First, as is often the case Bakewell chooses a chapter focus that contrasts entertainingly with the last (in this case: “Keep a private room behind the shop”), and she also segues from a first narrow attention to the main theme (with nice quotes from Montaigne (about conviviality), some information about historical reception of his ideas on the matter, and contrasts) to more loosely related themes pumped up with really interesting historical detail. That combination worked particularly well at this week’s meeting. First, the men talked about the abnormal circumstances in prison that take some kinds of conviviality off the table: too dangerous; the strong, warm, chatty conviviality of our meetings is all the more welcome, and the contrast with everywhere else all the more striking. No surprise that prison is not a place to be convivial, or to readers of my blog that the book group is. (Still, nice to have the men recognize themselves participating in a form of life Montaigne values highly.)
Bakewell’s wonderful sub theme in the chapter is the importance of authentic social intercourse, not just what in some society passes for conviviality. He valued genuine, sometimes difficult conversations, and he not only didn’t turn away from the odd, he sought it out, appreciating wonders, and from what we can tell, not out of prurience, but a genuine openness of spirit. Their sense of themselves in the group is very much in the spirit of the chapter. They are honest, they are bold, they are themselves, and yes, one man reported that he’s found himself through becoming a reader, and that he’d never known before who he was.
Bakewell turns to his story of being robbed on a trip through the forest, when he decided directly to address the robbers who were talking nearby about how to proceed. When he spoke to them naturally and honestly they relaxed, took off their masks, and decided to let him go. He claims they even gave him back some of his money. An astute reader in the group at this point quoted Montaigne from another part of our book in which he extols the virtues of his stories, “some of which may even be true” (or something to that effect). Certainly a tall tale candidate.
This discussion led in turn to the question of whether or what role expecting good from others – and offering it yourself freely — helps to create a climate in which it is more likely to flourish (as Montaigne clearly thought was one moral of the story of his release by the robbers). Opinion was divided on the matter, as I suspect it would be in most groups, with wide agreement though that advertising, say, your generosity, will bring you more harm than good, in this life, not just in this prison. People (well, most, anyway) will do what they can to take advantage of you, and if anything you are less likely to return the favor to someone as foolish as you. I asked them to imagine giving of oneself from a position of strength, and out of respect for the other. Nope. It had better be quid pro quo even when it’s not quid pro quo. I confess that I was disappointed to have them shoot down (forgive the forest robbers inspired pub) a pet theory.