Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Eugene Smith’

…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.

“A great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up.” ~Albert Schweitzer

In Family, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers on April 24, 2010 at 9:56 pm

There is an extended scene towards the end of  25th Hour, the 2002 Spike Lee movie that captures my imagination. The Ed Norton character is reporting to prison in upstate New York, being driven there by his father, played by Brian Cox. In the scene, his father says, “Just say the word, say the word and we will take the GW Bridge and head west and start a new life.” The father describes this life the Ed Norton character is to carve out for himself, a life in which he will start completely fresh, grow old and never ever again come home. This notion has dogged me for some time. That is to say, long before watching this movie, the idea of starting over, taking a different approach, a reincarnation of sorts, has needled me. I’ve posted some notes on this previously and promise not to be redundant (I hope).

Schweitzer, photographed by the great Eugene Smith.

I don’t know exactly when, but the life of Albert Schweitzer came to my attention at a very early age. The Schweitzer pithy details are as follows: He had three distinct lives. One, Schweitzer was a world-class scholar of Biblical texts. His book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, a text still in print, set the standard for scholarship on the topic. His second life was that of a musician. In this incarnation, Schweitzer became an internationally recognized interpreter of Bach’s organ music. He traveled and performed throughout Europe, recording performances and writing books of Bach scholarship. Lastly, the third life, is the Eugene Smith image of the Doctor Schweitzer we recognize, (he had two Ph.Ds and an M.D.) the pith-helmeted doctor of the Congo, hellbent on building hospitals and curing malaria. I find Schweitzer and his life(s) hugely compelling.

How is it that some get so many chances? And how does one get more? Is it as simple as driving across the GW Bridge and heading west? Two years ago my son, Tim, grew weary of the congested helter-skelter life in the Mid-Atlantic. He loaded his truck with his belongings, his dog and headed west in the great American tradition. He didn’t know it was the great American tradition, but of course it is. Out out he drove and filling his gas tank in Colorado he looked up at the mountains, turned and looked down Main street to the end, turned again and looked up Main street to the other end and thought, This is it. He stayed and started over.

It is said the only way of attaining immortality in this life is to be present, to exist precisely in a moment, and in doing so, experience the cessation of time. I find this idea somehow akin to the notion of driving west with your father at the wheel, escaping prison and starting over. Or, loading up your truck and going out, away, with your dog and becoming someone else. But not entirely. Like the sunrise, immortality appears ripe in the promise of the new. But too the sun rises to overhead, then sets.

Regardless, the nature of things, I think, is such that we can do a lot with what we are dealt. We likely won’t end up in the Congo. We may not find ourselves in Colorado. But, closer to home, we start over all the time. On the cellular level we do it. The cells of the body replace themselves. It is self-defense. Depending on the cell type, pancreas, liver, brain, cells come, they go, faster, slower. They regenerate. Old ones expire, new ones are created. In summary, about every seven years (a reverse dog year) we are new–physically, that is.The ancient texts intoned that everything is and isn’t simultaneously. Not to reach too far afield, the point being, physically we are always freshening ourselves up, even as we grow old. Can we not manifest that on a larger scale?–(re)fresh, cure malaria?, even as the sun passes overhead and settles on the horizon. It is, of course, not so easy as all that. That’s talk and talk is, as the adage goes, not very expensive. When it comes down to it, it’s not really so much about the change-up. It is more about the desire, the stretching, I think.

I see the heavy hand of the existentialists in all this, the idea that the person is nothing but what he or she makes of existence–the notion that existence comes first (not I think, there I am, but I am therefore I think). Regardless of how one comes down philosophically, there is that other great American tradition, the one of rolling your sleeves up and making something of yourself. Perhaps it is no more complicated than the constant effort of not letting the rock roll back over you.


I re-read all this and think of Montaigne. But “what do I know?” he said.