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

Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, August 31, 2007

politics and the artist

One point I wanted to reach yesterday was to raise the question of what the artist's relationship should be to politics.

It's a complex question. My first instinct is that an artist should not really come out as supporting any particular political view or party. For one thing, as well put by my late brother-in-law the artist Fred Douglas, "I don't see why other people should be interested in my opinions." (Although Freddie was not shy about spouting his opinions at length if you actually happened to be in his company--but still.)

To me, a liberal or a conservative, or a communist or a fascist, artist, seems like a limited thing--sort of the way I feel about, say, Christian rockers. In a sense, you're selling someone else's message, and to that extent are bankrupt as an artist.

At the same time, an artist may have, as anyone may have, political views. Should one then conceal them? Isn't this just mystification--the self-conscious attempt to generate a mystique around oneself, to keep people guessing?

On the other hand, the artist is also an economic entity, someone trying to earn a living. Should one risk alienating potential buyers by exposing one's political views? I think about the Dixie Chicks, and how they landed in hot water with many erstwhile fans when Natalie Maines made critical remarks about George Bush. At the time I thought this was foolish, since the Dixie Chicks' work has nothing to do with politics; the outburst was a taking advantage of the fame of the Dixie Chicks, and the fact that the opinions would get a lot of publicity. Natalie Maines found herself with a soapbox, so she used it. But what, if anything, was the benefit to anyone?

Then again, one doesn't want to be too much of a slut. I recall Michael Jordan's infamous comment that "Republicans buy sneakers too"--invoking his role as shoe salesman to beg off helping a Democrat in North Carolina defeat the notorious Republican incumbent Jesse Helms in 1990. Of course, Michael Jordan is not an artist--but you get the idea.

Then there's the question of what is meant by the very term politics. I remember my late friend and mentor Harvey Burt distinguishing between politics in general and partisan politics--the politics of specific parties. Politics in general has to do with relationships of power between people, and therefore, one would think, is naturally open for comment by artists. And one might naturally incline toward one political or social philosophy over another. Harvey also told me, for example, that Malcolm Lowry, his friend and neighbor in the squatters' camp at Dollarton, was very idealistic about the squatter's life, and romanticized it as being a kind of Thoreau-esque statement by the Common Man against the evil and dehumanizing forces of Civilization. The squatters were the oppressed, decent, principled proletarians up against the faceless State.

As for me, I have for many years now seen partisan politics as being inherently puerile, even as I see the necessity, or anyway the inevitability, of political parties. The public statements of most politicians are embarrassing, flatulent banalities, when they are not outright prevarications or lies. If this behavior wins votes, then that fact reflects on us, the electorate: as a group we are credulous sheep, and therefore must expect to be treated as such. It's depressing to think that a candid, honest politician would be punished at the ballot box. In general, I am suspicious of artists who take partisan politics too seriously.

Can I draw any conclusions? In the last analysis, one should not sacrifice one's integrity for any reason. If you have strong political beliefs, then so be it. But I think artists should tread carefully. Natalie Maines's exclamation that she was ashamed that George Bush was from Texas was, in my view, a pointless gesture. Sincere, no doubt--but empty of content. In effect, she was using her personal stardom as a vehicle for selling dislike of the president. I support her freedom to do so, but I believe that she did no good for herself as an artist, or for society.

That said, I hold musicians and actors to a lower standard in this respect than I do writers. Mostly they're performing other people's work--other people's writing. When the performer is also a songwriter, as the Dixie Chicks are, this still doesn't make too much difference unless they deal with political material in their created work--which they usually don't. Musicians like Billy Bragg, who pump out paeans to social activism and such, I tend to lump in with Christian rockers. They're marketers of ideas conceived by others.

I suppose my advice to myself is: if you have a political statement to make, be sure it's calm, cogent, well supported, objective, mature, and wise.

Is that asking so much?

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, August 30, 2007

the same old dream

I've been sitting here for some minutes now, trying to decide what to write.

One of my strongest interests at the moment is the subject-matter of The Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson, the book that currently attracts me most in my reading-stack, and holds me longest. It is that unusual thing for me: a book that I find hard to put down.

The book's subtitle sketches out its agenda: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. When I first got the book I flipped it open and found, at the head of chapter 2, "The Roots of American Militarism", the following epigraph:

Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican liberty.

Do you know who said this? It was George Washington, in his presidential farewell address delivered on 17 September 1796. That epigraph is followed by one from another famous presidential farewell address, given by Dwight D. Eisenhower on 17 January 1961:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.... In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.

I remember seeing a film-clip of Eisenhower's speech, and being shocked that a sitting president of the United States could have such a dark and critical viewpoint of the system in which he functioned--the system which he was supposed, in fact, to be running.

With great authority, and bringing to bear a wealth of telling detail, Chalmers Johnson develops the case that since World War 2 the U.S. has been in transition from a republic to an empire. It's important to understand that he uses the word empire not metaphorically but literally. He means it.

In the U.S. itself the idea has become somewhat mainstream and acceptable since the end of the Cold War in 1991 and especially since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, especially among conservatives and so-called neoconservatives. And on the face of it, if America is a virtuous democracy, what's the harm in letting them run the world? Why not let them take on the Johnny Appleseed role of sowing justice and decency everywhere?

Alas, as Johnson documents, as nations go, the U.S. is not especially virtuous, and, increasingly, is not even really a democracy. In his own words:

In my opinion, the growth of militarism, official secrecy, and a belief that the U.S. is no longer bound, as the Declaration of Independence so famously puts it, by "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind" is probably irreversible.

After a brief flirtation with international law in the 20th century, following the bloodbaths of World Wars 1 and 2, we're back to Thomas Hobbes's "state of nature": survival of the fittest, and may the devil take the hindmost. Or, as the elephant says in the chicken coop: "Every man for himself!"

The elephant in the chicken coop might seem to have the run of the place, but even chickens, when their backs are pressed to the wall, might prove to be a serious nuisance. And what's the elephant going to live on? Large standing armies are hugely expensive (the average U.S. "defense" budget has been just under $400 billion a year since 1950, measured in 2002 dollars), and eventually bankrupt even the richest nations. This is what happened to Spain in the late-16th century, the world's mightiest nation at the time. The urbanologist and economist Jane Jacobs pointed to standing armies as one of the three major "transactions of decline" that lead a society from prosperity to poverty. A large army is too expensive to finance through peacetime operations; they must earn their keep through plunder, or, as in China, being large industrial operations in their own right, with productive assets like factories and farmland.

Where is Spain today? When I visited the country in 1982, few Spaniards traveled because their employment was too low and their currency too depressed. The rest of the world--even next-door France--was too expensive for them. They're doing much better now, but they are still just one country among many, still, as far as I know, net recipients of transfers from the common kitty of the European Union.

The search for power and prestige, the mirage of security through violence--where do these things come from? Another brilliant epigraph from Johnson's book sums it up, this one to chapter 3, from Ian Fleming's 1958 James Bond novel, Doctor No:

It's the same old dream--world domination.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

integrity and adequacy

I find myself engaged in a major rethinking of my project--the reason that I have had it up on blocks, so to speak, for a couple of months now.

When I say "rethink", I don't mean I intend to junk major portions or completely alter what I'm doing. Maybe the word think would be better than rethink. It's a process of learning more, of going deeper, asking why, and forging connections.

In order for a work of art to have integrity, to have unity, everything in it must relate with everything else. Everything in it needs to belong, and needs to be felt to belong. I suppose that the larger and more complex the work, the more difficult it is to meet this requirement.

It's hard to be more specific about this without going into details about the work itself, which I don't really want to do (the spoiler factor). But there is sometimes the feeling that an idea for one part of the story can be applied to others parts, thus knitting them together thematically. My current investigation into ancient credit and finance, for example: I am working with it as a means of creating tension and interest in my current chapter, but I'm also asking how this might be applied to other sections of the story. If it's meaningful and relevant here, it should be meaningful and relevant elsewhere.

Credit could thus become a thematic strand: a kind of thread running through the work, tugging the pieces into closer union with each other. It becomes part of the meaning of the work.

An exciting but scary aspect of this process is that such meanings cannot really be forced onto the work; they are discovered. There is something organic about it. I think of the image of neurons forging connections among each other in the brain: they branch out, their fibers fastening on to each other and fusing, the junctions growing stronger with each impulse that passes through them. The brain, composed of countless complex parts and subunits, becomes a functioning whole.

I continue to worry about my work in progress. When I wake at night and lie thinking, it is still one of my main concerns. Or while watching TV in the evening: something I see will trigger a thought about my work, and I will actually gasp as though an electric shock had been applied, startling my wife. It's fear that I've missed something important, or that my work is deficient in some deep but specific--and irreparable--way.

Life. A story must capture the flavor of life. There are endless ways of doing so, but it's not easy. A story represents both your understanding of life and your ability to express it. When you're offering up a story, you're saying, "I think life is like this." Even supposed escapist and fantasy works say this. As Joseph Campbell observes, stories of magic and monsters are really about the psychological world--our inner life. The story is a test and an expression of the writer's personal adequacy to the world.

In this view, the greatest works are by writers who are highly adequate. They see into life and are able to paint what they see--to express it. As with any endeavor, excellence is only for the few.

Could it be that a truly unified work can come only from a unified personality? Someone who has attained personal integrity in the deepest and widest sense?

I don't know. The question marks here express the truth of my own situation.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

credit history

In my inventory yesterday of the research books I read the previous day, I left out one: A History of Interest Rates by Sidney Homer.

I think I forgot it because I have been reading (and typing) it down here at the PC, instead of in the living-room as part of my daily reading period. I got my hardback copy of Homer's classic last February through Abebooks; it is marked (discreetly) with the stamps of a former owner, the Ambassador College Library in Pasadena, California.

I first learned about this book in 1994, when it was referenced by James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg in their hefty jeremiad The Great Reckoning, a bold set of forecasts based on their theory of history. This theory was centered around the concept they called megapolitics: that the ultimate driver of historical change is and always has been the technology of weapons. In the last analysis, those who make things happen have always been those who held the greatest ability to project violence. In the view of these authors, the history of civilization has been essentially the story of how governments have controlled the freelance violence of individuals and small groups by being able to overpower them. But a continuing trend, from the beginning of history, has been the "democratization" of violence: the development of ever more powerful weapons that placed ever more violent power in the hands of individuals. We have gone from spears to muskets to handguns to machine guns to high-yield explosives to "tactical" nuclear weapons. In the long run, in their view, the question is whether governments, including legitimate, accountable ones, can hold the balance of power against violent individuals and splinter-groups.

The authors acknowledge that these thoughts are not cheerful. However, when you boil away all the ideology and talk, you arrive, basically, at Hobbes's "state of nature": what we now call the law of the jungle, or, in more sanitized Darwinian terms, survival of the fittest. Hobbes saw the rule of law as what separates us from that miserable condition in which men's lives are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". But Davidson and Rees-Mogg are saying that the rule of law itself is only as good as the weapons that back it up. If the police are less well armed than the miscreants they are trying to control, then the state is lost just as surely as if its army is outmanned and outgunned by an invading force. The final backstop of the rule of law is violence.

I found their book fascinating, and in fact have read it twice. It even formed a key inspiration for another TV project that Warren and I created in the 1990s, a drama about a degenerated society in the near future (a project which has not got off the pad). For the record, I'm a nonviolent person myself, and believe firmly in the principle of negotiation rather than violence in achieving results. No matter how long it takes, agreement is a much more powerful force, as well as more humane, than simply imposing your will through violence. At the same time, we all know what happens when we operate by an "honor system" that has no one policing it. Even in a monastery, frictions and grievances arise.

The authors of The Great Reckoning were investors and investment advisers, and the book was addressed mainly to fellow capitalists. How do you make a buck in Hobbes's state of nature? One of their favorite authorities was Sidney Homer, and his monograph on the history of interest rates. When I first saw the title, A History of Interest Rates, I laughed. It sounds like a satire of dullness--a text that might be carried around by an ultra-nerdy sitcom character. Because I have long been interested in finance and capitalism, I actually felt some nerdish attraction for the book--although not enough to actually seek it out and buy it.

However, now that my own story of the ancient world is developing more of a financial component, I felt I had to get it. I've still read only the first 60 pages or so, but I find that it is even more interesting than I'd hoped. As Homer, a bond trader and partner of Salomon Brothers in New York, observes, interest rates are like a fever chart of society: peace, calm, and stability are reflected in low interest rates; and disorder, uncertainty, and fear are reflected in high interest rates.

Homer also observes that every major legal code, at least of the ancient world, from that of Hammurabi on, was brought in largely to regulate credit. From ancient times, Jews (and other compact societies) were forbidden to lend to each other at interest; loans were expected to be interest-free. Only loans to strangers or outsiders could bear interest. Eventually such rules created large financial and social problems, which were addressed in various ways.

The very word credit is related to words like credo and credible, relating to belief. To extend credit is to have faith. Faith in someone, faith in the future. Faith is the basis of religion.

My intuition tells me that this is an important theme, both for my story and for all of us.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Monday, August 27, 2007

an afternoon's reading

For me, "writing" is mostly research. I spend most of my time learning about what I want to say. How does this process work?

There's a kind of cause-and-effect process; I pursue threads of research. Yesterday, for example, I read from three different books. At teatime I tucked first of all into Home Networking Bible by Sue Plumley--a book I bought last September, having spied it among the stacks of books on the bargain table at Save-On Foods. Its printed Canadian price was $42.99, but Save-On had it marked down to $14.99. As one of the "Bible" series of computer books published by Wiley, it's supposed to be comprehensive about its topic. I had always been rather mystified and intimidated by the concept of computer networking, so I saw an opportunity. I had bought the Windows 98 Bible and been quite happy with that, so I picked this one up as well. I'm reading it now because it's time to get a new computer, and I want to provide Kimmie with a computer as well (probably this one), and to share our broadband Internet account--so home networking it is. I'm gobbling it up quickly, because I want to move on this.

Next: The Golden Ass by Apuleius. I bought the book just this month through Abebooks from a bookseller somewhere in the Southeastern U.S. It's the Wordsworth Classics paperback edition, translated from the original Latin by William Adlington and "revised" by an S. Gaselee. I bought this book as a result of reading Hellenistic Religions, an excellent little book by Luther H. Martin. Martin opens his text with a discussion of The Golden Ass, which was written in the 2nd century AD, because he regards it as a perfect picture of Hellenistic thinking and feeling about the world and about religion.

In it, the first-person narrator, a certain Lucius, is traveling on business to a city in Thessaly, Greece--a place reputed to be the birthplace of magic--and discovers that his hostess, Pamphile, is herself a witch. In his eagerness to learn about the hidden arts of magic, Lucius seduces his host's maid Fotis, and persuades her to take him to where he can watch Pamphile change herself into an owl--a trick she does so she can fly away secretly to her young lover. Lucius, craving such an experience for himself, induces Fotis to get him the magic ointment, but when he puts it on, he is transformed into not an owl, but an ass--Fotis in her nervousness has grabbed the wrong ointment.

As luck would have it, thieves break into the house at this moment, and in the chaos Lucius, now in asinine form, is dragooned into becoming their pack-animal, and finds himself willy-nilly on an adventure as a mute ass. The supposed cure for his condition is simple: he just has to eat some roses--if he can find them. But so far, the thieves have him under tight control (and they're none too kind to their stolen animals).

When I received my copy of the book, I was at first disappointed to discover that the translation was done in 1566; indeed, it seems no one even knows who William Adlington was, since, except for his moniker on the title-page of this book, there is no record of him. The prose style, therefore, is essentially pre-Shakespeare, although it has been modernized (and punctuated) by S. Gaselee, a "fellow and librarian of Magdalene College, Cambridge," in 1922. I regretted not picking up the version translated by Robert Graves, one of my favorite writers. But now that I'm actually in the book, I'm finding it very readable--much more so than I expected. Indeed, to my surprise, the book is something of a page-turner. I read it as I do my nonfiction books, highlighter in hand, picking out cultural tidbits as I go.

Next: The Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson. I bought this book, along with his earlier work, Blowback, from Amazon.com last month. The paperbacks, published by Owl Books, are part of The American Empire Project, an organization devoted to exposing and documenting the rise of the American empire. I was put on to the books by reading posts on TomDispatch, a blog of dissent by Tom Engelhardt against injustices perpetrated by the U.S. government. Chalmers Johnson, a longtime American academic specializing in Asian economics and politics, is a contributor to Engelhardt's blog.

(Tom Engelhardt I discovered, in turn, via Google News, my homepage. I clicked on an op-ed piece by him that appeared in the South China Morning Post. It was a very well-written, cogent essay, critical of some aspect of U.S. foreign policy, written from a point of view I had not yet seen anywhere in the U.S. press. It led me to check out Engelhardt's blog.)

I had just finished reading Blowback, first published in 2000, and plunged immediately into The Sorrows of Empire, enjoying Johnson's knowledgeable, authoritative prose. (Blowback, by the way, is a jargon term of the CIA, referring to violence perpetrated against Americans by foreigners in retaliation for clandestine operations undertaken by the CIA. An example was the 1988 bombing of Pam Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people--payback for a 1986 Reagan-administration aerial raid on Libya that killed Khadaffi's stepdaughter. Another example is the 9/11 attacks on Manhattan and Washington, which occurred just a year after Johnson's book was published.) The Sorrows of Empire, published in 2004, already has a much different, starker tone than the earlier book, for Johnson says that while Blowback was still a warning about the possibility of America's morphing into a full-on empire, he was now writing about what he regarded as an accomplished fact. Or, as Johnson himself puts it:

In the wake of September 11, 2001, it no longer seems necessary to issue warnings; instead a diagnosis, even an autopsy, may be more appropriate. In my opinion, the growth of militarism, official secrecy, and a belief that the U.S. is no longer bound, as the Declaration of Independence so famously puts it, by "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind" is probably irreversible.

The United States, with its obsequious Congress and its docile press, is at this moment undergoing transition from a republic to an empire (or, in the usual euphemism, a "lone superpower")--a point crossed by ancient Rome just at the time of my own story. In that sense, it is very germane to my own work. But mainly I'm reading it to become a better-informed citizen of the world--a responsibility I take seriously.

So there you have it: an afternoon's reading by the writer.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

seek, and ye shall find

I'll be away for the next two days. I'll probably resume posting on Monday 27 August 2007.

Yesterday I played hookey from the blog. I started reading an article on the international situation, "America on the Downward Slope" by journalist Dilip Hiro, and found myself absorbed. Blog-writing time came and went.

I'm brimming with thoughts, with ideas and anxieties. They run in many different directions, and one of my challenges--a major challenge of my life--is to unify them, bring them into relationship with each other. My intuition is that if one's ideas and thoughts don't come into harmonious relationship with each other, one has not really found the core of one's being--one's true self. In some sense one is in a fragmented state, like somebody suffering with multiple personality disorder.

I search for causes. I look at things that interest me and ask why. In that way I am a scientist or a philosopher. But for a long time I have not been satisfied with the way scientists address problems--or perhaps I should say, have not been satisfied with the limits on the kinds of problems that scientists can address. Nor have I been satisfied with the assumptions under which scientists generally work.

For example, an obvious problem arises with the assumption that the world is made out of matter. For one thing, we have the experience of our minds, which are immaterial. And while we take it for granted in our everyday lives and in the way we run our society that we can make decisions and act on them--that is, that our minds can cause our bodies to do things--we have no scientific way of accounting for how matter can be influenced by mind. Matter requires physical energy to move it, and the mind is nonphysical. This is the classic mind-body problem, and it remains unanswered and mostly unaddressed by modern science.

This problem is considered the province of philosophy, but there has not been a good working answer in this field either. At least, not one that the practical, scientific world has been able to accept. Mainly in philosophy there have been attempts to clarify the problem, rather than solve it.

I think of this extract (compressed) from a work by John Dewey, the American educator, quoted in Campbell's Creative Mythology:

The shock and uncertainty so characteristic of the present marks the discovery that the older ideals themselves are undermined. Instead of science and technology giving us better means for bringing them to pass, they are shaking our confidence in all large and comprehensive beliefs and purposes.

It is psychologically natural that the outcome should be a collapse of faith in all fundamental organizing and directive ideas. Skepticism becomes the mark and even the pose of the educated mind. It is the more influential because it is no longer directed against this and that article of the older creeds but is rather a bias against any kind of far-reaching ideas, and a denial of systematic participation on the part of such ideas in the intelligent direction of affairs.

The popular philosophy of life is filled with desire to attain such an all-embracing unity, and formal philosophies have been devoted to an intellectual fulfillment of the desire. Consider the place occupied in popular thought by search for the meaning of life and the purpose of the universe. Men who look for a single purport and a single end either frame an idea of them according to their private desires and tradition, or else, not finding any such single unity, give up in despair and conclude that there is no genuine meaning and value of life's episodes.

The alternatives are not exhaustive, however. There is no need of deciding between no meaning at all and one single, all-embracing meaning. There are many meanings and many purposes in the situations with which we are confronted—one, so to say, for each situation.

Campbell concludes: "In sum: the individual is now on his own."

Dewey's words were published in 1931, and they still apply. When you're on your own, where do you find your answers?

Answer: wherever you can. I think about a question that has sometimes been asked me: How do you get to work in television? Or: how do you get a TV show on the air?

The truthful answer is: I don't know. I've done it myself, but there is no process, no recipe. I use the image of shipwrecked people swimming around a lifeboat that is already overcrowded. How do you get aboard? The people on board don't want you on there; they'll smash you with an oar if you try to climb in. You'll just have to think of something--or drown.

It's a joke. But like all jokes, it contains a kernel of truth. In reality I trust those spiritual teachers who say, "Seek, and ye shall find. Knock, and it shall be opened unto you." The real issue is not lack of answers, but lack of looking.

So I'm looking. That's my life.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, August 20, 2007


We're being buzzed by airplanes and helicopters; I know not why. I've shut my office window against the cool gray day, but I can still hear the rumbling tremolo of turbo-prop engines surge and fade overhead. It's another tributary of the ever-swelling river of noise pollution: lawnmowers, leaf-blowers, hedge-trimmers, power-washers, the car-horns of impatient and hypocritical motorists, the roar of supercharged diesel buses pulling away from the bus stop outside our house, plus a yapping pug a couple of doors down who barks continually from early morning till long after dark. More and more these days I find it necessary to use earplugs during the day as well as at night.

Noise is a stressor. I think not enough attention is paid to this in our plans and culture. I'm sure it is part of the positive-feedback loop of aggression and incivility that characterizes our urban world.

Just saw Kimmie off to work. She says there is a fire down on the harbor; so the aircraft are probably to do with that.

Noise has always been a fact or in urban life. In ancient Rome people wrote of how hard it was to sleep at night because of the noise--especially after a law was enacted banning commercial traffic from the streets till after dark, in order to reduce congestion during the day. Then the teamsters would roll in, delivering their loads from the docks, cracking their whips and shouting. Windows had shutters but not glass. I'm sure some people must have used wax earplugs even then.

So: another week begins. I'm having a filling drilled out this morning, to be replaced by a more comprehensive onlay--part of a series of escalating dental operations to fix a tooth that hurts when I bite on it too hard.

In and around all that, I have to be creative. It's by no means as bad as working in TV, when the health or sanity of the writers was the last consideration, and we were considered mere faucets, there to deliver a certain quantity of material at a certain rate--but there are still obstacles to creating, even in the supposed quiet of one's suburban home.

Labels: ,

Friday, August 17, 2007

thinking before acting

I continue to make my way through The Varieties of Religious Experience, the landmark book based on a series of lectures that William James delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901-02, as Gifford Lecturer on Natural Religion. The approach he decided on was to examine the psychology of personal religious experience: what are the feelings, thoughts, and acts that we call "religious", and what is their value?

With such a topic, everything depends on the qualities of the teacher. What are his own beliefs or prejudices? How tolerant and open-minded is he? What is the caliber of his intellect? For his thoughts to have any lasting value, he must not be pushing any private religious belief of his own; he must be wide open and tolerant of others' beliefs; and he must have a mind that is deep, subtle, sharp, and sympathetic.

William James is all of the above, in maximum degree. Hence this book, published in 1902, is still valuable and relevant today. Indeed, like any classic, it has the freshness of the present moment.

Two days ago I was reading lecture 18, "Philosophy", in which James, having covered much ground in earlier lectures on conversion, saintliness, and mysticism, addresses the conceptual content of religion: the power and value of religious ideas. With breathtaking brevity and assurance he sums up scholastic philosophy about God, then, as a tool to gauge the value of the ideas, he introduces the philosophical method known as pragmatism, first formulated in the 19th century by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. James encapsulates Peirce's idea as follows:

Thought in movement has for its only conceivable motive the attainment of belief, or thought at rest. Only when our thought about a subject has found its rest in belief can our action on the subject firmly and safely begin. Beliefs, in short, are rules for action; the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of active habits. If there were any part of a thought that made no difference in the thought’s practical consequences, then that part would be no proper element of the thought’s significance. To develop a thought’s meaning we need therefore only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce; that conduct is for us its sole significance. To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, we need then only consider what sensations, immediate or remote, we are conceivably to expect from it, and what conduct we must prepare in case the object be true.

As I read this paragraph, highlighter in hand, sitting in my soft leather occasional chair, I felt that I was arriving at a major station in my thinking career.

I had been exposed to the philosophy of pragmatism before. Indeed, my introduction to William James was via this philosophy, and the first book of his that I bought and read was Pragmatism, based on lectures given a few years after this series in Edinburgh. But this compressed summary of the philosophy, given as a preliminary to examining other ideas, struck me: it sank home.

Beliefs are rules for action. The whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of active habits.

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that I've spent my whole life thinking. Thinking and studying. Thinking is "thought in movement". I have been searching for beliefs, or "thought at rest". Without firm beliefs you can't take action. What would you do?

But it makes a huge difference what one believes. It's useless to have beliefs that lead us into mistaken or even catastrophic action. As Bertrand Russell said, "I don't want to die for my beliefs; I might be wrong." The personal convictions of George Bush an Tony Blair have not led them to take worthwhile actions, in my opinion--quite the opposite. History is a train-wreck of actions undertaken by people with strong but mistaken convictions.

So my lifelong "analysis paralysis" may not be a bad thing. The Hinayana view of Buddhism, as well as the Hippocratic oath, say it well: "First, do no harm." At least if you're sitting on a meditation cushion, anxious and confused about life, you're not making things any worse for your fellow beings.

Of course, I'm a living being and I do take action all the time--every moment of every day. But my action tends to be, more often than not, retreating to my soft chair, highlighter in hand, and opening another book...

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Write-o-phobia. There's probably a proper Greek name for the disorder, but this makes it nice and clear: fear of writing.

How does it happen? How do I get derailed from the march of progress, and then find that I can't get back at it? I'm not sure. You get out of the flow of writing each day, and then it seems awkward, even presumptuous, to try to get back into it. It's sort of like trying to reboard a moving train or a revolving merry-go-round: you stand poised, wanting to get on, letting the opportunities zip by, but worried about goofing up and getting flung away. You want to find the right rhythm and just hop aboard.

So I remain in the swamp of chapter 30, going through my research material, collating ever more of it, and asking questions. I've been here for over a month, and start to worry whether I'll ever get out. Aren't I just being too fussy? Just sit down and write, damn it!

Ah, but that's not my way. The pump has to be primed. There's no use in writing anything until you know what you're talking about. When a writer fully does his or her homework, the writing is rich and informative. We've all read material that's mainly fluff and flab, composed of wordy generalities and familiar images. I can't stand that, and I don't want to be the author of it.

I have found that there is no substitute for simply going through my research material, looking for promising facts. These facts--events of the time of my story, or cultural practices--can trigger ideas. They can feel potentially relevant. If so, I toy with them: I try to relate them to my story. How can this fact affect my story? It's sort of like trying jigsaw-puzzle pieces. "I think that's a piece of sky..."

But it's not so well defined as a jigsaw puzzle. There's no way of knowing whether I'm moving in a fruitful or relevant direction, except by the gut feeling I have. When will the "story" feeling click in? When will I get that feeling of excitement, of wind filling my sails? My Notes document now runs to 45 pages--how much is enough?

I'm the creator. I'm supposed to be the God of this project. How did it become the boss of me?

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

the music of time

My connection with the Buddhist sangha is maintained now through continuing monthly automatic withdrawals from my bank account. Even if I'm not currently (formally) practicing these teachings, I do believe in supporting them. As a result, I still receive copies of The Dot, "the quarterly newspaper of Shambhala", whose tag-line is "Nothing happens and we report it."

The autumn 2007 issue arrived yesterday in the mail. As I flipped through it while lying in bed, I felt pierced by feelings of recollection and nostalgia, as well as dissatisfaction and impatience. But I felt a jolt of surprise and recollection when I flipped to page 24 and found this headline: "Warrior in the World: David Nichtern".

I knew the name David Nichtern from 33 years ago, on the album cover of a record by Maria Muldaur. He was a guitarist, one of her musicians, and in fact the writer of her hit song, "Midnight at the Oasis". How many David Nichterns are there? The black-and-white photo accompanying the article: could that gray-haired guy in horn-rimmed glasses be the same as the ginger-haired, bearded young man on the album cover? Ye-e-es, it could: look at that faint, knowing, impish smile--that's the same, isn't it?

Indeed it was. I quickly saw "Midnight at the Oasis" mentioned in the article, and the fact that Nichtern has a career in music, as well as now being director of Buddhist studies and practice at OM Yoga in New York.

My gosh. Who knew? In 1974, when I was 15, "Midnight at the Oasis" was my favorite song, and I had a teen passion for Maria Muldaur, an olive-skinned, gypsyish beauty with a lovely warbling voice, a bit reminiscent of the folk singer Melanie. I would listen to the record and scan its jacket to learn what I could about its makers.

I noted that "Midnight at the Oasis", the only hit song on the album, was also the only song written by one of the musicians; the others (as I recall) were all covers--tunes like "My Tennessee Mountain Home" written by Dolly Parton. Why was that? I wondered.

I was fascinated by the phenomenon of writing--excited by the idea of writing as a basic creative act, which could take different directions: novel-writing, scriptwriting, songwriting, even writing computer programs. I was excited that all these different activities used that same creative verb, to write, and I wanted to do them all (and indeed have done them all). I wanted to be a writer in this total way.

My love of that song caused me to remember its creators, and I formed a kind of loose connection with it and them.

In 1980 I saw that Maria Muldaur was playing in Vancouver at a place called the Bombay Bicycle Club. Warren and I decided to go (he was able to fill me in on more information about Maria Muldaur--in particular that she had formerly performed in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in the 1960s). We sat at the bar of the little club and soaked up about three sets of Maria Muldaur at close range. To my astonishment and delight, between sets she made her way to the bar and sat right next to us. Indeed, she had to brush right by us, making Maria Muldaur the most famous person I've ever actually physically touched. She didn't look at us or communicate with us; she seemed very withdrawn, even depressed, and sat in her black outfit, flipping through a newspaper, head down. But on stage she radiated smiles, power, and excitement. And she sang "Midnight at the Oasis" twice.

Next, in the winter of 1983, I saw that guitarist Amos Garrett was playing at the Town Pump in Gastown. He too had played on Maria Muldaur's first solo album, and since I was then playing guitar in my own garage band, I decided to check him out. He put on an excellent, all-instrumental show with his band, introducing the numbers with fairly technical comments about their musical qualities and style, much to the delight of the other musicians in the house, of which I'm sure there were many. He would call out challenges to the audience such as, "can you name this riff?"--seeing whether anyone could identify a particular riff he was playing (someone could! It was B.B. King). Anyway, I was thrilled when he played an instrumental version of "Midnight at the Oasis", including his guitar solo which itself became famous, at least among guitarists. (I was intrigued that he played with finger-picks, not a flatpick, as most guitarists do--and felt particularly glad that I'd received finger-picking training from my first guitar teacher, Barry Hall.)

Later, when I had hooked up with Kimmie, I turned her on to the Maria Muldaur album, which she loved. She even thought that she would like to put one of its tracks ("Don't You Make Me High (Don't You Feel My Leg)") on her "stripper" tape--a slate of tracks she would like do strip-teases to: a life-long ambition of hers. More of that, perhaps, another time...

Then, of course, I got into my own Buddhist "career", and got away from music. And last night, seeing David Nichtern's name in that unexpected place, brought all these memories flooding back. There was a sense of connection, of intertwining, such as that suggested in the Anthony Powell novel-series, A Dance to the Music of Time.

There are some benefits to aging, and this is one: opportunities for this kind of threading-together of the strands of life. A dance indeed.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, August 13, 2007

surprise me

Robert McKee recommends that the storyteller pay attention to the way other people tell stories, not just in formal media like movies and novels, but in everyday life. For, he asserts, most human communication is storytelling, and we can find storytelling ability of all different grades and levels in our own immediate environment.

In my experience, it's true that most communication is storytelling. Think about any conversation. Usually there is some topic of discussion, typically something personal like, "A customer was incredibly rude to me today." After that topic sentence, a story follows--an anecdote of what happened, proving the assertion that a customer was indeed incredibly rude.

The story will usually have features that heighten the point being made, such as descriptions of the teller's exceptional efforts to be calm and reasonable, and to put the best possible construction on the customer's statements and actions. But no: it is revealed that the customer was indeed a jerk, and an injustice was perpetrated on the teller. With a final contemptuous insult, the Rude Customer leaves the store. The end.

Often, then, someone else will jump in on the topic of Rude People, and start narrating his own anecdote--how he, or someone he saw, was also a victim of gratuitous rudeness. In order to keep the conversation at least slightly interesting, this story will have to be different enough from the first one: either a greater level of rudeness, or a different type of rudeness.

Most people do not tell stories very well. For one thing, I think it's a sign of storytelling weakness to start with the them or moral of a story--like the aforementioned "a customer was rude to me today". The relegates your story to being a mere illustration of a point you've already made, and which the listener might well be prepared to take on credit, without having it proved in a story. This might even be a bit patronizing, unless the rudeness in question was really outside the bounds of normal experience--as though you were saying, "I expect you don't believe me, so I'll prove it to you."

In a story like this, the only surprise is usually in discovering the specific act or acts of rudeness mentioned at the top, which usually is not much of a surprise. A better storyteller always delivers a bigger surprise.

In storytelling, surprise is all. The storyteller's duty to the audience is to deliver surprises--the bigger, the better; the more numerous, the better.
How do you surprise people? You lead them to expect something--then give them something else.

This is always possible, for we must always use expectation to manage our lives. We are aware of patterns in life, and make use of this knowledge in order to get things done. We develop expectations, which usually work. The storyteller makes use of this tendency to deliver surprises.

In the rudeness anecdote, one way to help it along would be not to "telegraph" its intent by announcing at the beginning what your message is. The more skilled storyteller will simply start narrating the story--and will do so in a way that leads our expectations. The story might start with the entry of an elderly man who is handsome and well-dressed, making a favorable impression. Then he swears at the storyteller, snapping the image, surprising the storyteller at the time, and now the listeners later. The "message" of the story comes out not at the beginning, but at the climax: "people can be surprisingly and gratuitously rude!" or "I was the victim of unprovoked rudeness!"

That's a simple example. Notice how more talented storytellers are able to disguise where the story is headed, to deflect attention from certain things that turn out to be important. This is exactly the same way that magicians create their illusions--by directing attention away from where the surprise is being built.

I invite you to listen to yourself and others telling stories over the next day or so. What are the stories like? What is their message? How engaging and well-told are they? How might they be improved? What makes the better ones better?

For the would-be professional storyteller, this should be an ongoing task.


Friday, August 10, 2007

making it believable

Plotting is fiddly. I spent my (admittedly abbreviated) writing-time yesterday continuing to tinker with the creation and arrangement of events in the chapter I'm working on. It always strikes me as strange how difficult it can be to find a sequence of events that later will seem natural and inevitable.

This is how it struck me even when plotting stories for The Odyssey. How do you decide what happens in a story? There aren't really any rules; as a writer, a storyteller, you apparently have infinite choice. How about this? How about that? How do you choose?

The story must flow to my own satisfaction. I have to believe it before I can ask anyone else to believe it; and I'm a pretty skeptical person. The more you know of the world, and the more you know of people, the less likely it is you'll be ready to swallow something that doesn't seem realistic.

I find myself easily put off by implausibilities in a drama. I very much enjoyed the first season of 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland, but found myself smiling wryly at the seamless interoperability of all the different computer systems--how the antiterrorism team could speedily link into civilian data systems and whatnot and get the information they wanted. Anyone who's ever seen a computer being used knows that this is pure fantasy; you're lucky if things that have been designed to work together actually do. I would have been much more pulled in to the show if the high-tech, expensive information systems worked only very intermittently. I would have felt more that I was watching a real story unfold, and less like I was watching actors play with make-believe props.

Then there is the matter of character decisions. When these become too contrived or foolhardy, you have "idiot plot"--a story based on decisions that no thinking adult would actually do. These are the scenes in which the lone woman agrees to meet with the villain on a dark road at night and so on. I remember watching E.T. when it came out. The scene in which the little boy, wanting to catch a glimpse of the unknown creature, parks himself out in the yard at night on a chaise longue with a flashlight, was one I could not believe. It's too flipping scary--it's not how real nine-year-olds behave.

I recall too a hole in a movie I recently watched again, and which I regard as basically good: Tin Men, a show about aluminum-siding salesmen in Baltimore in 1959, starring Danny De Vito, Richard Dreyfuss, and Barbara Hershey. This time it hit me that Richard Dreyfuss, in the course of seducing Barbara Hershey, tells her that his wife has just died (he's never been married). Later, they move in together--but we never see her learning that his "widower" line was a lie. Even if she was indeed able to swallow this, we would have to see Dreyfuss talk his way out of it.

Then there's the integrity of the setting itself. I recall my mother's criticism of Melrose Place after she's seen an episode: "That's not how people in offices behave." Indeed not. The scenes could be believed only by those who had either never had a job, or were naive enough to think that people working in "glamor" jobs such as fashion photography or publishing never concern themselves with practical things. The sets may as well have been painted backdrops against which the audience could watch attractive people betray each other (the purpose of the show, as far as I know).

Movies, TV, and even novels are full of devices that clearly are unreal--cars that start too easily, unlocked doors, ventilation ducts you can crawl though. All these things erode the credibility of a story. They mark places, in my opinion, where the writer could not be bothered to imagine things properly. The writer reached for a cliche, slothfully thinking that it would be accepted because it had already been accepted so many times before.

I can't stand that. For me, a scene must ring true in every detail--in setting and in character. Cheating with these things for the "sake of the story" does not work. All you're doing is making your story bad. There may be reasons for doing so--time constraints, the network is ordering you to, or you just can't be bothered--but don't kid yourself that it doesn't matter to the quality of the product.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, August 09, 2007

the gestating virgin

Yesterday I finally had time to take up cudgels again for writing my book. It was one of my least-favorite kinds of writing sessions: one in which I struggle to recollect the threads of what I'm working on. Eventually I realized that, after my break of several days, I just could not remember what my thoughts and intentions were with respect to my current chapter (30). Nothing for it but to go back and read the (highlighted portions of) my Word notes.

The notes document for chapter 30 now runs to 35 pages. When chapter notes get long like this, I become anxious. Admittedly, the first 13 pages of notes are mostly extracts from research texts. That still means over 20 pages of actual cogitation-and-creation notes.

Mind you, the overall quality of these notes is high (take my word for it). In my effort to understand what drives my characters, I must dig. And dig, and dig.

"Oh, pshaw!" you might say. "A character's motivation is just whatever you make it. Decide on one, and go! Don't talk in that quaint way about 'discovering' the motives of a character, as though he were a real person. You've said yourself that characters aren't real people."

Yes, true. I've been skeptical of this kind of talk from writers, which is finally a form of pathetic fallacy, I think. I remember reading a nonfiction work by the novelist John Fowles, in which he described working on The French Lieutenant's Woman. He said that when he was writing a scene for his character Charles, he had the strong feeling that Charles wanted to diverge from his path and go down to knock on the cottage door of the heroine. Fowles declared that it was a real, definite feeling of intent coming from the character--that was how he experienced it.

Yeah, right, I thought.

I was already a writer myself by then, and not had any such experience--at least, nothing so definite. Of course, I never had a very clear idea of what the hell I was doing in any case. But my suspicions about this Frankensteinian moment of the composite character suddenly rising from the laboratory bench are backed up by Robert McKee in his Story:

Research from memory, imagination, and fact is often followed by a phenomenon that authors love to describe in mystical terms: Characters suddenly spring to life and of their own free will make choices and take actions that create Turning Points that twist, build, and turn again until the writer can hardly type fast enough to keep up with the outpourings.

This "virgin birth" is a charming self-deception writers love to indulge in, but the sudden impression that the story is writing itself simply marks the moment when a writer's knowledge of the subject has reached the saturation point. The writer becomes the god of his little universe and is amazed by what seems to be spontaneous creation, but is in fact the reward for hard work.

To discover what drives a character, you need to know his world, for that is what he is responding to. It's an ecological task: to understand how the animal functions within its environment, for the two go together. The cheetah is an animal of the African savanna; it can't function in the Arctic or in the Arabian desert. It is what it is, and behaves as it behaves, because of the environment in which it exists.

Finding this level of authority for a remote historical period is, of course, difficult. But I find, as I keep at it, that insights do come. Gradually, gradually, my main characters start emerging from the fog of potentiality into the clear outline of specificness. As I learn--or decide--something definite about my world, my characters acquire something toward which they can have an attitude, and thus define themselves.

In fairness to myself, I've made a lot of progress in the last month in understanding more about my world. While the historian and the archaeologist have to refrain from making positive statements beyond what the evidence permits, and so leave their picture of the world frustratingly vague, the storyteller must commit. Nothing can be a maybe; the finished picture will be the result of countless definite choices.

My finished world will be in high-definition, and so will my characters. And look how long it took us to get high-definition TV.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

looking for answers

Back to the routine of work. The B.C. Day long weekend is over, and also Kimmie's extra day off yesterday, giving us a mini-vacation in this glorious time of summer. Again, the city became deserted on the long weekend, making it all the more pleasant to remain here.

Yesterday the weather turned to overcast and cool drizzle, and we had a visit from Warren, my scriptwriting collaborator. He is en route with his family to Hong Kong, where his wife has been posted for two or three years with the British bank HSBC. It's been two years since I last saw him, and it may be two or three before I see him again. Thus does globalization reach into our mundane lives.

Since my travels are now in the mind, I'm happy to stay in one place. I've been reading in Hellenistic Religions: An Introduction by Luther H. Martin that the Hellenistic period--which is the period of my story--was a time of wandering. People traveled and drifted. A powerful new goddess, widely worshipped, with temples in many cities, was Fortune--whom we now know as Lady Luck. People saw their lives as buffeted by the unpredictable winds of luck. Like us, they saw themselves as sandwiched between chance and necessity: driven by mechanical forces beyond their control, and also subject to continual random rolls of the dice. Even the gods were seen as subject to the same forces.

We live in a similar period, with similar ideas. Our term globalization would have been familiar to Alexander the Great, and indeed this was his aim: to unite the (known) world under a single benign government, united by the universal adoption of what he regarded as the world's best culture--the Greek.

Our scientific ideas are also, again, the same. We imagine the world to be driven on the one hand by mechanical, deterministic forces (classical physics), and on the other to be the product of purely and ultimately random events (quantum physics, evolutionary theory). While our laws and societies and personal lives are built around the notion of choice, freedom, and individual responsibility, we have no scientific way of accounting for such ideas. We see ourselves as mechanical, random machines that are also, paradoxically, free and goal-oriented.

This dog's breakfast of beliefs would also have been familiar to the denizens of the Hellenistic world. It was an individualistic society, as ours is, in which people felt increasingly alienated and estranged from the centers of life. The questions were rising in the human soul: what to value, and why?

These questions are still with us, of course. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said that life does not provide us with answers; life asks the questions, and we provide the answers. It doesn't make finding them any easier, but I suppose it changes the direction of the search. We can wander the earth, but we need to look within.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, August 03, 2007

on showing off

To think that when I started this blog I was worried that I would not have enough ideas for posts! I used to keep a Word file of possible post ideas, in case I dried up. Now I positively enjoy coming to my post with a blank mind, even if I do have to sit here staring at the screen for a few minutes before finally starting to type.

My approach is just to open up my Word document (I no longer compose my posts in Blogger, since there is a problem with the way typed text shows up slowly there), clear out the previous day's post, and let my mind wander to my book. Even if I haven't really been working on it, what are my thoughts?

In truth, though, I am working on it, even if it is just in the form of research. In this area I feel I do follow Goethe's personal motto, "without haste, and without rest". There's no getting around the fact that if you're writing about a remote time and place, you've got a lot of learning to do first. Otherwise your work will be amateurish and unconvincing.

The historical novelist must necessarily face the problem of the tour de force--a literary phenomenon that I'm generally skeptical and disapproving of.

What do I mean?

Webster's defines tour de force thus:

tour de force : a feat of strength, skill, or ingenuity

My idea of a literary tour de force is a story that involves persons and places remote from the writer's experience. This would be those stories in which a man narrates a story in the voice of a woman, or vice versa, or a European sets his story in an African village. It's not that I have anything intrinsically against it--and I deplore the concept of, what's it called, can't think of the name...the criticism that for a white writer to write a black character is paternalistic...cultural appropriation? Seems I've successfully dismissed that concept from my mind.

I have nothing against that in principle, but my question is: why would you want to do it? Why does a Dane need to write about a Nigerian village? I can't help but feel that at least part of the answer is: showing off.

Showing off is a bad motivation for a writer, in my opinion. I've had a lot of that motivation in my writing life, and maybe I still do. It's not something I'm happy about.

And yet I do think that both self-esteem and ambition are necessary for a good writer. John Milton, before writing Paradise Lost, said that he wanted to create a work that people would not willingly let die. No doubt Dante and Tolstoy and Melville must have had fevers of ambition in writing their masterpieces. But I don't think this is the same as showing off. What's the difference?

Showing off has as its primary motivation the desire to impress and draw admiration and praise. The ego needs of the writer are placed ahead of the meaning of the work itself; the work is subservient to the writer's ego. Just like the showoff child, who aims to grab attention by any which means, you're making demands on people's attention without fully earning it. Instead of moving people and seeking to enrich their souls, you're tying to get them to say, "wow".

So if you're a proud, ambitious writer, the proper way to exercise your abilities is in tackling a project of suitable size and importance (Dante, Tolstoy, Melville). If you pull it off, people will indeed be impressed, but they will be impressed by the depth and scope and power of your message--not by your tricks. The Divine Comedy is 100 cantos of a verse form known as terza rima, structured in three equal parts, each devoted to one of the zones of the nonterrestrial cosmos: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. It is a poetically conceived map of the universe, structured as an epic journey by a visionary poet conscious of his unique cosmic mission. There is no lack of ambition or self-esteem in Dante's work, but the work itself demands these from its creator, and its message is worth it.

But if I, a man born and raised in Vancouver, sat down to write a story from the point of view of, say, a little girl growing up in Texas, what the hell would I be doing? Even if I could pull it off, why am I pulling it off?

To show off.

The historical novelist is taking on a burden that is not dissimilar in some ways. One excuse we have is that there are no living writers who are in a better position than oneself to write about a bygone age. There are women in Texas who are better placed than I am to write about their childhood there, but there is no one who is better placed to write about the ancient world.

But in my opinion the "research overhead" of a historical novel means that it should have something important to say. The writer who's writing a trivial story set in Elizabethan times is, I think, guilty of the tour de force syndrome: he or she is showing off. Yes, maybe you love the Elizabethan period and happen to know a lot about it, but, I don't know...there should be a reason for setting a story in a certain time and place. It shouldn't just be about local color, trying to elevate your pedestrian story with an exotic setting.

Readers of this blog know that I have plenty of anxiety about the scope and nature of my project. I don't doubt its importance, so it's not mere showing off. As for whether I can actually execute the idea, well, time will tell. I'm guessing it wasn't easy for Dante, Tolstoy, or Melville either.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, August 02, 2007

boneless tongues

I probably need to make a lifestyle adjustment in order to get back to writing. As time goes on, I will need to make a regular place for paying work, and right now that's sitting right smack in my usual writing period of the day. In the past I have bumped my writing period to first thing in the morning, over my morning coffee, but this is not my preference; it has the flavor of duress. Of course the problem of creation vs. earning has always been central to many artists' lives.

In some sense I'm not (yet) too exercised about my long tarrying at chapter 30, since the problems I have been tussling with in it--and solving--reach far beyond the confines of that chapter. On the other hand, no matter how slowly this train moves, I don't feel comfortable when it's just sitting at the station.

For the time being, over my morning coffee, I'm keying notes from A Study of History, volume 1, by Arnold J. Toynbee, and from A History of Israel, volume 1, by Theodore H. Robinson. I continually ingest more research books and convert these slowly into typed notes for myself. I suppose this process will not end until I have polished my last draft for the last time. Indeed, the only thing that will probably end it will be the taking up of reading for my next project, whatever that might be.

Yes, folks, I love reading. I always have loved it, and a day in which I don't read is both rare and, for me, feels rather wasted. I feel that I've cheated myself of what I love the most.

When I was first exposed to Buddhist thought while traveling in 1979--in the form of books, of course: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and The Way of Zen by Alan Watts--I discovered that conceptual knowledge, the kind derived from books, can never lead one to an accurate relationship with reality. I found this to be both liberating and disappointing. Liberating, because it seemed to confirm a sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction in trying to learn the truth from books. Disappointing, because I felt that what I had always loved to do was now, in some sense, a waste of time.

This tension followed me in the ensuing years. When I took up meditation in 1986 I learned again that enlightenment can never be attained conceptually; it can only be a matter of direct experience. Nonetheless, the meditation center offered courses in which books were studied, and this type of study was encouraged. I latched on to it and studied dharma books--along with my regular diet of reading, which I never gave up.

Luckily, as I progressed in my Buddhist practice and studies, I became more relaxed about the role of reading. While concepts were still regarded as a faulty and incomplete way of knowing, they were still essential for the student. The real problem was in clinging to concepts: solidifying them as "true" and thereby creating stumbling-blocks for oneself.

I remember attending a dharma talk given by the late Tibetan teacher Jamgon Kongtrul in Vancouver. He was a young man (soon to die in a car crash in India). As I recall, the teachings were on the bardo--the "in-between" state that we inhabit between successive births. In the Tibetan teachings, a number of vivid, phantasmagoric events happens to us in this state. The question came up as to whether such experiences were real or not.

Jamgon Kongtrul responded that "these experiences are beyond duality, so you can call them real or unreal, just as you please."

This struck me. On the one hand it seemed annoying and irritating that there was not a clear answer as to whether something was real or not. But on the other, I felt power being placed in my hands--in the hands of all of us. Whether we call something real or not, in any given situation, is for us to decide. How we term things, how we see them, how we choose to respond, is a power that always lies with us. Even "reality" is situational: something that is useful in one moment, but not in the next.

I recalled another thing I had read, a commentary by some Zen master on the enigmatic statements of another master: "His tongue has no bone." At first it was a baffling image, but soon it clicked: our boneless tongues can move any which way. They're not constrained or forced by anything; they are not limited; they are free. Free to say "real" one moment, and "unreal" the next.

When I was at the shedra or monastic college at Gampo Abbey in 2002 I did lots of reading and writing--more than I did meditating. There we were taught to regard study itself as a practice, like meditation, undertaken with discipline and a certain attitude. We were still taught that a buddha's mind is free of concepts, like a cloudless sky. But I was and I remain skeptical of this. As far as I was concerned, if a buddha was using words, he was using concepts. It seemed to me people were too eager to usher concepts out the door, like unwanted relatives at a party.

But then again, what does it matter? We can call them concepts or not, just as we please.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

more on novel openings

Yesterday I visited my mother for our weekly lunch--two days early, since she has a doctor's appointment on Thursday. As usual, we talked about books and writing, and looked at some novel openings.

A few themes are starting to emerge from these researches. Less-than-excellent openings tend to have flaws (in my opinion) that fall into certain categories. Of course, what constitutes a flaw might vary according to who is doing the reading. I have determined that my supreme value in fiction-writing (and narrative nonfiction-writing) is story: the flow of events which the work depicts or describes. I believe that all other aspects of writing--description, tone, characterization--are subordinate to story, and should be structured so as to help the story along.

Of course this is only a general rule; there is plenty of room for exceptions.)

Yesterday Mom and I agreed that we mainly liked the opening of Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence. But the opening sentence and paragraph themselves are actually rather bland and uninteresting:

Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen sat one morning in the window-bay of their father's house in Beldover, working and talking. Ursula was stitching a piece of brightly-coloured embroidery, and Gudrun was drawing upon a board which she held on her knee. They were mostly silent, talking as their thoughts strayed through their minds.

As I observed to Mom yesterday, this is written almost like a screenplay: a quick bit of scene-setting, which in this case if feels like the writer wants to get out of the way so he can dive into what interests him. The setting does not suggest any special tension or interest in the scene.

Contrast the opening of Kim by Rudyard Kipling:

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher--the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that "fire-breathing dragon," hold the Punjab; for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot.

This opener is, admittedly, chewy reading: too many foreign terms for my taste, all at once. (Zam-Zammah is apparently Persian, meaning something like "conqueror of all".) The prose itself is unrhythmic and reads a bit like a police or military report; the narrator's reference to the cannon as "her" suggests his military background. But right in the first sentence there is tension, since "he" (who will turn out to be Kim) is sitting astride the gun--an unusual posture--"in defiance of municipal orders". And Kim's "holding" of the gun implies that he "holds" the entire Punjab--he has made himself a conqueror. All in the first two sentences.

By comparison, two sisters sitting "working and talking" is flaccid. But Lawrence moves quickly on to a dialogue between the sisters, about their attitudes to marriage, which shows them to have conflicting views. Gudrun can't believe that Ursula is not interested in marriage, and presses her to admit that she is, at heart. It's an interesting conflict that characterizes the two girls distinctly right away. This admittedly gentle conflict has the feeling of story: it's action under tension that feels like it's going somewhere.

Of yesterday's crop, though, I would probably award the palm to A Buyer's Market, book 2 in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time series:

The last time I saw any examples of Mr. Deacon's work was at a sale, held obscurely in the neighbourhood of Euston Road, many years after his death. The canvases were none of them familiar, but they recalled especially, with all kind of other things, dinner at the Walpole-Wilsons', reviving with a jerk that phase of early life. They made me think of long-forgotten conflicts and compromises between the imagination and the will, reason and feeling, power and sensuality; together with many more specifically personal sensations, experienced in the past, of pleasure and of pain. Outside, the spring weather was cool and sunny: Mr. Deacon's favourite season of the year. Within doors, propped against three sides of a washstand, the oil-paintings seemed, for some reason, appropriate to those surroundings, dusty, though not displeasing; even suggesting, in their way, the kind of home Mr. Deacon favoured for himself and his belongings: the sitting-room over the shop, for example, informal, not too permanent, more than a trifle decayed. His haunts, I remembered, had bordered on these northern confines of London.

The narrator strolls into his story; no lurid shockers, no desperate attention-grabbers here. The narrator is treating us as adults, capable of mature perception and reflection, able to appreciate the subtleties of memory and association, and the way objects and sensations can awaken powerful feelings from the past. The intelligence and perceptiveness of the narrator inclines us to extend him credit, and trust that his discussion of the unknown artist Mr. Deacon is leading somewhere significant. If you have something important to say, you don't need to rush.

There's much more to be said about these things--but I have to get on with my day!

Labels: , ,