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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, December 28, 2006

of weddings and kings

Kimmie races against time to finish Jen's wedding cake.

I have spent most of the day down here in my office, working on notes toward The Mission. I find myself digging around topics that I worked on early in the project, when I first returned home from Gampo Abbey in 2002 and spent my days pleasantly in the sunlit living-room, my left leg in a cast. One such problem is the genealogy of Jesus.

The genealogies in the books of Matthew and Luke conflict, and these in turn conflict with the king-list given in 1 Chronicles. How I worked on that back then! I came up with my own solution to the problem, but I had forgotten my thought-process, so I was trying today to reconstruct it, as well as get more of my notes in typewritten form on the PC, rather than lying in handwritten form in the old (and fat) blue project-binder.

I'm strengthening my knowledge of kingship in general by reading one of my recent online used-book purchases: Kingship and the Gods by Henri Frankfort, published in 1948. In this he examines the institution of kingship as it was practiced in ancient Egypt and in ancient Mesopotamia (the two approaches were apparently quite different). The hardback I got, a reprint from 1969, is in excellent condition. I'm on page 58, having moved this book into the rotation of my reading period each afternoon (other books currently in that rotation: Pragmatism by William James; The Prize by Daniel Yergin; and The Earth System by Kump, Kasting, & Crane).

As I understand it so far, Frankfort's thesis is that the kings of those most ancient civilizations were the connectors between the gods and their societies, with the king serving a different function in each civilization--as an actual incarnation of the all-powerful god Horus in Egypt; and as the human intermediary between the gods and the people in Mesopotamia.

Once again, I found today that I could apply myself more consistently, for a longer time, to my project, now that I'm on a kind of "vacation"--the routine of regular life has been interrupted with Kimmie off work. If only I could relax enough to immerse myself in my own work while going through the regular "work" days. There is some blockage about that: fear of boredom, I think, is part of it.

Tomorrow is Jen's wedding. The cake must be finished tonight--and it will be. Kimmie has coated the three large stages of the cake in white fondant, and is attaching swags of icing around the top of each stage. These swags will drip icicles, and gum-paste vines of ivy will somehow be worked around the whole thing. The crest ornament will feature an arrangement of gum-paste calla lilies, roses, and carnations. The flowers, already made, all look as though they were picked from the garden. It will be magnificent.

Now: on to tea. I may not be able to write, but at least I can read. I'm validating all those other writers' lives.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

the magma of which myth is made

A quick post, then, now that Christmas is done. The weather is lovely: the sun has emerged, sending beams through our south-facing windows, including that of my office. Its dusty, water-splashed surface is clearly visible in the unaccustomed light. A bar of sunlight falls across my navy-blue fleece and the front of my new green T-shirt (one of my presents from Kimmie).

Over the holiday I have returned to thinking about the basement of my project. I'm still keying notes from Campbell's Masks of God books over my morning coffee, taken in the dark just after we rise at 7:00. I'm most of the way through Occidental Mythology. And since I've already keyed all the highlights from the fourth book, Creative Mythology, I will soon be done.

Why is this important? Hm. How to summarize how I feel about this. I am writing about the origins of Christianity. Or perhaps better: What I'm writing about is tied up with the origins of Christianity. As I've said before, I'm not writing either a devotional work (a la Mel Gibson or Anne Rice), that merely retells biblical stories in contemporary words, or a euhemerist work (a la Nino Ricci), that accounts for the biblical stories as amplifications of the acts of more or less extraordinary individuals. Rather, I'm seeing it as a coming-together of a number of different streams of causation--historical, personal, symbolic--and also something beyond that, which is hard to name. There are forces at work, and the appearance of an institutional religion is just one of their far-reaching effects.

I think my point is that my story is not in any way told from "inside" the Christian system. Christianity itself is a form, like an igneous rock made from congealed magma. Detached from the flow of liquid rock, it takes a definite, hard shape. It solidifies, cools, and gradually, over time, like all forms, weathers, losing its substance bit by tiny bit. Like a rock, it has already broken in pieces: part of the inescapable process of decay entailed by the very fact of formation. Eventually the rock will be converted to gravel and sand and silt, and the particles will be swept away from where they had been held together for so long. The rock, as such, will no longer exist.

But the great flow of magma lives on. Its fluidity makes it noncommittal as to form. As drops and splashes become detached, erupted, they too cool into definite, discrete forms, which at that very moment start to decay. I'm more interested in this magma. What is it? What is its nature? Where does it reside? Where did it come from? Where is it going? Of course, I'm not addressing these questions in a scholarly way; rather, they form a kind of scaffolding or attitude toward my work.

Campbell's work--all of it--addresses this magma quality, this living, liqueous, energetic, hot, plastic stuff that has the all-potentiality of expressing our longings, insights, and fears. The specific forms are the myths--like the great myth of Christianity. But the substance is something deeper, fluid, malleable.

Now the back stairs are steaming in the sunlight: the vapor twirls complexly like the smoke of ten cigarettes.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Happy Christmas

Kimmie is still off on vacation, beavering away at various crafts, becoming stressed. The big thing is preparation for the wedding of Robin's school-friend Jen on 29 December. Kimmie agreed to make the wedding cake and also to make a dress for Robin, who is maid of honor. Both the cake (a three-layer job with roses and carnations of gum-paste) and the dress (a damask-patterned satin with scallops that had to be specially cut and matched along the bottom of the bodice, causing Kim, a very expert and experienced sewer, great anguish) are proving more difficult than she had had thought.

Still, Kimmie has solved many of the problems and now is able to relax more (and is also undergoing chiropractic and massage therapy a couple of times a week to unspasm her tense body). She has spent most of today happily wrapping presents (artistic gift-wrapping as well--even using some ideas from a special Japanese book on giftwrapping that I brought home as a present from my meditation retreat at Karme Choling in 1993) and preparing to bake the actual wedding cakes.

Kimmie plays Christmas music while she works. She is intensely, almost fanatically, theme-oriented. On 1 December the Christmas lights go up and she starts decorating. Everyday objects, such as her coffee mugs, are sidelined and special Christmas ones subbed in (I condescend to drink from a Christmas mug on the day itself, otherwise I stick with the usual crockery).

A couple of nights ago Robin stopped by to give Kimmie a new Christmas CD as a "thank you" for making her maid of honor dress: Sarah McLachlan singing various Christmas songs. Kimmie was delighted, and has put the CD into heavy rotation on her sewing-room ghetto blaster.

This morning I heard part of it while delivering coffee to Kim: Sarah singing John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)". I found it a beautiful and haunting rendition, better even than Lennon's own (I've always thought this one of the best modern Christmas songs). (And incidentally, I like to think that my preference for versions other than the original artist's is homage to his work as a songwriter.)

Something about the song went deep into me, so that I found myself humming it. The music kept going through my head, and from time to time I would vocalize it softly as I went about my tasks. Somehow, today, I felt the longing in the song--for world peace. The opening question of the lyric--

"And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?"

--I found especially haunting. What have you done? The question seems to cut many different ways, especially in the context of the song. It's both reflective and accusing, suggests sins of both omission and commission. The special magic of songwriting is that the music lends a particular spin and weight to the lyric; gives it a special, unique emotional meaning. Of course, the fact that Lennon himself was martyred nine years later close by that very hotel lends the song extra poignancy. (He may have been a self-righteous prig, but he did sincerely deplore the violence that took his own life.)

I felt so strongly about the song that I had to work it out for myself, right away. I opened the case of my acoustic guitar, which I keep parked behind the leather sofa, and, holding the tune in my mind, found the key: D. I hummed the song softly, finding chords, until in a few minutes I had the song roughed in well enough to be able to play it to myself. As I did, tears came to my eyes.

My thanks to John Lennon, then, as a songwriter. He wrote this one with Yoko Ono in a New York hotel room in October 1971. Now, 35 years later, it still stands as a hopeful encouragement for a world that in some ways has gotten worse, and I find it is my theme song for today and, I think, for this Christmas.

Happy Christmas.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

the mystery of dreams

I awoke in the middle of the night from dreams. As I got up in the dark to go to the bathroom, I had a thought that I have had many times: we take dreams too much for granted. The significance of dreams is greatly underestimated.

By "significance" I don't mean merely what we think the dreams might mean to us, what their symbolism might be. I mean that we take the very phenomenon of dreaming too much for granted; we don't consider what the existence of dreaming might imply about the world, about reality.

I had this thought: If you were an all-powerful god, about to create the universe, would you think to include dreaming among its phenomena?

I'm sure I wouldn't have. I have always paid relatively close attention to my dreams, and have studied the meaning of dreams for most of my life. But I doubt that even as an all-powerful god I would have thought up the very idea of dreaming. The universe I would have created would have been the dumb, literal place that we generally imagine our own to be.

Dreams don't come with instructions or explanations. They seem to be standard equipment for sentient beings of a certain level of development--although, who knows, maybe for all sentient beings. Do oysters dream? Why not? My guess, and rule of thumb, would be: if it sleeps, it dreams.

Dreams, I believe, are the ultimate warrant of stories and storytelling: they are the natural phenomena from which storytelling takes its inspiration, just as our visual impressions are the basis of painting. Dreams are the original and still ultimate form of story, the form in which we experience ourselves as protagonists and undergo adventures that are in every way real--until we wake up. The sensual and emotional intensity of dreams can be greater than that of life. I believe I have experienced my strongest emotions in dreams.

Dreams, as stories, are made up of events--not of thoughts or words. Occasionally we may remember only an image or a sound from a dream, but a true dream, remembered fully, is always a series of events. A dream has a setting, a cast, and a thread: something that you are trying to do, or a problem. There comes a crisis. If the crisis is big enough we wake up--can't face it in the dream. Or we stay with it, and it resolves for good or ill. We're defeated and griefstricken, or joyful and happy. All story.

In the ancient world dreams were considered one of the main ways in which the gods communicated with people. At the temple of Aesculapius in Rome a sick person would make an offering, then stay overnight in the temple in hope of receiving a dream in which the god would give the cure. In ancient India they recognized that dreaming, which creates a seemingly other universe in addition to the one we know by day, could be described as arising in "subtle matter"--just as our daylight world arises in "coarse matter". For where are those objects of dream-perception, and of what are they made? The stuff of dreams.

Dreams point to the mysteriousness of life. For a life that contains dreams cannot itself be less meaningful or mysterious than they are. The work of art--that is, the story--is a public dream.

Hmm...almost enough to make me think about getting back to writing my own...


Monday, December 18, 2006

mythology and catastrophe

The mythological education continues. That is how I think of my recurring passes through Joseph Campbell's books, in particular The Hero with a Thousand Faces and his Masks of God tetralogy, the second part of which, Oriental Mythology, I am now keying from over my morning coffees, down here in the dark of my office.

How do we make sense of our experience? Myth addresses that question. A successful mythology not only answers it, but in doing so frees emotional energies within us, spurring us and enabling us to take action, to live. A living mythology generates enthusiasm and a zest for living; our actions have purpose and that purpose brings us joy.

Mythologies have a shelf-life. They grow stale; they outlive their usefulness; they become inapplicable as circumstances change. Usually, before that happens, a successful mythology becomes codified, solidified, theologized--made logical and consistent so as to resist change. No doubt this happens because of changes in the world.

I suspect that that the process is much as described by Thomas Kuhn in his landmark study, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn's thesis is that science--any science--does not proceed, as textbooks would have us believe, by more or less steady incremental progress. Instead, it proceeds by lurches--what he calls "paradigm shifts" (yes, Kuhn was the inventor of that term, as far as I know, back in 1962). In the early days of a science, phenomena are observed and collected more or less pell-mell, without any unifying idea of how they might be connected. At some point, someone comes up with an idea of how the phenomena might indeed be connected--a principle that would explain all the various phenomena observed. An example would be when the observation of the movements of planets in the sky was first explained as being a result of their revolving around the Earth.

This unifying explanatory model--in this case, of "planets are bodies that revolve on their own paths around the Earth"--is what Kuhn calls a paradigm. It accounts for all of the phenomena observed so far, and suggests avenues for further investigation, to test its predictive power. As new observations are made, they are checked against the paradigm. If they support it, the paradigm is strengthened. If they seem to contradict it, then the paradigm is, if possible and if otherwise working well, adjusted to accommodate the new data.

In the case of the planets, they were thought to revolve around the Earth in circular orbits. Eventually observations became precise enough that it became clear that these orbits could not be circular. But because no other shape for them could be imagined, scientists found ways to keep circularity in the system by adding epicycles--points on the planet's circular orbits around which the planets had their actual own circular orbits. The orbits were circles on circles. In this way the basic paradigm, that planets revolve around the Earth, was preserved by being adjusted.

Eventually, in every science, contradictory data pile up to the point where the paradigm can no longer be adjusted to fit them. At that point the science enters a crisis. The scientists no longer have a working model of the world. It is a time of chaos and strife. New ideas emerge--new potential paradigms. These are fought by the scientific (and social) establishment, which usually tries to shore up the existing paradigm. But once a new paradigm seems able to account for the inconsistent data, as well as the old data, it starts drawing the allegiance of the more open-minded scientists, which generally means the young ones.

The geocentric model of celestial mechanics was held in place until the time of Copernicus, who, along with scientists like Kepler, supplied the rationale for switching to a heliocentric model: the paradigm that the Earth and the other planets actually revolve around the sun. The new paradigm becomes established, and the basis of future research. But the change was not smooth and incremental; it was catastrophic--that is Kuhn's point.

Is not a mythology a paradigm in the same sense? Or maybe a scientific paradigm is just a special case of a mythological paradigm. Mythologies are invented, as Campbell says, by poets, by artists. They begin in the imagination, and, given powerful form, spark the imaginations of others. They "make sense" of life just as scientific paradigms "make sense" of observational data. They become the basis not of further research, but of societies, civilizations, religions, and people's lives. People "buy in" to the paradigm, and tend to see confirmation of it everywhere: God is good; or the five castes are an immutable part of the cosmic plan. The paradigm resists change, and those who try to change it are resisted (or burnt at the stake).

But change it must. In the words of Khalil Gibran, "time flows not backward, nor tarries with yesterday". Explanations thought to have been valid for all time turn out to be applicable to a single era only--maybe a very short one, and only if you're willing to suspend a lot of disbelief. Many, indeed, from a later standpoint, appear to be simply junk.

Thus "living faiths" might be better described as "dying faiths". In general, the time of their vigor is long past. In particular, those built around tribal gods--such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--are doomed. Or anyway: either they are, or we are.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

mythology and waking up

A semi-wakeful night, with plenty of dark thoughts. Plus, a major windstorm swept in by around 3:00, creating thunderous sounds outside (when I pulled out my earplugs), and making the building shudder.

In the morning I keyed more notes from Oriental Mythology by Joseph Campbell. I'm in chapter 4, "Ancient India". Campbell is developing the streams of mythology that led to the distinctive civilization of India. He has identified four streams:

1. the diffusion of Bronze Age civilization from the nuclear Near East (Mesopotamia), with its society based on the hieratic city-state, goddess-worship, professional priests with knowledge of the calendar, and the periodic ritual killing of kings;

2. the overthrow of this culture by the horse-mounted Aryans, patriarchal warriors who worshipped willful, capricious gods--the culture now known as Vedic;

3. the resurgence of some of the Bronze Age mythology, but farther east, down the Ganges River, and the rise of the Brahmin as a class of being superior even to the gods, insomuch as the Brahmins, through their ritual knowledge, were able to compel the favor of the gods; and finally

4. the arising, by 700 BC or so, of "forest sages", hermits who meditated in the jungle to cut through the chain of suffering of earthly life--men who used the ancient practice of yoga (which existed in India even before the time of the Bronze Age infusion) to awaken from the sleep of life. The greatest of these would be known as the Buddha (563-483 BC).

From these four great creative centers the great mythological complex of India was born, giving rise to the spiritual civilization that we know today.

When I was younger I resisted studying the history of religions or philosophies. I was looking for truth, and I didn't want to think that truth was something contingent, the result of a rough-and-tumble series of accidents. If something is true, it's true, isn't it? It doesn't matter what came before, or how it was discovered. 2 + 2 = 4, no matter who says it, or where, or when.

Now I feel different. I'm able to share Campbell's excitement in tracing the origins and history of ideas--the ideas that have given form to whole cultures and civilizations. I'm willing to acknowledge that truth in the absolute, pristine sense that I was looking to find does not exist--not in the relative, conceptual world in which I was looking, anyway. (In my Buddhist training, I came to be acquainted with the idea of the "two truths", that is, relative and absolute.)

For me, the Buddhist teachings have been decisive in my spiritual education, which means my education into the meaning and purpose of my life, my education into adulthood. When I was at Gampo Abbey in 2002 I learned a little about the philosophical matrix in India from which Buddhism was born. I was surprised to learn that many of the doctrines I had been taught did not originate with the Buddha, but were simply incorporated by him from the surrounding culture in teachings of his own--things such as the concepts of samsara, nirvana, karma, and the meditative states called dhyanas. Even his first core teaching of the Four Noble Truths were not original, but a repackaging of existing teachings, using a standard medical structure: diagnosing an illness, identifying its cause, naming its cure, and prescribing a treatment regime to get there.

The issue of truth is very important to me and always has been. That makes me a philosopher. There are always people who know more than oneself, which means that in some sense they stand as authorities over one. I think of an image from the novella called The Goshawk by T. H. White (I haven't read it--my brother-in-law Mike read it and told me about it). Evidently, in order to tame a hawk, the would-be master has to stay awake longer than the bird. That's the only way. It can take a couple of days, but when the hawk finally falls asleep in your presence, it knows it's been beaten; it has submitted to your mercy.

In a similar way, those who know more than we do have been "more awake" in those fields where their knowledge is superior, and we are naturally inclined to submit. This is normal, natural, and good--but only up to a point. There comes a point when one must go by one's own lights, regardless of authority, and of course take all the attendant risks. Otherwise, one never attains true adulthood. One remains a member of the herd, obedient to leaders who may take you only to slaughter.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

blockage and pragmatism

I suppose this is technically writer's block. In a sense, I don't know what to write--and that is the condition I understand as writer's block. I mostly know, but I don't have it completely worked out.

But in truth I don't think it's particularly a knowledge issue. It feels much more emotional--a life issue. There's some kind of existential problem, simmering feelings of blockage and frustration, no doubt rooted in events and situations far in the past.

Ah, well. Everyone's got problems. One issue for me is that this blog, while as candid as I can make it, doesn't go into every cranny of my life (I don't want it to), and so there are zones of reporting that are open, so to speak, and others that aren't. I find myself having to tiptoe around a bit even right here in my own blog, of which I am the sole owner and editor-in-chief.

Yesterday another book arrived in the mail: a combined edition of William James's Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. In all of my persistent digging into the question of identity earlier this year, I gradually arrived at the realization that our most basic notion of what is true is simply that which is effective. I later found out that this is the kernel of the American philosophical school called pragmatism, and eagerly I sought out a promising-looking book on it and ordered it. This is it.

I felt very good about this realization, because I had arrived at it, so to speak, under my own steam, via my own route. That means I can approach James's ideas as a peer--I will not be imbibing his philosophy with the idea of accepting it (or rejecting it) on the basis of his authority. I can check his thinking against my own, and see whether we think alike. As far as I've gotten into chapter 1, I'd say we do. I'm sensing that William James is a kindred spirit for me.

Indeed, I was so enthusiastic about looking into his thoughts that I also ordered a used copy of his two-volume masterwork The Principles of Psychology. I sense a mind that is wide-ranging, undogmatic, and fearless--just the kind I want to spend time with.

Yes, there's always more reading to do. Where am I going with it? What have I learned?

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Monday, December 11, 2006

the artist and his doubts

There is a rainstorm with strong wind. Kimmie and I were just out on a short errand to get a chicken breast (kung pao chicken again) and boxed egg-white. I had to partly lower my brolly so that it would not be damaged. Our yellow plastic bag for recycled paper blew away out back. The lights have been flickering occasionally. Power outages are happening elsewhere in the city, but they're rare here. Still--I'd better back this up more often.

Yesterday morning I finished keying notes from Campbell's Primitive Mythology. The final chapter, "Conclusion: The Functioning of Myth", was newly inspiring for me. At the risk of spoiling things for those haven't trawled these depths as yet, here are some of the concluding words from this first volume of his Masks of God tetralogy:

Can mythology have sprung from any minds but the minds of artists? The temple-caves of the paleolithic give us our answer.

Mythology--and therefore civilization--is a poetic, supernormal image, conceived, like all poetry, in depth, but susceptible of interpretation on various levels. The shallowest minds see in it the local scenery; the deepest, the foreground of the void; and between are all the stages of the Way from the ethnic to the elementary idea, the local to the universal being, which is Everyman, as he both knows and is afraid to know. For the human mind in its polarity of the male and female modes of experience, in its passages from infancy to adulthood and old age, in its toughness and tenderness, and in its continuing dialogue with the world, is the ultimate mythogenetic zone--the creator and destroyer, the slave and yet the master, of all the gods.

As I typed this material I felt a renewed connection to my own path as an artist. No matter how meager and halting my output, I'm doing the right thing.

Over the years I have worried about being a creative type, an artist. My worries have come from a mixture of bafflement and contempt for the output of other artists, and a bourgeois sense that one should be productive and do useful things for society--"useful" meaning designing furniture or assembling loan syndicates for sovereign debt, or whatever. One should at least be earning--being responsible for keeping oneself in food and shelter.

Another source of worry has been spirituality. In my 20s, while seeking answers to spiritual questions, looking for a spiritual path, and eventually becoming a Buddhist, I sometimes felt depressed about wanting to break into TV, the very heartland of frivolity, as I thought. I used to read Variety, and felt a pang of guilt or shame when I saw the box giving prices for "amusement" stocks. Amusement, entertainment--these were escapes from reality, what we did to take our minds off our lives, to distract ourselves. There was I, trying to engineer more distractions for people.

In the main I have of course managed to live with these thoughts, these doubts, and work on in spite of them. At times I have felt very encouraged about the vocation of artist, and felt proud to be one--even if an unproductive one. But I still have twinges of worry--still think I should be doing something "useful". (A favorite movie moment for me is in Out of Africa, when Robert Redford's character shows Meryl Streep a gramophone, and plays a record of classical music. "They've finally invented a machine that's really useful!" he says. By the way: this line is so good, like a number of others in that movie, that I'm convinced it came from life, and was not invented by the screenwriter, Kurt Luedtke.)

Whenever I have expressed these ideas people have dismissed them. "Oh pshaw!" I understand why they do, and yet part of me does not easily accept the validity of sitting around doodling with ideas and making up stuff as a way of having social value.

The best antidote to these feelings is Joseph Campbell. In all of his writings, and all of his life, he radiated a profound appreciation for the arts--all of them, and saw in art the highest activities and aspirations that humanity is capable of. (He tried business briefly in his life when he was fresh out of university, hated it, and never went back.)

Another thought I have is that I value art too highly, and feel unworthy of the task of trying to attempt it.

These thoughts and worries are all clearly neurotic, and I acknowledge them as such. However, they do form part of my own psychological fingerprint, so to say, and hang over me and nag at me. So I am very glad to have the counsel of Campbell himself--probably my favorite thinker and writer of them all. Interestingly, he very much wanted to be a fiction-writer himself, but was not that good at it. He did what he needed to do. Thank heavens.

Later in the day I decided to write a review of Holland's Persian Fire on Amazon.com. If you're interested, it's here.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

examining life

Yesterday another book arrived in the mail--another Christmas experience for me, since it's one of the greatest treats I have in my life. This one was The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy, and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture by Francesca Rochberg. I'm trying to think where I discovered this book. It was while I was looking up another book on cuneiform astronomical texts on Amazon.com. But why was I looking up that book? Where did I find the reference? It's bothering me; I can't remember.

Ah: I have it. I just turned around to my desk and saw the November 2006 issue of Scientific American there (under a library copy of In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq by Nir Rosen). One of the articles--one that convinced me to buy this particular issue of SciAm--is "The Origin of the Greek Constellations" by Bradley E. Schaeffer. It seems the Greek constellations were mainly taken on from the earlier Babylonian (and more generally, Mesopotamian) system, with a few new additions of their own. (As I recall, Giorgio de Santillana was able to show that the constellations--and astronomical lore in general--are much, much older than history.)

At the end of the article, under the heading "More to Explore", are three references, one of which, Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia by H. Hunger and D. Pingree, I decided to look up on Amazon.com. The book looked too technical (and expensive!) for me, but another book listed there ("Buy this book with...") was the Rochberg book. I found it on Google Book Search, and experienced that gut feeling that told me I wanted to read this book. I looked for a used copy on Abebooks.com, and found a new one there at a decent price.

That's how I laid my hands on a copy of The Heavenly Writing. I wanted to say something about this restless, almost compulsive search for knowledge that I have. At times I have a feeling of futility, since I'm well aware I can read only so many books in my life, and that I will never know everything. Nonetheless, it's important to gain knowledge--true knowledge, accurate knowledge. Without that, one's actions are misguided and often lead to disaster.

This to me is an important theme in Sister Carrie, which I've read now as far as page 225 or so--around halfway. The painful sexual and domestic machinations are brought on, in good part, by ignorance. For one thing, characters conceal things from each other in order to achieve their ends, only to have these things emerge in painful and disastrous ways. (As an astrologer, I see a heavy influence of the planet Neptune in Sister Carrie--deception, delusion, and their consequences.)

But deeper than that is the ignorance the characters have of themselves--their true natures, their true wishes and drives. They don't understand themselves, have never thought to try to understand themselves, and their decisions and actions have a blind, blundering quality as they grope for happiness in whatever direction seems at the moment to be offering it. They are like ballistic missiles with missing or misprogrammed guidance systems. They fly fast and hot, and will deliver a ferociously explosive payload--but where? To switch to a more familiar metaphor: the characters are all loose cannons on deck.

Socrates is reputed to have said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." These people lead unexamined lives. I don't know whether they're exactly not worth living, but there is a sense of blundering animals caught dumbly in some trap or exhibition: they're goaded and driven here and there, reacting in pain and fear and rage, lashing out blindly, trying to reduce the painful stimuli.

Our decisions are always based on our level of knowledge about ourselves and our world. They cannot be any better than that knowledge. Socrates's dictum was in a way a corollary of the famous motto of the oracle at Delphi: "Know thyself." It was the oracle of Apollo, the god of knowledge, and no doubt that advice is still well worth taking. If you want to know thyself, you'd better get examining your life.

If you need a cautionary tale about the train-wrecks that attend the unexamined life, stick your nose in Sister Carrie.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

our mythological heritage

Rolled out of bed just after 7:00 this morning, while it was yet dark. Kimmie is on her long vacation from work, spending all of December at home. (People often ask her, when they hear she's on a five-week vacation, "Are you going anywhere?" Her answer: "Yes: home." For her, being away from work is the vacation--and I agree. Of course, I'm always at home.)

Unsure of exactly what I'm doing or where I'm going at the moment, I've been keying notes, over my morning coffees, from Campbell's Primitive Mythology, the first in his four-part series The Masks of God. I picked up this Penguin Arkana copy new in 2001, not having acquired a copy of my own after reading the one that belonged to my roommate Keith in 1981. (I'm noticing lots of 20-year skips in my life right now. Example: for our power-walk in the quasi-drizzle today, I put on the blue polyester work pants that I bought in 1986 when Kimmie and I traveled to Europe. The good news: I can still get them on. The bad news: they almost cut me in half. "It's my punishment," I explained to Kimmie, "for becoming a fat slob.")

I am always energized and inspired by reading Joseph Campbell. This morning I was keying from chapter 10, "Mythological Thresholds of the Neolithic". This is a survey of the major shifts in mythological ideas and practice that occurred over the neolithic period, from about 7500 BC to 2500 BC. (Chapter 9 summarized the paleolithic, from 600,000 BC to 7500 BC.) It's fascinating, because Campbell, who was not an archaeologist, allowed himself more imaginative and deductive scope than what archaeologists usually seem to allow themselves. Also, he was bringing to bear a wider range of comparative knowledge than what most specialists can lay claim to. The result is a profound look into the mindset of ancient humanity--people who were not different from ourselves, except in their level of knowledge of abstract things, and the tools in their toolkit.

I was excited to read the material in chapter 9 about the paleolithic, the era of hunting and gathering. The paucity of evidence from that time might suggest that not much could be surmised about the lives and beliefs of the people and proto-people who lived then. But consider this extract about the cave as a mythological place:

Apparently the cave, as literal fact, evoked, in the way of a sign stimulus, the latent energies of that other cave, the unfathomed human heart, and what poured forth was the first creation of a temple in the history of the world. A shrine is a little place for magic, or for converse with a divinity. A temple is the projection into earthly space of a house of myth; these paleolithic temple-caves were the first realizations of this kind, the first manifestations of the fact that there is a readiness in man’s heart for the supernormal image, and in his mind and hand the capacity to create it. Here nature supplied the catalyst, a literal, actual presentation of the void. And when the sense of time and space was gone, the visionary journey of the seer began.

What is most exciting about Campbell, to me, is his vision of myth as a fount of profundity. To him, myth is not a primitive type of religious thinking; rather, religion--including all the most elaborate and developed faiths--are simply one branch of myth. Myth has always been the vehicle of our deepest thoughts, our keenest yearnings, and our strongest emotions. They represent our efforts to be adequate to the mystery of existence.

So, yes: a pleasure on a vacation morning to key highlights from one of his texts.

Did you know that the story of Eve and the snake in Eden is a variant of a universally distributed ancient tale about the maiden and the serpent? Learning these things changes my view of our mythological heritage.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

p & a

I'm not a depressive person, I'm happy (even elated) to say. To the best of my knowledge, I've never experienced a sustained depression. My depressions have all been within the bounds of the normal: the lowering of one's mood due to unpleasant events or circumstances. I've been more of an anxiety-prone person--one given to feelings of panic. In my opinion, anyway, a panicking person is not depressed. Indeed, a panicking person would welcome a bit of depression.

All of that being said, I'm undergoing a relatively depressed phase of my life right now, and have been since at least the summer. It corresponds with a major transit of the planet Saturn through a large structure of my astrological chart, and Saturn tends to have a depressing effect (I've listed Donna Cunningham's stages of a Saturn transit in an earlier post). The first of the stages, "confronting lack or loss", is certainly a depressing rather than an uplifting experience (don't worry--I'm smiling as I write this).

I think a key word here is confronting. It suggests that the lack or loss is being pushed in one's face, or up one's nose--that if we've been trying to hide from something, now we can't. Something forces our attention on an area of lack in our life.

I have more than one. But for the purposes of this blog, it is the "career" side of my life--and of course most particularly this very project, this very book, are key here. It's slowly and unpleasantly dawning on me that I'm spooked. Somehow, my project has thrown me off, and, like a thrown rider, I'm scared to get back on. I've been making all kinds of excuses--more research to do, rethinking the viewpoint of the whole thing, other work on the side--but they are only excuses.

Procrastination and avoidance are universal aspects of the writer's experience. They're so well-known that they make their way into almost any comic depiction of writing life. One of my favorites, partly because I've been a TV writer, was the set of episodes of Seinfeld in which Jerry and George are trying to sell a sitcom to a TV network. (They're selling, in effect, The Jerry Seinfeld Show.) The scenes of Jerry and George sitting down to write an episode I found hilarious--completely unlike actual writing, even team writing, but accurate in its portrayal of the writers' doggedness in avoiding the task at hand.

So, yeah, procrastination and avoidance are funny--up to a point. Maybe they're funny in the same way that those scenes on America's Funniest Videos are funny in which folks get hit in the groin with baseballs/piñata sticks/gymnasts' feet: they're funny when they're happening to someone else.

So: psychological resistance (procrastination and avoidance) forms one tine of a multipronged incursion of depression in my life. No easy way out.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

alcohol: friend and foe

It's warmer, but still cold, with snow lying packed, crusty, and icy on the ground. Kimmie and I trudged through patches of it on our half-hour power-walk this morning (we have embarked on daily power-walks since 1 December, her first day of vacation).

It was a restless night for me. I lay awake a long time after 2:00 thinking about problems personal and "career". Sometime after 3:00 I got up to pour myself a whisky, and drank that in bed in the dark. It is when I drink the liquor that way, at that time, that I notice its effects most clearly, and why, apart from its flavor, it has been such a longtime friend (as well as enemy) of mankind.

The main effect for me is, first of all, an easing of obsessive thinking. The alcohol makes the mind less efficient, less able to follow a train of thought. If one is in the grip of an unpleasant obsession, that's a good thing. And it's not merely that one is unable to follow the thought, it's also that the thought loses its importance--as though the whisky were able to selectively turn down the Superego knob a little without affecting the Ego and Id settings.

Then there is the warm glow of a pleasant confusion, as though doors opened to other memories and thoughts that were being kept shut by the stream of obsessively negative thinking. I find detachment and humor and enjoyment returning. In these circumstances, it's a positive pleasure, just as the relief of nagging physical pain by taking an analgesic is a kind of positive pleasure--not a mere absence of discomfort.

I recall reading that Ian Fleming said there are four main types of drunks, corresponding roughly to the four humors of Hippocrates: the choleric, the sanguine, the bilious, and the phlegmatic. The choleric drunk is the angry and violent man, the drunk who starts picking fights and throwing punches. The sanguine is the happy drunk, laughing it up and wearing a lampshade. The bilious drunk is the maudlin emotional case weeping on your shoulder. And the phlegmatic is the expressionless guy at the bar who drains a whole bottle without saying anything or showing any outward sign of effect.

I suppose I'm mainly a sanguine drunk, leaning toward phlegmatic if I really get into it. But I don't get drunk now--haven't been drunk since sometime in the mid-1980s. Truth to tell, it's never been an experience I really liked. I felt a certain need to experiment with it, though, as a young man. And I like liquor: especially scotch, and secondarily red wine. I drink them every day. Doctors would say it's too much, but I don't think they'd be giving due account to whom they're addressing: a writer, specifically a novelist. I read once that 50% of novelists are alcoholics. The only "profession" that ranked higher was actors, at 70%.

James Joyce could drink heavily, but I'm not sure he would be classed as an alcoholic. Malcolm Lowry certainly was. Let's see...when he was my age--my exact age, today--he had 19 more days to live before he died of drink.

For me, whisky is still a (temporary) antidote to obsession, and not an obsession itself. Last night I was again grateful for the bottle in the cupboard over the fridge.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

a cold eye on publishing

A couple of days ago, while checking in on Debra Young's pendrifter blog, I clicked on to a post by novelist Holly Lisle about the destructiveness of the contemporary publishing industry on the career of the writer.

Yes, it sounds bad: how the impersonal, automated methods of big-box bookstores, by programmatically ordering ever-fewer quantities of a writer's books, and distributing them throughout the chain in ways that make little sense, systematically choke off the writer's ability to attract readers and effectively ruin that writer. Holly Lisle is a staunch fan of the independent bookstore, where human beings who are knowledgeable about books and who like them choose to promote writers based on a variety of factors, thus allowing writers to build audiences and make a living at their craft.

I'm sure all of this is true. Certainly, big-box stores are impersonal and filled with a lot of stuff that doesn't interest me. The main bookstore here on the North Shore is the big-box Chapters-Indigo on Marine Drive, with another one opening (or just opened) at Park Royal in West Van. There are many titles in these stores, but still I usually can't find what I'm looking for--in fact, almost never can I find what I'm looking for, if it's something specific.

Of course, when ordering and stocking decisions are made by computer programs, these will probably be inferior to decisions made by knowledgeable people. Also, big-box bookstores are inferior even to other big-box stores, like Wal-Mart, which is able to keep prices low. In general, at Chapters-Indigo I pay full price for books (with a discount that I get for buying an annual membership card--a loyalty program that could just as well be instituted by an independent). And their growing monopsony power over publishers is terrible, in that they can drive down prices, as Wal-Mart does (while not passing these on to the consumer, for the most part), and delay even longer than smaller bookstores in settling their accounts. To me, this is probably the single worst attribute of the chain stores, and the most damaging to publishing as a whole.

But I'm wondering whether the big-box stores are really as bad as they are made out to be. In one sense, the big question is how much retail shelf-space there is out there for books. For no matter who orders the books, or how many copies are ordered, there is only so much retail space in which to put the product. The more copies of your book there are on the shelves, the fewer copies of mine there are. It is a zero-sum game.

This problem has long been a big factor in grocery retailing. There are far more providers of food and related products than there are supermarket shelves to put all that stuff on. The result is a ferocious Darwinian war between suppliers, who have to pay off retailers to stock their stuff, or to put it at eye-level, or to set up end-of-aisle displays. The war for shelf-space created the old phenomenon (not practiced so intently now, I think) of cereal boxes' being much larger than their contents (remember the old package advisory, "this box is packed by weight, not volume; some settling of contents may have occurred"?). The reason for this "settling" was to take up more shelf space, presenting a larger billboard to shoppers and depriving competitors of space. A freaking rainforest-ecosystem in there.

As far as I know, nothing so intense happens in the war for bookstore shelf-space. But space is still limited, and in a certain sense it's just a matter of taste as to what fills it.

So, yes, writers' careers are ruined. Holly Lisle makes the point that no one cares about midlist writers because there are always plenty more where they came from. I've heard the "turtle eggs" analogy used. In fact, writers have always got the short end of the stick, right back to ancient Rome, when the "publishing industry" first started. In those days, entrepreneurs would make copies of a writer's book and sell them, and often make a lot of money. There being no concept of copyright, the writer would get nothing.

Back then, of course, writers were mainly gentlemen of leisure, who had no need or expectation of revenue from their writing.

The bigger problem, in my view, is that there is too much product out there. As with movies and TV, the industry has built itself on the pipeline model, where product--as much of it as possible--has to be moving through the pipe in order for the business to keep going. Thus, there are too many books of too-low quality. The pipelines are all operating at as high pressure as they can, spewing product into the limited space of bookstore shelves. This might keep publishers afloat, but are readers' interests being served?

I think not. The great mass of books, especially fiction, are junk food. It's churned out quickly and disposed of. If you're Doritos you don't want to be edged out by Cheez Pleezrs, but in the big picture, does it really matter?

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Sister Carrie

A couple of weeks ago my friend Warren sent me an e-mail telling me he'd just read the Theodore Dreiser novel Sister Carrie and that it had depressed him. I thought that a book that can have that strong an effect can't be all bad, so I put a copy on hold at the library: the 1981 Penguin Classics "unexpurgated" edition.

The "unexpurgated" part is significant, because evidently the original edition, with a publication date of 1900, actually appeared years later. There were delays in getting the book actually printed and distributed due to the fact that the publisher's wife did not approve of the book and didn't want it published. Apparently Dreiser's text was too frank in the way he dealt with contemporary society, especially in his treatment of sex. I was glad I could get the more modern unexpurgated version (based more directly on Dreiser's own final draft), because it is vital, I think, to be able to look in on a society and its people as it really was, and not merely at the "official version" or the public image.

Dreiser does convey the banality and squeaky-cleanness of ordinary exchanges between American people in 1889. In fact, the dialogue strikes me as being especially superficial and banal. Here is a compressed version of the exchange between Carrie, the 18-year-old country girl on her way into Chicago to live with her older sister, and the traveling salesman/ladies' man Drouet:

"That," said a voice in her ear, "is one of the prettiest little resorts in Wisconsin."

"Is it?" she answered nervously.

"Yes, that's a great resort for Chicago people. The hotels are swell. You are not familiar with this part of the country, are you?"

"Oh yes I am," answered Carrie. "That is, I live at Columbia City. I have never been through here though."

"And so this is your first visit to Chicago," he observed.

"I didn't say that," she said.

I'm reminded of dialogue from movies of the 1940s, when Hollywood had assumed the task of censoring itself in order to avoid state censorship. It's interesting that this exchange, dated 1889, would, to me anyway, pass muster in a movie of at least 50 years later.

Dreiser makes it clear that what is going on within the character is quite removed from the banalities burbling out as social intercourse. In fact, so far (I'm on page 130), Dreiser seems to be very much in accord with Thoreau's observation that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them." In England it was the Victorian era, a time of puritanical appearances papered over an undercurrent of indulgence, exploitation, and vice. It seems to me that a hallmark of Dreiser's characters is that they do not understand themselves, partly because they're not equipped to, and partly because they don't try.

One thing that is striking (and there are many striking things here, I find) is Dreiser's observation that American society at that date was caught in a leg-hold trap of the most superficial materialism: a craving for wealth and nice things, with a rigorous stratification of society based on how much of these an individual has acquired. I'm reminded of our diabetic, SUV-driving, McMansion-dwelling contemporary society, obsessed with consumption and bereft of higher values. My preconception of the 19th century is of a God-fearing, churchgoing society that earnestly believed in Christianity and its stated values. Such people no doubt existed, but they were probably about as numerous as they are now.

Maybe I'll say more in a future post. I'll just add that I'm really enjoying this book--a real rarity for me, the more so since Dreiser's writing style is so prosaic and awkward: like reading about the closely observed inner lives of characters as written down by a chemical engineer. In some ways it makes the document more fascinating.

Thanks, Warren!