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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, December 29, 2005

thinking during domestic hibernation

I enjoy the period between Christmas and New Year. In a novel I wrote back in the late 80s and early 90s, called Truth of the Python (about a hypnotherapist who accidentally regresses a client to a past life as the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras), I used the phrase "domestic hibernation" to describe this week of the year--and it is still apt. For me there is a feeling of true vacation, of hiatus between the old year just past and the new one not yet begun. I feel a lightening of shoulds in my life and a sense of permission to do what I please.

This year, that has meant delving into the question of identity and what it means. My philosophical self has emerged with full force. I have been spending the early mornings keying notes from the books Acquiring Genomes, Identity: Youth and Crisis, and In the Name of Identity. Yesterday I created a new Word document in a folder labeled Thinking, where I file notes of my thoughts on various topics; the new document is entitled Identity.

Why am I so thirstily in quest of identity? I have long realized that the issue is a central one in my novel. As I was structuring my story I came to recognize how much it was making its presence felt, and as I have drafted the prose it has pressed forward more and more as an issue. Finally a kind of ignition temperature has been reached: the question has caught fire and become urgent to me. I recognized that I don't know very much about identity. What is it, exactly? Where does it come from?

When I typed the phrase "caught fire" and "become urgent", I see the connection with a dream I had last night. I have already written the dream down. Here it is:

I'm with Dad, heading up through the Edgemont area toward a fire alarm, seemingly at Handsworth High School. I may have been talking about the necessity of having drills, at least weekly, in order to have orderly responses to fire alarms. People need to practice in order to be proficient in an emergency. Now the alarm is going--but is it a drill, or the real thing?

Somehow the talk of fire drills and volunteer firemen makes me think of Carisbrooke Park and also Deep Cove: as though these are places where there are local firehalls, and where therefore people need to practice. I'm thinking that three hours a week would be enough, maybe on Saturday mornings.

Traffic is jammed in the reaction to the emergency. As though from on high, I can see the main street (Lonsdale? Edgemont?) become jammed with cars, and on-ramps get backed up. I see cars accumulate in a herringbone pattern on one ramp, the last few are taxis who try to surge ahead and there is a rear-end collision by the last one. "It figures," I think, disgusted.

We get out of our bus, figuring we can make better time on foot. It looks like 1st Street between St. Georges and Lonsdale, but is maybe supposed to be higher up, like at Balmoral in upper Lonsdale. I run, jumping up over obstacles like boulders and concrete debris on the old, broken road. Dad keeps pace with me, and Kimmie is also with us, trying to keep up. I can't wait--this is a civic emergency, and I have a role to play.

Dad and I are in cheerful, friendly spirits. We're talking about meteorites hitting the earth. Meteorites rain down all the time, but small ones get burnt up in the atmosphere. We're joking about being hit by one. I say something like, "Even one the size of a rice-grain would feel like you’re being shot by a BB gun." Dad flinches comically at the thought of this, and I picture being hit by a small meteorite--what would it feel like? Would I survive?

I make my way through the traffic snarl-up in Edgemont Village (or a place like it), perhaps leaving Dad behind too because of the emergency. I might be a journalist, working on a feature that relates to the emergency, and so may get special attention or access. I get to the high school, which is full of normal-looking kids (no sense of emergency here), and run up the stairs, knowing that the emergency room, bell room, is on the second floor.

I'm on a landing of the stairs, wondering which way to go. I ask a student, a teenage girl, where to find it. She may direct me, or she may try to get me to go to another room, where another event is happening that she supports. I am impressed with her calm, mature, intelligent demeanor.

I might finally make it to the room where the alarm is controlled; but I forget what happens...

The issue of identity has deep roots. Here are some thoughts from Amin Maalouf, author of In the Name of Identity (slightly compressed):

My identity is what prevents me from being identical to anybody else.

Each individual's identity is made up of a number of elements. These factors include allegiance to a religious tradition; to a nationality--sometimes two; to a profession, an institution, or a particular social milieu. But the list is much longer than that. A person may feel a more or less strong attachment to a province, a village, a neighborhood, a clan, a professional team, a union, a company, a parish, a community of people with the same passions.

None is entirely insignificant. All are components of personality--we might almost call them "genes of the soul."

While each of these elements may be found separately in many individuals, the same combination of them is never encountered in different people, and it's this that makes each human being unique and irreplaceable.

From this point of view, one's identity is the intersection of all the sets to which one belongs, in my case male, white, North Vancouverite, (sometime) Buddhist, and so on. This intersection is unique for each person.

As I thought about this yesterday, I arrived at the idea that these sets do not all have the same value in identity-formation. Maalouf says as much in passing, before turning to a few that are of special importance for his main topic. But in my thinking I figured that the important sets will be of those qualities that are inseparable from oneself (such as one's sex or place of birth), and those that are deliberately chosen (such as a faith one has converted to, or a country one has emigrated to).

But sets are conceptual constructs that do not exactly coincide with reality. I'm a Canadian--but what after all is a Canadian? The conceptual category seems clear, but on the ground it is not. I was born in Canada and am a Canadian citizen, so my Canadianness seems solid. But what about Quebeckers and aboriginals and landed immigrants? What about children born to Canadian parents abroad, and who are therefore citizens of that other country? Or at sea? What about children of one Canadian parent? What about someone granted Canadian citizenship by mistake or through fraud? What about someone born in a place where Canadian sovereignty is challenged by other countries? In at least some of these cases the boundary conditions of "Canadianness" are being tested; such individuals may feel a diluted or conflicted or incomplete sense of being Canadian.

My point: while the category "Canadian" seems clear, its application is not. Concepts do not and cannot match reality exactly. Therefore an identity that is forged purely of concepts is inherently mismatched with reality.

This got me thinking about another angle on identity: ego as understood in Buddhism. I spent time in my office yesterday going through my notes and books from three years ago, while I was studying at Gampo Abbey and Nitartha Institute. I couldn't find what I was looking for (a stack of vocabulary index-cards with definitions on them), and felt a vague sense of loss and chagrin. But I certainly remembered that the whole project of Buddhism, at least for the beginning practitioner, is discovering the emptiness of ego: that the thing we call I has no absolute existence. Does this mean identity is a non-issue?

There is, as always, much more to say. Another time...

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  • hi - this is great stuff, you have a powerful voice and an endearing perspective! Love the detail from the book - will search it out. Waking up as Pythagoras is compelling. I must search it out. I liked your generous comment on the 007 blog . . which led me here. No new posts there – hopefully they’re okay.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 30, 2005 3:49 PM  

  • Welcome, "temp". Alas, the Pythagoras work is unpublished, and you would search a long time in vain.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    By Blogger paulv, at December 30, 2005 4:48 PM  

  • yes, my search left me wondering . . I guess I'll have to wait for publication - soon, I hope/expect!!!!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 30, 2005 6:46 PM  

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