De Profundis and Other Writings by Oscar Wilde: personality disorders of the rich and literary

De Profundis and Other WritingsDe Profundis and Other Writings by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This small book of selected works shows the depths of both Wilde’s thought and his suffering, all expressed in effortlessly fluent language.

I came to this book by way of the Wikipedia entry on Wilde, which I consulted after reading his The Picture of Dorian Gray. I was most intrigued to learn that he had written a long, searching letter while in prison, and was eager to read it. What were the thoughts and feelings of this perceptive man, who had undergone such a severe reversal of fortune?

I was to learn those things, but, being the kind of reader I am, I started this collection of works at the beginning, with Wilde’s 1891 essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” Knowing nothing much about Oscar Wilde, I didn’t know that he had written about socialism, and was most surprised to discover that he looked forward to the arrival of socialist society as bringing a great advance in individual liberty and personal fulfillment. He regarded the mundane tasks of economic life as dehumanizing, and therefore they were appropriately to be taken on by the state, that its citizens might enjoy more leisure, which is a prerequisite for civilized life.

And how would the state be able to keep its citizens on a living dole? That is, who would be doing all that dehumanizing work? His answer was simple and prescient: machines. The right person to do dehumanizing work is a nonhuman. In this, Wilde was anticipating such thinkers as Adler and Kelso, who also, in their 1958 book The Capitalist Manifesto, advocate a society whose citizens have been emancipated from toil. However, they see capitalism, not socialism, as the pathway to that emancipation, but then they enjoy the advantage of having witnessed the 20th century’s various attempts to create a socialist utopia. Wilde gives the impression that he regards the details of wealth-creation as too tedious to occupy the minds of anyone but bureaucrats, while Adler and Kelso perceive the danger of concentrating economic as well as political power in the hands of just a few men. The key point is that Wilde saw the importance of these issues for society, although he was writing almost 70 years before those later thinkers.

Wilde’s central concern is that people should lead lives of dignity and fulfillment. They should be themselves. I have no doubt he would have agreed thoroughly with another thinker whose ideas he anticipates: Abraham Maslow, who stressed the importance of self-actualization, the final and highest of human needs. For Wilde, the type of the self-actualized person is the artist, whose calling is exactly to express who he is. Wilde was the originator of the artistic mini-movement known as Aestheticism, concerned with turning one’s own life into a work of art. He thought that a socialist society, more than any other type of society, could be one in which people would have the greatest opportunity to live in this (to his mind) fulfilling way.

I was impressed with the range and depth of Wilde’s thought as I read this essay. He addressed the Great Ideas: he had original and perceptive contributions to make to what the compilers of the Great Books call the Great Conversation of Western civilization. He writes with a kind of effortless, detached passion. He is famous for his epigrams, especially the witty ones (“the good ended happily and the bad ended unhappily—that is what fiction means”; “if this is the way Queen Victoria treats her prisoners, she doesn’t deserve to have any”), and one sees how his style of thought and writing lead naturally, so to speak, to their formation. They arise where perceptiveness, brevity, and irony join in the mind of one who has a command of language. His prose, indeed, reads almost like a series of epigrams, and sometimes I found myself wishing for more of the train of thought that had led to these sharp summary statements. But there is no denying his power and vigor as both a thinker and a writer.

Skipping the dialogue called “The Decay of Lying,” I moved on to the main course, “De Profundis,” a title bestowed by Wilde’s ex-lover Robert Ross on the long letter composed by Wilde to another ex-lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, from Reading Gaol where Wilde was immured. It is a letter of complaint about how his relationship with Douglas had led to Wilde’s ruin. Written, under prison rules, a single page at a time, it is a testament to Wilde’s powers of organization and retention, as well as to his fluency, for apparently corrections to the manuscript were few.

But the contents do not reflect well on either man. For while Wilde succeeds in portraying Douglas as the worst kind of parasite, narcissist, and ingrate, he also inadvertently reveals himself to be a patsy and a fool. Based on Wilde’s description of Douglas’s behavior (and his own), I had little doubt that today the young lord would be diagnosed with the narcissistic personality disorder or something like it, while Wilde himself would probably be diagnosed with the codependent personality disorder. Wilde’s letter is a long and, one realizes, futile effort to awaken some sense of contrition in Douglas for the many wrongs he did to his lover. Like Charlie Brown, who never learns that Lucy is going to yank the football away yet again before he can kick it, Wilde never learns that he must expect only humiliation, not gratitude or reciprocation, from his young friend. What is sad is that even by the end of his letter he has not learned this; disgrace, bankruptcy, and incarceration have been insufficient stimuli to drive home the message.

At the end of the book is a collection of 11 short poems and the longer “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a somber and knowing account of prisoners’ reactions when one of their number goes to the gallows. Although I’m not a connoisseur of verse, I enjoyed this very much.

In all, this book is a collection of provocative and well-written pieces by a complex and brilliant man. Oscar Wilde was a true artist by his own definition of that term: “a man who believes absolutely in himself, because he is absolutely himself.”

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The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, & Sue Viders: “people power” for writers

The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master ArchetypesThe Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This apparently self-published handbook of character archetypes adds a powerful tool to the writer’s kit.

As I recall, this book popped up on the Gooodreads recommendation engine, and, as I have been trying to develop my own method of using the concept of archetypes to help me built dramatic characters, I was immediately drawn to it and knew I had to read it. I bought myself a copy and plunged in.

I was immediately impressed with the authors’ command of their material and the level of thought that they had put into their book. According to them, the main characters—the heroes and heroines—of every story are based upon one (or more) of exactly 16 different archetypes: eight male, eight female. Furthermore, each of these archetypes manifests as one of two types; so the storyteller, in creating a principal character, has a palette of 32 different basic types to choose from. These different types are distinct, recognizable, and strongly motivated to behave in consistent, characteristic ways, and it is exactly these features, the authors assert, that make characters fascinating and enjoyable for readers and viewers.

This contention I did not find hard to accept; I had arrived at much the same conclusion in my own researches and thinking on character creation. What surprised me was the exact identity of these archetypes, for it does not correspond to other lists of archetypes that I had come across, notably those of Carl Jung, who I think was the first to adapt the word archetype to the psychological context, and those of Caroline Myss, who proposes a much longer list of archetypes in her book Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential. A still different list of potential character archetypes can be drawn from Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. And I have derived pleasure and profit from using Animal Attraction: Discover Your Animal Personality Type and Unlock the Secrets to Your Friendships, Sex Life, and Love Life by zoologist Roy Feinson, a cheeky look at how humans fall into types that resemble certain animals. The “sixteen master archetypes” put forward by Cowden, LaFever, and Viders in their book are different from any of these, but the authors do not explain how they arrived at their list; it is simply presented as a fully worked-out system.

This is probably because Heroes & Heroines is not a book of theory; it is intended as a practical handbook, giving the writer only as much information as he needs to launch on the difficult task of character creation. And this it does very well. After a brief introduction, the authors get down to presenting the character archetypes in the form of a briefing for each one, arranged under a set of fixed headings: qualities, virtues, flaws, background, styles, and occupation. The consistency of the format makes it easy to compare the different archetypes; it also makes the book pleasurable in itself to read, maybe something to do with the scientific systematizing of the willfulness and messiness of human behavior.

The authors start with the eight male archetypes. Curious about what they are? I don’t think it’s a spoiler to give the list, since it shows up right in the table of contents:

  • the Chief
  • the Bad Boy
  • the Best Friend
  • the Charmer
  • the Lost Soul
  • the Professor
  • the Swashbuckler
  • the Warrior

(I was interested to note that the list is alphabetical except for the Chief. My guess is that the authors felt that the only place for the Chief was at the top of the list!)

The authors are liberal and specific with their examples, to help make the archetype clear and vivid for the reader. They characterize the Chief as “a dynamic leader [who] has time for nothing but work,” and give as examples Captain Kirk of Star Trek and Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady. These are telling examples, for superficially it might appear that Captain Kirk and Henry Higgins have little in common. One is the intrepid commander of a large spaceship, the other an eccentric upper-class Victorian social theorist. What they share, according to these authors, are the core traits of the Chief: they are active, strong-willed, focused on their task, and they exact obedience from those around them. They are undeterred by obstacles and make formidable opponents. These traits form the core of the archetype; a menu of other, less central traits comes into play beyond this, helping to distinguish one Chief from another. For example, while Captain Kirk exemplifies more strongly the 3 “virtues” of the Chief, namely that he is goal-oriented, decisive, and responsible, Henry Higgins probably shows more of the Chief’s 3 “flaws,” those of being stubborn, unsympathetic, and dominating.

Chiefs are further distinguished by one of 2 styles in which they manifest: the born leader or the conqueror. The former is a Chief born to a life of power and authority, while the latter is a Chief who had to fight his way to the top. I’m not very familiar with the backgrounds of these two characters, but I sense that Higgins is more of a born leader, while Kirk is probably a conqueror.

Archetypes are distinguished still further by their backgrounds (the circumstances of their early lives) and their occupation. By tinkering with all of these features, a writer can construct a nuanced and striking character. And there are still further options. For the features of two different archetypes can be combined to create a single layered archetype. The authors point to the example of John Rambo in First Blood, who combines traits of the Warrior (a principled, fearless fighter) and the Lost Soul (a man carrying an inner wound that won’t heal).

A further avenue for writers to explore is that of the evolving archetype, a character that changes, in the course of a story, from one archetype into another. Here the authors point to the character Edward Lewis in Pretty Woman, who evolves from a Chief into a Best Friend.

Female archetypes get equal time. They are:

  • the Boss
  • the Seductress
  • the Spunky Kid
  • the Free Spirit
  • the Waif
  • the Librarian
  • the Crusader
  • the Nurturer

These are all covered in the same way, with examples. And while the authors do not go into this, it’s possible to draw parallels between the male and female lists. For the Boss is the female counterpart of the Chief, the Seductress the female counterpart of the Charmer, and so on. I would say the parallels are pretty close for 6 of the archetypes on each list, with 2 remaining unique to its list in each case.

The book goes on to give brief descriptions of how the archetypes interact with each other; in particular, it shows how every male archetype interacts with every female archetype, discussing in each case how they clash, how they mesh, and how they change. The authors achieve a lot in a short space, and I was impressed with amount and quality of work they put into these interactions. Here too they give examples, mostly from movies, of these archetype interactions. A movie in which a Swashbuckler meets up with a Seductress? Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. How about a Best Friend encountering a Free Spirit? Clueless.

I liked all of this very much. But my response to the book went even deeper than that. For I found that when I read certain material in it, I actually teared up; I recognized aspects of myself in these archetypes. When I read the authors’ description of the Lost Soul, I recognized myself, which led me to wonder how I got to be that way. But perhaps more than that I embody the archetype of the Professor—the intellectual who has a closer relationship with his books than he does with people. Gadzooks—I’m a layered archetype!

The book does have some faults. Although my copy appears to be a new 2013 edition of the work originally published in 2000, it seems a homemade thing with copyediting problems. Some of the text and paragraph formatting has gone awry, and the names of the archetypes are always given in full caps (CHIEF, SPUNKY KID, and so on). All these things give the book an amateur feeling that it does not deserve. And, as I say, this reader would have appreciated some note on how the authors discovered or developed these archetypes. And why are there exactly 8 of them, broken neatly into male and female? And why are there exactly 2 subspecies of each? These kinds of questions gnaw at the Professor.

But, altogether, I think this book is a valuable tool for anyone who wants to engage in dramatic writing. I’ve struggled to develop characters in my own writing career, and I am conscious of the amount of thought and analysis that has gone into working out these archetypes and their interconnections. Each of the male-female archetype interactions that the authors provide would form the heart of a good story. There are 64 of these; a writer could just scoop one up and be off to a running start. I wish to heck I’d had this book when I was doing my TV series.

Anyway, I’m using it now. I don’t know whether it contains the ultimate truth about characters and archetypes. But I do know that if you structure your characters and their behavior based on these archetypes, you will come a lot closer to having a story that throbs with the pulse of life.

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the short story: small fry of the literary world?

I love literature. I love reading. I especially love reading good fiction (even as I especially dislike reading bad fiction). Why then, in my life, have I been ambivalent about the short story as a literary genre?

As a child I loved to write stories, and all these were necessarily “short” stories. But as I grew up I came to read works that were longer and longer. It was a mark of achievement and maturity in reading to be able to read “chapter books,” and then, eventually, fully grown-up up books that were read by adults. I remember in grade 4, that is, at age 10, trying to read Gulliver’s Travels, a paperback copy of which resided in the bookcase in our living room, and reluctantly having to bail on it a short way in. It was just too hard. But within a year I was starting to gulp down the James Bond books that were in my father’s bookshelves with full comprehension, as well as enjoyment of their “adult” content (if James Bond’s exploits can be classed as adult). Could it be that short stories, even those written for adults, now struck me, subliminally, as a more “kiddie” form, just because they were less substantial and required less commitment to read?

Certainly, the novel form allowed a writer to explore scenes, characters, and ideas in more depth, and the plot of a novel had to be more complex to sustain its greater length. Then there was the enjoyment factor: you could immerse yourself in a novel in a way that you could not with a short story. If I was enjoying a novel, I didn’t want it to end; the sheer size of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was one of its positive attributes, in my teenage eyes. By contrast, if you were enjoying a short story, that enjoyment would soon be over. All in all, short stories were the small fry of the literary world, while novels were the big game. And by temperament I liked to think big.

As I recall, it was reading Dubliners by James Joyce that started turning my thinking around. Electrified at age 18 by reading his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I turned to the next thing by him that I could get my hands on. This was an old paperback copy of Dubliners that was, again, sitting in the living-room bookcase. I plunged in, and was rewarded with the same superb prose and penetrating vision that I had enjoyed in the novel, and even some moments that were almost as arresting as the climax of Portrait. When I read “Araby,” about a boy who discovers that he is in love with a friend’s sister, and who ventures to a local fair to try to get a gift for her, it was as though my own soul had become a cathedral, or had been revealed as one, with the words and feelings of the story echoing in its dark, hidden, and unreachable places. I was left in no doubt that the short story, as a literary form, was a powerful means of expression in the hands of an artist.

And from the writer’s standpoint, this was a boon, for short stories, compared with novels, are doable. Or so I thought. Certainly, writing a work of 3,000 words must be easier than writing one of, say, 80,000 words. And it was in the glow of this newly kindled enthusiasm that I started trying to come up with an idea for a short story of my own. I felt tremendous creative energy within me, and wanted to announce my arrival, my birth as a literary artist. I don’t remember how long I racked my brain for an idea, but before too long I did become inspired by an idea, tremendously inspired, and the result was “The Hermit,” which is even now available right here on my website. Although I worried and fussed over its composition, spending weeks in sessions at my drawing-board under my bedroom window, I wrote it in a state of passion and creative exaltation. I felt that I was finally answering my own literary vocation.

In all, writing it was a wonderful experience. Finally, Paul Vitols, the literary artist, was born!

Now what?

That was my problem. How was I, as a newly born short-story writer, going to follow up “The Hermit”? While the outer details of “The Hermit” were not autobiographical, except insofar as they were about a university student, its inner life—its heart—was autobiographical. My character, Alex, was crossing a watershed in his inner life, just as I felt I was crossing a watershed in mine. But how many watersheds are there in the life of a young man, or of anyone? What else could I write as a short story?

I tried to keep the feeling going. I was a real writer now; I needed to write. So I jumped in and wrote another story. It was also semi-autobiographical, based on events in my trip to Mexico with a friend the year before. As a way of trying to progress, and not simply trying to repeat what I had done with “The Hermit,” I made the story experimental, playing with the time-sequence of events in it. But the result was underwhelming. In fact, I can’t exactly remember what happened in the story, or even what its title was. I don’t even know if I’ve still got a copy of it.

I had a vague feeling that even if I had in some way, by writing “The Hermit,” “arrived” as a serious writer, that fact did not in itself guarantee that whatever I wrote would be any good. Arrived or not, it was my responsibility to come up with good ideas for stories, of whatever size, and then execute them well. Or, as they say (or used to say) in the music biz, you’re only as good as your last record.

I started to see that, even though a short story is much smaller and simpler than a novel, it still needs to be a good idea and written well. It needs a sufficient reason to exist, beyond the writer’s desire to be a writer. And if some short stories are able to have a profound effect on a reader, as “Araby” had had on me, that fact may point to their being more difficult to write than a novel, at least from a certain point of view. “Araby” is roughly 2,200 words long, just slightly more than double the length of this blog post so far. Joyce achieved his effects with maximum economy of means. This succinctness is itself the mark of an accomplished artist.

Another feature of short stories is that they emphasize the story aspect of writing. Novels are often full of things other than the story: descriptive passages, internal monologues of characters, even editorializing by the narrator. A lot of flesh and, yes, fat can hang on the skeleton of the story. Short stories don’t have that luxury. The armature of the story is always close to the surface and takes up much of the space; it needs to be well crafted if the story is to have its effect. With the beauty of a short story depending on the beauty of its skeleton, its writer has nowhere to hide from the demanding and difficult task of storytelling. And the story guru, Robert McKee, asserts that while literary talent is relatively common, storytelling talent is rare. The writer of a short story is, therefore, compared with the novelist, putting himself forward to be judged by a more exacting standard.

As a student of storytelling, I now enjoy reading short stories more than I ever have before, partly because they give me the chance to swallow a whole story in a single sitting, even though I’m a slow reader. Lately I’ve pulled out collections of stories from my own bookcase, works by Mavis Gallant and John Cheever, looking to see what I can learn about story structure and genre.

As for my own short-story writing career, I have written only a few in my life thus far. I intend to polish them and publish them, as I have “The Hermit.” I still like to think big—it’s a character trait—and so large projects are still the ones that fire my imagination. But there’s something pure about writing a short story, and if I can come up with a good idea, I will happily write another. And I will do it longhand, on lined paper, which is still the surest path to the best prose.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: the battlefield within

The Picture of Dorian GrayThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One hundred twenty-four years after its original publication, this poetic tragedy still effervesces with cynical epigrams and thought-provoking ideas.

I remember being curious about this book while I was growing up, looking time and again at the cover of the paperback edition in the living-room bookshelf, which showed what appeared to be a painting of the grimacing face of an angry old man. I was reminded of it recently while reading The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker, who lists it among the examples of the basic plot of Tragedy. Here, I thought, was an opportunity to finally satisfy my youthful curiosity.

I’m glad I did, for Wilde’s story is a simple, imaginative, and well-written work of fantasy. In it, a beautiful young man, Dorian Gray, is having his portrait painted by a noted artist, Basil Hallward. Under the influence of their mutual friend, the irreverent aesthete Lord Henry Wotton, who urges the young man to live life to the fullest before his looks inevitably fade, Dorian passionately wishes that the portrait might bear the signs of aging and vice, while his own body might retain the unchanging perfection of the painting. To his great shock, his wish comes true.

He discovers it when, under the influence of his new friend Lord Henry, he coldly casts aside a young woman he has thought himself in love with, an actress named Sibyl Vane, breaking her heart. After doing this, he notices a change in the portrait, a slight, cruel turning of the lip, and realizes what it means. He struggles inwardly over what to do, but finally decides to take advantage of the incredible opportunity that has been presented to him: to lead a life of indulgence and self-seeking while keeping the unmarred beauty of his youth. Lord Henry, for his part, while he knows nothing about the portrait’s supernatural power, is delighted with his protege’s change of course from middle-class virtue to sophisticated vice, and becomes his inseparable companion and world-weary cheerleader.

Hallward’s picture, by absorbing the results of its subject’s sins, provides the ultimate in what economists call moral hazard for Dorian Gray: it separates him from the consequences of his actions and thus gives him licence to act selfishly. The young man makes full use of this licence, turning to a life of sensuality and pleasure.

I knew little about Oscar Wilde when I started this book, but in reading his Wikipedia article I saw that he himself was a dandy as a young man, and a founder of the movement called Aestheticism, which was the drive to turn one’s own life into an art form, to make one’s lifestyle itself a thing of beauty. Wilde himself was obsessed with youth and beauty, and died, bankrupt and disgraced, when he was barely 46 years old. The Picture of Dorian Gray is written with the passion of one who feels its issues deeply, even as Wilde’s prose is urbane and aesthetic. My impression is that the three main characters, Dorian, Lord Henry, and Basil Hallward, represent three different personalities present within their author. Hallward is a talented artist, but is also mature, humble, and reasonable. Lord Henry is a witty, cynical bon vivant and a star of fashionable London society. The soul of young Dorian, beautiful and impressionable, is the battlefield where the forces of virtue and vice clash. His life and his story are the outcome of that battle.

Along the way, the narrator injects some opinions of his own that make him seem closer to Lord Henry in his outlook than to the other characters. For instance, in describing Dorian’s obsessive fastidiousness over his dress and comportment, he offers an interesting definition of dandyism:

And, certainly, to him Life was the first, the greatest, of the arts, and for it all the other arts seemed to be but a preparation. Fashion, by which what is really fantastic becomes for a moment universal, and Dandyism, which, in its own way, is an attempt to assert the absolute modernity of beauty, had, of course, their fascination for him. His mode of dressing, and the particular styles that from time to time he affected, had thir marked influence on the young exquisites of the Mayfair balls and Pall Mall club windows, who copied him in everything that he did, and tried to reproduce the accidental charm of his graceful, though to him only half-serious, fopperies.

Here the narrator is looking on his subject with the admiring eye of Lord Henry Wotton.

It was interesting for me coming to this book only shortly after having read Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, another fantasy, published just five years earlier. It too explores the moral effect of a split in personality in which the light portion is represented by one half and the dark by another, separate, and secret half (for Dorian Gray locks his painting in an attic room). But where Stevenson’s novella to me reads more like notes toward a finished work, Wilde’s novel is fully fleshed out and well crafted. It would seem that the two artists were sensitive to a spirit of the time that placed heavy emphasis on one’s outward appearance, and where the evil that lurks in men’s souls had to remain shut up and unacknowledged. Both are concerned specifically with the pleasure of wrongdoing, and indeed that is exactly its lure. In a way they are echoes of the fable in Plato’s Republic about the ring of Gyges: a ring that confers invisibility on its wearer, so that he may do whatever he pleases with impunity. Socrates’ specific task is to show that the lure of such a ring is not irresistible, that the just man would not be tempted by its power. In Wilde’s book Dorian Gray is in a sense invisible, in that his beauty dazzles people, making them blind to who he really is.

I must admit that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a more substantial book than I was expecting, both artistically and thematically. I was prejudiced by its author’s reputation for urbanity and foppishness. And, in truth, the book is rather theatrical and flowery here and there. But it is also the product of a sharp and brilliant mind engaging with difficult conflicts in human experience, conflicts that were to define and even destroy his own life. The battlefield of Dorian Gray’s soul, I have no doubt, was the battlefield of Oscar Wilde’s soul, and in this work, his only novel, he has sent us a sobering report of the life-and-death struggle there.

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birth of the (serious) writer

I’ve finally got my mailing-list signup form up and running (see sidebar to the left), and as an immediate bonus for signing up, my new subscriber (such as, for instance, your own good self) receives an e-book version of my first serious short story, “The Hermit.”

I say serious short story to distinguish it from my efforts up until that point, which had all been written while I was in public school (even though most of my writing had been extracurricular). “The Hermit” was a self-conscious effort to write the best story I could; it was intended to reach highest literary peak I was capable of, and it was written in an emotional state that flowed between the poles of exaltation and anxiety.

The Hermit - cover image

I wrote it between September 1979 and January 1980, at age 20, through my first and only term of university at UBC in Vancouver. I had entered the faculty of arts there after a two-year hiatus from school in which I had worked and traveled, tussling within myself over whether I wanted to pursue a career in art or in science, for both pulled at me.

While growing up I never doubted that I would become a scientist—a space scientist of some kind. I was excited by cosmology and by the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. But I had always loved writing. And by the end of high school I had entered a crisis in which I was no longer sure about what direction my life should take. I was especially affected by reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which a perceptive English teacher had put in front of me. I was electified by this story of a young man finding his artistic vocation as a writer, and I realized that it was—or could be—my own story. Everything I thought I’d known about myself was thrown into doubt.

Two years later, when I started at UBC, I still had not arrived at a decision. I entered the arts faculty, but chose courses that could be ported over to science if I wanted to switch: mathematics, computer science. I was lonely and alienated from my fellow students—all 25,000 or so of them—on the paradise campus of UBC. I felt driven to give expression to my feelings—but how? With what?

Shortly after beginning the year I started writing a short story, one that I intended to be a serious, adult effort; one that would announce my vocation as an artist. Among the things I had been studying in my search for vocation and meaning were astrology and the Tarot, and I became drawn to the Tarot card called The Hermit—the ninth card in the so-called major arcana of the Tarot pack. An idea came to me about a solitary character walking the seawall in Stanley Park, and I was so excited by this idea that I caught a bus downtown to the park and started walking it myself. It was a sunny day in September, but even though I wanted to set my story later, in November I still absorbed the sensations of being there. Seen through the eyes of the artist, the whole scene was charged with meaning, with depth. I wanted to bring this to my story.

I returned home to the town house where I lived with my mother, aunt, and sister, and, sitting on a stool at the slanted drawing table below my long bedroom window that looked south up the slope of Fairview, I started writing “The Hermit” on sheets of ruled foolscap. I was a good typist, but I wanted to compose this in longhand, which by then I believed was how the best writing was done.

The composition was tortuous. I fretted, I worried, I scribbled out and wrote in margins—all things that were not really natural for me, for I had always been a fluent writer. But I wanted it to be artistic; I wanted it to be my best. James Joyce was still my guiding light. And as he, with his collection of Dubliners, had wanted to “give Dublin to the world,” I wanted in my own small way to give Vancouver to the world—to write a story about Vancouver, or anyway definitely set there. It was my city; I had been born only two or three stones’ throws from the Stanley Park seawall where my hero, Alex, takes his solitary walk.

By the time I finished drafting the story I was no longer a student (although my English prof at UBC, Lee Whitehead, had generously allowed me to submit it as one of the major assignments for his course, and was equally generous in his appreciation of the story). But the story was never published until I brought it out myself in 2012 as an e-book (and who did the cover art, you ask? Moi). Now I see it as the manifesto of my vocation as an artist—for that is the path I chose. Indeed I remember the moment I chose it: it was in the Sedgewick Library at UBC, just before my math final in December 1979 (but that’s another story). I can’t say it’s been an easy one, although I have no regrets.

As for the merits of the story itself, it is not for me to say what they might be. The author was a passionate young fellow of 20, and I can say that he put his heart and brain into it. He did his best.

But I invite you to be the judge. Sign up to my mailing list and download your own copy, bypassing the 99-cent purchase price. If you ever want to stop receiving my infrequent emails, you can unsubscribe at any time. Who knows—you might even enjoy them!

In the meantime, a lonely young man stands ready for a visit.

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it’s not polite to talk about yourself, but . . .

I’ve spent 9 posts trying to explain why I believe that astrology is a valid field of knowledge and study and not a pseudoscience or superstition. The topic is important in itself, but in the context of this blog and my project, The Age of Pisces, it is especially significant. Why this title in particular for what may well prove to be my life’s work?

In general, I don’t think it’s an especially good idea for artists to talk about their work, certainly not in the sense of trying to explain it. For one thing, the artist may not be particularly articulate about that aspect of his work, and wind up doing more harm than good to his artistic mission by talking about it. But for another, there is a strong case to be made that the artist is not necessarily in any privileged position to understand his own work. I remember reading Northrop Frye on this point, or anyway on one that I think is closely related. He was talking about the idea of seeing a production of Hamlet directed by William Shakespeare: would that not be the definitive interpretation of the play? According to Frye, no, it would not. He says that a Shakespeare production of Hamlet would be of special interest, but not of special authority.

And just by the by: this relates to my own belief that it is generally a bad idea for a writer to direct his own play or movie. For not only do the tasks of writing and directing require quite different talents and skills, which never exist in equal prominence in any one person, but the writer, when it comes to seeing meanings in what he has created, is only one pair of eyes among many. He may be an authority on his own intentions, but as for what finally wound up residing in the dark thicket of his created work, very likely other, more detached and objective observers are in a better position to say.

However, in the Wild West that the world of writing and publishing has become since the advent of the e-book, the writer is now often his own publisher as well as his own publicity agent, and it falls to him, and him alone, to try to promote his work to a public deluged by other promotions of other works. Thomas Pynchon launched his career in a time when a writer could still afford to have a mystique, when there were enough other people publishing and promoting his work that he could hide himself. He did no book tours, book signings, or interviews. Heck, there was no photo of Thomas Pynchon (I was shocked to find that Wikipedia does have a photo of him after all; someone must have dug one up somewhere). His reclusiveness gave him mystique, but it did not provide much in the way of promotional copy for his work.

The modern author, for better or for worse, has to beat his own drum. Willy nilly he has to talk about it and about himself in such a way as to draw interest. There are problems with this, because self-promotion tends to be inherently cheesy. It’s one thing for a third party to extol one’s work with praise such as, “This is way better than the Bible!” But if an author says these same things about his own work, his words will be accepted only at a steep discount. Nay, he will make himself like unto a laughing stock.

So there’s the predicament. An author, who nowadays needs a blog, needs to have a way of talking about his work without really talking about it. For there is the danger not only of plot spoilers, but much more of what might be called thematic spoilers: talking about meanings that are seeded into a work, but that are best unearthed by the reader as personal discoveries. Such discoveries are among the greatest pleasures of reading, in my opinion, and I want no part of spoiling them for anyone.

On the other hand, there is a great deal to say about The Age of Pisces that I will never be able to say in the books themselves. The topic is vast, and, I think, both fascinating and important. So why not just enjoy the luxury of having my own channel of discussion? Maybe many thematic spoilers will indeed fall on the ground along the way. But, just as in the fiction itself, it may not be so obvious what they are.

I would never state what I think the “meaning” of The Age of Pisces (my literary work, that is) is, even if were clear myself on what that were. But there are a great many things associated with it that are worth talking about, so that is what I will do. And as for the connections between these musings and the fictional work, I will leave those to the reader.

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how astrology works, part 9: the Rosetta Stone of meaning

In my last post I introduced Arthur M. Young’s book The Geometry of Meaning, in which he shows how the deep, metaphysical aspect of every situation can be symbolized by numbers and angles—specifically the number 4 and the right angles formed when a circle is bisected by perpendicular diameters, like the crosshairs of a telescopic sight. But I mentioned that this geometrical analysis applies, so far, only to static situations; it does not yet include the phenomenon of change.

Change, it turns out, is symbolized not by the number 4, but by the number 3, what Young calls “the threefold cycle of stimulus, response, and result”. You might think also of the Hegelian triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In each case there is the suggestion of a dynamic: a push, a push back, and a new resulting state which, in coming to be, constitutes its own new push, moving the cycle forward again. It is a way of cognizing or analyzing processes, and its threefold nature is symbolized geometrically by the equilateral triangle. (By contrast, the actual figure associated with the fourfold division is the square, formed when you connect the points at which the two lines intersect the circumference of the circle.) When this triangle is inscribed in a circle, it cuts the circle into 3 arcs of 120 degrees.

Using these two inscribed figures in the circle, Young works out their relationships to form what he calls “the Rosetta Stone of meaning,” which turns out to be a circle cut into 12 equal arcs of 30 degrees each, which expresses all the ways in which the square and the equilateral triangle can be related to each other in the circle, and also forms what we recognize as the template of a horoscope.

Of course, this image is not simply a drawing; each of its features has meaning. But Young puts it more strongly than this. He says that his diagram

is not just a translation of meaning, but is a generation of meaning. It is the relationships between the words we must use, not their definitions, that give them their meaning.

As I understand it, this is why meaning has to be represented pictorially, diagrammatically: for only thus can relationships between things be represented. A diagram is a set of relationships made visible. Its meanings are encoded as angles.

Young, finding words to be too imprecise and too circular (every entry in the dictionary is defined in terms of the other entries) for his Rosetta Stone, makes use instead of the “measurement formulae” of physics: our ways of measuring our sensations of the world using the elementary physical ideas of length, mass, and time. Young demonstrates how there are exactly 12 of these, and how and why, in their relationships with each other, they correspond to the 12 divisions of the circle of his Rosetta Stone.

But, in order to continue talking about them, he also does give them names beyond the physical quantities they represent, and, going counterclockwise around the circle, starting at the leftmost point, these are what they are:

  1. spontaneous act
  2. establishment
  3. knowledge
  4. change
  5. being
  6. fact
  7. observation
  8. transformation
  9. impulse
  10. control
  11. significance
  12. faith

And, as Young himself goes on to observe, this fully worked-out way of cognizing our world of experience corresponds closely with the zodiac of signs:

  1. Aries
  2. Taurus
  3. Gemini
  4. Cancer
  5. Leo
  6. Virgo
  7. Libra
  8. Scorpio
  9. Sagittarius
  10. Capricorn
  11. Aquarius
  12. Pisces

Young’s argument is deep and I don’t claim to understand it fully. But what he is saying is that astrological symbolism, if you look at it deeply enough, is a way of cognizing reality that is exactly analogous to our “scientific” (physical) way of cognizing it. The physical, scientific way of looking at the world measures it in terms of length, mass, and time, while the astrological way of looking at the world is qualitative: it sees the world as a place of qualities rather than quantities. It sees it as a place not of measurements but of interconnected meanings.

Young goes on to discuss astrology at more length in his book, “deriving” the meanings of the signs from his diagram, the “Rosetta Stone of meaning.” Each sign has its appointed place in a complete, geometrically ordered symbol of reality.

If you’ve come along this whole journey with me, this investigation of how astrology works, you’ll recall my posts about storytelling, and what Dante called the “polysemous” nature of spiritual writings. Now polysemous means “having multiple meanings,” and Dante was pointing to the rich meaningfulness of literary works. My own thought is that this meaningfulness of literary works is based upon, and ultimately identical with, the meaningfulness of life itself. Arthur M. Young, in his book The Geometry of Meaning, approaches this same issue, the issue of meaning, from the perspective of geometry and metaphysics. His “Rosetta Stone of meaning,” the wheel of the horoscope, is a kind of symbolic map of what could be called the “allegorical level” of meaning in life.

Thus there is no conflict between “science”—that is the physical science taught in schools and universities—and astrology. While physical scientists use the measurement of physical quantities to study the world at its literal level, astrologers, and others who concern themselves with things beyond the literal, use the relationships between certain literal, physical objects—the stars and planets—to study the world at its allegorical level. The people we conventionally call scientists are “literal scientists,” while astrologers are what could be called “allegorical scientists.” Both of those layers of meaning are baked into the cake of reality, and it’s a fundamental mistake for either of these schools of practitioners to regard the other’s province as invalid.

I have given an overview of how and why I think astrology works. If you’re a hardboiled skeptic, I don’t think this abbreviated argument will necessarily have converted you (although I congratulate you on sitting still through it all!), but I hope that it will have given you food for thought. For my own part, as a poet (using the term in its widest sense), whether astrology is valid or not I am free to make use of its symbols and imagery, including that of the Age of Pisces, in my created work. But if it is valid, as I say it is, then in some paradoxical or self-referential way, my poetic work will have something to say about the literal level of the world. My story will be something more like history.

But that’s another deep subject, which I will investigate separately.

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how astrology works, part 8: “all meaning is an angle”

I intend to conclude my brief exploration of the “mechanism” behind the effectiveness of astrology with what I hope will be my deepest thoughts on the workings of number. For, as I said in my last post in this series, astrology is founded ultimately on number; it is in some way a system of recognizing the meaning of number in our experience.

Back when I used to shop for books in the bricks-and-mortar world, one of my favorite stores was Banyen Books, a store in Vancouver’s Kitsilano district specializing in spiritual and New Age books. I think my first purchase there was at its original location on 4th Avenue near Macdonald Street in 1977 or 1978: I got myself an ephemeris so that I could cast horoscopes for myself. In March 2000 I was browsing the store at its newer location at Broadway and Macdonald, and my eye was caught by an intriguing-looking brick-red paperback called The Geometry of Meaning by one Arthur M. Young. The cover illustration was simply of a circle partitioned by four inscribed equilateral triangles, making the circle look much like the frame of a horoscope. I picked up the book and discovered that while it contained geometrical diagrams and even physics equations, it was actually a work of metaphysics. With excitement I realized that it appeared to be a modern (published in 1976) addition to the Pythagorean approach to number theory. I shelled out the relatively exorbitant $22.50 price and took the book home.

I had never heard of Arthur M. Young. By profession he was an aeronautical engineer, inventor of the Bell helicopter, but his education was in mathematics In 1952 he apparently left aeronautics, for he established the Foundation for the Study of Consciousness, which published a journal with the same name. His aim was “the development of a science of mind/body interaction.” This book, The Geometry of Meaning, appeared to be a distillation of his mature thought on the relationship between number and experience.

All right: and what is that relationship? Young launches his book with this quote:

“All meaning is an angle.”

In his next sentence he admits:

I don’t know where I first encountered this enigmatic statement. I do recall that its origin was said to be in ancient Egypt, and I draw great comfort from this confirmation that there was at one time, perhaps so long ago that it was not even registered by Greek thought, a tradition that reflected the same conclusions I have reached after a lifelong effort to formulate manings without reverting to the circularity found, for example, in dictionary definitions.

For my part, while I can’t affirm that Pythagoras and his followers arrived at the “same conclusions,” it does seem to me that Young’s ideas are in that tradition of Greek thought. And for his own part, Young says:

I would like to call this book an essay in philosophy . . . . but in the older sense of “the science which investigates the facts and principles of reality.”

We hear an echo of John Anthony West’s definition of number as not merely a quantity but as a symbol of “the functions and principles upon which the universe is created and maintained.” And for Young, philosophy “also deals with the relationship between the knower and the known.”

After this introduction, Young begins by discussing what he calls the fourfold division of the “categories of knowing.” For while we might first think that there are just two aspects to any moment of cognition—a known object and its conscious knower—Young finds that four aspects are required for a more complete description of that moment. There is, in the first place, the known or perceived object; then there are the sense-data by which the object is perceived; then there is the knower or perceiver of the object; and finally there are the qualities or opinions projected by the perceiver on the object. This last category includes such judgments as whether the object is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, useful or useless.

These four different categories suggest four different kinds of relationship within the situation as a whole. If the object in question is, say, an equilateral triangle, and it is labeled A, while its perceiver is labeled B, then AA stands for the relationships contained within the triangle itself: the fact that it has three equal angles and sides. AB stands for the data that the observer receives from that object: shape, color, texture, and so on. BA stands for the qualities projected by the observer on the object, such as whether it is beautiful or ugly. And finally, BB stands for the function of the object for the observer, such as whether it’s a watch fob or an illustration in an argument. This category represents relations within the observer himself, which he makes for the object, treating it as an object.

A similar and related fourfold way of breaking down an experienced situation is Aristotle’s system of four kinds of cause: formal, material, efficient, final. Using the example of a table, the table can be regarded as having four different kinds of cause:

  • formal: the structure of the table, as recorded in the drawing a carpenter might make before building the table
  • material: the stuff that the table is made of, as, for example, oak wood
  • efficient: the action or work that physically produces the table, such as the skilled actions of the carpenter
  • final: the purpose for which the table is being made, such as, for example, to furnish a breakfast nook and eat meals from

These are all causes of the table in the sense that they all, generally speaking, answer the question, “Why does that table exist?” It exists because this carpenter, wanting a table for his breakfast nook, designed it, got the wood, and built it. It provides a complete account of how the table came to be. The point of interest for Arthur M. Young is that this account has exactly four aspects—not three, not five.

So a complete description of the arising of any object or any cognition has exactly four aspects. Young finds that these four aspects can be sorted according to whether, on the one hand, they belong to the object (in which case he calls them objective) or to the subject (in which case he calls them projective), or, on the other hand, they are specific or general. These are two pairs of opposites. The relationship of opposition is expressed spatially, geometrically, as the relationship of diameter: in the boxing ring, the opponents stand face to face. When the second opposition is added to the depiction, it takes its own place at the maximum distance from the first opposition, namely, as another diameter at 90 degrees from the first, thus quartering the circle like the crosshairs in a telescopic sight. The tensions within the fourfold way in which reality is cognized or experienced has been given a geometrical expression in the form of a quadrated circle.

And we begin to sense the significance of the ancient dictum that “all meaning is an angle.” For the expression of an opposition or polarity as the diameter of a circle is entirely valid: the meaning of the opposition is preserved in the geometrical representation. It’s another way of saying the same thing.

(As an aside, my own intuition tells me that this fourfold way of cognizing is also the pattern underlying the four levels of meaning in a literary work, as I have discussed before.)

By way of foreshadowing, I’ll note for now that this quadrated circle, with its inner polarities of objective and subjective, self and other, is already an elementary horoscope, in which a circle representing the whole world at a given moment is cut by two diameters: the horizon line running running from east to west, and the axis line running from zenith to nadir. These two lines, and the four points of the sky that they specify, form the frame of a horoscope, on which all the other elements will be hung.

We’ve come a long way, but we’re still not quite done, for the fourfold division is way of understanding only relatively static situations: single objects or cognitions. When change enters the picture—and all of our experience is continuous change—then more is required. I’ll get into that in my next installment.

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Creating a Transparent Democracy by Shamar Rinpoche: power to the people

Creating A Transparent Democracy: A New ModelCreating A Transparent Democracy: A New Model by Shamar Rinpoché
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My path to this book began at Christmas 2014, when I received a copy of Buddhism Today magazine in my stocking. I didn’t get to it until about April, when I discovered that the fall/winter 2014 issue was devoted to Shamar Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who died in Germany in June 2014.

I remembered that Shamar Rinpoche was one of the four “dharma regents” who had been tasked with continuing the work of the 16th Karmapa, a senior Tibetan lama, after his death in 1981. As a student of this same lineage of Buddhism, I was sad to read about Shamar’s death, and read the whole magazine with interest. One of the things mentioned in passing was that Shamar had written a book of political philosophy, Creating a Transparent Democracy: A New Model. As a late-blooming student of political science, I found this fact most intriguing, and immediately ordered a copy online from a bookseller in India.

I quickly saw why the book was mostly to be found in India: not only was it published there (by New Age Books of New Delhi), but the book is primarily addressed to India and to what Shamar perceived to be the political problems of his adopted home in exile from Tibet. The book begins with the author’s “Letter to the Indian People,” in which he offers these critical observations:

Unfortunately, in this land of great thinkers, small political minds primarily at the state level have wrecked [sic] havoc on the average citizen. The once-powerful ideals of democracy and self-rule have given way in many instances to inequity and corruption. The legitimate development needs of villagers and urban slum dwellers go unmet. The levers of power are far from the people most in need.

Shamar’s little book is an effort to solve these problems, and it amounts to a fresh constitution for India. But the text itself never names India, and the ideas presented could be applied to any large federal state, such as, for instance, my own country of Canada. Many of the author’s ideas for improvement are technical and administrative, but he also offers a number of proposals that are bold and innovative.

The author begins with a preface, then an introduction, followed by a chapter entitled “Overview,” all to make sure that the overarching vision of his document is clear. In his preface he says that at age 18 he was inspired by reading, in translation, some lectures by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, which convinced him that “all forms of cruelty and torture are wrong in principle, and totally unacceptable as a means of securing a leader’s power in a truly democratic and civilized society. . . . [T]he only legitimate power to govern people in modern society is power that is granted by the people themselves, that is, power that is gained through democratic means.”

So there you have it: this Asian Buddhist teacher espoused a political philosophy that could have been voiced by John Locke or the authors of the Federalist Papers. I found it striking that it was specifically the issue of torture that set Shamar on his path of political thought. Years ago I might have thought that this reflected the fact that he was writing in the great East, a place where collectivism and authoritarian government were the rule and the rights of individuals routinely trampled. Now, with Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and other instances of government-perpetrated torture in the West, it’s clear that the issue is indeed, sadly, global. We too need Shamar’s vision of a torture-free state.

In his introduction, the author asserts that there are three things “necessary to enable humans to gain the maximum benefit from a democratic system of government.” The first of these is the most revolutionary in the strict sense: political power must flow up from the grass roots to the top, and not the other way around. Shamar’s whole system is an effort to achieve this. The second requisite is that citizens “must become politically literate before they can fully participate in self-rule.” This means that the state must provide a universal political education to its citizens—but this must not constitute propaganda, for the third requisite is precisely that “all forms of political propaganda should be banned from public life.”

This third point, interestingly, seems to be the one that the author regards as most important for his aim of realizing a transparent democracy—that is, one free from corruption. Here in Canada we tend to regard the blandishments of politicians as part of the routine if unfortunate flow of political life, but in Shamar’s eyes the fallacious rhetoric of politicians and the credulity of good-hearted but uneducated villagers form a toxic combination that is inimical to democracy. In his proposed system he is at pains to break this pernicious cycle.

In brief, Shamar proposes to create a bottom-up democracy instead of a top-down one by having the members of each successively higher level of political representation and legislation—from village to town to county to district to state to the federal level—selected from the level below it. Thus, each village sends one representative to the town council, the town council sends four representatives to the county council, and so on. At the federal level, the prime minister is popularly elected. The power of the prime minister is kept within bounds in part by “the head of the country,” who might be either a king, a queen, or a president, and in part by the third pillar of the three-part state, the judiciary.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Shamar’s whole proposal is the greatly expanded role he sees for the judiciary in his fully “transparent” democracy. Whether or not Shamar ever read Montesquieu, who I believe is the main architect of the concept of the separation of powers in government, he takes this concept very seriously indeed and his proposed state is shot through with it. Not only must a special constitutional court rule on the constitutionality of every law before it can take effect, but there is also a court of government oversight tasked with monitoring the actions of government generally, and even a full-on “judicial army”—an armed service under the command of the “chief of courts.” This army is equal in size and power to the “people’s army” under the command of the prime minister.

You can see from this selection of ideas that Shamar Rinpoche has put much thought into his proposed state, and has not shied from making bold innovations to the democratic system as it is now practiced. One thing I especially appreciate is that the author proposes making government officials, especially the head of state, swear oaths to uphold the laws of Earth, and to pass no legislation that is damaging to Earth.

I have questions about whether his system may intrude too much on individual freedoms here and there, and whether his bottom-up approach really would empower the bottom and keep undue power away from the top. But I find his proposal to be an exciting and creative addition to political thought of whatever hemisphere of the Earth. If nothing else, the fact that a serious, Western-style work of political theory, one that is intended for practical use, has been authored by a man who was, let’s not be afraid to say it, in Buddhist terms, an enlightened being, makes it of special interest and, perhaps, of special potency to effect good, should any society become inspired to implement it.

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how astrology works, part 7: the mysteries of number

In part 6 I looked briefly at one aspect of where astrological “meanings” come from, namely the empirical approach of making observations of the world in the light of the symbolism connected with the named planets and signs. Taking the name as a given, the astrologer looks for a correspondence between the meaning of that name, as for instance the name Uranus as the Greek sky-god who was the father of Saturn (to use their respective Latin names), and events on Earth. When the position of Uranus came to be tracked and recorded, astrologers could plug the planet into horoscopes and see what it did.

I have seen this process unfold in my own lifetime with the planetoid Chiron, which was discovered in 1977. (Looking in Wikipedia, I see that now the object is officially named 2060 Chiron.) I remember in the 1980s, when I was studying astrology, reading astrologers’ thoughts on how to interpret this new celestial object. It was discovered by Charles Kowal, an American astronomer at the Hale Observatories in Pasadena, California, and it was he who named the new object Chiron, after the king of the centaurs of Greek mythology. Within an hour or two of the announcement of the discovery, Kowal received a phone call from New York astrologer Joelle Mahoney asking him the exact time of day when he first realized that his photographic plates were showing him a new planet. He recalled that it was 10 o’clock in the morning of 1 November. Mahoney cast a horoscope for the discovery, and determined that the sign Sagittarius—the centaur—was rising at that moment. This was before the planetoid was named, but the first symbolic connection had been made.

Astrologers around the world got busy working on the question of how to interpret the new planetoid. It seemed obvious to connect Chiron with the sign Sagittarius; indeed, some complained that the sign already was Chiron, and that giving a planet that name was astrologically redundant. But at the same time some saw a connection with the sign Virgo, because Chiron’s name derived from the Greek for “hand” (his name means, in effect, “the handy one”), and Virgo has some rulership over the hands, and more direct rulership over human skills in general—and it was this quality of skillfulness that really gave Chiron his name. For he was renowned for his knowledge (he was tutor to Achilles, Jason, and Perseus, among many others), especially his knowledge of healing—and medicine is ruled by Virgo. There was irony in this, for Chiron was accidentally shot with an arrow poisoned with Hydra’s blood, which was invariably fatal; but because Chiron was immortal, he could not die, so he suffered with an incurable wound until he finally voluntarily gave up his immortality in a bargain that freed Prometheus from his endless torment on a rock in the Caucasus Mountains.

So there is a rich nexus of themes here: wisdom, study, healing, tutelage, foster care, and self-sacrifice. Astrology makes use of all of these meanings, but the one that stands out, as far as I know, is the meaning of “wounds that don’t heal,” or perhaps “the wounds that make us wise”: this is what a contemporary astrologer might be looking for when noting the placement of Chiron in a horoscope and relating it to a person’s life. As it happens, Chiron is prominent in my own birth chart—something that could not have been known when I was born in 1959—and I think that its influence is visible in my life, especially in that I have devoted much of my life, and continue to devote it, to study. As for wounds that don’t heal—well, maybe another time.

But I wanted to get to the deeper question of where astrological meanings come from, beyond the empirical observation of the connections between the world and the mythological symbols in which astrology is expressed. That deeper, more metaphysical source of meaning comes ultimately from numbers. At its bottom, astrology is a form of applied numerology.

And what is numerology? The foundation of it goes back, in Western society anyway, at least to the teachings of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who lived in the 6th century BC. Instead of focusing on the mathematical behavior of numbers, he focused on their significance, their meanings. He looked at their qualitative aspect rather than their quantitative aspect. And while no writings of Pythagoras have survived, his thinking was a key source in the later philosophy of Plato.

What does it mean to talk about the qualities of a number? There’s an excellent and accessible discussion of this in John Anthony West’s book Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt. West, a maverick American scholar, is a student of the esoteric knowledge of ancient Egypt, especially as this was explicated by the French Egyptologist and occultist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, who spent his career making detailed measurements and studies of Egyptian temples. He was able to show that they were built according to a complex and profound geometrical scheme, which resonated with the metaphysical depths of Egyptian mythology. And much of this metaphysics was based on a philosophy of number. In the words of John Anthony West:

Numbers are neither abstractions nor entities in themselves. Numbers are names applied to the functions and principles upon which the universe is created and maintained.

In his book West walks us through some of the meanings of the natural numbers 1 through 9. The number 1, for example, represents the absolute, or unity. It cannot be cognized directly, because to do so requires that the duality of knower and known already exists. Unity, then, is a kind of implicit origin of all things, the wellspring, the source. Somehow, out of unit, multiplicity arose, perhaps like a cell dividing in mitosis. This metaphysical division Lubicz gave the name Primordial Scission: 1, in effect, became 2.

And 2 is the number of polarity, which is fundamental to all phenomena. Anything that is, is identifiable only in distinction to what it is not. The world is filled with polarities—light and dark, positive and negative electric charge, male and female—but these are specific instances of the principle of polarity, which is what the number 2 represents. To quote West again:

Two, regarded in itself, represents a state of primordial or principial tension. It is a hypothetical condition of eternally unreconciled opposites. (In nature, such a state does not exist.) Two is static. In the world of Two, nothing can happen.

In order for things to happen, the poles represented by 2 have to come into relationship with each other. There has to be a mediating principle between them; this principle is represented by the number 3. It is expressed somewhat in the Hegelian dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, where it is the third term. But even this is more a specific instance of the deeper principle which 3 represents.

With the number 4 we arrive at the principle of substantiality—giving form to the developing reality. West uses the example of lovers: if the lover is 1 the beloved is 2, and the desire between them is 3, then we still have not arrived at an actual relationship; it still remains only possible. When the lovers begin their affair, then that possibility has become an actuality—it has taken on substance. Again, 4 does not represent actual physical materiality—that comes later—but only the principle of substantiality.

As I’ve mentioned, West goes on to sketch the meanings of the first 9 numbers, leading up to the number 10, which was held to be especially sacred by Pythagoras (who, incidentally, was reputed to have studied extensively in Egypt). Each number adds more to an understanding of the principles underlying our experience, of how the world works. By the time you get to 9 or 10, the system has become subtle, complex, and dynamic. But there’s a good metaphysical argument that you haven’t completely done an analysis of the principles of the world until you get to 12. Only at 12 have you completely symbolized all of our ways of cognizing reality.

But 12 is the number of signs in the zodiac; and it turns out that this is no coincidence. For 12 contains a much greater richness of arithmetical and geometrical relationships between its component numbers. And when you arrange these numbers in a circle as a expression of that completeness, you have the zodiac. Each number, each zodiacal sign, again represents some fundamental principle of reality, of the universe as we experience it. And it will turn out that the qualities of each sign derive from its unique placement in that circle and its unique set of relationships with the other signs and with the whole.

But more on that later.

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