A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

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.

When the animals come for you.

In Life on March 20, 2012 at 6:59 am

The sun rises around 6:45. I’ve enjoyed it recently over several consecutive mornings, coming up over Bug Light and illuminating the river Fore. I’ve also seen the darkness that precedes sunrise by several hours, as I’ve had trouble sleeping. Up at three or four seems to be the course these days. So disconcerting is this that I’ve resorted to writing Twitter poems during these hours. Poems of 140 characters or less. I wrote this one yesterday:

Of the things I’m losing | Memory | Energy | Money | Sleep is most | Mourned

I am suffering from what my Buddhist friends call Monkey Mind. I wake up at three or four in the morning and my mind bolts upright, as if fully caffeinated and, like a monkey, starts swinging tree to tree, thought to thought, terror to terror. All night troubles become night terrors.

This seems a special plague, as I’m not troubled really. My mind though, like a thing out of control, is searching for trouble. I would say, Better my mind than my body, but the mind is more the master, the body the servant. The body can be disciplined but it’s tough to usurp the master.

My mother used to get up early, awakened by the rumblings of her mind. She was deeply religious. She said she was getting “the calling,” like an early morning telegraph from God. I have no religious leanings, and am hearing no call. I remember discovering years ago that many men–it is always men–come to farming late in life after getting a call to till the soil. I don’t like dirt under my fingernails so I’m certain I’m not being called to farm.

Evolution probably has something to do with it. I can’t help but think that night alerts played a large role in the success of the species. The fire gone out, the tribe asleep, as one individual wakes up, attuned to something amiss. Night is when the animals come for you. Night terror was then truly terror, no doubt. That is a type of calling too.

Mark Twain said he was never quite sane in the night. This gives me comfort, as I feel so out of sorts as to be somewhat insane too. It is not a good place to be and my compassion for those afflicted has risen as a result. “Wait until it is night before saying that it has been a fine day,” the French say and never was that more true than these nights–or, rather, mornings.

The night path is full of obstacles. I’ve grown to shuffling my feet on the path and as I trip over something, I pick it up and examine it. I study it and weigh it, then examine it all over again. Only upon daybreak do I see it to be nothing more than a pebble. But in the night it certainly is a boulder.

I don’t know what to make of this, another in a list of growing unknow-ables. It is a point of reflection, something to ponder–until night fall. Then the animals come for me.

Da Capo

In Books, Creativity, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Uncategorized, Writers on July 20, 2010 at 9:15 am

“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.

“…a means of ignorning the spaces in between…”

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Travel, Writers on April 21, 2010 at 5:29 pm
A Volcano Over Iceland Makes a Philosophical Point

A Volcano Over Iceland Makes a Philosophical Point

Do you remember the Simon and Garfunkel tune, 59th St. Bridge Song–specifically the lyrics, Slow down you move too fast? Surely you do. A catchy tune. And the sentiment nice. We nod in agreement: Yes, we move too fast. Let’s slow down, smell the roses, or the coffee, whatever, savior the moment–nice little tag line to modern life. But, like the weather, everyone talks about it, and nobody does anything about it (often misattributed to Mark Twain).  That is, we all agree, we should relax a bit, but we don’t. Which is why the weather over Iceland for the past two weeks has been philosophically interesting. Nothing can be done about it, but there’s a lot of talking going on.

What if, Benjamin Button-like, the world were to go backward from this place? Planes stayed on the ground, television got fuzzy, then stopped altogether, Google, Facebook, Twitter all disappeared, followed by the internet. Down the drain. Silicon chips turn to dust. And so on. What if, like Thoreau at Walden, modern life were reduced in some fashion more, well, rudimentary?

Here’s what the sage at the pond’s edge said specifically: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”

A spewing volcano in Iceland has put a stop to trans-Atlantic flights. I pity the poor folks who are just now getting airborne in Europe and will be turning around. And I pity too, the companies that have lost so much money, the farmers who couldn’t get their products shipped, the grandparents who missed the birthday party, and the specialist who could not get her patient to the clinic. Untold dollars, Euros, Pounds lost. Lives and plans disrupted. It is all so very unfortunate. But it proves an interesting template for the imagination.

I sit in my over-stuffed chair and ponder the dogging question, the one about living more authentically. I was talking to my bookseller, Stuart, about this just yesterday. I had ordered a Simon Critchley book, the philosopher out of the UK. He asked what drew me to this book specifically. I answered in a round-about, half-baked fashion, that life as moderns is perhaps disjointed and that Critchley had worked on this some, that, as he–Critchley–said, philosophy arrises from disappointment. I wanted to learn more. Stewart got it, and just by talking about it a bit, I better understood what I was trying to get at. Which brings me back to the weather over Iceland.

Specifically, traveler Seth Stevenson watered the germ of this idea for me yesterday in an op-ed piece in the Times. It’s called Escape From the Jet Age and is a meditation on the grounded planes in Europe. It included this sentence: “Airplanes are a means of ignoring the spaces in between your point of origin and your destination.” Precisely. Now take this idea and blow it up. Explode it. My point of origin: birth. My destination: death. And the big question: What spaces between origin/birth and destination/death am I (unwittingly) ignoring? You get the idea, I hope. Modern life is a sprint and when we cross the finish line, there is the possibility that we will have no idea the path taken.  How do we mitigate that possibility, avoid committing that sin? That’s the heart of it, I think.

Masterclass of a Life Well Lived

In Creativity, The Examined Life, Writers, Writing on December 2, 2009 at 12:36 am

A few years ago I attempted to write a work of extended fiction. I’d written a few short stories and essays, some of which found their way into print. I had been following Hemingway’s advice to ready myself for the long haul by working up to it, like a boxer training for a bout–or something appropriately Hemingwayesque to that manly effect. So, I began this “extended fiction” (why is it that the word novel seems so daunting and intimidating?) and set a course to explore the only, for me, truly compelling theme. To wit, How should a life be lived?

Once, many years ago, in a distant existence, in a parallel universe, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book about entrepreneurship. I had walked in those shoes for a while with a modicum of success and someone foolishly thought I actually knew something about the subject. I wrote my chapter and adorned it with a awkward title about which I am now embarrassed. In essence, the chapter title, spoke to my belief that creativity trumps everything else, talent, motivation, timing and all the rest of it. In business, and in life, creativity rules.

Getting back to the novel, my character, a successful dot com-er (I was writing at the height of the dot com bubble) decides one day to cash out and hit the road, to set out, as Twain said, for territories unknown. This guy was the perfect foil. He had plenty of resources–i.e. money–no commitments, a sense of self that reached beyond his present situation, albeit however well-stoked he found himself, and nothing but time on his hands. The premise is quite simple: What would you do with your life if you could do anything you wanted? It is the most profoundly creative question a person can ask. At some point in your life-block of Carrera marble gets dropped across your path and someone hands you a hammer and chisel. What do you do? How do you chisel out a life? How do you create it? I didn’t know what I’d do, so I wrote a novel to figure it out.

The ultimate creative assignment is the masterclass in a life well lived. I wanted, in the writing of the novel, to tackle this most personal of challenges. And here’s what happened. Nothing. Nothing happened. My guy, the character in my novel, having money and time and motivation, well, he was a bust. I could develop no creative tension in the narrative. In other words, I couldn’t answer the question, what would I do, if I could do anything I wished with my life. Was there no creative tension to my existence?

This is not an exercise in navel gazing. (I dread the cliché above all else.) So the question above will remain purely rhetorical. My existence and its creative tension, or lack thereof, is of no matter. Here is the point. Life need be carved out of raw material–created, in essence–to be, upon Socratic inspection, well designed. It ain’t gonna just happen. Sartre said that everything in life must submit to art. Creativity is an expressed solution to an unasked question. My protagonist had no challenges, and therefore his life lacked the luster of a well-polished coat of creativity.

Make of it what you will. But know this: the act of creation is the purest of expression. Draped across the robust shoulders of life, it is at once profound and beautiful.