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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, February 25, 2006

angles on the Iron Age

The weather has turned chillier. The sky is a mass of low-level, gray-tinged cotton batting. Tiny flakes of snow started drifting down while I was at Lynn Valley Centre picking up a DVD at the library (Tender Mercies), milk and eggs at Save-On Foods, and a 6/49 lottery ticket for Kimmie. (She had picked the numbers using a system I invented that involves rolling three dice a number of times.) Kimmie stayed home cleaning bathrooms and doing some laundry. A quiet suburban day.

In the morning, over coffee, I keyed notes from: The Ghost in the Machine, The Self-Aware Universe, an article on the ancient Philistine city of Ekron in the November-December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, and The Long Summer by Brian Fagan, an excellent book on the effects of climatic change on the history of civilizations. Evidently the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age occurred right around 1200 BC, when an El Nino event triggered droughts in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Governments toppled and cities were deserted as people fled to the countryside in search of food. This was also the event that launched the so-called Sea Peoples on their migrations from the Aegean and from Turkey by sea and by land in search of new, more fertile country in which to live. They came into conflict with, among others, the Canaanites living on the coast of Palestine and the Egyptians. A number of Canaanite cities were destroyed and rebuilt as settlements for the invaders, who came to be known as the Philistines. (The Canaanites lived on in more northern coastal cities of Palestine, and came to be known as the Phoenicians.)

I enjoy finding different angles on a subject. The BAR article on Ekron (which contains cool drawings of the ancient city, a temple, and an olive-oil factory) spurred me to check David Rohl's From Eden to Exile, in which he also discusses the invasion of the Sea Peoples, and Fagan's book as well, which goes into more detail on the exact climatic mechanisms involved.

The Bronze Age was an era of high civilization: Mycenae, the Hittite empire, and Egypt were all in full bloom. The succeeding Iron Age has long been known to be a much harsher world, occupied by smaller, more parochial and warlike little states. The new climatic viewpoint suggests that starvation wiped out the civilizations of the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age was an era of tough, warlike people who emerged from the harsh winnowing of hunger. While iron is much more plentiful than copper or tin (the ingredients of bronze), it is much more difficult to smelt and work, so the Iron Age was also an age of technologists, and most especially, no doubt, weapons technologists.

The afternoon draws on. Time to do some more reading.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

waste not want not

Still can't make myself write. Instead I follow wherever my interest leads me. On the path of identity, I keyed notes this morning from The Ghost in the Machine and The Self-Aware Universe. I also keyed further into my sheaf of handwritten notes taken from volume 1 of Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy, titled Greece and Rome. A couple of days ago I felt spurred to look at these again by reading Goswami's discussion of philosophy in The Self-Aware Universe.

When I wanted to start keying these notes last weekend I couldn't find them. For me this is unusual: I am very organized and can usually put my hands on things--information--I want immediately. I searched through binders here in my office, pulled down Rubbermaid containers of old binders, looked through the drawers in my credenza, pulled out binders stored on my bookshelves--nada. I had a clear memory of the notes, for I had had Kimmie send them to me at Gampo Abbey when I was attending the monastic college there in 2002. The program featured a segment on Western philosophy, and I thought that these notes would be useful. I was sure I'd brought them home with me--but where had I put them? Could I possibly have thought that they'd outlived their usefulness, and disposed of them? That's what I'd done with my old copy of The Ghost in the Machine, which I'd been obliged to buy again recently. I hunted and hunted, frustrated that I couldn't find them.

I remember making the notes. It was in spring 1983. I was 24, living at home in Vancouver with my mother and aunt, and not otherwise employed than working on a novel and playing in a garage band with a few friends. Mostly I lived a solitary and moneyless life. For the sake of productivity and a feeling of purpose, I had devised a daily schedule for myself. At set times I rose, ate, read, wrote, ran, and, in the afternoons after running, would make tea and study philosophy. I sat at the dining-table in the quiet townhouse, drinking tea and making notes in a binder.

As ever, I was in search of truth. What had the greatest thinkers of history come up with? Surely somebody must have figured out what is true. Also, I wanted to do thinking of my own, but didn't want to reinvent the wheel, since I had found many times that thoughts I had had were not original but in fact ancient. Copleston in his introduction to the series recommends the study of the history of philosophy partly for that reason: to find out what others have thought before embarking on thinking of one's own. "Good idea," I thought. I remembered too reading how Jung, as a young doctor at a Swiss hospital, had come across an encyclopedia of philosophy in the hospital and made time to read it when he wasn't busy with his work. (Later I would also learn how Joseph Campbell, as an impoverished student during the Depression, had lived in a converted chicken coop and read key books that primed the pump of his mind for his later studies.) I wanted to become philosophically educated.

I'd been put on to Copleston by my former roommate Keith, a religious studies student who had been referred to the books by a prof asked for advice on how to get a background in philosophy. I had gone to the Vancouver Public Library--the old green-glass building at Burrard and Robson--in search of them, and found the whole 11-volume set down on the ground floor. In March 1983 I borrowed volume 1 and got to work.

I enjoyed my quiet daily appointment with study. In I plunged: Part 1, Pre-Socratic Philosophy; Part 2, The Socratic Period; Part 3, Plato. I took page after page of notes. In all I got as far as St. Bonaventure (1221-1274)--about halfway through volume 2--and made about 108 pages of notes before running out of steam. It was those 108 pages I got Kimmie to send me in Cape Breton, and that I could not find last weekend.

Two days ago I found them. They were right where I first looked: in the navy-blue 3-ring binder of study notes from Gampo Abbey. I had tucked the notes neatly behind an index tab labeled "Western Philosophy", right where they should be. In my impatience, I hadn't noticed them there. (The other tabs in that binder are "Buddha Nature", "Practice Notes", "Tibetan", "Monasticism", "Meditation Instruction", and "Administration".) I was overjoyed. I looked at the handwriting of the 24-year-old me on the lined looseleaf pages: larger letters, but sharply pointed and pressed deeply into the paper, as I write now. Almost half my life ago.

Now I'm folding those old notes into the mix of typed materials I've got available here on my PC. So far I'm typing three or four pages a day. No doubt I will run out of steam again presently (although on impulse I went ahead and ordered two more used books of Copleston online--I eventually bought "book 1" of the Image paperback edition of his series, which combines the first three volumes in one set of covers; the two books I've bought will give me the first nine volumes--almost the whole series). I will stop, as I stop everything I do. Only to pick it up again later--maybe 23 years from now.

Waste not want not.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

sitting life exams

Project headwinds were strong again today.

In the early morning I made a short journal entry, then devoted some time to astrology, reviewing my own chart and keying some notes from Robert Hand's Planets in Transit. It is quite a cluster of transits. Each one is difficult on its own; I've got several happening all at once.

I don't believe that planets "do" anything to us, or that a cluster of difficult transits is simply bad luck. The modern astrological view is to see the movements and relationships of the planets as a mirror or gauge of what is happening at the present time. From this point of view, the birthchart is like a map of our genome: the experiment in life that was our birth. Its nature and its intentionality is built into its structure from the start, like a seed. To me, this does not restrict our freedom--or at least, no more than anything else does; for our freedom is always relative. If we're told that we'll lose our milk teeth by age ten, or that we'll go through puberty at twelve, does that limit our freedom? No: puberty and its timing are givens; how we respond to that event in our development is within our control.

The important planets for tracking transits are the outer ones, especially Saturn and beyond. Their slow movements and largely unconscious manifestations make them the "gods of change" in our lives, as Howard Sasportas termed them in his book of that title. Their passages over key points in our charts signal the crises of our lives--the periods when are faced with deep conflicts of values, and must choose which ones we will express in our lives. Each planet carries its own set of themes, and these themes raise themselves as the crucial issues as the planet travels through each house of the chart, and aspects each planet in turn.

One way of expressing the theme of Saturn, for example, is as the reality principle. Saturn represents the hard edges of life, where we meet our limits and insecurities--where the world, as it were, forces us to adapt to it by showing us how much stronger it is than we are. Thus, Saturn represents authority figures such as parents, bosses, and police; it represents "testing" situations when we must prove ourselves and accept the result. Zipporah Dobyns called it the "report card planet". When Saturn aspects planets in our chart, we get an exam in the subject represented by the planet--and a report card.

I'm undergoing multiple exams at the moment. I'll mention just one: Saturn is transiting in opposition to my Sun--that is, opposite the point the Sun occupied when I was born. In general, this represents a 29-year low point in one's life, when one's energies and morale are at a minimum. The Sun represents one's vital energies and one's core personality; in a sense it is one's inmost self and what one really stands for. With Saturn in opposition, these core things are put directly to the test, as though to say, "How realistic have you been in becoming your true self? How hard have you worked at it? Have you slacked off? Taken shortcuts? Made mistakes?" When Saturn is in opposition, these questions tend to bring out the negative answers, even for people who have in fact been keeping their noses to the grindstone relatively well.

What can happen is that you try to show Saturn--the taskmaster--all that you've done with the past 15 (or maybe 30) years, only to hear the response: "Those are not your core activities--not what you were really born to do. Show me something relevant." Now you get butterflies and a feeling of fright and foreboding, the kind of feeling you might have had in school when you showed up and realized that you had studied for the wrong test. A sense of inadequacy, doom, and even stupidity might envelop you.

So inwardly I've heard the question "what the hell have you been doing with your life?" a lot, sometimes ended with "you idiot" for good measure. When that question is put to one, it's not easy to come up with a really satisfying reply.

I'm not alone. Everyone born at around the same date each year is having this transit right now. My birthday is January 24. One person who is clearly feeling the effects of this transit is Wayne Gretzky (birthday January 26). Even being called the Great One here on earth is no refuge from Saturn, and Wayne is getting a snootful of authority figures and also negative publicity (another Saturnian effect). For these astrological reasons I think that the Canadian men will underperform at the Olympics, for I don't think Saturn is finished with Wayne yet. Saturn is saying to him right now, "Sure, you're a sports star--who cares? Show me what you're really made of."

Wayne Gretzky is dealing with his Saturn opposition in the full glare of publicity--ouch. I'm relatively lucky to be nursing my problems in the privacy of my own home, far (far, far) from the public eye. But take heart, Wayne: I'm with you.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

New Age thinking

The weather continues sunny, clear, and crisp. I keyed some notes from The Self-Aware Universe by Amit Goswami, a book I bought in 1996 and was excited about at the time, but which I have not read since. Now my restless philosophical researches have led me back to it, and I am excited again to be reading it.

Goswami, a physicist, was unhappy about aspects of his work. From his preface (compressed):

Objects found in our everyday experience do not seem to behave in the strange ways common to quantum mechanics. Thus it is easy for us to be lulled into thinking that macroscopic matter is different from microscopic particles. Many physicists stop puzzling over the paradoxes of quantum physics and succumb to this solution. They divide the world into quantum and classical objects.

To forge a successful career in physics, you cannot worry too much about such recalcitrant questions as the quantum puzzles. The pragmatic way of doing quantum physics, I was told, is to learn to calculate.

I realized that there must be a joyful way of approaching the subject, but I needed to restore my spirit of inquiry into the meaning of the universe and to abandon the mental compromises I had made for career motives.

Goswami, son of a Brahmin guru in India, argues that the apparent conflicts and paradoxes between so-called classical (Newtonian) physics and quantum physics disappear once one abandons the assumption of material realism--the belief that the ultimate reality is matter moving in empty space, and that this matter is fundamentally separate from the consciousness that perceives it. Instead, he proposes adopting the viewpoint of monistic idealism--the view that consciousness is the ultimate reality, and that what we call matter (and energy) is not separate from consciousness but a derivative or form of it, of one nature with the mind that perceives it. If we see things in this way, the apparent contradictions and paradoxes disappear. Not only that, but the viewpoint of science would then be in accord with the viewpoint of spiritual traditions and mystics since ancient times.

As Goswami points out, the idea that consciousness (mind) is the ultimate reality is not new. This philosophical outlook is held by some schools of Buddhist philosophy, such as the one called Cittamatra (pronounced "chitta-matra"), or the "mind-only" school. The first stage of learning to see things in this way is to experiment with loosening our grip on the conviction that there is a real, solid world out there independent of our experience of it. One of the proofs used in this is to point out that there is no absolute distinction between what we call dream experience and waking experience: if one does not assume in advance that there is a "real" external material world, it is impossible to prove at any time that we are not dreaming, or that there is any fundamental difference between waking and dreaming. What matter are dream-objects made of?

In Goswami's view, the quantum paradoxes (action at a distance, the quantum leap, wave-particle duality, and so on) are symptoms of our disconnection from this more unitary and accurate way of viewing the world. When Descartes created his famous dualism, declaring matter and mind to be of separate orders, matter being the province of science and the mind the province of religion, he was making a statement that (it seems to me) was as much political as it was philosophical, in that he was drawing a border between science and the church, mainly so that science could progress without molestation by priests.

Cartesian dualism is still our everyday philosophical outlook today. Our philosophical materialism, according to Goswami, is responsible for our economic materialism, and all the resultant ills of spiritual ennui and environmental degradation. A return to a more ancient and mystical viewpoint would not imply any repudiation of science, but would on the contrary allow it to progress without being mired in contradiction and in seeming conflict with our inmost values and feelings. Science would be harnessed to the universal human striving to find meaning and fulfillment in life, instead of taking the absence of such meaning for granted as one of its working assumptions.

In short, I would describe The Self-Aware Universe as a New Age book--a topic on which I have much more to say, for increasingly I feel myself becoming identified with the New Age, at least, in the sense in which I understand it. My own definition of New Age would be something like: "the era characterized by an attitude of applying an openminded, objective--that is, scientific--outlook to matters of the spirit".

At least in the West, science no longer needs to worry so much about interference from the Church (whichever church that might be), and so the firewall erected by Descartes is obsolete. My own work, such as this project The Age of Pisces, is really aimed at the New Age, and I am at heart a New Age thinker and writer.

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Friday, February 17, 2006


Maybe a short post.

I have spent the past couple of hours catching up on the bookkeeping for my strata corporation (of which I am president and treasurer), and so am late to this blog. As you faithful readers know, I have been patchy lately in my posting: an artifact of my strange, questioning frame of mind.

Yesterday was another brilliant, crisp day. I went to the library to pick up a couple of DVDs, then down to London Drugs to pick up the replacement for the digital camera we bought last Saturday (a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ5--the LDC screen on the camera we took away from the store had a hairline crack). When I parked the Corolla in the store parking lot the radio was playing the Tracy Chapman song "Fast Car"--a song I recognized but had never listened to closely. Yesterday I did. I left the radio on after switching off the engine and listened, staring over my steering wheel and across 20th Street to the low-rise apartment buildings and their dark shadows in the intense, low sunlight.

I was deeply moved by the pathos of the song, the yearning of an impoverished young girl to have a life, to find happiness. Tears came to my eyes, and I could hardly bear to listen to the chorus repeat itself. I was filled with sadness for the world, for life.

That sadness stayed with me through the rest of the day. I found I couldn't read but just sat looking into the fire. It was almost unbearable at moments, but not unpleasant. It wasn't a bad sadness, more like the sadness, the raw heart, I was trained to cultivate in Shambhala Training: the genuine heart of sadness of the warrior. I remember that Trungpa Rinpoche said that the warrior's senses are open and exposed, so that the sound of raindrops hitting your coat seems very loud.


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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

panning for (fools') gold

At last, back at my post. Yes, gaps have started to appear in the formerly clocklike regularity of this blog--part of the general feeling of loss of compression that I'm undergoing.

Yesterday I reopened my Notes document and reviewed the highlighted material there, copying key highlights into a bulleted list at the bottom of the document to provide the main points I want to remember for this chapter. I felt good about the material. It reminds me of placer gold-mining: you pan who knows how much sand and silt to find little nuggets of gold, gold sand, essentially. The work is laborious and uncertain, and the results usually meager. This is the reality of your day-to-day worklife. But every once in a while you look at what you have managed to glean from the grudging silt: a lovely little jar of gold.

Reviewing my "keeper" material is a little like that. I ignore the silt in which the gold-dust was embedded, and just look at the gleaming imperishable metal itself. Somehow I have to make the writing incorporate that gold. Then I look at the chapter in progress, and my heart sinks. I've gone back and forth over the first five or six pages, dropping new things in, splitting material apart, deleting a couple of sentences. It just doesn't feel like a creative process.

So I pushed on ahead, a few words at a time, trying to set my scene, give myself a feeling for the sensory aspects of my world.

Now, either because of Blogger.com or my PC, the computer is responding very slowly, letters appearing in the Compose window only several seconds after I type them, so I'm typing blind. It's tiresome, so I'll cut this post short, and trust I'll get another one out tomorrow.


Friday, February 10, 2006

searching and not finding

Brilliant sunny day with a cloudless sky. I went running again before lunch (cheddar-cheese-and-tomato sandwich, apple).

Before that, of course, I had to face the headwinds of my project. Again I could not make myself get back on-task. Instead I opened up my document on identity, and found myself reading my notes there with much interest, and wanting to do more. I went with it. This topic is calling me, magnetizing me--I don't know why, or to what end, but I trust that it is what I need to focus on now.

Over morning coffee I keyed notes from The Ghost in the Machine; The Inner Ocean; and Comparative Politics. I'm groping, groping. For what? Where do I hope to land?

One of my issues is that after a lifetime of reading, study, and thinking, I often feel I haven't arrived anywhere. Yes, I know things, I've learned things, but in the sense of having some key insights or ideas on which I could anchor further thoughts--these I feel I don't have. All is shifting sand. As you look more closely at anything, it dissolves in vapor, in unresolved questions.

This is the fate of all thinkers to some extent. Mature philosophers look on the ancient questions with a wry nod, an ironic canniness. Certainty is generally not to be had, except in mathematics, and sometimes it too frustrates the efforts of even the most gifted. Mathematicians in history have driven themselves nearly to madness, certainly to despair, over their inability to crack stubborn problems. The most brilliant, such as Kurt Gödel, come up with things that seem to break the system. His incompleteness theorems (the most important published in 1931, when he was 25) demonstrated that in any powerful-enough mathematical system there are true statements that cannot be proven within the system. In short: every logical mathematical system, no matter how complete it "thinks" it is, is incomplete. Or more briefly: truth is a more powerful concept than provability. Truth is stronger than proof; there are more things that are true than can be proved. (And to think--Gödel proved this!)

So maybe I shouldn't be too distressed at the elusiveness of knowledge. If I wanted "certainty", I would've stuck with Buddhist philosophy, which would eventually have led me there (in some lifetime or other). But I became wary of even that premise, for a couple of reasons. One was that there is controversy even within Buddhism. Even at the deepest, subtlest levels of philosophy, the masters disagree. What then is the truth?

Another reason is that for any spiritual or mythological tradition to be transplanted to new soil, to a new culture, it must be transformed; it cannot survive in its original form. The images, language, and concepts of the system, which worked their magic on one people, cannot work the same magic on another people who have no familiarity with them, no history with them. The Buddha himself did not invent any new ideas or images with which to spread his teaching; he took things from existing Indian tradition. He made use of what was around him. But the images of ancient India can't speak to 21st-century North America--certainly not in the same way.

Having ventured forth from the Buddhist fold, I feel lonely and isolated, but also excited. The feeling reminds me of certain feelings I have as I read articles on the recent explorations of Mars by the remote rovers. Astronomy magazine's Collector's Edition of Mars has lots of surface-level views of desert regolith, all colored like tomato soup, and lonely enough, I'm sure, to make a robot cry. It is solitary, frightening, new, and amazing. There are wonders yet to be discovered. Will I discover some of my own?

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

turning to evil

Well, I seem to have hit my own version of writer's block. I'm not sure that's really a correct diagnosis; it may just be acute not-feeling-like-it, or perhaps good old fear. I wake in the morning (early, early morning) with a heavy disinclination to push my project forward.

In such a mood, I find I must let myself do something else. This morning, over coffee, I keyed notes from a book I started reading yesterday afternoon: Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing by James Waller. As I started reading I was immediately impressed by Waller's writing, and saw more clearly what I feel are the deficiencies in my other recent purchase on evil, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy Baumeister. I decided to shelve the latter book, but before I did so I wrote a review for it on Amazon.com (you can check it out at the above link). I gave it three stars.

Why my sudden interest in evil? In some ways I don't want to say too much about this, since it leads me into talking about the thematic level of my work, which I hesitate to do. I think it's best for a writer not to say too much about the intended meaning of a work, so as not to prejudice readers. It could be a worse spoiler, in my opinion, than a plot spoiler. In fact, there are many problems of this kind in writing a blog: I want to talk about my work, but I don't want to say too much about it--a conflict of interest. My defense is that readers of my blog would logically be potential readers of my novel, and so it is for the benefit of their eventual enjoyment that I, so to say, pull my punches here, a bit.

So: evil. In Jung's view, as expressed in his Aion, a monograph on the archetype of the Self, the Age of Pisces has witnessed the unfolding and differentiation of this deepest and most central of the archetypes, which is indistinguishable from what he calls the "god-image" in us. Among the archetypes, the Self is that which most determines and controls our "individuation"--our development into who really are. The archetype itself, like all the Jungian archetypes, is inherently unconscious and cannot be made conscious. It manifests itself to consciousness via symbols--images and ideas that in one way or another express its paradoxical, unknowable nature. According to Jung, the symbol of the Self par excellence for Western man for the past 2,000 years has been Jesus Christ.

But Jesus, as a manifestation of God, is presented as all good--indeed as the personification of the good. Nonetheless evil still exists in the world, and Jung, writing this work just after World War Two, was convinced that humanity, certainly in the West, was experiencing ever starker and more forceful manifestations of its own dark side. He criticized Christian theology for its doctrine of the privatio boni--the view that evil has no positive existence of its own but is merely the absence of good, as dark is the absence of light. Jung felt that this doctrine presented a too-optimistic reading of the human soul and its potentials, with the consequence that the evil in our nature remains all the more unconscious, and therefore all the more dangerous when it erupts into manifestation.

In Aion Jung describes how the symbol of Christ developed in tandem with its evil twin, that of the Antichrist or Satan. In an important and real sense, Satan was born along with Jesus to carry the evil in the universe that would be no part of the light twin's nature, and Satan's symbolism has unfolded in dark counterpart to that of Christ in the succeeding two millenniums.

My overarching story is The Age of Pisces (Jung has many and well-argued reasons for equating this astrological age with the Christian aeon), and so the issues of evil and Satan are part of the basement of my work. So I tell myself that by reading these things, and keying notes from them, I am still advancing my cause.

My cause--but not my page-count.

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

on dissing other people's prophets

It used to be that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel; now religion has taken its place.

This was my thought as the news stories first unfolded about the reaction of "Muslims" to the publication of cartoons in Denmark and other countries. Not many news stories provoke an emotional reaction in me; this was one. For as an artist and, more than that, as a person I have strong feelings about freedom of expression. I believe we (that is, free societies) should think very, very hard before making it any kind of crime, or sanctioning people in any way, for the way they have arranged ink on paper.

I was disappointed too at how apologetic everyone was, from the Danish government to many other Western representatives. Perhaps it was inevitable that the editor of the French newspaper that reran the cartoons should be sacked by his Egyptian-French boss, but I felt that that editor's heart was in the right place.

Of course I feel that people should be free too to protest, peacefully, over their grievances. But the appearance of masked thugs setting fire to buildings and threatening people with death and beheading and so on--well, what has this to do with offended religious values? All I could think was, "The more violence in the name of 'Islam' there is, the more telling the cartoon was."

Mohammed was a historical figure who, although revered by Muslims, is not owned by them. His thoughts, words, and deeds have had tremendous consequences for the world--all parts of it, including the non-Islamic parts--and not merely religious but political as well. If people burn down Western embassies in his name, then he has certainly become fair game for Western comment, whether reverent, satirical, or otherwise.

For me, one of the most disturbing images was from a protest march in London. The march appeared to be orderly and peaceful, but one of the marchers carried a placard that read, "To hell with free speech!" I thought, London is the wrong place for you, friend. There are a lot of regimes out there who share that sentiment; that's where you need to be.

The whole affair triggered a memory from my recent readings. This is from Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F. Baumeister:

When people believe that their rights and their group pride have been injured by someone from another group, they are all too often ready to respond in a violent fashion that goes beyond any practical or instrumental use. Groups reflect a built-in predisposition toward a certain pattern of antagonism.

That, of course, is what we have here. The terms "cartoon" and "Muslim" become mere tokens in a conflict between groups. It is a manifestation of identity politics. "Muslims" can feel a sense of solidarity with those who share that identity and feel outrage against the Others: those who slander the Prophet.

For my part, I'm willing to identify with those who support free speech and freedom of the press.

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Friday, February 03, 2006

return to the valley of the shadow of death

Last night's reading (finally got back to a full reading session after a couple of interrupted days): Future: Tense; The Ghost in the Machine; Communitarianism and Individualism; and Microbiology the Easy Way. Future: Tense, a book that Kimmie gave me for my birthday, is now my lead book--the first one I dip into as I have my tea in the afternoon. I try to fight off my shoulds and read what I actually want to read. Right now, it's this latest by the Canadian-born military commentator Gwynne Dyer.

I have liked Gwynne Dyer ever since I first saw him, either presenting one of his documentary series on war, or when he used to offer expert analysis on military affairs for the CBC. His characteristic style is irreverent, humorous, and blunt, all delivered in a kind of soft-spoken nasal patter. I don't believe he's ever been sighted out of his scuffed leather bomber-jacket. He's a kind of perceptive, rumpled, military intellectual.

I attended a talk by Dyer at the nearby Capilano College in the 1990s. Sitting on the bleachers in the gym, we in the audience listened to him talk about the world situation then, that is, in the post-Cold War world then taking shape after the collapse of communism in Russia and Europe. Dyer was optimistic. He saw a world emerging from the valley of the shadow of death of the Cold War into a time of genuine internationalism and the reign of international law and the primacy of multilateral institutions like the UN. He saw China's gerontocracy and communist regime as in their waning days, with the world undergoing a genuine flowering of democracy, quite possibly with little or no violence, as had happened in Europe. That was good news for everybody, since "by and large, democracies don't wage war on each other." He thought that this new spirit of multilateralism and internationalism would be necessary for facing the next great threat to the world: environmental destruction, and that the UN would become the platform for a potential world government of sorts.

Well, that was before 9/11 and the Iraq war. Future: Tense deals with the current world situation, in particular the Iraq war, and its implications for the future. Gone is the optimism of the 1990s. Dyer explains how the adventure in Iraq was planned long before 9/11, and has always been a centerpiece of the agenda of the so-called neoconservatives: those who saw, and still see, a future in which the United States enjoys a hegemony over the world based on a vast supremacy of military power. Why Iraq? According to Dyer, it's because Iraq was defiant of the U.S., relatively weak militarily, and with a hated regime its people would not fight for. In short: an easy victory. And it's not about "weapons of mass destruction", which were never there, or terrorism, with which Saddam appears not to have been involved, at least against the U.S. Nor was it about oil, or revenge, or giving concessions and contracts to friends of George Bush. No, according to Dyer, it's about sending a message to the world that the rules have changed. There's a new sheriff--actually the same old sheriff, in a way--in town, and he doesn't need the figleaf of the UN or any other multilateral body to give him permission to crack heads.

Hm. Even this sounds a bit far-fetched to me. But I admit that I have been mystified by the question, Why did the U.S. invade Iraq? I never believed the knee-jerk arguments about oil, still less about revenge for an alleged plot to kill Bush senior. I have regarded it as a mystery ever since it happened. As I said to my friends once when we were talking about it, "I believe we have not heard the real reason they're in there, and we might never." But invading a country, sending voters' kids home in body bags, to demonstrate your power? I don't know.

Dyer regards the Americans' defeat in Iraq as inevitable, as it was in Vietnam, but much depends on how quickly that defeat is achieved. If it's soon, then the project of a multilateral world may be rescued; if not, then not, and I gather (haven't finished the book yet) that the result will likely be a return to the world of alliances that spawned a century of world wars. More of the same.

Glum reading, but I'm enjoying it, and in fact I want to get to it.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

the historical novelist's burden

Luckily, I like solving problems. For writing a work of this size and nature is a continuous path of problem-solving on many levels: story, theme, character, but also history--I must come up with my own solutions to historical problems, gaps, and controversies. Scholars are divided on all kinds of issues, but I can't be; I have to choose. While I enjoy this, it also feels like a heavy responsibility. I want to get it right--that is, to offer the solutions that to me make the most sense--and to do that I have to examine the evidence.

Writing fiction about historical characters is tightly constrained work; but, again luckily, constraint is exactly the spur to creativity. If I know that a character in history did x and y and z, then these things must be accounted for in my story; they must be consistent with the character I'm creating and with the other, fictional events I build around him.

If I were writing a work from scratch I would never create so many characters or saddle myself with so many seemingly disconnected events and details. I take on this challenge because I feel I must in order to address the material I want to address. After all the years I spent searching for the story that I really wanted to tell, the material that really expresses what is important to me, I must take on the creative and research overhead required to get that story written.

The result will be a kind of panorama of that time and place: the best that I can provide. I want the reader to feel that he or she is a time traveler, fallen from the sky into the world of my story, and kind of trapped there until it plays itself out. The reader is there with the textures, sights, smells, sounds of the world; with pungent characters, not different from the people around us now in any important respect, merely in the details of dress and the technology they use and some of their beliefs about the world. They, like us, are people with problems to solve, equipped much as we are to solve them. They are our ancestors, both physically and ideologically.

A time so remote that it seems shrouded in the mist of myth becomes something living and immediate. The things that seemed all-important to them we can see were mere trifles in the flow of history. And certain things that seemed to insignificant for them to notice have become the life's blood of our own age.

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