He says to himself what we all say to ourselves in comparable periods of mass insanity: never mind the world! You cannot change it, or improve anything. Focus on yourself, save in yourself what can be saved. Build as the others destroy, strive to remain sane in the deluge of madness. Close yourself off. Construct your own world. But now comes the year 1580. For ten years, he has remained sequestered in his tower, cut off from the world, and he imagines that this is how he will end his days. But now he realizes his error, or rather his errors. The first was to believe himself old at thirty-eight, to prepare himself for death prematurely and to inter himself alive. Now, at forty-eight, he notes with surprise that his senses have not declined, that on the contrary they are more lucid, his thought is more illumined, his soul more serene, more voracious, more eager. He cannot renounce it all so early, close the book of life as if already at the final page. It was a beautiful thing to read books, to spend an idle hour in Greece with Plato, to savour an hour of Seneca’s wisdom, it was restful and calming to live alongside these companions from previous centuries, with the greatest minds of history. But one lives in one’s own century, for better or for worse, and the air of the time penetrates into even the most cloistered space, especially when it is a restive and feverish air, an oppressive, tempestuous time. We have all known it: even when closed in, the soul cannot remain at peace when the world beyond is in uproar. Through walls and windows we receive the tremors of the time; you might win a moment’s respite, but you cannot withdraw completely from the world.
— Stefan Zweig, Montaigne
It’s especially poignant to reflect that within weeks of writing this, Zweig himself would succumb to the soul-sickness he carried along in exile from Europe and end his life. To the gods of Politics and Society, we may well be as flies are to wanton boys, but that doesn’t mean we have to obliviously wait to have our wings pulled off. I subscribe to a homeopathic philosophy when it comes to worldly events — ingesting daily trace amounts of that poison builds up my immunity to mass outbreaks of insanity. (It helps to always end the day with more elevated reading material.)
I have a vivid memory of sitting in a grocery store parking lot early one morning, during what was probably the lowest point in my life, listening to Scott Weinrich, in his world-weary storyteller’s voice, sing the line, “This painful darkness/is shrouding my soul.” And yet, I distinctly realized at that moment that even music’s catharsis and comforts had its limits. The same goes for literature and philosophy. Scott could sing, Marcus Aurelius could preach, but some painful experiences had to be faced and overcome with no distractions or reassurances. I wanted to avoid or soften my own fear and pain by vicariously wallowing in someone else’s artistically-rendered suffering, but there was a bleak freedom in the resigned acceptance of that impossibility.
Nietzsche’s Zarathustra said that one must be like an ocean in order to receive a river of filth and not be contaminated by it. I’m not worthy of being an ocean, but maybe I can be a tree, or even just a houseplant — breathing in the restive and feverish air of my time, and breathing out some humor or perspective in return.