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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

the knowledge hunter

These days I'm still thinking and reading about as much as ever, but I find that my train of thought is dispersed. I feel less of a sense of goal or direction in my thinking. I have a sense of being becalmed, and am unsure of which way to go.

I'm kept in motion by habit. "Just keep doing what you're doing," I tell myself. "Just keep doing what you're doing."

I feel intellectually tantalized. In some sense I think I always have.

The word tantalize comes from Tantalus, a figure of Greek mythology whose name meant (according to Robert Graves) either "lurching" or "most wretched". He was alleged to have committed two crimes against the gods: one was stealing ambrosia, the divine food, from one of their banquets; the other was the butchering of his own son Pelops and making him part of a stew served to Zeus and the other gods. He was caught at both, and Zeus killed him and arranged a special punishment in the underworld. Tantalus was hung from a fruit-tree so that he dangled in a lake. Tormented by thirst and hunger, he would bend down to sip the water, only to find that the level of the lake dropped away as he did so, returning when he raised his head again. He would then try to grab fruit from the tree, but a wind pushed the fruit just out of his grasp every time he did so. In this hungry, thirsty, and unfulfilled state he would remain for eternity.

To be tantalized, then, means to have the object of one's desire always just beyond one's grasp, and more especially it must mean that it recedes from you just as you approach it or reach out for it.

It's hyperbole of course. But in learning I do have a feeling of forever reaching out, and never quite grasping what I think I'm reaching for. It might be that I don't know what I'm reaching for.

So I play it by instinct. What I read, and what I write in my notes, is a matter of following my urge or impulse of the moment. A hunting metaphor springs to mind: the deer runs through the forest, across country, trying to elude you. It's not trying to make it easy for you; it's trying to make it hard. Very hard--impossible. If you've made that deer your prey, then you're stuck with whatever terrain it leads you through: dense brush, gooey swamp, steep hillside. Now that you've fixated on it, it sets the terms of the chase.

If I get scratched, trip, break my leg, or indeed plunge off a cliff and die, that's not the deer's fault. It's the risk I assume by taking on the role of hunter.

Right now I feel I've kind of lost the trail. The deer is nowhere in sight, and I'm shifting back and forth, looking for its tracks. This is part of the hunt too, but it's an anxious and unrewarding part. Yes, even a tantalizing part.


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