On Political Words

In her November 5, 2015 review of two stage adaptations of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Ingrid Rowland remarks on a fascinating bit of history. She writes, “On the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy found the right words to break the news of his death to a poor, largely black audience in Indianapolis by harking back to ‘my favorite poet…Aeschylus.’”

Aeschylus

She then quotes the words of the Greek poet that Kennedy used to console his audience:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

Rowland notes that “Kennedy’s words diverge slightly but tellingly from Edith Hamilton’s translation, his evident source (her third line reads ‘and in our own despite’).”

Reflecting on that, she thinks that the word-change suggests that Kennedy had long lived with those words, using them as he grappled with the sufferings and tragedies striking the Kennedy family.RFK We all know how a beloved poem or song, memorized long ago, and lovingly repeated to ourselves over the intervening years, can undergo small changes as we internalize them, making the lines our own.

But Rowland goes on to make another point. She says that it’s “unexpected, too, that a political figure would feel free to address an audience of ordinary people in the lofty language of Greek poetry rather than talking down to them with mock folksiness.” And Kennedy was in a heated presidential campaign contest with Eugene McCarthy at that moment, the campaign in which he too would soon be assassinated.

I’m fully aware that Winston Churchill reminded us that “comparisons are odious” (or as Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing says, “comparisons are odorous”), but let me take the chance and give a couple of examples of another kind of political speech.

Shakespeare's "Dogberry"
Shakespeare’s “Dogberry”

I’ll start with the woes of the health care system in the United States, which are many and serious, not least of which is the dire plight of the uninsured. There is much to be fixed in the Affordable Care Act, and honest people can disagree with its provisions. A fruitful and welcome dialog could take place between the candidates and the parties about the important issues with reforming health care. Instead, Dr. Ben Carson, speaking on the stump, offers us this:

And [Obamacare] is in a way, it is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.

Obamacare is “slavery in a way.” Slavery. A law that attempts to help some of the poorest and sickest members of our society is likened to slavery. What an offensive comparison, both to the Affordable Care Act and to the millions of slaves and their descendants (which include Dr. Carson) who endured that national ignominy. Does Dr. Carson realize whom he is insulting?

Unlike the depth and compassion in Kennedy’s speech—remember, he was quoting Aeschylus to a largely Black audience on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated—other candidates use attacks on minority people to advance their campaigns, especially people whose lives are perhaps the most precarious in our nation: the undocumented immigrants. Take this from Donald Trump on July 5, 2015:

What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.

Instead of speaking to immigrants from his heart (which is where Trump says his speeches come straight from), he vilifies 11 million people for a round of right-wing applause. It is as if Kennedy had, instead of quoting Aeschylus, told his Black audience not that their suffering and grief may transform to wisdom, but that Dr. King’s death proved the futility of their struggle for political, civil, and economic rights.

Perhaps I am being unfair to contrast today’s political speech with that of Robert Kennedy. But really, the level of rhetorical nonsense coming from the right has overflowed the bounds of comedy and is becoming a national tragedy, an embarrassment. Perhaps we need an Aeschylus to give voice to that.

Here’s a line that the Greek might use to do so:

It is an easy thing for one

whose foot is on the outside of calamity

to give advice and to rebuke the sufferer.

– Aeschylus, Prometheus Unbound

How Fiction Can Repair the World

Okay, fiction can’t repair the world. Still, I’ve been wondering lately whether the time and energy I invest in writing fiction might be better spent working socially to change the world. The question has been long with me, ever since a criticism I received in 1974 from a good friend, a Catholic priest. I had decided on a career in psychotherapy, and he challenged me: “Let’s say as a therapist you can help fifty people a year for forty years. What’s that? 2000 people in your career. Be a social activist, a community organizer – you’ll help 2000 people every year.” I didn’t take him up on that. It seemed to me that by seeking the quantity, I’d lose the quality of the relationship with those I served. Perhaps that was selfish.

Tikkun Olam - repairing the world
Tikkun Olam – repairing the world

In the first sermon I heard by Michele’s rabbi, he spoke about tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for “to repair the world.” Every Jew, Rabbi Cohen said, should repair the world. I wasn’t Jewish, but in good Catholic style, I felt guilty anyway, since I hadn’t yet repaired the world. Such a requirement, repairing the world! Isn’t that the Messiah’s job?

When I told Michele this, she was quiet for a moment. “I think you’re missing the point.”

“He said we have to repair the world. That’s huge.”

“He meant one person at a time.”

Some years later, I came across this quote from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Ah. So maybe one relationship at a time was all right.

 

Seventh Telling

A wonderful novel, The Seventh Telling by Mitchell Chefitz, tells the story of a rabbi whose wife is dying of cancer. The rabbi is asked if her suffering is destroying his hope for a Messiah. He surprises his friend by saying that the Messiah has already come! In fact, he says, there have already been many Messiahs. For instance, he says, “Jonas Salk was the Messiah for polio.”

In the Buddhist tradition, there’s a saying that when one person becomes enlightened, the whole world is freed from suffering. Instant tikkun olam! The best thing a person can do to save the world is to save himself or herself. This obviously is aspirational, judging from the amount of suffering left in the world. But it makes a point.

Let’s say these ancient claims are true: That we repair the world one person at a time; that by cultivating our own spiritual health, we benefit the world. Let me make a case, then, that writing fiction participates in that effort.

Writing

Seriously? We should maybe send Bookmobiles to prowl the streets of refugee camps? How can writing stop ISIS? (Buy a bearded boy a book?) What about the plague of American gun violence? I suppose a paperback doesn’t fire many bullets. But really? How can writing reverse the injustices of runaway capitalism? If you read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, will the resulting brain-freeze snuff out the greed-is-good meme?

Plainly, writing alone can’t change the world. But solid, honest writing can make a difference by informing people about the pressing issues of the time – look at the articles, journalism, and reflection in the great (and even the not so great) newspapers, in Mother Jones, Harpers, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and the dozens of similar publications. And informed people ultimately will change things – they will help refugees, stop ISIS, reduce gun violence, redistribute wealth more justly. People who are well informed will eventually find one another, band together, and make the changes the world needs.

Tikkun olam.

You will say, “But that kind of writing is non-fiction. You write fiction. Of what use is your novel to hungry people, to the oppressed, to victims of war and guns? How does it make for economic justice or slow down global climate change?”

To which I answer, “One reader at a time.” A good novel has the power of, say, a fine piece of improvisational music or an ink and rice paper painting – the power to touch some deeper place in those who read or listen or see. I don’t mean that fiction must inspire any particular virtue, but I agree with John Gardner’s notion that fiction must be moral. In an interview with Sara Mathiessen, Gardner said, “A truly moral book is one that is radically open to persuasion, but looks hard at a problem, and keeps looking for answers. . . . I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing.”

In my novel, Climbing the Coliseum, I wanted to explore, by means of story (as differentiated from journalism, philosophy, or memoir) the question of whether and how people who are marginalized somehow can find their way into a community that cares about them. What does it take? Who needs to be involved? What works, what doesn’t? I didn’t want to pose that question “out loud,” as I would in an essay or a non-fiction study, but rather to tell a story about real people, and to tell it as honestly as I could. That way, my readers have the freedom to be affected by the book in whatever way and at whatever level they respond to it. If even one reader is moved to consider the plight of abandoned teenagers after reading Climbing, the world is a little better for it.

Tikkun olam.

A great experience with a novel, I’ll claim, can be as life-changing as an auto accident or a serious illness, as falling in love, as the birth of a child. In John Gardner’s words, moral fiction offers readers a vision of life “that is worth pursuing.” One life at a time. One of the many challenges of fine writing – fiction or not – is to tell stories that embody that vision of the life worth pursuing.

As the Talmudic rabbis put it, “we are not obligated to complete the work, nor are we free to abandon it.”

Tikkun olam.

Two Fun Physics Facts from Dalai Lama and What They Tell Us about Writing

I’ve been enjoying the Dalai Lama’s book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (Three Rivers Press, 2005).

DalaiLama Universe

Most of us don’t think of the Dalai Lama as scientifically inclined, but his small book is fascinating – and suggests that he knows something about physics! My interest, though, has been in how his insights about physics and Tibetan Buddhism might apply to my writing fiction. Imagine the splat when I fall off that tightrope. (Oh yeah, I forgot: For Buddhists, there’s no tightrope, or more to the point, there’s no me to fall off. Therefore, no splat.) However, he notes a couple of fun physics facts that actually do relate to writing.

First Fun Physics Fact

  • In 1906, J.J.Thomson won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery that electrons behave as particles. Twenty-one years later, J.J.’s son, George Paget Thomson, won the 1937 Physics Nobel (shared with C.J. Davidson of the United States) for demonstrating experimentally that electrons behave as waves. (I’d love to have listened in to the dinner table arguments in that family: “Dad, you’re a fossil: They’re waves!” “Listen, you young whippersnapper! They’re particles, darn it!”)

The quantum physicists, of course, just shook their heads, reminding everyone that whether an electron is a particle or a wave remains unresolved until the moment when someone actually tries to measure the pesky “wavicle” (or Schrodinger’s alive-or-dead cat, for that matter). At that moment, the electron (or the cat) becomes one or the other, depending on the kind of measurement. In other words, the nature of the phenomenon depends on how some physicist interacts with it. Put another way, the nature of a thing depends on the nature of the things interacting with it.

The Dalai Lama (whose monastic name is Tenzin Gyatso) reflects that the reality of a thing “is contingent upon our language, social conventions, and shared concepts” (Universe, p. 63).

“You say po-tay-toes, I say po-tah-toes.”

Or less flippantly, for people who possess specific skills and experience, things are real and visible that, to those without those skills and experience, are invisible, even unknowable. For instance, a dermatologist sees a tumor where a lay-person sees only a freckle, or a fishing guide sees fish in the water that a rookie can’t. The nature of things depends on how and by whom they are perceived.

Asanga

Asanga (300 – 370 C.E.)

Second Fun Physics Fact

  • Remember Albert Einstein’s twin paradox? One twin takes a twenty-light-year trip in a space ship at nearly the speed of light, while her twin stays on earth. When the space traveler returns, her twin is twenty years older than she is. Learning this, the Dalai Lama writes, “reminded me of the story of how Asanga [a Buddhist saint] was taken to Maitreya’s [a future Buddha] Heavenly Realm, where Maitreya dictated to him the five scriptures . . . all in the time of a tea break. But when he returned to earth, fifty years had passed.” (Universe, p. 59). Obviously, Asanga was taken in a spaceship at the speed of light.

Fun Physics Facts Applied to Writing

What do these fun physics facts mean for writers? Both facts speak to the interdependence of beings, whether they are big beings (the twin humans or Schrodinger’s alive-or-dead cat) or little beings (the electrons). Every thing that is depends on other things. You can’t be a wave-like electron unless some physicist is measuring you. You can’t age at a particular rate unless you live in a world that requires that rate of change.

And the opposite works too: Change one thing, and you change the rest of things. The change may be subtle, but it’s real. Remember the famous butterfly whose wing-flutter in Shanghai eventually affects the weather in New York? If you’ve ever lived with someone in chronic pain, you know how your own life is affected even though you’re not the one in pain.

“Get to the point,” you’re thinking. “What about writing?”

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953 C.E.)

Dylan Thomas said, “A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” Nothing stands alone, not even a poem, a novel, a memoir, a science text, or an essay. And equally, every poem, novel, memoir, or text of any kind depends on the writer and the world that shaped and continues to shape that writer.

In a novel, every character has – or should have – what I call a transactional (that is, an interdependent) relation to other characters: They need to contribute something to or receive something from each other – and they must also contribute to the story itself as well as being shaped by that story. Every thief must have a victim, every lover a beloved, every action a reaction.

Scenes, too: Successful scenes live in an organic relationship with their surrounding scenes. They proceed logically, clearly, and appropriately in an unfolding order that makes sense to the reader and carries the story forward. Seems elementary.

It is elementary, my dear Watson.

The twins’ aging processes depend on the environments (Earth, or a speeding spaceship) they inhabit. The environment in which an electron is measured determines whether it manifests as a wave or a particle. It’s the same in fiction. In another post, I’ll write about how this applies to non-fiction, but here I’m homed in on fiction. (By the way, my wife, Michele, asked, “Why did you write ‘homed in’ instead of ‘honed in’? I told her that the Grammarist web site says that “homed-in” is preferred about two to one in North America. She said, “I guess that depends on how it was measured, eh?”)

Anyway, characters are shaped by their life-worlds (which include both the other characters and the world they all share), and in turn, they shape the life-worlds of other characters. My lead character in Climbing the Coliseum, Ed Northrup, is a depressed psychologist in a small ranching town. He’d never fit in a Dickens novel or in The Scarlet Letter, nor would he work in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Ed has adapted to life in the small town and the mountain valley — he’s been shaped by them — and in turn, he influences all the characters he meets there.

Of course, a great way to generate tension and conflict – which are the drivers of story – is to place Character A in a world for which she is entirely unsuited. Robinson Crusoe, anyone? Our two Fun Physics Facts show us why: It’s because the out-of-place character and the environment that stresses her are interdependent that their interaction creates the tension that in turn drives the story.

Every piece of good writing embodies this interdependence of beings and their worlds. How do I know?

J.J. and his boy George told us so.

Francis, the Dalai Lama, Climate Change, and Civic Love

On May 24 of this year, Pope Francis issued his encyclical, a teaching letter, on climate change. Its title is Laudato Si’, the opening words of a song by St. Francis of Assisi praising God for the beauty of nature. Its subtitle is “On care for our common home.” At times, the writing is lyrical, almost beautiful; at others, hard-boiled and fierce. In English translation, though, it is clear and readable.

Pope Francis

In his writing, Francis paints a powerful picture: The environmental crisis we are all facing is tightly woven into the economic and social arrangements of modern capitalist societies – and into the psychology that such societies and arrangements engender. Here are two paragraphs (203 and 204) from Laudato Si’ that highlight this tight interconnection:

Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals. . . . This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. . . .

The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes “a seedbed for collective selfishness” [quoted from John Paul II]. When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. As these attitudes become more widespread, social norms are respected only to the extent that they do not clash with personal needs. So our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction (emphasis added).

 

The Pope’s equation is straightforward: Excessive consumerism drives social instability through the psychological mechanisms of insecurity, self-centeredness, even greed.

Elsewhere, Francis makes the obvious connection between consumerism and environmental crisis: Everything in the postmodern capitalist economy depends on the consumption of energy, and the selfishness of large fossil fuel companies obstructs the development of alternative sources of energy. The excesses of capitalism lead to consumerism, which in its turn reinforces the excesses of capitalism, to the detriment of our social and economic health and the destruction of the natural world.

As ecologists and systems thinkers have known since the pre-WWII era, everything is interconnected. And there’s another writer on this topic who knows it too, as do all Buddhists.

Dalai Lama

Compare Pope Francis’s writing to that of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in his 1990 teaching, “Ecology and the Human Heart”:

So when the environment changes, climatic conditions also change. When it changes dramatically, economic structures and many other things also change, even our physical body. So you can see the great effect from that change. So from that viewpoint this is not only a question of our own survival.

Therefore, in order to achieve more effective results and in order to succeed in the protection, conservation and preservation of the natural environment, first of all, I think, it is also important to bring about internal balance within human beings themselves. Since negligence of the environment – which has resulted in lots of harm to the human community – came about by ignorance of the very special importance of the environment, I think it is very important first of all to instill this knowledge within human beings. So, it is very important to teach or tell people about its importance bring own benefit (emphasis added). 

In both these writers, you read the same ideas about interconnectedness among individuals’ psychological makeup (fear, greed, and ignorance leading to consumerism), social and economic relations (competitiveness and unfettered capitalism), and ecology and nature (climate change). Both insist that the problem exists at all levels, and that a solution at only one level will ultimately fail.

I don’t mean to suggest, nor do Francis or the Dalai Lama suggest, that everyone must be active at all levels for effective positive change to occur. Rather, the message seems to be: We each can contribute, at whatever level we prefer, to solutions for the planet, our people, and our civilization.

Here’s how Francis writes this in Laudato Si’:

Not everyone is called to engage directly in political life. Society is also enriched by a countless array of organizations which work to promote the common good and to defend the environment, whether natural or urban. Some, for example, show concern for a public place (a building, a fountain, an abandoned monument, a landscape, a square), and strive to protect, restore, improve or beautify it as something belonging to everyone. Around these community actions, relationships develop or are recovered and a new social fabric emerges. Thus, a community can break out of the indifference induced by consumerism. These actions cultivate a shared identity, with a story which can be remembered and handed on. In this way, the world, and the quality of life of the poorest, are cared for, with a sense of solidarity which is at the same time aware that we live in a common home which God has entrusted to us. These community actions, when they express self-giving love, can also become intense spiritual experiences.

My books are not environmental treatises. They are fiction, set in ecologically distinct and robust places, similar to where I live in north Idaho, but they aren’t based on environmental themes. Still, I write this blog, in which I focus on psychological, literary, or spiritual aspects of both writing and being. The pressing issues of environmental and ecological degradation and climate change concern me, as they concern millions. I was struck by Francis’s use of writing to address the issue as not merely an economic and social issue, not only a psychological issue, but also a moral issue.

In our small communities, Sandpoint and Hope, Idaho, many people and groups who are deeply engaged in these matters, such as Wild Idaho Rising Tide. One manifestation is a growing concern and movement to counter the growing threat of coal, oil, and gas trains funneling through our communities.

Sunset over Lake Pend Oreille
Sunset over Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho

These trains are coming from the North Dakota Bakken oil field and the Powder River Wyoming coal mines and going to the Pacific ports for export to Asia. Sightline Daily estimates that coal and oil train traffic through Sandpoint and across Lake Pend Oreille will more than double from its current levels, leading to hours of road crossing closures and, of course, the risk of derailment and explosion or waterway pollution.

Efforts to stop the coal trains and the so-called “bomb trains” carrying crude oil are not NIMBY selfishness.

Lac Magantec

They are serious, thoughtful, and concerned social actions to raise attention all along the routes taken by these trains, from the Midwest to the Pacific coast. They embody what Francis calls “civic love.” As a writer, I can do a small part to bring these things to readers’ attention; it is not the most I can do, but it is certainly the least I can do for the world, the country, and the land that I love.

A blog is born . . .

Welcome to “The Blog at Bill Percy Books.” (In resort towns like ours, you find places with names like “The Seasons at Sandpoint” or “The Old Church in Hope.” Maybe I’m hoping, with that blog title, that you’ll find visiting here to be like heading off to a ski resort or a summer cabin on the lake. Who knows?)

LakePendOreille1

Lake Pend Oreille Idaho on a hazy summer afternoon

By way of introduction, I’d like to share a bit about myself. In this blog, I’ll focus on writing in all its dimensions, but I’m organizing my thoughts around three key areas, which I’ve tagged as psyche, story, and spirit. More on them later. Fiction is my “home base” as a writer now, although for forty years I wrote as a psychologist, for teaching and scholarship, and a guy doesn’t leave forty years and walk away!

During those forty years practicing psychology, I developed a keen interest in brain science, especially the science of how emotional and physical trauma affects its sufferers. I keep up with developments in that field; so much of literature deals with people’s experiences of traumatic events. Not only the dramatic, big-news traumas such as war, natural disasters, rape, or auto accidents, but also the insidious cumulative traumas, like meaningless jobs and daily horror shows in the news, the small-change traumas that wear on our spirits like repetitive stress wears on our bodies. In fact, there’s an emerging field of literary theory that focuses exactly on trauma in literature. If you’re interested, here’s a good introduction to that emerging discipline. http://tinyurl.com/kxburxm.

My interests aren’t all bleak, though! I love Bach and Bobby Dylan and Arvo Pärt and Wolf Hall and James Ellroy and Neal Stephenson and good food and oaky Chardonnay (which reminds me a lot of fine writing) and A Game of Thrones. Oh, yeah: I love reading history when it shivers me into recognizing something about the present day. For instance, have you noticed that the political rhetoric leading to the French Revolution and to the American Civil War sound (and smell) a lot like the politics of 2015?

Baseball     Baseball games on the radio stop me in my     tracks, as does a well-played pipe organ or a   beautifully designed church. Or a custom bicycle. So look for the occasional excursion into those cultural regions, especially when they link to good writing. And watch for resources and links to other blogs and sites that help writers write – and think – better; a guy can’t help but pass along the things that make him grow at what he does!

Now, what about those themes in the blog’s tag line: psyche, story, and spirit? Why did I chose them rather than, say, psychology, fiction, and spirituality? For me, these shorter words evoke a deeper and broader range of possibilities than their longer cousins.

Psyche

  • Psyche can be the mythical young woman turned into a goddess through her passion for self-investigation, or the word can evoke the soul, the self, the inner being, the personality, or four of the Buddhists’ six “aggregates” that make us human (perceptions, feelings, mental formations, and consciousness).
  • Story, rather than fiction, widens the space for us to play with all kinds of writing, and it alerts us to a core purpose in all writing – to tell a story. More on that in another post.
  • And why spirit? Try these for openers: Holy Spirit, school spirit, a spirited child, he spirited her away, to be in good spirits, team spirit, the spirit not the letter, the spirit of the times. That’s the spirit!

I hope my thoughts provoke your own, and if they do, please add yours to the conversation—or share mine with like-minded friends. I intend to post about writing — its explorations of psyché, the stories that embody it, and and the spirit of great communication, not to mention the spirit behind the spiritual dimensions of life — on a Fridays each week (as long as I can get to my laptop) and I look forward to getting to know you!  I”d love to hear from you about the interests and loves that feed your writing . . . Any thoughts?

Bill

Where I write
Where I write in Hope, Idaho
Tags: writing, fiction, psychology, psyche, story, spirit, spirituality