Over the past two years, while I have written fiction here and there, it has not been the primary focus of my non-work time. I have one novella that I am publishing in (probably) April or May, The Village of Strong Branches. I have another that will be ready to publish as soon as I iron out some late-stage edits. I have a workable outline for a third novella, Candles in the Forest, and for As the Waters Rose High. I have The Raised Seal, and Ossia, and others — over a million and a half words of writing, all set in the same universe, in varying stages of completion. Plus a bunch of outlines.
The two biggest reason for this pause — again, in fits and starts — have been:
- What does Axopatomsa see that makes her climb the steep cliffs?
- What assumptions about the structure of reality have I been making in some of this work, and are said assumptions irresponsibly wrong?
The two questions are tied together. One of them is the pivotal question in the climax of the million and a half words. The other is a legacy from when I first started writing this when I was a teenager, particularly in the earliest versions of The Raised Seal and another story, The Silver Clasp. Evident in the very early drafts — and in residue now — Inū, or inueḥ, was an evil thing insidiously fighting to rip the universe apart. It was partially me processing school bullying by Christian classmates and my teenage understanding of what was going on during Christianization, but it went deeper than that, a sort of uneasy instinct about evil and corruption and what it might mean and what the things connected to it might look like. In that early worldbuilding, it was a real entity, a real evil, symbolized by fragmentary jar-shards and the murmuration of countless obsidian-sharp birds. It was always hungry, never full. It was fixated on things, especially human beings and the Gods. It wanted to devour everything that ever was or could be, and it especially wanted to devour the Gods. These early drafts were from 2003-2010, starting when I was 16 or so.
During the 2010s — mid-2010s, I might say — I started encountering writings from polytheists online about entities that bore an unsettling resemblance to those young-adult writings. When I did a huge overhaul of The Raised Seal that time, emboldened by nearly having lost half of the book before I realized I’d backed it up to a document that I’d attached to an email, I tried to rein in inueḥ because of the unsettling similarities. I frowned every time I read polytheist bloggers refer to the Filter, and I frowned at the cult documentaries and the New Agers anxious about dark things. My gut reaction to anything that sounds too much like a conspiracy is to do an audit of where my own thoughts are. I ultimately reasoned that I had matured beyond those feelings about Christianity, and the shallowness of how I’d approached inueḥ was a bit embarrassing, very prime-time Syfy. Yet, I knew that I couldn’t get rid of it entirely because it was the main plot. Moreover, I didn’t know how to connect what happened later in my outlines back to the beginning. You can’t put a gun on a table in a story without the gun being used.
As I got more into Platonism in the late 2010s, I became even less comfortable with the entire set of conceptual and “how reality works” underpinnings on which that rationale for it was based. I edited a scene in The Raised Seal when Tenares/Tenes encounters the Goddess Enahari in order to give my own self some time to figure it out — when she poses a question asking Tenares if he really understands what is going on and what is at stake, that was a question I was actively and desperately trying to answer, a question addressed at me as the writer.
Reading Proclus’ discussions of evil (he wrote an essay) and especially his Timaeus commentary solidified that something like inueḥ could not possibly be, and it could definitely not endanger Gods or unravel the universe. For example:
Since there are three of these intermediate genera, when Being predominates over Sameness and Difference, then the corresponding mixture of the intermediate forms of the genera brings about divine soul, and the greater or lesser amount in the mixing bowl determines the level of divine soul. But when Sameness and Being simultaneously predominate over the remaining [ingredient], then we get angelic soul. And when only the Same predominates [over Being and Difference], then the daemonic soul comes to be. When Sameness and Difference predominate over Being, then we get the heroic soul. But when Difference alone predominates, we have the human soul, for it is impossible for the extreme ends of the spectrum to dominate over the one in the middle because unless the extremes are connected through the middle ones, they would be separate from one another. So in accord with each of these mixtures, the greater and lesser in the mixture make the level of souls.Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus Book 3, Pt. II, 138.26-139.5, trans. Baltzly
The quotation is discussed in more detail in a post from 2020, but I’ll add that Baltzly’s footnote says, “So the permutation that is ruled out is the one in which Difference and Being together predominate over Sameness. Sameness is thus the middle term that connects these three of the greatest kinds” (p. 101). My marginal note says, “Interesting — wouldn’t this [have something to do with] Nature? → I really think this is what I will work with in T7P + inueḥ.” Basically, I would work with what was impossible because it sounded cool, right? Was that even responsible or correct?
So what was inueḥ? How could I have that in my writing at all? What about the cosmos being the most perfect and blessed possible? What is this even, Kaye?
If only I had known in 2020 how many years I would spend anguishing over this.
This question would not have mattered as much had I not decided that I was writing hieropoeia. Hieropoeic speculative fiction is the subgenre name I made up for mythic fiction that may involve a variety of fantasy and scifi elements, with a focus on the Gods, and which operates in a pious mode. While I’m totally cool with writing characters who believe things that I do not believe, I draw the line at advancing what I know to be irresponsible. In this specific example, I’m not writing fiction that has a really-existing evil because I do not think that’s a responsible or justifiable act for someone who knows better.
I wrote what I could around it, even though I really wanted to address this question. It gnawed at me and tanked my word count. Tanked it. I stopped tracking stats because it was that bad. But I was reading a lot of Proclus, so I did have things to distract me from the absolute carnage of time ticking away without being creative in that way.
A few months ago, the song “All Things Devour” came on my Discover Weekly playlist, and that’s when I started to have a breakthrough.
The lyrics and instrumentation got me thinking about Ossia, one of the stories that centers Axopatomsa. I put the song on repeat and thought through what it means to devour. At the end, I turned back to some Proclus I had read.
This time, I started to think about us, as partial souls, and about our responsibility towards the cosmos when we are properly aligned with the Gods’ pronoia and thus operating in a mode of conscious awareness of that providential overflow — the true happiness of our souls. My thoughts roamed to social media disconnection and the increasing isolation in modern America. The devouring we are doing to the planet. The transformation of everything into a commodity and the slow draining of what is sacred. The many Erysichthons we have become, ruled by emotional storms and craven appetites, not by wisdom or prudent judgment.
We need to apply limit to what, on its own, spins apart because it is not, what could never come together despite craving what is together, I thought.
There is no such thing as evil, I also thought. It is parasitic.
“This thing / all things/ devours,” the song says; “Make me / holy,” it also says.
You’ve let compassion meditations pierce your heart, I thought. I had an image in my mind, a connecting point between the transgression in As the Waters Rose High and The Raised Seal — a connection I’ve thought through for years at this point. In my worldbuilding, the thing that is sometimes called Inū and sometimes called inueḥ usually punches through when oracular protocol is not followed — when the fallow time is not instituted, often due to hubris and out-of-control philotimia — because, somehow, that opens space for it. (Don’t ask me to explain that worldbuilding yet because I think I have to write the story in order to understand it.) It is the greedy hunger for making the future intelligible that opens up the deepest forms of fragmentation. If checked early, all will be there. If not, calamity.
It clicked well with other worldbuilding elements that I had puzzled through. So well, in fact, that I could once again see the shape of what was happening. JWST-clear images.
In ancient times, according to Sallust, all temples spent time being shut; all cycles included times of impurity as well as purity; all things were recognized as having both fallow and fecund periods. Similarly, Proclus says that places are receptive to Gods when the conditions are right. The land changes. Time changes. Cultures change. All of these temporal things work together, rhythmically unfolding, allotting all its proper timai.
The image in my mind was a song, the idea of inueḥ as a child, something upon which we must exercise pronoia because we are prior to it — just as the classes of daimons are prior to us. A child that can be put to sleep through song, through being seen as being in its proper place in the unfolding of reality, the only thing that could possibly disarm it. You’ve really let compassion meditation get to your heart, as if a lullaby could be the song of Orpheus, I thought. Axopatomsa isn’t Orpheus. She is based on someone else in the myths, which is why her name means what it does in my Narahji conlang. You ritually put it to sleep at the proper time, and it is calmed, and there is just enough disruption and difference and alienation to be good, not cancerous. Really let compassion get to your heart, I thought. Generation is warfare, and you’re having her abandon weapons for the ksibja. (The ksibja is a stringed instrument, think the child of a sitar and a cello.) To be fair, she’s the only one in the work who wouldn’t be afraid of doing so.
And this idea is exciting, even if foolish, and I like its elegance for its connections to my understanding of theodicy and what the pronoia of the Gods means. Evil cannot exist on its own, only parasitically.
So that’s how I overcame a block. Empty jars, broken and scattered. A lucky-find song, thank Hermes. Things that are forbidden in Proclus’ interpretation of the Timaeus still forbidden, still not, but attempting to be.
That is where this ends. There is no set conclusion, but considering how much energy I have expended, it is exciting to have gotten this far in solving this and to have something workable. There have been some radical changes in how I think about the fiction I’m writing along the way — a de-centering of what in my 20s I thought was the It Structure, a re-centering of the spiraling structure of the pieces and the beauty of the Gods — and that is what I will lean into as I develop my frolicking hieropoeic playground. Make all of it holy. Wherever that goes, whatever it brings.
Thank you for entertaining a fast-written, disorganized post, and be well.
2 thoughts on “A Few Writing Thoughts: Evil, Empty Jars, Fallow Earth”
I think we have to disagree about evil, though I found this a very thoughtful post. one note about “new agers.” they generally in my experience, don’t believe in evil at all. everything is sweetness and light, and every “spirit” undifferentiated or there for humanity’s evolution. it’s dangerous as hell imo. I do agree that evil is a parasite though, also-friggin-lutly, and needs us to make the choices that let it in — which unfortunately as a species we do with abandon.
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Yes, we have different perspectives on this, although yours is definitely more functional in terms of grappling with it IRL. I think I’ve said this before, but it’s worth stressing — I bet this perspective disagreement boils down to something similar to the difference between an entomologist and someone who works in the pest control industry. Fiction is a very lab-controlled environment in comparison to the real world. I mean, especially with speculative fiction, it’s setting up scenarios using a set of initial conditions (backstory), rules (worldbuilding), and a hypothesis about how things will go (the plot) and putting simulated people in that environment to see what unfolds, which is what makes it fun to create.
And I totally agree about New Agers, except many do believe in “bad energy” and will be very passive aggressive towards people who “have” that. But “bad energy” is very vague and often just means “you disagree with me and it’s making me uncomfortable.”