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Doug Bruns DOUG BRUNS: Husband, father, son, thinker, reader, writer, Mainer (application pending), photographer, walker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses: to having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; confusing wisdom and knowledge; missing the summer lakes of his youth and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. He is currently at work on a book tracing the history of the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. His blog can be found at: "...the house I live in..."

Recent Work By Doug Bruns

As a literary form and commercial endeavor, the modern memoir is overwhelmingly popular. A quick perusal of the non-fiction stacks confirms this. From Donald Rumsfeld to Annie Dillard, the memoir is ubiquitous. Too, as a confirming note, there is the backlash, as there is always a backlash against things trending popular. I site Neil Genzlinger’s recent anti-memoir diatribe in the New York Time’s Book Review of a few weeks ago. It begins: “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.” In his essay Genzlinger reviewed four memoirs, giving just one the nod. He took the others to task for various reasons. One author, for instance, had not earned “the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy.” Ouch. He argued that if you did not have an extremely unique experience or were deemed to be less than “a brilliant writer,” you were “obliged to keep quiet.” The current plethora of memoirs is, he reasons, a result of “our current age of oversharing.” His essay trespassed to the edge of being mean-spirited and the dust-up caused a flurry of activity in literary circles. (A backlash to the backlash confirming the maturation of a trend, indeed.)

I have long harbored the notion, no doubt foolishly, that incarceration wouldn’t be all that particularly bad. To the contrary. It would give me time to catch up on my reading. In this fanciful scenario I place myself in a minimum security facility. Anything other than that and the advantages quickly disappear. It was in prison that Genet discovered Proust. Edmund White relates that Genet once arrived late to the weekly prison book exchange and was resigned to the picked-over shelves. Proust had been summarily rejected by all the other prisoners. He took the book, read the opening: “For a long time I would go to bed early.” then shut it, savoring it. “Now I’m tranquil,” he said to himself. “I know I’m going to go from marvel to marvel.” That is how it seems to me prison would be: tranquil and full of good reads. Marvel to marvel. Indeed, self-proclaimed Prison Writer, Kenneth Hartman notes, “In my six by ten foot cell, the locker bolted to the concrete wall is loaded down with books. Big, fat hard-bound reference titles, philosophy, and writing mechanics books. I can’t conceive of a life absent the comfortable solidity of a book held in my hands.”

“…the books from which entire literatures have flowed, like Homer, Rabelais, are encyclopedias of their time,” wrote Flaubert to Colet. “They knew everything,” he said. He was writing in 1854 and grappling with a momentous, essentially silent, event in human history: books had surpassed the human brain for universal capacity. The encyclopedic individual to which Flaubert referred–Homer, Rabelais and their ilk–had been eclipsed by the summation of knowledge as contained in the book. The course of flowing knowledge had reversed–no longer would it flow from individual to book. Rather, the book, the compilation and accumulation of knowledge, would forever inform the individual. (In modern life, the flow has again transitioned: book to computer–and most recently, computer to internet.) It is related that Gottfried Leibniz was the last man to know everything that could be known; that after he died in 1716, the knowledge the world contained was greater than what one individual was capable of knowing. There is no fact to support either of these notions, Leibniz’s omniscience or the quantity of knowledge in the world at his time. Regardless, it is a concept that gives me pause.

An Idyllic Place

By Doug Bruns

Essay

I write in a place some might refer to as a “man cave.” I prefer to call it my study. Many labels and tags of today, like man cave, seem crass and fleeting. I seek the world–at least in words–of greater tested substance. But should a person happen in here, he or she would likely think, or speak, “man cave.” Here are rough-hewed beams. I don’t know how old this building is in the Old Port area of Portland, but I suspect the beams were put here by hand for real reasons, and not a later aesthetic to appeal to those sensitive to such things. Strewn about my study is my rock collection: small stones picked up from world travels and labeled accordingly: Stonehenge, Loch Ness, the Great Wall, Hemingway’s garden in Key West, Rio Grande in Terra del Fuego and so forth. On the old chimney brick I have stretched prayer flags from Tibet. My photographs are strewn about, some in plastic sleeves, some matted and framed. A few pieces of photographic equipment, as well as developer chemicals rest against walls and in dark cabinets. Overflow books reside here, mainly books on fly-fishing, map and compass navigation, literary criticism and guide books to hiking trails in New England.

A few years ago Roy Horn’s 7-year-old white Siberian tiger, Montecore, decided to act against six and a half years of complacent dutifulness and attack his long-time trainer, dragging Horn off stage, near death. That same week a 425-pound, 20-month-old Bengal-Siberian tiger mix named Ming had to be removed from a Harlem housing-project apartment, along with his companion, Al—a five-foot-long alligator. Why do people pay to see a man enter a cage with 600-pound cats and pretend to be their friend? And why does someone raise large dangerous beasts in an apartment in Harlem?

DISCLAIMER: If one is to set out on a Einsteinian quest for a unified theory of the first-person singular, one must be mindful that the good professor failed in his attempt to develop a unified theory of the nature of the physical (read: physics). That an effort to theoretically unify the first-person singular should somehow escape a similar fate is an unlikely and remote possibility. (Some might say, a folly.) Let the pilgrim be forewarned.

Bruce Chatwin held that there are two categories of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” He observed: “There are writers who can only function ‘at home’, with the right chair, the shelves of dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and now perhaps the word processor. And there are those, like myself, who are paralyzed by ‘home’, for whom home is synonymous with the proverbial writer’s block, and who believe naïvely that all would be well if only they were somewhere else.” I like this notion, but have no opinion about its veracity. I do, however, hold that when I read Chatwin I can detect the shuffle of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as, when I read Melville, I smell salt air.

I was a haughty and insufferable young man, intent, ironically, 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 little. 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, sadly, I am not even cognizant that I even exist. When I am aware of the fact, I keep my eyes open and take notes as I am able. The best I’ve been able to do thus far is string them together and search for patterns.

I was asked recently to explain what I’m doing here. At first I thought the inquiry was directed at some big cosmic question, like, What are you doing here, on earth? Or, likewise, What is the meaning of your life? Assuming that to be the question, I answered honestly: I haven’t a clue. But my interlocutor was not asking the metaphysical question. The question was directed to my writing, as in, What do you write about? It is a more embarrassing question to answer, actually. Embarrassing because, again, I haven’t a clue. People really don’t expect you to be able to answer the big cosmic questions. The questions have been around too long and everyone knows there aren’t really any answers. But the more focused question, like what do you write about? or the dinner party question, What do you do? those questions are due an answer. (The dinner party question drives me crazy. What do I do? I do what everyone else does: eat, sleep, shit, work, die. The real question being asked is: Are you above or below my socio-economic caste?–a disdainful and not-so-coy method of evaluation. But, for god’s sake, just come out and ask it straight-up.) The question, again, was What are I doing here? Here being this forum, TNB, or likewise my blog, or other such efforts. What do I write about? What am I doing here? The question achingly begs the sad answer: I haven’t a clue.

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 sprint of my faithful Maggie. I was reminded of this recently after spending much of the night on the floor next to Maggie’s bed trying to comfort her during a thunder storm. A dog afraid of a storm is enslaved to terrible 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 becomes racked and frozen except for her pulsing nerves. Her tail drops and draws around her vitals. Her ears lay back astride her sleek skull and her eyes bug out eerily. She turns to stone, a hard stone, granite or marble. It used to be that only thunder upset her. Later, lightening too tormented 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.

Despite my titanium hip, and the foot problems from years of marathoning, despite my tender back–one slipped disc–and the general wear and tear on this 55 year-old aging-athlete’s body, I (still) like walking. It does not escape me that my ancestors trekked from the savanna plains of Africa over 100,000 years ago and never stopped. It comforts me that, as a species, we have walked virtually everywhere, planting our feet on most every single spot planet earth has to offer.  It comforts me too, that despite the automobile and the jet, the boat and the train, our first inclination is to get up and walk. I do not take walking for granted. Over the years I have occasionally been in traction, on crutches, in pain or in some other way disposed of my ability to walk. When this has happened, I pretend that I will never walk again. I do this, like thinking of sickness when I am perfectly healthy, as a way to remind myself not to take walking for granted. (This is not unlike the Buddhist practice of going to the cemetery to remind oneself that one day it will all come to an end.) There are a lot of people who cannot walk and I do not want to be one who forgets this.

“In all radical parties, I enjoy a strange, almost mysterious respect.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

This is a curious business, this matter of writing about a book, and at that a book written about a book, or books, or even more curious, the writer of books. This “meta” business is potentially so tedious. I guess we have the French to thank for that. Yet, it is something I am drawn to, a thing I am compelled, for reasons which escape me, to further in my own singular  fashion. So, I layer on, like a hiker going out into a New England winter, layer upon layer: the writer writing about other’s who have written before him. And it is so that I come to a biography of a writer who took the writers and their work before him and tried to make sense of it all. And someone writing about him writing and me writing about that writer and the writer of which he wrote. It does make sense, however; is that not what we all do, try but to make sense of what precedes us? And make sense of that sense? What if in doing so, we are driven, like some wild beast gone crazy, to a center that cannot hold, that makes us mad, that renders us to the world inchoate, such as the subject of this biography, Friedrich Nietzsche. What if then?

I wonder if going to the woods, Thoreau-style, is still possible? It is sadly troubling that my first response to this not-so-rhetorical question is: Ted Kaczynski. “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” So begins the so-called Unabomber Manifesto, or, as Kaczynski titled it, Industrial Society and its Future. The influence upon Kaczynski by the Transcendentalist from Walden is well documented. Kaczynski even modeled his Montana cabin after Thoreau’s. But of course one of the men was a paranoid schizophrenic.

A Crisis of Vacuum

By Doug Bruns

Essay

I’m in crisis. It has nothing to do with middle age, though I fit that demographic profile. Simple people would label my crisis that way, I’m afraid, people with little minds, people who have little capacity for probing below the surface. It is easy, particularly for people who don’t really know me, to think: middle-aged crisis at eleven o’clock, and motion in my direction. I wish I could say that I didn’t care. But I kind of do care and have taken measures to keep my crisis to myself. I fear being a cliché. At least that was my intention–keeping it to myself–until I decided that perhaps the best way to confront this challenge is head on and declare it to the world. So, let it be known, throughout the kingdom, there is a crisis going on and it belongs to Doug Bruns.

Mark Twain ruined the autobiography for me. In retrospect, I guess I should be grateful. You don’t hear much about the autobiography any more, as it has more or less morphed into the modern memoir, a genre of the lowest ranking on my read-o-meter. So, thank you Samuel, you have doubtless spared me untold hours struggling through less than worthy tomes of personal anguish, drug and parental abuse, endless self-reflection and navel gazing. I should not, I know, be so harsh, but didn’t all that stuff, the abuse and the drink and all the rest, didn’t that used to be the material which, processed into fiction, we recognized as literary art? Or if not fiction, at least something more, well, more worthy shall I say, than a memoir? I am not sure in the least why I feel a memoir to be such a step-child, and I know my premise to be on shaky ground. But ultimately, I think the problem started with Mark Twain.