Saturday, May 29, 2010

Oscillate Wildly

At the end of my last chapter, I wrote a lengthy section describing how, after a certain meeting at a certain person’s house in the last week of December of 2003, one of the people who was present came to the wild but oddly irrefutable conclusion that one of the others was actually Satan incarnate; and the person in question seemed to be agreeing with this assessment, as far as was in his power.

Then I described how, after I returned home that night, a shadow appeared on my body; how it followed me around the room; and how the source of its origin remained mysterious until the moment that it disappeared. Then I gave a long, volatile, highly-charged, and, unfortunately, not very clear explanation of how I had given so much authority to my own belief in the supernatural that its powers were almost equal that of mine; that it acquired a kind of sentience; that it began reinforcing my convictions through external means, by actually causing the accidents, betrayals, horrors, visions, and fulfillments of prophecies, which I had experienced in the last five months; and now, at last, was beginning to encroach on the physical world through physical means.

In the revision stage of the chapter, I appended this passage, which proved to be the key to the rest:

The savage lancet parasite that dwells within a morbid mind, to what end does it drive it, save to death?[1] To what dark uses is that man employed, whose soul is concentrated in a single thought! Who knows what gnaws at him, and why? Nor how, in such an ecstasy of ease, he casts himself headlong into the mouth of hell! For though conspiring in his own demise, his steps have ceased to be his own; and perhaps only in those final clouded seconds of his loathsome life, as inextinguishable fires reach their blazing arms to meet him, and the worm within becomes the worm without, does he at last behold that treacherous, conniving agent for whom hell is home; and, with a final, soul-shattering cry, in which all the miseries of mortal living, and the terrors of eternity, are bound, discovers the name of that malignant creature which for so long shared his skull; that creature which, no longer captive to an earthly apparatus, gazes coolly round in freedom at the world it has rejoined.

Ah, foolish Boze! If only you had spent as much time seeking after Jesus, as you did in seeking after tokens of His coming! If only you had looked up from your charts and maps, but once, and seen the fire in His eyes!

Sadly, I bungled the ending (at least on the first public reading) by mangling the passage on the sentience of ideas. Reading it, you wouldn’t have known what I was talking about. My intention was to explain the process by which an idea can take on consciousness and power; how it becomes, in effect, a self-created, self-sustaining demonism, whose relation to the true demonic is mysterious, but at least in my view highly probable. In the future I should remember that when I’m introducing unusual, convoluted, and (apparently) controversial ideas into a story, expositing on those ideas in an oblique and convoluted manner only further fogs the understanding of my readers. They won’t even get to the part where they find it controversial if they miss my meaning altogether. And I want my meaning to be clear. People will find fault with my convictions here, but I want them to grapple with it, mull it over, ponder it at length. I don’t believe the Holy Spirit gave me so much insight into the psychology of monomaniacs and men of morbid mind for the sake of my own acquisition of knowledge.

And the last part is convoluted in thought, but not so much in expression, which I like. It’s grand and full of passion, which of course I also like, and it would work very well in the context of the chapter if I hadn’t tried too hard and gone too far, immediately before. This is exactly what Carl Hovde was speaking of in his introduction to the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of Moby-Dick: Attempts at writing in a soaring and sublime style are doomed to failure if they haven’t been prepared for in the rest of the text through striking characterization and a scintillating brilliance with ideas. It almost works… almost. But the parts that came before it need to be clearer. By the time we get to the emotional part of the passage, I’ve already lost the audience way back in the exposition.

“We know screw-ups are an essential part of making something good,” says Lee Unkrich, the director of the forthcoming Toy Story 3. “That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.” Agreed! You can’t be afraid to make mistakes; you won’t get anywhere at all that way.

But, as it happens, God has been speaking to me rather constantly about the need for clarity within the last two weeks. Shortly before I began my seventh chapter, He released me from a suffocating focus on my style. Essentially He said, “Your style is very good as it is. Let it be what it is; let it go.” Then, a few days ago, before I had even finished the eighth chapter, He actually started recommending that I reread Harry Potter and listen to secular, popular music. I’ve been talking with God for a long enough time now to know when it’s Him and when it’s me, and I can promise it was Him (however blasphemous that might appear to certain people here). Indeed, this revelation proved prescient not long afterwards, when certain portions of the present chapter proved too convoluted, or at least too muddy, and even Tyler suggested that I take some time off and reread The Goblet of Fire.

God is telling me that for too long now I’ve placed almost my whole understanding of what it means to be a great writer on how I said what I said. It seems that when He promised me that level of anointing, eleven years ago, He wasn’t merely speaking of a certain kind of style. Of course I still believe that’s important: How a person says something is just as important as what he or she says, and the reason I couldn’t have written that emotional passage at the end of the last chapter in any other way is because my intention was to convey what it looks and feels like when a person is suffering from a psychological collapse—in other words, descending into hell. It feels very grand, but you’re living on fumes; yet those fumes have the power to eat you from within. I think it’s pretty fair to say that I’ve suffered emotional calamities unknown to the majority of people, so if I want to describe what those calamities were like in any manner approaching accuracy, I can’t portray them in a normal way. And while that will certainly alienate some people, there are others who will really get it; who will love it all the more, in fact, for having gotten it; and who may even, for the first time in their lives, feel truly understood.

At the same time, the majority of people won’t understand the true horrors of those emotional calamities unless I can learn how to relate them in a way that they can grasp; just as most people have never know what it’s like to be trapped in a pillar of Eternal Night, but understood the emotional ramifications readily enough in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

But I think I will write at least part of my next chapter from the perspective of Booth; first, because my story is beginning to encompass so many different perspectives, that I need to have three pairs of eyes in place in order to describe what I want to describe in the next chapter, which is full of horrors; second, because I like the idea of a chapter written in the style of the Christ Clone Trilogy, with shifting narration and quick, short moments of suspense, which inevitably intensifies the sense of something dark and ominous at work; and third because it would be helpful for people to see that my shift into grandiosity and convolution at the end of the previous chapter wasn’t so much a result of personal quirks on the part of the writer, as it was a necessary reflection of my internal state during the section in question. Booth was always precise and matter of fact. Showing a scene from his perspective will solidify that what’s happening at our school isn’t just an extension of my own exaggerated fancies, and will bring it into starker contrast through his simple and straightforward telling, so that it will become all the scarier for being so relatable and real.

And I aim to maintain that starkness through the rest of the “high school” chapters. Of the eight chapters which I’ve so far written, the fourth and the sixth have been the ones which inspired the fiercest, most burning affection in the hearts of my readers. Yet the odd thing about the sixth one, “Philosophers and Prophets,” is that it managed to be simple, and breezy, and quick, and yet at the same time complicated, dense, and multi-layered. More than one person compared it to Harry Potter; yet it wasn’t lacking in meaning, or exposition, or atmosphere, or character, or emotion, or subtlety, or any of the other qualities which God has been trying to tell me constitute a work of genius, apart from mere style. Indeed, it had a good deal more of several of those qualities, than almost any of my other chapters, and it was far subtler. I don’t understand how that happened; it lacks nearly all my excessive tendencies, and this was at a time when I was inalterably driven to excess. I have, as always, oscillated wildly between extremes.

[1] The lancet liver parasite, or, as it is also commonly known, the lancet fluke (dicrocelium dendriticum). This parasite, first discovered in 1819, develops and breeds in the liver of cows and sheep. When freed against its will through excretion, it will invade the body of an ant and seize its ganglion, a cluster of nerve cells at the bottom of the esophagus. The ganglion it then uses to manipulate the ant’s actions. Night after night, at sunset, the zombified ant is drawn away from the rest of its colony and wanders out into the field by itself, where it climbs to the top of a blade of grass. This it will continue to do until freed from its appalling existence by a passing cow or sheep, which, eating it, returns the parasite to its place of origin.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Old Man's Voice

(in the corner of an old bookstore; rain)

Booth was never quite as skeptical as I imagined him to be, but as his eyes continually wandered during conversations, there were times when I accused him wrongfully of being bored and apathetic towards the subjects which concerned me most. “Are you listening, Booth?” I pleaded, almost in despair.

“Yeah, why do you think she’s going to win?” he inquired, with genuine interest in his voice.

“Because,” I explained. “God says He wants Priscilla to win. Priscilla will win.”

“Well, I think that’s kind of unfair to the other people,” said Booth. “I mean, why wouldn’t God want Corey to win? Why wouldn’t God want Holden to win? Is it because God likes Priscilla more than Corey? What do you think Corey would feel about that?”

“I don’t even want to think about what Corey would say,” I replied, with a nauseated shake of my head.

“No, Boze,” said Booth. “I think the truth is, someone else wants Priscilla to win the election. Really badly. Someone who doesn’t like Corey. You really need to consider the fact that… WHOA!” he shouted, with an abruptness that was startling. “Finnish Magick!”

All unawares, we had wandered into the “New Age” section of the bookstore. Booth pointed to a row near the topmost shelf to indicate the book he had spotted. He reached up to grab it.

At that moment, something very strange happened.

There was a shuffling from the darkness in the dusky regions underneath the stairwell. Then, as we looked on, confused, a man stepped out—a weathered, older man who wore a trench coat buttoned to the neck. He appeared to have been lurking in the stairwell since before we arrived, but the suddenness of his appearance, and its timing, raised in both of us the specter of alarm.

“You laugh,” he said gravely. “But as a matter of fact, ‘magick’ is still practiced in the primitive regions of Northern Finland, especially up in the Lapp area.”

So saying, he removed his fishing hat, bowed slightly (almost imperceptibly), and left the room.

“Who was that man?” I whispered.

“I don’t know,” said Booth. “But that was scary.”

We stared at the doorway for a long moment in silence.

“Do you think we should go try and talk to him?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Booth again. “How did that man know so much about Finland? He knows more about it than I do. And he looks like another Mr. Blankenship.”

“Let’s go,” I said. Booth handed me the book on magic and we hurried from the room.

We found him in the folklore section, browsing professorially through an encyclopedia of spells and incantations.

“I’m sorry,” Booth prefaced politely, “but we were wondering how you knew so much about Finland. Have you lived there?”

“I’m actually not Finnish,” said the man, “but I do teach anthropology at HISD. Unfortunately, Finland isn’t a course of study.”

“What were you saying earlier about Finnish magic?” asked Booth.

“Well, it’s interesting,” he said, in a variation on his previous remarks, “because primitive Shamanism is still practiced in certain parts of the world, particularly in the northern regions. In fact, you have a trend of Shamanism in different areas of Finland, but it’s different from the kind of Shamanism practiced, say, by the Japanese, Inuits, and Siberians.

“If you want to know more about Finnish magick,” he went on, with the fluidity of someone well-acquainted with the subject, “keep in mind that root Shamanism and witchcraft are completely different. Finnish magick has its roots in Shamanism, not witchcraft. In certain parts of Finland, particularly up north, as I mentioned, the natives practice herbalism, healing, shape-shifting… Finnish shamans have methods of attaining altered states of consciousness with the ultimate goal of gaining power over their environment. They claim the power to control winds. They believe knowing the ‘true’ name for something gives you power over it. They also communicate with the haltija, which is the spirit of something, what you would call its essence.”

“Wow,” said Booth, in a soft tone of wonder.

“It’s nature-based, but very practical,” the man said quietly. “A fascinating subject.”

Herbalism… shape-shifting… healing… all very tempting to a boy of little means. The old man’s voice was like the creaking of timbers on a ship in a high wind. Hearing it, you wished that you might stand and talk to him forever, so to hear him speak the more. I felt my resolution wavering. His intellect was so formidable, his tone so calming, and there in the semi-darkness fostered by the rain outside the windows all the lesser, insubstantial details of the morning—fractals, Amy’s eyes, French toast, this book of magic—rose to new and unexampled prominence. It was a curious feeling, but I felt like everything that I had seen that day had led me to this place. Had the man not stepped forth out of shadows, out of nothing? Did he not know more of Finns than Booth? Was this the road assigned to me, and did I run the risk of thwarting providence by turning round and going back the other way? And if, as seemed so obvious, my steps were truly being guided by another, why did I feel so frightened? Why was the muffle of my own heart beating all that sounded now within the hollow of my ears?

The old man took the book on Finnish Magick in his hands a moment and regarded it with a loving but sober expression. “If you want to know more on the subject,” he said, “you should read this. There’s also a book called Entering the Circle. You can find it at The Magick Cauldron bookstore on the corner of Westheimer and Montrose—the largest supplier for Wicca, magick, and alternative religions in the world.”

He handed me the book again and left. I regarded it for a long moment in silence.

Finally, a voice spoke. It was Booth’s. Far-off and faint it sounded, like a murmur on the wind.

“You hold it now in your hands,” he said. “The very fate of your future.”

“Am I supposed to buy it, Booth?” I asked. “Is this the next chapter of my story? Is this where it’s leading?”

“I have a feeling,” he said, “that we could have stood there and talked to that man for days. That was but a taste of everything he knows.”

“It’s really scary,” I agreed. “I don’t like what I’m feeling. It would be so easy just to put the book away and walk away. But if I buy it, which I’m tempted to do, then I’m trapped. There is no turning back.”

“Do you think he could have been a Satanic plant?” Booth asked.

“Nothing could be more likely,” I replied.

“Well, we’ll put it away,” he said gently. “We’ll never speak of it again.”

“Yes…” I said. “Yes.”

At that moment, something in the air around me shifted. It was as though a spell had been broken. All the noises of the bookstore and the sound of rain came flooding in again. A light came on inside my mind. I gave a final glance at the book in my hands and nearly dropped it with loathing.

Not more than a moment later, we heard the voice of Mrs. Pauley calling from the room next door. The bus was waiting for us outside. It was time to go home.

“Well, you passed the test,” said Booth, in a congratulatory voice, as we stood on the curb in the rain.

My face began to soften and a light shone in my eyes. I turned and looked at him and nodded, smiling.

“You’re right,” I said. “For now, at least, and maybe not for ever. But at least this once, I passed.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

Addendums and Predictions

I had to take down the end of my eighth chapter because the temptation continually to go back and rewrite it had proven irresistible. However, the full chapter is finally finished, and I don't intend to change another word. It's a turning point in the novel, just as it was in my own life; I haven't yet written anything so emotional as this. And I've gotten much better at being truthful, without being expository. This is very much an end-times chapter.

But we've come to it at last - the second half of Senior year; it only escalates from here.

My intention is to post another entry, either tonight or tomorrow, on the importance of popular music. Knowing how these things tend to go, I'll probably post a lot of links to songs by the Killers. So, you can look forward to that.

P. S. This is why I love Ross Douthat, and why I loathe the "historical" Jesus:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Waves and Billows: Or, The Perilous Perturbations of Evil

Today’s text comes from the second chapter of Jonah:

I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord,
And He heard me;
Out of the belly of hell cried I, and Thou heardest my voice.
For Thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas;
And the floods compassed me about:
All Thy billows and Thy waves passed over me.
Then I said, I am cast out of Thy sight;
Yet will I look again toward Thy holy temple.
The waters compassed me about, even to the soul:
The depth closed me round about,
The weeds were wrapped about my head.
I went down to the bottom of the mountains;
The earth with her bars was about me forever:
Yet hast Thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord:
And my prayer came in unto Thee, into Thy holy temple.
They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.
But I will sacrifice unto Thee with the voice of thanksgiving;
I will pay that I have vowed.
Salvation is of the Lord.

“If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Well, the drama’s done—or just begun, more like. I’ve finished Chapters 5, 6, and 7, and, barring a few superficial adjustments to the opening of Chapter 7, can account them finished. They were well-received.

Yet a higher mountain looms. In saying that, I’m dimly conscious of a story I remember reading some years ago in The Thousand and One Nights. I believe it was the third in the series given under the title “The Story of the Three Kalendars.” Tempting though it is to tell the story over, all that matters for the present purposes is what transpires after the Third Kalendar departs from the island on which the story began. The captain of the ship on which he’s sailing warns him never to utter the name of Allah, under any circumstances. So of course he does. After seven days’ journey, a gigantic IRON MOUNTAIN rises up out of the midst of the ocean. “By Allah! That is a huge mountain,” cries the Kalendar. The captain disappears in a violent puff of Luciferian smoke. The metal joists and nails which hold the ship together, drawn by the inexorable magnetism of the massive mountain, send it splintering to doom.

And, in a way, that’s kind of a metaphor for what I’m trying to describe within the present chapter. Chapter Eight, December of my Senior year, and all the world to darkness turning. The Count of Monte Cristo warned his son, “You will bask in the sunlight one moment, and be shattered on the rocks the next.” This was my rock; this was my mountain. I was lost in the midst of the sea. It was only by an act of greatest grace that I emerged again.

The question I have to examine in this chapter is, “How did this happen? How can a man be steeped so far in evil that he can’t get out again?” For it wasn’t evil itself that drew me; it was something subtler.

The starting point for my examination of this topic will be Coleridge, who in one of his lectures on Shakespeare had this to say:

“When once the mind, in despite of the remonstrating conscience, has abandoned its free power to a haunting impulse or idea, then whatever tends to give depth or vividness to this idea or indefinite imagination, increases its despotism, and in the same proportion renders the reason and free will ineffectual. Now, fearful calamities, sufferings, horrors, and hair-breadth escapes will have this effect, far more than even sensual pleasure and prosperous accidents. Hence the evil consequences of sin in such cases, instead of retracting or deterring the sinner, goad him on to his destruction. This is the moral of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the true solution of this paragraph—not any overruling decree of divine wrath, but the tyranny of this sinner’s own evil imagination, which he has voluntarily chosen as his master.”

What Coleridge seems to be saying is that the imagination can precipitate a person’s downfall. He had evidently seen this principle in practice. You begin, as I began, by abandoning your mind to the power of one trance-like, irresistible idea. This idea can be something as innocuous as an understanding of the verity of prophecy (as it was in Macbeth’s case, and in mine), but in the particular kind of psychological collapse herein described, the belief thus arrived at is always supernatural.

Then: “Whatever tends to give depth or vividness to this idea… increases its despotism, and renders the reason and free will ineffectual.” The idea begins reinforcing itself. I’m reminded of scenes in two movies; the first hasn’t come out yet, but it’s featured in the shorter trailer for the film Inception: “Do you know what is the most powerful virus known to man? An idea.” True! Christopher Nolan (the director) would certainly know. An idea is a virus that becomes a parasite. The second is from the movie Rope (1948), in which James Stewart notes, “It’s odd, isn’t it, the way the mind can pyramid simple facts into wild fantasies?” An idea can acquire such tyrannous power over the intellect that it begins reinforcing itself… like in that, frankly terrifying, scene at the end of the children’s movie Fern Gully, where an anthropomorphic blob of oil, played by Tim Curry, gains sentience and actually starts commanding the logging vehicle in which he was birthed. You get on that treadmill and you can’t get off. When once your thoughts begin to shape and run themselves, your puny, feeble fists of opposition are of little consequence.

For example, had I not already been seized by a predominating idea, before Senior year ever started, I would have looked askance, as no doubt almost everyone else did, at first, at the unnatural abundance of unworldly circumstances. As it was, I was caught in a web of my own devisings: I already more than half thought life could be a story, with a tangible beginning, middle, and end; I was at least open to the possibility of prophecy, demonic possession, and the near end of the world. Had I not been, I could have ignored those potent manifestations of corroborating evidence, but I did not. It was not without reason that [[ Petunia ]] and [[ Mortimer]] both chose me as the one person in whom they confided their mutual, but separately-acquired conviction that they were destined to bring about the end of the world, for I was already more open than most to the possibility of such a circumstance, and they knew it. My openness to these ideas allowed not a few of them to seize me, as the iacet parasite can seize the mind of an ant and lead it, forthwith, into the waiting belly of a cow. This is appalling to think on, but it’s almost as though I had grown a tumor with a mouth and arms entirely its own with which it fed itself apart. Both of the previous examples were horrific, and they ought to be, for these are horrifying things. The power of a rogue idea to feed itself on unembodied air can break a person’s mind.

Robert Burton also ponders the effects of imaginative sin in the first section of his Anatomy of Melancholy, which by a happy chance I have been lately reading. This is discussed in two separate subsections, the first of which is (again, conveniently) entitled, “Passions and Perturbations of the Mind, How They Cause Melancholy.”

"As by wicked incredulity many men are hurt… we find in our experience, by the same means many are relieved… So diversely doth this phantasy of ours affect, turn and wind, so imperiously command our bodies, which as another Proteus, or a chameleon, can take all shapes; and is of such force (as Ficinus adds) that it can work upon others, as well as ourselves. How can otherwise blear eyes in one man cause the like affliction in another? Why doth one man’s yawning make another yawn?... Why doth a carcass bleed when the murderer is brought before it, some weeks after the murder hath been done?... So that I may certainly conclude this strong conceit or imagination is astrum hominis, and the rudder of this our ship, which reason should steer, but, overborn by phantasy, cannot manage, and so suffers itself, and this whole vessel of ours to be overruled, and often overturned."

In the latter section, which happily deals with prophecy, apparitions, strange voices, and virtually every other phenomenon I had to deal with during my Senior year, Burton tries to arrest the fears of those who suffer from such things by assuring them that their quarrel is not with the devil, or with God. No, the father of these unbearable torments is the brain’s melancholy. “The spirits [humors] being darkened, and the substance of the brain cloudy and dark, all the objects thereof appear terrible, and the mind itself, by those dark, obscure, gross fumes, ascending from black humors, is in continual darkness, fear, and sorrow; divers terrible monstrous fictions in a thousand shapes and apparitions occur, with violent passions, by which the brain and phantasy are troubled and eclipsed.”

More will shortly follow, but for now I would only note how this corroborates my initial sense that the “moral” of this chapter, if there is one, will be similar to the one which Melville gives us in the “Try-Works” chapter of Moby-Dick: “Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man!... Believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. Tomorrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler relief… Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee, as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe, but there is a woe that is madness.”

And that’s what happened to me, is it not? I looked too long. So it is with the sun, whose light, among its other nobler uses, warms and illuminates; there’s a generous, untiring benevolence in the undiscriminating blazon of its glow. And the sun is a god, after his fashion; not as fair, but in his own way greater than the moon, and brighter than the stars.

But woe to him who seeks to subvert, for his own uses, that which was created for our good! To stare too long or too directly into it, destroys the retinas; clouds the clear vision with vivid and thick-swarming hallucinations. Those are the gnats of the judgment of your hubris: Seek to see what no man fully sees, to do what no man can attempt—and bring the plagues of Egypt on your head. He will not be commanded; nor will constant searching ever yield to you his secrets, son of man!

For now, though, I would fain go further in this matter. Tomorrow, Lord permitting, we will continue with our examination of the root causes of imaginative evil.