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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

musings on a dark, rainy fall morning

Back to the task. Kimmie returns to work today. The mornings are dark a long time now after 5:30, when our alarm goes off. I hear the distant jingling of our front-door chimes buffeted in the predawn autumn wind.

My project, my story, is morphing out from under me. As I learn more, throw open more doors to the vaults of the deep past, my world enlarges and changes the journey of my heroes. Not fundamentally--I'm in far too deep to make a radical story-change now. But it's more like discovering things that were already here: connections, meanings, possibilities. I feel I have the opportunity to replace certain arbitrary elements, which I'm never very happy about, with elements that reflect the growing meaning of my story. In this way a controlling idea very gradually emerges, like a shipwreck being floated gingerly from the bottom of the ocean.

My reading about the cults of the Roman Empire--the exotic religions brought into it by its foreign traders and captives--is throwing tremendous new light on the way I see that world. I sometimes wonder (and worry) about the fact that I'm coming across this information so late in my journey, but in general I trust the timing of the arrival of information. This trust seems to be borne out time and again by the coincidental arrival of complementary information from different sources. I read about the Egyptian religion of Isis, which became widespread in the Roman world, in a book devoted to her cult, only to open a chapter of Toynbee's A Study of History to find him discussing Isis and Osiris (he conjectures that this brother-sister, husband-wife, mother-son duo represents a transformation of the more ancient cult of Ishtar and Tammuz in Sumer). These simultaneous linkages between widely different sources happen a lot for me, and tend to confirm the path I'm on, and the way I'm traveling it. It's like just-in-time delivery of manufacturing parts, except the parts here are ideas or pieces of knowledge.

If my "building blocks" are arriving just in time, that must mean I'm assembling things at the right pace--painfully slow though that seems to me. (I find it embarrassing to be asked about the progress of my work, since its progress is almost imperceptible, even to me. Pluto seems to orbit the Sun faster.)

Even in Chalmers Johnson's latest book, Nemesis, about the disintegration of the American republic, I have a very good short summary of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic, which also dovetails with my other research, even though I'm reading it to learn more about current events and not for my project. The parallels between Rome and the U.S. are striking, and give me a feeling of relevance in what I'm doing.

Supposedly Harry Truman said that the only news is the history you don't know. I'm sure that's true. History is made generally by the ignorant and purblind, those who believe they're acting in an original way but who are in fact merely duplicating the actions of others taken long before, most often with disastrous results. It's a truism to say that history repeats itself, and it never actually does, quite. But the hallmark of intelligence is the ability to see a pattern where the less intelligent see only chaos.

Mind you, that's also the hallmark of paranoia.

One of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, I think it was Live and Let Die, had as an epigraph this little saying:

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.

According to Toynbee, since the beginning of civilization societies have evolved according to one overarching pattern: growth; stagnation into a "time of troubles"; the rise of a pacifying "universal state"; and a final rupture and disintegration due to the combined agitation of a disenfranchised "internal proletariat" and a hostile and opportunistic "external proletariat" of barbarians beyond the civilization's frontier. Although I have not yet finished reading his Study of History, Toynbee so far reckons that our own civilization (which he calls Western Christendom) entered its "time of troubles" in the 16th century with the bitter and fratricidal European Wars of Religion. Since the 20th century was even more disastrous and bloodthirsty, it seems safe to say we're not out of the time of troubles yet. Indeed, they have to get so bad, in Toynbee's view, that people are generally relieved to acquiesce in living under the aegis of a universal state, like Rome under the Empire.

We don't seem to be there yet, which means that things are set to get continually worse. The U.S. administrations since World War 2 have set their sights on becoming the next universal state. But their chances of success are, in my opinion, poor. I expect this century to be worse than the 20th century in terms of human suffering, and that much of it will be linked to catastrophic environmental change. If Toynbee's historical cycle is still functioning after we go through that wringer, it's anyone's guess who might be strong and coherent enough to provide a peaceful universal state for the survivors to recuperate in.

Whew, this morning's even darker than I thought.


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