coming attractions

I find it difficult getting my work published—even when I do the publishing myself!

It takes time to get all the elements to come together (and for me, it takes time to do anything at all). I can work fast if necessary, as it was while The Odyssey was in production, but in the main I find it’s not worth the stress. When all is said, I’d rather enjoy myself than highball to get a thing out the door sooner. The product will be more “me” this way.

Also, rush jobs are usually not quite satisfactory. There will be errors or other signs of shortcuts having been taken. That’s not to say that my work is without errors (and feel free to report any to me if you spot them), but I think you can tell by the look and feel of a thing what quality of love and attention has been lavished on it. The very finest things are totally uneconomical in this way: they manifest excellence and loved in a way that goes beyond their sticker price. They show that the creator could not possibly have been compensated adequately for his time and effort. He was serving the goddesses Love and Beauty, and very likely felt privileged to do so. This is the labor of art.

It’s what I seek to do with my own creations. The work that I am in the process of bringing to publication is another short story, this one called The Thought Dial. Like A Tourist Visa, it’s a story I drafted long ago, in 1992, and it got pushed aside by other, more pressing projects. With the power of publication in my own hands, I don’t want to let any of my potentially publishable work to go to waste, so out the door it goes—soon. One thing that has taken time to get right is the cover art. I came up with the concept and design, and engaged two separate artists to help me bring it to fruition. The design is simple, but it takes time to get the details right.

At last, though, I feel that the cover looks the way it should, and I can publish at last. Now there is a new glitch: the planet Mercury has turned retrograde in the sky, which is a negative indicator for starting any new undertaking (I have heard that Stephen Spielberg will not allow any film of his to be released while Mercury is retrograde). The retrograde will last until December 23. I will publish The Thought Dial, a story about a teenage boy anxiously preparing to ask a girl for a date, as soon as I can after that.

Meanwhile, I would like to offer you a glimpse of the cover for the e-book. This is what all my fussing was about. You can contemplate as you await the arrival of that new story. Enjoy.

Coming attractions

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celebrate International Hermit Day

As far as I know, I have invented International Hermit Day: it is November 9, the date on which my short story, The Hermit, is set. It’s a date I’ll always remember, for I chose it with great care; it has symbolic significance in that youthful story, written back in 1979–80, before my 21st birthday. The story still serves as a kind of artistic manifesto.

I invite you to give it a read. Get a free copy by signing up for my mailing list in the sidebar to the left. (By all means, check out the story’s description first.) Then curl up somewhere (alone), maybe with some herbal tea or plain water, and mark International Hermit Day in the most appropriate way possible.

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Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, volume 1: making the perfect human

Paideia 1: The Ideals of Greek Culture: Archaic Greece: The Mind of AthensPaideia 1: The Ideals of Greek Culture: Archaic Greece: The Mind of Athens by Werner Wilhelm Jaeger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An impassioned, authoritative, and in-depth account of how the character-shaping ideas of education and culture developed in ancient Greece, and how the civilization’s first educators were its poets.

I forget how I first got to hear about this book. Probably it was offered by the recommendation engine on Goodreads or on Amazon. I was already acquainted with the Greek word paideia from reading the works of Mortimer J. Adler, the driving force behind the Britannica Great Books of the Western World. Adler himself had written a book with that word in the title: The Paideia Proposal: An Educational ManifestoThe Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. Published in 1982, when Adler was 80, it is a call for sweeping change to the American educational system, from elementary school to postsecondary learning. The vision of Adler and his colleagues is to wrench public education away from vocational training, which it had largely become even in 1982, and toward the ideals of liberal education. He and the other members of the Paideia Group believe that this is the only way to save American democracy. As he puts it in chapter 1:

Suffrage without schooling produces mobocracy, not democracy—not rule of law, not constitutional government by the people as well as for them.

Here in British Columbia, where I live, the issue of education is often in the news, usually in the form of conflicts between the provincial government and the B.C. Teachers Federation—the teachers’ union. They have fought over things like who is to determine class sizes. What’s never in the debate, at least not that I’ve seen, is the question of what education is for. What is the aim of our education system? Usually it’s assumed to be employment: putting our kids in position to get “good jobs.” Our universities are now almost entirely vocational schools: law, medicine, accounting, engineering, forestry, and so on. Adler was strongly critical of this approach. Vocational training does not teach us how to be citizens of a free democratic society—the society that we live in, or like to think that we live in.

Werner Jaeger, in this extraordinary volume, shows us how the ancient Greeks coped with this question. There was no such thing as public education, but, as he says at the very beginning of his introduction:

Every nation which has reached a certain stage of development is instinctively impelled to practise education. Education is the process by which a community preserves and transmits its physical and intellectual character. For the individual passes away, but the type remains. . . . [M]en can transmit their social and intellectual nature only by exercising the qualities through which they created it—reason and conscious will. Through the exercise of these qualities man commands a freedom of development which is impossible to other living creatures. . . .

This short extract gives a fair sense, I think, of the caliber of observation and thought that the author maintains throughout the 510 pages of this volume (which comprises the first 2 books of his series: Archaic Greece and The Mind of Athens).

The Greeks came to see that this process of education was a matter of shaping the soul, of giving it a desirable form in a manner analogous to the way that a sculptor shapes marble or bronze. This desirable form of the soul came to take the name of arete or “excellence.” The best men had arete in the highest degree, exemplified by mythical heroes such as Odysseus or Achilles. But how was this education effected? How were ordinary boys shaped into excellent men? In Jaeger’s words, the Greeks

considered that the only genuine forces which could form the soul were words and sounds, and—so far as they work through words and sounds or both—rhythm and harmony. . . .

Words, sounds, rhythm, harmony: we’re talking about poetry. The educators of ancient Greece were its poets.

Jaeger notes how every society attends to the training of its young: teaching children the practical and moral rules by which the society lives, and adding technical training to that, so that the children may have the skills needed to make their way in life. This process must be distinguished from what he calls cultural education, “which aims at fulfilling an ideal of man as he ought to be.” For this latter task, what counts is not utility but the society’s idea of the Beautiful. He thinks that the contrast between these two views of education can be seen throughout history, and proposes to refer to the former as education and the latter as culture. Jaeger goes on to say:

Culture is shown in the whole man—both in his external appearance and conduct, and in his inner nature. Both the outer and the inner man are deliberately produced, by a conscious process of selection and discipline which Plato compares to the breeding of good dogs. At first this process is confined to one small class within the state—the nobility. . . . But as the two types were taken over by the bourgeoisie in its rise to power, the ideals inspiring them became universal and at last affected the whole nation.

But this about the nobility is an important point, for Jaeger then says that

all higher civilization springs from the differentiation of social classes—a differentiation which is created by natural variations in physical and mental capacity between man and man. . . . The nobility is the prime mover in forming a nation’s culture. The history of Greek culture . . . begins in the aristocratic world of early Greece, with the creation of a definite ideal of human perfection, an ideal toward which the elite . . . was constantly trained. . . . All later culture . . . bears the imprint of its aristocratic origin. Culture is simply the aristocratic ideal of a nation, increasingly intellectualized.

That’s all taken from one paragraph on page 4. I find this to be a tremendously provocative set of ideas. When we remember that the original meaning of the word aristocracy is “rule by the best,” we can see the power of this notion of culture. The purpose of culture is to shape people into being the best that they can be.

Jaeger shows how this ideal of human excellence evolved in ancient Greece, and how the ideal was given given form and voice by poets, starting with Homer, whose works had enormous authority throughout the ancient world for centuries. Homer was universally studied not just for the quality of his verse, but because of the educative power of his poems. The Iliad and the Odyssey taught men—and women—how to be. The characters in these epics were the benchmark against which living men and women were measured.

As time went on, Greece changed, and its cultural ideals changed with it. The word paideia itself, which originally meant simply “child-rearing,” eventually morphed into the concept that we would call “culture.” Jaeger shows how these changes are reflected in the work of the poets after Homer: Hesiod, Tyrtaeus, Theognis, Pindar, and others. It’s not all about poets; other great minds also contribute, notably the lawgiver Solon. The birth of the city-state, the ideal of justice, the birth of scientific speculation, the rise of individualism—all these are reflected in the work of the poets, who express the ideas in potent, pithy form for their society. The ideas strive and clash with each other, poetry and society mutually shaping each other.

That’s all in Book 1, Archaic Greece. The volume also contains Book 2, The Mind of Athens, which focuses on the great dramatists of Athens, the sophists, and a final chapter on Thucydides, whom Jaeger terms a “political philosopher” and the first political historian.

Again and again I was amazed at the depth and reach of Jaeger’s thought. His understanding of ancient Greece must be virtually unrivaled. It’s not just that he knows that world and its art so well; it’s that he has reflected deeply on the significance of both, and their interconnection. And although the book is about ancient Greece, it reads like a discussion of the issues of today, for ideas do not die; they throb beneath our own body politic. It is tremendously relevant.

There is no actual poetry in the book. Familiarity with the poets and their work is assumed. I had read some of the works—Homer, Hesiod, the dramatists, and Thucydides—but I was still fascinated to read about the others I had not read. I could still experience the reflected glow of their work in Jaeger’s appreciative analysis. But of course, the more of it you have read, the more you can gain from his discussion.

There are 2 more volumes in this series on The Ideals of Greek Culture. I don’t know what’s in them, but I’m dying to find out. I’ve read thousands of books in my life, but only a handful compare with this one for depth and quality. I’m amazed at how much he achieved, and I’m really surprised that I had never heard of him before.

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gearing down for Homer

I’ve changed my approach to reading. I read from several books each day, in an informally structured way. I start my afternoon reading session (usually around 4:00 p.m.) with a “dharma” book—that is, a book on the Buddhist teachings or something closely related. I start with this in order to make real the idea that my life should be centered on spiritual things; my spiritual life and welfare should be my first priority. I may not act that way much of the time, but in my reading period I can bring that intention to life by putting my spiritual reading first. My current selection here is The Tantric Distinction: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism by Jeffrey Hopkins, a book that I first bought and read in February 1987, shortly after I had started the practice of meditation. My gosh, 30 years. Life passes very fast.

The next slot in my reading period is taken by fiction, or I suppose I could say imaginative literature, because sometimes I read poetry or drama here.  For a long time this was what I started my reading period with; it was only when I resumed my meditation practice about 3 years ago that I made a change.

Next is usually a research text for my brontosauruslike work in progress, The Age of Pisces. These might be works of history that tell me about the world I’m writing about (the Hellenistic world of the 1st century BC), or they might be thematic works—books relating to the ideas that are present in my epic. Or they might even be craft books, for in the past couple of years I have been making a belated effort to learn how to write properly! A breech birth, I’ve done everything bass ackwards in life. I’m trusting that there’s some cosmic purpose behind all that, for sometimes it feels like I’ve wasted a lot of time.

After the research text comes some other nonfiction book on a subject of current interest to me.

So what was the change? I made the change when I finished reading the Iliad a couple of months ago. I had enjoyed reading it (it was my second time, the first being in 2008), and had a strong sense that there was a lot in it to think about. And, beyond the fact that Homer’s Iliad is one of the Great Books of the Western World and therefore forms part of the intellectual foundation of our Western civilization, it is one of the great epics in Western literature, and I myself am engaged in writing an epic. I see myself as being part of the literary tradition of which Homer was arguably the originator. So I want to learn about the epic form from him.

I’ve often wanted to analyze stories after reading or viewing them, and many times have done short written analyses. But I’ve always had to squeeze these in among my other activities, and they have tended to be rushed and incomplete. More things keep coming; I keep reading and viewing. I never give myself much chance to reflect on what I’ve read or viewed. If I wanted to do a more proper job of it, I was going to have to make time for it. And the most logical time for that is to use the reading slot itself: instead of reflecting on a work while already reading the next one, I would hold off starting another fictional work until I had finished processing the last one. Now, at “fiction reading” time, I come down to my office and open up my analysis document for the Iliad, and resume my musings there.

As of now, it runs to 104 pages. The first 28 pages are a scene-by-scene summary of the poem which I made while I was reading it. As I read each scene, I would write down a summary of it and then type those summaries into my analysis document the following morning. The next 36 pages consists of extracts from other books that I’ve pasted in as information or commentaries on ideas that I’m working with in the analysis. These are arranged alphabetically by book. The first one, for example, is from the book Anger by Carol Tavris, and it consists of a single line: “Anger is the human hiss.” I think that’s a beautiful and provocative line. But there are many other works represented in this section, including extracts from a few Wikipedia articles.

Finally, at page 64, my own notes begin. They have wandered far and wide as I have sought for handholds and toeholds to climb to my own understanding of this work. The Iliad is one of the most analyzed books ever written; a large section of the ancient Library of Alexandria was devoted to the works of Homer and commentaries on them. Before the Bible became the foundational text of Western culture, Homer’s works were it; people resorted to them in just the way people over the centuries have resorted to the Bible, for knowledge, wisdom, and answers to their life problems. But I don’t want to read other people’s thoughts on the Iliad until I have formed some of my own. This reader wants to respond to the writer without intermediaries.

And my agenda is bigger than just the Iliad. I’m interested in all the great epics of Western literature. I refer to the ones included in the Great Books set:

  • the Iliad by Homer
  • the Odyssey by Homer
  • the Aeneid by Virgil
  • the Divine Comedy by Dante
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton

Are these books somehow telling the story of Western civilization and its transformations? Are there themes in common? Is there one deep underlying story? These are questions I want to answer for myself. I have some preliminary ideas that I find exciting.

Meanwhile, I still grapple with the Iliad. Puzzling over it for the last 3 months has taken me to places I would never have gone had I simply put the book down and picked up another. It has had me reading up on Greek mythology, the history of warfare, and the psychology of anger. For it, I have changed my reading schedule, the granite bedrock of my daily life.

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The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek: liberals of the world, unite!

The Road To SerfdomThe Road To Serfdom by Friedrich A. Hayek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A passionately felt and forcefully argued—and prescient—defence of liberalism, the doctrine of individual freedom that is opposed by all collectivists, whether of the left or right.

Lacking a liberal education, I was slow to come to an appreciation of political science and economics. To me, “political science” seemed like a contradiction in terms, like “military intelligence”; and economics seemed like a field that used jargon and equations to study the least interesting aspects of life: employment and finance. I never dreamed that economics could be exciting until I read Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs in 1986, when I was 27, on the recommendation of a coworker. And I didn’t really come to be excited by political theory until I got myself a set of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World in 2010, and discovered that a number of the Great Ideas that the editors had identified were political ideas: Aristocracy, Citizen, Constitution, Democracy, Government, Law, Monarchy, Oligarchy, Revolution, State, Tyranny, and, possibly, War & Peace. Now in my 50s, I started digging in.

Friedrich Hayek, born in Austria-Hungary in 1899, was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, but his two doctoral degrees were in law and political science, and he states in his preface to The Road to Serfdom that his book is a work of politics. It was written and published in Britain, where he was now a subject, while World War II raged. Hayek had witnessed the rise of Nazism first hand, and so was in a stronger position than most of his fellow Britons, even apart from his educational background, to perceive the parallels in thought between the UK and other Allied countries of that time and in Germany in the years leading up to and following World War I.

For, strange and shocking though it may sound, Hayek saw strong and troubling similarities between the most popular currents of political and economic thought in wartime Britain and in the Germany of 25 years earlier. Starting in the late 19th century, Germany was the first country to fall under the spell of socialism. And by socialism Hayek means the application of large-scale planning to economic life. In the 19th century, the tremendous success of the factory system of production led people to consider the idea of applying factory methods to larger segments of the economy: whole sectors, or even the entire economy itself. Why not? Why not make the economy as a whole as productive as a factory? There would be huge gains in efficiency and wealth. There would be maximum production, full employment, and the end of poverty. What’s not to like?

The experience of war and the wartime economy seemed to give a taste of what is possible. Under the pressure of World War I, a vast and highly mechanized conflict, the state took on ever more powers of directing economic activity in order to win. It set quotas and prices, rationed goods, and deployed capital where it was needed. The result was a great sense of common purpose and tremendous productivity. Germany went on to lose that war, but for many the takeaway was that victory could perhaps have been gained if they had had more unity, more fixity of purpose, and more central control. Such thinking was already well along the way to forming the seedbed of Nazism.

Hayek is at pains to show that the issue is not one of the politics of left and right. Nazis and fascists are on the right, and socialists and communists are on the left, but what they all share is the ideology of collectivism: the idea that the “common good” trumps the preferences or rights of the individual. So, while Nazis, fascists, socialists, and communists might all hate each other, in fact they draw upon the same pool of potential members, who not infrequently switch from one of these parties to another. And they all share a common enemy: liberals. For the belief in individual liberty cannot be reconciled with collectivism. Liberalism had come to be perceived by most intellectuals as an obsolete, bourgeois, elitist leftover of the 19th century, something that any right-thinking person must strenuously oppose, a monster that was not quite dead yet but whose death was long overdue.

Hayek observes how it is no accident that the states in which central planning had taken the greatest hold—Germany, the USSR—were the most monstrous tramplers of individual rights. He shows how a consistent pursuit of collectivist aims necessarily leads to nationalism, the destruction of truth, and the rise of thugs to the most powerful positions in the state. It was not the innate barbarity of Germans or their special proneness to hero worship that propelled Hitler to power; it was the inescapable internal logic of collectivism itself, which necessarily destroys individual morality as it seeks to utilize the human resources that are now directed at the will of the state.

I think of these words by Loren Eiseley:

The group ethic is whatever its leaders choose it to mean; it destroys the innocent and justifies the act in terms of the future.

Hayek treasures freedom, but he does not glorify liberalism; he acknowledges that there were many abuses and injustices perpetrated in the name of 19th-century laissez-faire liberalism. He puts this down to the fact that the idea of radical freedom, both political and economic, for every individual is something new in history, and that the difficulties with it have still to be worked out. There are aspects of liberalism that many people find hard to accept, such as the great inequalities of wealth that occur under a capitalist economic system. Apart from the fact that rulers of collectivist societies simply seize large fortunes for themselves, creating large inequalities of their own, Hayek does not believe that an economic or political system should be built around envy. In a liberal economic system, rewards—sometimes very large ones—can be gained by those who take risks; more often, they take losses. There is nothing fundamentally unfair about this. Those who wish relative predictability and safety have the option of working for wages. Those who wish to stake their fortune on a chance of big success are free to do so.

Wealth is a measurable good, but how do you put a price tag on personal freedom? It’s a priceless thing that we tend to take for granted until it is gone. The poorest citizen of a liberal society might look with bitter envy at his rich neighbors, but Hayek notes that he lives in a society that places no political obstacles to his advancement. His position in society is not decreed by the state, as it is under a collectivist regime. The American Dream consists exactly of the idea that a man can improve his material circumstances through his own efforts, that there is nothing fundamentally to stop him except the limits of his own initiative, creativity, talent, and industry.

But does that mean we should just watch our fellow citizens starve if they fall on, or have been born into, hard times? Hayek sees no need for this. The great abundance produced by a liberal economy should be well able to look after the basic needs of the poorest people. There are difficult questions about how to do that, but there is no fundamental obstacle. It’s a practical matter to be worked out. It’s no reason to ditch freedom in favor of slavery.

Collectivism, whether of the right or left, seduces us with a siren song of justice, equality, and plenty. But the implementation of central planning necessarily means the concentration of power at the center, and that power must decide what the priorities will be—what the “social good” is. The central power will decided how many teachers there shall be, and whether they shall be paid more or less than doctors or plumbers or field hands. This need for total control in order to execute a comprehensive plan means that a collectivist society must necessarily move toward totalitarianism. Anything less will frustrate its efforts at some point. And as for plenty, well, Cuba, North Korea, and now Venezuela are countries whose citizens are starving.

One of the most chilling sentences in the book concludes that

the one decisive factor in the rise of totalitarianism on the Continent, which is yet absent in this country, is the existence of a large recently dispossessed middle class.

I think about the observation that there is growing inequality in our Western countries, that the middle class is shrinking or imploding. This would appear to be a serious danger sign. It brings to mind another forceful book, this one about mass movements, written by the American thinker Eric Hoffer and published in 1951: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Hoffer shows how mass movements gain an unstoppable momentum of their own, how large sections of society can revert to what amounts to mob psychology in their zeal to overthrow the existing order. I think Hoffer’s book would make an excellent, if chilling, companion volume to The Road to Serfdom.

Hayek is no firebrand. Although he writes with strong conviction, he comes across as reasonable, respectful, and mature. Liberalism, the greatest form of social organization yet discovered by man, deserves advocates, and Hayek has stood up to be one. He is an excellent champion of it. Now it’s down to us: what kind of a society do we want to live in? If you are a socialist or a fascist, or are tempted to become one, I urge you to read this book, and honestly answer for yourself the points that Hayek raises. Can you rebut him? To me, there’s no choice to be made. I’m sad to think that it may be made for me by people who do not realize what they’re getting us all into.

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Journeys out of the Body by Robert A. Monroe: shuffling off the mortal coil

Journeys Out Of The BodyJourneys Out Of The Body by Robert A. Monroe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A persuasive and thought-provoking account of one man’s experiences and experiments with traveling outside his own body.

My earliest memory of hearing about out-of-body experiences (OOBEs) was, I think, in the early 1970s, about the same time this book was published. A young woman who was the friend of a neighbor did psychic readings and talked about “astral travel”—the term current up to then for OOBEs. I don’t know whether I believed in it or not, but I remember thinking that it sounded like a plausible explanation for the experience one sometimes has of feeling that one is falling off a cliff, just as one is dropping off to sleep. The young woman explained this as the astral body dropping from the “zone of quietude” just above the physical body back into that body, creating the frightening feeling of a fall.

Some years later I was surprised and intrigued to see an article in Scientific American magazine discussing OOBEs in connection with the use of mescalin. If it’s in Scientific American, I thought, it must be something real. But I don’t think I read that article.

Still later, in 1986, I read a book called Life After Life by Raymond Moody, about a particular class of OOBEs: near-death experiences or NDEs. Moody made a groundbreaking examination of the experiences of people who had undergone clinical death and come back to life. He found that their experiences had certain broad similarities with each other. One of these similarities was the sense of floating away from the physical body and witnessing events going on around and near their corpse. For those who were in the “dead” state long enough, the experience sometimes went considerably beyond that, to meeting others and undergoing profound shifts in their outlook, such that, when they were revived, their beliefs and priorities were transformed. (The author Betty J. Eadie had a prolonged NDE which she recounts in her bestselling book Embraced by the Light, published in 1992.)

For me, Moody’s book was a convincer. As I read the accounts of people who had died and then revived, and the profound emotional effect it had on them, notably in changing their values to be much more concerned with the welfare of others, I felt sure that their experiences were authentic, and I wanted to let their experience change my life as it had changed theirs. It was a major motivator in my decision to seek out training in the Buddhist teachings, which I did soon after reading Moody’s book.

For different reasons now, related to my creative work, I wanted to learn more about OOBEs, and, discovering that Robert A. Monroe’s book is considered a major work in this line, I got myself a copy. I found it quite fascinating, even though it is much different from Moody’s and Eadie’s books, in that it is not concerned so much with death and the spiritual aspects of OOBEs. Rather, Monroe, an American businessman who had had a successful career in radio, discovered in the late 1950s that he could exit his physical body, and decided to develop his own experimental program to learn about this strange state. His book is an account of his findings, expressed in language that seeks to remain factual, neutral, and scientific.

He presents many accounts of specific “trips” he made from his body, taken directly from the notes he made right afterwards each time. I don’t want to say too much about what he found, in case I spoil the experience of reading this book for yourself, but I was intrigued with certain aspects of his experience. One aspect was that while he was in his “Second Body,” in the disembodied state, his emotions were especially powerful and hard to control, and his conscious mind was relatively weak and ineffective. Another aspect was that his experience out of the body appeared to be divided between 3 separate realms or, as he terms them, “locales.” Locale 1 is the physical world that we know, which the disembodied person can move through at will (with some interesting exceptions). Locale 2 is a vast, nonphysical realm that appears to be the usual habitat of the disembodied person; it is filled with all kinds of other beings in all kinds of situations. Monroe suggests that it is in this locale that we might find the “places” we call heaven and hell. Such places are defined not by location, but by the emotional state of those who are in them. Locale 3 is a separate realm that is much like Locale 1, except that its geography, technology, and societies are different from the ones we know: they’re like “alternative history” versions of our world.

In Monroe’s opinion, the experience we call death is the permanent detachment of our Second Body from our First Body, but he believes that we all leave our physical bodies routinely when we sleep. He thinks that we all—or nearly all—are out-of-body travelers. He writes of interactions out of body with people he knows, that later, when he meets them again in body, they have no memory of. We may all be having double or triple lives without knowing it. And why do all living things seem to have such a powerful need for sleep? In order to keep in touch with things going on in Locale 2?

I don’t know the answers to these things, but to me Monroe does not come across as a crazy or a crackpot. If anything, he goes out of his way to be skeptical of his experiences, for he wants them to have validity for science. To the extent possible, he tries to be a scientific observer of the phenomena he experiences. As a result, his actual prose is “scientific” sounding: detached, neutral, and with a fair amount written in the passive voice. His writing is workmanlike and factual rather than vivid. But what he’s writing about is hair-raising. Some parts I found to be gripping and scary, other parts merely puzzling or even comical.

But if Monroe’s journeys were real, then there are huge implications for us all. For a start, the popular materialist view of the world is wrong. The spiritual dimension of life is the one that endures and that we should be focusing on. Monroe admits that traveling out of body is very frightening, especially at first. It is a death experience. He gives detailed instructions how to do it, but most of us will never have the desire or the courage. But Monroe had the courage, and he has provided us with a detailed report of his expeditions. So we can learn from him, if we want, something of that wider universe of which we are a part.

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a literary Casanova

When I was about 16 I read You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe. The protagonist, George Webber, is a writer whose working method, if you can call it that, is to become seized with intense bouts of inspiration that have him writing for many hours on end, or maybe days on end. He doesn’t eat, he doesn’t sleep; he just writes himself into a weakened, delirious state. He turns himself into a kind of invalid, but in the process puts out a tremendous number of manuscript pages.

Even at the time, I marveled that someone could write this way. It seemed to be productive and (self-)destructive at the same time. Years later, I remember reading William Styron’s description of his own writing method: one paragraph a day, no more, no less. Evidently there is a great range of ways in which writers approach the actual process of writing.

My own approach is much closer to Styron’s than it is to Wolfe’s—although not as consistent! My nature is such that I cannot focus on any task, much less a creative one, for any length of time at a stretch. After a time—not a very long time, either—my mind starts to wander to other things, or my eyes just glaze over. For much my life, feeling ashamed of this weakness, I have tried to force myself to keep producing. But it’s not much use.

One issue is that, although I identify myself as a writer, it’s not all I do. I have other identities. Along with Writer, I have the identities Student and Thinker within me, and these also makes claims on my time. Indeed, they make bigger claims that Writer does. It is the Student in me that reads, highlighter in hand, from several books each afternoon, and then types those highlights into Word documents the following morning. It is the Thinker in me that composes other Word documents recording my thoughts about various ideas, or, as lately, about my reading: I have been writing my thoughts in response to reading the Iliad of Homer, seeking to find what that epic means to me. That document currently runs to 61 pages in Word, although many of those pages are extracts from other books that I have pasted in as reference material. The actual reflective notes run about 12 pages, but that number is growing steadily, for I have been working on it every day.

Vitols reflects on Homer

Will those notes ever become something I can publish, something that will transform the notes from the work of Thinker into that of Writer? Who knows? I don’t know where it will take me; indeed, therein lies much of the pleasure in doing it. I would like to think so, for it seems like a good thing to share my thoughts, such as they are, with anyone who might be interested, and with the relative ease of producing self-published e-books, why not? It may come down to how coherent and complete these thoughts turn out to be.

And I have a history of wandering from one thing to another; for I follow my passion. I will leave off a notes document I’m working on to pursue something else. It’s exactly the same way that I read. I often don’t finish a book in one continuous process of reading it on consecutive days. I usually have several books on the go at once, and read from a few of them each day, following my interest of the moment. At some point I’ll realize that I haven’t read from a book for 4 months, and I’ll shelve it again, unfinished. I may very well go back to it, either in a few months, or 16 years later. With renewed interest in the subject, I read with passion again, highlighting away. But, depending on the book, I might not finish it this time either; it might find itself getting neglected again, and then being reshelved. Till next time, book.

My various writing projects and notes documents suffer a similar fate. I have to be working on something that interests me and that I find fun. That’s where the energy, the zeal, comes from to push forward. I love the feeling of opening up a document and thinking, “Oh boy, I get to do this now!” Then it’s not work, it’s a treat. But it means I can’t stick with one thing. Like a restless Casanova, I have to tip my hat to the latest girl, and move on to the next one.

With an approach like this, how can I be writing an epic like The Age of Pisces? That remains to be seen. Sometimes I have pushed at it and forced myself, going against the grain of my nature. But in the main I have found inspiration as I go along, and find renewed passion in it. Its size, its novelty, and its depth offer me plenty of challenges and things to think about. I have not got bored of it. I take this ever-fresh quality, my ever-renewed enthusiasm, as a sign that the Muse is indeed helping me.

Maybe this is just a writer’s fancy. But when I think of how easily I can become tired and bored of other projects—the various wrecks and unfinished hulks that line the wandering course of my life as a creator—it seems like a miracle that my passion for Pisces burbles fresh from its secret spring. And if I can talk about a miracle, then why not talk about the divine Muse who is its source?

Is the Muse a metaphor or a person? Luckily, that’s not a question I have to answer. It’s certainly more fun and exciting to think of her as a person, and we’ve just seen that “fun and exciting” is what floats my boat.

I have long thought that my hedonism has been a major hindrance to my achieving much in life. But my nature is what it is, and if the Muse has seen fit to choose me for the execution of this epic, then who am I to question? It may be that my shifting, dilettante-like approach to things is just what’s needed for this unique project, and for my unique oeuvre, whatever that turns out to be. In some way that I still can’t see, I’m just the man for the job.

Anyway, I’m the man doing it. Wish me luck.

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writers write—or do they?

By my own confession, I’m a writer. That means my profession, or let’s say my vocation, is writing. I write. But what do I write? What do I actually spend my time writing? When I look at it, the creation of my publishable work forms only a small part of my output. What else do I write?

Right now, for instance, I’m drafting this blog post. I do publish this blog, so I suppose it does count as published work, although in my own mind I would restrict that term to work that appears either in separate book form or in a publication edited by someone else. But sure, why not: let’s call this post my latest to-be-published work. If it’s a typical post then it will wind up being something in the neighborhood of 1,000 words. So that—this—is my very latest piece of writing. (Enjoy!)

Earlier this morning I posted an answer to a question on Quora.com. The question was “How do you practice Buddhism in your everyday life?” I spent maybe 20 minutes or half an hour typing an answer to that question. As of this moment, the answer has attracted 23 views. The number of views my answers get varies widely. My most-viewed answer so far was to the question “Why would a Scorpio give you the ‘silent treatment’?”. I answered that on November 6, 2016, and so far it has drawn 5,100 views. As far as I know, more people read my writing on Quora than anywhere else, including this blog, so I’m happy to contribute there. I regard it as a promotional medium, to get me and my work known, but I also like answering questions there. I like to share knowledge and help people out if I can. If I’m honest, it’s some of the most pleasurable writing I do, and for that reason alone I’m happy to continue doing it. (And I invite you to come on over and follow me on Quora, if you’d like to read more of my writing.)

Before that, first thing this morning, was not, strictly speaking, writing, but typing: I typed notes from yesterday’s reading period. When I read nonfiction, I always do so with a highlighter.  I highlight carefully so as to create complete sentences, for my aim is to produce a compressed version of the book.

Highlighting the dangers of socialism

Each morning I type the highlights from the previous evening’s reading into Word documents (these documents form a reference library that has its own structure; I’ll discuss that another time). This morning I typed highlights from 2 books that I’m currently reading: Buddha Nature by Thrangu Rinpoche, a dharma book; and The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek, a work of political and economic philosophy. These compressed books, based on my highlights, form my own personal research library or knowledge base. So the typing actually forms part of an editing process, for when I highlight I am essentially editing a book down to a “Reader’s Digest” version. So I regard it as a kind of low-grade writing activity; it’s perfect for starting my day with, not too mentally demanding for first thing out of bed.

Reaching back further, to yesterday afternoon, I had my aforementioned reading period at teatime (green tea). But I interrupted that reading to work on another writing-related project. My mother, Frances Vitols, has engaged me to provide some editorial help with a project she has been working on for some years: the publication of a cache of personal letters in book form. These letters came to her from our late friends, Harvey and Dorothy Burt, and they form a passionate correspondence between the two of them in the mid-1950s, when they were lovers still married to other people. My mother had been patiently typing them as a hobby for maybe 10 years (there are hundreds of them and they may run to 1 million words or more, many of those barely legible!) when she asked me at the end of 2016 to help her move the project along and get them published. Right now I’m reading through the letters and creating typed summaries of what I read. This again is not exactly writing on my part, but rather more editing and typing; but it uses the skills, actions, and also the time that I might otherwise be using for my own writing.

Yesterday, Saturday, I didn’t do any other writing. But a couple of days ago I did do some of another kind of writing that occupies me: copy writing. I’m preparing another of my short stories, The Thought Dial, for publication as an e-book. Apart from the effort of preparing the story itself for publication and compiling the book (with cover art which I have designed myself and which is taking time to execute), there is also the need for writing about the book, in order to promote it and sell it. This includes the “flap blurb,” which is the copy describing the story on the sites where it’s offered for sale, and what I call the “catalogue copy,” which is the copy I’ll use here on my own site for the book’s dedicated static page. You can see examples of that kind of copy right now by looking at my pages for Truth of the Python, The Hermit, and A Tourist Visa. It looks simple and straightforward, but writing effective promotional copy is as difficult a writing task as any. Copy doesn’t get to be good without lots of rewriting, editing, and polishing. The catalogue copy for The Thought Dial is reaching a high level of polish, you’ll be happy to know, so it will be ready to go up when I publish the book next month.

There are other kinds of writing I do as well, such as my ruminations on reading the Iliad, which I have recently been working on. But where is my magnum opus, The Age of Pisces, in all this? Well, it’s now been several days since I’ve worked on it. I know I need to get back to it as soon as I can, but, like one piglet in a litter, it’s jostling with its siblings for my, um, creative teats.

So now you know. And this post has come in at 1044 words.

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enter the patron

From earliest times, becoming an artist has been a socially difficult choice. In the first place, one’s family might not approve: “How are you going to make a living with that?” “I don’t know—it’s just something I have to do! It’s my vocation.” The grouchy, skeptical dad worries, possibly quite rightly, that he’s going to be supporting his artistic offspring a lot longer than he would a more normal child. It can be a cause of friction and even of estrangement.

Then there is the wider society, which often regards artists with suspicion. Artists have often lived bohemian lives, flouting conventional morality and criticizing the society that has bred them and from which they seek to make their living. I remember being struck by something Adam Smith says in his The Wealth of Nations: that the great fees paid to certain actors and opera singers were to compensate them for practicing a profession that is viewed as a kind of public prostitution. He believes that artistic talent is actually quite common, and that it is only the disrepute that accompanies the professional exploitation of it that keeps people away from it, and thus keeps the fees high for those who succeed in practicing it.

Who knows, he may be right. But perhaps we should distinguish between talent and vocation. Talent is a gift of nature, which one may choose to use or not; vocation is a calling—the conviction that one, regardless of one’s talent, has been called to the life of an artist, come what may. If one answers this call—and surely many don’t—then one is “all in” with art and the artistic life, win, lose, or draw. Now you’ll be taking whatever that life dishes out, usually a lot of rejections and criticism.

You’ve chosen as life, but that’s not the same thing as choosing a job, for art is not a job. Your dad was quite right to ask “How are you going to make a living with that?”, for, chances are, you’re not going to make a living with it. Most often, you’ll have to make a living some other way, and then work the art in around that. Your vocation is worked into the time when other people practice their hobbies or recreational sports.

Notice how different that is from economic vocations, even relatively idealistic ones like medicine. A doctor trains hard for years and spends a fortune on his education, but then, when it’s time to practice medicine, he goes at it full time and more than full time. He might be able to pour every available hour into his work, which is also his livelihood, and thus increase his earnings even as he is pushing harder at his vocation. The artist is the inverse case: the more time he puts into his livelihood, the more time he steals from his vocation. In providing food, shelter, and clothing for himself and perhaps his family, he starves his vocation.

But wouldn’t he have a livelihood if his art were any good? What about those lavishly paid actors and opera singers, or, in our day, movie stars and pop singers? Doesn’t the market dictate the monetary fortune of artists as it does for everyone else—yes, including doctors? It’s a jungle out there for everyone; why should artists be exempt?

Here’s where we reach a ticklish point. There is a commercial demand for art, which does allow some artists to earn a livelihood and even to become wealthy. In some cases this happens because the artist decides to produce saleable work, and then we are talking about an activity that is indeed fully commercial. But other times an artist sets out to realize his individual vision, without any thought of the market or how the public or critics will receive it, and that work takes off. For an artist, this is a true lottery win: he has achieved commercial success without making any compromises to his vision.

But then we have other artists, who have stayed true to their vision but who have not—or not yet—connected with a large audience. These are the struggling artists, those trying to realize their vision while their material circumstances are not necessarily favorable. I venture to guess that most artists—maybe a large majority—fall into this category.

Many of these artists, perhaps most of them, are not very good. Many people, drawn by the romance of an artistic life, pursue it when the talent is not really there. But some of them are good. Consider the case of Vincent van Gogh, for instance, who never sold any painting during his own life, but is now generally regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time. Or, from the literary world, James Joyce, who struggled to get published, and, when he did, was more of a critical than a commercial success. What about artists such as these? What are their options?

Enter the patron. Since ancient times, artists have been helped and supported by patrons, private individuals who, impressed with an artist’s work and vision, have felt moved to help him continue on by providing some or all of the financial support he needs in order to live and work.

Would you give art funding to this man?

James Joyce, for example, had a patron in the person of Harriet Shaw Weaver who supported him while he was writing Finnegans Wake—a book that was never going to be a commercial proposition. Michelangelo and Beethoven had patrons, as have had many other excellent artists, and perhaps not so excellent. For the question of taste comes into it. And if a patron sees merit in an artist and his work, then that’s all that matters; that’s enough to let the art be created. What the rest of the world thinks doesn’t make any difference. It’s an excellent, voluntary arrangement, and I believe that patronage is in fact the true and best livelihood of the authentic artist.

I have had the privilege of enjoying some patronage in my life, both from generous family members and also from friends who believed in me and what I was doing. It’s a fantastic and uplifting feeling to have people show faith in you in such a concrete way, and I thank them all.

But now there’s a portal that opens the way for patrons to connect with creators on a bigger scale. The American-based website Patreon.com exists for this purpose. At Patreon, artists can put up a page and invite patrons to contribute to their ongoing work for as little as $1 a month. This is a fantastic thing, in my view: the advent of the micropatron. Patreon debits your credit-card or Paypal account once a month, and passes the funds on to the artist, less a modest fee.

I have set up a Patreon page myself. I’ve made a little introductory video of myself and have offered a number of thank-you rewards to patrons pledging contributions at different levels. I will be making updates there on my progress in writing and publishing my work. I warmly invite you to come on over and take a look. Watch my video, look over my rewards, and think about whether you might want to join my small but growing band of patrons, whether as a micropatron or—who knows?—even a macro one.

As a writer and as an artist I am not typical. My work is deep, complex, and not geared to a commercial format. It is taking me a long time to realize it. If you think you might be willing to help me bring it to fruition, then wonderful! Come on over to my page, sign up, and get a thank-you reward from me–as well as my heartfelt appreciation. They say it takes a village to raise a child; the same may well be true of raising an artist to his potential.

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the Iliad of Homer: first epic of the West

The IliadThe Iliad by Homer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Western literature kicks off with the clash of civilizations.

Crafting an epic of my own, I got the idea of exploring the great epics of Western literature in more detail. They are all to be found in my set of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World:

  • the Iliad (volume 4, Homer)
  • the Odyssey (volume 4, Homer)
  • the Aeneid (volume 13, Virgil)
  • The Divine Comedy (volume 21, Dante)
  • Paradise Lost (volume 32, Milton)

However, I read not the Great Books version, a prose translation by Samuel Butler, but rather the verse translation by Robert Fagles, published in a lovely paperback by Penguin Classics in 1998. I bought it in January 2008 along with a companion edition of the Odyssey, also translated by Fagles, when I saw them together in a bookstore. I probably read it not long after I bought it, and that was my first time through the whole work (I had attempted a prose translation by W.H.D. Rouse when I was in grade 10, but abandoned it before I got too far). So this time through marked my second reading of the famous poem.

It took me 2 months to read. My method, as with reading any poetry, was to read it aloud. But, more than that, I also wanted to record the story of the Iliad, its actual episodes; so I also wrote my own prose summary of the action as I went along, noting down each episode after I’d read it. Each morning I would type the handwritten notes into a Word document. So now I have my own summary of Homer’s poem, based on my 60 pages of notes. That will help me when I want to refresh my memory as to the actual story of the poem, and if, as I hope to do, I engage in any analysis of the story. The process of writing down the episodes also had the effect of causing me to pay closer attention to what I was reading, for as I wrote my notes I would have to go back and check to make sure I was getting things right, and the action of typing them the following morning further consolidated my acquaintance with the events of the story.

And what is that story? In brief, it’s the story announced by the title of book 1: “The Rage of Achilles.” The opening word of the poem is rage, and the massive poem, about 540 pages, derives its unity from following the emotional journey of Achilles, the Greeks’ (or the Achaeans’, as they’re mostly known in this work) best warrior. Achilles’ nose is put out of joint early on when the expedition commander, Agamemnon, pulls rank on him and seizes certain spoils of war that Achilles had claimed for himself, in particular a beautiful woman named Briseis. Achilles throws an immense snit and retreats to his own compound to brood. Now, no matter how badly things go for his fellow soldiers, nothing will draw him back into the fray. Only the prospect of restoring his damaged dignity can possibly rouse him. Until then, he and his men, the Myrmidons, sit out the fight, idling by their beached ships while their countrymen fight and die on the plain outside Troy. He has his dear friend Patroclus to pass his days with and help him nurse his wounded ego.

Meanwhile the Achaeans are in tough fighting the Trojans, who are led by their own top warrior, Hector, the most beloved son of King Priam. And Hector is proving to be a handful for the Achaeans, who number among them such formidable fighters as Odysseus, the brothers Ajax, Diomedes, and the dead-eye archer Teucer. Again and again we witness the vicissitudes of battle, as soldiers filled with fighting fury press the attack, only to have things turn against them and send them scrambling in terror for their lives.

In large part this is because the fortunes of war are not up to men alone. Homer shows us how it is the active involvement of the gods that is the decisive factor. The original cause of the war is alluded to but never explicitly discussed by Homer: Priam’s son Paris, ordered to choose which of 3 goddesses was the most beautiful—Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite—chose Aphrodite because she promised to give him the world’s most beautiful woman. That woman was Helen, who happened to be the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Paris made off with Helen and a shipload of treasure from Sparta, and Menelaus did not take this affront lying down: he assembled a coalition to launch an expedition against Troy to recover Helen and to punish the Trojans. When Paris chose Aphrodite, he made enemies of Hera and Athena, and those gods with whom they were connected or allied. Aphrodite, naturally enough, took Paris’s part in the dispute. It turns out that the 2 sides have roughly equal divine backing, with Hera, Athena, Poseidon, Hermes, and Hephaestus helping the Achaeans, and Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Leto, and the River Xanthus helping the Trojans. Zeus, father and king of the gods, does not formally take sides, but his heart is with the Trojans, who have long offered him superb sacrifices. His private residence is on Mount Ida, near Troy. Although Zeus does not take part in the actual fighting, he is called upon to intervene in one way or another at various points. In particular, the war down below is echoed in his own marriage with Hera; with them we witness a divine marriage in trouble, and have to wonder whether immortality and wedlock are meant to coexist.

I started off by mentioning the clash of civilizations; it seems significant that Troy is in Asia (not far from modern Istanbul). For while the Trojans are portrayed as speaking the same language and paying worship to the same gods as the Achaeans, they are also presented as an alien culture. For while the Achaeans all come from cities in their own lands, theirs is a warrior culture: the status of its men is built up almost entirely around prowess in battle. And while they appreciate and enjoy wealth, it is always portrayed as won in combat or in competitive games, or perhaps received as gifts of friendship. In contrast, Troy is depicted as a wealthy city, but one whose wealth has been earned through trade. Warriors have always despised trade, and indeed the definition of a nobleman in Europe has been, from earliest times, one who makes his living by the profession of arms. Tradesmen produce wealth, warriors seize it from them; their relationship is that of predator and prey. For a warrior to turn into a tradesman would be like a wolf turning into a sheep—a humiliating transformation.

The Asians are thus seen here as effete and inferior. Indeed, Paris’s act of absconding with Helen and other of Menelaus’s possessions was a perfidious crime motivated by the unseemly passion of lust. His behavior is degenerate, perverse, and, well, unmanly. It was . . . Asian.

And yet Troy is civilized. Hector, while the greatest warrior among the Trojans, is also portrayed as a family man who treats his wife and son with tenderness, and who also, almost alone among his countrymen, shows kindness and compassion to Helen. There is a sense here of a rich, cultured society, one that this reader would have liked to glimpse more of, while the Achaeans remain mostly blustering alpha males, thin skinned and jealous of their honor.

The role of fate in the story is subtle and complex. Both men and gods seem to feel somewhat oppressed by fate, when they’re aware of it, but at the same time they are worried about doing things that go against fate or violate it. It leads one to wonder what fate is exactly, or anyway what Homer’s conception of it is. Achilles, for instance, knows that he’s fated to have a short but glorious career. No doubt this knowledge contributes to his sense of outrage when Agamemnon takes his trophies from him. Even Zeus worries about the designs of fate being upset, and takes action to prevent that from happening, even as he also sometimes muses about allowing it to happen.

In all, I enjoyed this second reading of the poem very much. I became more familiar with the large cast of characters, getting past the “blizzard of names” problem.

Putting the finishing touch to my own masterpiece

I tried not to rush. I find that I am always conscious of how many books there are to read, even how many Great Books, and this consciousness creates a subtle pressure to try to tick off the items on my reading list, and thus reduces my involvement with the works. I’m like a tourist with an itinerary, more concerned with checking off “Louvre” and “Notre Dame” than with appreciating them for what they are. Hence my 2-month sojourn with the Iliad.

I haven’t talked about some of the things I really wanted to talk about, such as Homer’s unflinching and harrowing depictions of battle. Homer tells you where the spear went in, what organs it pierced, and depicts the dismay and agony of the dying man as darkness covers his eyes and he flies away to the House of Death. There is a strange conjunction of nonsensicalness and inevitability hanging over the battlefield. And I wanted to mention that the Iliad is not an account of the whole Trojan War, but just a turning point that occurs over a very few days. It really is just about the rage of Achilles.

If you haven’t read the Iliad, then I want to say that it’s more approachable that you might think, certainly in this translation. It’s a real story, told by a real storyteller, one celebrated as among the greatest of all time. Bernard Knox’s introduction is fantastic and not to be missed. He helps get your mind into the right frame to get the most out of Homer’s first epic.

OK. Next: the Odyssey.

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