Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jessa Crispin

Agnosticism and the working writer

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on June 6, 2011.

Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.

Jorge Luis Borges, to the New York Times

Of all religious or philosophical convictions, agnosticism, at first glance, is the least interesting to defend. Like political moderates, agnostics get it from both sides, most of all from committed atheists, who tend to regard permanent agnosticism, in the words of Richard Dawkins, as “fence-sitting, intellectual cowardice.” And yet many of my heroes, from Montaigne to Robert Anton Wilson, have identified themselves with agnosticism as a way of life. (Wilson, in particular, called himself an agnostic mystic, which is what you get when an atheist takes a lot of psychedelic drugs.) And while a defense of the philosophical aspects of agnosticism is beyond the scope of this blog—for that, I can direct you to Thomas Huxley, or even to a recent posting by NPR’s Adam Frank, whose position is not far removed from my own—I think I can talk, very tentatively, about its pragmatic benefits, at least from a writer’s point of view.

I started thinking about this again after reading a blog post by Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin, who relates that she was recently talking about the mystical inclinations of W.B. Yeats when a self-proclaimed atheist piped up: “I always get sad for Yeats for his occult beliefs.” As Crispin discusses at length, such a statement is massively condescending, and also weirdly uninsightful. Say what you will about Yeats’s interest in occultism, but there’s no doubt that he found it spectacularly useful. It provided him with symbolic material and a means of engaging the unseen world that most poets are eventually called to explore. The result was a body of work of permanent importance, and one that wouldn’t exist, at least not in its present form, if his life had assumed a different shape. Was it irrational? Sure. But Wallace Stevens aside, strictly rational behavior rarely produces good poets.

I’ve probably said this before, but I’ll say it again: the life of any writer—and certainly that of a poet—is so difficult, so impractical on a cosmic scale, that there’s often a perverse kind of pragmatism in the details. A writer’s existence may look messy from the outside, but that mess is usually the result of an attempt to pick out what is useful from life and reject the rest, governed by one urgent question: Can I use this? If a writer didn’t take his tools wherever he found them, he wouldn’t survive, at least not as an artist. Which is why any kind of ideology, religious or otherwise, can be hard for a writer to maintain. Writers, especially novelists, tend to be dabblers, not so much out of dilettantism—although that can be a factor as well—as from an endless, obsessive gleaning, a rummaging in the world’s attic for useful material, in both art and life. And this process of feathering one’s nest tends to inform a writer’s work as well. What Christopher Hitchens says of Ian McEwan is true of many novelists:

I think that he did, at one stage in his life, dabble a bit in what’s loosely called “New Age,” but in the end it was the rigorous side that won out, and his novels are almost always patrolling some difficult frontier between the speculative and the unseen and the ways in which material reality reimposes itself.

Agnosticism is also useful for another reason, as Borges points out above: tolerance. A novelist needs to write with empathy about people very different from himself, and to vicariously live all kinds of lives, which is harder to do through the lens of an intractable philosophy. We read Dante and Tolstoy despite, not because of, their ideological convictions, and much of the fire of great art comes from the tension between those convictions and the artist’s reluctant understanding of the world. For a writer, dogma is, or should be, the enemy—including dogma about agnosticism itself. In the abstract, it can seem clinical, but in practice, it’s untidy and makeshift, like the rest of a writer’s life. It’s useful only when it exposes itself to a lot of influences and generates a lot of ideas, most unworkable, but some worthy of being pursued. Like democracy, it’s a compromise solution, the best of a bad lot. It doesn’t work all that well, but for a writer, at least for me, it comes closer to working than anything else.

How I discovered Shambhala

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Tibet by Nicholas Roerich

One of the most profound benefits of being a novelist—and one that I don’t think gets enough attention—is the quality of heightened awareness it creates. When you’re looking for a story idea, your attitude toward the world around you is subtly shifted: material that might never have caught your eye otherwise is captured and assimilated, because it actually has somewhere to go. That’s why I like to start the research for a book in an intermediate state of mind, when I’m open to inspiration without prejudice but also have a sense of what I’m trying to find. It reminds me a little of the famous story of the young Albert Einstein and his Uncle Jakob, as Walter Isaacson tells it:

His uncle Jakob Einstein, the engineer, introduced him to the joys of algebra. “It’s a merry science,” he explained. “When the animal that we are hunting cannot be caught, we call it X temporarily and continue to hunt until it is bagged.”

For authors, X is the germ of a story idea, and the only way to find it is to label it as an unknown, then start hunting for it widely and systematically.

In the case of Eternal Empire, I happen to know exactly when I first encountered the initial seed, which hasn’t always been the case for the novels I’ve written. For The Icon Thief, I hunted ideas by reading everything I could find on art history, starting in the extensive collection of art books at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. A stray reference in Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? by James Elkins, a book I took off the shelf almost at random, led me to the bizarre conspiracy theory involving Marcel Duchamp that Philippe Duboy describes at length in Lequeu. In the end, I didn’t use any material from Duboy’s book, but it set me in the right direction, and I eventually found myself standing outside the door of Étant Donnés. City of Exiles was born in a similar way: I knew that the sequel had to focus on a mystery from the history of Russia, and after another period of wide reading, I settled on the strange case of the Dyatlov Pass. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I first heard about this story—which even has its own movie now—I said: “That’s it.” But it took a lot of exploration to get to that point.

Shambhala by Nicholas Roerich

By contrast, the central theme of Eternal Empire all but fell into my lap, and I have this blog to thank for it. In June of 2011, I wrote a post called “Agnosticism and the Working Writer,” in which I approvingly quoted a piece by the blogger Jessa Crispin, who pointed out that for a poet like W.B. Yeats, mystical beliefs can be enormously useful. Elsewhere in the same essay, to illustrate the potential abuses of magical thinking, Crispin quoted a passage from a recent work of journalism that caught my attention at once:

It’s rumored that Putin has, as journalist Rachel Polonsky relays, “assigned money from the national budget to be spent on another search for the doorway to Shambhala in the Altai region of Siberia, a cosmic energy centre where he likes to pose for photographers, seated half-naked on a horse, like some latter-day Mongol khan.”

And all I could really say was: “Thank you.” I immediately sought out Polonsky’s book, Molotov’s Magic Lantern, and I ultimately used another passage—about Putin’s desire to retrieve a piece of the polar seabed from the Arktika expedition, allegedly because the entrance to the underground kingdom of Shambhala is rumored to exist at the pole—as the epigraph to Eternal Empire.

Regular readers of this blog will understand why I found Shambhala and its modern incarnations so appealing. It’s a story that has meant a lot of things to a lot of people: it began as an allegorical kingdom in Buddhism, a kind of metaphorical empire of enlightened souls, and inspired James Hilton’s fantastical vision of Shangri-La. Later, others began to suspect that Shambhala might actually exist, perhaps as a hidden kingdom in Tibet or elsewhere in Central Asia, which inspired a number of strange expeditions on the part of the Soviet Union and the Nazis, as chronicled by Andrei Znamenski in his fascinating book Red Shambhala. As such, it provided me with a playing field to explore the topics that I find interesting as a novelist: interpretation, the evolution of myth into fact, and the way we impose meaning on the world. It was general enough of a subject to give me latitude as a writer to make it mean whatever I wanted, but also specific enough yield a mine of compelling historical detail. In short, it was perfect. And I was very lucky to stumble across it—but only because I was looking for it, or that elusive X, in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2013 at 8:36 am

Agnosticism and the working writer

with 6 comments

Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.

Jorge Luis Borges, to the New York Times

Of all religious or philosophical convictions, agnosticism, at first glance, is the least interesting to defend. Like political moderates, agnostics get it from both sides, most of all from committed atheists, who tend to regard permanent agnosticism, in the words of Richard Dawkins, as “fence-sitting, intellectual cowardice.” And yet many of my heroes, from Montaigne to Robert Anton Wilson, have identified themselves with agnosticism as a way of life. (Wilson, in particular, called himself an agnostic mystic, which is what you get when an atheist takes a lot of psychedelic drugs.) And while a defense of the philosophical aspects of agnosticism is beyond the scope of this blog—for that, I can direct you to Thomas Huxley, or even to a recent posting by NPR’s Adam Frank, whose position is not far removed from my own—I think I can talk, very tentatively, about its pragmatic benefits, at least from a writer’s point of view.

I started thinking about this again after reading a blog post by Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin, who relates that she was recently talking about the mystical inclinations of W.B. Yeats when a self-proclaimed atheist piped up: “I always get sad for Yeats for his occult beliefs.” As Crispin discusses at length, such a statement is massively condescending, and also weirdly uninsightful. Say what you will about Yeats’s interest in occultism, but there’s no doubt that he found it spectacularly useful. It provided him with symbolic material and a means of engaging the unseen world that most poets are eventually called to explore. The result was a body of work of permanent importance, and one that wouldn’t exist, at least not in its present form, if his life had assumed a different shape. Was it irrational? Sure. But Wallace Stevens aside, strictly rational behavior rarely produces good poets.

I’ve probably said this before, but I’ll say it again: the life of any writer—and certainly that of a poet—is so difficult, so impractical on a cosmic scale, that there’s often a perverse kind of pragmatism in the details. A writer’s existence may look messy from the outside, but that mess is usually the result of an attempt to pick out what is useful from life and reject the rest, governed by one urgent question: Can I use this? If a writer didn’t take his tools wherever he found them, he wouldn’t survive, at least not as an artist. Which is why any kind of ideology, religious or otherwise, can be hard for a writer to maintain. Writers, especially novelists, tend to be dabblers, not so much out of dilettantism—although that can be a factor as well—as from an endless, obsessive gleaning, a rummaging in the world’s attic for useful material, in both art and life. And this process of feathering one’s nest tends to inform a writer’s work as well. What Christopher Hitchens says of Ian McEwan is true of many novelists:

I think that he did, at one stage in his life, dabble a bit in what’s loosely called “New Age,” but in the end it was the rigorous side that won out, and his novels are almost always patrolling some difficult frontier between the speculative and the unseen and the ways in which material reality reimposes itself.

Agnosticism is also useful for another reason, as Borges points out above: tolerance. A novelist needs to write with empathy about people very different from himself, and to vicariously live all kinds of lives, which is harder to do through the lens of an intractable philosophy. We read Dante and Tolstoy despite, not because of, their ideological convictions, and much of the fire of great art comes from the tension between those convictions and the artist’s reluctant understanding of the world. For a writer, dogma is, or should be, the enemy—including dogma about agnosticism itself. In the abstract, it can seem clinical, but in practice, it’s untidy and makeshift, like the rest of a writer’s life. It’s useful only when it exposes itself to a lot of influences and generates a lot of ideas, most unworkable, but some worthy of being pursued. Like democracy, it’s a compromise solution, the best of a bad lot. It doesn’t work all that well, but for a writer, at least for me, it comes closer to working than anything else.

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