Those of us who were around during the 1970s might remember the chant of some critics, "the personal is political." While not true in the sense that such critics intended, I've come to believe that there is a certain amount of enduring truth in this chant. Case in point: my efforts at writing historical fiction.
I've been laboring for five years, off and on, at completing a historical novel with the working titleThe Vials of Wrath. This work is to be the first in a series of four or five novels exploring some of the titanic changes in the Western world since 1900.
In one of life's many ironies, I wound up having a
conversation last week with a hospice doctor. The irony lies in the fact thatFaith, Hope, and Dr. Vangelis, my
nearly-complete next book, has a hospice doctor as protagonist. He listened
with interest to what I told him about the plot and offered some suggestions
about "how hospice doctors think." This was a bit of serendipity, as
I wasn't there to do research or discuss writing issues. I was there to get
shaken up, an expectation that was rewarded.
Many of us have seen photographs of "ghost
towns," most of them out West, where they flourished during the heyday of
mining or cattle ranching, but subsequently lost their economic vitality and
now are reduced to empty buildings. These are the kind of places that can give
one the creeps, if we meditate on the sources of community vitality.
When I lived in Pennsylvania, I had the occasion to
drive through Centralia, a town in the anthracite belt that had been
depopulated over almost a quarter-century because of an unquenchable mine fire.
This line, from Phil Ochs' "Changes", has
long been one of my favorites in summing up what life's about. Now that I'm
closer to being an old man than a young man, I try to look at my life and see
what's been lasting and what's been impermanent.
I suspect that many of us, remembering our childhoods,
might recall a time when we thought our grandparents had always been the same
age as when we first knew them. That may account for the sense of wonder we
sometimes feel when we see pictures of our elders as "youngers.
Of all the war veterans I've known, the majority of
those who saw combat had a least a minimal degree of survivor's guilt. That is,
the gratitude for being alive was challenged by the knowledge of friends who
didn't return from the battlefield. The more morally attuned often report
wondering "why did ____ die and why did I live? I wasn't any better as a
Lincoln addressed this, at least obliquely, in the
Gettysburg Address, when he referred to "the brave men, living and
dead" who had fought there, as a bridge to his exposition on
My father, my father-in-law, and my uncle were all
combat veterans of World War II. The stories Dad told when I was growing up
were in the vein ofTwelve O'Clock High,
colored (or perhaps discolored) by Hollywood's inevitable falling-short of the
ugly realities of battle. When my father-in-law was stationed in Munich from
1960 to 1962, my wife and mother-in-law had the chance to take a tour of the
Dachau concentration camp. My father-in-law drove them to the tour, but refused
to go in. When my mother-in-law asked him why, he said, "I've seen this
Most of us have (I suspect) at one time or another
said something out of ignorance, anger, or other quick emotional reactions that
wound up calling us acute embarrassment. Perhaps it was making a comment about
a third party to someone who, unbeknownst to us, was a friend of said party.
I've often spoken in haste without asking questions that would've spared me
Anyone who's take a class in communications knows
there are three basic parties to any communication: sender, receiver, and
method of communication.
Some of you may have seen the movieQuo Vadis, a 50s-era Biblical epic
featuring Peter Ustinov, camping it up as the Emperor Nero. The movie (and the
novel on which it was based) derived from a tradition that St. Peter, escaping
a death sentence in Rome, met Jesus on the Appian Way. When Peter recognized
who his fellow traveler was, he asked, "Quo vadis, Domine?"
("Where are you going, Lord?") Jesus replied, "To Rome, to be
crucified again." Peter fell on his face, unable to face the fact that he
had denied Jesus yet again.
The Pygmalion myth is an enduring one. Given new life
by Shaw in 1914'sPygmalion, it
received its apotheosis inMy Fair Lady.
These latter-day takes on a very old tale speak to some deep truth in the
relationship between artist and creation, between teacher and student. Is it
love or folly to cherish an excessive admiration for one's creation?
As some of you may know, I taught as an adjunct
instructor at Piedmont Technical College for several years. One danger that
became real to me is what I would call "the Pygmalion effect.
I once heard a story in which two well-known writers
were invited to a party in The Hamptons, given by some ludicrously-wealthy Wall
Street whiz kid. If memory serves, they were Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller.
As they toured the house and listened to the host brag about all the costly architectural
details and furnishings, Kurt turned to Joseph and asked, "You wroteCatch-22. Why is this guy bragging about
how successful he is?" Joseph said, "Unlike him, I know when I have