A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Chatwin’

Pinsky, Hegel, Nietzsche, Chatwin, & Faulkner

In Death, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writers on March 5, 2013 at 6:00 am

The poet Robert Pinsky made a comment I noted in my journal: “Will your children’s grandchildren remember your name?” What a plague is this question! It burrows to the core of the most tender insecurity I harbor, being forgotten. It is not death, nor dying, that troubles me so much as this. I am at my most alert to cosmic inconsequence when dealing with darkest concerns. In some twisted logic, this state brings a satisfaction.

* * *

The great philosopher Friedrich Hegel‘s (1770-1831) last words are reported to be: “Only one man has ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me.” It has been debated who Hegel had in mind, but most scholars think he was referring to Karl Marx. It is recorded that Marx contended that he was, indeed, the one person who understood Hegel, claiming that the philosopher did not even understand himself.

* * *

Nietzsche‘s thought experiment of eternal recurrence compels one to ask: If my life is to be lived over and over am I troubled or delighted? If I am troubled then it follows that life has been something other than what I wish it’d been. According to Nietzsche, consequently, I have yet to be that which I should become. This has been instilled deep and uprooting the thought of “becoming” is a challenge. Yet, I am learning to release this notion (of becoming), and settling with the subtle comfort of being. It is, at this stage of life, a big deal.

* * *

Bruce Chatwin, in his essay Anatomy of Restlessness, paraphrases Montaigne: “I know well what I am fleeing from, but not what I am looking for.” I used to flee. But no longer. I am, however, still looking.

* * *

Faulkner, Library of America Edition

Faulkner, Library of America Edition

What’s on the nightstand: Faulkner.

Backstory: I was visiting with my friend, the poet, Megan Grumbling, recently. We were discussing our literary preferences and confessed, each, that we’d never read Faulkner, at least read no more than The Bear, his famous short story. One of us observed that a reader is either a Hemingway reader or a Faulkner reader, like a person is either a cat person or a dog person. (I say “one of us observed” because I don’t recall who said it. We both like bourbon and were sitting at a well-stocked bar…’nough said.) I came away from that conversation with the need to rectify my literary shortcoming, hence the Faulkner. Such is life for those hell-bent on self-improvement.

Travel Bitching.

In Travel, Writing on January 22, 2013 at 6:00 am

Airports are such an interesting microcosm, everyone rushing around, on their phone, clutching a boarding pass between their teeth while towing an overstuffed bag on wheels. The airport is a kingdom of singular self-interest. Can I get past this stationary person on the moving walk-way? Why does the TSA agent single me out for a pat-down? When will the queue move? Will there be overhead storage left for my overstuffed bag on wheels?

Travelers are tribe nomads without the communal grace of a tribe. Travelers are myopic in focus: get from A to B with the least amount of hassle. Most travelers are blind to other members of the tribe, even the ones in need of tribal support, the elderly, the young, the confused.

The airport is the place where the most cherished of human attributes, joy, enthusiasm, compassion, are too often left curbside along with drinking water, guns and knives. The result is not Lord of the Flies, but it is sometimes close.

I try not to give myself up to this hopelessness, but usually fail. I admire the agent who pushes the elderly lady to her gate, smiling and chatting her up. There is much to learn from the pleasant young lady who wishes me a good day when I buy a pack of gum, her daily grind being so, well, very grinding.

It seems the airport microcosm is where self-interest most prevails and the better edges of human nature are chipped away by the press of elbows and bags and the mounting pressure of advancing departures. Should mother nature grace this scene causing delays the tribal nomad retreats deeper into the tent. There stored deep in the darkest corner is collected the garb of anger, outrage, and the cloak of self-righteousness.

This sounds so very upsetting, yet the experience is not necessarily so. Granted travel is hardly fun for most of us. The travel situation is nonetheless electric with the tension of anticipation: I am going home. Or, the mystery of a new venue awaits me. Or, I will soon be united with those I most love. Or, can I close the deal?

The tribe will put up with most anything for the reward at the other end. My personal problem with that notion is the fashion in which one gives of oneself to the future and suffers in the immediate. I don’t have a fix on such things, but I know that such practice betrays an ignorance of the present moment–a value I hold dear despite the unpleasantness. I believe the present is where I most need to live despite the occasion of wishing otherwise.

I reflect on this–and then, in the air and almost home, I look out the window and see the surging blue of the North Atlantic, the ribbon of land I call home, and my pulse begins to race. Look there, a lighthouse! And there, a lobster boat cleaving the water! My heart sings! “Why do men travel rather than sit still?” wondered Chatwin. Because the view is so very wonderful! Because without it, home is less marvelous!

I  leave the tent and fall into the embrace of my tribe.

The False Cross (Part I)

In Adventure, Writing on June 1, 2012 at 6:00 am

In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin

I am going to do something different. I am going to tell you a story, in three parts.

Part one:

It was after discovering Chatwin that Anne decided on Chile. That landscape is littered with young people accordingly influenced, the naïve and the idealistic. It goes like this: They read In Patagonia, fancy themselves full-throated adventurers, ready a rucksack–as Chatwin called it–and head south. “Gone to Patagonia,” Chatwin wrote his boss. Anne was in New York, studying the culinary arts. She loved the city honestly for all the right reasons. Yet, her studies complete, she set out, full of cloudless spirit. That she met Franz, a fishing guide, and married and came to live in Patagonia is worth mentioning. Of greater interest, though, is how she unraveled on the isolated island they called home.

* * *

“We have a problem,” Anne said.

Franz looked up from the boat. He was burdened with gear. His client, Gino, stepped to the dock. “Boungiorno, Anne,” said Gino.

“Boungiorno, Gino,” she said. “And how was your day?”

“Buono. Extraordinary.” Gino smiled broadly. He had had a good day on the Rio Plano. He caught many fish, including a brown trout that was possibly the largest trout he had ever caught, including his record fish in New Zealand.

Anne said she was delighted for him. She patted his shoulder as he walked past, his waders chaffing. He waved to Giovanni who, having returned earlier, sat in front of the lodge smoking a black cigarette. Franz looked at Anne.

“We have a problem,” she repeated. He glanced at his client, now out of earshot. “Yes?” he asked. “Are the dogs okay?”

“The dogs are fine. I don’t think it is a serious problem, but it’s a problem, nonetheless.”

Franz handed her the fly rods and stepped onto the dock. It was an hour before sunset. The mountains were in shadow and the lake was calm, the sky a royal purple. The last boat was heading across the water to the lodge. The engine whined. The other boats were in.

“I got an email. Iridium is going out of business. We’re going to lose our connection.”

Anne and Franz had only a satellite phone with which to connect with the world beyond the mountains, to family, to the travel company that booked the fishing clients and arranged their arrival and departure, to the store in Porto Monte that filled their monthly orders for food and supplies. It was a link upon which Anne grew increasingly dependent as the weeks and months of fishing season stretched out.

“Like I said, it’s not a big problem.” She was calmer now that Franz was home. He studied her. Her companions during the day, the dogs, came over the hill to greet him. She slipped her arm through his and they walked toward the lodge. Franz looked at the sky. “No clouds,” he said. “Should be a good day tomorrow.”

* * *

One night Anne grew troubled in her sleep and fell from the bed, hitting her head on the table. Franz slept soundly through the incident, worn out from his struggles against the wild currents and eddies of his guided rivers. She told him she had rolled over in her sleep and fallen off the bed. But in truth she had had a bad dream in which a train came at her out of a night horizon, quiet until upon her, then rushing at her like a hungry thing alive, loud and earth-heavy. She threw herself to the side, out of its path. She did so just in time, the hot engine lurching past. But she fell from the bed and hit her head. She was embarrassed by the dream and did not tell Franz. Her bruise was noticeable in the morning, and she remained in the kitchen while Marie waited on the clients.

- end, part one-

Of writers.

In Memoir, Travel, Writers, Writing on April 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Bruce Chatwin observed that there are two types of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” Chatwin was a mover. When I read him I hear the cadence of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as when I read Melville, I smell salt air.

Once, in London, traipsing around Bloomsbury, I sought out the home of Virginia Woolf.  It is not open to the public, and is now converted office space. But the brass plague confirmed the address. I was reduced to peering in through a barred street window. There were fax machines and furniture, a woman in a beige sweater pounding away on a computer and the flurry of activity one associates with commerce. I tried to imagine Mrs. Woolf there but failed–a “dug in” writer who slipped through my fingers. The failure was particularly poignant in that she had so famously observed, “A woman is to have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Likewise, I found Gertrude Stein’s Paris house, her salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, the place she shared with Alice B. Tolkas. Stein called Alice “Pussy” and Gertrude was “Lovey.” There is that awful scene in A Moveable Feast, where the young Hemingway, standing in the foyer of Miss Stein’s house, overhears her upstairs: “Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, ‘Don’t, pussy. Don’t. Don’t. Please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.’” She was dead eighteen years when Hemingway’s memoir of Paris and being hungry was published–”But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” Of his writing, Miss Stein said, “Hemingway’s remarks are not literature.” He got her back in the end.

Hemingway is nowhere to be found at his Key West home, despite its well-preserved museum condition. I suspect his spirit has been trampled by hoards of tourists over the years. Papa too was plagued by their presence and had bricks shipped from Baltimore, where they’d been taken up from newly paved streets, to construct a wall around the place, protecting his privacy.

I went to Prague seeking Kafka, the writer who perhaps more than any other, ushered us into the modern era. But he too had disappeared. The City of a Thousand Spires, however, remained true to a fashion and I gave myself to its dark alleys and endless cobblestone streets. “Prague doesn’t let go,” he wrote. Though Prague invites the exercise of transmutations, to this pilgrim the city is more given to music. Smetana and Dvorak are easier to find than the man of The Castle. I do not think this unusual as music, once released abides ripe in the atmosphere, whereas the written word must be sought out.

The spirit of Joyce is to be found in Dublin, though ironically he wrote in self-exile. Thoreau’s cabin at Walden is lost to history, but Emerson’s house in Concord remains and it is easy to imagine the great man dug in, to use Chatwin’s phrase, surrounded by his books and working intently.

And of Chatwin? I found him a desert stretch removed from the Minaji Plain in Rajasthan. But that is another story for another time.

The last best place.

In Books, Curiosity, Reading, Travel on March 27, 2012 at 7:00 am

I mentioned in a previous post, Leaning into Wisdom, the three major influences in my life: books, nature, and travel. I read a lot books and write about many of them here. I write less about my forays in nature; and least about travel. Today, I wish to focus on travel.

I recently discovered a travel blog, Fabulous 50′s, by Sherry Lachelle. Sherry is clear-eyed and writes with verve. Her posts reminded me of the adventures I’ve enjoyed (well, most were enjoyed). She got me thinking.

I embrace phases, wild crazy enthusiasms and reckless occasional diversions of direction. One of the longest lasting of these phases–for lack of a better term–has been travel. During my travel years I nurtured an insatiable urge to see the world, whereby I was planning one adventure while on another. I traveled to fish. I traveled to climb mountains. I traveled to take photographs, to find writing subjects. I traveled as an excuse to travel. I was restless and thought of myself as a proto-Bruce Chatwin nomad. I saw a lot of the world, including some of the most beautiful and exciting places you can imagine. Patagonia, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, the Seychelles and so on. Then I moved to Maine in the spring of 2009 and put away my passport.

The travel phase, after thirty years, came to a self-defined stop. It was, as a friend observed, as if I’d reached my destination. Indeed, over my travel years I was often asked where in the world I would drop my “favorite place” pin. Always, and without hesitation, I responded, Maine. Now I reside in my favorite place and I do not take that for granted.

There are places that resonate. And there are places that don’t, places that seem dead of vibration. Maine resonates with me. It is a profound lesson: place matters. I am a baby-boomer raised in post-war America. The notion was that one can pick up and go, put down roots, then simply pick up again without repercussion. But I’ve discovered, contrariwise, that place matters. And when you find your place, take note. You’ve made an important discovery.

Now the restlessness is gone, but curiosity remains. The value of travel, whether to far-off locations or weekend getaways, is a thing I understand first hand. It’s hard knowledge realized of action. The best travel effects me as a journey of a hyper-aware self in accelerated space and time, an experience where the senses are fed and the energy is loaded. It is a profound way of building experience and sparking curiosity. At times there is even wisdom to be realized.

Among travel writers, Paul Theroux, is, to my taste, our best. He is a master of the genre. Writing of his youthful travels, he says, “I wanted to find a new self in a distant place, and new things to care about. The importance of elsewhere was something I took on faith.” We are remiss when we ignore the importance of elsewhere.(Theroux’s last travel book, from which this quote is taken, is  The Tao of Travel. I reviewed it for MostlyFiction last year.)

Three years after retiring the passport, I am gearing up to set out again. I’m planning a big trip, an adventure into the world’s biggest mountains and the juices are starting to flow. Place is settled, but remnants of wanderlust fortunately remain. Stay tuned.

Got a favorite place? I’d like to hear about it.

Thanks for reading.

My New Library Card

In Books, Reading, Technology, Writing on November 12, 2010 at 2:59 pm

There are books I want to read and own. And there are books I want to just read. So, there being a “read only” book currently in my purview, I marched up to the newly renovated Portland public library and got a library card. I am embarrassed to admit that it is the first library card I’ve had in, maybe, twenty years.

I live in a small place now, already filled with enough books, such that book overflow is beginning to occur in my man-cave office-study in town. Too, there are hundreds of books still back in Maryland, books which presumably will never make their way north to Maine. Also, libraries are green. It is a benchmark recycling notion, this business of taking a book, reading it, and returning it for someone else to enjoy.

I have been thinking a great bit about the impact of technology on modern life. The theme has been explored in a number of posts here. There is a book, Hamlet’s Blackberry, by William Powers which explores this question. Here’s the jacket blurb:

At a time when we’re all trying to make sense of our relentlessly connected lives, this revelatory book presents a bold new approach to the digital age. Our computers and mobile devices do wonderful things for us. But they also impose an enormous burden, making it harder for us to focus, do our best work, build strong relationships, and find the depth and fulfillment we crave.

Using his own life as laboratory and object lesson, and drawing on such great thinkers as Plato, Shakespeare and Thoreau, Powers shows that digital connectedness serves us best when it’s balanced by its opposite, disconnectedness.

Exactly! Powers has been interviewed on PBS & NPR, the book has been discussed in the Wall Street Journal, by Diane Rehm and Katie Couraic. It’s been on the Time’s Best Seller List. Where am I going with this? The library doesn’t have a copy! Nor can they get me one! (I do not use exclamation marks arbitrarily, I want to point out.) I suddenly am feeling as if I live in a remote backwater outpost. Okay, a bit of an exaggeration, granted. It’s just a disappointing first library experience. When I pointed out to the librarian, a congenial woman with a terrible hacking cough, all of the above, the press notices, the interviews and so forth, she as much as challenged me, wondering out loud if it really was on the best seller’s list.

I know my reading tends to the esoteric, but this is mainstream, for god’s sake.

Enough ranting. In a follow-up visit I picked up Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Chatiwin’s The Songlines–both books I need to refresh myself with for a piece I’m working on. They had the books. No surprise there. I should point out: both books were likely purchased long before the library budget started to get directed to DVDs and audio books, movies and CDs, which were the articles everyone was checking out at the front desk. It would be ironic if libraries were, in the fashion of my experience, to contribute to the death of the written word, being presumably the last bastion of orderliness in the messy digital war of ideas (or lack thereof).

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This just in: “Nearly 2,000 volunteers lined up on the Akoni Pule Highway on Saturday to form a human chain, so they could pass the thousands of books – or huki puke, in Hawaiian – over a mile and a third down the road to the new library.” Check out: Good library news.