Why a Novel
Taking history personally
It was the late ‘60’s and the sacred icons we’d grown up with were tottering. My own young life too had taken a radical turn (pun intended) when I left a Catholic seminary in rural New Jersey for New York City at the height of the Hippie and anti-Vietnam-War movements. Eastern concepts, reincarnation among them, were patently groovy. Bridey Murphy had come and gone, and Audrey Rose was still below the horizon, but the idea that we might have lived before and would live once again was all the buzz among young adults.
I found the idea curious but irrelevant until I came across the story of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora. Given my theological background and classical bent, these characters provided a personal bridge from the more familiar ancient history to the choatic present.
A wannabe writer in my early 20’s, I never imagined that typing out a couple of one-page character sketches about this imperial pair would start a process, and not merely a writing project, that would span decades before completion. Their story was history and thus worthy of a self-defined scholar, but with a twist that defied the status quo enough to support my recently adopted unorthodoxy.
I didn’t know what of this reincarnation thing was true or false or what Justinian and Theodora actually had to do with it, but I was fascinated and sensed a story.
The author (2001) with the Delaware River near New Hope, Pennsylvania, in the background.
Hooked by my own story
In the introduction to The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Gary Zukav notes: “I realized that the book I was writing was more intelligent than I was. It was also funnier than I was, and it had a grander comprehension than I did.”
I too quickly discovered that my story had a mind of its own, and it made demands on the character and ability of its author. I had to be qualified to do the work. I wasn’t at first, so my life unfolded to make me so—a fascinating process, but quite another story.
Before long it wasn’t me writing the book but the book shaping me. And that, on several occasions, resulted in gaps of seemingly unproductive years where I had to endure adventures I would not have chosen on my own. But even these, I came to understand, were the story marching at its own pace.
For the writer there was the process of going within to find the story and match its step. What in The Anathemas the protagonist calls the “quiet place”:
The river bank was his magic vantage point where even life’s discordant notes would blend into the symphony. That constant, flowing river was his personal Holy of Holies, the quiet place, where chaos flew off with only the lightest touch of his will to have it do so. It had to be approached, he remembered, on tiptoes with bare feet. The snap of a twig, the flap of a bird’s wing, any alien thought snaring a bit of his attention, and the sacred place would dissolve into a scene quite ordinary.
(The Anathemas, p. 64)
Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris.
Why not reincarnation?
It was in the quiet place that the most urgent questions came. Questions without answers that nagged until I held them up-close and personal. What if I did have previous lives? What might I have been or done? What difference would such knowledge make now? If I remembered, would I not be wiser for the previous experience? Would it explain some of those mysterious aspects of my personality that seem so random in the current context?
From “what if reincarnation?” personally, it was natural to go to “what if reincarnation?” for the human species.
After all, the eastern half of the world has held this belief for eons longer than the “one life, one death” concept has been around. Would it make any difference to a society if its people were aware, individually and collectively, of their personal predecessors and descendants? Who of us, when beyond prejudice and fear, is not curious, even eager, to know his own source and destination, and the same for her immediate relations and the human race?
Who would not trade in the dismal declaration, Remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return! for a destiny more suited to man’s nobler aspirations?
From “What if reincarnation?” it is a natural leap, at least theoretically, to “Why not reincarnation?”
“”History is written by the Winners.”
Sculpture, Arch of Triumph, Paris.
History and tradition of little help
A venerable priest-friend, on hearing about The Anathemas, emailed me thus: “It just came to my mind that I forgot to tell you that, according to the teachings of the Catholic Church, there is no such thing as REINCARNATION.” For him, and millions across the ages, case closed. The Authority has spoken and so it is. Snarky to mention, but this same authority condemned Galileo as a heretic for observing and teaching that the earth rotated around the sun, not vice versa.
When healthy curiosity poses questions that contradict dogma, our creeds offer only further mysteries in explanation; and our sciences, excluding spirit, admit evidence only from the dust here before we came and left behind when life leaves the body, ignoring the role and effects of life itself.
Here our written history becomes a part of the problem. As Alex Haley, the author of Roots observed, “History is written by the winners.” And implied is that what is handed down is not always complete or even true. As a librarian warns the protagonist in The Anathemas: “History is no exact science. Historians, no matter how objective they try to be, are individuals with limited points of view. Even when they honestly tell what they see, they too often dishonestly claim that what they see is all there is to be seen.” (P.96)
Greek Mask, Istanbul Archeology Museum.
Why a novel?
So here I was with a mystery that went back millennia and touched the lives and minds of half the world’s population. Why not just write the facts and let the reader come to his own conclusion? Why a novel?
Search the Internet and you will find thousands of items, from one extreme to the other, on reincarnation, Justinian and the Council of Constantinople, but those gathered tracts and theories can leave one cold. By themselves, history can be stodgy and religion passé; but the inside-the-mind saga of people living multiple individual lifetimes, The Anathemas’ perspective, can electrify and revivify that vast region that lies behind barriers in “normal” memory.
The Anathemas, as a novel, is fiction—a creation—not entirely dependent on the records of the past events depicted, even while it takes them into account. So, it is free to fill in where the record falls short, to adjust where the record seems in error, and to postulate the record’s impact—the advantage of hindsight—on later and present thinking and behavior. This, by the way, is also done in non-fiction, but the novel needs no footnotes to prove that what is being written is based on what someone else has already written.
Resorting to fiction, I’ll admit, can be a defensive device. Those with a vested interest in keeping reincarnation under wraps are still around. As Dan Brown learned with The Da Vinci Code, even the best-plotted fiction, coming too close to debunking enshrined myths, generates furious backlash.
Obelisks in the remains of the Hippodrome, Istanbul.
Fiction as a present-time Event
The word, fiction, essentially means “something created.” It’s root fict– is only one letter off from fact. From the predominant mechanical viewpoint, we give more credence to theories made up from sense phenomena than to those conjured up from the thin air of imagination. We call the first science and the latter fantasy. And yet we flock to concerts, art museums, movies, and sporting events or park for hours in front of TVs, all more fantasy than science.
In his book, Beyond the Occult, Colin Wilson says: “Imagination is the power to anticipate reality by conjuring up mental connections.” The fiction writer conjures consciously, usually with the intent to anticipate, or foresee, a present or future reality.
The Anathemas is based on a piece of history that takes place in the 6th Century, a critical event that changed the course of western civilization up to the present. However, the restitution required of the Justinian character, the perpetrator of the untruth, is not in the 6th century, the time of the crime, nor in the 19th century with Richard Strawn, but in the present time, since the misinformation persists and will continue to do so until corrected. Examining a “given” idea, no matter how old, to establish its validity is a present time activity, for both writer and reader.
Erroneous history is a present problem. Our history—what has been recorded about our past—bounds our view of ourselves and our kind. It governs how we think in the present and thus plan, and so create, the future. The details, as they happened, might be lost, but the essentials cannot be.
As the Jesuit DuPont observes in novel: “But there’s good news. Perennial truth, which the words in any document can but poorly represent, remains perennially true. So, it remains there to be observed and verified by the present observer.” (P. 315)