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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tonight’s bout: Paul Clifford vs. Christopher Columbus

All right, I was talking about examining the opening sentences of novels that I read and comparing them with the “zero level” opener to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 Paul Clifford, the infamous, “It was a dark and stormy night. . . .” The latest novel I’ve read is Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card, published in 1996. It’s a science-fiction work about people from the future (the 22nd century, I think) traveling to the time of Christopher Columbus to see whether they can head off what they regard as the disastrous consequences of his journey of discovery to the Americas. This book, for me, had some problems, but I’m not here to review it as a whole, only to look at its opening sentence.

But first there is the question of what actually is the opening sentence. This novel, like many novels, comes equipped with a prologue. It’s 2 pages long and sets the scene before the launch of the story proper, and is really the beginning—the opening—of the novel. For your interest, here is the sentence in question:

Some people called it “the time of undoing”; some, wishing to be more positive, spoke of it as “the replanting” or “the restoring” or even “the resurrection” of the Earth.

The journey of 100,000 words begins with a single sentence.

I’ve decided not to use that sentence. All things considered, I believe it is more consistent and fair to use the opening sentence of chapter 1 for each book, even for books that have prologues. This to me feels more like an apples-to-apples comparison. Every novel will have a chapter 1, and every chapter 1 will have an opening sentence. So there, I have begun to establish the “rules” of my survey!

Let’s move on to chapter 1 of Pastwatch, then. The chapter is entitled “The Governor,” and here is the opening sentence:

There was only one time when Columbus despaired of making his voyage.

How does it hit you? For my part, I think it’s an effective opener. At 12 words long, it’s brief and to the point. It’s talking about Columbus and his voyage, both famous and familiar, but it refers to his despair about making the voyage, which is something I did not know about, and this introduces an element of conflict. What would have made Columbus despair? How did he overcome the obstacle? My desire to know these things makes me want to read on.

If I treat this sentence as a hologram of the novel as a whole, what is it telling me about the story? What is the “implied book” suggested by this sentence? One thing this sentence leads me to expect is direct, businesslike narration. It’s not a florid, scene-setting descriptive sentence, like Bulwer-Lytton’s opener to Paul Clifford; it is a terse statement of fact. There is no figurative language here; it uses plain, literal prose, just as a police report might. So, even though I would expect the author to use figurative language in the novel ahead of me, since figurative language is the hallmark of creative as opposed to ordinary writing, this plainspoken opener gives me to understand that the narrative will be brisk and informative. The brevity of the sentence leads me to expect that the author will stay close to the point at all times.

Another aspect is what I might call the interest factor: how interesting is the situation that the sentence is, as it were, lowering me into? Here also I think it does well. Christopher Columbus and his voyage are a specific event in a specific time; they are historically significant and the author is referring to them in a way that suggests he has new and interesting things to say about them. As a reader, I get the feeling that the author has discovered some things of special interest or importance regarding this historical figure, and that he wishes to communicate to me his own excitement about them. I’m willing to read on and find out what he’s got to say.

In the event, I didn’t think that the novel really delivered on these implicit promises to me the reader. I felt there were long passages that were talky and did not do much to advance the story, and I felt that the story had a hard time getting onto its point and staying there. So in a certain sense I don’t think it lived up to the promise of its opening sentence. And this might make an interesting critical touchstone for the future: how harmonious is a novel with its opening sentence? Does it proceed in the manner of its opening? Does it stay true to itself, or anyway to the self it seems to promise in its opening words? Or, if not, is the difference handled in an artistic way, such that it makes sense in terms of the unity of the whole?

These will be questions I keep asking myself as I continue in my examination of opening sentences, and I invite you to ask them of the novels you read, too. In this way we will continue to deepen our appreciation of these works of art.

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The Causal Body and the Ego by Arthur E. Powell: the higher planes of reality

The Causal Body and the EgoThe Causal Body and the Ego by Arthur E. Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The last and biggest of Arthur E. Powell’s 4 volumes of the findings of the clairvoyant researches of the Theosophists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries sets out what is known about the highest and most inaccessible parts of our spiritual selves.

According to these students of the “occult” world, reality is composed of 7 levels or planes, and our lives are actually lived on all of them simultaneously. The body that we think of as our physical self is just one–the lowest one–of the “vehicles” that our actual self, the “ego,” makes use of in order to evolve toward complete self actualization. The vitality and coherence of that physical body is due to a separate but closely connected vehicle known as the “etheric” body. Our sensations of pleasure and pain and our emotional nature are the manifestations of the vehicle known as the astral body, which functions on its own plane of reality that differs from ordinary physical reality not in location but in the fineness of its matter. Our concrete thoughts–our thoughts about specific objects–are formed of the matter of the mental plane, a still finer level of reality “above” the astral. Our abstract thoughts, our thoughts about ideas and not merely about concrete things, are formed of the matter of the higher mental plane. This is the plane of our “causal” body, the vehicle that sets the vehicles below it in motion.

The levels beyond the higher mental plane are also addressed in this book, to the extent that the investigators could learn about them. Above the mental plane is the plane they call “buddhic,” the source of our intuitive knowledge, and the “atmic,” which is the plane of our will. There are two further planes that are so far above and beyond our ordinary consciousness that they cannot really be known or described. To move upward through the planes of reality is to move ever closer to God or ultimate reality. To function on any plane above the astral is possible only to the extent that we have transcended selfish motives. All planes are populated by many beings, human and nonhuman.

This is mind-stretching stuff. The material is dense but well organized by the author, who spent years collecting and collating the various Theosophical writings in order to distill their contents into a single coherent overview. This reader thinks that he succeeded very well.

Do you believe in the findings of a group of clairvoyants? That’s up to you. The test–the only test available to us who currently lack these clairvoyant powers–is how well the teachings accord with one’s own experience. As far as I’m concerned, they accord very well. And if we’re inclined to doubt, we shouldn’t forget that William James observed that doubt needs to be justified as much as belief does.

We already know that the universe is a big place. These books reveal that it’s actually a lot bigger than we think it is–and much more structured and meaningful. They deal with topics that are of the utmost importance to every sentient being, and it turns out that even the things we call “minerals” are sentient beings for this purpose. Our existence is much more wondrous than we imagine.

If your mind is open, or is capable of becoming so, then I would heartily recommend that you plunge into this series of books by Powell, starting with The Etheric Double: The Health Aura of Man, which deals with phenomena that are closest to our familiar physical life. The books should certainly be read in order; let your mind be stretched slowly!

There’s a great deal more that I could say about these books. My own spiritual training has been Buddhist, and the Theosophists make use of Buddhist terms and concepts, even as it appears that their view of reality is quite other than what was taught by the Buddha. I’ll say only this for now: appearances can be deceiving. Let’s just leave it at that.

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well begun is half done

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Thus the actual opening sentence of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Apparently the opening clause, “it was a dark and stormy night,” was not original with Bulwer-Lytton but was something that he himself was riffing on in his work, but nonetheless the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, launched by the English Department at San Jose State University in 1982 and carrying on to the present day, has made it the standard for their annual contest for writers to compose “opening sentences to the worst of all possible novels.

This is not quite the same thing as “the worst opening sentence,” but the distinction is perhaps subtle. A “worst opening sentence” might simply be grammatically questionable or confusing or incomprehensible. An opening sentence to “the worst of all possible novels” needs to be clear and informative enough to let the reader know, or at least suspect, that the novel that follows will be as bad as can be. This raises interesting questions as to what makes for badness in a novel. There won’t be any unanimity here, for novels, like other things, can be loved and hated by different people for different reasons. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

But I think we can say that “bad” here will mean bad in the eyes of people studying literature at the university level, and even if they don’t agree with each other, there is likely to be more agreement than there would be among the whole mass of the literature-consuming public. And we shouldn’t forget that the contest itself is a joke; it’s mostly about having a laugh, and no one should take it too seriously.

All of that being said, where do I stand on the question of opening sentences in general, and on the opener to Paul Clifford in particular? I admit that I’m not fond of the sentence. It’s 57 words long, which is lengthy, especially considering the relatively violent action that it is intended to portray; and the longer the sentence, the slower the pace. Rain falling in torrents is a cliche today, but maybe it was less so in 1830; I don’t know—many of Bulwer-Lytton’s turns of phrase have become cliches. For me the worst part is the implausibility of the action being described: we’re told that a torrential rain was falling, but that the torrents of rain were being checked by gusts of wind. In my observation, wind can change the direction of rainfall, but it can’t do anything to slow, stop, or delay the fall of rain. There might indeed be gaps between episodes of more violent rainfall, but these won’t be caused by the wind. So the scene as described does not accord with my own experience of weather. My impression is that the author is not interested enough in weather to bother about trying to report it accurately. To him, weather is just this stuff that happens outdoors—who knows how it works? Who cares? More than likely, the author was simply looking for a way to combine heavy rain with strong wind in his setting, and used the first word that came to mind.

the opening sentence of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel Paul Clifford

Well, and maybe it was.

Either way, whether through lack of comprehension or lack of care, the apparent difference between the narrator’s understanding of the world and my own creates a disconnect between us. How can I trust this person’s observations in what follows? He can’t even get the weather right. If I take the opening sentence as a hologram of the book as a whole, then I’m looking ahead to a work that is overlong, poorly observed, and carelessly constructed. Why press on, when there are so many other books in the world, some of which are good, and a few of which are excellent?

If it were my sentence, I think I would cut everything after the opening clause, and just keep

It was a dark and stormy night.

This sets the scene quickly and simply in seven words. The brevity makes for a brisk pace, and the narrator conveys a sense of wanting to get to the point and not waste the reader’s time. The sentence has become infamous so it’s hard to look at it with fresh eyes, but I think that if I had never seen it before, I would find it serviceable in a plainspoken way. I’d be willing to read the next sentence and see what was to follow.

I’m thinking of assessing the opening sentences of the books I read, using Bulwer-Lytton’s sentence as a benchmark. Will it stand as the zero of my scale, or might I find others that are worse, and which rate a negative score, as happened with the Fahrenheit temperature scale?

I’ve just started reading the novel Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card. Shall we see how his opening sentence compares with Bulwer-Lytton’s? Yes, I think we shall.

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like the shampoo bottle says: “repeat”

My life is both happiest and most productive when it is structured. I seem to need structure and routine to make the most of my time. On the one hand, this accords with the way the archetype of the Professor manifests, as portrayed by Cowden, LaFever, and Viders in their Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines. They note as one of his flaws that he is:

Inflexible: The Professor is set in his ways, and not enthusiastic at the prospect of change.

Reading through the eight male archetypes that the authors describe, there can be no doubt that the Professor is me (possibly mixed in with a bit of the Chief), and, true to form, I am set in my ways.

But, on the other hand, this is not necessarily (only) a flaw. For, as William James notes in his superb textbook The Principles of Psychology, in the chapter on Habit, we need habits in order to live:

There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.

Predictable can be beautiful.

Habit is the automating of our behavior, but this always has a positive purpose: to free our conscious minds to work on higher, subtler things than the process we have automated. This allows us to think while we walk, to converse while we eat, to read while we drink tea.

I don’t want to be using my mental processing power to make small decisions, like which t-shirt to put on (I always pull the next one in order out of my drawer), what to have for breakfast (raw oat flakes with raisins and organic milk—unless I have, as today, made a batch of my excellent granola), when to have breakfast (always right after my first writing block in the morning), or what to do in the afternoon of a weekday (lie down, meditate, read). For the kind of writing and reading that I do, my mind needs to be free. And that mental freedom rides, like a howdah on the back of an elephant, on a life of routine. This allows me to absorb, think, and create at the highest level I’m capable of.

I’ve read that Immanuel Kant was a man of such regular habits that people could set their watch by him. He too will have embodied the Professor archetype (don’t you think?). In order for his mind to be as busy as it was, he had to have a life of peace, order, and good government. Non-Professors might recoil at the idea of a life lived in such predictable lockstep, finding it little better than the treadmill Bill Murray endures in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. Was it for this that we were born?

For us Professors, yes it was. Right, Immanuel?

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reading the author and not just his reputation

I keep my reading list in a note on my iPhone. Whenever I come across a book I think I might want to read, I add it to the list. Most of the entries are nonfiction, and there are more of them than I could ever read. The most recent addition to my list was Putin’s People by Catherine Belton. I got this title off of Twitter a couple of days ago in a tweet posted by Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion and now a keen advocate of democracy and human rights. Thus does viral marketing work in the publishing world these days. It’s a new book, published just a month ago. Will I ever read it? I hope so, for I am interested in Russia and in the machinations of dictatorship. But my mind is in a ferment these days; so many things are clamoring for my attention that I doubt I will find time for works, ever very interesting ones, that don’t directly relate to my various projects.

Fiction is a different story. I add far fewer novels to my reading list, and so there is a good chance that I will read all that I do add, since I like to read fiction every day. As with the nonfiction books, the novels too come from various sources. I’m currently reading an 1842 novel called Zanoni by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a writer who has become notorious as the author of the opening sentence, “It was a dark and stormy night” (not the opening to Zanoni, though).

As mysterious as its protagonist.

How did this book make it onto my list? It was mentioned in one of the Rudolf Steiner books that I read last year as part of my new interest in Theosophy. Steiner mentions, I think in a footnote, that this novel presents a fairly accurate account of the relationship between an esoteric master and disciple. Thus does a fictional work fit in with my research aims of the moment; I’m killing a couple of birds with one stone. I was pleased to discover that the West Vancouver Memorial Library has a copy, so I put it on hold and picked it up three days ago.

My impressions so far? I’ve made it to page 82 of 540, and thus far I’m liking it more than I expected. Bulwer-Lytton’s reputation is so bad that I was ready for cloying, florid prose, but this I don’t think I’ve got. Here’s the opening of chapter 1:

At Naples, in the latter half of the last century, a worthy artist named Gaetano Pisani lived and flourished. He was a musician of great genius, but not of popular reputation; there was in all his compositions something capricious and fantastic which did not please the taste of the Dilettanti of Naples. He was fond of unfamiliar subjects into which he introduced airs and symphonies that excited a kind of terror in those who listened. . . .

I don’t reproduce the whole first paragraph, for it goes on for another 2 pages. But, speaking for myself, I found this opener engaging. The narrator starts right in talking about something specific and unusual; in addition, it relates to the fine arts, in this case music, which appeals to my own tastes. He is addressing an educated and cultured reader, and I am happy to be looked at in this way, and therefore I’m willing to extend him credit and more of my attention.

While I don’t find the prose especially cloying or florid, the writing is romantic and melodramatic. The heroine, Pisani’s daughter Viola, is preternaturally beautiful, gifted, and virtuous; the hero, Zanoni, is similarly handsome, suave, and impressive. But this tends to be true of all literature from the past. I have a book, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon, which contains the surviving long-form fiction from ancient Greece; these novels are populated by characters who are idealized and far from realistic. The notion of presenting characters who seem more natural and human seems to be a relatively recent thing that developed through the 19th century. So I can’t tax Bulwer-Lytton with a fault here; in this regard he was simply part of the literary mainstream.

Another thing I appreciate about Zanoni is that it is shaping up to be a novel of ideas. We’re at a time leading up to the French Revolution, and characters have strong feelings and opinions about the issues involved—as indeed the author himself appears to. As a reader, I like characters who care about ideas; I instinctively relate to such people as kindred spirits and enjoy spending time with them. The modern trend to present characters who are motivated only by money and sex, or by things which are barely more elevated, like patriotism or revenge, to say nothing of characters who are out-and-out sociopaths, makes for boring literature. I’m much more interested in seeing how characters who think deeply manage life’s difficulties.

So far the clash seems to be between a religious and a philosophical view of life—a clash that was already being satirized 100 years earlier by Henry Fielding in Tom Jones. With the benefit of hindsight, the narrator sees how people espousing high philosophical ideals will be transformed by the French Revolution into bloodthirsty monsters.

But is that what the main thrust of Zanoni is to be? I don’t know; it’s early days yet. But I’m willing to find out. The battered hardback from the West Van Library, which has seen so much action since it was printed in 1937, is engaging one more reader.

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The Plague then and now

My current novel is The Plague by Albert Camus, first published, in French, in 1947; I’m 14 pages from the end. It documents the arrival of plague in the Algerian coastal city of Oran (modern Wahran) sometime in the 1940s, and the lives of a few men who are closely involved in the unfolding epidemic. The novel is famous, and no doubt contributed strongly to its author’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, when he was 44 (Camus would die in a car crash in 1960).

Great cover art—and a catchy title.

I first read this book in, I’m pretty sure, 1977 (my Penguin Modern Classics edition is signed by me but not dated—a practice I took up in September 1978 when I started at university), when I was 18. I read it along with one or two friends as part of a mini-craze we went through about Existentialism, for Camus was closely connected with that philosophical movement. We had been introduced to Existentialism in grade 12 English class with the reading of The Outsider, an earlier novel by Camus, and were excited by the whole idea of having a philosophy—a considered intellectual stance to the world that could make sense of one’s experience and guide one’s actions. Arriving at the end of high school, we were at the threshold of proper adult life, and it seemed most appropriate that, as intelligent young men, we should have a philosophy as part of our equipment as newly fledged adults.

We all found The Plague to be funny and, I don’t know, manly. We were inspired by the understated, self-controlled heroism of the characters, especially the volunteer plague worker Tarrou. The incidental characters, like the severe old man who spits on the cats below his balcony and the bedridden asthma patient who cheerfully marks time by counting dried peas from one saucepan to another, we found hilarious. We read with attention, not wanting to miss anything, and I think we tried to take away lessons in how to live in a proper, manly way. We might talk about the book while eating cheap but excellent Chinese food in a steamy kitchen off an alley in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. Gosh, those were the days.

Okay, that was me at 18. Here I am at age 61, and am giving the book another go. My decision was triggered by reading an article in the latest issue of Philosophy Now magazine that looks at the novel in light of the current global pandemic of covid-19. There are, of course, parallels, and the recent experience of lockdown makes it easier to imagine and feel along with what the citizens of Oran go through in the novel, but I wouldn’t want to press the connection too far, in part because the literal level of the novel is not its key focus.

Right on the title page Camus has placed an epigraph taken from Robinson Crusoe:

It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not!

This struck me as odd and even mysterious. On the one hand it points directly to an allegorical or metaphorical reading of the work; on the other it seems to warn against putting too much weight on the parallel, since the two things being compared differ from each other in the biggest possible way, namely in whether they possess the important quality of existence. I must say, the epigraph works on me rather in the manner of a koan: a kind of mental mirage that exists somewhere between a profound truth, a paradox, and a joke. But at least it warns us not to be beguiled by a purely literal reading of the story, which indeed is narrated in a scrupulously factual way. And indeed, toward the end of the book, Tarrou acknowledges to the main character, Dr. Rieux (and here I should maybe make a spoiler alert—don’t read on unless you’ve read the book!), that to him the real plague of humanity, the one that he is always really fighting, is the plague of the human penchant to kill one another. Murder is the real plague.

I know that people have speculated about whether The Plague is really talking about the Nazi occupation of France (Camus was a member of the French Resistance), but to me there is no need to go beyond Tarrou’s declaration. Our collective love of murder is a bigger and more enduring plague than any given historical instance of oppression. Indeed, if we didn’t love murder, then presumably political oppression would not even exist, for murder is simply the end term, the strongest case of the urge to impose one’s will by force. Tarrou was galvanized in his view by witnessing the execution of a condemned man by firing squad—an act which he regards, significantly, as murder just as much as any so-called criminal act. For him, the sanction of law does not justify it in the least.

Religion plays a strong part in the novel, not least in the character and sermons of Father Paneloux, but also in Tarrou’s stated desire to strive for a secular sainthood. My thought is that if the real plague is murder, then we need to look at the biblical story of Cain and Abel, which tells how murder enters the world. Cain, envious of the favor shown to his brother by God, kills him. Interestingly, the issue is about whose offering God prefers: God prefers the meat offering of the shepherd Abel. God favors the gift that is the product of killing, so Cain kills Abel—he “sacrifices” him. The precedent of murder is established. Cain envies Abel, but I don’t think that’s why he kills him; I think that Cain is offended at the injustice of having his offering disrespected by God. Although it is Abel he kills, I think the act is really directed against God—he is striking back at his unjust master in the only way he can.

If the real plague is murder, this suggests that it is something external to us—a bacillus that enters us and works its mischief on us. It is not in our own nature. What might this bacillus be? Going back to the Bible, it’s presumably original sin: a corruption of human nature that entered when Eve and Adam ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Only then did murder become possible. The taint was passed on to their firstborn Cain and their other offspring, and thence to all of us. In this view it’s something more like a hereditary disease than a bacillus. But maybe the difference is not significant, since, as Dr. Rieux notes at the end of The Plague, “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good.” Either way, it’s ever present and ready to recrudesce at a time of its own choosing.

Christianity offers a cure for original sin, but the virulence of the plague shakes the faith of even Father Paneloux, and the other characters are mainly secular in their outlook. It’s as though they have inherited the grave problem of original sin but have lost access to the cure—not unlike Rieux’s difficulty in getting hold of plague serum early in the epidemic. Their world has become a quarantine camp, which is just another type of prison camp: corpses are heaped in lime pits—who will be next? And what was it all for?

When I was 18 I regarded Tarrou as a role model. While I still see him as an admirable character, I don’t feel that way now. He has some saintly characteristics, but even he knows that he falls short of being a true hero. Dr. Rieux is aware that his story lacks a hero; this, to me, might be the greatest tragedy of it, greater than that of the plague itself. Without a hero the Waste Land cannot be redeemed, and the corpses will keep piling up.

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Hellenistic Astrology by Chris Brennan: forward to the past!

Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and FortuneHellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune by Chris Brennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A searching and scholarly reconstruction of astrology as it was originally formulated and practiced in the ancient world, based on study of the surviving texts from the period.

This book, for me, was an eye opener. What it primarily opened my eyes to is how much astrology has advanced since the 1980s, which is when my own astrological education, such as it is, occurred. The author describes how the renaissance of interest in Hellenistic astrology arose slowly due to the gradual confluence of two different streams of scholarship: starting in the late 19th century, ancient astrological texts began to be translated by archaeologists who had come across documents in troves such as that at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. But these historical researchers had no special knowledge of astrology, and did not consult with astrologers, and it was not until later in the 20th century that practicing astrologers became aware of the translated material. A real reconnection with the ancient techniques began only in the 1980s. Many assumptions and beliefs about how the ancients practiced astrology have been overturned by the evidence of their actual writings, and now modern astrologers, such as Chris Brennan, have been experimenting with those techniques for years, and have found them, in many cases, to be surprisingly powerful.

This is a scholarly work. The bibliography runs to about 600 titles and the many footnotes are often concerned with minutiae about the translation of certain terms or academic controversies over subtle points. The first 6 chapters—about 165 pages—give a history of ancient astrology; the remaining 400-odd pages then detail the specific techniques used, examining them in great detail. Even though I am probably close to an ideal reader of this book—a practicing astrologer who also has a serious research interest in ancient astronomy and the astrology practiced in the Hellenistic period—I sometimes found the detail too much for me. I thought that chapter 11, for example, “The Issue of House Division,” would never end! The author carefully sifts and compares the sources, taking pains to be cautious and objective. This reader would have been ready to accept his authority and just read the upshot.

The author’s writing style also tends to slow one down. I get the impression that he’s not a natural-born writer, and is concerned about making his meaning clear. It leads to a lot of repetition and redundancy in the text. If this were cut out, the book would be at least 20% shorter, and proportionately more vigorous. But from a scholarship standpoint, caution and thoroughness were Mr. Brennan’s watchwords, and I don’t think he can be faulted here.

As for the actual content of the book: wow! Here I am, a practicing astrologer, and I’d never heard of concepts such as sect, that is, the quality of whether a birth chart is diurnal or nocturnal—whether the native was born during the day or night. To the ancients, this was a key difference, and many interpretive techniques hinged on which sect a given chart reflected. Different planets gained or lost power depending on the time of birth; there was a real sense of cosmic shift-change when day changed to night and vice versa. Born at about 11:30 p.m., I have a nocturnal chart; this means that my “sect light”—a kind of team lead—is the Moon. The most powerful “benefic,” or good-producing planet, is Venus, because it is the benefic “of the sect.” The most most powerful “malefic,” or bad-producing planet, is Saturn, the malefic which is “out of the sect”—it belongs to the diurnal sect, the Sun’s team.

Another revelation was that, for all the modern controversy about alternative systems of house division in a horoscope, the ancient system of choice was one I’d never heard of: what Brennan calls “whole-sign houses.” (Technically, the ancients did not generally use the word “houses”; their equivalent was “places,” Greek topoi.) The houses were simply equated with the signs. Thus, whatever sign the Ascendant was in at the moment of birth was also the 1st house, regardless of where in that sign the Ascendant actually fell, early or late. The following sign coincided with the 2nd house, and so on around the wheel. In my own chart, for instance, the Ascendant is at 17 degrees of Libra. In a modern, quadrant-based chart, this means that the first 16 degrees of Libra fall in my 12th house. But in a Hellenistic chart, my 1st house is now the whole sign of Libra, the part below the horizon as well as the part above. My 2nd house coincides with Scorpio, my 3rd house with Sagittarius, and so on. Naturally, this sometimes shifts planets into different houses. I’ll need to give that some careful study and thought.

Along the way, the author gives many examples, using mostly horoscopes of famous people, all cast in the Hellenistic style, using just the classical (naked-eye) planets with their respective classical rulerships. The examples are illuminating and thought provoking, and they help greatly to make the concepts clear.

The final part of the book is devoted to Hellenistic timing techniques: “annual profections” and “zodiacal releasing.” These also were new to me, and they appear to be potentially powerful. Indeed, Brennan thinks that zodiacal releasing, in particular, is so powerful that it may raise new ethical issues for astrologers! Maybe so, but we need to be cautious about the predictive powers of techniques when they are used on events that are already past; the possibility of confirmation bias is great here. It appears that Brennan has had good predictive success with the technique in his own astrological practice, but he perhaps can’t share too much about that for reasons of client privacy. I certainly intend to experiment with these techniques and see where they take me.

Brennan is modest about what he has been able to accomplish with Hellenistic Astrology, seeing his book as merely a first attempt to organize the flood of new information about astrology’s origins, but I think the book is a major achievement. The depth of research and the scholarly care with which it has been written make it a work of lasting academic value; and the fact that it was written by an astrologer for astrologers makes it invaluable as a how-to text for practitioners. If you’re an astrologer, this book needs to be in your library.

As for how to blend the Hellenistic techniques with more modern ones, that is a problem that it is up to the astrologers of today and tomorrow to work out. It appears that Brennan himself has gone fully Hellenistic, and uses these recovered ancient techniques exclusively in his own practice. And it may indeed be that the ancient methods cannot really be harmonized with later ones. Some of us may find ourselves needing to draw two separate wheels for each nativity, at least for a time.

But it’s a kind of luxury to have such a problem, for it means that astrologers now have much more information to work with. For whatever reason, lost knowledge of the deep past has come to light at this time, and Chris Brennan is a key figure in making that knowledge available to those whom it can benefit. Now it’s up to all of us to make of it what we can.

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finding another career for Charles Dickens

The word novelist is a generic one, comprising many and various species of writers before one gets down to the actual individual practitioners. For the kinds of book-length fiction fall along a wide spectrum. A natural way to categorize novelists is by genre, even as each genre itself usually allows of many subgenres. They could also be categorized by literary quality, popularity, volume of output, level of language, and many other ways. But recently I thought it would be interesting to consider the underlying profession or alternative occupation of each novelist.

What do I mean? Well, I myself am probably a philosopher. Even though I am writing fiction, my approach and my attitude, my concerns and my methods, even, are in many ways those of the philosopher. I’m interested in the idea content of fiction, of stories, and this concern informs my whole approach at every stage. I conceive of situations and action as being interesting due to the interplay or conflict of ideas. I am a philosopher-novelist: that is the species to which I belong within the genus novelist.

Who are some other members of this species? Some famous philosopher-novelists of the 20th century spring to mind, such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. As a young man I enjoyed the writing of both these authors, although I thought that Camus was a much better and more natural writer. I think the first thing I read by him was the short story “The Guest,” when I was a teenager. It’s a simple story but I found it absorbing; even in translation the prose was precise and telling at every step. It simmered with underlying conflict. I suppose I’m trying to say that although the author was an ideas man, a philosopher, he was still first and foremost a storyteller. He was a philosopher-novelist.

Others who might fit in that category are Leo Tolstoy, Hermann Hesse, and Ayn Rand.

What are some other “alternative occupations” held by novelists? A few that spring to mind: journalist, historian, society columnist, advocate, gossip, prima donna. What novel are you reading right now? What are the interests, strengths, and attitudes of the author? What alternative occupation might these suggest?

Charles Dickens, humorist and TV writer

“Have your people call my people.”

I’m reading The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, published in 1837—his first novel. So I’ve been thinking: what sort of a person writes a book like this?

The author is a humorist, for sure; his writing reads the way Victorian cartoons look, with their greatly exaggerated but also meticulously detailed figures. Is Dickens a cartoonist-novelist, then? Not exactly—at least, not a typical editorial cartoonist, for such a person usually has keen political interests. Dickens is interested in morality and in society. His humor tends to be situational rather than satirical, and his stories tend toward the episodic. He is also eager to show heartfelt emotional interactions between his characters. All of these things are putting me in mind of my own sometime medium of television. Could Dickens be a TV comedy writer-novelist?

I think that’s not a bad stab. It’s certainly not hard to imagine The Pickwick Papers as the Victorian equivalent of a situation comedy. Television didn’t exist in his day, but I have no doubt that Charles Dickens, an Aquarian, would have taken to it like a duck to water. He could easily have become the modern phenomenon of the writer-producer “show runner”: talented, prolific, and with a strong vision and a sure hand at creating characters, which he seemed to do without effort. He might be comparable to Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame, who has a Dickensian knack.

Yes, I think I’ve hit on it: Charles Dickens was a television writer-producer 150 years before his time.

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some thoughts in action

What do you believe in? What are the most deep and certain truths in your life? Do you know? Do you ever take an inventory of your beliefs, or try to be conscious of what exactly they are? I suppose if you did that you would definitely count as a philosopher. I’m not sure that I can say that I exactly inventory my beliefs, but I do think about them; and I think that I am a philosopher.

To infinity—and beyond!

Over the past year or so my mind has been opened to new vistas. I see the world differently, and things are still changing for me. It’s an exhilarating experience, and I don’t know where it will take me. I’m reminded of watching Star Trek long ago: the starship Enterprise was put into warp drive, and with a flash of distorted space and starlight it was gone, faster than light. My mind is the Enterprise, and I feel the warping effect of moving at high speed to I know not yet where.

I’m trying to remember how it started. What comes to mind is the book Journeys out of the Body by Robert A. Monroe, published in 1972. Monroe, an American businessman, set out in the late 1950s to document his ongoing out-of-body experiences, doing his best to take a systematic approach with the intention of creating a work of scientific value. I got the book in September 2017 as a research text for The Age of Pisces, for I had decided to include out-of-body action in my story and wanted to read some firsthand accounts. Monroe, over the course of his experiments, found that he visited three different realms or worlds while in his “astral” body: one was our familiar physical world, which he was able to fly over and through, and two others were worlds that had no physical counterpart that he was aware of. Unless Monroe was hallucinating the whole program, then his experience points to the existence of unseen realms, levels of reality, existing all around us and of which we are usually ignorant.

The door had been opened, and I stepped through. I was driven by a basic question: What’s going on? What is the actual nature of the world, of reality?

My researches have taken me from book to book, idea to idea. From Monroe I went to the work of Sylvan Muldoon, an earlier American subject of out-of-body experiences, who also tried to create a systematic account with his The Projection of the Astral Body. My paperback doesn’t give the original publication date, but in the text there is mention of correspondence between Muldoon and his collaborator Hereward Carrington in the 1920s. Muldoon gets into details of the experience, things like a close examination of the cord that connects the astral to the physical body (it is apparently infinitely elastic, and has a cablelike structure of many filaments wound together) and the specifics of how the astral body interacts with regular physical matter. I learned intriguing details such as that while some dogs can perceive astral forms, others cannot.

I had long before become persuaded that the mind, that is, the experiencing part of ourselves, is separable from the physical body. The accounts I read in Raymond Moody’s book Life After Life in 1986, about near-death experiences, convinced me, and indeed were a spur to resume my interrupted search for a path of Buddhist meditation. I soon found that path, and more or less forgot about the topic of astral travel. The Buddhist path, after all, emphasizes our relationship with our immediate experience, whatever that is, and furthermore denies the existence of an immortal soul—even as Buddhist cosmology acknowledges the existence of realms beyond the physical: the so-called fine-material or “form” realm, and beyond that the “formless” realm occupied by purely mental beings. According to Buddhism, all of these realms are full of beings, but they—we—all share the painful trait of being convinced of their own inherent, permanent existence.

After reading Monroe and Muldoon, I found my curiosity sharpened; I wanted to know more about the unseen realms. Who could tell me about them?

I found more books, ordered them, read them. A striking one was Discovery of Subtle Matter: A Short Introduction by the German chemist Klaus Volkamer, which I got in October 2018. Volkamer, a trained scientist, had arrived at his own views of subtle matter based on a long series of experiments he conducted on living things, including humans, using sensitive digital scales. He found that living things, in the process of dying, at some definite point give up the ghost: that is, they suddenly lose a quantum of mass even while inside a hermetically sealed jar. In the case of humans he didn’t measure them while they died, but rather while they slept. When we fall asleep we lose about 120 grams of mass; the weight returns when we awake. After controlling for every alternative, Volkamer concluded that when we sleep a subtle material body, one that has measurable mass, leaves our tangible body, and returns to it when we awake. It is subtle in the sense that it is not detectable by any means except by its mass—which makes it exactly like the “dark matter” of modern cosmology. According to current cosmological theory, our universe is largely composed of this invisible stuff; it is thought to constitute 85% of the mass of the universe.

Now on the scent, I tracked down more books, and felt that I’d hit the mother lode with the Theosophists: Rudolf Steiner, Charles Leadbeater, Arthur E. Powell, Annie Besant. The Theosophists of the 19th and early 20th centuries made detailed clairvoyant explorations of these very topics, and found a great wealth of information. Their researches revealed a great deal of structure in the unseen realms. The Theosophists, contra the Buddha, do assert the existence of an immortal soul or “Ego,” as they term it. But connected with the Ego are a number of different bodies or “vehicles,” of which our familiar physical body is merely one: the densest one. The other bodies are made out of matter of their own, but matter that is finer or subtler than the coarse matter we know. The physical world actually contains 7 subgrades of fineness: the 3 phases of solid, liquid, and gas, plus 4 more phases beyond those, which together constitute the “etheric” level of matter. Above the finest grade of etheric matter lies the astral realm, which has 7 sublevels of its own. And there are further levels above it.

Again I’ve run past my planned word count, and still haven’t got to where I’d hoped to get to! And where was that? Well, I suppose a kind of “belief position paper”: a sketch of where my beliefs are at right now. The 19th-century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) distinguished between what he called “thought in action” and “thought at rest”:

thought in action has for its only possible motive the attainment of thought at rest. . . .

“Thought in action” is thinking; “thought at rest” is belief. As for belief, Peirce thought that it has exactly 3 properties:

  • it is something that we are aware of
  • it appeases the irritation of doubt
  • it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit

For my part I’m not certain about the first of these, for I suspect that there are unconscious beliefs, or at least implicit ones. The other two strike me as being sound, though, and indeed connected, for it seems likely that the “irritation of doubt” arises just because we don’t know what to do in a given situation. We have no rule of action, so we hang in suspense. Time being precious, this is a painful condition.

Right, so what am I saying. My thoughts remain in action here. My beliefs feel less settled than they were, say, 3 years ago. But whatever doubts I may have had about the existence of an astral world that is coincident with our coarse physical one, and of other worlds beyond that as well, and beings of various kinds inhabiting these realms, are now much less; nay, I would say they are extinct. I believe in these things. But there is so much still to learn that I can’t describe my thoughts as being at rest at this stage. Oh no: they are as busy as they have been at any time in my life.

Maybe I could add a notion to Peirce’s ideas of thought in action and thought at rest: the notion of direction. For my thoughts are not merely moving; they are heading somewhere. The feeling of progress eases the irritation of doubt. For when we’re traveling toward a cherished destination, the feeling of approaching it is satisfying in itself.

Indeed, this might be the very best we can do. For are not all our beliefs temporary? Don’t they all fall sooner or later in the light of new knowledge? We might fight the realization like wildcats, but don’t we all keep discovering that the world is bigger and stranger than what we’d thought? I think we do.

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