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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

books (others', mainly)

What can I tell you. It's a dark day, cold, windy, with heavy cold rain. I went up to see Terry Dickson to have my back adjusted, dropped a couple of videos in the bin at the North Vancouver City Library.

This morning I got back at chapter 21 (notes). Yes, notes, notes. More notes. Every new piece of information learned is another story possibility. The world of the story grows and becomes richer; my creative choices are multiplied. At a critical mass the actual writing is triggered: I become enthusiastic (usually) and jump into drafting the chapter.

In the meantime I enjoy learning about my world. I enjoy the acquisition of expertise. Now, when I read texts about my period, I read as one who is familiar with the material, with the background. I become aware of the range of opinions among the experts. I note which scholars seem persuasive to me, and which ones are less so.

Still one of my favorites is Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews by Victor Tcherikover, a Russian-born scholar who fled St. Petersburg for Berlin during the revolution, then went on to Palestine, becoming one of the first teachers at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. My copy, the Atheneum paperback printed in 1974, I got in June 2004. Its previous owner was Pennsbury High School in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania--it still has its library card-pocket glued inside the back cover. (I guess those high-school students in Fairless Hills just weren't getting into ancient Jewish history enough.)

Tcherikover, who devoted his whole career to studying this period, makes the topic exciting by using deduction to solve many puzzles that have troubled historians. He reminds me of an archaeologist piecing together fragments of skull or papyrus, arranging the pieces until a coherent picture emerges. In this manner he very persuasively solves the long-standing puzzle of why the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes "persecuted" the Jewish religion and abolished worship of Yahweh at the Jerusalem Temple in 167 BC--an event that became a major sore point with Jews and a unifier for them when they recalled it later in times of adversity. Its effects still rippled down to the time of my story, 120 years later. This and several other solutions of ancient puzzles kept me absorbed in the book, highlighting sporadically.

Lately my reading has turned away from direct research for my book. Since I became excited by the topic of identity I have let my mind go where it wants, and haven't reigned it in to read in my subject area. Do I feel that I know enough? Not really. I felt like I needed a change, and for the past couple of months I have essentially forgotten about story research.

Should I get back to it? At least fold one research book into the teatime mix? Hm. I've pulled out my unfinished copy of Roman Arabia by G. W. Bowersock (which I also got in June 2004). Maybe I'll take that upstairs and see what happens.

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

depression and its antidotes

It was a disturbed night. I woke up several times, finally at about 3:30, and lay awake for the next three hours, feeling troubled in mind. I sank into a swamp of dark thoughts and emotions and lay there submerged.

I'm looking at my life and in many ways not liking what I see. I opened my journal in Word and made an entry, trying to tease apart the strands of discontent. I turned 47 on 24 January. What have I got to show for the accumulating decades of my life?

Just these magic beans, mainly.

I made a few more notes in my Thinking - Identity document, trying to summarize what my tentative conclusions are thus far. Why am I so obsessed with identity? For one thing, my life has been a (mainly unconscious) quest for identity--a search for the answer to the question, "Who am I?" or even: "What am I?" But in addition to that, and probably not coincidentally, the great myth of the Holy Grail is, according to Joseph Campbell, essentially the mythology of the individual, which is to say, the mythology of the modern person. The quest for identity is an effort to define or isolate this individual. Who or what is it that thirsts for salvation and feels its lack?

So: as I say, a few notes. Had a couple of soft-boiled eggs with toast, prepared by Kimmie, and sat silently afterward, buffeted by emotional crosswinds. "This is what depression must be like," I thought. Chilling.

They say exercise is good for depression, and so is nature. Kimmie said that she wanted to take a long walk, so I proposed walking the seawall in Stanley Park. That's where we went--about a ten-kilometer walk around the scenic perimeter of the park. It was moist and blustery, with cold wind blowing from the east. The snowline was low on the blue mountains; the water of Coal Harbour was choppy and milky-green against the pale sand and crushed shells of the bottom. Halfway around the seawall, when we were facing west in the lee of the park, the sky was a great featureless dome of pale gray, with the gray sea terminating at its bottom like the edge of the world--no island mountains in sight.

The drizzle increased to rain; I put up our big Knowledge Network umbrella, green-black, and we huddled under it as the wind blasted coldly, driving rain into us. There were still walkers, joggers, and cyclists moving along the seawall, their bare thighs red and chapped. We made it back to the car, grateful for the rest and shelter. And I did indeed feel revived by the exercise and the scenery.

Yes: Jack before the beanstalk, going to bed chastened. What must that night have been like for him?

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Saturday, January 28, 2006

running, reading, and that's about it

The rain stopped later this afternoon, so I decided to act against my inclination and go for a run. They say that if you're feeling at all depressed, physical exercise is a good idea. It's also a good idea if your body is accumulating unwanted mass. So out I staggered on the wet sidewalks and streets. The highlight is when I leave Keith Road two blocks east and turn down St. Davids Avenue. For a short half-block there is a lovely vista of Vancouver across the water. Today the city was in repose over the quiet water, screened by mist as though by fine talc floating in the air. The clouds had been ripped to long streamers and slips in the pristine blue sky. Unaccustomed sunlight flared off the water, a brilliant disk, too bright to look at.

I just came down quickly to key something in here, since I am letting the blog drop lately. But it is pushing on for 5:00, and I don't want to cut into my reading time (I already am). A feeling of endless, aimless research. I feel driven to study, but I never arrive anywhere. There is a throughput of books, but what do I know?

Well, I'll just have to trust. Yesterday afternoon I read Comparative Politics, Future: Tense by Gwynne Dyer (a favorite writer of mine; Kimmie gave me the book for my birthday), Communitarianism and Individualism, and Microbiology the Easy Way. Today I'll probably read from the same books.

Off I go.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Man Thinking (not Man Writing)

Back at my station after some days of unusual things, one being my birthday (yesterday). I spent it quietly at home but received some nice e-mails and phone calls. In the evening Kimmie, Robin, and I went down to Pasparos Restaurant for a Greek dinner to celebrate, then came home to settle down in front of two hours of American Idol, which has launched its fifth season. (As I said to a friend in an e-mail, if cringing is an exercise then I'm on my way to getting in shape.) Kimmie had given me a bottle of The Balvenie "DoubleWood" 12-year-old single-malt scotch whisky, a dark, honeyish, flavorful drink. I sipped a couple of those while watching young Americans strive to become celebrities.

I struggle on with resistance to my project. I'm working on notes for chapter 21. "Is there no end of studying for this thing?" I ask myself. "Could anything possibly be worth it?" As each chapter, through my own design mind you, forces me to push my investigations into new areas (in this case, the political setup surrounding the still-new Roman province of Syria), I feel an inertia, an unwillingness to pick up cudgels to open up a new area of inquiry. Some part of my inner crew is either on sit-down strike or is threatening it (it's hard to tell which at my level of output).

It's also anxiety about how to proceed. That never leaves me, it seems. When I sit down and open up my notes document, I'm faced with the fact that I'm not sure what exactly to do, where to start. I find this anxiety vaguely embarrassing, as though I should have this problem licked by now. I've written a lot of words in my day, and quite a few large projects. At times like these it doesn't seem to help me.

One of my latest tricks is to go through my previous day's notes with Word's built-in highlighter, highlighting usable material--things I expect will make it into the chapter. Highlighting forces me to concentrate, and feels good whether there is lots of highlighted material or not, since the highlights mean I have good "keeper" ideas, and sections without highlights is stuff I can ignore from now on. My last day of notes, from Monday, I had to highlight heavily, which felt good. An example--this was my first paragraph of notes from Monday:

Caesar's unexpected early, solo arrival would spur us to action ahead of schedule, catching us off-guard. Not bad. Caesar is already a step ahead of us.

I highlighted it all except for the interpolated comment "not bad".

A recent birthday survivor, I went easy on myself. My desire for quality, to get things--everything--right, is uncompromising. This is a trait of what James Hillman calls the "acorn"--the inborn seed of our nature that invariably and continuously seeks expression in our lives. The acorn doesn't play politics with the real world. It demands maximum expression of itself, come what may. If that leads to a life of penury, misery, and ridicule, so be it.

But I wanted to share something else. I have been making various complaints along these lines to Warren, and as part of his birthday greeting yesterday he sent me this extract from a speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was called "The American Scholar", and was given to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837, when Emerson was 34. This was the section Warren sent:

I have now spoken of the education of the scholar by nature, by books, and by action. It remains to say somewhat of his duties.

They are such as become Man Thinking. They may all be comprised in self-trust. The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation. Flamsteed and Herschel, in their glazed observatories, may catalogue the stars with the praise of all men, and, the results being splendid and useful, honor is sure. But he, in his private observatory, cataloguing obscure and nebulous stars of the human mind, which as yet no man has thought of as such,--watching days and months, sometimes, for a few facts; correcting still his old records;--must relinquish display and immediate fame. In the long period of his preparation, he must betray often an ignorance and shiftlessness in popular arts, incurring the disdain of the able who shoulder him aside. Long he must stammer in his speech; often forego the living for the dead. Worse yet, he must accept--how often!--poverty and solitude. For the ease and pleasure of treading the old road, accepting the fashions, the education, the religion of society, he takes the cross of making his own, and, of course, the self-accusation, the faint heart, the frequent uncertainty and loss of time, which are the nettles and tangling vines in the way of the self-relying and self-directed; and the state of virtual hostility in which he seems to stand to society, and especially to educated society. For all this loss and scorn, what offset? He is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature. He is one, who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world's eye. He is the world's heart....

I felt much cheered by reading this. It heartens me and lights the way awhile as I get ready to spend another year, one of the few coins of life we each receive at birth.

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

lumpers and splitters

On dark, rainy January days it seems right and normal to spend one's morning reading and typing from research books. I served Kimmie coffee in bed so she could sit awhile in our cold room and read the next Laurell K. Hamilton vampire novel, Obsidian Butterfly. I came down here and resumed my investigations into the mystery of identity: what is it?

Today I started my quest with a return to Infinity and the Mind by Rudy Rucker: more on set theory. I sat hunched over the small corner of my computer table that is not occupied by equipment, reading the splayed paperback, highlighting the material more comprehensively than I did when I made my last pass this way. (I don't know exactly when that was. I do remember the first time I read the book all the way through: it was February 1990, when I had pneumonia. I would crawl from bed down to sofa in the livingroom while snow fell deep and soft outside, and followed a schedule of reading, drawing, and other sofa-ridden activities through each day. I had the leisure to read the book and pay attention to it, plus, as I've mentioned before, the presence of a fever actually heightens my mental alertness and concentration--at least up to a point.) I read and highlighted my way through the subsection "Pure Sets and the Physical Universe", then keyed the highlights into a Word document.

I also keyed some more material from Communitarianism and Individualism, the essay "Membership", and moved on to Serpent in the Sky by John Anthony West. Questing, questing.

One thing seems clear to me, at least: our identity is not who we are, it's who we think we are--and, to some extent, who others think we are. My idea of myself is learned. After I'm born, I learn about the world, and at the same time I learn about the preexistent fact of myself. Gradually I discover who I am. The mental model I build of myself is what we call identity. Its most important components, in terms of relating with the world, are its most contentious aspects--those which seem to generate conflict with my environment--and those aspects which I have adopted by choice, such as being a Buddhist or a vegetarian.

I was spurred to look into set theory because of Amin Maalouf's assertion that our identity is simply the combination, unique in each individual case, of all the groups to which we belong. In mathematical terms these groups are sets, and Maalouf is saying that my identity is the intersection of all these sets. Are we really performing a mathematical set operation when we establish our identity? I wondered. I decided to refresh my memory on the basics of set theory; hence Rucker's book.

I was excited on the one hand when Rucker referred to set theory as a continuation of the ancient philosophical question of the Many and the One (is the world fundamentally Many, or One?); but on the other hand the lack of a conclusion to that ancient question seemed to point to inconclusiveness on the question of identity too. Even the mathematics depends on your point of view, your assumptions about the world.

I think back to Mr. Bennett, my social-studies teacher in junior high school. In one of his characteristically irreverent and provocative talks to the class he made this observation: "There are two kinds of people: lumpers and splitters. Lumpers like to lump everything together. Splitters like to keep everything apart. Like when people eat dinner: some people like to push everything together on their plate, others want to keep everything separated."

I didn't take Mr. Bennett's observation too seriously at the time; it was just another one of his half-serious observations. But of course, with anything that's half-serious, there's a tendency to overlook the half that is serious. The identity issue, as it applies to political issues, may indeed boil down to Mr. Bennett's scheme. You're either a lumper or a splitter.

Or at least, you identify yourself as one.

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Saturday, January 21, 2006

identity, infinity, etc.

Dang. I just lost this post after writing about three paragraphs. I zipped over to look something up on Wikipedia, and got the dreaded "fatal error" message box: Firefox had made a fatal error. I was forced to close Firefox and lose my post. I had not copied each paragraph and pasted it in Word, as I used to with Netscape because of its proneness to crashing in this way. So I am disappointed with my new browser.

I was saying something like this. I woke up with a desire to resume the chase for the meaning of identity. I believe in following my mind where it wants to go: it's good to follow your passion, moment to moment, if possible. I started by keying some material from Communitarianism and Individualism, the fourth essay entitled "Membership" by Michael Walzer (excellent, as were the previous three; the book so far is first-rate). Countries, like clubs, have admission policies: rules for admitting new members. These rules reflect the members' idea of who they are, their identity.

This got me thinking about the mathematics of set theory. I prowled the livingroom bookshelf to find Infinity and the Mind by Rudy Rucker, a worn mass-market paperback that I bought in 1984. In it he quotes a definition of set made by the main inventor of set theory, Georg Cantor:

A set is a Many which allows itself to be thought of as a One.

Hm, I thought, what is this but a description of Arthur Koestler's holon from The Ghost in the Machine? Here is an extract:

A "part" generally means something fragmentary and incomplete, which by itself would have no legitimate existence. On the other hand, a "whole" is considered as complete in itself. But "wholes" and "parts" in this absolute sense just do not exist anywhere. What we find are intermediary structures on a series of levels in an ascending order of complexity: subwholes which display, according to the way you look at them, some of the characteristics commonly attributed to wholes and some of the characteristics commonly attributed to parts.

The term I propose is "holon," from the Greek holos = whole, with the suffix on which, as in proton or neutron, suggests a particle or part.

I had fetched down The Ghost in the Machine from the coffeetable to set up a document for it in Word.

Rucker started his discussion of sets with a reference to the ancient problem of the One and the Many: Is the world fundamentally One, or Many? Is it made out of one basic thing or substance, or a plurality of these? Plato spent much of his career pondering this topic, without a conclusive result. His final writing on it was a wry observation that the topic was one that young thinkers liked to believe they had understood, and liked furthermore to talk endlessly about. Rucker himself admits he does not have the answer--only his own (very penetrating and persuasive) ideas on the topic.

I'm intrigued by set theory and what is called transfinite mathematics--the mathematics of infinity (for which set theory is the strongest mathematical toolkit). I suspect that transfinite mathematics is the mathematical branch of theology, for if the Absolute Infinite (symbolized in mathematics by uppercase omega) is in any way existent, it would have to be what we refer to as God. The study of the lesser infinities below the Absolute Infinite (and there are, well, infinitely many of those) would be a kind of theological undertaking.

But the Many and the One flagged something else: de Santillana's The Origins of Scientific Thought, in which he examines how early Greek thinking led toward what we now call science. The problem of the Many and the One was a scientific question, with responses that included the atomism of Democritus--the atomism with which we "moderns" still view the world today. For the idea of little indivisible bits of blind matter flying through the vacuum of space, interacting, was due to Democritus, hundreds of years before Christ.

This merely sketches some of my thoughts from this morning. Kimmie and I went downtown to buy fabric at the store Dressew on Hastings--a lovely old-time store, crammed with excellent things. A good time. I'm late for tea!

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Friday, January 20, 2006

fictions within fictions

Kimmie is depressed about her job. Something happened the day before yesterday--she won't say what--that has put her into a black mood. Well, dark-gray perhaps. Having left early for a chiropractic appointment, she lounges with Robin on Robin's stripped day-bed, watching Dr. Phil on Robin's TV. I have just returned from a trip to Save-On Foods to get some Mexican food for tonight's dinner: a couple of bean burritos from Que Pasa, pre-made salsa, organic corn chips, and two just-right avocados and cilantro for guacamole. The sun was shining in the clear rinsed blue of the southern sky, beyond the rumpled pearl-colored duvet of cloud massed against the North Shore mountains.

Still feeling much resistance this morning (wrote an e-mail to Warren first thing rather than anything directly book-related), I forced myself to type things in my Notes document for chapter 21. With each chapter, it's as though I have forgotten how to begin. There is a kind of desert-island feeling: I'm marooned with only a few lines from my outline. How to turn those into an interesting, engaging, dramatic chapter. Like rusted gears my thoughts slowly start moving. Just logically make inferences based on the outline. If this is to happen, then that must be there, and this other thing must already have happened.

One of the challenges of fiction, for me, is coming up with all the contingencies that don't arise in the story: the thoughts, expectations, and fears of the characters that never actually take place. I'm responsible not only for a fictitious story, but for the fictions-within-fictions of eventualities that never occur--almost like dreams within a dream. This makes for extra creative overhead, but the story suffers if it's not there; it will lack richness. Weak or hastily written fiction has this problem, I feel. The writer has not given enough thought to the characters' inner world, providing the expectations that in life we all have, and which so seldom come to be.

I pushed myself forward. I opened research files, tapping back into what I'd keyed of The Jewish War by Josephus, a primary source document that I realized I don't consult enough. I remember when I first read it, while traveling alone in 1981. I recall trying to penetrate its dense prose while riding a bus from Nairobi to Mombasa in Kenya. It was a welter of hard-to-remember names and endless, pointless violence and reprisals. "How can anybody get through this," I wondered, "much less keep everything straight?" I looked out the window at the grassland streaming by, and adult giraffes browsing on trees.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

techie avoidance tactics

Time whizzes by. This morning passed mainly in trying to get myself up and running with Mozilla Firefox as my new browser and, in particular, Mozilla Thunderbird as my new e-mail client. The process was complicated by the fact that the Import command in Thunderbird brought only some e-mails from three or four years ago. I had to open up Windows Explorer and go hunting for the e-mail messages I wanted to import to the new e-mail program. Not so easy, since different filing systems had been programatically set up on my C-drive with the installation of different versions of Netscape, which I have used hitherto.

It all came about yesterday when Netscape 7.2, my browser for the past couple of years, suddenly couldn't remember where any of my bookmarks were: my hundreds of bookmarks were lost. I switched to Firefox, which I downloaded last year or so, and which had all the bookmarks from that time. I had to hunt down the missing bookmarks, again via Windows Explorer. Then I had to merge the bookmark files, and go through deleting duplicates--time-consuming.

I got Firefox set up to my satisfaction, but found myself having to launch Netscape to use Communicator, its e-mail client. Hm, might as well download whatever Mozilla's e-mail program is, I thought. That turned out to be Thunderbird, which I downloaded and installed. Very nice: I'm happy so far. It has a few features that Communicator doesn't seem to have. It took me a couple of hours to hunt down different folders filled with e-mails (each subfolder appears as only a single file in the folder, combining all the messages together) and try to get Thunderbird to use the right ones, without wiping out or otherwise losing years' worth of filed e-mails. Finicky, learn-as-I-go work, but successful.

Oh: and while installing Thunderbird I got a message that my C-drive had run out of space. I was able to wriggle through by letting the program delete some redundant files. But I saw that I would have to make my C-drive bigger. Not as bad as it sounds: I had partitioned my hard drive about four years ago into a few "virtual" hard drives using an application called PartitionMagic (very good). (I see that it's been bought out by Norton--used to be a company called PowerQuest. Too bad.) This was after my PC crashed--and I mean deeply, deeply crashed--in 2002. After a few experts tried to resuscitate it, unsuccessfully, it was a neighbor who managed to get it working again by changing some stuff inside and reloading the operating system (this was all while I was away at Gampo Abbey--Kimmie had to deal with it). I got PartitionMagic as a way of trying to keep chunks of the hard drive separate from each other, in particular the operating system, the other programs, and my data. Each of these now resides on its own virtual drive, theoretically safe from disasters in neighboring drives.

But C-drive ran out of space today. So I launched PartitionMagic and had it resize the drives, a bit spooky, since it shuts down Windows and does its operations in DOS--about a 20-minute process of laborious clicking and copying on the hard drive, moving gigabytes' worth of data to and fro. "If there's a power failure now," I thought, "I'm probably hooped." I sat there looking vaguely around for a while, or staring at the "percentage compete" counter slowly tick upward, before deciding to open up Communitarianism and Individualism to read further in that.

It worked like a charm. I am now a user of Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird.

Writing? Who's got time for that? Yes, with chapter 20 drafted, I'm finding it hard to ramp up for yet another new chapter.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

violence and self-esteem

So I started in with Comparative Politics last night, reading the introductory material. In general I insist on reading things sequentially and not skipping ahead to material I might find more immediately interesting; don't want to miss any important definitions and other background information. Also, my mind works by building from the ground up. When I get into any subject, I do my best to get the foundations of it: history, background, basic assumptions, definitions, and so on. I don't like knowledge gaps "behind" me, so to speak. When I start structuring my thoughts, I want them anchored as much as possible.

But I got a bit impatient with reading the basic introduction to comparative politics, so I moved on to Baumeister's book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. Evil, like identity, is an important thematic idea for my work. It's not that my narrative contains much evil (yet anyway) particularly; rather, evil was an important idea and problem in that era, perhaps even more than it is in our own, since theological responses to the problem of evil were still being formulated. In a certain sense, Christianity was calved off of Judaism by Satan, since Satan played such a strong role as the opponent of the all-good God in Christian thought. The Antichrist was the evil twin of Christ from the start.

Baumeister's book is interesting, but I'm a bit dissatisfied. For one thing, the book is less dense than it could be; that is, he makes relatively few points per page, so to speak. He uses quite a few examples, and tends to repeat points. More importantly, so far I don't really feel that I'm going inside "human violence and cruelty". Baumeister's empirical approach doesn't seem to penetrate to the core of the issue.

The section I read last night was from chapter 5, "Egotism and Revenge" (the second of the four main motivators of evil acts, according to Baumeister). Here he makes the point that, contrary to most psychologists' opinion, evildoers do not suffer from low self-esteem, but on the contrary have high self-esteem. He points to Hitler and Saddam Hussein as arrogant, self-important tyrants, and mentions that convicted rapists often are egotistical and even see themselves as "superachievers".

He specifically thinks that the trigger for violence is in threatened egotism: a person with inflated self-esteem, when he perceives someone valuing him less than he values himself, is the one most likely to turn violent. My thought: this person's self-esteem is not "high" but fragile: he becomes violent in order to force others to agree with the image of himself he wants to have. The more often it happens, the more likely that the violent person realizes, at some level, that his self-image is at odds with reality. Baumeister's own observation that the greater this tension, the more violent the person, supports this view. In other words, I think Baumeister is naively accepting of the bluster of egomaniacs as the measure of self-esteem. Actual self-esteem, surely, is realistic and adaptive.

I checked my copy of Abnormal Psychology by Costello & Costello, and found this description (compressed) of the narcissistic personality disorder:

The dominating feature of this disorder is an all-consuming self-absorption with grandiose notions of the individual's own unique importance, talent, and right to special consideration.

Symptomatology: There is a total absence of any capacity to empathize with others or to consider their needs. Their self-fascination leads them to make exorbitant demands on others, to be exploitative with no pangs of conscience, and to respond with arrogance, disdain, or dismissal when their demands are unfulfilled.

Yet there is an underlying lowered sense of self-esteem, a constant need for reassurance and admiration from others and a quick response of rage or disdain to any proffered criticism. The narcissist may dismiss failure with nonchalance, describing it as an unimportant experience.

This sounds like Baumeister's violent type. Is being a narcissist or having delusions of grandeur the same as high self-esteem? I think not--not in the usual parlance anyway. Good self-esteem is seen as a trait in a well adapted person, not a sociopath.

Even though I myself don't like merely going along with the herd mentality in matters like this, I think Baumeister has not really come up with a convincing refutation of the "low self-esteem" theory of violent behavior.

Time for yet more reading.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

writing, and a bunch more reading

Steady, heavy rain out of a dark sky all day. I was awake just after 4:00 a.m., with dark thoughts and disturbing emotions, and an elevated sense of alertness that I knew would prevent me from returning to sleep. After the alarm went off at 5:30, up and at 'em.

But I made good progress in my writing. Once I know what a scene is doing, what's going on, I can move quite fast, especially if I myself am enjoying the action.

Also today came books I've bought online: not one, not two, but five. A boxed hardback arrived first, wedged into the mailbox on my porch, which I was able to fetch in quickly before the rain got to it: The Limits of Empire: The Roman Army in the East by Benjamin Isaac. It's a brand-new book which I got at a (supposedly) used price. When I saw a reference to this book in another book from which I as keying notes, I thought I probably could not afford to miss it. The other four came in a bundle of differently-wrapped packages from different U.S. used booksellers, all held together with an elastic band. The mailman (I've been told his name is Tony) rang the bell because he could not quite jam the sheaf into our tinny little mailbox. I appreciated his consideration, and took the books in. These ones are: Comparative Politics: An Institutional and Cross-National Approach by Gregory S. Mahler (a textbook), The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture by George Kateb, Individualism & Collectivism by Harry C. Triandis, and Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing by James Waller. I cut them from their packages, removed stickers, and wiped down their grubby used covers with a damp cloth.

In a way, I prefer not to receive more than one book on any day, since I generally can start only one new book (folding it into my current reading mix) on any given day. Often, the books I don't select to start on the same day wind up waiting a long time, when there is a gap in the influx of books to the house. I'd forgotten I ordered some of these. Today's lucky winner is going to be, I think, Comparative Politics. Reading my other political-science text, I came to realize how I don't know much about the theory of government: what the rationale is behind the separation of powers and why there might be two different legislative assemblies and so on. This book looks like it should fit the bill admirably.

Kimmie has just made it in from the rain after her walk home from work.

"Cold out there," she said, presenting her cheek for me to feel. I felt it. Yes: cold.

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Friday, January 13, 2006

in the name of identity

Another productive day after launching into chapter-drafting first thing. I'm not at the end of chapter 20 after these five days of writing, but I'm well on my way. About that, I feel good.

My usual blog-post time I have spent drafting a book review on Amazon.com. I decided to review Amin Maalouf's In the Name of Identity. The review is up on the page; you can read it by clicking the link if you like. Maybe I should do more of these reviews. After all, it's not that often that I actually finish a book to be able to review it.

Think I'll go read some books now, in fact. I got a novel out of the library yesterday: Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, a historical novel about the battle of Thermopylae in Greece. I've read the first few pages: very good. But mainly I want to keep hunting down this elusive thing called identity. Yesterday I also read pages from Communitarianism and Individualism and Koestler's The Ghost in the Machine, as well as Baumeister's Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. These are the works that feel "hot" to me right now.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

ocean through a pinhole

More rain: all day today. Again I rose and straightaway plunged into chapter-drafting. Again I was quite productive: I plowed all the way to page 19 before lunch. My goal has long been to write my book the way I write, say, my dreams--just to type quickly and not worry about how I express myself. This I have not really achieved, partly due to the fact that I just don't know what I'm going to write (unlike the dream, which is a personal event that has already happened), and much of it depends on accurate research; and partly due to good old personal writing inhibition, the fear of writing badly.

But with a work of this size, I feel I need to zip ahead whenever I get a tailwind. The chapters are getting easier. I have written enough of them (although this one is numbered 20, it is actually my 22nd chapter, due to the splitting and merging of chapters earlier on) that they do not seem such a big deal. Just as, on my project spreadsheet, the numeric averages are settling in (average chapter length: 31 pages; average number of words per page: 222; average number of words per chapter: 6,806), so in the writing itself: I know the material will probably fall in a range of type and quality between poles that have already been established. Not unlike the dictum of Jonathan Goodwill, line producer for season 1 of The Odyssey, that "with twelve episodes you get four that are great, four that are okay, and four that are not so hot." In the same way, there is a minimum quality below which I won't write (I'll revise the material, even though it's first draft), and there is no doubt a kind of maximum that I can't get above, due to my inherent limitations as a writer and as a human being.

My problem in writing, generally, I think, has been one of trying to play it safe. A lot of native talent is trying to come out through a risk-averse expressive mechanism. I have tried to open this up over the years, tried to let it flow more. Astrologically, it is signified by my having Saturn in Capricorn in the 3rd house of communication, as well as Mercury in Capricorn in the same house. Where Saturn is, we feel restricted, inhibited, insecure, inadequate. Saturn shows where we're always afraid of messing up, and where, partly in consequence, we do mess up. Saturn in this position, if afflicted by other planets, can signify speech impediments and learning disabilities. Luckily, I had none of these, but I have had a lifelong feeling of verbal insecurity, which has driven me to overcome the perceived deficit. This too is Saturn in action: where we put in long, determined effort to overcome a problem, usually with the result that we eventually master it and even become an expert. Your Saturn placement shows where irritants, over time, become pearls.

Anyway, in my case native fluency and psychological inhibition have combined to produce my style. I have always been quite well pleased with what I write, and how. I have never suffered the terrible trouble at getting words on paper (or screen) that so many writers do; I have never had a serious case of writer's block. My problem is almost the opposite: I have so many ideas, and only a limited capacity for writing them. I feel like a pinhole through which the ocean is trying to pour. My writing is I suppose a high-pressure jet, needle-thin, but sharp and penetrating.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Shantaram: finished

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. That in itself is a significant compliment, since I do not finish most books, especially novels, that I start reading, and Shantaram is 933 pages long. I see on Amazon.com that it has attracted 79 reviews to date, and every reviewer apparently gives it a full five stars--the top rating. I too would give it five stars. Mr. Roberts must feel very gratified at such a response; any writer would.

Although I would issue a five-star rating, the novel has its problems, as does any book. I have talked about some of my reasons for enjoying this book in previous posts, such as here and here. There is much to admire. First, and most of all, Roberts's view of life as important: an arena where important things happen. He confronts issues such as love, evil, death, torture, and redemption head-on, and presents a world where these things plausibly arise: India (especially Bombay) of the 1970s and 80s, and in particular its underworld of poverty and crime--a world that Roberts knows at first hand from the time he spent there on the lam from the Australian authorities after escaping from prison there.

Second, his characters. Shantaram is densely populated with characters (I had a hard time keeping track of them all), and they are all vividly presented. Indeed, there is a superabundance: characters would be introduced with powerful descriptive strokes, and then would hardly appear in the story again. It's as though Roberts can't resist giving each character his or her poetic due, even if they are but walk-ons in his story. His main characters are impressively realized, multidimensional, and capable of unexpected words and actions. He sees them all through a certain romantic haze, especially the women, who are mostly beautiful, although always in very individual ways: they are people first, unlike the routine eye-candy of the typical bestseller. It's as though the main character and narrator Lin is enchanted with women and unable to describe them in any other way but as one enchanted. An example:

Ulla was dressed for work in a small, tight, black, halter-neck dress, fishnet stockings, and stiletto-heel shoes. She wore eye-dazzling fake diamonds at her throat and ears. The contrast between her clothing and Lettie's was stark. Lettie wore a fine, bone-coloured brocade jacket over loose, dark-brown satin culottes, and boots. Yet the faces of the two women produced the strongest and most unexpected contrast. Lettie's gaze was seductive, direct, self-assured, and sparkling with ironies and secrets, while Ulla's wide blue eyes, for all the make-up and clothing of her professional sexuality, showed nothing but innocence--honest, vacuous innocence.

That's all fine with me: I positively like the romanticism of Lin's character, and pretty much share it myself. I found myself wishing he'd do more with some of the characters--but that's another issue.

Third, Roberts fills his book with authentic incident and detail: his world rings true. And it is a phantasmagoric, exotic world, gorgeous, grim, and fascinating. Roberts exudes authority, which is always riveting. It's a novel, but these are things he has witnessed.

(Shantaram, by the way, is a name bestowed on Lin by the women in the village where he stays for a few months. It means "man of peace".)

My main hesitation with the novel is, as always, at the level of story. It is actually a mystery plot: Lin eventually wants to learn the truth about two of the most important characters in his life: the Swiss-American beauty Karla, with whom he is in love, and the Muslim mobster Khader, who takes Lin under his wing and introduces him to the criminal world of Bombay. The story is actually quite simple, and it develops only very slowly. Lin has his hands full with many urgent things in the meantime. Lin himself, wrapped up in his own world, is slow to realize that he lacks important information about those around him, so he is not really a sleuth. It's more that information is delivered to him when he is ready for it, the final pieces not till the end. I found this structure a bit contrived, a bit far-fetched, and also a bit underpowered. It does move slowly--I suppose like the Ganges.

There is much more that could be said about this book--and maybe I will. Despite my quibbles, it puts in the shade just about everything else being written now, as far as I can tell. My survey of the bookstore, in which I wound up buying Shantaram, certainly suggested as much. How many of us writers have been addicted to heroin, robbed banks, been imprisoned, escaped, lived in a Bombay slum, worked for the Bombay mafia, fought in Afghanistan, or been tortured in an Indian prison? I sure haven't--but Gregory David Roberts has. Such a man has something to say, and in Shantaram he's said it.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

reelin' in the years

Awoke at 5:30 and lay in the dark, as ever feeling dissatisfied and not up to the task. Kimmie was awakened repeatedly in the night, she said, by the loud sound of raindrops dripping on a sheet of metal, and another set of drops on plastic. It's probably the strips aluminum soffit tucked under our back deck, which is no longer waterproof since it was resurfaced by a friend four years ago. Water drips through to what is below.

"I'll see what I can do about it," I said.

It has rained for 23 straight days in Vancouver, according to the radio. The song that came on as I sat up in bed was "Reelin' in the Years" from Steely Dan's original Can't Buy a Thrill album in 1972. The title means more to me now, but I always liked the song, and it took me back to a specific memory: early 1973, when I was 14, and had just finished delivering The Province newspapers one Saturday--and had collapsed on my bed just after sunrise. Sunlight streamed pinkly through the homemade red-corduroy curtain of my basement bedroom, and Elliott Randall's carefree guitar solo seemed to express perfectly the feeling of wellbeing and freedom of having finished humping an extra-heavy paper sack up and down the streets of Upper Lonsdale. This morning I dawdled as I put on my T-shirt and sweatpants and socks and glasses and wristwatch, listening.

Then: downstairs to make coffee, open up the PC, and get to work. My new strategy is to skip research notes first thing and get right to writing. The idea is to increase my productivity. It makes it harder to get out of bed, since the instinctive fear and resistance keep me stuck to the mattress longer (what I have sometimes called the Bed of Procrastes), but eventually I must get up, if only to make sure Kimmie gets a cup of coffee. It's actually a good way to start: a bit like jumping into the pool instead of creeping down the stairs, getting your skin wet one centimeter at a time. It's a shock--but you're swimming, and you feel alive.

I didn't hit my stride first thing, since I still was underpowered, knowledgewise. I found myself wanting to name which particular Judean fortress my characters would be using, which got me hunting for what and where the fortresses were at that time. I pulled the book Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans from my bottom shelf, checked the index, flipped to the pages describing the geography of Judea, recognized that I hadn't yet keyed that material into my research documents, so took a detour to see to that. It did list fortresses in Judea, but when I spun to my desk (behind me when I'm facing my computer, which sits on a decommissioned kitchen table), where Aharoni and Avi-Yonah's The Macmillan Bible Atlas rested open, I flipped a couple of pages and found a perfect map of the fortresses of that period. It was almost right in front of me! My first impulse was the best: Hyrcania, overlooking the desolate wilderness east of Jerusalem, just before the rocky hills drop 4,000 feet to the Dead Sea.

As I fussed with this and other details of my scene (how many legions were with Caesar when he left Egypt?), I bogged down and wound up producing only 2 pages (almost 3). For me, this is how it is.

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Monday, January 09, 2006

rebuying books

Rain fell heavily in the dark of morning. It was still dark at 8:00 when I went upstairs to munch my granola; I left the blinds down.

After the usual fear and procrastination, I launched on drafting chapter 20. Having reviewed my notes over the past few days, I figured I was mostly ready. Indeed, I'd found that I was inspired by the notes; I didn't realize my story was that good! How nice.

Having fully and finally recovered from the long cough that followed my cold, I decided after lunch to make my first run of 2006 (it had stopped raining). Before heading off I found, to my delight as ever, that the mailman had stuffed not one but two packages that were clearly books that I'd ordered online (abebooks.com). Had to open those before I set off: Communitarianism and Individualism edited by Shlomo Avineri and Avner de-Shalit, part of the Oxford Readings in Politics and Government series; and The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler. This latter I ordered with a wry attitude, since I'd already bought the book back in 1980 or '81, but gave it away a couple of years ago, figuring I'd never read it again. Now I've shucked out another 15 or 20 bucks to get it back (my first copy was also a used book--very unusual for me at the time).

I remember reading The Ghost in the Machine on my breaks as a janitor at Vancouver General Hospital, and being occasionally heckled by fellow janitor Mark, a mocking university grad. "Ah," he'd say, "Koestler!" His tone was laughing and mocking as always, but I got the feeling that he respected a fellow janitor reading philosophy on his breaks. In any case, I found that my mind did not click with Koestler's at the time; he struck me, a judgmental 21-year-old, as a bit lightweight.

It is my inquiry into identity and its basis that prompted me to read the book again (I buy books, of course, rather than merely borrow them from the library, so I can highlight as I read--a crucial part of my process now). I remembered Koestler's introduction of the concept of the "Janus-faced holon", a term intended to represent "dividuals": things that are made up of parts, but are nonetheless also wholes in their own right--such as ourselves. His reference to Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and boundaries and doorways, spurred me as well, since Janus is proving to be an important image for my work.

Well, Art, I'll give you another shot. Maybe I'll get to you forthwith, over afternoon tea. Off I go.

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Saturday, January 07, 2006

Jack and the Beanstalk

Heavy rain on a dark day. Kimmie and I were out in doing errands, and walking through the neighborhood at Lower Lonsdale: out on the pier (alone except for one other umbrella-clutching walker), then through Waterfront Park, where we were completely alone with the grayed-out vista of the city across the water and raindrops pelting the dark-green water below the seawall.

I lay awake for some time in the night, but then fell asleep and slept in till 7:30. Kimmie had been up since 6:00; the house was already warm, and she was in her sewing-room, sewing. I keyed an entry in my journal:

7:55 a.m. Yesterday I felt a deepening of moroseness as I contemplated my life, my career. It welled up as I talked to Mom about the meaning of my current transits, and how these feel to me:

"I feel like Jack and the Beanstalk: I've given away the family cow in exchange for magic beans, and my mother has yelled at me and told me I'm a sap. I feel right now just the way Jack felt at that moment."

"But the beans are magic," said Mom.

"I turned my back on a conventional career in 1979," I said. "But I felt I had the talent to be able to find success on my own terms. The feeling is that I should have something instead of wealth and fame. Those are the things I pushed away, in favor of an artist's life--so there should be compensations."

"Like what?" said Mom.

"Like completed works that have found their audience. Or like results for all the learning and research. I read Joseph Campbell--he's done so much learning, and his learning produced results in the form of insights, ideas that he could point to. I'm not there. As Saturn transits my tenth house, it's harvest-time. I look in the basket to see what I've harvested."

"And what's there?" said Mom. "Not wealth and acclaim."

"No. Not wealth and acclaim."

"So what's in the basket?" said Mom.

"I don't know. It looks empty."

"Magic beans," said Mom. "That's what's in the basket."

As I lay awake in the dark of morning, from 3:45 till, who knows, maybe 5:00 or so, I thought about "Jack and the Beanstalk". I felt a kind of magnetism or inspiration: this story is speaking to me somehow--that's why I thought of it. I do know just how Jack felt when he was berated for being a fool. The beans aren't magic until there's a beanstalk reaching to the clouds. Jack wakes to find that the beanstalk has grown overnight: so he loses consciousness. In his state of disgrace and shame he goes to sleep, and in that state of unconsciousness the magic beans do their work. It's almost as though the beans have been planted in his own mind. Beans are seeds: hardy little capsules of sleeping life. They drop like a ferment into his unconscious—the source of imagination, and there sprout to life, to gigantic life.

The beans create a ladder from the earth to heaven: a breakthrough in cosmic plane, as Mircea Eliade would say. This was the function of the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, or the sacred function of mountains: to move earth up to heaven, the realm of the gods.

Jack, who has nothing to lose, is motivated to climb the beanstalk. After all, he's bet everything on it already, and his social prestige isalreadyy lost. He may feel partly vindicated as he climbs, since the beans were magic, after all--just as advertised. But he still doesn't have a cow's worth of wealth to show for them.

In climbing the beanstalk Jack crosses the threshold of adventure. His story is a reminder that in the lore of the hero, often one who is cursed, blamed, failed, or lowly is in fact the redeemer, the one who can bring boons to society after all--as though being rejected by society helps the hero to leave it behind so he can journey to the realm of adventure.

Up in the clouds Jack will discover a giant's castle and the flesh-eating giant who lives within--as well as a golden-egg-laying goose. Again: gigantism. I think about the large, giant scale of my work, and of the ambition that must underlie it. Will it kill me? Does it want to kill me? I draw my inspiration from things like the Great Pyramid--gigantic projects. I think back to the hothouse program I was in: Major Works. Am I really up in the clouds already, in the giant's castle? Or am I just climbing the beanstalk? Is my work in progress the ladder to the clouds? A long climb...

I do have a feeling of "long climb": as I approach half way, it's equally far either up or down. What awaits me at the top is still unknown. It's not merely a jackpot up there: a bloodthirsty giant awaits, who guards the golden goose. In a sense, the hard part only begins when the long climb is done. The long climb is merely the price of admission to the zone of adventure, the realm of the gods. There I'll have to fight for my life. But I will be maximally motivated, since I have bet everything--not just my own cow but my household's--on this gamble. The golden goose is the wish-fulfilling jewel: it bestows boons, wealth, inexhaustibly.

On one level, I think of the goose as the connection with the audience, kept jealously hidden by the gatekeepers to that audience--in the case of a written work, the publishing industry. I can't let them kill me.

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Friday, January 06, 2006

author convenience

Had a theoretical chance to sleep in, since Kimmie had a bone-density scan appointment first thing, but in fact I lay awake after 3:45, not dozing off again till 6:00. A crowd of dreams, then up at 6:30.

This week I have not keyed notes first thing, but instead just opened up my chapter notes document and started work. When working on relationships or characters, I find myself taken into the social background, the politics and history of the area. Sometimes I feel angry with myself for not knowing my world better already, for not remembering all the things I've learned about it and decided about it. It's not enough to have vague knowledge: it must be precise, just as knowledge of events in your own life is precise. It's not: "I went to school somewhere"; it's "I attended Balmoral Junior Secondary School and Carson Graham Senior Secondary School, from which I graduated in 1977". It makes a huge difference whether you attend a junior high school on the wooded mountainside of North Vancouver, B.C., or a public secondary school in the Bronx. Even though I've had only one of those experiences, I know they are very different from each other, and will form the backgrounds of different kinds of people, different kinds of characters.

So I fuss with the history behind my characters and their situation. Of course, my novel is a historical one, and more than that: a story about the history, about its impact on the world for the following 2,000 years and beyond. The questions the scholars can't answer definitely ("exactly why and when did the five district councils in Judea, established by Gabinius, the Roman governor of Syria, dissolve, and what kind of government took their place?") I have to solve for myself. So I feel anyway: I must come up with something, choose among the alternatives. Because the world of my characters is a particular world. Knowing it in every detail, or as many details as possible, is my job.

Another thing is: I can't stand author convenience--the plotting flaw of events' being designed by the author to facilitate his story contrivances. Implausible events are designed in order to make the story go the way the writer wants. Kimmie and I are watching season 3 of 24 on DVD (borrowing it from the library). The series 24, in the thriller genre, packed a punch in season 1, but is now a shadow of itself in season 3. Creator fatigue has long since set in, and the writing has drifted downhill, with author convenience and cliches rearing their heads often. An example: the Counter Terrorist Unit, having abducted the archvillain's daughter to use as a hostage, transports her back to base in a compact four-door sedan with a lone driver and no other escort. I believe that having secured this lever against the villain, their single most important asset in saving the lives of millions of Americans from gruesome viral death, they would look after her more carefully and transport her much, much more securely. When she is abducted back away from them again it will be no surprise, and all the heroes' ensuing difficulties will really be their own fault.

That is but one example of many I could give. The fact is, good writing takes not just ability but also time. Even a brilliant writer needs time to become acquainted with the world of his or her story. This is true even if you are writing about your own life, for such writing is much improved by becoming more knowledgeable about the facts surrounding your own existence. What were the leading news stories on that day? What was the stock market doing? What do sociologists have to say about the dynamics of society at that time? All these things can help even the autobiographical writer. The writer of things other than autobiography needs that much more time to gain knowledge of the world of his story.

I wrote on into the morning, petering out by about 11:15. I decided to try some keying of notes: a bit more from Identity: Youth and Crisis by Erik Erikson. I also looked over the notes I made on identity just after Christmas.

What on earth am I doing?

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Thursday, January 05, 2006

evil: an introduction

Reading period last night: Shantaram, and a book that arrived in the mail the day before yesterday, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F. Baumeister. Mmm--who wouldn't want to get inside that?

Evil is important to my story. It's not particularly a story of good vs. evil, as in a crime melodrama, but rather the issue of evil, its source and its continuing appearance in the world despite ostensible divine rulership, is central to religion in general and to the evolution of Judaism in this period in particular. Increasingly, scholars of that period are recognizing that there were two main streams of Judaism: the Mosaic stream, based on the laws of Moses and the Torah he revealed to the Israelites; and the Enochic stream, based on the revealed teachings of the patriarch Enoch, who was taken to heaven and given instruction and heavenly tablets directly by angels. Enoch never died; he was simply taken up to heaven while still alive. The Mosaic stream eventually became rabbinic Judaism and the foundation of the religion as it exists today. The Enochic stream was the source of the Essenes and other Jewish groups who were less connected with Mosaic Judaism.

Enoch taught that evil entered the world by way of angels who rebelled against God. In particular, a certain group of angels became infatuated with human women, and mated with them to produce giant offspring who in turn caused all kinds of trouble. These rebellious angels taught humans various things that helped perpetuate evil (as they saw it) in the world, in particular weapons for war and adornments for women to make them irresistible to men, thus promoting fornication and sex in general. In the process, the whole cosmic order as established by God was contaminated, and could not be cleansed again until the end of time, when God would cause evil and its agents to be destroyed so that the original paradise could be restored. The rebel angels became demons, and their leader would become the figure we know as Satan.

In contrast, the Mosaic stream did not mention a rebellion by angels, and for the most part did not emphasize Satan or his role in world history. In the garden of Eden the first humans were tempted to disobey God, setting a precedent for humanity: people would continually disobey God and suffer the consequences. In this context evil is not so much an active enemy of God and the good, but the giving in of individuals to the temptation to sin.

So what is evil? I wanted to find out more, so I bought Baumeister's book, and one or two others (not here yet). He is setting out to explain evil from a psychosocial perspective, using factual data (that is, only real-world examples, not fictitious ones that are often used to illustrate evil and its operation). One of his first points is that actual evil--the way it actually happens in real life, and the attitudes of its perpetrators--is strikingly different from evil as it is portrayed in stories. Far from being cruel, sadistic types who take pleasure in hurting, most evildoers are bland functionaries, people who lack strong emotions about what they do and generally have a workaday attitude. Perpetrators of large-scale evil find themselves fussing with details of how to get more bodies crammed into ovens or how to optimize the use of ammunition for mass shootings.

All very interesting. Baumeister makes the point that evil is largely in the eye of the beholder, particularly in the eye of the victim, since perpetrators never see their own actions as evil. Personally, I find this hard to accept. While it's true that perpetrators may not see their own actions as evil, this doesn't make evil a subjective thing. Surely the Golden Rule is the touchstone for evil: how would I like this to be done to me? What if you were the torturer and I were the one strapped to this rack?

This topic, again, is vast. Think I'll go read some more on it.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

the pleasure of notes

It was back to work for Kimmie, and so also the end of my vacation of researching the question of identity: back to the project. I opened my notes document for chapter 20, read through the last couple of entries, and resumed keying.

Even if I do sometimes (often; usually) lie awake at night fretting about my project and my life, when I get into my notes I always remember that there is no rushing it. As I muse about the world of my story, I learn. Characters emerge from the fog of grayness, sameness, to become individuals with unique life histories. If you want to write something that's any good, you must go through this.

Part of my reluctance to work on notes, or even writing the draft, is that I don't like to face how slow the process is. I feel that someone is going to catch me--going to find out how slowly the ideas come to me, how few of them there are among all the rejects and dross. As though the value of the finished product--the collection of "keeper" ideas--would be diminished if people knew how difficult it was to find them and gather them together.

This must be faced: the seeming wheel-spinning of much of the notes process. It feels like wasting time, pursuing an idea, seeing where it goes, or elaborating it, only to find that it's not what I want and rejecting it. Today I was working on the character Doris--the young commoner whom Herod becomes attracted to early(ish) on. She is what I'm calling a New Jew: someone who has been baptized by Hillel into a community of Jews committed to observing their faith in a simple and wholehearted way. I've already decided that she's done this; today's question was why.

That question took me far and wide. I had to open research books to remind myself of recent history. What motives would help my story? What motives might complicate her potential relationship with Herod? I found things I thought I could use--even things that I liked. This is the reward of the preparation phase. You have the pleasure of finding an idea that's interesting, unexpected, relevant, and that should make your story richer and more engaging.

But won't people realize how difficult it was to find that idea? Better not even to open the notes document. Better to ignore the whole thing. Say: this identity topic sure is interesting...

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Sunday, January 01, 2006

the mystery of identity

Earplugs deployed, I was oblivious to the midnight yelling, pot-banging, and horn-blowing (Kimmie woke up for it, of course). I woke a couple of times in the night, and finally at about 6:45 got up. I made coffee and served Kimmie in bed, using her tall "snowman" mug for the last time this season (she put away all her indoor decorations as soon as she got up).

I returned to my notes on identity. Why do I feel such a strong urge to delve into this question? I offer that question rhetorically, since it doesn't really matter whether I understand the urge or not. I follow my quest for knowledge wherever it takes me, trusting that it is pointing me where I need to go.

Today it was leading me toward the psychological aspect of the question. I wound up keying notes from the book Abnormal Psychology by Timothy and Joseph Costello; they provide a good overview of the history of psychological theory and practice. I also keyed notes from a book I bought a couple of days ago at Indigo Books: Microbiology the Easy Way by Rene Fester Kratz, a textbook designed to help microbiology students improve their grades (I've never taken microbiology). Why? I was nudged that way by my reading of Acquiring Genomes by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, in which the authors brush aside Richard Dawkins's concept of the "selfish gene":

Selfish genes, since they are not "selves" in any coherent sense, may be taken as figments of an overactive, primarily English-speaking imagination. The living cell is the true self, an entity that cannot help creating more copies of itself. The engine of evolution is driven by tiny selves of which we are only half conscious.... A gene alone is only a piece of DNA long enough to have a function. There is no life in a gene. A gene never fits the minimal criterion of self, of a living system....

And what about viruses? Here is what they say:

Some present viruses as the smallest forms of life. But viruses are not alive and indeed they are even, in principle, too small to be units of life. They lack the means of producing their own genes and proteins.

According to Margulis and Sagan, the cell is the unit of life--the smallest living thing. It would then also be, presumably, the smallest potential bearer of an identity. This thought led me to buy the microbiology text.

Not that I regard Margulis and Sagan's opinion in this as anything more than that--an opinion. Saying, for instance, that viruses are too small to be alive begs the question, in my view. They are robust, carry around their own genetic material, and are vigorous "survivors" in nature. It's true they don't eat--they don't need to. For me the more telling question would be: do they have an experience? Are they sentient? We can't know this directly, but their behavior is just like that of other, larger, more complex parasites. They look and act like mosquitoes, ticks, lice, and other such things that also require "hosts" to survive and propagate. Or this: if they are not sentient, how would they behave differently if they were sentient? I suspect a sentient virus would behave exactly the way these supposedly nonsentient ones do.

Last night in the microbiology text I was reading about how bacteria, so-called prokaryotic (non-nucleated) cells, are able to propel themselves by means of whiplike appendages called flagella. Flagella rotate, pushing the bacterium forward as a propeller pushes a boat. Bacteria move toward things that are beneficial to them, such as food. When faced with something harmful, a bacterium can reverse the direction of rotation of its flagellum, which causes the bacterium to rotate in place or "tumble". When it is pointed in some new direction, it goes into forward gear again and resumes forward motion.

If I were a bacterium, and sentient, equipped in that way, that's exactly what I would do.

Some bacteria have a further amazing capability: when environmental conditions become harsh (too cold, hot, or food-deficient), they form "spores", which are simply copies of their single chromosome encased in a tough shell of protein. The spore is released from the cell, able to survive for thousands of years or 20 hours' exposure to boiling water. (Indeed, some believe that spores could survive the cold and vacuum of interplanetary space, allowing life to be propagated between planets.)

Is a spore alive? Only in the way a seed is alive. A bacterium is alive, though: it metabolizes, it reproduces. It moves toward food and away from danger. It is a tiny pocket of metabolizing chemicals contained in an envelope called a plasma membrane; it has an inside and an outside. It is indeed a little self--a little identity.

The thesis of Margulis and Sagan's book is that speciation--the creation of new species--occurs mainly through the acquisition of whole genomes by a species. That is, a creature that was prey, or a symbiont--something that lived on or in one's body--now becomes incorporated in one's body so that the two form a new, more complex organism. The mitochondria that provide the energy for our bodies' cells were at one time, in the distant past, free-living creatures in their own right. They became incorporated in a cell at some point in history, and the result of the merger became a viable, indeed more viable, new organism.

What happened to the selfhood of the component creatures? Does each of my cells have a sense of its own individual existence? What does that mean in terms of identity--theirs and mine?

It's a mystery, and it is absorbing me.

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