Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Asceticism in Fantasy

Photo by shioshvili.  licensed under
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.
Thanks to Ilil Arbel's fascinating blog post on the Essenes, an ancient ascetic order, for inspiring this post.

Asceticism is a pillar upon which many of the real world's religions are based.  The core concept is that the ascetic is able to be closer to God by depriving themselves of earthly (sensual) pleasures.  In a certain sense fantasy has embraced this concept with the archetype of the reclusive wizard and the fighter that is part of a secret order protecting the weak.  I believe that asceticism in Christianity and Islam is based on these religion's roots in the harsh desert climates of the Middle East.  In these religions asceticism is often thought to produce spiritual virtue.  There is an element of this thinking in the ascetic traditions of eastern religions as well.

I like to take a positive perspective on the spiritual process, and I think virtue leads to asceticism and not the other way around.  When asceticism is believed to be the path to virtue rather than a byproduct of it, I think the door is opened to religious oppression by those who consider themselves enlightened.  I think asceticism needs to be a voluntary journey in order to reap spiritual benefits from it.  Otherwise it simply leads to suffering.

In T.E Lawrence's brilliant work "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" he describes what I consider to be the basis of destructive asceticism.  On the "arab peninsula" the coastal regions were prosperous--but only could support so many mouths.  This caused a continual flow of immigrants to stream inland into the nomadic arab nations of the time.  These nomadic tribes survived in an incredibly harsh environment where asceticism was a requirement for survival.  And the desert could only support so many people via its sparse network of oasis and wells.  So this caused another stream of immigrants who continued north into Syria and Turkey, bringing their ascetic desert values with them.  This simple explanation of the source of asceticism in Islam is the first rational explanation I'd ever heard or read.

In most fantasy the reclusive wizard or fighter seems to be traveling on a more constructive ascetic path where asceticism is a byproduct of altruism, and the hero is voluntarily relinquishing the comforts of society and civilization in order to protect it.  But in fantasy these archetypal figures rarely turn their backs on all of life's pleasures.  Many heroes are quick to enjoy a tankard of ale or a generous pinch of tobacco in their pipe.  So fantasy heroes seem to embrace what I'll term "dutiful asceticism".

I think this theme of "dutiful asceticism" is one of the key, positive moral and spiritual takeaways from fantasy.  I've reached a point in my own life where the patterns of material acquisition that I've practiced for many years are starting to become increasingly unsatisfying.  I am still tempted by these old patterns of behavior (old habits die hard), but now I see them for the pathology that I think they are.  I am far from an ascetic, but I think I can see the beginning of the path that leads there.  I'm not sure I'll ever walk it, but I consider it a gift to even perceive it.  And I really believe that J.R.R. Tolkien and many other epic dreamers out there helped me to reach this point by weaving undercurrents of wisdom into their fantastic prose.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

After the Sprint

Photo by Ell Brown.  licensed under
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

As I live I am always searching for a deeper meaning to life.  I am a believer in objective reality and science, so I am searching for something that by the definition of measurable, objective reality will never be found.  Yet I continue to search, and I think the search itself is part of the journey--and maybe the journey itself is the destination.  When I do have spiritual moments, they are often amazing simply because of the way I perceive them rather than being objectively mystical in and of themselves.

When I read I am always looking for themes or signals from the author that they are on the same journey of discovery that I am.  And I have trouble enjoying books that don't wax mystical at some point.  I've heard great musicians described as being able to play between the notes.  This comes close to describing what I am thinking of when I use the word mystical.  The best way to add mysticism is for the author to pour parts of themselves into their book.  I read a good blog post recently where the author urged all writers to write so that they show through in their own writing.  I think this is a great way to think about it.  Since we're all inherently miraculous, if we can write ourselves into the words then the reader will have to have a mystical experience because they will feel the writer infusing the tale and floating over, under and within the narrative of the story.

I think a good litmus test for a writer is whether they love their own work.  This seems a bit like self esteem in that I think the phrase "If you can't love your own story then how can you expect others to love it" applies.  I think some people are perfectionists with their writing--and this can be a negative thing I think.  Love usually involves accepting imperfections, so I think it's healthy to do the same with our stories or else we'd never be "done" with them.  What I've found is that when I write something that I don't love, I feel a strong sense that it could be better.  This feels different than needing to rework, it's more like the scene is too blurry and the focus needs to be sharpened so that its beauty shines through.

My new manuscript for Hemlock and the Dead God's Legacy is in the hands of beta readers.  I am patiently awaiting their feedback (everyone is very busy).  While I've been waiting I've been feeling different things about the manuscript.  First, I think it ends a bit abruptly, so I will be adding an epilogue soon.  But beyond that I have moments where I expect accolades and others where I start to doubt whether the story is any good.  I always pick myself up by reassuring myself that I love the story.  Whether it is better or worse than its predecessor remains to be seen, but I feel like I succeeded in writing it from the heart, and from the most elemental and pure part of my imagination.  None of the scenes were half baked: all were the result of dreams, music inspired visions or moments of true inspiration.  My spirit is inhabiting those pages, for better or worse.

What is a little unusual about this novel is that I felt a titanic urgency to get it completed.  I don't remember feeling this way about the first one.  I hope it doesn't mean that my life is coming close to its end.  I don't think that's the case,  but we never know, do we?  I remember Tarantino feeling conscious of his own mortality after completing Pulp Fiction.  I think I have a similar feeling.  It's almost like part of me has been frozen in carbonite in the pages of this new manuscript.  Maybe what's left behind is now rendered just a bit redundant by the process.  In any case, there's no doubt that strange feelings have been afoot within this writer.  Fortunately, they seem to be abating.  I just hope there's a nice grace period before book three starts to weigh on my mind.

One of the things I'm most excited for people to read in the new novel is an extended sequence detailing the history of the City through the eyes of multiple characters as they experienced these moments.  Some of these events were described in general terms in Hemlock and the Wizard Tower, but now the reader gets to experience them "firsthand", learning a lot about the history of the wizards in the process.  I'm curious how readers will react to one of the main point of view characters in these historical sequences.  Will he be perceieved as a villain or a flawed hero?  I have my own opinion, but I think the presentation is objective enough that there will be some room for diverging points of view concerning this character.