Monday, 15 October 2012

Alice B. Toklas, Woody Allen, and Heaven

I’ve begun reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas for a new book club I’ve joined, and have been reminded that she appeared in Woody Allen’s recent movie about midnighting in Paris.  Or was it just Gertrude Stein that we saw, along with Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the whole lot.

I remember thinking at the time how much Scott Fitzgerald looked like Scott Fitzgerald.  Or was it that when the Woody character meets him, it seemed obvious that was Fitzgerald.

But why?  I’m not really old enough to have met the author of The Great Gatsby; even if I was, we really didn’t move in the same circles.  Yet how real he and Zelda seemed: the best moment of the film, I thought.

Other parts were tiresome, notably when the young Hemingway started spouting lines from his own novels.  I think another character did something similar.  I mean, really.  I’ve written novels; I don’t spout lines from them.  The art that produces fiction is quite different from the art that produces conversation.  The person that I am when I write a novel (or a blog post) is quite different from the person who goes to parties (well, there is no such person) or who has conversations in real life.

But I suppose this device allowed Woody Allen to create a little frisson in moviegoers: oh, that’s a famous line, we could think.  But does Woody Allen go around spouting lines from his movies?  Or movies yet to come?  I’d bet not, but then I don’t move in his circles either and have never met him.

I mostly winced when the famous lines came, but I did have that frisson of recognition when “Scott Fitzgerald” first appeared on screen.  For a moment perhaps I was swept up in the fantasy of meeting famous people I grew up reading.  Woody Allen must have enjoyed making this film, I’m thinking; perhaps it is his vision of Heaven, a place where you could hang out with famous literati and artists.

I remember when I read Dante’s Inferno thinking that the first level of Hell would actually be quite pleasant.  That’s where Dante put Plato and Aristotle, Homer and Cicero, all the virtuous pagans.  And they’re in a pleasant green field.  What could be better?  Certainly not Dante’s Heaven, with its boring angels and hallelujahs.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Bedbugs and the creation of life

Earlier in the week I read the following headline in the paper: "Bed bugs linked to sleep loss, anxiety."  It prompted me to write the following letter to the editor:

“ 'Bed bugs linked to sleep loss, anxiety,' ” the headline said. Oh my God, I thought. Can sleep loss and anxiety somehow produce bedbugs? How can that be? Does anxiety attract bedbugs, like flames attract moths? Does it create bedbugs? Have we finally found out how to create simple forms of life?

"Then I read the article."

The article, of course, simply said that the presence of bedbugs can create anxiety, not the other way around, but we live in a psychosomatic age, we all know the power of our psyches, so why not?

(I'm joking, I think.  But who knows how life began?  Maybe God was anxious one day.  It would explain a lot.)

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Conservatism, Philosophy, Economics, and the Meaning of Life

A friend of mine in our Aristotle reading group accused me of being a conservative the other day.

“What do you mean?” I said.

And he said for him the world was divided into conservatives and progressives.

“What if you consider yourself a moderate?” I said.

“Then you’re just confused,” he said, adding that conservatives generally think things are okay the way they are while progressives think things needs changing.

“What if you think some things need changing while others are okay the way they are?” I said, and he modified his position to say of course everyone thinks that …

So there are no conservatives or radicals, I said, and he said No, it’s a question of emphasis.

I thought about that.  I guess on the whole I think life is pretty good in Canada, so perhaps that makes me a conservative, by my friend’s definition, though I don’t hold with much of what passes for conservative thinking today: I’m against capital punishment and for gun control, I don’t like American intervention in foreign countries (of course, there are some Pat Buchanan-type conservatives who don’t like that either).  I have little interest in economic issues, the deficit, whatever … which perhaps disqualifies me from being either a radical or a conservative.  Perhaps I am just confused.

Or perhaps my friend’s categories need reshaping.

There was a time when I was interested in economic issues, back in my radical days when I believed the Marxist theories about economic forces being the key to everything and thus, aiming for consistency, decided I should study some economics, particularly Marxist economics, meaning that, at the age of 17 I sat down and read volume one of Das Kapital.

(The local library in my well-to-do suburb may even have my name down still on the card for their copy of Marx’s classic, since I didn’t have the capital to spend on purchasing a copy and kept on borrowing theirs.)

Anyway, that was a boring summer.  To all you 17-year-olds out there who might be tempted to do this: don’t spend a summer reading about surplus value and the labour theory of whatever …

Why are radicals so angry, by the way?  They posit a better world (or at least that’s what the Left wanted in my day), but to get there they mainly want to yell at people.

I was never very good at yelling at people, though I dutifully attended a few demonstrations in the day, but shouting slogans, I mean, really, it was a bit too much groupthink.

So the groupthink and the economics, along with reading The God that Failed and realizing that the Marxist theory of history didn’t accord with the facts, made me abandon the follies of my youth …

I was speaking to a young lady of my acquaintance recently, who told me she was thinking of studying economics.  I instinctively grimaced, which upset her.  “Is it better to study history and just learn a bunch of dates?” she said.  Studying economics can explain human interactions, she added.

That gave me pause.  I’m interested in humans.  Maybe I should give economics a chance.

But I wonder.  I am studying philosophy this year, hoping to understand the meaning of life or at least the meaning of philosophy.  It promises to explain some very basic things, but maybe I’d rather not study basic things.  If the economy is like the furnace driving everything in society, that’s all very well, but who wants to study furnaces?

Maybe I should go back to studying history, learn a few more dates.  Though the most interesting course I’ve taken lately was in Chinese philosophy.  That Confucius, he was a cool dude.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

More snippets from Philosophy 314

So we read a little Galileo, and it was all about something called corpuscularianism.  The world is full of these little corpuscles which are responsible for such things as our ability to smell.  When the corpuscles get up our nose, we smell things.

I thought, What is this nonsense?  I even skipped the class on Galileo.  But then in the next class, referring back to that one, the prof referred to Galileo’s “atomism.”

Oh, atoms, I thought.  Molecules.  They do get up your nose and trigger sensations of smell.  Hmm.

Though how do I know that?  Why am I prepared to believe in molecules, but not corpuscles?

I think I just went through a defamiliarization experiment, like in Gulliver’s Travels when the Lilliputians say that Gulliver keeps his god in his pocket because he won’t do anything without consulting it, and you think, What nonsense, but it turns out they’re referring to his watch.  Ah, you think.

Or it has something to do with paradigm shifts and belief systems.  I’ve abandoned many of the beliefs of my youth, but I still believe in atoms and molecules.  God knows why; I’ve never seen either.  I suppose that means that if I had never heard of atomic theory and someone presented it to me now, I’d call it nonsense.  I wonder why.  Because it goes against experience?

An argument for not trusting experience and the senses, I suppose, which leads to Descartes, but I’ve talked about him already.

I suppose I believe in atoms and molecules because some things you concede to authority, as even the great skeptic, Michel de Montaigne, said you have to do, because after all you can’t know everything and you have to trust authorities on some issues.

So I accept atomic theory, but didn’t even recognize it when presented under a different name (corpuscularianism).  Under its strange new name I rejected it utterly; once I realized it was just another name for atoms and molecules, well, at first I felt embarrassed and defensive, but eventually I thought, Okay, so Galileo wasn’t crazy.

Though I only think that because he fits into my current belief system.  Hmm.  There’s a moral in there somewhere.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Cogito Part Deux

So maybe he did say it, Descartes I mean, "cogito ergo sum."  Or in French, "je pense, donc je suis."

Further research has turned up new possibilities.  I let the prof know.  I'm helpful that way. Last year, in the Religious Studies class I was taking, the prof decided to explain BC/BCE and AD/CE.

He began by saying, "Who knows what happened in the year 0?"

I said, "There was no year 0."

Always helpful.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Snippets from Philosophy 314

So this term I continue my plan to be the oldest student in a variety of classes across campus, pursuing philosophy in the hopes of understanding the meaning of life. 
This is what I’ve found out so far as I sit on one of the few old-fashioned chairs without wheels (the wheeled chairs that dominate the classroom hurt my back):

Cogito ergo what?

So we’re reading Descartes, who seems a bit of a bore, committed to finding implausible proofs for the existence of God.  The one thing I knew about Descartes before taking the course was that he was the one who said “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). 

Only he didn’t say it; he says things like that; that famous phrase accurately sums up his main approach (which is a skeptical view in which he begins doubting everything he can, and decides he can be sure only that he exists, and he’s sure of that only because he knows he’s thinking; and if he’s thinking, he must exist in some way to do the thinking).

A reasonable point of view, but he never actually sums it up in the famous Cogito phrase.  “Yes,” says the prof, “I was surprised to discover that too.”  Who did say it first, I ask?  The prof shrugs. “Philosophy is full of slogans,” he says.

Hmph, next I’ll find out that Sherlock Holmes never said, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

And philosophy is full of slogans?

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Synagogue and Student Council

I don’t go to synagogue very often.  The last time was almost a year ago, and I’d been away so long I didn’t realize they’d moved the time back half an hour, so when my girl-friend (who had never been to synagogue before) and I showed up, they were just getting underway.

This is not ideal because a synagogue service lasts three hours, and the thing to do is show up about 45 minutes late, after the opening prayers but in time for the Torah readings and the rabbi’s sermon.  Only the 100-year-old men show up right at the start, and of course the officiating officers: the rabbi, the cantor, and in this case another official, a sexton, a beadle – I don’t know what to call him – gabbai and shamash are possible Hebrew names.

He greeted us at the door and sounded happier to see me than I’d expected, it turned out because I was the tenth man needed for “minyan,” or quorum, the minimum number required to conduct a full service.  This was only the second time in my life that I’d been pressed into service this way because usually I show up late enough that a minyan has already been formed.

So at first there were very few of us at the service, and I felt uncomfortable, worried I might be called on to do something I didn’t know how to do, but making up the minyan doesn’t require anything but your presence, so that was all right, and eventually others who knew about the later start showed up and I could feel more comfortably inconspicuous.

And it was a pleasant experience overall.  I always enjoy the mysterious prayers and chants, and the sermon is sometimes interesting; there’s ritual and community and even food at the end and some pleasant conversation with members of the congregation.

My girl-friend and I said we should go back, but we haven’t, perhaps for a number of reasons.  In my search for ritual, community, and spiritual sustenance I have other outlets.  I keep signing up for Continuing Studies courses, for one thing, and even courses for credit.  But perhaps more important, I attend Student Council meetings.  Every two or three weeks I am there with my real community, my real congregation, and I am there in an official capacity as Clerk of Council.  I walk around holding the Code of Procedure, looking a bit perhaps like the sexton-gabbai holding his prayer book and ushering people in.  Not that I usher people in, but I walk around whispering advice, or I sit in my designated place taking notes for the minutes.  Oh, and I help establish the numbers for quorum, the Council’s minyan.  And when called on, or even when not, I offer information about the rules.

I am not uncomfortable there; quite the contrary.  It’s like a second home.  I’ve been doing it for years and I know the rituals, the order of service.  In this case the food comes at the beginning, and there are lots of people who show up on time and then leave early, the opposite of how it is in the synagogue.

Then the Speaker calls the meeting to order, there are introductions, I get to introduce myself as the Clerk.  There are presentations and questions, and then the Approval of the Minutes (my Minutes among others), then the debate on motions.  No sermons (well, not usually).  Sometimes elections to committees, and then the motion to adjourn.

No one says Good Shabbes afterwards, but groups may gather for post-mortems or libations.  I may stay for some post-mortems but not for the libations.  It’s late at night by the time we finish; often the meetings are even longer than synagogue services, and I am tired at the end, and yet it feels comforting.  There is no God, unless you count Brigadier General Robert (inventor of Robert’s Rules), but it is my synagogue.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

On the death of Neil Armstrong

In July 1969 I was on holiday with my family in Cape Cod.  I think I felt uneasy about that.  I was a teenager already; why was I still hanging out with my parents?  Not to mention my three younger sisters.  I felt developmentally challenged, or something.  But there I was.  Always a slow developer.

Mostly on Cape Cod we went to the beach.  There was a television in our cottage, and the four of us kids would’ve been happy to watch it – for one thing it brought in American channels we didn’t get in our cable-less Canadian home.  But kids just like to watch TV, even if their parents are saying, We didn’t come all this way for you to sit in front of the television; you can do that at home (not that it was encouraged at home either).

But on July 20, 1969 it was different.  My father actually wanted us to watch TV that day – to see the Moon landing.  This surprised me for a number of reasons.  There was the idea of watching television, and also the idea that it was important to watch a couple of Americans set foot on the Moon.  We weren’t a particularly science-y  family, though my father was a doctor.  The humanities were more our thing.  I didn’t grow up wanting to be an astronaut or anything like that.

More importantly, in our household the United States was more or less the Great Satan (though we didn’t use that term, of course).  They were the villains in Vietnam, and a bunch of racists to boot, oppressing the poor black people, not to mention all the capitalist exploitation of working people.  And their president was Richard Nixon.

And yet here was my father saying the Moon landing, the American Moon landing, was a great achievement.  I’d been prepared to dismiss it as more U.S. imperialism, but if this was the Party line, then I was entirely able to go that way instead.  I was a great follower of Party lines in those days (not so much anymore).

So we sat and watched the fuzzy, snowy pictures on the old television set in the cottage on Swan Pond River Road.  I suspect that the snowiness of the reception had less to do with the pictures being beamed a quarter of a million miles from outer space than that the cottage we were in had poor reception.  And so I saw Neil Armstrong take his famous step and utter his famous words.

I can’t remember what I thought about it now.  Was it a great achievement?  Perhaps.  I’ve become skeptical of achievement over the years.  What is achievement?  Does it matter?  It was certainly the culmination of a great aspiration.  Aspirations, I like them – maybe the aspiration is the achievement.  Or not.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

On not believing yourself

So the other day I was walking near my apartment building with my girl-friend.  There’s a block beside it which has no sidewalk; there’s grass instead.  My girl-friend walked on the grass.  I walked on the street.

When she asked me why I didn’t walk on the grass, I said, “Well, it gets wet here a lot, and who wants to walk on wet grass?”

But lately it’s been hot and dry, the grass is dry, and one day when I was walking home and came to the grassy boulevard, I thought, “Well, it won’t be wet today, so I guess it will be okay to walk on it.”

But it wasn’t okay to walk on it.  It was all bumpy and uneven.  I had to look down to make sure I didn’t twist an ankle or something.

So now I know why I really don’t walk on that grassy boulevard, or maybe any plot of grass.  It has nothing to do with wet or dry, and yet for a while I believed that was why I avoided the grass.

Not for a long while, only from the time I first produced the pseudo-explanation until the day, a week or so later, when I decided to act on it.  How very odd, really.  First of all to come up with a phony explanation.  I suppose there’s lots of things we do without understanding why, and when someone presses us, do we just blurt out the first thing that comes into our heads?  Where did I even get the idea that it was wetness I was avoiding?

In a way it was a very skilled response.  It drew on my knowledge of Vancouver weather and the fact that it can be unpleasant to walk in the wet.  A logical response, you might call it, and the trouble with logic is that it often has nothing to do with reality.  I took a philosophy course once; maybe this is one of those valid but unsound arguments: I don’t like getting my feet wet, walking on the grass may make my feet wet, therefore the reason I don’t walk on the grass is to avoid getting my feet wet.

Actually, that’s not even logical.  The premises don’t hold together.  Let’s just call it a rational-sounding response.

Anyway, the really astounding thing is that, having come up with the rational-sounding explanation, I even thought it was true and tried to act on it.  It’s one thing to come up with a consciously phony reason to fool someone else, but here I was fooling myself.  Or my rational side was fooling my sensible side.

Ah, well, I suppose this is what they call believing your own propaganda.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

More on Aristotle

The discussion of killing the children of one’s enemies (see my previous blog post) led me to wonder if ancient Greek society was very much a society of blood feuds, so that the children of your enemies would indeed be a threat to you.

This prompted our seminar leader to say, Oh, yes, there you are, having vanquished, or so you think, but off in the wings people are plotting, saying, We’ll get you, you f----ing b----.  And this led me to wonder about cursing in ancient Greece.  Did the ancient Greeks have words like that?  Maybe in spoken language, but they never wrote them down?  Just like a reading of mainstream Victorian would expose you to nothing stronger than d---d (with the hyphens in place), so the reading of ancient Greek texts may expose you to no curse words at all (we weren’t actually sure about this, and we had no experts on ancient Greek society and literature among us).

But the larger issue was, Are there words some societies use in speech that they never write down?  Are there words that are known but that are never repeated in polite society?  And if polite society is the only source of writings from an era, how can we ever know their impolite utterances?

This led us to muse about modern day society and the Internet.  Everything goes now, we thought at first.  No one a thousand years from now will have to wonder if we had some private words not seen in public forums.  Everything gets said in public forums, in novels, movies, and as I said, the Internet.  Every conceivable swear word must be there somewhere.

But then I thought, But don’t we still have some forbidden words?  Racial epithets and the like?  People still know them, but how often do they appear in print?  Well, again with the Internet, there are no doubt sites spewing out hatred, so they may be around.  Still, it was interesting to speculate about words that might be widely used and yet not make it into the historical record.

And I came up with a great title for an academic study: Curse Words of the Ancient Greeks.

Suffer Little Children

So Aristotle this week was interesting.  Rhetoric certainly prompts interesting discussions in our group.  This week, for instance, Aristotle talked about the best arguments to make for killing innocent children.

This gave us pause.  I’ve already mentioned that in Rhetoric Aristotle seems almost amoral at times, but this was rather over the top.  What possible argument could anyone make for killing innocent children?

To be fair, when we read the argument, it did have a certain plausibility to it.  (Now, don’t everyone write angry comments.  Anyway, plausible as it may have been, it didn’t convince me, though I can’t speak for everyone in the group.)  What Aristotle did was quote Homer, the Iliad, a line that says something like: If you vanquish your enemies, can you let their children live, knowing that they may grow up to seek revenge on you?

Interesting point.  If you defeat the Nazis, I wondered aloud, would you want to kill their children?  But my answer to that was no.  Someone in the group said, You’re such a liberal.  Maybe.  I remember The Boys from Brazil (warning: spoiler alert), in which it turns out that a bunch of Hitler’s children are on the loose.  One radical group wants to kill them, but Laurence Olivier says, They’re only children.

And I shouldn’t leave you with the impression that Aristotle is in favour of killing innocent children.  He’s only saying that if you want an argument in favour of doing that, here it is.

Friday, 17 August 2012

On Liberation

Seeking spiritual guidance one Saturday morning many years ago, I wandered down to the local synagogue, where the rabbi was giving a sermon on the exodus from Egypt. 

Why did God make the Children of Israel wander in the desert for 40 years after escaping oppression under Pharaoh, he asked?  Why did some of the Israelites yearn for the “fleshpots of Egypt” and talk as if they’d prefer being back in slavery to being on their way to the Promised Land?

Because, if I’m remembering this right, to get to the Promised Land is no easy matter.  Because liberation is difficult and scary.  Because you might prefer slavery for its familiarity even if it was, well, slavery.  I later saw the movie The Shawshank Redemption, which had a similar theme about a prisoner who couldn’t stand the freedom on the outside.

All this to introduce a poem I wrote years ago after my own personal exodus from the prison-house of a bankrupt ideology, which, however, despite its obvious ill effects on me still held some allure, as can be seen from the poem … or at least from the first three stanzas.

I struggled with this poem back then and wrote maybe a dozen more stanzas, but only the first three stand up, I think.  So here they are:

Let Us Drink to Old Illusions

Let us drink to old illusions,
Raise a glass to follies past,
Though we’ve put them all behind us,
Though we’ve seen the light at last –

Still, the new light may be faulty,
May play tricks upon our eyes,
Let us then be kind and gentle
With those now discarded lies.

Life with them was so much simpler,
Life without has so much pain –
Who can live without illusions?
Let us take them up again. …

 Maybe the last two work too:

He who will not make an answer,
Out of fear he may be wrong,
He will never paint a picture,
He will never write a song.

So let’s drink to old illusions,
And to new ones that may come,
We march forward but through error,
And to error we must come.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

And another

Here’s something I wrote in the dark night of the grammatical soul, from which I have since emerged, thankfully.  No more commas for me.


When I was studying grammar, many years ago in school,
I studied very hard at it, to soak up every rule.
When the teacher wrote things down, I snapped them up like that,
I memorized them all, so I could have them pat.

But I did even more; I studied on my own;
I thought, this way, by following rules, my writing I would hone.
I didn’t want to be like all the other silly fools,
Who couldn’t write a sentence without breaking all the rules.

So I learned about the comma and the period (or full stop);
When I was writing English, I became a grammar cop.
But the rules are, oh, so tricky, and I need to feel assured;
So, now, I, stick, a, comma, after, every, single, word.

More poetry

Well, light verse perhaps.

This one I wrote soon after I started working for the Alma Mater Society at UBC, when I realized that different people pronounced Alma Mater differently.  Thinking I could resolve this inconsistency, I embarked on some research, only to discover that there was no resolving the problem.  The dictionaries record various pronunciations.

This poem was the result:

Does it Mater?

 Now, would you say that Alma Mater
                    Rhymes with “Later, alligator”?
                    Or should we seek a rhyme with otter
                    When pronouncing Alma Mater?
                    Or maybe choose a rhyme with chatter
                    For our dear old Alma Mater?
                    Chatter, otter, otter, ‘gator--
                    Which one rhymes with Alma Mater?
                    And is it “Al-muh” we should say?
                    Or maybe “Awl-muh” is the way.
                    The whole thing seems like quite a mess--
                    We’ll have to stick to A-M-S.

Friday, 10 August 2012


You get on the bus and look for a good seat.  Avoid the groups of people chatting together and the person on their cellphone.  If it’s at night, you’ll need the seats where there’s proper lighting.  Preferably find a seat at the end of a group of three, so if someone else gets on they can find a seat without having to sit beside you.  You want your space.

You also want quiet.  This is hard to find in this city now that the bus company has committed itself to assaulting the senses with dings and bells and, worst of all, stop announcements: “Next stop, Thunderbird Boulevard.”

Earplugs are useful, but only against non-verbal noise, that iPod playing music or the rattles and hums – well, not so good about the rattles, and not good at all blocking out voices.  The only solution is to ride only on express buses, where the stop announcements are blessedly few and far between.

Settled in, you open your book or your paper.  A book on the way in to work when you’re fresh.  The newspaper for after.  All around are people reading on electronic devices; you certainly use such devices, at least the older generation of them, the desktops and the like, but mobile ones, no.  You are behind the times, or it’s just your preference to stick to paper, or both.

You open your book; perhaps it is the French classic you’re reading for a French literature course.  Or a biography of Cyril Connolly for an article you’re writing.  You take out your pen and your paper notebook.  You’re old school on that too.  And you read and make notes.  You stop when a thought strikes you.  Perhaps you get an idea for a different sort of article altogether, an article on how you read and write while on the bus.

All the while you have your old-style black attaché case on your lap, serving as a sort of desk.  Emily Brontë used to have something like that.  You’re not really like Emily Brontë.  Or maybe you are.

Life is good.

Monday, 6 August 2012

On Aristotle

I mentioned Aristotle's Rhetoric yesterday and how out of character it seems because of its use of examples.  It's also out of character because of his moral stance, or should I say his lack of a moral stance.

Elsewhere in Aristotle, and I've read a lot of him now after ten years in this seminar, he is the careful pursuer after truth.  Not that he always succeeds in his pursuit, not that he's even going in the right direction all the time, but what you get in most of Aristotle is an exhaustive attempt to explain everything, from the reason Zeno is wrong about his paradoxes of movement to the way the senses operate.

(By the way, he is hilariously wrong about the senses.  Did you hear the one about Aristotle and the mirror?  But I digress.)

Wrong though he may be at times, elsewhere Aristotle is devoted to truth.  Not so in Rhetoric.  If you can win an argument via a falsehood, he says, go for it.  Now if I ever won an argument by a falsehood, I'd be very uncomfortable.  I'm very uncomfortable if I win an argument without resorting to falsehood.

What a responsibility, winning an argument.  Then you've changed someone's beliefs, and well, what if you were wrong?  Then they believe something wrong, and it's your fault.

I remember a colleague of mine years ago on the student newspaper we both worked at letting herself be convinced by me about some silly grammatical rule: don't say "snuck," say "sneaked," I said, or something like that.

Years later when she mentioned this, I just shrugged, and she was, like, "But Sheldon, you said ..."

Oh, well.

Sunday, 5 August 2012


Today I read an interesting article on Hemingway, interesting eventually, that is, once it got past its opening obsession with examples.  Hemingway liked to use specific nouns, the writer of the article said, for example when talking about drink: for instance, he would never just say someone had a drink, it had to be a grappa or a cognac, a Cinzano or a chianti, a brandy, some vermouth, a … well, you get the idea.

On and on the article went, listing examples of the specific types of drinks Hemingway might refer to, and providing excerpts from his novels to show the examples.  Enough already, I thought; I get the point.

When I was teaching English, back in another century, the textbooks told me to tell the students to use examples.  And examples of course can be a fine thing.  I take part in an Aristotle seminar these days – fine man, Aristotle, even when I disagree with him, maybe especially when I disagree with him, but he can be cryptic at times.  What does he mean, I sometimes say?  If only he would give an example.

That’s when an example would be useful.  Or even two.  To elucidate, explain, make clear.  Not to hammer home the point that’s already crystal clear.  Not to prove something.

How deadly it is to try and prove something you already know.  I had to give up a master’s thesis once, because all it was going to be was a collection of evidence to prove what I already knew about Cromwell and the English Civil War.  How boring.  (Also disconcerting when it turned out I couldn’t find the evidence, and in fact found evidence disproving my theory; but my point is that even if all the evidence had been there, what a waste of time to just pile it up in support of something, letting it sit lifeless in a pile, not stimulating you to find new theories, just very carefully proving the simple point you began with.)

This is why I couldn’t stand the five-paragraph essay formula I was also supposed to teach.  I did draw the line there; one has to have some standards.  The five-paragraph formula is actually egregious for all sorts of reasons, but the one relevant here is that it asks the budding writer to frontload his thesis and then spend the rest of his essay proving it.  This formula unfortunately has infected a good deal of academic writing; every learned article these days begins by saying, “In this article I will demonstrate that blue cheese is blue,” or something like that, and I think, Well, if that’s all you’re going to do, why do I need to read past your thesis sentence?

I like to write essays and articles that don’t necessarily know where they’re going, like this one, for which I don’t seem to have an ending.  I could refer to Aristotle again, though, who in the section of his Rhetoric on using examples while making a speech actually provides examples.  Fitting, I suppose, but totally out of character.  So much so that the leader of our seminar said, This doesn’t sound like Aristotle at all.  It was certainly much clearer, and as I said, an example can be great to make things clear.  But please don’t burden us with long lists of them after you’ve made your point; go on to other things.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

On Seinfeld

There are lots of things one could say about Seinfeld, but I want to pick up on my thoughts on the Treaty of Utrecht and pigeon-holing.

There was an episode in which Jerry was very upset that a girl he had just begun dating wore the same outfit on the first two dates.  He and George developed elaborate theories to account for this (perhaps the laundry cycles had just worked out a certain way, etc.), all in the hopes of proving her normal, so that she wouldn’t have to be discarded as a weird Woman Who Always Wears the Same Outfit.

In fact, Jerry usually found something weird about the women he dated, the point being to escape commitment.  But here I am more interested in his drive to pigeon-hole, to deduce from some tiny piece of information something essential about another human being.  Or not just something essential, but the very essence.

How we must yearn to be able to know others, and know them quickly.  So we take one characteristic for the whole, as if the world was some giant synecdoche.  Or is it metonymy?  I always get those two mixed up.  In any case, as if one thing could stand for everything about some person – or city, in the case of Utrecht.

I once knew someone who, ironically, used to criticize essentialism; that is, he took the post-modernist approach of denying one can know the essence of anything.  That was in theory.  In practice, he was one to say of me after he’d known me a short while, Oh, he’s the one who wears brown (because I’d worn a brown outfit one day).

This struck me as painfully reductionist.  I was not just The Person Who Wears Brown.  (In any case, I more commonly wore blue, and was only wearing brown because someone else had once reproached me for always wearing blue.  It’s like the fable about crossing a stream with a mule; if you try to please everyone … but I digress.)

So we don’t like to be reduced, but how much we like reducing.

On the Treaty of Utrecht

I once met a girl from Utrecht (it’s in Belgium, I think), and trotted out the only thing I know about it. 

“The Treaty of Utrecht,” I said.

She’d never heard of it.

“You know,” I said, “the War of the Spanish Succession.  Or was it the Austrian Succession?”

But what was any of that to her?  She grew up in a real city with all its complications, realities, nuances.  I just knew a historical fact, a label, a pigeon-hole.

The other day I read a review of a new biography of Castlereagh.  I’ll trot out my one bit of knowledge about that too: Shelley’s lines on Peterloo:

“I met Murder on the way/He wore a mask like Castlereagh.”

Great lines.  They’ve stuck in my head for decades, I don’t know why.  Marvellously unfair to Castlereagh, it turns out.  He wasn’t just Murder; he was a complicated human being.  As we all are, I suppose.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Letters to the Editor

I like writing letters to the editor.  I must have published dozens, no, hundreds, over the years, and submitted hundreds more over that time.  A sign of madness, I'm told, but there you go.  I like engaging with what I read in the paper.  It's like putting up one's hand and annoying the professor in class.

Today's paper had two letters in it that provoked me a bit.  One was an attack on a defender of religion; this prompted me to respond with a tongue-in-cheek middle ground: since one was defending religion and the other was attacking "organized religion," I suggested that perhaps a good compromise would be to support disorganized religion.

In fact, disorganized anything might be good.  I know, I know, it could lead to chaos, but systems are the death of humanity.  I've been reading Candide, which is all about that.  Not that it's true just because Voltaire says so.

Anyway, I summarize my letter here because I've annoyed the editor to whom I write, and perhaps he won't publish it in the paper.

After I sent it in, I saw another letter which argued from an article on Hemingway's 47 revisions of the ending of A Farewell to Arms to say that this "proved" that great writers need to keep at it; they need "an abundance of persistance [sic]."

I must say, the misspelling of persistence adds a certain piquancy to the argument, but I think the correspondent didn't go far enough.  If it took Hemingway 47 tries to get an ending right, that must prove that every writer must revise every sentence of theirs 47 times, or it just won't be any good.

I am now sitting down to write an additional 46 versions of this blog posting.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Advice to a Teenager

More poetic advice, this time a recent poem for a young man of my acquaintance:

Advice to a Teenage Boy

girls are people too
just like me and you
talk to them the way you would
to anyone, they’ll feel good
ask them what they like to do
maybe they will ask you too
show some interest, take some care,
don’t forget to wash your hair

ask them to a movie show
or for a soda or, you know,
anything you like to do
maybe she will like it too

don’t be shy, but don’t be crass
show restraint, display some class
don’t get overly excited
or the whole thing might get blighted

remember this is not the last
any awkwardness will pass
assume she’s interested to go
until she tells you it’s a no

don’t get down if she rebuffs you
life is tough and sometimes cuffs you
you can ask her out once more
three times even, but not four

move along then, you will find
other girls to feed your mind
and to satisfy your longing
and to make you feel belonging

talk and share and dance and eat
and stay lively on your feet
but don’t lie, and DO NOT CHEAT

take it easy as you go
let things follow with the flow
speak up bravely to begin things
then just be yourself within things

finally you’ll feel okay
and if not, you’re on your way
say hello or say good-bye
never really wonder why
it’s just life that’s passing by

so talk to girls if you like
ask them out, be sharp and bright
it’s the way of all the race
all are looking for a place
but you’re young and should be checking
more than one before selecting

do it then and don’t take fright
everything will be all right

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Poem for an Infant

When a friend of mine became a father many years ago, I thought I would be helpful and offer up some advice to his new son.  The result is below.

I was very proud of managing to write an entire poem in words of no more than two syllables, which I thought was important because after all newborns don't understand much English.

Some Advice
to Alexander Richard Blackwell
[aged 1 month]

don’t cry in the middle of the night
never wander out of sight
smile and giggle at your Mom
keep from sucking at your thumb

learn the world and all its sights
never shrink from its delights
– even if they give you frights –

walk as soon as you are able
keep your dishes on the table
handle mishaps with aplomb
(you can blame them on your Mom)

make some friends and play with toys
but try not to make too much noise
yank the curtains, hit the chairs
don’t let others put on airs

sing aloud with all your might
– but don’t cry in the middle of the night

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Tuesdays with Morrie

Here's a review, just a few years late, of Mitch Albom's interesting book on his time with his old sociology professor, Morrie:

By Mitch Albom

I began reading this book alone on an airplane, in the sort of cocoon you can get into if you’re a solitary traveller not seeking to talk to your fellow passengers.  I was heading towards family, but not yet there: looking forward to being with them, romanticizing the idea if you like.  And parting from my new girl-friend for a couple of weeks, and missing her.

All of which provided the perfect situation to become deeply moved by this story of a Detroit sportswriter and his dying professor.  And it is a deeply moving book; it wasn’t just being alone on an airplane that made it so.  It is a book that calls out to us to connect, to remember others, to value love and compassion and good feelings over money and getting ahead.

Mitch, the sportswriter, feels ashamed that he has focused so much on career and accomplishments.  It seems that he has somehow neglected his family too, or has not even created one, despite the hopes of his wife.  But now he encounters Morrie, his old sociology prof, with whom he’d been close at college, who he had promised to keep in touch with, but whom he had long forgotten until he saw a report on him on television.

This report, along with a strike at his paper, which temporarily puts him out of work, prompts Mitch to visit Morrie, a visit that begins with him doing something for which he later feels shame: he finishes a cellphone call to do with work rather than leaping out of the car to see his old professor for the first time in fifteen years.  He upbraids himself for this, fitting it into his narrative of having gone astray, having lost his values.

Years before he had dedicated himself to work and accomplishment, not wanting to drop dead suddenly like a beloved uncle.  Working, succeeding, accumulating achievements would somehow help him control his life, he thought, but in pursuing this path he feels he has forgotten something.  That something, as articulated by Morrie in what turns out to be a series of visits, is love and compassion, connection with others.

As I read the opening pages of this story, tears came to my eyes.  I wanted to contact my own favourite professor and overall just be a better person.  A good thing no doubt, and perhaps if I had finished reading the book on the plane, alone in my cocoon, separated from loved ones, I would simply have found it a feelgood story that left me with a warm glow and a resolution to do better.

All of which would be admirable, of course … and yet …

I didn’t finish the book on the plane.  I didn’t get to the section in which Morrie praises Family until I was back in the bosom of my family.  And a funny thing happened: I found myself becoming impatient with Morrie, finding him or rather Mitch’s book about him to be repetitive and abstract.  Sure, sure, love, family, compassion; it’s all great, but, well, is it?

I read about the importance of Family while suddenly pitched into tensions and battles between sisters, my mother, myself.  It’s not all roses being in a family.  There are thorns too, perhaps necessary thorns, but thorns nonetheless.  The subtitle of Albom’s book promises that it will provide “life’s greatest lesson,” and I suppose that lesson is the importance of going beyond material pursuits, but it all seems a bit too pat.

For one thing, is there really any one “greatest lesson”?  Some of us spend our time looking for life lessons, for the meaning of life; we take philosophy courses or visit synagogues; we look, we hope.  Because after all there must be something more to life than just survival or even success.  For some of us there is always the hope that Aristotle or Confucius or the ancient Jewish sages may have the key to meaningfulness.

One can come to this book the same way, urged on by its subtitle and by some of the things Morrie says in it.  But is there really such a key?  Is it perhaps foolhardy to expect such a thing?  And is it possible that by seizing on something as being the good path to follow we are oversimplifying and unfairly rejecting another path?

Mitch suggests that there was something wrong with his life before he reconnected with Morrie; it was too “egotistical” because it was too much focused on things like “career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator …”  It is odd to see family listed here among egotistical things, since just a few chapters later it becomes the only “foundation … upon which people may stand,” according to Morrie, who praises his own family for being so supportive of him in his dying days.

I wonder about that support.  I am sure it was real.  But weren’t there days when Morrie’s wife became irritated with him, began to feel that taking care of this dying man was just too much?  In fact, we hardly get to see Morrie’s wife or his other family members; they are figures in the background, pictures on the mantelpiece, abstractions, idealized notions of Comforters.

And that is the trouble with this book: it is too much an Idealization, and it may lead us into thinking, Oh, Family (and Love and Compassion) – that is the answer.  Just as other books may tell us that the answer is God or the Proletariat or the Way.  Perhaps there is no answer; perhaps there are only questions.

And perhaps there is something to be said for the supposedly egotistical things: for pursuing a career, for having achievements, and yes, for creating a family.  Does Mitch go home to his wife and start a family?  It’s not entirely clear, but it seems not.  Should he have?  Family seems both good and bad, depending on which part of the book you read – which is perhaps exactly what it is.

And careers and paycheques, are they entirely bad?  Mitch upbraids himself for giving up his dreams in order to have paycheques, but should he have continued to try to be a musician (an early dream of his) and foregone paycheques?  There are some people who never get any paycheques, who somehow never join the culture of work: are they following the right path?  Morrie tells Mitch not to buy into our culture of money and success, and that is a useful bit of advice to keep in mind, but if taken to an extreme, where would we be?  Where would any of us be individually?  And what would happen to our society?

Don’t get me wrong.  I think Love and Compassion and Family are noble ideals.  I think those who have forgotten them in order to pursue riches are on the wrong path.  But to think one can just renounce one’s culture and renounce paycheques seems also to me to be the wrong path.  Surely, what is needed is a little balance.

And maybe that is really all that Mitch Albom is recommending.  He doesn’t seem to have quit being a sportswriter working with famous athletes.  He even commented once on a talk show about the reaction of those athletes to his little non-sports book.  Thinking of that brought tears to my eyes, and I wonder why: is it because it shows the little guy, the mere sportswriter, a virtual nonentity compared to a star athlete, succeeding?  The ugly duckling becoming a swan?  Isn’t that an appealing sort of story?  But how does it fit with renouncing success?

If this book convinces star athletes or anyone else who may be caught up in the pursuit of riches and fame to remember goodness and mercy, then what a wonderful thing it has done.  But it shouldn’t be seen as having the key to life’s greatest lesson.  There is no such key, as far as I can tell, and life is more than just comforting a dying man.  There is living to do, and that includes meeting the mortgage and fixing the radiator.

At one point the book refers to Martin Buber, the Jewish theologian, known for his book (I and Thou) about connecting and relationship, about how the divine resides in relating to others.  Now, the interesting thing about Buber’s book is that it rejects the mystical approach of retreating to a mountaintop to commune with Divinity.  Instead, it emphasizes the need to do one’s relating in the real world.  At times Mitch’s book threatens to forget the reality of the world, depicting it simply as an ugly place where nasty crimes take place and where people are too caught up in the meaninglessness of news about celebrities.

There is certainly plenty of ugliness and meaninglessness in the world, but it’s the world we live in, and we need to learn how to live in it better.  To do so we certainly need to remember Love and Compassion and Family, but we also have to realize that none of those things comes easily, none is without difficulty, and the solution to the problems of life do not reside in simple invocations.

I like Morrie and I can feel for Mitch, but a dying man and a sportswriter wanting to divest himself of all but Noble Emotions are not all there is to life.  Or at least the real issue is to find some way to incorporate the Noble Emotions into the reality of life.