Friday, August 31, 2012

The Book of Love: Introduction

The topic of love has not been addressed by philosophers nearly as much as it deserves. It is evidently one of the most important aspects, some would say the single most important aspect, of human existence, and yet one must search far and wide to find mention of it in the works of great philosophers. Plato is a notable exception (from his ideas we derive the term "platonic love"), but by and large philosophers seem not to have regarded love as being of great philosophical interest.

Love has always been of great philosophical interest to me, at least since around 1989, when, as I mentioned after my daughter was born, I came to the conclusion that the ultimate meaning of life could be found in the phenomenon of love, as an irreducible good for which no further explanation is possible or necessary.

In the late 90s, I briefly toyed with the idea of writing a philosophy book about love, particularly the variety known as eros (which does not, as I shall explain in a later post, mean the same thing as sexual love, though there is certainly overlap), and even more particularly the subcategory of eros that is the painful experience of unrequited love.

Since my separation this year, I have been thrust into a sort of existential relationship space which has given me cause to revisit and examine afresh my ideas about love in all its forms. The novel I wrote this summer, in fact, largely revolves around these themes (though it is also about much more than that). Even more recently I have begun to revive my old idea of writing a book on the philosophy of love, with special focus on the special problem of unrequited love. What I am doing right now in this blog is to attempt to start fleshing out my thoughts on the subject, in preparation for the writing of such a book.

You may well ask why unrequited love should be of such special significance from a philosophical point of view. One reason is precisely the fact that it is unhappy, and anything unhappy can lead one to become philosophical. I should also point out that when I say unrequited love, I mean something more than the transitory and superficial phenomena that we call crushes and infatuations. I have experienced plenty of those, but I have had two experiences in my life of a more lasting and profound type of unrequited love (feelings and experiences which I drew upon in the writing of my novel), and it is this more serious type of psychological suffering that might well cause one to wax philosophical (as well as wax poetical).

But it is not just unrequited love that I wish to examine and analyze for meaning. I am also recently much more interested in examining the nature of things like friendship, eros in general, platonic love, courtly love, and the phenomenon which psychologists call "limerence" and which the rest of us call being "in love" (or romantic love). I am particularly interested in examining the relationships among these various but interrelated phenomena, and in showing how many of our common conceptions about them might be mistaken and therefore counterproductive.

These are all very real phenomena and I don't think they can be readily dismissed by philosophers of the human condition. Each of these phenomena tells us something, not only about ourselves, but also about reality. Human beings are certainly a part of reality, and the things we feel, and even the things we invent, can all provide clues as to the nature of the world that produces us. The philosopher's task is to start with the familiar facts of human experience and to dig down through all the layers to discover what these phenomena can tell us about the nature of ourselves and of the world in which we live.

Though philosophy inevitably and necessarily involves some level of abstraction, my own style of philosophizing tends to be more personal and essayistic. I will no doubt draw upon and make reference to my own experiences, but I will not reveal the actual names of other people in order to respect both their privacy and my own. This project is not intended to be a confessional but a philosophical meditation. It is just that I like to relate my philosophical speculation to concrete experience as much as possible.

To some degree, I have already devoted much writing, in my novel, to speculation, meditation, and analysis of and on these subjects, but nonfiction writing provides a different means to think about and present the topics and issues. Fiction (including poetry) and nonfiction can address things in complementary ways and can work together to create a fuller picture. In both modes of writing, my discussion of these topics is meant to be exploratory rather than dogmatic. I am not providing definitive answers (as though I had them) as much as I am simply asking questions and exploring concepts in a search for understanding and truth. In this ongoing series of posts, I hope to begin painting a fuller picture of love, its nature and its meaning and its possibilities, not only for others but also for myself.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

One Thing

Only one thing the heart desires
When found, nothing more is sought

And lacking what it desires most
All the world is not enough.


Steven Holland
August 26, 2012

Sunday, August 19, 2012

After Thoughts

In some sense it is not technically true that Bluebird is my first novel. Back when I was 19-20 I wrote two novels, which mercifully no longer exist. Both novels were set in a fictional Florida beach town and revolved around a cast of high school students (the second novel being a sequel to the first). I wrote them in notebooks, so I don't know the word count, but the first took up about 200 handwritten pages (I write pretty small) and the sequel took up about 300 pages. They were written within the span of one year. About two years after finishing the sequel, I destroyed both novels, together with a large number of my other writings, because I already felt that they had become embarrassing.

Nevertheless, I am very glad that I wrote them. They were certainly good writing exercises and invaluable practice in the art of writing not only novels but also realistic fiction. I don't think they were all bad; in fact, I think there was much good in them. But they're all gone now. Only a handful of family and friends ever read them. Someday I may write up synopses or summaries of the stories, in case future scholars might ever be interested (hey, you never know). I can still remember much about them, and I don't mind if people know about them and have some idea of what they were like.

My 2008 blog fiction The Librarian's Apprentice was not meant to be a novel. When published in book form it came to 117 pages, which would qualify it as an accidental novella. Prior to this my longest surviving work was the novella The Holocaust of the Children (1999), which is about 42 pages or so. (Incidentally, I also wrote a novella, in notebook form, when I was 18-19. It came to just over 50 pages, and, like my early novels, is no longer extant.)

In any case, The Bluebird of Happiness is what I regard as my first "real" novel. My early novels I consider now to be juvenilia. The one I have just completed is a mature work. I never really feel perfectly comfortable talking about my own work, but allow me for a moment to reflect on what is undoubtedly my greatest literary accomplishment so far.

It is hard to express the excitement I feel about it without coming across as sounding like I am praising my own work. But I wish to express my great delight at discovering what I was capable of writing. I always hoped that I had it in me to write a great novel; and, without actually claiming that I have in fact written a great novel, I will say that I feel much more confident in my abilities and talents than I did only several weeks ago. This novel is truly a breakthrough for me as a writer.

I feel fairly confident in saying that the story is of epic proportions. I'm not talking about the book's historical or cultural importance necessarily, I just mean the story itself. A hundred thousand words is actually fairly average for a "literary" novel, but because of my concise writing style, its scale and scope are greater than the thickness of the volume might suggest. It is meant to be an epic and even a sort of (post)modern myth. The protagonist, Thomas, is deliberately cast as a mythic figure, and the story, though centered in more or less the present day, looks across his entire life, encompassing scenes from near infancy to just after his death (as an old man, decades in the future). I consider it to be my own personal Citizen Kane, and purposely took that film as one of my main inspirations.

I feel confident, too, in saying that the story is packed full. Not just in terms of the narrative, which is dense and ranges widely not just across Thomas's life but also into his dreams (i.e., his night dreams), his writings (he is an author too), and his innermost thoughts and feelings. It is also packed full in terms of symbolism and intricate interconnections among various parts and elements of the story, and in references to other artistic works, including especially works of music, film, and poetry. I have no doubt that it is the kind of work that readers and critics can spend a long time unpacking. There is much that is mysterious, even to me as the author, and open to a range of interpretations. I can't wait to hear what some of those interpretations might be. I will surely learn some things about the story that even I don't know. I especially look forward to readers making connections or gleaning understandings that I had no idea were there. So if you read it and you make a connection, please feel free to share. Don't assume that it was intentional. Probably most of them are intentional, but there is surely much waiting to be discovered.

The ending of the story, now that I have written it, is particularly striking to me, in a way that I had not intended or foreseen. Even though I conceived of the final scene the day before I started writing (this scene was the final spark that set fire to the actual writing), it surprised me when I actually wrote it on Friday. Its effect is somewhat different than what I had anticipated, but, like so much else about this story, I think it is even better than what I had planned to do. Even in the final moments, as my fingers typed the last sentences, I did not realize the exact form the ending would take, nor the precise effect it would have. I think part of the reason I was breathless immediately upon finishing was because the ending knocked the wind out of me. It is, as I had imagined, very quiet and subtle and understated, and I think that makes its effect all the more powerful. I felt as though I had just been hit by something enormous, but I didn't actually feel it hit me. I only felt the dazed aftereffects. I think it was the full immense weight of the entire epic and tragic story, let down at the end by the fall of a feather.

I couldn't be more pleased with the way the ending actually came out--as I said, it is better than what I had planned. The ending, even to me, is very mysterious. I actually do not fully understand its meaning on a rational and intellectual level. I have been trying to interpret it and understand it myself. But I know the meaning is definitely there. I felt it viscerally as soon as I had typed the last word, and every time I re-read it or even think about it, it still hits me. I don't even know why exactly. I just know there is something very enormous and profound suggested by that closing scene, something far too deep for words.

I say all this not to proclaim my own abilities as a writer, because as I keep saying this was not something I even intended. The ending made me feel, more than any other aspect of this incredible writing experience, that some larger forces were at work. Call it God, the Muses, whatever you will. This story was given to me so that I may give it to you. To me, the entire purpose of art is to help us connect with the ultimate meaning and mystery of life. True art is spiritual, not commercial. I will consider this work a success if it acts as a vehicle for grace in the lives of those who read it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

My First Novel

Today I completed my first novel, The Bluebird of Happiness. From July 3rd to August 17th of this year, I underwent the longest sustained burst of creative inspiration and poetic passion that I have ever experienced as a lifelong writer, and produced a work that has far surpassed my wildest expectations.

The story had its genesis way back in 1999. At the time, it was titled The Terrible Blue and revolved around a young man named Thomas and his struggle to find meaning in what he felt to be the cold emptiness of the contemporary postmodern world. After years of false starts, changes to characters and plot, uncertainty, lack of inspiration, and occasional total abandonment, it all started coming together this year, and all the more once I began the actual writing.

Along the way, I changed the title to The Bluebird of Happiness. The reason for the new title, besides the fact that I just liked the way it sounded, had to do with the fact that I had come to see the novel's primary philosophical theme as happiness. I consider Bluebird to be a philosophical novel, meaning that it revolves around some of the deepest and most important questions we can ask about human life. If you could boil down the novel's theme to an essence, it would be something like this: Is true happiness possible for human beings?

To find out my answer, you will just have to read the book. Anyway, I don't know that I necessarily provide any definitive answer as much as I simply explore the question to its heights and depths and furthest reaches, suggest some open-ended possibilities, and leave much for the reader to ponder after the last sentence. My style of philosophical writing is not to provide tidy conclusions (because I don't know all the answers) but to get people to ask certain questions and to think for themselves.

The novel also explores themes such as beauty and love and home, and how each of these relate to each other and to happiness. One of the most important things I attempt to do in this story is to question our assumptions about and explore the possibilities of human relationships.

I should also point out that it is more than just a philosophical novel. It should certainly not be read as merely a philosophical essay in fictional form. It is meant as poetry, and should be enjoyed in many ways, for the language, the ideas, the feelings, and above all else it should simply be enjoyed as a story. The enjoyment will sometimes be painful, but even in those moments it will be, I think, beautiful and meaningful.

As I have already described, earlier this year I suddenly had a grand new vision for the story. Readers who know me personally may well wonder, while reading, why I chose the story that I did, and how much relation it bears to my actual life. With regard to the latter question, I can only echo what I said before: this is a work of fiction. The events in the story never happened. The characters in the story never existed. The novel is not a secret code to my life story, and it is definitely not a roman a clef .

When I said that I am telling my story through the novel, I did not mean that literally. If I had written The Wizard of Oz, I would also be telling my story through it. I would just be using more fantastical means to do so. In this story I am using realistic means, but that does not mean I am writing about real life in a literal sense. It is about real life only in a symbolical sense, as all literature is. It provides a shared dream through which we may interpret and understand real life. But it is still a dream, and should always be regarded as such.

So why did I choose this particular story? Well, for one thing, I'm an author and I can choose to write whatever story I want to write. It just struck me as a good story idea, and a particularly good way to explore my chosen philosophical themes. I saw in it great beauty and great power, and I hope that I have successfully conveyed my vision in these pages.

The story really came alive when I actually started writing in early July. At that point it became a true vision, overpowering me and driving me toward its realization and completion. I was under the control of the Muse, taking dictation as she revealed the true story to me, the one that I had not even guessed at during the previous 13 years of torturous evolution. I was constantly surprised and delighted at what emerged from my pen (figuratively speaking).

You will probably not understand Thomas. But that is okay. As he says of himself, "I'm not meant to be understood." And you may not even like him. He is not meant to be a hero but more of an anti-hero, although I think you will come to have a greater understanding of him, and probably even some real love for him, by the end. And that is one of the grand things about fiction. It helps us to understand, not only life, but each other.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Final Stretch

I have written over 80,000 words and am headed into the final stretch of this novel. As I suspected would happen even when I first started writing, my heart is growing heavier as I near the end of the story. I don't know if the story is a tragedy so much as a story that expresses the tragic sense of life. If it is a tragedy, it is not so because it is about death, but precisely because it is about life.

Also as I suspected, the characters have become very real to me and I am reluctant to part with them. But part with them I must, so that I can let them go and allow other people to know them too. In some strange sense that is surely true for all fiction writers, my characters are almost like my children. I did in fact conceive them and give birth to them. I do not always approve of everything they do or say, but I love them nevertheless. I allow them to suffer, but only for their own good. And in the end, despite their many flaws and mistakes and perhaps incomprehensible choices, I am proud of them.

No matter what becomes of this novel, it has been well worth the writing. It has been something like a catharsis. Even if I never earn a single penny from it, it has been one of the best investments of time and effort I will ever make. As I said earlier, it is like a distillation of my soul, and plenty of my soul and my blood have been poured into it, with much more still to come in the final pages.

Looking back, the way this story idea survived over the many years, and the way it is flowing out of me now, it seems that this story is something I was meant to write. It is not my place to compare it to the works of other artists, but in terms of my own art, it is without doubt the greatest thing I have yet produced. I used to wonder if I had it in me to write a real literary novel, meaning a full-length, serious, deep work of art that has at least the potential to stand the test of time and find readers in future generations and, yes, perhaps even be given to English majors. Only time will tell if these events come to pass, but if nothing else I have learned that I can at least write a novel. I am frankly surprised at how well it has turned out. I don't know if that statement expresses pride or humility, or some mixture of both, but it is in any case true.

One of the strangest and most wonderful things about artistic creation is that it often seems as though the artist is merely the vehicle for some higher reality that is being channeled through him. As I have often said, to a very large degree it feels that this story is just coming to me rather than being something I have to consciously construct. Of course, I still need to take my inspiration and consciously mold it into its actual form, but I am also surprised at how easy it has been to write such a long work.

I have occasionally looked back at passages I wrote well before and been struck by symbolism or foreshadowing or other connections that I did not intend to put there and did not even notice while writing them. The effect of writing this novel has been like being caught in the grip of an ongoing visionary seizure. There is something obsessive and compulsive in the writing of it, even though I undertake it willingly and gladly.

In the end, no matter how many readers or how few my novel may have, what I hope for it the most is that whoever reads it will see the beauty and the truth I am attempting to communicate. You (if you are in fact to be one of my readers) may not fully understand it, at least not at a conscious and rational level. I do not claim to fully understand it on this level myself. But I think that, like all poetry, even though it does speak to the mind, it speaks even more deeply to the heart and the soul. I can't explain in concise terms what it means, or exactly how the ending makes me feel, but I know that it is something very real and meaningful that I wish to share.

The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer spoke of literature creating a fusion of horizons between the reader and the author. In other words, the "horizon" or world of the reader can meet the horizon of the author, thus creating a shared understanding. Art is one of the most powerful means we have of bridging the often seemingly unbridgeable gap between the loneliness of our souls, in which we often feel that no one can truly share our experiences and thoughts and feelings. When it is successful, a literary work can create a quiet and marvelous space where, at least for a moment, two souls can touch, even if separated by centuries, and find communion in their shared human experience. If in reading my story you and I can create a shared horizon, a shared understanding of truth and a shared appreciation of beauty, then I have greatly succeeded.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On the Eerie Similarities Between Sex Scenes and Horror Stories

Sometimes it is not what you say, but what you don't say.

We live in vulgar times, an age in which the explicit and graphic depiction of sex and gore is the norm. My problem with graphic depictions of sex and violence is not that they are too strong, at least not in the sense of achieving their intended effects (though they are often too strong in the way that the smell of a garbage heap is, i.e., extremely offensive to good taste). Rather, my problem with them is that they are too weak.

They are weak and ineffectual because they show too much. They represent an unrefined sensibility that works on the assumption that more is always better. Take it from me: sometimes more is less.

See, the problem is that explicit depictions of sex and violence work against the full power of eroticism and horror. Both of these qualities relate to some of the deepest and most powerful of all human feelings, those connected with sexual love and the continuation of life, in the case of eroticism, and in the case of horror, those connected with fear, particularly fear of death and the unknown.

H. P. Lovecraft, one of the greatest horror writers of all time, famously said that "the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown". Old horror movies were far less gory and violent than today's, but they tended to be more mysterious, atmospheric, and moody. Classic horror (as opposed to modern horror) aimed to suggest rather than to show, and this is precisely where its power resided. The more you leave to the imagination, the more room is given to genuine psychological horror--those creepy feelings that something dark and fearsome and possibly evil is lurking out there, or perhaps very close at hand. This type of horror--which I consider to be true horror--is more often than not caused by the presence of unknown and unknowable supernatural entities or forces, rather than by bland and banal human murderers. True horror suggests that there is more to reality than our modern scientistic worldview affords, and therein lies its truly subversive power: it challenges our very concept of reality, our philosophical assumptions, the very ground beneath our feet.

The depiction of sex works very much the same way. Pornography, whether written or visual, leaves little or nothing to the imagination. It is focused on the physical body to a degree that could be considered clinical and therefore the very opposite of sexy. Truly erotic art, however, like true horror, focuses more on the psychological aspects of the experience, and suggests more than it shows. Its power lies in allowing the reader to fill in his or her own blanks, just as classic horror does. As the Symbolists said, "To name is to destroy; to suggest is to create." The power of suggestion is very powerful indeed, and is a potent artistic weapon that is too often neglected in our age of vulgar--and totally unexciting--excess. Trying too hard often results in failure; my advice to writers and filmmakers is to kick it up a notch by taking it down a thousand.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

From Beyond

We felt it first, faint as raindrops on the world,
but distinct, as animals sense distant tremors.
Something enormous and impossible had risen
and was nearing from out the tremendous black,
from the fathomless depths of the night ocean,
approaching our sleeping city by the sea.
The bay had been shrouded by an eerie fog,
a voiceless harbinger of the terrible visitation.
Its waters moved, displaced by the unknown,
by unseen forms and forces, unexpected presences.
The weight of unimaginable hooves fell upon the crust,
the low, thunderous beat of titanotheric tympani.
The waters rippled, the earth gently trembled,
the scent of prehistoric mists filled the gloom.
Then we beheld the wondrous, awful sight,
as the gigantic green-gray shapes emerged
from the abyss of night and time:
   the towering Brachiosaurus,
   the neverending Diplodocus,
   the colossal Brontosaur.
The titanic beasts waded up from the deep,
unsummoned yet dreadfully arrived,
shaking the earth beneath their fantastic feet
and all our earthly certainties.


Steven Holland
October 6, 2006

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What This Story Is Not About

As I progress through the writing of this novel, its meaning becomes more and more clear. However, I am certain that even when I have written the last word, the meaning of my story will remain somewhat mysterious, even for myself. It is not meant to be a political or religious tract, nor a scientific or philosophical treatise. It is poetry, in the broader sense of that term (which, by Aristotle's definition, can be taken to include all fiction). Because of that, its meaning will always be indeterminate and ambiguous, open to a range of interpretations.

I have no doubt that it will make you feel something. What that something is may vary from reader to reader, and, as with many works of literature or film or music, it may be something you can't fully describe or explain or put your finger on. But it may, if I am as skilled of a writer as I hope to be and am capable of conveying my vision effectively, still be powerful and deeply affecting (as the story is for me). Many of my favorite works of literature, film, and music leave me with profound feelings that I can't ever fully understand or analyze. I may not know what I am feeling, exactly, but I definitely know it is something real and important, something much bigger and deeper than ordinary everyday emotions and thoughts. That is the effect of great poetry and art, and it is the effect I hope to achieve.

I don't mean to sound melodramatic in saying this, and this is something that is true for many, many artists and their works, but an important aspect of this work in particular, perhaps more than any other work I have produced, is that it is born out of suffering. This concept is very important to the story itself, as it has much to do with suffering producing beauty.

I won't get into further details today, but, just to clear the idea out of everyone's mind, I wish to make one point clear. Many who know me know that my marriage ended recently. This story has nothing whatsoever to do with that. The only relationship between that event and this tale is a very indirect one. Simply put, the dissolution of my marriage opened up a space for another, quite unrelated phenomenon to surface within my soul, something that was simultaneously beautiful and painful. That mixture of beauty and pain gave a whole new inspiration and new life to a story idea that had been sitting around for many years. I consider it a gift, and I wouldn't trade the pain for the world, because, together with the beauty from which it is inseparable, it inspires me and enables me to use my talents more fully and powerfully than I ever have. I feel that it is a flame, causing both suffering and illumination, that is driving me to reach my full potential as a writer.

The nature of this beauty/pain/inspiration is something deeply personal and in any case would be hard to explain or describe in a short space with full justice and without the potential of great misunderstanding. The novel, among many other things that it is, is my way of explaining it. Although the details of characters and events are purely fictitious, the underlying heart of the story, its themes and meanings, its emotions and ideas, are all very real. I am telling you about something that actually happened and continues to happen to me, but not with the literal facts of my autobiography. I am telling it through another person's story--a fictional person who is not me, and does not in any simple or direct way "represent" me, but who nevertheless experiences things very similar (though by no means identical) to what his author has experienced.

By telling it in this fictional form, I hope to tell my own story to its fullest effect, free from the nitty gritty details of true history. I am turning it into poetry, which as Aristotle said is more philosophical than history because it shows us universals rather than particulars.

My recent inspiration and the art it is producing have given birth to a strange new vision, a vision which forms the philosophical core of this tale. To me, it is strange in a good and beautiful way. I know and expect that some readers will simply find it strange, or perhaps not understand it at all and so not know what to think. The ending, though I find it to be powerful and profound, is also ambiguous and open. I wish to leave the reader, not with tidy conclusions (in terms of either plot or philosophy), but with a sense of wonder and possibility, an aching sense of the deep importance of human life and love, and a desire to know more. Not that there will be a sequel... the unfulfillment that drives us perpetually toward truth and beauty is part of the point.