Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sontag’

My Books

In Books, Philosophy, Reading on June 1, 2010 at 4:38 pm

I moved to Maine from Maryland last year and my library is following me slowly, volume by volume, with every trip back and forth. I didn’t have to move all at once–tying to sell my Maryland house (wish me luck)– so I am taking pains to cull through my library. My plan has been to bring along with me only those books I wish to keep. Charles Sanders Peirce, the 19th Century American Philosopher, had two houses, one to live in, and one to store his books. That is not an option.

My library consists largely of books I’ve read. But there is a surprising number of books I purchased and shelved for a future reading. This reviewing and moving of my library has afforded me this knowledge: There is nothing so profound as an unread library. I don’t think many people understand that. Susan Sontag said that literature is the “creator of inwardness.” Imagine the potential for inward creation inherent in the unread library. It is, as I said, profound, and speaks to the suggestion that we might think better of ourselves than we’ve yet to realize.


“What I really wanted was every kind of life…”

In Life, Literature, Photography, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Wisdom, Writing on April 7, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Susan Sontag first thought she was going to be something other than what she became. When she was about six she read a biography of Madame Curie, written by her daughter Eve Curie. “…at first I thought I was going to be a chemist. Then for a long time, most of my childhood, I wanted to be a physician. But literature swamped me. What I really wanted was every kind of life, and the writer’s life seemed the most inclusive.”

I find this interesting, particularly in light of a book I’m reading, Wisdom, Philosophy to Neuroscience, by Stephen Hall. I’ll save my thoughts about the book for later, but want to pass along one idea specifically. In a chapter titled, Dealing with uncertainty, Hall writes of a scientific paper, which in essence, he says, is “about balance.” He continues: “It describes how people neurologically weigh the relative merit of sticking with a behavioral strategy or changing” in a non-stationary environment. It all boils down simply to this: “At a party, in a marriage, at a job, in a stock fund, the question is always the same: Should I stay or should I go?”

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. It is a simple idea: A theory of decision-making which asks, Do I stay or do I go? (It’s tied deeply to the evolutionary notion of fight or flee, obviously.) Sontag understood early to move on, answering the question do I go? (In her case go from scientist to writer.) For most of us, however, Should I stay or should I go, is never so obvious or so amplified. That makes it all the trickier.

I keep getting drawn back to this question of how to live a life. I can’t think of an example of a decision which cannot be answered by asking Should I stay or should I go? I’m sure it’s out there, but I can’t put my finger on one right this minute. The point is, this challenge–stay or go?–is a road map. And living a life, I think, should have one–a road map, that is. Funny thing, though, there is no one pointing out the destination. What good is a map if you don’t know where you’re headed? (“Parts unknown,” to nod in Twain’s direction, is even a destination, no?)

I’ve had some help with this business recently, the road map destination thing. My friend Thatcher Cook, whom I’ve mentioned previously, is a strong advocate of the credo, in his case the credo of a photographer. He put me onto this notion and it set me off in a number of directions I did not anticipate.  “Include footnotes,” he admonished. In other words, be serious, dig deep, follow the thread wherever it takes you. (Press on and demand of yourself some answers, for god’s sake. This is important stuff.) Though Thatcher’s credo, a working document, is oriented to his discipline of photography, the concept is broadening. (Its a credo, not a manifesto, so it’s private, sort of…)

If you have a destination, you can answer the question, Should I go or should I stay?  If you don’t you can’t. Simple. (Montaigne: “The soul that has no fixed goal loses itself; for, as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere.”) If you can’t answer you cannot make a decision. Simple again. Sontag was “swamped by literature.” Most of us will never be swamped by anything. We may get drenched, or even rained on, but swamped, whereby the destination is clear, is a very rare thing. It appeals to me to seek the rare thing, yearn for the difficult. The common is just that, common.

On dying

In Death, Dogs, Family, Life, Memoir, Writers on July 8, 2009 at 11:00 am

I think the first sentence of Jim Harrison’s novel, The Road Home, is sublime: “It is easy to forget that in the main we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs.” Harrison’s observation puts a twist on an old adage, reminding me that my pace to likely oblivion is a crawl compared to the terrorized sprint of my faithful Maggie. I was reminded of this morning after spending muchof last night on the floor next to Maggie’s bed trying to comfort her during a thunder-storm. A dog afraid of a storm is a slave to demons. At one point she attempted to climb the vertical drawers of an open closet to seek refuge amongst the sweaters and tee-shirts. Maggie has tremors when she’s afraid and her whole body is racked and frozen except for her pulsing nerves. Her tail drops and draws in around her vitals. Her ears lay back along her skull and her eyes bug out eerily. She turns to stone. It used to be that only thunder upset her. Later, lightning too began to torment her. Perhaps she made the connection that lightening is followed by thunder. Now, even a rising breeze prompts an anxiousness from her. I wonder at it all. I doubt dogs have the cognitive powers to associate a storm with anything other than noise and flashes of light. They can’t draw conclusions, presumably, and certainly not arrive at metaphor. A storm is a storm–nothing else, for a dog.

 We anthropomorphize animals, our pets in particular. We don’t even know we’re doing it most of the time. Dogs aren’t called our best friends for nothing. But stories about dogs easily grow maudlin and that does not interest me. I choose not to write about dogs at all, but about death–that would be storm as metaphor. As Julian Barnes recently wrote: “If you fear death, you don’t fear dying; if you fear dying, you don’t fear death.” Some medieval thinkers, arguing for the existence of the soul, posited that humans are aware of death, animals are not and there, in our self-conscious awareness, is evidence of the soul, and, by inference, the lack thereof in our animals. I don’t believe in the soul, but if I did, in my cosmos Maggie would have one too. This proof of the soul poses an interesting converse. What if the concept of death, escaped us–perhaps through injury to the dopamine system of the cerebral cortex whereby the ability to conceptualize death was lost–would we consequently have no soul? The more interesting question is how would we live, if like our dogs, we were unaware of the outcome? Of course, the outcome, death, does not escape us–but the consequences of the outcome remain a mystery. Therein lies the riddle.

* * *

 My daughter, Alison, is in nursing school. I understand this to be a wise career choice for these troubled times. She visited home yesterday and talked about her “clinicals.” The clinical practice of a student nurse is the “field work” as it were, the opportunity to put into the hands of the young healers the requisite tools to do their work. She is doing a good job, but is, as she said, “Just waiting.”

“Waiting for what?”

“Waiting for someone to die. I’ve never seen a person die,” she said. “And I’m upset at the thought.”

 There is not much a parent can say to this. Dying is part of the cycle? Death is natural? It’s the yin and yang of nature–and all the rest. Drivel. It doesn’t help. No one knows how they will react to observing death the first time. I’m fifty-three and recently saw my first dying person. 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. That was six months 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, but I have a few observations.

 I will start with the death of my mother two years ago. I was out of town when my mobile rang. It was my parent’s number and it was eight o’clock on a Saturday morning. My heart skipped. My father was on the phone. “Oh, thank God I got you,” he said. “I’ve got terrible news.” I listened quietly. I recognized the voice as his, yet it was acutely different. “Your mother died last night.” My reaction to this news was immediate dull numbness. Conversely, I was suddenly and intensely aware of my father on the end of the line.

“Dad, are you okay?”

“Yes. Oh, this is terrible.”

“I’m in New York. I’ll be there in about three hours. Carole and Jeff will come over.”

“She’s in her chair. She went in her sleep. In her chair.”

“That is a good thing. A peaceful way to go, Dad.” He was quiet. I was quiet. I could hear him breathing. Then he broke the silence.

“Last night was something,” he said.

“What about last night, Dad?”

“Last night your mother and me we sat and just talked. We never even got around to turning on the TV. She was in her chair and I was in my chair and we just talked all evening, maybe three or four hours. We haven’t done that in years. Then it was bedtime and I got up and kissed her and went to my room. She never woke up.”

 “Dad,” I said. “Listen to me. That is a wonderful story. Each of us someday will close the book on our life and what we all want and could only wish for, is exactly what you and mom did, to spend a few hours with the one we most love and kiss them good night.” I don’t know how much he heard of what I said. It was a remarkable exit on my mother’s part. Precisely what I expected.

Months later he told me that mom came to him in a dream. He said to her, How you doing? With that she slapped her hands together and laughed out loud, declaring, Oh, you wouldn’t believe it. He said he was embarrassed by the dream. I don’t believe in dreams or ghosts or visits from the dead, but as Montaigne famously stated, “What do I know?” I told him it was a wonderful dream and was nothing to be ashamed of. He has since shared it with some of his contemporaries. They no doubt appreciate knowing that good times lie ahead.

* * *

 I have never been preoccupied with death. I have been over occupied with life on occasion, which is perhaps the same, only sort of inside out. (“What I really wanted was every kind of life,” wrote Susan Sontag.) I think about it, death, more than I did as a younger man. Even then it was evidently part of consciousness. I recall my eighth birthday. The sun was shinning and I was full of myself, walking from my back yard to the yard of my best friends, brothers Rick and Jeff. Someone had just mowed the grass. I am big now, I recall thinking. Then I was blindsided with this thought: If I die tomorrow, I want my life to be full and without regret. It is admittedly a bizarre thought for an eight year old. Where it came from I haven’t a clue. There was no death in my family to preoccupy me. I wasn’t scared of thunder storms, though we got wild ones in Indiana. I am still thankful for the thought. It was as if someone had unrolled a map on a table in front of me, such that the dotted path to the treasure was laid out without mistake. X marked the spot. I realized the path which lay in front of me and I set out determined to follow it. My life was to be examined and rich and nuanced. I once documented a plastic surgeon at work. He asked of another surgeon during a surgery to build a man’s mouth lost to cancer, “How is he going to eat?” It is an important question: How is he going to live? How am I going to live? The question became my mantra at eight and is now deeply entwined into the fabric of my double helix. Some of the answers I have discovered are contained here, in these ramblings.

 There is a practice in Tibet where it is recommended one go regularly to the burial grounds. There, among the dead, one cannot escape the inevitability of extinction, or perhaps a more pleasant variation on that theme. It is a way of becoming less like our dogs, forgetting our death (though forgetting implies we actually knew (of) it, could point it out in a crowd, could say, I–almost–knew it then) and more like a human being living in full consciousness of it. Can you stubbornly ignore death in a grave yard? That sunny morning beginning my ninth year of existence I began my trek of the dotted line to the treasure. I vowed to see the world, read the right books, laugh with friends richly, love deeply–in short, live the necessity to fulfill the epiphany I had experienced.

 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 remorse is derived means literally “to bite back.”) The prescient eight-year old can discern a lurking disappointment of the most serious nature and will avoid it. 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. 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 only I can contort to reach.

* * *

 It is afternoon now and we have enjoyed a pleasant day of sunshine and warm spring breezes. But there is cloud cover encroaching from the west and Maggie is starting to act weird. Her tail is down and she’s got a hang-dog look, appropriately. If another storm hits I will give her a tranquilizer to calm her. As I write this, my phone rings and I see it is someone who seldom calls and I take the call, interrupting my time here, and my friend tells me of the sudden death, this morning, of a mutual friend, a man I didn’t know well but liked for his quiet unassuming presence. The man had a headache on Wednesday, then a sinus infection according to his doctor on Thursday and called in sick Friday, felt worse still late in the day and went to the hospital where he died the next morning of spinal meningitis.


Why do we take pictures?

In Family, Memoir, Photography on July 6, 2009 at 12:55 pm

“Why do we take pictures?” asked my father.

Me, my father, uncle, aunt and cousins are sitting around a kitchen table. There is a pile of old black and white photographs spread out in front of us. Some go back, as best we can determine, a hundred years. They are in remarkable condition, having been stored in boxes in the garage of my late cousin in California. They are family records, created by a clan that had faith in the value of the visual. It is spring in Indiana and cold outside. Inside I relish the warm glow of family comfort. My father and I traveled from the east coast for this, to join our family and sort through these pictures, all five cartons of them. We had been at it a few hours when my dad, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of photographs and overwhelmed at the memories they evoked–he had grown quiet an hour previous–pushed the photos away and into the center of the table, folded his arms, and asked the question. “Why do we take pictures?” No one really heard him–or if they did did not want to hazard a response.

To paraphrase Susan Sontag, photography is the only art form where the viewer perceives the work from the vantage point of the artist. Concerns regarding the artistic nature of photography aside, Sontag is correct. My father was experiencing the photos through the photographer’s viewfinder. Before him his ancestry played out. His future was no longer and the people in the photos before him were dead. I once discovered a century calendar. That is, contained within two sheets of paper was displayed every year and every month and every day for the next one hundred years–as if the future could be reckoned so simply. I looked at it, the calendar, and said to the person with me, “Somewhere here is the day I will die.” I made a motion over the calendar with my hand, like a magician, presto. My father was looking back, reverse of the one hundred years, and I wonder if he sensed the end of the calendar, if not his own calendar, then the calendars of all those whose image lay on the kitchen table in front of him, beings wiped from the slate of time.

There was a packet of small photos in the collection, wrapped in browned paper. I unfolded it. I held in my hands two typewritten pages, signed by my father, mailed home from Germany, dated June 4th, 1945. I handed the packet to him. A dozen pocket size photos tumbled out. A bridge in Luxembourg, the Eiffel Tower with my father standing in uniform in front, a Paris cafe, a bombed village square. He read the letter, fifty-four years after he composed it. We stopped and listened. Then he reviewed the photos. He recalled that he had them printed in a little photo shop in Carlsbad. I have taken pictures for over thirty years and when I see one of my photographs I can remember exactly the instant I released the shutter. This is not as uncommon as it sounds among photographers. Dad recalled every photo and had a little story to accompany each one. He especially liked the image from Luxembourg and said he had printed it many times himself in a makeshift darkroom while in the army in Europe. He doubted that he still had the negative.

Of his project, The Americansthe photographic genius, Robert Frank, said, “I thought of something Malraux wrote: ‘To transform destiny into awareness.’” Applied to photography Malraux’s expression encapsulates the answer to my father’s query: Why do we take photographs? By definition a photograph speaks to the future, if not destiny. A photograph is made in the hope that someone will look at it. By doing so, we, the viewers have completed the transaction–otherwise we are simply voyeurs. Even the creative photographer is viewer, self-referentially.

In 1984 the photographer Garry Windogrand (1928 – 1984) prematurely died of cancer. His survivors discovered left behind 2,500 rolls of exposed but undeveloped black-and-white film; another 6,500 rolls that had been developed but not proofed; another 3,000 rolls that had been developed and proofed, but not edited. All told, 12,000 rolls of film exposed in the last six years of his life. That makes 432,000 pictures he made but never saw, or approximately 200 exposures a day. My father’s question is redundant in the face of such magnitude.

Until the advent of digital photography and the technology of immediate review on the camera back, the photographer had to wait until the lab returned the images to confirm his or her awareness of that photographic instant. The lag is now compressed, but can never be erased, even at shutter speed 4000th of a second. Zeno’s paradox can be applied, a distance can always be divided by half ensuring one’s destination will never be reached. The camera can never capture the present, only the past. But I am growing obtuse. Mind you, we were simple people sitting around a kitchen table looking at pictures. We had just eaten cheeseburgers with pickles and chips.

Photographs are not so much possessions as they are spirits, even memory incarnate. I am not talking about the so-called fine art photographs or journalism. I am referring to the family snapshot: the kids at the beach, Grandma on the porch, the birthday cake and the kids dressed for the prom and the first car–the solder in front of the Eiffel Tower. They are spirits, ghosts of an exhausted instant. The moment the shutter is released something new is made and it did not exist previously.