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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

inquiring minds

It snowed again overnight, so I went out first thing again to shovel. There was less snow than yesterday, but I found the job harder, mainly I think because of the unaccustomed work for certain muscles--surprisingly, my thigh muscles. Then it was inside again to make the coffee and start keying research notes.

It feels as though my study has, if anything, intensified over the past few weeks. No doubt study, like everything else in life, follows a basic pattern of alternating movement and rest. You feel yourself in motion, trying to learn something, trying to understand something, and conscious of the fact that you're not there yet. At some point you understand. Something clicks and you get it. A light goes on, and you achieve a state of rest or tranquility. If you were rock-climbing, this would be a ledge--a place to stand or rest between stretches of scaling vertical rock.

This image is not bad, because it emphasizes the partial or provisional nature of the insights gained along the way. The rock-climber can't hang around forever on the ledge; he has to get going again to the next station on his journey up. Only at the summit is the task finished.

Sometimes, to me, it feels as though the ledges are few and the vertical stretches of rock are long. Long, long. Whenever I "arrive" anywhere in my studies, I'm conscious of how most of what I want to know remains obscure, unaddressed.

Maybe that's because the question that interests me most is the last and hardest one of the five that journalists are supposed to be concerned with: who, what, where, when, and why. Any of those questions can be a mystery, but the last one, why, tends to be the biggest mystery. Answering that question depends mainly on the questioner's notion of what constitutes an answer. When do you regard something as explained?

It's the philosopher's question. Even a simple version of it opens up avenues. Why do I live in North Vancouver? Well, I grew up here. All right, but is that a reason to live here now? Well, I actually left North Vancouver when my family moved from it in 1977, and I returned here to live with my girlfriend, who happened to have an apartment here. We kept living here because, in part, we were working here. From another point of view you could say that I live here because I bought a house here in 1987, and once you've bought a place, you need a good reason to sell out and leave. Or at least, I need a good reason--put that down to my character. Looking back further, you could say that I live here because my parents, both unlikely immigrants to Vancouver in the 1950s, happened to get together and at some point chose to move to North Vancouver, imprinting this place as my home.

More than the other questions, the question why requires a sense of purpose or direction on the part of the questioner: you need to know what kind of an answer you're looking for. In short, it points back to the question of why the questioner is asking this question! It's a two-edged question.

I suppose that the main reason my research seems endless is that the question I'm always most interested in is this why. It's the question that keeps on breeding offspring. And the answers you accept reveal your belief system: they show up your mythology.

An example: I'm reading Sven Lindqvist's excellent little book "Exterminate All the Brutes", an investigation into the phenomenon of genocide. He mentions the mass deaths of natives that resulted from the incursion of Europeans in the Americas. Lindqvist says that when the 16th-century British asked why so many Indians had died in South and Central America, the answer was not far to seek: the cruelty and bloodthirstiness of the Spanish. Then, when Indians died in vast numbers in North America as a result of contact with the British, a different explanation had to be found: divine intervention. God was clearing the land for the European settlers.

The explanation--the answer to why--depends sensitively on one's already existing beliefs, and also on one's level of objectivity and maturity. Once you become aware of these factors, it becomes hard to answer the question why satisfactorily. Am I just reaching for an easy prejudice? Am I accepting a cover story? Am I simply justifying my own selfishness? These are all likely possibilities.

In psychology, why is known as a hostile question. Usually, when someone asks us why we've done or said something, there is an element of challenge: we're being asked to account for ourselves. The implication is that our behavior needs accounting for, and that our challenger--our accuser--has a right to this account. It's a "scientific" attack: instead of saying that I don't like what you did, I call on you to justify it, leaving my own motive unstated. There's a sense of ambush.

I suppose the question why is a kind of attack, even when made not on a person but on the world. It's a challenge to the world to provide an answer--and the world pushes back: "who wants to know?"

Well, I want to know.

And who are you?

Hmm. Good one...

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  • "And the answers you accept reveal your belief system: they show up your mythology." I liked the phrase.

    "Usually, when someone asks us why we've done or said something, there is an element of challenge: we're being asked to account for ourselves." I agree with this. The Why question encourages one to think.

    By Blogger Liza, at February 03, 2008 12:58 AM  

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