Comparisons, it was anciently thought, were among the royal tools of thought, along with logic. One of the interesting thing about comparisons is how, buried beneath them, we find coincidences, intersections on the plane of concept or image. And the comparison is all the more powerful in that, like a coincidence, it produces a cognitive shock, a crossroads surprise. The shock, if the comparison goes off well, will be transmitted to the object we began with. It will seem not only as if we have given an explanation, but we have given a surplus of explanation.
It is here that comparison runs into trouble, for, like coincidence, it seems tangled in superstition. Enlightenment begins, perhaps, with a suspicion of the surplus of explanatory value. Ancient enlightenment – the sceptics and epicurians who came after Aristotle – recognized that comparison did too much work. It is as if an occult power, a dark force, planned that meeting of concepts or images or situations. The enlightenment state of mind is always allergic to occult forces. These are, after all, things that plunge us into taking a magical view of history. And yet, if the Enlightenment wants to have a history itself, if it works towards “progress”, it is always itself subject to a self-subverting contradiction, the projection of some force that makes for history as a progress. Which is just to say that enlightenment itself often does not resist the temptation to seek out destinies and fates, and tarries with an image of history as a sort of white magic.
This is one side of comparison. Another side is its absorption, over time, into the literal, the long march from connotation to denotation. Coincidence, here, is routinized, or overlooked so often as to seem no coincidence at all.
I want to look at a brilliant comparison in Montaigne’s essay, “On the useful and the honorable” – which Florio translates as the Profitable and the Honest. This essay begins the third book, which was published four years before Montaigne’s death, in 1592. The third book has a certain retrospective splendour, rather in the manner of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – one feels that Montaigne, like Prospero, is about to break his rod and drown his books, as the last voyage approaches. On the useful and the honorable (de l’utile et l’honnête) mingles memories or summings up from Montaigne’s public career with a reflection on the division between what it is useful to do for the state – what profits the prince, or one’s ambitions - and what it is honest, moral, honorable to do from the perspective of the private individual.
The image and comparison I have in mind arises in the context of a characteristic moment of self-accounting, with its to-and-fro motion:
“What was required by my position, I furnished, but in the most private way possible. As a child I was plunged into it up to my ears. And I succeeded well enough, but I have often, in good time, disengaged myself from it. I have since avoided meddling in public affairs, rarely accepting to do so and never requesting it. Holding my back turned to ambition. If not like rowers who advance, thus, backwards. Nevertheless, being embarked, I find myself less obliged to my resolution than to my good fortune. There are, indeed, paths less inimicable to my taste, and more adapted to my temperament, by which, if my fortune had called me in the past to public service and advancement in the opinion of the world, I know I would have bypassed all the arguments of my reason and followed it.”
The to and fro is held together here, I think, by that discrete glimpse of rowers advancing with their back turned. It is an image of progress that surely has a double root in Montaigne’s own experience and in the classical authors.
For a man who saw the world as constantly dissolving one hard element into another, Montaigne was very phobic about water, much prefering solid land, and even the bumpiness of coaches, to the waves. Nevertheless, he did travel, sometimes, by water. In a gabare, a flat bottomed boat that was poled or rowed. There was one that went from Bordeaux to Blaye, a village on the Garonne that was a point of contention in the guerilla war between the Catholics and the Protestants when Montaigne was mayor of Bordeaux. Indeed, advance has an emphatic military meaning as well as one that indicates a certain directed movement. The symbolism of the rower who, facing backwards, advances the boat must have suggested itself to Montaigne hundreds of times. But perhaps he was also inspired by an essay of Plutarch’s which was thematically akin to this essay: If it is true that we should live a hidden life.
“The oarsmen, turned towards the stern, chase after the catch by the action that they impress on the oars in a sense contrary to the direction of the vessel. Something similar happens to those who give us such precepts: they hurry after fame in pretending to turn their back on it.”
I have been revolving this image in my head, and it grows more interesting the more I think about it. Here fate, fame, progress, and a strange reversal of how we think of human progress all come together. I think there is a long European history of this image, and I, being in an Auerbachian mood, am going to chase after it a bit more.