Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘James Miller’

Like a language disappearing

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writing on February 22, 2012 at 7:13 am

I keep a journal. Recently I’ve been using a large Moleskine with thick unlined pages made for sketching and drawing. Ink does not bleed through these pages. Sometimes I sketch in it, but mostly I jot down ideas, quotes and notions. I like the heavy paper. It feels substantial. I mistakenly sometimes think that my ideas are substantial too just by putting them down on such fine paper.

As I sit here at my writing desk I look across my little room and see about two dozen journals on the shelf, in all manner of shape and size, going back many years. Tucked away behind the shelf in storage boxes are yellow pads–the journals of my youth–dozens of them. Back then, thirty years ago and more, I wrote with a pencil and now the oldest pages are hardly discernible. I get a sense of comfort looking at those lost words, marks fading like a language disappearing. I wonder why, after all the words and years of record keeping their disappearance gives me satisfaction? That is obviously at odds with the nature of making a record.

I recently read a short biography of RenĂ© Descartes. It’s in the book I’m currently reading, Examined Lives by James Miller. Descartes kept a journal at his side at all times. He gave it the name Olympia. He sought a quiet life and often lived like a fugitive, going from place to place, in an effort to escape his fame and pursue his thought-filled solitude. After moving to the Netherlands he wrote in his journal: “I have been able to lead a life as solitary and withdrawn as if I were in the most remote desert.”

I used to be obsessed with leaving evidence of my existence. That was part of what was behind the journals. That obsession, thankfully, no longer haunts me. To the contrary, I am hard at pursuing a course of singular autonomy which seems a lighter and looser obsession. Certainly it does not haunt me. The autonomy I seek feels the antithesis of my previous obsession, a sort of independence of history. But maybe that is just a hopeful imagination at work.

Here is a verse from a poem by Barton Sutter that captures the nuance of what I’m trying to convey. The poem is called TheThousand-foot Ore Boat.

To live until we die–

The job seems just impossible.

The great weight of the past

Pushing us forward, the long future

Thrust out before us, so little room to either side!

The autonomy I suggest is freedom from the weight of the past while avoiding the rush to the future. There is little about modern life that affords this notion of freedom. Perhaps that is the hook of my attention, being a simplistic contrarian. Regardless, one of the (few) benefits of maturation is coming to accept the inconsistencies of (my) life.


Just as a note: the words “singular autonomy,” used above, were pulled from my current notebook. The one with the thick pages. As a rebellious exercise against Cartesian methodology I choose not to give it a name.