When people die who were never born

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration of Nell's deceased body lying in bed.

A hard life, but at least it’s over.

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

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

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

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

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

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at the top of my reading period

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

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

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

Cover of Manual of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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They call me Mister Vitols

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

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

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

The University of Paul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now I would fain return to it.

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life is but a dream

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

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

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

Cover image of The Waking Dream

Hermeneuts of the world, unite!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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writers gotta eat—or do they?

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

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

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

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

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

Want to be a loser?

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

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

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

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

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another first: The Floating Opera by John Barth

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

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

I changed my mind, and decided to read it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The journey of a thousand miles begins with 45 words.

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

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

lay a cave

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

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

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

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

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the day I became an artist

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

My favorite religious text.

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

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

(Warning: there are spoilers in what follows.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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the breakfast of champions

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

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

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

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

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

Paul’s Exemplary Granola

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

Grease 2 baking pans.

Put on low heat:

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

Put in big mixing bowl:

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

Mix liquid ingredients into dry.

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

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

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

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a sentence with hidden depths

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

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

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

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

Not just another boy-meets-cow story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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