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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, September 14, 2007

the lion's roar

According to Joseph Campbell, religion begins with art. Before there is any such thing as a church, or a priest, or a prophet, there is the poet: the sensitive soul to whom comes inspiration, a vision, an experience, and the capacity to give it expression.

If the poet's words evoke a similar inspiration in others, then there is the possibility of the spread of a spiritual idea. Depending on how powerful and infectious this original idea is, there is the possibility of institutionalization: the development of a social structure based on the idea. A sect is born, which may possibly, depending on many factors, grow into a religion.

One of the points that Campbell makes in his Masks of God tetralogy is that in our modern age the traditional institutional religions have lost their inspiring force. In the Christian West this loss of inspiration was already happening in the 12th century, just when the cities of Europe were throwing up cathedrals to exalt the God that everyone said they believed in. But the most sensitive souls of the time, the poets, recognized in their own hearts that the forms of Christianity, then more than 1,000 years old, had ceased to inspire educated people. The rites had become a mere routine, and the pulse of genuine life and meaning had to be sought elsewhere.

Where? God was dead. Where was the living water of spiritual value to be found?

This sought-for spiritual life, according to Campbell, became symbolized as the Holy Grail, and the new spiritual story that could excite modern imaginations and rouse modern hearts was the quest. This vision was articulated not by priests, schooled in an already institutionalized faith, and not by prophets, proclaiming the words of a god already known, but by poets, sensitive to their own experience and their own genuine perception of value. They were not professing a creed, not repeating words given them by others; they wrote about what they truly thought and felt. They looked into their own hearts and reported back.

In this way a work of art can turn into a rite: a structured experience that leads one to particular feelings and insights. The architecture and services of a church are intended to have this effect. Originally it certainly does (or the church could not survive), but over time it becomes stale. Endless repetition of the same experience loses its living force, and boredom sets in. It becomes mere duty, habit.

Speaking for myself, I can say that certain works of art--especially novels--have acted as rites for me. The single most powerful instance was reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce when I was 18. I did not understand conceptually what I was going through while reading it, but it was emotionally powerful and undeniable. I experienced the power of language, of poetry, to reconfigure my soul. As with any effective rite, it changed me; I was a changed person, a deeper person, on finishing that book. It initiated me into the sensibility of a poet, and passed to me some of the mental and emotional tools I would need if I were to take up that calling. It showed me how to open to the creative life, how to be an artist.

In Vajrayana Buddhism there is an expression: "The lion's roar is fearless". The lion's roar is the truth. A tyrant can kill 10 million people but cannot scratch the truth. Each of us can die and will, but the truth cannot be killed. Fear of death, though, has us cringing from the truth--hiding, concealing, denying, avoiding. The artist, when he or she is true to his or her vocation, embraces the truth as he or she finds it--and proclaims it, whatever the consequences. That is the lion's roar, sending a shock and a shiver of alertness through all the other creatures within earshot.

This vocation is supremely worth following, wherever it leads. Like any sacred thing, it must be kept pure. It is a desecration to use it for petty motives of social or financial gain. That is the artist's equivalent of simony.

Right. On with it.


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