Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Rosicrucians

“Never trust anything you read online…”

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(Note: This post is the fifteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 14. You can read the earlier installments here.)

As I’ve noted before, I ended up writing a novel about the Rosicrucians mostly because they were available. There was a time, believe it or not, when the Rosicrucian novel was a thriving literary genre, with contributions by authors ranging from Percy Bysshe Shelley to Edward Bulwer-Lytton. And although the Rosicrucians were, in many ways, the prototype of the contemporary idea of a shadowy secret society, they’ve since gone out of fashion, despite the recent surge of interest in conspiracy fiction. The true paranoids have long since turned their attention to the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Priory of Sion, and the Templars, while the Rosicrucians have fallen into relative neglect: there hasn’t been a major Rosicrucian novel in decades, partially because their history and symbolism have been appropriated by their more sinister successors. As a result, when I began to research The Icon Thief, I found myself confronted with a huge amount of material, most of which hadn’t been fully explored in a long time.

That doesn’t mean the task was easy. Once I started to dig into the available resources, I realized that the Rosicrucians had been neglected for a reason: they weren’t particularly interesting, at least not at first glance. The original Rosicrucian manifestos, the Fama Fraternitatis and the Confessio Fraternitatis, made a huge impact when they were published in Germany in the seventeenth century, but reading them now is like trying to rewatch Easy Rider: what was revolutionary at the time now seems clichéd, pretentious, and deathly dull. Umberto Eco was able to write divertingly on the Rosicrucians for ten pages of Foucault’s Pendulum, but I had to make them interesting for the length of an entire novel. In the end, then, I found myself doing exactly what a proper paranoid ought to do: I went ruthlessly over the whole body of Rosicrucian literature, plucking the good stuff and discarding the rest, until I ended up with a version of Rosicrucianism that I hoped would hold a reader’s attention, not to mention my own.

Much of what I found ended up in Chapter 14 of The Icon Thief, in which Maddy, having been told to look into the Rosicrucians by her old mentor, goes over their history with her friend Tanya, a researcher at the Frick. It’s a talky chapter that is blatantly designed to deliver a large amount of information to the reader, but here’s the thing: the result comes very close to the heart of why I wanted to write The Icon Thief in the first place. This is a book about how we interpret the world around us, especially in history and art, and this chapter is where the theme is really introduced for the first time, in the form of one of those lengthy, tongue-in-cheek dialogues that I loved in Eco and have been trying to recreate ever since. As a narrative device, this kind of theater of ideas has its limits, as Tom Wolfe was right to point out, and I’ve since tried to walk back my own fiction from the kind of storytelling that it represents. But I’d say that the version presented in this scene works pretty well, and along with Maddy’s later, more elaborate speculations, it’s the part of the novel that I enjoy rereading the most.

Which isn’t to say that it didn’t need a lot of help. As I’ll discuss later on, I had to use all the narrative tricks at my disposal to make these extended discursive passages more interesting, and you’ll see quite a few of them here. I set the scene in Bryant Park, not far from where I used to work, to avoid yet another long indoor conversation, and did what I could to liven up the figure of Tanya, a fairly colorless presence in the first draft, by turning her a cheerful caricature of a Williamsburg hipster at the end of the last decade. (I also hint that she’s of Russian extraction, if only because I wanted to have at least one Russian character in this novel who wasn’t a criminal or worse.) I also let Tanya tell one of my favorite stories, which I first encountered in John Seely Brown’s The Social Life of Information, about the researcher who methodically sniffed eighteenth-century letters for traces of vinegar, which indicated that they had been sent from regions suffering from outbreaks of cholera. The story may be apocryphal, but Tanya’s point is a good one: the data we see online sometimes only captures a fraction of the real information available. And Maddy is about to learn this the hard way…

How I learned to love the Rosicrucians

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Why did I write a novel about the Rosicrucians? Mostly because they were available. The recent renaissance in conspiracy fiction has made it hard to find a secret society that hasn’t been done to death: Dan Brown alone has made it impossible to write about the Masons, the Priory of Sion, or the Illuminati—even if Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea hadn’t already done so—and Umberto Eco definitively took the Templars off the table, even if a wide range of authors have done their best to bring them back. As a result, when I began to think seriously about writing a conspiracy novel, and especially an homage to Foucault’s Pendulum, I realized that the Rosicrucians had one big advantage: there hadn’t been a major novel about them in years. Consequently, when most of us, including me, think of the Rosicrucians, the first thing that comes to mind is the modern incarnation about which Woody Allen says in Annie Hall: “I can’t get with any religion that advertises in Popular Mechanics.”

And yet much of the world was obsessed with the Rosicrucians for decades, almost from the moment they first appeared in a pair of manifestos published anonymously in Germany in the seventeenth century. The manifestos are famously impenetrable—I’m not sure I ever managed to get through all of them—but the story they tell set the standard for all secret societies to come: a brotherhood of learned men, originally eight in number, later thirty-six, quietly preparing for a revolution that would transform all of Europe. What kind of revolution? It isn’t entirely clear—and part of the fascination of the Rosicrucian tradition is that it promises so much while spelling out so little. The legendary founder of the Rosicrucians, a mysterious figure later known as Christian Rosenkreuz, emerges from a background of alchemy, magic, and Eastern mysticism, and whatever the Rosicrucians were planning was evidently based on a similar body of secret knowledge that, once revealed, would change the world forever.

The really strange thing is that the Rosicrucians did start a revolution, despite the inconvenient fact that they probably never existed. The idea of a secret society of learned men working to save the soul of civilization, which appears for the first time in the manifestoes, is incredibly compelling, even if the details remained obscure. It isn’t surprising, then, that readers across Europe hastened to found Rosicrucian societies of their own, like kids who start a secret club based on one they see in a comic book. On the scientific side, the manifestoes were the inspiration for a number of groups, dedicated to natural philosophy, that ultimately resulted in the Royal Society, and everyone from Descartes to Newton was accused of being a Rosicrucian. Meanwhile, Rosicrucian orders dedicated to magic and alchemy were founded in most countries, Rosicrucian imagery was appropriated by the Freemasons and other fraternal orders, and Rosicrucian novels were written by everyone from Edward Bulwer-Lytton (of “It was a dark and stormy night” fame) to Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, and eventually, interest in the Rosicrucians began to wane, supplanted by more exotic and terrifying societies, although the Rosicrucian strain in conspiracy theories never entirely went away. (Witness, for instance, the curious career of Walter Arensberg, who plays a small but crucial role in The Icon Thief, and about whom I’ll have much more to say later.) And as I continued to dig, I found that the Rosicrucians would take me, as a writer, in a lot of fascinating directions. Most promisingly, in light of my intended project, the Rosicrucians had a surprising influence on both the history of art and the history of Russia, where, as I learned from James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe, the Rosicrucians in Moscow were the first of the secret philosophical societies that would play such an important role in Russia’s evolution. It was a novelist’s dream: a genuinely mysterious tradition, long neglected, but rich in symbols and secrets, that would bind together much of the story I had in mind. And that’s when I decided that it was finally time to give the world another Rosicrucian novel.

This was all very well, but I still lacked one crucial element: an artist who would tie all these threads together. And as I’ll explain tomorrow, it was by the purest accident that I arrived at the final piece of the puzzle, the man whom André Breton called “the most intelligent man of the twentieth century.”

A preview of coming attractions

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After several weeks of focusing on the new house, this blog, and a few interim projects, events are finally starting to pick up on the writing front. It’s been a month since I delivered City of Exiles, the sequel to The Icon Thief, to my publisher, and I’ve just heard that my editor finished reading it the other day. Advance word is very positive, but there will always be notes, which I’m expecting to receive soon. At that point, I hope to have the rewrite done within the next few weeks, with the goal of delivering the final draft shortly before Thanksgiving. Two days after that, I’m heading off on a vacation to Hong Kong and China, so this month is looking to be pretty intense.

In the meantime, things are moving at a nice clip with The Icon Thief, the galleys of which went out to a handful of advance readers last week. My author page on Facebook is also up and running, so please drop by when you have a chance. Finally, and perhaps best of all, an advance book trailer for the novel is now online. Authors and editors seem divided on whether a trailer adds any value to a novel’s marketing campaign, but it was a lot of fun to put together, and I hope to share another one with you soon. (The music, incidentally, is Claude Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral, which is meaningful in itself: Debussy, according to certain sources, was a Rosicrucian. But that’s a story for another day.)

Written by nevalalee

October 28, 2011 at 8:40 am

Don’t write what you know: the power of indifference

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Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.

—T.S. Eliot (not Emily Dickinson)

One of the toughest things for any writer to learn is that what you find personally fascinating may not be of equal interest to your readers. It’s so hard a lesson, in fact, that many writers never figure it out. This is the real reason why most political or religious fiction tends to be pretty bad: it isn’t because the ideas are wrong, necessarily, but because the writer’s faith in his own message leaves him incapable of making the tough decisions that fiction requires. And this applies to personal experience as much as to political conviction. Many of us start writing to express ourselves and the things we care about, but we’re just too close to the events of our own lives, and the subjects we find important, to see them with the proper objectivity. David Mamet, in On Directing Film, is harsh but fair:

A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.

This advice is so unlike what we’re often taught as writers that it’s worth emphasizing how strange it is. From our formative years onward, we’re told to write what we know, and implicitly encouraged to tackle subjects that we find personally meaningful. A writer who advances straight from creative writing courses to the standard MFA program and teaching career may never think of fiction in any other way. Yet I strongly believe that the best writing is achieved through a stance of objectivity, and even detachment or indifference, toward the underlying subject. It’s only from such a position that you can make the hard choices to cut a scene, to revise a plot point into a drastically different form, or even to abandon a project entirely.

In short, you’re often the last person capable of judging whether your work is of interest or not, unless you’ve consciously chosen a subject about which you can afford to be objective. A few examples from my own work might be relevant here. My first novel, The Icon Thief, has an important subplot revolving around the Rosicrucians, an alleged secret society founded in Germany in the years following the Reformation. I chose to write about them partially because, in spite of the recent surge in conspiracy fiction, there hasn’t been a major Rosicrucian novel in decades. And soon after I began researching, I realized why: the Rosicrucians aren’t especially interesting. But it was my original indifference toward the subject that allowed me to survey the available sources, pick out the best parts, and come up with a story that is—hopefully—engaging to an outside reader.

And whenever I’ve tried to write about a subject that was actually meaningful to me, the results haven’t been very good. Over the past three years, I’ve submitted six stories to Analog, and they’ve bought five. The five successful ones were written rather coldly, almost from scratch, with an eye toward finding an interesting subject and turning it into a salable story, while the sixth was inspired by a topic that I find personally fascinating—the concept of deep time, as symbolized by Yucca Mountain and the Clock of the Long Now. Not coincidentally, it failed to sell at Analog, or anywhere else, and an anthology in which it was supposed to appear unexpectedly fell through. And while I can blame a number of other factors, I suspect that by starting with a subject I wanted to talk about, and some ideas I wanted to share, I wasn’t able to shape the narrative with the ruthlessness required to tell an interesting story.

So does this mean that a writer needs to work without passion? Not at all—except that the passion should be focused on the act of writing itself, and not the underlying subject. There’s plenty of room for irrational enthusiasm in a writer’s life, which isn’t a career that a truly rational person would ever attempt, but that exuberance needs to be set aside once the time comes to consider the work in progress. It’s a difficult balancing act, but a crucial one, and the easiest way to achieve it is to seek out subjects for their storytelling potential, not their inherent interest or importance. And the biggest surprise? Over the course of writing a story, you’ll grow to love these subjects, too, and they’ll ultimately become part of your life after all—but at the end, not the beginning.

Written by nevalalee

October 6, 2011 at 10:42 am

The story of a cover

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Back in February, my editor emailed to say that my publisher was holding an art meeting soon to discuss the cover for The Icon Thief, which at that point was still known as Kamera. He invited me to put together my thoughts on possible designs, as well as some comparable covers, and, obsessive that I am, I obliged with a memo of nine long paragraphs, complete with illustrations. (I thought briefly about including a quick mockup I’d put together in Photoshop, but thankfully refrained from doing so.) The response to my ideas at NAL was very respectful, but I had no way of knowing what the result would be, or how much input I would ultimately have in the process.

In my memo, I noted that the novel has three major plot elements: Marcel Duchamp, Russia, and the Rosicrucians. (If I haven’t spoken much about these topics on this blog, it’s because I want to keep the plot a surprise, although I expect I’ll be posting more on these subjects as the publication date approaches.) Among the corresponding images I proposed were the exterior of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Duchamp’s Étant Donnés is located; an overlay of some Russian text; and the rosy cross. I also included images of a few covers that I thought were comparable: An Instance of the Fingerpost, Foucault’s Pendulum, The English Assassin by Daniel Silva, and The Messiah Secret by James Becker (the latter two of which, like my own novel, are published by NAL’s Signet imprint).

After that, I didn’t hear anything about the cover for months, until last week, when I received the rather remarkable image that I posted yesterday. Looking at it now, I’m gratified by how much of my input was reflected in the final version, accidentally or otherwise, and how many of the novel’s themes are visible in one form or another. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is here, of course, as well as the red cross of the Rosicrucians, along with some Russian text—evidently a stock photo of an old manuscript, but still gorgeous—visible in the background. Above all, the title of the novel is beautifully rendered. (Incidentally, the meeting where the cover design was discussed was also where the subject of a possible title change was first raised, a fix I now wish I’d made years earlier.)

As for the other symbols, they were chosen more for their visual impact than anything else, although they contain subtle messages of their own. The cherub on the upper right looks ahead to House of Passages, the second installment in the series, in which cherubim of a very different kind play an important symbolic role. On the upper left, we have a view of Peles Castle in Romania, which doesn’t figure in the story yet, but may have a role to play in the future, as the action of the series moves ever eastward. As for the red cross…well, this is an extremely important symbol, and its true significance won’t become clear to readers of the novel until almost the very last page. For now, though, you’ll have to wait a bit longer.

Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2011 at 9:52 am

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