Synchronicity… and The Knot

Synchronicity is one of those interesting-sounding concepts, but when it comes down to it no one can explain exactly what it means. Jung is supposed to have started it. He was trying to analyse a lady who was very resistant to analysis – sceptical; firmly rooted in the practical, provable world. During one session, so the story goes, she was telling Jung about a dream she had had, involving a scarab beetle. At that moment a rather gorgeous beetle appeared outside the window, which Jung opened so that it could fly into the room. From that moment, the woman was able to accept the possibility of non-logical, inexplicable happenings and her analysis could proceed. I wonder if Jung made that story up? If so it’s a good one. Synchronicity – strange but meaningful coincidence.

I have never struggled with synchronicity. I read a lot, and I have always noticed that bits of information pop up in unexpected places – unexpected books, but also films, television programmes, overheard remarks, dreams – and these pieces of information tend to be connected, with one another, and with whatever problem one happens to be trying to solve at the moment.

I am currently re-reading my huge collection of ancient paperbacks before they, or I, crumble to dust.  For want of a better system, I am going from A to Z. There are an awful lot of A’s. Today it’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, my copy of which is pretty near disintegrated already. I am reading about Zaphod Beeblebrox, an irresponsible, manic, two-headed and three-armed gentleman who has been appointed President of the Imperial Galactic Government.  He is described as ‘ideal Presidency fodder’. He has been chosen for his qualities of ‘finely judged outrage’, his ability to fascinate and infuriate. He has no actual power – no one knows who or what actually has the power, though something does. Beeblebrox’s role is to ‘not to wield power but to draw attention away from it’.

And I suddenly thought – well, the obvious. Who does that remind you of? A bit prophetic, eh? Especially when you remember The Hitchhiker’s Guide was published in 1979 and Douglas Adams died young, in 2001. But then – I couldn’t think exactly who – or what – might be wielding actual power in America, that You Know Who would be needed to distract from. And I mean, quite a lot of people must actually have voted for him. So that didn’t fit.

(Another bit of synchronicity: I was watching a Sandra Bullock/Hugh Grant film on Prime last night – Two Weeks Notice. Not a terribly good film, but free, therefore good enough. And lo and behold, the ghastly Trump popped up at the end, looking younger but sounding just as smug. He was playing himself, naturally, a cameo role. You’d think a Hugh Grant film would be a reality-free zone, all floppy hair and romantic charmingness… Is there no escape? I thought.)

And then I thought – Zaphod Beeblebrox – or rather the concept that a figurehead leader could be appointed solely to draw attention away from power, actually fits my country better. I have often wondered exactly what our monarch and her extended family were for, nowadays. Don’t get me wrong, I have always been glad they were there, for history’s sake, and at least vaguely interested in their improbable and expensive ‘doings’. I have always had great respect for the Queen, who has been on the throne for my entire lifetime, and is the same age as my mother, just as her mother was born in the same year as my grandmother.

But we are constantly reminded – and recently more so – that the Monarch has no real power. Hence, if the Prime Minister recommends that she prorogue Parliament, she has to do it. I am very glad Parliament was prorogued, and would be very happy if they stayed permanently prorogued until someone bundled them all up in a big sack and made off with them, preferably in the direction of the River Thames, but it occurred to me at the time – what if she hadn’t wanted to prorogue? What if she had put her foot down and said no?

Part of me so wants her to put her foot down. Part of me wishes we could have a Queen – or King – with all the powers of Queens or Kings of old. I know it’s dangerous, but right at the moment, wouldn’t it be a relief to have a Monarch who could actually do stuff, rather than wearing fancy robes and strings of pearls and drawing attention away from the politicians, civil servants or – worse, even – those nameless, faceless others who actually wield the power? Someone who could stride into the Houses of Parliament wielding an axe or a – something really big and scary-looking.

I was also reading about Alexander the Great. He wanted to be ruler of all Asia but there was this prophecy. The future ruler of all Asia, it was said, would be the person who untied a fiendishly complicated Knot, to be found in a place called Gordium, the capital of Phrygia. (So, the knot was called the Gordian Knot.) Alexander marched to Phrygia and tinkered around with this appalling Knot for a while, but he, just like all those who had tried before him, could not undo it. This was annoying, because he jolly well intended to be ruler of all Asia.

And then the answer came to him. Simple! He raised his great silver sword above his head and brought it down on the Knot so that it simply fell apart. Problem solved, he said. Now can I be ruler of all Asia? And eventually, he was.

Well, we now have the Knot – oh, the mother and father of all Knots. And surely Her Majesty could lay her hands on a great silver sword. Isn’t the Tower of London supposed to be full of them?

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At once a charisma and a curse

Do you have a favorite quote that you return to again and again? What is it, and why does it move you?

Oh… no!

Well, you asked for it.

It’s a long quote, translated from German into English. To make it worse it’s Carl Gustav Jung – so nobody’s going to read it. Farewell, Gentle Reader! But since it’s concerning faithfulness to the law of one’s own being, I am forced to admit that this is the quote I return to again and again:

Clearly, no one develops his personality because somebody tells him that it would be useful or advisable to do so. Nature had never yet been taken in by well-meaning advice. The only thing that moves nature is causal necessity, and that goes for human nature too. Without necessity nothing budges, the human personality least of all. It is tremendously conservative, not to say torpid. Only acute necessity is able to rouse it. The developing personality obeys no caprice, no command, no insight, only a brute necessity; it needs the motivating force of inner and outer fatalities. Any other development would be no better than individualism. That is why the cry of “individualism” is a cheap insult when flung at the natural development of personality.

The words “many are called, but few are chosen” are singularly appropriate here, for the development of personality from the germ-state to full consciousness is at once a charisma and a curse, because its first fruit is the conscious and unavoidable segregation of the single individual from the undifferentiated and unconscious herd. This means isolation, and there is no more comforting word for it. Neither family nor society nor position can save him from this fate, not yet the most successful adaptation to his environment, however smoothly he fits in. The development of personality is a favour that must be paid for dearly. But the people who talk most loudly about developing their personalities are the very ones who are least mindful of the results, which are such to frighten away all weaker spirits.

Yet the development of personality means more than just the fear of hatching forth monsters, or of isolation. It also means fidelity to the law of one’s own being.

When I first read this I was going through a really bad time. I was trying to psychoanalyse myself – for two years, whilst driving back and forth to work, in sunshine and in blizzard. I’d drive along talking to Jung, talking to God, grieving for and talking to my lost lover and soul-mate – conversation after one-sided conversation, trying to explain – to me, via the three of them, why I felt like – and often dreamed I was – the driver a bus hanging over the edge of a cliff. Or that outcast chimp – you know, the one the other chimps attack if it gets near the food; the one that’s about to starve – or get eaten by the Lion – or whatever it is that eats chimps.

It was not until I read – and re-read – the above paragraphs from The Development of Personality that the ‘click’ occurred and I began to heal. Maybe it had been necessary – all this. Maybe it was worth it. Maybe I was metamorphosing into something new. Maybe I ought to fight the good fight. And he had been through it before me. I might be alone, but I was not, and never again would be, the only.

 

What’s Going On, Mrs Robinson?

You know that scene in The Graduate where bewildered Ben (Dustin Hoffman) finds himself high up in a chapel behind a glass window, desperately trying to interrupt that dull little Elaine’s wedding before it’s too late? He’s hammering and hammering on the glass but no one seems to hear him. Soon after my own wedding I had a dream similar to that. My window dream was this: I was standing high up in a giant, modernistic airport or railway station, looking down at crowds of people walking fast and mostly, it seemed, in one direction, on the level beneath. Suddenly I saw my husband, walking with them, but I knew he would never be able to hear me through the glass. I watched helplessly as he walked on and disappeared and I was left with a sense of panic and sadness.

So, you are saying – that’s pretty obvious – her Unconscious knew she was making a mistake even as she made it. Unconscious was trying to tell her that she and this man were destined to be isolated from one another, always, walking on two different levels and never able to overcome the communication barrier between them. I refer you to a poem I wrote some years later when Conscious, belatedly, had got the message.

I believe Jung put forward the idea that one’s Unconscious is likely to be oppositely-gendered to one’s conscious self. Certainly, mine is male. Jung’s “Philemon” was enviably classical and elaborate. He seemed as much a psychoanalytical colleague as a Guide to the Underworld and – puzzlingly – was a ‘he’, as was Jung:

Philemon was a pagan and brought with him an Egypto-Hellenic atmosphere with a Gnostic colouration. His figure first occurred to me in the following dream.

There was a blue sky, like the sea, covered not by clouds but by flat brown clods of earth… Suddenly there appeared from the right a winged being sailing across the sky. I saw that it was an old man with the horns of a bull. He held a bunch of four keys, one of which he clutched as if he were about to open a lock. He had the wings of a kingfisher with its characteristic colours…

They held interesting discussions together:

In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I. He said I treated thoughts as if I generated them myself, but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room, or birds in the air.

Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections: Confrontation with the Unconscious

I can also ‘see’ – or at any rate dream of – my own Unconscious sometimes. He tends to be wearing a long, black coat like Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes we walk together on a beach under a black sky. Somewhere in the distance is a power station (haven’t yet worked out why). A dark sea laps against a pebbly shore and an alternative ‘me’ seems to be rising up out of the water, like Venus on the half-shell (only plainer). Sometimes he is walking up ahead a way. Sometimes he is in a cottage in the middle of a forest. It is night, as usual.  He is putting logs on the fire and peering into the flames. I never see his face. He never looks directly at me and yet I am not afraid of him. I feel I must address him with courtesy and not expect too much; I request, knowing that he may choose not to comply; I question, knowing that there may be only silence. We are like nations, hitherto at war. We need each other, if we are to go forward. At the moment we are engaged in negotiating an exchange of prisoners across a mist-shrouded border.

He uses pictures rather than words, the man in the black overcoat. I struggle – though less so as time goes on – to ‘catch’ his images as they flicker across my consciousness – and to interpret them. For instance – I’d been mulling over that sense of existing ‘on the borders’ between one world and another, as described (with some difficulty) in Strange stars appear in our skies. As I fell asleep I think I had been asking him for help, for more clarity about his side of the border.

I woke up suddenly with an image of stars – weird, huge stars, a bit like stars on top of a Christmas tree. Then it occurred to me that they were the stars from Van Gough’s painting The Starry Night which I had chosen to illustrate Strange stars. It was like he was saying “Beginning…” It was almost like the start of one of the legal dictation tapes I used to have to type up: We’re talking about… As if he was defining the subject. 

I pictured Starry Night once more, with a kind of question mark. Beginning? And with something like impatience the weird, huge stars flashed back twice in quick succession – “Yes, beginning!”

To be clear, I am not describing seeing things or hearing voices. (I hope not, anyway: if you hear no more from me on La Tour Abolie it may be that the Men in White Coats have arrived and carted me off in the van with the barred windows.) At no time did I see anything with my physical eyes or hear anything with my physical ears: rather, an image appeared in my mind and a meaning – after a second or two’s delay – swam up and attached itself to the image. The meaning – you seem to get to it by lateral thinking. You need to let your mind slide sideways or dance around it. It seems to me like an alternative, more sophisticated language: more comprehensive; more economical – and you’re hearing it with something other than your brain.

Sometimes I even get micro-flashes of what feel like past – or otherlives. I say other, because I suspect all lives are simultaneous. It’s almost like freeze frame. I know they’re past lives but I don’t know how I know, except that in at least one of them I have an aerial view – I’ll be swooping down a green valley, for example, and there’s a battle going on. Yet I’ve never seen such a battle, or such a valley, and I’ve never been able to fly. As far as I know….

The other thing about Subconscious is he seems to want to ‘send’ in waves. There may be months… years, sometimes… when I forget all about him and then suddenly it’s like someone battering on your mind’s door as he tries really hard to get through, or possibly reconfigure ‘updates’ silently downloaded in advance, so that they start to make sense. It’s almost like when subconscious ‘data’ arrives it’s randomised, or encoded and has to be incorporated into an overall pattern.

We’re like people from different countries, my Unconscious and I. We’re marooned on a desert island together without a dictionary. Of necessity we’re having to start from scratch by pointing at stuff and repeating – palm tree in your language, palm tree in my language, leaf in my language, leaf in your language. Cocoanut, sand, sea…

I frequently ask myself why I keep on with the writing. None of the earlier motives or explanations seem relevant now. I am never going be loved and appreciated and interviewed on intellectual TV programmes about my latest, wonderful, literary achievement. I am never going to write a best-selling novel, or any novel – and I probably never was going to because (as I now know) I don’t possess the ability to sustain that level of focus on a single project for months or years, especially when there’s no guarantee, or even likelihood, of success. As I’ve grown older I’ve sensed the skill-level increasing even as the ability – or even the desire – to grind nobly on with some literary Lost Cause or Herculean Labour, has been decreasing. I now realise I was always a butterfly, a synthesist – a finder of patterns and joiner-together of seemingly disparate things. Writing has remained the Special Interest but simply refuses to narrow itself down any further. That is the category: everything.

No point at all in continuing to write, and yet I do. And I think I do because of him – the man in the black overcoat – the one by the beach, whose face I never get to see. It’s because writing is, at the moment, still the best way for him to get through. I’m still an infant at the direct, picture-sending method of communication, but indirectly, through the writing, much more gets through, and sticks.

I have often agonised – why ever did I choose – or was I given – this writing obsession? It’s never done me any good – so what was I supposed to use it for? And the answer seems to be – it’s not for you to use it, it’s for it to use you.

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Strange stars appear in our skies

In Reason to Believe, Bruce Springsteen sings, “At the end of every hard-earned day / people find some reason to believe.” What’s your reason to believe?

I went back to the song itself, to digest the images he has conjured up for us:

  • A man stands on out Highway 31, poking at a dead dog with a stick, as if hoping it will get up and run.
  • A woman loves a man. One day he leaves her. She waits every day at the end of a dirt road, for him to come back.
  • A baby is baptised in the river, and his sin is washed away.
  • An old man dies in a shack, and his body is prayed over in a churchyard.
  • A groom waits by a river for his bride but she doesn’t arrive. The congregation leaves, the sun sets and the groom continues to wait, watching the river rushing by.

So this is about how we are transfixed by love, and continue to love when there is no reason to hope. This is about our sense, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that there is more than there appears to be; that the obvious and the logical need not apply. We assume the baby comes from another place, bringing with it a burden of some kind – whether of sin or ‘clouds of glory’. We assume that the old man has gone to another place, become something else, and therefore it is worth praying for him. The groom senses that in another place – another reality – his bride did arrive – and in yet another reality, might still. The man, puzzled by the dead dog and his inability to will (or poke) it back to life, has been ‘blurred’, momentarily, by a version of reality in which dead dogs do run and death has a different meaning.

And all this comes down to all things being possible, and the sensing of this by some people, even though it makes no sense. It seems to me that reality is a straightjacket; something we have to sew ourselves into, to be able to cope. Most people never feel the straightjacket, but some do – maybe those with a fractionally higher tolerance for uncertainty.

Suffering – because reality, when you do begin to sense it, hurts. It hurts so much. Jung wrote something about the process of individuation which struck a chord with me:

The words “many are called, but few are chosen” are singularly appropriate here, for the development of personality from the germ-state to full consciousness is at once a charisma and a curse, because its first fruit is the conscious and unavoidable segregation of the single individual from the undifferentiated and unconscious herd. This means isolation, and there is no more comforting word for it. Neither family nor society nor position can save him from this fate, nor yet the most successful adaptation to his environment, however smoothly he fits in. The development of personality is a favour that must be paid for dearly. But the people who talk most loudly about developing their personalities are the very ones who are least mindful of the results, which are such to frighten away all weaker spirits.”

I read something in a stranger’s blog yesterday about people who live in two worlds at once. I considered that carefully: it seemed almost right, but too simple, not quite fuzzy enough round the edges. As a child, and then a teenager, I knew that there was another world. It wasn’t a long way away, it wasn’t Up In Heaven – it was here, just not accessible. It was next door. My feeling was of standing next to a threshold: I only had to take one step to the left and I would have crossed the border. I needed to take that step, but I couldn’t work out how. I missed that world – felt a kind of homesickness for it.

I even wrote a poem, all those years ago. Reading that lady’s blog recalled it to me, but I assumed it was lost. I was wondering if I might be able to ‘reconstitute’ it from the few lines I could remember. But no need – here it is. I found it:

WE LIVE ON THE BORDERS

We live on the borders, some of us, / Between the other world and this. / Further out than all of you, / Still we can only peer at distant hills, / Catching whispers in the wind sometimes, / Channelling darkness drifting through, / Weaving the two. Strange stars appear in our skies.

We’d give our breath to breathe that other air, / And sanity to hear the singing truly – / For it is joy and madness both, to be so close / To all that’s dark and dreaming, and yet to have / No hope of homecoming.

Reading back over all the airy-fairy, grasping-at-thistledown stuff in this post I’m not sure it’s going to make sense to anybody. When you attempt to cross, or even approach, the boundary between This and Other, words bleach out; they lose their relevancy. But words are our shield against that Silence, and for the moment we do need that shield. I can only say – that’s what keeps me going. It’s not so much a reason to believe as a sense that I need to keep to my own internal faith however much it costs me. I must keep the channel open so that the music – and the darkness – can drift through.

The small raine down can raine

But I believe that lovers should be tied together. Thrown into the ocean in the worst of weather. And left there to drown.

Just in case the whole picture doesn’t come out – this is the whole text of this anonymous piece of graffiti. Is it written on flesh, or just something flesh-coloured? Is that a lopsided heart for a signature, or a wonky B?

It’s poetry, isn’t it? Maybe unintentional. But why full stops where there might be commas? What sort of sad, bitter or reflective frame of mind might someone be in, to even think of writing it?

It reminds me of an Irish song – Constant Lovers. I’ll just give you the two last verses:

Then she flung her arms wide and she took a great leap / From the cliffs that were high to the billows so deep / Saying: “The rocks of the ocean shall be my death bed / And the shrimps of the sea shall swim over my head.”

And now every night at six bells they appear / When the moon it is shining and the stars they are clear / Those two constant lovers with each other’s charms / Rolling over and over in each other’s arms.

I first heard it sung by the Copper Brothers. Once heard, both the tune and the words stay with you – like those doomed and constant lovers of long ago.

What on earth got me started on this tack? Oh yes, marginalia. I was thinking about another famous poem, supposed to have been written in the margins of a medieval religious manuscript and found many centuries later and set to music.

Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow / The small raine down can raine. / Cryst, if my love were in my armes / And I in my bedde again!’

This seems an unlikely thing for a bored young monk to have written on a cold and rainy day, when he should have been concentrating on his illuminating. Although I don’t know…

I was trying to remember which muse-deserted author scribbled an impassioned Come to me again, o mon bon… in a margin, but I can’t. And apparently Google can’t either. I do believe there’s a word for something someone Googles for the first time? A Googly or a Froogly or something? I thought Google knew everything. Perhaps I just misquoted.

I had a quick flick through some of my own books in the hope of retrieving some deathless marginalia – for when I become famous. In Pen to Paper by Pamela Frankau I appear to have pencilled this:

‘The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures; ‘tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil’ Macbeth. I see this is in response to the following Pamela paragraph:

Though a mort of human sins and troubles come solely from a lack of imagination, its possession may likewise engage you in unprofitable exercises:- Lying; slandering; over-anxiety; over-embroidery; painting devils on the walls, other people’s walls as well as your own.

I have a sharp ear for a quote. She’s calling to mind some specific literary devil, I thought, and I was right. Wasn’t I? Nice to have been right about something, in a long lifetime of having been wrong about most things.

In the front of Jung: Selected Writings (my most dog-eared and thumbed-through book) I find a sad little pencilled list – one of my many Plans. I had been going through a bad time, psychologically (hence the desperate thumbing through Jung since I couldn’t afford a psychotherapist). I was trying to make plans for leaving my husband and had scribbled:

? P/T job – move first – when do you have to start paying? ? Career – library – ask after work ? work – help

I’ve always found life-planning difficult. When do you have to start paying what, I wonder? Rent, probably. P/T is my shorthand for Part Time. Was I really going to ask about employment in the library? Perhaps I was just going to the library after work, to ask about something else. Underneath I’ve written:

Anima – Persona + projection 96

God & unconscious same entity? 329

Conscious growing out of unconscious 218

Definition of intuition 219

(The numbers are page references.) But what a mixture a mind is at any given moment. The one mind battling to disentangle anima from persona, God from the unconscious, and wondering if it could find work by going to the library, and when exactly rent might be payable. I can sort of feel the state I was in. I remember driving around for two years, holding imaginary conversations with imaginary Psychotherapists, with Jung, with God – with anyone who might be listening, trying to sort it all out. One day, I thought, everything will suddenly become clear. I will Understand.

Still waiting.

And in Aesop’s Fables (yes, I found my Aesop’s Fables) in really dreadful handwriting, strangely young to have found the words worth defacing Aesop for, I have written

Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight…

And there it stops. Google does know this one: Hebrews 12:1. But why on earth was I reading Hebrews at that age? Or even the Bible? Maybe I just liked the sound of the words.

Maybe I’ll go back to scribbling in my own books again. If only to provide myself with a tiny surprise or two, little mysteries to be solved in my decrepitude when the weather’s too rough to get out with the shopping trolley; when the warm, springtime Westron Wynde has once more failed to blow and the small raine down can raine.

PS: Just found those words. Should have Googled them earlier. They’re part of a song by someone or something called Bright Eyes, called A Perfect Sonnet:

Well, I do like the words. Not too sure about the music.

Synchronicity in writing

It seems to me that if you start looking for something in earnest you are almost certain to find it, or something weirdly related to it, and often where you would least expect. It’s a kind of coincidence thing – no logical explanation. Start reading and thinking and you will find that other, related stuff starts seeping out from under the skirting boards, wafting down the chimney and tap-tap-tapping at the window.

I am not the first to notice this. Famously, C G Jung talks about the coincidences that seem to happen in the world outside one’s head when something is going on inside it. This phenomenon he referred to on his good days as synchronicity; on his duller days he called it acausal parallelism. It is implied in common sayings like Seek and Ye Shall Find and When the pupil is ready, the Master appears. Anyway, enough of the Biblical/mystical stuff. I will give you an example of something synchronicitous that happened to me last year.

I had been writing about Sherlock Holmes and the justifications given in the novels for his rather shocking – to the modern reader – use of cocaine when bored. It happened to be my birthday that day and I was forced to take the day off, not to do anything birthdayish but to drive my car to a garage forty miles distant for its annual service. Car services take several hours and it was far too cold to be hobbling around the windswept streets of this distant town whilst waiting, so I spent part of the time in a nearby Tesco store, slowly filling a wire basket with birthday cards, cheese and pickle sandwiches, packs of fifty black biros and all those other things you tend to purchase when you just need to be somewhere indoors and heated in the coldest month of the year.

One of the things I spotted was a glossy science and technology magazine called Focus. I never normally buy magazines and had never heard of Focus, but it was in this randomly-purchased item that I discovered an article by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (Professor of Psychology at McGill University, Montreal). There were several interesting bits. For example, did you know that human beings can only pay attention to a maximum of four things at any one time? So if you’re driving the car and searching for a parking space you may need to turn off the car radio to concentrate. (According to Cesar Milan the TV Dog Whisperer, by the way, dogs can only attend to one thing at a time.)

The two sentences that really caught my attention were these:

Ten thousand years ago things didn’t change very fast, so if something novel presented itself it was a good adaptive strategy to pay attention. We evolved a chemical system whereby we get a little shot of dopamine that makes us feel good every time we encounter something new.

and further down the same paragraph:

Dopamine is the chemical released when you eat chocolate, when gamblers win a bet and that gets people addicted to cocaine.

So do you see? Although Arthur Conan Doyle was a qualified doctor he could not have known about the neurotransmitter dopamine, since he died in 1930 and it was not discovered until 1957; yet he had Sherlock Holmes resorting to the drug cocaine when the stimulation he got from detection (encountering something new) was absent – spot on! The connection is dopamine, but the creator of Sherlock Holmes could not possibly have known this.

It’s a trivial thing, and would probably only be useful if you were writing a scholarly paper about Sherlock Holmes, but that’s what I mean about synchronicity. The more you read, the more you wonder, the more you become absorbed in, fascinated by and focussed upon a subject, the more related information will somehow pop up, get mentioned on the news or wander across the road in front of you. You will find that books fall open at the right page; the poster you glide past on the escalator will contain the quote you need; a random internet page will lead you to another and then another – and there some relevant something will happen to be.

ME AND MY SHADOW

The first time I met the dreaded doppelganger in literature, as opposed to life, was in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Now, I can usually tell if a book is not going to be worth persisting with before the end of Chapter One. I just get bored and give up. Sometimes I will keep going into the next chapter, or skip to the end and various random ‘middles’ hoping to come across some dramatic twist or intriguing development worth struggling on for. If the end and the middles are as bad as the beginning I put the book down and rarely pick it up again. Life is too short to be noble and conscientious.

Occasionally I will come across a book so unutterably wrong in some way that it really annoys me, and I am afraid Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those. Inevitably these annoying novels will also be ones that the literati think highly of; almost certainly they will have hitched a lift on the English Literature exam syllabus. I was force to read Frankenstein and work up intelligent-sounding essays about it, not once but twice. The first time was for a resit of A Level English Language & Literature (passed Grade A – yay!) and the second for an Open University Literature course. I was hoping against hope the dratted thing would be more digestible the second time around. It wasn’t. Wuthering Heights is another example.

Before I go on, let’s be sure what a doppelganger is or could be.

A doppelganger can be an exact double – an identical copy of the original – or it can be a complement. A complement would have different or opposing characteristics to the original, but would in some way complete it – yin and yang, two halves of one whole like Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and his Picture. The ‘scary’ version could be thought of as Jung’s Shadow archetype – an entity which encompasses all the qualities one lacks in conscious life or cannot bear to confront. The monster in Frankenstein is a species of Shadow being the alter ego of his creator, the scientist Victor Frankenstein.

It seems to me that in the end there is a very little difference between the frighteningly familiar and the frightfully foreign.  Whether a doppelganger appears to be your mirror-image or a Creature from your worst nightmares, coming face to face with it is a dreadful experience.

Since yesterday’s personal-experience post on doppelgangers I have been trying to decide

a) what exactly the trouble is with Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, and

b) why these two novels are nevertheless still read today, and continually cited as examples of great literature.

Most of my ‘thoughts’ were scribbled down with the dawn chorus this morning, when still half asleep. This is the untangled version.

I think it is to do with editing.

Oh, hang on, there’s more…

Taking (b) first.

I think some novels succeed initially and go on to achieve permanence in the literary canon solely because they arise from a first-rate idea. A single stroke of imaginative genius is the glue that holds the whole shambling creation together. The novel grips readers by means of that one core idea or image alone. The core image is usually embodied in one central character, more often than not male. In Frankenstein, of course, it is the Creature, a hideous, unlovable mishmash of a being who craves the love and attention of his ‘father’. In Wuthering Heights it is the violent, obsessive and tormented Heathcliff.

It is like one imagination gripping another – like the Vulcan mind-meld – I was going to say frogs mating but thought better of it! – once melded, the two minds are never entirely separated. When you think of all the novels that persist, that will never be cast upon that great slush-pile in the sky regardless of their overall quality and effectiveness, they have a unique central character. Think of the impossible but wonderful Mr Darcy; ‘poor, obscure, plain and little’ Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe. They are all unique, contradictory, many-dimensional characters. They have their faults, they have their shining virtues and because of this we believe in them. But this is only one element in the construction of a novel.

Now back to (a):

To me there are three main elements.

The first is imagination – the great idea, the inspiration. This element is pure ‘art’. You can learn to write good prose, or if you are lucky you will have been born with a facility and an ‘ear’ for words, just as artists have an eye for colour and form, and musicians have an ear for music. Nobody can give you imagination. You are either born with it or you are not. The eternal problem is that, as with intelligence and sense of humour, those with the least are convinced they have the most.

The second is the acquired skill or innate gift of the writer, which allows him or her to transform a brilliant idea into a great book. This element is part art and part craft. It is the skill you use to avoid pulling your reader up short – rudely catapulting him out of his suspended disbelief, as it were. You will use this part of your skill to avoid anachronisms, infelicities of style, contradictions and repetitions – anything that reminds the reader that he is reading a book, and that the book has a writer. He needs to remain immersed in the world you are conjuring up for him. He doesn’t need to overhear you prattling away in the background, providing a running commentary. Neither Mary Shelley nor Emily Bronte could be criticised for their ability to use the English language or produce a well-turned paragraph.

The third, and in some ways the most challenging, element is the ability to edit. Editing is also part art and part craft and a good writer will be editing himself as he goes along, but it’s difficult. A writer can gain a great deal from a professional editor; someone who can view his work with a calm and dispassionate eye. For me it is in this element that Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights both fall short. For me: maybe not for you.

When you start to write, one of the first things you realise – and a fascinating realisation it is – is that a story can go on and on for ever if you let it. Novels are expanding universes of words. For every twist your plot takes there is an infinite number of alternative twists. For every new character there is an infinite amount of back-story. You can never start a story at the beginning. There is no beginning, only the point at which you have chosen to jump in. You can never end a story. There is no end, only the point at which you decide to abandon your characters. There is no limit on the number of characters involved in your plot. They are infinite in number. You have chosen to ignore the many and focus on the few. There is no single, fixed plot to your story. It could go any which way. In writing you choose either this road or the road less travelled by. You have to make these decisions throughout the process – what to keep and what to kill.

Sometimes an author fails to notice that he/she is writing not one novel, but several, and that an interference pattern has been set up. Try to combine three potential – and temptingly related – novels into one actual novel is asking for trouble. Like cats in a bag, they will fight, and at the end you will be left with clouds of multi-coloured fur, a little heap of broken claws and a ragged ear or two. Part of the art is to recognise and extract the right story strand from a great imaginative tangle.

I also feel that a novel, article, poem, short story – whatever – has its own innate geometry, and that a good writer (or a good editor) will be able to sense, feel or see that geometry – or will at least be able to sense, feel or see when it is being distorted. It’s like the statue being present inside the block of stone. It’s like skiing downhill in the mist – you sense a tree or something ahead, and swerve. Or like when you take a wrong turn and drive off in the wrong direction. Suddenly the sun’s in the wrong place and the light is all wrong. It’s that playing piano in the dark thing – you need to believe in it and trust it.

The other thing is that the fact that you have written a passage, even if it is the best passage you (or anyone) ever wrote in your (or their) entire life is not enough to justify it remaining in your story. It either fits or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it goes. Kill Your Darlings. Seize that red pen and strike them through. For me, both Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights are rambling and out of shape. They don’t make sense – or at least, the effort required of the reader to try to make them make sense is too great. The cost-benefit ratio is too high.