Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

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,

d

Ray Bradbury, Nietzsche, a New Year, and How to Live. Whew!

In Books, Creativity, Curiosity, Happiness, Life, Literature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writers, Writing on December 31, 2012 at 7:22 am

the-lives-they-lived-2012.png

Did you read the Sunday Time’s magazine last Sunday? It is the annual “The Lives They Lived” issue. As you might imagine, for a guy who’s spent a lot of time working on the project How Best To Live, this issue is always and annually most welcome. I don’t think one has to lead a life of pronounced accomplishment to live the best life, but for a lot of people, people far more motivated than I am, accomplishment is often the gauge of their existence.

There is one life in particular I want to share with you. Ray Bradbury (b. 1920). Here is the piece in full:

Shortly before his 90th birthday, when asked which moment of his life he’d return to were time travel possible, Ray Bradbury told his interviewer: “Every. Single. Moment. Every single moment of my life has been incredible. I’ve loved it, I’ve savored it, it’s been beautiful–because I’ve remained a boy” Bradbury was a rare and necessary antidote to the tortured-genius myth–that toxic cultural narrative that requires great creators to suffer lest their work have no depth, no gravitas, no legacy.

Bradbury left high school with plans of going to college, but no money. So he set out to educate himself by going to the library three days a week, a regimen he continued for 10 years, never romanticizing poverty or the so-called writer’s life. Instead, he celebrated the joy of writing itself. In 1951, living in Los Angels with his wife and two infant daughters, he got a bag of dimes and rented a typewriter in the U.C.L.A. basement for 10 cents an hour. He wrote “Fahrenheit 451” for $9.80.

His secret? “You remain invested in your inner child by exploding every day. You don’t worry about the future, you don’t worry about the past–you just explode.”

Two and half years ago I posted a note about the biography I’d read of Nietzsche by Julian Young. In that post I quoted the opening paragraph. I’m posting it again–the paragraph–because I think it the perfect end piece to the Bradbury life we’re considering.

Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s fee, shout “Da capo!–Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning!–to “the whole play and performance.” In perfect health one would “crave nothing more fervently” than the “eternal return” of one’s life throughout infinite time–not the expurgated version with the bad bits left out, but exactly the same life, down to the very last detail, however painful or shameful.

So the process continues, this business of how best to live. Why should a new year be any different?

—————————————–

What is going on here? A couple of posts since shuttering …the house… Are we back together, the first breakup never lasting? I don’t know quite honestly. I have missed sharing my thoughts and observations, that is true. And something is nagging me. I don’t know what, exactly, but it brought me back here.

I’m not going to analyze it. Going forward (with life, the big picture, that is) I wish to make fewer plans, establish fewer goals, make fewer commitments. In summary, I just want to live as best I am able in this moment. I’ll never be the boy Bradbury claimed to be. Nor can I say with Nietzsche that I would do it all again without editing. But those are lessons and I value them–lessons I wish to better incorporate.

I do hope our paths cross again, you, dear reader, and me. I so enjoy your company.

Happy New Year.

Reading list: 2012

In Books, Creativity, Memoir, Reading, The Examined Life, Writing on December 31, 2012 at 6:46 am
Not my book shelf.

Not my book shelf.

Okay, there is tradition. Who I am to swim against the current? Three years of reading lists. Let the tradition continue.

In the year 2012 I read the following: …but before I go there…my reading has slowed. Here are the stats: In 2009 I read 33 books. I was doing a lot of reviewing at the time and books were free. What would you expect? In 2010 I read 27 books. In 2011, 26. And last/this year, 2012, 20. Obviously a trend is at work here. I don’t like the look of diminishing returns and hope to rectify things going forward.

I expressed dismay over this trend to a friend recently, fewer books read every year and so on. Her respond was, “Perhaps you’re doing other things.” This is certainly true. This year has been consumed with a lot of “other things.” Perhaps that warrants further comment. Perhaps not.

Anyway, here are the twenty books I read in 2012. (Perhaps you, like me, walk into a friend’s house and move first to the bookshelf, if there is one. If there is no bookshelf it’s probably gonna be an early evening–drink deep. But a bookshelf is like peeling back the skull to the frontal lobes and seeing what a person is made of.)

So, again, here is what I was made of in 2012, first to last:

Something Urgent I Have to Say to You, , by Leibowitz, Herbert–biography of William Carlos Williams, the great American poet. Lots of potatoes, little meat.

Lines on the Water: A Fly Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi, by David Richards Adams –beautiful account of life standing in moving water.

The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker–A heartbreaking perfect book.

Examined Lives, from Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller–The examined life? What can I say? A life mission.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes–Barnes is a favorite. To my ear, so British, so proper. So much talent.

Incidents, by Roland Barthes–Observations by a master thinker.

End of the Earth, Voyaging to Antartica, by Peter Mettheissen–Perhaps my favorite living American author–after Jim Harrison, of course. Life rendered in adventure by a writer of the first order.

Why Read Moby Dick, by Nathaniel Philbrick–A good primer to a classic.

Thinking the Twentieth Century: Intellectuals and Politics in the Twentieth Century, by Tony Judt–A tough way to go, a slog, but we own the great late Judt the effort.

At Home in the World, a Memoir, by Joyce Maynard–The voice of an angel. It’s hard to blame Salinger, though one must. (See my post from May here.)

Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, by Tim Bissell–An essayist to warrant jealousy.

Reading for My Life: Writings 1958-2008, by John Leonard–I grew pubic hair reading and listening to Leonard. So sad to see him gone. So grateful for his direction. It made a difference.

Canada, Richard Ford–Over-rated. I wanted to like it more, wanted to love it. But, alas, like so much we wish to love, it was effort ill spent.

Battleborn, by Watkins, Claire Vaye–Best reading of the year. A new, exciting, heavy, and worthy voice. Frankly amazing to me.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon, Young–wonderful introduction to being one with nature.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard–I read this first a few years ago while traveling in India. It was lost on me–too much distraction for such a quiet book. Now it seems the perfect study in observation rendered by an artist.

Canoe Indians of Down East Maine, by William A. Haviland–A homebound study. (They came to the coast from the woods in winter and lived off clams, in case you’ve wondered.)

Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs, by Steve Hagan–“Not What You Think” is the key to this study. That is, if you can think of it, you’ve missed the point. Perfect zen, of course.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, by Timothy Egan–Egan has won the National Book Award and Curtis is the wished for life, without the pain, of course.

Stoner, by John Edward, Williams–A perfect novel. No kidding. Perfection in search of a grand(er) scheme.

________________________

Only one book was read electronically, Canada. That is not the reason it fell short; however, it did not help.

I want to apologize for that weird end-of-year summary post of yesterday. That was odd and unexpected. I don’t particularly like the look of that big ugly thing here at the …house…. It is too foreign and boisterious for our little gathering. Regardless, such are the things over which we have no control. There is a lesson in that.

Make it a good year, folks, as best you’re able. But remember a year is nothing but a collection of weeks and days and hours. I don’t want to be a minimalist (or perhaps I can’t help myself), but I think it better to make it a good hour, good minute, a good second even. When you do that the days and years follow naturally.

Best regards, friends.

Doug

Enter Stage Left.

In Creativity, Family, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Writing on September 26, 2012 at 6:00 am

Scene: Bruns kitchen, about 6:45pm. Pandora station streaming (Mumford and Sons in the background).

Characters: Doug and Carole

Action: Doug prepping dinner, sipping a cocktail. Carole in a chair reading.

____________

Doug: “I’m feeling a particular depth of emptiness.”

Carole (incredulously): “Depth of emptiness?”

D: “Yeah. You know, the ennui of modern existence and all that…”

C: “Did you just use the word ennui?”

D: “Yes. It means boredom.”

C: “I know what it means. I just can’t believe you used it. Nobody uses that word.”

D: “Fine.”

C: “But I know what you mean, I think.”

D: “Pound referred to the ‘domination of modern life.'”

C: “First you use ennui, then you quote Pound. I can’t believe you quoted Pound.”

D: “I’m a cliché. What can I say? Anyway, I think moderns have a tough time of it. Maybe the species was always troubled this way, but it’s more acute in modern existence, I think.”

C: “And your thesis, professor? Why do you think it’s more acute?”

D: “For two millennium the species had distractions. There were predator beasts to escape. Food to find. Weather to survive. Tribal warfare–all that stuff. For a lot of us, at least those of us in the rich Western countries, those things are no longer factors. Lack of distraction equals too much time facing the void.”

C: “How much have you had to drink?”

D: “No really. It’s the plague of modernity.”

C: “And what do we do about it?”

D: “We have to create a way out of the wilderness.”

C: “Too dramatic.”

D: “Yeah, I get that way, you know. But, really, Camus said we have to create meaning. No one’s gonna hand it to you.”

C: “Lots of people try.”

D: “Indeed. But we’re independent thinkers.”

C: “Maybe we’re just cynical.”

D: “That too. I embrace the cynical, gateway to fresh horizons…”

C: “Okay, you’re officially cutoff.”

D: “Fine. Dinner in ten.”

A Peripatetic Theory of Knowledge (redux)

In Adventure, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on August 29, 2012 at 6:00 am

North of the “Pine Curtain”.

As noted previously, I’m into the woods. (What is the draw to pine and moving water?–that is a contemplation for another time.) Out and gone, as it were. So, I leave here thoughts from eleven months ago. I present, A Peripatetic Theory of Knowledge:

There is a quote in the new Alpinist magazine (#56) that caught my eye. Mountaineer Joe Fitschen comments, “Wittgenstein talked about getting to know a region, whether on the ground or in the mind, by just wandering around, eschewing maps and other guides, coming at the territory from different angles until you feel at home. I call it the peripatetic theory of knowledge.” I like this notion. I’ve considered the value of walking around, sauntering as it used to be called, elsewhere. (You can find my essay on the topic, Metaphor: On Walking, at The Nervous Breakdown.) It, walking around, is a balm for the soul, good for what ails you.

But Fitschen’s observation is more than that. I’ve spent a great deal of time in my head over the years, though largely with the guides (books) Wittgenstein recommends eschewing. Now at this place in life, I am beginning to question the value of all that quiet time, all that contemplation. If you’ve been following this blog the past year or two you might have noticed a shift from–with a nod to Guy Davenport–”The Geography of the Imagination,” to “The Geography Under My Feet, My Sleeping Bag, My Canoe.” Fitchen, citing Wittgenstein, gives weight to replacing the cerebral with the physical. I’m reminded of another mountain climber, Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest (1963). “I don’t reflect much,” said Whittaker. “I just do it.” (Nike, by the way, rolled out their “Just Do It” campaign in 1988.) A life of action versus a life of the mind, interior monologue, exterior dialogue–a classic lineup.

I’ve never been one to sit around. There is enough ADD in my temperament to keep me in motion. That has always been the case, but it seems to be picking up momentum and along with it the need to practice the peripatetic theory of knowledge. I think a sense of place has a great deal to do with it. Maine, if one is inclined, invites one to get lost, literally and figuratively. It is a place that will draw on the physical, if one is naturally inclined in that direction. The more I explore this place, the more I am dismayed over my abysmal knowledge of my surroundings. For instance, I plucked a small twig from a tree this morning. There are five or six alternating simple leaves attached. But I cannot identify the tree from this sample, despite my library of guide books. It is a glaring omission in my accumulated knowledge, this simple business of not knowing my surroundings. To quote E.O. Wilson, “The first step to wisdom, as the Chinese say, is getting things by their right names.” I can talk with a modicum of intelligence, say, about the life and thought of Nietzsche but I cannot tell you anything about a tree at the dog park. This is deeply troubling to me and I am setting out to rectify it.

Let us acknowledge that which awaits.

In Death, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on July 12, 2012 at 6:00 am

Burn on your terms.

My father is ninety years old. My mother-in-law is ninety-two. I see close-up what old age looks like. I can imagine what likely awaits me.

“Live hard,” William James advised his son. It is a certain degree of freedom to acknowledge that which is awaiting us. It’s opposite is the thing that sneaks up on you. There is no good reason for that. Take measure of the inevitable. Let there be no surprise. Attempt to breach the unbreachable in the only way possible: live hard.

Burn the candle at both ends. It will go out eventually anyway. Let it be on your terms.