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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

redemption

Morning research typing: The Message of the Sphinx, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, and A History of Private Life 1: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium. Taking it easy with my right hand, the wrist of which is developing a ganglion--a flare-up of nerves or tendons from repetitive strain (mouse-clicking, I believe).

Back into the document "14 - Notes". I headed into the backstory of Marcus, a place I've been reluctant to go. Why? Because it's hard. It's hard and uncertain working on a character's past. Also, it's easy to overdo it, to spend much more time on needless historical details than can ever pay off in the story. I like the idea of creating backstory only as I need it--when a character is going to do or say something significant, for instance. But that won't quite do. Without the important events in a character's past, the character cannot function meaningfully in the present. We're only interesting--that is, have a strong point of view--to the extent that we've had strong experiences that have shaped us. You can create a character who has a strong point of view on the assumption that it must be there for a reason; but at some point you're likely going to have to come up with the reason.

Marcus must have a very strong point of view, because he was (or is) suicidal. I knew that he was depressed, more or less because he finds his life pointless and disappointing. But I also felt that wasn't enough. Increasingly I've been building the idea that he is plagued by guilt. Guilt over what? That's what I was working on today.

An overarching theme for the whole project is that of redemption. I was especially inspired by Liz Greene's discussion of this in her authoritative book The Astrological Neptune and the Quest for Redemption. From the opening page of her introduction:
The hallmarks of the longing for redemption are, first, that it is a longing; second, that it is compulsive and absolute, and often collides violently with individual values; and third, that its goal is not relationship, but rather, dissolution.
Astrologically this "compulsive longing" is symbolized by the planet Neptune, the ruler of Pisces. My project is The Age of Pisces--the age in which we now live. To say that we live in the Age of Pisces is to say that our experience of the world is dominated by this compulsive longing for dissolution. According to my Webster's dictionary, to be redeemed is to be "freed from the consequences of sin." And sin? "A vitiated state of human nature in which the self is estranged from God." So we live in an age in which there is a general compulsive longing to be freed from our vitiated state of estrangement from God.

Of course, we don't all agree on who or what or whether God is. We could also call this the sacred, the divine, or ultimate reality. But it is a religious age, or perhaps better, a spiritual age. For Neptune is a mystical, theosophical planet, while Jupiter symbolizes the dogmatic and institutional aspects of religion. My story is about the dawn of the age that is now drawing to its close. I'm hoping that in its origins are the seeds of its purpose and our destiny.

So Marcus: depressed, guilty, 52-year-old ex-centurion, experiences his own vitiated nature, and, like the rest of us, must find his own way of addressing it. Each of us, in a sense, is confronted with the problem of solving the riddles of the cosmos, of existence, so as to redeem our lives. Mostly, feeling inadequate, we take answers from others. But does that really work? Or have we in some way hit a cosmic "snooze" button to postpone the personal, private confrontation with what we really believe? We spend so much time and effort trying not to admit this awful solitude of ours, the aloneness of our experience. In the end, outside reassurances mean nothing.
Some things came to me today--reasons for why Marcus feels the way he does. In a way it's a grind, but it is also exciting to discover these things, that they might work. Marcus is the least-developed of my protagonists so far, so I owe him this. He won't be able to fight off his nest-mates Menahem, Herod, or even Alexander without his own plausible and unexpected life story.

He's growing. He's becoming somebody.

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