Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Montaigne’

A Little Recompense.

In Death, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on February 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

The loss of my friend Michael is proving difficult. I observe that I cannot fully discern the undercurrents of emotion in the immediate. The deepest current is revealed slowly, a bit at a time. To paraphrase Tolstoy, we are joyous in the collective, but can only realize sorrow alone.

I am reminded of a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, who upon learning of the death of one of his monk disciples, broke down and wept. His students were shocked, expecting that the Lama would be above such stark emotionalism. He was, after all, living a life of purposeful un-attachment. “But I miss him,” replied the tearful Lama with beautiful simplicity. Perhaps a part of us thinks that others more enlightened, more wise, have learned a fashion of dealing with grief that will guide us. But I don’t think so. We can seek and find comfort, certainly, however ultimately we sit as the Lama sat and can only say, “I miss him.”

The Stoics devised mind games and mental tricks to jog our thoughts out of grief, but acknowledged that, in the main, we are impotent in our efforts to control our emotions. This lack, they held, as well as the human tendency to ignore the present moment, is what thwarts consistent human happiness. A Stoic behaves like the strong man who tenses his stomach muscles and invites a punch. But grief sneaks up and throws a fist before we have a chance of bracing for it. Despite that, I like Seneca‘s approach to dealing with matters out of his control. He was asthmatic, and attacks brought him close to death on several occasions. But he learned to treat each attack philosophically. While gasping for breath, he would release himself into the attack, saying yes to it. He would think himself dying from it, giving himself up to it, almost willing it. And when it receded he enjoyed the strength of winning the battle. He had defeated fear. This, I acknowledge, is little recompense in the face of grief. But it is something.

Likewise, Montaigne, upon losing his dear friend, La Boétie, creatively embraced his grief, declaring that when “a painful notion takes hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than to subdue it.” Thus he spun the dross of grief into threads of gold. It is not an overstatement to say that his great literary contribution, The Essays, resulted directly from the loss of La Boétie. In his great essay, Of Friendship, Montaigne famously writes

If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.

And though history is grateful at the monumental effort that is The Essays, such a creative response did not assuage fully Montaigne’s grief. Indeed, eighteen years later, while traveling abroad, he wrote in his diary, “This same morning, writing to Monsier d’Ossat, I was overcome by such painful thoughts about Monsieur de La Boétie, and I was in this mood so long, without recovering, that it did me much harm.”

The difficulty of my philosophy is that I shall not choose when to be present and when to run. How can one fully realize what human existence holds, if when it deals you a blow, you turn away? When I sat down at breakfast with Michael two weeks ago, the first words out of his mouth were, “I’m leading the examined life!” It was in this fashion he declared himself a member of our tribe. He would, I know, be the first to reprimand me if I turned away.

From a letter to a friend

In Books, Death, Life, Memoir, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 6, 2013 at 6:00 am

This is a repost. I put it up starting a Sunday tradition of reposting a favorite past entry. This particular post was brought to my attention by a close reader of …the house…. After yesterday’s post, Gravity Probe B, the wisdom of dogs, and other notions, this reader–paying extraordinary attention!–suggested I go back and read this piece, posted in August, 2010. It was particularly interesting to see the parallel between the two posts, spanning more than twenty-four months.  (Thanks, Kevin, for bringing it to my attention. You get an A!)

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“…it’s because we live too long, was, I think, what I said exactly. We live too long and thus have these artificial parts of which you speak and this scree (now there is a word I have not encountered since on the side of a mountain in Ecuador, the name of which escapes me, just remembering ropes and snow and a field of said scree), this scree, as I was saying, that inhabits our aging body–and mind, scree of the mind is, in particular, that of which I spoke to my beloved, commenting exactly, if memory serves, that one reason the practice of therapy is exercised is due to living long enough so as to grow concerned about what is happening between our ears. Our ancestors running full-bore across the savanna plains, just a foot-step in front of some hunger-dripping monster, never would think such a thing necessary; all that was necessary being a tall tree or a field of hidden peers with chiseled spear tips awaiting a fine meal of monster served up raw, or at least medium and pink in the center. Ero vero me minus diu senem esse mallem, quam esse senem antequarm essem. Or, before you go find your latin grammar: For my part, in truth, I would rather be old less long that be old before I am old. Ancient wisdom compliments of my man Montaigne, quoting Brutus. As I was about to say, we are terminal, it’s just a matter of degrees, or so I was reminded this afternoon while taking a stress test because I was experiencing stress of the cardiac nature, only to now better understand, I am/was experiencing stress of the stress nature. So, the pipes are clean and the stress is environmental and thus I am even better positioned to consider the nature of the immortals.

The way I see it, the only way to accomplish such a feat–immortality, the fruit of your low hanging branch–should one be inclined, is to put time in its rightful place, to stop the right-ward nature of that continuum and take notice of such a thing when it happens. The cliché of the Heraclitian river–a cliché becoming a cliché through the test of history and earning the degree–still holds. And that seems to be the nature of reality. Chaos is evident at the quantum level, but who really wants to go there? –particularly when young ladies full of blossom walk the streets of Portland, tan and lightly dressed, and of interest to the gods above who swoop down on them in slumber? What does it mean to say it is a good time to be mortal? When is it a bad time? Germany 1941? They didn’t think so, I suspect. When would it be a good time to be immortal? Oh, to be a god and swoop on young maidens!

There is only a finite amount of matter–carbon–in the universe. When you die you will continue in some fashion, albeit, one you won’t necessarily appreciate. Yet you will carry on, at least your atoms will, chaotic as they are, as you point out. And then, at some time when the river has flowed downstream and around the rock in the right bend, your parts will flow to some other place and you will continue. Little satisfaction in that, indeed.

Just because we have self-reflection and think we’re special because of it, we deem we should be bestowed with a soul, or some other medieval notion and that as a result, surely we are going to continue on somehow. Fertilize an acorn with my remains and I will carry on as an oak. And then perhaps I will be felled and made into pulp, from which I will be processed and pressed and used to absorb ink and bound with others of my ilk and will go into the world as a fashion of wisdom distribution. But then, I write like Dan Brown, so alas wisdom is not my venue, but entertainment. So, that’s settled. Let’s be entertained everyone. Cheers, and many happy returns,
Immortality, indeed.”

Blog as metaphor.

In Life, The Examined Life, Writing on May 26, 2012 at 6:00 am

Büyük Menderes River in Turkey (Meander River)

I read recently that a successful blog should have a core theme or topic, and that the postings should not stray far from the topic. Scanning the blogosphere I see the common wisdom in this. You can find and read a blog on any and all manner of themes. Yes, it appears that the successful blog stays on message: cooking, travel, sex, love, health, family, and so forth. It must be refreshing to be so singular. So limited.

Fortunately–or unfortunately–I have taken a different approach. Long before reading Nietzsche, I recognized the stink of the herd and trained myself to move in opposition. I confess to nurturing the contrary, seeking out the different. There is truth in resisting the pull of the common. If my blog is a metaphor for my life, I am a trained generalist, specializing in the nature of the other.

I have identified thirty themes to “…house….” (Located at the bottom of the home page.) They are:

I like that alphabetically dogs follows depression and precedes faith. At any point a reader can click on a theme and will be directed to relative posts. Of course it is a mishmash. I’m not a scholar or academic, given to a trained mind. Rather, I’m a person who embraces the meandering, nurtures a tangent, and exercises walking the crooked line. I realized years ago that I would never be really good at any particular thing. No matter my pursuit, falling short of mastery was to be my fate.

I am grateful that my major interests can be captured in thirty simple categories. A herd cannot navigate thirty options, ensuring that I’m free to make my own way. To this end, Harrison observed that the writer’s gift was one of “excessive consciousness.” Perhaps that is the difference between blogging and writing. But that is a stale semantic.

The generalist does not know what he thinks about a subject until he writes about it. This is the lesson of Montaigne and is the raison d’être for “…house….” I was asked recently about the title of this place, “…the house I live in….” A house is where we keep our junk, as well as our prized possessions. It’s where we sleep and shit and fidget and relax and ponder and love. A house is a place of refuge. It can be private or shared, boisterous or quiet, filled with light, or a place of lurking darkness. Pick a room in the house and you have a speciality, a kitchen, or a bedroom–but the architecture of house is encompassing. That’s why I titled this place as I did. I want to be encompassing.

It seems to have resonated with some. Readership has climbed significantly since the resurrection of the site. I find great comfort in this. One might avoid the herd, yet still appreciate the assurances of company. I salute my fellow generalists and applaud the meandering life.

Thanks for reading.

Curiosity has ceased. Contemplation has set in.

In Death, Life, Memoir, The Examined Life on May 21, 2012 at 7:00 am

I’m traveling…er no…got in last night. Late. Jet lagged to nth degree…coffee…

This is a repost.

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My cousin said to me a few weeks before she died, “When I come back I’m going to do it differently.” We chuckled over this. Sadly though, it was her confession of remorse, an admission of disappointment over the life she had lived–at least I think that was what she was saying. (The Latin from which the word remorse is derived means literally “to bite back.”) Later, at her death-bed, the pallid riddle was laid out for full inspection. I have to admit, as bad as it sounds, watching the death of my cousin was a curious, even interesting, thing. That was my reaction at the time, at the bedside. I thought it odd then–my reaction–and still do.

I recall that Diane Arbus sneaked into her dead father’s room to photograph his body–odd, yet understandable. My cousin’s death was over a year ago and I find myself thinking about it often, though the spectrum of reflection has shifted. Curiosity has ceased and contemplation has set in. Her death was a study; now it is a meditation. So much has been written on the subject, indeed, everything has been written in the shadow of death. I cannot add an iota of originality to the subject.

I am drawn to the idea of living life in preparation for its end. In some traditions this complex notion is reduced to something so mundane as a rote ideal, a doctrine, in the most extreme instances, denial. I guess there is nothing wrong with that, though mass consumption of rote ideals never seems to turn out as hoped, an observation I believe history supports. I am self-taught at everything so am stubborn as a result. I can’t accept a doctrine so much as rush down a blind alley, take a U-Turn or be lectured to. The big questions generate itches I must contort to reach.

I am reading both Montaigne and Nietzsche so one should not be surprised at such musings.

Fancy I cannot manufacture.

In Creativity, Life, The Examined Life, Writing on May 14, 2012 at 6:00 am

Van Gogh, self portrait

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.”

Raising a family of three children and sustaining a long and successful marriage has not afforded me time to pare my nails in distant observation. I have dirt under my nails. This project (good to know my efforts here can be rendered a “project”) reflects a modern pace, whereby I attempt to get a thing done without a lot of fancy dancing around the subject. In this instance the subject being me and all the subjects that interest me. (How’s that for a circular thesis?) It may occasionally seem like fancy dancing, but it is not. I’m as straight-forward as I know how to be. Fancy I cannot manufacture.

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–though I am aware of an ancient warning of this conceit. The zen master, Nangaku asked his student, Baso, what he is trying to attain by sitting meditation. “I am trying to become a Buddha,” replied Baso. Then Nangaku picked up a roof tile and began to grind it against a rock.

“What are you doing, Master?” asked Baso.

“I am polishing it to make it a mirror.”

“How could polishing a tile make it a mirror?” Baso inquired.

“How could sitting meditation make a Buddha?” replied Nangaku.

Baso then asked: “What should I then do?”

“If you are driving a cart and it does not move,” said Nangaku, “do you whip the cart or the ox?”

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 peer so deeply inside, yet expect to hide the obvious? Is that not whipping the cart? Call it self-knowledge, enlightenment, clarity, t/Truth–the ox is to be whipped.

Bookends

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Memoir, Writers, Writing on May 2, 2012 at 8:00 am

This is a repost. I’m out of the country. As this piece is “published,” I will have touched down in Kathmandu, day one of twenty-two days away from home. That’s a long time.

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November 14, 1851, one-hundred fifty-nine years ago today Moby Dick was published. The Reader’s Almanac, “The official blog of The Library of America“,tells the story of Melville inviting Nathaniel Hawthorn, his reclusive neighbor to a celebratory dinner party as Moby Dick is came off the press. The article quotes a letter from a local Lenox resident:

Not very long ago the author of The Scarlet Letter and the author of Typee having, in some unaccountable way, gotten a mutual desire to see one another, as if neither had a home to which he could invite the other, made arrangements in a very formal manner to dine together at a hotel in this village . . .

If you love reading about the writing life, you will find short article of interest: “The happiest day in Herman Melville’s life.”

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The grand lady of American Letters, Joan Didion, has a new book coming out next year, a memoir about aging called Blue Nights. Didion, who almost single-handedly created the genre of literary non-fiction (a bit of an overstatement but close (enough) to true) has been a favorite of mine for many years.

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“What Bloggers Owe Montaigne” is a wonderful essay at The Paris Review by Montaigne biographer Sarah Bakewell.

Bloggers might be surprised to hear that they are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago. Montaigne, in turn, might not have expected to be remembered so long, least of all in the English language—yet he always believed that such understanding between remote eras and cultures was possible. “Each man bears the entire form of the human condition,” he said.

As you might know, from reading my posts here, Montaigne is the writer-thinker-friend I have turned to repeatedly for as long as it matters. As this article demonstrates, Montaigne continues to influence–to this day–as he did centuries ago. There is the hue of immortality to that.

And interestingly, to speak of current and lasting influence, there is this extended essay over at The Nervous Breakdown on all things Montaigne, thanks to Jason Chambers, Johathan Evison, Dennis Haritou and Jason Rice. Their piece is called: When We Fell in Love: Sarah Bakewell.

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A bit of Maine. My review of Maine writer, Susan Hand Shetterly‘s book, Settled in the Wild, is now up at Mostly Fiction dot com. As the dusk jack reads: “Like Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver, Susan Hand Shetterly takes a magnifying glass to the wilderness that remains, spending the time few of us take to really look.” I am, admittedly a fan of all things Maine (well, most all things…), but objectively, this is a wonderful little book.

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Read On!