Couscous and Montaigne

Going back to the basics, the reason why I even have this fantastic opportunity to live in Paris for three months is because I’m taking Civ classes. I have class for about three a day: a French class that runs throughout the quarter and three compressed classes about European history with an emphasis on France. Forgive me, I’m a little biased when it comes to UChicago’s Core. I absolutely love the classes that I’ve taken to fulfill the requirements, and Civ has been no exception. One of the best things about the Civ and the Core in general is that you read everything first-hand. Core classes revolve around primary documents; there is no barrier between you and the original content (except perhaps a translator or two). Best of all, taking Civ abroad means that you’re guaranteed to be in a small discussion class as opposed to a larger lecture and an emphasis on facts and figures that I might have found if I had taken Civ back on campus.

During our first three weeks, we started off with the Renaissance and main theme was the rise of the individual. It seems like such a simple concept – to be an individual. But back in the Middle Ages when the likelihood of death was just around the corner and you were a serf who had to work in the fields, there wasn’t much time to spend on being your own person. The idea of individuality is a concept that is easy to take for granted. It seems that it might be something that comes naturally, but once you get down to it, it’s actually a product of a culture and history.

Our professor was Philipe Desan. He’s a Montaigne scholar with his own Wikipedia page and quite a vivacious personality. In between lectures on Martin Luther or Machiavelli, he would regale us with the mischievous adventures of his Catholic school days or reminisce about his time as a Trotskyist during his college years. One day, he casually mentioned how he used to have philosophical discussion with Jean-Paul Sartre, who was “kind of a jerk.” Our entire class did a double take. Apparently, to be worthy of Sartre’s time, he had to read a philosophical text every day, which he did for several years. Somewhere along the way, Professor Desan also attended the lectures of a young Michel Foucault. Playing the degrees of separation game became infinitely more interesting after our first weeks of class.

Despite (or in addition to) all the famous thinkers he has met, Michel de Montaigne is Professor Desan’s academic soulmate. He had quite a lot to say on all the texts we read, but when we reached Montaigne on our syllabus, he radiated enthusiasm – the mere mention of his name seemed to make our professor beam from ear to ear. Montaigne wrote in the 16th century and was one of the leading lights of the French Renaissance. His most important invention was the essay. The essay? It seems that there were essays and treatises from the very beginning of time! But Montaigne developed the essay as a literary form of personal expression. Before, you had to a relatively important person, a serious academic, or a theologian to have anything published, but Montaigne did this ingenious thing where he picked a topic. With a random topic as his premise, such as coaches, he meandered and interwove his thoughts and opinions to make a point about more substantial subjects. In the example of “Of Coaches,” he moves from modes of transportations to a criticism of excess to a criticism of the violent and harsh treatment that the Europeans directed towards the native inhabitants of the Americas. Voilà! After Montaigne, anyone can now share their views as long as you reference your original choice of topic every now and then.

How much does Professor Desan love Montaigne? Not only is he one of his most famous scholars, he is also one out of five (maybe six) people who has ever handled one of the original published manuscripts that is now kept air-sealed in a vault somewhere in France, specifically Bordeaux I think. While passing a thick volume of the scanned images from these archives, Professor Desan told us about a hair in the pages of the book while he was working with the manuscript. Knowing that he was one of the few people to be in such close proximity to the pages and using some intuition that I have yet to understand, he promptly concluded that it must be a beard hair from Montaigne himself! Montaigne, in all his pictures, sported facial hair, and according to our professor, all the other librarians that have handled the manuscript were definitely clean-shaven. Besides, the book was lost for a hundred years or so, which means no one even saw it for a century or so. Thus, he collected the hair and keeps it in a test tube. He plans to find a brilliant scientist in the biology department at UChicago to run a DNA sequence test to confirm that he indeed has in his possession, Montaigne’s hair.

My class had the honor of dining with our professor, and we discovered his life was even more interesting, if that were possible. He knows French, English, and Japanese. His wife is from Japan, and he rotates between Chicago, Paris, and Japan. His favorite part of Paris is, of course, the Left Bank. His university was closed in the 1970s after accidentally conferring degrees to a pair of horses, and he started his academic career in sociology before studying French Literature and eventually reaching Renaissance literature and other cool things like that. Professor Desan has also been to South America (I want to say Brazil) for a Montaigne dedication ceremony of some sort and spent time with an indigenous people. He passed around his iPhone in class to show us the pictures.

Dinner was at Chez Bebert, a North African restaurant in Montparnasse known for its couscous. It was a novel experience. The only instances when I’ve ever had couscous were in the dining hall where it was always included in a cold salad that had an unpleasant acidic tinge from the dressing. We started with complimentary appetizers, which included pickled carrots, samosas, and other vegetables. For your actual meal, you ordered a serving of meat while the couscous, accompanying broth, stewed veggies, and beans came in infinite quantities. I tried merguez, which is a type of lamb sausage, while others chose lamb, chicken kebabs, beef, or some combo of the above. The meat arrived sizzling on a bed of lettuce and the meat fell off the bone. Professor Desan taught us how to assemble our meal, first taking a plateful of the fluffy grains, heaping the couscous with vegetables and beans, and adding spoonfuls of salty broth, the most important step or otherwise the couscous will expand in your stomach and eventually kill you if you misjudge the quantity you eat. (This last part might not be true, but he said it with a half-seriousness that I couldn’t figure out.) It was hearty, delicious meal that was a nice break from the usual meat, creamy sauce, and bread that is found in French cuisine. It was a novel experience too. I think when I return home, I’ll see if I can recreate my couscous meal to some degree, after I finally eat some turkey, of course.

Montaigne writes a lot about his experiences. In fact, he has an essay called “Of Experience,” and it meanders through a whole slew of thoughts – books, knowledge, the ridiculousness of the legal system, and kidney stones. “Que sais -je?” is his motto. “What do I know?” The point is not to attain knowledge, but learn from your day-to-day experience. Read books, not to learn about the ancient Greeks, but to understand yourself, the most important goal you can undertake. Despite his kidney stones, I like to think that Montaigne was a jolly fellow who found ultimate contentment in writing his essays and building all this self-knowledge. I also think that he would have liked couscous.

During our dinner, we didn’t mention Montaigne at all and mainly pestered Professor Desan about his impressions of Jean-Paul Sartre. Still, if you say couscous, I will think of Montaigne  Even though I didn’t like reading his essays at all (he was too all-over the place for my taste), but it’s hard not to respect someone who takes the task of living so seriously. Montaigne’s personable, kind-of stream-of-consciousness writing is at times entertaining but mostly confusing because he jumps from thought to thought. However, if you’re patient, it eventually congeals into extraordinary insight.

Have you been able to think out and manage your own life? You have done the greatest task of all.

Montaigne writes this at the end of “Of Experience.”  Isn’t it something to have someone who died over four hundred years ago say something that can still resonante so profoundly right now? I’m no Montaigne scholar, but I can see why he can be someone to which you devote part of your life. Even if I forget everything else that I’ve read in those first three weeks, I’ll always remember seeing these two lines at 2 in the morning and thinking, “Thanks, Montaigne. That was really good.”

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