No individual has had a greater influence on my intellectual life then Morris Gabriel Cohen, my high school teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn. He was legally blind from Leber’s optic atrophy, a mitochondrial genetic disorder he inherited from the cytoplasm of his mother’s egg. I had the good fortune of reading out loud to him for five years (one year in high school and four years in the morning before heading to NYU). During those years I assimilated an immense range of books, plays, memoirs, and other writings of the classics of Western Civilization. Mr. Cohen was a Pulitzer Prize scholarship winner at Columbia. He served in WWI before he became a high school teacher and before his vision began to deteriorate. He never married and the only woman with whom he corresponded was a young woman he met in Britain in 1919. She was killed during an air raid in London in 1940.
I particularly enjoyed the essays of Montaigne. Don’t read the Florio translation which is Renaissance English. Read the Donald Frame translation (1958) in modern English. I read the Cotton translation which was in the Modern Library series of classic books. Montaigne wrote 107 essays during his lifetime. He was born in southern France where his parents had an estate and sold wine and fruits that they grew in their orchard. His mother was from a Converso family of Spanish Jews who fled across the Pyrenees. This probably gave Montaigne the tolerance he had for all religions and he was successful in settling disputes as a magistrate after getting a law degree. Montaigne enjoyed life. He converted a silo on his farm into a library and study where he would have the solitude to write and read. He suffered from kidney stones all his adult life. He loved conversation and entertained with a circle of acquaintances who enjoyed discussing history, philosophy, and the issues of the day in a broader context than their politics. He read most of his classics in the original Greek or Latin.
Montaigne invented the personal essay. He reflects on what he reads and the implications of human behavior from his work at court, his observations of his peers, and from the numerous examples he culls from his vast reading. Each essay brings the past and present together with his own personal experiences. I learned from Montaigne that the personal essay is more powerful than the abstract essay which tends to be more like an encyclopedia entry. The personal essay shows that the topic is alive and at least filtered through the person writing it. It was this essay style I mimicked in my high school and college English classes. It was the personal essay that was my model for my Life Lines columns for the Times Beacon Record newspapers on Long Island, New York, that Leah Dunaieff publishes. I loved Montaigne’s essay “How by many paths we arrive at the same end.” His very moving essay on friendship celebrates the life of his closest friend, Etienne de Boétie who died young. By reading his essays I got his biography, not in a linear way but the way we learn about our own families growing up. I have used that for my own memoirs (with a working title of Bits and Pieces) when I read aloud chapters at the Emeriti House on the IU campus with my fellow retirees.