Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Castalian Spring at Delphi

“You say these Naiads are the offspring of a god.  That makes them some kind of spirits, right?  Just another loony Greek myth.”
            “A very old myth,” Dan said.  “Much older than the Greeks.  Springs have always had their resident divinities.”
            This was certainly understandable, I thought.  Cold, thirst-quenching, life-giving water sprouting like a miracle from the dry, rocky earth—what god-fearing goatherd wouldn’t see that as divine?
            Somewhere an owl softly hooted.
            With her arms propped at the water’s edge, Phoebe lowered her face toward the surface of the spring.  She took a short drink, noisily sucking the water.  Then she raised her dripping face and for a long moment stared unblinking at the pond.
            I stopped what I was doing.  Dan remained silent.  Had she seen something there, hidden in the spring, or was she caught by her own reflection?  We watched her and waited, and neither of us spoke.  There was something magical about her, kneeling by this primeval pool in the dark.  Her pale arms and face, ghostly in the starlight, reflected on the undulating mirror of the pond.  An aura of stillness surrounded her.  Along with the unceasing trickle of the spring, we could hear the sporadic flutter of wings echo off the rocky walls above us.  The place was suffused with an atmosphere of timelessness, with Phoebe the beating heart of it, as if she were some living token of its past.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

It's Alive!

Poster for 1931 movie of "Frankenstein"
with Boris Karloff as the monster
Paul Cantor explains how Mary Shelley's monster  tramples over the supposed line between high culture and pop culture: 
"I am not trying to lower our opinion of Frankenstein but to raise our opinion of popular culture. Or rather, I want to question the simplistic distinction between high culture and low. Just because a work grows out of or is in some way related to the commercial world does not mean that it is inferior in artistic quality. The great example of this truth is William Shakespeare. He was the most popular playwright in the commercial theater of his day, but of course he was at the same time the greatest dramatic artist.
Engraving by Lynd Ward
for a 1934 edition of "Frankenstein"
"[...] Culture is not neatly divided into different and unrelated media or separated into spheres of high and low, hermetically sealed off from one another. Rather, in a real culture (and not an academic abstract mapping of it), the high and the low inter-penetrate, giving life to each other, and the various media interact in complex patterns.
"Accordingly, one may find great art in the oddest of places, even in the ghoulish story of a misshapen creature turned loose upon the world. High art can grow out of elements of popular culture, and can in turn inspire popular culture to new forms of creativity. Culture is chaotic. It results in artistic order, but not always in an orderly fashion. And that makes culture fundamentally unpredictable."

Saturday, November 17, 2018


Every screenwriter, playwright or novelist will have at some point been advised to read Aristotle's Poetics, his famous treatise on dramatic theory. I read it several decades ago, and aside from the classic three-act structure, the main thing I remember is this simple formula I distilled from it:
Logic + Surprise = Wonder
It's the essence and the payoff of any great story (or any other magic trick, for that matter). As the last and the best of the ancient playwrights put it:

"Many things are wrought by Zeus in Olympus
And heaven works much beyond human imagining
The looked-for result will fail to materialize
While heaven finds ways to achieve the unexpected.
So has it happened in this our story."

Euripides wrote these lines for the conclusion of three of his tragedies, including his final, and most terrifying, The Bacchae.
Something to keep in mind next time you hear, "Have a wonderful day!"

Thursday, November 15, 2018


“It is perhaps only a legend,” Anand said. “But it is said that one day, toward the end of his long life, the Buddha arose before his assembled throng of disciples and held up a lotus flower. He spoke no words; the flower itself transmitted the essence of his wisdom. Enlightenment came, not through scripture or philosophy, but through a direct experience—a deep realization—of the miracle of existence.”

“Tathata,” Phoebe said. “In English it’s translated as ‘suchness,’ or ‘thatness.’ It's the transcendent reality of being that shines through the ordinary world of appearances."

“The practice of Zen aims at awakening this awareness,” Anand said. “It is not about thinking the right thoughts or gaining some knowledge beyond us. It is simply experiencing the miracle of what is right in front of our eyes.”

As he spoke, I was staring into my amber glass of Muscat, contemplating the miracle, the “suchness” of the wine. It just so happens it truly was a remarkable thing to behold. The clear glass goblet, with its myriad reflections, was itself a visual spectacle and a marvel of lucid design. It seemed the perfect instrument to display what lay inside: an enclosed, miniature, sunset world, a windless ocean of wine; a crumb of cork floating like a microscopic ship; one translucent, planet-like bubble orbiting the sea’s round edge; and finally, the hue of the sea itself, a luscious honey-yellow, glowing with a radiance all its own, as if the crushing of the dusty, vine-ripened grapes had set free captured sunlight.

This is what the old Dutch masters observed when painting their gorgeous still lives, what art lovers flock to museums to see, crowding in close for a view.

A golden drink in a glass on a table.

“It looks so real,” we say—that is, so replete with “suchness.” The painted wineglass taunts the eye. It seems to contain some mystery. Look closely, it says. Look carefully. If your eyes can pierce the veil of Maya, you might just glimpse the Truth.
~excerpt from THE ASSASSIN LOTUS

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Frame

"Garden of Earthly Delights"
Hieronymus Bosch (c1500)
"Belief systems are intrinsic to human intelligence and survival. They 'frame' the flux of primary experience, which would otherwise flood the mind."
~Camille Paglia

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Voice (In)visible

The Annunciation (1892)
Arthur Hacker (1858–1919)

Thursday, September 6, 2018


"Here is our first lesson in virtue from the medieval West: It was not reading novels, but reciting the Psalms, that first trained ancient and medieval Christians in the practice of imagining the world from another's perspective."
"If, as Steven Pinker suggests, it was reading that enabled the kind of empathy that we now associate with being civilized, this was the reading practice upon which western civilization depended for over a thousand years."
~Rachel Fulton Brown

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Tingle

“Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”
― Vladimir Nabokov

Thursday, August 9, 2018


When people ask why I stopped writing screenplays, I tell them about MEG.
MEG was the ultimate high-concept picture. Box office gold in two words: "Jurassic Shark." What studio exec or marketing department wouldn’t chomp at that? Total no-brainer. A global slam-dunk.
All it needed was a good story. I was writing scripts at the time and was hired to write the book/movie pitch, based on Steve Alten’s well-researched but flabby unsold manuscript (his first) called “White Death.” It had been turned down by over forty publishers. Steve’s literary manager and I re-titled it “Megalodon,” then MEG, re-wrote the first 100 pages, and re-structured and outlined the remainder of the story. Instead of taking it to New York first, he sent it straight to the studios.
Chomp, chomp. The 100 pages + outline sold overnight to Disney for “seven figures”--the writer’s Holy Grail. Took that to NY and made a two-book deal for another seven (double what it fetched in Hollywood).
Pop the champagne!
That was back in 1996. We thought the movie would be in theaters in a year. It's taken twenty-two.
Twenty-two years in development hell. Endless succession of producers, directors, screenwriters, stars. World’s longest slam-dunk. To the point that the movie--out this weekend--is nearly unrecognizable to me.
Imagine how many years you can waste trying to get your not-high-concept screenplays produced. (I don’t have to imagine. I tried.) Meantime over those decades, Steve Alten wrote a shelf-full of books and built a successful career.
Moral: Life’s too short. Want to tell stories? Write novels.

Monday, August 6, 2018


"Destruction" from "The Course of Empire" (1836)
Thomas Cole
"We have not fully recovered from the Dark Ages: the insecurity that excites greed, the fear that fosters cruelty, the poverty that breeds filth and ignorance, the filth that generates disease, the ignorance that begets credulity, superstition, occultism—these still survive amongst us; and the dogmatism that festers into intolerance and Inquisitions only awaits opportunity or permission to oppress, kill, ravage, and destroy. In this sense modernity is a cloak put upon medievalism, which secretly remains; and in every generation civilization is the laborious product and precarious obligating privilege of an engulfed minority."
~Will Durant - "The Age of Faith: The Story of Civilization, Volume IV"

Monday, July 30, 2018


Summer's a girl who takes you by the hand saying Come...
Birdsong in the dawn,
with each stroke of the paddles
open churned water gurgles,
mist over the pond.

this day, she whispers, not any day but this day, Come...
Bright sun pouring through
fresh new leaves hanging tender,
grass just cut from the mower,
kite spins in the blue.

right now; at the words with your heart leaping wildly, Come...
Scent through the curtains,
roses and honeysuckle,
far away water-chuckle,
night breeze uncertain.

not yet, she says wait...
        ...a butterfly kiss and she's gone.

~ Ian Barth

Wednesday, June 20, 2018


"No one can flatter himself that he is immune to the spirit of his own epoch, or even that he possesses a full understanding of it. Irrespective of our conscious convictions, each one of us, without exception, being a particle of the general mass, is somewhere attached to, colored by, or even undermined by the spirit which goes through the mass. Freedom stretches only as far as the limits of our consciousness."

~Carl Jung (1942)

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Night-Sea Trilogy - a mythic thriller series

"Everybody acts out a myth, but very few people know what their myth is. And you should know what your myth is, because it might be a tragedy. And maybe you don't want it to be.
~Jordan Peterson 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Fox

My soul is a fox with a hen in its maw

And the tingle of blood in its tooth and its claw
That slips through the curtain of half-conscious dawns,
Its ears always pricked for the hounds and the horns
Of its past and its future, its life and its death,
With the kill in its mouth and the shriek on its breath,
Into mornings of calm, when there's nothing to hear
And the air is quite still, and the sky is quite clear,
And the prey is at peace, and the fox in its den
That has lived one more day in this strange world of men.

~Jonathan Steffen

(painting - The Fox Hunt by Winslow Homer)

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A Quiet Place

Storytelling depends on the suspension of disbelief. The suspension of disbelief is enabled through emotion. Emotion is a response to basic biological truths. Those truths are expressed in universal archetypes. Those archetypes form the basis of traditional values. Traditional values are best expressed through the medium of story.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

No Joke

illustration by Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel (1850 – 1913)
Nietzsche, Tolstoy and Joan of Arc walk into a bar...
“The wild worship of lawlessness and the materialist worship of law end in the same void. Nietzsche scales staggering mountains, but he turns up ultimately in Tibet. He sits down beside Tolstoy in the land of nothing and Nirvana. They are both helpless — one because he must not grasp anything, and the other because he must not let go of anything. The Tolstoyan's will is frozen by a Buddhist instinct that all special actions are evil. But the Nietzscheite's will is quite equally frozen by his view that all special actions are good; for if all special actions are good, none of them are special. They stand at the crossroads, and one hates all the roads and the other likes all the roads. The result is — well, some things are not hard to calculate. They stand at the cross-roads.
"…Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them. I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret. And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow. Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing. It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost."
--G. K. Chesterton

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Happy Easter

The Holy Women at the Tomb (Les saintes femmes au tombeau)
by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1876
[Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp]

Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday

Virtual Tour of Ruben's altarpieces in Antwerp Cathedral

Friday, March 9, 2018

Baby Blues

"As our eyes grow accustomed to sight they armor themselves against wonder."  ~Leonard Cohen

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A Freudian Geography of the North American Mind

THE AIR OUTSIDE was humid and smelled of fajitas and rotten fish. Car lights streaked past, and the pedestrian parade on the Malec√≥n seemed to be moving in slow motion. The only single girl of note was a short, boxy mestiza in a hotel uniform, shuffling through bus fumes after a day spent scouring bathrooms. I noticed a tiny silver cross at her neck—another long-suffering Mexican saint. She looked up as we passed one another, and the brief glance from her warm brown eyes gave rise to an unexpected shiver. It may have only been a flare of desire brought on by the buzz of the tequila, but it seemed that her eyes had revealed something darker—something like the mystery of Mexico itself.
Dan had written about this more than once in the time he’d been traveling the country. I remember in particular a postcard he sent showing the monstrous, massive stone carving of Coatlicue, the Aztec earth goddess of fertility and death. He said the statue was a perfect example of his unjustly ignored anthropological thesis, “A Freudian Geography of the North American Mind.” In this dubious disquisition, the USA took the role of the ego, the lone pioneer on the vast Great Plains, the central, controlling, conscious will that dreamed and schemed and acted on the world. Canada was the superego, the hunter on the harsh, intolerant tundra, the high and mighty conscience of the Great White North. Lowly Mexico was the id, the crazed Nahuatl priest in the lush mountain jungle, the deep subconscious, teeming with untamed instincts and arcane imagery, ruled by a primitive nightmare logic. This was the ancient land of the Olmec, the Maya, the Toltec, and the Aztec. Of bloody human sacrifice, pyramids, and treasure. Of conquistadores and missionaries and zealous revolutionaries. A nation of greed and grief, of cruelty and corruption, of grinding poverty and religious fervor. A country that prayed to saints and danced with the devil. A country that celebrated death and the dead.
Had I glimpsed all that in the poor girl’s eyes?"
(excerpt from DARK GOLD

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Night-Sea Trilogy, Book 1

"A myth does not describe what happened in some obscure period before human reckoning, but what happens always and repeatedly." ~Roger Scruton

Saturday, January 6, 2018

the Annoying Monk

NEW YORK—In a groundbreaking new study published Friday in The Journal Of East Asian Studies, a team of leading historians has proved that meditation originally spread from ancient China because a single, highly annoying monk went around telling everyone how much it had changed his life. 
Analyzing documents uncovered across the Eurasian continent, researchers determined that the monk, who lived in the seventh century A.D. and learned rudimentary breathing and visualization exercises from a group of Mahayana Buddhists, traveled widely and talked constantly about how practicing meditation for only a week had fundamentally altered his personal outlook. From the Korean peninsula to the Central Asian steppes, he is believed to have aggravated people everywhere he went, inevitably shifting every conversation to the importance of mindfulness and being centered, even when it was clear no one was interested.  
Read more on this exasperating monk at the Onion.