Doug Bruns

Search for “Socrates”

Leaning in to wisdom.

In Creativity, Literature, Music, Nature, Philosophy, Photography, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Wisdom, Writing on February 25, 2012 at 11:12 am

I’m writing an interview with the photographer Thatcher Cook . He just published his first book, Black Apple.  We’re wrapping it up and in a couple of weeks the interview will be published at Obscura Press.  I’ll let you know when it goes up. Thatcher is a thoughtful and reflective individual. Those interested in the creative life will, I think, appreciate the interview.

I mention this because one of the questions I asked him–Who are your influences?–got me thinking. An artistic or intellectual influence is a profound thing. There is that quote by Newton, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” An influence is a connection to a tradition, like the old-world apprenticeship but perhaps without the hands-on mentoring. I think about the artistic and intellectual influences in my life this way. It seems a fashion of constructing meaning in an otherwise (potentially) vacuous arena. The writing life, the wanderings of the documentary photographer, the hours of studio work the artist puts in, or the musician alone in her room practicing. These are painfully lonely pursuits. If for nothing else, reaching back affords a sense of community.

If you’ve been following these dispatches you know there are a handful writers and thinkers who have left their mark on me, inspired me, who have taught and guided me–and continue to do so.  I think it is good to reflect deeply toward those who have traveled the path before us. I say “reflect deeply toward” and not “reflect deeply upon” for a purpose. It’s only a turn of phrase, but when I think about, say, Henry David Thoreau, or E.B. White, I picture myself leaning into them, listening to them. It is an image that links us, like Plato leaning into the circle as he listens to Socrates at the Agora. This is my teacher. What is he saying? Last summer I spent some time in the north woods of Maine. I was on the trail of Thoreau. I camped at Lilly Bay, a spot he mentions in The Maine Woods. He was my guide and inspiration and it seemed his voice clearer while in his footsteps, as I leaned in.

And there are others. There is Montaigne and Nietzsche for their thoughts, Schubert and Beethoven for their guts, Wallace Stevens for the art of the word and Audubon (and Thoreau) for a life of meaning in nature. E.B. White teaches me the art of the essay (so much to learn) and, more contemporarily, Jim Harrison shows me what a life lived large should look like. My point is, it is important to draw upon wisdom and example deeply if you wish to experience and perhaps build upon what has come before you.

I am getting preachy, and I don’t care for that. I must climb down off this box of soap. To cite one of my mentor influences: But what do I know? (Montaigne)

The thoughts in my pointy little head.

In Books, Life, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Writing on February 19, 2012 at 10:14 am

So, maybe it wasn’t retirement but a sabbatical? Or, how about this, The first breakup never lasts? Regardless, since shutting this journal down (journal–not the right word, but close) two months ago, I’ve been thinking a good bit about what I was doing here and why I was doing it.  It was on this morning’s walk–the sun coming up, patches of snow here and there, Lucy running about fancy free and then my first robin of  (dare I say it?) spring–it was on this morning’s walk that I realized how much I miss the venue. What did I miss?

First, while writing this blog (God, I hate that word, blog, it is ugly, overused and common.) I paid more attention–more attention to life, to nature, to the books I was reading and the thoughts that were coursing through my pointy little head.

Secondly, and obviously, the discipline of the writing kept me on a course, albeit a meandering course, of discovery. It was an outlet, a place to exercise a notion or two about whatever was going on at the moment. Without that discipline I’m more inclined to glide along like the dumb-ass mother nature made of me. (Who cannot resist the temptation for self-improvement?)

Too, I quit the writing here because I wanted to save up the writing energy for other projects. That still concerns me, there being only so much time and energy in a day. The net effect, however, seems that the other writing comes and goes regardless of what I do here–or don’t do.

Lastly, I missed the little community of this place. We were a nice group, good-looking enough, demographically all over the board, a hearty group with brio and a penchant for interesting conversation. That community, whether real or virtual, served up a sense of place and I miss that.

So, here goes, gonna give it another go.

__________________________

One of the things I’ve learned during this hiatus is the value of an understood purpose. That is, as it pertains to this journal, having a surer path, a sense of definition. What’s it about? And for you, dear reader, whiling away a fraction of your finite mortality here, why visit this place?

The answer lies in a question, my personal BIG question, the one I’ve been asking myself since my eighth birthday (I’ll share that story in a future posting): How should I live my life?

The lesser question is: what are the themes and vehicles with which to tackle the big question? (Remember Socrates’s observation that the unexamined life is not worth living? Well, how does one do that? How do you examine a life such as to make it more worthy?)

It boils down to a small handful of themes and that’s the stuff I want to spend time on here:

  • Reading and writing
  • Nature and the out-of-doors
  • Groundbreakers: Thinkers, troublemakers & adventurers

(Thank you, Susan. Your comments this past week made all this jell. (If you’ve ever wondered: Is it jell or gell, check here.))

Okay, that’s all for now. Stay tuned. And thanks for reading!

Existential Origins

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Wisdom on August 7, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Socrates famously declared, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Twenty-five hundred years later Albert Camus begins The Myth of Sisyphus with the assertion that, “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Cynically, one might ask if Socrates, by drinking the hemlock–the death sentence imposed by the state, rather than arguing for clemency–presaged Camus’s existential challenge? Might he have failed in the examined life he sought? We know the factors leading up to his sentence. And we recognize the virtue–as he defined it, arete, an informed moral knowledge that sees with clarity–motivating the course he took. Yet, they are curious bookend observations.

I am again reminded of Camus’s notebook fragment: “…That wild longing for clarity.”

The Limit of Anything is not a Natural Place

In Books, Reading, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Writers, Writing on May 6, 2010 at 2:54 pm

I’m told the key to writing a good blog is to know a subject and stick to it. A blog should be focused and appeal to an audience interested in the subject. Well, that’s two strikes against me.

What am I doing here–here being the blog (although “here” being life is also under consideration)–and why am I doing it? I’ve been toying with these questions. It’s my way of sorting things out, toying with them. I go to other blogs and they are about something. Politics, culture, travel, finance, and so on. I have nothing so sexy going for me as all that. This blog is about me writing about me. That is, recursively–it’s about writing (not the explicit discussion of, but the practice), and the reading behind the writing. Secondly, and thoroughly intertwined, it’s about a life, my life. Together they make something of which I am unsure. I am the student of that something, trying to be more sure.

On the writing side of the quest–and it is a quest–I have been enamored with the idea of writing fiction, the novel specifically, all my life. Being enamored of a thing does not make it so. Despite attempting to train for the long haul, as Hemingway admonished, I have no endurance. If a gene for genre exists, mine would be inherited from Montaigne, albeit in such a diluted form as hardly perceptible. I am an essayist. And to make matters worse, in this day and age of the navel-gazing memoirist, I, if pushed for a confession, am most guilty of committing the crime of the personal essay. There, I said it and feel better for it.

The reading behind the writing is found throughout the postings here. I’ve said it elsewhere, I am–and have been–a lot of things over the years. The one thing that remains, and steadily so, is me the reader.

If this were simple math, the denominator in this quest fraction, is my life. Can I understand it better? How? Here’s the framework I like to use: Socrates’s admonition: The unexamined life is not worth living. He did not  say, Answer the question of life; rather question it, examine it. He didn’t say, Develop a flow chart,  or create a matrix. There are no three-ring binders with tabs in this project. He exhorted, simply: Examine life. Accept nothing less than an adequate account. It is an open and expansive thought. Contrariwise, it is drilled into us from childhood, seek and find, question and answer, open and close. Those are closed equations, for lack of a better phrase. For me, the power of Socrates is the open equation: examine.

Often, for me, to examine is simply to be awake to life. If nature instills a sense of wonder, it is a function of examination to be aware of wonderment. Just as often, the notion of the examined life is less effortless and more grinding, a struggle to be more authentic. Authenticity is, in my math, the result of life multiplied by examination. Authenticity is the anthesis of complexity, I think, and is, as Sartre, said, at the limits of language. That is the grind. The limit of anything is not a natural place.

So, back to where I started, the nature of this blog. To summarize, it–the blog, “…the house…“–is the notebook in which I work out my quest to examine a life wishing to be authentic. My tools are ancient and simple: the words I cobble together.

What now?

Persephone returns!

In Creativity, Literature, Music, Mythology, Nature, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Writers on May 2, 2010 at 5:49 am
Persephone, the abduction.

Persephone, the abduction.

Spring settles on me with an irrational anxiousness. Maybe, to think about it, it’s not all that irrational. The symbolism of Spring is a big deal. For instance, in ancient myth, the onset of Spring is due to the return of Persephone, Zeus’s daughter, to the earth. She has been abducted by Hades and taken to the Underworld. (She was a babe.) Zeus demands her return, a demand Hades obeys, knowing it best to keep Zeus off his back. But first Hades tricks Persephone into eating pomegranate seeds, which ensures her return. Before her abduction, Persephone tended her garden, planting seeds and generally being a goddess of nature, the original Earth Mother. When she escapes the Underworld and wicked Hades, she returns with flowers. Spring arrives. But alas, she was tricked into eating those seeds and so, sadly, she will eventually return to Hades. And the Earth will grow cold. Again.

I said Spring makes me anxious. Its arrival seems a big deal in some fashion. And as a big deal, I feel beholding to do right by it, by the season and what it symbolizes. That’s why I said it is irrational: I’ve laden Spring with a good deal of portentous heaviness. Or maybe not–maybe I’m not being irrational. Maybe being serious about rebirth and escaping winter and living to see another season should be taken seriously. The ancients thought so. Persephone escapes to return to her aggrieved mother, Demeter. She escapes Hades and his unmentionable Underworld demands. Most of all, she returns to Mother Earth with renewed life–things of a serious nature all.

________

It was in this context that I took a magic marker and drew a line about four feet long, horizontal, on the wall of my office-man-cave. To the far left  of the line I wrote Antiquity. To the far right: Death. The end of the line for me. Then I started to make some notes along the line, left to right. Confucius, Socrates, Jesus, moving right, through the dark ages with the Black Plague death of William of Ockham, to the happier days of the Renaissance, Alberti, , Erasmus, Michelangelo and my personal favorite, Montaigne, fast-forward to the Romantics, Beethoven, Brahms and the bunch, to Goethe, Liszt, rushing to the moderns, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Stravinsky, faster now, Joyce, Hemingway, Picasso, Cage, Nabokov, and so on until the line stops. Game over. Under all this I put big labels, Iron Age, Dark Ages, Industrial Revolution, Age of Flight and so on. Lastly, I made note of the major things: the Gutenberg Bible, Columbus, Landing on the moon, the atom bomb, the silicon chip.

Spring. The time-line. A life and a context. The more I think on it, Spring is a big deal. It is a reminder, a connecting thread to the tapestry of our humanness, the time-line to which we all subscribe. Spring ushers in fresh growth, a return to life and the overarching scheme of things.  On my small and personal scale, I am simply curious about where I fit in, about the history of the species and how I am delivered to this place, here in the sun, observing Persephone tend her garden.

Thursday Grace Notes

In Books, Death, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Wisdom on April 29, 2010 at 1:20 pm

There is a phrase that caught my eye in a book I’m reading: “…the search for lives lived as art.” It comes from the biography of the Renaissance writer, artist, and builder, Leo Battista Alberti, by Anthony Grafton. Grafton is commenting on the observation of a previous Alberti biographer, Jacob Burckhardt. The full passage reads: “Burckhardt saw the full aesthetic development of personality as the Renaissance’s highest creative work; the search for lives lived as art, rather than a precise analysis of texts.” Lives lived as art–I love that.

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-A SHORT HISTORY OF AN IDEA-

Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you. ~ Confucius (551 – 479BC)

Do not do to others that which angers you, when done to you. ~ Isocrates (Greek philosopher, 436 – 338 BC)

And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. ~ Jesus Christ (Luke 6:31)

Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you. ~ Muhammad (570 – 632)

* * *

At dinner with friends last night, we were talking about the passage of time and that it has been six months since our friends got their new dog. “Six months!” I blurted out. Then, perhaps because of an excess of wine, I remarked: “Six months closer to death.” I was met with blank stares and gaping mouths. Note to self: Just because I think it’s an important concept, does not mean I can stomp all over the conversation. And on that note: “Death is not an event in life.” ~ Wittgenstein

* * *

And lastly, I’ve been going through some old journals and found this passage from December, 1980: “The solution to the problems of modernity are usually thought to be: God, democracy, socialism, sex, art, family, economic growth. But these in fact are the problems, not the solution.” I still wrestle with this problem, “the solution to the problems of modernity,” and am disappointed that in thirty years I’ve made no progress.