“…in his life is a haiku poet. Anyone who can write ten is a Master.”
From: “Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing”, by Frederick Franck
For me, the value of the book is new, useful terms:
Why do writers write? The answers to this question have already become cliched, but I’m not so much interested in why they say they write, as in why they apparently write, which is a very different matter.
By the way, none of these categories cut along the same seam as the “fiction / nonfiction” distinction.
1. A love of words, phrases, and sentence-crafting. This is the person who enjoys working on one sentence for an hour. Many of these are drawn toward poetry, but not enough are. These do not need to get from A to B – in fact, they need to sit on A as long as possible.
2. A need to complain, or debunk the world. Father was not there, and the crap that is the world must be called “crap” over and over forever, in revenge. This is the essence of modernity,
3. A desire to see deeper — either deeper into the self or into the world, and this self/world distinction breaks down, at depths.
4. The didacts. All the arguers and explainers. This is not the same as #2 — these folks just have something to say, and try to say it well.
5. Joy in a good plot. The storytellers, who love to pose a situation, make some trouble, then solve it.
6. A need to say something — anything — intelligent. Not the same as #4; these people have nothing in particular they think needs saying except that they say things well. Many 1,000 page novels have been labeled “experimental” or “avant-garde”, when they were just under-employed IQ ohms arcing at random into the public air.
7. A need to exist. These are the coffeehouse writers, who emit 20 longhand pages a day, and who have 50 words for “sad”.
8. A need to capture a story that will disappear unless it is memorialized. The historians of all kinds, whether personal or academic.
Activity slows the sense of time; passivity speeds it up. Spend a day making anything you love and you enter a state described by artists as a contemplative state. This state is hyper-aware, and the rush of passing time is suspended. It feels good, and afterwards you desire it again, like a longing for home.
But spend a day watching television and you’ll look up at dusk and wonder what happened.
A talk with a new love can last 12 hours, and seem like nothing. It is unfortunate that we use similar language to describe both the active and passive experiences – “it seemed like no time” when they are really very different.
Slowed time is addicting. Writers are literally addicted to writing, and painters are literally addicted to painting. Woodworkers are addicted to the lathe. They discover over time — some discover it earlier than others — than it matters little where you start, or what you are working on, as long as it matters to you. It is the activity of the will to create that suspends time and orders the faculties in a way that feels like a return to some Eden.
The common lament of getting older — that time passes too fast — is from the slow descent into passivity.
“Active” and “passive”, as I’m using them, does not correspond to the traditional distinction between Martha and Mary, the active life of service and the contemplative life of prayer. These two terms were actually unfortunate, since the contemplative life is as active as the active life, just in different ways. Contemplation is another form of activity; the contemplative is quite active at the level of the engagement of mind, emotion, and volition. Active and passive mean something like “work” and “entertainment”.
Earlier generations’ protests about the theatre and novels and recreation are now interpreted as puritan reactions. Some doubtlessly were, but for the most part the modern is simply explaining those old critiques in terms he can understand. Actually, the ancients were protesting the mode of those pasttimes as much as the content. They were protesting the passivity of entertainment.
The ethic of fidelity is the nursery of stories. The agon, the struggle of life is to be true. All else pales. Interesting stories are exaggerated versions of overcoming the obstacles to fidelity: to be true to your wife, your husband; to do right by your children, your parents; to keep your feet against the pressures to lie cheat, and steal in business; to be true to God’s call each day. To leave home to find someone who is lost, because they belong to you.
To be “true to yourself”? Well, there is a little…truth in this phrase, but it is only true in the context of fidelity to others. Here is the pattern: as you pursue fidelity, you learn more about yourself, about why and how you are made. That experience of sudden insight is exhilarating; now you see your self, for a bright moment, as an object of knowledge. And it looks pretty, right then, and it feels joyful because joy itself is just the experience of newness. But the mistake is to extract that new knowledge (and the moment of discovery) from larger life, and make it the direct object instead of the indirect effect.
Those who make it the direct object talk the language of the ethic of happiness, which makes sense for a little while, but the glow is really the burning off of capital fuel from the earlier fidelity. Two steps down the road the self is suddenly disoriented. The self, by itself, suddenly dissipates into nothingness — this sudden loss is surprisingly fast and surprisingly literal. The story of your life suddenly looks like a white page.
The ethic of happiness destroys drama, because the wiser the audience, the more they see that the traditional dramatic obstacles for the protagonist are first internalized, and then lost. The protagonist is no longer interesting. The pursuit of a lover is interesting; the quest for the grail is interesting; the fight with the dragon is interesting; the search for “self-actualization” is banal.
When there is no plot people can go on for a long time scratching at meaning, and even make the loss of plot a liberation. For a time. The art of self-actualization is the art of an instant of sensation, the snapshot. Haiku, imagism, the absurd, the barbaric yawp flung upon the roof the world, the song of myself in which I very well contradict myself — all fun stuff as momentary diversion.
But the soul of man needs a plot like fish need an ocean.
When maturity is defined by a highly individualistic culture, your very development progressively disconnects you from tradition or community. So for the modern artist, the more you find your own voice the more alone you are. Many writers never quite see this dual development ahead of them. But the more perceptive artist sees it coming, and it looks simultaneously like fulfillment and estrangement. It is reasonable to wonder if this can possibly be the way the universe is built, or if at least one major premise of your worldview is pathological.
Or, perhaps it is all just chemistry. In that case, what would a writer write about? And that’s the problem.
Making decisions about form is living. Relationships without form are not real, and those who try to live within them sense their ghostliness. The storm of one pulse against another, and talk as alternating monologues — it leaves you feeling like you had candy for supper.
Ecstacy is not an escape from form, but a leap from the top of the previously built form. Ek, stasis – to stand out: there must be a structure on which to stand. Notice that in the mystical literature the ecstacies tend to come in the midst of the liturgy, when the formalities are at their most dread.
To choose the random is the essence of the demonic. Chosen un-relation is the world that Adam created when he his behind the bush, choosing a place un-related to God. Un-relatedness is death.
Stunning visuals, tired old plot. With one sneaky twist.
By now this cartoon plot should be as familiar to everyone as, say, the roadrunner and the coyote. It is becoming the cultural air we breathe. This Dances With Wolves myth, (in Avatar the indians are tall and blue) is the new founding myth of America, and indeed of the whole world. Evil Western imperialists, out to rape the land, attack indigenous innocents who are noble and peaceful and in tune with the Great Mother’s vibe. That protuberant male hardness pokes that soft dreamy woman-ness. Paradise is the original state, within Her embrace, and would continue forever if we were just nice to the Mom. She is the planet. We came from Her, She is the Oneness under our feet, and we someday return to her Herness. But our aboriginal dream is spoiled by the phallic symbol of — well, take your choice, because there are lots of stand-ins for the phallus to fill out this gender dualism: machines, metal, engines, guns, buildings, whiteness, masculinity, military culture, knowledge, and on and on. Take your pick.
That’s the American flavor. It comes in a universal version: sometime after the beginning the Sky God, Yahweh, conquered by brute force the Earth Mother, Gaia. All spirituality in the beginning was simple unity with Her, until He raped Her, and created a bloody, structured, law-filled religion. She is so nice and undemanding. He demands obediance and sacrifice. Mom is sweet. Dad is mean. For millenia we were captives of the wicked step-father, until recently. We are finally free; we have awakened backwards into the Dreamtime.
It is good that it is being stated so clearly and so often, because that makes the choice between this myth and rival stories clearer. This mother-earth myth is weak; it is less then explanatory.
Gaia, essentially a huge womb, explains personhood poorly because she is less than a full person, being alone. She brings forth life in a perpetual virgin birth, but she not only has no husband, she indeed is hostile to husbands. She is alone, except for her children, so her only identity is mother. It is easier to have children than to have a spouse.
She is slave forever to her own fructive cycle, which does not depend on any outside lover, but arises from within her over and over and over. Since there are no companions, there is no other plot, such as, for example, any story YOU might find yourself in. You can’t become her if you are male, and if you are female you wouldn’t want to replicate her cycle. After your birth she can feed you but can do little else. In particular, she does not answer prayer. She is what She is; what She is on the day of your birth is exactly what She is on the day of your death, and all the events in between are up to you. She offers comforts, but little help in fighting bullies. All She asks is that you walk softly on Her, because She sickens easily. It’s really a pallid plot.
I don’t mean to sound so sarcastic. You see, She cannot do more, because her writers didn’t want Her to, and like all characters She is avatar to her writers. A God who is a Person must of necessity be quite a complex character in quite a complex plot. A Person would have to take some attitude toward evil, while respecting human choice. A Person would be capable of anger as well as warmth, and would exude structure as well as fauna. A Person with full-blooded love would be conflicted, and tempted to impose a plot on tragic creation. A plot with a creator-person would contain the ultimate dramatic questions, and the ultimate dramatic tensions: is the human an avatar, or is the god? How can I deliver the avatars from death as long as I am separate from them? And so on.
The cosmic mom story doesn’t really rise to this level. It is simple. It is inadequate. Those who love the Mother-myth and tell Her down through the ages don’t actually want a personal God. They want a womb.
There is so much to say at this point about how the Genesis narrative is superior by Occam’s standard…it accounts for more of the data. And it is not just a Father myth, as opposed to this Mother-myth, but is in fact the Father-myth which cherishes the feminine. Indeed, it is the one myth where the Father starts a plot He has never been in Himself: the marriage, in true companionship, of man and woman. But no time for all that now. Back to the movie…
In the movie, the character of Mother-planet (“Pandora”) is true to the myth at first. When the male protagonist needs a savior from the evil imperialist army he prays to the planet-force. The lady protagonist informs him that “She does not take sides”. At this point, James Cameron (the writer and director), is faithful to the archetype. Later, under assualt from his own narrative pressure, he cheats.
The problem with a God who does not take sides is that there are sides, and we empirically can’t just get along. This does not mean the Father-myth is true and the Mother-myth is not, of course, just that the Father-myth is more ambitious. It tries harder to account for the data.
Cameron cheats: at the last minute, when all seems lost, this Mother answers the prayer. The animals — the agents of nature — who earlier were wild dangerous beasts, turn into allies, fight off the evil army, and the happy couple live happily ever after. The world is saved by a miracle.
The entire victory of good over evil hinges on the worst sin of a dramatist, which used to be called ”deus ex machina”, a god who drops from the machinery — the rigging over the stage — to intervene and finish the story. But that sounds so masculine now…let’s re-name this ancient sin ”dea ex silva”: a goddess from the grove. She may be mom, but She is as much an artistic and logical atrocity as Zeus was.
In the end, in this particular fiction, we needed a God who actually interacts with us. So the archetype of the birthing but non-interventional Mother had to give way, under the force of dramatic necessity, and take on all the characteristics of a traditional deity. I suspect Cameron would usher Her back into the closet, in his worldview, before the whole business takes off on a life of its own, replete with temples and sybils.
You may have surmised by now I’m one of the Male religion people. Quite, if that’s what you want to call vanilla Christianity. But actually this debate between Dad and Mom is not what interests me just now. I supose you could argue that God could be a girl who answers prayer just as well as he could be a guy in a robe and a beard. I suppose. But she never seems to become that in the logic of her own mythology. I’d invite her adherents to wonder why.
What fascinates me in Avatar the movie is that the plot in the structure of the world implies a personal warrior God, and the “world-as-deity” complex just won’t give us that. Cameron, you imperialist, you mined the Gaia myth for all her resources, then, when she was exhausted, you just got dressed and went home. You ravaged her, then didn’t know what to do with her. You ended up with the Father myth at the end of the evening.
Writers, like all religionists, should decide if they want to have their cake or eat it.
“…the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane (….) – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.”
–The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, # 89 (7-8 November 1944).