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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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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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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Does anyone still read books?

Reading statisticsI came across an early version of this infographic on Facebook and it shook me to my core. You can see it here. The updated and corrected infographic is shown to the right. It is only marginally less distressing than the earlier one.

Unfortunately, the early one, although inaccurate and misleading, is still being shared. That early graphic is based on some disputed statistics and unfounded claims, but it’s worth examining to understand my reaction.

Reading is so central to my life that the notion that anyone would stop reading books simply gobsmacks me. I can barely go eight hours without reading one or more books, let alone years or even decades. That would be like a life sentence in solitary confinement.

Worse, think about the dangers an un-reading public presents to any democracy. How will people understand issues, how will they pick their leaders, how will they make their life choices if they don’t read. Television cannot educate them, especially not with our politicized media and its reduction of content to a few seconds of video and soundbites, set free from the mooring of context. And the internet has fragmented it even more. As Ray Bradbury said in 1993:

The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. Look at the magazines, the newspapers around us – it’s all junk, all trash, tidbits of news. The average TV ad has 120 images a minute. Everything just falls off your mind. … You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. Ray Bradbury, 1993, interviewed by Misha Berson.

I have books stacked beside the bed, in our washrooms; I carry books with me in the car, in my shoulder bag, luggage, to conferences and conventions, large ones for the table, fat ones for the bed, small ones that can fit in my coat pocket…*

What a sad life non-readers live. I cannot imagine the intellectual poverty of someone who doesn’t read regularly and passionately. **

There are plenty of sites with statistics about reading online, few of which offer any uplifting news. But there are also far too many sites with dubious or unattributed figures. For example, on Statistics Brain I read that:

  • Total percent of U.S. high school graduates who will never read a book after high school: 33%
  • Total percentage of college students who will never read another book after they graduate: 42%

Scary, yes, but not true. What is the source of this data? Without a reference to the research, without the methodology, sample size, or source, this is meaningless. It becomes just more internet codswallop, tossed into the same intellectual wastebin as chemtrails and homeopathy. But this is the stuff people seem to share.
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