Experience Necessary

There is nothing so beautiful and legitimate as to play the man well and properly, no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally; and the most barbarous of our maladies is to despise our being.
MONTAIGNE, “OF EXPERIENCE”

“Of Experience” is Montaigne’s last and, I insist, greatest essay. It inspires us with its wisdom and balance. Montaigne, like Goethe, had the knack—some would say the bad taste—of benefiting from his experience at every stage of life and achieving a calm, benign perspective with age. Which I can’t entirely seem to do. I am approaching my seventieth birthday: three score and ten, the alleged fulfillment of a life span. I am still agitated, perplexed. I look back at all that has happened to me and it seems as though it were practically nothing. To quote the last line of Borges’s poem on Emerson: “I have not lived. I want to be someone else.”

On the other hand, I want to be only myself. I think I know what I am about, am comfortable with that person, can distinguish good writing from bad, and decent human beings from jerks. Less and less do I feel the need to justify my conclusions. I carry myself in public with impervious self-confidence. (In private is another story.) My students look to me for answers, and I improvise—something that passes for adequate. Most of the dilemmas that shake these young people, their existential, religious, or romantic doubts, their future professional prospects, their worries that someone won’t like them, roll off my back. It could be that I am just numbed, unable to summon the urgency behind what to them constitutes a crisis. Mine is the questionable wisdom of passivity. What I cannot change, I no longer let myself be insanely bothered by. Even the latest political folly elicits from me only a disgruntled shrug. I am more upset when my favorite sports team loses; but then I remind myself that it wasn’t, technically, my fault since I lacked magical powers to alter the outcome.

“Are you experienced?” asked Jimi Hendrix, tauntingly. Does he mean: have I slept with fifty groupies, humped a guitar onstage before adulating thousands, taken so many drugs that I risked dying from an overdose? In that sense, no, I am not experienced.

Otherwise, are you experienced? Hell, yes. I know the score. I wasn’t born yesterday. I’ve been around the block a few times. I can tell which way is up. You can’t pull a fast one on me. You can’t pull the wool over my eyes. I’m from Missouri; show me. I know a thing or two. I know which side my bread is buttered on. I’m hip. I’m sadder but wiser. I’m no fool. I have eyes in the back of my head. I can tell my left from my right. I know my ass from my elbow. I can see which way the wind blows. I have a pretty good idea. I’ve been through the mill. I’ve been around the world in a plane. I’ve seen it all. Now I’ve seen it all.

“Detachment . . . is one of the forms that engagement with experience can take: things seen at a remove, appearing strange and so more clearly seen,” writes the art historian Svetlana Alpers. Experience can mean plunging into dangerous war zones, witnessing tragedies under fire, like George Orwell at the Spanish front and Susan Sontag in Bosnia, or it can mean staying on the sidelines, exercising watchful prudence. Then there is the experience of ordinary humdrum life, what Virginia Woolf calls cotton wool, those moments of “nonbeing.” Bring it on….

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