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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

the interior battleground


Now in all of us, however constituted, but to a degree the greater in proportion as we are intense and sensitive and subject to diversified temptations, and to the greatest possible degree if we are decidedly psychopathic, does the normal evolution of character chiefly consist in the straightening out and unifying of the inner self. The higher and the lower feelings, the useful and the erring impulses, begin by being a comparative chaos within us--they must end by forming a stable system of functions in right subordination. Unhappiness is apt to characterize the period of order-making and struggle. If the individual be of tender conscience and religiously quickened, the unhappiness will take the form of moral remorse and compunction, of feeling inwardly vile and wrong, and of standing in false relations to the author of one's being and appointer of one's spiritual fate. This is the religious melancholy and "conviction of sin" that have played so large a part in the history of Protestant Christianity. The man's interior is a battleground for what he feels to be two deadly hostile selves, one actual, the other ideal.

I typed those words, first spoken in 1901, yesterday from William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience. I was struck yet again with his powers of perception and his ability to summarize complex and profound aspects of life, and dish it all up in a single paragraph.

As I typed, I remembered my feeling when I highlighted the passage while reading it last spring: I recognized myself in his words. And I cannot but feel that he must have been describing himself as well, having survived the soul-conflicts of youth to look back on them as a unified soul of age 59 or 60 (he will have had his birthday in the course of the lecture series).

As an astrologer, my first thought is that it's simple to distinguish these psychological or spiritual types by looking at the birth chart. The conflicted soul James describes is one whose chart is dominated by squares and oppositions: planets in stressful aspect, indicating psychological or instinctual drives in conflict--people for whom, as he says moments later:

spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles, wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.

At least, that's the most visible case. Astrologically, this would be the person with squares in the so-called cardinal signs--Aries, Cancer, Libra, Capricorn--which express themselves more impulsively and spontaneously than the other signs. For them the "war between spirit and flesh" will be acted out physically and dynamically, with real and obvious casualties--more like World War 2 than, say, the Cold War, which might be how the "war" manifests in the life of one, like myself, dominated by the "fixed" signs: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, Aquarius. The conflict here is relatively hidden and quiet, but nonetheless real and still behavior-determining. More like arm-wrestling than like ice hockey.

I'm glad that I've not had a life of outward chaos, like, say, Britney Spears, famous now for for a life of wayward impulses, misdemeanors, and mistakes. But those conflicting, tectonic forces of the soul have always been at work in me, and still are.

If unhappiness characterizes the period of order-making and struggle, and much of one's life is given over to order-making and struggle, then--well, you fill in the blank.

Not that my life has been unhappy--far from it. I would say that I've led a happier life than most people (no way of measuring this, of course), even if I have spent much or all of it wrestling with contraries in the soul. It has led to a feeling that life is, in some deep way, a problem--but I always liked problem-solving.

I haven't solved this one, and at this stage I don't really expect to. It's enough to be engaged in the task of "forming a stable system of functions in right subordination." Once you start cleaning out that storage room, it doesn't really matter anymore how much of a mess it's in: you're working on it. The work itself is healthy, the right thing at the right time. At first you don't know where to put stuff, but gradually order emerges; you discover what you value.

What do I value? I've got to take the car in for regular maintenance--then some breakfast.


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