Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Schopenhauer’

We are what we…

In Books, Literature, Reading, Writing on August 3, 2012 at 6:00 am

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Anne Dillard

Schopenhauer famously said that we are what we eat. But for a reader things are a different matter. A reader’s muscle is composed of pages, bones of bindings, blood of ink, thread for sinew. A reader is made of books consumed.

There are armfuls of books that fill my cells, that course through my blood, pound against my temples from the inside. The best I return to, like a favorite meal, a metaphor Schopenhauer would surely understand.

I have returned to one such feast, Annie Dillard‘s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Pilgrim won the Pulitzer in 1974. Dillard was twenty-nine. It is a breath-taking and beautifully written book and fills my current appetite to better understand the physical world I move through. Allow me to share an extended quote:

The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance. “Launch into the deep,” says Jacques Ellul, “and you shall see.”

Not all meals are equally satisfying, of course. Nor is nutrition evenly spread. I like a hearty meal, something that sticks to my ribs. I am not humorless, but have few deserts; nor am I given to starch. The books of my life seem endless in metabolic energy; like nuclear fusion they will burn long after my departure. Walden comes to mind. The essays of Montaigne. The Great White Whale, Moby Dick. And so many others. I eat and am never satisfied. Fortunately.

Up and at ’em.

In Dogs, Life, Nature, Philosophy, Thinkers on April 13, 2010 at 7:02 pm

I walk the Promenade every morning, specifically the Eastern Prom. It’s about three miles round trip. But it’s not about the exercise. It’s about morning. About air. And clearing one’s head.  Nietzsche said the best thoughts are those that come while walking. (Thanks to blogger-philosopher Phil Oliver for this reminder.) Speaking of philosophers, it’s said that the villagers of Königsberg set their pocket watches by the grand-old rational-man, Kant, making his daily rounds, so precise were his habits. (Supposedly he once forgot his walk. He was reading Rousseau’s Emile.)

It’s only come on me recently how I’ve grown dependent on these morning strolls. This morning the sun had just painted my bedroom wall pink when my eyes opened. I realized I’d missed the sunrise. I immediately was filled with regret, regretting not being up and alert as the sun rose over Bug Light. It’s not a good thing to feel regret before even lifting your head off the pillow, but that’s the way it was. I rushed to make coffee and head out before the morning was spent. Maggie doesn’t seem to share my early-rising enthusiasm. But she comes around and out we go.

I’m not sure how I feel about listening to music while I take these walks. My heart says I should avoid the distraction. But my head tells me that the Goldberg Variations (Gould)  in the morning can only be a good thing. It is classic, this battle between head and heart, and I think it is the essence of human existence. Sleep in or see the sunrise? Walk in silence or listen to the immortals reach forward through the ages’ mist. What to do? There is no correct answer of course, only the tension one experiences when answers are not forthcoming. Is that not the essence of the human condition?

This returns me to the land of thinkers. Schopenhauer said that walking is arrested falling. One would expect that from him. I think more about this–literally–since I had a hip replaced two years ago. Every step is putting the body off balance, trusting that it will recover before falling. My hip has caused me some problems lately and I’m not sure it’s working as it should. That is another matter altogether, except that it isn’t, another matter, that is.. What really is this condition of being human without surprises, pleasant or otherwise?  This is where the morning walks come into play. Everything works in the morning for me. I am fresh. The day is fresh. Maggie is running, nose to the ground. (There is nothing, I feel, more beautiful nor perfect than a dog running in the morning, astride a body of water, the sun rising.) I know that I am not going to fall down, at least not this morning.

I had a conversation with an old and close friend this weekend, a buddy I’ve know for thirty years. As guys with that degree of familiarity will do, in a bar with beer aplenty, we talked about life, where we’ve come and how the hell did it all happen so fast. We knocked around our joint desire to live more simply. It is a theme in the air, common and shared, it seems by a lot of people. (Perhaps we’re spent–morally, emotionally, fiscally, who knows?– and are reacting.) I think, I told him, I’m making progress on that front. He asked me specifics. I wish I’d told him of my morning walks. That is how it all started. That is when the best thoughts come.


“I was a haughty insufferable young man…”

In Life, Memoir, Reading, The Examined Life on June 21, 2009 at 8:34 pm

I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I was a haughty insufferable young man, intent upon a direction of which I was unsure. I am less intent these days and I have worked to lose the haughtiness, though I am still unsure as to where I am headed. A true north, presented as a reasonable and intelligent sensibility remains unknown, a shrouded mystery. Schopenhauer said that walking is arrested falling down. I am walking, and conscious that every step is taken in self-defense, taken to keep from collapsing. I have concluded that for me life holds only surprises and reveals nothing. I am in a poker game and am blind. I did not spring from the womb playing Mozart. I cannot do math. I have not experienced a particular urge to save the world or develop a vaccine or build an empire. I have no natural capacity for anything, as best I can tell. The writer in me struggles to spin my web, but that is the nature of the discipline. I work from my gut. In short, I exist, like, as best I can tell, many of us exist, without a clarifying direction or calling, most of the time not even cognizant that we even exist. I keep my eyes open and take notes. The best I’ve been able to do so far is string them together and search for patterns. At fifty-three I still search.

Driving through Ohio recently I realized how much I prefer straight lines. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, reminded me that hidden curves are, conversely, not to my liking. I want to see straight ahead as far as I can. I want my eye to sprint to the horizon. Maybe that is why so many of us are drawn to the ocean. The eye is unimpeded and the curvature of the earth is distant and not threatening. Yet, the only migraine I ever experienced occurred in Spain, on the Costa del Sol where the sun and the ocean and the expanse could not be escaped and in all direction intensity loomed. This was a painful thing to experience and all I take from it is an odd aversion to brilliance. A moth will singe its wings and die over a flame. And the search goes on.

I have rarely learned from the experience of others. Not to make a big thing of it, but perhaps this is vestige of being raised without siblings. I say this but have observed in my own children a tendency to experiential learning, at the risk of theoretical learning by observation. They, like me, are not keen on what Whitehead called inert ideas. They prefer the active.

Raised in the middle class midwest I grew desperate in high school for direction. What was I going to do with my life. Ron had his father’s insurance business and Rick wanted to be an engineer. Bill was joining the marines. I recall a school counselor asking me what I was interested in, perhaps my future could be discerned there. Everything and nothing. I remained interested in everything and yet nothing in particular. The counselor thought I should consider plumbing. The world always needs plumbing fixed.

The old TV show, Green Acres, was not far from the truth. In it, Eddie Albert plays a character who ditches the city, much to the dismay of his wife, and follows a calling to become a farmer. There is a phenomenon, I’m told a true forehead-slapping event, where middle-aged men suddenly realize they were meant to be farmers. I was told it to be like an awakening for some. I am reminded of Genesis: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” Painful toil holds no appeal for me. I don’t like gardening in any form. Despite growing up in corn country, farming was never a consideration, nor has it ever crept into the neighborhood of possibility. If something is going to grab me by the shoulders and shout out purposeful direction, it will not be to labor in the fields. Of that I am certain. Nor will it be to crawl under a kitchen sink and wrestle with pipes. Upon reflection, as a father of three, I realize that I did a poor job of parenting on this subject. It is hard to teach about that of which you know nothing, though all earnest parents endeavor to do so day in and day out. No, I am convinced that I was meant to be without a keel. I heard someone say recently that if you’re a doctor you’re only good at being a doctor. I don’t exactly know what she meant by this, but think it to be a warning of highly evolved singularity.

The 1954 movie Sabrina finds Audrey Hepburn as the daughter of a chauffeur. What is personally enduring about this movie is the portrait of the chauffeur father as reader. He explains to Sabrina that his career choice was intentional because it would afford him ample time to do what he most enjoyed, reading books. I am still amazed when I consider this idea–and not just the thought of it, of a life carved out of reading, but of a screenwriter even employing the motif. I have a friend who has climbed Mt. Everest and K2, as well as a host of other peaks. He spends a lot of time at elevation in a tent acclimatizing, manufacturing red blood cells. I once asked him how he entertains himself while waiting weeks before a summit push. He reads, he told me. He said that reading is a “zone activity” for him. He was referring to the notion of a mental state whereby a person is so fully immersed in what he is doing, in his case reading, that time ceases and energy is focused. You sometimes hear of “being in the zone,” or achieving a state of flow, in relation to sports. The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has popularized the notion. He says that a state of flow is characterized by nine factors. They are:

  1. Clear and attainable goals
  2. A high degree of concentration
  3. A loss of self-consciousness
  4. A sense of fluidity of time
  5. Immediate feedback
  6. A balance between ability and challenge
  7. Personal control
  8. The intrinsic reward of the activity
  9. A sense of being absorbed in the activity

Water flows and that is why Csíkszentmihályi used the word to describe this state. His research found the word used repeatedly by people having experienced the condition. A zen master once told me that flow is akin to enlightenment, a state of consciousness where everything is at once realized yet not transformed. Or something to that effect. The point being, Sabrina’s father knew what he wanted and got it. I grew up not knowing what I wanted and got that too–the state of confusion. (I will resist using the anti-Flow word stagnation.) Yet we adapt and things usually workout, or so we hope. I find it interesting that my mountain climbing friend and Sabrina’s father both presumably found reading to be of such high order that it satisfied their very natures, as being in the zone suggests. I knew growing up that reading was important to me and to this day consider myself a reader first. But one must get off the sofa on occasion and climb a mountain. That is what stolid Midwesterners do. I find, of Csíkszentmihályi’s list, number 2, A high degree of concentration, to be the most appealing. I think number 7, Personal Control, the least inviting, though paradoxically control is most important to those who don’t have it. I have no idea what to make of that either.