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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Before Machiavelli, there was the Bible

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

Page 1 of the 2nd Book of Samuel

God decides to let the inmates run the asylum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is it a crime to kill a fictional character?

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

Maybe in this case it’s okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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When people die who were never born

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration of Nell's deceased body lying in bed.

A hard life, but at least it’s over.

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

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

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

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

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

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at the top of my reading period

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

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

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

Cover of Manual of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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They call me Mister Vitols

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

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

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

The University of Paul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now I would fain return to it.

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life is but a dream

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

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

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

Cover image of The Waking Dream

Hermeneuts of the world, unite!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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writers gotta eat—or do they?

I have just embarked on a new dietary regime. It is called the 5:2 Fast Diet: a diet in which you fast for 2 days a week and then eat and drink what you like for the remaining 5 days. Most diets don’t work. They do usually lead to temporary weight loss, but it is always temporary. If one goes off the diet, one’s weight goes back up. The Fast Diet is different; the many thousands (millions?) of people who have tried it are unanimous in affirming that the drop in weight is lasting.

This is because one never really goes “off” the diet; it is a lifestyle change. If you have a target weight, you can shift to a 6:1 Fast Diet (one day of fasting, 6 days not) to maintain your new weight. It turns out that the human body is designed for fasting; like dogs and other predators, we are physiologically set up to go for long periods without much food, and then to dine out when we finally come across some. Our modern lifestyle of perpetual eating, snacking, and grazing is not what we were built for, and we have the body shapes and health problems to show for it.

So how did I get into this? It happened almost by accident. Two weeks ago, my wife Kimmie checked her blood pressure. Her daughter Robin lent her a sphygmomanometer, and I helped Kimmie put the cuff on and run the device. Her blood pressure was 147/80. This is in the “high” range (normal blood pressure is below 120/80). Kimmie, alarmed, declared on the spot: “That’s it—no more wine!” We were in the habit of drinking wine every night, and I would drink scotch as well. We had done it for years, nay, decades, and Kimmie had just given it up on the spot!

I couldn’t let her do it alone, so I said, “Okay, me too.” Just like that, we gave it up. I’d gone to bed a drinker and risen from it a teetotaler. My own blood pressure that morning was 130/76: high on the systolic side.

We haven’t touched a drop of alcohol since, and don’t intend to. Kimmie’s blood pressure has improved a lot; this morning it was 115/72 (mine was 125/68).

Want to be a loser?

So that got me thinking. I had been intrigued by a book called The Fast Diet by Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer. I had read Mosley’s The Clever Guts Diet, which persuaded me to promote the health of my microbiome by cleaving more or less to the “Mediterranean diet.” I noticed that he’d co-authored this other book, and I was curious about it. My own weight has risen in the past 5 years or so, but I didn’t know how much, since we don’t have a scale and I only weigh myself about once a year, when I’m in a medical office where a scale is handy. Sensing opportunity, and a desire for change, I ordered The Fast Diet, and not long after that I also ordered a body-weight scale.

I’ve now read the book, and I’m excited about embarking on the 5:2 Fast Diet. On the “fast days” you don’t actually eat nothing; the fast consists of cutting back to 25% of your regular daily caloric intake, or about 600 calories for men and 500 calories for women. Much of the book consists of recipes for how to achieve this in a way that is nutritious and savory. Michael Mosley splits his calories between breakfast and dinner; I’m going to try to fast all through the day and eat my calories just at dinnertime (my menu: crudités and cottage cheese). I’ll make it, for I’m highly motivated.

My weight this morning was 191 pounds. My target is 178 pounds, which is what I weighed in 2015 when I was briefly working for Canada Post; it’s also what I weighed when I left Gampo Abbey in 2002 after spending 6 months as a (vegetarian) Buddhist monk; and it’s what I weighed when I first went out with Kimmie in 1985, at age 26. If my experience of the diet is like that of other people, I should get there by March 2021.

I’ll enjoy the weight loss, but it’s the other health benefits that I’m really interested in. They are described and documented in the book. But heart, blood sugar, and immune system all benefit strongly by this diet. So it might be something that even you, dear reader, wish to look at.

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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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