Writing about reading

Well, there was a hiatus. I won’t talk about why it occurred—for one thing, I’m not exactly sure why!

In part there are too many things to talk about, and it’s hard to choose among them. I have been writing answers to questions over at Quora.com, which is easier, since it’s simpler to answer a question than to come up with content on my own. For example, yesterday I wrote an answer to the question, “What television shows from the 1980s do not hold up well today?

The world is in a mess right now with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in its 44th day, and things are not likely to get better soon, either, in my view. But my own life in Vancouver, B.C., carries on much the same. I spend time each day reading, and my thought is that I can write about that, for I care about it deeply.

Where the inaction is.

I read every day for about two and a half hours. But I can’t read any single book for that long; my limit is about 45 minutes. So I read from 4 or 5 different books each day. One of those—the first—will be a book of dharma, that is, of the Buddhist teachings. Another—the next—will be a work of fiction. The rest will be nonfiction of one kind or another. My interests range over a wide area, and I like to follow my passions of the moment. Indeed, I am so committed to that approach that I often do not finish the books that I start, not in a single run. I read fairly slowly, and often the wind of my interest will have shifted before I get to the end of a book. The stack of unfinished books grows ever taller on the table by my reading chair, until one day I admit to myself that I am no longer reading some of them and I cull the stack, restoring the left-behind volumes to their places in my library.

So what am I reading right now? Again, I have several books on the go, so I’ll list the ones that I read yesterday afternoon:

  • A Feast of the Nectar of the Supreme Vehicle: An Explanation of the Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras by Jamgön Mipham and Asanga
  • Anna Karenin by Leo Tolstoy
  • Anatomy and Physiology, volume 2: Urinary, Respiratory, and Nervous Systems; Sensations and Sense Organs; Endocrine and Reproductive Systems by Edwin B. Steen and Ashley Montagu
  • Vistas of Infinity: How to Enjoy Life When You Are Dead by Jurgen Ziewe

That last book I bought in February and just started yesterday. I hope to talk about it and all the others in this space.

My reading period each day usually starts at around 3:30 p.m. It might start as early as 3:15, and seldom later that 4:00. I have taken to lighting a stick of incense before I do my dharma reading. I have a good-sized collection of different kinds of incense, which I have come to really appreciate even though my sense of smell is not very acute. Every day I burn a different scent; today it was saffron, acquired from a delightful lady at Etsy.com. I read my dharma, then I make tea and read my fiction selection.

After that I take a break. I come down to my office and perhaps do some administration, or some writing for Quora, or, as today, for my own website. I don’t like to run past 6:00 on my break, for that leaves too little time for the rest of my reading block. I return to my chair (pictured) to read from 2 or 3 more books before Kimmie and I have dinner at 7:00.

That’s it in overview: the part of my day and of my life that I probably enjoy the most. Certainly I do it the most regularly and unfailingly.

And now it’s time to get back to it. I hope—and intend—to see you again soon.

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Are you to be one of the new poor?

What I really like to do is talk about books. I read a lot of them, but I mostly don’t interact with others who are reading the same books, so I find myself keeping my own counsel. And every once in a while it occurs to me: I have a blog. I can talk about books there all I want.

I recently finished rereading a book called When Money Dies by Adam Fergusson, first published in 1975. Its subtitle tells the grim story: The Nightmare of Deficit Spending, Devaluation, and Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany. It’s a history of that infamous period in Germany just after World War I when the government, to meet its ever-growing budgetary shortfalls, turned to the printing presses to create the cash to pay for everything. Both the economy and the society had collapsed by the end of 1923, helping to pave the way for Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich.

. . . so does virtue.

I bought this book in October 2010 in the wake of the Great Recession consequent on the subprime mortgage meltdown in the United States. In fiscal 2009 the U.S. federal budget deficit jumped over $1 trillion for the first time. Although I’m a Canadian, alarm bells started ringing in my mind. That deficit was largely financed by the creation of new money. With the advent of electronic payments, the printing press is no longer required in order to create new money ex nihilo; it was done through a dodge by the central bank called “quantitative easing,” a term that does little to suggest what it actually denotes. The effect is a large increase in the money supply while also holding interest rates at artificially low levels so that the increasing government debt can continue to be serviced affordably. Quantitative easing was declared to be an emergency measure undertaken in order to stabilize the economy by rescuing certain “too big to fail” Wall Street banks.

But the emergency has dragged on. Trillion-dollar deficits were run for the following 3 years before dropping below the $1-trillion mark in fiscal 2013. After touching a low point of about half a trillion dollars in 2015, they started marching back up, rocketing to over $3 trillion in fiscal 2020 in consequence of spending related to the coronavirus pandemic. A lot of that borrowing has been financed by the creation of new money. Earlier editions of Webster’s dictionary defined inflation as the expansion of the money supply, but the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines inflation thus:

a continuing rise in the general price level usu. attributed to an increase in the volume of money and credit relative to available goods and services

Webster’s tracks how the word is actually being used, and its use has changed. Now it is usually used to point to the rise in prices, with the notion of increase in the money supply being suggested as a probable cause. This weakening of the connection between inflation and the money supply I suspect has been deliberate. It has been promoted by those who benefit from inflation: namely the government and its most important clients. For inflation is a form of taxation, since it pays for government spending, but it is a form that is not widely understood, not arrived at by democratic means, and that is regressive in that it harms the poorest people the most.

I myself hold with the more conservative view that equates inflation with expansion of the money supply, without looking at “the general price level,” which is in any case a vague and elusive concept. If the beneficiaries of inflation can persuade us that the “rise in the general price level” has been low, then they can claim that inflation is low by this newer definition. The general price level is ostensibly tracked by a measurement called the consumer price index (CPI), which is currently, officially, somewhere over 5% in the U.S. The U.S. Federal Reserve’s official “target” for inflation is 2%; the official line is that the current period of higher inflation is “transitory,” relating to the readjustment of the economy as it works out the effects of measures taken during the pandemic. But there is strong reason to believe that inflation is actually much higher than 5%, and is furthermore not transitory but present for the long haul and set to keep increasing.

John Williams, a statistician and former U.S. government employee, maintains a website called Shadowstats.com, where he publishes a number of analyses of official economic data. Among the stats he follows is CPI, and he notes that government statisticians have made repeated adjustments to their formula for calculating CPI, all of which have had the effect of making the number appear to be lower than it appeared formerly. Accordingly, Williams shows what the CPI figures would be if they were still calculated as they were in 1990 or in 1980. If the calculation used in 1980 were still used today, current inflation would be running at about 18%. At that rate, prices double every 4 years.

Friends, that is a high rate of inflation. And if you do any shopping, such as for groceries, you know darn well that prices are rising much faster than the official rate of 5% a year.

If you’re very wealthy, high inflation is a nuisance but you’re able to bear it. But the lower your income, the more of a challenge it presents and the more quickly it erodes your standard of living. How often do you get pay raises? How big are they? The difference between those figures and the true inflation rate is the measure of how quickly you are being impoverished. If you live on a fixed income, such as a pension, then you feel the bite of inflation more acutely than anyone else.

All right, so inflation is high. Sooner or later the central bank will step in and do something about it, right? They’ll abandon the “transitory” script and do what needs to be done. I’m afraid that this is wishful thinking. When inflation last surged this high in the U.S., in the 1970s, then Fed chairman Paul Volcker made the difficult decision to bring it under control, and he did this by raising interest rates very high. In March 1980 he set the so-called Fed funds rate at 20%. That was the price that banks had to pay to borrow money from the Federal Reserve—everyone else had to pay more. I remember watching a TV newscast at the time in which it was reported that the banks in Washington State had set their loan interest rates above the rate that their criminal code defined as usury. It was a shock to the system: people stopped borrowing and started saving, the value of the dollar went up, and inflation came down. There was a lot of economic and social chaos, but Volcker and the other authorities regarded it as worth it in order to put an end to “double-digit inflation.” That’s right: double-digit inflation—the CPI in 1980 was sitting at around 13%, 5% less than what it is today, according to John Williams.

But at that time, the government and society in general was much less in debt than they are today. Today, even a small upward nudge in interest rates will create much larger interest payments for big debtors such as the federal government. Pushing interest rates up to Volcker territory would bankrupt the government, diverting all its revenue into interest payments and away from programs. According to the U.S. Debt Clock, the U.S. federal debt is now closing in on $29 trillion. A 1% interest payment on that comes to $290 billion—a lot of money even by today’s standards.

No, the government needs interest rates to be low, and to stay that way. The government will continue to make its payments by creating new money, just as the Weimar Republic did in Germany in the 1920s. Back then, the government and all other economic authorities denied that the skyrocketing prices were caused by the printing of money; they insisted that other things were causing the price rises and that they printing of money was needed in order to keep up.

Nowadays the authorities are blaming the coronavirus pandemic for the inflation: disruptions in supply chains, labor shortages, and so on. They need a narrative that allows them to keep printing money and to forestall panic. But the ever-increasing inflation means that the panic sooner or later will come, and with it a great deal of suffering and social unrest.

One of the best aspects of Fergusson’s book is that he includes extracts of diaries of people going through the hyperinflations in Germany and also in Austria, which suffered its own version at around the same time. The following was written by Frau Eisenmenger, an Austrian housewife, on January 2, 1924:

All who were not clever enough to hoard the forbidden stable currencies or gold have suffered losses. We belong to the new poor. The middle class has been reduced to the proletariat. More fighting—daily, repeated, exasperated, demoralizing, offensive and defensive fighting of man against man. I feel that my strength is deserting me. I cannot go on.

If you’re a normal middle-class person, what kinds of events would cause you to write such words?

Frau Eisenmenger refers to those “clever enough to hoard the forbidden stable currencies or gold.” These were the ones who, by defying the orders of their own government, were able to put by savings that enabled them to survive the impending collapse. When the U.S. dollar collapses, what other currencies will be “stable” enough to protect one’s savings? Almost all currencies are now backed by U.S. dollars more than by gold; if the dollar falls then so will these currencies to a greater or lesser extent.

That leaves gold itself, and its cousin, silver, the “poor man’s gold,” which has been a monetary metal for longer than gold has. These metals will be money when all the paper and digital currencies succumb to the impending inflationary and hyperinflationary turmoil. Those who are “clever enough” will be acquiring them now, while they still can.

This is my main takeaway from a second reading of When Money Dies, and I wanted to share that with you, dear reader, in the hope that you may benefit from it. The book itself is well worth a read. The apostle Paul informs us that the love of money is the root of all evil. That may be so, but When Money Dies shows us that if we don’t love money well enough to preserve its value, then great evil surely follows.

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Earth at the crossroads

I’ve written before about how I’ve been an environmentalist for most of my life. The idea of keeping Earth’s natural environment in as pristine and thriving a condition as possible has always been important to me, and over the years I have viewed this issue with sometimes more and sometimes less urgency.

Since Kimmie and I watched a new documentary on Netflix recently, Breaking Boundaries, the issue has rocketed to the top of my mind. As and when you may be able to, I warmly recommend that you give this show a look. Released on June 4, 2021, the film is hosted by David Attenborough and it examines the work of a group of scientists at Stockholm University to identify the key metrics of the health of Earth’s biosphere. They have created something called the Stockholm Resilience Centre, dedicated to research on “resilience and sustainability science.” According to Johan Rockström, the professor who (I think) leads the Centre, they have arrived at a set of 9 metrics, which they call boundaries, that together give a more or less complete picture of the health of our biosphere. Breaking Boundaries introduces the viewer to these metrics, and gives an assessment of the current state of each one.

It makes for alarming—but not alarmist—viewing. Our biosphere is in perilous shape, and rapidly sliding toward the tipping points that will send us into drastic and irreversible changes to our natural environment, changes that cannot be beneficial to most of Earth’s living things, or to human society. In two or three of these boundaries Earth is already in the red zone—that is, past the tipping point. With respect to those things we’re faced with damage control rather than any prospect of improving the situation. This is the case with biodiversity, since species are going extinct at an almost unprecedented rate, and there is no known way of bringing them back from the dead. We need to slam the brakes on this process of loss.

This issue of urgency, of the shortness of time, is my main takeaway from the film. According to Professor Rockström, the current decade, the 2020s, is the crisis period. It is the 2020s which will decide whether we—that is, all of us on Earth—go over the climate cliff, or whether we pull back sharply enough to prevent the worst outcomes. Ten years from now the issue will be decided one way or another.

In global terms, in geological terms, 10 years is a short time. The post I link to at the top of this post was published almost 9 years ago. The stark reality is that we have almost no time in which to achieve the massive changes required. This is the kind of action that requires a hero: someone whose nerve doesn’t fail in a crisis. I think about a movie that Kimmie and I also watched recently: the 1979 sci-fi thriller Alien, starring Sigourney Weaver. (Spoiler alert here!) The crisis of dealing with the killer alien aboard the spacecraft Nostromo pits Weaver’s character, Ripley, against the clock not once but twice. She needs to take cool, definite, and quick action under highly adverse conditions in order to survive. Possessing the steely nerves of an astronaut, she comes up with the goods and lives to go spacefaring another day.

We on Earth need to pull a Ripley, and we need to do it now. Not 5 years from now, not next year. Now.

“But what should I do?” This is the question of the moment. It’s been my main problem with the environmental movement as a whole. I admire people like Greta Thunberg who treat this issue with the seriousness it deserves and who work tirelessly to prod governments to action. But too often I find that the communications of such people tend to be negative: presenting ever more evidence of how urgent and dire the environmental crisis is, but without giving any sense of what I might do about it. I think of it as the Chicken Little Syndrome. I don’t need more convincing; what I need is guidance.

At the risk of a more benign type of spoiler, there is some guidance in Breaking Boundaries. The three top tips:

  1. Plant trees
  2. Adopt a plant-based diet
  3. Aim to generate zero waste

I was surprised by the first one. I knew that trees are important, but I did not realize that planting them is the most Earth-friendly thing we can be doing right now. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we each need personally to be digging holes and placing seedlings in them, for there are many organizations that are already doing this and we can help by supporting them. I’m looking into this for myself and will report back anything I think is useful. But for a start we can be conscious and conservative in our consumption of wood and paper, and of course we can refrain from cutting down trees.

watercolor painting of planet Earth

Mom not looking a day over 4 billion.

And I have a further thought on this topic—one that is not addressed in the film, and it is about the importance of the mental game. Our actions are generated by our thoughts, and I firmly believe that much else is generated by them as well: that we create our reality with our thoughts and beliefs. The Earth and its present crisis has been created by the thoughts and beliefs of humanity over the past centuries, and its healing and preservation will similarly be brought about by our thoughts and beliefs. To this end, I invite you to join me in forming and holding positive thoughts, feelings, and wishes for the Earth and all its inhabitants. The Earth is our mother; it’s time to stop abusing her and start showing her some of the love she has always shown us.

It’s crunch time. If governments do things that are positive that’s great, but we can’t leave it to them. We must, each one of us, take responsibility for changing the course of the world. I have taken that responsibility, and I invite you to do likewise. Let’s do it.

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Slaying Dragons by Charles D. Fraune: demons, demons everywhere

Slaying Dragons: What Exorcists See & What We Should KnowSlaying Dragons: What Exorcists See & What We Should Know by Charles D. Fraune
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An earnest and serious discussion of the phenomenon of demonic possession by an American Catholic concerned that humanity is losing the war against Satan and his hordes.

The author is well placed to write this book, being a practicing Catholic with theological training, having studied and interviewed many of the Church’s most prominent exorcists, and having himself experienced apparent brushes with the demonic. And the book gives a good overview of the whole process of how demons engage with humans, in some cases succeeding so far as to possess them and necessitating the services of an exorcist. Catholic exorcists are unanimous that the phenomenon is on the rise and that modern culture, with its weak and decaying connection with Christianity and its acceptance of Satanism and occultism, is a target-rich environment for demons.

For my own part, although I’ve never been a Catholic (my own spiritual training has been Buddhist), I have come to accept the reality of possession, including demonic possession, since it appears to be so well documented. For me the definitive text is Possession Demonical & Other by the German psychologist T. K. Oesterreich, published in 1921. Oesterreich made a detailed survey of the historical literature, documenting many case histories that appear to show beyond any doubt that possession is and always has been a definite thing. What’s astonishing is that Oesterreich himself does not appear to believe in demons or spiritual entities, but treats these amazing sets of symptoms as a psychological syndrome, albeit a strange and striking one.

Charles Fraune does not have any such hesitations. Demonic possession is documented right in the Bible, and a chief aspect of Jesus’ own ministry was the exorcism of demons—a power and ministry he also conferred on his disciples. Notwithstanding this fact, exorcism has come into what amounts to disrepute in the Catholic Church, with only a small number of experienced priests practicing it and a Church bureaucracy that has little use for it. With this book Fraune is trying to raise consciousness at the grassroots level, getting Catholics to take this issue seriously and to take the necessary steps to prevent falling into Satan’s clutches, which is a lot easier than people think.

For this reader, though, the Catholic focus of the book is a weakness. Like all works written from the standpoint of a particular faith, this one takes it for granted that Catholic dogma is the one and only Truth, and that other faiths are little more than demonic cults. But the Catholic Church is losing adherents, I think, partly because people are uncomfortable with the parochialism of this way of thinking. If demonic possession has occurred at all times and in all places, then presumably the Catholic Church is not the only answer; exorcists have been at work since the beginning of history.

The book becomes increasingly alarmist, warning of the dangers of astrology, yoga, and Harry Potter to open the door to demonic possession. Although I’m Canadian, I grew up aware of the “Communist threat” that was widely feared in the United States in the 1960s; Communists and their sympathizers were thought to be lurking in every organization and under every bed. Paranoia was the order of the day. This book is tinged with a similar paranoia. For although the author repeatedly stresses that demons can molest and possess us only to the degree that God permits, and that God remains in complete control of all their activities, nonetheless we should be afraid—very afraid. And only heartfelt practice of Catholicism—and avoidance of horror movies, New Age ideas, et cetera—can protect us from Satan.

This book is a useful and well-informed look at how demonic possession operates and how it is to be addressed from a Catholic perspective, but its intensely Catholic focus excludes the great majority of humanity and leaves us to our demonic fate.

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Before Machiavelli, there was the Bible

One of my several reading projects is to make my way through the Great Books of the Western World—the works selected by Mortimer J. Adler, Robert M. Hutchins, and their fellow editors for inclusion in the 54-volume set published by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952. So far, I reckon I’ve read about two thirds of the set. Now my program is to go through the set in numerical or chronological order, reading the remaining works. I regard this as a lifetime task, and it’s one I enjoy very much.

Page 1 of the 2nd Book of Samuel

God decides to let the inmates run the asylum.

Included in their list of works, but not included in their published set, is the Bible, mainly because the Bible was already so widely available. It’s currently my Great Book at reading time—specifically the Second Book of Samuel, of which I’ve now read the first two chapters. To shed extra light on the journey I’m also reading a commentary on the two books of Samuel called The David Story by Robert Alter. Alter provides his own very good translation of the two books (Alter himself is an excellent writer) and more or less detailed background and observations on the text along the way. I read the biblical text first myself (King James Version), as carefully as I can, before consulting Alter’s version. It all makes for a really enjoyable and illuminating process.

As I proceed, a thought that keeps striking me with increasing force is how political these books are—and, come to think of it, all the books of the Bible are. If I try to clarify what I mean by that, I would say that they depict, in an unabashed way, how the important actors in this segment of sacred history, the history of God’s securing his own kingdom on Earth, are driven in their actions by naked considerations of trying to acquire and hold worldly power. The key figures of Samuel, Saul, and David are all presented as more or less flawed men, in some ways deeply so, who often commit vicious acts motivated by selfishness, vanity, and lust. And this even though Samuel is a prophet of God and Saul and David are both men hand-picked by God to rule as kings over his own chosen people, the Israelites. One wonders: Is this really the best God can do?

God himself comes across as ambivalent and as somewhat of a martyr. When Samuel protests to him that the Israelites, in demanding a king for themselves, are rejecting his own leadership as their judge, God confides to him that it is he, God himself, who is being rejected as their king. And God permits this! It’s as though his attitude is: “Fine, let them have their human king—let’s see how they like it!” He agrees with Samuel that it’s a crap idea, but he acquiesces in it. And as God more or less voluntarily abdicates the throne of Israel, the full maelstrom of earthly politics comes into play.

Can I give an example? Well, in chapter 3 of 2 Samuel, a quarrel erupts in the royal court of Israel when Ishbosheth, the son of the late king Saul and now king, accuses Abner, the general of his army, of having sex with his father’s concubine Rizpah. While Abner does not actually deny the charge, he is indignant at being called out in this way, considering all that he’s done for the house of Saul—which indeed has been plenty, including installing Ishbosheth on the throne! He is so angry that he threatens to transfer his allegiance to David, who has been made king of Judah. Now Ishbosheth—the king—is afraid of him.

Abner gets right on it. He contacts David in Hebron and offers to make the rounds of all the elders of Israel, reminding them that they have already expressed a desire for David to rule them and that God himself has selected David for their king. It all looks like it’s going to plan, but then a certain Joab, one of David’s courtiers, who bears a grudge against Abner for killing his brother in battle, lures Abner aside and murders him. David then has to scramble to distance himself from this act, declaring publicly that neither he nor his kingdom bears any guilt for it, since he had no foreknowledge of it. He rebukes and curses Joab and his whole household, but does not punish him. Apparently Joab is too powerful or popular for David—the king—to touch.

Although God appears in this narrative here and there, he is a background figure. He is only one of the political actors, and apparently by no means the most influential. He leaves his chosen king, David, the “man after his own heart,” to improvise in herding the cats of his court to form a united kingdom of the Promised Land. (Maybe God commiserates with David: “Welcome to my world!”)

One thing that struck me about this episode is that it contains the modern feature of a political sex scandal, showing how the sexual escapades of powerful men can lead to political crises. The Eden theme of forbidden fruit rises again in a new and fraught context. Maybe Ishbosheth would have found some pretext in any case to challenge Abner, but in the story it is Abner’s taking liberties with his late father’s concubine that puts events in play that will lead to David’s ascent to the throne of all Israel and Judah. This sexual element in the political story feels authentic, and to me speaks for the basic historical accuracy of the account. It’s the kind of thing you show because it’s true and not for any other reason.

I can understand why God is put out that his chosen people are rejecting his own kingship over them, but it does raise a question about his—how else to put it?—performance. It’s hard not to conclude that the Israelites want a human king because they are not satisfied with what their divine one is doing for them. That’s got to hurt.

On with my close reading of the Bible, then. It contains plenty of surprises.

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Is it a crime to kill a fictional character?

Kenny from South Park holding a sign saying 'Don't Kill Kenny'

Maybe in this case it’s okay.

Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers not only about The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, which I already spoiled last time, but about Game of Thrones, the television adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s novel series A Song of Ice and Fire. So if you haven’t read or watched as much of those works as you want to, come back after you have!

Still here? I was saying that the death of fictional characters represents the death of a value within a story and the world that it portrays. My thought was that the death of Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, since she is a little paragon of virtue, represents the death of pure virtue itself. She dies, at bottom, because she doesn’t have enough friends to care about her! Those non-friends are us: we don’t befriend virtue, meaning that we remain more or less strangers to it. Nell’s fate was of keen interest when the original serialized version of the novel was published in 1840; Wikipedia writes of how

it was so popular that New York readers stormed the wharf when the ship bearing the final instalment arrived in 1841.

What happens to the sweet angelic little girl? She croaks—that’s what happens. And how did readers feel about this? Wikipedia doesn’t give a general description, but it does report one reader’s response:

The Irish leader Daniel O’Connell famously burst into tears at the finale, and threw the book out of the window of the train in which he was travelling.

A free book for someone—one with an at least partly sad ending.

Nell’s death is sad. The death of virtuous characters in stories makes us sad. The death of vicious characters, on the other hand, generally does not—especially if their vicious behavior has brought about their own death. This is what happens to the dwarf Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop: in seeking to evade capture for his crimes, he manages to drown himself. Unrepentant to the end, he is as much a paragon of vice as Nell is of virtue. Without him, the world will be a better place, and a number of characters—such as his sweet-natured widow—will find their lives easier.

But isn’t that callous of us, to mourn nice characters and exult in the death of mean ones? Is this how we behave in real life? Gloating when some irritating person has died? I think that most of us, while we may secretly have some such feelings, also feel genuine sorrow, or anyway a certain proper seriousness, even when a tiresome person dies. We may have wished that they were punished for what they’d done to us, but we hesitate to inflict capital punishment on people, even if they have given us a fair amount of trouble. Our sense of justice realizes that the punishment should fit the crime, and for most of us, in everyday life, a death sentence is going over the top. We don’t really want to group ourselves with the tyrants and autocrats of the world, who kill people when they get in their way.

With fictional characters the case is different. It’s true they’re not real people and so we can make free with our wishes about them; our inhibitions can be shelved, and this might be one of the many pleasures of fiction reading and viewing. But I think it’s also something more: it is because characters represent ideas, and the death of a character is thus not just the death of a person but the death of a value. And while some values we would like to see preserved and strengthened, others we would like to see extinguished. Thus, as I suggested in my last post, when Nell dies in The Old Curiosity Shop, it is not just a sweet little girl who dies, but it is sweetness itself that dies—virtue itself that dies. The author is, in a way, erasing it from the world of his story. And that, I say, is what is really sad. That is what makes us forlorn; it brings up thoughts like, “What’s the point of it all?”

For this reason, storytellers should take care which characters they kill—and how and why. Charles Dickens, I think, mostly takes such care. He knows that his characters’ lives, in some way, mean something to the reader. But George R. R. Martin is a different case. He has gone on the record that none of his characters is safe:

I think a writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth and the truth is, as we say in Game of Thrones, all men must die. . . . Once you’ve accepted that you have to include death then you should be honest about death and indicate it can strike down anybody at any time. You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies, at least in my books. I love all my characters so it’s always hard to kill them but I know it has to be done. I tend to think I don’t kill them. The other characters kill ’em. I shift off all blame from myself.

Here I disagree with Mr. Martin. For while it’s true that all men must die, it’s not true that all characters must die. There are plenty of stories in which no characters die, and even Game of Thrones has its survivors at the end. And though Mr. Martin tries to shift the blame, the responsibility is his alone: the death of a character is always a choice—the author’s choice. In that way it’s an act of murder.

It’s also a declaration of a view of the world. Every story is a miniature model of the world, and its characters embody the qualities that exist in that world. When a character dies, so do the qualities he embodies. If a storyteller kills a virtuous character, this creates a trauma for the reader or viewer from which he or she may not recover—as witness Daniel O’Connell above. For me, this moment came in Game of Thrones with the treacherous murder of Robb Stark, the young commander who embodied the virtues of honor, integrity, courage, and justice. I continued to watch the show, but I was less involved, and became progressively less involved as the thing moved to its damp-squib ending.

Killing characters should not be a casual decision any more than killing real people should be. The more invested in your story the audience is, the more they will care about its characters, and the more they will feel the shock of their deaths. Killing virtuous characters has a dulling and distancing effect on the audience; you’re turning down the lamp of virtue in your imagined world, making it more of a twilit place. By extension, you are making a comment on the world in which the audience lives. I think that Mr. Martin has allowed plausible-sounding logic to lure him into acts of fictional murder, and not only were the characters his victims, but the story itself died a little with each death.


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When people die who were never born

Before we go on, please know that this post contains spoilers, specifically relating to The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. If you haven’t already consumed as much of that novel as you want to, then stop here! After this point, you proceed at your own risk. God help you.

I’m taking care with this because I’ve just finished reading The Old Curiosity Shop myself, and the version I borrowed from the North Vancouver City Library, the Everyman’s Library edition published by Alfred A. Knopf, is furnished with an introduction by Peter Washington, opens with this sentence:

There can be few episodes in fiction more notorious than the harrowing scene of Little Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop.

It appears that I’ve been living under a rock, for I never got the memo about Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop. The death happens right at the end, after a long and toilsome journey on the part of the young girl (seemingly about age 11 or so) with her gambling-addicted grandfather. That was a major spoiler for me, for as I read the novel, I would normally have had every hope that Nell would find peace and safety after her trials—worldly peace and safety, that is, for we must presume that she made her way to heaven after passing from the earthly plane due to an unnamed wasting disease. So for this reader, from the start of this 555-page novel, little Nell had a cloud of doom hanging over her head. What meanies they are (or were) at Alfred A. Knopf! I note that G. K. Chesterton’s “introduction” to the novel is placed at the end of the book, as an appendix. It too contains spoilers, but they can’t really be called such when placed after the text. It’s in the right place.

So much for my micro-rant. On to the topic at hand: the death of fictional characters. Are they especially significant? Since these fictional people were never born, never drew a breath, does it matter when they die? Are there rules or guidelines for storytellers when it comes to exercising their divine power to destroy the people they’ve created?

Death and birth are life’s most significant events, and in a story the death of a character always makes a powerful statement, whether the storyteller is conscious of this or not. I believe that the death of a character implies the death of a value: something that the character embodied or stood for in the course of the story. And the more central the character to the story, the more true this rule is. For every good story means something, and everything within it also means something—its characters most of all. When a character dies, it is not just someone who has died, it is something, some idea, some value. And if this is true, then the circumstances and cause of a character’s death also take on a special importance, these being the things that have brought about the extinction of this value in the world of the story.

Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop is a striking character by reason of her maturity and virtue, which are powerful and unwavering from the beginning, and well beyond what most adults can lay claim to. She endures much hardship, as well as injustice inflicted on her by her own grandfather, who orders her to hand over any money she receives, and even steals from her, so that he can gamble. She and her granddad do eventually find a haven where they can live in peace and security, but no sooner does Nell get settled in than she expires. Ah, poor Nell!

Illustration of Nell's deceased body lying in bed.

A hard life, but at least it’s over.

With Nell, a candle of virtue in the world is snuffed out. She is benevolent, long-suffering, selfless, prudent, and courageous in facing dangers for the benefit of others. She is compassionate, affectionate, and well spoken. She is honest, capable, industrious, and responsible. I think of a comment written on my report card by my typing teacher in grade 8: “I wish I had a class full of Pauls!” Well, any teacher could only write the same on Nell’s report card (and Miss Sim, wherever you are, I have made good and plentiful use of the skills you taught me; indeed, I am using them right now), and not just for typing—for Nell is a paragon.

But Nell dies. She dies peacefully, not horribly like the vicious dwarf Quilp, and presumably in good spirits (we are not made witnesses of her actual death). But her death is pathetic, coming as it does only after she has arrived at the haven she has been seeking throughout the story and throughout her young life.  As for the cause of her death, it appears to be the rigors of her journey: privation, hunger, and worry, but also anxiety for her grandfather, for whom she feels responsible. It’s all too much for her. Life has dealt her more hardship than her frame could bear, and God has decided to gather up his little representative rather than extend her term on Earth. According to the Book of Romans, the wages of sin is death, but in The Old Curiosity Shop it is virtue that receives this payment: the good characters do well, but the best character dies. Why?

I’m not sure, but my feeling is that Nell’s death serves as an indictment of the cruelty and injustice of everyday life. She is killed by a cruel world, meaning the world that you and I still live in, you and I, who, by living in it, are the very ones helping to make it cruel and keep it cruel to the extent that we do not ourselves take up the path of virtue as Nell did and make it actual in our own lives. Nell’s death is saying, in effect, “Shame on us!”

The other virtuous characters get to live on with more or less happy lives, but a shadow hangs over them all. The only way to redeem Nell’s death is to take up the standard of virtue where she fell and carry on with it. Perhaps the story is saying that if your virtue is perfect, then the world is no place for you.

So in The Old Curiosity Shop it is virtue itself that dies, and its killer seems to be neglect. Poor, powerless, unappreciated, hounded, beleaguered, and betrayed, virtue is not able to survive the harsh treatment we give it. Pure vice (Quilp) also dies, killed by its own actions while seeking to evade a reckoning for its crimes. It is as though there is enough virtue in the world to put paid to the worst vice. But the death of Nell is saying something more sobering: that there is also enough vice to put paid to true virtue. And that vice does not have a single source, but is carried in some measure by us all.

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at the top of my reading period

Okay, so I care about reading. Well, that’s what I should be talking about, then, isn’t it.

Every day I have a reading period. It starts usually around 3:15 p.m., although it might be earlier or later, depending on conditions. Years ago I would start reading around 4 o’clock, but that made me pressed for time. Now, even with my earlier start time, I find that I’m still pressed for time. But it’s just not practical to start earlier than I do—or to read later, for I pack it in at 7 o’clock when Kimmie and I have our dinner.

The period is fairly structured. I always (well, usually; I might skip if I’m running late) start with whatever dharma text I’m reading. My relationship with Buddhism has been, what shall I call it, nonlinear? In many ways I’m a lapsed Buddhist. It has been almost 20 years since I attended the meditation center in Vancouver where I am still notionally a member (my monthly dues are still deducted automatically from my account), and my meditation practice has fallen to a schedule of bare maintenance: 30 minutes on most days. I have not been on a meditation retreat since I returned from Gampo Abbey in August 2002 after a 6-month stay as a temporarily ordained monk. And my relationship with the dharma has changed, although I would be hard pressed to characterize the exact nature of that change. It’s not so much that I have doubts about the teachings of the Buddha; it’s more about how those teachings can be adapted to my life as a Westerner and as a citizen, artist, and thinker of the West. All of these things place me in a different relationship with the teachings than I had in 1987 when I took my Refuge vow and formally became a Buddhist. But that vow remains in force; I have never renounced it.

Cover of Manual of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw

Turns out there’s lots to say about nonconceptual experience.

My main connection with dharma now is through reading. And I express my respect for it by placing my dharma reading at the head of my reading period, when I am at my freshest. My current text is Manual of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw, a Burmese meditation master who died in 1982. Sayadaw was a highly respected figure in the Buddhist world; among other things, he was a “final questioner” and editor of the Sixth Buddhist Council held in Burma from 1954 to 1956. These councils, dating back to the time of the Buddha, bring together monks from all over the Theravadan Buddhist world to compare and clarify texts. Sayadaw was known particularly as a master of vipassana or insight meditation, and it was because I wanted to known more about vipassana (or vipashyana in Sanskrit) that I turned to this book. In its online description it appeared to be comprehensive and authoritative, and I already held the publisher, Wisdom Publications, in high regard. So I plunked down my $60 or so (I don’t recall–but I’m shocked to see, in a search I made just now, that there doesn’t appear to be any used copy of this book available for less than $250 Canadian! But you can get a new copy from a British seller on eBay for about $64) and got myself a copy. Maybe it was more like $75. But on September 29, 2020, I started reading it.

Now I’m on page 520. The main text ends on page 528, and there is quite a lot of back matter—the pages are numbered to 710, plus there is a poster folded in a pocket attached to the back endpaper. The book as a whole is a huge labor of love on the part of the many people who have contributed to it. As the managing editor, Steve Armstrong, puts it in his preface: “Every member of the translation committee has undertaken decades of practicing the method outlined in this book.” These people are not triflers; they mean business. They take the practice of insight seriously!

As why should they not? Insight is the great aim of Buddhist meditation. The enlightenment of the Buddha is insight into the way things really are. It’s the flip side of the coin that bears, on its other face, the meditation known as samatha in Pali or shamatha in Sanskrit: tranquility or calm abiding. The idea is that you practice samatha to settle the mind, which is habitually restless and busy, and when it settles you are able to practice vipassana or insight and see what’s really going on.

Explained thus, it seems to make perfect logical sense. But I found, in my time training and studying and meditating with the organization now called Shambhala International, that the teachings around vipashyana were not really clear. The main meditation taught there was shamatha meditation, and when the topic of vipashyana came up, I never got a strong sense of clarity about it. One thing that sticks with me is seeing, probably in person somewhere, maybe when I was at Vajradhatu Seminary in 1994 (an 11-week program in the Colorado Rockies), the main teacher of Shambhala, now styled Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (and who, it appears, has fled to India after allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power in 2018—I’ve just learned about these things now!), said with a kind of apologetic chuckle about something that his subordinate teachers were saying: “What you’re calling vipashyana—that’s not vipashyana!”

It brought home to me that even senior students in this lineage were not clear about vipashyana. So I finally decided to try to get myself educated about this important dharma topic. When I discovered this book online, I felt sure it was the right thing for me at this time.

Based on my reading of this book, my understanding of vipassana is that it is cultivated by examining our experience in detail, moment by moment. What makes it “insight” is the fact that it is not conceptual: we’re not thinking about our experience, we’re just looking at it to see what it is. And if we do this, we will find that our experience has a granular quality, that it is composed of moments that come and go, one after another, without cease. The important point is that even if we already “know” this to be true, we still don’t see things this way, we don’t experience them this way. We are still relying on a conceptual way of knowing things. With the practice of vipassana, the momentariness of experience gradually becomes something directly seen rather than cognized or “known about.” And important consequences flow from that direct seeing.

I won’t go into those here; suffice it to say that along this path lies nibbana (nirvana), the opposite or antithesis of the “conditioned phenomena” that constitute our momentary experience. Along this path lies the enlightenment of the Buddha.

So here I am, nearing the end of Manual of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw. I do feel intrigued and inspired to take up the practice of vipassana, at least as an experiment, following the instructions given in the book. Who knows, maybe, when the pandemic has subsided, I may join a vipassana retreat somewhere, for this is a popular practice here in the West. That popularity has a lot to do with the Burmese master Mahasi Sayadaw. He was a monk, and I would have a hard time believing that anyone would ever have had cause to bring any charges of impropriety against him.

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They call me Mister Vitols

I don’t write every day, but I do read every day. The reading and processing of books is the central activity of my life. I am a student before I am anything else. I say this not from a sense of self knowledge or inner conviction, but on the basis of looking at my own life and behavior with objective eyes, as though I were someone else. What would I say about this guy if I were looking at him from the outside? Well, he calls himself a writer, but the most inflexible and sacrosanct parts of his day involve reading. Whatever writing he does is always worked in around that.

I don’t feel bad about this self-realization; on the contrary, I feel great about it. It’s a wonderful thing to be a student, and by student I mean not someone who happens to be attending formal classes at any given time, but someone who embodies what could be called the archetype of the Student. According to Caroline Myss in her book Sacred Contracts, we all embody a number of distinct archetypes, with different ones perhaps manifesting in the different areas or departments of life. But one will probably be central: our ruling archetype. And, looking at my own behavior, how I spend the hours of my day, I have to conclude that mine is the Student. Here is a compressed version of Myss’s description of this archetype:

The student archetype suggests a pattern of constant learning, an openness to absorbing new information as an essential part of one’s well-being. The Student archetype suggests an absence of mastery of any one subject but rather a continual pursuit of intellectual development.

The University of Paul.

Yes, I would say that’s bang on. The phrase “an absence of mastery of any one subject” causes me some discomfort, but I have to acknowledge that in my case it is true. I lack the singleness of purpose of a master, and this does sometimes trouble me. But, on the other hand, I think about what a master must sacrifice in order to achieve mastery. One loses the wider view. And that wider view, acquaintance with a great range of things instead of only one thing, is a positive thing in its own right.

I recall that Joseph Campbell, one of my heroes, described himself as a “generalist”; he regarded himself as someone who surveyed a lot of terrain instead of focusing on one subject (even as he did achieve significant recognition in his earlier career as an authority on medieval literature and, I think, Sanskrit). While he earned a master of arts degree from Columbia University, he never pursued a PhD, the hallmark of the academic specialist. Throughout his life he was careful to correct people who addressed him as Doctor Campbell: “It’s Mister Campbell.”

But Joseph Campbell did become an expert, after all—an expert in mythology. He wrote some of the most powerful and inspiring works on that subject: The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God. But his specialty was so vast that it required a bird’s-eye view of the whole landscape of human history, prehistory, thought, art, and religion. And that’s what he gained, a bird’s-eye view of the whole thing.

I would love to do the same, although not over exactly the same landscape. I’m inspired by Campbell’s work, but I’m not looking to follow in his footsteps. Campbell may have been a generalist, but he was still an academic; he spent his career teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, next door to White Plains, the city of his birth. As a young man he tried writing fiction but abandoned it when he discovered he lacked the talent for it. My situation is different: I do have talent for writing fiction, and that is my point of departure for my life as a Student.

For it comes back to that; a Student is what I am at heart. But a Student still needs a motive and a goal, a principle of selection in what engages his interest and keeps him moving forward. He may go down many interesting byways—indeed he will, he must. Yes, he may even get lost there for a time and then find himself toiling to find his way back to the main track. And for this Student, that main track is my artistic project, my artistic career. But my fictional creations need to reflect my understanding of reality, and that understanding is in large part based on study.

Another archetype that is prominent within in me is that of the Teacher. Indeed, if any student sticks with something long enough he will become a teacher, even if only as an informal tutor to his classmates, sharing his notes. And it is best if the student’s researches are not for his own sake alone, but can also, in some way, benefit others.

So, as far as formal education goes, I’m a dropout. I left the University of B.C. before completing my first year. But my informal education has proceeded more or less uninterruptedly since then, and its central pillar has been the reading of books. I do it for hours each day; indeed I’ve taken breaks from it in order to draft this post.

And now I would fain return to it.

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life is but a dream

Good gosh, I’ve got to get back in the saddle here, somehow. Who knew I could have writer’s block about my own blog?

One issue is the very open-endedness of my blog. When you can write about anything, what do you write about? If I restricted my theme, I (and my long-suffering readers) would probably fare better.

Okay, I can always talk about what I’m reading, for I am always reading something; indeed, I am always reading several things. Last night I started reading a book that recently arrived in the mail: The Waking Dream: Unlocking the Symbolic Language of Our Lives by Ray Grasse. It was published in 1996 by Quest Books, an imprint of The Theosophical Publishing House, and I think I was pointed to it from the “suggested reading” list of another recent book. Anyway, this idea of looking at the meaningful, dreamlike quality of everyday life has long intrigued me, and when I saw that there’s a whole book on just this topic, I couldn’t resist—as, indeed, why should I?

Cover image of The Waking Dream

Hermeneuts of the world, unite!

I was immediately captivated as I started to read the introduction. First, by way of background: it was Sunday, which means that Kimmie and I planned to watch a movie (at home) that night. I’ve been running my own Paul’s Decades Festival for a couple of months, in which I have been programming my picks for the top 5 movies of each decade since the 1920s. I’ve gotten down to my #1 picks for each decade, and last night it was the turn of the 1930s: The Wizard of Oz (1939). So that was already set when I started to read. Here is the opening of the introduction to Grasse’s book:

While preparing for his role in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, actor Frank Morgan decided against using the costume offered him by the studio for his role as the traveling salesman Professor Marvel, opting instead to select his own wardrobe for the part. Searching through the racks of second-hand clothes collected by the MGM wardrobe department over the years, he finally settled on an old frock coat that would eventually serve as his costume during filming of the movie. Passing the time one day, Morgan idly turned out the inside of the pocket of the coat and discovered the name “L. Frank Baum” sewn into the lining of the jacket. As later investigation confirmed, the jacket had been originally designed for the creator of the Oz story, L. Frank Baum, and somehow made its way through the years into the collection of clothing on the MGM lot.

A coincidence, certainly—even a double one, in a sense, for my coincidence involved reading about not just the movie that I’d scheduled for that night, but about a coincidence connected with it. So a kind of second-order coincidence.

But was it meaningful? All I can say is, it sure felt that way. And with respect to meaning, what other standard can you apply? Meaning is a subjective experience, and there is no way of objectively measuring its presence, absence, or depth, at least, not that I’m aware of. If I feel that something is meaningful, then, for me, it is.

As for the content of that meaning, the question of what was it trying to “tell” me, I’m not sure. At a minimum, though, I find these charged moments of coincidence to be like signposts, and the basic message is, “you’re on the right track.” Here’s a book whose mission is to teach me about the hidden significance of everything in my life, and its very first words provide me with a concrete example of its teaching. Apart from anything else, this tells me that I chose the right book for this moment. I had a several new arrivals to choose from, and I felt most excited and interested by this one, so I started reading it.

This symbolic way of viewing the world is ancient and was pervasive throughout all societies until relatively recently, when the Western materialistic stance became dominant and the processes of reality came to be seen as mechanical and empty of significance or purpose. This materialistic outlook is the hallmark of our mental life in the Waste Land—the spiritual desert that Western humanity has been living in since about the 13th century, according to Joseph Campbell. But for my part, I’ve been a “symbolist” since at least the 1980s. Our lives are filled with significance, to which we are for the most part blind.

But that blindness is, in some way, voluntary. And I intend to continue to sharpen my symbolic vision, rising like the prisoner of Plato’s cave from his darkness and chains to find his way into the full light of day. And I think that this book, The Waking Dream, will help me find my way there.

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