A Journal of Life Pursued

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Loaded and Cocked.

In Books, Creativity, Photography, The Examined Life on March 26, 2013 at 6:00 am
Pride Parade, Portland, 2011, © Doug Bruns

Pride Parade, Portland, 2011, © Doug Bruns

I have loaded my camera–yes, “loaded my camera” means film, pilgrim–and am giving myself, again, to the streets. Beware, should you decide to stroll about in your bikini, I intend to find you.

* * *

It is always revision and editing–everything changing, always subject to more, to less. I wrote a week or so ago about art and discovery and Jackson Pollock. the piece was called The Practice of Discovery and I included this quote:

“Could Pollock’s late paintings result from his lifelong effort to excavate an image buried in all our brains?”

Picasso wrote an essay, Art as Individual Idea, published in 1923. He said, among other things, the following:

“I also often hear the word evolution. Repeatedly I am asked to explain how my painting evolved. To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was. Art does not evolve by itself, the ideas of people change and with them their mode of expression. When I hear people speak of the evolution of an artist, it seems to me that they are considering him standing between two mirrors that face each other and reproduce his image an infinite number of times, and that they contemplate the successive images of one mirror as his past, and the images of the other mirror as his future, while his real image is taken as his present. They do not consider that they all are the same images in different planes.”

I am arriving at the place of art’s ascension–the notion that art, like perhaps meditation, or nature, or drugs even, might render a revelatory state of consciousness. But what is art?

(BTW: The essay noted above is from The Modern Tradition by Richard Ellmann (the great biographer) and Charles Feidelson, Jr. If there is one book, albeit thick and with small print, that captures the thinking of the modern and the post-modern era, this is the book. I strongly recommend it if this period of great creativity interests you.)

* * *

Epiphany upon going to bed:

I’ve pursued the wrong question, it’s not How to Live? It’s How to Think?

How did I not realize this earlier?

* * *

ref=as_li_ss_tilA friend wrote to ask what I’m reading. I’m reading Where the Heart Beats, John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, by Kay Larson. The book came to my attention thanks to Brain Pickings and the omniscient Maria Popova.

I’m also about to start, The Inward Morning, A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form, by Henry Bugbee. Thanks to “…house…” member Geetha for this recommendation. I have not  yet cracked the cover. Here is a note from the back cover:

“The Inward Morning is a boldly original and lyrical philosophy of wilderness. Touching variously on poetry, fly fishing, Thoreau, and contemporary philosophers, this work is erudite and intimate. Henry Bugbee blends East and West, nature and culture, the personal and the universal. This reissue of an underground classic…will inform and inspire both contemporary philosophers and readers interested in an everyday philosophy of nature.”

–sounds like the book I was supposed to write…

Da Capo

In Books, Creativity, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Writers on March 20, 2013 at 6:00 am

The  neuro-chemical thing has worn off and all is again right with the world. That said, it’s a good time to take a little break, a few days away from the desk. The reading is falling behind, the reservoir is low, and the battery needs a trickle charge. So, today I’m putting up a previous post (from 2010) and am taking a breather for a few days. You must be getting tired of me, anyway, knowing as I do, how tedious I can (so easily) become. See you soon.

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“There is properly no history; only biography” ~ Emerson

My first choice of reading material is often biography. The biography holds everything: entertainment, knowledge, history, story-telling, insight, and possibly even wisdom. As best I can recall, the first biography I ever read was Mark Twain, though now that I think about it, I believe it was his autobiography, the genre-cousin of biography. I was in elementary school and I recall that it took a very long time to complete–I’m a slow reader. It was a big book written for grown-ups. And I wasn’t–grown-up, that is. I remember I had to write a book report and my teacher checked everyday on my progress, the book being thick and me being slow, and the report not coming when due, and the pressure, oh the pressure…

Young's Biography, Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography

Young’s Biography, Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography

As an adult I am still a slow reader and still a reader who loves biography. So it was that I saved up my pennies and sprang for the first new book (“new”: not a used book, or a library sale book, or a freebie review book) in quite some time: Friedrich Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography by Julian Young. Young is Professor of Philosophy, University of Auckland, and the book is published by Cambridge University Press. I was turned onto it by a glowing review by Francis Fukuyam in the New York Times Book Review.  Fukuyam includes this line:

“Whether we acknowledge it or not, we continue to live within the intellectual shadow cast by Nietzsche. Postmodernism, deconstructionism, cultural relativism, the “free spirit” scorning bourgeois morality, even New Age festivals like Burning Man can all ultimately be traced to him.”

I have always been fascinated by this enigmatic thinker. Here’s how the biography opens:

“Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s feet, shout ‘Da capo!–Once more! Once More! Back to the beginning!–to ‘the whole play and performance’. In perfect health one would ‘crave nothing more fervently’ than the ‘eternal return’ of one’s life throughout infinite time–not the expurgated version with the bad bits left out, but exactly the same life, down to the very last detail, however painful or shameful.”

This idea stops me cold.

Tipping Forward

In Books, Life, The Examined Life on March 14, 2013 at 6:10 am
Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport

Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport

I don’t recall how or when I discovered Guy Davenport, but when it happened, it changed everything. From the Paris Review interview with Davenport: 

“His books have never been widely read, by popular standards, but they tend to be deeply read by those lucky enough to find them; he is perhaps as close to being a cult writer as one can come while having been singled out for praise by George Steiner in The New Yorker, yet his work has none of the thinness of the cult writer. For all its strangeness, it seems destined to endure.”

Says Davenport, “I learned early on that what I wanted to know wasn’t what I was being taught.” Geography of the Imagination–the book to start with.

* * *

“Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forward.” ~ Kierkegaard. We exist like kids on a playground, teetering backward into biography, tipping forward into hope.

* * *

Upon waking yesterday, Carole declared, “I love waking up happy.” –which reminded me of Emerson’s statement: “The days are gods.”

* * *

My father: “The woman came by to get the paperwork from the move. I told her you had it.”

Me: “Dad, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Dad: “You mean I didn’t just move?”

“No, Dad. You didn’t just move.”

“Keep an eye on me, son. I’m having hallucinations.”

Dad will be 91 in two weeks. He has had two TIAs in less than two months. Every day I observe the increasing wear and tear, the momentum of age. Difficult stuff, indeed.

* * *

As a hiker and once climber, I appreciate the occasional difficulty in moving forward–the thinning air, the heavy legs, the want of sleep.  In this situation, there is but one way to keep the body in sync with the mind: lean into the problem. When we can’t take another step, we can lean. A person will follow into a lean. Along these lines, I made a Moleskine note once, from a trip to Tibet, a monk’s statement: “He’s no more who he used to be…and he’s not yet what he will become.” Simply, Kierkegaard is right: we exist on a fulcrum. These are things I came to know, but was never taught.

Sunday Repost: …the american dog tick…

In Books, Dogs, Nature, Reading, Travel on March 10, 2013 at 5:00 am
Yuck. The American Deer Tick

Yuck. The Tick

According to the University of Maine web site, there are three types of ticks found in Maine: the deer tick, the american dog tick and the brown dog tick. I looked it up. I was curious, having just pulled five ticks off of my body. Those are the ones I found before the shower, discovered under my clothes. I found at least as many on my clothes before leaving the trail. I pulled I don’t know how many off Maggie. It was a lot.

Neighbors Mike and Wendy invited me on a hike this morning. Carole is out of town and I think they felt sorry for me. I’ll take a little pity for company every so often, so I opted in. They brought their dogs and off we went. It wasn’t a difficult hike, flat along a tributary of the Fore River, through the woods. We passed a small white pine grove and I stopped to inhale deeply. I told Mike and Wendy that one of my favorite things in all the world is the smell of pine in Maine. That is not an exaggeration.

There are about 50 miles of trails in Portland, developed and maintained by the non-profit Portland Trails organization. That is an admirable endeavor. I use the trails frequently and as I write this I realize that I have not supported the organization. I will rectify that immediately. I won’t even hold them responsible for the tick infestation of this morning.

* * *

I got Lyme Disease a few years ago. Tick bite. Carole and I were in Spain, had rented a car and planned on a few weeks of

Gilbraulter

Gibraltar

exploring the country. We’d made our way down to Gibraltar–yes, I know, not properly part of Spain–and I wasn’t feeling particularly well. But I wasn’t so sick as to miss my morning run, however, and headed off toward the southern point of the peninsula. Looking across the Strait of Gibraltar, I could not but think of the history that had passed through that narrow stretch of water. I thought of Nelson getting shot at the Battle of Trafalgar, his body stuffed into a brandy cask, and returned to Britain. “Hardy,” Nelson said, kneeling, then falling onto the deck, “I do believe they have done it at last… my backbone is shot through.” I thought of the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, the Greeks and the Minoans, all sailing this straight, toying with the unknown vastness on the other side. The sun was coming up across the water, orange light rising on the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. I had to walk back to our hotel. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d come abroad incubating a case of Lyme Disease.

We canceled our adventure and drove to Benalmádena, on the coast. We found a cheap room on the beach, a place with a cabana. The only book I had with me was the Library of America edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, including Last of the Mohicans. I don’t remember how long we stayed. I recall sleeping a great deal under the thatched cabana roof, the warm breeze, and the breaking waves. I recall, waking and reading Cooper, then nodding off again–repeat. I read all the Leatherstocking Tales on that beach in Spain. I also experienced my only migraine, though I don’t think there is any correlation.

Lyme disease can best be detected by a tick bite that manifests a rash, usually as a ring around the bite, though I don’t remember any such rash. They say a tick can go a year without a blood meal. I think that is especially interesting, though the words blood meal make me uneasy.

Montaigne

In Books, Philosophy, Writers on March 7, 2013 at 6:00 am
Montaigne

My drinking buddy, Michel de Montaigne

Let me begin by recommending a book: How to Live, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell. Before I go too far afield allow me to delineate Bakewell’s subtitle. The one question is: How to Live? And the twenty attempted answers:

  • Don’t worry about death
  • Pay attention
  • Be born
  • Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
  • Survive love and loss
  • Use little tricks
  • Question everything
  • Keep a private room behind the shop
  • Be convivial; live with others
  • Wake from the sleep of habit
  • Live temperately
  • Guard your humanity
  • Do something no one has done before
  • See the world
  • Do a good job, but not too good a job
  • Philosophize only by accident
  • Reflect on everything; regret nothing
  • Give up control
  • Be ordinary and imperfect
  • Let life be its own answer
How to Live, Sarah Bakewell

How to Live, Sarah Bakewell

In a review of Bakewell’s book (2010) I wrote the following by way of introduction:

I was first introduced to Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) about thirty years ago. I was in graduate school. I don’t remember the class, nor the other required readings. But I remember Montaigne. I eventually dropped out of graduate school, but Montaigne stayed with me. It was, perhaps, and I honestly mean this, the most important contribution to my intellectual development from that period. If not the most important, certainly the most long-standing. In fact, when this book came to my attention, How to Live, and I received the reader’s advance copy, I happened to be reading Montaigne yet again, as I have done off and on since we were introduced.

I say, “since we were introduced” purposely, for that is what it felt like at the time. I read him in that class and recall thinking, Who is this, this kindred spirit, this wise new friend? And the magic of that moment continues to this day. I read him still. I read him this morning. Over and over again, I turn to my old French friend.

______________________

We reject the impersonal and the arbitrary here at “…the house…“; so rather than paste a bunch of internet-farmed imgres-3Montaigne quotes on the page, I thought I would share with you some of the passages outlined in my personal copy of The Essays. Here goes:

“If we have not known how to live, it is wrong to teach us how to die, and make the end inconsistent with the whole. If we have known how to live steadfastly and tranquilly, we shall know how to die in the same way….Among the many other duties comprised in this general and principal chapter on knowing how to live is this article on knowing how to die; and it is one of the lightest, if our fear did not give it weight.”

“Those who know me…know whether they have ever seen a man less demanding of others. If I surpass all modern examples in this respect, it is no great wonder, for so many parts of my character contribute to it: a little natural pride, inability to endure refusal, limitation of my desires and designs, incapacity for any kind of business, and my favorite qualities, idleness and freedom.”

“The only thing I aspire to acquire is the reputation of having acquired nothing.”

“The discomforts of old age, which need some support and refreshment, might reasonable make me wish to be a better drinker; for drinking is almost the last pleasure that the years steal from us.”

“If we sometimes spent a little consideration on ourselves, and employed in probing ourselves the time we put into checking up on others and learning about things that are outside us, we would easily sense how much this fabric of ours is built up of feeble and failing pieces.”

“Our appetite is irresolute and uncertain: it does not know how to keep anything or enjoy anything in the right way. Man, thinking that it is the fault of these things, fills and feeds himself on other things that he does not know and does not understand, to which he applies his desires and his hopes….”

“Things are not that painful or difficult of themselves; it is our weakness and cowardice that make them so. To judge of great and lofty things we need a soul of the same caliber; otherwise we attribute to them the vice that is our own. A straight oar looks bent in the water. What matters is not merely that we see the thing, but how we see it.”

It is my hope that, if you’re not familiar with Montaigne, you might be compelled to rectify that. If you already count the man among your literary friends, then you are already fortunate. I’ll leave you with a last quote: “If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself.”

Thanks for reading!

D

Writers on Reading

In Books, Literature, Reading, Writers, Writing on February 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

It strikes me as cheap and lazy to happen across a page of quotes, a quote being the fastest exit on the highway such that you don’t have to drive any longer. Despite my distrust of the quote, I enjoy reading them. And, yes, I plug them in with abandon, being if nothing else, too often cheap and lazy. Montaigne said somewhere that he includes a quote in his work because someone said previously better what he stuggles to say now. Or something like that, I should look up it.

So, given reading as a subject, a worthy subject we often consider here at “…the house…“, I have transcribed below quotes on the subject from those who know it best, writers. I hope you enjoy.

Truman Capote:

I have a passion for newspapers…read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions of several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at the newstands. I average about five books a week…the normal length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies.

John Barth:

The great guides were the books I discovered in the Johns Hopkins Library, where my student job was to file books away. One was more or less encouraged to take a cart of books and go back into the stacks and not come out for seven or eight hours. So I read what I was filing. My great teachers (the best thing that can happen to a writer) were Schederazade, Homer, Virgil, and Boccaccio; also the great Sanskrit taletellers. I was impressed forever with the width as well as the depth of literature–just what a kid from the sticks, from the swamp, in my case, needed.

John Dos Passos:

[Hemingway] and I used to read the Bible to each other. He began it. We read separate little scenes. From Kings, Chronicles. We didn’t make anything out of it–the reading–but Ernest at that time talked a lot about style. He was crazy about Stephen Crane’s The Blue HotelIt affected him very much. I was very much taken with him. He took me around to Gertrude Stein’s. I wasn’t quite at home there. A Buddha sitting up there, surveying us. Ernest was much less noisy then than he was in later life. He felt such people were instructive.

Gabriel García Márquez:

One night [at college] a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went bck to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed, I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect….” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.

Susan Sontag:

Well, literature does educate us about life. I wouldn’t be the person I am, I wouldn’t understand what I understand, were it not for certain books. I’m thinking of the great question of nineteenth-century Russian literature: how should one live? A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.

Katherine Anne Porter:

All the old houses that I knew when I was a child were full of books, bought generation after generation by members of the family. Everyone was literate as a matter of course. Nobody told you to read this or not to read that. It was there to read, and we read. I grew up in a sort of mélange. I was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets when I was thirteen years old, and I’m perfectly certain that they made the most profound impression upon me of anything I every read….We had a very good library of–well, you might say secular philosophers. I was incredibly influenced by Montaigne when I was very young. And one day when I was about fourteen, my father led me up to a great big line of books and said, “Why don’t you read this? It’ll knock some of the nonsense out of you!” It happened to be the entire set of Voltaire’s philosophical dictionary with notes by Smollett. And I plowed through it; it took me about five years.

E.B. White:

I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read….It is a matter of some embarrassment to me that I have never read Joyce and a dozen other writers who have changed the face of literature. But there you are. I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book.

Don DeLillo:

When I was eighteen, I got a summer job as a play-ground attendant–a parkie. And I was told to wear a white T-shirt and brown pants and brown shoes and a whistle around my neck–which they provided, the whistle. But I never acquired the rest of the outfit. I wrote blue jeans and checkered shirts and kept the whistle in my picket and just sat on a park bench disguised as an ordinary citizen. And this is where I read Faulker, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. And got paid for it. And then James Joyce, and it was through Joyce that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance, something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words, the sense that a word has a life and a history. And I’d look at a sentence in Ulysses or in Moby Dick or in Hemingway–maybe I hadn’t gotten to Ulysses at that point, it was Portrait of the Artistbut certainly Hemingway and the water that was clear and swiftly moving and the way the troops went marching down the road and raised dust that powdered the leaves of the trees. All this in a playground in the Bronx.

Thanks for reading.

d