Doug Bruns

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Thursday is Theme Day: Hemingway

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on January 24, 2013 at 6:00 am
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Yousuf Karsh’s famous portrait of Papa Hemingway

The (new) plan is to program Thursdays around a person, a thinker, writer, philosopher, a creative genius, a traveler–a person whose life was (or perhaps is) about the stuff that matters*–share some quotes,  lift a few words from a speech or lecture, perhaps recommend a few books by or about. In other words, on Thursdays, we’ll turn the podium over to an individual “the house” members might be interested in. That way you’ll get a break from my incessant navel gazing and auto-biographical-slash-memoir ramblings. (I hate the ungrammatical “/”.) Okay? I’ll try to bring you something fresh, and avoid the tired cut-and-paste lame Wikipedia entry.

Today we will begin the series with Mr. Hemingway (1899-1961).

To weigh in just a moment here (so difficult keeping my mouth shut!): I am, like so many others, more a fan of the man’s life than I am ofimgres his work. Of course Hemingway left us great writing. I am particularly fond, as I’ve mentioned before, of A Movable Feast. And of course the stories. The great short stories–marvelous stuff, indeed. But it is the life that has the grip on my imagination. (He was life outsized,  the Lady Gaga of his era.) He was no Montaigne; he did not talk about how to live outright, he showed us–at least his painful, dangerous, depressed-manic, genius version of life. So here are a few of Ernest Hemingway’s thoughts.

Oh hell…when I get excited it is difficult to stay with the program. Let’s first set this up with a quote from Joan Didion. We did just talk about her last week. When asked who most influenced her, Ms. Didion said:

I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time….I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.

Now on to Papa and his work habits:

imgres-4When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but fulling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Once, when asked about his style (of writing), Papa replied:

That is a long-term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self-conscious that you could not write. I might say that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardness in first trying to make something that has not heretofore been made. Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can see only the awkwardness. Then they are not so perceptible. When they show so very awkwardly people think these awkwardnesses are the style and many copy them. This is regrettable.

When talking about what writers he read, Hemingway launched into a who’s-who of influences:imgres-3

Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart, Quevedo, Dante, Vergil, Tintoretto, Hieronymus, Bosch, Brueghel, Patinir, Goya, Giotto, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, San Juan de la Cruz, Góngora–it would take a day to remember everyone. Then it would sound as though I were claiming an erudition I did not possess instead of trying to remember all the people who have been an influence on my life and work. This isn’t an old dull question. It is a very good but a solemn question and requires an examination of conscience. I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.

Hemingway & Gellhorn--the movie.

Hemingway & Gellhorn–the movie.

I’ve read a lot of Hemingway, but it is likely true that I have read more about him than by him. The great biography by Hemingway associate, Carlos Baker, is definitive. (Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, called it “the King James Version” of Hemingway’s life. Not everyone thought so highly of the book. Truman Capote said, “The Baker book was bad all the way through. It was dull, it was uninteresting, it was badly put together.” ) There are many others–at last count over 500!–more or less of value.  For me, however, one of the most interesting books about Hemingway is Denis Brian’s, The True Gen. It’s a collection of memories and reminiscences from friends, lovers, enemies, and wives. It’s heavy on gossip, but rounded out the man in a way I found compelling and brimming with insight.

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*If there was a tag line to “…the house…” it would be, We think about the stuff that matters. But wait!– whether you know it or not, we have a tag line, A Journal of Life Pursued. Can one have too many tag lines? Too many interests?

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

From a letter to a friend

In Books, Death, Life, Memoir, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 6, 2013 at 6:00 am

This is a repost. I put it up starting a Sunday tradition of reposting a favorite past entry. This particular post was brought to my attention by a close reader of …the house…. After yesterday’s post, Gravity Probe B, the wisdom of dogs, and other notions, this reader–paying extraordinary attention!–suggested I go back and read this piece, posted in August, 2010. It was particularly interesting to see the parallel between the two posts, spanning more than twenty-four months.  (Thanks, Kevin, for bringing it to my attention. You get an A!)

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“…it’s because we live too long, was, I think, what I said exactly. We live too long and thus have these artificial parts of which you speak and this scree (now there is a word I have not encountered since on the side of a mountain in Ecuador, the name of which escapes me, just remembering ropes and snow and a field of said scree), this scree, as I was saying, that inhabits our aging body–and mind, scree of the mind is, in particular, that of which I spoke to my beloved, commenting exactly, if memory serves, that one reason the practice of therapy is exercised is due to living long enough so as to grow concerned about what is happening between our ears. Our ancestors running full-bore across the savanna plains, just a foot-step in front of some hunger-dripping monster, never would think such a thing necessary; all that was necessary being a tall tree or a field of hidden peers with chiseled spear tips awaiting a fine meal of monster served up raw, or at least medium and pink in the center. Ero vero me minus diu senem esse mallem, quam esse senem antequarm essem. Or, before you go find your latin grammar: For my part, in truth, I would rather be old less long that be old before I am old. Ancient wisdom compliments of my man Montaigne, quoting Brutus. As I was about to say, we are terminal, it’s just a matter of degrees, or so I was reminded this afternoon while taking a stress test because I was experiencing stress of the cardiac nature, only to now better understand, I am/was experiencing stress of the stress nature. So, the pipes are clean and the stress is environmental and thus I am even better positioned to consider the nature of the immortals.

The way I see it, the only way to accomplish such a feat–immortality, the fruit of your low hanging branch–should one be inclined, is to put time in its rightful place, to stop the right-ward nature of that continuum and take notice of such a thing when it happens. The cliché of the Heraclitian river–a cliché becoming a cliché through the test of history and earning the degree–still holds. And that seems to be the nature of reality. Chaos is evident at the quantum level, but who really wants to go there? –particularly when young ladies full of blossom walk the streets of Portland, tan and lightly dressed, and of interest to the gods above who swoop down on them in slumber? What does it mean to say it is a good time to be mortal? When is it a bad time? Germany 1941? They didn’t think so, I suspect. When would it be a good time to be immortal? Oh, to be a god and swoop on young maidens!

There is only a finite amount of matter–carbon–in the universe. When you die you will continue in some fashion, albeit, one you won’t necessarily appreciate. Yet you will carry on, at least your atoms will, chaotic as they are, as you point out. And then, at some time when the river has flowed downstream and around the rock in the right bend, your parts will flow to some other place and you will continue. Little satisfaction in that, indeed.

Just because we have self-reflection and think we’re special because of it, we deem we should be bestowed with a soul, or some other medieval notion and that as a result, surely we are going to continue on somehow. Fertilize an acorn with my remains and I will carry on as an oak. And then perhaps I will be felled and made into pulp, from which I will be processed and pressed and used to absorb ink and bound with others of my ilk and will go into the world as a fashion of wisdom distribution. But then, I write like Dan Brown, so alas wisdom is not my venue, but entertainment. So, that’s settled. Let’s be entertained everyone. Cheers, and many happy returns,
Immortality, indeed.”

We are what we…

In Books, Literature, Reading, Writing on August 3, 2012 at 6:00 am

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Anne Dillard

Schopenhauer famously said that we are what we eat. But for a reader things are a different matter. A reader’s muscle is composed of pages, bones of bindings, blood of ink, thread for sinew. A reader is made of books consumed.

There are armfuls of books that fill my cells, that course through my blood, pound against my temples from the inside. The best I return to, like a favorite meal, a metaphor Schopenhauer would surely understand.

I have returned to one such feast, Annie Dillard‘s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Pilgrim won the Pulitzer in 1974. Dillard was twenty-nine. It is a breath-taking and beautifully written book and fills my current appetite to better understand the physical world I move through. Allow me to share an extended quote:

The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance. “Launch into the deep,” says Jacques Ellul, “and you shall see.”

Not all meals are equally satisfying, of course. Nor is nutrition evenly spread. I like a hearty meal, something that sticks to my ribs. I am not humorless, but have few deserts; nor am I given to starch. The books of my life seem endless in metabolic energy; like nuclear fusion they will burn long after my departure. Walden comes to mind. The essays of Montaigne. The Great White Whale, Moby Dick. And so many others. I eat and am never satisfied. Fortunately.

Blog as metaphor.

In Life, The Examined Life, Writing on May 26, 2012 at 6:00 am

Büyük Menderes River in Turkey (Meander River)

I read recently that a successful blog should have a core theme or topic, and that the postings should not stray far from the topic. Scanning the blogosphere I see the common wisdom in this. You can find and read a blog on any and all manner of themes. Yes, it appears that the successful blog stays on message: cooking, travel, sex, love, health, family, and so forth. It must be refreshing to be so singular. So limited.

Fortunately–or unfortunately–I have taken a different approach. Long before reading Nietzsche, I recognized the stink of the herd and trained myself to move in opposition. I confess to nurturing the contrary, seeking out the different. There is truth in resisting the pull of the common. If my blog is a metaphor for my life, I am a trained generalist, specializing in the nature of the other.

I have identified thirty themes to “…house….” (Located at the bottom of the home page.) They are:

I like that alphabetically dogs follows depression and precedes faith. At any point a reader can click on a theme and will be directed to relative posts. Of course it is a mishmash. I’m not a scholar or academic, given to a trained mind. Rather, I’m a person who embraces the meandering, nurtures a tangent, and exercises walking the crooked line. I realized years ago that I would never be really good at any particular thing. No matter my pursuit, falling short of mastery was to be my fate.

I am grateful that my major interests can be captured in thirty simple categories. A herd cannot navigate thirty options, ensuring that I’m free to make my own way. To this end, Harrison observed that the writer’s gift was one of “excessive consciousness.” Perhaps that is the difference between blogging and writing. But that is a stale semantic.

The generalist does not know what he thinks about a subject until he writes about it. This is the lesson of Montaigne and is the raison d’être for “…house….” I was asked recently about the title of this place, “…the house I live in….” A house is where we keep our junk, as well as our prized possessions. It’s where we sleep and shit and fidget and relax and ponder and love. A house is a place of refuge. It can be private or shared, boisterous or quiet, filled with light, or a place of lurking darkness. Pick a room in the house and you have a speciality, a kitchen, or a bedroom–but the architecture of house is encompassing. That’s why I titled this place as I did. I want to be encompassing.

It seems to have resonated with some. Readership has climbed significantly since the resurrection of the site. I find great comfort in this. One might avoid the herd, yet still appreciate the assurances of company. I salute my fellow generalists and applaud the meandering life.

Thanks for reading.

Curiosity has ceased. Contemplation has set in.

In Death, Life, Memoir, The Examined Life on May 21, 2012 at 7:00 am

I’m traveling…er no…got in last night. Late. Jet lagged to nth degree…coffee…

This is a repost.

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My cousin said to me a few weeks before she died, “When I come back I’m going to do it differently.” We chuckled over this. Sadly though, it was her confession of remorse, an admission of disappointment over the life she had lived–at least I think that was what she was saying. (The Latin from which the word remorse is derived means literally “to bite back.”) Later, at her death-bed, the pallid riddle was laid out for full inspection. I have to admit, as bad as it sounds, watching the death of my cousin was a curious, even interesting, thing. That was my reaction at the time, at the bedside. I thought it odd then–my reaction–and still do.

I recall that Diane Arbus sneaked into her dead father’s room to photograph his body–odd, yet understandable. My cousin’s death was over a year ago and I find myself thinking about it often, though the spectrum of reflection has shifted. Curiosity has ceased and contemplation has set in. Her death was a study; now it is a meditation. So much has been written on the subject, indeed, everything has been written in the shadow of death. I cannot add an iota of originality to the subject.

I am drawn to the idea of living life in preparation for its end. In some traditions this complex notion is reduced to something so mundane as a rote ideal, a doctrine, in the most extreme instances, denial. I guess there is nothing wrong with that, though mass consumption of rote ideals never seems to turn out as hoped, an observation I believe history supports. I am self-taught at everything so am stubborn as a result. I can’t accept a doctrine so much as rush down a blind alley, take a U-Turn or be lectured to. The big questions generate itches I must contort to reach.

I am reading both Montaigne and Nietzsche so one should not be surprised at such musings.