Doug Bruns

Life Studies

In Death, Dogs, Literature, Philosophy on October 27, 2019 at 9:00 am

I study lives. My text book is the biography. The first grown-up book I read was a biography of Mark Twain. I was, I think, in 6th grade. The most recent book read, finished a couple days ago, is Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s biography of Emerson, subtitled The Mind on Fire. Before that, earlier this summer, I re-read Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, How to Live. I read Bakewell as a set up to my summer reading of Montaigne’s long essay, An Apology of Raymond Sebond. That essay consumed much of my summer Colorado reading. Though I’ve been reading Montaigne for thirty years I’d not tackled Sebond and wanted to devote my time and energy to it uninterrupted, pencil and notepad in hand. But let’s return to studying lives.

Richardson’s Emerson is wonderfully written and ranks in my reading life as a high point. Half-way through I said to Carole, book in lap, “This book is changing my life.” Last year’s reading of Sue Prideaux’s I am Dynamite!, A Life of Nietzsche, had a similar effect. Richardson’s Emerson, however, reached deeper for a reason I’ve yet to comprehend. Interestingly, Nietzsche described Emerson as “a glorious, great nature, rich in soul and spirit…the author who has been the richest in ideas in this century.” Uncharacteristically, Nietzsche never turned against Emerson. I was so enthused by Richardson’s Emerson I found a used copy of his Thoreau, A Life of the Mind. I am excited to start that book.

Plutarch’s Lives

I study lives. An enduring life, rich and deep, is a wonderful thing and the shape and nature of such a thing has forever been of serious interest to me. Early on I recognized that some lives are, frankly, better lived and better expressed than others. Plutarch’s Lives, a study of lives in parallel, one virtuous, one lacking in virtue is the best ancient example of this notion. The rare exemplary life is unique–unique in its creativity, or perhaps in its impact on humanity. Or maybe, in the best case, in its goodness. Such a life is defined by character and intention; it is purposeful and directed; instructive and inspiring. How better to devote my reading life? I do not seek distraction. I do not seek entertainment. I seek to understand how this most important and precious thing, life itself, is to be best exercised, best experienced, best designed. How to live is the essence of creativity.

* * *

There is something I’ve noticed shared by many of these lives, something important.

Toward the end of Richardson’s biography he summarizes some of the lessons Emerson learned in later life. He writes: “At the core of Emerson’s life and work is a core of these impressions, bound together. They are not arguments or hypotheses….these are the perceptions that Emerson retains.” He continues with a list, starting…:

“The days are gods. That is, everything is divine. Creation is continuous. There is no other world; this is all there is. Everyday is the day of judgement.” [My italics.]

The list continues however I want to focus on these particular lessons as they are often shared by other lives I’ve studied. Nietzsche, for instance, had his “Theory of Eternal Return.” “Da Capo!—Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning.” In perfect health, one should “crave nothing more fervently” than the “eternal return of one’s life,” the same life down to the very last detail. With this Groundhog Day idea at the forefront of thought one will live moment by moment with the expectation that should the moment be repeated it would be agreeable by design. In this fashion, to be Emersonian about it, everyday is the day of judgement. I cannot imagine a way of being more present in the world.

H.D. Thoreau

Or consider the last days of Thoreau. Friend and neighbor Parker Phillsbury visited Henry David a few days before his death. “You seem so near the brink of the dark river,” Pillsbury said, “that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” Thoreau summed up his life and philosophy in response: “One world at a time.”

One world at a time, indeed. No concern about future reward or punishment. No effort wasted on what cannot be known. Just a focus on this world, here and now. A major theme of the important and creative lives I’ve studied is the theme of a cultivated and nurtured life devoted to living in the present. These are nerve-end lives, sparking and full of energy, thirsty for experience and immediacy.

I come to these ruminations from a place of sorry and darkness. I lost my beloved Lucy girl recently. This is not a thing I am prepared to talk about here, except for the following. My days with Lucy over the last few years were marked by a deep and conscious appreciation of our lives together. Many a morning walk I watched her and acknowledged that this was not lasting, that someday our lives, like all lives, would end in separation. I was, with painful awareness, searing moments into my consciousness, thereby stamping them with all the more value and potency. In her death I turn with gratitude for these moments of present awareness. Gratitude cannot assuage fresh grief but it is a degree of balm.

The days are gods and we are best obliged to honor them with an awareness and a presence. Do not take them for granted. Embrace each moment, turning from nothing. Such is divinity in the making.

  1. Doug, this sends my deepest condolences on the loss of your beloved Lucy. Having spent time with the two of you together, I am fortunate to have observed, first-hand, the deep and conscious appreciation you each held for the other. There was a divine aspect to your partnership.

    The biographies you reference demonstrate your life-long study of how to live a good life, and specifically, what role models can teach you about this endeavor. The general state of the world today inspired me to study lives also, but rather than individual biographies, my text books have been sweeping histories of mankind. How is it that so many of us fail to see that our days are gods, and that being present every day is divine? I find it strangely consoling to realize that homo sapiens has been dealt a blow by evolution, resulting, generally, in a short-term species with a bottomless desire for immediate satisfaction and short-term goals. It’s just our nature, as the scorpion said when he stung the frog who was delivering him to safety. (Are we surprised that this animal fable seems to have first emerged in Russia?)

    This dark view makes the characters you are studying all the more special, and worthy of our attention. That our species, with all its flaws, can produce such beacons of light is heartening. Maya Angelo’s poem “When We Come To It” was printed in Brainpickings last week. This excerpt illuminates the opposing sides of our nature:

    We, this people, on this minuscule and pithless globe
    Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
    Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
    We, this people on this mote of matter
    In whose mouths abide cankerous words
    Which challenge our very existence
    Yet out of those same mouths
    Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
    That the heart falters in its labor
    And the body is quieted into awe

    Thanks for the awe-inspiring thoughts.

    • Thank you, my dear friend, for your condolences. I read the last sentence of your first paragraph many times, trying to understand exactly what to make of it. “There was a divine aspect to your partnership.” Divine. Partnership. These are big words and it took you, someone who observed us, to put the right mark on what Lucy and I shared. You know how i feel about a word like divine, but what you suggest seems closest to the point of that word for me. It is a word, oddly, that is closer these days than it ever used to be, and not only because of Lucy, but also certainly partially due to her. I am tempted to go and read that chapter in Mary Oliver’s last collection about dogs. She, I think, captures well the spark of divine that some experience when in the partnership with another being, regardless of the species–but I don’t have the heart just now. There is trauma that the divine also ushers in, as we all must part, that too being an aspect of the divine. And therein lies the change that is trauma. It will heal, given enough time, but a scar will also be there in testimony. Your other eye-catching phrase, “deep and conscious appreciation” is welcome. I believe I was conscious with Lucy in a way that I’ve rarely been otherwise. That is both sweet and bitter. Sweet that such a thing I got to experience. Bitter in that it is not the standard by which I live and by which all is measured. But a lesson lies there and I am one to always appreciate a hard-earned lesson. Thank you for your kind words.

      There is resignation in what you write regarding our species and our collective experience. Have we arrived there? At resignation? The fight gone out of us? Perhaps. That is the dark view, indeed. But is likely the correct one, no? And what is one to make of such a corner turned? There is comment Thoreau made in his journal that I have turned over and over again since reading it. He was writing about Chaucer. “There is no wisdom which can take the place of humanity…” These lives we study and ponder, the “sweeping histories,” don’t you go there in order to learn a bit of wisdom? And don’t we do that in an effort to bring order to our lives, and perhaps in the hope of doing so, we will enrich our community, our family, neighbors and friends, the collective humanity? And don’t we hope, that in doing that, we might just change the course of things? And isn’t there a hint of salvation in that? There I go, salvation and divine–odd words for me to be using. I feel, however, so resigned to the course you describe, the course of our nature, that I turn away from the corporeal. The ancients would wag their finger at me and warn me about hope, desire and aversion.

      At the end of the day, when I take stock, I occasionally rest well knowing that my day was well spent. Carole and I walked into our local pub this evening. We’ve been away for months, as you know. The owner came over and welcomed us. Eric the cook came out and gave us both hugs. Janice the co-owner stopped and talked to us at length. This is our community and people know us here. We were missed. I feel at times so singular–and then I get a hug from Eric the cook. We are indeed linked one to the other. The wisdom of our collective humanity will, I suspect, be eventually drowned out by our endless selfish short-term wants and desires–the things we have not all learned to control, the sting of our nature. (There is that wagging finger again.) But in the moment when conscious awareness takes our hand we are capable of the divine and that is where I turn in sadness and desperation and resignation. True friendship is divine too, by my measure. A friendship, a transcending partnership, these are rich things to experience. I am selfish in wanting more but I cannot ignore the need for gratitude. Gratitude it seems quiets all complaint and want. I am grateful for your friendship.

  2. […] Lucy died I mourned. The end snuck up on me and although, as I mentioned previously, I had been preparing for our separation, I was nonetheless grief-stricken. At night, when I was […]

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