Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Julian Barnes’

Foxhole Stoicism

In Death, Family, Life, Philosophy on January 17, 2013 at 6:00 am
Dad (and me in mirror)

Dad (and me in mirror)

My father is ninety years old and has a cold. It is an annual event, his cold. The rest of the year he remains healthy, but for a bit of arthritis and type-two diabetes. My father is stoic, though he could not necessarily tell you what stoicism is. He will tell you, however, that the classroom for this life lesson was a fox hole in the Ardennes Forest in 1943. Why define a concept when your life exemplifies it?

He surprised me yesterday during our visit. “I’m not afraid of death,” he said. “It’s dying that worries me.” My father does not typically talk this way, again the stoicism. But over the recent years he’s said enough to let me know that it is a subject he now entertains. He looked at me keenly.

“It’s been said, dad, that you’re either afraid of death, or your afraid of dying.” I didn’t bother to elaborate on other insights of Julian Barnes. He nodded. “It’s the suffering,” he said, before changing the subject.


Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

“The act of dying is one of the acts of life,” said the great Stoic, Marcus Aurelius (121 AD – 180 AD). He also preached the comfort of ignorance that is the void of pre-existence, birth, with the existential ignorance that will be the void of post-existence, death. That is, you didn’t fret over your non-existence before you were born, why would you fret over your non-existence after your demise?

I subscribe to this way of thinking and find a modicum of comfort in it. But I’ve recently discovered that there is a third concern in dying, not summarized in Barnes’s observation, nor taken up by the Stoics. (For the record, on death, I am not Woody Allen. Concerns of my eventual extinction do not color my thoughts all day long. But, like my father, as my days advance, so does my thinking on the subject.)

The American philosopher, Mark Johnston, makes this observation (as related in the book I finished reading last night, Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt): “The prospect of one’s own most [sic] death is perplexing and terrifying because it reveals that we are not, as we supposed, the fountainhead of the reality we inhabit, the center of the world..” Truthfully, who can’t help but fall into this trap, the concept of being at the center of the reality we inhabit? We have no other way in which to experience the world. He then delivers the body-blow: “It turns out that I am not the sort of thing I was unconsciously tempted to think I was.” How deeply we have given into that temptation seems, to me, proportional to the degree of terrifying perplexity death elicits.

“Know thyself,” advised the Oracle at Delphi. I attempt to march to this admonition, but stumble over what this self actually might be. Johnston’s observation underscores my inkling that at the root of this conundrum is the concept of the self–a concept that gets in the way and ultimately trips us up. It is not surprising that Holt closes Why Does the World Exist?, with an observation by a Buddhist monk: “The world is like a dream, an illusion. But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid-seeming.” It was the Buddha, lest we forget, who observed the self as a false concept.

Thanks for reading,


The state of my (reading) mind.

In Books, Creativity, Death, Literature, The Examined Life on March 7, 2012 at 6:00 am

I just left my local bookstore, Longfellow’s, empty-handed. That is significant and speaks to the current state of my mind. I finished reading a book last night and didn’t have one in waiting. That is unusual. It appears that I’m at a reading paralysis, brought on by irrational fears of mortality. Allow me to explain.

But first, the book I finished last night was the latest by Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending. It is a beautiful little book. I sat down and read it straight, stopping only to refresh my bourbon, also straight. (It was a marathon reading. I needed my electrolytes!) It is a novel of ideas, filtered through a simple but clever story. The first-person narration steadily works up to a crescendo, albeit muted. I liked it very much, but am puzzled that it won the Man Booker Prize. Geoff Dyer wondered too, saying as much in a review in the Times a few months ago. Even without Dyer’s echo, I could not but wonder at the scope of the work, or lack thereof. A prize like the Booker or the Pulitzer calls for a bigger canvas in my scheme of things.

Back to my mental state.

Reading is so important to me that I’ve become trapped by it. The problem specifically is absurd and in telling you I am revealing more than my nature usually permits. Perhaps breaking down the fourth wall, as they say in theater, is just the thing.

Do you ever worry, that should you die tomorrow, the last book might not be the right “last” book? Wouldn’t you want it to be something big and profound to send you off? Like Moby Dick, perhaps? That would be a good one. (Not an option, I just re-read that last summer.) Or Ulysses? Or Proust? (I simply don’t have the discipline to wade through those again–at least not while in such a fragile mental state.) Getting my drift? I told you it was absurd. The “next book” used to hold such promise; now it seems a dark test.

At fifty-six I am starting to plan for the end. Morbid? I think not. Just being prudent. What haven’t I read? What do I need to read? And I’m not just thinking titles. I’m thinking genres. Science, literature, philosophy, history and so on. The bigger question–and this is the important thing–the bigger question is: as a person who has gained most of his knowledge through books, what do I want to know next?

I’m curious by nature and I’ve spent a lot of time attempting to keep curiosity alive. Curiosity is an expectant little beast that needs attending to. Ignore it and it will die. Give it too much attention and you will die. It’s a balance. Moderation, said the Greeks and the Buddha. Where is my moderated curiosity leading me? And to that question, distressingly, I don’t have a solid feel-good answer.


As a side note, Philip Roth famously stated last summer that he no longer reads fiction. That created quite a stir in the lit community. Now, this morning, in a piece at The Daily Beast, Cormac McCarthy is quoted as saying, “I haven’t read a novel in years.” I don’t know what, if anything, to make of this situation.

Swann’s Way

In Books, Literature, Memoir, Writers on June 25, 2010 at 9:03 am

Yesterday morning I closed Julian Barnes’s intelligent and witty meditation on death and dying, Nothing to be Frightened Of. It was a second reading. There aren’t many second readings in my literary history. There are too many unread books vying for fresh attention. But occasionally  something about a book draws me back. With Barnes it was technical. I couldn’t put my finger on how he had done it, how he’d written such a well-informed book while also making it so richly personal and intimate. Reading it again pulled the curtain back and afforded me a view I couldn’t  appreciate the first go round. That accomplished, I closed Barnes and picked up Edmund White‘s little biography of Marcel Proust. It is one of Penguin Lives biographies.

Edmund White's Proust

Edmund White’s Proust

If you’re not familiar with the Penguin Lives editions you may want to check it out.  The series is a growing collection of short (150 pages give or take) biographies by respected scholars and writers on individuals of interest. There is Larry McMurty on Crazy Horse, Garry Wills on St. Augustine, Karen Armstrong on the Buddha, among many others. The biographies afford the reader a pithy overview of a life. I was finished with White’s Proust by dinner, something, I daresay, which would have made the verbose Proust double over with laughter. He had an odd habit, I read in the mini-bio, of laughing at a joke long past everyone else.

I read Proust about two years ago. To be precise, I read Swann’s Way, the first–450 page–volume of the 4500 page novel, “Remembrance of Things Past”. Some editions titled it, “In Search of Lost Time”. “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” begins the Moncrieff edition. Reading White prompted me  to pull Proust off the shelf. I weigh it in my hand, toying with the notion of re-reading it. I open it and glance at the flyleaf. In the delicate script of my mother’s hand I see a notation: From Mom & Dad, 12-25-81. Of Proust, White writes: “…he had more faith in the senses and in memory than in the intellect to experience ultimate truths.” It is supremely fitting that advancing those 4500 pages, etched in a thin fading ink, a memory is launched with a simple inscription, in my mother’s handwriting. Proust would have stopped laughing and, I hope, agreed. Supremely fitting.