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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

adventure from cradle to grave

Goodness gracious. This blog's birthday came and went yesterday, and I didn't think of it until just now. Happy birthday to it.

Is it possible to generate any kind of excitement or interest around a life of the mind? Worldly adventures have their own undeniable appeal. My niece Clare is adventuring in Central America right now (and is running her own blog of the adventures). Snorkeling in lagoons, canoeing down Belizean rivers, bouncing in Guatemalan buses--these are adventurous.

What about the mind--the place where I now do my "adventuring"? Can I convey any sense of that adventure? Indeed, can I feel that adventure?

Yes, I can. Conveying a sense of it is perhaps another matter. In a small way, I've tried in this blog. I haven't engaged in physical adventure for some time now. I don't travel; I scarcely manage to get out of the house. If I did, though, I would have a nagging feeling that I'm missing the action. The action, for me, right now, is in books.

Yesterday I read further into Daniel Goleman's Vital Lies, Simple Truths. He has moved from discussing the unconscious restrictions of attention that we all unknowingly engage in as individuals, to discussing how this phenomenon--the selective permitting of only certain data into awareness--operates at the group level. Here is a Goleman's description of some of the effects of groupthink:

The first victim of groupthink is critical thought. Typically, talk is limited to a few courses of action, while the full range of alternatives is ignored. No attention is paid to the values implicit in this range of alternatives, nor does anyone stop to consider the drawbacks of these initial choices. The ignored alternatives are never brought up, no matter what advantages they might have. Facts that challenge the initial choice are brushed aside. The group expects success, and makes no contingency plans to deal with failure.

As an example of groupthink and its effects, Goleman presents the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. The Kennedy administration appeared to sleepwalk its way into this botched adventure in Cuba, much to its own embarrassment. I couldn't help but draw a connection to the current war in Iraq. It shows many of the above-named signs of groupthink. Has the U.S. sleepwalked its way into another blundered adventure--this one vastly larger than the 1,500 Cuban exiles who landed in the Bay of Pigs?

Having read (and reviewed) Gwynne Dyer's Future: Tense, about the implications of the Iraq war, I also had this thought: Is Mesopotamia, often called "the cradle of civilization", also to be its grave?

This is a sampler of some of the recent thoughts in my life of the mind. It is its own kind of adventure--no less so, and indeed I think more so, than jumping into the water with the barracudas when I was in Belize as a young man in 1979.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

pain and evil

A quiet day of gradually increasing hip pain. One problem is that there is no comfortable position--anyway, none that I've been able to find (and I have looked). I broke down and took an Ibuprofen about half an hour ago, but with no discernible effect.

That aside, I did do some writing this morning, and indeed made three pages. I found myself distracted by my inquiry into the psychology of identity--and particularly as this applies to the phenomenon of evil. Last month I set up a separate Word document entitled "Thinking - Evil". Today I opened it and made another entry.

What are my thoughts on evil? It's not a simple thing. I have been reading books on it (Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy Baumeister and Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing by James Waller) and thinking about it. I have also been reading Vital Lies, Simple Truths by Daniel Goleman, about the psychology of self-deception (props to Goleman for using the phrase "vital lies" in his title, which is from Ibsen). In the latter I felt a spark of special interest in some ideas from the American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan. Here is an extract (compressed):

Trauma in later life can activate an earlier self-image.

Psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan traces the root of this process to the infant learning to pilot his way through the world between tender rewards for being good and punishments for being bad. When the "mothering one" shows disapproval, the infant feels anxiety at the loss of tenderness. He learns to act in ways that will increase tenderness and avoid disapproval.

The range of the mother's disapproving acts, from mild reprimand to utter anger, produces a matching, graduated range of anxiety in the child. This anxiety gradient more or less directs the course of how the child develops.

The child's history of praise or censure comes to define his experience of himself. Three sorts of experience are key to identity. "With rewards, the anxiety gradient, and sudden severe anxiety there comes a personification of three phases of what presently will be me": "good-me," "bad-me," and "not-me."

In the "good-me," satisfactions have been enhanced by a reward of tenderness. "As it ultimately develops," says Sullivan, the good-me "is the ordinary topic of discussion about 'I'." The good-me is who we like to think we are.

"Bad-me" entails experiences in which varying degrees of disapproval have generated anxiety in the child. The bad-me is the sense of self connected with the anxiety, guilt, and shame of being naughty. The naughty child feels love withdrawn, which in turn generates anxiety. The bad-me arises in the mind with those things we do or have done about which we feel regrets or remorse.

Some of my notes from yesterday:

The early parenting of the child, the "good" and "bad" commands from mother, and the effects of these on generating our defense mechanisms, may be a key clue to evil. Evil is simply the agglomeration of the "bad."

The thing is that we learn good and bad this way--and that we are both: sometimes one, sometimes the other. And that we are to train ourselves to be the good in us, and not be the bad. As we try to grow into the good-me, the bad-me lives on in the unconscious--Jung's shadow, the (implied) personality that holds the rejected traits and behaviors. This is our dark twin--the me that was entire before I was trained to reject the bad-me. We are torn in two along an ethical divide.

And here are some of my notes from this morning:

The infant is born with a huge task of personal survival, and as a human being has a vocation to discover his oneness with others, his essential identity with them. From this view, the moral training of the parents is doing him a favor, as though to say, "We are getting you to behave the way you would want to behave if you were fully aware of all the relevant factors--we are yourself, your future self, acting on behalf of 'yourself' to constrain you in the right direction."

In this view, raising a child is a matter of getting him to inflict a minimum of harm on himself and others, so that his moral "account" is as clear as possible. The infant's real problem is not his "bad" nature but his ignorance--of himself, of the world, and of morality. He needs to be educated into the way he truly is.

There is much more going on in my mind about this. These are a sampler.

The second Ibuprofen seems to be working. What a miracle analgesics are!

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

adrift with a strained iliopsoas

Rain falls again from a heavy gray sky. I have returned from the chiropractor, who, when he listened to my hip-pain symptoms, said, "The symptoms you've just described are the textbook symptoms for a strained iliopsoas muscle." Terry, muscular and shaven-headed, gave me a fast tour of the muscle on a wall-chart.

"Sounds like I've come to the right place, then," I said.

"Oh yeah," said Terry. "Can I get you on the table face down."

Probable cause? Too much sitting, then not enough stretching before calling it into action with a run or a walk. He gave me some stretches. There was still pain on my way home; I walked gingerly and felt a bit old.

Writing? Yes, I did do some. Two pages. I float through it as though in a dream. The chapter is actually getting written, but it's almost like watching someone else do it. Am I in a dissociative state? Headed for one?

I think not. I retain my intellectual curiosity, and still read with attention, if not gusto, during my afternoon session with tea. I wonder at how others can be so sure of their theories. I sense a great tendency toward premature certainty. But I still seem to be mentally healthy, as far as I can tell. I have feelings of...how would I describe it. Fragility, uncertainty, self-criticism, low energy, and even a certain apathy about many things in the world that I think I should care more about. There is a quietness and a passionlessness about my condition.

Well then. Back to some notes. Even if I feel that reading and note-taking is and endless journey leading nowhere, what's my alternative? I might finally realize the true extent of how much I don't know and never will.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

proceeding slowly, self-deceived

Steam smokes off the wet wood of the steps to our balcony. The sun shines through a gauze of clouds after the rain shower. I chose to use my errands (depositing a dental-claim check; mailing an overdue Goods and Services Tax return; dropping a book and a DVD at the library; depositing this month's maintenance checks for our strata corporation) to make a short run for the exercise. The shower was in progress as I left the North Shore Credit Union, running uphill along Lonsdale Avenue (gingerly, since I have a sore left hip). By the time I emerged from the ScotiaBank at Lonsdale and 14th the rain had stopped and the sidewalks were shining.

I'm surprised to see that six days have elapsed since my last post. (Hm, the "last post" sounds almost kind of ominous...) My energy is low, so I'm not pushing myself in any direction. I'm just trying to keep things ticking over, maintaining what has to be maintained.

Last week I did manage to resume writing The Mission, and have plugged away at it since then, a page or two a day. I'm writing more or less out of obligation now, out of a desire not to let the project lapse due to my low wattage.

Other than that, I continue to be absorbed in research along the lines of identity. When do we think and act as individuals, and when do we think and act as members of a group, a collective--and why? The most interesting book of the moment for me is Vital Lies, Simple Truths by Daniel Goleman. The subtitle of the book is "The Psychology of Self-Deception", and Goleman is giving a most interesting account of we, individually and collectively, deceive ourselves. According to the best psychological theory and research, we--all of us--live in a constructed reality assembled by factors in our own unconscious. Specifically, things arise to our attention only when permitted to do so by these unconscious factors. In general, these factors weed out distressing data in order that we may live with less anxiety. So we all have rose-colored glasses on, in a sense.

Not only that, but our memories are also revised to be less painful to ourselves. It is like the totalitarian approach to history in Orwell's 1984: "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." Chilling.

As I have been reading this book, I have been thinking about the great value of the meditation training I've had. For meditation, at least the shamatha meditation that I have been trained in, works against the totalitarianism of this fake, self-constructed world we each live in. In the meditation one trains to relax with whatever arises in the mind, not to judge or push away or try to hang on to. This is the actual practice of reducing anxiety, for one ceases to identify so strongly with one's thoughts, and one therefore does not take them so personally. Indeed, the Sanskrit word shamatha is usually translated as "calm abiding" or "resting the mind" or "the development of peace"--all terms suggesting the opposite of anxiety.

I have also been thinking about how the basic problem, from the Buddhist perspective, is ignorance. Of the so-called three poisons--the three basic emotional disturbances that cloud our minds and cause us to generate bad karma for ourselves--passion (or craving), aggression, and ignorance, ignorance is regarded as the most fundamental. At bottom, ignorance is not knowing how things really are. When any emotion arises or any action is taken on the basis of ignorance, it is inaccurate and inappropriate. We make things worse for ourselves and others.

But another part of me wondered about the possible positive aspect of our constructed reality. For does this not suggest that some unconscious, unseen force--perhaps the same one that scripts our dreams--is presenting us with the images and the life that is proper to us? Goleman likens the process to his own childhood fantasy that everything around him was a stage-set: that wherever he went, unseen stagehands put up and tore down sets so that he would have the experience of walking through his life, even though it was all theater, all sham. Everyone in his life was an actor, playing a role, supporting him--presumably the star.

Is not each of us the star of his or her own life? What if the specialized information that arises to consciousness for each of us is not merely a bowdlerized reality, an opium-dulled trance, but also, potentially, the stuff of our own drama--the arena in which the hero must perform his tasks?

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

building the highway

A return to colder weather. Heavy rain falls and has been falling, changing from time to time into a slush of half-melted snow. Snow is accumulating on the upper slopes of the North Shore. Strong gusts of wind set the plants outside shivering violently: rhododendron, irises, yew. Now they are still again, and rain raps metallicly at a sheet of soffit blown on its side under our balcony.

In my strange mental and emotional state (it's kind of like depression, but isn't, since I have plenty of curiosity and interest in things, and my sense of humor is mostly intact; it's more like a sense of low energy with flattened affect), I wrote a bit further, surprising myself by making three pages. As though happening on the scene as a participant, I found myself getting caught up in the action. This is surely a good sign, but I remain glumly aware there is tough writing ahead in this chapter (to say nothing of the great heap of unstarted chapters before me).

A thought I had while writing: Some of the most enjoyable reading experiences result from some of the most unenjoyable writing experiences. I have found this in the past with my own work. The writing that involves solving the largest number of most difficult problems is usually the material that reads best. Usually problem-solving in writing leads to the quality I call richness: verisimilitude in suggesting the fullness of life. And I believe that all interest is specifically the result of tension: we are drawn to tension, intrigued by it. This is known as conflict in drama, but tension exists at every level, I believe. By definition, it is the pull between opposing forces. Just as when watching a sporting event, where opponents struggle to win, we are drawn to all such tense oppositions, whether of idea, dialogue, or description.

An example, for me, is in writing scenes with multiple characters. I find this to be a chore. How do they interact? Which ones get prominence? How to keep them in the reader's mind at the correct level of importance? What different attitudes and goals are they carrying, and how do they try to realize them? Difficult. I dread writing multi-character scenes, and yet I've saddled myself with quite a few of them. So I pay attention to how other writers handle this problem (it's not often handled all that well). The creative task of merely creating a number of distinctive characters, who make impressions different enough to remain distinct in the reader's mind, is hard enough. (One writer who has recently impressed me favorably in this department is Gregory David Roberts with his Shantaram, which writhes with a great many characters, but in which he succeeded, mostly, in distinguishing them. When I read certain early scenes in the Bombay cafe, in which he introduces several characters at once, I admired his ability to distinguish them and make them unique.)

Part of the enjoyment of reading such material, for me, is no doubt the same as the enjoyment of walking or driving over a section of road that has been built with great difficulty through difficult terrain, such as through mountain passes or sheer rock faces or steep valleys. There is a certain deep satisfaction in driving smoothly along a nice, flat road through rugged wilderness. I'm aware that many people had to toil long and hard in this forbidding place to create such an easy, pleasant experience for me. In that same spirit, I toil in the forbidding place of my own imagination to create an experience that I hope is pleasant for others--if not altogether easy.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

reopening the project

The belly of the whale; or maybe I'm just somewhere in his esophagus still...

I lay awake for a long time again last night, falling asleep relatively close to alarm-time (5:30), and having dreams. I wrote down one of these during coffee-time, wanting to find whatever wisdom I can from the realm where dreams originate.

But today was an advance for me, as I was able to actually open up my novel and look at it, and even work on it a bit. I avoided and resisted for awhile, but eventually gave in and opened chapter 21 and its associated notes document. I reviewed what was in the chapter (11 pages drafted), and looked over the notes to see what I had in mind, then, with a "what the hell" feeling, I typed on, pushing the story ahead. I found that my indifference actually made it easier to type; I wasn't worried about how I expressed myself, I just typed. It's an odd state of mind to be in.

Lately I wrote another book review on Amazon.com, for Future: Tense by Gwynne Dyer. I was gratified today to see that someone gave me a "helpful" vote. Nice.

Last night I finished reading The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler. I was going to quit about 20 pages from the end, but thought that Koestler deserved a finishing kick after all. I found out recently that Koestler died in 1983 by committing suicide in a pact with his wife. He had suffered from Parkinson's disease and leukemia.

Kimmie has been up at the dentist having a root canal. Wind has blown in fierce gusts, sending people's yellow and blue recycling bags far from their houses, up lanes and streets, across other people's lawns.

Now I'll head up for tea.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

the job: a gamble

This is your job: every day you go to an office. You work entirely alone; no phone calls come in, no walk-in business arrives. You have no coworkers and no boss; no one reports to you. The work itself varies from moderately difficult to almost impossible. It is project work; it began almost before you can remember, and there is no end in sight. If people from other lines of work ask you what you do, you are tongue-tied because you don't fully understand it yourself. You get no feedback and receive no pay. The question of why you do it is the most embarrassing of all: there seems to be no adequate reason, indeed no reason of any kind.

This is a parody of the writer's life, but you know, it's not much of one. Lately I have been flummoxed in my efforts to return to writing; I can't seem to make myself do it. I can coax myself out of bed only by promising myself to do something other than writing. I have become afraid of my project.

The night before last I had a dream that I think relates to it. Here it is:

Thu 02 March 2006

6:30 a.m. Awoke at about 3:50 after a dream in which I'm at the racetrack clubhouse with Jackie. I have been doing some sophisticated handicapping, or perhaps I have important tips or some fancy new betting system. In any case, I have decided it's time to bet big. I'm still trying to get my things together, figure out exactly whether I should go through with this bet (I'm planning to bet $4,000), when Jackie says she also wants to bet big--$7,000, and would I go to place the bets.

I agree. I take her money and head for the wickets, turning to the set at the left, which is where the "large bets" wicket is. I feel some conflict because time is running out--it's almost race-time. Will I have time to decide on my bet and make it? Here it is fairly deserted; few patrons bet at this level. One person is just leaving the wicket, but I feel sure his bet is much lower than the one I'm making. I bet Jackie's $7,000, a sheaf of crisp new red $500 bills, mainly. The woman at the till, a fairly attractive woman probably a bit older than I am, in a suit, is impressed and treats me well, quickly fetching the ticket. It feels good to be a high roller.

I take the ticket back to Jackie at the little circular bar-table where we're sitting. I'm worried that I won't have time to make my own bet. As I sit against the wall to make my last-minute preparations to bet, a woman bustles to sit at the table next to us, maybe jostling me as she sits down. She is noisy and seems flustered about something. I am irritated and even alarmed to be interrupted as I'm preparing to make my big bet. Maybe I say something, but in any case the woman takes exception to me and mouths off, taking a swipe at our table, or making some move that bats my crucial document--a little slip of green-edged paper like an old-style bus transfer--off the table and across the floor. Alarmed, I get up quickly but nonchalantly to fetch it, not wanting to engage the woman, who is clearly unstable, any more than I have to. Losing this would mean I can't make my bet.

Not wanted to delay further, I head back to the wickets. Now they are in cleanup mode, with young men, Chinese, red-vested like busboys, cleaning the counters which are scattered with crumbs and scraps as though after a big dinner-party. I'm afraid I'm too late, but they start clearing the counter at the last, "big bets" wicket--they'll take my bet. I'm still just barely in time, if we can do this thing quickly enough.

I've already written in this blog that my project is a gamble. The bets don't get bigger than this.

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