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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, May 06, 2011

a python is born

It's been some time since I've posted to this blog, but I've not been idle. For the past few months I've been working to publish another novel of mine, and I'm happy to announce that now it's done.

My literary thriller, Truth of the Python, is now for sale at Smashwords and on Amazon. In it, a hypnotherapist and his young client discover that they have unfinished business with each other--from twenty-five centuries ago.

Right now it's priced at $0.99. I warmly invite you to check it out. Download a sample, or be bold and spring for the whole price right up front, read it, and write a review. Tell me and the world what you think of it.

I've also got a new website with a new blog. Come on over.

Back to work...


Monday, October 27, 2008

on hiatus

Friends, I seem to be on hiatus for the time being.

Now in the mornings I find myself often wanting just to press on with my research notes rather than pausing to write a blog-post. With a project so long in the making, I'm following that impulse.

Things are going reasonably well. The mornings are dark now: it's still mostly dark outside my blinds, which I have yet to open. I was out in the chilly morning to take out the recycling and unlock the garbage-box behind our building. I really like the autumn, a time of promise in some obscure way. In the bustle of work, especially in the dark of morning, when people are returning to their tasks after lounging in the summer, I feel a sense of quiet ease and relaxation--and did even when I was part of that bustle. The world continues to be beautiful, even as people rush through it. You just have to tune your attention to it.

So that's it: I'm officially on vacation from my blog. Many thanks to all of you who have dropped by and read my thoughts. I wish you well.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

disaster redux

Autumn descends on us, with the mornings turning chilly and damp. Roofers have been at work on our building over the past two weeks, and in the past three days have been right over our unit, ripping and thumping, making the wooden structure tremble. Down here in my office I'm as far from that action as I can get, but I do have young guys passing to and fro by my office window, carrying sheets of plywood and answering calls to their cell-phones.

Kimmie is still undergoing the long tail of this headcold (mine is pretty much completely gone). Her voice is still wispy and her ears are plugged. Another way of marking the change of season.

In the wider world we have the ructions of the financial and stock markets. We're overdue for an economic depression, so I'm expecting one--and expecting it to be long and severe. I believe that when historians look back on this era, they will shake their heads at how so many government policies and private practices could have been undertaken that were so wrongheaded and that led so surely to disaster--much as historians now look at the policies and practices that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ben Bernanke, the head of the U.S. Federal Reserve, is a scholar of the Great Depression. But policymakers, like generals, are always refighting the last war rather than addressing the situation before them.

I've mentioned before how events have the look of the three-stage unfolding of an ancient Greek tragedy: koros, hubris, and ate (surfeit, outrageous behavior, and disaster). By the time of the great tragedians of Athens, ate had come to mean objective, external disaster--retribution for one's ill-starred actions. But as E. R. Dodds observes in his book The Greeks and the Irrational, the term ate in earlier, Homeric times had a different meaning:

Always, or practically always, ate is a state of mind--a temporary clouding or bewildering of the normal consciousness. It is, in fact, a partial and temporary insanity...

But what is insanity? Literally, it means mental unhealthiness or unwholesomeness. A disconnect from reality.

That sounds like what starts the tragic cycle. For koros is "surfeit" according to Arnold J. Toynbee--doing too much of something. But doing too much of something is itself a sign of lack of realism: you have too high a regard for your own powers to control things, to make things go as you wish. You lack humility, and so are led on to hubris, "outrageous action"--doing things that reflect your unrealistic self-assessment. You make big mistakes. And the locomotive of big mistakes pulls a train of painful consequences--ate.

So I suppose ate, the painful consequences, can be viewed from either the external angle (disaster) or from the internal angle ("insanity"). For external disaster in itself is neutral, you might say; it is our response to it, our feelings about it, that constitute its pain and suffering. Ate then seems to be both the disasters caused by our foolish actions, and the suffering that results.

One dark note of the "insanity" model is that it doesn't suggest learning. The crazy person, after an "episode", gradually becomes quiescent again. Peace returns--and further opportunities for surfeit...

I think it was Voltaire who said:

History never repeats itself;
Man always does.

What can I say? Here we go again.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

darkness ahead

Where have I been, you ask?

Well, Kimmie and I have been working our way through a headcold, caught we know not where. I got it first, and probably passed it on to her. I'm very much better, but Kimmie is going through the middle of hers. Indeed, she's decided to take today off work.

I've been chipping away at my mighty work, and at the ideas surrounding and supporting it. This is a huge task, and one that I don't think I can really discuss in this blog, since I don't want to go too deeply into my own views of the meanings of my still unfinished work.

Then I'm feeling a certain blog-fatigue, as I did a couple of years ago. This blog, begun as a kind of lark or experiment back in 2005, has become a kind of commitment. I've often told myself that even if not many people read it, it can still serve as a personal record--a kind of diary of my own thoughts, if not of my life exactly, during this time of creation.

Then there's the world falling about our ears: a worldwide financial meltdown and the wintry prospects beyond. It feels almost irresponsible not to address these grave and urgent matters--but what do I know about them? I suspect that even those in the know don't really know much about what's going on. As I write these words, the U.S. House of Representatives is still grappling with the $700- (or is it $800-) billion bailout bill for Wall Street. This is almost certainly a further waste of money--a mere playing for time in order to keep things from collapsing before the federal election. The legislation, at least as it exists till now, includes these words in its Section 8:

Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

Is it constitutional to put decisions and individuals beyond the reach of law? That I don't know, but the fact that the framers of the bill are trying it tells me that we've got something that looks much like what happened at times of crisis in ancient Rome. It was the Romans who invented the office of the dictator: a person who could be invested with supreme command over the state and the army and who could rule by decree for a fixed period of exactly six months.

In Rome the dictatorship was a perfectly constitutional office that had its own defined limits. One could be appointed in times of grave stress or threat to the Republic, and he would lapse back to ordinary citizenship again when he had done his task and restored normalcy to the polity.

The U.S. of course has no such provision in its constitution. The ever-increasing tendency to place persons in authority beyond the reach of law or oversight is a sign of creeping tyranny, and the prospect of an unconstitutional dictatorship draws ever closer. Section 8 of this bill gives certain people great power while removing any accountability from them. It's a very bad sign when a preoccupation of the regime is how to escape prosecution for its actions.

Arnold J. Toynbee, in his A Study of History, describes how every society goes through the transition from being guided by leaders--people who inspire others to follow them on the basis of their vision and personal qualities--to being dominated by rulers--those who have inherited the levers of power, but who lack the charisma of actual leaders. In the U.S., we've had the transition from leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who stirred and inspired their fellow citizens, to rulers such as George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, who have been preoccupied with world domination and shaping their own country into something closer to a police state.

As I've mentioned before, Toynbee also discusses the threefold progress of a typical Greek tragedy as it applies to the catastrophic undoing of such a ruling regime. Those three stages are koros, hubris, and ate. He translates these as "surfeit", "outrageous behavior", and "disaster". I believe we've seen plenty of the first two of these; now the third is looming into view.

The U.S. has the largest military in the world. They may feel they need it if large segments of its population, thrown out of their houses and their jobs, their retirements savings wiped out, become agitated. Voila: full-on military dictatorship.

Preposterous? Maybe. But maybe that's what they thought in Burma too. And I expect that real estate is still very affordable there.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

epic musings

Just as the truth about the future would be attained only if man were in touch with a knowledge wiser than his own, so the truth about the past could be preserved only on a like condition. Its human repositories, the poets, had (like the seers) their technical resources, their professional training; but vision of the past, like insight into the future, remained a mysterious faculty, only partially under its owner’s control, and dependent in the last resort on divine grace.

Thus E. R. Dodds in his excellent 1951 book The Greeks and the Irrational, which I'm still reading.

This extract is from chapter 3, "The Blessings of Madness", in which Dodds discusses the different kinds of madness as understood by the ancient Greeks. Some types of madness were known to be ordinary and pathological--disease in the same sense that the body can be diseased. But others were regarded as divine, and conferred special superhuman powers on those visited by these states.

Two of these forms of divine madness were conferred by Apollo and Dionysus. But a third was regarded as bestowed by the Muses; this form of "madness" was poetic inspiration. In contact with a Muse, the poet received special knowledge not available to anyone else, and was able to express this in his verse.

As Dodds points out, the epic poets, when they supplicated the Muse for inspiration, were looking not for the technical ability to express themselves, but for hidden factual knowledge of the past. In an era without recorded media, the all-seeing, all-remembering Muse was the repository of the truth about the past, and it was this precious truth that the epic poet needed above all in order to fulfill his task.

I find this idea fascinating and, yes, inspiring. At this stage in my own epic work, I feel that I understand exactly what my great forebears were asking for, and why.

The past is a great unknown, as is the future. We have memories of our own lives, but as psychology has shown, memories change. What we remember, if we remember, and if that memory has any relationship with fact at all, is colored and shaped by our need to account for the present as we understand it. Our personal memories are mainly a kind of personal mythology that explains and supports our current attitudes and actions. Very broadly, we remember what we want to remember--the way we want to remember it.

And when we look back to times before our personal memories, we move even further onto mythological ground. Textbooks of national history are notorious for showing an edited, self-serving view of the past. Their aim is to create generations of patriots.

The epic poet, then, prays to the Muse for the truth about the past. What he gets is what he gets--whatever she decides to give him, if anything.

Now we have a long tradition of recorded history, as well as an actual science of the past in archaeology. Does this mean the Muse is obsolete, retired?

I think not. For the poet--and here I mean poet in its broad literal sense of "maker"--is still a limited being, who has only so much time and energy in his mortal frame. Confronted with a sea of recorded information, how is he to find what he needs?

You can call it chance, or method, or association--but I think that a research process that relies only on these things will come up empty. Speaking for myself, I have a certain feeling of being guided. Not all the time--in fact, not usually. But nonetheless. And after all, it takes me time to collect and read through the material to which I'm guided. I just need to be nudged and steered a little from time to time. I do get these nudges, and they must come from somewhere.

The "unconscious" would be the usual explanation. But what is the unconscious? By definition it is the great unknown, what is outside the field of consciousness. Because we claim not to believe in gods, we take it to refer to essentially mental processes happening below the threshold of awareness. But the entire notion of an unconscious mental process is quite mysterious, if you think about it. And to the extent that it exhibits purpose and knowledge, well, then, it's all the more mysterious.

I say: the Muse is as the Muse does. The gift of Calliope, the Muse of epic, is not poetic prowess but knowledge. The epic poet knows things that other people don't--and then he tells them.

O Muse, thanks for your help thus far. Please don't abandon me now.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

epics, holograms, and hell

Writing, studying, thinking--these three converge for me. I keep a separate folder on the computer labeled Thinking, in which I have documents devoted to different topics that interest me. For example, one of these is "Literary Criticism", which I've set up to record any thoughts I might have on literature as an art form. Some of these Thinking documents I find myself copying and pasting into my Encyclopedia folder for The Mission. The compartments between my different creative and thinking activities are dissolving. Gradually it's all becoming one enterprise, involving my whole being.

This relates to the idea of the epic as a total form: an epic, in some sense, is a complete image of the world. The epic form places the maximum demand on the writer. It reflects the totality of his being, which in turn reflects the totality of the world he lives in. I think of a hologram. One of the properties of the hologram is that each piece of the whole contains all the information in the whole--just on a smaller scale. A hologram of, say, a car, can be cut up into little pieces, and each little piece will have the image of the whole car.

The epic is a hologram of the world as the writer understands it. Perhaps this could be said of every work, but the epic is specifically an effort to make this image as complete and deep as possible. The epic gives meaning to the existence of a nation--or of our whole species.

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading Mark Musa's translation of Dante's Inferno. Excellent stuff. Quirky and weird, like all the greatest literature--but bold and brilliant. The Divine Comedy was Dante's effort at producing a total work, a complete image of the cosmos in all its significant features. All the levels are there, from the microcosm of the Pilgrim's soul to the mesocosm of his society to the macrocosm of the created universe. They are integrated and related. As Virgil leads him ever deeper down the trenches of the vast crater called Hell, centered under Jerusalem, Dante describes what he sees and feels with an awestruck but sober eye.

And 700 years later, he's still in print. Next up: Purgatory.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

reading hevvy

Just about all of my reading is done for a purpose. Only occasionally do I read a book for "general knowledge", and almost never do I read a book "for fun".

Sound dreary? It isn't. For one thing, life is short, and I don't really have enough hours in it to read all the purpose-driven material that I want. But for another, those "fun" things, to me, aren't fun. Before long my eyes glaze over and I find I'm not picking up that book any more to continue on with it. I'm back to a full slate of motivated, "serious" reading.

What was the last thing I read for fun? Trying to recall... Two or three years ago I would sometimes peruse the paperback racks at the library, looking for something I might find entertaining. Mainly I had no luck. The racks there were filled with novels from series that for the most part lacked the first volume (presumably it was always checked out).

I remember going on a little vacation with Kimmie and Robin back in 1990--something we very seldom ever did, partly due to lack of money. This was a relatively cheap getaway to the Gulf Islands nearby. We were going to stay in rustic little cabins, ride our bicycles, and just relax. I took along some light "summer" reading, the sci-fi novel Count Zero by William Gibson. It had been a while since I'd read any science fiction--a staple of my youth--and Gibson was its hottest practitioner at that time. Here was my chance to kick back and enjoy some escapist fare.

Sitting at a quiet table in a cabin on Mayne Island, while deer moved silently outside, eating the motel owner's flowers, I tucked in to Gibson's cyberpunk novel. I felt a bit of a buzz as I started, at the imaginative settings and his tough, cynical style, but before long it palled on me. I finished the book, but I was not drawn in and carried along by the current of story as I used to be as a boy. I wasn't able to fully buy into the characters or the situation, even though I really liked the idea of futuristic hacker-jockeys moving through a virtual-reality space, breaking into data banks (I think that's what was in the book). It seemed that sci-fi reading was something I could not go back to, any more than I could go back to playing with Hot Wheels or Lego. Had I become entertainment-proof?

Well, my reading may not be "fun", but I do enjoy it. To me, this is fun. And it's hard to engage me in a story. Mostly what I think is, "so what?" Of course, I'm writing a king-sized story of my own now--one that I intend to be readable by me or people like me (if any such exist). I need to be reading about stuff that matters, and therefore that's also what I need to be writing about.

So right now it's Dante's Inferno for me. Not "reading lite". Maybe I need my own marketing phrase--how about "reading hevvy"?

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