Doug Bruns

My “coffee-thing”

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Memoir, Thinkers, Writers, Writing on April 16, 2012 at 6:34 am

I wrote an essay a year or so ago for the The Nervous Breakdown. Yesterday I received an email from a woman who read the piece and felt compelled to write. The reader had, several years previously, suffered brain trauma in a car accident and was now worried it was catching up to her. She wrote, “I managed to cope fairly well, considering, untill some years ago: I started to think I was going barking mad, dementia/alzheimer a family condition, thinking it was my turn now. Having been reassured I’m just sufffering normal 60ýears memory-loss, I can happily reassured go on living… Thanks to…Doug Bruns for writing about this “coffee-thing”. (My piece was called, Like Burnt Coffee.) I found some comfort in her experience and wanted to pass along (most of) the essay.


“…the books from which entire literatures have flowed, like Homer, Rabelais, are encyclopedias of their time,” wrote Flaubert to Colet. “They knew everything,” he said.

Flaubert was writing in 1854 and grappling with a momentous, essentially silent, event in human history: books had surpassed the human brain for universal capacity. The encyclopedic individual to which Flaubert referred–Homer, Rabelais and their ilk–had been eclipsed by the summation of knowledge as contained in the book. The course of flowing knowledge had reversed–no longer would it flow from individual to book. Rather, the book, the compilation and accumulation of knowledge, would forever inform the individual. (In modern life, the flow has again transitioned: book to computer–and most recently, computer to internet.)

It is related that Gottfried Leibniz was the last man to know everything that could be known; that after he died in 1716, the knowledge the world contained was greater than what one individual was capable of knowing. There is no fact to support either of these notions, Leibniz’s omniscience or the quantity of knowledge in the world at his time. Regardless, it is a concept that gives me pause.

I want to know everything. Realistically, not everything, just more. I read Guy Davenport, Isaiah Berlin, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Sontag, Robert Nozick; I read them–and so many others–and am reminded immediately and precisely how stupid and thick I am. Obtuse… I might as well be illiterate…There is nothing I retain. I forget everything…I go to dinner parties and afterward am told that I had previously entertained those same polite people with that same tired story. I submit an essay only to discover that I’d published it a year previously, a month previously. I look at my library and wonder, who read all these books? I am, I fear, seriously and irredeemably lacking. There will no make-up class. This is not Groundhog Day, the movie.

Unlike Leibniz, I know nothing. If I am the sum of the collected existences which preceded me–what Octavio Paz called, “the living tissue of the current situation”–then I am but a fragment, a single cell even, of a human self. The whole is a futility. It rests in my mouth like the bitter taste of burned coffee.

  1. Burnt coffee. Yes, I understand. I have come to think of my reading retention like sauce going through a sieve. When te sauce is thick and rich, some of it sticks to the small perforations bfore passing through entirely. I’m taking whatever I can.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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