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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

epic musings

Just as the truth about the future would be attained only if man were in touch with a knowledge wiser than his own, so the truth about the past could be preserved only on a like condition. Its human repositories, the poets, had (like the seers) their technical resources, their professional training; but vision of the past, like insight into the future, remained a mysterious faculty, only partially under its owner’s control, and dependent in the last resort on divine grace.

Thus E. R. Dodds in his excellent 1951 book The Greeks and the Irrational, which I'm still reading.

This extract is from chapter 3, "The Blessings of Madness", in which Dodds discusses the different kinds of madness as understood by the ancient Greeks. Some types of madness were known to be ordinary and pathological--disease in the same sense that the body can be diseased. But others were regarded as divine, and conferred special superhuman powers on those visited by these states.

Two of these forms of divine madness were conferred by Apollo and Dionysus. But a third was regarded as bestowed by the Muses; this form of "madness" was poetic inspiration. In contact with a Muse, the poet received special knowledge not available to anyone else, and was able to express this in his verse.

As Dodds points out, the epic poets, when they supplicated the Muse for inspiration, were looking not for the technical ability to express themselves, but for hidden factual knowledge of the past. In an era without recorded media, the all-seeing, all-remembering Muse was the repository of the truth about the past, and it was this precious truth that the epic poet needed above all in order to fulfill his task.

I find this idea fascinating and, yes, inspiring. At this stage in my own epic work, I feel that I understand exactly what my great forebears were asking for, and why.

The past is a great unknown, as is the future. We have memories of our own lives, but as psychology has shown, memories change. What we remember, if we remember, and if that memory has any relationship with fact at all, is colored and shaped by our need to account for the present as we understand it. Our personal memories are mainly a kind of personal mythology that explains and supports our current attitudes and actions. Very broadly, we remember what we want to remember--the way we want to remember it.

And when we look back to times before our personal memories, we move even further onto mythological ground. Textbooks of national history are notorious for showing an edited, self-serving view of the past. Their aim is to create generations of patriots.

The epic poet, then, prays to the Muse for the truth about the past. What he gets is what he gets--whatever she decides to give him, if anything.

Now we have a long tradition of recorded history, as well as an actual science of the past in archaeology. Does this mean the Muse is obsolete, retired?

I think not. For the poet--and here I mean poet in its broad literal sense of "maker"--is still a limited being, who has only so much time and energy in his mortal frame. Confronted with a sea of recorded information, how is he to find what he needs?

You can call it chance, or method, or association--but I think that a research process that relies only on these things will come up empty. Speaking for myself, I have a certain feeling of being guided. Not all the time--in fact, not usually. But nonetheless. And after all, it takes me time to collect and read through the material to which I'm guided. I just need to be nudged and steered a little from time to time. I do get these nudges, and they must come from somewhere.

The "unconscious" would be the usual explanation. But what is the unconscious? By definition it is the great unknown, what is outside the field of consciousness. Because we claim not to believe in gods, we take it to refer to essentially mental processes happening below the threshold of awareness. But the entire notion of an unconscious mental process is quite mysterious, if you think about it. And to the extent that it exhibits purpose and knowledge, well, then, it's all the more mysterious.

I say: the Muse is as the Muse does. The gift of Calliope, the Muse of epic, is not poetic prowess but knowledge. The epic poet knows things that other people don't--and then he tells them.

O Muse, thanks for your help thus far. Please don't abandon me now.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

epics, holograms, and hell

Writing, studying, thinking--these three converge for me. I keep a separate folder on the computer labeled Thinking, in which I have documents devoted to different topics that interest me. For example, one of these is "Literary Criticism", which I've set up to record any thoughts I might have on literature as an art form. Some of these Thinking documents I find myself copying and pasting into my Encyclopedia folder for The Mission. The compartments between my different creative and thinking activities are dissolving. Gradually it's all becoming one enterprise, involving my whole being.

This relates to the idea of the epic as a total form: an epic, in some sense, is a complete image of the world. The epic form places the maximum demand on the writer. It reflects the totality of his being, which in turn reflects the totality of the world he lives in. I think of a hologram. One of the properties of the hologram is that each piece of the whole contains all the information in the whole--just on a smaller scale. A hologram of, say, a car, can be cut up into little pieces, and each little piece will have the image of the whole car.

The epic is a hologram of the world as the writer understands it. Perhaps this could be said of every work, but the epic is specifically an effort to make this image as complete and deep as possible. The epic gives meaning to the existence of a nation--or of our whole species.

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading Mark Musa's translation of Dante's Inferno. Excellent stuff. Quirky and weird, like all the greatest literature--but bold and brilliant. The Divine Comedy was Dante's effort at producing a total work, a complete image of the cosmos in all its significant features. All the levels are there, from the microcosm of the Pilgrim's soul to the mesocosm of his society to the macrocosm of the created universe. They are integrated and related. As Virgil leads him ever deeper down the trenches of the vast crater called Hell, centered under Jerusalem, Dante describes what he sees and feels with an awestruck but sober eye.

And 700 years later, he's still in print. Next up: Purgatory.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

reading hevvy

Just about all of my reading is done for a purpose. Only occasionally do I read a book for "general knowledge", and almost never do I read a book "for fun".

Sound dreary? It isn't. For one thing, life is short, and I don't really have enough hours in it to read all the purpose-driven material that I want. But for another, those "fun" things, to me, aren't fun. Before long my eyes glaze over and I find I'm not picking up that book any more to continue on with it. I'm back to a full slate of motivated, "serious" reading.

What was the last thing I read for fun? Trying to recall... Two or three years ago I would sometimes peruse the paperback racks at the library, looking for something I might find entertaining. Mainly I had no luck. The racks there were filled with novels from series that for the most part lacked the first volume (presumably it was always checked out).

I remember going on a little vacation with Kimmie and Robin back in 1990--something we very seldom ever did, partly due to lack of money. This was a relatively cheap getaway to the Gulf Islands nearby. We were going to stay in rustic little cabins, ride our bicycles, and just relax. I took along some light "summer" reading, the sci-fi novel Count Zero by William Gibson. It had been a while since I'd read any science fiction--a staple of my youth--and Gibson was its hottest practitioner at that time. Here was my chance to kick back and enjoy some escapist fare.

Sitting at a quiet table in a cabin on Mayne Island, while deer moved silently outside, eating the motel owner's flowers, I tucked in to Gibson's cyberpunk novel. I felt a bit of a buzz as I started, at the imaginative settings and his tough, cynical style, but before long it palled on me. I finished the book, but I was not drawn in and carried along by the current of story as I used to be as a boy. I wasn't able to fully buy into the characters or the situation, even though I really liked the idea of futuristic hacker-jockeys moving through a virtual-reality space, breaking into data banks (I think that's what was in the book). It seemed that sci-fi reading was something I could not go back to, any more than I could go back to playing with Hot Wheels or Lego. Had I become entertainment-proof?

Well, my reading may not be "fun", but I do enjoy it. To me, this is fun. And it's hard to engage me in a story. Mostly what I think is, "so what?" Of course, I'm writing a king-sized story of my own now--one that I intend to be readable by me or people like me (if any such exist). I need to be reading about stuff that matters, and therefore that's also what I need to be writing about.

So right now it's Dante's Inferno for me. Not "reading lite". Maybe I need my own marketing phrase--how about "reading hevvy"?

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Monday, September 22, 2008

what and why

Again I find myself sitting here for long minutes staring at the screen. What do I write about? What do I say?

Over the years I've said quite a bit in this blog, weighing in on various topics, trying to stay more or less based on the slow creation of my epic, but essaying many side-trips along the way.

My idea of myself as a writer is changing. When I started this blog in 2005 I still thought of myself as a more or less "normal" writer (if such an expression can be allowed): that is, as a member of a more or less well-defined category called writers. I figured that my thoughts, my methods, my difficulties might be more or less like those of others practicing my craft.

Now my feeling is more one of difference: how I am unlike others practicing a superficially similar craft. I keep thinking back to an observation made by Roger Penrose near the beginning of his excellent (and challenging) book The Emperor's New Mind, that he expected, when he was in university, that as he got ever deeper into his discipline of mathematics he would find he had more and more in common with his colleagues in that field. Instead, the opposite happened: as he got deeper in, he found he had less in common with his supposed colleagues, that his way of thinking was so different from others in his field that it was surprising that they could communicate at all.

And yet to outsiders, it would seem obvious that mathematicians would form a tight clique of those who, uniquely among humanity, could understand what they heck their members were talking about. The rest of us sure can't.

So it is, perhaps, with us all. The relentless differentiation of life means that we keep becoming more unique, more distinct, regardless of the groups or associations we belong to. Nothing can stop that. Perhaps it is a lifelong preparation for the solitude of death (counterpart to the solitude of birth).

The writer's task, perhaps, is to turn away from belonging and to use his medium--words--to communicate his uniqueness. A conundrum, for I've toyed often with this joke: "I'm unique--just like everyone else." We're all unique, and in that respect we're all the same.

Ah well. There is passion in me to do what I'm doing--so I'm doing it. What's difficult is to explain what I'm doing--or why. Maybe this blog will never do either of those things.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Same and Different

In my thinking about various things, I arrive again and again at a basic conundrum of human experience: the Same and the Different.

Even in ancient times this question exercised philosophers. How do we understand the ideas of Same and Different? What makes something the Same as something else, and what makes it Different? I thought of doing a drawing or a painting with the title of "Same and Different": two identical eggs side by side. They're the same--but different.

Another way of presenting this same idea is the notion of Genus and Species. In the ancient, original sense, Genus was the category to which two individuals belonged--as, say, the Genus "egg" in my example--and the Species was the individual instance within the category--as the two individual eggs. Two Different individuals within the Same category. They're the Same--just Different.

Two other terms for Same and Different are Familiar and Strange. For something to be the Same, it must be Familiar: we must have a preexisting idea of it against which to compare it and note its Sameness. The Strange is Different from our familiar ideas. We recognize its novelty.

Every created work will be an amalgam of Familiar and Strange, Same and Different, Old and New. Familiar words in a Strange sequence, for example.

My first thought was about historical fiction: that it is a particular example of Same and Different. For, like, say, science fiction, it transports us to a world removed in time from our own: to a place none of us has been in our lifetime. In that sense it must be Strange and Different. But in that Strange and Different time, it contains people, things, situations, that are Familiar--the Same as what we recognize in our own lives now.

But it's not just historical fiction and science fiction that traffic in the Familiar and the Strange in this way--it's every work. An artist is exactly someone who assembles the Familiar and the Strange in a creative and novel way to evoke a sense of aesthetic enjoyment and meaning in a viewer or reader.

And hence, again, that excellent saying about high-quality writing: it makes the familiar seem strange and the strange seem familiar. This is the ability to see (and represent) things with fresh, unprejudiced vision, with the eye of newness.

A historical project is simply one way of doing that. Right now, it's my way. Day in and day out, I journey through the Strange to find the Familiar in history--and finding the Familiar in history, recognize the Strange in today. My task is to share those insights.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

vision returned

Thank heavens! I dug into the Kaspersky User Forum and discovered how to unlock access to the site stats for my blog. I can see them again.

I discovered how much I rely on being able to get a sense of how many people are stopping by (I can see only a subset of visitors, due to various security settings on people's computers, and so on). Writing posts without any sense of audience, I find, is hard: it's hard to get motivated. It's like performing in front of a one-way window, where people can look in but I can't see out.

Will this get me writing more posts again? Stay stuned...

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

before the fall

My research has me ranging over ideas far and wide. I'm still searching for the core ideas that are most relevant to my work. I can't really afford to pass over any that I discover along the way. Any of these nuggets may turn out to be gold.

As an example of how the flow of my mind works, this morning I was typing notes from my newly acquired book The Greeks and the Irrational by E. R. Dodds, a famous work based on a series of lectures given by the Irish scholar in 1949. Chapter 1 is "Agamemnon's Apology", in which Dodds examines the psychological and spiritual factors at work in the Iliad when Agamemnon finally apologizes to Achilles for insulting him. In the course of the discussion Dodds talks about the Greek word ate, which he translates as "divine temptation or infatuation". Dodds sees this as a form of "psychic intervention": the sudden eruption into one's mind of a thought, idea, or impulse. If the thought, idea, or impulse is not in line with the thoughts, ideas, or impulses that one usually tends to have, then there is a strong sense that it is something alien to oneself, that it was "put there" by someone or something else--a god or a daemon.

But I recalled the term ate from another book, A Study of History by Arnold J. Toynbee. There he uses the term in his analysis of the phenomenon of militarism:

We may now go on to examine the active aberration described in the three Greek words koros, hubris, ate. Objectively koros means "surfeit," hubris "outrageous behavior," and ate "disaster." Subjectively koros means the psychological conditions of being spoilt by success; hubris means the consequent loss of mental and moral balance; and ate means the blind headstrong ungovernable impulse which sweeps an unbalanced soul into attempting the impossible. This active psychological catastrophe in three acts was the commonest theme in the 5th-century Athenian tragic drama. In Platonic language:

"If one sins against the laws of proportion and gives something too big to something too small to carry it--too big sails to too small a ship, too big meals to too small a body, too big powers to too small a soul--the result is bound to be a complete upset. In an outburst of hubris the overfed body will rush into sickness, while the jack-in-office will rush into the unrighteousness which hubris always breeds."

I felt a shudder as I read these words again, for they seem to be an apt description of our own times. Toynbee, writing in the 1940s, goes on to illustrate his point with the story of David and Goliath. The proud, overconfident Goliath complacently puts his trust in his past accomplishments and his reputation, as well as in his sheer size. A well-aimed stone takes him down.

The story is familiar to everyone, and yet we remain blind to the process by which we (some of us) personally morph from David into Goliath. Militarism is the path trodden by the Goliath of the U.S. Pentagon, and Canada is guilty of me-tooism with our adventure in Afghanistan. I'd like to think that the near-simultaneous federal elections in these two countries will make a difference, but alas, I fear not. It's not in Goliath's nature to see the error of his ways, until just a few seconds after it's too late.

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Monday, September 15, 2008


I still can't view the stats page for my blog, which creates a curious feeling of being cut off. Sort of like a performer who can no longer see the audience.

I continue to research my work. If I am not an "insecure talent", in McKee's phrase, who spends all his time in research without ever actually getting down to the creative work, then I am indistinguishable from one.

But you have to go by your own sense of readiness. Only you can really tell when you're ready to write. Often not even you, for in my opinion all too many writers start writing before they're ready, and mediocrity is the result.

Now I'm enmeshed mainly in research on ancient Rome. I've always known I would have to dig into this topic, but had other fish to fry first. So it's not a surprise; I knew this was coming. And I don't want my own work to suffer from the defects I feel exist in many other works that deal with ancient Rome. Too often historical fiction suffers from an over-reliance on superficial details and texture, and does not find the deep feelings and ideas underlying past cultures. These, admittedly, are not easy to find, surfacing in one's mind, I think, only at the end of a long process of research--and not at all if you're not looking for them. But you're looking for a certain feeling of zeitgeist.

I'm now sensing that coming over my own mental horizon, which means I'm getting ready to write again...

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Our word genius has an interesting background. In Latin it means "that which is just born". To the ancient Romans it meant the collection of traits and potentials that came into being or manifested at the birth of a person or anything else. They deified the concept as an entity that accompanied a man from birth to death (a woman was accompanied by a corresponding being called iuno--the same as the goddess Juno).

The genius was visualized in the form of a bearded snake that had its locus at the forehead. So it was an active, living principle, not the same as one's ego, but representing one's powers and one's destiny. The psychologist James Hillman has made use of this principle in his thinking, seeing in it a correspondence with other ideas, such as that of the guardian angel.

The image that just sprang to my mind was that of the strand of DNA that we regard as encoding our uniqueness as living beings. Being materialists, we tend to imagine this as a dumb thing, a record like a strip of magnetic tape that passively undergoes chemical operations in the course of our biological functioning.

But to me this is a silly way of looking at it. Our DNA is not dumb and inert; everything about it and its functioning suggests purpose and unbelievably brilliant design--a work of, yes, genius. Every one of us has a unique set of DNA, and its operation is purposeful, even relentless. This combination of uniqueness and forward-pushing purpose would be recognized by the Romans as one's genius.

We tend to reserve the word genius for exceptional people whose talents and achievements set them far apart from the norm. But even those who are closer to the norm are still unique, even if they are not famous.

Our task is to tune in to our uniqueness, and get out of its way. The serpent of our genius is always dragging us forward, and we spend much of our time, perhaps, fighting it mulishly, digging in our heels, perhaps out of a desire to be hitched to someone else's genius--to be doing things their way.

Possibly the people we call geniuses are simply those who don't do that. They have stopped fighting their genius--or they never started. Where their genius tugs them, they go. And when you run with your genius, you can run fast and far. It sees farther and knows more than we do. Why not just give in and enjoy the trip?

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Monday, September 08, 2008


I'll quickly check in here. Again I got up in the night to do some reading. This is becoming a pattern. Part of the pattern is that when I return to bed (this morning at about 3:50) I lie awake, then eventually doze and have a dream that startles me awake again right away. The dreams are often about being intruded upon by strangers, or being spied on through windows by them--creepy.

However, there is no downside to reading as far as I can tell (if there is, I'm in big trouble). And time in the dead of night is truly free time.

A few days ago I updated my computer-security program (Kaspersky), and now, with better protection, I can't find a way to access the stats for who visits my blog--one of my main rewards for writing it. I'll try to puzzle that out.

Now: back to more research...

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

back to school

I'll take a quick pause from my morning research to write a post.

Labor Day has just passed, and today is the universal day of "back to school"--a stronger feeling of New Year for me and many others than the holiday on 1 January. For all those years growing up life changed on the Tuesday after Labor Day, and one literally entered a "new year" of one's education.

It's a perfect back-to-school day here: a slight chill in the air, a faint mistiness in the morning air, and the green trees tinged with yellow and orange, the first blush of autumn.

Am I "back to school"? I suppose I never left it. Maybe I'm like the young Ebenezer Scrooge, the solitary boy left behind in the classroom, working while his mates were off home for the holiday. But I'm not here because I lack alternatives. I like what I'm doing, and feel vaguely anxious and off-course if I'm forced away from my solitary research. I'm motivated, because at some level I'm doing this not for myself but for others. Yes, solitary as I am, I'm working for others.

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