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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think of these words by Loren Eiseley:

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

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

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

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

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

One of the most chilling sentences in the book concludes that

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

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

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

Posted in book reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Posted in book reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

a literary Casanova

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

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

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

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

Vitols reflects on Homer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in thoughts | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

writers write—or do they?

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

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

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

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

Highlighting the dangers of socialism

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in thoughts | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

enter the patron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you give art funding to this man?

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in thoughts | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

the Iliad of Homer: first epic of the West

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

Western literature kicks off with the clash of civilizations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting the finishing touch to my own masterpiece

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

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

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

OK. Next: the Odyssey.

View all my reviews

Posted in book reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

the inventiveness of creators, from Homer to my aunt Jackie

As I’ve mentioned, I’m currently rereading Robert Fagles’ translation of Homer’s Iliad. In my last post, I talked about some thoughts sparked by a recent article in Archaeology magazine, in which the archaeologist Barry Powell conjectures that Homer himself may have had a role in inventing the Greek alphabet. The great innovation of the Greek alphabet, over the Phoenician alphabet on which it is based, is the addition of vowels. How did they come up with this idea? The Archaeology article, written by Eric A. Powell (no relation to the archaeologist, as far as I know), notes simply that the “Phoenician alphabet, with its lack of vowels, was not up to the task of preserving Greek hexameter.” My own thought was that inventiveness of poetry makes it too hard to read without the vowels: the unexpected language and imagery makes it too hard for a reader to guess the words; or sure comprehension, they must be completely spelled out, including vowel sounds.

This is an interesting idea by itself, but I’ve had some further thoughts. One is about the mystery of how Homer could have created such long, epic works as the Iliad and the Odyssey as purely oral poems—that is without an already existing alphabet. For Homer, thought to have lived and worked in the 8th century B.C., was in the tradition of professional bards, who would perform for aristocratic audiences at feasts or, perhaps, as part of civic games. But these poems are far too long to be sung in a single sitting. If the whole poem were to be performed, it would have to be done over many evenings. Indeed, I think that the existing “book” structure of the 2 poems probably corresponds to their performance format, with one book (what we would call a chapter) being performed in each session. The Iliad, for example, is made up of 24 books; to me this looks like a series of 24 separate performances to sing the whole poem.

But why would a bard create a single poem that took 24 evenings to perform? What gave him the idea to do that? It seems to go against the idea of a single performance for a work.

So my thought is this: what if the Iliad, say, was not a single poem before the invention of writing? What if Homer simply had a number of separate poems about different episodes relating to the Trojan War and the wrath of Achilles? Each of these was the length of a single performance—a single “book,” in literary terms. These separate poems still had all the excellent qualities of Homer’s poetry, and would be worth setting down using the new technology of writing. In the course of setting them down this way, though, they would, for the first time, take a fixed form—for all poetry of the Homeric era was improvised for each performance, and the “same” poem would never be exactly the same on any 2 performances. And this fixed form, allowed and indeed necessitated by their translation into writing, would give rise to the issues of editing or perfecting the poems—making sure that it was their “best” form that was being captured for posterity—and of ordering them. The idea might be that if the poems are to be kept together and stored together in written form, then there might also be a notion that there is a “best order” in which to perform them, read them: that they could and should be arranged to tell a broader story, with its own beginning, middle, and end. And only here was truly born the epic.

For example, right now I’m reading book 17 of the Iliad, “Menelaus’s Finest Hour,” in which the Argives and the Trojans fight over possession of the dead body of Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus, who has fallen in battle. It’s not hard to imagine, in a culture for whom the Trojan War and its many episodes were already a well-known topic, that this book could form a separate poem on its own. But it seems to me that when all of Homer’s episodes were set down in this way, it would be natural for the poet to go over them all with an eye (although he was blind) to putting them into temporal order, smoothing out their inconsistencies, and getting them to flow so that one follows the next naturally and dramatically. Paul in Doll FormThe poet turns a number of separate episodes into parts of a single whole, and this single whole is a new work of art in its own right: it is an epic.

I believe that the components of the Iliad and maybe the Odyssey existed before the introduction of writing to Greece, but that they were turned into epics, into unitary works of art, by that selfsame introduction. The new technology gave the poet a new tool and expanded his range. To me it makes perfect sense.

And while I’m on the topic of the Iliad I want to share something else too. One of my aunt Jackie’s curious talents is to make doll likenesses of people she knows. In 2001, on my 42nd birthday, I opened a birthday present from her and found a little knitted image of myself in the box! It struck me as hilarious and I laughed harder than I’d laughed in my whole life up to that point. Believe me, it’s quite an experience to unexpectedly find a doll of yourself staring up at you.

But, it being a true likeness, the doll had his hands clasped reflectively behind his back, and from those hands hung a little book. And the handwritten title of that little book? The Iliad.

Was the doll artist receiving some precognitive intuition of my future connection with this primal epic? I’ll leave that for you to consider. Meanwhile, enjoy the doll.

Posted in thoughts | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

why vowels cost money on The Wheel of Fortune

Since I’m creating an epic (The Age of Pisces), I want to learn all I can about the epic form. What is an epic, exactly? What features turn a non-epic or sub-epic into an epic?

This is a matter of opinion and scholarly debate. And lately the ground has been muddied by the shanghaiing of the word epic to join the slang vocabulary (“it was an epic dental appointment!”). My fear is that the word will be trampled and stretched out of recognition by such use; then what will we use for real epics?

Ah well, all out of my control. I’ll stick with the word in hope that it will survive its ordeal in popular culture.

The word itself comes from the Greek epos, meaning “word, speech, or poem.” And the form of the epic was launched, in the West anyway, by the Greek poet Homer with his 2 great works, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Currently, just as I’m rereading the Bible (as I mentioned in my last post), I am also rereading the Iliad. The Iliad, with notes, and my handI bought my copy in January 2008 along with its companion volume the Odyssey: the handsome Penguin editions translated by Robert Fagles. I read both of them not long after—probably within the next year or two. But now, with my new focus on epic as a form, it’s time to go back and read them again. I’m just over halfway through the Iliad, and I’m enjoying it very much.

These poems have been studied intensively over the centuries. At the Library of Alexandria, founded by Ptolemy I, a general of Alexander the Great, or possibly by his son, Ptolemy II, in the 3rd century BC, the largest section was devoted to works on Homer’s poems (the second-largest section was devoted to the works of the lyric poet Sappho). The Iliad and the Odyssey were studied with the zeal and attention that would be lavished, centuries later, by Jewish rabbis and by Protestant scholars on their respective Bibles. The Iliad and the Odyssey were, in effect, the Bible of the pagan world. To name one biblical feature, these poems were used, as the Bible would be used, for the oracular practice known as sortilege: if one had a decision to make or a problem to solve, one could open one of these books at random, drop one’s finger on a page, and read out the verse pointed to. That verse would be the answer to your problem. Bernard Knox, the Homer scholar who provides the introductions to both of these Penguin books, describes doing just this himself while he was a soldier in World War II.

But recently I came across some interesting new information about Homer’s works that got me thinking for myself about these books and about the epic form.

It was while reading the May/June 2017 issue of Archaeology magazine. The article was “When the Ancient Greeks Began to Write” by Eric A. Powell, and it looked at research into the origin of the Greek alphabet. I knew that the Iliad and the Odyssey were first written down in the 8th century BC, only shortly after the alphabet was introduced, or, perhaps better, reinvented, in Greece. The Greeks derived their alphabet from that of the Phoenicians, with whom they had trading relations. The Phoenician alphabet was a Semitic alphabet, like Hebrew, and, like Hebrew, it lacked vowels. Writers in these languages had to use workarounds to suggest vowels sounds. When the Greeks created their own alphabet, they added vowels, and thus made it possible to represent any spoken word in writing. A reader would be able to sound out a word, rather than having to guess what it was from its context, as often happened in writing without vowels.

One researcher mentioned in the article, Barry Powell, has a theory that the Greek alphabet was invented specifically for the purpose of recording Homer’s works. He even thinks that Homer himself may have been behind that invention, or even the inventor himself. (Powell recognizes that he will probably never be able to prove this.)

The idea struck me. I had read somewhere else recently—on Flipboard, I think—that the oldest written records in Mesopotamia are all administrative in nature: accounts, receipts, contracts. Those researchers were proposing that it is the need for such records that was a driving force behind the invention of writing. At some point, in city life, transactions become too numerous, too big, and too complex for people to remember; they need to be written down. Only when such administrative needs are being met by writing do people start turning their minds to other uses of the written word, such as setting down poetry.

If that is so, then it would seem unlikely that the Greeks invented their own alphabet in order to write poetry; they were civilized and would have accounting needs like others, which would call for written records.

According to the Archaeology article, current evidence points to the island of Euboea as the specific location of the invention of the Greek alphabet:

According to Powell’s theory, one person, probably a Greek-speaking Phoenician, was commissioned by wealthy Euboeans with access to papyrus to take dictation from the most famous poet in Greece. . . . The Phoenician alphabet, with its lack of vowels, was not up to the task of preserving Greek hexameter, so this scribe—Powell calls him the “Adapter”—needed to invent vowels from existing Phoenician letters.

After all, when you’re writing receipts and contracts, the language tends to become standard, and indeed eventually turns into boilerplate: stock phrases, sentences, and whole paragraphs. Words are relatively easy to guess from the context. In the shepherd’s contract with the temple, shp means “sheep,” not “ship” or “shape” or “shop.” But poetry is different: here the language is creative, unexpected, and rich in figures of speech. Even with context, it would be easy for a reader to make mistakes; and the better the poet, the more mistakes would be likely, because the poet’s imagination and powers of invention are greater.

To me, this strengthens the argument that the Greek alphabet was invented to record the works of Homer—or even by Homer himself. I find that idea appealing and exciting. If Homer was involved in the invention of the Greek alphabet, and especially with the invention of vowels, then his genius was great indeed. For vowels were a brilliant and liberating innovation. Every time a vowel is sold on The Wheel of Fortune, he should be getting a royalty.

These musings led me to  further insights about Homer and the epic, but I’ll save those for next time.

Posted in thoughts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

the Western Civilization Genome Project

One of my reading projects right now is to reread the Old Testament. I’ve been wanting to reread it for a couple of reasons: it’s part of the Great Books reading program, and it is also a key text for my own work in progress, The Age of Pisces. In addition, I’m keeping my eye open for any interesting figures of speech that I come across (I’m reading the King James Version), for I learned in a National Geographic article a couple of years ago that the Bible is the source of many well-known figures of speech that we use today. (The most-used of these is the phrase, “from time to time”—did you know that’s from the Bible?)

So I’m doing all those things, but the impetus for this reread came from still another inspiration. But to explain it I’ll have to back up a step or two.

6 volumes of Toynbee's "A Study of History"

I’m impressed and inspired by Arnold J. Toynbee’s masterwork, A Study of History, which runs to 11 volumes, including the final volume of maps and gazetteer, all published between 1934 and 1961, and of which I have 6 battered paperback volumes on my shelves. Of these, I’ve read about four and a half, but I intend to read the whole set, for it is a work of genius. Toynbee’s program was to study how civilizations arise, develop, and dissolve; he set out to identify all the civilizations that have been known to exist, and to find their common features and behaviors.

One of his contentions is that all civilizations have a spiritual core and are centered on a religion or, in his terminology, a church. It is for this reason that Toynbee calls our own civilization—that is, the one in which I sit as I type these words—Western Christendom, instead of the more usual Western civilization. He shows how the civilization we call Western developed around and because of the Christian Church, that is, the Roman Catholic Church. For when the Eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, finally split with the West, which was still based in Rome, a separate civilization was born, namely Eastern Christendom. Eastern Christendom also lives on, embracing those countries in which Orthodox Christianity is the main church, such as Greece and Russia.

As I thought about all this, an idea came to me. If the nucleus of Western Christendom is the Christian Church, then might not the Bible be, in effect, the genome of this civilization? For it is the sacred text on which the church is based. It is the ultimate source and warrant for the idea content of the church, and therefore of the surrounding civilization.

If the Bible is the genome of Western Christendom, then what are the individual genes that make up that genome? The Bible’s books? Its chapters? Its verses? No, I decided that these are all too arbitrary to function as genes. Incidentally, for you geneticists out there, I’ve come up with my own definition of gene, and I offer it here gratis:

a set of nucleotides that acts as a unit to perform certain functions

A gene must be a functional unit, or it could not be identified as an effective entity. So what are my metaphorical biblical genes? I decided that the genes must be the episodes of the Bible.

And what exactly is an episode? Here I’ll turn to my Webster’s:

a usually brief unit of action in a dramatic or literary work: as . . . a developed situation that is integral to but separable from a continuous narrative

So an episode is a relatively whole subunit, a scene or mini-story that has its own beginning, middle, and end—and, ideally, that has its own point. An episode is there because it says something. As a dramatic writer myself, I think of a scene in my story: a little story within the story that has a point of its own to make.

I was excited by this idea. I would read the whole Bible, starting with the five Books of Moses but ideally the whole thing, breaking it down into its component episodes, and doing my best to derive the meanings of those episodes—their points, their ideas, their themes. I believe that such meanings can be summed up in sentence form as propositions. These propositions, my thinking went, would then be the actual idea genome of Western Christendom—my home civilization. Acting like mental or spiritual genes—perhaps what Richard Dawkins would call memes—they would form the operating rules, or, if you like, the program of the civilization. My thought was that, if you looked at the way our civilization behaves, what it does, then the rules for its behavior might be coded up in these “genes”—these episodic propositions from the Bible.

I’ve taken a metaphor and run very far with it. But who knows, maybe I can run all the way for a touchdown. Anyway, it has made me excited about reading the Bible again. So far, I’ve read Genesis and the first 25 chapters of Exodus, and in the 50 chapters of Genesis I have identified 118 episodes. As an example, my analysis found that episode 1 of Genesis runs from Gen 1:1–2:3. I summarized the content of the episode thus:

God creates heaven, earth, light, land, seas, plants, sun, moon, stars, animals, man, woman, and gives humans dominion over all life, and blesses the 7th day, on which he rests from his creating.

From this, I tried to draw some summary propositions:

God is the creator of the world and of the order of life within it, and has inaugurated a 7-day rhythm to life, punctuated by a sacred day of rest each 7th day.

From these summary propositions I went a step further, and formulated a set of implied rules:

God, a bachelor male, is the ultimate and all-powerful reality, and the final answer to all questions about the world. The institutions of the 7-day week and the Sabbath are holy.

What do you think? I’m doing my best to report what I find in the King James text, and not to read my own meanings into it.

I have gone through a similar process for all 118 episodes of Genesis. It’s a laborious way to read the Bible, but man, I’m getting a lot out of it. I’ve come to regard the books of the Bible as its chromosomes. So I’ve “sequenced” chromosome 1 and I’m about halfway through chromosome 2. Will my project take me as long as the Human Genome Project?

We shall see. Meanwhile, I’m reading the Bible in a way that feels exciting and that is opening the door to new discoveries. Not bad, for the oldest of the Great Books.

Posted in thoughts | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

not commercial, not literary—what, then?

What do writers do with their time?

I can’t speak for others; indeed, I can barely speak for myself, for I wonder where all the time goes. Partly this is an artifact of age, sure (I’m 58), but really it has always been this way for me. My method, if I can call it that, or my way of being, is not such as to produce a lot of output. This is due to some combination of:

  • divided focus
  • caution
  • project-switching
  • aversion to boredom
  • perfectionism

My wife Kimmie is currently immersed in reading Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake vampire-slaying novels. Ms. Hamilton is hugely successful as writers go, and has a massive audience for her work. She is also prolific. However, while my wife is a big fan of her work, I myself have no interest in vampire books, either as a reader or a writer. Indeed, I don’t really have any interest in any commercial genre of fiction. If I try to read those things I just get bored.

So I must be a reader of “literary” fiction then. Not really! Most of the fiction offered as “literary” (or, in Orson Scott Card’s designation, “literary/academic”) also is of no interest to me. Indeed, it’s usually of less interest to me, in so far as it tends to ignore the principles of storytelling. Storytelling is generally a concern of commercial fiction.

Maybe then I just don’t like fiction. Why bother with something that I don’t even enjoy? If I must read, shouldn’t I just stick to nonfiction?

No, I do like fiction. I can be swept up in a narrative work as much as anyone can, and I think maybe more. People who turn to fiction writing as a career are strongly affected by the art; otherwise they—we—would never suffer the indignities and inconveniences that generally attend a life in the arts. Saul Bellow said that a writer is just a reader who feels moved to emulation. You need to be moved pretty far to start emulating.

I know I still like fiction because I do find stories—books, movies—that excite me and move me. I recently finished reading, for the second time, the novel Arundel by Kenneth Roberts, published in 1929. It’s a historical novel and an adventure story about the real-life expedition led by Benedict Arnold to recapture Quebec City from the British in 1775. The story is narrated by one Steven Nason, a Maine woodsman who serves as one of the guides of the expedition. The journey is personal for him, for a French officer has kidnapped the girl that Steven loves, is holed up in Quebec, and Steven wants to rescue this girl and marry her. I’ve already reviewed the book, so I won’t go into further details, except to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it again, and got even more out of the narrative this time. I also found more things to criticize, things that I might have tried to improve or do differently if I were the one writing this story. But, in all, I felt my time reading it was well spent, and I looked forward to my reading session each day.

This time I read past the end of the book to see the list of sources Roberts used to research his work. I was impressed, and felt I was looking on the work of a kindred spirit, for I too have accumulated a significant array of research works. This is where the authority of a work comes from: how well the author knows what he’s writing about. Research takes time and effort, and, as with gardening, you can’t really rush it.

I also appreciated anew the epic dimension of Arundel. Influenced by the arguments in the excellent book The Epic Cosmos, edited by Larry Allums (and which I also reviewed here), I see epic as the genre of the birth and transformation of societies, and Arundel tells the story of a key event in the struggle that was to give birth to the United States of America. Within that broader story we see the interaction and clash of smaller, component cultures: the Maine dwellers of European descent, the various Indian nations who lived nearby, the British, the French, and even the other proto-states, who were all viewed as very distinct societies (and the worst of them all: New Yorkers). All of this is handled vividly and well; but it is a labor-intensive approach to storytelling, for creating all these different kinds of characters takes work.

So there are good stories out there—good, that is, in my estimation, which is that of a fussy, critical, and demanding reader. And since a key directive in writing is to write the kind of thing you want to read, then I have my work cut out. In this I am not different from Laurell K. Hamilton, for she says that she writes exactly what she wants to read (whether editors and publishers can be coaxed into accepting it or not). She also says that she writes long stretches of prose with ease, and finds writing a short piece comparatively hard. Here we part company, for, although I find writing to be fairly easy, the thing that I’m trying to write is just too big, complex, and mysterious for me to crack it off in a few sittings. It has absorbed my sustained attention over the years, and continues to do so.

This is why so little of my time is spent “writing.” I think of a story about Samuel Goldwyn (or maybe it was a different Hollywood mogul) walking past the offices of the writers on the studio lot: he wanted to hear typewriters clacking, and if he didn’t, he would give the writers hell. Like most nonwriters (and many writers), he had no idea how writing is actually done. The biggest and hardest part about writing, I find, is problem solving, and you can’t really solve problems by typing. You might do some typing while working on the problem, but mainly you’re just worrying at it, chewing on it, trying different ideas until something seems to click.

So: I’m not trying to be commercial, and still less am I trying to be “literary/academic.” But like a commercial writer, I’m striving to tell a story; and like a literary/academic writer, I’m trying to create a work of art. My actions are saying that I think the best literary art lies between the alternatives of “commercial” and “literary/academic.” The Buddha taught the middle way between all extremes, and it appears that I am trying to carry his advice into the realm of literary creation.

Posted in thoughts, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment