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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

it's about ideas

Slightly shortened writing morning, since I had a lunch date downtown with my sister Lisa.

Last night I bit the bullet and included The Twelve Caesars in my teatime reading material, so it would be pre-highlighted for my morning note-keying. It was no hardship--Suetonius (via Graves) is great. Intelligent, to-the-point writing. I also read a bit further in When Prophecy Fails, and then, to round out my afternoon read, I opened The Grail Legend by Emma Jung (wife of the psychologist Carl Jung). Fantastic--I hadn't picked up this book for a month or more, and was again rewarded with more keen psychological and spiritual insights into the Grail myth--the primary inspiration for my whole project.

Supposedly, Carl Jung never wrote on the Grail myth, because his wife had staked a claim on it for her masterwork (she worked on it for more than 30 years, and died before it was published; it was finished by Jung's student Marie-Louise von Franz). She covers the material in depth, amplifying some of the themes raised by her husband in his book Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, in which he discusses the evolution of the archetype he calls the Self: the archetype of wholeness toward which all human life strives, in his view. According to Carl Jung, the archetype of the Self is indistinguishable from the God-image in us, which means that whatever experience of God or the divine we have manifests psychologically in us as the Self archetype. In the same book, Carl Jung maps out the unfolding and differentiation of this archetype in the West in the 2,000 years since the time of Christ.

Jung believed that Jesus was the purest expression of the Self in the West, and that our attitude to Jesus, and to his mythical opponent, the Antichrist, has developed in synchrony with the rising and passing of the Age of Pisces, which began at the time of Jesus' birth. In Jung's view, the problem of the growth and as it were institutionalization of evil in modern times is a concomitant of the fact that Jesus is all good. He is a figure of light, and the darkness in man, which Jung feels is an active force, not merely the privation of good, is suppressed into the unconscious, projected on the dark shadow-figure of Christ, Antichrist. The carrier of the projection of the mythological Antichrist stalks the Earth today in the person of Osama bin Laden.

Emma Jung's book looks at the Grail legend in the light of this point of view. She is perceptive and insightful. In the unfolding of the Grail story by the various poets--in her case, mainly Chretien de Troyes--she sees the working-out of the psychological and spiritual problem of the "Christianizing" of Europe and the West. The issues of salvation, evil, and personal emancipation are played out in the powerful symbolism of the quest to redeem the Waste Land by saving the wounded Fisher King from his endless torment.

Of course, the great teacher of the Grail myth, and its relevance for our current age, was Joseph Campbell. I'm sure I'll have posts about him, but I'd better not start in today. But in an important sense his work, especially his Masks of God tetralogy, with its fantastic concluding volume Creative Mythology, is what caused me to wind up doing the project that I'm doing. I'm finding that Emma Jung's book makes an excellent complement to his work.

The Grail Legend forms part of what I call thematic research: research into not the time and place of my story, but into its ideas. Every story, no matter how simple or "character-driven", is founded upon ideas. According to McKee, a story is fundamentally about the communication of an idea, not in argument form, but in dramatic form. Likewise, a character is also an idea--an idea wrapped in an emotion. In my view, only the very best writers are able to work proficiently with story at the level of idea, and the failure of writers to understand or develop the ideas they're communicating is the single biggest deficiency in most dramatic writing.

So I do my thematic research, keying the highlights into my Research folder just as I do with the other nuts-and-bolts research.

This morning's coffee-time research keying: The Twelve Caesars, When Prophecy Fails, and The Grail Legend.


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