Of Sex, Embarrassment, and the Miseries of Old Age [after “On Some Verses of Virgil”]

I have absolutely no other passion but love to keep me going. . . . it would restore me to vigilance, sober behavior, graceful manners and care about my person; love would give new strength to my features so that the distortions of old age, pitiful and misshapen, should not come and disfigure them.

Personal essayists continually test the boundaries of shame and embarrassment. They can’t hide behind fictional or dramatic characters, or lyric detachment. Their bitter humiliations, defects, ignorance, vices, and blemishes all insist on escaping concealment. They demand to be expressed, exposed. The size of his penis embarrasses Montaigne, and he freely admits it in the long, late, and at times challengingly obscure essay “On Some Verses of Virgil”; after all, he began the Essais as an attempt to portray himself exactly as he is, so why shouldn’t the portrait include every part of him?

The diminutiveness of his member is not his only cause of embarrassment; now an old man, he must acknowledge that, limp, flaccid, and soft, it hardly works any longer. “Nature,” he complains, “should have beene pleased to have made this age miserable, without making it also ridiculous. I hate to see one for an inch of wretched vigor, which enflames him but thrice a week, take-on and swagger as fiercely, as if he hath some great and lawfull dayes-worke in his belly.” His farewell to sex [“Je prens l’extreme congé des jeux du monde”], “On Some Verses of Virgil” is the most erotically charged chapter in the Essais. Never shy about the topic, Montaigne writes about sexual matters throughout his essays, but never with an equivalent concentration. The essay has justly been called by James Grantham Turner “perhaps the most profound meditation on sexuality in the Renaissance.”

After a few pages on the physical and mental miseries of old age, Montaigne—who was then only in his early fifties—states his topic unequivocally: “the genital activities [l’action genitale] of mankind.” These are “so natural, so necessary and so right” that Montaigne wonders: “what have they done to make us never dare to mention them without embarrassment [sans vergnone] and to exclude them from serious orderly conversation? We are not afraid to utter the words kill, thieve or betray, but those others we only dare to mutter through our teeth. Does that mean that the less we breathe a word about sex the more right we have to allow it to fill our thoughts?”

The essay—so wide-ranging it truly resists summary or colligation—then moves suddenly, though strategically, from reflections on our verbal inhibitions to a consideration of love in ancient poetry. Montaigne wonders why in his day poetry has lost contact with the god of Love (L’Amour). Though he has “been struck off the roll of Cupid’s attendants,” he acknowledges that his memory is “still imbued with [the god’s] powers and his values,” and that there still remain “traces of heat and emotion after the fever. . . . All gross and dried up as I am, I can still feel some lukewarm remains from that bygone ardour.” We know from other essays that Montaigne experienced sex so early he’s unable to remember when he lost his virginity; that he visited prostitutes and twice came down with transmitted diseases; and that unruly sexual passions ruled his youth….

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