29
Sunday
Apr
2012

The Weight of History

It was still light outside as festival-goers flocked in to “The Weight of History.” Five chairs were on the stage – one for each panellist, and one empty as PEN’s reminder of writers still struggling for freedom. Before the panel discussion and the question period, the authors each read from their latest works – and each chose a very different part of their novels to share. 

 

Ami McKay began at the very beginning of  The Virgin Cure , a richly evocative work. The heroine Moth introduces herself, gives the story of her magical naming and her father’s abandonment, and describes the world of New York tenements during the Civil War, where girls are inducted into the shadowy world of child prostitution because they have no other way to survive. “Those of us who managed to make any luck for

ourselves at all,” she says, “became” the bustling city of New York.

 

Vincent Lam took up  The Headmaster’s Wager, just as the life of his protagonist, Percival Chan, changes forever. Percival flees the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. He has the chance to take Cecilia, the bohemian young lady whom he adores, to Indochina (now Vietnam) with him. Lam struck a surprising note of mordant social comedy. Shocked schoolboys recount a massacre in the hospital where they have volunteered; their school’s only response is to cancel the annual dance. 

 

Peter Hobbs reading came from the very centre of  In the Orchard, the Swallows . Peter described this novella primarily as a love story – but in this segment, the beloved is absent. The narrator is recuperating from years of imprisonment, and he describes his re-awakening sense of freedom as he remembers what it is to take pleasure in the scent of roses. He has moved from prison to a temporary paradise.

 

Mark Medley's questions focused on the novels’ own histories and subtly teased out the authors’ positions on the relationship of history and fiction. The Virgin Cure emerged from McKay’s research into family history, and her admiration of her great-great-grandmother, who was one of the first female physicians and who worked in New York tenements like Moth’s. A female doctor befriends Moth; her voice makes a “sidebar” to The Virgin Cure’s narrative. McKay said that her work depends on the intersections of past and present. The Birth House focuses on midwifery and the politics of childbirth, a contentious area now as well as during the novel’s First World War-era setting. “Virgin cures” are still undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa to get rid of HIV/AIDS – just as they were for syphilis in nineteenth-century America. The past and present resonate together in her works.

 

Lam has always wanted to tell the story of the Chinese community in Vietnam in the mid-twentieth century. In all the excellent writing on the Vietnam War, their story was largely silent. At first he relied heavily on family journals, until his own writing voice demanded more freedom to be heard. Although Lam strongly felt that his novel is fiction that just happens to be set in the past (and not historical fiction per se), it was still important to him to show how the twentieth century was shaped by wars that affected non-combatants as much as soldiers. 

 

Hobbs described how In the Orchard surprised him by appearing in his head almost complete, while he was working on something quite different. In the Orchard does draw on his sojourn in Pakistan in the early 1990s, but Hobbs thinks of his next book as more of a historical novel. Although it is set in the near future and concerns the digitization of a library, it does more of the traditional work of a historical novel in unfolding an era to its readers.  All three novelists spoke of the need to be truthful to the era – to convey the feeling of real lives, even when their facts are beyond our power to recreate. 

 

During a lively question period, all three authors spoke generously of the editors whom they had worked with. In that spirit, I’d like to point out the work of the volunteers at the ticket desk, the bookstands, and the coffee-and-sandwich stall. Their kindness and their pleasure in the panel added immensely to the evening. The technical crew unobtrusively combated technical hitches – and then sprinted to ready the room for the next day’s events.

 

 

28
Saturday
Apr
2012

Jewish-Canadian Cultural Icons: the lives of Mordecai Richler and Celia Franca

The Empty Chair and it’s ensuing explanation by President of PEN and author Charles Foran began the night on a reflective note. The atmosphere soon became lighthearted and jovial as Charlotte Gray, a biographer herself, asked a variety of interesting and deeply thought provoking questions.

 

Carol Bishop-Gwyn, author of the compelling biography The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca, discussed how her biography may not have been published were Celia still alive,  describing Celia as “difficult” when the project was being worked on before her death in 2007. But both Carol and Charles Foran, author of  Mordecai: The Life and Times agree that their subjects had certainly wanted nothing more than to have their lives commemorated in some way. Both Franca and Richler left every note, letter, and scrap of detritus to the archives. Bishop-Gwyn emphasized that these personal letters and private diaries were how she discovered Franca’s voice in her writing, that connection that allows biographer to briefly understand their subject on a level that is not merely academic.

 

Gray raised and very interesting question about Franca and Richler feeling like outsiders as Jewish-Canadians; Franca facing anti-Semitism in Toronto decided to turn away from Judaism completely and certainly did feel like an outsider because of her “dark, sultry, Eastern atmosphere” said Bishop-Gwyn. Mordecai Richler however, as Foran tells it, internalized every aspect of the Torah and his faith and argued against it. However, Richler was an outsider in literature circles because he was “anti-everything”, said Foran. Foran goes on to say that Richler was one of many Diaspora writers in post-war North America working to bludgeon in their own mark. Foran describes them as “forcing themselves upon mainstream North America... they were the New World, and they were coming at you.”

 

Which is certainly something done successfully by Richler who has more than left his mark on Canadian literature. It is the humanity of the subject that shapes a biography. These surprises often fall into place when writing biography such as the 2,400 word letter that is at the heart of Foran’s book. He was only able to gain access when the restriction was lifted on it in the archives for a few days by Richler’s widow, Florence. This letter from Richler to his mother is one that ends their relationship and he makes it clear that they will never speak again. Foran describes it as “sorrowful, furious, indignant, regretful, unapologetic,” filled with a vast range of emotions but still eloquent and remarkably written.

 

Bishop-Gwyn’s moment of surprise and the thing which truly represents Franca's humanity was a short, pencil written, diary-like entry written around the time when she was being pushed out of the National Ballet, it becomes almost suicidal, Franca wondering what she will do now, commenting on how her husband does not love her. This woman who was the epitome of composure puts aside her mask for a moment and becomes a very vulnerable, scared woman. While these two moments in the biographies are very different from one another, they have similar impact: the reader and biographer are given a glimpse into the personal lives of a cultural icon.

 

As Foran said early on in the night, he does not say anything about being the authoritative source on the life of Mordecai Richler, but what he is trying to do, and what Bishop-Gwyn agrees she strives for as well, is the tactile experience of a life. Certainly the biographies achieve this experience, but the event itself gave one the sense that their subjects were manifest in the lives of the biographers, and this allowed them to portray with integrity who they were as they saw it.

28
Saturday
Apr
2012

Raise It!

With his head and hands planted delicately on the stage, legs dangling above him,  Ian Keteku  imagined aloud to his audience a world viewed differently: “I wonder if stars in the sky ever wish on a shooting human Or what butterflies get in their stomach when they are scared?”

 

Dubbed fittingly as “yogatry” - a combination of yoga and poetry - Keteku performed  Right Side Up , one of three original poems that the audience in attendance had the pleasure of absorbing from the spoken word artist at the auditorium of Knox Presbyterian Church.

This event was equally enlightening and light-hearted in showcasing a burgeoning artform and the acclaimed talents of Keteku, a local artist whose relentless passion in mashing together wit, words, and syncopated cadences have made him one of the most well respected orators in the genre.

 

Keteku acknowledged that although writing was not an outlet that had come natural to him, it was an outlet in which he had always gravitated towards to express himself, and a skill that he started to hone at an early age. As a child, his parents had assigned him to write essays summarizing what he watched on television(!). Later embracing the hip-hop scene and Emcee Battles where lyrical artists attempt to superimpose themselves against their opponents - an arena that Keteku described as “a lot of fun” - hip-hop provided a backdrop for Keteku to pursue slam poetry. It is a forum that greatly resonated with Keteku, and one in which he discovered a true passion.

 

A Slam is a competition for  spoken word  poetry. It is a platform, Keteku explained, that allows for “diverse voices” and a “spectrum of experiences” to be shared among people. It draws from a variety of influences in the performing arts and is generally edifying in its intent. Host  Kevin Matthews  added that what is also unique to Slam is the integral and intimate role that the audience plays in evaluating and judging the performers.

 

Matthews and Keteku discussed the many arenas of spoken word and the versatility of the medium in finding creative synergy with other formats such as dance, video, and social media. Keteku attributed the broad appeal of spoken word to the three dimensional experience of the audience in hearing, seeing, and feeling the emotion of the performer, which transcends all language, cultural, and demographic differences; it is the human connection.

 

In a culture where words have been diminished out of misuse and convenience, spoken word “brings back the power of words”, Keteku mused. Matthews also proposed that it is through the vocalization of ideas and human expression that new possibilities can be injected into this world. As a preface to performing his composition,  Pick Me , Keteku shared with the audience a conviction and desire to use the power of words in a meaningful way that would give a voice to those in the world who cannot freely speak words of their own.

 

Spoken word is an oral tradition that has been deeply woven throughout the history of human culture. Through Slam and a wide variety of media, spoken word has grown out of the perception that poetry is not and should not be merely an antiquated or exotic form of literature whose enjoyment is limited to small nibbles in the classroom. Rather it can be a vibrant and relevant form of art that can provoke critical commentary on social issues, and even arouse lamentations for old technological flames passed by, as Keteku demonstrated to the audience with  Laptop Love . 

 

As the event wrapped up, there was a sense of excitement rippling through the crowd, which ranged in age from grade six students to an audience member who was on the verge of turning eighty years old, as they left to digest the words and riveting performance of Keteku who provided inspiration for us to explore the creative possibilities of using the bits and rudders of our words to speak truth and value into this world and into each other’s lives.

 

28
Saturday
Apr
2012

Violence and its subjects: An conversation with Yejide Kelianko, Lauren B.Davis and Linden McIntyre

In the peaceful atmosphere of the Knox Presbyterian Church, conversations of violence are usually not for the faint of heart, nor a laughing matter. However, perhaps divine interventions played a role in gathering three of Canada's most gifted storytellers and an willing audience to partake in an intimate conversation about the acts of violence. The irony redolent is perhaps that the evening took place in the comfort of a church where the issue of violence could be talked about in a light but thoughtful manner. The three authors, Yejide Kilanko, Lauren B. Davis and Linden McIntyre each read a passage from their respective books which did not introduce us to the protagonists as individuals, but rather as human beings experiencing the consequences of being violated. It was not about who they were personally, but rather about how they can come to a place of understanding of these personal violations, and how they can become better individuals from it; ultimately stopping the cycle. The passages evoked the same emotions felt by individuals despite the differences.

 

"What do they (the protagonists) want and why do they want it?", inquired CBC anchor Adrian Harewood to the three storytellers about the protagonists of their respective books.  For Yejide Klianko, author of the Daughters Who Walk This Path , it is about acceptance and understanding. "She wants to know why she violated in that way", referring to her character Mayaro, dealing with the after-effects of being raped by a male relative to which she later added, "Sometimes the bad things that happen to us don't make sense".

 

For Lauren B.Davis' protagonist Albert Erskine, in her latest work Our Daily Bread , Erskine wants the protection to be good and noble. She explains, "Does he become the abusers like those before him or the protector of his brothers and sisters from the self-same abuse he himself went through?" For Effie Gillis, the protagonist of Linden  McIntyre's Why Men Lie , it is stable intimacy with integrity, along with companionship.

 

While acts of sexual abuse are obviously considered violence, seeing the betrayal of trust and damaged relationships as acts of violence through Effie's relationships with men is certainly an eye-opener. To see infidelity and mistrust between men and women's intimate relationships as an violent act opened new possibilities of defining violence. However, during the conversation, it became quite clear McIntyre's Effie and her own struggle with betrayal at the hands of men is not much different from the rape of Mayaro or the child abuse of Albert. "The consequences of violence," as McIntyre pointed out, "migrate in time and space." One prominent consequence of violence that is prevalent in the three books is the inter-generational cycle of silence. Kilianko emphasized the act of silence is inter-generational and that women reinforce this powerlessness in order to keep peace in the home.

 

The three books examined  the prevalence of male potency of power, to which Harewood asked, “Why are they (the men in the novels) so obsessed with power?” Ideas of power as control and driven by impulse were echoed in the sentiments of the authors in the stories of their protagonists, however it was Davis who pointed out that, in these acts of violence, “there is no true power (the power that takes place in the three books), rather that it is the misuse and misconception of power that makes it obsessive”.  Indeed, while there is a sense of power that is misconstrued and misused in the novels, the protagonists themselves seem to be on a quest themselves for some type of power-relationship. Their own longing for meaning, perhaps?

 

As we came towards the end of the conversation, the Q&A session dug deeper into why cycles of violence and silence become inter-generational. “Shame does not only belong to the victim, it also belongs to the family”, as Kilanko suggest, “If the silence continues, there is the belief that it will go away”.  These cycles of silence  present in these books, if not broken, become what Davis called the secrets that become the beast under the bed . There was no one particular highlight from the night because it was simply an educated conversation about human experiences with violence that was beneficial for all. However, I don’t know which was better, Lauren B. Davis admitting that she writes about the stuff that bug or obssess her or the fact that Linden McIntyre proclaimed that he always wanted to take a break from writing dull, boring journalism to write about "outrageous sex."

 

 Listening to this conversation, one realizes that there are no "permanent" solutions or answers to questions of power relations or why acts of violence occur. There is only understanding, which is the opposite of perplexity. No matter how much we may know, as Linden McIntrye pointed out, “we are always unprepared for the majority of our lives, there is always something we don’t know”.  We who gathered in the Knox Prebyterian Church on Thursday night learned a unfamiliar definition for the term violence through the presence of these three authors. The questions were asked and now it is our job to find those answers of understanding by digging deeper into the stories of these protagonists.

 

28
Saturday
Apr
2012

Inside the CBC Tower of Babble with Richard Stursberg

“Through the course of my happy six years there,” began Richard Stursberg, former head of English Services at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “I was variously described as bad man, a sociopath, a spineless rat, and, on a number of occasions, even recently - a sort of mass murderer.” His book, The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes Inside the CBC , is a memoir of his tumultuous six-year ride at the helm of “English Canada’s greatest cultural institution”.

 

Tonight, Stursberg at first glance certainly appears to be an  “amiable fellow”, to borrow the words of Rob Russo, the evening’s host and Ottawa bureau chief of the Canadian press.  He wears glasses and looks a bit like an uncle, if your uncle were the type to wear tailored suit pants with a sheen.  It’s a rainy evening at Knox Presbyterian Church on Elgin, and the audience laughs easily when Stursberg, in a funny, staccato voice, recounts a comparison between himself and his successor, Kirstine Stewart, “she may seem milder than Richard,” he recounts part of an article in Toronto Life Magazine, “but then Khrushchev looked better after Stalin.” Stursberg smiles, “I thought it was a little bit tough to be compared to one of the great mass murderers of the twentieth century for the sin of wanting to make television shows that Canadians might actually want to watch.”

 

Dictator-themed jabs aside, Stursberg is clearly proud of his time spent at the CBC.  Knowing what he knows now, would he take the job over again?  Absolutely.  Would he do anything differently?  Perhaps one thing. “Faster, further.” he says with reference to the changes made to Radio 2’s musical offerings.

 

Stursberg is direct and intense.  Even when friendly, his posture and inflection betray a fierce negotiator.  What’s more, he deflects criticism with humour, and, while entertaining, it’s a sure-fire way to raise the ire of people who don’t share his views.  It’s clear, however, that his fierceness is channelled in many ways.  Taken at his word, he is fiercely passionate about the CBC and its role as a public broadcaster.  When the question of the CBC’s mandate is broached, he is fiercely opinionated.  Direct approval from the Canadian public, he argues, is not only the ultimate litmus test of the public broadcaster’s success, but it was and is overwhelmingly good for business and for morale within the Corporation.

And so the debate opens.  Mandate and ratings.  Internal culture at the CBC and ‘the outside’.  Cultural distinction and popularity.  Are these pairings destined to be at odds?  Stursberg says simply no.

 

The ‘capital M Mandate” of the CBC that Stursberg recalls encountering in 2004 was in his view misguided, sporadic in its successes, and fundamentally disconnected from the public the Corporation was meant to serve. It had to be left on the cutting room floor. The Stursberg regime saw the introduction of a holy trinity of worthiness.  Programs had to be culturally relevant, distinctly our own, and, mostly importantly, consistently bring in ratings. “The root of the entire strategy,” he said, was to provide an as yet unprecedented “sustained push” in the development of quality Canadian television; a marriage of popularity and quality.

 

There was much resistance, there were “great flops”, but there were also resounding successes.  Unprecedented numbers of Canadians tuned into CBC television and radio, and are tuning in still.  Ask Stursberg and he’ll tell you that CBC is enjoying its golden age.  Radio and television are promoting one another, programs are not only popular, but they are smart and distinctly Canadian.  There is no compromise between numbers success and quality.  The two are mutually reinforcing.  On the April 22nd airing of Michael Enright’s The Sunday Edition, Stursberg defended television and his quest for a revision of the old CBC mandate, “We should respect television. We should admire it for what it is.  It’s an entertainment medium. This is the greatest popular medium that there is.”

 

So what’s next for the CBC? At the height of the success Stursberg describes, it has faced more budget cuts. A poor reward and a confusing message. Its future ought to be secured by a different funding system, he suggests. Out with arbitrary budgets and in with surveys of Canadians to define its role clearly and thus determine an appropriate allocation of funds.

As Stursberg’s talk comes to an end, he speaks with a warm intensity. He champions the CBC. "No organization does what the CBC does." "No one offers this quality of prime-time Canadian television, no one does CBC radio talk, no one offers CBC news coverage, no one provides such a varied portal to the arts, no one does Hockey Night in Canada." Like it's erstwhile executive, the CBC’s uniqueness is its armour. So long as the CBC’s content is unparalleled, there will always be a place for the public broadcaster.

 

 

24
Tuesday
Apr
2012

A(nother) Tale of Love and Darkness: The earnest, insistent satire of Sayed Kashua

“Something must be wrong about me if so many Jews like my work!” quipped Sayed Kashua, with a tinge of shy mischief, as he was in conversation with Kate Heartfield of the Ottawa Citizen. Kashua is the author of 3 well-received books, the latest of which, Second Person Singular, has recently been translated into English. He is also a screenwriter whose TV show Arab Labor   (transliterated as Avoda Aravit in Hebrew) the title being an appropriation of the disparaging term for “shoddy work” in the Israeli vernacular, is now in its third season since debuting in 2007. Its distinction is that it is the first sitcom in Israel to feature an Israeli-Arab/Palestinian citizen of Israel as the protagonist. And so it was with the first episode from the third season of this irreverently observed comedy of manners and station, the afternoon at the Mayfair began.

 

The ice being broken, Kashua took the stage to discuss aspects of being an artist who enjoys varied success as a columnist, screen-playwright and author in a nation with which his relationship could best be described as ambivalent. Embodying the voice of the minority has long been the calling of writers in the Jewish diaspora, whose ‘otherness’ often fuelled an incandescent emission of literary energy. From the haunting, lyrical visions of Bruno Schulz to today’s sardonic bite of Howard Jacobson, Jewish writers often communicated insight in the subtle, subversive manner which is the hallmark of all great writers; minority or otherwise. Kashua firmly placed himself within this tradition, whilst simultaneously pulling for a solitary grimness in the reality of the Palestinian minority. Writing primarily in Hebrew, which Kashua considers his first language, draws one to make the not-so-grasping parallel to Maimonides who wrote much of his work in Arabic with the Hebrew script. Attending on scholarship at the Arts and Science Academy and later the Hebrew University – both in Jerusalem, Kashua admitted the difficulty of being immersed in a world solely in Hebrew, yet the process opening literary doors to authors (many who happened to be Jewish) such as J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow and Franz Kafka.

 

Using the language of the majority inevitably lends on to charges of going native: receiving Jewish praise may result en revanche in Arab criticism. He blithely observes that Amjad, the protagonist in Arab Labor, doesn’t even have to be successful to invite criticism. This unenviable place is a lonely one. More so than ardently wishing to convey the world of one’s belonging, there is also the fearful self-doubt of the artist who must wonder if acclamation is the fruition of being great or merely being “exotic”. How else to explain something like V.S. Naipaul’s bold yet vulnerable boast that “...in 1954 he began to write, and since then has pursued no other profession.”? When Heartfield asked Kashua if he saw any parallels between himself and other “minority” writers such as Canada’s Mordecai Richler, he spoke of how much of his favourite writings have come from these very writers. Kashua has been called “the most Jewish of Israeli writers”, his response being that perhaps being the majority in Israel has left its Jewish populace bereft of its once indispensable gaiety.

 

It is rather remarkable that the ever-active cultural arm of the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa, would choose someone who doesn’t share the basic raison d’être of the state, as its ambassador. Kashua joked that a picture taken next to the embassy’s banner might “destroy one year of (goodwill) work” with the Palestinian population.

 

The theme of loneliness and jealousy run thick in the narrative of Second Person Singular: the title itself an accidental arrival at the theme of the angst Kashua wishes to convey. Despite his many successes and his relative youth (Kashua is 37), the borderlands he straddles will perhaps only self-inspire rather than offer clarity. However, in his portrayal of inter-ethnic interaction, there is hope that the erosion of prejudice is advancing; albeit slowly.

23
Monday
Apr
2012

Cairo Time

Ahdaf Soueif prefaces her talk with the admission that this not a book she took on voluntarily, and that she wrote it primarily because she had signed on 15 years ago to write a book on Cairo and had long since spent the advance payment. That said however, when Ahdaf Soueif begins to read from Cairo: My City, Our Revolution and answers questions, it is immediately clear that it is not only her guilty conscience that is put to rest but that her publishers too must be glad that she had not fulfilled her obligation earlier.

 

Having been on the ground during the 18 days which punctuated Egypt's momentous revolution, and having marched alongside the masses; Soueif manages to mingle her awareness of the event and all its intricacies with the poetic sensibility of her earlier works, allowing her to bring the reader right to the centre of Tahrir (Liberation) Square. Furthermore, and what is equally important, is that in spite of all her attention to the movement, Soueif is constantly aware that the revolution, not unlike any other major event, will soon be dropped from television screens and that the world would forget about it. “This book,” says Soueif as she reads from Cairo , “is not a record of an event that is over, but an attempt to welcome you in to, make you a part of, an event that we are still living (through).”


What was perhaps the most noteworthy point of the talk, although the Mayfair theatre resounded with several of those that evening, was that Soueif’s work does not treat the revolution as an end by itself, as a standalone phenomenon. Rather, as the title of her book reveals, the revolution is but the subscript to the bigger envisioned picture of Cairo. This is why she stresses the point that even though it was beautiful in the way it came to life and stood up from the ground - a beast powered by the will of the masses, the revolution was  in the long run however, a failure. In spite of its success in being an expression of the people unlike anything before it, “we had failed in the 18 days,” says Soueif, “failed to put forward a leader.”

 

But it is perhaps this admission that makes the reader realize that we are indeed dealing with “an event that we are still living (through).” Hence the author herself finds the writing of the book problematic on two levels. One is that while the 18 days of the revolution are locked in the past, the fight to keep its spirit alive continues. Soueif says that the other obstacle to the book is that although during the time of its writing the reader is absent and unknown to her, she wants that reader to connect the events in the book to the reality of Egypt at the time he/she is reading Cairo.

 

While the revolution may have fallen short of its ultimate prerogative, and though the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) - which initially helped oust Mobarak from power - has taken control and has stalled every possible move forward in this struggle for democracy, and many have lost their lives in this struggle, Soueif remains optimistic. On a personal note, it was inspiring to hear her say - in response to a particular question - that she saw no contradiction between an Islamic State and a democracy: a voice quite unlike the others which shrill the opposite. She mentioned that the Muslim Brotherhood has not only long provided social services to Egyptians but had also been the main opposition to Mobarak.

 

“On the ground,” says Soueif, “people are insisting on a new way of being, and if you witness this, you would have no choice but to be optimistic.” While at the end of the day, this is indeed a movement of and for Egyptians, Soueif remains hopeful that the world would read and acknowledge that, change has come to Egypt.

 

16
Monday
Apr
2012

Say Amen, Somebody

“Progressive, female, mainline church minister, non-theist”:  this is the unique combination of credentials Gretta Vosper brings to the pulpit and specifically, to the subject of prayer. The first pre-festival event kicked off at Southminster United Church with Vosper speaking on her newly released book Amen: What Prayer Can Mean In A World Beyond Belief .  Vosper gained prominence with the founding of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity in 2004 and later fanfare (or notoriety, depending on whom you ask) for her 2008 book With or Without God: Why The Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe. 

 

Vosper began by recounting how as a child, when told that she could say her prayers lying in bed rather than having to kneel with hands folded, she sensed that an indelible line had been traversed.  From there, the notion of prescribed constancy in forms of prayer devolved to a state of flux. Stemming from the premise in her first book, Vosper maintains that it is our actions alone that matter.  While she believes that the idea of an “interventionist” Deity is wishful thinking, or worse, the action of prayer with the human community as referent could still be relevant.  So long as we’re clear that a certain Who is not being addressed. 

 

Poised and graceful, Vosper is a latter day halfway-Meursault, whose courage goes far enough to castigate fellow liberal ministers for not being more forthcoming regarding their doubts about dogma and belief, yet not quite cast off institutionalised religion. In this matter, her candour is refreshing. While her pronouncement may ring heretical to orthodox ears, the clarity of her message – that we, not an external ”divinity,” are the sole source of goodness – leaves no room for second-guessing her position. Where ambiguity does emerge is in the task of extrapolating her views to where the progressive life she proclaims leads.  Beyond a set of admittedly admirable “values” in the human community, she is very candid that she does not know.

 

The view that we alone define and delineate compassion, beauty and truth appears freeing at the outset. But there is a Mr. Hyde which bespoils this Jekyllian balance: it implies that we are also solely responsible for the hate, ugliness and lies which wait to snare us on the other end of the spectrum. When Vosper stated that “we, as humans, are merely potential” there wasn’t a serious exploration of why someone would choose one direction or the other. Bearing the singular custodianship of the burden of redemption (however one legitimately defines it) is onerous indeed. The success of twelve-step programs in sustaining the fragile cord holding an addict from the dark, descending spiral seems to require us to admit the importance of dependency on a source beyond the human arena.  Vosper calmly stated that the church is not essential; it is only important to the extent that it performs some ‘good’ in the world, namely, creating a community where people can share their experience of life.  Otherwise, as her interviewer suggested, she is working for her institution’s obsolescence.  In many regards, this is a beneficial notion. A church where the congregation feels no connection to the proceedings of the service, or no purview larger than themselves, is a dead one. There was a sense, however, that the idea of the church as a distinct space was hastily dismissed. While many social media outlets bring people together to cause revolutions, or raise awareness and funds, they also foster a false sense of intimacy. Moreover, actions don’t emerge from a vacuum but from deeply held beliefs. Indeed, by Vosper’s own admission we cannot simply demolish belief; her task is to substitute tired, oppressive dogma for a “progressive” set of values which would enable us to live better.

 

Nothing must annoy a physician more than self-diagnosing patients who, having frantically searched WebMD, present the doctor with the medical verdict Q.E.D. This does not have to be a bad thing. After all, Vosper pointed out that recent times have greatly broadened the access laity have to information - both theological and secular. She also bemoaned the difficulty that clergy often face following their training:  bringing their congregations “up-to-date” from their “Sunday School thinking”. While one wants to accord theology and divinity studies the respect it deserves, this view couldn’t help but come off as condescending to laypersons. This amounts to a jarring paternalism, particularly pointed since Vosper, as a woman, espouses kinship with the marginalised “outside the circles of power”.

 

What Vosper does not do is denigrate prayer as play-acting or placebo – she affirms that it can have a positive effect and that we’d all be better off if we practiced it more, so long as we don’t harbour the notion that it has any effect on the “natural” course of life. She remains adamant in drawing the line in the belief in an interventionist God (or any god beyond the human community).  In the end, Vosper holds a brave, honest posture, but, to this reviewer, serves largely to precipitate the diminishment of the hope meant to be imbued. In Donne’s words, “A fancy, a chimera in our brain” will then neither trouble us in our prayer(s) nor move us to pray at all.

21
Monday
Nov
2011

Civilization and Its Contents – an evening with Niall Ferguson

The topicality of Niall Ferguson’s books possesses an uncanny - bordering on conspiratorial prescience - quality. As with Colossus and the war in Iraq and the Ascent Of Money following publication after the 2008 financial crisis, Civilization dances in concert with the events of the Euro Zone crisis in Athens and Rome as well as the increasing sense that ‘the West’ led by the United States is on a relative decline vis-à-vis Asia. Ferguson, whose is as able a public speaker as a weaver of grand narratives from seemingly disparate sources, made a teasing allusion to this very timing as he opened the post-festival session at a packed audience at Southminster United Church.

 

The very premise that Ferguson poses needs to be underscored: why is it that a group of countries on the western corner of the Eurasian landmass, come to dominate the ‘rest’ of the world in the past 500 years? The very telling of a grand narrative, especially clothed in the supposed derisive clothing and viewpoint of success tends to elicit a collective pooh-poohing from Western intelligentsia (interestingly, this self-denigration also seems to be a very ‘Western’ phenomenon. Many Indians, Arabs and Chinese often don’t feel an inkling of shyness in touting their respective civilizations contributions to the world). Ferguson’s approach is to first address why this supremacy occurred. Many vexed discussions have already taken place on instances of European colonization’s injurious effects. However, an analysis as to the evident ascent or the “great divergence”; which was not at all evident in the late fifteenth century, is of greater utility. As Ferguson explains in his preface

 

This is not a history of the West but a history of the world, in which Western dominance is the phenomenon to be explained...No serious writer would claim that the reign of Western Civilization was unblemished. Yet there are those who would insist that there was nothing whatever good about it. This position is absurd...We must also resist the temptation to romanticize history’s losers.

 

While many commentators have blithely (and obligatorily it seems) dismissed his use of the term “killer apps” as uncouth, it does appear on sustained reflection as a rather robust yet elastic analogy in that “apps” appear straightforward whilst simultaneously being a multi-factorial and complex code of software. Besides, while his teenage children may yet have to slough through his fairly demanding book, the accessibility of his oral presentation and TV program win the day with their clarity. These apps, responsible for the sudden paradigm shift, are competition, property rights, the rule of law, science, modern medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic.  

 

While the approach is different from Kenneth Clark’s classic Civilisation from the late 1960s (Ferguson’s first history book) with its fixation on art and architecture, Ferguson is more interested in the factors which directly led to the material prosperity of common citizens. Art and architecture after all are the visible expressions of a civilization, not its sinews.       

 

The app of internal competition is of note since Europe was far from monolithic the way the Chinese Ming dynasty or the successive medieval caliphates and the later Ottoman Empire were. The fragmented nature of different regional city-states meant that there was a great deal of localised autonomy of not only in government, but also amongst the active mercantile class. This meant that the search for greater access to desired goods à la “the spice race” spurred an intense innovation which was rooted in this internal competition. In contrast, the large centralizing authority in China for instance, was what cancelled the great naval captain Cheng He’s voyages after the death of Emperor Yongle. As Ferguson states

 

From 1500, anyone in China found building a ship with more than two masts were liable to the death penalty; in 1551 it became a crime to even go to sea in such a ship.

 

This scenario would be impossible in Europe where no reigning monarch, not even the Holy Roman Emperor could limit, let alone prohibit overseas exploration. In Shusaku Endo’s seminal novel ‘Silence’ set in 16th century Japan, the only ostensibly fictional Father Rodrigues - a Portuguese Jesuit priest writes, “The feudal lord (in Japan) has unlimited power over his people, much more than any king in a Christian country...the landowner has absolute power...and he can kill at will anyone he does not like and confiscate all his property.” (William Johnston translation from the Japanese).

 

The second aspect, if one uses the Endo quote as a launch-pad, is the primacy of the rule of law which guaranteed property rights which was not subject to arbitrary appropriation by anyone wielding power. Some of the more pointed criticism of Ferguson on property rights has been on the dishonouring of land treaty agreements in the Americas between European and Aboriginals. The discussion of property rights in the context of current Native Americans, the reserve system and the problems these communities face merit serious discussion, but it would need far more space that this column allows. The distinction of the economic success of the British influenced North America which extended property rights and the southern Spanish and Portuguese colonies which did not, is clear. Ferguson goes to great detail in this chapter of the book as to what could have happened had the properties colonized by the respective powers were reversed and his conclusion that it was indeed “widely distributed property rights and democracy” (which was embedded in the notion that owning property led to rise of representative government) of the British which proved superior to the “concentrated wealth and authoritarianism” of the Spanish and Portuguese. Indeed, Brazil’s current rise is tied to the reforms of property laws in that country.

 

It is also in this chapter where Ferguson dissects the impact of slavery in both societies. As host Adrian Harewood would open with this very question in his interview and discussion, Ferguson notes that slavery itself was not one of the 6 apps because while it did lead to a level of profit for the exploiters, it was not a novel phenomenon: many other societies practiced it without experiencing the “great divergence”. He would go on to say that it may have even be

 

Far from being indispensable to its success, slavery and segregation were handicaps to American development...

 

While it is a “great stain” on Western Civilization, it alone couldn’t account as distinguishing feature contributing to Western dominance.

 

The Scientific Revolution does owe a great debt to medieval Islamic empires which not only preserved classical Greek and Roman texts but also produced much original contribution. However, the advent of modern science was a Western European phenomenon. The advent of the printing press (which the Ottoman Empire banned for over two centuries) and the openness to texts and information buoyed the spread and rooting of knowledge. One of the key components of this advantage was the translation of this knowledge into military advantage. It seems almost certain that with the decline in the education of science and while the rest of the world’s progress is apace, it is far from certain how long this edge will endure.

 

The consumer society (while sounding pejorative) was and is essential in ensuring that the Industrial Revolution actually occurred. Without demand, especially starting with the mechanised production of textiles, the need for industrialization in other areas would likely not have occurred. A very vivid anecdote as presented by Ferguson was how the Soviet planned economy seemed incapable of producing blue jeans which many of its citizens wanted. Ferguson further extrapolates this point in stating that the backlash against Western clothes in places such as Turkey and post-revolutionary Iran as indicators of deeper loathing of the symbolism they embody (pun intended).

 

The final app of the work ethic has been one espoused by Max Weber in his study of the American Midwest where the now famous “Protestant work ethic”. While this is indeed tied to religious faith – where a modern day equivalent would be the numerous Chinese Christian entrepreneurs who’d prefer to deal with their coreligionists – Christianity and its Protestant variant alone is deems insufficient to fully account as a change, according to Ferguson. For Christianity was indeed present in Europe long before the 15th century, and yet much of it was the Dark Ages. Ferguson does admit that the decline of religion in Europe did coincide with the decline of working hours. In the United States, religious observance seems to continue unabated – perhaps a reason being that no one denomination was from the nation’s inception, monopolized; again bringing the app of competition into the religious marketplace. While Ferguson would later impishly pronounce that religion as a factor “is not that important”, he sounds as if he doesn’t fully mean it. While professing to be an atheist, Ferguson displays remarkable fluency in the practices and phenomenon of religiosity. This is a topical concern in China, where a growing Christian population leaves the Communist leadership unsure as to how it relates to their position of authority. Post-Maoist China requires an ethical framework, and religion does appear to lend it structure to fill this need quite ably. A follow-up question which is equally pertinent is whether economic liberalization leads to political liberalization as well. Family structures while important, do not seem to be a standalone factor as well since for every Cosby Show and Leave It To Beaver, there’s Sicily and Somalia.

 

Ultimately, it’s the rule of law which can’t be imitated or mimicked in a sustained manner without a commitment to ethics and liberty. This is the app which emerges as the ‘X factor’.  

 

While being accused by more than a few of imperialistic snobbery Ferguson in fact hardly what caricatures often make of him. His provision of bewildering detail from many angles is surprising not only as it evinces circumspection but in how he manages to not come across as convoluted but cogent. The latest controversy involves a spat with Pankaj Mishra whose essay in the London Review of Books casts a sweeping, caustic stroke. While sandwiching a review with quotations from F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby evinces literary sophistication, it does little in contributing to the conversation of the shifts that are taking place, especially as it seems to come from a worldview espousing any concession to ‘Western’ beneficence as heresy.   

 

It’s important to note that Ferguson’s narrative is not triumphalist. These apps are ideas which are surprisingly “open sourced”. Indeed, the first country to ‘download’ then en masse was Japan and even with the set-back of its defeat in WWII, it still overtook the UK’s overall GDP in 1964. The path blazed by Japan is now teeming with many others, notably India, China and Brazil with Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Chile and Russia all not too far behind. Ferguson does admit that this means that the overall dominance of the West after its run of 500 years is coming to a close. But it would seem a certain folly to delete the apps that made the West successful while others eagerly download it.  

 

Far from prophesying that the current trends as inexorable (“I am not proclaiming a Chinese century”) Ferguson’s work instead is a paean to the notion that nothing need be inevitable. That economic and civilizational emaciation can be reversed. That it is institutions bereft of corruption composed in promoting the aforementioned killer apps which are consequential. That historical literacy, along with a renewed vigour based not on false hope, but on what has worked before, and what continues to work, need to be embraced and practiced. If we try.

11
Friday
Nov
2011

Wade Davis' Into The Silence

On a bright sunny Sunday afternoon, the lower half of the Mayfair filled up for a post-writers festival talk by a festival favourite, Wade Davis. Davis has graced us with his presence many times before, the last time of which was a packed house in this very venue. That event was much better attended as I found myself sitting on the floor in the back of the theatre. Today there are plenty of empty seats, but the fact that there are people here at all is a testament to Davis’s popularity. Several audience members commented on the way in that if it was not for it being Wade Davis, they most certainly would not be giving up what is likely to be one of the last beautiful days left before winter.

 

The room is dark in order that we can see the beautiful archival images on the powerpoint better; however, the darkness of the room mixed with eloquently spoken stories gave it a sleepy atmosphere polar opposite to the world outside.

Davis talks of the subject the same way that he speaks of all his other subjects, with passion, well-researched statistics, but yet intensely human stories that pull you in and make you want to know more. The theme of Davis’s speech was the need to make the most of life, that life is about living more than about the quantity of time lived. He altered between talking about the men (boys) involved, how he came to find their stories, and reading straight from his book. The transitions, as usual for Davis, were seamless, one story flowing into another almost without pause, one theme or idea leading into another theme or idea that might seem unrelated had anyone else been telling them, the pace of the stories having a sense of adrenaline that you might get from trying to climb a mountain.

 

Davis painted the historical picture of the Great War, Mallory, and climbing Everest in detail, but he also delved into bigger ideas such as imperialism, war tactics, politics, and even mentioned the differential calculus used to calculate about Everest. He tells us the stories from their personal lives and manages to connect those to their public lives and their journeys. The stories he tells are fascinating, about the permission to climb beginning as an arms deal, about the need to walk 400 miles off the map just to get there, about the men who tried to sneak their way there earlier, about the boys while they were back at school experimenting in life and fornicating with each other. Each of the men has lived an incredible life, certainly experiencing things that many of us can only imagine.

 

“The price of life is death.” Quoted directly from the book, and I sense directly from one of the men involved. The story emerges from a time in history when death was common, a daily occurrence in multiple numbers. Davis finishes with these thoughts and his own into the mystery of whether or not Mallory made it to the top. While nobody (except Mallory) will ever know this definitively, I will leave it to the reader to find Davis’s take on the controversy. Ultimately it appears that Mallory and his pals had a life that made the price worthwhile. We should all strive to make our lives as such.