Writers and reading

Chicago Manual of Style, 2017 - 17th edn.This post is about, and for writers, for reporters and editors, for book authors and editors, magazine editors, feature writers, layout artists, copy editors and anyone who either fancies themselves one of these, or has the curious desire to become one (curious because, at least for freelancers, it often involves spending more money on books than you get in income…). If you aren’t in that company, you should probably read something else, maybe just watch TV, because it’s going to be boring and a little pedantic. It’s about the books writers and editors read – or should read – to stay at the forefront of their game.

But also we read these books because we derive a basic joy from them. Strange as it sounds, it’s true. Like any hobbyist, aficionado or enthusiast, we like to read about the subjects dear to our hearts: grammar, punctuation, style, language, vocabulary, etymology, style, writing… reading about them isn’t just a trek through known territory: in many of them we find new landscapes to explore, new arguments to debate, new words, new uses to test.

Yes, writers read, those worth the name, anyway. Just like doctors, mechanics, chefs, wine makers, musicians, astronomers, naturalists, electricians and every other profession reads. Even politicians read – aside, of course, from our own Block on Collingwood Council, who despise the activity. Reading is part of the ongoing self-education process everyone who gives even the slightest damn about their work continues to pursue. It’s part of the continued goal of competence.

Let me stop here and say that if you know of a so-called writer, editor, communications officer, PR specialist or reporter who doesn’t regularly read books on grammar, language, style or structure, or don’t regularly look things up in these guides, who don’t have them at hand in their work area, they don’t deserve the description. They are, to paraphrase Truman Capote, mere typists. They do not do justice to their profession and should look for more suitable employment. Walmart greeters are in demand, I hear.

And, no, age and experience don’t mean you can stop learning. In fact, both contribute to lifelong bad writing habits that only remedial study can correct. Since language is fluid, it requires attention to keep up with its fluctuations and changes, its mood swings in permissive and restrictive usage. Unless you keep up with it, you start to come across as ossified, archaic and fusty. That’s when writers need to retire.

A writer who doesn’t read books on language and grammar is like a sommelier who doesn’t drink, not even taste the wine. It’s like a pilot who refuses to board a plane. A hockey player who doesn’t skate. It’s an oxymoron.
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Montaigne and The Block

MontaigneI do love reading Michel de Montaigne.  And writing about him. In 2014 alone, I wrote ten separate posts about him and his famous book, Essays. But since then, my reading habits moved on to other writers and topics. I hadn’t actually been reading Montaigne in the past few years, but recently while sorting some of my books, I found him again. I started re-reading the Essays last week (and reading his travel journal, included in the Everyman edition – Frame translation, which I had not read previously).

He is such an inspiration at times. Witty, observant, genteel, curious, passionate, learned, and wise. And seemingly prescient, too.

Consider this, from Chapter 27, Book I (M.A. Screech trans):

It is not perhaps without good reason that we attribute to simplemindedness a readiness to believe anything and to ignorance the readiness to be convinced…

Consider when you read this today’s “alternate facts” being spread online, and con artists like Alex Jones, David Avocado Wolfe, the Food Babe and Gwenyth Paltrow who make their living by lying and scamming the gullible. Consider US President Donald Trump, who seems incapable of telling even simple truths, yet managed to fool millions into electing him – who still are fooled by him after his deceptions have been revealed over and over. 

Consider the anti-vaccination, anti-GMO, anti-fluoride, anti-climate change movements. Consider the people who believe in chemtrails, bigfoot, UFO abductions, angels, New Age magic, Niburu and pyramids in the Antarctic. Consider televangelists like Joel Osteen who prey on their flocks and make themselves millionaires off the backs of the weak and hard of thinking.

Consider, too, The Block on our own Collingwood Council falling for all the bizarre, paranoid conspiracy theories about the hospital, Collus-PowerStream, and the share sale. Simple minds, all. Montaigne continues:

…belief is like an impression stamped on our soul; he softer and less resisting the soul, the easier it is to print anything on it… The more empty a soul is and the less furnished with counterweights, the more easily its balance will be swayed under the force of its first convictions.

Substitute soul for mind if you, like me, don’t believe in them. How soft and unresisting the minds of The Block when the administration or Brian feeds them patent nonsense. And they believed, wholeheartedly and unreservedly, in every wild and wacky idea from day one. They still do.

Montaigne really had their number, eh? Pretty remarkable for a guy writing more than 440 years ago and half a world away. But Montaigne had no stomach for fools. Three centuries later Henry David Thoreau warned,

No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion… (Walden, Ch. 1)

Yet The Block have continued blind faith in their paranoid conspiracy theories even without the suggestion of a hint of a shred of proof. Nothing will sway their pure, unquestioning faith in either Brian or the interim CAO. Like Trump’s fanatic fans, they cannot be dissuaded from their beliefs by reason or truth. They are the True Believers, foot soldiers who march into battle never questioning their orders (a la Eric Fromm’s classic work).

Donald Frame translates Montaigne as continuing:

The novelty of things incites us more than their greatness to seek their causes.

By which he means people are easily distracted by baubles, by glitter, by bling, and seldom look beyond to uncover the truth behind the glitter. Again, just like The Block: they never once attempted to verify a single claim, or uncover actual facts about them. Actually, they have consistently done the opposite: avoided or prevented every opportunity for truth and facts to be made public. I’ve written about this before, many times. It’s all part of a deeply embedded culture of secrecy in town hall.

In Chapter 10, Book III, he writes,

Just watch people who have been conditioned to let themselves be enraptured and carried away… They become involved indiscriminately wherever there is a task and obligations…

Well, Collingwood Council watchers get to see The Block enraptured with themselves every meeting, drunk on power and indiscriminately handing out sole-source contracts like party favours. Simply because the administration tells them to. No questions asked, even by those who remain awake at the table.

It is a dangerous and fateful presumption, besides the absurd temerity that it implies, to disdain what we do not comprehend. (Chap. 27, Book I, Frame trans.)

Disdain is a regular affliction among The Block. They did not comprehend the efficient working relationship between our electrical and water utilities, so they disdained – and ended – it. At greater expense to the taxpayers, too. They didn’t understand the airport development, the water pipeline, the hospital redevelopment, the sale of the share of Collus, the new recreational facilities, the code of conduct, the Municipal Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, dividends, conflict of interest, ethics, openness and transparency – so many things they disdained.

In C.10 B.III, Montaigne also writes of his father, who was asked to be the mayor of Bordeaux (as was Montaigne himself, many years later),

He had heard it said that we must forget ourselves for our neighbour, and that the individual was not to be considered at all in comparison with the general.

In other words, before his father (and in his turn, Montaigne) took the job, he understood that it entailed elevating the greater good over his own selfish wants and needs. There was no place for a personal agenda in municipal politics. Montaigne said of his father, “…there was never a more kindly and public-spirited soul.”

How very unlike Saunderson’s Block. In our council, personal agendas and private vendettas have dominated the time at the table. The greater good has no place because The Block have no public spirit. They raised our taxes three times in order to pay themselves more each time. They voted Councillor Jeffrey an unlimited expense account to fly around the country pursuing her personal political goals (yes: unlimited expenses, with no oversight or need to justify them).

But what have they done for the rest of the community? For the greater good? Nothing, of course. They ruined the town’s reputation, ruined our relationships with our municipal neighbours and partners, they alienated the hospital, destroyed staff morale, incurred enormous new expenses and hired unnecessary staff, delayed an airport development with hundreds of jobs, and created a rift with the Ministry of Health – all to serve their personal agendas.

The brave public spirit of Mayor Cooper and Councillor Lloyd are no match for the power of the selfishness and the unrelenting nastiness of The Block.

In this chapter, Montaigne also makes a salient point that relates well to all those sole-sourced consultants and lawyers the interim CAO has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on:

For it is not new for the sages to preach things as they serve, not as they are.

Screech translates sages as “clever men,” but the meaning is the same: these people tell you what you pay them to say and their advice is as valuable as the ink and paper wasted to print it. As the old saw goes, a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time. And a lawyer is someone who keeps the watch. They’ve been bought to reinforce the administration’s preconceptions, and reinforce the conspiracy theories, nothing more.

There is one quotation in Ch.10 in which The Block align perfectly with Montaigne. It involves his municipal administration:

I am accused of doing nothing when almost everyone else was guilty of doing too much! (trans. Saul Frampton)

The public continues to compare the many, community-minded accomplishments of the last council with the utter lack of them in this term.

I could go on, picking up lines to quote and comment on, but I will stop for now. My point, I think has been made here and in previous posts: authors have been writing about politics, about human behaviour, about morality and ethics and responsibility since writing was first invented. Little good it has done us, in no small part because The Block Don’t Read. And even if they did, their ideology doesn’t allow them to accept anything that contradicts or informs them otherwise. Facts have as little place in their ideology as ethics or the greater good.

But some of you, dear readers, are considering running for council next election (I already know a half dozen who have made this claim). For all our sakes, I encourage you to read about politics, ethics, laws, morality, responsibility and, yes, philosophy. There is always something to be learned by those – unlike The Block – with an open mind.

I hope you will also choose – because it’s always a choice how we act – to put the community first in all your decisions. To break the culture of secrecy and be open, honest, transparent and engage the public. To ask questions, to use reason and to assess all options and get facts before deciding. What a difference that would be from this term.

Collingwood deserves better and you have a chance to be helps us get it back.

The symphony of government

A good government in operation is like a symphony: disparate parts, dozens of different instruments and performers, each in their own space and place, all working together under the benign management of a conductor. When working in harmony, they are a delight to hear and see. There’s no “me” in a symphony: it’s the result of a remarkably efficient collaboration and trust of everyone involved.

To be good, to sound good, they all have to watch the baton, to play and move in syncopation and in harmony. They all need to be tuned to the same pitch (A440). Singers need to listen to the cadence, the pitch, and sing in tune and on time. There’s a lot going on in every bar, so they all pay attention. They all need an implicit trust in one another that – without each one having to oversee his or her neighbour – they all work together to achieve a common goal. It is a remarkable experience.

But a symphony is not simply an auditory experience: it’s something to be seen, to be felt, to be experienced. That is quadrupled if it is an opera, or choral piece. In the video above, the metaphor shines: here is Verdi’s familiar Anvil Chorus from his opera, Il trovatore, performed by the The Royal Opera Company. It’s a stunning production that looks as lovely as it sounds. Who can help but be moved by it?

That’s what good, effective and efficient government should be like: hundreds of pieces moving together towards a common goal under a single conductor. A symphony, metaphorically speaking.

Life coach Michael Hyatt has a blog post on why life is like an orchestra, but it applies to government as well. He says there are five components to an orchestra:

  1. Diversity;
  2. Space;
  3. Pace;
  4. Common purpose;
  5. A plan.

Ultimately an orchestra is judged by its results: the musical performance, and for that performance to achieve its goal (that is: audience appreciation), all those parts have to be in synch. Most of the audience pay little attention to the individual performers, to the space or diversity or the parts listed above: it’s the music that they attend to. It’s the final result that matters.

This is equally true of government: most people pay little attention to the processes, the procedures, the codes of conduct, the staff reports, the flatulent ruminations of sole-sourced lawyers or the dreary pontifications of CAOs. They see only the result: whether the community is working well. Is it safe? Clean? Are there places to work and play? Schools? Are taxes affordable? Are sidewalks and roads in good condition? Can I drink the water from my tap? Is there housing? Are there jobs?

Imagine for a moment the conductor in the performance above waving his or her hands randomly. Imagine different parts of the orchestra trying to play different songs. Imagine the performers striking the anvils at will, each on his or her own time. Imagine the instruments playing at different time signatures. Or different sheet music entirely. It wouldn’t be a symphony: it would be a cacophony.

Such is the state of Collingwood’s municipal politics today. While council should be the collective conductor acting through the mayor, we instead have multiple conductors, each trying to force the orchestra (staff) to play their own tune. While Mayor Cooper tries to wave the town baton in time with the municipal music, the deputy mayor has gone rogue, madly waving his own baton to a tune only he can hear, while behind him the interim CAO props up Brian’s arms to control the motions according to his own corner-office theme song. And there are sole-sourced lawyers and consultants brought in to wave their batons at the same time. It’s chaos.

Ruling a great country is like cooking a small fish.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, verse 60.

This is also translated as an imperative: “Rule a big country as you would fry a small fish.” (Lin Yutang translation). In other words: delicately. With subtlety and attention. Carefully. Not the hamfisted stumbling and fumbling of The Block. Not with the flailing clumsiness of the deputy mayor and interim CAO duo.
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The Dude, the Tao and the Dharma

The DudeI suppose it all began with Benjamin Hoff. Hoff was one of the first contemporary writers to attempt to distill Taoism in a lighthearted form for Westerners when he wrote The Tao of Pooh in 1981, a very successful book still in print. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 49 weeks. A decade later, he followed with The Te of Piglet, less successful (its message somewhat diluted by Hoff’s extraneous political and social commentary) but also still in print.

Not that Hoff was the first Westerner to attempt to explain Asian philosophy and religion. That goes back to Marco Polo. However, it really got a head of steam in the late 19th century when there was a flurry of translations of almost all of the Asian classics, from the Vedas to Zen stories. A lot of these translations are still in print, although newer, better ones are available. And in the 1950s and 60s came a second wave, first as the beatniks, then the hippies adopted some of these beliefs. Sometimes even seriously and sincerely.

But not everyone was Jack Kerouac. Most of these books were serious stuff: the work of scholars and translators determined to open the intellectual doors for Western minds. Similar efforts were undertaken to Anglicize Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Sumerian and other classics. It was an intellectual exercise, which often only confounded the average worker.

In 1971, Be Here Now, a seminal work by Baba Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert) presented the ideas of Asian philosophy in a graphically entertaining manner (it’s still in print). It did a remarkably good job of clarifying and distilling a lot of ideas and practices. However, it was still stuffier than Hoff in its presentation of those ideas.

Hoff made it fun, made it easy to read. He disarmed readers by explaining everything in comments and discussions by the lovable A. A. Milne characters, and who can’t love a cuddly teddy bear discussing the meaning of life with a stuffed toy pig? The dialogues went like this:

Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “That that’s why he never understands anything.”

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Thrasymachus and The Block

ThrasymachusThere’s a character in Plato’s Republic called Thrasymachus who acts as a foil to Socrates by presenting a series of comments and arguments the old philosopher has to debate and counter. He (Thrasymachus) is based on an actual historical figure, a Sophist from the fifth century BCE. It’s unknown if the views Plato has him voice are those of the real person, or simply a literary device to advance Socrates’ (and thus Plato’s) arguments.

Of late, I’ve been reading Alan Bloom’s translation of The Republic. At the same time, I’m listening to the Great Courses 36-lecture series on Why Evil Exists, in which Thrasymachus is discussed (in only one of the lectures so far, mind you). He seemed very familiar to me, perhaps a stereotype of people we know of locally.

Thrasymachus seems to me like he would make the perfect member of The Block on Collingwood Council. His rigid views, his refusal to be swayed by reason, his disdain for others who have different ideas – at least as Plato describes them – are remarkably similar to those held by The Block. Or at least by its leader, since most of the rest are merely meat puppets with no real thoughts of their own. Thrasymachus states:

Listen, then. I say justice is nothing other than what is advantageous for the stronger.

The basic argument Plato has him make is against Socrates’ assertion that justice is important in a society, that justice is served for the greater good. Thrasymachus, in Book I, counters by saying justice is nothing more than the advantage of the strong over the weak. What’s good for those in power equals justice. In other words: might makes right.

…in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is, that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.

Which is exactly how The Block govern. They have the might (a majority of seven out of nine council members), so they vote in rigid lockstep to accomplish subversive goals and further their private agendas regardless of the impact on the public, on residents, on taxpayers. Regardless of whether what they do is actually the right thing for the community. Their concept of right is simply what is good for them. They don’t care a whit for justice unless it empowers or entitles them. Might even allows them to continue to pursue personal vendettas at the public expense. Great expense, too.
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The strange life of Bobby Fischer

Bobby FischerForty five years ago this month, a momentous event took place in Iceland that shook the world. After 21 games spread over almost two months, the eccentric American chess master, Bobby Fischer, ended 24 years of Soviet dominance in chess after beating Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky. It shook the world at the apex of the Cold War. I watched it unfold, a memory I will always  carry.

Many years later, former Russian grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, commented,

…in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the Soviet authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West. That’s why the Spassky defeat […] was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War.

Back in those days, I played chess with more enthusiasm, skill and grace than I can muster today. Bobby Fischer was one of my early chess idols whose games I followed (I still have books of his games on my shelves). I remember very clearly that year when he was playing Boris Spassky in Iceland. 

I was working in a bookstore in Toronto back then, in that summer of 1972. Every day after a game had been played, I would go out at lunch and get a newspaper. With my chess-playing co-workers, we would go over the match move by move. Try variants, explore alternatives, discuss the results. And look in awe at what masterpieces he wrought on the chessboard.

It wasn’t just the game or the skill of the moves that fascinated me (not all of those games are great, I admit). It was the sudden appearance of chess in the forefront of Cold War geopolitics and the larger implications of the match on the world stage. If you didn’t live through the era, it’s hard to explain how the Cold War affected international and domestic politics, or how a chess match could be the fulcrum of boisterous nationalism on both sides of the divide.

But in the summer of 1972, chess was newsworthy, gaining front page status, and time on the evening TV broadcasts. Chess was cool, chess was sexy, chess was in – not just for me, but for all of pop culture. Chess sets sold faster than they could be stocked. And 29-year-old Bobby Fischer was its golden boy. 

Last week, I started reading Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, by Frank Brady. It is the most comprehensive biography of Fischer yet and reminds me somewhat of Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs: both subjects were troubled, difficult but brilliant men. Both ran off the rails, but Jobs always managed to get back. Fischer never did. It’s a heart-rending, troubling, but fascinating story.

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Assholes part two: Trump and his local mimics

Asshole: A Theory of Donald TrumpBack in 2014 I reviewed a book by philosophy professor Aaron James called Assholes. A Theory. I discussed how his study related to politics and politicians, particularly those who call themselves “A-type” personalities (including one or two on the local council).

Well James wrote another book, really an addendum to this one, titled Assholes. A Theory of Donald Trump. It was smaller than your average paperback, and a mere 130 pages, perhaps 20,000 words long. And since it came out just before the 2016 presidential election, it really doesn’t deal with the startling number of asshole things – the many, many asshole things – Trump has done since then. Perhaps that might come in a sequel. A much larger, longer sequel. A multi-volume work it would have to be, to really do him justice.

I picked the book up this weekend during my visit to Toronto, and read it cover to cover. Sure, it’s a bit dated but it still has meaning in today’s politics. And it relates to our own local council even more than the first book. (Check out the author’s website, too.)

James didn’t merely pen a screed against Trump. That’s been done, is still being done by savvy media and political commentators worldwide. Trump is an easy target for so many reasons, not least of all because he lies often and aggressively and is both ignorant and a clown. Nothing you don’t already know about him. Nothing the whole world doesn’t know about him.

No, this is much deeper than a single asshole, even one that big and that pompous. It – like his earlier book – is reflective of a whole culture of the ignorati that has risen worldwide. Trump is merely the most visible icon of darkness as the intellectual lights go out.

James examines a trend in politics that has seen the rise to dominance of similar assholes in numerous nations. And along with the asshole in charge comes a parallel government and bureaucracy that sees the ignorati, the illiterati, and the anti-intellectuals elevated to power. As we see in the USA, bigoted, theocratic, right-wing dictatorships and oligarchies are emerging in what were once democratic nations. More and more of them are looking and acting more and more like North Korea or Iran these days.
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Three, six, seven, nine… how many basic plots?

Seven plots?When I was in school, back in the last century, I was taught there were three basic plots in which every story ever written could be classified: Man-vs-man, man-vs-nature and man-vs-himself. That was in the days when it wasn’t politically incorrect to use the word man to mean everyone. Today we’d say it differently, use other pronouns, but the meaning is the same.

Three is a bit simplistic, sure. The list has been expanded on by authors, academics and critics ever since. And by robots, too. Last summer, a story in The Atlantic told of university researchers who used software to parse through 2,000 works of literature to determine there six basic plots:

  1. Rags to Riches (rise)
  2. Riches to Rags (fall)
  3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  4. Icarus (rise then fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Which is one less than Christopher Booker lists in his lengthy 2004 book,The Seven Basic Plots:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

Around the end of his book, Booker actually lists two more plots which are, historically speaking, not as common (by his assessment, they are late additions to our literary canon, although I think that could be argued against), so he discounts them as less important:

  1. Rebellion Against ‘The One
  2. Mystery

Both genres are popular today and should not be overlooked (where would we be without Star Wars or the DaVinci Code?). So it’s really nine plots. Or more? Booker has two variants under the ‘Rags to Riches’ plot: failure and hollow victory. If you include them as separate themes, the seven in the title expands to eleven.

But can one really reduce all writing to such a short list? Do all stories fit so comfortably into these archetypes? Some find it easy to poke holes in such generalizations. Others to broaden the spectrum with more items on their own list.
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The hospital, the trolley and political ethics

Trolley problemIn its decision about the redevelopment of the Collingwood General & Marine Hospital, Collingwood Council is evidently taking the track less travelled, trolleyology-wise. Seen as an ethical issue, our council has chosen to act against the greater good.

Trolleyology is the somewhat humourous name given to philosophical intellectual exercises or thought problems about our ethics and ethical choices. As Wikipedia describes it, the basic problem (and there are many, many variants) is simple:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

I first wrote about the “trolley problem” back in 2014. I’ve since been reading about it and learning more about what the answers say about our morals and ethics. My current reading is Would You Kill the Fat Man? by David Edmonds (Princeton University press, 2014). Edmonds takes the reader through a wide range of trolley scenarios – the title derives from one of them – and elaborates on the ethical nature of each.

But let’s stick to the base scenario: one person versus five. A minority versus the majority. As Wikipedia also points out, “The trolley problem has been the subject of many surveys in which approximately 90% of respondents have chosen to kill the one and save the five.” And yet, contrary to that statistic, Collingwood Council – or more specifically, the Block of Seven – has chosen not to pull the lever. They chose the minority.

All political issues, all political decisions are basically trolley problems. In every one, politicians have to choose between the special interests, friends, relatives, neighbours, lobbyists and the greater good – what is best for the community. Do they put aside petty ideologies and make decisions in the best interests of the community at large, or do they pursue their own personal agendas, power grabs, and vendettas?

It has always been thus. The father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, wrote, “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.” And it is the greater good – the action that serves the betterment or interests of the greater number – that is always viewed as the proper choice, the moral choice. Anything else is viewed as elitism, entitlement and corruption.

Given the polarizing nature of politics, however, “do nothing” is seldom a real choice. It’s seen as weak, spineless, vague – like deferring a decision when a crowd is present simply shows you’re too cowardly to make a stand in public. There are consequences and liabilities even when you do seem to nothing.
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The dystopian present

Dystopia
If there is one good thing to come out of the election of Donald Trump, it has been the renewed interest in a certain genre of literature. Sales of dystopian novels have skyrocketed on Amazon, in particular what might be called “The Big Three” of dystopian tales: George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

From each of these novels, allegorical threads can be woven into some narrative aspect as a metaphor for the Trump administration: 1984’s newspeak, media manipulation and paranoid Big Brother; Brave New World’s elites-vs-savages mentality, exiled intellectuals and its psychological manipulation; Handmaid’s Tale misogyny and control of women’s reproductive rights.

But only in Bernard Wolfe’s 1952 dystopian novel, Limbo 90, did I find a metaphor for Trump’s followers (it was also published in the USA titled simply Limbo).

Wolfe’s novel is set in what was for him a dimly foreseeable future: 1990, after the atomic-bomb destruction of WWIII. An American, he was writing during the early years of the Cold War and blossoming Red Scare: the pinnacle of the McCarthy witch hunts. In his imagined future, Wolfe pictured the Soviet and Western Blocs still surviving, at least ideologically, but changed by the war.

What has changed most is society: after the latest conflict that devastated so much of the world, the populace grew so weary of war that pacifist politics came to be the norm. But pacifists became radicalized. Words alone didn’t count (although there are plenty of anti-war slogans around): you needed to prove your resistance to war. And the only way to do it was to have a limb voluntarily amputated. Or two, three, four… to become a Vol-amp.

For some, the lost limbs were replaced by prosthetics, worn with pride to show off their dedication to the pacifist principles. The more radical eschewed the pros entirely and simply lumped in baskets, limbless, passive, and immobile: the Immobs. Amputees of both sorts are now in the majority of males. (Women don’t follow suit because in Wolfe’s time, women were not allowed into active military service, and people of colour are pretty much reduced to servitude.).

Trump’s followers didn’t amputate their limbs, of course, but they did amputate a part of themselves. Or rather parts. They amputated their reason, their intellect, their empathy, their logic, their critical thinking and skepticism. They voluntarily stopped thinking and became intellectual Immobs, no less passive than those in Wolfe’s tale. You can see the metaphor here.

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Empathy and The Dog Allusion

Coming to empathyEmpathy, writes Martin Rowson, is one of the things that make us human, make us civilized, allows us to interact without tearing one another’s throats out. Without it, we’d have no civilization; we’d be like the beasts of the fields. And we’d have no dogs or gods, either. Empathy is what makes us own pets and be religious.

That’s one of the thought-provoking ideas Rowson tosses around in his book, The Dog Allusion (Vintage Books, London, 2008). The title, as I’m sure you are aware, is a pun on Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion.

Rowson has a lot to say about religion – and not much of it flattering, but generally he’s not as acerbic as Dawkins or Hitchens. Religion, however central to his arguments, is not the book’s sole focus. It isn’t a comprehensive screed against religion or even a paen to atheism; rather it’s a series of essays on various topics into which religion often is cast. The book hasn’t received a lot of attention or garnered many reviews from what I can find, but that may be because most of his readers are likely already on his side of the philosophical fence. It may also be that he meanders. A lot. Still, he offers up a good set of arguments worth pondering, even for the converted.

I am not here to wade into his comments on religion quite yet, however, but rather to comment on his notions about empathy – about which I agree, at least somewhat. I have often felt that the single most important attribute in a politician is empathy. Without it, the political road leads to all sorts of tyrannies and egocentric self-entitlement. Without empathy, politicians raise taxes, utility rates, user fees without consideration of their actual impact. Just like they do here in Collingwood.

Having dealt with numerous politicians in my day (and been among their ranks, municipally, for more than a decade), I sometimes think having intelligence would be a better place to start listing desirable attributes. After all, the first thing every politician should have is the wit to understand the consequences of their actions. Yet so many don’t have it. SO many act as if they were the centre of the universe and their actions have no impact on others. But let’s not talk about The Block right now. That’s just depressing. Let’s talk in general terms, first.

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Reading Moby Dick

Moby Dick big readRecently, coincidental to while I was reading Herman Melville’s classic novel, I read a story that some folks in Vancouver took offence to the name of a restaurant: Moby Dick’s Fish & Chips.

Apparently the property overseers mistook the “Dick” in the name for a euphemism for penis, rather than reading the name of the famous novel in the whole title. A wholly puerile response, I’m sure you can agree. Perhaps many people in Vancouver haven’t even heard of the book, let alone read it, otherwise why would anyone protest? Which is a much sadder statement that the one about political correctness gone wild that the news story makes. It exposes the threadbare fabric of the protesters’ cultural upbringing and education.

But despite these philistines, I finished the book. It took a long time because it’s a long book (more than 206,000 words) and not the easiest to read for several reasons. Not least is my absolute loathing of the whaling industry and the killing of sentient cetaceans. And frankly, my aversion to the whaling aspect had stymied my several previous attempts to finish the novel. But this time I persisted, and was rewarded for the effort.

It’s also difficult because of the way Melville wrote it (first published in 1851) – dense, florid, perambulating stuff. It’s not so much a novel as an extended meditation on sailing, the ocean, whales, whaling, ship technology, weather, natives of the South Seas, the commerce of Nantucket, American values, religion, life and fate. Among other things. He digresses often and at great length. But those digressions add such riches to the narrative that you can’t really bypass them.

Moby Dick is one of those many “must read before I die” books that I have on my bookshelves that I know are great milestones in literature, but have either not caught my prior interest or simply defeated my attempts in the past (I tend to read mostly non-fiction and a lot of it). Many of these titles I know somewhat of through synopses or abridgments, through other media like movies, or through my childhood favourite: Classic Comics. Moby Dick is one of those: I’ve seen the movie, read the comic, read it analyzed and dissected in other books.

A few years back I wrote a post on Melville’s poetry, inspired by reading his powerful poem, The Shark, which got me to thinking about him. Last year, I stood in the Melville Hotel, in Mazatlan, built in the 1870s, and named after the author who had stayed in the town in 1844. That also got me thinking about Melville again.

And finally, I was watching an episode of CSI on DVD, one day in 2016, and the character Gil Grissom, when asked what would he do if he had more time to live, replied he would read Moby Dick again. That stuck with me. It seemed incongruous, and I wondered what impelled the script writers to add that line; why that book. My curiosity was aroused, which encouraged me to finally pick up Moby Dick and not give it up.

Easier said than done (I read around a dozen books at a time, and flit from one to the other every day). But I had help. I came across Moby Dick: Big Read, a project to bring the novel back to prominence through art, and through a reading of its entirety.

All 135 chapters plus the epilogue are read by different people. Normally I don’t like my audiobooks read by such a diverse group, and prefer just one reader, but this worked marvellously well.

I read, I listened, I read some more. I sometimes read a chapter then listened to it. Sometimes I listened to one, but unable to complete it on my walks, returned to finish it through reading. Sometimes I listened then went back to read the words again simply to see if the rhythms were the same as when spoken.
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Auden, Trump and poetry

W. H. AudenThere’s a poem by W. H. Auden (1907-73) going the internet rounds these days with suggestions of Auden’s prescience towards the latest American president and contemporary politics. It’s a powerful piece, but the bad news for conspiracy theorists is that Auden was a poet, not a prophet. A good poet, even a great poet, mind you, but not one to predict much of anything outside the local reaches of the human heart.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unusual, perhaps bordering on blasphemy, to put poetry in the same headline as the notorious philistine, but worlds do collide at times, even if awkwardly. Lipstick sometimes becomes conflated with the metaphorical pig, guilty by association.

The poem in question – Sept. 1, 1939 – opens like it could have been written by a somewhat later Charles Bukowski:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Waves of anger and fear/ Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth… sure sounds like it might have been written with the vast protests that followed Trump’s inauguration: more three times as many people came out to protest in Washington alone than showed up at his inauguration, and that doesn’t include the numbers who marched worldwide. Waves of anger and fear, indeed. But it wasn’t an augury.

September 1, 1939 would have been for Auden’s era and generation a landmark date, like Nov. 22, 1963 was for my time. Maybe January 20, 2017 will be for the current generation. One of those where-were-you-when dates frozen in the neuronic amber of memory. The place, the sounds, the grubby details of that day forever etched in our brains. Auden’s 52nd Street dive. The panzers tearing across Polish farmlands. People running through the crowded streets of Dallas after the shot. The bleak day when Trump raised his hand to be sworn in. Where you you when…?

The date must have been doubly important for Auden, because earlier that year he had left England for America, where he remained the rest of his life. When war was declared, he offered to return home to serve, but was politely rebuffed. At age 32, he wasn’t needed. He stayed in America from then on – making it somewhat difficult to identify him as a strictly English or American poet in anthologies. So the poem is, in a way, a goodbye to a life he left behind.

Auden had increasingly deep political beliefs that sometimes peer through his writing and show their complexity growing with age and wisdom. He spent a year living in Berlin in 1928, and would return to the city several times before WWII broke out. He watched the rise of fascism, anti-semitism. He loved Berlin, but hated what it became under the Nazis.
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On growing old

The first senior's moment

No man is so old that he does not think himself able to live another year. (Nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere)

I was thinking of that line from Cicero this week when I attended a friend’s drop-in post-Christmas party. Most of the many people in attendance were my age or older. Few were under 50. All were active, engaged, alert, conversing and despite the relentless march of time, as alive that evening as they had ever been in their lives. And I suspect most, like me, believe they have many more years, even decades of life ahead of them. We all do, no matter how old we get.

And Canadians have good reason for that optimism, given our high standard of living, our clean air, water, our access to good, healthy food, our civil society, and our excellent publicly-funded health care service. In Canada old age in reasonable health and mental acuity is available for most of us, not just the rich.

As a generation, we are, I think, changing the conversation about aging; changing the social and cultural context around growing old and the inevitable death we all face. It’s in part because the Boomer generation has reached the threshold where death is not some distant possibility and we recognize that. It’s here. Nearby. We read the obituaries of contemporary friends and pop icons almost daily.

But because we have approached our lives more actively and energetically than many previous generations, we bring our optimism to aging. And for many a more pragmatic, accepting approach to death.

I just finished reading two translations of Cicero’s book Cato Maior de Senectute – variously translated as On Aging, On Growing Old or as Philip Freeman gives us, How to Grow Old, written in 44 BCE when Cicero was 62. I recommend it to everyone for its clear, practical approach to old age and dying.

It’s not really a manual, as Freeman’s title suggests (and his, I believe, is the best translation), rather it was written as a series of conversations between an older man and two younger men. Cicero puts his own thoughts and reflections on age into the mouth of the late Cato the Elder (Marcus Porcius Cato) to “give my essay greater weight” as Cicero himself wrote. You can read a Loeb Classic translation from 1923 here.
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The vulgar crowd

HoraceProfanum vulgus. The vulgar crowd. Not, however, as you might suspect, an apt description of the remaining few supporters of The Block that rules Collingwood Council. While perhaps appropriately described, to me that small handful are better described as naïve, gullible and even intellectually vulnerable, moreso than merely vulgar. But that’s not what this post is about.

Odi profanum volgus et arceo. The words open the first ode in Horace’s third book (Carminum Liber Tertius): I shun the profane crowd. Or the uninitiated crowd. The rabble, or mob. As A.S.Kline translates it:

I hate the vulgar crowd, and keep them away:
grant me your silence. A priest of the Muses,
I sing a song never heard before,
I sing a song for young women and boys.

True, the poem has a subtle political context that might make one think of the Block and their disingenuous election campaign, as Kline translates:

It’s true that one man will lay out his vineyards
over wider acres than will his neighbour,
that one candidate who descends to
the Campus, will maintain that he’s nobler,

another’s more famous, or has a larger
crowd of followers: but Necessity sorts
the fates of high and low with equal
justice: the roomy urn holds every name.

The poem is really about the equality that death brings everyone and the pointlessness of our base pursuits. That roomy, capacious urn at the end of the line is where we all eventually end up regardless of our status and wealth. Horace also contemplates how little riches and rank offer in comparison to his small Sabine farm, and says how content he is with his lot.

But as usual, Horace isn’t that simple; the poem has more to contemplate than just one notion. I’m trying to understand it all and the choice of words in the translation matter.
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