making sense—and loving it

I live a life of ideas. But what does that mean, exactly?

Certainly, at a minimum, it means that I like ideas and enjoy exploring them. I read a lot and so you could say that I love reading (and you’d be right), but the pulse underlying that love, I think, is the love of ideas. But even I, who love ideas, am hard put to it to explain what it is exactly about them that I love, and why this love can spur feelings of excitement within me. What on Earth is lovable about an idea?

In the first place, it’s not completely clear what an idea is. Idea itself appears on the list of 103 Great Ideas compiled by the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World series, which means that they found it to be of special importance in the history of Western literature, and also that they found it to be controversial, meaning that there is no universally accepted definition of it. In the words of the introduction to Idea in the Great Books set:

Each of the great ideas seems to have a complex interior structure—an order of parts involving related meanings and diverse positions which, when they are opposed to one another, determine the basic issues in that area of thought. . . . The great ideas are also conceptions by which we think about things. They are the terms in which we state fundamental problems. They represent the principal content of our thought.

In some way, ideas, and especially the Great Ideas, stand at the interface where the mind meets the world. They are the fundamental working materials of the philosopher, as paints are of the painter or wood of the carpenter. But ideas are not a monopoly of philosophers, or of professional philosophers, anyway; we all make us of them to some extent. Indeed, I suspect that if we, any of us, examine our beliefs, we will find that they are based on some more or less definite notion of ideas, and in particular the Great Ideas.

Where the action is.

Granted, few of us examine our beliefs—that’s the province of the philosopher. We just believe them. And by that I don’t mean that we profess faith in them; I mean that we act on them. Our beliefs are exactly those mental constructs that we do act on.

An example? Suppose I believed that people in general are selfish and greedy, and will cheat you and steal from you if they think they can get away with it. It’s not hard to see that this belief would affect my behavior in many ways. I would treat people with suspicion and would be slow to extend trust. I would avoid doing favors or lending things to people. This belief would also color and guide my actions in the economic and political spheres of life: how I invested my money, how I voted.

All other beliefs are the same: they guide action. I hesitate to say that this is their purpose—although it might be—but it is certainly their effect. And this is as true for big, cosmic beliefs as it is for smaller, homelier, more social ones, as in my example above.

An important point here is that I’m talking about our actual beliefs and not our stated ones. The two might coincide, but often they don’t. Furthermore, we might not even be aware that they don’t coincide. We might genuinely tell ourselves that we believe the thing that we’re saying, when others can easily see that our actions say otherwise. I might firmly avow that my family is the most important thing in my life, and yet spend all of my waking hours at the office. In this case I would use rationalizations to account for the seeming discrepancy. Such are the complexities of the human mental economy.

Nonetheless, there will, in each case, be actual, truly held beliefs underlying our actions, regardless of what we profess or what we tell ourselves we believe. And I think that if you were to trace these beliefs back to their source, to the beliefs underlying the beliefs, as it were, you would find the Great Ideas, or things close to them. And this would be so even if we have never consciously thought about any of the Great Ideas in our life.

Let’s consider the first item in the alphabetical list of Great Ideas: Angel. Some people definitely believe in the existence of angels, while many others disbelieve. Many others will profess belief or disbelief but actually, deep down, hold the opposite view, and therefore act on it. And the kinds of actions you would take based on your belief would depend on the specific features of your belief: are angels necessarily good? do angels involve themselves in worldly affairs? were all angels once human beings? are angels organized in a hierarchy? And so on. The specific actions you would actually take will depend on your positions on these things.

You might profess not to know, to be agnostic; and you could be entirely genuine and truthful in that. Nonetheless, I think your actions would still tell the tale. If your actions are the same as those of someone who definitely does not believe, then that is the bet you have really made, whatever you may profess.

The next idea on the list is Animal. Could that really be a Great Idea? What’s controversial about the idea of animals? Well, one question is whether human beings are animals, and, if so, in what ways we share qualities with other animals. Our ideas about animals govern things like our diet, our thoughts about zoos, and our position on animal rights. What exactly makes an animal different from a plant? How conscious are animals? Again, our beliefs about these things will determine our actions.

But what’s to love here? Why care? Even though I have strong feelings about this, I find the question not so easy to answer. I could say that the better our knowledge is, the more complete and more accurate, the better our actions will be: we’ll make fewer mistakes and attain our aims more surely. And while I think this is true, I believe it is only the most superficial benefit of engaging with ideas.

The more we engage with ideas, learn about them, think about them, the more we engage with our own selves in totality. We discover mistakes and inconsistencies and contradictions in ourselves. If we care about our personal integrity, then we will want to address those things. Engaging with ideas is the path to wisdom, at least in a worldly sense, and wisdom is one of the virtues. Not only that, but it is virtue that, perhaps more than any other, helps us to cultivate the other virtues by moving from an unconscious way of living to a conscious way of living. And from ancient times, the wisest heads have affirmed that the cultivation of virtue is the path to happiness.

To engage with ideas is, I believe, the deepest and most powerful way to try to make sense of the world. For our whole life is a making sense of the world. The world of the newborn is “one great blooming, buzzing confusion,” to quote William James, and from the moment of emergence from the womb we are confronted with the task of ordering our experience and understanding it. Most of us get to a certain point with that and then give up, satisfied with where we’re at. I don’t feel that way; I’m not satisfied and I’m not going to give up.

When out hiking in nature it can be thrilling to come upon some new vista: so rich, so vast, so complex. I suppose I feel that there are similar thrills in the world of ideas, but that these thrills are greater and more significant, because the way we relate with them affects our whole experience of life, in every landscape in which we find ourselves.

Yes, I live a life of ideas, and am profoundly grateful to be able to do so.

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giving up my life—one question at a time

Last July, on my wife Kimmie’s birthday, The Kids (as we refer to Kimmie’s daughter Robin and Robin’s husband Mike) gave her a really thoughtful present: an attractive paperback book entitled One Question a Day: My Life So Far, published by Castle Point Books. It’s a daily journal that prompts you to write about your life by asking you a question each day: 365 questions on 365 pages.

Kimmie jumped into the task of writing in her new journal, dutifully answering one question a day, or sometimes more than that. I felt a bit envious; I really liked the idea of this journal. I have long tried to practice lifewriting in different ways, and this approach, using specific questions as writing prompts, seemed excellent as a way to open the floodgates—or anyway the eyedropper. I wanted my own One Question a Day journal!

The hard part’s done: living it.

The Kids had found the book at a store on Granville Island called Paper-Ya. We all went over there the next Sunday, braving the milling crowds of the site in Vancouver’s False Creek. Lots of nice (high-end) paper products—but no second copy of the book. We came away disappointed.

I decided that I wouldn’t be deterred by the lack of my own copy; I got myself a sheaf of paper and plunged in. I would write a parallel, loose-leaf journal of my own. In some ways this was even better, for Kimmie was already running into trouble with the space limit of a single page—really only about 60% of a page—in which to answer each question.  For me the sky was the limit. I plunged in, determined to answer all the questions and thus arrive at a more or less comprehensive view of my life to date.

Are you curious? Here’s Question 1:

Q 1: What is your birth date? Describe what you know about the day you were born.

And here is what I wrote on my first sheet of ruled loose-leaf:

A: I was born on January 24, 1959—my father’s 25th birthday—at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver’s West End, at 11:32 p.m. I entered the world as a breech birth, which I believe may have given me the “healing touch.” It was the depth of winter and the full moon will have been high in the sky—the most elevated planet.

St. Paul’s was still run by strict and scrupulous Catholic nuns, and my parents had been married only about a week. They lived in a cheap ground-floor apartment on Denman Street, and my first crib would be a cardboard box kept in the top drawer of a chest of drawers.

The #1 song on Billboard‘s Hot 100 that week was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by The Platters.

There, I was off to a start. Only 364 questions to go!

Kimmie discovered that she didn’t really like writing about her life. Perhaps too many painful childhood memories. So she has bogged down somewhere around question 81. I remain enthusiastic, but I have not been able to keep up the one-question-a-day pace. Nonetheless, I have made it as far as question 120 (still in high school), and I intend to get through the whole thing. Why not? Answering questions is easy compared with coming up with your own ideas.


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The Astral Body by A. E. Powell: more things in heaven and earth

The Astral Body: And Other Astral PhenomenaThe Astral Body: And Other Astral Phenomena by Arthur E. Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This follow-on volume, published in 1927, to the author’s The Etheric Double: The Health Aura of Man, extends the survey of the unseen world around us to the next level: that of the astral realm.

The methodology is the same: the author combed through about 40 Theosophical texts to distill the information on the astral body and astral realm into a series of short, well-organized chapters. Again, for those of us who think of ourselves as living in a purely physical world, it is mind-expanding stuff. According to the clairvoyants whose visions form the basis of these teachings, we are all living in the astral world already. It is the world of our sensations, emotions, and desires. We each have an astral body, composed of astral matter, which is not different from the physical matter we’re familiar with except in being much more diaphanous. Like physical matter, it has grades, corresponding to our solid, liquid, and gaseous phases (as well as a few more). Our astral body is formed like our physical one, except that it fades out beyond the boundary of the physical, producing the phenomenon known as the astral aura, which some people can see. Every night, when we sleep, our astral body detaches from the physical and has experiences of its own in the astral realm; when we die, our astral body detaches permanently, and goes on to a further destiny in the astral realm. There are bodies and realms beyond the astral, so our astral body, too, will die. What happens then? That is the subject of the author’s next book: The Mental Body.

The Theosophists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were optimistic that their discoveries would help usher in an age in which humanity would break the chains of materialism which hold us to a low level of spiritual development. That has not happened yet, but the teachings, which are based on the empirical findings of many people, are still with us in the form of this book and others like it. My own inclination is to believe that their findings are mostly correct. Our true existence is in a world much vaster than the one we usually think of–and which in itself is already big enough, to be sure. This book provides a brief and authoritative overview of one part of that vaster world: the astral plane. Since it is the plane of feelings and desires, it’s one in which we all have an enormous stake. This book does much to help the reader gain insight into that part of life, and into the mystery of the cosmos altogether.

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dream interpretation: “Why am I constantly dreaming about the father of my child?”

“See you again tomorrow night, then?”

I regularly answer questions on Quora. My main topics there are astrology and Buddhism, but with occasional forays into life advice, economics, philosophy, literature, and even some dream interpretation. Here is an example of the latter. On March 9, 2020, I came across this question:

“Why am I constantly dreaming about the father of my child and he is not in my life?”

I posted this answer:

I like to believe that dreams are capable of multiple interpretations, so we need to be careful about being dogmatic about them. In this case, I think it’s entirely possible that you may be having some kind of astral contact with this man, who has played such an important role in your life.

But apart from that, I think an interpretation might depend on how you feel about this man. On what terms did you part, and how do you feel about him now? These things will bear closely on the meaning of these dreams, I think.

If we look at the dreams from the perspective that everyone in them represents an aspect of yourself, then the man will be an embodiment of what Carl Jung called your animus: the personification of a woman’s unconscious. The animus is always male, since a woman identifies consciously with her female nature, so her “masculine” side is relatively unconscious. The archetypal symbol can take many forms. The appearance of this symbol is a sign that you are ready to, or you need to, get to know yourself more fully and more deeply. The fact that he is the father of your child means that you have already mingled your nature with his to create new life—a further sign that he is part of yourself.

Knowing only what you’ve said in your question, I would say that the dreams are suggesting that you look at your relationship with this man, how it unfolded and how it ended, and search more deeply for the meaning in it. Looking at things honestly and deeply, what has the whole experience taught you about yourself? And what more might you be able to learn from it?

What do you think?

If you like, you can see more of my answers on my Quora profile page. As of now, I’ve posted 1,127 of them!


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life, art, and the cosmos

It’s Saturday morning and I’ve just finished doing my daily typing of yesterday’s notes—that is, the highlighted text from yesterday’s afternoon reading period. It’s how I start each day. It makes for a good, nonthreatening way to get my writing day going: a fairly mechanical task that I can do while nursing my hot lemon water and, later, decaffeinated coffee. I remember reading that John Steinbeck got his writing juices going each day by writing letters. Well, this is my way.

I tend to fall gradually behind with my typing. Since I can’t type as much as I highlight, I have to prioritize in the morning. I always start with my dharma notes; since I’m still at least notionally a Buddhist, this is my way of putting my spiritual life first in the morning. The dharma book I’m currently reading and typing is The Four Foundations of Mindfulness by the late Sayadaw U Silananda, a meditation master who was sent in 1979 by the Burmese teacher Mahasi Sayadaw to bring the Buddhist teachings to the West. This particular text, published by Wisdom Publications, is a commentary on a sutra in which the Buddha gives instructions on the meditative discipline of mindfulness.

My other notes this morning were from The Astral Body by A. E. Powell, a successor volume to The Etheric Body, which I reviewed in my previous post. This is the latest in a number of books I have read in the past year to try to learn about the actual nature and structure of the world we all live in.

My interest in this subject comes from two separate sources. One of these is the dharma. In my study of this, and also as I have answered a number of questions about Buddhism at Quora.com, I have become ever more acquainted with the Buddhist cosmology: the structure of the world as it is understood in the Buddhist teachings. In broad strokes, these describe the world as being divided into 3 broad realms or planes, which, translated into English, are, roughly, the Desire Realm, the Form Realm, and the Formless Realm. We humans live in the Desire Realm, along with animals, hell beings, so-called hungry ghosts, and certain classes of devas, a word which is generally translated “gods,” but which would include beings that we would call angels and demons, as well as other things such as fairies and gnomes, if such exist. In fact, the Desire Realm is divided into 11 separate categories of beings, who all share the trait of possessing five senses.

The Form Realm contains 16 categories of beings, all devas, and all with extremely long lifespans by our standards (those in the highest level, The Supreme, live for 16,000 aeons). Unlike the beings in the Desire Realm, these beings possess only two senses, those of sight and hearing. Another important point is that the bodies of all the beings in the Form Realm are composed of “fine matter”: a type of matter that is diaphanous, fluid, and extremely light compared to the coarse matter of which we humans, for instance, are made. It’s not yet clear to me whether all the beings of the Desire Realm are composed of coarse matter, or whether the devas of that realm, for instance, are composed of fine matter like the devas in the higher realms.

At the top is the Formless Realm, which comprises four categories of devas who, existing as purely mental beings, do not have bodies at all, and therefore do not have senses in the way that we understand the term. The devas in the highest level of this realm live for 84,000 aeons.

Angelic feet: always clean.

This brings me to the second source of my interest in this subject: research into the world of my story-in-the-making, The Age of Pisces. Years ago, when writing an early draft, I found that the story pushed me into giving one of my main characters, the magician Menahem, an out-of-body experience. At the time this was merely the solution to a plot problem for me, but as a consequence I had now introduced the notion of the nonphysical worlds into my story, and thus enlarged it accordingly. I had placed myself under the burden of working out what the cosmology of my story world is.

Over the years, as I have grappled with the story, this issue has become ever larger, deeper, and more complex. Increasingly my own story is challenging my fundamental beliefs and demanding that I sort them out. Doors in my mind are being thrown open to all kinds of things I never suspected I would inquire into or take seriously. Now I am inquiring into them—and taking them seriously. Reading A. E. Powell’s books on the Theosophical doctrines is part of that.

It’s too soon to say that I have a position on these matters. There is not a specific doctrinal system that I could say I subscribe to 100 percent. But I am convinced that the purely materialistic view of the world that I grew up with is mistaken, and I am coming to see that many people have had more or less deep glimpses into and even sustained visions of the true nature of the wider reality in which we all live. For the sake of both my art and my soul (or whatever rests in the place we point to with that word) I want to learn all I can. Meanwhile, The Age of Pisces continues to push me further into this inquiry, and it actually makes decisions of its own as to what is real. For my duty as an artist, in this case as a storyteller, is to choose whatever contributes to the power, beauty, and unity of my creation. Whatever maximizes the effect is the choice I must make, and thus world of my story dawns as a surprise to its own creator.

Whatever else happens, I will continue to hit the books.

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The Etheric Double by A. E. Powell: pointing the way out of the cave

The Etheric Double: The Health Aura of ManThe Etheric Double: The Health Aura of Man by Arthur E. Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first in what would come to be a series of primers on the nature of man and the universe according to the clairvoyant investigations of members of The Theosophical Society, this little book, originally published in 1925, delivers a lot of information in a short space. The author, A. E. Powell, combed through 40 different texts written mostly by the prominent Theosophists Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, and arranged the information in a concise, orderly way by topic. (While there are three texts by H. P. Blavatsky, Powell confesses that it was beyond his scope to include all of her works in his survey.) The result is a dense but readable introduction to the key findings of the Theosophists, complete with a number of diagrams.

If you’re not familiar with the findings of Theosophy, the Theosophists were and are clairvoyants who used their talents to investigate and document the unseen realms beyond our world of the five senses. If you’re used to navigating only in this world of the five physical senses, this is mind-stretching stuff. For, according to them, we are all composed of much more than the physical body (with attendant mind) that we associate with ourselves. Our physical body is composed of what they call dense or coarse matter; but the organization and vitality of this body depends on other bodies made of finer kinds of matter that are mostly undetectable with our coarse senses. The densest of these other bodies is the so-called etheric body or etheric double: a body made of finer-grade matter than our dense physical body, but otherwise mirroring it closely in form and occupying the same space. It is slightly larger than our dense body, generally having its outer border about a centimeter beyond our skin. It has the function of connecting our dense body to our higher-order bodies, and channeling vital energy or prana into our body, which is what keeps us alive. For it turns out that while food is essential for us to live, prana is even more essential. Its source, for us anyway, is the sun.

The etheric body is organized around the chakras, seven energy centers that receive and redirect prana from the outside world. It enters at the 3rd chakra, the spleen center, which then sends it on to the others via particular channels. Each chakra has its own structure and functions. If we activate and develop our chakras, we acquire new powers, notably the ability to relate consciously with the higher-order parts of ourselves. Many occult and magical phenomena are accounted for by the activities of the etheric and higher bodies.

The author has done a great service to the student of reality in the widest sense. I feel a little like the prisoner of Plato’s cave who has been released from his chains, and is starting to squint at new and unimagined surroundings, moving instinctively toward the light at the cave’s entrance. What lies out there? The world he has truly lived in all along, but without knowing it.

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lots of evils to choose from

A few days ago I drafted most of a blog post on the coronavirus pandemic now swarming over Earth. I worked on it over two sessions and wrote 1,400 words. But I’m not quite happy with where I got to. The problems that it presents are complex, and I’m trying to sort out my thoughts. My blog should be the perfect place to do that, so maybe I should have just posted and then altered my thoughts with subsequent posts. But from an early age I have learned to do my thinking before I speak; and in the main this habit has served me well.

The gist of the draft post is that I’m concerned that in our desire to save lives in the pandemic we are destroying both our economy and our political culture. Thousands of businesses are being shuttered, surely many of them for good, and millions of people are being prevented from earning a living; and, at the same time, we are being accustomed to the swift enactment of harsh laws punishing us for such things as breaking quarantine. We are being schooled to accept authoritarian government as normal. My thought was that, since the virus is not especially deadly—I’m quite sure I had it myself a month ago—should we not take it on the jaw, as it were, and let it run its course? Most of the millions put out of work, while many might have caught the disease, would recover from it soon enough, as I did. They might lose a week of work, but then they would be back at it—and indeed would still have a job to return to.

But this “taking it on the jaw” approach would result in a much higher death toll, much of that due to the overwhelming of medical facilities. It would probably not reach the heights of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1919, but it would still be traumatic, and there would surely be widespread anger if people thought that the toll could have been lessened. This too would create a social cost. However, under the current circumstances, the problems we’ll be facing will be compounded by the efforts of governments to compensate businesses and individuals for lost revenue, for the governments in question do not have the funds to provide this compensation, and after 20 years or so of everyone’s bingeing on debt, there are no savings anywhere to be tapped for borrowing. Trillions of dollars are going to be created ex nihilo to send out compensation checks. Few people yet suspect what the consequences of all this are going to be; I am among those who think that the consequences will be grave indeed.

Creating all that money is going to be hugely inflationary. That means prices are going to start rising faster than they have been—and if you do any shopping, then you know that prices have been rising much faster than the official inflation figures, which I believe are deliberately understated in order to hold down governments’ borrowing costs and other costs, such as raises to index-linked pensions. With large amounts of money being poured into economies, combined with a severe slowdown in productivity caused by social distancing, we are likely to face the perfect storm of an economic disaster: the inflationary depression. This is a time of low production, high unemployment, and quickly rising prices. In contrast, the Great Depression of the 1930s was a deflationary depression: a time of falling prices. People who held dollars, which were then backed by gold, found themselves getting richer and richer, since their dollars could buy ever more as prices fell. In an inflationary depression, holding dollars will be of limited use, since they will buy less and less as time goes by.

The worst-case scenario is hyperinflation: a condition in which government, in order to meet its ever-rising obligations, must create more and more paper money, which causes the value of the money to fall ever faster. Hyperinflations have happened repeatedly in history, and appear to be the natural climax of a so-called fiat currency: a currency that is not backed by any asset but is simply issued by a governing authority, as all the currencies of the world now are. I greatly fear that we are staring into the barrels of an inflationary depression and hyperinflation. If these things come about, the amount of personal suffering and social damage will be great.

But it would be wrong to blame the coronavirus for these disasters. It is acting as a pin, but the bubble that it is popping has been blown up by the deliberate and consistent actions of human beings in positions of power. All bubbles eventually pop, so if the coronavirus had not acted as the pin, then something else would have.

So, in these circumstances, what is the right thing to do? What is the right response to the emergency of the coronavirus pandemic? In a healthy, normally functioning society, there would be a strong push to minimize suffering and death. This would imply emergency measures such as providing extra medical facilities and enacting procedures for quarantine and social distancing.

But these things are costly. It is one thing to order people to stay home from work in order to minimize the spread of a disease, but such people must be compensated, for no one has the right simply to terminate your livelihood. That compensation must come from the government—the authority that has terminated your livelihood. If the need for compensation is very large, where are the funds to come from? The government will not have that much cash on hand, and will not be able to raise it quickly enough through increased taxes; it will have to borrow.

And what if its credit is no good? What if, for whatever reason, the debt markets are tapped out and there is no one to lend to the government at the scale needed?

That’s more or less the situation that the United States, and no doubt other countries, finds itself in. There the central bank, the Federal Reserve, has declared that it will create as much money as necessary. And this adding of money to the economy is exactly the process of inflation.

A small price to pay, you might think. But is it? If you do any shopping, you already know that the official inflation rate (currently 2.25% in Canada) is far below the real rate. Between price increases and shrinkflation, you’re paying much more for, say, groceries than you did 5 years ago. This process will increase dramatically as large amounts of money are injected into the economy while the production of goods and services is reduced due to the pandemic. And if it should turn to hyperinflation, things will get very bad indeed—just ask Zimbabwe or Venezuela. In the words of Wikipedia:

Hyperinflation effectively wipes out the purchasing power of private and public savings; distorts the economy in favor of the hoarding of real assets; causes the monetary base, whether specie or hard currency, to flee the country; and makes the afflicted area anathema to investment.

And how does it end? Again Wikipedia:

Hyperinflation is ended by drastic remedies, such as imposing the shock therapy of slashing government expenditures or altering the currency basis. One form this may take is dollarization, the use of a foreign currency (not necessarily the U.S. dollar) as a national unit of currency. An example was dollarization in Ecuador, initiated in September 2000 in response to a 75% loss of value of the Ecuadorian sucre in early 2000.

In the case of the United States, “dollarization” is not an option: it is the dollar that will be hyperinflating. What other currency could take its place? Probably the closest thing would be the euro, but the euro might be in bad trouble too, and in any event there aren’t enough euros to serve the needs of both Europe and the United States—to say nothing of all the other users of dollars in the world. We would be entering a time of unprecedented global monetary instability. How it might play out is anyone’s guess, but there would be major disruptions almost everywhere.

He even looks like Viktor Orban

Am I an alarmist? Not by temperament. I tend to be sober, rational, and reflective. I know that worry and panic make for bad decision-making, and do my best not to let them play any part in my own decisions. But world economic conditions, the result of irresponsible and foolhardy policies for the past several decades, point in the direction of disaster. It pains me to say that when the smoke clears on the current crisis of pandemic and its aftermath, the world we see is likely to be much poorer, more authoritarian, and considerably less populated with Homo sapiens.

I circle back to the idea that was troubling me when I wrote the first draft of this post: even if the drastic measures designed to slow the advance of the coronavirus have all their desired results in reduced infections and reduced fatalities, will they be worth the economic, political, and social carnage that seem to be their inescapable consequences? On Monday, March 30 (today, as I type these words), the government of Hungary has passed a law that effectively suspends parliament and gives its prime minister, Viktor Orban, the power to rule by decree indefinitely. Hungary is now an out-and-out dictatorship—and the change has been justified by the need to fight the pandemic.

Contrast Sweden. In Sweden, unlike the rest of world, you can still see people meeting in cafes and dining in restaurants. Businesses and stores are open. The citizens are informed about the pandemic and left to make their own choices based on their own assessments of their risks and needs. They have tried to impose some restrictions, but Sweden’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, says that “people find ways around the rules.” So far, Sweden appears to be suffering less from COVID-19 than neighboring Norway in terms of infections (but not deaths), but of course that could change.

Will Sweden be leveled by COVID-19? At this stage, nobody knows. But my thought is that the Swedes are living as free citizens, while most of the rest of us are being turned into livestock to be penned, moved, and employed at the behest of the state, ready to be led into the political slaughterhouse of authoritarianism.

Life is an important value, but to paraphrase William Wallace in Braveheart: “All men die; not all men truly live.” I may be speaking out of turn as one who has already had the disease, but for my own part I would rather catch it again, and again and again, before living under the tyrannical rule of a Viktor Orban. And I greatly fear that other would-be tyrants will be looking at what he has done and licking their chops.

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Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry: still good after all these years

Under The VolcanoUnder The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one-of-a-kind landmark of 20th-century literature stands up to multiple readings.

I have a somewhat more intimate relationship with Under the Volcano than most readers, due to the circumstances of my growing up. In 1961, when I was age two, our young family moved in to a waterfront cottage in the then remote community of Cove Cliff in North Vancouver, and my parents became friends with Harvey and Dorothy Burt, who lived two doors down. It would come out that Harvey and Dorothy had been close friends of Malcolm and Margerie Lowry, and indeed had rented a squatter’s shack close to theirs at Dollarton beach in 1951, only a couple of kilometers away. For Harvey and Dorothy this was a love shack, for they were married to other people and were engaged in an illicit affair. The four became a bohemian cadre at Dollarton, drinking and talking about literature and art. The Lowrys left Dollarton and Canada in 1954. In 1957, when Malcolm died by asphyxiating in his own vomit in the village of Ripe, England, Harvey was the only one of his friends or family to attend the inquest.

Dorothy Burt was a passionate lover of literature, and a great fan of Under the Volcano. It was no doubt because of her that we came to have a paperback copy of the book at our house. I first read it in 1978, when I was 19. My response was something between being mystified and bowled over. On the one hand, it was strange to read a book in which so little seems to happen; on the other, it was a fascinating labyrinth of striking and sometimes grotesque imagery, and also a poetic work shot through with ideas and symbolism. I had had a major awakening to literature in 1977 by reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and I felt that Lowry’s book was another stepping stone on this engrossing path, even if I could not make out much of it.

The work does bear comparison with Joyce’s Ulysses in being an experience in depth of a single day. The day in question for Volcano is November 1, 1938: the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Indeed, Lowry’s day is shorter, running barely 12 hours of clock time, ending at only about 7 p.m. In brief, the story concerns Geoffrey Firmin, 42-year-old British consul to the Mexican city of Quauhnahuac (now Cuernavaca), a loner and an alcoholic. Two people unexpectedly arrive to join him this day: his younger half brother Hugh, who hopes to join a ship carrying supplies to the partisans in Spain, and his ex-wife Yvonne, an American actress with whom he split up the previous year, and with whom he has dreamed of reconciling. Geoffrey is making a show of trying to quit drinking, but it soon becomes plain that it is only a show; like his creator, Lowry, Geoffrey is a hard-bitten drinker who doesn’t, in his heart of hearts, really want to quit.

There are interactions between these three characters, and also with Jacques Laruelle, a French filmmaker and boyhood friend of Geoffrey’s, and Dr. Vigil, a local physician who is sympathetic to the consul’s plight. There is also a bus ride which is interrupted by the appearance of an Indian lying unconscious on the road (I don’t think this is too spoilerish)—an episode that Lowry first wrote as a short story in the 1930s. But the physical action in the book is slight, and mostly quite true to life (Lowry had spent much time in Mexico); Lowry’s interest is in the inner world of Geoffrey, and, to a lesser extent, Yvonne and Hugh, who also have chapters devoted to their points of view. One of the great strengths of this book is its detailed and authoritative portrait of the mental workings of an alcoholic who is also a genius. For Geoffrey is a would-be author himself, and an educated and well-read man, but he lives from drink to drink, and spends time titrating his nerves with alcohol to keep the DTs at bay and to make existence bearable for another few minutes. He is paranoid and suffers with a persecution mania. He is not a well man.

But Yvonne, a lovely 32-year-old woman, still loves him and yearns for their reunion, so there appears to be hope for Geoffrey. They both want to be together, so what’s stopping them? There are issues of guilt and forgiveness—and of course the demon tequila, and, beyond that, mescal.

I had already read the novel twice when I bought a copy of my own in May 1990. I got the Penguin Modern Classics edition, which includes, as an introduction, a famous exchange of letters between Lowry and the publisher Jonathan Cape in London. Cape wrote to Lowry in November 1945 offering to publish Volcano on condition that Lowry made changes according to suggestions made by Cape’s reader. Lowry responded with a 40-page letter defending the manuscript as it was, and going through it chapter by chapter to demonstrate how all the elements were organically chosen and interlinked. The letter is not a work of complaint; it is fun and self-deprecating, and it provides tremendous insight into the author’s intentions and the systems of imagery within the work—for there are several. If you have not read the novel yet, I would recommend reading the letter after reading the book, for it contains spoilers aplenty.

So I read the novel again in 1990, and have not reread it again till now. What are my impressions this time, on a fourth reading at age 61, an age that Lowry never even approached, dying at 47? I am still impressed with the book, although slightly less so than on previous readings. Sometimes I found the writing self-indulgent and undisciplined; and Lowry is not so powerful a stylist as, say, Joyce. This time I became tired of all the Mexicans speaking faulty English to Geoffrey, which seems to be intended mostly for comic effect, as well as providing some symbolic double entendres. Now it feels a bit like watching “funny foreigners” in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 40s. In reality, everyone would have been speaking Spanish, including Geoffrey. There is also having to put up with the endless rationalizations and self-seriousness of the addict, his absurd feelings of triumph for resisting a drink for an extra few seconds, or whatever.

But I have just opened my copy of the book at random to page 165, and I promised myself to type whatever I found there. Here is a bit of the action:

‘But wait a minute.’ Hugh looked up at the sky of New Spain. It was a day like a good Joe Venuti record. He listened to the faint steady droning of the telegraph poles and the wires above them that sang in his heart with his pint-and-a-half of beer. At this moment the best and easiest and most simple thing in the world seemed to be the happiness of these two people in a new country. . . .

There’s a taste drawn at random. I think we can say that Lowry can write.

Golly, I meant to talk about more here. For the real importance of this book lies not so much in its characters and their situation, as in how it all seems to stand for the situation of humanity on the threshold of World War II. And, deeper than that, there is something of the powerful poetic motif of what Robert Graves called the White Goddess—the great theme of his 1948 book of that title (it came out the year after Under the Volcano). According to Graves, all European poetry, from most ancient times, is underlain by the myth of the Great Goddess and her two lovers: the reigning priest-king, and the younger man who will kill him and replace him. Here I will just say that the Great Goddess appears here in the form of the volcanic Earth, and also as Yvonne, and there is a question of whether Hugh will replace Geoffrey in relationship with her. This theme also lies deep under Ulysses, in my opinion.

But that’s all material for another place. For now it’s enough to say that Under the Volcano is a major literary work with lots going on in it, possibly even more than its author consciously realized—and he realized plenty. Would I read it a fifth time? Quite possibly. Yes, quite possibly.

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circumnavigating a literary world

I have talked a bit about my project to read the Bible as though decoding the genome of Western Christendom (that is, Western civilization). I am treating the books of the Bible as “chromosomes” of the genome, with the individual episodes in those books representing the actual “genes” or units of sense.

I’m currently reading the Book of Joshua, or Chromosome 6, but I thought I would illustrate my project a bit more by “decoding” some more of Chromosome 1, the Book of Genesis. In my last post I summarized the first two genes or episodes, which stretch from Gen 1:1 to Gen 2:9. To show you my method in more detail, I’ll “decode” the next couple of episodes as well.

Episode (gene) 3 is also contained within chapter 2, and comprises verses 10–14. Let me quote the exact text from the King James Version:

10 And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.
11 The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;
12 And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone.
13 And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia.
14 And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.

This is a bit of geography that is simply inserted in the narrative at this point; it stands alone, and therefore, in my view, constitutes a separate episode. This is how I summarized the episode in the relevant column of my decoding table:

A river from Eden that waters God’s garden divides to form 4 important rivers of the world.

Next to that column I have a discussion column, in which I make any observations or questions to myself about the episode. Here is what I wrote in that:

Eden and its garden are the source not only of humanity and agriculture, but also of world geography, in the sense of a structured way of understanding the physical world.

The final column is labeled “Implied Rules,” but this episode is one of the few in which I left this column blank. I couldn’t see how the “episode” produced a rule beyond its authoritative description of the geography of Eden and its world.

Want to try another episode? Yes, let’s! Episode 4 is just 3 verses long, Gen 2:15–17. Here is the text of the KJV:

15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Here is my summary of the episode:

God makes the man the gardener of Eden, and gives him leave to eat of any plant in the garden—except of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, saying that on the day he does so, he shall surely die.

Here is my own commentary:

God has given man work to do, and freedom with limits which are backed by the threat of death.

And here are the “rules” I extracted from this episode:

God is man’s master, lawgiver, judge, and punisher. God makes rules for man and man has a duty to obey.

These are pretty significant rules, but I believe that they are indeed the rules that this episode implies.

“Can we still be friends?”

Still with me? Let’s do one more: Episode 5, Gen 2:18–20:

18 And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.
19 And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
20 And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

My summary of the episode:

God, taking pity on Adam’s solitude, determines to find a “help meet” for him, and to this end creates all the animals of the world, and presents them to Adam for naming; but none serves as a help meet for Adam.

My commentary:

The animals were created as potential companions for man, and were named by him (not by God), but none completely fills that role.

And, finally, the implied rules for Western Christendom:

Animals were created for man’s benefit and for no other reason.

Again, a most significant rule, especially in light of the environmental crises that face the Earth of today. But, here again, I think the rule is fully implied by the text.

I hope you can see why I find this project so interesting and involving. I have more than one motive in doing it. One angle was sparked by reading The Great Code by Northrop Frye. In this fascinating book Frye notes that all of English literature is heavily influenced by the Bible, so much so that to read this literature without a good knowledge of the Bible is to read it blind. I recently read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, and this novel was certainly replete with biblical allusions.

In all, my Bible-reading project may be big and slow, but it feels very worthwhile. In doing it, I really feel that I’m spending my time well—rather like a man who is circumnavigating the world on foot.

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mapping the Bible, gene by gene

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

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

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

Reach out and . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what I came up with:

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

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

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


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