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What is the relationship between the real world and the invisible?

First, I suppose we must grant that there are two distinct worlds. I trust we all can agree that there is a “real” world–that is, the sum total of all physical, quantifiable realities: the known universe as defined by three dimensions, time and space (theoretical physicists and cutting-edge cosmologists please stay out of this discussion–but then, I don’t guess you’d be reading this blog, so your objections are withheld by default).

But about the other “non-real” world, I would expect considerably more debate. First of all, one might ask, is there anything not real, not confined by three dimensions and time and space? And if you grant that there might be something else, open that Pandora’s Box of possibility, then how many non-real worlds could one postulate? Why only one? How about two or seven or thirteen or six hundred sixty-six or a quadrillion (a number even greater than the U.S. National Debt)? And if the non-real worlds begin to multiply, how do we stop them? I mean, by definition they exist outside the laws of the physical universe, totally beyond our control. They could appear, or disappear, endlessly.

O.K. Let’s bring this post back around to some semblance of order. The non-real worlds may exist outside the laws of the physical universe, but within the world of jeffreyandersonfiction I have total control and final say. And for purposes of my initial question, I propose that we allow that there is a non-real domain and that all aspects of it can be gathered into a single if complex realm, perhaps as diverse as the real world but united by the defining attribute that all parts lie outside the laws of the physical universe. As such, the non-real world might be defined by such adjectives and metaphors as invisible, incorporeal, spiritual, transcendent, metaphysical, sublime, divine, ethereal, mystical, God, gods, heaven, hell. The number and variety of adjectives and metaphors for the non-real realm suggest at least our language’s inadequacy to circumscribe and define it (language being, after all, a product of the real world), and perhaps our wide-ranging understanding or belief in it: Is there anything else out there? If so, what is that else like?

But as one who has always, far back as I can remember, taken that else for granted and spent much of my life engaged in and with that else (and thereby outside of time, though my physical body doesn’t seem to have shared in the privilege), my current interest isn’t so much what is the else like? (those insights have appeared, and will continue to appear, according to a schedule outside of my will or planning) as what is the relationship between the two disparate worlds? This question surely has meaning for anyone who grants the existence of an invisible world; and, based on a quick glance at a list of top-grossing movies and bestselling books, the idea of a realm and powers that lie outside reality has a near stranglehold on our collective imagination (and hope?).

So what is the relationship between the two worlds? Does one impact the other? Do they ever overlap? Religion and art are the two areas where humans have, throughout history, sought to connect the two realms. Religions have crafted belief structures, traditions, rituals, habits, and dogmas in an attempt to create or codify overlap between the realms, and from that overlap perhaps connection, communication, understanding, and, most importantly, assurance–that the invisible realm is not hostile or indifferent, that it is defined by attentive and loving (if at times judgmental) benevolence.

Art through the ages has been every bit as intent on discovering or defining a connection between the realms, and has often used religion as a jump-off point (whether the religion allows such expression or not). But artistic expression has been much more diverse and divergent in its speculations and outcomes, showing as many (or maybe more) terrifying visions of that other realm as consoling ones, and a far more inventive imagining of possible overlaps and connections. (Go to an e-book webpage–there’s a link highlighted in my previous post–or Netflix and type “paranormal” into the search form if you don’t believe me!)

But what does all that chatter down through the millennia, raised to a deafening roar in our infinitely connected age, mean for each of us trying to understand the mix of visible and invisible, real and surreal, physical and transcendent in his or her own body and soul? In the end I think all that noise is too much–as in too much distraction, too much enticement, too much manipulation, too much confusion–and therefore amounts to not much–not much insight, not much understanding, not much reconciling of the two realms into a single cogent outlook and ethic.

So what is one to do? Listen–not to what is out there but to what is in here, as in inside you. The two realms do overlap, but not in the church nave or the magnificent waterfall or the Renaissance fresco. The two overlap within your heart. And if that overlap is uncovered, accepted, explored, and deciphered (that’s a lifetime’s worth of reflection and growth reduced to four verbs!), then (and I would venture, only then) will the overlap residing in the nave or the waterfall or the fresco have true meaning and resonance.

Then you will be able to hear the harmony formerly lost in the cacophony out there because you heard that sound, and got to know that sound, first in here, within your heart.

to CDA

  

Is the task of the artist to document reality or enhance it?

You say, “Yes and yes.” And I’d say, “Good answer!” But I didn’t start this post with a biggy question just to answer it with three words (a very short post). So I’m going to pursue the question a little further. You can follow or stop with your three words, as you wish.

In this question, I’m referring to intention–purpose, calling–rather than ultimate product. Place two painters before an actual landscape and one could strive to document what he sees and the other could strive to enhance what he sees and the two paintings may, to the objective observer, appear identical. But what matters, to me in this question, is not the outcome but the means to get there, the intention of the artist in creating the work of art.

Of course there’s more at play in such intention than just artistic goal, however important that one purpose is. Personal background and history–from earliest memories and experiences right up to today’s–shape this outlook. Culture, nationality, society, class, period, philosophy, religion, hobbies, health, relationships, even fate–maybe fate most of all–feed into this choice. Arguably, for the artist this one question is the most fundamental expression of self. Are you–or is the muse or God or the gods or angels or the cosmos or the zeitgeist or the voices or the visionary acting through you–striving to record what already exists or somehow reshape it, in a manner of your, or the muse’s, choosing?

Can one do both, either simultaneously or by turns? Well, perhaps, in which case my question is kind of meaningless. But ultimately I don’t think so. Again, it’s this expression of self thing–I don’t think someone can live on both sides of such a fundamental fence–more like the artistic Grand Canyon. Either the world as perceived–at whatever and however many levels–is sufficient subject for your efforts or it isn’t.

This gives rise to a logical extension. Everything perceived–again, at whatever level: our five physical senses or however many others we collectively or individually possess–was created outside of the artist–by humans, God, natural forces, time, or some combination of any or all of these. But what the artist reshapes–if that’s his or her goal–is created inside the artist. In both cases, reality is transmuted within the artist. But to what end? To honor, capture, record what exists, what has been created? Or to alter or add to it? Remember–the paintings may look the same; but the intention makes all the difference in the world, at least to the artist.

In Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Swann falls in love with Odette. But to do so, to fully immerse himself in the lofty and transcendent feeling of love, he must filter Odette’s reality through an artistic ideal, in this case the ideal of a figure from the wall frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, the figure of the Old Testament maiden Zipporah painted by the Renaissance master Botticelli. For Swann, the real person of Odette is not adequate stimulus or repository for his desired goal. He combines that reality with an artistic masterpiece (another reality) in an internal alchemy to fashion something new and acceptable: his own creation. Now Swann is a single character in Proust’s grand scheme. But one can’t help but see in Swann’s internal reshaping of external reality a version of Proust’s approach to the entire memory-based epic. Proust’s real world and real memories aren’t adequate for him or his narrative. They must be reshaped into something greater, something higher or lower but in any case more. More what? Human? Divine? Resonant? Artistic? Durable? We don’t know–only something more! The reality is not enough.

In Becca’s Book Zach returns from Rome and the next night sees Becca in a pose that reminds him of a masterwork he saw during his trip:

Zach opened the door and Becca stepped into the room with a bulging book bag over her right shoulder and a stack of a half-dozen books cradled in her left arm and tucked against her chest. She dropped the stack of books on Zach’s coffee table and he helped her slide the heavy book bag off her shoulder. She wore baggy gray sweatpants and a gray sweatshirt over a white T-shirt with its crewneck collar showing above the sweatshirt. Her long blond hair, still damp from a shower, was woven into a single braid tied at the tip with a rubber band. Wisps of hair had worked loose from the braid and the hair pulled tightly over her ears and head, giving her the appearance of one busy but not quite harried, radiating grace through stress. Her appearance reminded Zach of Botticelli’s Zipporah, daughter of Jethro the Midianite, from the Moses Cycle fresco on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, the image of all the myriad artworks he’d seen in Rome that had held his attention the longest, and for obvious reason. Becca could’ve donned a queen’s robes or Cinderella’s gown of finest satin and he would’ve found her no more lovely than she was at that moment.

For Zach at that moment and indeed throughout the narrative, he has no need to enhance the reality before him or the reality he’s living in. The challenge is not to enhance but rather to appreciate, document, record, and honor what he’s been given. And, as with Swann to Proust, while it may be dangerous to infer the author’s intention from a character’s, in this case it is enlightening. The author’s goal of recording and honoring the world as it is, however transmuted by the muse, is ever paramount.

Is the task of the artist to document reality or enhance it? The answer depends on the artist; and within the artist, it depends on many things. But the one thing it isn’t is a choice. Either what’s created and perceived is enough, or it is not.

To the best of my knowledge, I had never encountered the phrase “fictional memoir” when I appended it to the title of Becca’s Book. At the time I was fairly blasé about authoring the phrase–ho-hum, I’ve just created a new genre of literature; now what should I do after lunch?

But the more I think about it–and the more I’ve kept my ears and eyes open for the phrase–the more surprised I am not to have heard it spoken or seen it written. It seems to me that much fiction, perhaps even most fiction, falls into the broad category of fictional memoir–is based to one degree or another on personal experience, both real and imagined. The core premise of the novel–write clearly about what you know–seems an implicit confirmation of this fact.

A quick survey of our fictional heritage affirms this idea. Most if not all war novels–A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Naked and the DeadThe Bridges at Toko-Ri, Going after Cacciato, to name but a few–are fictionalized accounts of direct experience. The best fiction of writers as diverse in period and style as Melville, Tolstoy, Flaubert, the Bronte sisters, London, Joyce, Hemingway, Woolf, Waugh, Salinger, Updike, Salter (and on and on) derives from fictionalized memory and experience. And Proust and his American heir Thomas Wolfe essentially define the phrase with their literary careers. (One could fill many volumes, or terabytes of digital storage, with a detailed search of real-life counterparts to fictional characters and places and events–an exercise for another time and place and author. But I’d like to note a great but little known example of fictional memoir–The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G. B. Edwards. Give it a read if you can find a copy.)

By now you’re probably thinking–this guy is stating the obvious: viewed broadly enough, all fiction is derived from real or imagined experience! And that’s exactly my point. The uncommon phrase fictional memoir covers a huge swath of familiar territory.

But, like most empirical truths, this understanding simply denotes the beginning of the journey, the start of an exploration that yields its greatest rewards not so much in the real-life who or what or where that underlies the fiction as in where do we go when we leave real memory and experience behind. What secrets and revelations are hidden beneath and beyond the known, in the regions of the heart and mind and soul that aren’t constrained by reality?

So we start in the real world and end up somewhere else. Isn’t that why we write? Isn’t that why we read?

What’s the best way to end a romance at its height? Perhaps a better question: Is there a best way, or even a good way, to end a romance at its height?

First of all, let’s acknowledge the obvious–this is a rhetorical question. Ending a romance at its height is not a conscious choice, at least not between the two participants. Such terminations come about from a mix of fate-driven events and chances and unconscious needs and spontaneous choices and their equally impulsive reactions. They are not cold and calculated. If they are, then the love was something other than genuine, or has lost its heart somewhere along the way.

Still, though rhetorical, the question has relevance, if only in hindsight. Is there a best way, or a good way, for a passionate romance to end?

As we well know, either through personal experience or observation or both, most such relationships end with one or more of various versions of white-hot explosions–a betrayal discovered or guessed or imagined, a monumental argument (often started over some trivial matter), screaming, hitting, breakable objects thrown, clothes tossed out windows, cars keyed. O.K.–you get the idea (and are perhaps wondering if there’s a sadist behind this post).

Or maybe they end with a stark and unexpected “I don’t want to see you anymore” or “I need a break” (these days sometimes sent as a text message), leaving the recipient feeling like he or she’s been flattened by a Mack truck they didn’t even know was out there–heck didn’t even know they were on the road able to get hit, thought they were miles from any road or danger.

And so it goes–we’ve all been there, some of us more often than we want to admit.

But maybe such sudden and irrevocable endings, though painful and traumatic, are good in a way. They are, for better or worse, definitive ends, a black hole voraciously consuming all of the romance’s former light. No matter how often you go through the photo file or the text message list or good old fond memory, there’s still THE ENDING–no way around or past that black hole of demarcation.

But in very rare instances, romances at the peak of passion end peacefully, as the participants, for whatever mix of needs and circumstances, back themselves down off the pinnacle of the mountain to the quieter and safer valley below. Such peaceful partings are not calculated choices either, but a complex interweaving of desire and need, surrounding events, individual personalities, and a sizable portion of luck. At any point in the necessarily gradual unwinding, a chance encounter or misunderstood comment or gesture could lead to the more familiar fireworks, and a sudden end.

But are such slow peaceful endings necessarily better than the sudden traumatic ones? There is after all no black hole of demarcation consuming the love’s former light, no irrevocable THE END. So what happens to all the feeling that’s not exorcised in the conflagration, is not shattered like the plates smashed on the floor? Does it just sit on the heart? Drip away? Evaporate? Or go into hiding somewhere? And if it goes into hiding, where does it go? Does it ever come out? Gain expression at other times, in other ways? What happens to love that’s not fully expressed or eradicated?

What is the best way to end a romance at the height of its love and passion–if we could choose?

Are moments of perfection good or bad things?

No doubt each of us has a catalogue of such occasions safely stored in the scrapbook of memory–a best meal, a perfect sunset, our team’s biggest victory, our favorite singer singing our favorite song at the ideal venue, a child in perfect pose, a parent by our bed when our fever breaks. And then of course there are our romances–one of them, all of them, any of them: maybe each with a moment of perfection planted, maybe one with many such moments, maybe just one with just one perfect moment. I had a friend once describe his sexual encounters in the following terms: The worst I ever experienced was the best I could’ve hoped for! Needless to say, he had lots of perfect, or at least very good, moments stored in his memory and body.

But what do we do with such moments? We cherish them, of course–honor them in our hearts and souls, honor those who granted them to us, even if the only one who granted the moment was God or Nature or Fate. But how often do we honor them? And is the occasion of such recall, such honoring, joyful or sad, or both? Is it like dusting off the photo album (presumably more joyful) or visiting the gravesite (presumably more sad)? And what if visiting a grave is more joyful than dusting off the photo album? Is that an inverted sensibility or a righted one?

Which leads back around to the initial question–are moments of perfection good or bad things?

The logic behind the question goes like this: Certainly we are delighted to have such moments. Once they are experienced, they are ours forever. Nobody, nothing can take them away. But then that’s also the problem–they are ours forever. We live the rest of our lives in the shadow of those moments, ever reminded (if we stop to think about it, if we honor the moment, the person, dust off memory’s photo album, visit the grave) that now is not then, that today’s occluded sunset is not THAT perfect sunset, that the singer is in a nursing home, the song an advertising jingle, the child grown, the parent deceased, the lover long since vanished. If we really honor the perfect past, we necessarily diminish the imperfect present. So maybe we safeguard the present by saying that the past, even those precious moments, weren’t really that perfect, are elevated and embellished by time and memory and nostalgia. But what if you know that isn’t true, have a photo or recording or journal entry that proves your memory accurate, that moment was THAT perfect? Maybe better then not to think about it, but in so doing you dishonor the memory and your life’s experience.

There are some wonderful lines from Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that speak to this dilemma and also summarize the tension in all of Keats’s poetry between rightly honoring perfect beauty and acknowledging our rare or nonexistent participation in it:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal–yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Can we freeze the perfect memories in their perfect moment like those figures on Keats’s urn, both honoring their perfection and keeping them separate from our present life, the sun of memory from behind us, shining full light on the bygone moment but casting that moment’s shadow somewhere else, anywhere else, than across our present? If so, just how do we work that delicate alchemy? Then again, Keats died an excruciating death at age twenty-five, and his last words to the world are documented on his tombstone: Here lies One whose name was writ in Water.
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
Play on, soft pipes; play on.

We are all products of our environment, shaped by our families, our communities, our societies, our times. Consequently, whenever writing a piece of period fiction–whether a historical novel or a fictional memoir–one must pay careful attention to the world surrounding the characters, not only reproducing it as accurately as possible but also showing how it shapes the characters’ lives and choices. But (and this is equally, maybe even more, important) one must also acknowledge and show the ways environment doesn’t shape the characters’ lives and choices, honor each character’s innate needs and empirical beliefs where they run counter to the trends of their world, when they hearken back or look forward to some alternate standard.

Becca’s Book is set in a time and place of unprecedented sexual freedom–an American coed college campus in the late 1970s. Following the liberations of the 60s and early 70s and preceding the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases–most notably and devastatingly the scourge of AIDS in full conflagration by the mid 80s–the very short period from the mid 70s through the early 80s was dominated by the attitude that sex was free, could be engaged in without cost. As a result, promiscuity was not only widely accepted but also, in some circles anyway, expected.

Zach and Becca’s relationship unfolds in such an environment, and is certainly shaped and accelerated by the freedoms of the period. Yet at the same time both characters, each in their own way, push back against the Zeitgeist of sexual freedom, the delusion that such intimate contact can occur without physical or emotional cost. They voice some of these reservations in the following exchange that is strangely private despite occurring while they’re seated in the middle of a debauched off-campus party:

Becca rolled her face toward Zach’s ear. “Is it just me, or is everybody in here on the make?” She’d just watched a hulking guy with a ball cap turned around backwards on his head approach a petite blond girl, talk for a few minutes, then lead her toward the door with his meaty hand sliding down her back and under the waist band of her tight jeans.

Zach nodded. “At least two aren’t.”

“Thank God.”

“I guess everybody’s feeling energized after the long break and with the start of semester.”

“Staking their claims.”

“Something like that.”

“And the last undergraduate semester for some.”

“Probably for most here—Lori and Megan are both seniors.”

“Need to sow their oats while there’s still time.”

“Sow something, anyway.”

“Seems a little depraved.”

“Modern times.”

Becca nodded. “Probably a sociology paper in this somewhere.”

“Yeah, but who’d want to write it?”

The odd thing is that while Zach and Becca find common ground in their objection to unfettered sexual expression, their objections arise for different reasons, reasons that are linked to background and need and that highly personal and malleable compass called morality.

If you want to see (or hear) the whole scene, it can be found here.

Can a person save another’s life?

You say Sure–pull one drowning from the waves (I saw such a saving as a child–don’t know what impressed me more, the fact that one person had saved another or the green seawater slime that burped out of the kid’s mouth), push one from the path of an oncoming car, put a tourniquet on a bombing victim’s severed leg. One can save another’s physical life, which also means saving all other parts of his (or her) life as well.

And, you might add, one can save another’s spiritual life, which might also guarantee saving their physical life. Sometimes a person can intervene to stop another’s alcoholism or drug addiction (I have a friend who freely acknowledges such a saving, though he’s no longer with his savior), depression and suicidal tendencies, overpowering despair and confusion. Somehow, someway, an individual can stop another’s self-destructive tendencies and thereby save not only the person’s spirit but also his or her life.

If we grant such dramatic physical or spiritual deliverance, must we then also acknowledge less dramatic or obvious rescues that have the same net impact–a life spared, saved for future life? If so, how far can we take such logic? Are we saved daily by the subtle actions or words of another? Can love or friendship redirect a life in a profound way, “save” a life–if not from physical death perhaps from a spiritual dead-end, save a life for good, or at least better choices and actions?

And in any of these salvations, what does the “saved” owe the “saver,” whether pulled from the waves, abandoning the heroin needle, redirected by friendship or love? Does the saved owe the saver any more than simply life lived, the ultimate (if not permanent) renunciation of death? But if something more is owed (in the mind of the saved, if nowhere else), how might that debt be settled?

Becca’s Book recounts a fictional romance in which one party perceives salvation in and through the love of the other. The “saved” is not called away from alcoholism or drug addiction or off the ledge of a tall building. In fact, by most external measures, his life is ascendant, and others would more likely see him a “saver” than “saved.” But he sees himself as saved–by this other, by her love. And he lives in the light of that salvation.

While such a dynamic is tricky enough to live through (read the book–here at the moment–if you don’t believe me), it’s even trickier to live after. What does the saved owe the saver?

At the climactic end of Saving Private Ryan, just before dying Captain Miller tells Private Ryan “Earn this!” Earn your salvation! But what does that mean? Live a good life? Have many children? Make lots of money? Visit my grave? What? Earn this!

What does the saved owe the saver?