Essays from "The Theosophical Path" by Talbot Mundy


By Talbot Mundy

January 1926

Unless one should be what the Australians so aptly describe as a 'Wowser'; or a propagandist for some crazy brand of politics; or a dyspeptic; or one of those unfortunates who crave for 'self-expression'; I suppose the most difficult question to answer is: "Why do you write?" But the question is perfectly fair -- particularly if the writer has not made the answer obvious in every single story he has written. The enormous cost of ham and eggs in the United States is no excuse for posing in the limelight; the 'ham' might all too justly appear in the form of a sobriquet -- the eggs out of the cases invoiced to the trade as 'rots and spots.' Since Caesar wrote his 'Commentaries' and President Wilson penned his 'Fourteen Points' there has always been ample excuse for putting any writer through a third degree.

He may be posing as our superior; in which case he should be made to prove it or be still. He may be, tongue in cheek, too skilfully and much too greedily outreaching for our pocket-book; if so, then "caveat emptor." But he is possibly a fellow human being, tolerant of others' weaknesses since he is conscious of his own; a rather happy man because he likes things, thoughts, and people; a man who finds life fabulously interesting and who makes up tales about what he has seen and heard (and thinks he has understood), for the excellent reason that no other course provides him such a satisfying outlet for his energy. That man is worth considering on his merits. If his books provide the reader with a hundredth part of the enjoyment he himself had, writing them, then fellow human beings may share his entertainment without grudging him a good seat at the show.

Or so it seems to me. And life is entertaining. Also, it is splendidly worth while. Nor am I one of those unfortunates who never knew the seamy side of it, or felt the desperate emotions of the under-dog. Though I have written ten books and, I suppose, ten times as many stories for the magazines, I have never yet succeeded in inventing for the vilest villain situations more embarrassing than some that have occurred to me; although, except in The Ivory Trail, I have written nothing in the nature of autobiography. However, I must make that statement with a reservation.

I suppose that, first and last, at least five hundred people have asked me: "How is a story written?" There are three unanswered letters on my desk now, in each of which that question is put; but I believe that whoever could answer it truthfully, could also tell what holds the stars in place. Repeatedly I have put that problem to myself and other writers, but I have never heard or read an explanation that explained.

However, I am almost sure of this: as fishermen develop 'fish sense'; horsemen achieve 'horse sense' (some, of course, are born with it); musicians develop ability to listen to the music of the spheres; and painters educate their eyes until they see what other men cannot distinguish until it has been selected for them, and interpreted in paint, and framed; so writers, who are not too densely wrapped in dogmatisms of their own or (worse yet!) dogmatisms learned at second-hand, inflicted on them by the pundits of mediocrity, learn how to use what I must call a sense for lack of any other word in English that suggests it.

Oskar A. H. Schmitz, in a recent essay in the Kolnische Zeitung, asks: "Does a writer need to know anything?" But the answer is, that a writer does know. If he does not know, he cannot write. He knows as the musician hears, and as the painter sees; although I don't know how he knows, and I certainly can't explain it.

But to know is not nearly the whole of the problem. There remains the technical, extremely difficult, accomplishment of differentiating, of selecting, of interpreting into literary form, and of convincing the reader. A man may know where fish are, but it is another thing to catch them, and still another thing to get them, fresh and pleasant to the eye, to market. It is possible to fish for mackerel and catch dog-fish. There are also jellyfish, and some sorts that are poisonous.

One other thing seems obvious to me: we humans are as composite as any other thing in nature. We are capable of unplumbed depths of infamy, and of unreached heights of godliness. In each of us are all the elements, both spiritual and material, that go to make up what is human nature in the aggregate. We are microcosms of the macrocosm. Consequently, what a man writes in his books (though incidents and details may be all imaginary, and though nothing in the book is therefore true, in one sense of the word) essentially is a picture of his own mind, of his own life, of his own (latent though they may be) possibilities.

Shakespeare was not Falstaff. He was capable of being Falstaff. He was capable of being Hamlet. He knew all about both those characters and all the others because their essences were in himself. What made him the greatest dramatist since Aeschylus was his (divine, I like to think) ability to read his own rich human nature, to select from it, and to write down what he knew in an appealing way.

The intellect, I think, is a machine that can be constantly improved, and that only wears out when allowed to lie idle or bury itself into pits of its own digging. As the intellect improves with use a writer (or any other individual) should find new phases of humanity to wonder at, and ponder over, and admire; he should discern new aspects (new to him, at any rate), and by abandoning old views incur the obloquy of inconsistency. The obloquy is very good for him, because it will reveal to him a wealth of unexplored intolerances in himself.

The only thoroughly consistent people are the dead ones. Let them bury their own dead. Our business is living, and life is a perpetual ascent from peak to higher peak of comprehension.

So what is a tale, after all, but a picture of any man's mind? And does it make the slightest difference, when you have read the book, or before you have read it, that you should know its author stands seventy-three inches in his boots, weighs one hundred and eighty-five pounds, has a wife and an Airedale dog, and once walked all the length of Africa? The important question is, what thinking has he done? And is he a 'wowser' or a 'muckrake'? Are his villains human, and his heroes and his heroines not too immaculate? Can you read his book without wishing you had not? And does he make you feel that there are wide horizons, unfenced and not marked 'No Trespassers,' toward which any one may go adventuring without incurring self-contempt?

The latest of my own books, OM, has brought such floods of correspondence that, although that makes me feel acquainted with all manner of agreeable folk in many lands, there is some difficulty in reserving time enough in which to write another book! How much of it is true? Is Tsiang Samdup a real Lama? Where is the "Book of the Sayings of Tsiang Samdup" published? Who is Ommony in real life? How did I learn my Indian lore?

To answer the last first, I don't know. That it is lore, is apparent to me from the sparks that fly wherever its flint strikes steel; I have no other means of determining. Ommony, in 'real' life, is myself or any other man who, if only for an hour or two, sees a vista of events from his particular point of view. So is the villain, Dawa Tsering, who is, after all, more villainous than vile (like most of us). The "Book of the Sayings of Tsiang Samdup" probably was published at the time when the Stars of the Morning danced and sang. As I was fortunate enough to glimpse a page of it, I have been generous enough to share it. What more can I do?

If Tsiang Samdup is not real, how could it be possible to write a book about him? If I had known more about him, would I not have written it? And all of it is true, except the bad part, and the weak part, and the artless, dull, uninteresting part. It is as true as you are in your interesting moments.

What next? I have filed away eight hundred letters asking for a sequel to Om -- The Secret of Ahbor Valley. I am keeping them to remind me not to write it! I would rather try to put a pair of arms on the Venus of Milo, or invent an ending for Schubert's 'Unfinished Symphony.'

There is a beach near San Diego where the gulls make music, to a swelling and descending obbligato of surf thundering on sand. It is a usually lonely beach, but there is something in its harmonies that stirs imagination and establishes remoteness from the jazz of 'realism' by lifting, now and then, the curtain that obscures reality. I go there, maybe as the ancients once went to Eleusis; that is, not invariably with success because it is a difficult trick to leave opinions behind, and incredulity, and zeal, and all that other rubbish with which we stop our ears and clog our understandings. (The Gods are not exactly lazy, but they are self-respecting and refuse to waste good mystery on work that we should do ourselves.) But once in a while, as at Eleusis in the ancient days, the veil is lifted; so, if I can only overcome the bewildering difficulty, experienced by every musician, painter, and writer, of translating into definiteness the elusive visions seen (and almost understood), there will be a much better story than OM before long. Be good enough to wait, and I will do my utmost not to disappoint you.