A Journal of Life Pursued

Archive for the ‘The infinity of ideas’ Category

Repost: “Elliott, God is my Lord.”

In Photography, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on November 21, 2015 at 10:43 am

I’ve been combing through old postings, looking for a few themes, maybe something worthy of expansion. I came across this post from April, 2010. It grabbed me and I thought I’d share it.

* * *

I gave a talk this evening, a talk about photography, to a group of about seventy-five. The talk went well enough, with slides, travel, ideas and stories. The audience was attentive and the presentation seemed well received. Afterward, a man approached me. “Elliott,” he said, extending his hand. “It means, God is my Lord in Hebrew.” I shook his hand. “Doug, dweller by the dark river. Gaelic.” His eyes bugged out. “Man, that’s why you’re a photographer.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by that.

Elliott and I talked for quite a while. He was, what I would call, a natural seer. That is, as he said, he can walk around Back Bay where he lives, “five hundred times and always see something different.” He continued: “I needed a shim, a piece of wood for something I was working on in the house. I went down to the water and picked up a piece of wood, nicely worn down. I held it to the sun a certain way and I could see the ridges in it, all worn smooth.” He was animated. “I took it and scraped it across my face.” He got excited. “It was just a shim, just a piece of wood, but it wasn’t.” I told him that Picasso said that he spent his whole life trying to draw like a child. I continued: “You, Elliott, God is my Lord, have a child’s gift. You see the world as we all want to see it. Fresh.”

Elliott said that my talk made him think about how he viewed the world and that he was excited to put into practice some of the principles and ideas I had talked about. “No, Elliott,” I said to him. “Forget everything I said. Forget it. Don’t think about how you see. It will ruin everything.” He said he was afraid of that, but that he could do it without it being “artificial.” I admonished him. “You walk around the Back Bay five hundred times and every time is new. That is a gift. That is the universe in a grain of sand.” With this he got very excited. “The universe!” he said. “Yes. It’s all about bringing everything together and seeing it whole, as a universe.” I felt as if I was in the presence of a prophet, a seer, a Zen Master. In fact, he had been a teacher. Fifth grade. Retired. “I was a great teacher,” Elliott told me. “Yes,” I said. “I am certain you were.”

Knowledge Gained

In The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on September 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

I was raised better than to simply walk away from such a friend as you. Yet, I did, I have. My apologies. Sincerely. My absence does not mean I’ve not been thinking of you. To the contrary, I have been plagued with guilt, that most burdensome of the self-induced emotions, over my thoughtless (non-)actions. Over abandonment.

A friend, a reader of the House, recently chastened me: You cannot just walk away. You should post an update, explain. She was right, of course (as women most often are). Except I have little to offer as explanation. This is my pattern: In-depth obsession followed abruptly by vacuous absence. The pattern has dogged me all my life, tinting everything–cresting elation swamped by indifference.

To my friend’s comment, I offer this description by way of explanation. I note too, that in my last post (many months ago) I also touched on my obsessive tendencies. But this time is different. Now I have some related knowledge. Here’s what I now understand: My life has been spent in pursuit of mastery, or if not mastery, at least the ability to do something really well. Just one thing, anything. It didn’t matter, physical, intellectual, spiritual (whatever that is), athletic, one pursuit after another, all the while, sniffing the air, checking the compass, asking: Is this the path to mastery? Obsession grows around such a thing, blanketing it, so that only the pursuit remains, the motive lost. Ultimately, I read the wind: No, you’re not going to master this thing, then I shut down. The lever is flipped and I move on.

This insight came one night, prompted by a deep conversation with a young friend; a conversation well lubricated with ample amounts of Maker’s Mark. It was a flash, a revelation that laid out my entire life. Imagine all the dollars I saved in therapy! The next morning, the whisky fog cleared, yet the insight remained, the insight being specifically of a life spent in pursuit of mastery, albeit Illusive mastery.

Which brings me back to “…the House…” My effort here has been nothing less than to try to figure out how to master life. And here’s the thing: I came to understand that one can’t. Indeed, there are truly things a person can master but life is not one of them. This is knowledge gained, wisdom even, and in the gain a bit of awakening happens. Yet, even at that, a truth revealed, the lever is again flipped and I move on.


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.


“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.

Sunday Repost: Out of Ambivalence

In Nature, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on March 17, 2013 at 6:00 am
Morning, Moosehead

Morning, Moosehead

Two weeks ago [original post, June 2010], Carole, Lucy, and I went north to Moosehead Lake for a few days of North Woods camping and canoeing. At one point, as the sun set and the stars emerged, I stood on the shore and looked across the lake. I was peering perhaps two miles across the water. I studied the silhouetted landscape up the lake another couple of miles, then down the lake, to the south, maybe three miles. There was not a light to be seen on any shore, in any direction. It was complete and utter remoteness.

The filling aspect of this experience is found, for me, in supplementing experience with an element of the wild–that is to say, nature, and the compliment to a singular experience it affords. (I am encouraged by remembering the Zen philosopher Dōgen‘s comment, “Practice is the path.”) I don’t subscribe necessarily to the idea of the transcendent. Indeed, I don’t wish to transcend. Rather, I strive to enhance, to experience a world that spans wide(r) and forces me out of ambivalence.

The Practice of Discovery

In Creativity, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on March 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

For a while, as a young man, I wanted to be an archeologist. I moved on, as young men do. I still, however, harbor a need of excavation, which is another way of saying for discovery.

Pollock at work

Pollock at work

I recently read an essay by architect, thinker, and designer, Lance Hosey. The piece was called Why We Love Beautiful Things, and the comment that caught my eye was:

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

I am drawn to this notion, the idea that the “image is buried in all our brains.” I made a note of this sentence because it rings true. I know less about Jackson Pollock’s art than I do about archeology, yet I believe in discovery and, on occasion, understand the motive behind it.


We live within the embrace of linear progression. That is, life on a line, moving

Art of Jackson Pollock

Art of Jackson Pollock

right. This fashion of cognition is a result, I think, of learning to read, left to right across the page. It does not surprise me that in Eastern cultures, where reading flows in other directions or is contained within an visual character, that life is,  traditionally depicted, not on a progressive time-line, but as mandala, a wheel, a circle.

If Pollock’s pursuit was to plumb the human psyche, it was devoid of the linear. It takes an artist to show us the myth that is progression; that the study should not be forward to become, but deep to be.


You will have to excuse me please today. I know I have grown ponderous, and perhaps silly. Sorry–it’s just that sometimes you’ve got to give an idea some breathing room, no matter what. (It is a type of excavation.)

Have a nice weekend,


Sunday Repost: Decide to Live

In Books, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Writers on January 20, 2013 at 6:00 am

The Razor’s Edge

A friend recently loaned me his well-read copy of Somerset Maugham‘s 1944 classic The Razor’s Edge. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to get back to since first reading it in college. (It needs a re-reading if for no other reason than to get the Bill Murray movie out of my head.) Last night I finished Ruth Franklin’s review of Selina Hastings new Maugham biography, “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham,” found in the May 31st issue of The New Yorker. If I were to subscribe to the popular notion that everything happens for a reason, I would think the universe was sending me a message. But I don’t subscribe to that notion, nor do I think the universe is singling me out for inspiration. Rather, I chalk it up to a happy coincidence and the fact that my antenna are tuned to a certain frequency right now.

The book, as I recall, is the tale of one man’s quest for authenticity, and authenticity is a subject I’m spending a good bit of time researching lately. I am trying to trace the idea back to Socrate’s observation that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s a big subject and I will save the conversation for a different forum.  But back to Maugham. Wikipedia summarizes the plot of the book this way: “The Razor’s Edge tells the story of an American fighter pilot (Larry Darrell) traumatized by his experiences in World War I, who sets off in search of some transcendent meaning in his life…” That pretty well fills the bill. It’s what the antenna are testing for.

This theme was again played out this morning by that sage of common wisdom, Ben Stein, on CBS Sunday

Ben Stein

Ben Stein

Morning. If you missed it, here’s a link: “How to Live: Follow Your Heart…” Ben was addressing the graduates in the audience and he ends his essay with this advice: Decide to Live. As with most of Ben’s advice it is spot on. It again brings me around to my subject of authenticity, the examined life, and the Razor’s Edge. Two sentences from Ben’s short essay stand out. He is talking about people who are happy, and this is what he says:  “They decided to do what their hearts told them to do, to do what was in them to do. They took risks and they took chances, and they tried a lot of different things until they got to where they wanted to be.”

I’m not sure how happiness, the examined life, “transcendent meaning” and all that square precisely, if they indeed do. I think they do, and I’m looking into it.

Lastly, a bit of advice, parallel to the theme, from William James. From a letter to his son, James said simply: “Live hard.”



I’ve added a resource that I hope you’ll find helpful. Check out the “Bookshelf” link just below the header. A click will launch a shelf of books we’ve discussed here at “…the house…” An additional click will launch additional information about the book, author, and so forth.

I’m hoping to add categories–biography, memoir, fiction, etc. But that requires a degree of expertise still under development by your humble host.

Thanks for reading,