Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Beethoven’

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 meaning of doing a thing seriously…

In Creativity, Literature, Music, Photography, Thinkers, Writers, Writing on May 16, 2010 at 5:26 am

I was considering an application to grad school last week. I’m 54 and too old (or disinterested?) for school. Maybe. I dropped out of graduate school three times. That was many years ago, when the kids were younger. I think, really, I used them–the kids–as an excuse. Actually, I’m not very good at taking direction. I like to do what I want to do. I’m spoiled that way. And I have authority issues. Graduate school was too confining. But as I was explaining to a friend recently, I’m scattered, I’m all over the place and think some focus would serve me well. He took issue with my logic. He’s a recently retired academic, so he has some perspective. He argued that there are not enough people who simply are curious and pursue their curiosities, wherever they may lead. Academia is good at giving people direction, sometimes too good, he suggested. He has a point. I am a genius at self-imposed discipline. But I am a rebel at other-imposed discipline. I am curious and want to chase my curiosities down the rabbit hole. As I confessed, I’m spoiled that way.

I was saying, I was considering an application for a graduate program and one of the questions asked that I list my influences, intellectual and scholarly influences specifically. It was a good question. It gave me pause. I read a lot and always have. But, as I said, I’m all over the place. As an essayist, I’d have to list Montaigne, E.B. White , and Guy Davenport, as influences. Thinkers include Nietzsche and Thoreau. I’m a photographer too, and in that discipline I consider Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Eugene Smith as top drawer influences. Years ago, I studied classical music and counted Villa-Lobos, Sor and Segovia as influences. No matter the activity, I’ve attempted to recognize who has gone before me and learn from them.

Aside from the list making, the question gives one a chance to think about the meaning of doing a thing seriously–to write, or read, compete, compose, study, invent, discover–and how to measure that activity. If history is a progressive continuum, we are all subject to being measured against it. Has history made itself known personally? If you’re a photographer, whether you realize it or not, you take pictures with an established image-making knowledge. You’re a landscape photographer: Ansel Adams. A journalist: Cartier-Bresson, And so forth for all the disciplines. The application made me take notice of the voices whispering through the fog of the past.

For me, books are the most visual reminder of history’s influences. When I look at my shelves, the names and titles comfort me, like a friend’s hand on my shoulder. Above I used the phrase,  if history is a progressive continuum. When I see books on a shelf, or listen to a Beethoven sonata, history becomes the present, the wafer becomes the body and the wine the blood. If history is a continuum, I am, in these moments, one with it, one with the river in which I am wading. That is the nature of art. That is what makes a thing lasting and the opposite of the ephemeral. The influences of history, when we recognize and manifest them, cease to be passed. They become present. When we embody them, they are the end of history.

“What I am, I am by myself.”

In Life, Music, Religion, Thinkers, Travel on April 1, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Do you ever ask yourself what is the best we have to offer? The “we” here is the species, homo sapiens. I will pass completely on the who or what to whom we offer (the verb implying such: O.E., ofrian, from L. offerre “to present, bestow, bring before”). Not bringing this before anybody/-thing but myself, and I am the project here. Back to subject: What is the best we have to offer? I’ve been asking myself this lately and, assuming there is an answer, wondering why I’m not intent, no, hell-bent, on knowing better what that might be exactly. If you spend half your life living, maybe the second half, gods willing, should be spent trying to understand at least one true thing.

I speak as a Westerner, Norther Hemisphere. I think Confucius and the Buddha rank among the best, but, try as I might, I cannot connect there with a sense of well-intentioned synchronicity, if that makes any sense. And to a grown up kid from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, it makes sense to me, even if it doesn’t to you. (I have studied their work some, the Buddha in particular, gone to Deer Park at Varanasi, where he spent forty-years teaching. But there is a sense, synaptic probably, that inhabits the young mind grown old(er) that cannot readily adapt to new neural pathways.) So, travel aside (I’ve also walked the Via Dolorosa. That works no better, really. And ultimately we settle for what works–that is the nature of pragmaticism.), what settles and feels right? What makes sense. But I digress.

I’m coming to some conclusions and they are rudimentary. But they are a start. Socrates. Montaigne. Nietzsche. Beethoven. Mahler. Certainly Bach. Don’t you seek resonance with what preceded you? The big stuff, in particular? I want to connect with someone who got it. And I don’t accept mysticism. I think these guys got it. And many others.

“What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself,” said Beethoven. “There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.” What I am, I am by myself. That declaration gives me great consolation. But what is this thing, myself? I have failed the Greeks in their first and most important admonition, Know thyself. So, that said and done, plot a course and take coordinates. Set out and discover. If we indeed stand on the shoulders of those who proceeded, us, shoulders of the giants–should we choose to climb upon them–we must not take for granted the view. That for starters. The rest will follow.