Real Fiction

Exploring the nexus of reading and writing

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The Rational versus The Non-rational

Two books read, and not for the first time:

I have read Steppenwolf no less than three times, and each time I feel like I am reading it anew. I almost never expect it, yet it is true that I discover things in each re-reading of Steppenwolf (and of other books by Hermann Hesse, and of books by other authors) that I cannot remember having read before. Such is the hallmark of a “good book” in my estimation—a story of many layers that reveal themselves, over time, to readers who continue to grow toward union with, or at least intimate knowledge of, the author or his concepts.

I have re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig so many times that I have abstracted and transcribed the philosophical parts to more efficiently revisit and study the essence of the story.

I see as a common thread in these two books the argument (as in ‘Zen…’) and struggle (as in Steppenwolf) between the rational and non-rational.

Pirsig termed the arguing elements in man as the “classical” and the “romantic” view of the world. Pirsig’s character, “Phaedrus” (who is really the author, himself) reconciles the dual nature of man (i.e., the rational and non-rational) into the realization that “quality” is the over-arching idea that unifies them, or at least provides a framework for balance between them.

In Steppenwolf Hesse shows the man of highly-developed intellect, but of little worldly knowledge or appreciation, becoming aware of the pleasures and values of imagination and sensuality. Another way of viewing Hesse’s character is that he becomes aware that life is mostly or merely an illusion, to be better appreciated by the non-rational than by the rational aspects of one’s nature.

I think/feel (“classical”/”romantic”) these two authors, and other creative people, are the more qualified to help us understand this dual nature in man, and its terrors and delights. I say this having just again scanned a book I recently bought because of its title: Left Brain, Right Brain: Perspectives from Cognitive Neuroscience, by Springer and Deutsch. Through the employment of the scientific method we have learned much about the different functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain and of the corpus callosum that connects them.

But the poet will bring a concept to life, while the scientist will bring us the “facts” of life.

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No, I don’t mean being well-dressed and -coiffed,

or never having violated any social code. What I mean is being true, as in:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82

Why am I bringing this subject up here and now? A house guest, a young woman, left her book in our living room, forgetting to pack it for her trip back home to San Jose, California: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book) by don Miguel Ruiz. Despite it being a best-selling book in a realm I’m interested in, I hadn’t heard of it nor of don Miguel.

As I read through it, I was instantly familiar with the “Toltec” words and phrases. This is because I had read all the books of Carlos Castaneda, the first one being, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. I had not known, or had since forgotten, that don Juan Matus, the Yaqui brujo who takes Carlos as his student, was inculcating him in ancient Toltec traditions. Now I am indelibly reminded.

One of the words and concepts I have retained from Castaneda’s books is that of “impeccability.” Paraphrasing don Juan Matus in Castaneda’s books (from memory), “a warrior must be impeccable; he must conduct himself with impeccability.” This word and concept is the first and “most important” of the “Four Agreements” which don Ruiz puts forth in his book. He states it thus: “Be Impeccable With Your Word.”

Impeccable comes from the Latin pecatus, and means “without sin.” A sin is anything you do which goes against yourself. Everything you feel or believe or say which goes against yourself is a sin. You go against yourself when you judge or blame yourself for anything. Being without sin is exactly the opposite. Being impeccable is not going against yourself. When you are impeccable, you take responsibility for your actions, but you do not judge or blame yourself…

Being impeccable with your word is not using the word against yourself… Being impeccable with your word is the correct use of your energy; it means to use your energy in the direction of truth and love for yourself…

Looking at  everyday human interactions, imagine how many times we cast spells on each other with our word. Over time this interaction has become the worst form of black magic, and we call it gossip

There is more, with plenty of advice on how to live correctly. Fundamentally, if one is true to oneself, one will not be false to others, just as in the advice cited above from Hamlet. The remaining three of the “Four Agreements” are: don’t take anything personally; don’t make assumptions; always do your best.

"The Wisdom of don Juan Matus" Xreiazomai Community

“The Wisdom of don Juan Matus”
Xreiazomai Community

Carlos Castaneda’s teacher, don Juan Matus, has much more to say about being impeccable, and carries it into extra-ordinary life, the life of a warrior and a sorcerer—but still within the same Toltec framework within which don Miguel Ruiz operates. Here are but a very few of the instructions and admonitions given by don Juan Matus to his student Carlos:

The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary man takes everything either as a blessing or as a curse. A warrior must be impeccable.

Impeccability is to do your best in whatever you’re engaged in. A warrior always makes sure that everything is in proper order, not because he believes that he is going to survive the ordeal he is about to undertake, but because that is part of his impeccable behavior.

Impeccability is nothing else but the proper use of energy.

Part of being impeccable for a warrior is never to hinder others with his thoughts. The hardest thing in the world is for a warrior to let others be. The lets them be and supports them in what they are; you trust them to be impeccable warriors themselves. If they are not then it’s your duty to be impeccable yourself and not say a word. Every effort to help on our part is an arbitrary act guided by our own self-interest alone.

The only freedom warriors have is to behave impeccably. A warrior is a prisoner of power; a prisoner who has one free choice: the choice to act either like an impeccable warrior, or to act like an ass. He cannot act in any other way but impeccably. To act like an ass would drain him and cause his demise.

The self-confidence of a warrior is not the self-confidence of the average man. The average man seeks certainty in the eyes of the onlooker and calls that self-confidence. The warrior seeks impeccability in his own eyes and calls that humbleness.

A warrior is never under siege. To be under siege implies that one has personal possessions that could be blockaded. A warrior has nothing in the world except his impeccability, and impeccability cannot be threatened.

A warrior cannot be helpless, or bewildered or frightened, not under any circumstances. For a warrior there is time only for his impeccability; everything else drains his power, impeccability replenishes it.

Don Juan’s lessons to Carlos include what it is to be a sorcerer, who must also be impeccable, but he or she will not be a “prisoner” of that impeccability. These lessons go far beyond what don Miguel presents in his small but valuable book on “The Four Agreements.”

It is pleasing to know that a friend of my granddaughter, she who left her book behind, is already studying in a realm which can lead her to be a warrior, or even a sorcerer. In Castaneda’s later books it is the women he meets who are the most powerful sorcerers.

“The Four Agreements” is a worthy primer for young people who may wish later to read more deeply into the Toltec tradition, as presented by Carlos Castaneda in his books.

A compilation of all don Juan Matus’s teachings to Carlos Castaneda can be viewed here, at the site of Rick Mace.

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Dark, Thrilling, Light and Complicated

Summer Reading

9780099523741Deaf SentenceWhile walking around Prague during Eva’s and my vacation last month, I couldn’t resist buying an English language book at a Barnes & Noble-type store (in Sweden, like Akademibokhandeln). I cannot account for my reason then to have bought Nothing to be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes, but I imagine now that it was because it was small (easy to pack and carry back to Stockholm) and it was written by the author of Arthur & George, which my book discussion group recently read and enjoyed. The book is “dark” if you feel the subject of death is taboo or depressing or somehow not a fit subject for an entertainment, which I find this book to be. I admit to not ever having dwelt much on the subject, despite my having been present at my father’s death in year 2000 and my mother having died within the last year. The author, however, has obsessed (my word) and worried and thought about death from his earliest days. He lets it all out in this book, with a great flow of well-chosen words, anecdotes, remembrances and quotes of other writers and philosophers, most often Jules Renard. Nothing also offers insights to the ways of successful writers of fiction:

Fiction is made by a process which combines total freedom and utter control, which balances precise observation with the free play of the imagination, which uses lies to tell the truth and truth to tell lies. It is both centripetal and centrifugal. I wants to tell all stories, in all their contrariness, contradiction and irresolvability, at the same time it wants to tell the one true story, the one that smelts and refines and resolves all the other stories. The novelist is both bloody…cynic and lyric poet, drawing on Wittgenstein’s austere insistence—speak only of that which you can truly know—and Stendhal’s larky shamelessness.

quiet girlI read, concurrently with Nothing, a fascinating book my friend Eric lent me, a fiction based in two facts in the author’s life: the gradual but significant loss of his hearing, and his father’s death. Deaf Sentence is a poignant and witty romp, written by Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Birmingham, and prolific author David Lodge. I use the word poignant, above, as described here: “3. affecting or moving the emotions“. I am in a similar stage of hearing loss as the author and, as the author was with his father, I was with my father in the last few years of his life and also saw him deteriorate from an illness. Next in the “dark” category is a famous book I hadn’t yet read, Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I bought it, used, for 10 Swedish crowns (around $1.42) at Arholma Handel while on a writing retreat on Arholma Island last week. I am part-way through it and find it compelling and repelling at the same time, but I will certainly finish it. Not only is it well written, even in translation (by Nicholas Bethell and David Burg) but it soulfully recounts an important era, the Soviet rule in Russia and other “Socialist Republics,” and the human cost of a failed idea and regime. Finally in the dark realm, I have just finished, very quickly, for it is a short book and is easy to read, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. Since this book will be discussed in my book group on 8 September, I will wait for the reaction of the others before I say any more about it. I recommend it, nonetheless. As for the “thriller,” I garnered The Quiet Girl during Eva’s and my trip to Prague last month. It’s by the author of two books I have read, The Woman and The Ape and Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (on which a popular movie was made), Peter Høeg. I can’t get enough of this author. ‘Nuff said? My “light,” or “lighter,” reading includes these two candidates for the appellation:

  • Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, written by Noël Riley Fitch
  • Seth Kantner

    Ordinary Wolves, written by Seth Kantner The Beach book was a follow-through on my recent article, Hemingway in Paris. A writer friend of mine is quite partial to the history and literature of that era and offered, after reading my article, to lend me Fitch’s book. I was part-way through it when I realized I wanted a copy for my permanent collection. I bought one. Now I can review at my leisure the passages that appeal to me about certain musicians who were connected with the writers in and around Paris in the 1920s, and to build a more complete view of the characters Hemingway portrayed in his book. Kantner’s book was lent to me by yet another writer friend. We both have lived in Alaska and we sometimes share our nostalgia for it. She had just read this book and insisted I read it, and so I did, with great pleasure. Of the four books I have read, including this one, which dwell exclusively on Alaska, I count this one as the best.That’s saying a lot, because two of the other three books are by James Michener and John McPhee. The third book is Going to Extremes, by Joe McGinniss. I didn’t like McGinniss’s book, although it was entertaining, because it seemed to exaggerate for effect the various peculiarities of the characters he commented on. It was more of a cartoon than a good look at Alaska and Alaskans. Michener’s Alaska was excellent for a deeply historical look at the state, up until the very last part that included a time I was familiar with. It seemed he was in a hurry to finish and just slapped some last minute stuff together without giving it much thought. John McPhee’s wonderful book, Coming into the Country, has been a favorite of mine and remains so. I keep a copy. Now the complicated reading. Oxford University Press is a high quality publisher of esoteric and scholarly books. I get their online notices for special sales and I often can’t resist buying some heavily discounted items. This time there were four. Here are two of them:

  • Consciousness: Creeping up on the Hard Problem, by psychologist Jeffrey Gray
  • Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life and Death by Philosopher Richard Sorabji

In Consciousness the author suggests, first thing, that the reader go to the 20th and last chapter, Overview, if he wants to “see in advance where this exploration will take us.” After reading the first chapter, through page 6, I did just that. I may read other parts of the book when I have great leisure to make notes and digest some very unfamiliar terminology (I won’t call it jargon because it is not meant to hide or confuse).


Here is what I get from the first chapter: the previous generally accepted model of consciousness falls in the realm of “mind-brain identity theory.” The current model is labeled “functionalism,” where…

States of consciousness can be identified with sets of functional (input-output) relationships that hold [exist] between a behaving organism and the environment in which it behaves.

The author states that this model is “too easy.” We need to face all the ancient and current issues “squarely” in any attempt to fit consciousness into the framework of natural science where it properly belongs. In order to get there, as I perceive the author’s argument in chapter 20, we have to consider as a basic unit of consciousness, quale (plural, qualia); that is, “the elemental components of perceptual experience (the colour red, an itch, the smell of jasmine, and so on).” This is as far as I wish to, or confidently can, take you into the author’s argument in favor of his view. I felt that a book on the self would correlate with or properly complement a book on consciousness, which is the reason I bought the second book. I haven’t yet opened it. I feel now that I will, for a long time, have two books to fall back to when I feel I have “nothing to read”. But that’s not all! I have books “on deck.” (for Swedish and other non-American readers, this is a baseball metaphor. The man “on deck” is the next batter, awaiting his turn).

on deck

Two more from Oxford University, from the same batch as the two above:

And, two books with “Zen” in the title:

I have read many of the books by Colin Wilson, but had never read his first published book which rocketed him to fame: The Outsider. I felt recently I had to “go back” and do it. It awaits me. AAM And, finally, two books I happened across while looking for a Marcus Garvey book at Alfa Antikvariat, street address Olof Palmes Gata 20B, where many English titles can be found among the tens of thousands of books in this vast, clean and orderly used book shop:

These last two books caught my eye because of the quality of their printing and their wonderful illustrations. They represent the kind of book that I remember from my earliest days, the ones that lasted, physically, for generations and had pictures one could lose one’s young self in. You can get a glimpse of the illustrations in Iron Wolf by clicking the above link, or here. So many books; so little time.