No matter how ephemeral it is, a novel is something, while despair is nothing. — Mario Vargas Llosa
Though I speak it quite badly, I love the French language. The French possess a wonderful word without an exact counterpart in English: ennui, which means “studious boredom,” or something close to it.
In an existential age the most common affliction is despair. Many believe that nothing—no ideal, no religion, no individual, no love, no career—can transcend the drudgery of existence. Imagine the joyless burden: endlessly seeking new entertainment, wasting away on booze and drugs, mastering sexual diversions. They all lead to despair, the very heart of ennui.
The French poet Baudelaire was an early explorer of this realm. Consider this passage from his preface to Les Fleurs de Mal:
...If rape or arson, poison or the knife
Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff
Of this drab canvas we accept as life—
It is because we are not bold enough!
Despite his despondency, he has lessons to offer us. The value of work, especially the work of the artist, is found in the relief it provides. Herein lies the seed of hope.
Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel laureate, takes the notion several steps further. Yes, most novels are vapourous and likely to disappear from the public mind within a few years (or months) of publication. But all art is born from the human imagination, and is therefore a vestige of nature and the universe. And like a broken twig or stray feather, it is something—and most definitely not an artifact of despair.
I would take the argument much further and suggest the work of the artist can transcend despair and ennui. Both the act of writing and the completed novel—the process and the product—generate this kind of elevated experience. When you create something you emulate the natural world. Better still, by aligning your creative energy with the forces of nature within you, you directly contact the creative state of being which is the polar opposite of ennui: joie de vivre.
Let me state this even more forcefully: Creativity transforms us from beasts into gods. I imagine that Baudelaire would disagree. On the other hand, perhaps Llosa would support the idea.
Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. — Marie Curie
Is the world a benevolent place? These two Nobel laureates seem to hold slightly different views. As a victim of Nazi racism, Einstein’s doubts are understandable. And Marie Curie might have escaped her battle with terminal cancer if she’d feared the effects of radioactive isotopes in the test tubes that she carried about in her pockets and stashed in her desk drawers.
But what happens when a good friend—like Mother Earth—goes bad? That’s a simplification of the question James Lovelock poses in his latest book, The Vanishing face of Gaia, A Final Warning. In the 1960s Lovelock invented Gaia theory—the notion that Earth is a dynamic living system, an organic whole constantly adjusting the “harmonic thermostat” of our world. He was also first to identify CFCs and rallied international awareness to ban their use. When it became apparent that Earth’s temperature was rising at a feverish pace, once again he took up the challenge. He’s the original green genius. And green giant.
I have to confess to a certain gloomsterism about our collective future and The Vanishing face of Gaia, A Final Warning provides more than enough fertilizer for my over-ripe vision of what may befall humanity in the very near future. While Lovelock acknowledges the tireless work of the scientists who support the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (another Nobel Prize winner), he dismisses the consensus approach of the IPCC as politically motivated and a form of science heresy.
According to Lovelock, the IPCC is way too optimistic in its forecasts and it’s now too late for humans to reduce the global warming trend. Instead, governments should dedicate their efforts to prepare for the survival of those few millions lucky enough to inhabit the isolated places on Earth that may be habitable after the next 100 years: Tasmania, New Zealand, Britain and a few other spots in the northern hemisphere. (I like to think that the place where I live, Vancouver Island, is a viable candidate.)
When you consider that the global human population is currently around seven billion, I believe gloomsterism is the appropriate perspective on the changes which lie ahead. If Lovelock is correct (and I pray that he is terribly, laughably, wrong) the implications of the challenge we face are almost unimaginable. But a solution may be at hand.
Which takes me to my new work-in-progress, Exit from America, in which the central characters confront the changing world that Lovelock foresees and set about to find a new place for themselves where they can thrive. This requires a radical re-visioning of who we are as a species—a new step in our evolution.
But if there is another step in human evolution (something equivalent to the shift from homo erectus to homo sapiens) this change will be based on choice. Rather than merely adapting to a new environment (the modus operandi in Darwinian evolution) we will have to actualize our sense of human freedom and choose to become a new species so that our society can become a new kind of humanity.
A tall order? Indeed—and only those who survive will know if we succeed.
Just when you think you’ve come up with an original idea, you check it in Google and see 91,600 hits for the exact idea that—only seconds earlier—you assumed sprung solely from the genius of your imagination.
This humbling experience befell me when I searched for the phrase “art is a way of knowing” only to discover that it’s a book title by Pat Allen. I don’t know Pat Allen, but I’m sure he must be quite brilliant to scoop my idea 11 years before it occurred to me.
(The lapse of 11 years probably disqualifies me from claiming that our mutual discovery is an example of synchronicity, Carl Jung’s notion that certain ideas or events occur simultaneously in discrete cultures at the same time. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the independent invention of calculus by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the 1660s.)
While I haven’t read Allen’s book I see that it received five, five-star reviews on Amazon. The reviewers reveal that the book focuses on art therapy and the unique psychological insights art offers to anyone seeking personal growth (aren’t we all?).
What do I mean when I claim that art is a way of knowing? Unlike science and some forms of logic and math which allow us to gain objective knowledge of the world, art opens the door to specific aspects of personal knowledge. For instance, each day when I’m at work on my current novel (Exit from America) I don’t anticipate what will be revealed by the end of the writing session. I rarely know what individual characters will say, who will do what to whom, and where they might end up. It’s a constantly unraveling mystery of nature—of my own nature—that I feel privileged to witness.
Early on in the novel, Mavis Helm, a budding Gestalt therapist, is invited by her client, Fay Flood, to visit her apartment. I had no idea what (or whom) might be in the apartment. But behind the door a beautiful child, a savant of sorts, was hidden away, waiting to emerge as a central figure in the novel. Later we are introduced to her father and witness the events that drive the narrative—the conclusion of which will be revealed to me (I hope) in the months ahead.
Another example from the novel: James Wayman (Mavis Helm’s husband) has discovered a new form of meditation that he calls White Light Meditation. WLM offers its practitioners an opportunity to transcend their egos and experience their natural being uncluttered by personas and ambitions. James’s efforts led me into a new world of inner discovery and personal meaning that I don’t think I would have experienced without writing this particular novel. Quite literally then, art has provided the way of knowing this inner world.
By the way, I Googled the phrase “White Light Meditation.” Guess what? Only 3,170 hits! I’ve taken the liberty of registering WhiteLightMeditation.com and soon you will find a page on this site that will reveal the techniques you can employ to achieve this elevated state of self-knowledge.
My thanks goes to James Wayman. I couldn’t have discovered WLM without you.
No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. — Samuel Johnson
Nothing written for pay is worth printing. Only what has been written against the market. — Ezra Pound
The debate about money and writing—and all art for that matter—continues to rage.
In 1746 Samuel Johnson, or Dr. Johnson as he preferred to be called, secured a remarkable paid writing contract to produce the first Dictionary of the English Language. Johnson’s formidable facility with language made him an obvious choice to lead the project and he embraced it with relish. He was likely a victim of Tourette Syndrome; consequently his social inadequacies created barriers of all kinds. Earning his livelihood by writing—taping into his deep vein of talent—enabled him to establish social eminence and a living wage.
Johnson had been desperate for money before, and at the age of 25 he married Tetty Porter, aged 46 and mother of three children—which provided access to her considerable savings at a time when he was in dire need. At the time, he might well have said, “No man but a blockhead ever married, except for money.”
Ezra Pound, on the other hand, fancied himself a revolutionary. As a poet and editor, he hoped to make a complete break with the literary traditions of the past. He was a central figure of the avant garde in Paris and London in the 1920s. T.S. Eliot and Hemingway acknowledged his influence. To Pound, money was irrelevant to ideas, art, and social transformation.
But Pound found himself on the wrong side of history. He put in with the fascists during World War II and broadcast radio propaganda against the Allies until he was arrested for treason in Italy by the Americans in 1945. Ultimately he spent twelve years in a psychiatric ward and returned to Italy a broken man.
Like most writers, I’ve pondered the tension between money and writing. While there are a lot of ways to make money in this world (and certainly more ways to lose it), writers have limited options. They can try their hand at journalism, technical writing, publishing, or take on more lucrative corporate work like web copy-writing, advertising and media relations (where they are known as ‘flak writers’).
As far as writing fiction is concerned, money is almost always a secondary consideration. Only the rare publisher will pay you by the word, and unless you’ve already established your credentials as a best-selling author, few publishers can gamble their dwindling resources on substantial advances for a new book. Most will offer a token advance based on anticipated sales and pencil in a 15% cut of additional sales after their advance has been paid out—which rarely occurs (do the math: the average books sells about 200 copies).
And so be it. If you’re writing fiction, or creative non-fiction, you’ll almost certainly create a better book if you work without any constraints. Don’t limit your imagination with illusions about public taste, reading trends, best-sellers and mega-bucks. It’s all poison. Consider the work for its own sake and let it find its own place in this world. Allow the novel to dictate the narrative of its arrival in this world. I guarantee you, this uncompromised form of art will be unique.
And that is the text you want to sell to publishers. Let them establish its monetary value. Once they commit to publication, they will want to maximize their investment. Hopefully they are better at this sort of thing than you. Let them have at it. While they are schlepping from book fair to retail store to media event, go about your business: begin your next story, pay attention to its wants and needs, nurture this precious gift in its embryonic form, give daily thanks to your muse.