finding another career for Charles Dickens

The word novelist is a generic one, comprising many and various species of writers before one gets down to the actual individual practitioners. For the kinds of book-length fiction fall along a wide spectrum. A natural way to categorize novelists is by genre, even as each genre itself usually allows of many subgenres. They could also be categorized by literary quality, popularity, volume of output, level of language, and many other ways. But recently I thought it would be interesting to consider the underlying profession or alternative occupation of each novelist.

What do I mean? Well, I myself am probably a philosopher. Even though I am writing fiction, my approach and my attitude, my concerns and my methods, even, are in many ways those of the philosopher. I’m interested in the idea content of fiction, of stories, and this concern informs my whole approach at every stage. I conceive of situations and action as being interesting due to the interplay or conflict of ideas. I am a philosopher-novelist: that is the species to which I belong within the genus novelist.

Who are some other members of this species? Some famous philosopher-novelists of the 20th century spring to mind, such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. As a young man I enjoyed the writing of both these authors, although I thought that Camus was a much better and more natural writer. I think the first thing I read by him was the short story “The Guest,” when I was a teenager. It’s a simple story but I found it absorbing; even in translation the prose was precise and telling at every step. It simmered with underlying conflict. I suppose I’m trying to say that although the author was an ideas man, a philosopher, he was still first and foremost a storyteller. He was a philosopher-novelist.

Others who might fit in that category are Leo Tolstoy, Hermann Hesse, and Ayn Rand.

What are some other “alternative occupations” held by novelists? A few that spring to mind: journalist, historian, society columnist, advocate, gossip, prima donna. What novel are you reading right now? What are the interests, strengths, and attitudes of the author? What alternative occupation might these suggest?

Charles Dickens, humorist and TV writer

“Have your people call my people.”

I’m reading The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, published in 1837—his first novel. So I’ve been thinking: what sort of a person writes a book like this?

The author is a humorist, for sure; his writing reads the way Victorian cartoons look, with their greatly exaggerated but also meticulously detailed figures. Is Dickens a cartoonist-novelist, then? Not exactly—at least, not a typical editorial cartoonist, for such a person usually has keen political interests. Dickens is interested in morality and in society. His humor tends to be situational rather than satirical, and his stories tend toward the episodic. He is also eager to show heartfelt emotional interactions between his characters. All of these things are putting me in mind of my own sometime medium of television. Could Dickens be a TV comedy writer-novelist?

I think that’s not a bad stab. It’s certainly not hard to imagine The Pickwick Papers as the Victorian equivalent of a situation comedy. Television didn’t exist in his day, but I have no doubt that Charles Dickens, an Aquarian, would have taken to it like a duck to water. He could easily have become the modern phenomenon of the writer-producer “show runner”: talented, prolific, and with a strong vision and a sure hand at creating characters, which he seemed to do without effort. He might be comparable to Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame, who has a Dickensian knack.

Yes, I think I’ve hit on it: Charles Dickens was a television writer-producer 150 years before his time.

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some thoughts in action

What do you believe in? What are the most deep and certain truths in your life? Do you know? Do you ever take an inventory of your beliefs, or try to be conscious of what exactly they are? I suppose if you did that you would definitely count as a philosopher. I’m not sure that I can say that I exactly inventory my beliefs, but I do think about them; and I think that I am a philosopher.

To infinity—and beyond!

Over the past year or so my mind has been opened to new vistas. I see the world differently, and things are still changing for me. It’s an exhilarating experience, and I don’t know where it will take me. I’m reminded of watching Star Trek long ago: the starship Enterprise was put into warp drive, and with a flash of distorted space and starlight it was gone, faster than light. My mind is the Enterprise, and I feel the warping effect of moving at high speed to I know not yet where.

I’m trying to remember how it started. What comes to mind is the book Journeys out of the Body by Robert A. Monroe, published in 1972. Monroe, an American businessman, set out in the late 1950s to document his ongoing out-of-body experiences, doing his best to take a systematic approach with the intention of creating a work of scientific value. I got the book in September 2017 as a research text for The Age of Pisces, for I had decided to include out-of-body action in my story and wanted to read some firsthand accounts. Monroe, over the course of his experiments, found that he visited three different realms or worlds while in his “astral” body: one was our familiar physical world, which he was able to fly over and through, and two others were worlds that had no physical counterpart that he was aware of. Unless Monroe was hallucinating the whole program, then his experience points to the existence of unseen realms, levels of reality, existing all around us and of which we are usually ignorant.

The door had been opened, and I stepped through. I was driven by a basic question: What’s going on? What is the actual nature of the world, of reality?

My researches have taken me from book to book, idea to idea. From Monroe I went to the work of Sylvan Muldoon, an earlier American subject of out-of-body experiences, who also tried to create a systematic account with his The Projection of the Astral Body. My paperback doesn’t give the original publication date, but in the text there is mention of correspondence between Muldoon and his collaborator Hereward Carrington in the 1920s. Muldoon gets into details of the experience, things like a close examination of the cord that connects the astral to the physical body (it is apparently infinitely elastic, and has a cablelike structure of many filaments wound together) and the specifics of how the astral body interacts with regular physical matter. I learned intriguing details such as that while some dogs can perceive astral forms, others cannot.

I had long before become persuaded that the mind, that is, the experiencing part of ourselves, is separable from the physical body. The accounts I read in Raymond Moody’s book Life After Life in 1986, about near-death experiences, convinced me, and indeed were a spur to resume my interrupted search for a path of Buddhist meditation. I soon found that path, and more or less forgot about the topic of astral travel. The Buddhist path, after all, emphasizes our relationship with our immediate experience, whatever that is, and furthermore denies the existence of an immortal soul—even as Buddhist cosmology acknowledges the existence of realms beyond the physical: the so-called fine-material or “form” realm, and beyond that the “formless” realm occupied by purely mental beings. According to Buddhism, all of these realms are full of beings, but they—we—all share the painful trait of being convinced of their own inherent, permanent existence.

After reading Monroe and Muldoon, I found my curiosity sharpened; I wanted to know more about the unseen realms. Who could tell me about them?

I found more books, ordered them, read them. A striking one was Discovery of Subtle Matter: A Short Introduction by the German chemist Klaus Volkamer, which I got in October 2018. Volkamer, a trained scientist, had arrived at his own views of subtle matter based on a long series of experiments he conducted on living things, including humans, using sensitive digital scales. He found that living things, in the process of dying, at some definite point give up the ghost: that is, they suddenly lose a quantum of mass even while inside a hermetically sealed jar. In the case of humans he didn’t measure them while they died, but rather while they slept. When we fall asleep we lose about 120 grams of mass; the weight returns when we awake. After controlling for every alternative, Volkamer concluded that when we sleep a subtle material body, one that has measurable mass, leaves our tangible body, and returns to it when we awake. It is subtle in the sense that it is not detectable by any means except by its mass—which makes it exactly like the “dark matter” of modern cosmology. According to current cosmological theory, our universe is largely composed of this invisible stuff; it is thought to constitute 85% of the mass of the universe.

Now on the scent, I tracked down more books, and felt that I’d hit the mother lode with the Theosophists: Rudolf Steiner, Charles Leadbeater, Arthur E. Powell, Annie Besant. The Theosophists of the 19th and early 20th centuries made detailed clairvoyant explorations of these very topics, and found a great wealth of information. Their researches revealed a great deal of structure in the unseen realms. The Theosophists, contra the Buddha, do assert the existence of an immortal soul or “Ego,” as they term it. But connected with the Ego are a number of different bodies or “vehicles,” of which our familiar physical body is merely one: the densest one. The other bodies are made out of matter of their own, but matter that is finer or subtler than the coarse matter we know. The physical world actually contains 7 subgrades of fineness: the 3 phases of solid, liquid, and gas, plus 4 more phases beyond those, which together constitute the “etheric” level of matter. Above the finest grade of etheric matter lies the astral realm, which has 7 sublevels of its own. And there are further levels above it.

Again I’ve run past my planned word count, and still haven’t got to where I’d hoped to get to! And where was that? Well, I suppose a kind of “belief position paper”: a sketch of where my beliefs are at right now. The 19th-century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) distinguished between what he called “thought in action” and “thought at rest”:

thought in action has for its only possible motive the attainment of thought at rest. . . .

“Thought in action” is thinking; “thought at rest” is belief. As for belief, Peirce thought that it has exactly 3 properties:

  • it is something that we are aware of
  • it appeases the irritation of doubt
  • it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit

For my part I’m not certain about the first of these, for I suspect that there are unconscious beliefs, or at least implicit ones. The other two strike me as being sound, though, and indeed connected, for it seems likely that the “irritation of doubt” arises just because we don’t know what to do in a given situation. We have no rule of action, so we hang in suspense. Time being precious, this is a painful condition.

Right, so what am I saying. My thoughts remain in action here. My beliefs feel less settled than they were, say, 3 years ago. But whatever doubts I may have had about the existence of an astral world that is coincident with our coarse physical one, and of other worlds beyond that as well, and beings of various kinds inhabiting these realms, are now much less; nay, I would say they are extinct. I believe in these things. But there is so much still to learn that I can’t describe my thoughts as being at rest at this stage. Oh no: they are as busy as they have been at any time in my life.

Maybe I could add a notion to Peirce’s ideas of thought in action and thought at rest: the notion of direction. For my thoughts are not merely moving; they are heading somewhere. The feeling of progress eases the irritation of doubt. For when we’re traveling toward a cherished destination, the feeling of approaching it is satisfying in itself.

Indeed, this might be the very best we can do. For are not all our beliefs temporary? Don’t they all fall sooner or later in the light of new knowledge? We might fight the realization like wildcats, but don’t we all keep discovering that the world is bigger and stranger than what we’d thought? I think we do.

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making states from scratch

I’m closing in on the end of the Laws of Plato—the current volume in my ongoing reading of the Great Books of the Western World. The Athenian Stranger has been holding forth to his two traveling companions, Cleinias and Megillus, on the laws he would propose for a new Cretan colony that is about to be founded. It’s clearly a matter he has given much thought: the book runs to 159 densely printed pages, making it actually a few pages longer than Plato’s Republic. The Stranger has considered the state at both the highest abstract levels and in many of its practical details.

Well considered though the Stranger’s state is, I’ve mentioned before that I don’t think it could work in our modern world. As an ideal state, it’s a kind of utopia, and as such it does not envision change; indeed, much of its constitution is designed to prevent change from happening. For once you’ve reached perfection, any change must necessarily be for the worse. And therefore it must be prevented.

But the world has changed a lot since the 4th century BC. The changes have not all been for the better, but neither have they all been for the worse. I fear that the Stranger’s proposed constitution was too brittle to withstand the tremors of the real world. The initial vision of it is inspiring: having established that existing states tend to be founded on the principle of being ready for war, the Stranger proposes instead to found a state on the principle of promoting the happiness of the individual and the community. “No one,” he says, “will ever be a sound legislator who orders peace for the sake of war, and not war for the sake of peace.” But as the book goes on and the constitution unfolds, the Stranger’s state comes to feel more and more like a straitjacket, with the desires and aims of individuals being continually trimmed to conform with the divine vision of the legislator. It makes me think uncomfortably of modern totalitarian states—places like Cuba and North Korea—where the Dear Leader is officially infallible and the penalty for dissent, or even for attempted departure, is death. Even if the founders of those states were in fact well-intentioned, stable geniuses (a long shot, but let’s give them the benefit of every doubt), their states are really just large prison camps. The fact that some of the inmates shout praises of their overlords makes a camp easier to maintain, but does not affect its basic nature. No mentally normal person would want to emigrate to such a place.

So is there such a thing as an ideal state or ideal government? Something more adaptable and friendly to individual quirks than the crystalline structure envisioned by the Athenian Stranger? This being my blog, what do I think such a government might be?

“All it needs is a bit of government.”

It’s a vast topic, with many interrelated parts. I don’t even pretend to know what all those parts are. Nonetheless, as a citizen living under various layers of government, from my strata council on up, I have skin in the game here, and so will make free to offer glimpses of my own thoughts on it, for what they’re worth.

I agree with the Athenian Stranger that the highest and best government cannot have as its primary purpose making the state ready for war. War is a grim reality, but, in my view, nothing to be celebrated or loved. I believe the philosopher Hegel, among others, was keen on it as fostering the “military virtues,” which were thought to be the highest. Personally I regard that as rubbish. Those who profess to be edified by the death, maiming, and ruin of others are not people I want to be designing the state I live in. War is for the sake of peace, and the ideal state would be one that looks ahead to a world where war is obsolete, like polio or smallpox. It prepares for war only to the extent necessary to assure its own survival: purely in defense, never in conquest.

Apart from that, a state should have a positive sense of mission: its founders treasure certain values and want to see them fostered and promoted. In the Declaration of Independence of the United States, these values are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; the corresponding values in the Canadian constitution are “peace, order, and good government” (or, more technically, “peace, welfare, and good government”). But there will also be states that treasure more religious values: states operating under Sharia or under Christian or Buddhist or other equivalents. They will necessarily have a different setup.

And what if your state’s mission is not congenial for you? It seems clear to me that an ideal state can’t be one that forces its citizens or residents to speak or act against their own conscience. So my ideal state is a liberal one: it needs to be constituted so as to allow each citizen the greatest possible freedom of conscience and of action. This includes the freedom to emigrate if anyone should find the constitution not to his taste. (In the Stranger’s state, immigration and emigration are strictly controlled, and indeed his thoughts on this are very interesting and worth a careful look on their own.) All other things being equal, each person should be able to go to that state which best suits his own view of life and to live among those who share his outlook. This could only promote social harmony and cohesion.

I’m running out of space here, and I’m barely getting started! Two other preliminary thoughts have to do with direct vs. representative government, and the question of education. Personally, I’m okay with the idea of representative government, since some people are naturally more talented and skilled as administrators and managers, and those should be the ones doing those tasks. There are hazards, of course, but still, that seems to be the best arrangement, in theory, anyway.

I raise the question of education because I think that Aristotle is right in suggesting that no state can survive long if its citizens are not educated into its constitution. My own feeling is that public education should be primarily this: education into the constitution. This might include a fair amount of what we regard as basic education, such as literacy and numeracy; but the specific aim would be to shape citizens competent to function as responsible members of their society. Everything else, such as the vocational training that we refer to as education now in the West, should probably be private.

But that too is a big topic!

I’ve already run past my targeted word count, so I will have to leave this for now with only these few preliminary thoughts. But if I had to summarize my state in three words, I might say: liberal, capitalist, and green. If somebody builds that state, I will come.

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wanted: hero (apply within)

I just finished reading Vanity Fair by William Thackeray yesterday, and I continue to reflect on it, wondering what its point is, its mission.

The novel, which was originally published in 1847 as a series of installments, just as were the novels of Charles Dickens at that time, made Thackeray’s reputation as a major figure in British literature. The book remains in print to this day, and has attracted lots of critical attention. Without having read the critics, beyond the critical introduction by John Sutherland in my wife Kimmie’s World’s Classics edition by the Oxford University Press—a mass-market paperback she got in 1995, inspired by a TV adaptation we had just seen—I will try to gather my own thoughts here before your very eyes. There will be spoilers, so stop here if you have not read the book! It’s well worth reading, so this can wait until you come back.

Something for everyone.

When I try to think of the meaning, theme, or controlling idea of a story, the first place I look is the ending. What kind of events resolve the story, and what are the thoughts and, most importantly, the emotions that arise as a result? In Vanity Fair, we have what superficially appears to be a typical comedy ending: a new equilibrium is reached, with the community brought into harmony after the storm and stress of the story. The two main characters, the scheming “adventuress” Becky Sharp and her sweet-natured and long-suffering schoolmate Amelia Sedley Osborne Dobbin, have arrived at the happiest stages of their respective lives. The comedy has been crowned with a wedding, which is the way comedies have properly ended, according to Christopher Booker in his The Seven Basic Plots, since the advent of New Comedy with the plays of Menander in the early 3rd century BC. The “Old Comedy” of Aristophanes, which was a social comedy that satirized various aspects of contemporary life, gave way to what we now would call romantic comedy, in which social issues are revealed in the crucible of a romance between two young lovers whose society deems their relationship as being, for whatever reason, inappropriate. The “romance” in Vanity Fair is actually a story of unrequited love: the stolid army officer William Dobbin carries a torch for Amelia, whose heart was irrevocably given to his brother officer George Osborne, and who cannot be faithless to him even after his death at Waterloo. Eventually the scales fall from Amelia’s eyes, or actually are chipped off by Becky for reasons of her own, and the union so long and ardently desired by Dobbin can take place. Everyone is set up very comfortably, the end.

But Vanity Fair is not a standard comedy; indeed, it might not be a comedy at all, despite its comic characters and comic tone and and comic situations and comic illustrations. For the basic law of comedy, and of tragedy too, come to that, is that virtue is rewarded and vice punished. Or, in the sly words of Oscar Wilde through the voice of Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest:

The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.

If Miss Prism is right, then Vanity Fair is not fiction! For Becky Sharp, who is surely among the bad, ends happily—or as close to that condition as anyone in Vanity Fair can be. Vanity Fair is thus a black comedy: a comedy in which vice actually triumphs. So the feeling tone of the ending is complex. There may be some chuckles, but there is also a sober sense that things are not right with the world. For when we see the triumph of vice in real life our reaction is not laughter, it’s indignation. The triumph of vice offends our sense of justice, and makes us feel, deep down, “this isn’t over.” At the end of the story here, though, it is over, which tells us that this is the author’s picture of the world, of reality: there is no justice, just winners and losers, and who they are has little to do with their character or deserts.

According to the introduction of my edition, written by John Sutherland, the title of the work came to its author as an inspiration one night that excited him so much that he ran around his bedroom, repeating it. Thackeray had already been at work on it for a while under the title A Novel Without a Hero, which would be retained as one of the book’s two subtitles (the other being Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society). But Vanity Fair struck Thackeray as being exactly what he was writing about. So what is Vanity Fair?

The term comes from The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come by John Bunyan, an allegory of the Christian path to salvation published in 1678. Bunyan introduces it thus:

Almost five thousand years agone, there were pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these two honest persons are: and Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion, with their companions, perceiving by the path that the pilgrims made, that their way to the city lay through this town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a fair; a fair wherein, should be sold all sorts of vanity, and that it should last all the year long: therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not. And, moreover, at this fair there is at all times to be seen juggling cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind.

The fair is deliberately placed on the way to the Celestial City in order to distract and ensnare all those who are bound there. It’s somewhat analogous to the Land of the Lotus Eaters in Homer’s Odyssey, where pleasure induces the sojourner to stay on indefinitely and forget about his objective. Or like a Roach Motel: they check in, but they don’t check out. And, like Roach Motels, Vanity Fair is purpose built to achieve the aim of its architects: to prevent Christians from reaching the Celestial City. The demons don’t bother with threats and violence—things that will evoke resistance. No, they use pleasure; their victims come willingly and stay. Mission accomplished, no fuss, no muss.

My point is that Vanity Fair exists because the Celestial City exists; it is a countermove in a cosmic chess game between God and Beelzebub. Thackeray has brilliantly portrayed English society of the early 19th century as an image of Vanity Fair, much as Bunyan described it, complete with its inventory of vanities, many of which are explicitly pursued by Thackeray’s characters. What is absent from his novel is any sense of the Celestial City. The denizens have forgotten their pilgrimage and now look for their happiness in this demon-built place. They look in vain, for happiness is not to be found there; the demons knew what they were about.

The subtitle, A Novel Without a Hero, feels significant. The hero’s task, according to Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is to bring new life to his society by shouldering the task of finding that new life and winning it from whatever dark force is withholding it. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, that hero is Christian, who resists the lure of Vanity Fair, and who, along with his companion Faithful, is exposed to ridicule, abuse, and imprisonment for having no taste for the fair’s goods, but only for truth. Their behavior starts to inspire a few of the wretched inhabitants of the fair, which only brings harsher treatment on the heroes.

Still greater heroes were Prince Gautama in India and Jesus in Palestine, each of whom was tempted by the greatest demonic power in his world: Mara, king of the realm of desire in India, and Satan, the premier antagonist of God in Palestine. Both Gautama and Jesus were offered great worldly success and power if only they would abandon their spiritual missions. They both resisted and won through to their respective goals, bringing salvation to millions of others as a result. The hero’s path always involves suffering and sacrifice, which make severe tests of the hero’s character. Such a constellation of qualities is rare, and heroes are accordingly precious and few.

In Vanity Fair, by design, they are altogether absent. Usually the purpose of a story is to show us the career of a hero. Someone, at least for a time, takes on the exalted qualities and the elevated task of the hero, and we witness how such a person struggles through and wins (or, sometimes, fails to win) the sought-for treasure. Stories teach us how to live, what to value. A novel without a hero lacks this defining element. So what is the purpose of the story? Why does it exist?

According to Sutherland, critics are unanimous that Thackeray’s primary mission here was a moral one. Despite the arch and playful tone of his narrator, Thackeray was well aware of the moral failings of his characters, and did not in the least approve of these failings. The narrator sometimes admonishes his reader not to judge the characters too harshly, since the reader himself has probably done the same thing countless times. This has a somewhat uncomfortable effect, along the lines of Jesus’ admonition to “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Who among us is without sin? By what right do we judge our neighbors?

So Vanity Fair could be said to be a holding of the mirror up to nature—our nature. This figure occurs in Hamlet, when Hamlet is charging the actors of the play within the play in Act 3:

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

The purpose of playing, or perhaps of narrating, is, according to Hamlet, to show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure—pressure here having its archaic meaning of “impression” or “stamp.” We look in a mirror to see ourselves, so Vanity Fair is us.

All right, true enough. Most of us can congratulate ourselves that we’re not so morally derelict as Becky Sharp. On the other hand, we’re probably not so upright as William Dobbin, either—although even here we can gloat over the fact that we would never be such a martyr to our yearning for an unattainable love object. We can surely persuade ourselves that we’re better than every single character, at least in some respect, but even in this we would be marking ourselves as fellow denizens of Vanity Fair, for the characters in the novel can say the same about themselves, too: each one is better than all the others, in some respect. Or at least could make himself believe so.

Where does this leave us? What’s the takeaway? What is the novel saying? I think of a line from Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, something like, “What are we here for but to make sport for our neighbors, and to laugh at them in our turn?” Life is a comedy; our consolation is that we’re not always the butt of the joke; we get to take turns.

I don’t know, for me that feels a bit like thin gruel for such a massive story. My sense is that the author was troubled that the world appears to reward vice and punish virtue, but was at a loss as to what to do about it. His story had no hero because he didn’t believe in heroes. Endless hypocritical scheming to acquire wealth and get ahead in society—that he could believe in, he’d seen plenty of it with his own eyes. On those few occasions when heroism does manifest, as when Rawdon Crawley challenges Lord Steyne after being humiliated by him and his own wife Becky, it is crushed by the juggernaut of society before it can achieve its end and make a difference. We all have a price, and we are all bought—that is, if we’re lucky; mostly we are just peddling our wares and hoping.

As a young man, when I thought I would try to write commercial fiction, I took an interest in the British mystery writer Peter Dickinson. One of his books in my library is The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest, published in 1968. Apparently that was the American title of the original novel Skin Deep; no matter, it has always intrigued me as a title. It’s a vivid image. Through the glass you can watch the teeming colony, each ant intent and serious on its own business, each with a well-defined place in the society, each crawling over and past its neighbors, all busy in their thousands and none ever questioning what they’re doing or why. Even if they knew they were being observed they wouldn’t care in the slightest. Vanity Fair is a Victorian glass-sided ants’ nest. They struggle, they strive, they live, they die. For Beelzebub and his cohort it’s mission accomplished—until a hero shows up.

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forwarding address: Utopia

As I type these words it is 5:36 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time here in North Vancouver. I watch the characters appearing crisply on my new Samsung flat-screen monitor. Out my office window to the left the light from the cloudy sky casts gentle shadows on the brick patio. A rhododendron is in vibrant bloom, covered with flowers the color of pale lilac. The air is quiet from the ongoing lockdown due to the covid-19 pandemic. Whatever the other consequences of this global disaster, I love this peace that it has brought.

I’m in the midst of the time I regard as my “reading block”: the time I dedicate to reading each day. I have just finished typing the highlighted text from Book 7 of the Laws of Plato, part of his collected works in volume 7 of the Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World. A character identified only as the Athenian Stranger is describing the constitution he would give to a new colony. He has been invited to do so by his two interlocutors, partly by way of passing the time as they make a long journey on foot, but more importantly because one of his companions has been asked to help frame the constitution of a Cretan colony that is about to be formed. It’s a chance to create an ideal state—or as nearly ideal as possible—from scratch. Luckily for his companions, the Athenian Stranger appears already to have given this matter detailed thought.

No litter—and no people.

So much has changed since the Greece of the 5th century BC. It’s true that most of the states of the world now are democracies or do their best to masquerade as such; this is one major legacy of that time. But very few independent states are now city-states, as the polities of ancient Greece were. The nearest examples might be places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Monaco. For the most part states are much bigger, and accordingly more complex. They make use of the institution of representative government, in which citizens elect people to represent them in the legislature, instead of the ancient Greek institution of direct government, in which citizens both sat in the legislature and also took turns serving in the actual posts of the administration.

But one of the most striking differences is in the idea of legislation itself. The Athenian Stranger talks about the legislator as a kind of artistic genius: a man who has a vision of the state, but also of humanity and of the world, and who seeks to bring these things into harmonious relationship with each other through the framing of a constitution and laws. This was no mere ideal but rather a matter of historical fact: Athens honored its lawgivers Draco, Solon, and Pericles as visionary statesmen. Few indeed are the modern politicians who are so highly regarded. Maybe South Africa’s Nelson Mandela was somewhat in that mold.

The three men in the Laws agree that the purpose of any polity, any society, is to secure a good life for its members. The legislator takes on his role because he the wisest and most visionary. His objective is to secure that good life for everyone, and the primary aim of his laws is to educate the citizens—to raise them to their highest potential. To that end, every part of life fell under his purview: the population of the state, the limits on property ownership, what employments would be permitted, at what ages people may marry and have children, and what religious practices are to be observed, among many other things. In this view, the ideal state is a totalitarian state, but it is centered not on the ideal of a utopian economic or religious order, and still less on the cult of a dictator and his clique, but rather on an unswerving commitment to the cultivation of virtue in each person and in the community as a whole.

It’s an intriguing thought: could there be such a thing as a benign totalitarian state? That is, truly benign, and not merely claiming to be such, as they all do? Maybe, but, frankly, all of my instincts rebel against the idea. A life in which every aspect of one’s existence is regulated is one that could easily feel like a straitjacket.

I have lived in such a society myself: it was while I was a temporarily ordained Buddhist monk at Gampo Abbey, Nova Scotia, in 2002. I loved it. To live there is to live under a definite set of rules that govern every aspect of one’s existence. And the aim is not so different from that of the Athenian Stranger and his friends: the good life. It is a particular vision of the good life, and not one that everyone would subscribe to. No one (as far as I know) is born into life there; it must be chosen, and the applicant is vetted before being accepted. To live there, under the rule, is a privilege not granted to everyone.

It would appear there are different Utopias, and a key to their success would seem to be that their residents choose to live there, consciously, with their adult minds. But when we’re born into a polity, a society, whose values we don’t truly share in our heart, then it begins to sound like the situation described by Joseph Campbell in his Creative Mythology:

The result [is] a dissociation of professed from actual existence and that consequent spiritual disaster which, in the imagery of the Grail legend, is symbolized in the Waste Land theme: a landscape of spiritual death. . . .

“A dissociation of professed from actual existence.” How many of us have felt this? How many of us have chafed against customs and institutions that seemed artificial and senseless? I think the word alienation, which was such a buzzword in the 20th century, was seized upon to denote this experience. People in this situation cannot give their whole hearts to the state as it currently exists, regardless of the prestige of its visionary founders.

I’m sure this situation would have been hard for the Athenian Stranger and his friends to imagine. To them, any right-thinking person must subscribe to the vision of the wise founder of his city, or be punished as a wicked person. The citizen of that time may have been an excellent and admired person, but he was not a true individual: one whose conscience bids him to remain true to his own notion of integrity, whatever the consequences. We may not be true individuals, either, but we sense that we should be, and actually want to be—but we don’t, for the most part, know how.

I can’t help wondering: what would the Athenian Stranger make of our world and its problems? How would he amend his idea of Utopia?

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Karma by Annie Besant: who’s running this show?

KarmaKarma by Annie Besant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thought-provoking and brief overview of a very important topic, packaged in a slapdash print-on-demand format.

Annie Besant, one of the leading lights of the Theosophical Society of the early 20th century, here presents the understanding of karma attained by direct clairvoyant perception of herself and other Theosophists. At least, that is my understanding of how the material was derived, and if that’s the case, then the book is tremendously valuable, for it provides an alternative view to the teachings of karma handed down by tradition by Vedic, Jain, and Buddhist masters. It is a work based on experience rather than on authority.

There are significant differences between the way karma is presented here and the way it is presented in those Indian traditions. I’m no expert on the subject, but as a student of Buddhism I have come to understand karma as a strictly impersonal force, like magnetism or gravity, but one that operates primarily from the mental realm rather than the physical one. Even though that’s so, karma nonetheless has distinctly physical consequences. As for the exact mechanism of its workings, this is mysterious. In the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha himself narrates how he saw directly into the workings of karma in the second watch of the night on which he gained supreme enlightenment. He saw this with the “divine eye” of clairvoyance, which is beyond normal human perception. As for his students, they were instructed not to try to understand the exact workings of “karma and result”; the Buddha placed this topic, along with three others, on the list of the “four unthinkables”–subjects that, if a student tried to understand them conceptually, would lead him only to frustration and madness.

In this text the author offers something like a full account of the mechanism of karma, but it is not seen as an impersonal force; for the Theosophists found that karma is regulated by spiritual entities knows as the Lords of Karma. It is our thoughts, rather than our actions, that generate karma, for thought is the primary creative principle of the cosmos, in the Theosophical teaching. Indeed, our actions are generated by our thoughts. According to this text, every single thought we have, no matter how trivial or fleeting, leads to an eventual experienced result. The function of the Lords of Karma is to “right-size” the circumstances of our next birth according to the karma we have accumulated and, perhaps, according to how much bad karma we wish to extinguish at one time.

The Theosophical account of karma is quite different from the Buddhist account. To the Theosophists we are all fundamentally immortal souls, while the Buddha taught that belief in an immortal soul is an error. According to him, there is no such thing, and belief in its existence is exactly the cause of all our sufferings. So in the Buddhist system karma must be an impersonal force, since, fundamentally, there is no person anywhere anyway. That said, it doesn’t mean there can’t be Lords of Karma; it’s just that they, like ourselves, have a conventional existence rather than an ultimate one. They would be among the devas of the Buddhist cosmology, beings that exist on an exalted plane, but which are samsaric beings as we are, and thus subject to change and suffering.

A lot of people have difficulty believing in karma; indeed, Besant notes that even many Theosophists, while affirming it intellectually, do not really let it guide their actions. And the purpose of the doctrine is to guide our actions, for it is a moral law. For my own part, I have no such difficulty. I believe in karma as much as I can believe in anything I can’t see or touch. To the best of my ability, I try to let it guide my actions. In the end, does it really matter whether karma is regulated by a strictly impersonal law or by tremendously powerful spiritual beings existing at a much higher plane of reality? To us on the earthly plane, the upshot is the same: our thoughts, words, and actions have power, and will all visit results upon us at some point.

It’s wonderful that this book is available to modern readers in a paperback edition such as this one, but the book has some serious flaws. The physical book is fine; it was printed on demand by Amazon in Bolton, Ontario. But no one has proofread the book. It contains typos and formatting flaws such as the printing of footnotes in the body of the text instead of at the bottom of pages, and the burying of headings in the text of paragraphs. The text has been machine formatted and printed, and the result is clumsy. They need to get someone to review a proof of the book and fix the source file.

But I’m happy to have it and to have read it. Few topics are as important as karma for the conduct of our life and of all our future lives. This is a short but serious work by one who claims to have at least glimpsed the actual workings of this great cosmic force. As such, it is worth reading, if anything is.

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making sense—and loving it

I live a life of ideas. But what does that mean, exactly?

Certainly, at a minimum, it means that I like ideas and enjoy exploring them. I read a lot and so you could say that I love reading (and you’d be right), but the pulse underlying that love, I think, is the love of ideas. But even I, who love ideas, am hard put to it to explain what it is exactly about them that I love, and why this love can spur feelings of excitement within me. What on Earth is lovable about an idea?

In the first place, it’s not completely clear what an idea is. Idea itself appears on the list of 103 Great Ideas compiled by the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World series, which means that they found it to be of special importance in the history of Western literature, and also that they found it to be controversial, meaning that there is no universally accepted definition of it. In the words of the introduction to Idea in the Great Books set:

Each of the great ideas seems to have a complex interior structure—an order of parts involving related meanings and diverse positions which, when they are opposed to one another, determine the basic issues in that area of thought. . . . The great ideas are also conceptions by which we think about things. They are the terms in which we state fundamental problems. They represent the principal content of our thought.

In some way, ideas, and especially the Great Ideas, stand at the interface where the mind meets the world. They are the fundamental working materials of the philosopher, as paints are of the painter or wood of the carpenter. But ideas are not a monopoly of philosophers, or of professional philosophers, anyway; we all make us of them to some extent. Indeed, I suspect that if we, any of us, examine our beliefs, we will find that they are based on some more or less definite notion of ideas, and in particular the Great Ideas.

Where the action is.

Granted, few of us examine our beliefs—that’s the province of the philosopher. We just believe them. And by that I don’t mean that we profess faith in them; I mean that we act on them. Our beliefs are exactly those mental constructs that we do act on.

An example? Suppose I believed that people in general are selfish and greedy, and will cheat you and steal from you if they think they can get away with it. It’s not hard to see that this belief would affect my behavior in many ways. I would treat people with suspicion and would be slow to extend trust. I would avoid doing favors or lending things to people. This belief would also color and guide my actions in the economic and political spheres of life: how I invested my money, how I voted.

All other beliefs are the same: they guide action. I hesitate to say that this is their purpose—although it might be—but it is certainly their effect. And this is as true for big, cosmic beliefs as it is for smaller, homelier, more social ones, as in my example above.

An important point here is that I’m talking about our actual beliefs and not our stated ones. The two might coincide, but often they don’t. Furthermore, we might not even be aware that they don’t coincide. We might genuinely tell ourselves that we believe the thing that we’re saying, when others can easily see that our actions say otherwise. I might firmly avow that my family is the most important thing in my life, and yet spend all of my waking hours at the office. In this case I would use rationalizations to account for the seeming discrepancy. Such are the complexities of the human mental economy.

Nonetheless, there will, in each case, be actual, truly held beliefs underlying our actions, regardless of what we profess or what we tell ourselves we believe. And I think that if you were to trace these beliefs back to their source, to the beliefs underlying the beliefs, as it were, you would find the Great Ideas, or things close to them. And this would be so even if we have never consciously thought about any of the Great Ideas in our life.

Let’s consider the first item in the alphabetical list of Great Ideas: Angel. Some people definitely believe in the existence of angels, while many others disbelieve. Many others will profess belief or disbelief but actually, deep down, hold the opposite view, and therefore act on it. And the kinds of actions you would take based on your belief would depend on the specific features of your belief: are angels necessarily good? do angels involve themselves in worldly affairs? were all angels once human beings? are angels organized in a hierarchy? And so on. The specific actions you would actually take will depend on your positions on these things.

You might profess not to know, to be agnostic; and you could be entirely genuine and truthful in that. Nonetheless, I think your actions would still tell the tale. If your actions are the same as those of someone who definitely does not believe, then that is the bet you have really made, whatever you may profess.

The next idea on the list is Animal. Could that really be a Great Idea? What’s controversial about the idea of animals? Well, one question is whether human beings are animals, and, if so, in what ways we share qualities with other animals. Our ideas about animals govern things like our diet, our thoughts about zoos, and our position on animal rights. What exactly makes an animal different from a plant? How conscious are animals? Again, our beliefs about these things will determine our actions.

But what’s to love here? Why care? Even though I have strong feelings about this, I find the question not so easy to answer. I could say that the better our knowledge is, the more complete and more accurate, the better our actions will be: we’ll make fewer mistakes and attain our aims more surely. And while I think this is true, I believe it is only the most superficial benefit of engaging with ideas.

The more we engage with ideas, learn about them, think about them, the more we engage with our own selves in totality. We discover mistakes and inconsistencies and contradictions in ourselves. If we care about our personal integrity, then we will want to address those things. Engaging with ideas is the path to wisdom, at least in a worldly sense, and wisdom is one of the virtues. Not only that, but it is virtue that, perhaps more than any other, helps us to cultivate the other virtues by moving from an unconscious way of living to a conscious way of living. And from ancient times, the wisest heads have affirmed that the cultivation of virtue is the path to happiness.

To engage with ideas is, I believe, the deepest and most powerful way to try to make sense of the world. For our whole life is a making sense of the world. The world of the newborn is “one great blooming, buzzing confusion,” to quote William James, and from the moment of emergence from the womb we are confronted with the task of ordering our experience and understanding it. Most of us get to a certain point with that and then give up, satisfied with where we’re at. I don’t feel that way; I’m not satisfied and I’m not going to give up.

When out hiking in nature it can be thrilling to come upon some new vista: so rich, so vast, so complex. I suppose I feel that there are similar thrills in the world of ideas, but that these thrills are greater and more significant, because the way we relate with them affects our whole experience of life, in every landscape in which we find ourselves.

Yes, I live a life of ideas, and am profoundly grateful to be able to do so.

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giving up my life—one question at a time

Last July, on my wife Kimmie’s birthday, The Kids (as we refer to Kimmie’s daughter Robin and Robin’s husband Mike) gave her a really thoughtful present: an attractive paperback book entitled One Question a Day: My Life So Far, published by Castle Point Books. It’s a daily journal that prompts you to write about your life by asking you a question each day: 365 questions on 365 pages.

Kimmie jumped into the task of writing in her new journal, dutifully answering one question a day, or sometimes more than that. I felt a bit envious; I really liked the idea of this journal. I have long tried to practice lifewriting in different ways, and this approach, using specific questions as writing prompts, seemed excellent as a way to open the floodgates—or anyway the eyedropper. I wanted my own One Question a Day journal!

The hard part’s done: living it.

The Kids had found the book at a store on Granville Island called Paper-Ya. We all went over there the next Sunday, braving the milling crowds of the site in Vancouver’s False Creek. Lots of nice (high-end) paper products—but no second copy of the book. We came away disappointed.

I decided that I wouldn’t be deterred by the lack of my own copy; I got myself a sheaf of paper and plunged in. I would write a parallel, loose-leaf journal of my own. In some ways this was even better, for Kimmie was already running into trouble with the space limit of a single page—really only about 60% of a page—in which to answer each question.  For me the sky was the limit. I plunged in, determined to answer all the questions and thus arrive at a more or less comprehensive view of my life to date.

Are you curious? Here’s Question 1:

Q 1: What is your birth date? Describe what you know about the day you were born.

And here is what I wrote on my first sheet of ruled loose-leaf:

A: I was born on January 24, 1959—my father’s 25th birthday—at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver’s West End, at 11:32 p.m. I entered the world as a breech birth, which I believe may have given me the “healing touch.” It was the depth of winter and the full moon will have been high in the sky—the most elevated planet.

St. Paul’s was still run by strict and scrupulous Catholic nuns, and my parents had been married only about a week. They lived in a cheap ground-floor apartment on Denman Street, and my first crib would be a cardboard box kept in the top drawer of a chest of drawers.

The #1 song on Billboard‘s Hot 100 that week was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by The Platters.

There, I was off to a start. Only 364 questions to go!

Kimmie discovered that she didn’t really like writing about her life. Perhaps too many painful childhood memories. So she has bogged down somewhere around question 81. I remain enthusiastic, but I have not been able to keep up the one-question-a-day pace. Nonetheless, I have made it as far as question 120 (still in high school), and I intend to get through the whole thing. Why not? Answering questions is easy compared with coming up with your own ideas.

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The Astral Body by A. E. Powell: more things in heaven and earth

The Astral Body: And Other Astral PhenomenaThe Astral Body: And Other Astral Phenomena by Arthur E. Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This follow-on volume, published in 1927, to the author’s The Etheric Double: The Health Aura of Man, extends the survey of the unseen world around us to the next level: that of the astral realm.

The methodology is the same: the author combed through about 40 Theosophical texts to distill the information on the astral body and astral realm into a series of short, well-organized chapters. Again, for those of us who think of ourselves as living in a purely physical world, it is mind-expanding stuff. According to the clairvoyants whose visions form the basis of these teachings, we are all living in the astral world already. It is the world of our sensations, emotions, and desires. We each have an astral body, composed of astral matter, which is not different from the physical matter we’re familiar with except in being much more diaphanous. Like physical matter, it has grades, corresponding to our solid, liquid, and gaseous phases (as well as a few more). Our astral body is formed like our physical one, except that it fades out beyond the boundary of the physical, producing the phenomenon known as the astral aura, which some people can see. Every night, when we sleep, our astral body detaches from the physical and has experiences of its own in the astral realm; when we die, our astral body detaches permanently, and goes on to a further destiny in the astral realm. There are bodies and realms beyond the astral, so our astral body, too, will die. What happens then? That is the subject of the author’s next book: The Mental Body.

The Theosophists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were optimistic that their discoveries would help usher in an age in which humanity would break the chains of materialism which hold us to a low level of spiritual development. That has not happened yet, but the teachings, which are based on the empirical findings of many people, are still with us in the form of this book and others like it. My own inclination is to believe that their findings are mostly correct. Our true existence is in a world much vaster than the one we usually think of–and which in itself is already big enough, to be sure. This book provides a brief and authoritative overview of one part of that vaster world: the astral plane. Since it is the plane of feelings and desires, it’s one in which we all have an enormous stake. This book does much to help the reader gain insight into that part of life, and into the mystery of the cosmos altogether.

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dream interpretation: “Why am I constantly dreaming about the father of my child?”

“See you again tomorrow night, then?”

I regularly answer questions on Quora. My main topics there are astrology and Buddhism, but with occasional forays into life advice, economics, philosophy, literature, and even some dream interpretation. Here is an example of the latter. On March 9, 2020, I came across this question:

“Why am I constantly dreaming about the father of my child and he is not in my life?”

I posted this answer:

I like to believe that dreams are capable of multiple interpretations, so we need to be careful about being dogmatic about them. In this case, I think it’s entirely possible that you may be having some kind of astral contact with this man, who has played such an important role in your life.

But apart from that, I think an interpretation might depend on how you feel about this man. On what terms did you part, and how do you feel about him now? These things will bear closely on the meaning of these dreams, I think.

If we look at the dreams from the perspective that everyone in them represents an aspect of yourself, then the man will be an embodiment of what Carl Jung called your animus: the personification of a woman’s unconscious. The animus is always male, since a woman identifies consciously with her female nature, so her “masculine” side is relatively unconscious. The archetypal symbol can take many forms. The appearance of this symbol is a sign that you are ready to, or you need to, get to know yourself more fully and more deeply. The fact that he is the father of your child means that you have already mingled your nature with his to create new life—a further sign that he is part of yourself.

Knowing only what you’ve said in your question, I would say that the dreams are suggesting that you look at your relationship with this man, how it unfolded and how it ended, and search more deeply for the meaning in it. Looking at things honestly and deeply, what has the whole experience taught you about yourself? And what more might you be able to learn from it?

What do you think?

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