Adieu Tristesse

Montaigne, On Sadness:

I am one of the people most exempt from this feeling, and I neither like it nor respect it, although the world has taken up with honoring it with particular favor, as if at a set price. They dress it up in sagacity, virtue, conscience – a stupid and ugly ornament.

The Italians in a more reasonable way have baptized it with the name of malignity. For it is a quality which is always harmful, always mad, always cowardly and base. The Stoics forbid this feeling to their wise people.

But the old story has it that Psammeticus, the king of Egypt, having been defeated and taken by Cambyses, the king of the Persians, and seeing his captive daughter pass before him clothed as a servant and sent to get water, kept himself quiet and said not a word while all of his friends were crying and lamenting around him, and fixed his eyes on the ground. Again, seeing his son led to his death, he held himself in the same manner. But having caught sight of one of his domestic servants led among the captives, he began to beat his head and display great suffering.

This could be compared with what we have recently seen of one of our princes, who, having heard at Trent, where he was, the recent report of the death of his brother, the one in whom the support and the honor of all his house consisted, and soon after that hearing about the death of his younger brother, the second hope, and held up against these two reversals with an exemplary constancy. When, a few days later, one of his people died, he let himself entirely loose at this last accident, and dismissing his resolution, he abandoned himself to grief and regrets in such a manner that some advanced the argument that he was not yet touched to the quick until this last disaster. But in truth, having been otherwise packed full with sadness, the slight overflow broke the barriers of his patience. I say that we could make a similar judgment about our story if it had not been added that Cambyses, enquiring of Psammticus why, having not been moved by the misfortune of his son and his daughter, nevertheless bore the bad luck of one of his friends so badly. He responded, ‘It is because only this last grief could be marked by tears, the first two having far surpassed what could be expressed.’

Perhaps related to this is the conceit of the ancient painter who represented, at the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the grief of the assistants according the the degrees of interest which each one bore to the death of this beautiful, innocent girl. Having expressed the final efforts of his art, when it came to the maiden’s daughter, he portrayed him with a covered face, as though no expression could convey this degree of suffering. There you have the same reason why the poets portray the miserable mother Niobe, overflowing with sadness for having first lost seven sons and then seven daughters, finally transformed into a rock

….stiffened by her misfortunes… [Ovid]

to express the dismal, silent, and unhearing stupidity which comes over us when the accidents of the world overwhelm us and surpass our ability to bear them. In truth, the effect of grief, if it is to be extreme, should shock the entire soul and prevent all of its actions, as when at some hot alarm of a new disaster it comes upon us to feel ourselves seized, numb, and precluded from all movement, in such a way that the soul, relaxing after the tears and the wailing, seems to let go of itself, to untangle itself, and to set itself out in greater space and at its ease.

And the voice’s path was scarcely then cleared by grief… [Vergil]

In the war which King Ferdinand conducted against the widow of King John of Hungary, around Buda, Raisciac, a German captain, took particular notice of a knight for having done exceedingly well in the melee, and lamented him with the common lament; but, curious to know who he was, the body was disarmed and Raisciac saw that it was his own son. In the middle of the public weeping, he alone let out neither cry nor tear, fixed on his feet, his eyes immobile, looking at him fixedly until the impact of the sadness froze his vital spirits and rendered him stone cold dead on the earth.

One who can say how much they burn is not burning much… [Petrarch]

say the lovers who wish to represent an unsustainable passion.

…which takes away all of my senses. For as soon as I saw you, Lesbia, there is nothing left for me to say in my madness. But my tongue goes slack, the slight flame under my limbs fades away, my ears ring with their own sound, and both eyes are covered in night. [Catullus]

Nor is it in the live and more burning heat of feeling that we are set to deploy our plaints and pleadings; the soul is then weighed down with deep thoughts, and the body worn out and languishing with love.

Sometimes this engenders the fortuitous fall which comes over lovers so out of season, and that coldness which seizes them by force from extreme ardor, in the very bosom of joy. All passions which let themselves be tasted and lingered over are just mediocre.

Light cares speak, but huge ones stand stupefied. [Seneca]

The surprise of an unexpected pleasure astonishes us in the same way.

As she saw me coming, and saw, madly, Trojan arms around, she froze in the middle of the sight, terrified by these great portents, the heat left her bones, she collapsed, and finally speaks after a long time with some difficulty. [Vergil]

Other than the Roman woman who died of surprise to see her son come back from the rout at Cannae, Sophocles and Dionysius the tyrant, who passed away from ease, and Talva who died in Corsica reading the news of the honors which the Senate of Rome had decreed for him, we understand in our own time that Pope Leo X, having been informed of the capture of Milan, which he had desperately wished for, was taken with such an excess of joy that he was taken by a fever and died.

And, for a more remarkable testimony of human stupidity, it has been remarked by the ancients that Diodorus the dialectitian died on the spot after being taken by an extreme feeling of shame, in his school and in public not being able to expand upon an argument which someone had made to him. I am not much in the grip of these violent passions. I have naturally hard apprehension; and I encrust and thicken it every day with reasoning.

Adrien Guignet, ‘Meeting Between Cambyses II and Psammetichus III’

Je suis des plus exempts de cette passion, et ne l’ayme ny l’estime, quoy que le monde ayt prins, comme à prix faict, de l’honorer de faveur particuliere. ils en habillent la sagesse, la vertu, la conscience : sot et monstrueux ornement.

Les Italiens ont plus sortablement baptisé de son nom la malignité. Car c’est une qualité tousjours nuisible, tousjours folle, et, comme tousjours couarde et basse, les Stoïciens en défendent le sentiment à leurs sages.

Mais le conte dit, que Psammenitus, Roy d’Égypte, ayant esté deffait et pris par Cambisez, Roy de Perse, voyant passer devant luy sa fille prisonniere habillée en servante, qu’on envoyoit puiser de l’eau, tous ses amis pleurans et lamentans autour de luy, se tint coy sans mot dire, les yeux fichez en terre : et voyant encore tantost qu’on menoit son fils à la mort, se maintint en ceste mesme contenance ; mais qu’ayant apperçeu un de ses domestiques conduit entre les captifs, il se mit à battre sa teste, et mener un dueil extreme.

Cecy se pourroit apparier à ce qu’on vid dernierement d’un Prince des nostres, qui, ayant ouy à Trante, où il estoit, nouvelles de la mort de son frere aisné, mais un frere en qui consistoit l’appuy et l’honneur de toute sa maison, et bien tost apres d’un puisné, sa seconde esperance, et ayant soustenu ces deux charges d’une constance exemplaire, comme quelques jours apres un de ses gens vint à mourir, il se laissa emporter à ce dernier accident, et, quittant sa resolution, s’abandonna au dueil et aux regrets, en maniere qu’aucuns en prindrent argument, qu’il n’avoit esté touché au vif que de cette derniere secousse. Mais à la vérité ce fut, qu’estant d’ailleurs plein et comblé de tristesse, la moindre sur-charge brisa les barrieres de la patience. Il s’en pourroit (di-je) autant juger de nostre histoire, n’estoit qu’elle adjouste que Cambises s’enquerant à Psammenitus, pourquoy ne s’estant esmeu au malheur de son fils et de sa fille, il portoit si impatiemment celuy d’un de ses amis : C’est, respondit-il, que ce seul dernier desplaisir se peut signifier par larmes, les deux premiers surpassans de bien loin tout moyen de se pouvoir exprimer. A l’aventure reviendroit à ce propos l’invention de cet ancien peintre, lequel, ayant à representer au sacrifice de Iphigenia le dueil des assistans, selon les degrez de l’interest que chacun apportoit à la mort de cette belle fille innocente, ayant espuisé les derniers efforts de son art, quand se vint au pere de la fille, il le peignit le visage couvert, comme si nulle contenance ne pouvoit representer ce degré de dueil. Voyla pourquoy les poetes feignent cette misérable mere Niobé, ayant perdu premierement sept fils, et puis de suite autant de filles, sur-chargée de pertes, avoir esté en fin transmuée en rochier,

Diriguisse malis,

pour exprimer cette morne, muette et sourde stupidité qui nous transit, lors que les accidens nous accablent surpassans nostre portée. De vray, l’effort d’un desplaisir, pour estre extreme, doit estonner toute l’ame, et lui empescher la liberté de ses actions : comme il nous advient à la chaude alarme d’une bien mauvaise nouvelle, de nous sentir saisis, transis, et comme perclus de tous mouvemens, de façon que l’ame se relaschant apres aux larmes et aux plaintes, semble se desprendre, se demesler et se mettre plus au large, et à son aise,

Et via vix tandem voci laxata dolore est.

En la guerre que le Roy Ferdinand fit contre la veufve de Jean, Roy de Hongrie, autour de Bude, Raïsciac, capitaine Allemand, voïant raporter le corps d’un homme de cheval, à qui chacun avoit veu excessivement bien faire en la meslée, le plaignoit d’une plainte commune ; mais curieux avec les autres de reconnoistre qui il estoit, apres qu’on l’eut desarmé, trouva que c’estoit son fils. Et, parmi les larmes publicques, luy seul se tint sans espandre ny vois ny pleurs, debout sur ses pieds, ses yeux immobiles, le regardant fixement, jusques à ce que l’effort de la tristesse venant à glacer ses esprits vitaux, le porta en cet estat roide mort par terre.

Chi puo dir com’ egli arde é in picciol fuoco,

disent les amoureux, qui veulent representer une passion insupportable

misero quod omnes

Eripit sensus mihi. Nam simul te,

Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi

Quod loquar amens.

Lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus

Flamma demanat, sonitu suopte

Tinniunt aures, gemina teguntur

Lumina nocte.

Aussi n’est ce pas en la vive et plus cuysante chaleur de l’accés que nous sommes propres à desployer nos plaintes et nos persuasions : l’ame est lors aggravée de profondes pensées, et le corps abbatu et languissant d’amour.

Et de là s’engendre par fois la défaillance fortuite, qui surprent les amoureux si hors de saison, et cette glace qui les saisit par la force d’une ardeur extreme, au giron mesme de la jouyssance. Toutes passions qui se laissent gouster et digerer, ne sont que mediocres.

Curae leves loquuntur, ingentes stupent.

La surprise d’un plaisir inespéré nous estonne de mesme,

Ut me conspexit venientem, et Troïa circum

Arma amens vidit, magnis exterrita monstris,

Diriguit visu in medio, calor ossa reliquit,

Labitur, et longo vix tandem tempore fatur.

Outre la femme Romaine, qui mourut surprise d’aise de voir son fils revenu de la route de Cannes, Sophocles et Denis le Tyran, qui trespasserent d’aise, et Talva qui mourut en Corsegue, lisant les nouvelles des honneurs que le Senat de Rome luy avoit decernez, nous tenons en nostre siècle que le Pape Leon dixiesme, ayant esté adverty de la prinse de Milan, qu’il avoit extremement souhaitée, entra en tel excez de joye, que la fievre l’en print et en mourut. Et pour un plus notable tesmoignage de l’imbécilité humaine, il a esté remarqué par les anciens que Diodorus le Dialecticien mourut sur le champ espris d’une extreme passion de honte, pour en son eschose et en public ne se pouvoir desvelopper d’un argument qu’on luy avoit faict. Je suis peu en prise de ces violentes passions. J’ay l’apprehension naturellement dure ; et l’encrouste et espessis tous les jours par discours.

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