Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The White Goddess

A poet’s education

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If you want to be a writer, sooner or later, you’re faced with the question of how much you need to read in your field before you can start to write in it. You’ve probably done a lot of reading already, but you still have the nagging feeling that you should be approaching it more systematically. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves observes that the standard training for an Irish oral poet included memorizing epic poems and tales, studying advanced metrical forms, and much more: “He knew the history and mythic value of every word he used…His education, which was a very general one, including history, music, law, science, and divination, encouraged him to versify in all these departments of knowledge.” Robert Anton Wilson outlines a similar course of study in Cosmic Trigger:

[Aleister] Crowley always insisted that nobody should try his more advanced techniques without (a) being in excellent health, (b) being competent in at least one athletic skill, (c) being able to conduct experiments accurately in at least one science, (d) having a general knowledge of several sciences, (e) being able to pass an examination in formal logic and (f) being able to pass an examination in the history of philosophy, including Idealism, Materialism, Rationalism, Spiritualism, Comparative Theology, etc. Without that kind of general knowledge and the self-confidence and independence of thought produced by such study, magick investigation will merely blow your mind. As Brad Steiger has said, the lunatic asylums are full of people who naively set out to study the occult before they had any real competence in dealing with the ordinary.

I love this last sentence, which is as true of writing as it is of mysticism, and I’m also of the school of thought that believes that you need to know the rules before you can break them. Yet I’m also aware that this attitude can turn into a kind of gatekeeping, which discourages beginners from doing what they love until they’ve mastered a body of canonical knowledge. And a true writer doesn’t wait. But there are good practical reasons for becoming familiar with the tradition in which you’re working, and despite what you may have been told, they have nothing to do with “avoiding” what other writers have done. In his fascinating book The Singer of Tales, the classicist Albert Lord lays out the pitfalls that confront the oral poet, whose situation is even more challenging:

There are two factors in oral composition that are not present in a written tradition. We must remember that the oral poet has no idea of a fixed model text to serve as his guide. He has models enough, but they are not fixed and he has no idea of memorizing them in a fixed form. Every time he hears a song sung, it is different. Secondly, there is a factor of time. The literate poet has leisure to compose at any rate he pleases. The oral poet must keep singing. His composition, by its very nature, must be rapid. Individual singers may and do vary in their rate of composition, of course, but it has limits because there is an audience waiting to hear the story. Some singers…begin very slowly with fairly long pauses between lines, working up gradually to very rapid rhythmic composition. Others insert many musical interludes of brief duration while they think of what is coming next. Still others have a formulaic phrase of general character addressed to the audience which they use to mark time…But these devices have to be used sparingly, because the audience will not tolerate too many of them.

Lord’s great insight—which he based on the work of his late mentor Milman Parry—is that the form of oral poetry and the poet’s education are designed to address these exact problems. He continues:

If the singer has no idea of the fixity of the form of a song, and yet has to pour his ideas into a more or less rigid rhythmic pattern in rapid composition, what does he do? To phrase the question a little differently, how does the oral poet meet the need of the requirements of rapid composition without the aid of writing and without memorizing a fixed form? His tradition comes to the rescue. Other singers have met the same need, and over many generations there have been developed many phrases which express in the several rhythmic patterns the ideas most common in the poetry. These are the formulas of which Parry wrote.

The italics are mine. An oral poet’s performance is only the most extreme case of the challenge that faces all writers, which is the problem of what to do next. The more models you’ve absorbed, the more easily you can draw on solutions that other writers have found, which is an honorable form of creativity in itself. Sometimes, of course, this kind of craft can be a trap. Graves notes that some of the most educated Welsh bards strayed from what was best about their art, “while the despised and unendowed minstrel…showed the greater poetic integrity, even though his verse was not so highly polished.” And Norman Mailer memorably wrote: “Craft is merely a series of way stations. I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.”

He’s right. But it’s also necessary for survival. For an oral poet, craft is literally a way station—a place to pause and gather one’s thoughts—and it serves much the same role for writers who can’t rely solely on inspiration. At its best, it also provides material that an author would never be able to invent on his or her own, which leads in turn to greater freedom. As Lord writes: “We might say that the final period of training comes to an end when the singer’s repertory is large enough to furnish entertainment for several nights. Yet it is better to define the end of the period by the freedom with which he moves in his tradition, because that is the mark of the finished poet. When he has a sufficient command of the formula technique to sing any song that he hears, and enough thematic material at hand to lengthen or shorten a song according to his own desires and to create a new song if he sees fit, then he is an accomplished singer and worthy of his art.” And he concludes with a description that applies just as well to those who write as to those who sing:

The singer never stops in the process of accumulating, recombining, and remodeling formulas and themes, thus perfecting his singing and enriching his art. He proceeds in two directions: he moves toward refining what he already knows and toward learning new songs. The latter process has now become for him one of learning proper names and of knowing what themes make up the new song. The story is all that he needs; so in this stage he can hear a song once and repeat it immediately afterwards—not word for word, of course—but he can tell the same story again in his own words. Sometimes singers prefer to have a day or so to think the song over, to put it in order, and to practice it to themselves. Such singers are either less confident of their ability, or they may be greater perfectionists.

Achilles among the women

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“What song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture,” Sir Thomas Browne writes in Urn Burial, which was first published in 1658. I’ve been intrigued by this sentence for as long as I can remember, but it took me a long time to understand why. Most readers are likely to encounter it as the epigraph to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first modern detective story, which means that it can seen as a benediction, or a declaration of purpose, for the entire mystery genre. I initially saw it on the back cover of a paperback edition of The White Goddess by Robert Graves, which advertised that the book contained “practical solutions to many of the apparently insoluble riddles of antiquity.” Graves expands on this in the introduction:

The book does read very queerly: but then of course a historical grammar of the language of poetic myth has never previously been attempted, and to write it conscientiously I have had to face such “puzzling questions, though not beyond all conjecture,” as Sir Thomas Browne instances in his Hydriotaphia: “what songs the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he held himself among the women.” I found practical and unevasive answers to these and many other questions of the same sort.

And while Graves might not seem to have much in common with C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s fictional detective, both men take what seem to be impossible puzzles and solve them through an exercise of pure reason, which is what Browne’s enigmatic questions—which he borrows from the historian Suetonius—have symbolized ever since.

Of course, it isn’t that straightforward. Poe’s mystery, like most of its successors, is obviously constructed to lead Dupin to the solution, and most modern readers would be unlikely to forgive its use of a murderous orangutan. (The best part of the story is the mysterious voice overheard by multiple witnesses, which I love so much that I mention it in “The Spires,” my upcoming story in Analog.) And Graves’s method of “proleptic reasoning,” although it yields ideas of great beauty and originality, exposes his arguments to serious doubts. Here’s how he solves the mystery of Achilles:

According to Suetonius the guesses made by various scholars whom the Emperor Tiberius consulted on this point were “Cercysera” on account of the distaff (kerkis) that Achilles wielded; “Issa,” on account of his swiftness (aisso, I dart); “Pyrrha,” on account of his red hair. Hyginus gives his vote for Pyrrha. My conjecture is that Achilles called himself Dacryoessa (“the tearful one”) or, better, Drosoessa, (“the dewy one”), drosos being a poetic synonym for tears. According to Apollonius his original name Liguron (“wailing”) was changed to Achilles by his tutor Cheiron. This is to suggest that the Achilles-cult came to Thessaly from Liguria. Homer punningly derives Achilles from achos (“distress”), but Apollodorus from a “not” and cheile “lips,” a derivation which Sir James Frazer calls absurd; though “Lipless” is quite a likely name for an oracular hero.

This is all very interesting, but far from conclusive, and the reader is left to choose between several equally plausible alternatives. (In the first chapter of my novel City of Exiles, I mention this question as part of a minor plot point, and I arbitrarily settle on Pyrrha.) But the most revealing discussion of the problem doesn’t appear in The White Goddess at all, but in The Greek Myths, which Graves published several years later. Here’s how he discusses it there:

Now, Thetis knew that her son would never return from Troy if he joined the expedition, since he was fated either to gain glory there and die early, or to live a long but inglorious life at home. She disguised him a a girl, and entrusted him to Lycomedes, king of Scyros, in whose palace he lived under the name of Cercysera, Aissa, or Pyrrha; and he had an intrigue with Lycomedes’s daughter Deidameia, by whom he became the father of Pyrrhus, later called Neoptolemus.

So what happened to Dacryoessa or Drosoessa? Graves evidently concluded that his suggestion, which was acceptable within the more speculative framework of The White Goddess, would be out of place in a more scholarly work—although the notes to The Greek Myths are filled with wild leaps of their own. He simply writes “Cercysera, Aissa, or Pyrrha,” which are guesses in themselves, and moves on. A casual reader might never know that it was a matter of dispute, or even that the problem of Achilles’s assumed name was of any interest at all.

And this offers an elegant example of a pitfall that affects scholarship of all kinds, particularly when directed toward a general audience. Writing a nonfiction book of my own has reminded me that history or biography is full of apparently objective facts that are really open to interpretation. A single date can be the result of a long process of investigation, speculation, and elimination, but the underlying judgments go more or less unseen. Very occasionally, the search itself becomes the point of the work, but it’s more common for scholars to present us with the end result and leave out all the intermediate steps. And if we knew how much guesswork goes into the books that we read, we might well view them with a justifiable skepticism. (Elsewhere, I’ve called this the Bob Hope rule, which is that scholars get to use intuition as long as they can prove that they don’t need it.) In The White Goddess, Graves, to his credit, goes into considerable detail about his methods, and he acknowledges that it undermines his own case:

The proleptic or analeptic method of thought, though necessary to poets, physicians, historians and the rest, is so easily confused with mere guessing, or deduction from insufficient data, that few of them own to using it. However securely I buttress the argument of this book with quotations, citations, and footnotes, the admission that I have made here of how it first came to me will debar it from consideration by orthodox scholars: though they cannot refute it, they dare not accept it.

But he isn’t alone here. Other scholars just take greater pains to disguise it—unless we can trick them, like Achilles, into revealing themselves.

Written by nevalalee

February 9, 2018 at 8:43 am

The Bob Hope rule

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A bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove that you don’t need it.

—Attributed to Bob Hope

These days, there seem to be two categories of professionals in whom we expect to see intuitive thinking at work. One is the poet, whom we like to imagine as a creature of inspiration, to the point where we might even be a little disappointed to discover how much the finished product depends on craft, logic, and revision. The other, surprisingly, is the physicist or mathematician, who used to be regarded as a figure of pure reason, but whom we’ve started to romanticize as someone whose flashes of insight are supported by hard work after the fact. John Maynard Keynes set the tone seventy years ago in a lecture on Isaac Newton:

It was his intuition which was preeminently extraordinary—”so happy in his conjectures,” said [Augustus] de Morgan, “as to seem to know more than he could possibly have any means of proving.” The proofs, for what they are worth, were, as I have said, dressed up afterwards—they were not the instrument of discovery.

And if we’re comfortable with attributing such methods to poets and physicists, it’s because they seem to occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. Poets get to use intuition because they can’t possibly do any harm with it, while scientists can talk about their intuitive leaps because we trust that they’ll back it up later. Science and mathematics are structured in such a way that practitioners have to present their results in a certain form if they want to be published, and as long as they show their work, it doesn’t matter in which order it came. Consequently, we aren’t likely to think twice when Carl Gauss says: “I have had my results for a long time: but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.”

Imagine a social scientist making the same statement, however, and it feels vastly more problematic. Between poetry and physics, there’s an uncharted region of psychology, sociology, economics, history, and biography in which the admitted use of intuition would raise troubling questions. The reasoning, it seems, is that these disciplines are already filled with uncertainties, and intuition only muddies the waters. It’s easier to twist the facts to suit the theory in the “soft” sciences than it is in physics or math, so even if researchers happen to derive valid results from a lucky hunch, they can’t very well admit to this if they want to be taken seriously. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves writes that he couldn’t have arrived at his conclusions—which, to be fair, are often pretty questionable—if he hadn’t known the answers beforehand “by poetic intuition,” and he adds perceptively:

The proleptic or analeptic method of thought, though necessary to poets, physicians, historians and the rest, is so easily confused with mere guessing, or deduction from insufficient data, that few of them own to using it. However securely I buttress the argument of this book with quotations, citations, and footnotes, the admission that I have made here of how it first came to me will debar it from consideration by orthodox scholars: though they cannot refute it, they dare not accept it.

That’s true of most academic fields. The dirty secret, of course, is that it’s impossible to work on any major project for an extended period without intuition coming into play, and before publication, the scholar has to diligently scrub the result of all traces of intuitive thinking, like a murderer wiping down the scene of a crime.

Occasionally, you’ll see scholars acknowledge the role of intuition, particularly when it comes to structuring an argument. In an interview with The Paris Review, Leon Edel says of his famous biography of Henry James:

In the first volume I’d intuitively planted all my themes in the first four chapters; like Chekhov, I placed my pistols in the first act, knowing the audience would expect me to produce them in the third. Having James’s last dictation about Napoleon, I planted the Napoleonic theme, then the “museum world” theme, the relationship with his brother, and so on, and my structure took its form from my themes. Expediency, you see, made me artful.

That last sentence is one of the best things ever written about craft. But what Edel doesn’t mention, or leaves implicit, is the fact that these intuitive decisions about structure inevitably influence matters of emphasis, presentation, and interpretation, and even the research that the writer conducts along the way. Many works of reputable scholarship secretly follow the process that the cartographer Arthur H. Robinson said of his most famous map: “I decided to go about it backwards. I started with a kind of artistic approach. I visualized the best-looking shapes and sizes. I worked with the variables until it got to the point where, if I changed one of them, it didn’t get any better. Then I figured out the mathematical formula to produce that effect.”

But it’s hard for social scientists, or biographers, to admit to this. In the end, Bob Hope’s quip about the bank is equally true of intuition in academia: you’re allowed to use it, as long as you can prove that you don’t need it. It’s an acceptable part of the oral tradition in disciplines in which it doesn’t seem necessary, while the ones that truly depend on it do their best to hush it up. To some extent, these are valid correctives: emphasizing intuition in the hard sciences rightly reminds us that science is something more than data collection, while deemphasizing it in the social sciences sounds a useful note of caution in fields that run the risk of falling back on untested assumptions. But it’s misleading to pretend that it doesn’t enter into the process at all, even if, ideally, you should be able to remove it and have the entire structure still stand. (As Alan Turing once put it: “The exercise of ingenuity in mathematics consists in aiding the intuition through suitable arrangements of propositions, and perhaps geometrical figures or drawings. It is intended that when these are really well arranged the validity of the intuitive steps which are required cannot seriously be doubted.” And you could say precisely the same thing of history and biography.) The educational psychologist Ference Marton refers to intuition in Nobel laureates as providing “a sense of direction,” and that may be its most indispensable role in all forms of scholarship. Choosing any avenue of exploration over another often comes down to a hunch, and it’s possible that this intuition occurs so early on that it becomes invisible—those who lack it are weeded out of the field altogether. Like any powerful tool, it has to be handled with caution. But we still need it, even if we sometimes have to act as if we don’t.

The midwinter masquerade

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Father Christmas in Punch

All the popular feasts in the Christian calendar are concerned either with the Son or the Mother, not with the Father, though prayers for rain, victory, and the King’s or President’s health are still half-heartedly addressed to him. It is only the pure allegiance of Jesus, recorded in the Gospels, that has kept the Father from going “the way of all flesh”…to end as chief cook and buffoon in the midwinter masquerade. That may yet be the Father’s end in Britain, if popular religious forces continue to work in their traditional fashion. An ominous sign is the conversion of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and children whose feast properly falls on the sixth of December, into white-bearded Father Christmas, the buffoonish patron of the holiday. For in the early morning of Christmas Day, clad in an old red cotton dressing gown, Father Christmas fills the children’s stockings with nuts, raisins, sugar biscuits and oranges; and while the family are at church singing hymns in honor of the newborn king, presides in the kitchen over the turkey, roast beef, plum pudding, brandy butter and mince pies; and finally when the lighted candles of the Christmas tree have guttered down, goes out into the snow—or rain—with an empty sack and senile groans of farewell.

Robert Graves, The White Goddess

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December 24, 2016 at 7:30 am

The alphabet method

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Your Key to Creative Thinking

It might seem like quite a leap to get from The Gulag Archipelago to The Complete Scarsdale Medial Diet, but creativity makes for strange bedfellows. I got to thinking yesterday about Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s rosary, which he used to compose and memorize poetry in prison, after picking up a book by Samm Sinclair Baker, who cowrote the aforementioned diet manual with the unfortunate Dr. Herman Tarnower. Baker, of whom I hadn’t heard until recently, was an intriguing figure in his own right. He was a former gag cartoonist who became an advertising copywriter and executive at two agencies during the Mad Men era, and then quit to write a series of self-help books on subjects ranging from gardening to skin problems to sex. Among them was a slim volume called Your Key to Creative Thinking, which I picked up at a yard sale last weekend for less than a dollar. It’s a breezy read, full of useful advice, much of which I’ve covered on this blog before. Baker advises the reader to seek out as many facts as possible; to adapt ideas from different fields or categories; to use words or pictures as a source of random associations; to invert your criteria or assumptions; to take good notes; and to let the ideas simmer by relaxing or going for a walk. They’re all valuable tips, of the kind that nearly every creative professional figures out eventually, and Baker presents them in a fluffy but engaging way. Used copies of his book currently sell for a penny on Amazon, and it’s worth checking out if, like me, you’re addicted to this sort of thing.

But what really caught my eye—and for reasons that may not have occurred to the author himself—was a section titled “Alphabet Creative-Spur System.” Baker writes:

Here’s a little creative-spur system that I’ve always kept as a helpful, small “secret method” for myself. It’s a quick aid in sparking creative thinking and rapid results.

This system is simply a matter of running down the alphabet with the key word of your problem and developing ideas in rhyming variations of the word…On quick, simple problems run the key word through your mind, varying it letter by letter, from A to Z, in rhyming fashion.

In respect to more complicated, weightier problems, work with pencil and paper, or typewriter, setting down letter by letter and filling out accordingly.

As an example, Baker uses the word “detergent.” He runs through the alphabet, looking for rhymes and near-rhymes like “emergent” (“You can see how greater cleanliness ‘emerges’ from using this detergent”), “he-detergent” (“Consider featuring this one as the ‘he-man’ detergent that has extra muscle”), and “pre-tergent” (“This suggests a preparatory phase built into the product, so that it produces double cleaning action”).

Casablanca

At first glance, the method seems cute but not particularly revelatory. What struck me when I tried it, though, is how conveniently it can be done in your head, and how easy it is to remember the results. That’s a more powerful combination than it sounds. I’ve developed a lot of creative hacks over the years, from mind maps to the use of random quotations to spark a train of thought, but most require a fair amount of preparation, or at least that I sit down for half an hour or so with pen and paper. This isn’t always possible, and one of the key problems in any creative artist’s life is how to fill in those precious scraps of time—on the bus, in line at the grocery store, in the shower—that seem like prime real estate for thinking. The nifty thing about the alphabet method is its simplicity, its instantaneous accessibility, and its ease of retention. It doesn’t require any tools at all. The underlying mechanism is automatic, almost mindless. You can do it for thirty seconds or five minutes while keeping half of your attention somewhere else. And best of all, the ideas that it generates can be called back without any effort, assuming that the connection between the rhyming key word and the associated concept is solid enough. That’s a nice benefit in itself. Writers are advised to keep a notebook on hand at all times, but that isn’t always possible. With the alphabet method, you don’t need to worry about writing down what it generates, because you can always recreate your train of thought with a minimum of trouble.

And I have a hunch that it could provide the basis for other creative strategies. The idea of using the alphabet as a mnemonic device isn’t a new one, and there are even theories that the alphabet itself arose as a way to memorize information encoded in the order and names of the letters. (Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, offers up a particularly ingenious interpretation along these lines.) But it isn’t hard to envision a system in which the beats of a story, say, could be retained in the head by associating each section with an alphabetic keyword. Here, for instance, is how I’d memorize the first few story points of Casablanca:

A) “African music,” followed by the Marseillaise, plays over the opening credits. As Umberto Eco notes: “Two different genres are evoked: adventure movie and patriotic movie.”
B) “But not everyone could get to Lisbon directly.” The narrator describes the refugee trail from Paris.
C) “Casablanca to Lisbon to America.” Refugees wait for visas to make the trip to the promised land.
D) “Deutschland über Alles.” The arrival of Major Strasser. His conversation with Captain Renault.
E) “Everybody comes to Rick’s…”

And so on. The human brain isn’t particularly good at keeping track of more than a few pieces of information at a time, but the great thing about the alphabet method is that you aren’t really memorizing anything: you’re just preserving the initial seed of a process that can be used to generate the same idea when necessary. I may not remember exactly what Baker had in mind with the word “pre-tergent,” but I can reconstruct it easily, and that’s doubly true when it comes to my own ideas. All it requires is that you know the alphabet, that you can run through it letter by letter, and that you’re more or less the same person you were when you came up with the idea in the first place. You don’t need a rosary. All you need is the alphabet, and yourself.

“That doesn’t sound like the Putin I know…”

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"That doesn't sound like the Putin I know..."

Note: This post is the forty-second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 41. You can read the previous installments here.

In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he described what he claimed to have been the creative process behind his poem “The Raven.” He portrayed each element as the result of a long chain of logical reasoning, as in his account of how he arrived at the image of the dead Lenore:

Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

Ever since, critics have been inclined to read Poe’s essay as a sort of fiction in itself, or even a sly parody, since few poets seem to have ever approached their work in such a calculating way. But I think it’s reasonable to see it as a series of high-speed photographs of the artist’s mind, like one of those pictures showing a bullet being shot through an apple: it slows down and fixes an instinctive phenomenon that really occurred within seconds.

In other words, Poe is laboriously dissecting a process in which every poet engages, consciously or otherwise: the search for symbols that can do double or triple duty within the poem. Poetry is the art of compression, and the hunt for fruitful images or metaphors is ultimately a way of saving space—you pack each line with maximum meaning by looking for combinations of words that can stand both for themselves and something else. “A violet by a mossy stone” says more in six words than most writers could do in sixty, and we see much the same impulse in Robert Graves’s list of poetical images from The White Goddess:

Sometimes, in reading a poem, the hairs will bristle at an apparently unpeopled and eventless scene described in it, if the elements bespeak [the goddess’s] unseen presence clearly enough: for example, when owls hoot, the moon rides like a ship through scudding cloud, trees sway slowly together above a rushing waterfall, and a distant barking of dogs is heard; or when a peal of bells in frosty weather suddenly announces the birth of the New Year.

What these images all have in common—along with what Graves calls their evocation of the muse—is that they stand at the center of an aura of associations: each one trails a hidden story behind it, and it allows the poem to convey the same amount of meaning with fewer components.

"But they can't do it alone..."

This may seem like a mechanical way of describing the craft of poetry, but I suspect that authors of all kinds, if they look how their writing evolves, would point to the moments in which they did more with less as the places where their work was most effective. This is particularly true of forms that are constantly managing their own complexity. A conspiracy theory, for instance, which I’ve elsewhere called a sort of surrogate for the act of writing itself, is more powerful when assembled out of elements that carry their own cognitive charge. The early seasons of The X-Files evoked a world of intrigue using a few well-chosen symbols—smallpox vaccination scars, for instance—and it grew less compelling and more confusing as the names of the players multiplied. Even conspiracy theories that depend on the accumulation of detail rely on a few vivid images to keep the rest of the pieces in line. I’ve watched Oliver Stone’s JFK maybe a dozen times over the last twenty years, and although I’d have trouble remembering exactly what argument he’s making, I can’t forget the magic bullet, whether or not I believe in it. A conspiracy theory might seem to have little in common with a poem, but both depend on a certain economy of means. There’s a good reason why the Freemasons or the Illuminati reappear so often in such theories: just as a poet like Robert Graves returns repeatedly to images of the moon, conspiracy theorists fall back on metaphors that have proven their memorable qualities over time.

You see a similar progression toward simplicity in my own novels, each of which is basically a conspiracy thriller with different kinds of window dressing. The Icon Thief spends an exorbitant amount of time laying out a complicated theory involving Marcel Duchamp, the Rosicrucians, and the Black Dahlia murder, both because the story was about complexity and because it was what I felt comfortable writing at the time, and it occupies fifty or more pages of the finished book. City of Exiles has a conspiracy centering on the Dyatlov Pass incident, which had to be described at length, but it devotes half as much space as its predecessor to laying out the details, in part because I wanted to cut down on this sort of thing, but also because the elements were inherently evocative. Eternal Empire cuts it even further: the historical conspiracy that drives the plot, such as it is, is described in a couple of dialogue scenes, most notably in Chapter 41. And when I look back, I think that I was able to condense this material so much because I hit on the right cluster of symbols. If the death of a beautiful woman, as Poe says, is the most poetical subject in the world, there are a few words that perform much the same function in conspiracy fiction, and the best of them all—at least for now—is Putin. Vladimir Putin is the Lenore of Eternal Empire, and his name and all it embodies is enough to spark the reader’s imagination when paired with a few intriguing details. Putin’s aura allowed me to do in five pages what The Icon Thief did in fifty. And I couldn’t have written this book without him…

My great books #4: The White Goddess

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The White Goddess

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

One of the odd but recurrent patterns of intellectual history is that a false hypothesis proposed by a genius is often more rewarding—or at least generates more useful material, almost by accident—than a correct one offered up by an ordinary mortal. James Frazer’s theory about the priestly succession at Nemi has been rejected by most anthropologists, but without it, we wouldn’t have The Golden Bough, which is still the greatest repository of information and insight ever published on magic, ritual, and religion. You could say much the same about the theories of Freud. And while I no longer believe in the details, or even the general outline, of the historical argument that Robert Graves makes in The White Goddess, I wouldn’t give up the resulting book for the world. It reads today like the kind of conspiracy theory we find in a Dan Brown novel, although infinitely more ingenious, and even Graves knew that orthodox scholars were unlikely to embrace his work: “Though they cannot refute it, they dare not accept it.” For the general reader, fortunately, it doesn’t really matter, because The White Goddess is unsurpassed as a lucky bag of lore, ideas, and clues for other writers to take up and pursue. I’ve found myself browsing through it whenever I start a new writing project, if only on the off chance that one of Graves’s asides or digressions will spark a train of thought that never would have occurred to me otherwise.

Read with an appropriately skeptical mind, The White Goddess is still the best entry point for the intelligent reader on a dizzying range of subjects: Celtic mythology, poetic logic, the interpretation or decoding of mythic and religious iconography, the relationship between the poet and the muse, and the role of intuition in the creative process. The difficulty of his hypothesis forced Graves to range further and delve more deeply than a scholar making a more conventional case, and the material that he tosses up casually along the way has stuck with me longer than his primary argument. (I was first attracted to the book by its back cover’s promise to provide practical answers to countless unsolved riddles of the ancient world, including Thomas Browne’s “What song the sirens sang” or “What name Achilles assumed when he hid among women”—not to mention how to untie the Gordian knot, which Graves handles in a single footnote. And his “solution” to the vision of Ezekiel lies at the heart of my novel City of Exiles.) In the end, it stands as an illustration both of intuition’s possibilities and of its limits, although it also makes mere reason seem cramped by comparison. In his poem in praise of the goddess herself, Graves speaks of “tourbillions in Time made / By the strong pulling of her bladed mind / Through that ever-reluctant element.” “Bladed mind” is really a description of Graves himself, and the tourbillions, or whirlwinds, that he created in his intractable material continue to revolve in my imagination, long after more reasonable books have faded away.

Written by nevalalee

November 5, 2015 at 9:00 am

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