Thursday, 14 March 2013

On Reading Thoreau

Those who know me may wonder why I would be reading Thoreau.  I am the furthest thing from a Nature-lover.   Better a good book indoors than a trek through the forest; that’s been my motto.

But Thoreau I think of as part of literary history, as much as natural history, so when a course was offered on him, and after getting totally frustrated with my course on Genji, I signed up.  I also signed up for a course on ancient Egypt, the pyramids, etc., which turned out to be serendipitously ironic, since Thoreau didn’t think much of the pyramids or any building of monuments.

Better to build yourself, your character, your spiritual side than build a big monument, he says in Walden.  And I found myself agreeing with him on this, if not on everything.  Or more than agreeing; it was like finding a little bit of validation.

Don’t own things, he says; possessions end up possessing you.  And I have  made a life out of not owning anything beyond books and some bare necessities, and of course a computer.  Oh, and a television.  But no house, no car, no boat.

Actually, Thoreau had a boat, or at least the use of one.  And for that matter he had a house, a little cabin in the woods.  This has no attraction for me, except perhaps as a holiday getaway, and I can remember visiting some cousins on their farm and thinking, This is nice, breathing in the fresh air on their back deck.

But roughing it like Thoreau, no.  Still, I like his approach of the simple life, not knocking yourself out to buy the latest consumer goods, not working long hours at a job you despise for the money it will bring you so you can travel or buy a fancy house or keep up with the fashions.  I was once offered money for a downpayment: Go buy yourself a house, I was told.  No, no, I said; that’s not for me.

And now I feel less a failure over that.  I’m a Thoreauvian.  At least in part.

I don’t share his notions on solitude.  He found being with people, even the best people, wearisome: a true introvert, clearly.  I’m a bit of an introvert myself; you won’t catch me at a big party, or at least you won’t catch me enjoying myself, but I do like company, interaction, conversation.  Thoreau seemed content with the sun, the lake, the fish, and the birds – though he did sometimes wander into town to hear the gossip and one time he seemed almost to be complaining, saying he would meet more men if they weren’t so busy hoeing their beans.  People should take a break from their hoeing and do some socializing, that’s what I think.

And I don’t share Thoreau’s Old Testament prophet approach: he hectors his readers, a bit in the manner of Thomas Carlyle (about whom he wrote an article).  It’s not just that he chose to live a simple life in the woods; he seems to think everyone else should do the same.  But I have no objection to other people leading different sorts of lives.  If other people want to own houses and cars, that’s fine with me.  But it’s still nice to know that there’s a respectable philosophical tradition to which I can attach my life choices.  I feel reassured somehow, though also still a bit lonely.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Argo and Historical Truth

What is truth, said Pilate, and would not wait for an answer.  Or so says Francis Bacon, recycling a Biblical story that is probably not true itself.  It’s a good story, though, or a good line.  It reminds me of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the line in it about printing the legend, not the fact: it makes a better story to say that the meek Eastern lawyer (Jimmy Stewart) somehow got the better of the evil Valance in a duel (the underdog triumphing and doing justice) than that another gunman (John Wayne) shot him from behind.

Which brings me to Argo and the fuss over whether it’s true or not, or an insult to Canadians, or another sign of the evils of Hollywood or of Americans.

I saw Argo a few months ago.  It was a gripping, suspenseful film.  I quite enjoyed it, even though I was troubled by the depiction of what I had always regarded as an act of Canadian heroism. 

I’m old enough to remember 1979-80, the capture of the American embassy, the escape of six Americans, the praise heaped on Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.  I felt proud back then.  It was at the same time that Terry Fox did his marathon, but that didn’t move me.  Ken Taylor, a Canadian ambassador, a Canadian ambassador, a Canadian, the quintessential meek underdog type, had somehow shot Liberty Valance, and won a small battle against evil.  That moved me.  I remember a cartoon, I believe an American cartoon, of the time depicting a hulking American in a bar saying to a tiny Canadian on the barstool beside him, “Guess I owe you one.”

It was a wonderful story – and true!

Except then Argo came along and made it sound not so true, made it sound like all the praise from the Americans for the Canadian rescue was just a cover story so as not to further inflame Iranian revolutionaries against the United States.  I felt deflated.  It’s like the scene in Liberty Valance where the real story is revealed.  But in the movie the crusty old newspaper editor refuses to print the real story.  Ben Affleck, in contrast, did.

Unless Ben Affleck’s version is itself not true.  And there have been all sorts of commentaries, especially here in Canada, to say that Argo is inaccurate; it’s those nasty Americans taking credit for a Canadian caper; it’s Hollywood distorting the facts again.

And I think, well, yes, Hollywood distorts the facts; all artists distort the facts.  I wouldn’t read War and Peace to get an accurate depiction of Napoleon in Russia, or listen to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture for that either.  Art is art, and history is history, though often the lines are blurred, and there are post-post-whatever type critics who I’m sure will tell us that history is all just subjective nonsense written by the winners etc. etc.

Maybe in the end we all just like a good story.  The Americans have their good story now, which I, as a Canadian, can enjoy even if part of me feels diminished by the undermining of the old Canadian story that I lived through and took pride in.

I don’t think we really want the facts, though, not in a piece of art, and even outside art.  We like our legends; some things are so good they ought to be true, as the saying goes.  The trouble here is that we have competing legends.  I’m not sure what to do about that.

(Thanks to Cindy Heinrichs, Joan Stuchner, and Lesley Johnson for inspiring me to muse on this.)