mapping the Bible, gene by gene

In my last post I was talking about reading the Bible as though decoding a genome—the genome of Western Christendom (to use Arnold J. Toynbee’s label for our Western civilization). I am currently making my way through Chromosome 6 of that genome: the Book of Joshua.

But if the books of the Bible constitute the chromosomes of Western civilization, then what are the actual genes—the individual active components of the genome, its working parts? My hypothesis is that the genes are represented by the individual episodes of the Bible’s books.

I use the word episode somewhat loosely. My basic idea is that the episode is a relatively self-contained incident or story, one that has its own point to make. This point, which forms the moral or theme of the episode, constitutes a kind of principle or rule—a biblical truth, if you like. I’m suggesting that these points or rules form the “instruction set” of Western civilization: the spiritual warrant for the basic ideas that underlie it.

Reach out and . . .

Let’s take a look at one. Let’s start at the beginning, at Chromosome 1 (the Book of Genesis), episode 1. I have identified the episode (gene) 1 as running from Gen 1:1 to Gen 2:3—a stretch of 34 verses that begins with: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. . . .” and concludes with: “And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.”

This is a distinct episode; it has its own beginning, middle, and end. It also has its own point or points to make, which I have summarized thus:

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.

I’m suggesting that this is a basic rule for Western Christendom. Any institution that is established in defiance of this rule is violating a fundamental spiritual principle of the civilization, and is in disharmony with it to that extent.

And what about Gene 2 = Episode 2? What is that? This gene is much shorter: it is the stretch of 6 verses running from Gen 2:4 to 2:9. Instead of quoting them I’ll give my own summary:

God has created every plant, but nothing grows because there is no water for the seeds, and no man to till the soil, so God causes the ground to be watered, and forms a man from soil, and places him in a garden in Eden, which contains every plant good to eat, plus the trees of life and of knowledge of good and evil.

And what is the point or theme of this episode? This is what I came up with:

Man is God’s creature and servant. His original and proper place is not in nature but in an enclosure devoted to the cultivation of food plants.

I hope it goes without saying that these are all drafts; they don’t represent my final determination of the content and meanings of the Bible’s episodes. Indeed, I think I’ve improved in my ability to summarize the episodes and to isolate their meanings as I have continued on. But these still give a pretty good picture.

Now one more step. When I finish a book of the Bible—a chromosome—I try to summarize its meaning as a whole. For it seems logical to me that each chromosome will have a meaning of its own that arches above the meanings of its individual episodes. When I finished the Book of Genesis, a book of 50 chapters, I found that it contained 118 episodes. What story are they telling? What is the meaning of Genesis as a whole, from a storytelling perspective?

This is what I came up with:

Genesis is the story of beginnings, from the world as it was fashioned by God, through the foundation of Israel in Jacob, to the formation of the perfect Israelite in Joseph. God’s chosen people now have their epitome and their paragon.

Personally, I think I’m on to something here. The Bible, of course, has already been extensively studied; indeed it is surely, by far, the most studied document on Earth. But an encounter with a work of literature, including sacred literature, is always a personal matter. Its quality is unique to the parties involved, just like a meeting between two people. I’m not a Jew or a Christian, and was not raised as either of these things, but I am a citizen of Western Christendom, and so I have as much skin in the game here as anyone. Purely by virtue of my place and time of birth, I have a stake in the Bible, and it has a stake in me, whether I wish it so or not. I have every reason to come to my own understanding of this document.

So that’s what I’m doing—and I’ve found my own way of doing it. It’s got me reading deeply and carefully, and I will be happy to share my discoveries along the way.

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chromosome 6—and other biblical topics

And now my flu is all but gone. I am in the long tail in which my lungs are gradually clearing themselves, and I’m building my strength back up. In all, it was not severe; it was mostly done in 7 days.

One blessing was that I was mostly able to continue my daily reading. It was somewhat curtailed, but I think every day I was able to read at least something. And as long as I can read, I feel that I’m living life more or less at the fullest!

In the Great Books section of my reading period I’m currently reading the Old Testament, specifically the Book of Joshua. I have my own code name for the Book of Joshua: “Chromosome 6.” And why might I call it such a peculiar thing, you ask? Well, that will take a little bit of explaining. Here goes.

Colored chromosomes, used to illustrate the idea that the books of the bible are analogous to chromosomes in the genome of western christendom.

Civilizations have genomes too.

The original inspiration lies in the writing of Arnold J. Toynbee, specifically his 12-volume masterwork, A Study of History, published between 1934 and 1961. I have not yet read the whole series, although I have read its 2-volume condensed version compiled by D. C. Somervell under Toynbee’s supervision—enough to be intrigued and inspired by Toynbee’s ideas. Toynbee had entered the rarefied field explored by such other thinkers as Ibn Khaldun, Giambatista Vico, Karl Marx, and Oswald Spengler: the field, namely, of seeking to explain how the overall pattern of human history unfolds. He was writing not history, but a kind of science of history. Toynbee, surveying the whole sweep of what is known of human history, found that the same events keep replaying themselves in similar patterns enacted by similar players, regardless of what period or continent might be involved in any given case. It’s a striking and amazing thesis.

The key, for Toynbee, was to isolate and identify the true subject of history: to whom, exactly, did these repeating cycles of history occur? Toynbee felt that most historians were led astray by looking at nations as the basic units of history. In his view, the true, natural unit of history is not the nation but the society or civilization. Ordinarily this is a bigger unit than the nation, and embraces several separate nations. The civilization is defined by a number of things, but, broadly speaking, it is a shared culture embracing a number of shared ideas and, in particular, a shared spiritual nucleus, or what Toynbee calls a church. It is this which gives a society its own individual stamp and its underlying sense of purpose.

Early in his work Toynbee makes a inventory of all the known civilizations to have existed on Earth, and comes up with the figure 21. He admits that this number can only be approximate, partly for the reason that records become scarce as we look farther back in the past. But as a provisional figure it gives us an idea of how many civilizations we’re talking about. And, in any case, only a handful of these still exist today.

The civilization we call “Western” Toynbee labels “Western Christendom,” underscoring his view that the core of a civilization is spiritual. For him, our “Western” civilization is, first of all, a product and extension of the Christian Church—specifically in its Western or Catholic form. For there is a parallel “Eastern Christendom,” based not on Catholic but on Orthodox Christianity, and this Eastern civilization embraces such nation states as Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Belarus, and Russia. In Toynbee’s view, if you were to travel through the various countries of Western Christendom (and these will now include Protestant countries as well as Catholic), you will be traveling through societies that, in a certain broad and deep sense, are similar to each other, despite superficial differences of language and custom. But when you pass from one of these countries into a country of Eastern Christendom, you will feel yourself passing into a more truly foreign regime: a place where the fundamental spiritual outlook is different.

I found all this to be exciting and provocative stuff while I was reading Toynbee. I had already determined that, as a writer of epic, my proper subject matter was no other than my civilization. For, according to the authors of The Epic Cosmos, this is exactly what epic is about: the birth and transformation of civilizations. And what civilization am I writing about? Well, surely, my own: Western Christendom. In fact I’m writing about its antecedents, the “Hellenic” and “Syriac” societies—but only because I’m dealing with beginnings. And in the beginning was the Word: the Word of God, in the form of his religion, his Church—and his Bible.

I had this thought: if a religion or Church forms the nucleus of a civilization, then that nucleus must house the “DNA” of that civilization, for, at the cellular level, that is what a nucleus does. And in the case of Christianity, its “DNA” will be contained in its canonical text, the Word of God: the Bible. The Christian Bible, comprising Old and New Testaments, runs to (let’s say) 66 books. If the Bible is the DNA of Western Christendom, then those 66 books start to look, to this poet’s eyes, anyway, temptingly like chromosomes: separate units of DNA, each with its own history and purpose.

Yes! I thought. I can decode the genome of my civilization by reading the Bible!

This was my idea. There’s more to this idea, of course, and I will talk about that in due course. But for now, I have explained how I have come to call the Book of Joshua “Chromosome 6”: for Joshua is the 6th book of the Bible.

Chromosomes, as we know, are made up of genes. Can the books of the Bible be looked at this way too? I think they can. These are the separate units of sense within each “chromosome.”

But that’s enough to start with for now. I am mapping the genome of my civilization by reading its sacred text. Doesn’t that sound like an interesting task?

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the cycles of life

I’ve got the flu. It’s had me out of commission for the past 6 days, but I am much better.

A view to lift the convalescing spirit

And today, Leap Day, is a perfect one for feeling better, since it is a gorgeous early-spring day. I’ve just taken a photo out my office window; that’s our patio out back, stuck with sunshine. I have not seen it thus for some time now. But this is my little corner of the world.

I’ve been lucky: my flu has not been severe enough to prevent me from reading, so I have been able to carry on with that (second?) most precious of activities. Last night I finished reading The Lunation Cycle, an astrology text by Dane Rudhyar (with a supplementary section written by his fourth wife, Leyla Rael Rudhyar).

One of the things it’s got me thinking about is the phenomenon of so-called secondary progressions: this is a technique of forecasting that looks at your life, treating each day after your birth as the equivalent of a year of life. The Moon, the swiftest of the planets, is the most important factor here, completing a full revolution every 29 to 30 days and thus illuminating a portion of one’s life extending 29 to 30 years. If you find the moment of the New Moon after your birth, then you have the beginning of a natural cycle of life—a true starting point for a 30-year cycle of development that will go through the archetypal phases of a cycle, as represented by the Moon with its changing phases.

I was born in 1959 under a Full Moon. The first progressed New Moon in my life happened in 1973 when I was 14. The seeds of my future were planted then. One thing that happened near that time, in 1972, was reading the novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which introduced me to literature as a higher art form. It wouldn’t be too strong or too poetic to say that it planted a seed. But, maybe even more than that, I got into film-making at around that time as well. Here too, the earliest experiments were probably in 1972, with my friend Brad and his 8mm Eumig home-movie camera. And it is quite possible that my progressed New Moon actually happened in 1972 rather than in 1973, which was the date I arrived at only by rough reckoning. Indeed, thinking about it, 1972 feels much more like a pivotal, “seed” year in my life.

Taking that as my New Moon year, then the following progressed Full Moon happened in 1988, which was the year that Warren Easton and I got our first television script produced: “What’s Wrong with Neil?”, a half-hour comedy for CBC’s Family Pictures anthology series. That fits very well with the symbolism of the Full Moon: a time of the full flowering of the seed planted at the New Moon. The boy playing with his friend’s family’s home-movie camera had turned into a professional in the TV industry.

And what about the next New Moon in my life? That would arrive in 2002. And what was happening then? Well, that was the year I went away to Gampo Abbey to study the Buddhist teachings. It was at the same time that I became committed to The Age of Pisces as my next major project. A ruptured Achilles tendon sent me home 6 months ahead of schedule—but eager to dive in on this new, vast project.

It was also close to that time—late 2003—that my friend Harvey Burt died, and my mother took on the project of transcribing the letters he had exchanged with his then lover, later wife, Dorothy. This project has now also become central to my writing enterprise.

The Rudhyars take care to emphasize that astrological progressions are not to be interpreted in the same way as so-called transits—the current movement of planets over sensitive points in one’s chart. Progressions are not so much about events as about the significance of events.  It’s more about the inward process of coming to understand one’s life and its purpose. One and the same event might mean very different things at different times.

Now I’m again in a “waning” period, progressed-Moon-wise. It’s a time of harvesting meaning from the cycle(s) thus far. As to that, I can only say I’ll do my best.

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enough to make the angels weep?

It’s a rainy Saturday morning here in North Vancouver, and I have just completed my morning typing session. Yes, typing, not writing—I start each day by typing the text I highlighted in the previous evening’s reading, or as much of it as I can. It’s my way of processing books.

Mosaic image of Dionysius the Areopagite

“I have but one head to give for my faith—or do I?”

The last thing I typed from this morning was the Leopold Classic Library edition of The Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite. It’s a large-ish, floppy, paper-bound print-on-demand facsimile edition of a book translated by the Reverend John Parker and published in 1894 by Skeffington & Son of London. The photocopy includes librarians’ markings here and there. I bought the book online last month as part of what I think of as my ongoing spiritual education. In case you don’t know, Dionysius’s Celestial Hierarchy is the main source of what knowledge we in the West have about angels. In this work he sets out to explain, from a Christian perspective, what angels are and how they are organized in the heavens.

I say “Dionysius,” but if you look up this work you will find that it is attributed to “Pseudo-Dionysius,” for it has been the scholarly consensus for centuries that the works attributed to the 1st-century saint was actually written by an unknown monk in the 5th century. On Goodreads, for example, the author of my book is given simply as “Pseudo-Dionysius.” I myself know nothing about the debate as to the authenticity of Dionysius’s works, but I was intrigued to discover that the translator of this edition, John Parker, is emphatic that the work is genuine, and he lays out a well-informed and, to this reader, strong argument in support of the notion that the works were written by no other than Dionysius the Areopagite, a distinguished and prominent Athenian who was personally converted to Christianity by the apostle Paul when he was in Athens in AD 49. Dionysius was baptized on October 3 that year, at age 44, and went on to become a priest and a trusted and valued confidant of Paul, Timothy, and other key Christians of the time. The epithet “the Areopagite” was due to the fact that Dionysius was a member of the 51-member Court of the Areopagus in Athens, a court of justice whose members were citizens distinguished for their birth, wealth, intelligence, and character. Among these, Dionysius appears to have been preeminent, or at least as one of special distinction. He was known as an author of philosophical works, and became entrusted with teaching new converts to Christianity.

Dionysius had a long and action-packed career that took him to Egypt, Gaul, Spain, and Asia. He attended, along with Paul, Peter, James, John and other apostles, the funeral rites of Mary mother of Jesus in Jerusalem in AD 54. For a long time he was stationed at Paris, teaching. After Hadrian became the emperor of Rome in 117, he sent the prefect of Gaul in 119 to bring Dionysius back to paganism—or to bring back his head instead. It’s reported that Dionysius, now aged 114, refused to convert, and thus lost his head. Montmartre in Paris is named for his martyrdom there.

Dionysius’s surviving works are all in the form of letters, the longer of which are addressed to Timothy, with others being addressed to Titus, Polycarp, and St. John. He states that the teaching on angels is from Paul. As Parker lays it out, the evidence against Dionysius being the author of the Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy is weak. Here, the simplest assumption is that the stated author is the actual author. Dionysius certainly appears to have been an extraordinary man, one who was intimately involved with the early formation of the Church and who was on close terms with some of its leading players. He is known to have spent time in Ephesus with John of Patmos, the author of Revelation. Is it really so hard to believe that he might be the author of a work on the angelic hierarchy?

I’m no expert, but to me it sounds perfectly credible. I wonder whether Dionysius has achieved a further feat: that of undergoing not one but two martyrdoms. His head was severed from him by Hadrian, and his works have been severed from him by a hostile posterity. Yes. Just as his namesake, the god Dionysus, was known as the “twice born,” St. Dionysius might be thought of as the “twice killed.”

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Heaven and Hell by Emanuel Swedenborg: what gives?

Heaven and HellHeaven and Hell by Emanuel Swedenborg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A one-of-a-kind work setting out the discoveries of an 18th-century Swedish scientist’s extended forays into the spirit realm. Swedenborg gives detailed descriptions of what happens to us after we die, and the process that leads to our being drawn to either heaven or hell as our ultimate and permanent destination.

Swedenborg, the son of a Lutheran bishop, presents an eschatology that is consistent with his faith. According to him, if you’re a Catholic you face serious obstacles to gaining entrance to heaven, even though God’s—or the Lord’s, to use Swedenborg’s preferred designation, apparently referring more especially to Jesus Christ—intention is for all people to be saved. You’re also in for an unpleasant surprise if you’re a Muslim, since you will discover that Muhammad can do nothing for you after all. You will be reeducated by angels who themselves were Muslims in earthly life, and will thus be able to gain entrance to heaven.

And what about other religions? What about atheists? According to Swedenborg, the way to heaven is open to all who practice a true religion—that is, one that embraces belief in a (the) supreme god. I couldn’t help but note that this appears to exclude Buddhism, which is not based on belief in a creator god. And yet Buddhists (and other atheists) are as capable of ethical behavior as anyone, and it is our behavior, or, rather, the intentions behind our behavior, that is key in determining our ultimate destination. It’s just that, according to this author, all loving acts stem from the Lord, since the Lord is love, and so apparently ethical behavior that does not come from faith in Him is actually hypocritical, since it is based on love for oneself or love for the world—perverted types of love that are the cause of all evil.

Against this, I note simply that loving-kindness and compassion are attitudes and practices that are taught by Buddhism, especially by Mahayana Buddhism, and are held to arise from the fundamental nature of mind and not due to one’s relationship with any god. As a Buddhist, am I in for a rude awakening after I die? Will I find that my face after death is turned not toward God, but away from him, and that I accordingly will have self-selected my fate to the underworld of the hells? There, because I am not especially aggressive or cunning, I would certainly find myself enslaved by those who have those traits, and there I would remain until . . . well, forever.

Sobering thoughts.

Personally, I have no doubt that Swedenborg is reporting real experiences. I believe that he did indeed make extensive tours of the spirit realm and have interactions with many spirits and angels (and angels, by the way, were all once human beings; it is a mistake to think that they were created by the Lord as a separate class of being—and the same goes for demons). There is consistency and profundity in what he records. The question then is about the status of his experiences: is he describing an objective reality, and, if so, is it the only objective reality?

If he is, then it seems to contradict, or at least differ from, the experiences of at least some other people who have also made forays to the spirit world. The American businessman Robert Monroe, in his book Journeys Out of the Body, describes journeying in at least three distinct astral realms. In one of these he experienced the presence of a great “Lord,” someone that all the people there bowed down to—as he did himself while he was there. But my sense here was that this Lord was more of a tyrant, someone who needed to be worshipped. But Monroe himself seems to have been basically a secular man, and his experiences were mainly secular ones.

Another traveler to the beyond was Betty J. Eadie, who, in her book Embraced by the Light: The Most Profound and Complete Near-Death Experience Ever, describes a days-long sojourn in the postmortem state after dying in a hospital. She is a Christian, and in the spirit realm she encountered Jesus. If I recall correctly, there are many points of similarity between her account and Swedenborg’s, but also many differences.

The Buddha himself is said to have had extensive visions of the cosmic order. In particular, shortly before his enlightenment he was able to see all of his previous births: each one individually, hundreds of thousands of them. He was also able to see the mechanism of karma: how people are propelled by it from one life to another, again and again, like balls in a pinball game. This was samsara, the endless round of birth, death, and rebirth: the endless round of suffering.

For Swedenborg there is no rebirth; our lives are one-shot deals. What about children who die? They are lovingly attended to by female angels and raised to adulthood in heaven. Since they spend so little time on Earth, and have a sure pass to heaven due to their relative innocence (although Swedenborg does discuss at length the difference between childhood innocence and true innocence, an adult quality that enables one to become an angel), their lives are among the most blessed. This should be a comfort to parents who have lost a child.

But is it true? I don’t know, and I have no way of checking it until I have astral experiences of my own—or until I die. Most of us are in this situation; we have to use our best judgment to prepare ourselves for whatever exists above and beyond the physical reality that we know, and after our present life. What is least prejudicial to our long-term welfare?

Swedenborg offers a comprehensive picture of the spiritual world, which includes many authentic-sounding details. If you ordered your life according to his vision, you would be a devout Christian, a Protestant, scrupulously ethical in your conduct and exhibiting high personal integrity—for he emphasizes this above almost anything else. In the spirit world, there are no hidden agendas and there is no hypocrisy; it is impossible to think one thing and say or do the opposite. There, for better or for worse, your heart is always on your sleeve, and can never be anywhere else. Everyone knows where everyone else stands. Indeed, this is why heaven and hell exist: they are the natural destinations of people whose motives are good and bad, respectively. In the spirit realm, our true inner selves are laid bare and we go to live among others like ourselves. So here in earthly life, it’s best to say and do good things because you really value God and really value your neighbor. That is the surest path to heaven.

Swedenborg’s book is well worth reading. At the very least, it will challenge your spiritual beliefs and assumptions, which to me seems inherently healthy. Whatever your beliefs about the afterlife are, why do you hold them? How strong is that basis? Here we have a man of integrity, a man of science, telling us plainly the results of hundreds or perhaps thousands of his own experiences with the spirit world, a place where he had much dialogue with angels and with the spirits of people he knew and people he didn’t. He saw the vast array of the heavens, and glimpsed the equally vast and dark array of the hells. The picture is consistent and detailed. It’s hard to ignore.

For my part, I will trust to whatever spiritual experience of my own that I have been able to have, which has been within the context of Buddhist practice. Unless the Lord sees fit to give me a clear vision to the contrary—as he apparently gave Swedenborg—this is my path. I intend to keep my mind open, along with my eyes and ears, and, moving forward thus, hope for the best. If there is a Lord in charge of it all, I’m hoping he’s a reasonable guy.

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the hermit (crab) comes out of his shell again

Today I finally caved and bought some new writing software. After spending a few days acquainting myself with a trial version of Scrivener, an all-purpose rough-draft-generating application produced by a writer-turned-developer (or vice versa) named Keith Blount in 2007, I decided to take the plunge today, paying $62 to turn my 30-day trial version into a lasting commitment. (One beef: I never found out the price of the product until I started the transaction to buy. I hate it when online vendors conceal the prices of their products.)

Scrivener screenshot

The next big thing (for me)?

To some extent this is an act of faith, since I can’t be sure that this product will work out for me and my specialized and large-scale needs. I may be a far-seeing visionary, but when it comes to the tools of my trade, or indeed to products and possessions generally, I tend to hang on to what I’ve got and keep using it while it is still serviceable. This minimizes my costs while also keeping my environmental footprint small. And it is efficient, for I am always using stuff that I know works; I also become adroit with it through long habituation. For me, it’s an arrangement that makes total sense: convenient, reliable, low-cost, low-stress.

But just as hermit crabs reach a point when, outgrowing their existing shell, they must abandon it and find a new one discarded by some bigger neighbor, so I too arrive at moments when I feel the need to upgrade.

Looking back, I see a life history punctuated with definite upgrades. Probably the first one was graduating from pencil to ballpoint pen. My little sister Mara and I were forbidden to use pens. The wild Schmidt boys across the street were allowed to use pens, and they wrote all over the walls. That wasn’t going to happen in our house. I don’t remember exactly when I graduated to a ballpoint pen for writing, but I expect it was in grade 4 (age 9), when I entered the hothouse school program called Major Works.

Next upgrade: a typewriter. I had wanted to be able to type for as long as I could remember, and enjoyed playing with the old manual typewriter at my father’s place. My aunt Jackie let me have the use of her portable manual Olivetti Underwood, and eventually gave me a little desk to put it on. When I entered grade 8 (age 13), I took a 5-month typing course and became a touch typist. I became proficient and eventually attained a speed of over 70 words per minute. It’s a skill I make use of every day.

Next: an electric typewriter. The year was 1984 and I was 25 and had a job at the Insurance Corporation of B.C., which paid quite well. I had also become a stringer for Cinema Canada, a magazine based in Montreal. I was submitting articles there and also wanted to do serious writing of my own; in my mind I was definitely a career writer. So I went up to Polson’s, a large office-equipment store on Broadway at Cambie Street, and bought myself a big, smooth-working typewriter, an All AS300 (it still rests under a dust cover on a nearby shelf). I paid about $640 for it—a substantial sum in those days. But I could afford it, I regarded it as a mark of my seriousness of purpose, and I never regretted it. It was and is a fine machine.

But it was the 1980s and a revolution was happening in computing: the personal computer had been born. I remember being sent on a training session at ICBC for a product called Microsoft Word. I loved being able to type onto a big, TV-style screen, to backspace, correct, cut, and paste. Wow! Now this was living! Between the corporate exercises I tried typing sentences from my own creative works; it was exciting to see  them appearing in white type on the black screen. When Warren Easton and I got our TV series The Odyssey into development in 1989, we bought a PC together, which lived in my home office, since that was where we worked. It contained a copy of Word much like the one I had been introduced to at the insurance corporation. Yahoo—I had upgraded again! That PC (I forget the brand) took us through The Odyssey.

I became accustomed to writing with a word processor. The 1990s came, and with them a strange new phenomenon called the Internet. People starting “surfing” something called the World Wide Web. By 2000 Kimmie and I decided that we wanted to see what all the fuss was about; we bought a new, Internet-capable computer, this time from Dell. I ordered it over the phone and it was delivered to my house—sweet! I plumped for the biggest monitor they offered, a 16-inch Trinitron, figuring I would get the biggest and the best (it cost around $1,000, as I recall) so that it might last while technology kept advancing around me. And it has—I’m staring into it right now as I type these words in 2020. No regrets. The computer came with Office 97, the latest offering by Microsoft at the time. This represented another writing-technology upgrade, but it was incremental rather than a game changer.

A few computers have come and gone since then, mostly boxes assembled from components in local computer stores, the most recent one a brand-new Hewlett-Packard offered by a generous friend who was winding up a computing business (thanks, Daniel). But I have installed my old copy of Office 97 on all these machines, because I was familiar with the software and because I could do so for free. My writing has rumbled on, powered by this technology. My magnum opus, The Age of Pisces, exists as a legion of Word documents in a Byzantine array of folders within folders. I keep track of it all in my head.

I first heard of Scrivener a few years ago, and had given it a couple of cursory looks online. I had tried a couple of other software packages, attracted by the idea of a single application that would help me manage all aspects of my writing projects, but these proved unsatisfactory and I retreated back to Word, which I know so well. The experiments cost me some lost time and effort. I decided to forget about “writing software,” thinking it to be perhaps a solution in search of a problem.

But my same tech-savvy friend Daniel gently suggested that I might want to give Scrivener a closer look, so I did. And I have decided to buy. Will this prove to be another technological upgrade for my personal writing craft—or another dry well which I will have to abandon? I’m guardedly optimistic. I think Scrivener is going to help me bring together my creative and organizational talents so that I can get my projects built and out the door.

Watch this space!

Full disclosure: the links on this page to Scrivener are affiliate links. That means whenever you click on one, you’ll be taken to the Literature and Latte website. Then, if you decide to buy Scrivener, I receive a small commission.

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when reading is not just reading

It’s 5:17 p.m., and I’m in the midst of my daily “reading” block. I put it in quotation marks because I also do things other than reading in the strict sense.

My reading block is structured. The first part of it is dharma reading: I continue to study the Buddhist teachings. I put this first as a sign to myself that, because it concerns my spiritual welfare and my ultimate good, it is the highest priority. (Whether I truly live that outlook in the rest of my life is less clear.) Right now I’m reading The Four Noble Truths by Geshe Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan monk who, according to the book’s Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data, is a year older than I am: born in 1958.

Second is fiction reading. My current novel is The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman, book 2 of the series His Dark Materials. I’m enjoying it, the more so because the series title and the subject matter of the trilogy are taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost. I think that’s a fantastic idea for a “young adult” fiction project. The work makes a big deal of the distinction between children and adults—much like my own television series, The Odyssey.

The third part of my reading block is devoted to the Great Books, that is, the Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World series, published in 1952. I have a used set of these books (54 volumes) in my library (the word I use to designate our freezer room, which does have three Ikea Billy bookcases standing in it), and I intend to read the whole thing, and read it carefully.

The specific task I have left off doing just now is, what’s the word, processing Aristotle’s Poetics. For my reading of the Great Books is not just about reading. I read the books with a yellow highlighter (I use Sharpie highlighters made in the United States), and I highlight them in a specific way. I highlight complete sentences in such a way as to compress the book into a condensed, Reader’s Digest version of itself. In effect I read each book as an editor, which makes me pay careful attention to what I’m reading.

Cover of Aristotle's Poetics, Penguin edition

I’m just about done with you, Aristotle

Highlighting done, I then type the highlighted text into a Word document, one document for each book. Now I have my own Reader’s Digest version—but I’m still not done. There is a final step.

One of the exciting parts of the Brittanica Great Books series is a pair of volumes near the beginning of the set: volumes 2 and 3 constitute the Syntopicon of the Great Books. It’s a word formed from Greek words to mean “a collection of the topics.” The editor of the Syntopicon, Mortimer J. Adler, along with his staff, combed through all the Great Books to identify the ideas or topics that they addressed in each part, and created a kind of concordance that lets you find all the places in the whole set of books where each topic is treated. It’s an amazing, one-of-a-kind thing, and represents a huge amount of intellectual labor. For my own part, I decided to create a kind of Syntopicon of my own—a set of Word documents that mirrors the topics in the Syntopicon. The final phase of my reading process is to go through my newly typed condensed book, copy each part of it, and paste each part into the relevant Syntopicon documents by topic.

This is the process I’m now involved with in Aristotle’s Poetics. Some parts of this I’ve pasted into my document for Tragedy; other parts I’ve pasted into my document for Poetry; other parts I’ve pasted into my document for Comedy. And so on. I call this process indexing. When I have copied and pasted all the passages in a given book, I type at the top of the condensed-book document: “Book completely keyed & indexed.” For me, that book is then done.

As I process different books, my own Syntopicon (or, simply Research, as I call them) documents gradually get fleshed out. For example, my document on Tragedy now contains extracts from 20 different books, from The Anatomy of Story by John Truby to The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.

So: right now it’s Aristotle’s Poetics that occupies the Great Books block of my reading period. It’s quite a short work and I’m most of the way through.

Friends, this is my idea of having fun. It’s a scholarly, librarianlike task that feels profoundly wholesome to me. It’s my own personal library of ideas, and I love the prospect of spending the rest of my life, however much remains to me, doing this.

There’s more to my reading period—and to my life—but I will talk about those things another time.

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page fright

The above title is an expression I came up with as an alternative to the familiar phrase “writer’s block.” I thought that it encapsulated the emotional quality of the experience, rather than the more psychoanalytic or even engineering tone of a “block,” while also punning cleverly on the familiar term “stage fright.” For if you look at what keeps (us) writers from writing, I think in every case you will find that it is fear.

I’ve never really thought of myself as suffering from writer’s block or page fright; writing has always been easy for me, and I don’t find it difficult to turn my thoughts and experiences into words. And yet, and yet. Look at this here blog, a thing that I not only write but also publish. If writing is easy for me, what could be simpler than to crack off a blog post and publish it? No obstacle of any kind hinders me. And yet I published my last post here on December 6, 2019, almost two months ago. What happened—or failed to happen? According to my just-presented theory, fear happened.

Fear of what? What am I afraid of? Let me think. I’m just searching my mind. One thing that swims up: fear of being boring. I think I have a fear that if I just write and publish any old thing, it may be half baked and uninteresting. This may come from a deep-seated anxiety, stemming from earliest childhood, that I need to impress. To be humdrum or ordinary is to be somehow worthless or even nonexistent. The astrologer in me can see signs of this in my birth chart.

nothing,going nowhere

I think I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque. . . .

Another possible fear is of being unfocused or off message. I created this website and blog in order to promote myself and my works. It exists to promote my “brand.” This “marketing” outlook subtly affects how I approach topics here and what I feel I can write about. And so I prune away ideas, even unconsciously, that I think might not fit with the “mission” of my site.

I’m not sure whether I have discovered all my blog-related fears here, but this is already enough, I think, to explain my hesitations and absences. I think: “What can I come up with that is both interesting and on message?” And often the answer is: “Well, nothing, right now.” And another week slips by, and another—and another.

Well, I want to break with that hangup. Call it a New Year’s resolution if you will, but I want to post more often and more freely. Here is where I need to be myself, with all of my too-many interests, inconsistencies, and warts.

I just thought of another fear. It’s that if I started talking about all the things that I think about and that interest me, I will unleash a torrent. For I am a man of many and diverse interests. And there is an anxiety that my blog and my writing and my career may, in dishing out everything, wind up being about nothing.

Well, and what if they do? It will mean that that’s what I was about all along—nothing. So be it.

So I suppose this is a mini manifesto for this blog. Brace yourself for a torrent of nothing!

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novel vs. novel 4: journeys local and galactic

The two recently read novels I look at today, Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, are, in many ways, like night and day. The two works do have some similarities: they are both relatively short and written in lean, minimalist prose; they both, as the title of this post suggests, are accounts of adventurous journeys. Also, the authors were men who died at relatively young ages, Wagamese in 2017 at age 61, and Adams in 2001 at age 49. And, in a certain way, both novels are the products of suffering: Wagamese writes from a well of firsthand knowledge of the pain and injustices borne by aboriginals in Canada, while Adams, like many another comedian, grappled with depression throughout his life.

Men on the move

Despite these parallels, it would be hard to find two books that differ so much in outlook and mission as these two. Wagamese, a half-breed Indian who lived in the city of Kamloops in the interior of my own home province of British Columbia, writes with great depth of feeling and knowledge about the backcountry of B.C. It seems clear that his protagonist, 16-year-old Franklin Starlight, gets his own love of that world from his creator. There is a strong sense here of the power of nature to heal, and nature has her work cut out in this case, for Franklin finds himself suddenly taking on an unwelcome burden: to take his sick, estranged father Eldon deep into the woods so that he can die and be buried there. A life of alcoholism and dissipation have killed the still young Eldon—or, more likely, the wounds that led to that feckless life are finally proving fatal. Although Eldon knows nothing about Indian traditions, his journey into the woods, guided by his son, for death and burial, is the “medicine walk” of the title. A past surfaces, filled with pain,  guilt, and remorse.

Adams, for his part, makes light of the conception, birth, and career of the franchise he created with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Like the story itself, he portrays it as a series of serendipitous events, chance encounters, and flukes. As a science-fiction-loving backpacking youth in Europe, he hit on the idea of a hitchhiker’s guide for traveling the galaxy, and some years later turned this idea into a series of radio sketches for the BBC. It quickly found an audience, and Adams, a hitherto marginal and struggling writer, had discovered his magnum opus.

I like to compare novel openings, so let’s do that. Starting with Medicine Walk, here’s the beginning of chapter 1:

He walked the old mare out of the pen and led her to the gate that opened out into the field. There was a frost from the night before, and they left tracks behind them. He looped the rope around the middle rail of the fence and turned to walk back to the barn for the blanket and saddle. The tracks looked like inkblots in the seeping melt, and he stood for a moment and tried to imagine the scenes they held. He wasn’t much of a dreamer though he liked to play at it now and then. But he could only see the limp grass and mud of the field and he shook his head at the folly and crossed the pen and strode through the open black maw of the barn door.

The old man was there milking the cow and he turned his head when he heard him and squirted a stream of milk from the teat.

“Get ya some breakfast,” he said.

“Ate already,” the kid said.

“Better straight from the tit.”

“There’s better tits.”

The old man cackled and went back to the milking. The kid stood a while and watched and when the old man started to whistle he knew there’d be no more talk so he walked to the tack room. There was the smell of leather, liniment, the dry dust air of feed, and the low stink of mould and manure. He heaved a deep breath of it into him then yanked the saddle off the rack and threw it up on his shoulder and grabbed the blanket from the hook by the door. He turned into the corridor and the old man was there with the milk bucket in his hand.

The prose is clean, plain, and vivid. The farmstead comes alive with sensory details and a couple of striking metaphors: the “inkblots” of the footsteps in the frost, the “black maw of the barn door.” There is a certain sense of mystery, perhaps a fairy-tale quality, evoked by the fact that the characters are not named; so far they are only a “kid” and an “old man.” This raises the question of their relationship, which is clearly familiar and close without, seemingly, being in the nature of a family tie. It also suggests a missing element: the adult man who naturally stands between the kid and the old man. The story will show that this man—the kid’s father—is missing indeed, and this absence lies at the crux of the story. And the relationship between the kid and the old man is a mystery which will the story will only gradually resolve.

Speaking for myself, I found the opening of the novel intriguing and inviting; I wanted to read on.

Let’s compare it now with the opening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This edition of the book included a preface by the author, then the book proper begins with a 2-page prologue. I’ll skip those and present the first part of chapter 1, where the story begins:

The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means—it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.

The only person for whom the house was in any way special was Arthur Dent, and that was only because it happened to be the one he lived in. He had lived in it for about three years, ever since he had moved out of London because it made him nervous and irritable. He was about thirty as well, tall, dark haired and never quite at ease with himself. The thing that used to worry him most was the fact that people always used to ask him what he was looking so worried about. He worked in local radio, which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought. It was, too—most of his friends worked in advertising.

On Wednesday night it had rained very heavily, the lane was wet and muddy, but the Thursday morning sun was bright and clear as it shone on Arthur Dent’s house for what was to be the last time.

It hadn’t properly registered yet with Arthur that the council wanted to knock it down and build a bypass instead.

Here too the prose is lean and clear. Unlike the opening to Medicine Walk, here there is no figurative language to speak of, but we do have a narrator who is ironic and funny. We are introduced to the principal character (we won’t really be able to call him a hero), Arthur Dent, an ill-at-ease 30-year-old. And we learn, before Arthur does, that the powers that be have decided to bulldoze his house to build a bypass. Later this will become funnier when we discover that Arthur’s house is the type of a greater bulldozing about to come: that of planet Earth, which is to be demolished to make way for a galactic bypass! Even when Arthur finds out that his house is set for demolition, his citizen’s outrage is still only a dwarf version of what he should really be feeling.

Medicine Walk proceeds more or less as a classic archplot: Robert McKee‘s term for a classically structured story. There is a hero, 16-year-old Franklin, who grapples with a difficult problem, with the stations of his journey marked by painful revelations. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is structured as what McKee would call an antiplot: it is an anti-story in which ridiculous coincidences, freak occurrences, and impossibilities take the place of the logical flow of cause and effect that drives conventional stories. In this way it bears resemblance to such works as Wayne’s World or Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

I rated both these books as 4 stars out of 5 on Goodreads. I decided that I would like to read another book by Richard Wagamese, and added one to my reading list; but I’m not sure about Douglas Adams. I appreciated his cleverness and did get some chuckles while reading, but I wonder whether reading more of the same would be the best use of my limited reading time. I’m not a—what’s the term, “hikey”?—that much is sure. One thing that might tempt me back is to see more of the best character in the book: the morose robot Marvin, who I feel pretty sure is the author’s proxy in the story, a kind of techno-Eeyore.

These two works are a great example of what a wide range is embraced by the term novel. Nonetheless, my sense is that these authors are both men of serious purpose. In the case of Wagamese this is obvious; in the case of Adams it’s concealed under the play of comedy. He looks out at the universe—all of it—in search of some kind of sense. He doesn’t find it, which failure provides laughs for the reader, but one suspects that Adams’s struggle with depression meant that, deep down, he didn’t think it so funny.

Read my blog post about Medicine Walk

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Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese: the painful path to forgiveness

Medicine WalkMedicine Walk by Richard Wagamese
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A powerful and unflinching tale of healing and forgiveness. This novel had special interest for this reader for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it is set in British Columbia, where the author eventually made his home near Kamloops, and is filled with a powerful and immediate intimacy with the backcountry of the interior of B.C. For another, the story deals with the sometimes fraught terrain of the relationship between father and son. I was slow to realize that this was a deep theme of my 1990s TV series, The Odyssey. In a wider sense, it also looks at the world of maleness more generally. Where other writers tiptoe around this, Wagamese rolls up his sleeves and gets under the hood.

The prose is lean, poetic, and self-assured. The hero is a 16-year-old boy, Franklin Starlight, a half-breed Indian (“breed,” as these characters call themselves) who lives and works on the farmstead of a white character identified only as “the old man.” It’s a good life: Franklin has become a skilled farmhand and woodsman, and can’t imagine anything better than living and working in this country. But there are unhealed wounds lying beneath the idyllic surface of life: Franklin’s father, Eldon, a feckless alcoholic, makes the occasional appearance in his life, creating feelings of shame and bitter disappointment in the boy. Of his mother he knows nothing; no word has ever been said about her, except that it is Eldon’s place to tell Franklin about the circumstances of his birth and early life—which he has not done.

Now liver disease has caught up with Eldon, and he has not much time left. And Franklin finds himself making a final trek with his father into the bush so that Eldon can die in a special place there. On that journey, the issues between them come to light, along with the history that has led to their situation. It’s a painful journey, but a necessary one.

The author, Richard Wagamese, who, sadly, died in 2017 at age 61, knew whereof he wrote, for he was an aboriginal who grew up with the full measure of tragedy borne by so many Indians in Canada, including the systematic abuses of the residential school system. He became an addict, a street kid, and a jailbird. Eventually he became a journalist and writer, and moved from his native Ontario to B.C. When he writes about pain and about emotional scarring, he writes what he knows, and it comes through as deeply authentic.

There are many “5-star” aspects to this novel, but in the end I have rated it with 4 stars. One issue with a tale of this kind is that it deals quite a lot in flashbacks, and these are difficult to handle, since they slow down a story. Another slight issue for me was that the dialogue, although authentic and gutsy, is too similar between all the characters: they all speak the same way. It would have been good to distinguish between the characters in this respect. In other ways the characters are well drawn and distinct, but I think the author could have done more here.

But I admired many things about this book. One was that the characters do not dwell on the social causes of their suffering. They don’t spend time blaming society or white people, or even full-blood Indians who also look down on “breeds”; they play the cards that have been dealt to them, and take personal responsibility for their lives, no matter how difficult or mismanaged these might be. They have drunk the cup of suffering to the bottom, but they are soldiering on. There is courage here, and benevolence, and wisdom, along with the squalor and vice of exploded lives.

Franklin Starlight is on a hero’s journey in the backwoods of B.C., fraught with perils and with pain. It’s a strong and searching tale.

What does Medicine Walk have in common with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

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