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Genesis of a Historical Novel

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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