.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


When keying notes from Joseph Campbell's Occidental Mythology at the end of last year, I typed the following passage (slightly compressed) from the epilogue, called "Conclusion: At the Close of an Age":

In the long view of the history of mankind, four essential functions of mythology can be discerned. The first and most distinctive--vitalizing all--is that of eliciting and supporting a sense of awe before the mystery of being. Talk and teaching cannot produce it. Nor can authority enforce it. Only the accident of experience and the sign symbols of a living myth can elicit and support it; but such signs cannot be invented. They are found. Whereupon they function of themselves. And those who find them are the sensitized, creative, living minds that once were known as seers, but now as poets and creative artists. More important, more effective for the future of a culture than its statesmen or its armies are these masters of the spiritual breath by which the clay of man wakes to life.

In my last post I was talking about my aesthetic system. But I realized that before even an aesthetic system, I need a sense of why art is valuable in the first place. Life is short. If, when pressed with the question, how to spend one's time?, one responds, "as an artist", one should know why one will spend one's time that way. At least, I need to know that.

I need look no further than Campbell's words above, and if I want one statement of validation, I would use the last sentence of that paragraph.

If I were to amend that sentence in any way, I would add the words "its business enterprises" to the list along with a culture's statesmen and armies. Nowadays I suspect that the best, or anyway the most creative, minds of our society are seduced not by politics, still less by the military, but by business. We want to make money.

Certainly for me this has been an important seduction or distraction--not that you'd know it by my circumstances or net worth. I've done all right, but my level of wealth is quite a bit below what might be expected of someone of my age and ability. I remember reading a few years ago, with a twinge, an article in Scientific American about IQ. One point made in the article was that despite all the controversy over the validity of IQ and what exactly, if anything, it might measure, it is and has always been a strong predictor of worldly success. If you want to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, your best asset is not a degree from any university or membership in any particular organization or fraternity, but a high IQ. I don't know if I remember the words exactly, but the specific quote in the article that struck me was: "If you have a high IQ, worldly success is yours to lose."

Ouch. You see, I have a high IQ. I forget the exact figure--it was only told to me years after I'd taken a test in a neighbor's backyard. (The neighbor's friend's daughter, who happened to work for the UN, was making what I think was a casual sample of kids' IQs in various countries. I don't know whether she was targeting bright kids or not. She administered the test at a picnic table in the quiet shade of Mrs. MacLellan's lawn, along with a "morality" test devised by a famous psychologist--I forget who.) Plus, confusingly, there are a couple of different IQ indexes, one of which grades "higher" than the other. But I was also pulled from my grade-2 class one day for special intelligence testing, and again in grade 3, when I was tested along with a few others for admission into a hothouse program called Major Works.

By the way, if you're not a person with a high IQ, I can't really tell you what it's like to be one. At least, in some ways. It's true that in comparison with most other people, I'm able to spot patterns and figure things out quickly. I remember one of my janitor coworkers back at Vancouver General Hospital trying to work through a bunch of math questions in preparation for some exam he was going to take. He was in a section where series of numbers were given, and you had to provide the next numbers in each series. When he asked for input, I looked over his shoulder and was able to quickly answer a few of the questions.

"How do you do that?" he said, stunned.

"Well, you look to see how fast the numbers are changing. Are they getting bigger very fast? Or only a little bit at a time? Are they going up, then down? You kind of just see how they're moving."

He shook his head.

Another janitorial coworker who admired my mind was Angela, a small Hungarian woman with a certain European mystique and sexiness even in her housekeeping uniform. Having lived in Paris a long time, she spoke with a French accent.

"What must it be like to have a brain like yours," she said one day. "I wish I had a brain like that."

So yes, I've been admired and envied for my mental abilities. But most of the time I don't have any particular sense of mental "superiority". The image that comes to mind is that of a dog chained to a stake in the yard. A dog usually will stay parked at the end of his chain, almost choking himself if need be, just to be at the limit of his freedom. A high IQ is like a long chain. You're farther away from the stake than the short-chain dog, but you're still sitting there, choking and irked by your limit.

In short, I struggle with problems I can't seem to solve, IQ or no IQ.

But by virtue of my IQ, much of the fruit of society was there for the picking for me--or so the experts claim. Over the years I have made various, relatively half-hearted, efforts to gather some of these, to "make it" in societal terms. When doing that, though, I have not really been true to myself, and the results have accordingly been mixed.

So I take my cue now from Joseph Campbell, and see my vocation as an artist lit by the words quoted above. I venture to guess that Campbell's IQ was very high indeed, and luckily for us all, he made excellent use of it.

But what will happen to me? I lie awake nights worrying about this.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home