Doug Bruns

Archive for 2013|Yearly archive page

Sunday Repost: Decide to Live

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

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A NOTE ON HOUSEKEEPING

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,

d

What are the odds?

In Philosophy, Science, The infinity of ideas on January 18, 2013 at 6:00 am
Ah, "the yoke of inauspicious stars."

Ah, “the yoke of inauspicious stars.”

What are the odds of your existence? Never wondered? Neither have I. But then I read this, which I am about to share with you, and now I must wonder why I never wondered!

This is a long quote, so please excuse me that. It is from Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt , the book I’ve been referring to recently— please excuse that as well. Here we go:

As a member of the human species, I have a particular genetic identity. There are about 30,000 active genes in the human genome. Each of these genes has a least two variants, or “alleles.” So the number of genetically distinct identifies the genome can encode is at least 2 raised to the thirty-thousandth power–which roughly equals the number 1 followed by 10,000 zeros. That’s the number of potential people allowed by the structure of our DNA. And how many of those potential people have actually existed? It is estimated that about 40 billion humans have been born since the emergence of our species. Let’s round the number up to 100 billion, just to be on the conservative side. This means that the fraction of genetically possible humans who have been born is less than 0.00000…0001 (insert about 9,979 extra zeros in the gap.) The overwhelming majority of these genetically possible humans are unborn specters. Such is the fantastic lottery that I–and you–had to win in order to shimmer on the scene.

Reading this reminded me of a paragraph from Lewis Thomas, from his book Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Here’s Lewis:

Every once in a while the reasons for discouragement about the human prospect pile up so high that it becomes difficult to see the way ahead, and it is then a great blessing to have one conspicuous and irrefutable good thing to think about ourselves something solid enough to step onto and look beyond the pile.

Friends, if you should ever feel this way, ever entertain this degree of “discouragement about the human prospect,” I invite you to read the paragraph above from Jim Holt. We won the lottery. For this we must step up and rejoice.

Thanks for reading,

d

Foxhole Stoicism

In Death, Family, Life, Philosophy on January 17, 2013 at 6:00 am
Dad (and me in mirror)

Dad (and me in mirror)

My father is ninety years old and has a cold. It is an annual event, his cold. The rest of the year he remains healthy, but for a bit of arthritis and type-two diabetes. My father is stoic, though he could not necessarily tell you what stoicism is. He will tell you, however, that the classroom for this life lesson was a fox hole in the Ardennes Forest in 1943. Why define a concept when your life exemplifies it?

He surprised me yesterday during our visit. “I’m not afraid of death,” he said. “It’s dying that worries me.” My father does not typically talk this way, again the stoicism. But over the recent years he’s said enough to let me know that it is a subject he now entertains. He looked at me keenly.

“It’s been said, dad, that you’re either afraid of death, or your afraid of dying.” I didn’t bother to elaborate on other insights of Julian Barnes. He nodded. “It’s the suffering,” he said, before changing the subject.

__________

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

“The act of dying is one of the acts of life,” said the great Stoic, Marcus Aurelius (121 AD – 180 AD). He also preached the comfort of ignorance that is the void of pre-existence, birth, with the existential ignorance that will be the void of post-existence, death. That is, you didn’t fret over your non-existence before you were born, why would you fret over your non-existence after your demise?

I subscribe to this way of thinking and find a modicum of comfort in it. But I’ve recently discovered that there is a third concern in dying, not summarized in Barnes’s observation, nor taken up by the Stoics. (For the record, on death, I am not Woody Allen. Concerns of my eventual extinction do not color my thoughts all day long. But, like my father, as my days advance, so does my thinking on the subject.)

The American philosopher, Mark Johnston, makes this observation (as related in the book I finished reading last night, Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt): “The prospect of one’s own most [sic] death is perplexing and terrifying because it reveals that we are not, as we supposed, the fountainhead of the reality we inhabit, the center of the world..” Truthfully, who can’t help but fall into this trap, the concept of being at the center of the reality we inhabit? We have no other way in which to experience the world. He then delivers the body-blow: “It turns out that I am not the sort of thing I was unconsciously tempted to think I was.” How deeply we have given into that temptation seems, to me, proportional to the degree of terrifying perplexity death elicits.

“Know thyself,” advised the Oracle at Delphi. I attempt to march to this admonition, but stumble over what this self actually might be. Johnston’s observation underscores my inkling that at the root of this conundrum is the concept of the self–a concept that gets in the way and ultimately trips us up. It is not surprising that Holt closes Why Does the World Exist?, with an observation by a Buddhist monk: “The world is like a dream, an illusion. But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid-seeming.” It was the Buddha, lest we forget, who observed the self as a false concept.

Thanks for reading,

d

And the Winner Is…

In Books, Writers, Writing on January 16, 2013 at 6:00 am
Nobel Prize Medal

Nobel Prize Medal

Nothing underscores the paucity of being monolingual like walking into a bookstore in a foreign country.  “To have another language is to possess a second soul,” proclaimed Goethe. In this instance, I was in France and the bookstore had a small table stacked with English titles. I walked out with Blindness by José Saramago. I was not familiar with the title, nor did I know anything of Saramago–except this: he was a Nobel laureate in Literature. I only knew this because the book sported a marketing emblem declaring it so. If you were to ask me the five best books I’ve ever read, Blindness would be on the list. I’m not sure what the other four would be. The point being, not every book written by a Nobel winner is going to be good, let alone great. But if good literature is your thing, you’ve probably stacked the odds in your favor by selecting one of these authors.

With that in mind, I thought you might be interested the “alumni association” of Nobel winners in literature. Be aware, the list is not without controversy. For instance, three of the greatest writers of the twentieth century didn’t get the nod from Stockholm: Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov.

Here is the list of the more fortunate:

2012 ~ Mo Ya

2006 ~ Orhan Pamuk
2002 ~ Imre Kertész
2000 ~ Gao Xingjian
1999 ~ Günter Grass
1997 ~ Dario Fo
1995 ~ Seamus Heaney
1994 ~ Kenzaburo Oe
1993 ~ Toni Morrison
1992 ~ Derek Walcott
1990 ~ Octavio Paz
1986 ~ Wole Soyinka
1985 ~ Claude Simon
1981 ~ Elias Canetti
1976 ~ Saul Bellow
1973 ~ Patrick White
1971 ~ Pablo Neruda
1961 ~ Ivo Andric
1957 ~ Albert Camus
1946 ~ Hermann Hesse
1943 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1942 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1941 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1940 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1938 ~ Pearl Buck
1935 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1929 ~ Thomas Mann
1928 ~ Sigrid Undset
1927 ~ Henri Bergson
1918 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was allocated to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1914 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was allocated to the Special Fund of this prize section.
If you think great literature will earn you place in the pantheon of the immortals, think again. How many of these names are already lost to history?

Tell me a story.

In Books, Writers, Writing on January 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

421“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That is the declaration by which Joan Didion begins her now-classic, The White Album (1979). The book is a highly literary, essay-slash-memoir collection exploring the 1960s and 70s in California. Martin Amis, in reviewing the book, called Ms. Didion, a “poet of the Great Californian Emptiness.” It was a time of personal challenge for Didion, chiefly of the mental-stability order, and the expanse of California as metaphor agitates as a perfect harmonic.  Central to the book is the unease of the era as exemplified by the Charles Manson Helter Skelter murder of Sharon Tate and friends. Tate was a friend of Didion‘s. (As a side note, if you pick up The White Album I strongly suggest–no, demand–you then read Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins. Watkins is the daughter of Charles “Tex” Watkins,  Manson’s righthand-man. Battleborn is starkly, and breathtakingly, original.)

So as to not drop Ms. Didion’s quote out of context, here is the full paragraph for your reading pleasure:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accident, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

I am unabashedly smitten by: “We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images….”

(Aside: I drifted to this shore while reading an article about the current line-up of new TV shows, in particular shows that qualify my loose definition of being narrative-driven. You know the shows: Downton Abbey, Shameless, Breaking Bad, Homeland and a few others. (Full disclosure, I watch–no, I drink thirstily–the mentioned shows.) Are these the stories we are telling ourselves in order to live? What does that mean?)

I have another quote from The White Album in my moleskine: “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.” That is as beautiful an explanation of why a writer writes as ever I’ve encountered. I trust Vonnegut‘s “ink-stained wretches” are applauding furiously. This is the quote that comes foremost to mind when reflecting on that which is attempted here at …the house…. My personal bookend to Ms. Didion’s observation is that I read in the hope, maybe even in the faith, that I will find a writer who will not necessarily explain my life, but share it. That, my friends, is why we tell stories–which is to say, the declaration of our very existence.

Oh, the places you’ll go…

In Adventure, Travel on January 14, 2013 at 6:00 am

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The travel section of yesterday’s New York Times reminded me that I was once a traveler. The specific article prompting this observation is called, The 46 Places To Go in 2013. Of the 46 places listed I’ve been to eight. That is not a bad average, I guess. I used to be a regular and steady country counter and was full of myself a few years ago when I had to have more pages sewed into my filled passport. Bragging rights no longer motivate me, and the travel bug, as some call it, has lessened, albeit, all but disappeared. As I said I was once a traveler, which is like saying, I was once a dancer but don’t have the legs any more.

(Perhaps some day we will discuss the distinction between the traveler and the tourist.)

In the same Times section is an article by Paul Theroux (b. 1941) called My Travel Wish List. The piece was tagged, “The Man Who’s Been Everywhere, Except These Places.” I was pleased to discover that I’d been to at least two places on Theroux’s wish list, places he has yet to visit, Bhutan and the Seychelles. (Seychelles travel piece.) He also comments that he’s never been to Maine’s northern-most, and remotest county, Aroostook; nor has he climbed Maine’s Mt. Katahdin. (“Come ‘on, Paul. I’m a Maine Guide, let me show you!”) I’ve admired Mr. Theroux’s writing for years, and applaud his curiosity-driven life.

“Travel is a state of mind,” he writes in his essay collection, Fresh Air Fiend. “It has nothing to do with existence or the exotic. It is almostfresh.air.fiend.001 entirely an inner experience.” To the non-traveler this might seem odd, even contradictory, but it rings true to my experience. First travels taught me the artificial nature of conventual education. History, geography, language, literature, culture–they all combine into a monolithic “inner experience” when one travels. “Experience and travel,” wrote Montaigne, “these are as education themselves.” Travel of the right order affords one a unique perception regarding the net of experience. In that way it is not unlike a hallucination, where one caresses the stars while sipping champagne. Odd things are perceived, understood, and accepted, transforming the traveler. The world will forever be perceived differently henceforth.

What happened? Where did my passion for the world go? There is no answer at the ready for that question. Travel has been as important to my life as the books I’ve read, if not more so. Is it, as a friend suggested, that in coming to Maine I arrived at my destination? Perhaps, but that seems too pat an answer–and does not lessen the sense of mourning. Perhaps the restlessness of a younger man has been exhausted–at least the physical restlessness. I find this answer close to truth and sadly disconcerting, for I value the quality of restlessness and think it an attribute worth cultivating. It seems not much of worth is accomplished without a healthy dose of it. I do not know an antidote, nor think one likely, for this condition. I find it quietly upsetting and do not think too long on it.

I invite Mr. Clemens to contribute the last word:

1244“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Thanks for reading,

d