Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Know Thyself’

Matters of Importance

In Life, The Examined Life on September 2, 2014 at 6:08 am

I live for this time of year, the beginning of fall, the end of summer, my least favorite season. Fall, and behind it, winter, give me permission to be my real self, the self that likes the dark, the cold, and the comfort of the hearth. A few years ago I swiped my inner cheek and sent the sample to a lab. They reported that my DNA concentration rested somewhere in Northern Europe, thirty degrees north longitude or so in Sweden or Norway or some such place. It is highly likely that nationalistic geography wasn’t a factor when my dark ancestors were mixing the blood and semen and sparking the gray matter that would eventually become the stuff of me. That might explain the draw to places dark and cool, if not cold–hence my happiness at the season’s homecoming.

A boat passed under my kitchen window while I prepared dinner last evening. I looked up from my cutting board. According to the stern, the boat’s name was Carpe Diem. Seize the Day–a common admonition among those given to easy motivation. I am by nature suspect of simple perspectives. Of course, seizing the day is better than letting it crash over you mindlessly. But it is more my nature to simply be ready, to be prepared for the day’s presentations as best I am able. That seems the better nature of things. One does not seize the fragile butterfly.

Aside from my comments above, it has been a good summer. There was time spent in wilderness, not enough perhaps, but sufficient to take the edge off. Too, significant advances were made toward matters of importance: reading, thinking, time spent with people I love, dogs on the run, and breathtaking sunrises. That’s the stuff of the last breath, the stuff I hope will rest with me when all the other stuff turns to ash.

What do I know?

In Books, Family, Life, Literature, Memoir, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life on May 21, 2010 at 5:45 am

I am not a philosopher, not a historian, nor properly trained intellectual. I am a middle-aged man who has read widely, traveled widely, raised a family, started, ran and sold a business, sustained a three decades-long-and-counting marriage, escaped major illness and loss, loved dogs, privacy and leisure. I have no special training, no unique abilities. I have struggled through life like everyone else who has inherited no family wealth, no special calling, no unique talent. I have a good head on my shoulders and I have endeavored to make it better. A constant goal has been to find the world more interesting than I fear it truly is. This requires an approach that is at once creative without fancy, pragmatic without rigidity, fun without folly. In the main, I have struggled to mold a life that, at any time, should it end abruptly, I could in those waning moments of consciousness, reflect that it–my life–has indeed been full and well-lived. Life has not always been an engaging endeavor, but even when it wasn’t, even when its veneer was found dull and common, I believed that in some fashion, if I searched thoroughly enough, dug sufficiently deep, I would realize it to be more than it appeared at first blush. This motive for a life of substance has not been a random nor cursory adventure. It has been orchestrated. I drew it, as best I was able, specific to the canvas of my life, idiosyncratic and tailor-made.  As Montaigne asked, What do I know? I have attempted to know myself. That was the admonition of the Greeks and it still retains a profound timeliness. I have taken it to heart. Ultimately, it is all I have.

“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.

A Life in Terms of Fiction

In Literature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Writing on July 11, 2009 at 11:21 pm

The notion interests me that the ancient Greeks judged their philosophers by their lives, as well as their intellectual contribution. Kierkegaard noted that Socrate’s “whole life was [a] personal preoccupation with himself…” Likewise, Rembrandt made more than ninety self-portraits, far more than any other artist. One art historian, Manuel Gasser, wrote that “Over the years, Rembrandt’s self-portraits increasingly became a means for gaining self-knowledge, and in the end took the form of an interior dialogue: a lonely old man communicating with himself while he painted.”  Rembrandt, employing the tools he knew best, made of himself a study.

The Greeks admonished, “Know thyself.” The study of one’s self is a discipline of the highest order. It would be easy to fall into a semantic trap here. Define your terms, I’ve been counseled. What is this self that so interests you? For our purposes, we know what we mean and I am not going down that philosophical rathole. Who am I and what do I make of the answer to that question?–that is the oil being brushed onto this canvas. Academically, this is the ontological branch of philosophy, sprung from the questionable tree of metaphysics. Metaphysics means above the physical and that is territory I find generally disagreeable and prone to dead ends. Yet I am drawn to the ancient charge of the Greeks and cannot leave it alone, as Rembrandt apparently could not turn away from his own image.

Artists did not depict themselves as the main subject of their work until the early fifteenth century, which correlates with the rise of individual wealth and power. A hundred or so years later Montaigne made himself the center of his literary work, creating a new genre in the process. In the early twentieth century Joyce declared that “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” I cannot easily meld Joyce’s artist-God with Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Can the artist be front and center and invisible at the same time?

I am an autodidact and feeling my way along here. At center of it, I don’t care about academic discussions, though a reader at this point must be already tapped out by my seemingly endless runs down dark alleys mapped chiefly in the distant and shrouded structures of rhetoric. If it’s not yet apparent, the nature of this exercise is one of self-portraiture, old fashioned style. Raising a family of three kids and sustaining a marriage has not afford me time to pare my nails in distant observation. I have dirt under my nails. This project reflects a modern pace, whereby one gets a thing done without a lot of fancy dancing around the subject. In this instance the subject being me. Some say the advent of the self-portrait correlates to the improvements of polished silvering in the manufacturing of mirrors. I am trying to polish my mirror and determine exactly what it holds. Interestingly, Van Gogh’s self-portraits are all of the left side of side of his face, the right side sporting the mutilated ear. Can a person look so deeply inside, yet expect to hide the obvious?

I once thought it would make for a successful literary project to write a biography of a fictitious person. Of course, Gertrude Stein pioneered the idea with her Autobiography of Alice B. TolkasBut this project would be a platform to explore a life composed out of a wishful existence. In doing so, in a fictive biography of a fictive person, two things happen, both of which, I think, can happen in real life. One: a life can be created and molded with intent. And, Two: a determined study of that life can be made. As I stated, both can be done in reality, without the fiction; however, rarely do we think of “creating” our life, and even more rarely do we consider studying it. Here is the premise: create a compelling individual, having lived an interesting life, and write the biography of that person to explain all the things which came together to make the person who he, or she, was. Garnish the story with a bit of dramatic tension and dive in. To wit, page one, paragraph one:

 “On the night James Whitmore Norton died, presumably before he discovered that he had been betrayed, he made this entry in his journal: There was smoke, or dust, I don’t know which, spotted in the foothills late this afternoon. The sun went down before we could investigate and tonight we retire to our rooms nurturing a sense of dread and foreboding. According to Phan Chí Düng who was tending the downstairs bar, shortly after Norton went to his room there was a noise heard from upstairs, described “like a small rumble of thunder” by Düng, after which a fire broke out and quickly spread through the upstairs engulfing Norton’s suite. It remains a curiosity that Norton’s journals where found stashed in the mini bar where they survived the conflagration. Norton, however, did not survive. The circumstances surrounding his death have never been suitably explained. It is commonly believed, however, that despite the public adoration and international acclaim in securing the Nobel Prize a half dozen years earlier, Norton’s enemies remained committed to their public vow to finish him off.”

I’ve often thought of my life in terms of fiction. It makes it more plastic, more like the image in the stone awaiting release by the artist. I suspect there is a physiological distinction for this condition. It is probably detrimental to one’s well being to think this way for too long. Like so many interesting things, it should be avoided as a rigorous practice. But it is indeed fun and lends the fictive thinker down a curious and interesting path. I have tried to instill in my kids the notion that life is not shaped entirely by the external; that the internal life is likewise to be developed and shaped. Creativity is necessary for that. Contrary to Henry James’s dictum that all fiction is trivia, fiction as a manner in which to consider the shaping of one’s life is insightful. It has been my observation though that few individuals consider this option at length.

The circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of James Whitmore Norton have yet to be suitably explained.