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Genesis of a Historical Novel

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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