Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

My Philosophy Journal

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writing on July 28, 2019 at 8:00 am
My "Philosophy Journal"

My “Philosophy Journal”

A little over a year ago I started keeping what I call a philosophy journal. It’s an idea that I encountered in my study of the Stoics. The ancient Stoic teachers suggested that their students keep a journal as a way to enhance the philosophical teachings. The best surviving example of this is what has come to be known as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  The Meditations remains in print and I suggest you read the new translation by Gregory Hays, if you’re interested. I will touch on these writings in a future post. The point here, however, is that Marcus Aurelius, as a Stoic practice, wrote his ideas and thoughts down, not for publication, but as a personal journal. Fortunately, for us, his notebook survived the ages. Seneca and his Letters to Lucilius is another example of the practice.  These writings lasted because they have been valued as sources of wisdom and insight for quite literally thousands of years.

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Old Journals, Diaries, Notebooks

I have, for as long as I can recall, kept a journal. This iteration, my philosophy journal, is a little different from what I’ve done previously. In the past, my journals were places where I put down quick thoughts, quotes, a brief sketch, a record or a musing. Paging through them now is rewarding and still provides me with insight and pleasure. My philosophy journal is different in the following way: It is less random and more purposeful. I begin with a quote drawn from my readings of philosophy. I keep it brief, as it is more a vehicle by which to explore my own thoughts than a specific philosophical teaching. I follow the quote with a paragraph or two fleshing it out in my own words, making it my own, as it were. Lastly, I attempt to distill the quote and my thoughts about it into a short pithy notation I call my Daily Focus. The Daily Focus is no more than a sentence or two and is something I can keep present in mind throughout the day. It is a practice, an attempt to distill wisdom and put it to work. Here is an example from my current journal–a quote, my thoughts about it, and my daily focus.

June 10, 2019

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” ~ Marcus Aurelius. 

I try not to speak ill of others. For the most part I am successful. I’ve weaned myself away from the vice of speaking badly of others pretty well. I recall years ago observing my friend Greg in a conversation simply grow quiet when the talk turned to gossip. That made a lasting impression and compelled me toward the same habit of civility. Yet, I still occasionally fall into the trap, which brings me to the second point of Aurelius’s quote above: the reflection of one’s own short-comings. To consider one’s deficits honestly, not as a way of self-flagellation, but as a habit of improvement, is a worthy practice. One’s shortcomings are never so noticeable as when we observe them in others.

Daily Focus: Be attentive to opportunities for improvement. 

You needn’t be of a philosophical bent to put these ideas to work for you. Perhaps you are religious and would turn to a sacred text for your quote and ideas. Or, maybe you read poetry and find it inspiring and motivational. I trust you get the idea. Similarly, I don’t just draw on ancient thinkers for inspiration. My journal includes quotes from William James, and Susan Sontag, Nietzsche and Sartre, and many others. The point is to find a text that is meaningful for you, to work with it and distill it, then employ it as a method to greater insight, improvement, and self knowledge. It is a practice, and what is life but a repeating effort of how to be?

The Neuro-Chemical Thing

In Writing on March 19, 2013 at 6:00 am

I’m having a hell of a time here today. Everything rings false–except this sentence.

Brad Listi, the editor of The Nervous Breakdown (where I used to contribute), commenting on one of my essays once said,

“the internet is hell on writing in a lot of ways….[it] has neuro-chemical implications that haven’t been totally quantified yet.”

I think I am having a neuro-chemical writing breakdown today. I am certain it has nothing to do with (all) the Irish whisky I drank last night with friends, Susan and Harry. Certain. Damn good stuff that, though.

Let’s leave it at that. Perhaps the neuro-chemical balance thing will self-rectify soon.

On the Day We Are All Irish

In Creativity, Writers, Writing on March 17, 2013 at 11:06 am
James Joyce

James Joyce

On a day when everyone loves James Joyce, I thought it would be appropriate to share one of my favorite passages in all of literature, from one of my favorite books in all of literature, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This from the last page of that magnificent book–the young artist has broken ties of home and country and has come to realize the potential of his genius. He is about to set off, an exile, in pursuit of his art:

16 April: Away! Away!

The spell of arms and voices: the white arms of roads, their promise of close embraces and the black arms of tall ships that stand against the moon, their tale of distant nations. They are held out to say: We are alone. Come. And the voices say with them: We are your kinsmen. And the air is thick with their company as they call to me, their kinsman, making ready to go, shaking the wings of their exultant and terrible youth.

26 April: Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

27 April: Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.

Dublin 1904

Trieste 1914

I don’t know how many times I’ve read those paragraphs over the years and they still make my heart race and my eyes misty. O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Indeed! Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, friends!

I Have Great Slack.

In Dogs, Wisdom, Writing on March 13, 2013 at 6:15 am

I’m suffering from what Susan Sontag called slack mental condition. I have great slack.

Every morning holds promise–and with it, usually momentum. I got up at 5:30 as I always do, which, by the way, is a hell of a thing, up so early every day. I don’t set an alarm, I just wake up–even with daylight savings time and darkness again in the morning. Tangent: How does Daylight Savings save anything if the day begins in darkness? My day is front-loaded, mornings making the difference. With DST, I’ve saved nothing, indeed, by this man-made intrusion on my cicada rhythm I have lost dawn to darkness. I can’t blame the shortage of morning light on my slack condition, but it does not help.

I don’t believe in forcing a thing, be it a nut rusted on a screw thread or a word on a page. There is that wonderful Taoist metaphor, inviting one to be the river flowing downstream. Encountering a boulder, the river does not attempt to move it, but simply flows around it, continuing. That is my philosophy. I’m done moving rocks. Flow is my current state.

So, I won’t force the words. Instead, dear reader, you are being subjected to flow. It’s not a writing exercise so much as a state of being. There are natural limitations, Montaigne reminds us, that not even wisdom can overcome. Wisdom is in shortage around here, but even if I had enough to employ I would not waste it on words, as I know words are the least efficient method of exercising it. Anyway, wisdom’s a thing more akin to active verbs, and by definition slack lacks the active.

Lucy–now there is wisdom, curled up on a bed. No force. No slack. Pure intention: a good nap. As you are aware, I turn to dogs for guidance. You must see where I am headed, yes? Of course you do…

First Sentences of Philosophy

In Philosophy, Writing on March 12, 2013 at 6:00 am

If you were a book, your opening sentence would be my first impression of you. It is that type-set handshake, that eye contact, the initial body language of our literary relationship, from which I will decide whether we might become friends. I should warn you, I am exacting when it comes to first impressions.

I have on at least two occasions here surveyed first sentences of literature. (First Sentences, and First Sentences II.) I thought it might be of interest to run the same exercise with some classics of philosophy, to see how the thinker begins the engagement. At first glance, it appears that the philosopher is less cordial–less needy?–than the artist-novelist. That is, I guess, to be expected of a writer less interested in drainage and more interested in hydraulics. So, to make it easy, I pull some books off the shelf, from the Philosophy section:

Despite my comment above, Robert Nozick (1938-2002), provides one of the best opening sentences of any genre, From his

The Unreadable Book?

The Unreadable Book?

Philosophical Explanations:

“I too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book, even to bring reading to a stop.”

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), Philosophy (vol 1.):

“Philosophy means to dare penetrate the inaccessible ground of human self-awareness.”

A favorite thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), from Genealogy of Morals:

“We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge–and with good reason.”

And, for grins, Nietzsche, again, in a sentence which shows why he was, arguably, the most literary writer of the thinkers, from Thus Spake Zarathustra:

“Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.”

Heidegger begins his magnum opus with a quote from Plato: “For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression you use the expression “being”. We however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.” Then the first sentence of Being and Time:

“Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word ‘being’?”

From Sartre (1905-1980), Being and Nothingness, the opening chapter titled, The Phenomenon, comes this twist:

“Modern thought has realized considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it.”

And here, the doubt-filled precision of Wittgenstein (1889-1951), from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

“Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it–or at least similar thoughts.”

Wittgenstein, as an aside, lays claim to the most wonderful last words. From his death-bed: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Lovely.

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The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley

The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley

If you’re in the mood for an eminently readable survey of the history of philosophy, I recommend Simon Critchley‘s The Book of Dead Philosophers (2009). It is entertaining, fun (last days of the big thinkers), and when you’re finished, you will have touched all the bases of philosophy.

The Loon Remains

In Life, Writing on March 8, 2013 at 6:00 am

The red-wing black birds are back. They were a’squawking in a naked ash this morning as Lucy and I went on our walk. It is a sign that spring is on schedule, though I am aware that its arrival is still a cruel ways off. As I write this, ten hours later, the temperature has dropped and the sky holds a shade of metallic somewhere between nickel silver and battleship gray. We are due for more snow shortly and that is fine. Still, I remain hopeful, that Persephone is packing her bag.

Santayana said that, “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” I’m not sure what that means, except perhaps one must embrace change, as nothing is permanent. I like change; though releasing the sense of permanence is more difficult to cultivate, though release it I must–as I, most of everything, am subject to this law, disturbingly impermanent as I am.

It has, on the main, been a good winter. A good cozy, book-filled winter, with little ambition about it. That is a good thing, though, understandably, some might not see it that way. A hard-working and successful friend just yesterday shared that I’d been the topic of a brief family conversation. “What does Doug do with his day?” he’d pondered. I’ve come to understand that the day takes care of itself. I don’t have to do anything with it. That is all and it is enough.

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The common loon

The loon remains in the slip of water below my kitchen window. I’ve told the stories of the man who needs to see mountains on the horizon every night, and the hiker who must study the milky way at least once a year. Likewise, I’ve come to depend on the summer call of the loon from my sleeping bag and if there is anything anxious about this desperate time of year, it is tempered by the anticipation of that song. That too will take care of itself soon enough. (Thoreau: “I make my own time. I make my own terms.”)

Everything, it appears, takes care of itself, not in spite of, but because of a cosmic indifference to our personal ambitions. It’s been that sort of winter for this pilgrim (in case you haven’t figured that out just yet).

It’s been a good week and such an assessment is not to be taken for granted. Thanks for visiting me at “…the house…” Have a good weekend.

D