Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘T.E. Lawrence

Quote of the Day

with one comment

It might have been heroic to have offered up my own life for a cause in which I could not believe: but it was a theft of souls to make others die in sincerity for my graven image…To invent a message, and then with open eye to perish for its self-made image—that was greater.

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Written by nevalalee

June 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

The homecoming king

leave a comment »

In my last year at college, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to come back from the dead. I had decided to write my senior thesis about Amphiaraus, an obscure figure from Greek literature best known for a brief appearance in the eighth Pythian ode of Pindar. (When you’re majoring in a field that has been generating articles, term papers, and dissertations with monotonous regularity for centuries, you take your subjects wherever you can find them.) Amphiaraus was the legendary king of Argos, proverbial for his wisdom, who joined the doomed assault of the Seven Against Thebes, although he knew that it would end in tragedy. Because he was beloved by the gods, at the moment that he was about to die in battle, the earth opened up beneath him, swallowing him whole. Much of my thesis was devoted to describing his afterlife as an object of cult veneration, where he appears to have persisted as a chthonic oracle, delivering dreams to pilgrims at his sanctuary as they slept on the ground. He also occasionally returned in person, at least in literature—in Pindar’s ode, he’s evidently some kind of ghost or revenant, since he appears in a speaking role at a point in the narrative at which he should have been long dead. This is striking in itself, because in the ancient Greek conception of the underworld, most men and women survive only as shades, shadowy figures without any trace of memory or personality. In technical terms, when we die, we lose our noos, which can roughly be regarded as the part of the soul responsible for conscious thought. And the remarkable thing about Amphiaraus is that he seems to retain his noos even after his death, as an oracular hero who remains fully aware and capable of returning to our world when necessary.

As I tried to define what made Amphiaraus special, I went down a linguistic rabbit hole in which I was perhaps overly influenced by a curious book titled The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic. Its argument, presented by the linguist Douglas Frame, is that the word noos, or “mind,” is connected to nostos, or “return,” the central theme of the Odyssey. (It’s where we get the word “nostalgia,” which combines nostos with algos, or “pain.”) The quality that allows Odysseus to make his way home to Ithaca is his intelligence—which, by extension, is also the attribute that enables Amiphiaraus to return from the dead. A rumor of this theory somehow reached John Updike, of all people, who wrote a story called “Cruise” that offered a portrait of a lecturer on a cruise ship that I’m still convinced was inspired by one of my professors, since he was literally the only other man in the world, besides Douglas Frame, who sounded like this:

His sallow triangular face was especially melancholy, lit from beneath by the dim lectern bulb. The end of the journey meant for him the return to his university—its rosy-cheeked students invincible in their ignorance, its demonic faculty politics, its clamorous demands for ever-higher degrees of political correctness and cultural diversity. “ΚΡΝΩ,” he wrote on the blackboard, pronouncing, “krino—to discern, to be able to distinguish the real from the unreal. To do this, we need noos, mind, consciousness.” He wrote, then, “ΝΟΟΣ.” His face illumined from underneath was as eerie as that of a jack-in-the-box or a prompter hissing lines to stymied thespians. “We need no-os,” he pronounced, scrabbling with his invisible chalk in a fury of insertion, “to achieve our nos-tos, our homecoming.” He stood aside to reveal the completed word: ΝΟΣΤΟΣ. In afterthought he rapidly rubbed out two of the letters, created ΠΟΝΤΟΣ, and added with a small sly smile, “After our crossing together of the sea, the pontos.”

In the end, I moved away from this line of reasoning, and I spent most of my thesis developing arguments based on readings of words like poikōlos and polēplokos, which described the quality of mind—a kind of flexibility and resourcefulness—that was necessary to achieve this return, whether to Ithaca or to the world of the living. Until recently, I hadn’t thought about this for years. Over the weekend, however, I read a wonderful profile in The New York Times Magazine by Wyatt Mason of the classicist Emily Wilson, who has published a new translation of the Odyssey. Much of the article is devoted to a discussion of the word polytropos, which appears in the very first line of the poem as a description of Odysseus himself. Wilson explains:

The prefix poly means “many” or “multiple.” Tropos means “turn.” “Many” or “multiple” could suggest that he’s much turned, as if he is the one who has been put in the situation of having been to Troy, and back, and all around, gods and goddesses and monsters turning him off the straight course that, ideally, he’d like to be on. Or, it could be that he’s this untrustworthy kind of guy who is always going to get out of any situation by turning it to his advantage. It could be that he’s the turner…So the question of whether he’s the turned or the turner: I played around with that a lot in terms of how much should I be explicit about going for one versus the other. I remember that being one of the big questions I had to start off with.

And it’s precisely this notion of slipperiness and changeability that I often saw in descriptions of Amphiaraus, who, like Odysseus, has affinities with the god Hermes—the crosser of borders, the conductor of souls, the trickster.

The same qualities, of course, also tend to be present in writers, poets, scholars, and all those who, in W.H. Auden’s words, “live by their wits.” This may be why translators of the Odyssey have been so preoccupied with polytropos, which stands as a signal at the beginning of the poem of the intelligence that you need to make it all the way to the end. As Mason writes:

You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilson’s sixty some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with “many a way/Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby counters with the terser “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus “the man.” Quite a range, and we’ve barely started.

Mason lists dozens of variants, including Alexander Pope’s “for wisdom’s various arts renown’d”; H.F. Cary’s “crafty”; William Sotheby’s “by long experience tried”; Theodore Buckley’s “full of resources”; the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither’s “many-sided-man”; Roscoe Mongan’s “skilled in expedients”; and T.E. Lawrence’s “various-minded.” Perhaps for sentimental reasons, I’m partial to Lawrence’s version, which recalls my old favorites poikōlos and polēplokos in evoking a sort of visual variety or shiftiness, like the speckled scales of a snake. And Wilson? She clearly thought long and hard on the matter. And when I read her solution, I felt a shiver of recognition, as well as a strange pang of nostalgia for the student I used to be, and to whom I still sometimes dream of returning again: “Tell me about a complicated man.”

Written by nevalalee

November 6, 2017 at 8:44 am

The innumerable ways of being a man

with one comment

If you wanted to design the competent man of adventure and science fiction from first principles, you couldn’t do much better than Sir Richard Francis Burton. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken of him as “an unlikely combination of James Frazer, T.E. Lawrence, and Indiana Jones who comes as close as any real historical figure to the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials,” and, if anything, that description might be too conservative. As Jorge Luis Borges recounts in his excellent essay “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights”:

Burton, disguised as an Afghani, made the pilgrimage to the holy cities of Arabia…Before that, in the guise of a dervish, he practiced medicine in Cairo—alternating it with prestidigitation and magic so as to gain the trust of the sick. In 1858, he commanded an expedition to the secret sources of the Nile, a mission that led him to discover Lake Tanganyika. During that undertaking he was attacked by a high fever; in 1855, the Somalis thrust a javelin through his jaws…Nine years later, he essayed the terrible hospitality of the ceremonious cannibals of Dahomey; on his return there was no scarcity of rumors (possibly spread and certainly encouraged by Burton himself) that, like Shakespeare’s omnivorous proconsul, he had “eaten strange flesh.”

Unfounded rumors about his escapades were circulating even during his lifetime, and the only witness to many of his adventures was Burton himself. But his great translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, which is one of my most treasured possessions, is a lasting monument. As Borges observes, it is the legendary Burton who remains:

It will be observed that, from his amateur cannibal to his dreaming polyglot, I have not rejected those of Richard Burton’s personae that, without diminution of fervor, we could call legendary. My reason is clear: The Burton of the Burton legend is the translator of the Nights…To peruse The Thousand and One Nights in Sir Richard’s translation is no less incredible than to read it in ‘a plain and literal translation with explanatory notes’ by Sinbad the Sailor.

This is the Burton whom we remember, and his influence can be strongly seen in the careers of two men. The first is the English occultist Aleister Crowley, who dedicated his autobiography to Burton, “the perfect pioneer of spiritual and physical adventure,” and referred to him repeatedly as “my hero.” As the scholar Alex Owen writes in her essay “The Sorcerer and His Apprentice”: “Burton represented the kind of man Crowley most wished to be—strong, courageous, intrepid, but also a learned scholar-poet who chafed against conventional restraints.” Crowley first read Burton in college, and he said of his own efforts at disguising himself during his travels: “I thought I would see what I could do to take a leaf out of Burton’s book.” He later included Burton in the list of saints invoked in the Gnostic Mass of the Ordo Templi Orientis—the same ritual, evidently, that was performed by the rocket scientist and science fiction fan Jack Parsons in Los Angeles, at meetings that were attended by the likes of Jack Williamson, Cleve Cartmill, and Robert A. Heinlein. (Heinlein, who received a set of the Burton Club edition of The Arabian Nights as a birthday present from his wife Ginny in 1963, listed it as part of the essential library in the fallout shelter in Farnham’s Freehold, and a character refers to reading “the Burton original” in Time Enough for Love, which itself is a kind of Scheherazade story.) It can be difficult to separate both Burton and Crowley from the legends that grew up around them, and both have been accused of murder, although I suspect that Crowley, like Burton, would have “confessed rather shamefacedly that he had never killed anybody at any time.” But as Crowley strikingly said of Burton: “The best thing about him is his amazing common sense.” Many of Crowley’s admirers would probably say the same thing, which should remind us that common sense, taken to its extreme, is often indistinguishable from insanity.

Jack Parsons, of course, was notoriously associated with L. Ron Hubbard, who once referred to Crowley as “my good friend,” although the two men never actually met. And Hubbard was fascinated by Burton as well. At the age of twelve, Hubbard encountered a kind of deutero-Burton, the naval officer Joseph “Snake” Thompson, a spy, linguist, zoologist, and psychoanalyst who seemed so implausible a figure that he was once thought to be fictional, although he was very real. In the short novel Slaves of Sleep, Hubbard writes:

A very imperfect idea of the jinn is born of the insipid children’s translations of The Arabian Nights Entertainment, but in the original work…the subject is more competently treated. For the ardent researcher, Burton’s edition is recommended, though due to its being a forbidden work in these United States, it is very difficult to find. There is, however, a full set in the New York Public Library where the wise librarians have devoted an entire division to works dealing with the black arts.

Burton’s translation might have been rare, but it wasn’t exactly forbidden: a few years earlier, L. Sprague de Camp had bought a full set from his boss at the International Correspondence School for seventeen dollars, and it isn’t hard to imagine that his friend Hubbard occasionally borrowed one of its volumes. Another story by Hubbard, The Ghoul, takes place in the fictitious Hotel Burton, and Burton’s influence is visible in all of the Arabian Nights stories that he published in Unknown, as well as in the smug tone of self-deprecation that he used to talk about his accomplishments. When Burton writes that, as a young man, he was “fit for nothing but to be shot at for six pence a day,” or that “I have never been so flattered in my life than to think it would take three hundred men to kill me,” you can hear a premonitory echo both of the voice that Hubbard adopted for his heroes and of his own bluff style of insincere understatement.

And it was Burton’s presentation of himself that resonated the most with Crowley and Hubbard. Burton was the patron saint of the multihyphenates whose fans feel obliged to garland them with a long list of careers, or what Borges calls “the innumerable ways of being a man that are known to mankind.” On their official or semiofficial sites, Burton is described as a “soldier, explorer, linguist, ethnologist, and controversialist”; Crowley as a “poet, novelist, journalist, mountaineer, explorer, chess player, graphic designer, drug experimenter, prankster, lover of women, beloved of men, yogi, magician, prophet, early freedom fighter, human rights activist, philosopher, and artist”; and Hubbard as an “adventurer, explorer, master mariner, pilot, writer, filmmaker, photographer, musician, poet, botanist and philosopher.” But a man only collects so many titles when his own identity remains stubbornly undefined. All three men, notably, affected Orientalist disguises—Burton during his forbidden journey to Mecca, Crowley in Madhura, India, where he obtained “a loincloth and a begging bowl,” and Hubbard, allegedly, in Los Angeles: “I went right down in the middle of Hollywood, I rented an office, got a hold of a nurse, wrapped a towel around my head and became a swami.” (There are also obvious shades of T.E. Lawrence. Owen notes: “While the relationships of Crowley, Burton, and Lawrence to imposture and disguise are different, all three men had vested interests in masking their origins and their uncertain social positions.” And it’s worth noting that all three men were the object of persistent rumors about their sexuality.) In the end, they never removed their masks. Burton may or may not have been the ultimate competent man, but he was a shining example of an individual who became the legend that he had created for himself. Crowley and Hubbard took it even further by acquiring followers, which Burton never did, at least not during his lifetime. But his cult may turn out to be the most lasting of them all.

The Outsider

with 2 comments

Colin Wilson

When you achieve your greatest success at an early age, a long life can be a liability as well as a blessing. The headline for Peter O’Toole’s obituary was always going be “Star of Lawrence of Arabia,” despite the fifty years of performances that came afterward, and while there are far worse fates for an actor—it’s the most striking debut as a leading actor in the history of movies—it also reminds us of how shapeless a lengthy career can seem after its early peak. O’Toole belonged to an honorable tradition of great British or Irish actors, ranging from Olivier to Ben Kingsley, who were always happy to show up for a role and a paycheck, cheerfully willing to skate through a few weeks of filming on little more than a sonorous voice and superb bag of tricks. They’re great players, schooled in a theater tradition that emphasizes artifice and the cultivation of clever devices that can deployed at a moment’s notice. (Kevin Spacey may be the closest American equivalent, which goes a long way toward explaining why he seems most comfortable at the Old Vic.) And the results are a joy to watch, to the point where I sympathize with Olivier’s famous question to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man: “Why not try acting?”

Still, the result is often a strange, uneven career, marked by long periods of slumming, and it grows all the less comprehensible as you move away from those definitive early roles. The same fate often awaits authors of a certain eccentric mindset, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, ever since the death of the British writer Colin Wilson. His life coincided almost perfectly with O’Toole’s: he was born almost exactly a year before and died a few days earlier, and although his passing has gone almost unnoticed, their lives have some striking parallels. Both were born into working-class families, had their first big hit at an early age, and spent the rest of their careers trying to live up to that initial breakthrough. In Wilson’s case, it was The Outsider, which is the kind of book that so many ambitious authors in their early twenties have yearned to write: a study of Camus, Sartre, Dostoyevsky, and others, fueled by months in the reading room of the British Museum, with its central figure as, yes, T.E. Lawrence. I can’t say for sure that a copy ever crossed the desk of Lawrence screenwriter Robert Bolt—although both he and Wilson were close to the theatrical director Stephen Joseph—but its hard not to hear an echo here: “His most characteristic trait is his inability to stop thinking. Thought imprisons him; it is an unending misery, because he knows the meaning of freedom…”

Peter O'Toole

After The Outsider was published, Wilson was pigeonholed as one of Britain’s angry young men, alongside the likes of John Osborne and Kingsley Amis, but his work took him into weirder and more interesting directions. Wilson was fascinated with the occult and the psychology of murder, and his later career superficially resembles that of a pulp novelist and hack popularizer of the paranormal, although flavored with unexpected influences, like that of his mentor Robert Graves. He displayed an unfashionable tendency to follow his nose wherever it led him, resulting in works on Jack the Ripper, Aleister Crowley, and Wilhelm Reich, and such novels as The Space Vampires, later adapted into the movie Lifeforce, which Wilson famously hated. And although I can’t claim to be deeply familiar with Wilson’s work—I own copies of The Outsider and The Occult, his two most famous books, but I’ve done little more than browse through them—he’s still a figure I’ve long found intriguing, particularly in his prickly mixture of skepticism and credulity. (In many ways, he reminds me of Robert Anton Wilson, another literary genius who was most at home in disreputable subjects and genres.)

Wilson was also the author of one of my single favorite essays on the craft of writing, “Fantasy and Faculty X,” which I first encountered in the anthology How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. Wilson defined Faculty X as a union of the conscious and unconscious minds, or of the left and right sides of the brain, that allowed writers, mystics, and other creative types to move beyond the present into another world, and although his terminology may be dated, the underlying principle remains sound. Intuition, and the ability to draw on it at will, is the most powerful tool that any artist can possess, and Wilson did as credible a job as any writer I know of describing its essential workings. The trouble, of course, is that intuition can lead you into strange places; it doesn’t lend itself to neat, easily classifiable careers, and it can result in the writers of obituaries straining to find a connective thread. Wilson may not, as he openly hoped, go down as “probably the greatest writer of the twentieth century,” but like O’Toole, he was an odd bird of a kind that may never come again, and the world is a little poorer for his absence.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

Tagged with

Maybe backstory isn’t so bad after all

leave a comment »

Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal

I know what you’re thinking: I’ve finally lost it. For most of the last two years, I’ve used this blog to rail against the use of excessive backstory, advising writers to kill it whenever it occurs, preferably with fire. I’ve pointed out that characters in a novel are interesting because of their words, deeds, and decisions over the course of the narrative, not because of whatever they might have been doing or thinking before the story began. I’ve argued that backstory violates the principle that a good story should consist of a series of objectives, and that character is best revealed through action. I’ve pointed out, stealing an observation from the great William Goldman, that heroes must have mystery, and that to explain away a character through digressions into his past or psychology—at least in most forms of popular fiction—only serves to diminish him. And I’ve often referred to examples of characters who become more interesting the less we know about them, like Forsyth’s Jackal, and those who have been progressively ruined by excessive backstory, like Hannibal Lecter.

I still believe all these things. Recently, however, I’ve found myself writing reams of backstory for two different projects. One, Eternal Empire, is the concluding novel of a series that can’t be entirely understood without additional information about the earlier installments, which is something that I didn’t really appreciate until reading over the most recent draft. The other is a long, self-contained novel I’ve been working on for years, and whose protagonist’s actions make somewhat more sense with a slightly more detailed backstory. In both cases, I added backstory after both novels were finished, in an attempt to address specific narrative problems, namely a lack of clarity that was preventing readers from getting lost in the story. And although I’ve begun to tactically incorporate backstory where it seems advisable, my earlier convictions haven’t changed. For most writers, I’m convinced that less backstory is preferable to the alternative, and that implication and suggestion are more powerful tools than extended passages of introspection. But there are times, looking back at a story that is otherwise complete, when I’ve found that a few scraps of backstory have their place.

Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs

If this seems inconsistent, it’s only because the rules of writing, like most laws, operate under an informal hierarchy, and it’s often worth stretching a minor rule so as to preserve a major one. (Or, as the rabbis say, it’s better to break one sabbath in order to keep many sabbaths.) You can debate which rules are more important than others, but it’s hard to argue with John Gardner’s observation that for most writers, the primary objective is to preserve the fictional dream: the illusion, in the reader’s mind, that these events are actually happening. Anything that tears the reader out of the dream without good reason needs to be examined and, usually, corrected. And one issue that can break the illusion is unintended ambiguity. If the reader puts down the book to wonder about a detail in a character’s past that the author didn’t mean to leave unresolved, it’s probably worth introducing this information, solely for the sake of maintaining momentum. And my reluctance to spell things out has occasionally confused readers in ways I didn’t intend. This led to some trouble with my recent Analog story “The Voices,” and also seems to be an issue in The Icon Thief. (Given the chance, I think I’d insert a few more paragraphs about Duchamp and his place in art history to avoid sending readers to Wikipedia.)

That said, backstory needs to be introduced judiciously, and at the proper point. In particular, it’s often best to save it for a moment when the story can afford to slow down. Such flat moments, which serve as a breather between points of high action, provide a convenient place for filling in the background, as long as it makes sense within the structure of the novel as a whole. The two projects I’m writing now both happen to have a convenient opening in the exact same spot: at the beginning of the second section, which currently picks up immediately from a cliffhanger at the end of the previous chapter. Inserting a flashback here, with the tension of the previous scene unresolved, both extends the suspense and allows me to fill in necessary background in reasonable security that the reader will read on to see what happens next. This sort of thing can be taken too far, of course: I keep such departures as short as possible, afraid that I might conclude what T.E. Lawrence did after rereading a chapter intended as a “flat” in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “On reflection I agreed…that it was perhaps too successful.” So most of my earlier points still stand—even, or especially, when I’m forced to break them.

Written by nevalalee

January 29, 2013 at 9:50 am

Making an end

leave a comment »

Yesterday, I wrote briefly about movies with great closing lines, of which there are surprisingly few. The last lines of books present the opposite problem: there are almost too many to choose from. The last line of a novel is almost always of interest, and just a glance at the American Book Review’s list of the hundred best closing lines (available as a PDF here) is a reminder of how many great ones there are, and how hard it is to reach any kind of consensus.

I hope you don’t mind, then, if my own choices are pointedly personal and idiosyncratic. My favorite closing line from any novel—which, oddly enough, didn’t even make the longer list of the American Book Review’s nominees—is probably from John Updike’s Rabbit Redux, in which Harry Angstrom, after a few bewildering months on his own, finds himself back in bed with his estranged wife:

He. She. Sleeps. O.K.?

It’s a little hard to appreciate out of context, but that final “O.K.?”—with its strangely moving terminal question mark—sometimes strikes me as the best thing Updike ever wrote. It rather astonishingly manages to evoke the radio transmissions of the moon landing (whose repeated uses of a taciturn “O.K.” run throughout the novel), the ending of Ulysses, and the rhythm of the final lines of Updike’s own Rabbit, Run: “…he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.”

And here are a few more personal favorites, from works of nonfiction as well as novels, that didn’t make the American Book Review’s list. From The Phantom Tollbooth:

“Well, I would like to make another trip,” he said, jumping to his feet; “but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time. There’s just so much to do right here.”

From The Corrections:

She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.

From T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

When Feisal had gone, I made to Allenby the last (and also I think the first) request I ever made him for myself—leave to go away. For a while he would not have it; but I reasoned, reminding him of his year-old promise, and pointing out how much easier the New Law would be if my spur were absent from the people. In the end he agreed; and then at once I knew how much I was sorry.

From Walden:

The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

Of course, even the greatest closing line loses much of its power when taken out of context. Tomorrow, I’m going to be talking about the endings of novels, and how it feels, at least for one novelist, to approach that final moment.

%d bloggers like this: