another first: The Floating Opera by John Barth

Another novel, another opening sentence. This post is about the opener for The Floating Opera by John Barth, first published in 1956 when the author was 25 years old.

And how did I come to read The Floating Opera just now? Well, when I bailed early on my previous book, The Amber Spyglass, I needed something else but had no other library book at hand. I came up with a brilliant and exceedingly original idea: what if I read a book from my own library—one that I had not read before?

I changed my mind, and decided to read it.

Rather impressed with myself for thinking of this, I climbed the stairs to the master bedroom where my (Billy, Ikea, natch) fiction bookcase stands. Being of an orderly and programmatic cast of mind, I decided to start at the top left, and read the first unread novel that I came across. My fiction bookcase is arranged alphabetically by author, so it didn’t take long for me to hit on The Floating Opera. There it was: a nice, pumpkin-colored Bantam mass-market paperback. It had been there for a while. How long exactly? I checked the first page, and discovered that I’d bought it in September 1980. Gosh, at that time I was living in a duplex apartment on Vancouver’s East Side with my friends Brad and Keith, and working evenings as a janitor at Vancouver General Hospital. But I could not recall where I had got this book. I’d bought it because I had quite enjoyed Giles Goat-Boy, a later novel by Barth about a young fellow who is the offspring of a goat and a computer. And I do dimly recall buying that book: it was at a bookstore far out on West 10th Avenue, near UBC, quite possibly during my brief and undistinguished career there. I have a faint memory of seeing it in the big picture window at the front of the store. That was probably during winter or spring 1980; come late summer, I was ready to buy more Barth.

But not, apparently, to read him—that would take another 40 years (sorry, John!). Now, finally, in AD 2020, the stars lined up and I was ready to poke my older nose in this paperback. And what did I find? Here is the opening sentence of chapter 1, which is titled “Tuning My Piano”:

To someone like myself, whose literary activities have been confined since 1920 mainly to legal briefs and Inquiry-writing, the hardest thing about the task at hand—viz., the explanation of a day in 1937 when I changed my mind—is getting into it.

It’s another longish one: 44 words (43 if you count “Inquiry-writing” as one word)—just one word less than the opener of The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman. But in my opinion this one has much more going for it. For while there is no figurative language here—no poetry—there is plenty to engage the reader’s interest and encourage a certain sense of trust in the narrator.

For one thing, there is quite a bit of information given and implied. We learn that the first-person narrator has been a lawyer for about 35 years (if the book is taken to be written close to its publication date) and does not regard himself as an experienced writer outside that field. We are served notice of some document or publication, called simply Inquiry, that he has labored on. And we learn what this story is ostensibly about, namely a day in 1937 when he changed his mind. The reference to the seemingly insignificant act of changing one’s mind—something that we all have done many times in our lives—actually heightens the interest, for it seems to imply that this change of mind was of such special importance that the narrator feels driven to describe it almost two decades later.

Then there is the core proposition of this complex sentence: that the hardest thing about this literary task is “getting into it”—starting it. It has a comic ring, for it is a bit paradoxical to note the difficulty of beginning while actually having, strictly speaking, begun. And the alert, well-read reader will note here an echo of a famous novel of the past, namely Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, which was published between 1759 and 1767. In that tale Shandy, setting out to write the story of his own life, has a hard time getting even through the event of his birth. Time and again he worries that he will not live long enough to finish his story. Barth’s narrator expresses a similar kind of anxiety, and the reader familiar with Shandy will now be alert for other connections to that famous and strange work.

The echo of Shandy also alerts the reader that the current work may not play by the rules of standard narrative, that it may well be in some way “modern” or even “postmodern,” whatever we might take those words to mean. And here I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that the book delivers on this implied promise. Although the novel is narrated engagingly and very ably, it is a work of ideas and it will sacrifice the rules of storytelling on the altar of its supposedly higher intellectual mission. Despite its vividly drawn characters and keenly perceived situations, this is a book of the head and not at all of the heart, and, in this reader’s opinion, it suffers as a result.

But I have wandered far from the opening sentence! If I had read no more of the book than that, I would be left with a favorable impression, and curiosity as to how its tale unfolds. And an opening sentence that achieves those things I must term a winner.


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a first sentence can tell you a lot: The Amber Spyglass

Time again to examine the opening sentence of a novel. This time the novel is The Amber Spyglass, published in 2000, the third and final volume of Philip Pullman’s young-adult fantasy series His Dark Materials. Without further ado:

In a valley shaded with rhododendrons, close to the snow line, where a stream milky with meltwater splashed and where doves and linnets flew among the immense pines, lay a cave, half-hidden by the crag above and the stiff heavy leaves that clustered below.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with 45 words.

The first thing I notice is that it’s rather long at 45 words (44 if you choose to regard “half-hidden” as a single word). Long sentences take time to process and they slow a reader down; they also test a reader’s commitment, since they are more demanding to read than shorter sentences. It’s risky to do that with one’s opener, unless there’s a good reason. Is there a good reason here?

Personally, I don’t think so. We have what’s known technically as a complex sentence, that is, one that contains a single main clause and one or more subordinate clauses. The main clause takes some hunting to find; it is:

lay a cave

All the other clauses and phrases serve to modify that basic proposition. And what a lot of them there are! I count three more clauses. So it’s more than complex; it’s what I would call complicated. For what reason? None that I can think of. The author starts off here by testing the reader’s attention and patience.

Next I might ask about the function of the sentence: what is it doing for the story? This one appears to be straight-up scene setting. It’s a description of a location, with no hint of character, action, or story. The opening image might also be important in terms of suggesting the theme of the story. While I can’t be sure at this stage, the sentence doesn’t feel “theme-y” to me. But possibly the image of a cave will be important, since it is a powerful symbolic image connected with the Earth, the underworld, and such significant ideas as Plato’s Cave. On the face of it, though, it appears to be an involved description of a natural location, giving no hint as yet as to why it might be important or significant.

Next I would look for figurative language, which is the hallmark of creative writing. Here there is virtually none. We have the metaphor milky to describe the stream, which is okay but not especially original. Other than that, the language is literal: a factual record. When I think of the ideal of purely factual prose, I imagine a police report: a noting down of facts with a minimum of emotional coloration. A police report would not use such long, complex sentences, and would no doubt skip many of the natural details of this scene in order to cleave more closely to the subject of the report, whatever or whoever that might be. In a way, I wish the author here had taken more of that kind of approach, for, although I have no objection to an author’s taking his time in getting into his story, I do want to feel that what I’m reading matters, that it is somehow important to the story as a whole. If a location is to be described in detail, then that location should be central in some way (here I think of Thomas Hardy’s location descriptions); and if the opening is to be merely description, then that description should be beautiful, poetic.

Here we don’t have that. When I first read the sentence I had a disquieting feeling that the author did not care very deeply about this scene or about his story. There’s a sense of going through the motions. And, truth to tell, that feeling grew as I read on, and I finally decided to quit reading at page 141.

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the day I became an artist

Saul Bellow said that a writer is a reader who is moved to emulation. From my own experience, this seems to be true. The book that has had the most influence on me, that has made the deepest impression, is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, first published in 1916. I first read it in 1977 when I was 18, and have read it, I think, five times since then, including twice just in the past six weeks or so. I’ll say more in a moment about why I did that.

My favorite religious text.

In late spring, probably May, 1977, I was taking English 12 and was on the threshold of graduating from Carson Graham Senior Secondary School here in North Vancouver. I was a strong academic student and had had a basically very good school career, but I was filled with deep, inchoate conflicts. Although I had formed a plan with a friend to take a couple of gap years before university and travel the world, I knew that the time was coming when I had to decide on a career for myself. I was torn, and for simplicity’s sake let’s say that the alternatives were between a life in science or a life in art. I had long assumed that I would pursue a scientific career, probably in space science, which I loved; but I also loved writing and had developed a passion for film-making. At the same time I was experiencing the ferocious pangs of unrequited love, and was starting to wonder seriously about the deep meaning of life altogether—in other words, to experience the beginnings of a spiritual thirst. All of these forces were powerful, and seemed to churn together like lava in the caldera of my soul.

Right. Enter Ms. Mitchell, a student teacher who was teaching a particular segment of my English 12 class. She was the daughter-in-law of the Canadian novelist W. O. Mitchell. I forget exactly why it was, probably because I had already read the novel that the class was studying, but Ms. Mitchell came to me one day after class and presented me with a copy of a Penguin paperback edition of A Portrait of the Artist. She said something simple like, “I think you’ll enjoy this.” The title was vaguely familiar to me, but that was about it. I thanked her and took the book.

(Warning: there are spoilers in what follows.)

I started reading, and soon I was drawn deeply into its world of intense sensation and feeling rendered in poetic language. For some reason I seem to recall starting to read it while sitting at my bench at the back of the class in physics. I’ll always remember my first encounter with the beginning of the book’s second episode, just on page 2:

The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries. The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light.

I found this passage to be almost preternaturally vivid. I knew exactly what that sort of an afternoon was like; I had seen and felt it myself. I loved the “strong cries” of the prefects, the “pale and chilly” air, and, most of all, the “greasy leather orb” that “flew like a heavy bird through the grey light.” And, while I wasn’t reading aloud, I sensed the rhythm of the language. If you read it out loud right now, you’ll hear it yourself.

I became consumed with the book. I read it obsessively but also carefully, so as not to waste the experience. Its young hero, Stephen Dedalus, talented and observant, was being drawn by unseen powers toward a life of art, a life of poetic creation. I remember reading it on the bus over town to my evening job at Vancouver General Hospital (I was already working evenings full time as a janitor in the last couple of weeks of school). Stephen’s thoughts and conflicts felt much like my own. His destiny became important to me: what would happen? Would the powerful forces of family, country, and Church finally shape him to their ends, or would he escape and find a way to be himself?

Stephen Dedalus, although he was an Irish boy living in late-19th-century Dublin, was much like myself; toward the end of the book we were even the same age. I identified strongly with his sense of inner conflict and the feeling of being out of step with the world around him, while also being unsure what to do about those things. And it was all being related in luminous, poetic prose. The struggles of the artist-to-be were themselves being presented as a work of art.

The climax of the book comes at the end of chapter 4. I forget where I was when I first read it, probably at home in the living room with a mug of tea, but I’ll never forget how I was galvanized by the scene. Stephen, who is trying to get into university, becomes impatient of waiting for his father and finally strikes off on his own through the streets, winding up by the seashore, where a number of his schoolmates are splashing in the water and engaging in horseplay. They shout cheerful greetings to Stephen, playfully grecizing his name as”Bous Stephanoumenos” and “Bous Stephaneforos,” which both mean “crowned ox” in Greek. (I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but the ox reference points to the Minotaur—the bull-man trapped in the labyrinth of Daedalus. And just by the way, Stephen’s connection with the bull will be picked up again in Ulysses.) This exchange seems to trigger something in Stephen; he makes the connection between his own name, Dedalus, and that of his mythical namesake, and

he seemed to hear the noise of dim waves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing the air. . . . a hawklike man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood. . . .

Energized and inspired, he sets off along the shore in a kind of ecstasy. And there, on the tidal flats, he is vouchsafed a divine vision. Here there are people wading and digging for cockles, and one of them is a beautiful girl standing in a tidal stream, barelegged with her skirt kilted up at her waist. Her gaze meets Stephen’s unabashed, and they regard one another for an unknown but long time. She is like a lovely seabird, a creature of magic, and her girlish face is “touched with the wonder of mortal beauty.”

When finally she withdraws her eyes from his, Stephen’s soul cries out, “Heavenly God!” in an outburst of profane joy, and, trembling, he sets off again over the sands,

singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him.

Eventually he collapses in a sandy nook on the beach and falls asleep. When he wakes it is evening, and he looks up to see

a rim of the young moon cleft the pale waste of sky like the rim of a silver hoop embedded in grey sand. . . .

When I first read this scene, I felt that I was going through these experiences myself at the same time. I was having an awakening to my artistic vocation along with Stephen Dedalus. In some way, at that moment, I was Stephen Dedalus. Or, in other words, the novel, a work of art, was having the effect on me of a rite: a structured experience of the spirit that was bringing about a deliberate inner change. I had undergone a rite of passage. Like one rising from baptism, saved, I was rising reborn as an artist.

It would only be years later, upon reading the works of Joseph Campbell, that I would come to understand the experience in these terms. In a world where many people are abandoning institutional religion, art takes up the slack and provides people with inspiration and even with actual rites that have an actual saving effect. And this is perfectly natural, for religion itself always begins as art. An artist—a true artist—is exactly one who is close to the wellhead of divine substance that flows into the world from the beyond.

So I have just revisited the site of my conversion, so to speak, by rereading A Portrait of the Artist, and I find it still to be powerful, although it can never provide the same kind of experience again, since the transformation has already been effected. The butterfly (if I may make so bold) is looking back to his caterpillar days. Indeed, this last rereading had a technical focus; I made notes on the story as I read in order to learn its structure. Now I can turn a critical eye on it: could it be improved? Did Joyce perhaps drop a stitch here or there?

We shall see. But A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man will always remain a pivotal and transformational book in my reading career, and will always enjoy pride of place in my library.

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the breakfast of champions

Isn’t it interesting that we will often accept and even prefer the same food for breakfast every day, while to do this for our evening meal would seem like the behavior of an ascetic—or a pauper? In the evening we want variety, but in the morning: sameness.

For many years now my regular weekday breakfast (weekends are different, taken together with my wife Kimmie) has been a bowl of granola with milk. My practice is to make my own granola and to eat it with organic milk produced by Avalon Dairy here in Vancouver; they still package their product in glass bottles.

And if you don’t like it, your horse will.

Maybe 35 years ago I came into possession of a recipe for granola, and I’m not sure now where I got it. It might have been from my mother. I used to take pleasure in acquiring the ingredients at Galloway’s, a specialty food store based in New Westminster that used to have an outlet on Robson Street in downtown Vancouver, just off Thurlow Street. All the ingredients were ranged in bins behind the glass counter, and I would get a custom quantity of each in its own plastic bag. For a treat I would buy some halva while I was at it. It was one of the activities that Kimmie and I would share early in our relationship.

On to the recipe. Having made small tweaks to it over the years, I have modestly given it my own name; I call it Paul’s Exemplary Granola. Here it is:

Paul’s Exemplary Granola

Preheat oven to 350°F; put racks in middle of oven.

Grease 2 baking pans.

Put on low heat:

1 cup oil
1/3 cup corn syrup
1/3 cup honey
vanilla extract

Put in big mixing bowl:

4 cups oat flakes
4 cups wheat flakes
1 cup bran
1 cup oat bran
1 cup wheat germ
1/3 cup shredded coconut
sunflower seeds & cashews to taste

Mix liquid ingredients into dry.

Spread mixture over the 2 pans. Fire them in the oven for 15 minutes. Then turn the granola with a pancake lifter. Bake for another 15 min. Perfect granola.

Now I have tinkered with this further. For one thing, I haven’t been able to source wheat flakes very easily, so I’m using 8 cups of oat flakes instead, and liking that fine. Then there is the bake time. I find that our oven toasts the mixture a bit much for my taste if I bake the batch for a full 30 minutes, so I nudge the bake times down to 14 minutes and 13 minutes for the two halves of the bake. Experiment to taste.

But this is the fuel for my mighty creative works. I thought I would share it with you for your enjoyment. May it lead you to creative works of your own!

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a sentence with hidden depths

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. . . .

Thus the opening sentence and the opening paragraph of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, originally published in 1916 and originally read by this reader in 1977, at the age of 18. From that time until this I have thought of it as my favorite novel and the best novel of all time, and I hope to say more about that in a future post, but for now I want to examine just the opener. How does it stack up against the “dark and stormy night” opener of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford?

As openings go it’s rather eccentric. The “once upon a time” tells us that we’re in the realm of fairy tale, and the word “moocow” lets us know that we’re in the realm of baby talk. A story is being told to a very young child. The next sentence, spoken now in the voice of the narrator, tells us more:

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

Not just another boy-meets-cow story.

That gives us the context. But the opening sentence itself always struck me as strange and I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not. The opening of a story is very important; why does this one open with this particular image? What might it be telling us about the book to come?

We will come to see that this story is about a boy, a “young man,” and is a chronological account of his growth into an artist—a literary artist, a poet. So the opener may very well be his earliest memory. The fact that it is his memory and not, say, an objective statement of his time and place of birth, is in keeping with the fact that this story, although narrated in the third person, will cleave close to the protagonist (whose name is Stephen Dedalus) and make us privy to his inmost thoughts and feelings. It is not about his life so much as about his experience of it. So we open with a memory, not a fact.

The memory itself is of a story being told: it is a work of verbal art on the part of his father. And so the sentence foreshadows Stephen’s own vocation as a storyteller; in this way, if in no other, he will follow in his father’s footsteps. This might be especially significant, given their strange name, Dedalus, which is that of the mythical Greek engineer who built the labyrinth that hid the Minotaur of King Minos. As so often happens when one creates something for an autocrat, the invention winds up turned on oneself, and Daedalus (the usual spelling for the Greek hero) wound up imprisoned in the labyrinth with his son Icarus. Father and son. Daedalus invents wings so that they may both fly away.

None of that material is in the opening sentence itself, but the mythical situation is nonetheless present and the sentence, in its way, serves its needs. The opening sentence is of a father talking to his son, but talking poetically—telling a story, and, more particularly, inventing that story on the spot. The gift of invention, of creation, is being transmitted from father to son. This gift of artistic invention may even be the “wings” that the mythical  Daedalus fashions for himself and his son: the means by which they may escape imprisonment in the labyrinth. The young Stephen Dedalus will find himself hemmed in by various restricting circumstances and challenged to find the wherewithal within himself to break these chains. If anything can enable him to fly free, it is his vocation as an artist. But it will take time for that vocation to form itself and make itself known to him.

Another thought: the father’s story is about a “moocow.” In the myth of Daedalus, the engineer was engaged by King Minos to create something to entrap and enclose a monster, the Minotaur, the “bull of Minos.” Now the Minotaur was the progeny of Minos’s own wife Pasiphaë, the product of her unnatural lust for a pure white bull. Minos had prayed for the emergence of a perfect bull from the sea as a sign of his right to rule in preference to his brothers, and had promised to sacrifice it to Poseidon. But when the bull appeared, Minos was so impressed that he decided to keep it for himself and offer up something else to the god. Poseidon, angry, evoked the lust in his queen as a punishment for the king, who had made what Joseph Campbell describes as a “merchant’s substitution.” In a further development of the myth, Athens somehow becomes bound to send seven youths and seven maidens to Minos every few years to be devoured by his Minotaur.

So the Minotaur is a bovine monster that eats children; this puts a different twist on the moocow coming down along the road to meet baby tuckoo. The young Stephen, without knowing it, is in peril of his life. And if his father is viewed as Dedalus senior, the engineer, then he is himself the author of the problem, for in the myth Daedalus enables the spawning of the Minotaur by designing the wooden cow in which Pasiphaë hides to be serviced by the white bull. The relationship between Stephen and his father Simon Dedalus will be shown as complex in the course of this novel and also in Ulysses, where they are both significant characters. The opening of A Portrait of the Artist hints that, of all the lures and snares that Stephen will face as he matures to his artistic calling, perhaps the most serious and threatening is represented by his own father. The threat lives as an undertow beneath his father’s seemingly innocent boy-meets-cow story. Indeed, the first thing we’re told about Simon Dedalus is that he has a hairy face: is he the Minotaur?

All of these meanings simmer beneath the surface of the opening sentence, but they will not become manifest until later, when the work as a whole has been read and reflected upon. But this is a mark of an excellent opener: it acts as a hologram, showing the meaning of the whole in its short space. The sentence fulfills its proper functions of setting the scene and setting the tone, but does these things in an innovative and unexpected way. All things considered, I think it’s a truly superior opening. The reader may have little idea what to expect next, but the opening suggests that one must be ready for anything. In short, the sentence is consistent with my assessment of this novel as the best of all time.

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tonight’s bout: Paul Clifford vs. Christopher Columbus

All right, I was talking about examining the opening sentences of novels that I read and comparing them with the “zero level” opener to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 Paul Clifford, the infamous, “It was a dark and stormy night. . . .” The latest novel I’ve read is Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card, published in 1996. It’s a science-fiction work about people from the future (the 22nd century, I think) traveling to the time of Christopher Columbus to see whether they can head off what they regard as the disastrous consequences of his journey of discovery to the Americas. This book, for me, had some problems, but I’m not here to review it as a whole, only to look at its opening sentence.

But first there is the question of what actually is the opening sentence. This novel, like many novels, comes equipped with a prologue. It’s 2 pages long and sets the scene before the launch of the story proper, and is really the beginning—the opening—of the novel. For your interest, here is the sentence in question:

Some people called it “the time of undoing”; some, wishing to be more positive, spoke of it as “the replanting” or “the restoring” or even “the resurrection” of the Earth.

The journey of 100,000 words begins with a single sentence.

I’ve decided not to use that sentence. All things considered, I believe it is more consistent and fair to use the opening sentence of chapter 1 for each book, even for books that have prologues. This to me feels more like an apples-to-apples comparison. Every novel will have a chapter 1, and every chapter 1 will have an opening sentence. So there, I have begun to establish the “rules” of my survey!

Let’s move on to chapter 1 of Pastwatch, then. The chapter is entitled “The Governor,” and here is the opening sentence:

There was only one time when Columbus despaired of making his voyage.

How does it hit you? For my part, I think it’s an effective opener. At 12 words long, it’s brief and to the point. It’s talking about Columbus and his voyage, both famous and familiar, but it refers to his despair about making the voyage, which is something I did not know about, and this introduces an element of conflict. What would have made Columbus despair? How did he overcome the obstacle? My desire to know these things makes me want to read on.

If I treat this sentence as a hologram of the novel as a whole, what is it telling me about the story? What is the “implied book” suggested by this sentence? One thing this sentence leads me to expect is direct, businesslike narration. It’s not a florid, scene-setting descriptive sentence, like Bulwer-Lytton’s opener to Paul Clifford; it is a terse statement of fact. There is no figurative language here; it uses plain, literal prose, just as a police report might. So, even though I would expect the author to use figurative language in the novel ahead of me, since figurative language is the hallmark of creative as opposed to ordinary writing, this plainspoken opener gives me to understand that the narrative will be brisk and informative. The brevity of the sentence leads me to expect that the author will stay close to the point at all times.

Another aspect is what I might call the interest factor: how interesting is the situation that the sentence is, as it were, lowering me into? Here also I think it does well. Christopher Columbus and his voyage are a specific event in a specific time; they are historically significant and the author is referring to them in a way that suggests he has new and interesting things to say about them. As a reader, I get the feeling that the author has discovered some things of special interest or importance regarding this historical figure, and that he wishes to communicate to me his own excitement about them. I’m willing to read on and find out what he’s got to say.

In the event, I didn’t think that the novel really delivered on these implicit promises to me the reader. I felt there were long passages that were talky and did not do much to advance the story, and I felt that the story had a hard time getting onto its point and staying there. So in a certain sense I don’t think it lived up to the promise of its opening sentence. And this might make an interesting critical touchstone for the future: how harmonious is a novel with its opening sentence? Does it proceed in the manner of its opening? Does it stay true to itself, or anyway to the self it seems to promise in its opening words? Or, if not, is the difference handled in an artistic way, such that it makes sense in terms of the unity of the whole?

These will be questions I keep asking myself as I continue in my examination of opening sentences, and I invite you to ask them of the novels you read, too. In this way we will continue to deepen our appreciation of these works of art.

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The Causal Body and the Ego by Arthur E. Powell: the higher planes of reality

The Causal Body and the EgoThe Causal Body and the Ego by Arthur E. Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The last and biggest of Arthur E. Powell’s 4 volumes of the findings of the clairvoyant researches of the Theosophists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries sets out what is known about the highest and most inaccessible parts of our spiritual selves.

According to these students of the “occult” world, reality is composed of 7 levels or planes, and our lives are actually lived on all of them simultaneously. The body that we think of as our physical self is just one–the lowest one–of the “vehicles” that our actual self, the “ego,” makes use of in order to evolve toward complete self actualization. The vitality and coherence of that physical body is due to a separate but closely connected vehicle known as the “etheric” body. Our sensations of pleasure and pain and our emotional nature are the manifestations of the vehicle known as the astral body, which functions on its own plane of reality that differs from ordinary physical reality not in location but in the fineness of its matter. Our concrete thoughts–our thoughts about specific objects–are formed of the matter of the mental plane, a still finer level of reality “above” the astral. Our abstract thoughts, our thoughts about ideas and not merely about concrete things, are formed of the matter of the higher mental plane. This is the plane of our “causal” body, the vehicle that sets the vehicles below it in motion.

The levels beyond the higher mental plane are also addressed in this book, to the extent that the investigators could learn about them. Above the mental plane is the plane they call “buddhic,” the source of our intuitive knowledge, and the “atmic,” which is the plane of our will. There are two further planes that are so far above and beyond our ordinary consciousness that they cannot really be known or described. To move upward through the planes of reality is to move ever closer to God or ultimate reality. To function on any plane above the astral is possible only to the extent that we have transcended selfish motives. All planes are populated by many beings, human and nonhuman.

This is mind-stretching stuff. The material is dense but well organized by the author, who spent years collecting and collating the various Theosophical writings in order to distill their contents into a single coherent overview. This reader thinks that he succeeded very well.

Do you believe in the findings of a group of clairvoyants? That’s up to you. The test–the only test available to us who currently lack these clairvoyant powers–is how well the teachings accord with one’s own experience. As far as I’m concerned, they accord very well. And if we’re inclined to doubt, we shouldn’t forget that William James observed that doubt needs to be justified as much as belief does.

We already know that the universe is a big place. These books reveal that it’s actually a lot bigger than we think it is–and much more structured and meaningful. They deal with topics that are of the utmost importance to every sentient being, and it turns out that even the things we call “minerals” are sentient beings for this purpose. Our existence is much more wondrous than we imagine.

If your mind is open, or is capable of becoming so, then I would heartily recommend that you plunge into this series of books by Powell, starting with The Etheric Double: The Health Aura of Man, which deals with phenomena that are closest to our familiar physical life. The books should certainly be read in order; let your mind be stretched slowly!

There’s a great deal more that I could say about these books. My own spiritual training has been Buddhist, and the Theosophists make use of Buddhist terms and concepts, even as it appears that their view of reality is quite other than what was taught by the Buddha. I’ll say only this for now: appearances can be deceiving. Let’s just leave it at that.

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well begun is half done

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Thus the actual opening sentence of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Apparently the opening clause, “it was a dark and stormy night,” was not original with Bulwer-Lytton but was something that he himself was riffing on in his work, but nonetheless the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, launched by the English Department at San Jose State University in 1982 and carrying on to the present day, has made it the standard for their annual contest for writers to compose “opening sentences to the worst of all possible novels.

This is not quite the same thing as “the worst opening sentence,” but the distinction is perhaps subtle. A “worst opening sentence” might simply be grammatically questionable or confusing or incomprehensible. An opening sentence to “the worst of all possible novels” needs to be clear and informative enough to let the reader know, or at least suspect, that the novel that follows will be as bad as can be. This raises interesting questions as to what makes for badness in a novel. There won’t be any unanimity here, for novels, like other things, can be loved and hated by different people for different reasons. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

But I think we can say that “bad” here will mean bad in the eyes of people studying literature at the university level, and even if they don’t agree with each other, there is likely to be more agreement than there would be among the whole mass of the literature-consuming public. And we shouldn’t forget that the contest itself is a joke; it’s mostly about having a laugh, and no one should take it too seriously.

All of that being said, where do I stand on the question of opening sentences in general, and on the opener to Paul Clifford in particular? I admit that I’m not fond of the sentence. It’s 57 words long, which is lengthy, especially considering the relatively violent action that it is intended to portray; and the longer the sentence, the slower the pace. Rain falling in torrents is a cliche today, but maybe it was less so in 1830; I don’t know—many of Bulwer-Lytton’s turns of phrase have become cliches. For me the worst part is the implausibility of the action being described: we’re told that a torrential rain was falling, but that the torrents of rain were being checked by gusts of wind. In my observation, wind can change the direction of rainfall, but it can’t do anything to slow, stop, or delay the fall of rain. There might indeed be gaps between episodes of more violent rainfall, but these won’t be caused by the wind. So the scene as described does not accord with my own experience of weather. My impression is that the author is not interested enough in weather to bother about trying to report it accurately. To him, weather is just this stuff that happens outdoors—who knows how it works? Who cares? More than likely, the author was simply looking for a way to combine heavy rain with strong wind in his setting, and used the first word that came to mind.

the opening sentence of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel Paul Clifford

Well, and maybe it was.

Either way, whether through lack of comprehension or lack of care, the apparent difference between the narrator’s understanding of the world and my own creates a disconnect between us. How can I trust this person’s observations in what follows? He can’t even get the weather right. If I take the opening sentence as a hologram of the book as a whole, then I’m looking ahead to a work that is overlong, poorly observed, and carelessly constructed. Why press on, when there are so many other books in the world, some of which are good, and a few of which are excellent?

If it were my sentence, I think I would cut everything after the opening clause, and just keep

It was a dark and stormy night.

This sets the scene quickly and simply in seven words. The brevity makes for a brisk pace, and the narrator conveys a sense of wanting to get to the point and not waste the reader’s time. The sentence has become infamous so it’s hard to look at it with fresh eyes, but I think that if I had never seen it before, I would find it serviceable in a plainspoken way. I’d be willing to read the next sentence and see what was to follow.

I’m thinking of assessing the opening sentences of the books I read, using Bulwer-Lytton’s sentence as a benchmark. Will it stand as the zero of my scale, or might I find others that are worse, and which rate a negative score, as happened with the Fahrenheit temperature scale?

I’ve just started reading the novel Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card. Shall we see how his opening sentence compares with Bulwer-Lytton’s? Yes, I think we shall.

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like the shampoo bottle says: “repeat”

My life is both happiest and most productive when it is structured. I seem to need structure and routine to make the most of my time. On the one hand, this accords with the way the archetype of the Professor manifests, as portrayed by Cowden, LaFever, and Viders in their Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines. They note as one of his flaws that he is:

Inflexible: The Professor is set in his ways, and not enthusiastic at the prospect of change.

Reading through the eight male archetypes that the authors describe, there can be no doubt that the Professor is me (possibly mixed in with a bit of the Chief), and, true to form, I am set in my ways.

But, on the other hand, this is not necessarily (only) a flaw. For, as William James notes in his superb textbook The Principles of Psychology, in the chapter on Habit, we need habits in order to live:

There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.

Predictable can be beautiful.

Habit is the automating of our behavior, but this always has a positive purpose: to free our conscious minds to work on higher, subtler things than the process we have automated. This allows us to think while we walk, to converse while we eat, to read while we drink tea.

I don’t want to be using my mental processing power to make small decisions, like which t-shirt to put on (I always pull the next one in order out of my drawer), what to have for breakfast (raw oat flakes with raisins and organic milk—unless I have, as today, made a batch of my excellent granola), when to have breakfast (always right after my first writing block in the morning), or what to do in the afternoon of a weekday (lie down, meditate, read). For the kind of writing and reading that I do, my mind needs to be free. And that mental freedom rides, like a howdah on the back of an elephant, on a life of routine. This allows me to absorb, think, and create at the highest level I’m capable of.

I’ve read that Immanuel Kant was a man of such regular habits that people could set their watch by him. He too will have embodied the Professor archetype (don’t you think?). In order for his mind to be as busy as it was, he had to have a life of peace, order, and good government. Non-Professors might recoil at the idea of a life lived in such predictable lockstep, finding it little better than the treadmill Bill Murray endures in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. Was it for this that we were born?

For us Professors, yes it was. Right, Immanuel?

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reading the author and not just his reputation

I keep my reading list in a note on my iPhone. Whenever I come across a book I think I might want to read, I add it to the list. Most of the entries are nonfiction, and there are more of them than I could ever read. The most recent addition to my list was Putin’s People by Catherine Belton. I got this title off of Twitter a couple of days ago in a tweet posted by Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion and now a keen advocate of democracy and human rights. Thus does viral marketing work in the publishing world these days. It’s a new book, published just a month ago. Will I ever read it? I hope so, for I am interested in Russia and in the machinations of dictatorship. But my mind is in a ferment these days; so many things are clamoring for my attention that I doubt I will find time for works, ever very interesting ones, that don’t directly relate to my various projects.

Fiction is a different story. I add far fewer novels to my reading list, and so there is a good chance that I will read all that I do add, since I like to read fiction every day. As with the nonfiction books, the novels too come from various sources. I’m currently reading an 1842 novel called Zanoni by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a writer who has become notorious as the author of the opening sentence, “It was a dark and stormy night” (not the opening to Zanoni, though).

As mysterious as its protagonist.

How did this book make it onto my list? It was mentioned in one of the Rudolf Steiner books that I read last year as part of my new interest in Theosophy. Steiner mentions, I think in a footnote, that this novel presents a fairly accurate account of the relationship between an esoteric master and disciple. Thus does a fictional work fit in with my research aims of the moment; I’m killing a couple of birds with one stone. I was pleased to discover that the West Vancouver Memorial Library has a copy, so I put it on hold and picked it up three days ago.

My impressions so far? I’ve made it to page 82 of 540, and thus far I’m liking it more than I expected. Bulwer-Lytton’s reputation is so bad that I was ready for cloying, florid prose, but this I don’t think I’ve got. Here’s the opening of chapter 1:

At Naples, in the latter half of the last century, a worthy artist named Gaetano Pisani lived and flourished. He was a musician of great genius, but not of popular reputation; there was in all his compositions something capricious and fantastic which did not please the taste of the Dilettanti of Naples. He was fond of unfamiliar subjects into which he introduced airs and symphonies that excited a kind of terror in those who listened. . . .

I don’t reproduce the whole first paragraph, for it goes on for another 2 pages. But, speaking for myself, I found this opener engaging. The narrator starts right in talking about something specific and unusual; in addition, it relates to the fine arts, in this case music, which appeals to my own tastes. He is addressing an educated and cultured reader, and I am happy to be looked at in this way, and therefore I’m willing to extend him credit and more of my attention.

While I don’t find the prose especially cloying or florid, the writing is romantic and melodramatic. The heroine, Pisani’s daughter Viola, is preternaturally beautiful, gifted, and virtuous; the hero, Zanoni, is similarly handsome, suave, and impressive. But this tends to be true of all literature from the past. I have a book, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon, which contains the surviving long-form fiction from ancient Greece; these novels are populated by characters who are idealized and far from realistic. The notion of presenting characters who seem more natural and human seems to be a relatively recent thing that developed through the 19th century. So I can’t tax Bulwer-Lytton with a fault here; in this regard he was simply part of the literary mainstream.

Another thing I appreciate about Zanoni is that it is shaping up to be a novel of ideas. We’re at a time leading up to the French Revolution, and characters have strong feelings and opinions about the issues involved—as indeed the author himself appears to. As a reader, I like characters who care about ideas; I instinctively relate to such people as kindred spirits and enjoy spending time with them. The modern trend to present characters who are motivated only by money and sex, or by things which are barely more elevated, like patriotism or revenge, to say nothing of characters who are out-and-out sociopaths, makes for boring literature. I’m much more interested in seeing how characters who think deeply manage life’s difficulties.

So far the clash seems to be between a religious and a philosophical view of life—a clash that was already being satirized 100 years earlier by Henry Fielding in Tom Jones. With the benefit of hindsight, the narrator sees how people espousing high philosophical ideals will be transformed by the French Revolution into bloodthirsty monsters.

But is that what the main thrust of Zanoni is to be? I don’t know; it’s early days yet. But I’m willing to find out. The battered hardback from the West Van Library, which has seen so much action since it was printed in 1937, is engaging one more reader.

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