»What is as much yours as you are yourself,and what is as little yours as you are yourself?« Augustine asked long ago, and we begin planning a book without having an answer ready, with an open mouth, a fly catching orifice.
The first step in writing is to bring the people to life on the page. Before you can do that you must imagine them, live with them in your mind, and long before that you must dream them up like a patisseur dreams up cupcakes without worrying about customers, but simply to elevate his own consciousness, coddle his cupcakeness, to entertain his heart, to sweeten the creative deal lest it becomes a deal with the devil, generating beauty not out of reverie and substance but out of hubris and soil. The paradox of all art: is it just for me, or does it go beyond me? Alas, there is not the tiniest space left between those two tempers.
The year is 1000 A.D. The character at hand, on the tip of one’s pen as it were, is a young woman of no more than 15 years, her name is Gisela, who one day as if in a dream becomes queen of a brand new kingdom. But it’s not an altogether pleasant dream: if it were a piece of music it would be an overture, an opening to an unknown future – the first queen of a non-nation, a horde, even if she’s only a girl and comes from far away like a fairy princess, has no power over the minds of the subjects to fall back on — she feels as alone as an orphan, and she is in dire need of an angel who advises her to keep calm and carry on, to uphold one’s faith at the bloody birth of the new realm. She’s small and young in years, but her fate weighs heavily on the globe: it’s going to be a triumph for christendom, and this part of the story is true.
There is the husband, the king, also young, no more than 25, but to his advantage he was bred to be what he has become, Stephen is his Christian name, but born was he as Vajk. Why, the girl had seen herself not as a prince’s bride but as an ugly swan among the sisters of mercy, hidden away in a convent, innocent, very much taken care of, very little challenged except by prayer and self-sacrifice, carried out alone or in small groups of strong women. But the good Lord to whom she’s been given to by name, which means “God’s hostage”, knows better than she what strength she has and what she will be able to do, he knows even what it is she will actually do, as we do not, not being gods ourselves but privileged to live a thousand years later…or is it a privilege and not perhaps a loss? Sometimes when I wake up from having spent a dream in Gisela’s company, I am not so sure, I ache a little for the sureness of the people of old.
Of course this is only an outline of the cupcakes to be but an important one. A character has been established, foes and friends will fly to her on the strength of the wings of the dream. White wings for a good dream, black wings for a bad dream. Only now can we begin to ask: what should she do next? Where does she want to be? Who can help? What do those ‘subjects’ really feel about their young queen – not as an anonymous crowd but as a butcher, a washer woman, a pub crawler, a page at court, a shaman, and so on. Perhaps even as a horse because horses and animals respond to her kind heart as if they knew a child was hiding behind that famous royal mantle.
Then, of course, our treatment would be poorer, wouldn’t be a dramatic treatment at all, if we didn’t also present the former prince’s, now king’s, position: he’s nobody’s fool. Nobody has had more opportunity to plan, anticipate and prepare for the state both children find themselves in. And if marriage is denounced, with disarming, charming simplicity to be “about nothing but love, plain and simple” by modern public service announcements, it is so much more than that to this medieval man: he is to look in his heart for love, make space for it. Wasn’t it at first to him mainly about keeping a truce with the German emperor, and about showing his people that he is serious about leadership? And next to that, and this he underestimated, marriage is a sacrament, a holy set of vows spoken not just for the ears of mortals, but spoken into a remembering wind that blows a thousand years or more. In those days, breaking your vows with heaven really meant something. Something starkly sinister: innocence was irretrievably lost in the process, and nobody knew what else.
Back to the king: every night now, the body of the princess, now wife, now queen, in his bed, next to him. A body surprisingly (why?) supple and sincerely employed by it’s inhabiting soul to please, but without any of the cunning and craftiness that the young king has known, seen, experienced with other women before as a young nobleman. Love did not enter in during those encounters. He floated on the surface while he now, with Gisela, sunk fast and deep, sunk to depths where he didn’t know himself from a simple lad. Those ladies of the easy lay, he’d received them in secret, on the initiative and the insistence of his uncle who turned out to be a heathen and an usurper for the throne – a devil incarnate, so that the king had to hang, impale and quarter him and nail his remains to the gates of the four cities that swore him their oath. Which is where they built the first four churches, on the bones and the blood of the temptor. Further West, they’ll immortalize him in stone as he rides, in full royal attire, into Bamberg Cathedral. Perhaps he is a fool after all? Or perhaps he’s just a (holy) daredevil.
There you have it all: two characters, stubborn and strong, and a curtain ready for the lifting above a sanguine story of love, but not only love, also sadness and loss, and finally, as always, abandonment and death. But many, many years in between. Not a fairy tale, not a tall tale, not a myth, but a kaleidoscope of images from the inside of my head, mixed with what happened.
“What is as much yours as you are yourself, and what is as little yours as you are yourself?”, asked a rather relaxed Augustine 1500 hundred years ago, and one answer to the riddle, according to him, is that it is our own self that we possess and yet do not possess. A paradox lies at the center of our being, why should it not also lie at the center of every book worth writing? This is it never clearer than when we begin baking a new book.
Background: This summer, I’m putting final touches to the manuscript of “Gizella”, to be published by Folded Word Press in 2015. With a very large cast of characters. The germ for this meditation came from Augustine’s quote — it has also proven fruitful recently in another essay on the “Pentecostal Paradox” (in German). All images (except the photo of the statue of Stephen) are by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).