Peter Kreeft

The Exceedingly Strange Story Behind Writing An Ocean Full of Angels

from Dr. Peter Kreeft

An An Ocean Full of Angels.will probably “turn on” a very small audience, though I think it will “turn them on” deeply.  This essay is for an even smaller audience: that segment of the “turned-on” who are interested also in my sources and motives for writing this book, the roots and fertilizers as well as the plant.  I can’t imagine that interesting anyone but a very few, but here it is, anyway, like a private letter Xeroxed and sent to a few close friends.  For if this does interest you, then your mind must be so strange, like mine, that I count you my friend.  Friendships are often born when someone says, “What?  You like that too?  I thought I was the only one!”

1. When people hear that I wrote a “novel” and ask what it is about, I tell them (1) that it’s not a novel and (2) that it’s about an angel’s-eye view of the connections between Jesus Christ, Muhammad, dead Vikings, sassy Black feminists, Dutch Calvinist seminarians, very large Mother-substitutes, armless nature-mystics, Caribbean rubber dancers, the Wandering Jew, angels in disguise, three popes in one year, Cortez, Romeo and Juliet, the sea serpent, our Lady of Guadalupe, the demon Hurricano, islam in the art of body surfing, the universal fate wave theory, the Palestinian intifadah, the fatal beauty of the sea, dreams of Jungian archetypes, the dooms of the Boston Red Sox, the abortion wars, the Great Blizzard of ’78, the wisdom of the ‘handicapped,’ the ecumenical jihad, the psychology of suicide, and the end of the world.  But that’s an oversimplification.

2. Obviously, it’s messy—like the universe.  It’s got a thousand times more stuff in it than it needs to have.  If you don’t like that sort of thing, I guess you don’t like the human body, the planet, or the universe you’re living in.  My book has all those gargoyles in it because reality does; because Shakespeare is right when his Hamlet corrects Horatio’s skepticism of ghosts by telling him that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”   

That famous saying of Hamlet’s is the simplest way I know to define the difference between “post-modernism,” “modernism,” and "pre-modernism".  Pre-modernism, or traditionalism, agrees with Hamlet.   There are more things in objective reality than in our minds and dreams and sciences and philosophies.  Modernism, or rationalism, says there are not more things but the same number of things in those two places, in other words that we can know it all.  Post-modernism says there are fewer things in objective reality than in our minds; that most of our thoughts are only dreams, prejudices, illusions, or projections. 

I am neither a modernist nor a post-modernist but a pre-modernist.  That’s why I habitually feel like a little kid living in a big house full of endless surprises, nooks and crannies.  (I’m only 73 and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.)  I find the real world wonderful rather than ugly, fascinating rather than boring, mysterious rather than predictable, something that invites wonder, exploration, hope, fear, and innocence rather than cynicism, ironic distancing, and what the philosophers call a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion.’ 

There is a stone wall that I’ve walked past a thousand times.  So have thousands of other people.  Most of them are quite certain that they will never meet an angel coming through that wall.  I am not.  Either they or I are to be pitied.  Which is it?  If you think it’s not me, you might enjoy my book.

You might take C.S. Lewis’s sprawling novel THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH as a touchstone.  It contains mad scientists, incarnating planets, tame bears and mice,  a resurrected Merlin, the Tower of Babel come to an English university, a wise man from outer space, and an unholy alliance between sociologists, physicists, totalitarians, and Satanists.  If you hate that sort of thing, you’ll probably hate my book too, and also the purple prose of G.K. Chesterton, Dylan Thomas, and Mark Helprin.  (Do you hate purple sunsets too?)

3. OCEAN originated in something almost as far from it on the literary spectrum as infrared is from ultraviolet: an essay.  It was an essay on life after death, an argument between a Fundamentalist and a Modernist (both were wrong, by the way) about who goes to Heaven.  I made it more lively by putting it into dialog form, and then I further enlivened by adding a setting, namely a rocky coastline, and an event to trigger the discussion, namely a suicide.  Gradually, the story, the setting, and the characters conquered the abstract argumentation, so much so that the original essay or dialog disappeared (it’s in another book now) but the “additions” grew and became a story.
A story has five ingredients: character, plot, setting, theme, and style; and each of these five ingredients, in that order, should serve the previous ones.  It took a long time for the character of ‘Isa to emerge and dominate and for the theme to be planted and buried in the story.  I’m a philosopher, and most philosophers make lousy story tellers because they like to argue more than they like to live, and even find abstract arguments more interesting than concrete characters.  (I know that’s a serious mental disorder.  Descartes said there is no idea so insane that some philosopher has not seriously believed it.)  It’s still a “philosophical” story, and “wordy,” but the words now show the characters rather than the other way round.  That took many years to happen.

4. It took over 20 years to finish because it grew from its beginnings as a modest little dialog, but it also shrunk, after it had become verbally obese (over 1000 pages!). 
Its original form was islands of theme-driven essays in an ocean current of character-driven events, prioritizing the essays, like pearls on a string.  It contained little books written by some of the characters.  These were the independent “angels” in the “ocean.”

Obviously the essays interrupted, spoiled and demeaned the narrative.    So I ate them.  I cannibalized the book: I detached six of the essays from the book and published them as six other little books by themselves.  They became:

5.  Some writers of fiction write by formula.  Others say they have to just shut up and watch as the characters take over, like parents watching children grow up into surprising personalities whom they never foresaw.  This story was like that.  It took so much time to write because I had to wait for it to grow, like a plant.  It did not grow like a building.  You can rush a building; you cannot rush a plant.  That’s why there were fallow times and growth times: stretches of many months when nothing happened, and then suddenly a few days of crackling, fast-spreading mental fires.

My protagonist, ‘Isa, a Palestinian Muslim, was originally Juan, a Mexican Catholic.  Why the change?  I honestly don’t know.  I didn’t do it.  He just moved.  “Planning” this story was more like watching a movie than making a movie.
Maybe I did do it, unconsciously.  Maybe I did it because I knew, unconsciously, that my “Christian” themes would sound more convincing coming from a Muslim.  I don’t know. 

6.  I usually write a book in 6 months.  (One, Between Heaven and Hell, took 3 days to write and 3 to rewrite.)  This one took 20 years. 

I rarely do “research” for my nonfiction books: I use my memory (I have A.D.D., so I remember almost everything interesting that I ever read, and forget almost everything that was boring.)  But I must have bought 100 books, and read 50 more, just to do “research” for this one.

7. It’s not a bad novel because it’s not a novel.  It ignores the formulas for a novel.  It’s a fictional autobiography.  Everything, including the plot, flows from the character of ‘Isa.  Thus the first and last lines of the book: “My name is ‘Isa Ben Adam and I am a mystery.”  He still is, to me.

One change was abandoning the “omniscient” point of view for ‘Isa’s own first-person narrative.  That way I (and the reader) don’t look at ‘Isa as an object but we look out of his eyes and his head and his heart.  He is my subject.  He is “I,” not “he.”
In many ways he is myself—though I am neither a Muslim, nor young, nor as courageously obnoxious as he is.  I don’t envy Muslims, I do envy the young, and I don’t know whether or not to envy the “courageously obnoxious.” 

8. Most of the chapters were written as I was playing music to myself in my mind.  The music often suggested the events rather than vice versa.  My A.D.D. psychiatrist says this is significant, for music can connect the disconnected parts of the brain as nothing else can.  Perhaps, if the book goes into another edition,  I’ll add the musical references for each chapter in the book so that as they read it my readers can share my whole song, not just the words but also the music.   (There was a lot of Wagner, Sibelius, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Loreena McKennitt, and Billy Joel.)

9. Most of it was written before 9/11.  People ask how that changed its “take” on Muslims.  The answer is: hardly at all, except to make more urgent the distinction between the saintly and the bullying potentialities in Islam.  Few people who see either one, let themselves see the other. 

I am no “expert” on Islam, or even on Muslims.  I have personally met only a few dozen, and nearly all have been a lot like ‘Isa (though not as philosophical).  He is an idealized composite. 

For my take on the religion itself, and for more of ‘Isa, see Between Allah and Jesus.
As ‘Isa began turning into a Muslim in my writing, my father, who was an elder in the Dutch Reformed Church, became a kind of local lay missionary to Muslims.  He didn’t convert any, but he made friends with some—good, close friends, with deep mutual respect.  He kept a Koran at home, and was careful never to put it either under a Bible (that would be a blasphemy to Muslims) or on top of it (that would be a betrayal to him).

10. Where did my other characters come from?

11. The foundational plot of the book, which emerges only in the last few chapters, comes from my own book Ecumenical Jihad.

12. The setting is in a sense the real hero of the book, as it is in Dominic Lapierre’s City of Joy, Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, and even Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  The setting is Nahant, but even more, it is the sea itself.  This setting overflowed into the streets of its characters, plot, theme, and even style.  The thematic center of the original, too-long version of the book was Mara’s essay on the sea, the one she kept hidden in her little chest and showed only to ‘Isa.  You can’t read it in Ocean now, but you can in The Sea Within.  Like many people I know, I am fearfully and wonderfully in love with the sea (perhaps because both I and it are “fearfully and wonderfully made”).  The Sea Within explores the hidden roots of that mysterious love affair, deep as the sea itself.  

13. I laid my story in 1978 because mixing it with real history and real characters makes for realism and credibility, and because that key year saw six almost apocalyptically significant events:that fit perfectly into my plot and my theme, namely

14. If you’ve had the patience to read this far, I’ll now reward you with something spectacular: some “coincidences” so painfully obvious that Heaven seems to be losing its touch for concealment.

(a) My favorite place in the world is a stony beach at the foot of Bailey’s Hill in Nahant, Massachusetts, where I went many, many times (1) to get sane and quiet by watching waves make love to rocks and (2) to get inspiration for the book.  I never went there without getting some new idea for the book, and hardly ever did that anywhere else.  So that was the location I chose for my ship-shaped “House of Bread” on the beach.

I knew I wanted to write a story about supernatural things, about spiritual warfare, so I researched Nahant’s past history of ghosts, and was amazed to find that despite its storied past and its association with so many famous people, this tiniest town in Massachusetts was one of the very few that had absolutely no ghost stories in its past.  So I borrowed one from a childhood nightmare.  When I was about five, I was afraid to go into the large cement basement of our old, two-story tenement in Haledon, New Jersey because I thought there was a monstrous dead Viking in the earth behind the walls.  There was a scary-looking wooden door in the wall, with an iron handle.  When I asked my father what was behind it, he said “Nothing,” and interpreted that as “Nothingness,” helmet and horns, I imagined there was a dead Viking ghost there that would drag me down into the Underworld if I dared to open that door.

So for my story, I decided to supply Nahant with the ghost of a dead Viking.  But it had to be historically credible.  So I did considerable research about that, and found, to my amazement, not only that the Vikings may very well have come as far south as Massachusetts when they sailed south from Vinland in 1000 A.D., but that Cape Cod was a likely spot, based on the Viking astronomical observations as well as local climate and vegetation.  (A Harvard professor seriously argued that.)  More, if we take seriously the first-person narrative of their captain, Lief Erikson’s brother Thorwald, in “Lifes Saga,” the first encounter in history between the Old World (Indians) and the New (Vikings) may have taken place on the very beach I habitually visited for inspiration—and Thorwald, according to the Saga, was buried at that very place!  Had I been haunted or inspired by his ghost to come here and to write about him before I ever discovered that he was quite possibly really there?

What are the odds?

(b) Only a few weeks after that discovery, I was being hosted for one night in the house of a family in Phoenix, Arizona whose oldest son was about to start college in Boston at MIT.  We were talking casually about places, and I asked him what was his favorite place in the world.  He said, “A little place you probably never heard of, even though it’s near Boston.  It’s called Nahant.”  “Nahant!  That’s my favorite place too.  How do you know Nahant?”  “I stay there every summer.”  "Where?”  “At the house of a family friend, Madeline McClintock.”  “What street is it on?”  “Willow Road.”  “That’s the street I park on when I go to Bailey’s Hill.”  “You go to Bailey’s Hill?  So do I.  I love Bailey’s Hill.  I go there too.”  “Which house is it?”  “The yellow one with willows in the back yard.”  “That’s the one I parked in front of just last week!”

What are the odds of that?

But there’s more.  One of Madeline’s paintings, which you can see in the Nahant library, shows Bailey’s Hill with some Vikings in the background and also Kateri Tekawitha, the “lily of the Mohawks,” the first Native American canonized as a saint. 
Three people in my family have always been fascinated by Kateri, especially my son in law, in New York, who is part Indian himself, and named my second granddaughter Kateri.  The connection with Madeline is that her son’s miraculous healing from incurable deafness from birth was the miracle that got Kateri Tekawitha beatified by the Vatican. 

The odds increase.

Years later, I visited a Chicago priest’s rectory, and he had the largest collection of first class saints’ relics (body parts) I had ever seen.  I hesitatingly asked him, “You don’t have any extra relics, do you?  Do you have any duplicates?”  “Which saint are you interested in?”  “Kateri Tekawitha.”  “I thought so.”  “Why?  How did you know I was interested in her?  I never told anyone.”  “Because she’s the only saint, among 500 here, that I do have a duplicate of.  Would you like it?” 

The odds now top off at close to “impossible.”.

(c) At the top of Bailey’s Hill there is a burn spot, a 6x6 square of soot.  It looks and feels evil somehow, unlike the rest of the Hill.  Every time I passed it I wondered who made a fire atop Bailey’s Hill, and why.  I found out when I met a group of young Wiccans on the Hill.  They called Bailey’s Hill a “spiritual crossroads” or “spark spot.”  “It’s a dynamo, an energy center.  There’s been more supernatural activity here than anywhere else we’ve ever been.  And we’ve looked in thousands of places.”

More coincidence? 

I can’t prove it’s not, but if you think it is, I have a certain bridge over the East River that I would like to sell you.

15.  I put far more of my heart, my mind, my memory, my imagination, my research, and my time into writing this book than any other book I’ve ever written.  There are many big scraps of skin scraped off my soul and stuck on to this book.  It is either my best  or (quite possibly) my worst.  I offer it to you to decide, and to the winds of divine providence to blow its seeds where It will.  Even if the book is silly and worthless, its existence is justified if it deeply moves just one person and changes just one life—perhaps a Tasmanian sheep farmer finding it in an out of print second hand bookshop a hundred and fifty years from now.  Or perhaps you.