Thursday, November 17, 2011

Grinding it Out, (Re)Discovering Paul Bowles ...

Thursday, November 17, 2011—Orange, CA

Feeling tired, ready for some new rhythms in my life. I will get them pretty soon—after today there’s only three more weeks of the semester at SCC and three and a half at IVC. My “break” will be busy, but at least the commute will go away for a while. I’ll also have a much more reasonable schedule time wise, by which I mean I’ll lose the stupid 7:00 AM class I’m now teaching. There’s so much I want to do, need to do right now and I’m chomping at the bit—it’s hard to have any kind of life when all you do is sit around grading tests and papers weekend after weekend.

There are a few other things going on. I’m prepping Heaping Stones for a Kindle edition. It’s weird doing a close reading of that book after five years. In many ways it really holds up. It’s definitely not me anymore, though. This is a good sign. The reason a person writes a book like that is to but a phase of life behind him. The fact that I’m not close to the work anymore shows that I’ve done that. I've also reread parts of What Love Is, Heaping Stones’ companion novel, which I shelved a couple years back. I’m now really glad I pulled it. It’s definitely a step backwards from HS, both in the quality of the writing and in its revelations. With it I think I was trying to keep alive things that I didn’t really need in my life anymore; I was done with that Rob but couldn’t quite admit it.

Been thinking some about my next writing project. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think I’m going to put the third Backwaters novel away for a while: I just don’t have the enthusiasm to tackle that project at the moment; I’m still too burned out on its universe from all the work I did on its two companions. I’m more convinced than ever that I should be working on my Greek book, starting next semester. Both the change in subject(s) and the move to non-fiction will really stretch and refresh me. Plus, I really don’t want to force out a third Backwaters book when I’m not ready. That “legendarium” has been so successful and fulfilling that it would be a tragedy to produce a dud final out of some misplaced feeling of obligation. The book will happen when it’s ready to happen.

I’ve managed to squeeze in some reading this last week. Still working on Pounds’ Economic History of Medieval Europe, still getting a lot out of it too. Been dipping into Mallory’s Arthurian tales a bit more as well. The last several days, though, I’ve been diving into Paul Bowles’ work. I first tried to read The Sheltering Sky, his most famous work, years ago and couldn’t get into it. I’ve been hearing great things about him, especially lately, so I thought I’d give his stuff another whirl. I picked up Let It Come Down, his second novel, from the IVC library on Monday and it’s great. He writes some of the clearest, cleanest prose I’ve ever read (it makes me wonder if I might be a bit sloppy at points). His explorations of expatriate life in Tangier are also compelling, in a dark tawdry way. Gore Vidal considers him to be one of America’s all-time great writers. It wouldn’t surprise me if I eventually end up agreeing with him. I grabbed The Spider’s Nest, another one of his novels, to get started on this weekend, by which point I should have finished Let It Come Down. It’s rare these days when I feel the need to dive into a writer’s work headfirst. This can be nothing but a good sign. Reading Bowles is making me want to get back to my own writing even more.

A few more semesters like this one and I’ll be finished a writer. I of course won’t let that happen. It’ll be interesting to see how I save myself.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Riding out the Wave / Retrenching a Bit

Thursday, November 10, 2011—Orange, California

Busy days are these. But I do seem to be getting a handle on things. I can see the semester closing out and a reduced work load on the horizon. Still, there’s not much going on besides school I’ve been too busy to work on the novel lately (or much else in the way of “personal” writing—that’s why I’ve only been doing about an entry a week here). Greg came down from Santa Cruz this week and it was nice to hang out with him. (Unfortunately he’s down because his brother was in a nasty car accident, which really took the edge off his visit.) I’ve been doing some interesting reading lately. I’ve decided to put down the Brothers Grimm for a while so I don’t get burned out on that stuff. I’ve picked up Part 1 of Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, which is something I’ve been meaning to get to for a while. I’m also reading NJG Pounds’ classic An Economic History of Medieval Europe, which so far is really good. I’ve also started the process of prepping the BSP books for Kindle editions, which is something that’s been hanging over my head for a while. I can’t wait till break, though, when I’ll have time to see more people. Feeling OK these days, but a touch isolated. My life’s also far too narrow at the moment for my tastes. Just about five weeks to go, though, and then a bit of freedom will come by way …

Forgot to mention that I’m still working on learning Greek. I’m also still enjoying it. I wish I had the time to dive into it head first—right now all I can do is nibble around the edges of the language.

I’ve been looking back at my last couple entries and can now see how tangled they might seem to the average person, how big and crazy. This is because I’m going thru a period where a lot of different streams of thought are coming together for me—I’m beginning to realize how interconnected everything is; those posts are me wading into this understanding and trying to make sense of it for myself and others. They are of course first steps, so they’re bound to be a bit messy.

After getting some comments from people who’ve read them I also understanding a bit more what I’ll have to do to both develop these ideas and get them across to other people. Most people have only a light understanding of history. Or more specifically, they don’t really understand what it is. This, I think, is because they’ve been so poorly taught in regards to this subject. History, especially at the more introductory levels (which is all most people experience), is taught as series of events that have little reason for being except that people are doing things—in other words, force of personality drives human events. This turns history into the study of a kind of political psychology. This, though, is only a tiny part of what’s going on. What’s often all but ignored is the ecological and economic contexts in which humans make their decisions. In other words, many of the mechanisms that drive human socio-cultural evolution are largely left out of the equation.

I now see very clearly that if I want to write about the issues that now interest me I have to explain this broader context along the way. Human cultural evolution is driven not by "great" men and women, but by resources and our attempts to control them—human actions are a byproduct of these quests. History then is really the study of human ecology—understand the nature and value of resources (including their geography) and you understand a great deal about why our societies have developed in the ways they have and what our future options might be. Any book I write on this subject will have to start and then work out from this basic understanding. This means that the first essay in this book will have to be a broad overview of human biological and cultural evolution up to the beginnings of agriculture. From there I will have to explain the massive changes that came with the domestication of plants and animals. From that point on I can begin to branch out into the cultural ecology of our current predicaments.

Ok, I've got to cut this short. I'm sure I have more to say, but I just can't spare the time right now. Onward!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Brothers Grimm Launch Point

Thursday, November 03, 2011—Orange, CA

Still trudging thru this difficult semester. I feel, though, like I’m getting a handle on things—finally. My hip/back is more or less back to normal and I’m getting caught up on my school work; all I have to do is rework a few lectures and then my semester will mellow out considerably. What’s really frustrating me, I’m beginning to realize, is that I have so little time for serious writing. This is especially annoying in that the main reason I teach to begin with is that it’s supposed to leave me with the time to write. Oh well, at least my schedule next semester is looking much more reasonable. Maybe this forced fallow period is a blessing. I was a little burned out after finishing Mother Earth and probably needed a break. I just don’t like being pushed into anything—I want my writing to wax and wain because of my own internal dynamics, not because of forces coming from the outside.

Still, I’ve been getting into some interesting places intellectually lately. I think I mentioned earlier that I’ve started learning Greek. So far I’m really getting into it. Unlike romance languages, the structure of which I always found a bit counterintuitive (I’m already enjoying learning Greek far more than I ever did French, which did little beside drive me up the wall), Greek grammar makes sense to me. I also like the sound of the language, the way it feels in my mouth and brain. It’s of course very early in this journey for me and my opinions may change, but for now at least Greek really seems like I a language that I could learn well. Crossing my fingers on this one …

I’m also continuing with Grimm’s fairy tales. Telling stuff. Though I’ve long been familiar with a lot of the stories, or at least their basic themes, in other incarnations, reading them one after the other is causing me to see some patterns I only sort of noticed before. The one I find most striking is the role of the forests (the woods) in these tales. They’re always places of mystery, of strange and often dangerous happenings. They’re also places of darkness, places inhabited by bears and wolves and other creatures that inspire fear in the story’s human characters. A lot of these stories go back to the middle ages at least, I’m sure, and the social-environmental juxtapositions really bear this out. What these are are stories told by people living on farms and in towns that are surrounded by then widespread, but now mostly long-gone, European forests. As farmers, though, these people have long lost most of the important connections with their ancestral foraging past. In other words, these stories are byproducts of living near wild wooded ecosystems, but not really in them. When their (our) ancestor’s traded their foraging lifeways for that of agriculturalists they lost their knowledge of these environments—and fear tends to fill knowledge vacuums. In Grimm’s fairy tales then there is a direct connection with the advent of agriculture and our general loss of ecological knowledge. Forests have become a place to gather berries and get firewood, but little else. They are something to be tamed, culled, destroyed, turned into fields “safe” for farming. This, I’d say, directly correlates with the current collapsing of the world’s last wild ecosystems: we destroy that which we don’t understand, both out of fear and because on many levels we don’t even realizing what we’re doing—ten-thousand plus years of agriculture have left us that divorced from the wild world which spawned us.

All this ties into broader views I’m developing on human history. Like most people in the Western world I grew up viewing history as a series of political decisions—the disgusting doings of one scum-bag king after another. I now see this as a side show, the outcome of bigger forces. What history really is is the evolution of how we relate to our environments.

So far there have been two overarching modes of human behavior: the lifeway of the forager and the lifeway of the agriculturalist. The forager gains his/her living thru complex interactions with what are essentially wild ecosystems: they shape these systems only to a slightly greater degree than most other creatures in these realms. Agriculture, however, is about control. It is the mass simplification of ecosystems to meet short-term human needs, (or perceived needs): everything that does not directly serve us get ripped out and replaced with a plants and animals that will do our bidding, so to speak. We lived the first of these lifeways for millions of years (if our full hominid lineage is included). Agriculture is only 12,000-10,000 years old. Until extremely recently the most important intellectual lineage it has given us is the aforementioned diminution of general ecological knowledge—this informs nearly every move we have made, from our diets, to disease, to the nature of our towns and cities, to our rising populations, to our general social systems, to our intellectual accomplishments, to our religions, etc. etc. However, this lifeway, as we currently practice it, cannot go on.

The instability of socio-economic systems based around unthinking ecosystem simplification have always been striking—human history since the advent of agriculture can be viewed as one long series of wars over dwindling resources. As the planet hits seven billion people and we sit on the verge of planet-wide environmental collapse it has become apparent that we’re going to be entering a new phase in our existence—one way or another. If we continue as we’re going cascading ecological collapse is a given. If this happens there will be planet-wide war and famine, of which only a relative handle of people will survive, if any (the lifeway of these survivors will be the equivelent of picking thru the garbage heap of our socio-ecolocial failure). The second option will be to enter a phase in which we begin to infuse the re-aquired knowledge of our forager ancestors into our lives. The result will be a worldwide compromise with the rest of the living world. Smaller human populations. Many more wild ecosystems. Farmer as ecologist. Economics and political science taught as small subsets of ecology. A demise of the religious structures that have arisen out of predatory agricultural societies and the emergence of philosophies which combine science with the values of ancient animist-pagan notions of land and spirit being co-joined (think a kind of Daoist-sacred woods religion that both informs and learns from science instead of battling it). A human mindset thru which we see ourselves once again as part of the planet instead of its owners.

Wow, that’s a lot to get from the Brothers Grimm! It doesn’t surprise me, though—I’ve been living with these massive kind of thoughts, developing them for years now—and they’re ready to come out. One of the writing projects I see for myself in the coming years is a book of essays where I discuss these kinds of topic—in a much less tangled and better realize manner that I’ve started doing here. What I’m doing, I can now see, is using this diary as a warm up for this book. Now I’ve really interested to see where this diary will go in the coming months—I apparently have a great deal to say.