Archive for the ‘Book Review’ category

Again With The Voynich?

February 9, 2018

I’ve been fascinated about the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript ever since I first heard about it.  This is attested to by a couple of previous posts here, one in 2010 – I Like A Good Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript – and one written in February two years ago – Whatever Happened With the Voynich Manuscript?

voynich_bathers

In short, for those who haven’t run across mention of this ancient document which may come to us from the 15th Century or before, the Voynich Manuscript is written in an indecipherable script by person or persons unknown. It is also decorated with unknown star constellations and plants, and with a variety of naked female figures cavorting in and around vaguely alchemical vessels.

You can look at a digital version of the manuscript for yourself on The Internet Archive.

Over the years, the most fascinating aspect of its mystery has become the proliferation of both plausible and bizarre theories about it.

Basic human psychology

There is a basic aspect of human psychology at play here: our tendency – our need – to create patterns and meaning out of ambiguous or mysterious raw material.  And then to clamp like a vise to these preliminary gestalts as if they’ve been bestowed by the gods themselves.  Once a shallow channel of belief takes form, it only seems to deepen with the flow of time and self-convincing, and rarely finds another path.

When last I wrote about it – my knowledge consists of web sources – there had seemed to be a minor breakthrough by Stephen Bax, a linguistics professor in England. He thought he had deciphered 14 characters and 10 words of the Voynich. He believed he was able to pick out names like hellebore or coriander for some of the plant diagrams. He tried to identify proper names in the text, which is a strategy used in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

More recently Bax speculated that “the script was devised for a particular community, possibly to write down an already existing language, and then that script was lost to us, with the exception of the Voynich manuscript.”  He cites an example of lost languages only recently revealed in manuscripts kept in an old monastery in Egypt.

Bax, let me hasten to say, is one of the more serious and reasonable people to look at the manuscript.

Here is a short list of other theories:

— an early work by Leonardo Da Vinci
— written in the Manchu language with an original alphabet
— a medical text written in the language of the Aztecs
— a liturgical manual for ritual euthanasia in the Cathar religion of the Middle Ages
— a sixteenth-century hoaxer created the gibberish text
— created by an alien visitor to Earth

Artificial Intelligence and a finding of Hebrew

Most recently, computer scientists from the University of Alberta here in Canada used artificial intelligence methods to try to decode the manuscript.

As you may know, artificial intelligence has in recent years improved by an order of magnitude or more with such accomplishments as “Watson” winning the TV game show Jeopardy, and AI beating the world’s best at the oriental strategy game of Go.  The latter is especially impressive given the reliance upon a highly trained intuition about the shape of the game by the best human players, which is a step above the admittedly complex accomplishments of the grandmasters of Western chess.

In the Voynich case, in preparation for tackling the manuscript, the scientists trained the AI to decipher 380 different language versions of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The AI determined after the first 10 pages of the manuscript that 80 percent of the encoded words appeared to be written in Hebrew.

So the researchers tried to have a native Hebrew speaker translate.  He couldn’t do it.  Then they tried Google Translate!!

With that, the first sentence read something like: “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.”  It could possibly make sense….

The scientists also translated the so-called “herbal chapter” and seemed to get words like “farmer” and “air” and “fire.”

Of course, we have to remember that this AI was trained on modern-day languages.  Even if it was Hebrew, Google Translate only works with the modern language, not medieval dialects.

And 20 percent of the examined text didn’t seem to be associated with Hebrew at all, but gave wildly different results, such as Malay and Arabic.

The Times of Israel provides a detailed review of the history of the manuscript and an analysis of these most recent results.

The article points out that the AI analysis is based on the premise that the person who wrote the manuscript encoded by both substituting letters for one another, and mixing up their order as in an anagram. This is an assumption that is unproven.

Another researcher tested Google Translate with another sample of the manuscript (with another manipulation process) and ended up with Hindi….

We are still left with the mystery of the Voynich.  The only proper response seems to be to celebrate its inscrutability.

And that is what composer Hannah Lash has done.  In the 2016 post, I mentioned that she was creating a symphony based on the enigma of the Voynich, a creative reaction amidst the noise of all the theories.  As of 2017, she completed it, and the symphony in its entirety has been performed.

You can hear an excerpt from the third movement at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra site.

If you really want to get into her musical process about the manuscript, there is a large selection of videos on YouTube.

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Note:  For an interesting breakdown and comparison of Voynich images with other sources, see this analysis of the illustrations at René Zandbergen’s site about the Voynich Manuscript.

Also, it is sad to note that linguist Stephen Bax cited above recently passed away.  His site, and fascination in the last part of his life about the Voynich, will apparently continue to have some connection with fellow “Voynichero” René Zandbergen.

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Whatever Happened With The Voynich Manuscript?

February 29, 2016

Back in 2010, I wrote a post called I Like A Good Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript.  I figure it’s time to see what has happened since then.  Has any of the mystery been dispelled?

In brief, from that old post, the Voynich Manuscript originated at least as far back as the 1400s, and was written in an indecipherable script by person or persons unknown.  It was also decorated with unknown plants and star constellations, and with a variety of naked female figures cavorting in and around vaguely alchemical vessels.

Perhaps the most fascinating of the manuscript’s features are the proliferation of theories about it, ranging from that it’s a complete hoax to being authored by Leonardo da Vinci, or that it was written in the language of the Aztecs.

voynich-20

The 240-page document can be now seen in its full glory on The Internet Archive.  It’s amusing that one of the reviews there claims the enigmatic writings explain how women think and their minds work.  A true mystery explained, if we could only read it!

So what has happened since 2010?

In one blog devoted to the Voynich that I referenced in the old post, Thoughts About the Voynich Manuscript, there have been entries as recent as July, 2015.  Apparently people are still doing statistical analyses of the characters and drawings, and dating inks and papers to still no definite conclusions. There are those who still think it is a hoax.  Theories continue to be devised about it, so many and so harebrained that the proprietor of that blog had to stop in 2013 providing a form for people to give their ideas on the matter.

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The other blog I referenced, Cipher Mysteries, is also still around and has more recent entries, up to February, 2016.

As the title of the blog indicates the author remains highly interested in the unknown alphabet and cryptology of the work.  He even investigates other unusual medieval manuscripts also written with unknown scripts and alphabets.

I remember reading a couple of years ago that someone claimed to have deciphered 14 characters and 10 words of the Voynich.  A professor of applied linguistics in England, Stephen Bax, believed he’s picked out names like hellebore or coriander for some of the plant diagrams.  He tried to identify proper names in the text, which is a strategy used in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

He made his announcement with the hopes that others could follow up and decipher more.  Bax believed that the book is “probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language.”

voynich-4

Back to the Aztecs: also in 2014, according to Wikipedia, Arthur Tucker and Rexford Talbert claimed they had identified plants and animals in the Voynich with the same drawings in a 15th Century Aztec herbal.  They claimed that this was Colonial Spanish in origin, and specifically the Nahuatl language.

This proposal has not been taken up by other Voynich researchers.

I kind of like this theory that I found on the site Mirrorspectrum: Your daily source of news — “Given the fact that the ancient manuscript depicts star charts that are unknown to us, the Voynich Manuscript could have been created by a being not from Earth, who during the 1400’s crash-landed on Earth and created the manuscript documenting life on Earth.”

The enigma has even stimulated the creation of a symphony by Hanna Lash, composer-in-residence of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut.  Each movement in the symphony is based on the rough divisions of the manuscript.  The first movement, “Herbal,” debuted last year and the second, “Astronomical” is due this spring.

The conundrum of the Voynich Manuscript is so complete that it becomes a screen upon which to project whatever rational, or obsessive, or delusional construct one may be predisposed to make.  The most appropriate response, up to now, may well be the one the composer is making.

If you’re interested, you can download the Voynich Manuscript to take a look yourself, from the site HolyBooks.com.

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The Migrant Crisis and An Old Apocalyptic Novel

September 19, 2015

“Raspail may have written the most politically incorrect book in France in the second half of the twentieth century.”
Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, The Atlantic, Dec. 1994 in a review of The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail, 1973.
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My wife and I recently visited Greece on vacation for a couple of weeks, part archaeological tour and part chasing photographs on a couple of the tourist islands.

At night, with BBC World Service usually about the only English channel available on TV, we heard and saw all the drama and tragedy of the ongoing migrant crisis, which continues to deepen.  Although we didn’t come into contact with it, Greece on top of its economic troubles is also dealing with an influx of the refugees piling into Europe and headed north.

Camp of the SaintsIt reminded me a lot of an old science-fiction novel, I guess you could call it, I read back in the 1970s.  Returning from our trip, I tried to track down the name and more details of the book.  It turns out to have been the 1973 apocalyptic novel The Camp of the Saints by Frenchman Jean Raspail, which was translated into English in 1975 and I must have read shortly thereafter.

It’s about the starving, the wretched and the disenfranchised pouring out of India in a flotilla a million strong and arriving on the beaches of France.  Although France is the focus, the rest of Europe and the Western world in the novel eventually suffer the same fate as hordes of migrants continue to come ashore.  As Raspail himself put it:

“I literally saw them, saw the major problem they presented, a problem absolutely insoluble by our present moral standards. To let them in would destroy us. To reject them would destroy them.”

On their way to France, the enormous flotilla wants to approach Egypt (to gain access to the Suez Canal) and South Africa, but the military of both countries threaten to sink the boats and drown the occupants if they should approach.  So, in Raspail’s world, the horde of migrants make their way to France.  Raspail is more interested really in the reaction of the French establishment and the rest of Europe in the face of such an onslaught, and depicts it as decadent and weak in the face of this threat to the Western way of life.  He casts the coming migrants in a poor light as mangy and prone to violence and sexual assaults in their long journey to anywhere that will be better than what they left.

A review of the book by T. Williamson describes it in a way that is thought-provoking about current events:

“The actions of the main characters in the book mirror what we see every day in the media and especially on the Internet: There are the government spokesmen telling us not to panic, the media talking heads telling us what our duty is or should be, the leaders of church and society instructing us in what is the “proper” way to feel about everything that’s happening to us. And front and center is the ordinary citizen, caught like a child under a steamroller as events roll over them at their terrible slow speed.”

The Fate of Western Civilization

The point of Raspail’s book seems to be that Western civilization is psychologically incapable of defending itself.  The French in the end order their miltary to shoot or sink the approaching menacing armada, but the soldiers and navy refuse and flee.  Eventually, at the end of the novel, as examples of the overrunning by the third world, the mayor of New York is made to share Gracie Mansion with three families from Harlem, the Queen of England must marry her son to a Pakistani and other huge armadas are ready to head for Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.

Raspail has been accused of writing a racist tract, but that is too simple.  As an example, one main spokesman for European civilization in the novel is non-white but has embraced what he sees as the best of Western civilization.

As another reviewer, Dominique M. Sanchez, puts it:

“I did not see it as a racist book but as a book written by an elitist who is strongly attached to his way of life and fearful of seeing it vanish. All cultures are protective and proud of their own ways and that includes Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Latin populations. The issue here is poverty and exploitation, not necessarily race.”

Over the years, as migrant and refugee crises have cropped up here and there, those from both sides of the political spectrum have referred to this book from the mid-1970s.

The National Review, a prestigious conservative publication, in 2014 had a short essay by Mackubin Thomas Owens about The Camp of the Saints after the sudden influx of migrant children into the United States.  He asserted the deficiencies of multiculturalism and the loss of self-confidence of Western liberal society:

“Instead, multiculturalism has spawned a balkanized society of resentful members of various groups that seek favors for themselves, often at the expense of other groups — identity politics at its worst.”

The Atlantic, a literary and cultural magazine that would likely be considered too liberal by the National Review, examined The Camp of the Saints 20 years prior to that, trying to place the fictional events of Raspail’s novel in the context of exploitation of the third world.

The authors, Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, wrote in 1994 that:

“Perhaps the global problem of the early twenty-first century is basically this: that across our planet a number of what might be termed demographic-technological fault lines are emerging, between fast-growing, adolescent, resource-poor, undercapitalized, and undereducated populations on one side and technologically inventive, demographically moribund, and increasingly nervous rich societies on the other.”

The Fault Line of War

It seems to me that the main fault line is simpler than that, and it’s called war.  The current migrant and refugee numbers are a direct result of civil, guerilla and national wars.  Right now, on the continent of Africa alone, there are something like 20 nations with major conflicts with a half-million or more of their citizens on the move, struggling to survive.  That’s not even on the horizon of most Western minds.  Never mind all the displacement from the Middle East conflicts that is front and centre in the media now.

My modest proposal is that those nations who profit most from the billions of dollars they are making in the arms trade, who export the weapons of war, should import the most refugees.

By that measure, the United States, Russia, Germany, China and France should be taking in the most.  Great Britain (no. 6) and Canada (no. 15) should also be stepping up.  (And remember the hypocrisy when representatives of those nations prattle about the evils of war.)

Connelly and Kennedy put it well at the end of their Atlantic article:

“However the debate unfolds, it is, alas, likely that a large part of it–on issues of population, migration, rich versus poor, race against race–will have advanced little beyond the considerations and themes that are at the heart of one of the most disturbing novels of the late twentieth century, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints. It will take more than talk to prove the prophet wrong.”

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The Five Stages of Collapse – A Book Review

November 1, 2014

The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit by Dmitry Orlov, New Society Publishers, 2013
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This book is one long challenge to most of the notions we received as part of our schooling and socialization. …It questions what being properly socialized means: is it being able to ignore the obvious signs of incipient collapse that makes you a well socialized individual?
Dmitry Orlov

As the world, or at least many places in it, seems to lurch from one crisis to another, one may be forgiven about thinking about stability and the direction of things as a whole.

I came across this book recently and found it surprisingly objective and cool-headed as it describes the end of the world as we know it.  Orlov anticipates that unsustainable crises will really start to bite by the middle of this century.  The financial, commercial and political systems will crumble, to be followed potentially by social and cultural collapse.

orlovThis is not a “survivalist” book about retreating to the renovated bomb-shelter with your shotgun so much as it is an attempt to describe the mechanisms of social decay in our way of life.  It is survivalist in the sense of that being forewarned may help to ease the transition to the changes that are coming.

I look around where I live on the west coast of North America which in many ways is one of the best places to live on Earth.  But more and more, from transportation systems, to sewers, to water supply, to education (including the universities), to medicine, to communication, to food supply, I find I often whisper to myself: we can’t afford our infrastructure.

In addition, there’s all the damage we continue to do to the land, water and air that sustains us.

Standing Outside the Mainstream

Over the years, I can see that I’ve been influenced by the thoughts of men, and women, who manage to find a place to stand outside the mainstream.  There’s William Irwin Thompson, cultural critic and historian, who out of yogic meditation brought forth his critiques of academia and society.  There’s author Doris Lessing, whose seeking led her to the objectivity of the Sufism of Idries Shah, and wisdom about humanity.  Also there’s Wendell Berry, whose livelihood upon the land gives him an essential grounding that expresses itself in his poetry, prose and politics.  I think of Thomas Homer-Dixon who found useful points of reference in the decline of the Roman Empire and the ecology of forests as a civilizational model to look at our society’s resilience, or lack of it.

In the case of Dmitry Orlov, his perspective and independence of thought seems to come mainly from being ex-Russian.

Orlov and his family left the Soviet Union in 1976, as part of a wave of emigration used by Moscow at the time to rid itself of undesirables and dissidents.

Orlov has observed, and sometimes experienced, currency tribulations, widespread surveillance, the abuses of a police state, and the rise of a criminal/oligarchic class that has now largely integrated with the former KGB agents who currently run Russia.

I’d like to run through a little of what Orlov has to say about each of his five stages of collapse.  He includes fascinating case studies that highlight points he’s making, some of which I find disagreeable.

Orlov appears to have no ideological agenda to further, other than his sympathy for anarchism and family as a means to community.  He says:

“There is no agenda here – just the assumption that collapse will happen, the conjecture that it can be analyzed as unfolding in five distinct phases and, based on quite a bit of research, the conclusion that each phase will require a different set of adaptations from those who wish to survive it.”

Stage 1: Financial Collapse

The result of this first stage is that financial institutions become insolvent, savings are wiped out and access to capital is lost.

Orlov’s point is that the global financial system is a mental construct which confidence maintains, and if confidence is lost, as we could see in 2008, it starts to unravel and fall apart.

The financial system is a house of cards built on ever-increasing debt in order to grow.

He sees usury (lending at interest) as the inevitably rotting root of the system.

“…We have become dependent on global finance, which is based on fiat currencies (ones unsupported by any traditional, fixed store of value such as gold, silver or land) that are loaned into existence by banks, at interest.”

Money in our system does not conform to the laws of physics – everything else diminishes with time.  Usury, in Orlov’s view, makes financial collapse inevitable.  Usury is only viable in an expanding economy.  “Once economic growth stops, the burden of usurious debt causes it to implode.”

And so we see the collapse of the economies of sovereign states, such as Greece, on the large scale, and at a smaller scale, the bankruptcy of cities such as Detroit.

The only remedy that central banks of any nation have is to print more money, which inevitably devalues it.  We have seen this up-to-now slow process over my lifetime – a dollar now is worth much less than what it did in 1980, say.   In the US,  the dollar has lost 8000 percent of its value in the last 41 years, Orlov says.

Orlov observes that although our economic system depends on infinite growth, once that endless growth fails to materialize, what then?

He proposes storing value in real commodities although that has its limits.  Are there alternatives to money that  communities can create for themselves?  He looks at barter and other systems of trading.

Although he concedes he may be hopelessly idealistic, Orlov sees the ultimate solution in strong, extended families that pool all their resources and are presided over by elders, who band together and form a larger community and create self-governance by a council of such elders.

The inevitable end of the fossil-fuel era, and the dream of never-ending expansion it engendered, will necessitate a return to older, smaller scale means of exchange between individuals, families and communities.

Iceland as a case study

Orlov uses the instance of Iceland which suffered a financial meltdown due to the events of 2008 and after, and then began to recover.   Iceland is one of the few places in the world still small enough to have direct democracy rather than the degenerate forms of representative “democracy” many of us are subject to.

Iceland’s approach was to let financial institutions go bankrupt rather than prop them up by printing more money.  Orlov argues that Iceland made a heroic and wise decision:  the failure of banks freed up resources for productive activities that benefitted the entire society.

Stage 2: Commercial Collapse

This review will go on much too long if I delve in depth on each of the stages, so I will just touch on highlights for the remainder.  For the intelligence and general contrariness of Orlov’s thought, leavened by his good humour, I urge you to take a look at the book itself.

Our commercial system has become one of increasing numbers of middle men, each scratching to take as much out of the money chain as possible.  It too will not be sustainable.

“… [This] can be characterized as cascaded failure, in which the first failure (which happens when the assumptions underlying contemporary financial arrangements suddenly become regarded as untenable) has a knock-on effect on commerce (due to a lack of commercial credit), which in turn, has a knock-on effect on government finances (through a rapidly shrinking tax base).”

The so-called free market is based on a system of property law, a legal system able to enforce contracts and a law enforcement system that can deter economic crime.

Orlov notes that without the legal, enforceable basis, the Russian experience shows that the free market becomes a criminal market, “where debts are settled for pennies on the dollar by having creditors murdered.”

He ends this section with a case study on the Russian Mafia.

Stage 3: Political Collapse

Political collapse can only be disruptive.  “The ruling classes and the classes which serve them (the police, the military, the bureaucrats) generally refuse to go softly into the night and allow the people to self-organize, experiment and come together as autonomous new groups adapted to the new environment in their composition and patterns of self-governance.”

One obvious result of this is that “for the sake of preserving national unity, a failing nation-state often looks for an external enemy to attack, preferably a weak, defenseless one, so that it poses no risk of reprisal.”

In his discussion, Orlov makes a strong case for anarchism, despite our conditioning to see the typical anarchist as an antisocial and bomb-throwing terrorist seeking violent overthrow of the existing order.

Orlov points out that as a student of nature, anarchism makes sense as a system of cooperation and can be seen everywhere among animals.  He notes the Russian scholar Peter Propotkin’s writings on anarchic cooperation as essential to the success of many species.

Orlov’s personal definition of anarchy is “absence of heirarchy.”  He also draws from recent research into “complexity theory” by physicist Geoffrey West.  It leads him to think that collapse is not an accident but an engineered product by those who “think that a higher level of authority, coordination, harmonization and unity is always a net benefit at any scale.”

Governments are good at certain things, Orlov is very willing to admit: maintaining a national transportation infrastructure, a reliable post office, and a fast internet….

Orlov’s case study to conclude this section  is that of the Pashtuns, who occupy a tribal area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.   They continue to succeed in defying all the empires and nations that have arrayed against them over the past century – the British, the Pakistanis, the Soviets and most recently the U.S.

Their governance is semi-leaderless and self-regulating.  Some of their governing methods date back to Athenian democracy or before.  Orlov admires their hardiness and tenacity.   He doesn’t mention too much about their ties to the Taliban and the related negation of the essential worth of the female population, which really can’t be seen as a survival trait.

Stages 4 & 5: Social & Cultural Collapse

“Few places are likely to remain sufficiently insular to escape the onslaught of internationally displaced groups driven from their land by a variety of forces, from political unrest to economic dislocation caused by globalization to habitat destruction caused by rapid climate change.”

In Orlov’s view, it will be better to concentrate on a safe way to be, with others, rather than some imaginary, for most of us, safe place to go.

Communities who already live with hardships of one kind or another will be more resilient than, say, gated communities of the affluent.

In his discussion of social collapse, Orlov sees organized religion as a binder among people and communities that will endure and may assist in regenerating society.  (I think of the classic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz in this connection.)

Personally, organized religion appears pernicious, undesirable and unnecessary, but I can also see its utility in building and sustaining a sense of community.

Orlov is not as strong in his thinking in this part of his book, and he admits to that.  If we get to this stage, whatever happens after social and cultural collapse will be up to each of those who survive – there may not be a lot of useful prescriptions.

His case study for social collapse is the culture of the Roma, the Gypsies of Europe and North America who have learned to survive in difficult circumstances.  They are a nomadic and insular, even secretive people, but they are well-suited to thrive in a disordered, disorganized society.

The Case of the Ik

For a case study on cultural collapse, he cites the famous anthropological research of Colin Turnbull on an African tribe called the Ik, which Turnbull published in the book The Mountain People, in 1972.  I remember reading that book many years ago, and being dismayed about the Ik’s profound abasement as a society and what it may show about ourselves.

As Orlov says, the Ik are rugged individualists – to a fault.  Their language is unrelated to any others in their vicinity, but has characteristics of Middle-Kingdom Egyptian.  Under a permanent suntan, their skin is red not black like the surrounding African tribes.

The Ik are a post-collapse society which has been under stress for many, many years.  They were once nomadic hunters and gatherers, but various colonial and national authorities took their hunting grounds away from them and made them settle and try to subsist on barren land of no agricultural value.  The result has been intermittent famine and starvation.

Their language has lost all of its pleasantries and niceties.

Their village compounds consist of concentric circles of stockades penetrated by small and cryptic openings as a defense against their closest neighbours.

They seem to have almost no emotion except for occasional gruesome hilarity at the misfortune of others.  They do their best to eat alone and in secret.  Children are abandoned early and  learn to feed themselves by watching baboons.

As Orlov observes, it is rare to have an anthropologist spend two years with a tribe and come away urging that the object of his study be broken up into small groups and settled far away from their homeland.  Turnbull was traumatized by his stay with the Ik.  Turnbull realized that we all have a bit of the Ik in us, and that people of the developed world are becoming more “Ik-like.”

The Ik show a way of surviving cultural collapse.  It’s better not to have to go that far.

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The Experience of Nothingness — A Book Review/Participation

September 5, 2014

The Experience of Nothingness, by Michael Novak, Harper Colophon Books, 1970

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In my teens and twenties I often experienced extended bouts of dark moods. One could call them depression, perhaps, although I prefer melancholia.

These bouts are difficult to write about because language, or at least English in my hands, fails to grasp their essence.  I could say they were marked by feelings of overwhelming hopelessness and pointlessness about existence, but that would be wrong, because there were mainly no feelings, and the absence of feelings was itself painful and paralyzing. And even this statement doesn’t quite approach the silent, immobilizing emptiness spiralling downward.

Fortunately, by my late twenties I left these periods of bleakness largely behind. I think meditation, and physical activity in the martial arts, helped enormously. But I also found when I was visited yet again by desolation that reading certain books would, if not relieve the condition, at least give it a … space within which to work itself out.

For me what worked was one particular book by Krishnamurti, that interesting and deep man of spirit, called The Wholeness of Life.  It is a series of dialogues primarily with the physicist David Bohm, who shared a radical austerity of inquiry in coming to understand ourselves and the human condition.  I had a number of books by Krishnamurti but for some reason that particular book, with its severity and abstruseness, was the right foil for my bleakness of spirit.

But even more important for me during those periods was the book The Experience of Nothingness by Michael Novak, found one day in the remaindered bins at Barnes & Noble in New York City perhaps 40 years ago.  I still have it, a thin paperback, with the remaindered punch hole through the cover in the upper right.

tumblr_mckkm5hLMS1royxsyo1_r1_1280At the time I was also reading and inquiring into Buddhism, especially Zen, where one can hear much about emptiness and fullness and so forth.  But none of it seemed to touch on the experience of emotional nothingness the way this book did.  I knew nothing about the author.  But it is helpful to keep in mind that this book came about in the midst of the counterculture of the late 1960s and the upheavals spawned by the Vietnam War.

The book is divided into four sections: 1) The Experience of Nothingness, 2) The Source of The Experience, 3) Inventing the Self, and 4) Myths and Institutions.

I will take a look briefly at each section.

The Experience of Nothingness

What got me to walk out of the bookstore with this newly purchased slim volume in hand were statements such as this from the very first page:

“The experience of nothingness is an incomparably fruitful place for ethical inquiry.  It is a vaccine against the lies upon which every civilization, American civilization in particular, is built.”

In this first section, the author chronicles what can be one course for the development of this experience.  First pervasive boredom as regular life loses meaning, then slow collapse of shared cultural values as they too begin to seem a sham.  Then helplessness.

“It is also the recognition that those who wield power are also empty, and that I, too, if I had power over my own life, am most confused about what I would do with it.”

Novak also points to the culture’s lack of inculcation in the young of discernment about what is beautiful and brilliant.  “For it is demanding to teach children ethics, beauty, excellence; demanding in itself, and even more demanding to do so with authenticity.”

In the end, he says, for those of us who come to see emptiness all around, “To choose against the culture is to experience nothingness.”

But more encouragingly, “Whatever the massive solidity of institutions, cultural forms, or basic symbols, accurately placed questions can shatter their claims upon us.”

The author examines the various myths which shape the sense of reality in universities, but that’s not so interesting here.  But I did find insight in such statements as:

“The fact that a man abjures the word “myth” and thinks of himself as hardheaded and exclusively realistic does not count as evidence that he is not acting out a myth; on the contrary, it furnishes an index to the power of his myth over his mind.”

Novak uses the metaphor of “horizon” to link a person and his world in a mutual defining relationship.

“In a certain sense, the concept of horizon is anti-humanistic, for it does not suppose that ethical action is wholly conscious or wholly self-originated.  On the contrary, the concept of horizon emphasizes that the self and its world interpenetrate at every point.”

So, Novak goes on to say, “The experience of nothingness arises when we consciously become aware of — and appropriate — our own actual horizons…. We do not know who we are.  Yet we keep inventing ourselves.”

The Source of the Experience

There is considerable discussion in the context of the times, during the Vietnam War, when the emptiness of the American myths about itself became more apparent.  At the time, I was not too caught up in that dimension of his discussions.  That emptiness always seemed obvious and unremarkable to me.  My concerns were much more self-centred….

The author discusses the uncertain foundations of “objectivity,” and how it relies on the cultivation of specific subjective states.

“But largeness of mind and soul is quite different from a pretended objectivity.  For a pretended objectivity serves the establishment, the well off, and particularly the government.”

When the claims of objectivity from various institutions come to be shattered, the experience of nothingness begins to appear.

“The source of the experience of nothingness lies in man’s unstructured, relentless drive to ask questions.  … The capacity of the ‘drive to question’ to question itself — is what makes it the source of the experience of nothingness.”

So then what of nihilism — defined as the rejection of all religious and moral principles?  Novak invokes Camus’ arguments in such works as The Rebel to distinguish between the honesty inherent in the drive to question compared to the dishonest and inhumane conclusions of the worst of nihilists such as say Hitler or others of that stripe.  The main distinction is the recognition of the community of human suffering.

Inventing the Self

Necessarily, Novak brings up the nature of ethics often.  For him, “it is not generality or universality that gives an action its ethical weight, but precise and complete appropriateness. (His emphasis.)

“…The primal formlessness of the drive to understand leads to experience of the void.  But the capacity of my drive to question every one of its operations creates for me an ideal of authenticity and honesty.”

So what is acting well?  “Acuity in perceiving the point of complex ethical situations, acuity in hitting the mark, is the pivotal capacity. … but the heart of the matter is singularly difficult to hit, while the number of ways by which one can miss it are nearly infinite.”

Following Aristotle, Novak says that to become a good man is to grow in the courage to discern honestly, and in the courage to act as one discerns.

In the end, we will choose the myths we will live by.  Kurt Vonnegut said in Cat’s Cradle that we should “live by the foma (harmless untruths) that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”  Novak puts it this way:

“But excellence in health and morality are measured by a choice of myths that maximize personal and communal development in these four values: honesty, courage, freedom and the ability to value other persons for themselves.”

Myths and Institutions

In this last section of the book, Novak explores what the experience of nothingness can mean for our political institutions.

To him, institutions do not exist to be effective, but chiefly to provide reassurance.  So politics becomes the realm of illusion and education the realm purely of technocratic effectiveness for the benefit of institutions.  What currently passes for democratic institutions are inadequate.

“The experience of nothingness teaches a man the poverty and limitations of all symbols.”

In politics, the author notes:  “Certain key words repeated again and again are mentally restful to political audiences.  To attack the prevailing symbol structure of a group is to awaken the threat of chaos. It is also to arouse intense opposition….”

He declares: “The promotion of conditions in which men can with increasing frequency become honest, courageous, free and brotherly is the criterion by which institutions are judged.  Institutions have no other purpose.”

Towards the end of the book, Novak concludes, “The myth appropriate to the new time requires a constant return to inner solitude, an unbroken awareness of the emptiness at the heart of consciousness.  It is a harsh refusal to allow idols to be placed in the sanctuary.”

A note about the author, Michael Novak

As I mentioned briefly above, when I first encountered his book, the author Michael Novak was unknown to me.  And really that background was of no interest.  But it’s intriguing to find out that at the time of book’s writing, he was a Catholic theologian who obviously had been working through his own dark night of the soul.

In later years, he went on to become perched on the far right branch of American politics.  Back during Obama’s second election campaign, I was thinking then of writing something about how influential this book was in my life, so I looked up the author.  Not that Obama has turned out so great, but the opinions on display on Novak’s blog at the time were on the irrational far edge of the Tea Party spectrum.  It’s interesting that it is difficult to find much record of those positions now — his blog and current writings are positioning him as an elder statesman.

Other sources have described him as “a founding member of the ‘theocon’ political faction, a loose grouping of Christian writers closely associated with neoconservatives who blend religiously informed social conservatism with foreign policy militarism.”

His thought, and approach to life, must have changed.  Another lesson about idols in the sanctuary.

I remain thankful, though, for this book that he made as a different, younger man.  It greatly eased my more youthful version.

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Photo source note:  A cover similar to my copy, from the Strand bookstore blog, another great Manhattan bookseller.

An Even Better Book About Story

May 24, 2014

“Human growth is very elusive, but it is real, and it is what you, the writer, must express above everything else (or else show why it doesn’t occur).”
John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, 2007

In my ongoing quest for story, in which I unconsciously emulate the character in a novel seeking essential answers about writing and being thwarted at every turn by external circumstances and the weaknesses of my own character, I’ve encountered John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story.  (Or maybe that’s just barely consciously….)

In any case, Truby’s book is like the main course after the appetizers of the previous post, “The Synergy of Two Books About Story.”

Truby is apparently something called a “story consultant” in Hollywood, and comes more out of the screenwriting milieu than novel writing, but his book on story is universal enough to cover all the varieties.  It is rich with ideas and in depth, even more so than the previous two books I looked at here.

He wants the writer to get away from artificial divisions like “three-act structure” to get to grips with the natural characteristics of compelling stories.  His goal, he says, is this:

“In simplest terms, I’m going to lay out a practical poetics for story-tellers that works whether you’re writing a screenplay, a novel, a play, a teleplay, or a short story.”

truby--anatomy_smallHe has no use for terminology like “rising action,” “climax,” or “progressive complication,” or any other approaches without real practical value for storytellers.

I’m not going to attempt to mention everything he covers in 421 pages, but I will try to hit some of the high points that appealed to me.  Perhaps this can serve as an introduction to what I think is one of the better books on story, and writing, that I’ve read.

The dramatic code is central to his analysis, and the foundation for most of the structural elements he describes in stories.

In the dramatic code, change is fueled by desire.  According to Truby, the dramatic code is at the core of human psychology.  It’s an artistic description of how a person can grow or evolve.

Premise and Designing Principle

The writing process is about decisions, Truby says, and the first important guide to those decisions is the premise of the story.  “Your premise is your inspiration.”  It should contain the ingredients of the first flash of excitement when the idea of the story first arose.  The premise allows the writer to explore the story, and the form it might take, before it’s actually written.

Truby counsels that finding the gold in a premise, takes time, a lot of time.  He recommends taking weeks to sit and sift the premise.  And he provides a suggested methodology to get the most out of it.

I’ll list the steps he discusses without going into them in detail.  I’ve found them fruitful and their names are quite descriptive:

1) Write Something That May Change Your Life
2) Look for What’s Possible
3) Identify the Story Challenges and Problems
4) Find the Designing Principle
5) Determine Your Best Character in the Idea
6) Get a Sense of the Central Conflict
7) Get a Sense of the Single Cause-and-Effect Pathway
8) Determine Your Hero’s Possible Character Change
9) Figure Out the Hero’s Possible Moral Choice
10) Gauge the Audience Appeal

That’s a lot to think about.  In my own case, with the story I’m working on, I’ve already sorted a lot of this out, perhaps more by luck than design.

Finding the designing principle, no. 4 in his list, gave me a lot to chew on.  It has a very specific meaning to Truby — it’s the internal logic of the story, the organizing principle that unifies it.  And he says, the designing principle is difficult to see, and in order to work, it must be original.  He gives the example of the movie Tootsie to illustrate his meaning:

Premise —  When an actor can’t get work, he disguises himself as a woman and gets a role in a TV series, only to fall in love with one of the female members of the cast.

Designing Principle — Force a male chauvinist to live as a woman.

Or taking James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Premise — Track a day in the life of a common man in Dublin.

Designing Principle — In a modern odyssey through the city, over the course of one day, one man finds a father and the other man finds a son.

The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure

According to Truby, a good story has a minimum of seven steps (it may have more) in its progress from beginning to end.  These are not external structural requirements, such as imposing a three-act structure.  He says, “They are the steps that any human being must work through to solve a life problem.”  How these steps are linked will be up to the author, in order to provide the greatest impact.

1) Weakness and Need.  The main character is missing a crucial characteristic, has a profound weakness that is holding him or her back from gaining what the character truly needs.  Our hero, though, should not be aware of his need at the beginning of the story.

2) Desire.  This is different from need, which is the character overcoming a weakness.  Desire is a goal outside the character.   Desire is more obvious and allows the reader to want along with the hero, and provides what the reader or audience thinks the story is about.  Need is more hidden and linked to self-revelation by the end of the story.

3) Opponent.  Truby says seeing the main character’s opponent as purely evil “will prevent you from ever writing a good story.”  The opponent must be seen structurally: the opponent not only wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire, but is competing with the hero for the same goal.  Truby gives the example of a detective story: “It appears that the hero wants to catch the killer and the opponent wants to get away.  But they are really fighting over which version of reality everyone will believe.”

4) Plan.  The hero’s plan is organically linked to desire and the opponent to be overcome.

5) Battle.  The battle is the final conflict over the goal between the hero and opponent.  This could be an overt event of extreme violence, or a confrontation through dialogue.

6) Self-Revelation.  This most completely can come in both psychological and moral forms.  The hero sees himself or herself honestly for the first time, and takes action to prove that changes have occurred.

7) New Equilibrium.  “The hero has moved to a higher or lower level as a result of going through his crucible.”

The Character Web

Although there’s much more to explore in what Truby presents, the final thing that I want to mention, and that made a great impression on me, is what he calls the web of character.  All the characters must help define the others.

Many of the characters serve as opponents to the main character, although they may be a friend or lover, and may be even better people than the hero.

Truby talks about allies, fake-ally opponents, fake opponent allies, subplot characters and the story functions served by them.  For instance, he thinks of subplot as a very specific device — a way to show how the hero and a second character deal with the same problem in different ways.  “Through comparison, the subplot character highlights traits and dilemmas of the main character.”

He goes on to detail how to create a great hero, how to create character change in the story, and how to build conflict.  For instance he describes how better stories go beyond a simple opposition between the hero and main opponent and often use what he calls a four-corner opposition.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the nature of story as presented by Truby.  But I’ve found the book very useful and even inspirational.  And with my own work, it lets me see the way forward.

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The Synergy of Two Books About Story

April 2, 2014

“The writer is a man who seeks a larger world.”
— Dwight V. Swain, in Techniques of the Selling Writer

“You are the slave of your story, not its master.  You don’t make decisions, you make discoveries.”
Brian McDonald, in Invisible Ink
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I don’t like the word “synergy” very much, although I’m not so sure why.

I am a whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-my-parts kind of guy, but the word smacks of marketing, as if it’s the name of a used-car dealership.  Maybe my skepticism is because it’s a description of process that’s everywhere anyway, of emergent properties arising out of separate elements.  It probably has a lot to do with the management-speak where I work, of “incentivizing proactive synergistic visions, going forward.”

But in the case of two books on fiction writing I’ve been reading, the word actually seems to have some meaning, in the sense of the “cooperative action of two or more stimuli, resulting in a different or greater response than that of the individual stimuli.”  But then maybe the word I’m really looking for here is “synchronicity”, the seeming purely coincidental occurrences that take on meaning….

The two books are Techniques of the Selling Writer, published in 1965 by the late Dwight V. Swain, who wrote prolifically for magazines and films, while teaching writing at the University of Oklahoma, and Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate, 2010, by Brian McDonald, screenwriter and teacher.

I’ve been working on the first draft of a novel, just getting started really.  I’ve written a few scenes, I know my primary characters pretty well, I know how the story begins, how it ends, and what the main character thinks he’s doing.  But I slowed down, and then came to a halt.

I’ve been realizing I don’t know what a story is.  I know one when I hear or read one. But I don’t know how to make a real story, what propels it, what keeps it moving, what gives it heart and meaning.  Characters, setting, plot, dialogue, scenes, conflict, all those elements of so many books on writing, don’t give me what I need to know about story.

Techniques of the Selling Writer sets out to do just that.  With that title, you might think it’s a book about being as commercial as possible, of following some set formula in whatever genre can make you the most money.

In fact, it’s not that at all.  It’s about the survival of the fittest, the fittest way to tell a story that can stand out amongst serious competition in the marketplace of fiction publishing.

It’s about the basic bolts and nuts of story framework, from building scenes and character development to larger issues of what makes a writer.  It’s a handbook about getting to grips with story.

It’s not about avant-garde writing, of encouraging the James Joyce in each of us, but about the craft of story as we may find it widely distributed in the culture about us, of books and film and games, although often we will find that such stories are lacking.

These comments won’t be a review really, just the main things I got out of each book in my quest, almost like that of a character in a book, for story….

Most Useful Description of Technique

Techniques Selling WriterSwain starts his useful description of technique for me when he begins to write about “motivation-reaction units.”  That almost sounds like widgets from a factory, but he’s really talking about building feeling as the character confronts situations and reacts, which the reader then begins to participate in.  There is cause and effect at the core of effective story, and these motivation-reaction units link together as you write to provide a thread of meaningful causation.

Something happens of significance to the character, and of pertinence to the story: the reader sees that an active response is necessary from the character.  The character’s reaction ensues.  There is some change, perhaps small, in the character’s state of affairs or state of mind.  This should precipitate another motivating stimulus and then another reaction.  These linked units gradually build.  “The chain they form as they link together is the pattern of emotion.”  The chain should be strictly chronological so that the writing leaves an impression of a continuing stream of reality, with appropriate “haptic” (bodily) sensation and involvement.

There is much more detail in Swain’s teasing out of this basic story process, of course, but this gives the gist.  And each M-R unit, as Swain calls them, must be pertinent to the story as a whole.  It may be harder to do than to say….

But at its simplest, for a beginner: Write a sentence without your character (becomes motivation).  Follow it with a sentence about your character (becomes reaction).   Of course, as one becomes more skilled, the units of each type may be somewhat larger.  And although this method might sound simple, or simple-minded, it “sometimes poses problems of choice that are little less than fiendish.”

The next level up (can we say storey?) in the tower of story is that of scene and sequel.  I kind of know what a scene is, but I hadn’t really thought about sequel as a technical term in this context.

Scene and Sequel

Story, Swain says is built with those two basic units.  A scene is a unit of dramatic conflict lived through by character and reader.  Sequels are the transitions between scenes.  He makes it sound so simple….

A scene functions to provide interest, and to move the story forward.  It provides opposition to your character.  It’s a unit of conflict.  The structure of a scene is 1) Goal 2) Conflict and 3) Disaster.  I like that no. 3!

What is disaster?  Swain says it’s the scene’s hook — providing logical but unanticipated developments.  It often comes in the form of new information received.  If a scene doesn’t end in actual disaster, it must raise an intriguing question for the future.  The skill in this may be to make the disaster potential, rather than actual.

Swain insists that all this can succeed for the literary work as much for the potboiler.  But one can’t be afraid of drama.

What then of sequel?  “It sets forth your focal character’s reaction to the scene just completed, and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come.”  The sequel functions to translate disaster into goal, to telescope reality and to control the story’s tempo.  Swain says its structure is 1) Reaction 2) Dilemma 3) Decision.  (I’m continually impressed about how logical Swain is about these creative tools.)  Our hero decides on a new goal and the next scene, with its struggles, begins to arise.

Swain says the source of story satisfaction for the reader is the release of tension.  Or from another angle, the way the story turns out is your reader’s key source of satisfaction.

He goes on from scene and sequel to discuss the beginning, middle and end of a story, and what constitutes each.  The beginning ends for Swain when the main character commits to action against the danger or threat he realizes he faces.  And then the middle of the story becomes how the main character becomes more and more constricted as to his avenues of action.  Towards the end we see more clearly what the main character deserves, and what he gets.

Populating the World

Swain’s chapter on story characters, The People in Your Story, is refreshing in its straightforward and common-sense approach.  Use the least number of characters to do the job of advancing the story.  If a character is not in some way either for or against your main character, then they’re not serving a useful story function.  And remember that stress reveals character.

Each character must appear to move under his own power.  So one must supply each character with 1) Lack and 2) Compensation.  What makes a character interesting?  Contradiction.

There’s much, much more to all of this of course than I can relate here.  Swain’s strength is his logical analysis of the mechanisms of how to move a story along, while leaving in the would-be writer’s hand the extent of the creative variations that can be devised.  He has an old-fashioned (but perhaps ever present) sense of what the novel can accomplish that’s definitely not postmodern.

So, Swain made me all optimistic about being able to get my hands on the levers of story.  Then I read Brian McDonald’s short book (only about 150 pages), and my optimism took another turn for the better.

Invisible Ink

Invisible InkIn Invisible Ink, McDonald has let me finally understand what theme is and more importantly how it functions in a story.  Lots of books about writing place importance on thematic purpose and consistency.  I just could never feel what it really meant in whatever I was trying to write.

McDonald’s description of the armature as a way of talking about theme suddenly made the whole thing much clearer to me.  He likens the armature to the internal framework upon which a sculptor supports his work.  The armature is the moral of the tale, the purpose of the story, the point of all the drama.  What does one really want to get across?

As an example, he refers to the animated film The Iron Giant.  The intriguing armature of this work is: “What if a gun had a conscience and didn’t want to be a gun anymore?”  If the armature works, in the end it will move the reader.

Armature provide the same kind of focus that makes jokes work.  McDonald says he uses jokes as an instructional tool.  “Just as all elements of a joke support the punch line, so should every element of your story support its armature.”

Bring in the Clones

The concept of characters as clones was another aha! moment in McDonald’s discussion of the invisible strands that tie a real story together.

“Clones are characters in your story that represent what could, should, or might happen to the protagonist if he or she takes a particular path.”  Clones can display, often very subtly, the shades of meaning in the story’s world.

For instance, the cravenness, corruption and pitiful nature of Gollum in Lord of the Rings represents what could well happen to the hero Frodo if he gives in to the Ring.  We can measure the success of one character by the failure of another.  Dorothy’s companions in the Wizard of Oz — the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Man — are another example.  They are all artful clones of Dorothy.

This concept allows characters to serve the needs of the story, to make it more powerful, and not just be random personalities that the writer allows to wander onto the set.  Not every character has to be a clone, but it is obviously a powerful tool for illustrating the armature.

 Ritual Pain

“…It is your job as storyteller to apply as much pressure on your characters as possible.  You must back them into a corner and force them to change.  Make it as painful as you can.”

The thought of causing other people pain usually gives me the horrors.  But as a writer you have to put your poor fictional people through hoops of fire on the horns of dilemmas.  This is a bloodymindedness that I definitely have to work on in what I want to write.  I should think of it, though, as McDonald recommends: “Ritual pain means painfully killing off one aspect of a character’s personality to make room for something new.”

He notes also that you have to find the right kind of ritual pain for each character.

The Masculine and the Feminine

McDonald takes the politically incorrect, but intuitively true, notion of real differences between men and women and applies it to storytelling.  Men do tend to prefer action flicks.  Everything is on the surface and introspection is not much in evidence.  Woman do tend to prefer depictions of people emotionally involved with each other, with not necessarily a lot of forward movement in the story.  His main point is that to get readers to care about what they’re reading, both these aspects need to be evident and in balance.  They deepen each other, just like men and women.

Sacrifice

Sacrifice is another mechanism by which an author can show the extent of a character’s change, of his sincerity, of growth.  “Simply put, the climax of a story puts the protagonist in an intense situation that forces a choice that shows growth or lack of growth.”

Superior Position

McDonald describes “superior position” as one way to cultivate either suspense or humour.   It’s when the audience knows, or suspects, something that the characters do not.  He says this bit of craft is what made Alfred Hitchcock a masterful storyteller during his fifty-year career.

There’s more, of course, in McDonald’s book but these were most of the kernels that I took from it.

It remains to be seen of course if I can incorporate what I’ve learned from these two books in my own writing.  But I do feel more confident.  At the same time I seem to aspire to what Thomas Mann (cited by McDonald) once wrote: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

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