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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, May 27, 2006

conflicts of interest

I recently finished reading a book (an achievement for me, since I start many more books than I finish): House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties by American investigative journalist Craig Unger. I was inspired to read this book after finishing John Perkins's Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and wanting to learn more about skulduggery at the highest levels of power.

Unger has delivered the goods with his book, a meticulously documented investigation of the links between what he provocatively calls the house of Bush--that is, the Bush family and some of its close business and political associates--and the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. These links extend far into the past, well before the time when the elder Bush became president in 1989, and, according to Unger, came about due to the Bushes' involvement in the oil industry.

By the end of the book Unger makes a strong case that the administration of George W. Bush has been compromised in its ability to deal effectively with Islamic terrorism aimed at the U.S. because of the strong ties of friendship and business connections between him and the house of Saud. Unger's most striking illustration of this is the fact that on 13 September 2001, two days after the 9/11 terrorist attack, when all civil aviation was still grounded, certain private flights were permitted for the purpose of evacuating 140 high-level Saudis from the U.S., including members of the bin Laden family. The clearance for such flights could only have come from the highest levels of government--the White House--and were presumably authorized at the request of the Saudi government. Unger's point is that shortly after nearly 3,000 Americans had been killed in a terrorist attack, a number of people who should have been of great interest to the FBI for questioning were permitted to leave the country as a favor to a foreign regime--the very country from which a majority of the terrorists came.

Shocking stuff. It's the first time I'd heard of this, although apparently it had already been in the news in the U.S. My thought upon finishing the book was this: that George Bush and many of his associates have managed to place themselves in a gigantic conflict of interest. As president of the United States his duty is to the citizens of his country, protecting and promoting their welfare, pure and simple. As a private individual he is concerned about his assets and business dealings. Unger shows how Bush, his father, and associates such as James Baker and Frank Carlucci are connected to the Carlyle Group, a holding company formed in 1987 by David Rubinstein, a former domestic policy adviser to Jimmy Carter. The Carlyle Group became, through retaining key powerful figures leaving senior government posts, a major defense contractor. The Carlyle Group over the years has had large business dealings with the Saudis, worth at least about $1.3 billion according to Unger's reckoning.

From the point of view of the U.S. administration, there have been strong reasons to foster close relations with the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, even though they owe their position to their ties to the Islamic extremists known as Wahhabis. After the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s, the U.S. wanted to ensure a steady supply from the world's largest producer. Better to have the Saudis as friends than as enemies. One way of cementing friendship is doing business together; then everybody wins: big earnings to the deal-makers, lucrative work for U.S. contractors, infrastructure development and armaments for the Saudis, and oil at a reasonable price for U.S. citizens. What's not to like?

Everything's great until those seemingly aligned interests diverge. Your "president" hat no longer fits with your "breadwinner" hat. A bunch of Saudis commit mass murder on your soil, and you find yourself with a dilemma. What's the right thing to do?

It's so hard to tell, when your own bank account, and those of your family and friends, are involved. It's hard to tell, and it also looks bad. Very bad. It becomes difficult, impossible, to appear impartial. You have a conflict of interest.

I think of Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces; he narrates the story of King Minos of Crete:

Great Minos, king of Crete in the period of its commercial supremacy, hired the celebrated artist-craftsman Daedalus to invent and construct for him a labyrinth, in which to hide something of which the palace was at once ashamed and afraid. For there was a monster on the premises--which had been born to Pasiphaë, the queen. It had been nothing worse, really, than what Minos' own mother had allowed to happen: Minos' mother was Europa, and it is well known that she was carried by a bull to Crete. The bull had been the god Zeus, and the honored son of that sacred union was Minos himself.

Society has blamed the queen greatly; but the king was not unconscious of his own share of guilt. The bull in question had been sent by the god Poseidon, long ago. Minos had asserted that the throne was his, by divine right, and had prayed the god to send up a bull out of the sea, as a sign. and he had sealed the prayer with a vow to sacrifice the animal immediately, as an offering and symbol of service. The bull had appeared, and Minos took the throne; but when he beheld the majesty of the beast that had been sent, and thought what an advantage it would be to possess such a specimen, he determined to risk a merchant's substitution.

He had converted a public event to personal gain, whereas the whole sense of his investiture as king had been that he was no longer a mere private person. The return of the bull should have symbolized his absolutely selfless submission to the functions of his role. The retaining of itrepresentedd, on the other hand, an impulse to egocentric self-aggrandizement. And so the king "by the grace of God" became the dangerous tyrant Holdfast--out for himself.

There it is: the tyrant Holdfast. Another thought, this one from Jung's Aion:

Since real moral problems all begin where the penal code leaves off, their solution can seldom or never depend on precedent, much less on precepts and commandments. The real moral problems spring from conflicts of duty.

I sense that people who crave worldly power often are unaware that if they achieve this, extraordinary demands will put on them: not just demands of effort, but demands on their conscience and ethics. As a leader or power figure, your personal growth--or failure thereat--is enacted in a vast arena, in public view.

John Perkins's book goes a step beyond this, describing powerful figures who are actually acting more or less in bad faith. In this case, it is not so much a conflict of interest as the actions of wolves in sheep's clothing. When subversion of democratic institutions happens at the highest levels, we truly have a problem. A deep, deep problem.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Every individual creates for himself a synthetically constructed view of the world.

Thus Erich Neumann on page 357 of The Origins and History of Consciousness. He says this in a section called "The Synthetic Function of the Ego". In his theory, ego-consciousness, born from the womb of the unconscious and powered by libido, psychic energy, from that unconscious, grows gradually stronger, and uses its growing strength to analyze the world--break the continuum of experience into assimilable morsels. In this way it carries the aggressive action of slaying the dragon of the regressive unconscious into the world. One of the symbols of analytical action is the sword.

But after this analytical, cutting stage, there is a creative, synthetic stage, in which ego-consciousness puts the pieces back together, so to say: it forms its own image of the world from the pieces it has analyzed it into. Each of us has a "picture of the world" we carry within and use in our dealings with it.

In the last day or so I came to a realization: my picture of the world is incomplete. I think this expresses my philosophical problem in a nutshell. I lack a unified vision of the world. I seek one, and have been seeking one, I think, since probably at least 1979, maybe 1978. I've done lots of analysis, but the synthesis is not there yet.

I tried to explain this to Kimmie this morning as we had breakfast at the Corner Cafe.

"Everyone has a view of the world they use," I said.

"Most people don't even think about that," said Kimmie. "They don't think about the world. They don't know what happens when you die, or whether there's God or whatever. They just focus on real life."

"That's it!" I said. "Perfect! Real life--that's the perfect phrase. What people call 'real life' is their view of the world. It's what they think is real and true. Even if it's just, how will I get a raise and how am I going to pay for my vacation."

"But they don't think about these things seriously the way you do--they don't know all the things you do."

"Because to me those other things--what happens after death--is real life. That is real life."

And later, when we were driving in traffic up 3rd Street toward Michael's Crafts to look for a cake-pan for Kimmie, she surprised me by bringing up the subject again.

"What about her?" said Kimmie, pointing to a woman driver who was zipping past us on the right. She was a heavy blonde woman driving a small blue coupe. Her elbow hung out the window and she was talking on a cellphone. "You think she's thinking about what is real?"

"We're speculating," I said. "But yeah, the whole talking-on-a-cellphone-while-driving thing suggests a fear of boredom. Your attention is divided so many ways. Ken McLeod says the path of spiritual awakening is the path of attention--so that distracted style is the antithesis of that."

"It's all instant gratification," said Kimmie, disgusted.

Yes, it seems my world-picture jigsaw puzzle has many thousands of pieces, and I still don't know whether I've got all the pieces yet. Islands of sense are forming from the pieces I do have--"there's the parasol, there's the chaise longue!"--but the whole has not clicked together.

What do I believe?

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Monday, May 22, 2006

quiet rainy Victoria Day

It's Victoria Day here in Canada: a national holiday. Yes, we still celebrate a monarch who died in 1901, presumably because she was on the throne when Canada was confederated in 1867--but that's just a guess.

Heavy, gray, wet clouds had rolled in when I woke this morning, and a warm, damp wind was blowing. I came down to key notes from Wake Up to Your Life and Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian. We discovered that Robin had contracted food poisoning at yesterday's bridal shower, and since early in the morning had been making trips to her bathroom. "But we ate the same things," said Kimmie. "Oh--except for the cake! And the cake had custard in it..."

Kim and I went walking along the seawall at Ambleside in West Van. The wind was strong and blustery there, and, I thought, smelled unfresh--a tropical-smelling air that seemed to be polluted with the scent of pulp-mill or something. I found this depressing: what if there were no more fresh air to be found on Earth? Even when a strong wind blows in from the sea, it is still just a mixture of industrial exhaust. I remembered an article I'd read, I think in The Economist, several years ago, about a scientist who had inventoried all the flotsam on the beach of a tiny remote island in the South Pacific, thousands of kilometers from New Zealand or somewhere. It was a depressing list of garbage: beer-cans, plastic bags, furniture, and a surprising and dispiriting number of disposable diapers. Might as well have been in an inner-city park.

But we walked by the gray shore as the waves combed in. Very few people were at Ambleside, mainly just the dog-walkers and a couple of large Asian families who had decided to have barbecues regardless. Kimmie, ever alert to bird life, had us pause to watch a gull and a crow try to steal each other's food on the rocky shore, and again to watch a crow bathe itself in a puddle in the parking lot (a surprisingly long and thorough wash), and again to watch a mother duck paddle from the little mouth of the Capilano River with her clutch of about seven ducklings tightly in tow, paddling furiously to form what looked like a snaking tail behind her, staying in formation as they rode diagonally through the swell.

All in all, a quiet day. I hope to start my reading period earlier than I have the past couple of days, so I can get more reading in. The stack of books teeters on the corner of the coffee-table. Thence do I go now.

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

when cultures collide

The day is warm, though not so summer-hot as it has been in the past week. Kimmie, in her blue tanktop and gray shorts, bends almost double out on the brick patio to weed and straighten her garden. Our yellow sprinkler sprays glittering streams of droplets into the greenery. Overhead the plywood floor creaks as Robin, recently risen (it's 12:20 p.m.), pads through my just-washed kitchen making herself breakfast. Later the two women will be traveling to Cloverdale to attend a bridal shower of Kimmie's great niece Lynn.

This morning, over coffee, I keyed notes from Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian by Sean Freyne--the first historical-research text I have worked with in months--as well as The Origins and History of Consciousness and Wake Up to Your Life by Ken McLeod, an American Buddhist teacher. My investigation into the mystery of personal identity has brought me, inevitably, back to the Buddhist teachings that I more or less walked away from four years ago.

My copy of the HarperSanFancisco paperback I bought used from Ngodrup (an ordination name which is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit siddhi, meaning "spiritual accomplishments" or realization), a young fellow monk from Saskatchewan at Gampo Abbey. I felt conflicted about buying it from him, since it seems not quite right for any practitioner, but especially a monastic, to part with dharma books. However, after careful questioning, Ngodrup convinced me that he was clear that he wanted to sell the text, at least for the time being. I bought it for $20--money that he no doubt needed.

I already knew that I liked Ken McLeod as a dharma writer, since I had bought and read The Great Path of Awakening, his translation of a commentary on the Mahayana practice of lojong ("mind-training") by the 19th-century Tibetan master Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. McLeod's strength as a dharma teacher shows through in the extended notes at the end of the text, in which he offers pithy summaries of key points of Buddhist doctrine. I started reading Wake Up to Your Life while I was still there at the abbey, and, softened up by my months of living in an environment of meditation and study, I found it powerful and profound.

I was excited by his approach. McLeod had undertaken to write a Vajrayana Buddhist text (he was trained--much more extensively--in the same Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism that I was, under the direct supervision of Kalu Rinpoche) using almost no Sanskrit or Tibetan terms. He had translated them all, making no reference to the originals. Indeed, he had done more than this; he had thought through the basic principles taught in all Buddhist systems and come up with his own way of presenting this to a Western audience, as he describes himself (slightly compressed):

In the Kagyu tradition...I immersed myself, learning the Tibetan language, studying the texts, learning and practicing the rituals, and spending seven years in a training retreat. Though powerful, Tibetan Buddhist methods cannot easily be practiced in the classical manner in the context of contemporary American life. So I set about reexamining everything I had learned and practiced.

I came to understand the central role of attention in internal transformative work, and I saw how all aspects of Buddhist practice (and all forms of internal transformative work) can be described in terms of the operation of attention.

This translation of the teachings, without leaning on Sanskrit and Tibetan loan-words, is key, I think, to transmitting them to a new culture in a new time. Too often in translations of Buddhist texts we find statements to the effect that "there is no adequate English equivalent of the word prajna," and so on. While this may be true, it keeps the teachings alien; these terms--and there are many such--provide continual reminders to the student that the teachings come from elsewhere, some place where people's minds appear to work differently, insomuch as they have come up with different words to describe their workings.

We are now in a global melting-pot of ideas and traditions. I am most interested in this, because I believe this situation has an important antecedent in the Hellenistic period just after the conquests of Alexander the Great around 325 BC. Alexander's empire smashed down the bulkheads that divided civilizations, in particular the civilizations of West and East as exemplified by Greece and Persia. Largely as a matter of Alexander's personal policy (one that was not shared enthusiastically by his subordinates), the conquered Asians were not treated as mere subjects of their new Macedonian lords, but were respected for their traditions, institutions, and wisdom. West and East collided, commingled, and reacted with each other.

One of the effects of this, as pointed out by the great scholar of Gnosticism, Hans Jonas, in his The Gnostic Religion, was that ideas necessarily became stripped of their local, cultural content. For an idea to be picked up and regarded as powerful or true by someone from a completely different culture, it must have a universal content and appeal. When Greeks went to Asia, they found gods that reminded them of the gods back home, and felt that they were in fact the same gods being worshipped under different names. The gods became uprooted from their connections to particular locales and took on more universal attributes.

In the same way, today ideas are mixing all over the world. No idea will survive as a universal idea if its expression depends on a particular culture or nationality. Indeed, the world is already too small to accommodate religions based tribal gods claiming to be universal, such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. And Buddhism, in my view, will also never take wide hold in the West if it is seen as being culturally Asian. A sorting process is already happening: what is truly universal about Buddhism, and what is merely cultural? What is the true nature of a sentient being's mind, and what is merely an expression of Indian or Tibetan culture?

McLeod's book takes a big step in the direction of discovering the truly universal core of the Buddhist teachings: what speaks to my life, in my language, as well as to a Tibetan's life in his language.

Since my topic is identity, I can't ignore Buddhism, which has been intensively examining this question for the past 2,500 years. I know that the Buddha's answer is that the ego, the "I", does not exist. But I am still studying anyway. I need to find out for myself: what do I think?

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

non-advice about historical novels

I have a meter that counts visitors to my blog. I'm quite happy with it, and it's free. (I chose to use Statcounter.) Among the things it tells me (not the identities of individual visitors--never fear!) is search terms people use to get the list of results that include my blog (and on which they clicked). A fair proportion of those are people who search with queries such as "what is a historical novel" or "how to structure a historical novel". It makes me a bit sad to think that those people will not really find what they're looking for in this blog.

If I were to try answering such questions, what would I say? For a definition of historical novel, I might look in places such as the Historical Novel Society website, and in particular to their definition page. Not to keep you in suspense, their short, one-line definition runs thus:

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

(Their definition page has links to other, more in-depth discussions of the genre.) I'm sure their definition is as good as any; for these are people who clearly read lots of historical fiction and care about it.

Which, in some sense, is more than I can say. For I would not describe myself as a fan of historical fiction as a genre. That is, I don't go out of my way to read historical novels. I am not particularly attracted to any genre as such. I feel the same way about movies: it doesn't really matter to me whether I watch a romantic comedy or an action-adventure show. I care about only one thing: the quality of the story. If the story is good, I don't care where or when it's set, or whether it's drama, comedy, or something else. It's like the old joke: What kind of comedy do you like? The funny kind. What kind of story do I like? The good kind.

So why am I writing a historical novel? Because that's where the action that interests me happened: in history. The story is very important to me; anyway, I deduce that it must be, because it is putting me through an incredible amount of effort and mental discomfort. The story is important; it magnetized my attention; so I'm telling it.

Don't get me wrong: I do like a good historical novel. One reason, I think, is that the genre is quite wide-open thematically. The story can be about anything; it just has to be set in the past. This is unlike, say, murder mysteries, which I tend to find too formulaic. In this case, writers exert themselves to find exotic places and people to write about, but handcuff themselves (in my opinion) by writing to such a restrictive theme. But here again, an exceptionally well-done murder mystery gets my respect and my eager attention. Snow Falling on Cedars almost--almost--made it to this category for me.

As for how to structure a historical novel, I would say it is not different from any other kind of story. Most fiction-writers, in my opinion, are undereducated in storytelling, and should try to catch up with screenwriters in this regard. The best source available is Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. You should learn these rules--and learn them well--before you think about breaking them.

So, you historical-novel hopefuls, I'm probably not your role model. I'm not a genre writer. I'm working on a vast, difficult, and very eccentric project.

In a word: don't try this at home.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006


The weather is hot and summery. I just got a little bump of excitement at finding a book, wrapped in cardboard and brown paper, lying on my porch: the mailman had left it there since it would not fit in the steel mailbox attached to the lattice below the porch rail. I knew what it would be: Slavery and Social Death by Orlando Patterson. I came across a reference to it in Us and Them by David Berreby, and got that familiar visceral tug that told me I wanted to read this book. Since I read with a highlighter, that means I had to buy this book. So I did, via Abebooks.com, as usual. The somber, black-covered trade paperback has a photographic negative image of one hand tugging a rope connected to two bound hands. The book was formerly the property of a John C. Hubbard, MD, of Orchard Park, New York.

Slavery of course is an ancient institution, and far from dead. There are no doubt millions of people living in slavery in the world today. Since I am writing about the ancient world, I want to familiarize myself with the forms of slavery practiced back then. But for some years now I have been interested in slavery in general, possibly a reflection of my being of the sign Aquarius, the most egalitarian of signs and the one most associated with emancipation.

I was struck by something I read in The History of Technology last year (at least, I think it was there): that slavery is essentially indistinguishable from the domestication of animals, it being simply the same process but applied to one's own species. Interestingly, animal domestication is much older than human society, since many animal species practice it. Some ants, for instance, farm aphids; and some species of ants domesticate other, different-species ants. These are technically forms of the zoological phenomenon known as symbiosis. As the author of this chapter of the history, F. E. Zeuner, points out, in very few instances of symbiosis do the participants benefit equally from the arrangement.

For many years Kimmie has believed that I was a slave in a previous life. Her evidence? Certain fears that I have, such as being near her when she's wielding a knife! But also a number of faint scars across my back that look like whip-welts, that I have no memory of receiving in this life.

So maybe my connection with slavery is even closer than I realize, and my interest in human emancipation is motivated from my own experience. But even apart from that, slavery is a powerful image and metaphor, for we are all slaves, are we not?

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Friday, May 12, 2006

ultimate reality

In my last post I mentioned reading a book called Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche in 1989 when I was on a group meditation retreat in Colorado. It was my first dathun, or month-long meditation retreat, and I bought the book at the commissary to read on those few periods during the week when I had free time. It's a slim little volume of 94 pages by a Tibetan meditation master of the Kagyu tradition. I found it gripping and read it compulsively, almost like a thriller, to find out "what happens"--that is, what is the nature of ultimate reality?

Does this question strike you as being academic and esoteric? It strikes me as being urgent. For it's not merely a matter of academic curiosity; ultimately we base all of our decisions and actions on our assumptions or beliefs about the way the world is. We work, all the time, on the basis of an implicit understanding of what is real and true. If we thought some other thing were true, we would act in a different way. Our decisions would be different, and so would our lives. In fact, I am sure that our set of beliefs--what we believe is true--whether held consciously or otherwise, is the biggest determinant of how our lives will unfold.

During that dathun in spring 1989, 8,000 feet up in the Rockies, I was going through one of my periods of thirsting for this kind of knowledge. Meditating eight hours a day every day allows the mind to settle to its native condition of brightness and clarity. It takes on a quality almost like heaviness: it sits in the present moment, and resists being pushed out. It's a good time to read dharma.

So I read Progressive Stages, and talked with my meditation instructor Nancy about my restless, impatient thirst to understand this text. (Combined with my bouts of homesickness, it was enough make Nancy worry about me, so that one day she pulled me out of the meditation session for a special interview to find out whether I was "all right". I was.) The book briefly explains the progression of the understanding of "emptiness" (the word usually used to translate the Sanskrit shunyata), both in the history of Buddhism and in the understanding of the Buddhist meditator--for the progression is one and the same. Starting with a coarse understanding of the notion, the practitioner, through studying, reflecting, and meditating, gradually acquires a more subtle understanding and experience, until eventually, with enough of the right kind of effort, he or she has a direct experience of ultimate reality.

Emptiness is not nothingness. This is one of the stumbling-blocks associated with using this word to point to the idea. "Emptiness" is essentially pointing to the fact that experience cannot be grasped conceptually. Our concepts are only conventions, approximations--an overlay on experience. They are convenient for communicating, but they cannot, cannot form an exact fit with reality. Generally, though, we are very attached to concepts (a habit called "conceptual clinging"), and are deeply reluctant to let go of them. "Let go" in this sense does not mean abandoning the use of concepts; it means having a clear recognition that they are not synonymous with reality.

This might seem like an abstract philosophical point, but it takes on great importance when one is advised that the major concept to be relinquished, the pre-req, as it were, for traveling the subtle depths of the Buddhist path, is the concept called "I". Yes: the Buddha said that "I", ego, is another concept: a convenience, not something that corresponds to anything ultimately real. The meditation on emptiness begins with an investigation into the nature of this thing called "I". The puzzling and alarming thing is that if you look hard to find exactly what you mean, what you are denoting, when you say "I", it disappears like smoke. It seems to be the most obvious and taken-for-granted thing, but if you look hard to isolate this obvious thing and find out exactly what it is, you're going to find you can't do it.

"Oh well," you might say, "what difference does it make? Whether my ego really exists or not, I've still got my mortgage payments and parent-teacher interviews." True enough. But when you think about how much effort you put into trying to please your "I", trying to keep it out of trouble, trying to make it comfortable and secure, trying to get it to be a winner, it does actually make a difference whether it exists or not. Because if it doesn't, then what the hell are you doing? In a certain sense, it's no different than going through a lot of time-consuming trouble, and responding, if someone asks you why, "I'm trying to make Casper the Friendly Ghost happy."

That person might gently point out that Casper the Friendly Ghost is a fictional character, one whose happiness you can't influence, indeed one whose happiness is very problematic in terms of whether it exists, or even can exist. In short: your actions are misguided, and insofar as you pursue that aim, your time is 100% wasted.

It's back to what we believe is true. This makes all the difference in how we spend our time, and the life that results for us. This intuition has been driving me like a goad since I was about 20, maybe longer.

It makes a difference. It makes all the difference.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

ego consciousness

Last night I lay awake from 2:50 till the alarm went off at 5:30. I don't feel bad now, but the thoughts that keep me awake at night are not pleasant. It's always possible to see things in a negative light, and this seems to be what's happening during these dark periods when my mind is under the dominion of the moon.

In the morning, over coffee, I'm still on the trail of identity. Will I ever arrive? Will I find something that, to me, feels like an answer? I may not, but I would still like to have a theory, or maybe even a decent hypothesis, to work from.

I continue to trawl through The Origins and History of Consciousness. I'm now in Part II: The Psychological Stages in the Development of Personality. It's excellent, fascinating. The section I read last night, "Centroversion, Ego, and Consciousness", was so rich that I highlighted most of the text. Centroversion, a word coined by Neumann, refers to the tendency of an organism to stay intact and maintain itself; it is the same as the integrative function described by Arthur Koestler in his description of "holons" in The Ghost in the Machine. A holon (a term coined by Koestler himself) is any relatively integrated thing that functions both as a whole, when viewed from within from the perspective of its constituent parts, and as a part, when viewed from above from the larger thing of which it is a member. Organisms, including people, are holons, for we are made up of constituent parts, and are also parts of larger wholes above ourselves.

So centroversion is the integrative tendency we have as organisms, the unifying effect of all our subsystems working together to keep us alive. In Neumann's view, consciousness is "the control system of centroversion", and the ego is the central complex of the field of consciousness. He believes that consciousness arises when stimuli, outer and inner, become represented as images. The ego, which as far as I can tell is basically the consciousness of the organism as an independent individual self, arises only very gradually and painfully. Neumann makes the point that pain is key:

Pain and discomfort are among the earliest factors that build consciousness. They are "alarm-signals" sent out by centroversion to indicate that the unconscious equilibrium is disturbed. The function of ego consciousness, however, is not merely to perceive, but to assimilate these alarm signals, for which purpose the ego, even when it suffers, has to hold aloof from them if it is to react appropriately. The ego, keeping its detachment as the center of the registering consciousness, is a differentiated organ exercising its controlling function in the interests of the whole, but is not identical with it.

All very interesting, as is this:

We shall always find that fear of the unconscious, and fear in general, is a symptom of centroversion, seeking to protect the ego.

I keyed that whole section, then pulled down another book, this one from my dharma shelf: Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, a slim little volume I bought in April 1989 while on a month's meditation retreat at (what was then called) Rocky Mountain Dharma Center in Colorado. I found this little book exciting, gripping, disturbing when I first read it, which was while I was down on that retreat.

But more of that perhaps another time. I'm eating into my teatime here--treading on sacred ground!

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006


On Sunday, when Kimmie and I did our weekly grocery shopping at Save-On Foods at Park & Tilford Centre, we strayed into the book section (as we often do), and I felt moved to buy a book: Paper Fan: The Hunt for Triad Gangster Steven Wong by Terry Gould. Steven Wong was (or is) a Chinese gangster who used to operate in Vancouver until his alleged death in 1992, when he disappeared in the Philippines after a motorcycle-taxi crash.

The book looks interesting, and I can already tell from reading the first chapter that it is well written and contains much interesting information, although the topic is rather outside my usual spheres of interest. The reason I bought it was because the issue of youth gangs was part of a project called The Guardians, a would-be TV series, that Warren and I wrote after our work on The Odyssey; but also because I was already familiar with Terry Gould and some of his work. In particular, he wrote a script for a TV movie called Racing with Dragons, about Iranian-born Vancouver gangster Bob Moieni and his murder in the 1980s, which I read as contract script-reader for CBC TV in 1991. Unlike the vast majority of scripts and proposals I read, Racing with Dragons was vibrant and exciting, and radiated a strong sense of authority on the fascinating subject of ethnic youth gangs in Vancouver.

I haven't met Terry Gould, although I believe he is or was a fellow resident of North Vancouver, but I would like to, since he is that (for me) relatively rare thing: a writer whose work I truly respect. I remember talking with Warren about Gould's script, my excitement at its authenticity and the daringly realistic portrayal of the young Chinese, Latino, and Iranian hoods.

"This should be a TV series," I thought. It could be the kind of edgy, shocking, politically incorrect show that would portray our city as it actually is, in one of its dimensions, and also draw in an audience. (Da Vinci's Inquest, the series created by Chris Haddock some years later, did much in that direction.) I contemplated contacting Terry Gould somehow to suss him out on the idea of a fictional series, rather than simply a true-crime movie of the week, but felt that there were too many conflicts, since I was a contractor with the CBC and would not otherwise have seen his script.

In the end, the CBC passed on Racing with Dragons, and Warren and I became embroiled in the writing and production of our own series. Terry Gould went on to become obsessed with tracking down Steven Wong, who he was certain had not died in the Philippines, and the product is this book, Paper Fan.

But there's probably still a pretty hot Vancouver-based series out there to be made. Are you reading this, Terry?

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Risky Business

Yesterday, stopping in at the library on our way home in the cold wind and rain from New Westminster, Kimmie and I picked up a DVD of Risky Business, the 1983 movie written and directed by Paul Brickman and starring the young Tom Cruise. We watched in last night over our dinner of sauteed zucchini, broccoli, and portobello mushrooms on pasta.

It was our third viewing of it, and we both enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed it more than ever before. One important reason was that I saw in it a depiction of many of the elements of the great cycle of human myth described by Erich Neumann in The Origins and History of Consciousness.

Neumann's thesis is that world mythology maps the birth and development of ego-consciousness in humanity as a whole, which is identical to its birth and development in each individual. The conscious ego, the center of our personality, emerges from the dark bliss of unconsciousness as a baby emerges from the womb. After a long period of fleeting moments of consciousness that rise and sink back into the bliss of unconsciousness, the ego gradually becomes stronger, until it decisively proclaims its own independent existence, recognizing its distinctness from the nurturing but also smothering womb of unconsciousness. This decisive moment is pictured in the universal myth of the separation of the World Parents, in which a hero pushes apart his mother and father to create earth and heaven, and between them the whole manifest world.

Tom Cruise, playing Joel Goodson, the well-heeled, dutiful teenage son of complacent, affluent parents, is this hero. When his parents, leaving on vacation, leave him to look after the house, they expect him to continue along the rails on which they have set him from birth: the predictable track of responsibility and submission to their dictates. They show every sign of expecting his whole life to be lived in that way. He is nudged off the track by his friend Miles, who orders in a call-girl for him. When the girl, Lana (Rebecca de Mornay), arrives, Joel receives his sexual initiation, then finds himself embroiled with her further when she steals his mother's prize possession: a giant crystal egg she keeps on the mantle. In his effort to retrieve the egg, Joel finds himself in conflict with her pimp, and is eventually driven to accept Lana's suggestion that he host a night of schoolboys-paying-for-hookers at his parents' place in order to pay for damage to his father's Porsche.

The story contains virtually every element of the complete mythic emancipation of the hero from the matrix of the unconscious. I was most intrigued to watch how Brickman handled the crystal egg--an element I did not remember from my previous viewings of the movie. The egg, very valuable, was the "dragon's treasure"--for the dragon is a symbol of the devouring, regressive aspect of the mother, and the treasure is the boon of life and consciousness that she nonetheless carries within her and which it is the hero's task to free. The dragon itself appears in the guise of Guido, Lana's pimp (Joe Pantoliano), who gains possession of the egg, and is also in possession of Lana--the captive princess of myth. The captive princess is another epiphany of the Great Goddess, but a personal one, one that can be known and loved as an individual--one who contains all the love and life and creative potential that is to be gained by the heroic accession to full conscious autonomy.

Even the fact that Lana is a hooker is consistent with the symbolism, for the Great Goddess was regarded as mother, virgin, and prostitute. In the ancient world, "virgin" did not mean, as it does for us, physically inviolate; it meant a woman who was not under the authority of any man. In the ancient Near East the Great Goddess, whatever her name, was honored with the institution of ritual prostitution: her temples would be staffed by women who were regarded as epiphanies or priestesses of the Goddess, and they would have sacramental sex with men as a rite of both love and fertility, which the Goddess ruled. Often townswomen would have to prostitute themselves in this way before they could be married, to render due respect to the Goddess, and their wages would be offered to her.

So Lana's status as a hooker is consistent with her identification with the Great Goddess. And in the story she does indeed bring vitality to Joel's sterile, dutiful life. Sex, money, danger, violence, disgrace, risk, adventure--all come in her wake. Joel's mettle is tested, and he grows up; he becomes his own man. He is able to relate with Lana not as a timid teen but as an equal: a man worthy of her. By boldly displaying himself as he now is, he wins admission to Princeton University--the Ivy League college seemingly out of his reach as a "good boy".

Joel's mother, who has made an issue of how much she "trusts" him throughout the story, gives this the lie at the end when she angrily accuses him of putting a crack in her crystal egg. Yes: for the hero has hatched now. And Joel has indeed separated the World Parents, for while he mother stalks upstairs in a huff about the egg, his father takes him aside to reveal to him, joyfully, that he has been accepted by Princeton. Father and son are atoned. Joel reveals himself to be a "Good Son" not just in the sense of a dutiful boy in thrall to his parents, but one who has thrown off their authority and proved his worth to inherit a kingdom.

This gives an idea of why I found watching the movie so absorbing and exciting this time around. I doff my cap to Paul Brickman. Nice work.

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

books as counselors

What are my most important thoughts these days? My mood is relatively dark, relatively low--though not too bad--as I examine my life and my achievements critically. This is behavior characteristic of the astrological transit of Saturn through the 10th house of my chart. Wherever Saturn transits, whatever it touches, those aspects of one's life become the focus of serious attention.

Donna Cunningham, in her very good little book How to Read Your Astrological Chart, provides a short list of the typical phases of a transit of Saturn:

  • Confronting lack or loss
  • Taking responsibility
  • Eliminating deadwood
  • Getting your act together
  • Raising the bar
  • Performing at peak
  • Waiting for the right time
  • Reaping what you have sown
The massive pattern of aspects in my 10th house of career and worldly fame shows that I was born to experience conflicts in this department of life. To paraphrase astrologer Robert Hand, difficult aspects to a house (such as mine) show that we are not well adjusted to the affairs of that house. Hence, for me, Saturn as the "report-card planet" is giving me the feeling of a flunking grade--or anyway an underachieving one.

A report card, of course, is not there to harm us. It is simply a message regarding our own performance, generally how hard and well we have worked. It confirms something that is already the case. It's only the messenger. It's feedback, and of course, with any feedback we have a choice of whether and how to use it.

I relate this to the second bullet in Donna Cunningham's list: "taking responsibility". This is one of the main functions of Saturn, the responsibility planet. And this is what I'm currently trying to do: take responsibility for my career, for my life.

I have always been a responsible, firstborn type--almost too much so, in some ways. But my feelings of career stalling and underachievement have had me wondering how my upbringing may have affected me in this respect. Not consciously: for conscious things, I believe, have little power over us. We are controlled by what is outside our awareness. In the past few months I have had some insights into some of these things which have been operating outside my awareness. The insights have come to me by reading books (specifically Neptune by Liz Greene and The Origins and History of Consciousness by Erich Neumann)--which tells me, incidentally, that a book can function as a kind of counselor, if you are open to it. Like a live counselor, a book can help you see around the corner to your own unconscious.

Reading these things has sent my mind spiraling down into the darkness where my personality was shaped. I have had dark, troubled feelings about entrapment in a kind of emotional setup not of my choosing--which I never had the option of avoiding, simply due to the circumstances of my birth.

On Thursday my mother called me up to invite me over for lunch. I accepted, and she made us one of our old-time favorites: bacon-and-egg sandwiches. While Mom fried the eggs in the kitchen, I saw that one of the books on the dining-table was one I was familiar with: You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L. Hay. It's a book I've read: the first that put me definitely on to the idea of the mental and emotional causation of illness. I flipped it open and found myself at page 35. Here are the first couple of paragraphs I found there:

Blame is one of the surest ways to stay in a problem. In blaming another, we give away our power. Understanding enables us to rise above the issue and take control of our future.

The past cannot be changed. The future is shaped by our current thinking. It is imperative for our freedom to understand that our parents were doing the best they could with the understanding, awareness, and knowledge they had. Whenever we blame someone else, we are not taking responsibility for ourselves.

Louise Hay was talking to me: she was acting as my counselor. I felt a fluttering of freedom within my breast--a most welcome feeling. Mom came out with the sandwiches and I put the book away.

Later I made the connection to Donna Cunningham and the transit of Saturn, bullet 2: taking responsibility, the very words used by Louise Hay.

The world is a big place; messages keep arriving. The report card is your friend, no matter what it's telling you. Now I look forward to some of the next steps--like getting my act together.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

hibernating, luffing

I really do mean to write posts more regularly. But when activities crowd into the later afternoon, I've decided I will not push myself. Today, having come in from buying our filtered-water supply (about 80 L), and having played--and, very luckily, won--a chess game at Waterland, it's 3:30 p.m. and I'm in good shape to write a post.

How many ways are there to say "dry spell" or "low period" or "doldrums"? In a recent e-mail to Warren I used the image of hibernation-while-awake: I feel like a hibernating animal who has not gone to sleep for the winter, but who is lying awake through his suspended animation, eyes open, quiet, and breathing very slowly as his body temperature drops and his heart rate slows to a couple of beats a minute. I'm quiescent.

Still, in this quiescent, suspended state, I try to nudge my project ahead. I sat here looking at my notes for chapter 23 for some time this morning. I keyed the dateline, then stared at the blank screen space below it. Nothing was coming to me. Uncomfortable emotions moved through me, disturbing me, distracting my mind away. I would come back to the blank screen.

I opened my journal and wrote something in there. Better to write something, I thought--just get the wheels going. I returned to the notes and stared awhile longer. I just didn't feel like writing anything. Nor did I really feel like reviewing the notes I had already written.

Eventually I thought, to hell with it, I might as well just start writing the chapter. Otherwise I will become depressed. So I opened up the document for chapter 23, which was already set up with its datelines and its header and so on, and let some words pop into my head--an important thought of my character (in this case, Alexander, the young would-be astrologer). I typed them, then just started associating from there, having a good idea of the zones I need to visit in order to cover off the material in my notes. In this unemphatic way I wrote my way to page 2 of the chapter, then broke to take a run in the sunshine.

I remember going sailing with my father when I was a kid. I really liked sailing, although I never developed Dad's passion for being on the water, especially windborne. Still, sailing was a sensuous feast of breezes and salt and rough lifejackets and gulls' cries. One of the moves in sailing is called "coming about", when the boat is steered across the wind to tack in a different direction. The boat turns and the sailor has to let the boom fly across the boat so that the wind can fill it from the other side. During that period, when the sail has lost the wind from one side and before it picks it up from the other, the sail goes slack and flaps loosely and uselessly. This is called luffing. The boat at that time is moving only under its momentum; it has lost its wind and is waiting to pick it up again in a new direction.

So, another metaphor: I'm luffing.

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