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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, March 30, 2007

searching for beliefs

I'm searching for my beliefs.

It has been a lifelong search, and it's not over. In fact, at this stage, it seems quite possible, even likely, that it will never be over. The awareness that my beliefs are provisional and lack a solid foundation has held me back, I think, in my worldly life, my career.

To my great satisfaction and delight, William James tackles the question of belief head-on (the way he tackles everything) in a chapter of its own in volume 2 of his Principles of Psychology, chapter 21, "The Perception of Reality". He opens the chapter thus:

Everyone knows the difference between imagining a thing and believing in its existence, between supposing a proposition and acquiescing in its truth. In the case of acquiescence or belief, the object is not only apprehended by the mind, but is held to have reality. Belief is thus the mental state or function of cognizing reality.

He goes on to say:

In its inner nature, belief, or the sense of reality, is a sort of feeling more allied to the emotions than to anything else.

He says that belief resembles consent or willingness. Then:

What characterizes both consent and belief is the cessation of theoretic agitation, through the advent of an idea which is inwardly stable, and fills the mind solidly to the exclusion of contradictory ideas. When this is the case, motor effects are apt to follow. Hence the states of consent and belief, characterized by repose on the purely intellectual side, are both intimately connected with subsequent practical activity.

There it is, something that I have long maintained myself: beliefs are the mental states that specifically guide our actions. Once again I find in William James support for my own thoughts, arrived at via different means in a different world.

It follows that having strong, stable, and harmonious beliefs will make one vigorous and consistent in one's actions, which clearly will lead on to success in one's aims, all other things being equal.

James would go on to develop this idea further into the philosophy of pragmatism, which holds that truth itself has no meaning apart from its practical consequences--a view that I myself have pretty much come to hold, again via an independent route.

Beliefs have different intensities, or levels of conviction. James puts it thus:

The quality of arousing emotion, of moving us or inciting us to action, has as much to do with our belief in an object's reality as the quality of giving pleasure or pain. Generally, the more a conceived object excites us, the more reality it has. The same object excites us differently at different times.

At the high end of the scale is the feeling of certainty--true conviction. On this James quotes Emerson:

Our faith comes in moments,...yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.

And this, to me, fascinating observation by Bagehot, the 19th-century British journalist and founding brain of The Economist newspaper:

Probably conviction will be found to be one of the intensest of human emotions, and one most closely connected with the bodily state,...accompanied or preceded by the sensation that Scott makes his seer describe as the prelude of a prophecy:

At length the fatal answer came,
In characters of living flame--
Not spoke in words, nor blazed in scroll,
But borne and branded on my soul.

A hot flash seems to burn across the brain. Men in these intense states of mind have altered all history, changed for better or worse the creed of myriads, and desolated or redeemed provinces or ages. Nor is this intensity a sign of truth, for it is precisely strongest in those points in which men differ most from each other.

The intensity of conviction is not a sign of truth. But it will get us deliberately flying aircraft into high-rises and invading Middle Eastern countries.

What is this thing?

Like everyone else, I take actions through the day. Right now I'm writing this blog-post. That means I have certain specific beliefs, in James's view, that are propelling me to this action. I believe that writing this post is furthering my interests or aims somehow. His point would be that those beliefs, whatever they are, are already there; they already exist and are active, whether I'm aware of them or not.

But I would like to be aware of them. I would like to bring my beliefs into the realm of my conscious understanding--to consent to them consciously and willingly, rather than unconsciously. I don't want to be the passive victim of a useless, destructive certainty. I don't want to hijack airplanes or invade countries.

I'd just like to know what the hell I'm doing, and why.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

an everything? or a nothing?

Let's just open up the office blinds to see what sort of day we have out there... Ah, a mild-looking, still morning. The little square patch of sky I can see is not gray, but a pale pale blue, not bright, but suggesting a sun veiled in cold morning cloud.

Yesterday, in talking about reading that chapter on reasoning in James's The Principles of Psychology, volume 2, I was moving toward his discussion of genius. He distinguishes two separate orders or types of genius. Here is a compressed extract:

For the lowest men, there is a whole world of analogies which they can appreciate when imparted to them by their betters, but which they could never excogitate alone. Genius is identical with the possession of similar association to an extreme degree. In the arts, in literature, in practical affairs, and in science, association by similarity is the prime condition of success.

But as there are two stages in reasoned thought, one where similarity merely operates to call up cognate thoughts, and another farther stage, where the bond of identity between the cognate thoughts is noticed; so minds of genius may be divided into two main sorts, those who notice the bond and those where merely obey it. The first are the abstract reasoners, the men of science, and philosophers--the analysts, in a word; the latter are the poets, the critics--the artists, in a word, the men of intuitions. These judge rightly, classify cases, characterize them by the most striking analogic epithets, but go no further. Professor Bain has said that a man’s advance to the scientific stage (the stage of noticing and abstracting the bond of similarity) may often be due to an absence of certain emotional sensibilities. There must be a penury in one's interest in the details of particular forms in order to permit the forces of the intellect to be concentrated on what is common to many forms. A certain richness of the aesthetic nature may, therefore, easily keep one in the intuitive stage. All the poets are examples of this.

By way of illustration, James then supplies this passage from Homer:

Ulysses, too, spied round the house to see if any man were still alive and hiding, trying to get away from gloomy death. He found them all fallen in the blood and dirt, and in such number as the fish which the fishermen to the low shore, out of the foaming sea, drag with their meshy nets. These all, sick for the ocean water, are strewn around the sands, while the blazing sun takes their life from them. So there the suitors lay strewn round on one another.

The image is striking and powerful. James's point is that Homer, in visualizing the plight of the suitors in this way, had no need to isolate and identify the exact abstract characters of the beached fish and the wounded suitors to state precisely wherein the analogy between them lay. In Homer's imagination, he saw the suitors in a vivid way that reminded him of beached fish, and proceeded to form the image in words. That was all that his purpose as a poet required. Indeed, if he had gone on to express the exact abstract particulars of the correspondence between the suitors and the fish, he would be a much worse poet; he would in fact be an academic of some kind.

James says that a scientist or philosopher must go further; his job is to identify and name the exact character that the two seemingly dissimilar things share. In going this extra step he leaves behind the emotional and aesthetic power of the comparison, and in fact, as Bain says in the above extract, his very ability to do this isolating may mean that he is relatively insensitive to the emotional and aesthetic aspects of ideas. James then notes:

Rarely are both sorts of intellect, the splendid and the analytic, found in conjunction. Plato among philosophers, and M. Taine are exceptions whose strangeness proves the rule.

Reading all this got me thinking: leaving aside the question of whether I might actually possess anything that could be called genius in any sense, to which of these types do I belong? Am I an artist, or a philosopher? Poet, or scientist?

I believe I have traits of both. No: I do have traits of both. As a creator I'm concerned with the emotional and aesthetic aspect of experience and of ideas; but as a thinker I'm concerned with their purely abstract structure, and I want to become conscious of this in an explicit way. And thinking along one line here, using one set of values, means temporarily putting the other set away. That's how it seems to me. And the great danger, or one great danger anyway, of being both is that one winds up being neither. Not an everything, but a nothing.

I don't think I'm a nothing--I hope not. I'm no Plato, that's for sure.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007


I continue to be astonished and excited to find how fresh and interesting William James is in his 1890 classic The Principles of Psychology, of which I'm now about halfway through volume 2. Last night I finished chapter 22 on "Reasoning"--fantastic.

I never expected to make it all the way through both volumes of this work in one go, since they have about 1400 pages between them, but I can't stop reading it and I don't want to. The remaining chapters are on topics too interesting to miss, including "Instinct", "The Emotions", "Will", and "Hypnotism". The work finishes with a fascinating-looking chapter called "Necessary Truths and the Effects of Experience", in which it seems he ties up a number of philosophical questions connected with psychology.

In "Reasoning" James breaks down exactly what reasoning consists of. He explains it as an instance of "association by similarity"--essentially noticing a character in an object that one associates also with another object. This comes through discriminating aspects of objects. Seeing things only vaguely, or in wholes, makes reasoning impossible. The ability to perceive and pick out an aspect of something that will help one achieve one's immediate end is a hallmark of reasoning. The mark of genius is the ability to perceive common features in things that are apparently unalike, such as, famously (and possibly apocryphally) Newton's noticing a similarity between a falling apple and the moon.

James is able to show that animals generally do not reason in this sense, even when it appears they are doing so. Instead of association by similarity, they proceed by simple association in time or space: "this object follows that object" or "this object is next to that object". A dog, who had once learned, by accident, that he could open a gate-latch by knocking it upward with his muzzle and so get through it, appeared to be reasoning his way through. But the same dog was confounded by another, very similar gate with a similar latch. It did not occur to the dog to use the same technique on the different gate, and so he could not get through.

Most people are like the dog, in that they tend to follow pragmatic rules of thumb based on experience. The same thoughts, the same objects, are always connected with each other. I suppose this corresponds with what we now call "thinking inside the box". James cites an example of a man on a train who asked the brakeman to make the stove stop smoking into the compartment. The brakeman replied that the stove would stop smoking once the train started moving.

"Why so?" asked the passenger.

"It always does," replied the brakeman.

To James, this meant that the brakeman did not know why the stove stopped smoking once the train left the station. A scientist might reason his way through the question, and realize that the movement of air across the top of the stack once the train was in motion would have the effect of drawing air up the stack, pulling the smoke with it. The brakeman was not able, or not curious enough, to piece together the reason that the stove stopped smoking. His experience was that the one event (train in motion) was always accompanied by the other (stove stops smoking). For him that was enough.

James concludes that even the most astonishing mental feats by dogs and horses can be explained in this way. And indeed, why disparage a form of "reasoning" that most of us use most of the time?

But I think back to an instance of when I was impressed with an animal's intelligence. It was in 1979, when I was traveling in Mexico with my friend Brad. We were in Villahermosa, visiting the zoo. We went to the monkey cage, and a monkey immediately leapt to the bars by us and reached out to touch us. Then he grabbed the binoculars hanging around Brad's neck, and immediately put them to his eyes, exactly as a person would. He first looked through the wrong end--the large end--but quickly turned them around to look through the right end. Holding the binoculars through the bars, so he could put his eyes to the lenses, he stared out at the scene that he clearly found fascinating. Brad and I looked at each other in astonishment.

It seemed unlikely to me that the monkey had looked through binoculars before--although I suppose he could have, with other visitors before us. But either someone would have had to show him how to look through them--what they were for--or he would have simply had to watch someone using binoculars, and then applied that idea to himself on the time-honored principle of "monkey see, monkey do". Then there was the fact that he obviously enjoyed using the bins (he really didn't want to let them go).

Anyway, I had the thought that I'd had about a half year before that, when Tim and I were at the London Zoo and I saw a chimpanzee sitting morosely in a cage: "It's wrong to cage someone like that."

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

a chilling dream

I woke at about 4:35 this morning from this dream:

of making my way home from somewhere, much like the old Dollarton Highway where it approached the Seymour River. I seem to be with some male companions at a restaurant, a casual kind of place such as travelers go to in poorer countries. There's a lot of camaraderie and maybe some are getting drunk, but it's time to go. It's getting late.

I leave, maybe with someone, and there is a quieter, outdoor spot like a truck yard near where that old gas station was (intersection of Dollarton and Seymour River Place). Maybe my companion wants to stop here for one more drink, to keep the evening going. I don't really want to keep the evening going, but agree to stop.

There's plenty of space on the bark-mulch ground under a kind of tent or geodesic dome frame, but few tables. A young couple is unstrapping their baby boy from a high chair. He is fussing, or maybe shouting in high spirits, and they are indulgent. They let him go, and he goes running for some kind of a motorized bicycle. He climbs on and it shoots away. I'm alarmed; babies shouldn't ride motorized vehicles. The noise alone is annoying. Sure enough, he crashes into something, and people go running to see, but he seems happy, and not hurt.

I sit at one of the picnic tables, and here (I think) I find Tracy [a girl I went to school with]. She too is ready to go home after a night of partying. She remembers me and we get to talking.

"What's the earliest time you can remember?" I ask, hoping indirectly to find out whether she remembers me from grade one.

"My first year," she says, seriously.

"Ah, so you remember grade one," I say.

I'm thinking back to when I invited her to my house in grade one, and she was shocked when I took a piss in front of her, in the crawlspace under the house. She laughed and pointed. I would like to rekindle some of that intimacy with her, because Tracy is still attractive. But I'm frustrated and chagrined by my own timidity and indirectness here; why can't I just bring the subject up? What am I afraid of?

Yes, of course she remembers grade one, but the topic peters out there. Tracy is working a calculator of some kind, figuring out her expenses. She is quick and diligent, serious. We talk about accounting or tracking expenses--she seems to have training in this now. I'm hoping that we can go back home together, take the same route and spend some time together.

We do go, and it is as though we're making our way over the bridge toward Main Street. But it's inside a building, a school or college in the vacation period, maybe ready to get opening again. I find it confusing and unfamiliar. We get separated.

As I try to find my way, I come to a thick primer-colored door at the end of a little corridor. It's a big heavy steel door and it has no handle, latch, or lock on my side: just a smooth door with no way of opening it. It has just closed too--wouldn't you just know it. I saw and heard the tail-end of its closing as I got here.

What to do? Go back? I feel a sense of chagrin, but also of hesitation. Now I'm alone, and the door's high-security featurelessness expresses its unfriendliness: like some fire exit at a mall or stadium.

But the door, of its own accord, pops open a bit, as though with a mind of its own, as though to say, "Go ahead--if you dare." I grab it and pull so I can go through.

On the other side is a short, dingy concrete corridor with flaking paint--ugly and unwelcoming. It goes a short distance, then makes a hairpin turn to the right. I immediately realize that this is a dangerous, even evil place--an encounter with a terrifying destiny, a test. That's why I'm suddenly alone now.

It's not clear whether I continue to walk or whether I'm now carried forward, around the corner. I can see a yellow light, and in terror I see the shadow of the figure I'm about to meet: a man. I can see he has glasses and a mustache. The shadow is much larger than life, but I can't tell whether it's his own size or an effect of the light. As terror overwhelms me I wake up.

When I woke from this chills swarmed over my body in the dark. My mind turned toward dark, pessimistic thoughts about my life. The image came to my mind of being aboard a river raft, headed helplessly toward a falls.

Well. We're all headed toward a falls, aren't we?

When I got up I typed this dream into my journal. I haven't made any interpretive notes, but I find that my mind is newly stirred with troubling thoughts that had settled down over the past few months.

I don't care what anybody says, dreams are a profound mystery. We take them for granted, and so do not see the great challenge they pose to our view of the world. In this respect the ancients were much more perceptive and aware than we are. In fact, as I study the ancient world more and more, I'm coming to appreciate the ancients. We can look back on them and see their arrogance and blindness. But if they could look at us, they would see ours.


Friday, March 23, 2007

the tree of ideas

This morning, as we lay in bed in the dark in post-alarm recovery, we heard this weather forecast: "Heavy rain today, tomorrow, all through the weekend, and for the rest of our lives." That put a smile on my face and energized me to get up and meet my day.

I want to say more about ideas--my favorite subject. I've been toying with the notion of what it would be like to develop a cladogram of the history of ideas. If you're not familiar with the word cladogram, I'm sure you're not alone. You can click the preceding link, or accept my quick definition: an organizational chart of living organisms arranged by their order of appearance in evolutionary history. When all organisms are included in such a chart, it is sometimes called a "tree of life"--a powerful mythological image. The word itself comes from the Greek klados, "branch". The discipline called cladistics is the taxonomic philosophy of classifying organisms in this way, by genetic propinquity, rather than by the more traditional method of grouping them by morphological similarity.

I first heard the term, and had it explained to me, in about 1985 at La Bodega, the West End tapas bar where I used to meet my friends once a week. At that time it was a new idea, dating back only to 1979. My biologist friend Brad and an associate of his, Andrew, sketched out a basic cladogram on a paper napkin. (Brad was headed for a career in tropical ecology; Andrew was branching into herpetology.) I didn't really grasp what was supposed to be special about a cladogram, since to me it just seemed to be a basic org chart. The key point, as I now understand it, is that two dissimilar-looking organisms might might be more closely related genetically than two similar-looking organisms, and would therefore appear closer together in a cladogram than they would in the old-time Linnaean classification system. A detailed knowledge of genetics, and of the genomes of organisms, makes a full, precise cladogram possible.

No such scientific precision could ever be achieved with a cladogram of ideas, but nonetheless I find the concept exciting. What are the most basic ideas we have, and how have they branched out, differentiated, combined, in human history?

Last year I couldn't resist buying the book Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud by Peter Watson. This 822-page tome (very good too--I'm 262 pages though it so far) is a step in the direction I'm thinking of. Watson recognizes technological innovations as the manifestation of new ideas--although these are not the only manifestations of new ideas. But all new ideas are inventions: they are intended to solve a problem. ("Necessity is the mother of invention"--this phrase, I've just learned, is from Plato's Republic.) An innovation is a response to a perceived problem.

Sometimes I've seen puzzlement expressed that so many tens or hundreds of thousands of years went by in human prehistory with no significant changes to our primitive stone toolkit of flaked hand-choppers. I have to believe that no necessity for a change was perceived. There was no culture of innovation. It did not occur to people to respond to problems by inventing new tools. This itself is an idea: that problems can be met with a deliberate effort to try something new. (By the way, in astrological terms, I would say this is one of the core ideas of the sign Aquarius.) That idea had to be discovered, and also added to the culture--the heritage of ideas that is passed down to succeeding generations. (My thought is that ideas are what a culture is made of. Our culture is exactly the collection or set of ideas that we collectively hold.)

These are just a few semi-random thoughts. I wanted to give a glimpse into the world of my thinking: what kinds of things I've been thinking about. If I were an academic, I think this might be the area of study I would be drawn to.

Now: on with my day of heavy rain (the weatherman is right so far).

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Great Chain of Being

Rain drips outside, somewhere in the dark beyond my closed office blinds. I've been keying notes from Neil Forsyth's The Old Enemy over my morning coffee.

Ideas, ideas. Another book I'm enjoying right now is The Great Chain of Being by Arthur O. Lovejoy, an examination of the influence of the ancient idea of God's "fullness", first developed by Plato. According to Lovejoy, in this published series of lectures he delivered at Harvard University in 1933, this idea of a perfect God (for Plato, the idea of "the Good") necessitated its expression in creativity, a kind of overflowing of its goodness in the creation of forms--other, lesser ideas to begin with, but then, because of the inexhaustible superabundance of the all-Good, myriad other forms as well. This idea was developed by subsequent Platonists, especially by the 3rd-century AD philosopher Plotinus, who formed the idea into a systematic theory of emanation--the generation of ideas and forms from the central Good, or God, to fill the universe with everything.

According to Lovejoy, this idea has been tremendously influential throughout subsequent history, down at least until the 18th century, and no doubt is still shaping our thinking, subtly, today. For the idea came to be framed as the Great Chain of Being: the notion that there is a hierarchy or ladder of creation, leading from the lowest, least sentient things (rocks) up to the very highest (God, the Infinite Good), with every possible gradation in between. Humans are midway on this great Chain, the highest of material beings or the lowest of the spiritual beings, depending on how you look at it. For the Chain made angels necessary, representing the links of the Chain above us, leading on up to God. An unknown author of the 5th century AD, writing under the name of St. Paul's student Dionysius the Areopagite, set down the hierarchy of angels (nine different orders, from ordinary angels up to the seraphim who attended the throne of God). Since leading medieval theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, accepted the pseudo-Dionysius as an authority, his hierarchy has more or less stuck ever since.

Lovejoy points out that there are inherent contradictions in this idea of the Chain of Being, contradictions that have caused great tension in thinkers and people generally since the formation of the idea. For, on the one hand, the spontaneous urge of every being in the Chain is to seek to move higher, to approach more closely to the all-good Creator who is the source of all happiness. Yet, on the other, every created thing and being is a handmade expression, so to speak, of that Creator's superabundant goodness, worthy of His attention, and therefore, you might suppose, intrinsically excellent in its own right, and certainly not to be despised. In a nutshell: the very notion of a Chain of Being suggests a hierarchy of higher quality to lower, while at the same time every link in the Chain is a divine creation and therefore, presumably, all equally valuable.

The contradictions in this idea have put Western humanity under great stress for a couple of thousand years now. For on the one hand, we are enjoined to seek higher things, to purify and spiritualize ourselves so that we may unite with God, shunning the mere matter of His creation; while on the other we experience a natural joy and attraction for the world at our own level, our senses and our own physicality, all of which are God-given and therefore divine. So what's the right thing to do?

Well, I haven't finished the book. And I don't expect Lovejoy to come down on one side of the debate or the other. But I find my mind magnetized by this type of inquiry. As Lovejoy points out in his introduction, this is not philosophy in the strict sense, for his study is more wide-ranging than mere philosophical analysis. Following the evolution of an idea means looking into diverse fields, such as the arts, sciences, and politics, to see how the idea shapes people's attitudes and actions, often unconsciously. He likens the study to chemistry: the historian of ideas looks at complex "substances" and dissolves them to discover the elements of which they're made. Cool!

I may finally have found an academic discipline that I could pursue more or less wholeheartedly.

This is just a taste. There's much more to say about ideas, their history, and my own relationship with them. But that will be for future posts.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

the magic world

Two days ago, in search of some basic information on the phenomenon of taboos, I pulled out my thick copy of J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough and searched through it. He defines taboo as "negative magic"--"Do not do this, lest so and so should happen." I was digging into the ancient institution of ritual purity, which appears to be an extension of the still more ancient notion of taboo.

Frazer's book, originally published in 12 volumes in 1922, is a famous landmark in the study of comparative religion and mythology. I of course have only an abridged edition in one teensy-weensy paperback volume of 972 pages, a very well-made Macmillan paperback with a cover illustration by Peter Goodfellow that I've always liked: a young man, in classical drapery, seen from behind, sits on a white unicorn that lies on a rock, gripping its horn and surveying a fantastic landscape that has strong affinities with Bosch--little naked figures, bearded satyrs, mermaids, all in and around a magic lake surround by rocky bluffs.

I got the book so long ago that it was before I started inscribing the date on the inside along with my name, which I started doing in 1979. But I remember exactly when I got it: in the late summer of 1978. My mother got it for me to take with me on what was intended to be a year-long world trip with my friend Tim (it lasted six months and we only got as far as Italy--no complaints!). She hadn't read the book, but had heard that it was supposed to be a widely acknowledged authority on mythology. I hadn't heard of it, but I packed it with me, along with the white Bible that Tim and I had agreed we would read through as part of our traveling education.

I picked up other books to read on the trip as we went along, but I did start The Golden Bough and kept up with it as a kind of background read, finding it strangely compelling, even though it was mainly, even in such severely abridged form, a long mass of examples of magical beliefs, superstitions, and rituals from primitive cultures around the world, ca. 1900. It was fascinating in many ways--an eye-opener. I felt I was peering into a dreamlike world, which was also the world in which the great majority of humanity has always lived--a world alien to my own upbringing in the comfortable, materialistic suburb of North Vancouver. It seems that most people's lives, for almost all of human history, have been governed mainly by magical thinking.

I didn't finish the book--in fact, I still haven't. But it did form an important thread in that trip. Indeed, the farthest point of our journey was actually Nemi--the lake south of Rome on whose shore the ancient grove of Diana was, where the succession of her priesthood, the so-called Kings of the Wood, aroused the curiosity of Frazer and prompted him to write the book that would turn out to be his entire career. The King of the Wood guarded the sacred oak to which he was also, apparently, married. At any time of day or night he might be attacked and forced into mortal combat. If his attacker vanquished him and killed him, then the attacker became the next King of the Wood, and must stand guard the rest of his life until his own unknown successor eventually killed him. This priesthood was ancient even in Imperial Rome, its origins shrouded in legend.

I remember when Tim and I stopped at the roadside overlooking Nemi, still a beautiful little lake nestled in the Alban hills. In the deep rural quiet we ate our salami, bread, and cheese in our red Westfalia van, looking down at the dark-green trees standing in the very spot where the King of the Wood once guarded his tree-goddess-wife. I felt strange stirrings of both connection to and distance from that ancient practice and the passionate beliefs that underlay it.

The world is mysterious. Our presence in it and our actions in it are also mysterious. Everything we do can be looked at as a straightforward, literal action; but somehow the echoes of our deeds reverberate through a strange chasm of unconscious purpose and meaning, ensuring that nothing is ever quite what it seems.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

ego is my hobby

Stephen King said that he wrote 365 days a year, including Christmas and his birthday, because that's what he liked to do. Book after book was written in this way, seven days a week, many thousands of words a day. Hence his famous prolificness.

I write fewer than 365 days a year--but not that many fewer. It's probably about 350. (Of course my output per day is also much less. Sigh.) But I'm not always pushing a single project forward. Continuous, unremitting work on a single thing I find exhausting and eventually boring and confining; I need a break, I need to let my mind loose on other things.

So on weekends I turn my mind away from The Mission and focus elsewhere. Right now I'm back to my musings on identity, writing notes toward what may, I hope, eventually become a nonfiction book project of its own. On Saturday and Sunday I sat here keying notes in much the same way I do with The Mission, including notes from research books. This project has its own folders set up on my PC, just as the novel does.

It's a hobby project, undertaken for love and interest, in exactly the same way that Kimmie makes a hobby right now of creating haute couture costumes for Barbie dolls up in her sewing room. Purely for love, not for any monetary or pragmatic reason, she diligently puts together patterns with carefully chosen fabrics, and makes little accessories from scratch such as hats with plumes and little handbags with special details; she even sews up Barbie-scale lace panties from sections of stretch ribbon. Over this past weekend she spent hours preparing an inventory of all her work on it to date, and counted 73 outfits already made, many of which are modeled on the three dozen or so dolls she has ranged in tiers atop her white shelving unit. Many of the costumes are Victorian and antebellum gowns--her favorite period. Like everything that's done for love, they're all excellent.

I'm trying to work for love as much as possible (I'm certainly not working for money!). And certainly my weekend hobby is done for love. I'm driven by pure curiosity and a desire to understand.

And what am I coming up with? I'm working toward a unified belief system for myself. I'd like to find out what I believe--what I think is true, what my real values are. In various problems and conflicts around the world, from the Iraq War to global warming to mass violence and starvation in Darfur, I think about what the solutions might be--not merely band-aids but solutions to the underlying problems. This means identifying the underlying problems correctly, just as a doctor can't treat a disease without diagnosing it properly first. What are the root causes of these problems?

The Buddha identified the root cause of all suffering as ego fixation: clinging to the notion that one's self is a real, existent thing that needs continual care and feeding. His insight was that this universal conviction is in fact a mistake, and that if one can gain clear insight into this mistake, everything changes--for the better. Specifically, your suffering is at a complete and permanent end, and you become a truly useful person to the rest of humanity.

Sounds good. I spent 15 years fairly intensively studying and practicing those teachings; they form the great bulk of my spiritual education, such as it is. I haven't achieved the enlightenment of the Buddha--far from it--and I came to see that that eventuality is probably some way off, not in this lifetime, not for me. But in all those years I made an examination of ego from the Buddhist perspective, for Buddhism is, in a certain sense, an intensive effort to understand ego through study and introspection. Now I've changed my approach, and am looking at it from a "Western" perspective--a philosophical and scientific approach, you might say.

What is it that makes us hate? What is it that has us identifying with an in-group and seeing ourselves in antagonistic competition with other perceived groups? Why are "Arabs" slaughtering "blacks" in Darfur? What, at bottom, do Shiites have against Sunnis, and vice versa? Why do I want more than my share?

These are all questions relating to ego, which I have rebranded as "identity" for my purposes. And that, friends, is my hobby.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

the sleeping wounded

A mite underslept this morning after awaking at 3:45 from this dream:

Dream of being shot--or rather of having been shot--with a diamond bullet. I'm with Kimmie and others, cleaning out a house or apartment, and I'm putting on a record to listen to: a 45 RPM disc of "Reelin' in the Years." For a lark we're going to see whether we can clean out a certain room in the time that the song plays. I'm expecting the song to last maybe four minutes, but I see on the label that it plays for only 2:59--even less than three minutes! I'm surprised; this won't leave us much time.

And now I notice that I've been shot: there's a bullet-hole in my chest or upper arm, a clean, dark-red hole. I know it's a diamond bullet, but to Kim (or Mom?) I say, "It's a carbon bullet." This is bad, because this kind of bullet does especial harm, maybe blowing up inside one after a certain time. I'm not in pain, but I realize that I may be about to die--a reality I find hard to grasp, and I wonder whether Kimmie and the others realize the urgency, or whether I'll be dead before the song's over.

I quickly typed those paragraphs into my journal when I got up so I wouldn't forget the dream. I can see in the images certain impressions from recent days: I was thinking yesterday or the day before of when we moved Robin into her new apartment down the hill in October; a few days ago something caused the old Steely Dan song "Reelin' in the Years" to surface in my mind--possibly when Kimmie and I were reminiscing about the song "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo" by Rick Derringer, from the same year (1973), and I recalled an anecdote that Fagen and Becker of the Dan had exhausted Derringer in a recording session once by demanding endless repeats of a guitar solo; a couple of days ago I read an article in The Economist about the world diamond trade, and some of the effects of "blood diamonds" on that industry. (Curious side-note: Rick Derringer now appears to be a Christian rocker.)

I've also been reading and thinking about nanotechnology, which relies on carbon nanotubes and the minute carbon polyhedra called buckyballs. Maybe a week ago or so Kimmie asked me what a geodesic dome is (invented by Buckminster Fuller, after whom the nano-balls are named).

I recall too that "Reelin' in the Years" contains the lines "You wouldn't know a diamond/If you held it in your hand."
Diamonds, of course, are also pure carbon. And I have toyed with the idea of setting a story in a globally warmed future, with the working title of Carbon. I've been reading about how the complexity of living forms is made possible by the special properties of carbon, its many different ways of making combinations with other atoms. In that sense it's the element of life. To be shot with a bullet made of it is therefore something of an irony.

These are just scraps of impressions and thoughts: the shreds from which the collage of the dream was made. But I haven't thought about what the dream might mean. I felt a sense of sadness and vague urgency in the dream rather than the dread I might really feel if death were so imminent. But it was striking, anyway--and I think a new kind of dream for me. Why that? Why now?

I never did return to sleep. The alarm went off, and it was time to lumber down here and start my day.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

on thematic research

After my post yesterday I gave more thought to what it means to research the meaning-content of a story (my story, anyway).

For I suspect that it's not strictly necessary for most writers to do such research. The meanings of stories emerge naturally and inevitably from the narrative. When the writers of the Clint Eastwood thriller Magnum Force were developing their screenplay, for example, I doubt they did specific research into the abstract nature of justice. But the thematic interest and tension of the movie, its meaning in my sense, has to do with justice. What are the individual's responsibilities and rights concerning justice when his society's institutions of justice have been perverted and turned into institutions of injustice? What if the forces of the law have themselves become criminal?

This question is interesting and important, and it is, in my opinion, much more responsible for making Magnum Force a hit than the fact it starred Clint Eastwood engaging in violent gunplay.

Magnum Force was conceptually a relatively simple movie (although, I think, a very good one--and a rare example of a sequel that lives up to the quality of the original, in this case Dirty Harry). Movies in general need to be conceptually simple; it is not a conceptual medium. Their ideas should be simple, but deep and emotionally charged--important, in other words. Novels do not need to be so simple. Since the medium is words, they are inherently conceptual; they are absorbed over a much longer time, and the reader is free to pause and backtrack if he or she wishes. Literature, of all the art forms, is the one best able to explore ideas to their conceptual limits.

So for me thematic research means investigating my story at the level of ideas. To use Dirty Harry again, I would be investigating the question, what is justice, anyway? I believe that digging into that question would be fruitful in sparking story- and character-ideas. Ideally, different ideas of justice would be held by different characters in the movie (I'm not sure how many actual ideas are represented this way in the movie--it's been years since I've seen it!). Their ideas would guide their decisions and their actions, and, to the extent that these ideas were incompatible, dramatic conflict would be generated.

Thematic research, then, clarifies the ideas underlying a story, untangling the confusion that exists first of all in the writer's own mind. If you were assigned to write Magnum Force, you might go in with your own assumptions about justice, maybe something like, "justice is the orderly operation of the law in a democratic state". But it would be good if your assumptions started to bump up against competing ideas. How about something obvious, like, "justice is ensuring that people get what they deserve"? Now, if your orderly operation of law does not result in people getting what they deserve, then what? Conflict.

Of course, each question sparks further questions. What does it mean to say someone "deserves" something? Who decides? These sparks can start their own fires, so to speak. Plato's whole masterwork The Republic is, in theory, the result of an inquiry into this topic--what is justice? I'd like to think that if I were writing Magnum Force, I would dip into The Republic to see what I could find.

Hmm. I seem to have talked myself out of my own supposition stated above, that writers of simple stories don't need to do thematic research. Now I'm thinking they probably do! (Do need to, that is--they probably often don't actually do it.)

For the best stories, in my opinion, are ones in which the writer has clarity about the competing ideas involved. You need to know what your characters truly stand for, and then give them their own integrity based on that. Even your deceitful, two-faced villain has integrity somewhere, even if it's only in a steely adherence to the conviction that the world is a Darwinian jungle where only the fittest survive, and survival is the supreme value.

So, in the spirit of untangling a great knot, I proceed day by day with my thematic research, learning about what my characters might believe, and learning also what I believe.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

research and values

I'm doing research again. Or maybe I should express it like the old joke: "Are you drinking again?" "No--still."

I'm still researching.

So what is research? It's the more or less systematic process of discovering knowledge. As I've said many times here, without knowledge, the writer has nothing to write. Knowledge forms the stock of writable material; research builds up that stock.

In my mind I divide my research into two kinds: subject-matter research about history, technology, dress, customs, and so on; and thematic research about the meaning-content of my story. I enjoy both but my real preference is for thematic research. With subject-matter research I sometimes feel there is indeed such a thing as doing too much--learning too many things that I will never be able to, or even want to, use. Time spent doing that does indeed eat into the time one might be spending actually writing one's story.

I don't feel the same way about thematic research. Here, as far as I'm concerned, there is no such thing as too much. This is research to learn about the why of my story: why am I telling this story? why does it matter?

According to Robert McKee, in his book Story:

Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life?

Ultimately each of us has only a single asset: time. Each of us has an unknown but finite and ever-dwindling allotment of days, hours, minutes, and seconds on Earth. Each moment we spend this resource. Mine grows smaller as I type this; yours grows smaller as you read it. What's the best way to spend it? What's the right way to spend it? Like shoppers in a cosmic mall, we're surrounded by come-ons and inducements to spend--to give our time here or there in the quest for love or career attainments or religious purity. Which should we choose, and why, and how?

This question, I believe, is finally about values. Just as the decision to spend money on something is made on the basis of valuing that thing, so is the decision to spend time. Indeed, money is time, inasmuch as it represents our labor, our time, in earning it. But money can come and go. Our stock of time remains fixed, and only decreases. So time is the real money, and what induces us to spend it here or there is a question of values. What we value most highly is where we spend most of our time--or at least, that's where we want to spend it. Often we spend time doing things that we would rather not be doing, such as going to an unfulfilling job each day--and yet this too expresses a value. We work in order to survive, and we avoid reaching out for something more fulfilling out of fear of failure or lack, thus expressing a preference for the value of safety or security.

Stories are about values, or, more specifically, about conflicts of values. When we weigh the values of fulfillment vs. safety in our own lives, for example, we experience a conflict of values. We make a choice and live with the result. In a story we get to see characters going through this same process, which is the process of living, of spending our sole asset of time. Different characters carry different values, including different conflicting values, and the landscape of the story is designed to put these values to the test.

We respond most to those characters whose value-problems resemble our own. An important character for me has been Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It might not be easy to express exactly what the values are, but I feel them. They have to do with finding one's own integrity as an artist and as a person, and having the courage to live in that integrity, despite pressures on all sides to abandon it and conform with one or another group, all of whom seem to have claims on one's allegiance. This unlikely hero--a weak, nearsighted little bookworm--turns out to have greater integrity and greater courage than the swaggering athletes and pious churchmen and nationalist firebrands around him. He reaches within himself, almost unaided, to find the courage to walk a solitary path to an unknown destiny. One way of expressing what Joyce was saying in this novel is that time spent in discovering and living one's own personal destiny is not wasted, even though the struggle to do so is often far from pleasant.

Values are ideas. They are represented by specific thoughts, which can be expressed. Thematic research, for me, is the investigation of the idea content, the values content, of my story. To be honest, I still don't really know what it is; that's why I'm researching. Not knowing this is anxiety-causing. There's a feeling of taking a flier here on an unknown--much like life itself.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Something else I've been meaning to talk about: inspiration.

I'm thinking here not of artistic inspiration, particularly, but of inspiration in general, as defined thus in Webster's:

1 a: a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation; b: the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions

What we call artistic inspiration, of course, is a stepped-down version of this divine influence.

I got thinking about it while reading the book Zoroastrians by Mary Boyce. Early in the book she sketches the revelation of the ancient Iranian prophet (around 1500 BC) whom the Greeks called Zoroaster, contrasting his teaching with the previously existing beliefs of the Indo-Iranians who at that time still lived on the steppes east of the Caspian Sea--before the migrations that would split this group into the peoples we now call Indians and Iranians. As I read, I found myself becoming inspired by Zoroaster's message.

The Indo-Iranians had many gods. They were a pastoral people whose nomadic lifestyle allowed only a simple, mobile cult. They regarded the elements of earth, water, and fire as sacred, and their rituals included simple representations of these things. Also sacred to them was what they termed asha--the natural order of the world. Asha manifested itself in human society mainly as justice and as truth in speech, something the Indo-Iranians took very seriously. Being true to one's word was especially important in two actions: in making an oath, and in making an agreement with another person. The god who oversaw oaths was Varuna; the god who oversaw contracts was Mithra. Whoever violated an oath or a contract could expect punishment from the god in question.

As the Bronze Age unfolded, the invention of the war chariot revolutionized warfare in much the same way that gasoline-powered vehicles revolutionized it in the 20th century, by making it mobile. A single war chariot could wreak havoc on a large contingent of foot soldiers at that time. The charioteer, dashing, bold, powerful, and wealthy, became a new icon--the prototype of the knight and cavalryman, or even our modern race-car driver. The Indo-Iranians tamed horses on the steppes, and had access to rich deposits of copper and tin that enabled them to make weapons. A new caste of mercenaries and brigands was born.

A charioteer didn't want a life of herding sheep or cattle; he could take whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it. So began an era of systematic domination of humble pastoralists by aggressive warriors.

This was the era into which Zoroaster was born. Apparently he looked around him, saw violence and injustice, and one day, while fetching water in a river to perform a rite, had a vision of the supreme god Ahura Mazda ("Lord Wisdom"), who gave him a new understanding of the world and his mission in it.

Ahura Mazda, the lord of goodness and truth, upholder of asha in the universe, had an opponent, Angra Mainyu ("Hostile Spirit"), who like Ahura Mazda had always been, but who was bent on upsetting the order of the world. He was the source of injustice, lies, and evil in the world. Most of the other gods of the Indo-Iranian pantheon, including all those worshipped by the warrior caste, were on the side of Angra Mainyu, not Ahura Mazda. Zoroaster learned that the whole universe was a struggle between good and evil, between truth and falsehood, between justice and injustice, and the mission being given him was to educate his fellow people about this, and get them working on the side of Ahura Mazda--bringing good and order into the world.

To make a long story short, Zoroaster was indeed able to convince enough people of his message to launch a major world religion--the world's first revealed religion, and eventually the official religion of the mighty Persian empire, and a major influence on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His teachings followed the migrations of the Indo-Iranians into what we now call India and Iran; Zoroastrianism was one of the influences on the northern Mahayana Buddhism of India just before and after the time of Christ.

Zoroaster preached goodness and truth. And he stressed that each individual human, man and woman, young and old, mighty and humble, matters in the cosmic struggle against evil. Every word, deed, and thought that we have counts. At every moment of our lives it makes a difference, to the universe as a whole, what we think, say, and do. We need to decide whose team we're on, and then play our part to the fullest.

When I read this I was inspired. I no difficulty seeing why Zoroaster could find followers with this message. It was a categorical summons to what was highest and best in people, presented in a myth, a story, they could believe. I was reminded of how I have been inspired, again and again, by the teachings of Buddhism, for much the same reason: it was, is, a summons to what is highest and best in us, to apply ourselves to our lives with attention and diligence--to do the right thing.

I venture to suppose that inspiration is the most powerful force in the human psyche and in the shaping of world events. And I can see why Zoroaster taught that Ahura Mazda, Lord Wisdom, must and would eventually win this cosmic struggle--it was inevitable. Angra Mainyu would be finally and permanently defeated, because while greed and power-lust can motivate people, they can never inspire them. Somehow Zoroaster was tapping into this difference in motivating forces in the human psyche, which must in turn of course be related to reality, the structure of the universe after all. His message was meaningful, fulfilling, and optimistic. If everyone must live by some set of beliefs, why not these?

The wind of inspiration blew through me. I recalled the times--many times, I'm glad to say--I've felt in my life that there are good, important, worthwhile things for us--all of us--to do in the world.

Ideally, artistic inspiration can be part of that.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

innies and outies

Most Sundays Kimmie and I watch the CBC current-affairs show Sunday Night with Evan Solomon and Carole MacNeil. Last night they had a segment on introverts and extroverts. Apparently 75% of people are extroverts, 25% introverts. Two (introverted) American professors talked about the problems of being an introvert in an extroverted world.

I watched with interest, because I've quietly (in my introverted way) followed the issue since I first seriously encountered when reading Jung, who, I believe, invented the terms, or at least developed the concepts into an important part of his psychological theory. It wasn't my favorite part of his system, since it seemed simplistic to me. Was it useful to categorize people into one of two great bins, according to whether they are habitually outgoing or more inward?

They had a pop-questionnaire on the show so you could tell which bin you fit into. Here are the traits. You are an extrovert if:

  • You like to be in the thick of things.
  • You enjoy chitchat, even with strangers.
  • You feel stoked after activity.
  • You know lots of people and consider them friends.
  • You’re generally quite peppy.
  • You tend to speak or act without needing to think first.
  • And you tend to talk more than listen.
You are an introvert if:

  • You enjoy time alone or with a few close friends.
  • You experience a blank mind in groups or under pressure.
  • You feel drained after activities, even the ones you like.
  • You consider only deep relationships as friendships.
  • You appear calm, self-contained, and like to observe.
  • You think before you act or speak.
  • And you tend to listen, but talk a lot about topics of importance to you.
Hands down, no question, I'm an introvert--point for point. (Kimmie felt she was a blend of the two.)

One thing that surprised me in the show was that introverts felt a need to justify themselves, that they feel beleaguered or undervalued in an extroverted world. I suppose I feel that way to some extent; certainly any introvert has felt envy for those who can mingle and schmooze easily. But when they put up the names of some famous introverts they included the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein--and I don't mind being grouped with them.

Indeed, as I said to Kimmie during the show, society seems to advance mainly through the efforts of introverts.

But what is the deeper meaning of introversion and extroversion, if these are real traits? The professors on the show put it down to brain chemistry--always a weak and unsatisfying explanation for me. No, to my mind, it raises the fascinating question of identity, and I see introversion/extroversion in terms of it.

I think that when we're born, we are immediately faced with the task of understanding our world--making sense of the barrage of inputs. Gradually we have to sort our experience into two categories: things that are "us", and things that are "not us". When we form a more or less conscious idea of a single thing that can be called "us", then we have arrived at a sense of identity. It is a learned thing: we learn about ourselves in the same way we learn about the world--as an already existent fact, or set of facts. We discover who we are, just we discover what the world is and how it works.

This process of discovery never stops. We learn about ourselves continually, up until we die, just as we learn about the world (provided we are willing to learn). This continued learning about ourselves is what is known as maturation or individuation. For, just as when we learn something new about the world, we have to make allowances for that fact in our thinking and behavior, so when we learn something new about ourselves must we make allowances for that fact.

I believe that the terms extrovert and introvert point to whether one's main orientation is toward learning about the world without, or toward learning about the world within--for both worlds are of unknown scope and depth. And they are no doubt, in some way, mirrors of each other, so that to know one deeply is to know the other by reflection.

Those are my thoughts, based on much introverted reflection.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

more imagination

Yesterday I was talking about imagination, sparked by my reading volume 2 of William James's The Principles of Psychology. Here is some of the text (compressed) from the top of chapter 18:

Sensations, once experienced, modify the nervous organism, so that copies of them arise again in the mind after the original outward stimulus is gone. No mental copy can arise in the mind, of any kind of sensation which has never been directly excited from without.

Fantasy, or imagination, are the names given to the faculty of reproducing copies of originals once felt. The imagination is called "reproductive" when the copies are literal; "productive" when elements from different originals are recombined so as to make new wholes.

So imagination, in the sense of creative imagination, is simply the calling up and combining of sensations from memory.

One of my first thoughts on reading this was to wonder about dreams. Dreams contain a tremendous amount of novelty. Last night (well, about 3:15 this morning) I dreamed (again) that I was aboard a bus, actually more like our SeaBus here in Vancouver--a pedestrian ferry that crosses Burrard Inlet. This bus, jammed with commuters in the dream, had the same rows of white plastic seats facing each other, but with the new feature of having a kind of oblong ring-aisle off the main long aisle of the bus. The bus-loop we were approaching was more like an airport in the size and vacancy of the tarmac. So while the sensory elements of the dream were familiar, in the sense of being made of familiar substances and based on familiar objects, the actual objects and their configurations were new. So the "originals" being combined were of elements smaller than the whole objects themselves.

A few nights ago I had a dream of being in a cavern with a rushing river. In the river I saw a monster: a sharklike beast maybe 15 feet long, but with three heads on flexible necks protruding in a triangular array from the front of its body (the heads all had long sharp teeth--a very frightening creature). Again, the elements that went to make up this beast were small parts of itself--the fins, the skin, the necks, each tooth--all put together into a new whole. All the rest of the dream-elements too were new images assembled from much smaller pieces to create a strong sense of novelty in the whole.

I accept James's assertion that any imagined object must have a sensory original; a person blind from birth cannot visualize, period, and has dreams that feature only the other senses. But I suppose I'm wondering where this tremendous, productive, recombinant power of imagination comes from--spontaneously in dreaming, and with some conscious direction in creative art--and what guides it and shapes it.

The author of our dreams rips up our sensory memories and reassembles them into collages that have their own integrity, novelty, and emotional power. The pixels of our sensations are reformed into personal stories that have feeling and significance--that have purpose. It's as though the dream-stuff (known as "subtle matter" in ancient Indian philosophy) is a cloth draped over an otherwise invisible form, revealing its shape. And this shape has a purpose; it is not random or arbitrary. How much effort would it cost me to "write" a dream? To come up with its setting, cast, and plot? Quite a lot. Whoever is writing my dreams is putting out that much effort, while making it seem effortless. It can't be to no purpose, any more than my own creative efforts are to no purpose.

From this point of view, then, imagination is a tool, a means to an end, a way of getting something done. It's a way of seeing the invisible, speaking the unspeakable. The purposes or structuring forces underlying the organization of imaginative elements would be, I think, what Joseph Campbell would call myth. Or the whole process of draping these purposive forces with imagined elements, and showing and sharing the results, is myth.

If this isn't exactly clear, you're in no worse a position than I am. This is me working through an idea, a blog-post that reads a bit like an entry in one of my Thinking documents. There's something fascinating here--and very important for us creative artists, as well as us dreamers.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007


Recently I started reading volume 2 of William James's The Principles of Psychology. The second chapter in this volume, chapter 18, is entitled "Imagination". I was struck, even astonished, by what I read in there.

Psychologists of the 19th century made wide-ranging, if relatively informal, surveys of people's ability to imagine visually--to visualize objects and scenes not present--and were astonished to discover a huge variety in people who outwardly showed no great difference in their ability to function normally in life. In particular, I was amazed to read the following, quoted from an 1880 work by the psychologist Galton:

Scientific men, as a class, have feeble powers of visual representation. The highest minds are probably those in which it is not lost, but subordinated, and ready for use on suitable occasions. However, men who declare themselves entirely deficient in the power of seeing mental pictures can nevertheless give lifelike descriptions of what they have seen, and can express themselves as if they were gifted with a vivid visual imagination.

Many of the scientists that Galton surveyed reported that they could not come up with any mental image at all even for very familiar objects, like their own dining-tables at breakfast-time! By contrast, Galton found:

The power of visualizing is higher in the female sex than in the male, and is somewhat, but not much, higher in public-school boys than in men. After maturity is reached, the further advance of age does not seem to dim the faculty, but rather the reverse; but advancing years are sometimes accompanied by a growing habit of hard abstract thinking, and in these cases the faculty becomes impaired. Language and book-learning certainly tend to dull it.

Galton also found that women in general were much more interested in introspection than men, and much better able to do it. Some men seemed barely to have considered the idea that it was possible to examine the inner content and tone of their own minds!

Of course, artists, novelists, and such were (usually) the exception, and had better powers of imagination than most other people.

All this got me wondering: where do I fit in in the world of imagination? I did some of the exercises, such as imagining things not present, and was relieved to find that I could indeed bring mental pictures to mind, although not nearly as vividly as some of Galton's subjects could. I fretted further, since I am a scientific type by nature (Miss Warden, my grade 1 teacher, wrote on one of my report cards that she was concerned that "Paul seems to lack imagination; he prefers facts to stories about imaginary things"), plus I have done a very large amount of book-learning in my life--notorious killer of the imaginative faculty. Could I visualize my own breakfast-table?

Whew, yes, I could. (I eat my morning granola at the coffee-table in the living-room, incidentally, a habit I somehow got into while wearing a cast for my ruptured Achilles tendon in 2002.) As I sit here now, and close my eyes, I can see the coffee-table before me, with its stack of books and the copy of The Economist that I tossed on it this morning on my way downstairs, and the soft burgundy leather furniture surrounding it, and the spruce-green walls...

The images are not very vivid, but they are there. When I was a child I had quite strong imaginative powers, and liked to spend time in my imagination. I used to deliberately "trip" into my imagination often, visualizing myself in stories. When I was a teenager I sometimes used to read novels in a deliberately imaginative way. When I came to any descriptive passage--and some writers were much better for this than others; one of my favorites was Mary Stewart--I would pause, close my eyes, and mentally build the sensuous environment evoked by the writer. I tried mentally to put myself into the scene, seeing, hearing, touching, smelling it. I found that this greatly heightened the enjoyment of reading. I didn't like reading just "to find out what happens"--I felt that was a waste, and I still do. For that reason I didn't like stories that were too suspenseful, and I still don't.

No doubt some would be astonished that someone like me, co-creator and -writer of a successful fantasy TV series, might have any doubts about his imaginative abilities--but there it is.

I should get back to some of that imaginative reading. I don't want to lose this faculty altogether, like the grumpy scientists who responded to Galton that they didn't know what he was talking about. And indeed it has always been my aim as a fiction-writer to create material that others can read in this imaginative way. In fact, that is one of my chief aims altogether.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

what's your story?

This morning: rain. I've just opened the office blinds (the hexagonal acetate rod that controls the blinds still swings from the action). Across the wet greenery of the garden I see activity in the neighbors' window: the woman packing or unpacking something. There is a faint, slow percussion of raindrops hitting wood and plastic. Two floors up from me Kimmie is still getting ready for work.

Where are my thoughts these days. Well, on other than a purely personal front, I'm noticing how ideas are all around us. An idea, once formed, seems to remain part of the permanent stock of human culture, at least as long as there are records of the past. Whether a particular idea is regarded as true seems to be determined by the temper of the times. I was just reading, for instance, about how the Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa in the 7th century BC, and noted how the sun, in the course of their journey, came to rise and set in the north instead of the south--early evidence for the sphericity of the Earth, a theory which was to be developed by Greek philosophers soon after. When I was a child I was taught that it was Christopher Columbus who "proved" that the Earth was round in 1492, while in fact this had been proved at least 1,800 years earlier. "Spherical Earth" and "flat Earth" are two ideas, and they're no doubt held by different people to this day.

But the spherical Earth seems to be a matter of fact. What about other, more value-charged ideas? Those are perhaps the more interesting. Does God exist? What is the nature of consciousness? Why is there a universe? It seems the mere posing of such questions sparks ideas--suggestions, possibilities, guesses. Each of us chooses certain ones and decides to believe in these--to hold them as true.

A book I'm reading right now, by Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth, contains an interesting, and for me, new, way of defining myth: "the stories we believe". When I read this I found it simple yet powerful and provocative. I hadn't thought about it in just that way before. It contains two elements: A myth is a story, and more particularly, a story we believe.

Think about it. What stories do you believe?

We have our own stories: the story of our life. The stories of particular events within it. We have stories that we believe about other people in our lives--stories they may or may not agree with.

Those might be called "personal myths". Then there are wider, more generally accepted stories. Some of these are termed scientific theories, such as the theory of evolution: the story of how humanity came to be from animal precursors. If you believe that story, then it's your myth--part of your mythology. We have the story of how the universe originated with the Big Bang and developed through impersonal forces into the vast, complex, and life-supporting thing it is today. If you believe that story, then it is part of your mythology.

Most of what we believe is on the basis of authority: we believe what we're told to believe. I've never measured the cosmic background radiation; experts tell me that the universe is expanding and must have originated in a Big Bang, so I believe it. People tell me there's a country called Venezuela; I've never been there, but I believe that.

Much depends, then, on whom we regard as authorities. Do I regard The Bible as an authority? If so, why do I? It will because someone else told me to. That person is an authority.

Of course, we can accept or reject an authority. I'm thinking that often the changing of an authority in our lives, switching from rejecting to accepting, or accepting to rejecting, is an epochal event: life-changing, empowering. Our beliefs then change, and with them our mythology.

So I'm asking myself: what stories do I believe? And maybe even more importantly: why do I believe them? I think somewhere around here one gets close to the beating heart of one's character.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

swallowing starfish

Another morning post. I'm at the tail-end of my second mug of coffee; it is only lukewarm. I have been keying notes from Hebrew Religion by Oesterley and Robinson and from Zoroastrians by Mary Boyce. I think I'm going at about the same speed I always have, but progress feels slow, like running in sand.

This blog is ostensibly aimed at recording the creation of a novel, The Mission, but there are difficulties and conflicts here. I don't want to reveal too much, either about the content and plot of the book or about its thematic issues. This makes it hard to talk about, in many ways. I'm reminded of a satirical e-mail I thought of years ago while working at the Insurance Corporation, the sort we might expect from senior management:

It has come to our attention that certain individuals have taken certain actions that have had certain consequences for certain other individuals.

The statement, as far as it goes, might be perfectly true. It is also the antithesis of anything that could be called communication.

I'm not quite in that boat, of course. This blog remains a document of one writer's effort to get a large and atypical project done. Artistically solitary, opinionated, and even cantankerous, I labor slowly and unsteadily (it feels like) at my oversize task. My various worries, problems, and distractions are of the essence of my journey, and most of those I can talk about freely--and have.

Here's one: fear of mediocrity. Having inveighed repeatedly against the sloppy efforts of other writers, I'm conscious of having to live up to a certain standard, if only for the sake of integrity. Usually I feel that I'm not likely to live up to it.

I'm technically not mediocre, of course, at least by my own definition. I feel that a truly mediocre writer is one whose very best efforts yield only average material. These people can be very successful commercially--and indeed might be among the most commercially successful of writers. (For the record: I think that the very most commercially successful, such as J. K. Rowling and Stephen King, are not mediocre.) My best efforts are above average. But there can be a disconnect between the level of quality one knows is attainable, and what one actually puts out. Even though it's counterproductive to think about this while writing a first draft, thoughts cannot be excluded deliberately from one's mind (only unconscious mechanisms of repression can do that).

Mediocrity in this sense can mean underachievement: that the product is not worthy of the effort and time lavished on it. This would probably by a symptom of overambition: biting off more than one can chew. This does send a chill through me. I feel like one of those gulls that Kimmie likes to point out when we're walking at Ambleside Beach: birds bored or unsuccessful in their search for regular food who eat starfish lying among the rocks. The starfish, alive, do not want to be swallowed and make strong efforts to avoid it. We've seen gulls with a starfish half ingested, trying to cope with the two or three muscular arms the creature still has wrapped around the gull's face. Usually the gull can eventually swallow its armor-plated prey, but one young gull we saw a week ago looked like it was choking, and, lacking hands to pull the thing out with, didn't know what to do.

That's what you get when you eat starfish. I do worry that I've got a very, very large, live starfish in my gullet.

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Monday, March 05, 2007


Monday morning. Rain falls from the sodden, dim sky. I've been out back to the lane for my weekly duty of unlocking the large wooden box that our building uses to store its weekly garbage in. Soon the diesel-powered garbage truck will rumble in reverse up the dead-end lane, then creep forward as the swampers dump this week's refuse into the back. When they're done I will return outside to snap the padlock back on the hasp, preventing unauthorized personnel from making either deposits or withdrawals from the box--both of which have been problems in the past.

I'm interested by garbage. I'm not exactly sure why. Partly it is my interest in economy and good stewardship, and the fact that I dislike waste. Also, the way people, and society in general, handle garbage is very revealing, I think. Just as my mother last week said that she thinks that you can learn a lot about a person by the way he or she handles money (and I agree), I believe that the garbage picture would round out the portrait to near completion.

Certainly garbage is connected with death. Something becomes garbage when its useful life is over and it is sent away for destruction or oblivion. There is a sense of randomness and chaos: heterogeneous things are mixed together promiscuously, almost obscenely: pantyhose piled in with shellfish scraps, broken chair-castors, and used dental-floss. As garbage, things converge that we would never allow contact with each other in life. This early stage of decomposition is the most unsettling, most horrifying, just as a recently living corpse is more disturbing than a clean old skeleton. It reminds us of the relatively subtle phase-change that separates us from that inert state, the dissolution of our precious bodies, when we become mere meat for species we'd rather not spend time with or even think about.

Twenty-odd years ago, when I was a hospital janitor, I liked the garbage-collection part of my detail. As part of the evening crew I wasn't usually involved with ward garbage. I picked it up from the cafeteria, or from pathology and the ICU, as well as the offices off the Heather Pavilion tunnels underground. We threw the bags into large, four-wheeled wagons of galvanized steel (we called them "trucks") and rolled these to the "physical plant"--the place where the hospital's hot water and other utilities came from. The tunnel floors were not level, so you might see us blue-uniformed guys bent like draft animals, sweating in the tropical heat of the tunnel, pulling a heavily loaded truck up a grade.

If there was a shortage of trucks, usually due to problems with staffing or equipment at the physical plant, we would have to dump our own trucks. I liked that job. It meant riding a large freight elevator, an ancient steel cage with a battered wooden floor, up to a higher floor of the plant. You would take your truck to a great door, onto something like an open elevator shaft leading down to a compactor, open the front doors of your garbage truck, and use a broom handle to shove the bags into the abyss. It was always deserted there at night, so there was a strange sense of industrial solitude and decay--a steamy warmth and the smell of vegetables, sweet medicine, and excrement. Then back down, alone in the cool of the elevator, to the infernal realm of the tunnels.

Occasionally too one would have so-called isolation garbage to dispose of: bags marked with crosses of red tape, indicating that they contained infectious waste. These also went to the physical plant, but to a different floor, where the incinerator was. There you opened a steel hatch to the incinerator and poked the bag, again with a broom handle, through the short passage into the roaring amber-white flames, hot on your face. There was something satisfying about this too.

So yes: a lifelong connection with garbage. I'm interested.

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