remained was nothing but envy for what Americans had, and what perchance could be taken from them, if Americans reciprocated the Russian wish to be loved. But honeymoons are always short — noone can be so enamoured for long.

The unreciprocated love of American exceptionalism by Russians made the Kremlin a sitting duck for regime change. Boris Yeltsin and his cronies were the ducks. Russia has been saved by others – not by the oligarchs,  the Church, the intelligentsia, or the Kremlin. US exceptionalism has triggered its Russian reciprocal; the clumsiness of US policy has been successfully defeated by the performance of unnamed soldiers, little green men,  military officers who have defeated the US on the battlegrounds of Ukraine and Syria.

Left: Boris Yeltsin makes a speech in front of the Russian republic parliament during the Soviet countercoup of August 1991; he was accompanied by Alexander Korzhakov, a KGB general and Yeltsin’s bodyguard; and by a soldier who appears to be weeping. The State Department history of the event can be read here. Right: Russian soldiers, dry-eyed, support the secession of Crimea following the US coup in Kiev, March 2014.

Montaigne’s mottoes will come in handy as President Vladimir Putin starts his third term based on an oligarchy which has transformed Russia from the least unequal to the most unequal state in Europe in just one decade.   


Read more from the World Inequality Report 2018 at http://wir2018.wid.world/

Montaigne’s mottoes are also useful as the US Government’s war to overthrow Putin and his friends enters its fifth year – a war not for the sake of egalitarian reform of Russia but in order to replace  Russian larcenists with American ones.  Putin is esteemed by Russians for not being as bad as the alternatives which presented themselves during the 1990s, nor those since 2000 — Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky, Dmitry Medvedev, Patriarch Kirill,  Igor Sechin.

If Dances with Bears hasn’t demonstrated the evidence of just how bad those alternatives were – ahem, still are — you haven’t been reading carefully enough.

Montaigne wrote as a consolation for himself and a warning to everyone else.  When his idea turned out unexpectedly to be a hit with a tiny group of readers who were his well-off neighbours and  politicians in Paris, who had defeated his every other gambit,  Montaigne started writing as revenge – to be remembered longer than they would be. On that wager Montaigne started by hedging his bet, so he knew he was certain to win. He has.


More than four hundred years later, we appreciate Montaigne knew what it means to lose most everything of value in the country he loved, after the failure of a career of attempting to save the peace and spare the blood of his countrymen. He wrote: “My world is done for; my form is emptied; I belong entirely to the past.” A spell in the Bastille prison helped confirm his conviction that the body can be done for swiftly, but the mind not so.

By the way, in saying he belonged to the past, Montaigne wasn’t speaking of memory. “There is no man who has less business talking about memory. For I recognize almost no trace of it in me… in my part of the country if they want to say that a man has no sense, they say he has no memory. And when I complain of the defectiveness of mine, they argue with me and do not believe me, as if I was accusing myself of witlessness. They see no distinction between memory and understanding.”

Dances with Bears began more than fifteen years and more than two thousand essays ago, with the idea that Russia’s history is past – that’s to say, nothing good was happening to the country which wasn’t understandable from the past. To understand the good Putin has done for Russia, most Russians remember Yeltsin. That isn’t saying very much, you understand.

For the future of one more year, you have a choice that wasn’t available to Montaigne sitting in his tower, facing his books, alone.

A modern reconstruction of Montaigne’s study; see https://twitter.com/fjaranguren/status/770277259282378753

Nowadays you can send, receive, and re-tweet understandings that are about one minute long in composition and receipt. They add up to a history which interprets itself endlessly as if the process of repetition equals or increases understanding. In some of the essays Montaigne did much the same thing, pulling a book off his shelf and scribbling an excerpt on to his own page.  

Montaigne’s view of tweeting was that it’s nothing but vanity publishing, though Montaigne had  enough respect for himself that he thought this bluff worth trying on others. “My mind does not always move straight ahead but backwards too. I distrust my present thoughts hardly less than my past ones and my second or third thoughts hardly less than my first.”

Montaigne again, applying nowadays  to the Russian agitprop media operating in English, such as Russia Insider, The Duran, The Saker, Fort Russ, RT, Sputnik, Russia Beyond The Headlines, ValdaiClub.com, etc.   “There is more ado to interpret interpretations than to interpret things, and more books upon books than upon any other subject; we do nothing but comment upon one another. Every place swarms with commentaries; of authors there is great scarcity. Is it not the principal and most reputed knowledge of our later ages to understand the learned? Is it not the common and final end of all studies? Our opinions are grafted upon one another; the first serves as a stock to the second, the second to the third, and so forth; thus step by step we climb the ladder; whence it comes to pass that he who is mounted highest has often more honour than merit, for he is got up but an inch upon the shoulders of the last, but one.”

“How often, and, peradventure, how foolishly, have I extended my book to make it speak of itself; foolishly, if for no other reason but this, that it should remind me of what I say of others who do the same: that the frequent amorous glances they cast upon their work witness that their hearts pant with self-love, and that even the disdainful severity wherewith they scourge them are but the dandlings and caressings of maternal love; as Aristotle, whose valuing and undervaluing himself often spring from the same air of arrogance. My own excuse is, that I ought in this to have more liberty than others, forasmuch as I write specifically of myself and of my writings, as I do of my other actions; that my theme turns upon itself; but I know not whether others will accept this excuse.”

The excuse for Dances with Bears is that with enough time, it’s likely that more truth will appear from losing in politics than happens from winning in politics. This isn’t a law of human nature, though. It also wasn’t Montaigne’s preference. He didn’t pick truth as his first choice; he almost certainly would have picked winning in politics to being remembered for telling the truth.  Exceptionalists, whether American or Russian, Christian, Jew or Muslim, can’t imagine losing in politics, or in anything else.  They make poor companions in truth-telling, and in suffering, for they believe theirs is the greater, the superior truth, the superior suffering. For the exceptionalists, envy is a superior form of suffering.

Cartoon published in Lianhe Zaobao (Singapore) on March 29, 2012,  by Tan Zhong; translation into English

Thus it came about earlier this year that Princeton University Press dropped in the marketplace a  biography of Montaigne by a University of Chicago professor called Philippe Desan.  That’s to say, an autobiography of Desan’s envy of a man who tried to hide the fact, according to Desan’s meticulous research, that his forebears sold salted fish for a living; who plagiarized phrases from others in order to ingratiate himself with his superiors; and was an exhibitionist as a young man in bed, and as an old man on paper.  Montaigne’s chateau, writes Desan, was not a genuine noblemen’s castle but a bourgeois house. The book also reveals Desan’s finding that Montaigne arranged through a well-connected neighbour to be awarded a knighthood of the Order of St. Michael by a king so desperate for support he handed out dozens of the knighthoods the same year. 

Desan’s own biography reveals the position he’s in to judge Montaigne’s vulnerabilities. According to Desan’s university resumé,  he has obtained triple the number of knighthoods Montaigne managed – the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques (1994), Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite (2004), and the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres (2011);  the resumé misspells the titles of the knighthoods. He adds he has topped even those with medals from the Académie Française, all to honour Desan’s work on… Montaigne. If it’s the meaning of these honours that Montaigne’s essays are, as Desan concludes, an insincere apology for a conniving career of hapless ambition, then we can appreciate how envy can become, by application of the doctrine of exceptionalism, an excuse for stealing from the dead.

Montaigne himself proposed to be thick-skinned about this. In the essay On Sadness he claimed: “I am little subject to these violent passions. My susceptibility is naturally tough.” Maybe that was so; maybe that was Montaigne’s riposte to the likes of Desan. “I harden and thicken it every day by force of reason,” he added.

For the coming year, will reason have a force equal to the enemies of reason lying in ambush? Is it contrary to the law of nature that one man can dance with many bears?

The method for answering can be found in the two mottoes – I ABSTAIN and WHAT DO I KNOW.  Be sure the answer, if it materializes, will not be exceptional. But it will be said. “If I can,” Montaigne wrote in 1580, twelve years before his demise,  “I shall keep my death from saying anything that my life has not already said.”

FOOTNOTE TO LEAD IMAGE:  the image is Salvador Dali’s illustration for Montaigne’s essay On Vanity. Dali was commissioned to illustrate the essays by the New York publisher Doubleday; they appeared in print in 1947.  The book’s first edition is now rare and moderately expensive. Click to view for free. Russian academic appreciation for Montaigne came after the end of the Soviet curriculum, but it has been a decade since he was discussed in public.  Here was that last occasion, when Natalia Basovskaya, a professor of history at the Russian State University for the Humanities, talked about Montaigne for three-quarters of an hour on Moscow radio Ekho Moskvy, on February 25, 2007.   

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