I’ve just read a review by Elaine Blair of Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline in the January 2015 New Yorker. Blair says, Cusk has written admiringly about Knausgaard, and her proposed cure for the trouble with fiction sounds like a gloss of his. ‘Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts,’ she told the Guardian.” Blair goes on to say that some writers are hewing closer to the author’s subjective experiences, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal lives.

But Blair also points out that “Cusk’s shorthand doesn’t begin to account for the variety of literary experiments we’ve been seeing from novelists like Knausgaard, …. and W. G. Sebald” (70). As a writer, I’m all for any kind of improvisation on the novel or any other kind of narrative. I haven’t read Knausgaard, but I have devoured all of W. G. Sebald’s “fictions,” novels that are truly novel in that he has invented a hybrid form. He incorporates travelogue, biography, memoir, speculation, and literary criticism into the narrator’s perspective: often a wandering and thoughtful observer of his surroundings.

Vertigo was the first of Sebald’s books that I read. In order to enter his world, I had to disregard most of my preconceptions about what a novel should be. Initially, I was attracted by his playfulness and the tongue-in-cheek tone, as well as by the sly humor and wit. I also felt there was something else lurking there. Just as the narrator has a paranoid fear of being watched or followed, I felt followed by something in the book that I couldn’t quite identify, some truth or knowledge, as often happens with good poetry where meaning emerges from around the poem’s borders. Sebald’s approach explodes for me the myths I’ve created about novels needing to incorporate dramatic scenes, etc., all of the various workshop admonitions about narrative arc and development.

Though I haven’t read Cusk’s work, and only have this review to go on, I am concerned with the idea that some writers may rely more on their personal experiences to create “fictions” than employ their imaginations. Contemporary life is already too one-dimensional and focused on surfaces. Most people aren’t aware of their dreams and the unconscious. Or they deny that anything other than the day’s residue is being circulated in these nighty dramas. What a loss!

As Carl Jung pointed out in Man and His Symbols, “Imagination and intuition are vital to our understanding” (82). He goes on to say that it isn’t just poets or other artists who employ these ways of perceiving, but they are also essential to scientists. He emphasizes that the rational intellect isn’t the only way of knowing or understanding ourselves and the world (inner or outer) and claims that “the surface of our world seems to be cleansed of all superstitious and irrational elements” (86). This observation is even truer today than when Jung wrote this piece in 1961 near the end of his life.

If our novels are limited to portraying our everyday experiences, the chitchat that goes on in our living rooms and other social settings, then we are missing a whole level of vitality and knowledge. It’s the imagination in conjunction with the unconscious that produces myths, symbols, and alternate views of reality. Not that our personal experiences can’t be imbued with these elements, but if they are the sole basis for our fictions, then we are deprived of something much richer and more worthwhile.





Walking the Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral

Lily Iona MacKenzie on Myth, Ritual, and Psychic ProcessWalking the Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral

Lily Iona MacKenzie on Myth, Ritual, and Psychic Process

Walking the Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral (Published in the most recent issue of Jung Journal.)


I’ve removed my shoes before entering Grace Cathedral’s labyrinth, considered in Medieval times the geographical and spiritual center of the world. The canvas surface feels rough against my bare feet, but pleasantly so, awakening them slightly from their usual sleep when encased in shoes.

I begin, keeping my eyes focused ahead of me, on the ground as I’ve done during previous walking meditations, raising them periodically to look at the stained glass windows.

Words fly out at me. Redemption. Savior. Mary. Disciple. Jesus. Love. Peace. Shards of intense colors—red, blue, green, and yellow made more vivid by the setting sun—flash by.

Before starting, I’d read of the three stages to walking the labyrinth: Purgation, Illumination, and Union. I’m in the Purgation stage, trying to shed the details of my everyday life, opening my mind. The idea is to surrender and let the labyrinth give whatever it will, to accept what comes forth.

I hear the sound of feet in nylons swishing on canvas. They sound like waves. I pass bandaged feet, toes with bunions, a woman with a metal crutch. I think of all the feet that have passed before me on this path and all those that will follow. I feel part of a pilgrimage.

Feet suddenly seem very vulnerable to me. They don’t get a day off. No vacations. I’m in awe of feet, my own seeming more precious. I promise to rest them more, give them footbaths, pamper them.

I keep watching for some sign that I’ve passed through Purgation and entered Illumination. Will death be like this? I wonder if I’ve left out the salmon I’m planning to have for dinner. Did I remember to tell my students the reading assignment for the next class?

Then I remember that Illumination is the time spent in the center of the labyrinth, quietly praying and receiving whatever wisdom is forthcoming. I’m anxious to get there now, wanting to see what will happen.

One of several musicians standing at the front of the cathedral lifts his oboe and plays. The music sounds like an animal’s voice probing the interior, an animal let loose in the city, rooting under the pews, sniffing at our feet. The sound is so intense it creates an ache in my chest.

I try to keep my mind on the walk and my breathing, but I think of how the sunshine filters through the stained glass and a shaft of light catches the edge of a pew as I pass. Is that Illumination?

I match the movement of my feet to my heartbeat, one foot, then the other. Why haven’t I ever noticed before that walking matches the heart’s rhythms?

The path is narrow. Someone wants to go by. No room to pass. I have to make myself skinny or step over into the next lane. We don’t look at one another’s faces. I focus on the person’s feet, legs, back. Most eyes are downcast, staring at the canvas. Purple boundaries that mark the path wind around and around.

For a moment I panic and think ‘What if I can’t get out. What if I get lost as I did once in the British Columbia wilderness.’ I almost bolt, but I calm myself. Focus on my breathing.

Remembering that a labyrinth is different from a maze quiets me. Mazes aren’t predictable. They can have many entrances and exits, trick corners, blind alleys, and dead ends. Riddles to be solved.

A labyrinth offers calm certainty—one well-defined path that leads us into the center and back out again. No tricks. No cul-de-sacs. No intersecting paths. The labyrinth directs you, guides you, leads. You follow. Knowing you’ll reach the center without having to think about it helps focus and quiet the mind, one purpose of using the structure.

Mazes sound more interesting. Less orderly and predictable. Like life.

I reach the center and sit on the floor with five strangers, trying not to let my voyeurism spoil the experience. But I can’t help glancing at one woman who is standing, balanced on one foot, a little like an egret. Maybe that’s the way to Illumination.

No big epiphany. I just feel pleased I’ve reached my goal, the kind of feeling I get when I’ve made a particularly steep climb and have finally reached the top.

Things I’ve read say that walking the labyrinth will help me return to some sort of center, assuming I have one or that I’ve lost it. Is this what enlightenment looks like? No lights? No great insight? The ordinary?

The center’s getting crowded now, and I rise slowly, controlling my impulse to rush out, eager to experience Union, the final stage, and reach home before the family does so I can start supper. I rework the path, preparing to reenter the world, taking the labyrinth with me.