The Idea of a Book
The old monasteries of Christendom were governed by a single “Rule” from which the monastic order and its activity were derived. The Rule shaped its life. The Benedictines, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, even The Brethren of the Free Spirit, and so on, all had their own “Rule”, and that Rule was the central idea they sought to bring into the world. The Rule, in turn, was derived from some aspect of the Cross or the Gospels and so the monasteries remained within the “bosom of the Church”. In some ways, then, the monasteries were very much like the faculties of a university, and much of the structure of the university as an institution took its structure from the monastery because it was the Church that founded the first universities. Before the university, it was most often the monasteries that preserved and conserved classical learning and literature through the long European Dark Age. The alleged “first scientist”, Roger Bacon, was a monk, and many of our contemporary technical inventions had their origin in the monasteries (the clock, for instance, or early genetics). And I have argued that even contemporary political ideologies were derived from the monasteries, after Luther sent his monks and nuns out of the monasteries and into the world to make their own way. They simply took their Rule with them.
Today, the monasteries are, for the most part, sad and deserted places. I’ve visited a couple of them. Only a handful of aging monks left to tend to sometimes very large compounds.
A good book should be organised very much like a monastery. It should be about one single idea, much like the “Rule” of the monastic order, and its chapters (like the monk’s cells) should be arranged in such a way as to explore only one or another aspect of the central idea. The idea is like a diamond or crystal, in that sense. It will have various facets which gives it its clarity and its colour. Those facets should become the separate chapters of the book without ever loosing their connection to the diamond which they reflect — the central idea of the book itself. In that sense, a good book is very much like a living mandala itself, and the chapters of a book are just so many various articulations of the book’s ruling idea, just as the monks of a monastery are so many various articulations of the monastic Rule.
For any idea to be born alive, which should be the purpose of writing the book, the idea must acquire the trappings of space and time. To be “meaningful” means that the author must cloak the idea in grammatically articulated words that build a bridge between the times past and the future and between the spaces inner and outer, which is called altogether “context”. What Alfred North Whitehead once called “the adventure of ideas” is the often slow journey of the idea into manifestation, because everything that arises from latency into manifestation must take time in order to take place. But those times and spaces are fourfold — backwards, forwards, inwards, outwards, or, as Rosenstock-Huessy describes them — trajective, prejective, subjective, objective respectively.
Thus, to write a good book that expresses a single idea as completely as possible is to locate it within its own “cross of reality”. The book is a kind of performance of that cross of reality, much as the monastic life was a performance and enactment of a “Rule” that distinguished one monastic order from another, yet all within the context of “Christendom”.
Too many books I read today wander and drift away from their central idea, just like the Prodigal Son of the parable. The idea is stillborn because the author doesn’t take care to fully articulate the central idea into manifestation, or never had any clear understanding of the central idea to begin with (and therefore should never have written the book in the first place). The world is awash with books like this. There is no reason for them (apart, say, from the academic pressure to “publish or perish”). Our times are aberrant because in many ways, everyone confuses mere production and “productivity” for genuine and authentic creativity.
The really fabulous book is the one which births the idea “whose time has come”, as they say. The idea whose time has come usually first comes as a strong intuition, and only in the act of speaking or writing does it become articulated, which means manifested as the timely idea, being born neither too soon nor too late. The timely idea is one which builds a bridge between human origin and human destiny, which is what “meaning” and “meaningful” is. It might be a novel, or a poem, or a dissertation, or a film, or a work of art, but those, too, are simply facets of the ruling idea in its process of full manifestation or formalisation.
An idea is just like a human being. It is an energy pattern. It must also pass through the crucible to mature, and that means it must follow the same formative phases of realisation or manifestation described by the “cross of reality”, and this may be the work of more than one generation, too. To become fully articulated, and become “real” within our four-dimensional reality, it must itself become four-dimensional, and assume a past and a future, and also esoteric and exoteric aspects, just like the living body.
This is why human beings exist, really — as media or agencies for birthing and manifesting the ideas through our consciousness. Our consciousness is also quadrilateral or “fourfold” for that purpose. The ideas are latent energy patterns called “potentials” that would become actual — the process we call “realisation”. The bridge between latency and manifestation, between potentiality and actuality, between nothing and something, is consciousness. That’s the significance of the strange wave-particle duality in quantum physics. For that reason it is said that “man is the bridge between two worlds”, although that really means “consciousness”, and most especially “intentionality of consciousness” described by the Phenomenologists. Consciousness is inherently creative because of that formative intentionality. Consciousness creates form, and that is the magic of consciousness and intentionality, because it is the bridge between the potential and actual, the latent and the manifest, and that is the relation between the infinite and the finite, or eternity and time, or the formless and the formal.
But to acquire a relatively stable form and to be, in physical terms, that means to become fourfold, to acquire the garb, or the cloak, of the times and spaces of physical reality, to have relative duration, and relative extension. But, as Blake knew and saw, too, the form never loses its tacit and implicit connection with the latent potency and energy that sustains it, the infinite in all things, which Gebser called “ever-present origin”.