Doug Bruns

Like a language disappearing

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writing on February 22, 2012 at 7:13 am

I keep a journal. Recently I’ve been using a large Moleskine with thick unlined pages made for sketching and drawing. Ink does not bleed through these pages. Sometimes I sketch in it, but mostly I jot down ideas, quotes and notions. I like the heavy paper. It feels substantial. I mistakenly sometimes think that my ideas are substantial too just by putting them down on such fine paper.

As I sit here at my writing desk I look across my little room and see about two dozen journals on the shelf, in all manner of shape and size, going back many years. Tucked away behind the shelf in storage boxes are yellow pads–the journals of my youth–dozens of them. Back then, thirty years ago and more, I wrote with a pencil and now the oldest pages are hardly discernible. I get a sense of comfort looking at those lost words, marks fading like a language disappearing. I wonder why, after all the words and years of record keeping their disappearance gives me satisfaction? That is obviously at odds with the nature of making a record.

I recently read a short biography of RenĂ© Descartes. It’s in the book I’m currently reading, Examined Lives by James Miller. Descartes kept a journal at his side at all times. He gave it the name Olympia. He sought a quiet life and often lived like a fugitive, going from place to place, in an effort to escape his fame and pursue his thought-filled solitude. After moving to the Netherlands he wrote in his journal: “I have been able to lead a life as solitary and withdrawn as if I were in the most remote desert.”

I used to be obsessed with leaving evidence of my existence. That was part of what was behind the journals. That obsession, thankfully, no longer haunts me. To the contrary, I am hard at pursuing a course of singular autonomy which seems a lighter and looser obsession. Certainly it does not haunt me. The autonomy I seek feels the antithesis of my previous obsession, a sort of independence of history. But maybe that is just a hopeful imagination at work.

Here is a verse from a poem by Barton Sutter that captures the nuance of what I’m trying to convey. The poem is called TheThousand-foot Ore Boat.

To live until we die–

The job seems just impossible.

The great weight of the past

Pushing us forward, the long future

Thrust out before us, so little room to either side!

The autonomy I suggest is freedom from the weight of the past while avoiding the rush to the future. There is little about modern life that affords this notion of freedom. Perhaps that is the hook of my attention, being a simplistic contrarian. Regardless, one of the (few) benefits of maturation is coming to accept the inconsistencies of (my) life.


Just as a note: the words “singular autonomy,” used above, were pulled from my current notebook. The one with the thick pages. As a rebellious exercise against Cartesian methodology I choose not to give it a name.

  1. Your blog inspired a meditation on the joy of notebooks. Followed by the joy of: counting, describing, organizing same. Neurosis or edification? You can choose. I find the practice of notebook-keeping spritually uplifting. I currently have eleven in use (more or less).

    A. Everyday use without any need to be wise or thoughtful.
    1. Uncalendar-brand spiral, week-at-a-glance for daily schedules, to-do, notes, contacts.
    2. Everyday composition book (the black marble kind) for vignettes, intentions, contemplations.

    B. Special occasion reporting
    1. Favorite menus. Date/occasion, guests, menus with execution notes on facing page.
    2. Travel journal. The kind with the picture of the Eiffel Tower on cover for details of travel.
    3. Project book. Notes made specifically for a particular writing project.
    4. Family. Highly-embellished, floral-pattern book for funny or otherwise memorable times.
    5. Book of books. Handsome Black ‘n Red brand hardcover with notes, quotes from those books I want to remember and/or have as ready reference.
    6. Single event. Slender paperbacks, mostly found in European museums. Mixture of reporting and reflections from emotion-heavy events like yoga retreat, triathlon training, Europe.

    C. Intending to be thoughtful.
    1. All-topic. Hardcover, artsy-styled. Prolific intention, but seldom use.
    2. Anonymous friend. Small size with notes on life struggles… looking for patterns, insights.
    3. Personal challenges. Another small volume with notes/insights from specific interpersonal or health challenges. Used only twice, which I consider positive.

    If the practice is neurotic, it is also harmless, relatively cheap and a source of pleasure. Thanks for the topic!

    • “If the practice is neurotic, it is also harmless, relatively cheap and a source of pleasure.” That is a terrific sentence. It sort of take you on a little walk to the edge of a cliff. Your use of neurotic, however, sent me to Wikipedia. (My American Heritage Dictionary being on my desk and me being in my chair.)

      Def: Neurosis is a class of functional mental disorders involving distress but neither delusions nor hallucinations, whereby behavior is not outside socially acceptable norms.

      It is interesting to me to tie the neurotic behavior you practice (by your own admission), to your experience of notebook-keeping as being “spiritually uplifting.” It makes me wonder about spiritually uplifting practices which do not require a degree of neurosis–and I can’t think of one. Thereby, I conclude that the spiritual must contain a degree of the neurotic. My old logic professor would probably give me a D minus on that one, claiming it some sort of truncated syllogism. But I think it holds true.

      Anyway, I recall seeing a few years ago a piece on TV about a gentleman who had the compulsion of writing everything down. He was writing down the questions of the interviewer as the interviewer was asking the question. The man could not answer without simultaneously transcribing the answer and so forth. He’d been writing everything down during his waking hours for many years and was the subject of much inconclusive study. I’m not suggesting you’re in any fashion like this guy. I have to confess that a tiny part of the guy’s behavior appealed to me. It was the counterpoint to the many times I’ve lived a day only to realize at the end of it, that I didn’t live it at all. I’d been nothing but a machine going machine-like through the hours.

      Eleven notebooks/journals. I like the categorization and forced contemplation such discipline must instill.

  2. RE: freedom from the weight of the past and avoidance of rush to the future…

    in The Road Home, by Jim Harrison (an author you recommended in a prior posting, TY),

    John Wesley Northridge felt it was “utterly liberating” to find out he had one year to live.
    “I began to tentatively forgive myself for being an angry and wild asshole much of my life, partly because forgiveness seemed to exhaust the alternatives.”

    When he sought counsel from the local medicine man, I thought the response was strikingly simple, “Do your art and be good to people.”

    He seemed to find that elusive “room to either side.” Thanks for reminding me of this scene.

    • “Do your art and be good to people” is more a curse than “you’ve got one year to live.” Being good to people is a thing one can understand and work at. “Do your art”–well that drives people crazy. As I’ve said, The Road Home changed my life. I can’t explain how or explain why, but it did and remains a touchstone. You know, those times when you just need to understand one thing for everything else to sort of fall in place. But “Do your art” implies that one is capable and being capable, one knows how to set forth. It’s a loaded admonition and that’s the joke. But the point is lost on me, dipped in irony though it is. It is understandable that the simplest thing remains the most complex. That seems the role of the teacher and mystic. Strikingly simple, as you say, being the ying and yan of it all. So it seems, me being simply a pilgrim.

      • RE: “Just do your art and be good to people.”

        Not surprisingly, you present the same question as JWN in response to the medicine man’s advice!

        “It’s that simple?” JWN asked.

        “That’s really hard as you probably already know.”

        I love how the next part of the conversation illustrates the way the wise one handled such knotty issues.

        “And that was that. He [Smith, the medicine man] said a prayer for me in Lakota….then I felt drawn suddenly to wonder what exactly happened when we die. He said, ‘Got me by the ass” and laughed…”

        To refresh my recollection of JWN’s art, I returned to the sentence when he said news of his impending death was “utterly liberating.” The following sentence provided an elegant description:

        “I immediately drew a sparrow in the crabapple tree outside the window, then celebrated the clumsy attempt by making a piece of toast and putting on it the excellent crabapple jelly Frieda made every August.” ( personal aside: better than boiled meat.)

        As Ishmael said in Chapter LXXXV, “The Fountain.”

        “My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all. And as for this whale spout, you might almost stand in it and yet be undecided as to what it is precisely.”

        A few thoughts from one pilgrim to another, all inside the whale spout. Thanks for enkindling the discussion.

      • Very nice informed series of distinctions. It is such a pleasure to see the thoughts of a close reader. Thank you.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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