Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

Download and read insightful views
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.

17
Thursday
Nov
2011

Peter Behrens' The O'Briens

A friend of mine loathes most Canadian fiction, decrying the same tropes that seem to be recycled time and time again. In all likelihood, she would not enjoy The O’Briens, Peter Behrens follow-up to his 2006 prize-winner Law of Dreams. For those of us who do enjoy a finely-written historical doorstopper, recycled tropes be damned; The O’Briens fulfils the desire for an enjoyable if familiar read.

 

Spanning the length and breadth of the continent, The O’Briens centres on Joe O’Brien, a descendant of Fergus O’Brien from Law of Dreams, who pulls himself and his family out of the Pontiac lumber camps to establish himself as an early industrialist. His central purpose and defining characteristics are established early on, following the news of his father’s death in the far-off Boer War.

 

Joe understood that his father had left his power behind, and that he, as eldest son, had inherited it. He believed this without having to think about it. The power was nothing supernatural or even extraordinary; it was just a sense of his own inner strength. It gave him self-confidence and boldness. And he wouldn’t squander his power the way his father had; he would use it to protect them all (8).

 

This matter-of-fact realization directs much of the plot as Joe positions himself as a would-be patriarch. Not only does he decide his siblings’ futures, quickly dispatching them off to convents and college, he attempts the same unilateralism with the family he creates with his wife Iseult, who later observes

 

This is how he expressed his love for them: by organizing them into his plans and rhythms, his own needs (326).

 

Yet Joe is far from an ogre and the push-pull with his family delivers little actual conflict. Indeed, though he is portrayed as a man with a forceful personality, this reader never quite felt his power. If anything, the ambition that drove him out of the woods becomes quickly domesticated by his easy success. Therein rests one of the central weaknesses of the narrative; namely, Joe serves as the lynchpin for the wider story but his own character is so capable and loyal that any conflicts he does encounter results in minimal dramatic tension. Even his flaws seem hastily manufactured as if to counterbalance his otherwise golden ascent from the poor backwoods to the echelons of Montreal society.

 

Fortunately Behrens’ development of other characters in the text is more daring and consequently read as more interesting. Iseult, Joe’s realized vision of a “clean girl whose family wouldn’t let her have anything to do with a fellow from the clearings. Not until he had made something of himself, done something powerful” (39), is a fully realized woman of privilege who roughs it in the railroad camps with her new husband while Joe’s brother, Grattan, a directionless veteran and his long-suffering wife Elise also hold the reader’s attention. If anything, one wonders if the narrative would have been more compelling if it followed the younger brother rather than the elder. With the next generation of O’Briens, the story does lose some of its momentum. We anticipate what the Second World War will bring and how it will fragment or fuse the family together.

 

Such are the limitations of a novel that follow the familiar arc of the early and mid-20th century, a pattern well trod in the Canadian canon. In the end what saves The O’Briens is Behrens’ craft; he is an elegant writer who is able to balance the voices of multiple characters across decades. His pacing is strong and many of the images he creates are vivid. The O’Briens is a finely written novel that is epic in scope and comfortable in execution, recycled tropes or not.

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.

 

11
Friday
Nov
2011

Scottish Crime Night

Scottish Crime Night at the Ottawa International Writers Festival kicked off in style as the esteemed authors, Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, and Stuart Macbride, were piped in to the fittingly Scottish Knox Presbyterian Church.

 

A rainy October evening should have been the perfect backdrop to an evening of crime, examining the darker side to human existence, but inside the mood was jovial; lightened by the foreign Scottish accents and the delectable sense of humour shared by all three of the evening’s authors. Host Alan Neal did a remarkable job of connecting the three stories together, often pulling a quote from one of the books to ask a question of all three. Responses from the writers were intelligent, thoughtful, and often quite funny, keeping the packed house laughing through a rather lengthy discussion that journeyed through the author’s books to the current financial situation to the tendency of the world to constantly find new threats to fear. By the end of the evening, I had determined that I needed to read the books myself.

 

The books ended up being harder to acquire than I had hoped they would, but it was a worthwhile experience to do so.

Denise Mina’s The End of Wasp Season wove together the stories of many people, from the boy who committed the murder to the leading detective on the case - Alex Morrow, to an old friend of Alex’s who ended up being quite close to the victim. The layers upon layers of sub-plot going on around the main case enriched the story and added an extra layer of depth to the characters. It is this depth of character that makes the reader want to keep reading, to find out what happens to each of them. Mina commented that crime writing is a great way to play out the continuous struggles between our demons and our better natures. This is precisely what she has done, and remarkably well, in her book. (See http://www.denisemina.co.uk/contents/books/endofthewasp.htm for more plot details or to read the first chapter for free.)

 

Stuart MacBride also plays out this struggle in Shatter the Bones, but in a very different way. MacBride writes a much more suspenseful and action packed double-mystery with two simultaneous investigations being handled by his Grampian Police Force. First there is the abduction of two of Scotland’s most famous musicians, contestants on Britain’s Next Big Star; second, there is a drug raid and the drug underworld. The story takes a turn for the personal, affecting the home life of the leading detective on the case. MacBride’s novel was the most Scottish in language of the three, but that certainly did not detract from the twisted and ever-evolving plot. It is MacBride’s ability to twist the plot around that is his greatest gift as a writer. Shatter the Bones is the seventh book in the series, but I had no difficulty picking it up and reading it without knowledge of the others. (See http://www.stuartmacbride.com/books.php for more details about this book or others by Stuart MacBride.)

 

Ian Rankin’s The Impossible Dead is also based on a returning character, but again it was quite easy to pick up and jump right in. Rankin’s central characters here are members of Complaints, the police officers who investigate the impropriety of other officers, the ultimate way of playing out the conflict between the inner demons and better natures of human beings. In this case, a standard investigation takes a turn to the past, to a case that was never properly investigated in the first place. The book twists and turns jumping back and forth between past and present. What is remarkable about Rankin’s book is the smooth and natural way in which he manages to weave the many cases together. (See http://www.ianrankin.net/pages/content/index.asp?PageID=175 for more details about the book.)

 

What strikes me about all three novels are the detectives. Alex Morrow, Logan McRae, and Malcolm Fox are all excellent police officers, dedicated to their jobs, working tirelessly and often without the requisite breaks - risking their lives even - in order to bring justice and solve their cases. Each displays valour, intelligence, quick wits, bravery, and determination, having successful careers and moving up the ranks. Each does an excellent job of solving the case. Yet at the same time, each makes moves that are not standard procedure, that could cost them the case. Each displays a degree of malice, occasionally making a move that is selfish, underhanded, or that may seem shady in one way or another. Despite these human flaws, each character is easy to like, which is probably why they have maintained their staying power with the authors and readers. If part of the joy and beauty of crime fiction is to play out the inner conflict between each person’s darker side and desire to do the right thing and be a hero, these three authors are artists, displaying a remarkable talent for just that.

 

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the financial aspect to these crime novels. Alan Neal, in his interview with the authors, points out that each contains an element of the financial world, and asked how the global “economic crisis” has an influence on their writing. For Denise Mina, one of the dead is a major financial player who was part of the problem of the collapse. It is interesting that this character also had two families and a mistress and was smuggling money around. In MacBride’s book, the financial world comes out in the current need for celebrity status, pulling in the new reality show culture. For Fox, his criminal is a very successful businessman, high up in financial circles. Rankin goes so far as to point out that the attributes needed to be successful in business are the same as those needed to succeed in criminal enterprise: “I saw something on the internet during a trawl: the qualities you need to succeed in business are the same ones cold-blooded killers have. No empathy, no emotion … whatever it takes to get the result you want” (pg 353). In the discussion with the authors, they talked about how crime writing often gives people a way to deal with their fears in the world in a safe way. With the current economic situation, what many people fear is for their jobs and having enough money. In these novels, high finance and cold-blooded criminals are linked and people can subconsciously process their fears for both at the same time.

Regardless of whether the authors intended to play out people’s inner natures and help others to process their fears or not, all three of these Scottish authors have written interesting, suspenseful crime novels that keep the reader engaged to the very end.

 

2
Wednesday
Nov
2011

David Gilmour's The Perfect Order of Things

 

Although the vignettes and opinions in this thinly-veiled autobiography appear somewhat randomly, they are united by Gilmour’s unrelenting candour.  This is a book that will not let a title as exacting and vague as The Perfect Order of Things go unchallenged.  At one point, the words are placed as the last thought of a man about to meet his self-inflicted end, as the pool of blood spreads around him.  On the cover, water streams out from a set of drawers, defying their neat catalogue.  What follows is a bold look at life’s disorder. 

 

The collection begins with the laudable goal of the narrator travelling back to every moment of his life (and he and Gilmour are often hardly distinguishable) where he had previously suffered.  This is a venture to see what had been missed, what his self-enclosed misery had blinded him to, an attempt to pass through the pain of events to gain some measure of wisdom and even empathy.  This has an element of bravery in a hedonist culture that too often settles for cliché with reference to greater meaning, or the lack of it.

 

In revisiting these sites of pain, the narrator is incisive about the vacillation between insecurity and ego, which he sees writ large in celebrity culture.  Whether shadowing his (then) spouse at TIFF or relating his experience in arts journalism (“disguised boosterism”), his candour unsettles any sense that these people have “arrived.”  Gilmour is particularly good at naming the nagging sense of being constantly kept out from the “inner ring,” as well as the emptiness one can encounter when closest to it.  The book is perceptive at challenging preconceptions and desires many of us never question, accomplishing this with its sense of humour largely intact. 

 

There are also moments of genuine pathos how the fault lines in human experience are named.  This is seen from the way Gilmour describes the physical triggers in a site of past failure through to his recurring sense of “that odd mixture of euphoria and sadness, of being terribly close to but still on the outside of something terribly, terribly important.”  The book’s most harrowing encounters come in the deeply tragic life of his father, or the absurd and violent sequence where an old friend comes apart at the seams.  Any surface testimony to perfect order, to things always working out for the best, is rightly and rigorously dismantled.  

 

Mingled in with the book’s candour, however, there are some significant blind spots.  The narrator’s ironic tone implies that he often seems to be accounting for such naïveté in not acknowledging it, but there are instances his brashness suggests he doesn’t know any better.  For example, an entire episode is dedicated to the experience of a bad series of reviews in the Globe and Mail, where a reviewer had the gall to write that “he’s just not that good.”  Leaving aside the tactlessness in a writer recounting such a tale in the first place, it is instructive to observe his reaction.  Rather than, say, having another look at his writing to see what might be done better, he goes to the editor and suggests that the reviewer is upset at him for, yes, high school sexual envy.  The rest of the chapter is then devoted to his quest to seek out the reviewer in order to hit him.  After having disavowed violence earlier in self-congratulating tones, he nevertheless carries out his plans and feels not a twinge of regret for his role in the reviewer’s comeuppance.  While I certainly wouldn’t want to call reviewers impeccable, I can’t help but wonder what opportunity for self-improvement was missed here.

 

Speaking of sex, it is the most significant cause of the narrator’s suffering in the book.  At the exchange with the Globe editor, when asked about the quest to “get enough girls,” he replied, “does one ever?”  It could serve as a tagline for the book.  At times Gilmour is perceptive about the pain he causes women, but too often his sights are set on the way they have hurt him.  Still, his appetite for them remains exuberantly strong.

 

Along with the company of women, the other circle Gilmour’s narrator seeks is that of the great artists and writers.  This sometimes helps the story, such as when he cites Montaigne’s apt description of friendship.  Too often, though, the references distract from the narrative, becoming extended reviews or opinions in their own right.  In “My Life With Tolstoy,” for instance, his opinion on which lesser-known work requires more attention doesn’t coincide with much.  The opinions and background are sometimes interesting in their own right, but here, as elsewhere, the author needs to decide what sort of book this is.

 

While it’s right and good for Gilmour to seek to frame his experience with reference to our better writers, this should be deployed in subtler allusions.  What’s more, his citations of others sometimes releases Gilmour from having to articulate this experience himself.  This lack of effort can be seen in a description of “short bald men who looked like Picasso” walking by.  Perhaps he should be more ambitious, and yet ambition is clearly not in short supply elsewhere in these references.  In one bizarre drug-fuelled journey, he is not sheepish about adding a touch of grandeur: “How Tolstoyan it all seemed, in fact!”  Elsewhere, it’s not Proust but Marcel et moi.  His winsome shyness about meeting Robert De Niro at the film festival ought to extend to these other greats, I’d suggest.  Still, his references to such famous figures are so evidently those of a fan that it’s hard to fault him for posturing.  Moreover, that unabashed tone has its infectious quality.

 

Back, though, to talk of order.  The book makes regular reference to God, that once presumed giver of order.  On matters divine, here’s the early reflection that sets the posture for the others:

 

All my life I had had the suspicion that I was a bad boy and that I was going to be punished for it, that one day a kind of giant fly swatter was going to come down on me with a terrible whap.  And now here I was, being truly bad, midway across the bridge, a rule breaker of the first order, a middle finger extended to law and order and … and nothing.  There was no fly swatter.  No God, no hell, no punishment.  Nobody even paying attention, much less punishing.

 

This furtive experience endows the narrator with what he calls the “rule breaker’s freedom for life.”  Little does he expect that such freedom could be its own judgment, but after several relational fallouts one begins to wonder.  One particularly hurtful one left him feeling as though God was giving him a “kick in the groin.”  “It seemed to me that there couldn’t be a God,” he reflects nevertheless, “that no one could be so spiteful as to have my Molly leave me for—of all the humans on earth—a man who sat a few desks away.”  Leaving aside the jejune quality of this theology, an old Hebrew proverb comes to mind: “a man rages against God, but by his own folly is he destroyed.”  Folly is exactly what Gilmour’s narrator is not afraid to name elsewhere, so why not here? 

 

As the imperfections mount, the candour becomes more penetrating.  “The ugliness was in me,” the narrator reflects at one point, and I appreciate this continued willingness to see his own faults.  It’s also out there, which is evident in his description of an island resort as “Paradise disfigured.”  In the face of this, the book’s final chapter includes a statement of his love for his son, which brings with it his appreciation at the beauty of the world.  Unfortunately, God is treated to something of a double standard here: blamed when suffering occurs, but not blamed for the moments of beauty or genuine human encounter.  Where does the love between father and son come from, though?  Given all the suffering, what preserved this particular observer through it all for the book’s last happy encounters?  I can’t help but feel that some underlying order, even love, must have been missed along the way. 

 

2
Wednesday
Nov
2011

“Jacob wrestled the angel and the angel was overcome”

Talking about Israel is perennially topical, and on the packed Sunday afternoon there was palpable expectation about David Berlin and Hirsh Goodman delivering their talk based on their respective books.

 

Unlike the poetry world where poets seem mainly to write for each other, writers seem to not appreciate each other’s work. Or at least this was the point bemoaned by Berlin as he took the stage first. He mused aloud that it would be an interesting proposal to have authors having to present one of their contemporaries’ work as if they themselves had written it. David Berlin has an impressive CV with being editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada and founding editor of The Walrus being a couple among several other accomplishments. He started by directly extricating a quotation from Goodman, which is essentially that the question of “Will Israel survive?” infuriated Goodman as the premise on which his potential book was to be predicated on.

 

Berlin’s contention is that writing about the Middle-East would always be a slippery eel of a task since being in a state of flux is indicative of normalcy. This is apparent more so with this year’s regime collapses in Arab North Africa. While Berlin’s point is valid, it is only a half-truth since there are certain characteristics (e.g. the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict) which endure. And for these things that do endure, and for the histories which are tangible, explanations do serve a vital role. Berlin’s book The Moral Lives of Israelis is more of a memoir, filled with varying anecdotes and pointed opinions that any sort of prescription or analysis proper on the State of Israel. This came out clearly in Berlin’s presentation; when juxtaposed with Goodman, Berlin’s personalised pronouncements dragged, seemed jumbled and out of focus. That is not to say that aspects of his presentation do not possess merit.

 

Berlin’s explanation of how his book came to be is a humbling lesson of listening to editorial advice and willing to let go one’s own voice with respect to the narrator were enlightening. With prodding from his publisher, he allowed the narrator (himself in this case) to get more removed from the text to allow the stories themselves to stand out by itself. In the story which featured in his reading for the afternoon, Berlin’s main concern in questioning an Israeli major centred not as much on human rights violations, alleged or real, but on the training which each Israeli soldier received before being deployed to volatile zones. Berlin, being a sabra and a former member of an Israeli reconnaissance unit (the self-same which Ariel Sharon was a part of) recalled his own experience in the past as an Israeli soldier as being different in that were treated better by their superiors. His main concern was that the original vision of Zionism or a Jewish state by Herzl did not have in its core victimhood as its animating factor, but rather a state where “Jews doing it right” or being the biblical “light unto the nations” was at both its heart and reality. He feared that this ideal was getting dimmer. He outlined an incident at checkpoints in the West Bank, where the diplomatic passports of the Canadian delegation he was a part of were temporarily confiscated, almost causing an incident. His ending of the talk seemed abrupt, with his father’s death, and if sardonic, then failing at providing levity.

 

As Goodman strode on to the stage, he immediately addressed the incident of the Israeli checkpoint by saying that even Canadian checkpoints in Afghanistan (or checkpoints anywhere) which are susceptible to violent incursions are fraught with tension and mistakes. His rejoinder then illustrated the fact that it is mainly Israeli NGOs which publicize aberration and mistreatment at the checkpoints.

 

Goodman’s recently published book is The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival. In what sounded like an extraordinary statement (and perhaps an overreach) Goodman said that he believed the threat from a nuclear Iran is good for Israel since it “concentrates the mind” but that the heavy catastrophic consequences that would result from an Iranian should be taken seriously. While this may be true, as Berlin would criticize later, using a sense of alarm to promote unity could lead squashing disagreements all on the premise of security. Still, this seems a better attitude than passive panic. With respect to the Arab Spring, Goodman felt that Arab citizens of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and now Syria were dealing with themselves, rather than using Israel as a scapegoat, and that this being a step forward.

 

Goodman was also bracingly honest about a couple of issues that perennially linger but is often difficult to give a straight answer which doesn’t offend. The one-state solution, was out – since it would mean the destruction of a Jewish state due to the demographics that a right of return would entail. This is often a point which is difficult for Canadians to have sympathy for since an open multicultural milieu is something we value and live out. But an analogy with Québec and it self-identity as a nation is better as it shows that far from being exclusionary, Québec welcomes anyone who accepts the reality of its language and cultural identity. Similarly, Israel hosts 1.2 million non-Jews who are mainly Arab Muslims and Christians and even the Jewish population of Israel is diverse. He also noted that with respect to the settlements, it was hard enough to remove the 16,000 in Gaza and it would be near impossible to remove the 300,000 or so now in the West Bank. He cited that over 60% or the Israeli army is drawn from the young people with links to the settlements and commanding their extraction would lead to civil war in Israel. His solution is land swaps based on density (although the question of contiguous borders remained unanswered). This would inevitably mean that there will be some “hard-core” settlements deep inside the West Bank – since they are a small minority, Goodman sees no problem with them being citizens of an independent Palestine. (Well, maybe he should check with the Palestinian Authority first.) Goodman’s chief concern was that there were many who did not want to see peace between the two sides but this shouldn’t stop Israel from dealing with the current PA administration and using a 10 year hudna or ceasefire with the ideologically unrelenting Hamas. While the settlements may have originated from a time in the 1960s when the “Western Front” posed threats from both Iraq and Jordan, the corrosive effects that occupation brings were acknowledged by both speakers. Another point of agreement was the rejection of the term “apartheid” to describe Israel as being ignorant, flawed and slanderous.

 

Berlin’s point about preserving the secular nature of Israel, pointing to the presence of a mezuzah at a government official’s drew a rebuke from Goodman that one shouldn’t feel threatened by it since it was present since time immemorial and was rather innocuous. However, Berlin’s insistence that having it at an official, public location (again a comparison with Québec and the crucifix in its legislature comes to mind) is different than having it displayed outside someone’s home is valid. Although this squabble may be small fires next to the incredible growth of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel posing a far greater problem in terms of internal strife.

 

While the Arab Spring and the recent Occupy movements have commanded a large portion of media coverage, two other protests in India and in Israel against corruption and for social justice have had a deep political impact. Goodman felt that this new generation of up to a million, marching in the largest demonstrations in Israel’s history, would indeed make strides towards the dream which Berlin alluded to; based on achievement and compassion than victimhood and occupation. There is still a long road of reconciliation and compromise by both sides but being a hopeful realist isn’t a bad place to start.    

29
Saturday
Oct
2011

The Poetics of Heartmaking where Obsolescence Is Only the Beginning

By the time the evening ended, it was as if I were transported to my favourite museum in the world: Seattle’s Frank Gehry-designed Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum. Who else but McLuhan could inspire an evening of electronic mysticism and an elegant musical composition? I became more familiar with who McLuhan was, like many others I suspect, through his famous cameo in Annie Hall. Even more recently, Douglas Coupland’s biography of the man (how very apt!) as part of the Extraordinary Canadians series by Penguin was the only one (to my knowledge) which has been re-published in the U.S. under the title of the stinging rebuke delivered in Woody Allen’s movie, ‘You Know Nothing Of My Work!

 

2011 denotes the centenary of McLuhan’s birth and as such there have been events around the world to commemorate his unique legacy. We were very fortunate to have B.W. Powe, one of the fabled six students to whom McLuhan taught his last class, to expand and expound the vast implications and ramifications of McLuhan’s often obscure writings. It was great to have the Writer’s Fest play host to the centenary here in Ottawa as it’s frequently unfortunate that Canadians often are the last to acknowledge and celebrate greatness from their own. As Powe would later admit, it took the University of Toronto until this year to give a proper recognition for McLuhan as part of the legendary ‘Toronto School’ of thinkers, which included Northrop Frye, Harold Innis and Glenn Gould; people who remain indispensable to understanding contemporary media culture. It was only the emergence of the Internet and digital technology which revivified him to prominence and vindicated his early supporters.

 

There were many contemporaries of McLuhan who viewed him with suspicion and in some cases, outright hostility. His work is often littered with prose so delicate and dense that it mirrors the great Jewish sage Maimonides for being esoteric and demanding to parse. Indeed one can think of those like Powe, as faithful commentators akin to the Talmudic tradition. Even Douglas Coupland “found the material so difficult that every two to three pages, he had to take a break from reading.” One way the general and interested reader may dare to scale the walls may be through his many interviews, which consist many of his elaborate ideas succinctly captured.

 

Powe, who said the he found the Writer’s Fest in Ottawa to be a spark for many of his subsequent writing, seemed clearly poised to preach to a receptive audience. I honestly expected an brief summary of McLuhan’s life and influence, some music then mingling before heading home unscathed as I saw the program with Karsh's (who seems incapable of taking a bad picture) portrait of McLuhan stare back at me. What followed was a soaring incursion into the mystical elements of today’s technological advances when one follows McLuhan’s trails. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin stated that we “are spiritual beings having a human experience” rather than vice versa. De Chardin’s work would act in juxtaposition to McLuhan’s own work in many ways since de Chardin was also regarded as controversial with many of his work being denied publication by the Roman Catholic Church at that time (the church has since been very receptive to his work with Pope Benedict XVI praising some his ideas).

 

When McLuhan was asked to describe the 21st Century in only one word, his response was “apocalypse”. While that may conjure up images of annihilation and Armageddon, McLuhan’s derivation finds its etymology in D.H. Lawrence’s aphorism that it is a “new kind of consciousness”. In the mechanical age, technology was seen very much as an extension of the body (notice how the 70s and 80s featured impressive machines and robots à la Star Trek, The Jetsons and Robocop albeit without any inkling of digital prowess) but the advent of the digital and electronic age has ushered in the notion and reality that technology could be an extension of our mind and even our soul. The impact of digital technology has essentially rewired our brains and has brought us closer to each other (in theory at least) so that being part of a “global village” or “global theatre” (a later perhaps more accurate McLuhan terminology according to Powe) means that there is an immediate response to events happening around the world. Much of it is the cause of optimism and the foreboding of a new age of interdependence and openness. Witness the crumbling of dictatorships in the Arab world or that fact that China is ever uneasy with its increasingly bold citizenry or the instantaneous generosity of donations to disasters around the world.

 

McLuhan was in many aspects a very traditional man; a staunch Catholic who didn’t necessarily have a fondness for what he saw changing around him. As Coupland would propose in his biography, religion seems to be a great “spot to park his (McLuhan’s) overpowering need for a viewpoint that could explain, or perhaps heal, the stress and disjointedness he saw in the world.” Yet, McLuhan had an uncanny and admirably quality of not casting judgement on his own pronouncements (the anti-Chomsky if you will) – in one instance, Powe demanded to know whether one of McLuhan’s observation was a good or a bad thing; McLuhan refused to comment on grounds that it was much bigger than could be fully grasped.

 

De Chardin really was after what he termed “the global heart of consciousness”. Powe posited that we may be in that era of opening where the gates (much as a Kabbalah tradition holds) of the garden would once again be open. But it may be hard to see or fathom that due to “our cracked natures” (hello Leonard Cohen!) Powe termed this new age “Neuroromanticism”. While, admittedly, Powe’s views extend deeper than can be captured in an article of this length, part of me remained sceptical regarding aspects of de Chardin and Powe’s bewitching ideas. I couldn’t help, mysticism aside, and recall the many negative downsides that technology in this new age has wrought: with the decline of learning and inter-personal relationships being a couple of key arenas.

 

But I do appreciate the positive outlook of McLuhan who in the spirit of the Christian hope, believed that things would work out well and that one could in imitation of G.K. Chesterton’s exhortation be a “practical mystic” whose “religion is less of a theory and more of a love affair.” Powe graciously ended his lecture by stating that “all of this makes sense, even if I don’t.”

 

The talk was followed by a special fifteen minute concerto composition based on some of McLuhan’s quotes by the über-talented Ottawan Mike Dubue (on Vibraphone and Synth) and Paul Hogan (electric guitar) of Hilotrons fame, featuring the entrancing Octavie Dostaler-Lalonde from Montréal on cello.

 

No, I did not go home unscathed. Just as well.

 

29
Saturday
Oct
2011

Dionne Brand's Ossuaries

 

I first picked up Ossuaries late at night after getting my 7 month old to sleep, in that semi-conscious state that all young parents understand brought on from extended sleep deprivation.  It’s a state where you are easily taken to fits of wonder and confusion, your emotions manipulated with no effort.  I read the first part and had the same feeling I had after watching Donny Darko – “I don’t really know what just happened, but that was cool!”  I found much of my reading of Ossuaries, the latest book of poetry by Dionne Brand, to have a similar effect. 

 

I don’t have much experience with poetry.  It’s something that I’ve been exploring over the last several years, but this is not an art form that is simple to connect with.  It was my graduating ceremony from university that struck my curiosity.  The Kipling ceremony (the graduating ceremony for Engineering Students in Canada, based on the work of Rudyard Kipling) gave me a sense of the weight that words can have.  Brand has incredible skill in choosing her words for their power.  She arranges words like a painter arranges light and dark in an image.  Here are specular highlights next to shadows and darkness, giving the two dimensional image an appearance of three, tricking the mind of the reader or perhaps just manipulating for the purpose of affect on the reader:

 

nearsighted she needs her glasses yes, to summarize

the world, without them she’s defenceless,

that’s why they’re always at the precipice of the bed

 

Ossuaries is a long form poem exploring our consumptive nature as humans.  For the most part it’s spinning around a narrative about Yasmine, a young woman who escapes one ossuary (an abusive marriage) for one she creates for herself.  I found it easy to fall into the narrative when it was being told, but would find myself lost when Brand wasn’t speaking about Yasmine.  With my first few readings I felt like I would be reading along and then fall right off the page.  I expect that this is more a result of my inexperience with work of this depth, but it does give me pause when considering if I would recommend this to someone else. 

 

I found the imagery used in this poem incredibly powerful.  Yasmine is consumed by her husband: “You’re nothing, Yas; I made you something by fucking you; other than that you’re nothing”, which she escapes only to become the consumer herself.  She robs a bank and kills a security guard in the process, and then flees for safety.  She ends her running by taking a job, at the heart of our consumption as a society, on the killing floor of a meat packing plant.  In the poem, there’s reference to the September 11 attacks, and many socialist references as well.  Like any good work of art, Ossuaries is full of parallels to life that is actually lived.    

 

I think my favourite scene and section of this book is when Yas and her co-conspirators are in their car, and they see the cops behind them, giving chase.  The youngest member, a 19-year old, is showing his callousness to the situation.  He’s been in jail, he knows what it is like, and doesn’t care.  It’s at this junction when Brand says:

 

they suddenly see their wounds in him,

the gashes in their skins, the gouging, scraping

places left, open raw cavities of their long, long losses

 

history will enter here, whistling like train wheels,

boat winches,

the road will either end or won’t, the cops catch up or not

 

they will arrive wherever

they will be at war with their veins,

at war with all accounts, at war, so what

 

and, look, anyway, they’re all composed in bony anchors

at the feet, they’ll escape or they won’t,

those are eternal cops behind them, glacial and planetary

 

It’s this that summarizes the poem to me; hopefully we will see our wounds in the character of Yasmine, but whether we do or not, we are being constantly chased by the consequences of our consumption.   We can run, and we don’t know if those consequences will ever catch us, but is this the life we want to live?

 

This is a poem I likely won’t be sharing with a lot of people.  It’s a dark work and it has a complicated narrative storyline which doesn’t lend itself to easy popularity.  But, I will excitedly share with those that would take the time to engage it.  It took me about four reads of Ossuaries to begin to make sense of it on the whole.  Reading this work one word at a time was like looking a photo one pixel at a time, so it took me a while to appreciate each colour’s relation to the whole.  Because of this effort, I’m likely to appreciate it all the more. 

27
Thursday
Oct
2011

Love of My Life

With David Gilmour, Kevin Chong, and Anne Enright, Hosted by Steven Hayward

 

One hesitates to write a review of an event where three writers spoke at length on their past experience of bad reviews.  Their opinions ranged from dismissive pity (“I wish that this aspiring writer could publish a book so that someone can misread him the way that he misread me”) and acknowledgement of subjectivity (“it’s up to the reader to choose which kind of book it is; reviewers brought their own personal morality, or lack of it”) to a rather more violent response (“have I ever smacked a reviewer?  Yes, and every time I look back on it, I feel good”).  David Gilmour, describing why he doesn’t read his reviews any longer, noted that as a lot of reviewers are failed writers, they unfortunately can make “a perfectly executed stabbing.” 

 

So…let’s get started.

 

Things did not begin well for monogamy, whatever the event’s title.  Anne Enright, who won the Booker Prize for The Gathering and has most recently published The Forgotten Waltz , opened the interview by stating that successful monogamous love is extremely difficult to write about.  “Writers,” she said, “are always drawn to the catastrophic and wonderful.”  Kevin Chong, who has recently published Beauty Plus Pity , added that such a relationship is hard enough to experience, let alone write about.  David Gilmour, whose recent The Perfect Order of Things recounts the suffering in his romantic forays, opined that in his early days he was mostly interested in sexual desire, “the most interesting and dangerous thing about love.”  

 

As the discussion ranged into love of family, there were some genuinely moving stories.  Chong referred to the “presentiment of loss” on considering his parents’ death, and how it came to challenge his identity at its roots.  Gilmour humorously narrated his conflicting affections on learning that his son thought that the Beatles’ film Hard Day’s Night was awful, John Lennon being the worst of the lot.  Correct that: he sided entirely with his love for the band. 

 

At one point Hayward asked if the three writers had any love advice to give.  Gilmour feigned the guru, claiming it had taken him forty-five years to learn that while it’s not hard to get a great love, it’s very difficult not to wreck it.  Chong passed, soliciting the audience for their wisdom instead.  Enright, very loosely alluding to the biblical postures of faith and works, said that as a novelist she was more interested in faith—what people believed, where they go in their heads.  When it comes to her life, however, what mattered were the works of love. 

 

When asked if anyone sensed there to be an order or fated element in love, there was a movement towards what had been claimed as uninteresting at the opening of the session: the one right match.  Enright acknowledged a sense of momentousness in what we love, even through the seeming arbitrariness.  Gilmour, who acknowledged having a number of ex-wives, claimed that there is indeed such a thing as the right person.  In fact, he recently went so far as to tell his current wife of twelve years that if she were to leave him she should shoot him on her way out.  Tender words.  While there was no reference to fate, this seems a hard pattern to break.

 

What, though, of love looking back from the end of life?  Before the interview Gilmour had given a reading from the final chapter of The Perfect Order of Things.  In it, he narrated his realization that the memoir was really a process of preparation for his death.  “The goal of all philosophy,” he read, quoting Montaigne, “is to learn how to die properly.”  Then, with pronounced certainty—odd given his affirmation of being less sure of oneself through the wisdom of suffering—Gilmour read his declaration that there was no afterlife in the religious sense, “no God, no other plane of existence, just a slight delay in the drop into oblivion.  Thank you.”  With that bracing and conspicuously loveless conclusion, he was applauded.

 

Reflecting on that first reading in light of an exuberant session on the compelling force of love in human affairs, a seemingly settled acceptance of oblivion is hard to accept.  Does the experience of love not signify something greater, more lasting?  Thinking of love at its richest, I’ll conclude this review with a reflection from Gilmour’s book that wasn’t read:

 

How verblessly beautiful the world can be sometimes, I thought.  Almost enough to make you believe in God.

27
Thursday
Oct
2011

Stories about Storytellers

Having worked closely with many of the most significant and influential writers of the past half-century, Douglas Gibson is a literary treasure and a wealth of knowledge about Canadian literary and political figures. In his new book, Stories about Storytellers, Gibson recounts a hilarious and touching set of anecdotes about authors and literary figures whose work he has edited and published. The list reads like a Who’s Who of Can-lit: Harold Horwood, Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan, Jack Hodgins, Pierre Trudeau, Alistair MacLeod, Alice Munro, and many more. In fact, it seems there is hardly a Canadian literary icon in the past decade with whom he hasn’t had some form of professional connection.

 

Gibson is utterly at ease in front of a crowd and his enthusiasm for the subject matter is infectious. He began the talk with a silly story about picking his grandson up from school. On the designated day each week when school gets out, Gibson raises his arms in a “V” of excitement to see his grandson. He welcomed the audience with the same gesture. It’s hard not to like him.

 

Armed with a PowerPoint slideshow of caricatures of these authors, as drawn by Anthony Jenkins of the Globe and Mail, (“The funny thing about Anthony Jenkins is that once he’s drawn you, you look more and more like the illustration every year”), Gibson told a series of short vignettes. For me, this was a fascinating look into the nuts and bolts of writing and editing, and the specific writing processes used by these famous authors. Alistair MacLeod for example, has a very deliberate style of composition – slow and diligent – which, as Gibson recounted, can be quite vexing for a publisher anxious to meet a press deadline.  Sometimes he told a story about how he had met an author, other times he spoke about a particular writing style, and other times he spoke about how they developed their rapport as writer and editor. A great many of these stories ended in hilarity, while others still were poignant or sad. In the case of Alice Munro, for example, Gibson claims his greatest literary feat: keeping her writing short stories. As he tells it, Munro’s debut book of short stories was brilliant and, before long, everyone was clamouring for her to follow it up with a novel. But, try as she might, she couldn’t do it. Gibson, recognizing the fact that writing novels wasn’t her thing, encouraged her to go back to short stories and forget about novels completely. He promised to keep publishing her short stories and never mention it again, and she has continued to churn out terrific collections and become one of Canada’s most acclaimed living writers, indeed a modern-day Chekhov.

 

Gibson also dove into some descriptions of his own editing process. Upon receiving a manuscript, he reads it through in its entirety without making a single mark. Upon completing it, he takes some time to think about it – the plot, the characters, the pacing, etc. Only then, once he feels that he has digested its minutiae, does he go back to the beginning with a pencil and begin making changes. It’s a technique that has served him well.

 

Much like the myriad authors he has edited, Gibson himself is a wonderful storyteller. It is clear from his own comfort recounting stories that he has made contributions to the work of many of these seminal figures. Gibson’s final story was one of goodbyes. W.O. Mitchell, another renowned Canadian author and inveterate joker, passed away in 1998. When Gibson went to visit him for a final time, they shared their time together and, as Gibson was readying himself to leave, Mitchell casually mentioned that his memory wasn’t as good as it used to be, and he found himself making mistakes. Finally, as they were saying goodbye, Mitchell sprung his punch line, the wrong name: “Goodbye, Bill” Gibson said. “Goodbye, Jimmy,” Mitchell replied. It was a fittingly memorable end to their long relationship. Gibson finished the story with a crack in his voice. His connection to these great and celebrated authors was touching, and his experience and contributions to the canon are invaluable. All in all the evening provided a brilliant portrait of Canadian literature, and Gibson made a compelling case for the wonderful power of storytelling.