Archive for the ‘Awareness’ category

Writing Lessons From The Walking Dead

June 12, 2022

There’s a lot of dark shit on television, and I’m not talking just about the news.

Many of us choose to entertain ourselves watching all manner of unpleasant fictional situations and people, many of them quite horrific. That’s curious to me, and yet I am in that group.

After I recently, for example, finished watching the penultimate season of the long-running TV series The Walking Dead, I cast about for another series that might be equally gripping on Canadian Netflix. It didn’t have to be a horror show. Ozark and Dark were two series that came highly recommended.

Ozark, a crime drama, began with the main character watching porn while he’s at work talking to customers. In Dark, more in the science fiction vein apparently, the series opens with some major characters treating each other poorly in the midst of sexual betrayal.

Give Me Characters I Can Admire

I realized that I didn’t want to spend even a few minutes with these people. Give me a character I can admire or at least respect, and I will go along with the show for a long time. (I did finally settle on Prison Break, where at least the lead character is trying to save his innocent brother from execution. Lots of dark events in that show too, though.)

There’s the first lesson about writing before I even get to The Walking Dead. Give the reader characters he or she can feel sympathy or respect for.

walking_dead_poster-296458221

I’m not a horror movie buff nor one normally interested in zombies or other such boogeymen. I’ve even written about my bemusement at the entire notion of zombies (see Why Zombies?).

Yet I have found The Walking Dead (TWD), an apocalyptic story about zombies and a few survivors, utterly compelling.

It’s definitely not a show for the squeamish. Its depiction of zombies in all their mutilated and tattered glory, the necessity of killing them for keeps by piercing their nasty-looking skulls, the slavering gore of their successful attacks upon the living… well, at times the show overdoes it. But it does put into high relief the dire straits the survivors find themselves in.

The premise, for those few who haven’t encountered the show, is that a worldwide apocalypse of zombie infection has destroyed civilization. The zombies, known as ‘walkers’ to the core group of survivors we become invested in, shuffle around looking for fresh meat. Easily dispatched singly, as they become attracted by noise and commotion, hordes of them show up, and you really want to have an exit plan. An added dimension to the terror for the characters is that anyone who dies for any reason automatically becomes a zombie too, and must be put out of their misery before they take a bite out of the living.

Intensity

This was the popular television series in the early 2010s before Game of Thrones came into full prominence. It has been discussed a lot. People become very involved with the ensemble cast of characters, as I have been. The unpredictable and usually awful deaths of the occasional major character somehow adds to the involvement, a mechanism the Game of Thrones also utilized. And the show is still going on, with the final season to be completed this year.

The writing, the production, the actors have uncannily combined to launch the viewer into a world where everything is broken. With the rise of nasty living villains in the chaos, the characters are often forced to decide whether keeping alive will still allow them their humanity and a sense of hope. It’s a believable world, once you accept the admittedly way-out-there premise of zombies.

I don’t want so much to explore individual characters and the meaning they have for the plot. What fascinates me is how compelling the characters are made to be. What is the craft behind this, from the very talented bunch of writers? (I will tend to speak of this from the point of view of readers, rather than saying ‘viewers’ always but it is the same thing usually.)

High Stakes

One part of this are the stakes. A zombie apocalypse allows the writers to heighten this factor, but even if we write about less extreme situations, there is a lesson. Make the stakes crucial for the characters, and they become so by extension for the reader.

By stakes, I mean obstacles to overcome that matter. If they aren’t overcome, then somebody will die or lose love forever or life’s meaning will flee. High stakes mean reader involvement with the characters, and that is a lot of what makes TWD so enthralling. We care about what happens to these people.

The ensemble nature of the characters is also important. People react so differently to the same stresses and events. To make the situation come alive for the reader, we need to see a variety of characters, acting well and badly, and ideally in conflict, on many different levels, with each other.

Some of the people lose their sanity, some become stronger, others give up. In these dire situations, the reader or viewer is constantly, without necessarily realizing it, asking themselves: What would I do in these circumstances? If you can get this to happen in the mind of the reader, than you are well along the road of success for your story.

Suffering

Tied to the matter of stakes is that of suffering. Although we may be gentle souls in our daily life, if we want to tell an involving story, we must make our characters suffer. The type of suffering can be psychologically nuanced or physically damaging, but it must be there. And the suffering, to be successful in delineating the character, cannot be merely the occasional conflicts that the plot might logically throw up now and again. No, the suffering must be great, and tailored to the stakes and the fibre of that particular character. Craft books recommend devising severe specific trouble that puts the character’s future and desires at ultimate risk. This can be tough to do.

To briefly return to Prison Break, this is done with great skill for the main character striving to escape from prison with his brother. Time after time, the worst possible turn of events arises to challenge him, and the writers fearlessly put him through that, and somehow find a way forward for him and the story.

In The Walking Dead this is also skillfully done, but often on a larger scale for the community of survivors led by the former sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes. Whenever they find themselves almost secure for a time, then the next terrible turn of events can be expected to arrive. We become entrained with the survivors as they singly and together strive to meet the disasters that befall them. They don’t always succeed, and that too is a lesson for the would-be story writer.

Community

Commentators on TWD have often noted that, in the show and probably real life, communities are the source of survival after the apocalypse. In these circumstances of murderous fellow survivors and implacable blood-thirsty zombies, it is clear that rugged individualists will not last long. You can only survive in a group, and that group needs a direction after the most basic survival needs are met.

Eventually Rick’s group aspires to a re-kindling of civilization, in the midst of more vicious collections of people only aspiring to dominate each other or to create a cult around some strong, sick personality.

The reality of the need for community, and the other assemblages of people also fighting off the zombies, provides another layer of interaction and conflict in the background world going through its cycles, while in the foreground we live through what Rick’s community has to deal with. In James Bonnet’s book about writing, Stealing Fire from the Gods, he says:

“The study of the Golden Paradigm is the study of the structures, dimensions, and dynamics of this larger, whole story (frame or backstory) while the study of the story focus is the study of the structures, dimensions, and dynamics of the smaller, foreground story itself. … A single value has been isolated and is being examined in great detail which adds enormous clarity, meaning and power to the story and makes this value an important unifying force.”

He also goes on to say about the parallels between community and individual:

“Because the human group shares these similarities in organization and function with the human psyche, the human group is an excellent metaphor for the human psyche. You can see this important pattern operating in many great stories and successful films.”

So in Rick’s group we find characters embodying different functions, of cowardice, fear, boldness, loyalty, caring, ruthlessness and so on.

And as writer Tonya Thompson says in a post about TWD, audiences respond to weak characters becoming strong. For instance, in Rick’s motley crew of survivors, Carol early in the series is a submissive, abused housewife, who eventually grows into one of the show’s strongest and most complex characters.

A Moral Dimension

There is a moral dimension to TWD highlighted by the depraved actions of some of its humans, who can be far more wicked than the mindless zombies. This is especially notable in the darkness of some of the later seasons’ episodes, where any shred of kindness and compassion is proclaimed and shown to be weakness. The characters of Rick’s community must struggle with this, as do we all in lesser or greater ways. But in the end (as of season 10), most want to live by values that allow them to work towards a better life for their children and their community.

I would argue that The Walking Dead, at its best, takes on the virtues of real art. In novelist John Gardner’s book, On Moral Fiction, he writes:

“True art is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values. … Moral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.”

The show definitely does that.


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Three Books for the Writer Self – 3) Ensouling Language

February 6, 2022

It was feeling that brought you to writing, you know. Something in the books you read touched you, something in you wants to create writing that will touch others similarly, some deep feeling has driven you on.
— Stephen Harrod Buhner

A couple of the more popular posts on this site are the two I wrote way back in 2007 about Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler’s book of lectures on fiction writing, From Where You Dream. Butler is adamant that real writing, true writing can only come from the unconscious, from our intuition and our capacity to “induce” a writerly “trance.” This seems to mean making line to line contact with sensual imagery which makes up the voice of the unconscious and of your fictional characters.

And although he describes some of the ways that he uses to get to that place where the truth of what you are writing wells up, I’ve always been left with questions about that process. Oh, I’ve come up with my own haphazard ways of trying to get at that for writing of novels. But I’m always on the lookout, as many other writers must also be, for a clearer way of understanding how to do that.

In the third of this series about books that the writer self can plumb for meaning, Stephen Harrod Buhner provides that clarity, in Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life (Inner Traditions, 2010).

Buhner has written a wide range of non-fiction books on plants, herbalism and environmental philosophy, including The Lost Language of Plants, a BBC Environmental Book of the Year. This explains the reference to nonfiction in the subtitle, and he does include sections about that. However all kinds of writing come within his scope.

My primary interest, as an unpublished novelist of course, is fiction, and much of what he says about writing hits home there just as much.

A Current of Feeling

There is a current of feeling within us which often willy-nilly determines the direction of our lives, and, often unrecognized, is the core of ourselves. Part of it is a faculty of feeling which is capable of perceiving extreme subtleties, a kind of perception we are not used to developing or putting into words.

Buhner writes: “One of the tasks that lies before us as writers is this reclamation of ourselves, this ecological restoration of our interior world, this restoration of our capacity to feel.”

People use the word “feeling” to mean different things. Buhner wants to focus not so much on emotional perception, although that can be a result, but on what he calls environmental perception.

He calls it a non-physical form of kinesthetic touching. A physical form would be touching a hot stove; a non-physical form would be the sensation of coming home to an empty house. “How does it feel?” That is his repeated catchphrase for taking in the world, and people, around us.

“It is your passions and your deep feelings that are the key to your writing ensouled communication, to inhabited language. As Garcia Lorca put it, you ‘must awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood.’ This can only occur if you reclaim your capacity to feel deeply and keenly.”

Duende

‘Duende’ means those unusual moments, big or small, when something is deeply recognized and makes one tremble. Buhner goes to considerable lengths to try to give the quality of this experience. He quotes the poet Robert Bly about a long floating leap at the heart of the most moving work, “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.”

It is one thing to describe these leaps, and another to do them. Sorry to say, I am not always a-tremble with the ecstasy of life, able to delve at will into the well of the unconscious. I wish I was more often.

Fortunately, Buhner takes up the challenge of trying to tell us what the process of feeling deeply through our writing could be. He calls it following the “golden threads,” a term he borrows from William Blake.

Taking hold of a golden thread means to be attentive in our feeling to any meaning we may encounter, and focus on it entirely so that we may follow where it goes. This is what happens with writing capable of catching the heart of the reader. This can be a very delicate and tentative pursuit, easily fumbled, so we must bring our complete focus.

A Golden Thread

Buhner explains: “To the alert person, a golden thread may emerge from any ordinary thing and open a doorway into the imaginal, and through it, the mythic. Because no one can know when or where or from what it will emerge, the writer remains attentive to everything that is encountered, always paying close attention to how everything, even the tiniest little thing, feels.”

Stephen Harrod Buhner

He goes on: “You can begin to follow it then, if you wish, by simply writing down, as concretely as you can what you are experiencing, what you are feeling, what you are seeing, hearing, sensing. Bly describes this, brilliantly, as ‘following the tiny impulses through the meadow of language.’ It must be done slowly. Carefully. Feeling your way. Tiny movement by tiny movement. It is the feeling equivalent of catching the hint of an elusive scent. … You write a line, perhaps several, then you stop and begin to compare what you have written to the feeling that has demanded your attention.”

He provides some simple exercises to illustrate and develop this, and he takes it to the point of asking “How does it feel” of even inanimate objects, which I found particularly interesting. To me, the book is worth it just for this discussion of “golden threads” which is considerably more detailed than what I’m able to recount here.

But think of poetry which is particularly meaningful to you. Poetry is the most concentrated form of this way of approaching writing. As an example, he quotes the following from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

It is good knowing that glasses
are to drink from;
the bad thing


is to not know what thirst is for.

This is a duende, a long floating leap, as Buhner says: “The long trembling moment, and then the silence.”

Buhner writes:

“Mostly we feel only what we have been taught to feel, not what we truly feel. With the attentive noticing of the soul, we step away from our programming and what we think we know. We feel something and then we stop and genuinely look, identifying what has caught our attention. Then we begin to really see it, noticing whatever it is as if for the first time. The senses begin to bring us tidings of invisible things, all of them filled with meaning.”

He is careful to point out that these experiences are not only for those of us who write and feel compelled to describe our experience, but for all who want to live an “inhabited life.”

I would encourage anyone who is interested in these matters to read Buhner’s book, whether or not you accept all that he says. The essence of it is inspiring. And there is much more to it than I have recounted here, especially in a large section called “Dreaming and the Journey to the Imaginal.”

In conclusion, I keep returning to a quote attributed to the poet Paul Eluard. It’s one you take in with intuitive feeling right away, and then you’re not sure whether it makes any sense, and then you realize that maybe it does, and your mind makes that leap back and forth:

“There is another world but it is this one.”

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Notes

This is the last book considered in a series of posts:

Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

Three Books for the Writer Self – 1) The Soul’s Code

Three Books for the Writer Self – 2) The Winged Life

Three Books for the Writer Self – 2) The Winged Life

January 17, 2022

In the second book of this series of posts, we have The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau, by poet and rogue shaman Robert Bly, published in 1992 (HarperPerennial).

It is especially fitting to discuss this book now since Bly died just last November in his nineties after sadly being afflicted with dementia.

Reading several of Bly’s obituaries, I realized more fully how influential he became as an American poet. And not just a poet. He was famously opposed to the Vietnam War. And after his 1990 book Iron John: A Book About Men (which called, the New York Times obit notes, for “a restoration of primal male audacity”), he was catapulted to cultural prominence.

As Tony Hoagland writes in his 2011 essay about Bly: “From that time on, Bly’s true companions would largely not be other American poets, but cultural thinkers.”

It makes sense that Bly would write this commentary on Thoreau, for he had many of the same values and ways of seeing that moved both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau. Bly continued the tradition, if we may call it that, of the Transcendentalists, of not needing any intermediary for spiritual insight.

The structure of the book consists primarily of five parts, each one introduced with a commentary by Bly and followed by excerpts from the variety of Thoreau’s writing. (The wonderful woodcuts by Michael McCurdy add greatly to the contemplative tone of the book.)

“Part One – The Bug in the Table” sets the stage for this series of meditations on who Thoreau was as a man, and how he perceived himself and the world around him in those times of the 1840s. How different the world was then! Yet Bly lets us see how relevant much of what concerned the man of Concord still is today.

Transparent Eyeball

As noted in the introductory post, Bly highlights, at the very beginning, these sentences by Thoreau’s friend and mentor, Emerson:

“Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball.” This book is an exploration of how this kind of experience pervades Thoreau’s life. Nature is the inspiration of his entire outlook.

In Bly’s words now: “Many young men and women want to marry nature for vision, not possession. …The soul truth assures the young man or woman … that in human growth the road of development goes through nature, not around it.”

He excerpts from Thoreau’s Walden the story of “the strange and beautiful bug” which came out from an old table made from apple-tree wood, which had been in a farmer’s kitchen for a lifetime, but its egg must have been deposited in the original tree while it still existed. It was heard gnawing its way out of the table for some time, no doubt awakened by the heat of an urn or other contrivance.

Thoreau says: “Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society… may unexpectedly come forth….”

Bly comments: “This is a marvelous tale…. The story suggests that there is an unhatched abundance inside us that we ourselves have not prepared. Our psyche at birth was not a schoolchild’s slate with nothing written on it, but rather an apple-wood table full of eggs. We receive at birth the residual remains of a billion lives before us.”

In this Part One there are nineteen texts, comprised of poems, Journal passages and excerpts from Walden. This organization is similar in each of the following Parts.

Thoreau was remarkable for his rambles, his long walks in the woods almost every day. As one other selection of his writing from this Part puts it:

“I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they really are, grand and beautiful. I have told many that I walk every day about half the daylight, but I think they do not believe it. … It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him.”

So As Not to Live Meanly

Part Two is called “The Habit of Living Meanly.” In Bly’s commentary, he notes that Thoreau observed how many of the people around him took on that habit. Living meanly to Thoreau meant living without sincerity, living to other’s standards, living like a kind of human ant occupied with small burdens. “The ancient metaphor for living meanly is sleep,” Bly says.

Thoreau sought a deeper life, which to every person must be at least partially different. Bly remembers that the first sentence of Thoreau’s that he ever memorized was:

“Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.”

Thoreau feels grief for the life wasted about him. In that famous quote from Walden given here:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.”

Part Three is entitled “Going the Long Way Round.” As Bly says, Thoreau’s major life decision was his resolution to live what he understood to be a sincere life. “Thoreau wanted greatness, and he wanted to live greatly, but most of all he wanted not to live meanly.”

The Importance of Moratoriums

The young Thoreau insisted on taking a moratorium, a pause in the designs of the world upon him. Bly says, “I feel that Thoreau’s declaration of the need for a moratorium is his greatest gift to the young.”

In Thoreau’s case his moratorium, in the years before he published Walden, may have gone on too long. He resigned himself to not being at home in either male or female company.

Thoreau wrote in his journal: “By my intimacy with nature I find myself withdrawn from man. My interest in the sun and the moon, in the morning and the evening, compels me to solitude.”

His pursuit of solitude is further illustrated by one of his Journal entries: “By poverty, i.e. simplicity of life and fewness of incidents, I am solidified and crystallized, as a vapor or liquid by cold. It is a singular concentration of strength and energy and flavor.”

In Part Four, “Seeing What is Before Us,” Bly momentarily revisits Emerson for his description of what it was like to walk with Thoreau: “It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it by paths of his own.” Emerson recounts how detailed and patient Thoreau was in his observations of nature, taking with him an old book to flatten flowers in, a diary and pencil, a spy-glass for birds, a hand-held microscope, a jackknife and twine. Thoreau knew to the day when each type of wildflower would bloom.

Faculties of the Soul

Thoreau read widely, everything from Eastern spiritual books to Goethe and Schelling. These perspectives informed his detailed descriptions of the nature around him. He seemed to take to heart Coleridge’s advice that “each object rightly seen unlocks a new faculty of the Soul.” Thoreau asserted in his Journal, against our separation from nature, that “I am made to love the pond and the meadow….”

At the end of this section, after a brief discussion of Thoreau’s ability to also know darkness, Bly writes: “We feel in Thoreau’s life the presence of a fierce and long-lived discipline, and one reward of that discipline was his grasp of the wildness in nature.”

Walden Pond

In the final Part Five, “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World,” Bly notes that Thoreau was certain that the civilizations of Greece, Rome and England have been sustained by the primitive forests that surround them, and “that these same nations have died and will end when the forests end.”

Bly suggests that Thoreau was one of the first writers in America to accept the ancient idea that nature is not a fallen world, but instead a veil for the divine world.

Refreshed by Nature

In Thoreau’s words:

“We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”

Bly concludes his book with an insightful brief biography of Thoreau, who died in his forty-fourth year of tuberculosis.

Bly does a good job of presenting the man to us. Thoreau had his greatness, and his limitations — there is much more depth in Bly’s examination then I am able to touch on here. But what might we take from all this?

It would be wise, I think, for us as writers, and as human beings, to take long walks in wild places. And pay attention to what we see and feel. There is no good substitute.

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Notes

This is the second book considered in this series of posts after:

Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

Three Books for the Writer Self – 1) The Soul’s Code

For my own encounters with Thoreau and Emerson, there are the posts A Walk With Hank, and Chant the Beauty of the Good.

Three Books for the Writer Self – 1) The Soul’s Code

December 31, 2021

Meaning is invisible, but the invisible is not contradictory of the visible:
the visible itself has an invisible inner framework, and the invisible is
the secret counterpart of the visible.

—M. Merleau-Ponty, Working Notes

The full name of the book The Soul’s Code by famed depth psychologist James Hillman is The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. It might simply have been called The Acorn. The reason will become more obvious as we go on.

But first I want to refer to an image this book arouses, which it nowhere mentions: the medicine bag.

I like the Wikipedia definition, which is all that online resource says about it: “A medicine bag is usually a small pouch, worn by some Indigenous peoples of the Americas, that contains sacred items. A personal medicine bag may contain objects that symbolize personal well-being and tribal identity. Traditionally, medicine bags are worn under the clothing. Their contents are private, and often of a personal and religious nature.”

My medicine bag, so to speak, is not worn under my clothes, but lined up on the edge of the desktop computer case near where I write. I won’t go into the intricate details and significance of all the little items arrayed there, but I will mention a couple so as to illustrate what this image means to me.

The first is a brass-cased compass which belonged to my father. It looks like a small pocket watch, with the stem acting as a clasp release for the cover. On the outside of that cover is inscribed “C.S. Bristol” for my father Charles Stephen. It must have been given to him as a gift some time in his younger life.

The compass rose

Opened, the compass rose and the shivering needle are quite pleasant to look at. A compass can be, to me especially as a former surveyor, quite a symbolic object. And it connects me to my father, whom I never really knew, as a reminder of that mystery and all the metaphorical directions our lives have taken.

The second is a simple acorn, nicely formed, which I picked out of the dirt in a neglected street area under small oak trees. (This was long before I read Hillman’s book.)

I like to hold it, weigh it in my hand, and think about its invisible power – its potential to grow into a mighty oak.

And that brings us back to Hillman and his book. The Merleau-Ponty quote above comes from what Hillman calls “Epigraphs in Lieu of a Preface.”

The very first chapter is entitled “In a Nutshell: The Acorn Theory and the Redemption of Psychology.” As someone who took on a degree in psychology in my university years, I may be more sensitive than some about the extent to which Hillman proposes overturning accepted knowledge, and cultural assumptions, about the nature of our beings.

My interest in this book took on two aspects. The first was the possibility of better insight into creating characters for the novels I’m writing. I’ve been disappointed in many of the formulations in writing craft books about that. The second snuck up on me, and became equal and maybe more than the first: what patterns can I discern, make sense of, in my own life at 70 years of age.

An innate image

To put it most succinctly, what Hillman claims is this: We have within us an “innate image.”

“That innate image can’t be found, however, until we have a psychological theory that grants primary psychological reality to the call of fate.”

He says that otherwise we are robbed of our true biography, the destiny written into our acorn.

Of course this raises many questions and objections, and we can take a look below at how Hillman meets some of them.

James Hillman

But one feature of this perspective that rings true off the top is:

“Today’s main paradigm for understanding a human life, the interplay of genetics and environment, omits something essential—the particularity you feel to be you. … The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim.”

To summarize in Hillman’s words:

“This book is about calling, about fate, about character, about innate image. Together they make up the ‘acorn theory,’ which holds that each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.”

Hillman traces this idea back to Plato and Plotinus. The Romans spoke of one’s genius, the Greeks, of the daimon.

Where did that genius go, anyway?

Until the late 1800s anyway, this kind of understanding was active in what would eventually become our own culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson often wrote of a person’s genius, as in:

“Ah, that our Genius were a little more of a genius! A man must thank his defects and stand in some terror of his talents.”

But this whole notion, even of a soul, has fallen into disfavour in psychology and philosophy. When, outside of religious institutions where old words are mouthed, does the concept “soul” come up seriously any more?

As Hillman notes:

“The concept of this individualized soul-image has a long, complicated history; its appearance in cultures is diverse and widespread and the names for it are legion. Only our contemporary psychology and psychiatry omit it from their textbooks.”

It is sobering to consider how much of our lives are invisible. Our relationships constantly cope with the unseen realities of the other. Everything that matters, really, is embedded in the invisible: the interaction between people creating music, the force that brings out the new green in the spring, the internal fountain out of which come our dreams, the space between the feeling and the word written.

But in our culture, the invisibles tend to be marginalized and overlooked.

Hillman’s claim is that this idea of our fate as acorn, as inborn pattern, is a kind of myth, which like all myths, rests in these invisibles.

Embedded in a mythical reality

“The acorn is not embedded in me, like a pacemaker in my heart, but rather I am embedded in a mythical reality of which the acorn is but my particular and very small portion.”

Hillman argues for an essence beyond either nature or nurture, these categories which are the comfortable habit of our minds, of how we’ve been taught. Anything else in our mechanistic world view is just about inconceivable.

“The remarkable singularity of individuals, the differences among the billions of persons, even between newborn babies, siblings, identical twins, as well as those raised in the same circumstances and subject to the same influences—these facts ask for answers to the question of uniqueness.”

He discusses in considerable detail the limitations of nature and nurture, and what else there might be. But this is the gist of it.

He gives many examples of extraordinary people whose unique acorn developed into greatness. For one, he gives the example of the philosopher John Stuart Mill. He never attended school. Educated at home by his father, he began learning Greek at three and Latin at eight, and by fourteen had read most of the major ancient texts in the original.

As another, he describes the case of journalist Dorothy Thompson from the early part of the 1900s.

The juvenile Thompson, after slapping her sister, was locked by her minister father in a closet and forced eventually to memorize great chunks of literature, including the sonnets of Shakespeare, entire chapters of the Bible, much of Wordsworth’s Leaves of Grass, and the entire U.S. Constitution.

How Hillman describes this gives a good sense of his outlook. His view is that the acorn develops in its idiosyncratic way as a result of the conflicts and imposed limitations of the family and a person’s environment, and is not caused by them.

“The kind of punishment, though decreed by her father and decidedly cruel and unusual by today’s educational standards, seems to have been chosen by her own protective daimon, who had, of course, anyway selected that particularly literary father. The memorizing of texts fit the pattern of her life of writing….”

The parental fallacy

He particularly dissects what he calls the “parental fallacy” as the source of blame for our psychological conflicts, reactions and churnings.

“The parental fallacy, with all its accompanying jargon about bad double-binding mothers or seductive smothering mothers, and also about absent or possessive and punitive fathers, so rules the explanations of eminence that its jargon determines the way we tell the stories of our own lives.”

He asks, “What is the connection, if any, between the parental imagination—by “parent” I always mean the immediate, intimate caretaker of a child—and the child’s acorn? How do the parents imagine the child?”

He claims that the child’s acorn needs the parents’ fantasy about who they are and will become, if only to form itself by reacting against it.

“The family fantasy that has a child typed and pinned and wriggling on the wall forces fateful choices on the heart, choices to find another kind of fantasy, anywhere.”

Ok, so how bound by this “acorn” are we? We naturally resent anything that seeks to bind us, and this idea of a fated pattern for our life seems to do so.

Hillman quotes Plotinus:

“But if the soul chooses its daimon and chooses its life, how have we still any power of decision?”

How fatalistic should we be?

But Hillman’s idea of fate does not require the ideology of fatalism.

“So it is better to imagine fate as a momentary ‘intervening variable.’ The Germans use the term Augenblicksgott for a minor divinity that passes in the blink of an eye and has a momentary effect. The religious might speak of an intercessionary angel. Rather than a constant companion who walks with you and talks with you and holds your hand through all the crises of the day, fate intervenes at odd and unexpected junctions, gives a sly wink or big shove.”

Later, he says:

“The acorn acts less as a personal guide with a sure long-term direction than as a moving style, an inner dynamic that gives the feeling of purpose to occasions. You get the feeling of importance: This supposedly trivial moment is significant, while this supposedly major event doesn’t matter that much.”

The Bad Seed

Hillman devotes an entire chapter to “The Bad Seed,” when the daimonic turns demonic. This is shorthand for the pathologies of some people, ranging from serial killers to those figures who incite whole populations to evil. He spends a lot of time examining Hitler, and reflecting on the nature of that man’s disastrous genius.

Character is fate. Hillman notes the facets of Hitler’s character that helped lead to his rise: a cold heart, a fascination with the destructive nature of fire (think of night marches with fiery torches), identification with wolf symbology, anality (for one, constantly giving himself enemas), attraction to self-destructive women (six of whom either attempted or successfully committed suicide), attraction to freaks (the misshapen, the disfigured and the abnormal), and a complete lack of a sense of humour.

And then, absolute certainty and utter conviction.

Hillman asks the important question: If Hitler monstrously exemplifies the Bad Seed, could future Hitlers be prevented?

“Without a profound sense of psychopathy and a strong conviction that the demonic is always among us—and not only in its extreme criminal forms—we hide in denial and wide-eyed innocence, that openness which also opens wide the gate to the worst.”

His remedy:

“So thwarting the Bad Seed begins with a theory that gives it full recognition. That’s what this chapter, this book, is all about. So long as our theories deny the daimon as instigator of human personality, and instead insist upon brain construction, societal conditions, behavioral mechanisms, genetic endowment, the daimon will not go gently into obscurity. It drives toward the light; it will be seen; it asks for its place in the sun.”

A call to mediocrity

Hillman also examines mediocrity, a subject which brings a lot of his book closer to my ken, and my reality.

“Let’s first acknowledge that snobbish prejudices are packed into the term ‘mediocre.'” But to Hillman, no soul is mediocre, rightly understood.

“Many are called, few are chosen; many have talent, few have the character that can realize the talent. Character is the mystery, and it is individual.” He cites the interviews of Studs Terkel, who found uniqueness in those likely deemed among the mediocre and common by society.

Is there a call to mediocrity? Hillman gives four possible answers: 1) No, only stars have angels, 2) Yes, most of us have missed our true magnificent calling due to outside influences blocking us, 3) Yes, the acorn developed into a corn on our feet, a sore point: one has stumbled around, never quite finding the true path. But:

4) “For many the call is to keep the light under a bushel, to be in service to the middle way, to join the rank-and-file. It is the call to human harmony. It refuses to identify individuality with eccentricity. The calling stays through life and guides it in subtle ways and into less dramatic forms than we witness in exemplary figures such as those presented in this book. All are called; never mind the chosen few.”

Hillman is most interested in this fourth way of looking at this question. “Character forms a life regardless of how obscurely that life is lived and how little light falls on it from the stars.”

He goes on: “Calling becomes a calling to life, rather than imagined in conflict with life. Calling to honesty rather than to success, to caring and mating, to service and struggle for the sake of living. This view …offers another idea of calling altogether, in which life is the work.”

Lightly touched

I’ve lightly touched on some of the thought-provoking ideas provided in this book. It certainly challenges our normal view of the nature of people and ourselves. Some of what Hillman says I struggle with, but it all bears reflection. I think that sometimes even he is not quite sure how to best articulate his vision of the acorn.

On the two matters that brought me to this book in the first place, I found it fruitful.

For thinking about deep characterization in novel writing, his viewpoint allows for thinking about the characters I devise in ways well beyond the superficial. I need to show about them what they love, what they’ve lost, what they fear, and what their calling may be, even unknown to themselves.

For myself, examining the pattern of my own life, I come to no firm conclusion, but to reflect upon it may be this book’s main gift to me. I feel called to write, in the forms I can manage. That’s all I can say.

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Note: This is the first of three posts following Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction.

Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

November 21, 2021

The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, by James Hillman, Ballantine Books, 1996
The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau, by Robert Bly, Sierra Club Books, 1986, republished by Harper Collins, 1992
Ensouling Language: On the Art of Non-Fiction and the Writer’s Life, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, Inner Traditions, 2010
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I often have the sense that the part of me that struggles with writing is a self different than the everyday one that goes grocery shopping or the self that tries to charm my wife.  (This latter effort usually fails and all my selves, and hers, have a good laugh about it.)

I think of that crazy man and mystic G.I. Gurdjieff in this connection.  Gurdjieff, of Armenian and Greek descent, was born in what was Russia at the time.  He became a philosopher, a mystic, a composer, and a wanderer both geographical and spiritual.   As a spiritual teacher, he used methods including shock, music, dance, and hard labor to induce self-confrontation in his followers.  Although he died just after WWII, his writings and students continued to have influence.  There’s an interesting article from 1979 worth looking at in The New York Times upon the occasion of a preview of the feature film Meetings with Remarkable Men, about his life.  It gives the flavor of the man and his teachings.

Here is a relevant quote from Gurdjieff:

“One of man’s most important mistakes, one which must be remembered, is his illusion in regard to his I. … Try to understand that what you usually call ‘I’ is not I; there are many ‘I’s’ and each ‘I’ has a different wish.”

The writer Buster Benson makes a similar observation.  “We are better understood as a collection of minds in a single body rather than having one mind per body.”

(If you want to explore even more down this weird road, into one of the odder varieties of human consciousness, check out the “tulpamancers” described in an article in the journal Narratively.)

So to return to Gurdjieff’s formulation, the wish of my writing self is to conjure with words the closest, truest representations of the world and my experience of it that I can manage.  This is something I inarticulately feel strongly I have to attempt.  The act of trying to do so sets it apart from the rest of my selves, and it becomes a kind of identity.

These three books, each in its own way, have made this aspect of me sit up and take notice. I intend to write a post – part reflection, part review – on each of them after this introduction.

The first, The Soul’s Code by James Hillman, is a book I often came across, years ago, browsing in bookshops, but never really felt attracted to until recently.  Hillman, who died in 2011, was lauded as the most important American psychologist since William James

Deeply influenced by the psychology of Carl Jung, he went beyond it in incisive ways.  He founded a movement called archetypal psychology which, as others have pointed out, would be more accurately described as imaginal psychology, due to the importance he places on the imagination in the formation of our human reality.  His ideas are actually quite subversive to the usual run of thinking about our place in the world.  In The Soul’s Code, he proclaims the primacy in our lives of the “acorn” — all people already hold the potential for the unique possibilities inside themselves, much as an acorn holds the pattern for an oak tree.

The second book, The Winged Life, by the poet Robert Bly, is a commentary and examination of the writings of transcendentalist and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.  “He believed that the young man or young woman should give up tending the machine of civilization and instead farm the soul.”

Bly also refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson, that older fellow traveler of Thoreau’s, and his understanding: “…All mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball.”  Bly follows Thoreau’s poetic and wide-ranging investigations around the meaning of this metaphor.

The third book, Ensouling Language, by non-fiction author and poet Stephen Buhner, is the one most directly concerned with writing, and what makes it good.  Although the subtitle emphasizes “the art of non-fiction”, the book’s discussion, about how to follow the hints from the deepest parts of ourselves, can apply to any kind of writing, including and especially fiction.

In Buhner’s own words:

“I am and always have been interested in the invisibles of life, those meanings and communications that touch us from the heart of Earth and let us know that we are surrounded by more intelligence, mystery, and caring than our American culture admits of….”

The most common thread uniting the intent and meaning of these books is that of the poet Robert Bly himself.  The author of the book on Thoreau, he is also cited in the other two books, especially that of Buhner’s.  I was fortunate to take in one of Bly’s presentations many years ago, which had an impact that I recounted in a post on “The Shadow,” one of Bly’s preoccupations.  Hillman and Bly both approached psychology from a Jungian perspective (in the broadest sense) and they gave workshops together during the height of the “men’s movement” of the 1980s.

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Robert Bly

A little of his outlook can be gleaned from his statement: “It’s so horrible in high school when they say, ‘What’s the interpretation of this poem?’” He wanted to shake off the intellectualism of “modernism”, as noted by the poet Elizabeth Hoover, in favor of the passion of Spanish poets like Federico García Lorca.

It is sad to know that Bly, now in his mid-90s, is suffering in the last stages of Alzheimer’s (recounted on Buhner’s blog).  As Buhner observes:

“He is greatly missed . . . even by himself. After the Alzheimer’s had taken hold, he once said, after watching a video of himself with his family, ‘I think I would have liked him.’

So, in the near future I will work through these three books in separate posts about what I found meaningful to the writer in me in each one.

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