The Psychology of the Novel

A writer friend told me years ago that her difficulty was not starting a novel; it was ending it. She wasn’t just referring to the endless itch writers have to change one last word in the manuscript, a final attempt at perfection. Both she and I have regularly faced that torment. She was referring to the dreams, visions and nightmares she had for years about the final product, even long after publication. Was the title right, was the denouement believable, and should I have killed that character off in chapter two?

I had just shipped off my next novel “Chanting the Feminine Down” to my brother for help with formatting and the like in advance of a fall publication. The novel was the most challenging book I had ever written because the main character’s journey was through time, history, religion and her own unconscious. The shifts in space, time, point-of-view and consciousness were extensive. Furthermore, there were fictions inside of fictions as the main character Colette entered the souls of women throughout history, whether in Boccaccio’s “Famous Women,” the thousands burned at the stake, or those who populated her dreams.

So, I had a hard time letting the novel go because of its complexity and layered narratives. But there was more. Though I had written my PhD dissertation about the Catholic Imagination in a number of so-called Catholic authors and have been a student of Jungian psychology for twenty-five years, the novel haunted my days and nights. Psychologist James Hillman wrote that starting a novel was something like entering a bull ring for the first time. When he was living in Dublin, Hillman tried writing novels but, luckily for the rest of us, put his energies and life into archetypal psychology. I am indebted to Hillman’s take on psychology and religion found in his “Revisioning Psychology.” I dedicated “Chanting” to him, the man who returned soul to psychology.

Perhaps my greatest struggle with the novel was taking on a lot of religious “truths” I had lived with, starting at the time my parents were whispering about me becoming a priest. It’s not that I was unfamiliar with the dark side of organized religions. I wrote “That Kingdom Coming Business” after serving in the Navy during the Vietnam period. Even after studying a thousand years of church councils where doctrine was hammered out, often at the point of a sword, I can still find majesty in the Catholic imagination as captured in particular by the artists of the Italian Renaissance. Hillman explored this in the work mentioned earlier. Jung suggests that the blending of the boundaries between earth and heavenly love as reflected in ecclesiastical art represents one of the the most powerful impulses of the Catholic Church.

“Chanting the Feminine Down” began as a dream about Pope John Paul II slipping into the feminine earth. The dream became a poem and, I suppose, a prayer. Jung reminded us that we are really in service to the dream. Dreams come from the autonomous psyche, not my personal ego. During two years’ intense work on the novel, I constantly dreamed of popes, priests, goddesses and the sacred and the profane. I wrote about the latter in the poem, “God in Every Junkyard Solo,” which is included in the novel.

I considered every dream a gift and a way to better understand and present a feminine character that lived in my imagination. The dream narratives have not been altered except for clarity. Given my intense focus on religious and psychological subjects, I was not surprised at the number of dreams I was having. I was surprised that so many reflected the feminine principle that has not been served, according to Jung, by the archetype of the Virgin and related doctrine. Jung appears in the novel as character and a guide, keeping an eye on things.

Just because I have shipped the novel off for formatting doesn’t mean the burden of the book is lifted. Just in case I had any doubts about that, I had a dream in which I was altar boy at a Catholic Mass with a responsibility of bringing the wine to a woman priest who stood waiting at the altar. I was joined by another person I couldn’t make out. The two of us stood in front of the altar holding clay goblets the size of large wine glasses. There is lettering on the sides of the goblets that might be in Latin, Old English or some other language. The other person starts to read this lettering. I tried, but it sounded like nonsense verse. I seem to be making it up as I went along.

At the end of the dream, a man makes fun of me, suggesting that my language indicated something was wrong with my head. I ask him about the crooked smile on his face and wonder inside the dream why I could say those words and not what was written on the goblet. I clearly have work to do.

Jung wrote about dreams as compensation, bringing us down a peg or two from the ego heights we often climb to during the daylight hours. I will accept that verdict and this dream. I take some comfort in the fact that, despite my failings, a woman priest is leading the service.

And that’s the essence of “Chanting.”