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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, April 28, 2006

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)

I wanted to say something about Jane Jacobs, one of my favorite thinkers and writers, who died on 25 April just nine days before her 90th birthday. Although American-born, she moved to Toronto in 1969 and remained there until her death.

The first I heard of her was in 1986, while was working as a user test analyst at ICBC. I had coffee one day with a coworker named John, a quiet brown-eyed guy, who, it turned out, had a degree in economics. We got talking about economic issues and he mentioned Jane Jacobs.

"She's really good," he said. "Cities and the Wealth of Nations. You should read that."

I picked up a copy of the Vintage paperback in due course and read it. I loved it. I admired everything about it: the simple, practical, and persuasive way she developed her points; her lack of attachment to any theoretical school or point of view; her fearlessness in junking whole continents of sacred-cow economic theory; her passionate interest in the subject she was writing about, in this case, the economies of cities and how these are the real generators of the purely artificial construct we call national economies; her admiration for human ingenuity; her brevity; and her exemplary writing style. She was everything I think a writer of nonfiction should be.

In chapter 1 of that book, "Fool's Paradise", 25 pages long, she demolishes all of economic theory, at least in its efforts to explain the twin phenomena of inflation and unemployment. In simple, insightful, nonrancorous prose she demonstrates the embarrassing failure of the most revered economists--from Adam Smith to Karl Marx to John Maynard Keynes to Milton Friedman--to account for these unwanted conditions, especially when, as in the 1970s, they happen simultaneously (I remember terms like "stagflation" and "slumpcession" being coined during the Ford administration to describe the economic malaise gripping the U.S. at that time).

Having demolished the previous explanations for inflation and unemployment, she goes on to propose one of her own. The pith of it, as I recall, is that, first, there is no such thing as a "national economy". The U.S. economy, for example, is actually an agglomeration of many different economies, and different parts of the country are in vastly different economic condition, and earn their living in vastly different ways. The real, organic generator of human wealth is the city, and vital cities undergo bursts of wealth-generation through one basic process: the replacement of imports. This means that a city--not a country--stops importing certain goods and services, and replaces these with things that are made (or done) locally. Money that formerly left the city to buy imports now stays within it, creating jobs, buildings, and new businesses--wealth.

Classical economic theory, which holds that inflation and unemployment are reciprocal, that if one is high the other must be low, is wrong. Jacobs held that the two of them have always in fact appeared together, and they are symptoms of economic decline. I recall she gives the example of Ethiopia: a country that, in the centuries before Christ, had been a vital, wealthy empire. Now (or anyway in the 1980s when she wrote the book), Ethiopia is a poor country. Aside from subsistence agriculture, there is very little work there (high unemployment); and even though prices for most things are very low, they have gradually slipped out of reach of most of the population (high inflation).

I became a kind of Jacobsian. I read all of her other books--each one is excellent. If you start by reading the first, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, you can follow the progress of her thinking from book to book: how her interests gradually spread from the question of how and why slums appeared in American cities to, finally, how the world economy functions with respect to the environment.

She was an example of a brilliant and nonacademic thinker. She held no teaching post and had no university degree. To me, fussy, picky, and critical as I am, she is one of the very few writers whose work, in its entirety, I truly admire.

I decided to mark her death today by buying (online at Abebooks.com) her last book, Dark Age Ahead.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

why am I doing this, again?

I wanted to get back to talking about my novel--the thing that this blog is supposed to be about. What do I want to say about it? In these dark times, when I myself question what the heck I'm doing, and why, it might be good to review those questions. Why am I doing this? What is the value?

One avenue of inquiry is: What makes my project different? The log-line for The Mission--the one-sentence description of the story that appears at the top-right corner of the blog's main page--generates a certain frisson of excitement because it suggests that my story is about the (true, secret, unexpected) origin of Christianity. Which it is. But my focus is not on Christianity, particularly, as such. I am not a Christian, nor have I ever been one, and nor will I ever become one. Christianity, to me, is an important world religion, and one of the main tributaries of our modern Western culture--the culture I was raised in. But its claim on exclusive truth is no greater than that of any other off-the-shelf spiritual system.

The reason I became excited about doing this story was that Christianity, I believe, is connected closely with the symbolism of the precession of the equinoxes--the almost imperceptible shifting of the Earth's axis in time which causes the north pole to describe a wide circle in the sky every 25,920 years. It is this gradual shift that causes the zodiac--the band of stars through which the sun and planets appear to travel in their orbits--to creep backwards, so that, little by little, the sun, on the spring equinox, comes to rise in a different zodiacal constellation. The sun rises, each year on March 21, in each constellation for 25,920 ÷ 12 = 2,160 years, on average. Each of these periods of 2,160 years, when the sun rises in one zodiacal constellation, is known as an astrological age. Right now the sun rises each March 21 in the constellation of Pisces, which means that we live in the Age of Pisces.

But we're near the end of the Age of Pisces. Soon (and exactly when depends on how you draw your map of the constellations) we will enter the Age of Aquarius. So the Age of Pisces began something just over 2,000 years ago--close to the time that Christianity had its origin. Jung, in his book Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, makes a detailed case that the unfolding of Christianity over the past 2,000 years, and especially of the attitude of Western people to the figure of Christ himself, correlates closely with the movement of the vernal equinox (which is technically a geometrical point in the sky--the point of intersection of the equator and the ecliptic) through the sign of the fishes. (The fish, of course, is a key symbol of Christianity.) Jung believed that the figure of Christ evolved in tandem with his dark twin, the Antichrist or Satan, who became the repository of the evil that could not form any part of Christ's nature. Christian eschatology refers to a final confrontation between the two at the end of time.

I'm fascinated by Jung's interpretation, and it is an important inspiration for my work. Jung was a Christian, but he wasn't writing as one. He was writing as a psychologist and as a philosopher, an interpreter of the symbols that have appeared in our civilization. He defined symbol as a representation of something that cannot be completely known. It expresses something that is too vast, too vague, or too paradoxical to be presented directly to consciousness. Symbol, of course, is the language of dream and of myth.

So I'm interested in the Age of Pisces, and its key signifier in the world, Christianity. They are symbolic of things deeper and beyond themselves. This emphasis makes my work much different from most historical fiction, especially that dealing with Christ and his period. I'm thinking of things like The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson or Christ the Lord by Anne Rice, which essentially accept the biblical narrative(s) at face value and retell them, or things like Testament by Nino Ricci, which is a euhemerist retelling of the Christian myth. The first category is essentially pious. The second is an attempt to account for the mythologization of historical events by showing how extraordinary but nonetheless natural people give rise to legends about themselves.

Mine is in neither of those classes of work. I'm not a pious Christian (or any other kind), and I don't believe we have Christian mythology, and the Christian religion, because a few extraordinary people did some unusual things 2,000 years ago. No: other, deeper things are at work.

But I've written enough for today.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

speed post

And here I was going to be so virtuous and actually write a post today, only to find, just now, that Blogger.com has scheduled an outage at 4 p.m. PDT (15 minutes from now, by my watch). This is to let you know that I wuz here.

Today is like summer, but with a cool breeze. The sky is empty of clouds, but slightly hazed over, with the sun shining strongly. I took a short run (managed to coax myself into it because of its shortness).

Writing-wise, I am tinkering with chapter 23, developing the story. I find that working on this novel is like working on a TV show: I have some brief notes of what is supposed to happen in a chapter, and now the task lies before me as to how to make that happen. Another TV-like factor is that my story is somewhat episodic, in that there is not a continuous flow of action from one chapter to the next. It's not a matter of ending one chapter with a guy pulling into his empty house to find a light unexpectedly on, and beginning the next with his walking cautiously in the door. Because I'm writing an epic, I must choose carefully which moments to show, pick them from a vast stream of surrounding action. If I do this right, the story should be exciting and interesting: I'm serving you, the reader, only the choicest morsels.

I've had some new story ideas for chapter 23, and have pretty much built a little plot for it. But I'm still working at filling in the surrounding detail, and the backstory leading into this moment, which is months after the last time I left these characters. I'll know when I've reached the threshold of enough material, enough richness, to make me feel confident about starting to write. I find it to be slow and anxiety-provoking, this gradual accumulation of material.

It's now 3:52 p.m. I've written the above in seven minutes. Better save and move on to tea. Back to The Origins and History of Consciousness. Plus another book arrived in the mail today, a blue hardback without its dust jacket: Ego Psychology: Theory & Practice by Gertrude and Rubin Blanck. What exactly is the ego, anyway? I hope to find out.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

the symbolic education

Home from a final day of holiday errands and pastimes. Kimmie took off a few days around the Easter weekend; this is her last. Now she's up at the hair salon, having color added (the perm was last week). I have a few minutes to type a blog-post.

This is a time of deep, dark soul-searching. Many things I am thinking and finding I can't publish in this blog. I can barely write some of them in my journal.

I'm reading many different books, as usual, slowly, a few pages at a time each. One of these is Erich Neumann's The Origins and History of Consciousness, first published in Germany in 1949. I bought the book in 1979, when I was 20, as part of my passion for Jung's teachings, and because the title intrigued me. I read it at the time but found it tough going, or perhaps not what I was expecting, so I didn't get much out of it.

The cover of my Princeton Bollingen paperback edition is a simple white with an off-center graphic of a snake biting its own tail. According to Neumann, this ancient image, the uroboros, is a symbol of the primal unconscious, before the arising of any consciousness. He goes on to explicate, through the use of myths, how the consciousness of modern man, especially modern Western man, has slowly evolved and become more differentiated. This phylogenetic process is also repeated in each of us, ontogenetically, in our individual development of consciousness.

The development of consciousness, says Neumann, is symbolized in three main stages, represented by three great cycles of myth: the creation myth, the hero myth, and what he calls the transformation myth. Each of these cycles is composed of two or three substages of its own, with accompanying myths. For example, the first cycle, the creation myth, he breaks down into three parts: the uroboros, the Great Mother, and the separation of the World Parents, or the principle of opposites. I have read, this time through, only as far as the Great Mother (page 101), but I am getting much more out of it than I did 27 years ago.

Back then, I think I was disappointed to find this book to be not merely an explication of Jung's work, but an extension of it, as Neumann takes Jung's ideas and organizes them around his own theme. I was hoping for something more "orthodox". I was barely becoming acquainted with Jung's ideas; I wasn't ready to hear about reorganizations of them and new concepts. Now I take at face value Jung's own foreword to the book, in which he expresses appreciation and even some envy for Neumann in his systematization of the ideas. Jung felt himself to be a pioneer, and therefore not in a position to be able to see the significance of his own work so well.

I find Neumann's view of psychology and mythology to be powerful and profound. His relative obscurity is undeserved, and may be partly because he died in 1960 in Tel Aviv at the relatively young age of 55. This book, appearing in 1949, is a worthy companion to those other mighty symbolic works of the 20th century from that same period--Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947), The White Goddess by Robert Graves (1948), and The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (1949).

So: the symbolic education continues, which is an education in my own psyche, my own past. Time for today's lesson.

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

a wintry day in April

I felt good when I rose around 6:20 this morning, but somehow my mood again fell while I footled with my notes over coffee. Dissatisfied, I moved from one thing to another while rain fell heavily from the cold gray sky. I keyed some more notes from Us and Them by David Berreby, but that wasn't quite fitting the bill for me. I keyed notes on Philistines and Phoenicians from Peoples, Nations and Cultures, some notes from the November-December 2005 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review that I got for Christmas, and eventually wound up going through my notes from A History of Technology, volume 1. I found I could barely look at my chapter notes, although I opened the document.

Kimmie and I went out into the morning rain to have breakfast at the Corner Cafe on Pemberton Ave. For some reason the owners had staffed the place entirely with new people, possibly family members, and service was terribly slow, even though there were few customers. They had to bring me my two pancakes separately, one at a time.

We went up to the library, but did not find anything we really liked in the TV section, or among the books (looking for vampire and fantasy material for Kim). Later I decided to return the book I'd been sent in error by the bookseller in San Antonio (I bought Book 3 of Copleston's History of Philosophy; they sent me Book 2). Kimmie kindly wrapped it for shipping, and we walked through the cold rain up to the post office. It cost $16.53 to ship! I was shocked, disgusted.

"This book is going to wind up costing me a fortune," I muttered as we left the store, "even assuming I can get the right book from them, or that they'll credit my Visa card."

We stopped in at an optician's so I could look for a new nose-pad for my eyeglasses: the right pad fell off, I think while I was in the bank, about two weeks ago. I have been meaning to replace it. The woman in the store, trim, friendly, and professional, glanced at my glasses and said, "I don't have any Zeiss nose-pads."

"Oh," I said, taken aback. "They're that special?"

"They have to be Zeiss or Zeiss-compatible. One hundred percent of the glasses in this store do not use that type of nose-pad. But I can phone up the street and see if they have any."

"I did get these glasses in 1992," I admitted.

No, even the European optician up the street did not have any.

"Okay," I said, "thanks for your effort. I appreciate it."

We made our way home, watching wintry rain pound pink cherry blossoms and white magnolia blooms. So many things I should be doing. I can't be bothered.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

finding inspiration--and depression

Kimmie has taken some days off work, starting today and ending the Tuesday after Easter. So there was no alarm clock this morning. I slept through till about 5:35, then lay comfortably until I decided to rise at 6:20 to make the coffee.

I didn't actually get to my project this morning, although I did type a few notes. Yesterday I got back in the swing, digging further into my research as a way of seeking inspiration for my story. It took the form of character research: in this case for Alexander, my young would-be astrologer. As I seek his motivation, his feelings, I need material about his background. This had me reading through my research folder, copying extracts and dropping these into my chapter-notes document, and letting what I found spark ideas. The chapter-notes document has grown to 27 pages (many of which are the aforementioned extracts).

My reading of course goes on. I haven't read any directly period-research-related book for a long time now. Yesterday I finished reading Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins. I found it very interesting: an expose along the lines of Philip Agee's CIA Diary, which I read back in 1984. More important than the literary quality of these books is what they have to say, and indeed the very fact that they exist. Since I'm not a cynical person, I perhaps need help in seeing that people do indeed sometimes act out of base motives, and that such people are often the very ones most driven to seek power and wealth for themselves.

Perkins's "confessions" offer a good view of the inside workings of a power-broker within the world of developing-world finance in the 1970s and 80s. The term "economic hit man" (EHM) refers to a species of economist who worked for private U.S. consulting firms (such as Halliburton) as part of teams trying to sell certain developing countries on large-scale, internationally financed, American-built infrastructure projects. Their specific though unstated intent was to oversell the projects to create much more lucrative contracts, and also to cause the developing country to default on its debt. Yes: the default was intentional, to put the country in a condition of obligation to the U.S. government, so that it would be more tractable in offering up things like UN votes, space for military bases, or natural resources such as oil. According to Perkins, this was his job, and he was very successful at it, working over countries such as Ecuador and Indonesia, among others.

Among many insights that I had while reading the book was this: suddenly it became clear why the World Bank has been such a dismal failure at helping developing countries develop. It's because the true mission of the World Bank is not its stated mission. Perkins alleges that the World Bank, in the pocket of the U.S. government, is essentially a facility for carrying out these economic "hits." It is a failure at its stated mission--but a success at its true one.

Sobering, even depressing thoughts. And yet I'm not too depressed: because at bottom I do not find truth depressing. Only when you see how things really are can you do anything effective or meaningful.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

music and memory

More lying in the dark after waking from dreams just before 3:00 a.m. I dozed just before the alarm went off at 5:30, then lay in bed, feeling heavy and sleep-ready as Kimmie bustled to the bathroom, radio playing. I could hear the music faintly through my earplugs. I pulled out the plugs when I recognized a song as one I enjoyed, even though I couldn't identify it. With the orange foam plugs out I could tell right away: "Avalon" by Roxy Music.

I was launched back through time to 1982, after I had returned from my solo trip to Europe and Africa. I remember walking up 4th Avenue in the cool steely light of late afternoon in October, in search of a birthday present for my sister Mara. The street and sidewalks were busy as ever on the slope up from Burrard Street, with music floating into the gray air from boutiques and restaurants. I was enveloped in a sense of solitude in my home city, and Bryan Ferry's introspective voice in the evocative, shifting mist of the music expressed my mood.

Now the party's over
I'm so tired
Then I see you coming
Out of nowhere...

Up. Up from the wooden platform of bed and into the still-dark of morning and a new week.

Over the weekend I went on a book binge at two separate Indigo stores--North Vancouver on Saturday and the Robson store in Vancouver yesterday. The total haul of books:

  • House of Bush, House of Saud by Craig Unger
  • Our Posthuman Future by Francis Fukuyama
  • Synaptic Self by Joseph LeDoux
  • Rogue State by William Blum
  • The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose

Yesterday, since Fukuyama mentioned Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in the opening part of his book, and Kimmie expressed an interest in it after I told her what it's about and why it's famous, we got a copy of that too.

Slow going today. Only a few notes: dry. Low in ideas.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

chores homey and literary

Stopping down to dash off a post before heading back upstairs for my daily reading session. I have just done a quick vacuum of the main floor, washed the dishes and the kitchen floor, taken out the garbage and the compost. I also responded to a request by my neighbor Carol to let her into the parking garage, and answered a wrong-number phone call ("Hello? Is Irene there?"). I wanted to straighten the place up for the arrival of Kim's sister-in-law Ev for dinner this week.

It is a glorious spring day. There was a fresh breeze blowing out of the west as I jogged up Lonsdale to drop off a DVD (Chinatown, which we watched on Saturday night) and deposit this month's strata maintenance checks in my capacity as treasurer. The clear blue sky, slightly cloudswept, behind the sunstruck highrises, had the pristine cheerfulness of an architectural drawing. I ran in athletic shorts and a T-shirt for the first time this year.

The writing session this morning, which was in fact a note-making session, was laborious. I read through my notes of yesterday (a relatively productive day, with plenty of notes and research), highlighting the "keeper" material. Then I typed on a dateline for today, and pushed off. Today's opening note:

Possible conflict: Alexander is under pressure to acknowledge his father as dead in order to get legal benefits (inherit his stuff, take over the lease of home and store, get access maybe to Philip's savings in the bank), but psychologically can't make himself do it. He refuses to believe his father is dead until he sees the corpse--or has other irrefutable proof.

So it began. Nothing fresh seemed to come to me. I asked questions, guessed at some possible answers, all thoughts I've had for a long time. A feeling of spinning my wheels, churning mud. It's always the same: I don't know enough. Gradually I ground to a halt. When I realized I'd been staring at the screen for a few minutes without typing anything, indeed without thinking about my project, I decided to move on and have lunch.

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Sunday, April 02, 2006


Well. I just wrote most of a post, only to have Mozilla Firefox lock up on me ("invalid page fault"), crash, and lose everything. What a way to return to the blog--strong negative reinforcement. I'll see what I can remember, but I feel frustrated and disappointed.

Even though I have not posted for about 12 days or so, I see from my stat-counter that people have nonetheless been stopping by--both my loyal readers, and the many one-time visitors, who often arrive after searching Google for things like "Pluto conjunct Saturn" or "Save-On Foods" or "outline for a historical novel". Many thanks!

It has been a time of low energy and flattened affect for me, so I have not pursued my commitment to the blog, which for the first year I felt I must write every day, whether I felt like it or not. But I have resumed writing again, not in a joyous way or a depressive way, but in a workmanlike way--maybe sort of like an inmate in a psych ward, heavily medicated and working on a craft. Unshaven, in terry robe (cotton sweats in my case), and full of lithium or chlorpromazine, he works with flattened affect at sculpting some plasticine. Maybe, if he has talent, it's even pretty good.

My reading has continued strongly; I pursue my inquiry into the mystery of identity. Lately, reminded by an illustration in Amit Goswami's The Self-Aware Universe, I pulled down my copy of a book I bought in September 1979, when I was starting university: The Origins and History of Consciousness by the Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann. When I opened the old, well-made Princeton Bollingen paperback, I was struck to find this verse by Goethe as an epigraph:

He whose vision cannot cover
History's three thousand years,
Must in outer darkness hover,
Live within the day's frontiers.

I felt energized and encouraged--maybe like someone stumbling through a dark mine, lost and alone, who finds a directional mark. Yes: I'm trying to get my vision to cover history's three thousand years--and more.

I felt heartened.

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