Friday, May 11, 2018

A peroration, personal

But for our generation and the generation that is coming the lyric cry of ecstasy or despair which is so intense, so personal and so limited, is not enough.  The mind is full of monstrous, hybrid, unimaginable emotions.  That the age of the earth is 3,000,000,000 years; that the human life lasts but a second; that the capacity of the human mind is nevertheless boundless; that life is infinitely beautiful yet repulsive; that one’s fellow creatures are adorable but disgusting; that science and religion have between them destroyed belief; that all bonds of union seem broken, yet some control must exist—it is in this atmosphere of doubt and conflict that writers have now to create, and the fine fabric of a lyric is no more fitted to contain this point of view than a rose leaf to envelop the rugged immensity of a rock. 
                                                       Virginia Woolf
                                                       “Poetry, Fiction, and the Future,” 
                                                        Essays 4: 429-30; 1927

These words—with their sense of paradox and gloom that implicitly challenge the autonomy of art—could have been written for those of us living over ninety years later.  That there are an unprecedented 650,600,000 refugees who have had to leave their homes.  That poverty worldwide has decreased substantially; that the gap between rich and poor grows ever greater.  That we can find our “tribe” on Facebook, but that racism has seldom seemed so permissible nor privacy so threatened.  That scientists and scholars and artists delve deeper and deeper into the complexities of our world and our humanity.  That large groups of people want our humanity to be defined by a single ideology—religious fundamentalisms or capitalism.  That more people die at the hands of extreme weather than at the hands of terrorists.  That we struggle to be in the moment, appreciating the hesitant green notes of spring.  That we cannot, with respect to the health of ourselves and our planet, think about the future.  That we cannot ignore our cell phones.  That nearly thirty years after feminism’s Third Wave we need #me too.  That we are connected as we have never been; that so many of us are alone.  How can formalism, art, lyric poetry, beauty be a counterweight to the despair many of us feel after the evening news?

            Woolf’s art was woven “between the acts,” between the two World Wars, on the warp of history with the weft of form, in pursuit of the kind of beauty she first wrote of in her apprentice diaries, and of an honest engagement with the historical moment and with the reader.  Definitions of the autonomy of art vary widely, with  music critic, Theodor Adorno, arguing for a kind of pure autonomy—as he could, given his framework.  Gregory Jusdanis is rather relaxed about the autonomy of art, choosing metaphors that emphasize the many ways art remains true to itself and its vision while still relating to its historical moment.  Woolf, of course, did not have the benefit of these; she wrote in the climate of Roger Fry’s fervent questions and Clive Bell’s certainty.  She wrote without benefit of terms like “implied author” or “free indirect discourse”; indeed, she found herself, as artist and public intellectual, embroiled in arguments about what constituted literature’s artfulness and its legitimate resources, and whether these compromised the integrity of the work of art.  

            But she left us some touchstones.  She believed in form and formalism.  Her diaries, which record her often joyful, often fraught struggles with her work, almost always highlight her efforts to find the form that will contain her conception.  She did not have the benefit of more recent philosophers who assert that form guarantees a work’s autonomy, but she intuited it nevertheless.  One the one hand, the creation of a form was part of the hopeful play that infused her creative experience and expression.  On the other hand, that creation of a form allowed her to find or create the surprising, illuminating perspective from which both she and her readers could consider themselves and the world.

            In Three Guineas, Woolf’s narrator tells us that her interlocutor’s letter makes her believe in the efficacy of art.  A Room of One’s Own begins with “But…”  These two beautiful, tendentious essays (along with many others in her oeuvre) nevertheless affirm how profoundly Woolf believed that her work was a conversation that was open to each reader.  Her later diaries reveal how much despair she felt when historical circumstances made it impossible for those readers to concentrate and to reply. Yet readers of Woolf have found a surprising comfort in her work, partly because her address to the reader allows us to feel we are not alone:  we are talking with  Woolf—and what a conversation it is.

            Beauty as method and as subject infused her work—whether it was the beauty of Clarissa’s roses or of La Trobe’s “sham lure.”  The first Woolf novel I read was Jacob’s Room, found in a tiny bookstore in Venice that carried very few works in English.  When I finished it I said “I have no idea what this means, but it was so beautiful,” and immediately began to re-read it.  I have a feeling that beauty has thrust many readers back into her work.

            Like Woolf, each artist working now, unable to take his or her eyes off threats to safety, well-being, culture, off a society infused with intolerance and lack of belief in the rule of law—threats to themselves and to complete strangers—will nevertheless have to negotiate his or her relationship with the art of the past and the readers of the future.  Each can benefit from the variety of strategies Woolf uses to affirm two important things.  First, your private experience and private opinions count.  You needn’t be powerful or famous or an ace TV detective for your experience to matter.  Your relationship with art is one of the foundational privacies of your life.  But at the same time, art is social, a chance for us to have conversations, both listening and talking.  Her omniscient narrator of Jacob’s Room contemplates the lonely challenges of modern life, imagining our crises of identity and purpose:  “Is this all?  Can I never know, share, be certain?  Am I doomed all my days to write letters, send voices, which fall upon the tea-table, fade upon the passage, making appointments, while life dwindles, to come and dine?  Yet letters are venerable; and the telephone valiant, for the journey is a lonely one, and if bound together by notes and telephones we went in company, perhaps—who knows?—we might talk by the way” (126).     

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Art as experience

I don't know how long I've lived in a world where art is important--central, even.  How long I've sought it out or gotten lost in it.  In spite of our relative poverty as a family whose income came from a small radio and TV repair business, we had family tickets to the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra from the time I was about eight.  I remember vividly that if I sat back in my seat my legs stuck straight out.  I can also see the small white cotton gloves embroidered with flowers at the wrist that I wore to such occasions.  I can remember hearing composers like Copland, Bartok, Brahms, Wagner, who were not residents of our vinyl record collection, and being absolutely overwhelmed by these brilliant orchestral sounds.  I've written elsewhere in this blog about going to the library with my mother or to the bookmobile down the street.  Just as I can remember concerts, so can I remember being way too young to read Jane Eyre, but reading the "world's classics" (illustrated) copy I had brought home.  And the scene I remember most vividly?  Jane's rebellion against the restraints placed on girls--that we are to be quiet, better-behaved than boys.  I was constantly breaking that rule, and it was so comforting to meet someone who felt as I did.  I also remember walking alone, through the "ghetto" that separated middle-class neighbourhoods like ours and the city's downtown, to go to the small art gallery where the walls were covered in competent paintings of Madonnas.  Or seeing Alberto Giacometti's bronzes at the small gallery at the University of Michigan, the very under-attended gallery that I regularly visited.  I taught English literature classes for forty years, taking my students on the same journey.

So how is it that I've forgotten one of the half dozen truths about art:  that we enter any work of art through our experience of it?  In  English classes we foreground literature's formal and intellectual qualities through our posing of dozens of questions.  What formal choices does the author make?  What kind of narrator?  What poetic forms?  What is she or he doing with figurative language?  What is the ideology of the plot--its assumptions about how the world works and how the people in that world behave?  What does it all mean and how does it mean?

But when you pick up a book or go to a concert, these analytical questions are far from top of mind.  You read for the experience--for the chance to spend time in another world with people you've never met.  You've chosen this book because of the blurb on the back about the plot or the premise, because you loved the voice in the first paragraph.  The language the author uses promises a different perspective on the world--and besides, it's so beautiful!  You seek beauty, shock, terror, comfort.  You want to understand how other people in the world manage change and challenge.  Even Virginia Woolf, formalist as she was, said that we read to see the world through the eyes of other people.  She also said at one point that one of the reasons humans have created civilization is that we love reading.

Nineteenth-century thinker and aesthete Walter Pater once said that "All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music."  Never mind the tortured syntax--which explains why I can only read so much Pater at a time:  "aspires toward"?  But I think in some ways he's right.  Outside of university music departments, we seldom ask what Beethoven's Third Symphony means or what Bach's supremely abstract partitas or two-part inventions say about the world.  Much music "means" itself and has nothing to do with the world.  When I'm listening to Shostakovich's magnificent Ninth Symphony, which has all kinds of historical and political baggage, I don't hear the baggage.  Rather, I mainline its expression of feelings.  The same thing happens when I hear Ella Fitzgerald singing "Autumn in New York" or Fred Hirsh playing Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."  Yes, I know that there are all kinds of racial issues swirling around these two performances, and I really can't listen to them without feeling race around the edges of my experience.  But that is quickly replaced by gratitude and then immersion in the song.  At least jazz gave gifted black musicians and composers an audience for their voices and stories.  But when all is said and done, it is the experience of the song that takes over, prompting me to sway my hips a little bit as I sing out loud to the cats--and then am silenced by the joy I take from Fitzgerald's and Hirsh's impeccable musicianship.

"A poem should not mean, but be."  I had to memorize Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica" in grade nine for my English teacher, Mr. McElhany, whose question "Do you write poetry?" turned me overnight into a poet.  (I was sixteen and he was very sexy.)  We argued about this line endlessly, and I still can not quite sort it out.  Poetry, after a long period of "being,"--which I suppose I mean it didn't take a recognizably political stance, even though everything is political--has come out in favour of meaning, of using the power of poetry to address issues that still trouble the world, issues like race, poverty, injustice, climate change.  These issues of meaning vs. being will be settled in different ways by different generations living in circumstances unlike ours.  But I do think I can say this:  a poem has to "be"--to pull us into its magnetic field--before we're interested in what it means.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Making the world differently visible

Work on most long-term writing project has phases that result from how the writer works and how the project needs the writer to work.  I began work on the manuscript that was to become Visible Cities because I wanted to introduce Veronica's photographs to an audience.  The project had a humble beginning:  I wrote poems inspired by a handful of photographs and attempted to get them published; The New Quarterly published two based on black and white photographs.  Then two things happened.  First, when we premiered them at Ken Probert's memorial reading, Paul Wilson suggested that if we kept photographing and writing until we had about 40 poems based on 40 photographs, the manuscript could become a book.  Second, I got hooked.  Especially if you are busy, as I was the last three years in the English Department at U of R, there isn't time for inspiration (whatever that is) to fall in your lap.  There's no lap to fall into:  you are on the run.  But a photograph could occupy my mind's eye until I figured out a way into it and I could write a draft.  Then I could make the draft a little better.  And a little better.  Ekphrasis is helpful that way:  an image you love and that makes you curious can prompt you to take the small steps that will eventually result in a poem.

Any poetry project also have a rhythm of its own.  You write what Tracy Hamon calls "rogue poems" about the photograph of a bridge and the photograph of a railroad car that someone has covered with brilliant graffiti.  Then you add a poem about the painted door in a downtown back lane in Saskatoon.  You're not even thinking of how they go together.  There's an odd purity and focus to this.  Each time you sit down to draft or revise, you are thinking only of this singular challenge before you:  this poem.  Eventually you have enough poems that you start to see how themes or concerns or kinds of images have created clusters that will become the sections of the book. And then you fill these out more deliberately.  Among Adorno's often puzzling pronouncements about aesthetics, is this:  the artist tries to make a painting or a piece of music or a poem that is this equivalent of itself.  I take him to mean that each artist has an idea of what each work should eventually become, but that, being mortal, and working within the limitations of our medium, we only approach those ideals.  This is a many-layered process that sometimes seems to start over and over, while never quite arriving.  Does "close" count in horseshoes, hand grenades, and poetry?

But what I'm curious about right now, because we launch today, is that lovely golden era between having a much-corrected set of page proofs and having your book in the hands of readers.  After editing, editing, editing, proofing, proofing,proofing, two things happen--two contradictory things happen at the same time.  First, you've seen these words so often that you now feel they are simply junk.  Second--and simultaneously--you think this work is probably pretty good--this last impression supported by how much energy your publishers are putting into producing the book:  design, advertising, covers, blurbs.

But once you are ready to "go public" with the work, the questions that have plagued you all along come back.  What do you think you are doing?  When you think about the words on the page, this is a very private question.  But for some reason, at this historical moment, that question resonates even more loudly:  what are you doing in a time when children are being murdered in schools and women are opening up about the amount of sexual harassment and abuse they have endured?  What are you doing writing and publishing poetry in Trumptime:  when facts and truth are under every kind of pressure, when a dishonest president has surrounded himself with hawkish yes-people?  When North Korea offers to talk but Trump appoints a foreign secretary who will shut down such talks?  When the data we generate on "social media"--what could sound more benign--is used by powerful companies to manipulate the way we vote?  When democracy itself is under pressure?  When Russia and Korea and possibly Iran have military motives that are completely unpredictable?  Frankly, I haven't felt as frightened about world order, about freedom and democracy since childhood"duck and cover" nuclear bomb drills, Watergate, or the Vietnam War.

Here's some of what I do know about what I am trying to do.  In a time when the world is ever more complex--who thought twenty years ago of having their private lives under the scrutiny of a company that wanted to influence their vote?--people often turn to "fundamentalisms."  I put the word in plural and then in scare quotes because I don't care whether your fundamental, unquestioned belief is in Sharia law or your right to carry a gun.  The world is too complicated for such visceral simplifications.  Poetry short-circuits this simplistic and nostalgic way of thinking because it struggles toward complexity. It wants its audience to have an intriguing experience, not come to a certain conclusion.   It wants a radical kind of openness.  It wants to ask important questions but doesn't want to offer answers, but to encourage that questioning way of mind--to find pleasure in turning those questions over in the mind.  Jane Hirshfield writes "Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated....honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life.  We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows" (Nine Gates 5). I doubt that a member of the NRA is going to show up at our launch ripe for conversation.  and I doubt I've made what Hirshfield calls great art.  But there is simply something to be said for keeping certain ways of thinking alive.

Veronica has added another dimension to poetry by letting me respond to her wonderful photographs.  Visible Cities, as the title suggests, is about seeing.  Her photographs remind us to look at the built environment, not just use it to navigate while we move between one place and another.  What humans create in cities can be pretty amazing.  It can also chill and frighten us.  But her photographs add another dimension to the ways of being--seeing and thinking--that are so important now.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Paper White Days

I'm guessing I do the naturalist's version of watching the paint dry:  I study the way light and humidity influence the colour and visual texture of tree bark and branches.  I love late winter afternoons when the low, golden sunlight inflames the otherwise grey branches at the tops of trees.  Or I take my time driving home at that point in the blue hour when trees and branches are the inky black of a Bernard Buffet streetscape.  In the dim light, you see only the larger branches, so that the trees make sense as they don't often during the day.  Their ramifying structure is clear, like a good argument or the simplified narrative of a life.  Of course, I love the hoarfrost.  I remember years ago seeing hoarfrost two inches thick on trees around Wascana Lake:  you could tell exactly which direction the wind had come from because you could see how the damp wind had, as it were, grown the crystals on top of one another.  The other side of the tree was bare.  Even the lightest hoarfrost can make the bare dogwoods and lilacs opaline.  On the sunny days we've had lately, you can actually see the different taupes and golds and ochres and greys and blacks and browns of tree bark, and you are drawn to the few leaves that still hang on the trees--the narrow greygreen oval of Russian Olives and a round ecru leaf belonging to a tree I cannot name.  If there's a bit of humidity on such days, everything seems doubly outlined; you can see the texture of bark and all the tree branches.  Some canny landscape architect had the sense to plant rows of trees--usually not the most creative thing to do--but as you drive past these down Wascana Parkway or through the park itself, you're aware of how a naked tree's shape is the core of its identity.

And then there are days like today when the sky is simply white, and, we hope, a prelude to snow.  On such days, the otherwise varied trunks and branches are simply greybrown.  Boredom is the mood of the day.  On principle, I'm not complaining.  After our dry summer, we need the moisture this snow will bring, and snow only comes out of a white sky.  We also need the cooler weather; the sea ice above Greenland....Well, there is no sea ice above Greenland.  Any time someone complains to me about how cold it is, I have only two words for them:  "sea ice."  The polar bears are getting, on average, three fewer weeks of sea ice each spring and summer that allow them to hunt.  The result is a declining population.

But as I look out my window, my principles are of no use.  It's an insubstantial world we're going to live in for the next couple of days.  The world looks like a blank page.

I like blank pages.  The blank page is a perfect metaphor for possibility, a place for something new to arise, a place for hope, for the belief that human creativity is a benevolent, honourable force in the world's cultures.  I'm trying to think of a single work of art that doesn't start as a blank page, and I can't.  Even the sculptor doubtless uses drawings to plan a work.  Music, that art that all other arts aspire to, begins as a score--even though it ends as an architecture of sound that gives way to other sounds as it fades.  I've never had writer's block ("Oh-ho, I'll bet she hasn't," I can hear colleagues, friends, and family saying.  "She always has far too much to say on any topic.") so I don't know how that fear plagues artists.  I get a scintilla of it when I can't remember the perfect word which I know I need to use but cannot find.

But I don't know what to do with days when an unspeaking sky is simply blank.  Such a sky seems indifferent to us.  And why wouldn't it be, given what we are doing to it?  It offers neither the cheer of sun nor the different cheer of rain or the aestheticizing beauty of falling snow that creates a world we only half see, as if we've shut our eyes half way.  On those days when the world it too much with us, a snowy day is a balm, a reminder that the world out there isn't everything.

The snow finally began to fall Saturday, so Sunday morning I went out into another blank sky to shovel, only to realize that my sense of blankness was not entirely accurate.  There were chickadees and sparrows.  The neighbour's wind chime began to peel in the rising wind. 

Now it's snowing again.  Bill has a huge pile of snow out in our back lane from shoveling away the snow from the garage.  I think we've got enough moisture to start spring.  But I've also discovered that the farther you look into the falling snow, the more slowly the flakes fall.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Good Life--Act III

It's the good life, full of fun, seems to be the ideal,
Yes, the good life, lest you hide all the sadness you feel,
You won't really fall in love 'cause you can't take the chance,
So be honest with yourself, don't try to fake romance.
Yes, the good life, to be free and explore the unknown,
Like the heartache when you learn you must face them alone,
Please remember I still want you and in case you wonder why,
Well, just wake up, kiss that good life goodbye.
Frank Sinatra

Oh, the good life, full of fun seems to be the ideal
Mm, the good life lets you hide all the sadness you feel
You won't really fall in love for you can't take the chance
So please be honest with yourself, don't try to fake romance

It's the good life to be free and explore the unknown
Like the heartaches when you learn you must face them alone
Please remember I still want you, and in case you wonder why
Well, just wake up, kiss the good life goodby.
 Tony Bennett
My internet search skills are usually up to the task, but I can't find anything that will tell me who wrote the lyrics to this fairly famous song--famous if you are of my generation.  The first version is apparently the lyrics according to the Frank Sinatra recording; the second according to Tony Bennett.  Just comparing versions, we can find a problem:  there seems to be no authoritative version, though Bennett's make more sense. The syntax of  "Yes, the good life, lest you hide all the sadness you feel" doesn't make a whole lots of sense (unless "lest" is a typo), whereas Bennett's "the good life lets you hide all the sadness you feel" is fairly clear.  But even beyond these small but significant differences, the lyrics don't endorse "the good life" unreservedly.  And why does the beloved show up in only the last two lines?  Is she--or he--an afterthought?

Perhaps that's because "the good life" in this song is largely autonomous and a flight from emotion.  All that hopping in Jaguars and sailing on yachts and drinking of the best Scotch or champagne is busy-ness in the service of avoiding feelings and loneliness.  Because if you are going to be "free and explore the unknown," you can't be tied down.  The song, with its rather melancholy tune, is really ambivalent about "the good life."  On one hand, our culture presents it as an ideal, and we all recognize when we see it in car advertisements and beer commercials.  The individuals represented there have enough money to take life by the tail and wallow in the pleasures of excess and luxury, or the delights of the open road.  Yet if I'm reading the last two lines right--and I'm not altogether sure that I am--being loved necessitates waking up from that unrealistic adventurous dream and kissing the good life goodbye:  asking and acknowledging what someone else wants, changing a few diapers or spending some late nights at the office.  The lyricist has chosen an interesting verb for that last line:  if we kiss someone we love in a kind of acknowledging, passionate hello, we kiss the good life goodbye.

This double vision of the good life goes back to the Greeks.  Both Socrates and Plato thought "the good life" demanded some goodness of us.  Those living the good life are loving, empathetic, generous, compassionate...all those things we love to experience--so much so that empathy or gratitude from a stranger often makes our eyes water.  Epicurus, whose beliefs are complex and whose ideas I am simplifying--not quite to make him a straw man--thought that pleasure was important, although he also valued intense friendship.  As I have been thinking about the good life, I've thought it might be useful to put it on a continuum, perhaps with Mother Teresa on the generous, loving, ethical end and....oh why not put Donald Trump some place where he does belong: believing in pleasure and all the goods--particularly power and money--on the other end.  The individual whose days are spent in the pursuit of wealth, power, and pleasure has often seemed like a capitalist caricature, a figment of advertisers' imaginations, designed to get us to want more stuff.  It's a role we'll let Trump play.

Then after you've got the notions of "good" on either end of a continuum,  consider how much you want to move toward the other end.  I think, for example, that it is difficult to live a good life when your daily needs aren't reliably met and you don't know where your next meal is coming from or where you are going to sleep.  Then let me play with your head some more by throwing chaos theory into the mix.  Some complex systems, like the dripping of a tap, weather on the prairie, or rush hour traffic, are chaotic and unpredictable.  That's why the dripping tap drives you crazy:  you never know when the next "plop" will sound.  But mathematicians who study chaos theory observe that within the chaotic, complex systems there are underlying patterns that actually map the outer limits of occurrences.  What is contained near the outer areas of your idea of the good life?  I think--and I know Ken will forgive me--that walking is part of his idea of the good life--walking and the thinking and exploring that comes with it.  It's part of his idea of a needful social justice.  I know some people who couldn't live the good life without a pair of binoculars to watch the birds.  I know others, not gifted musicians particularly, who nevertheless feel that making music is part of their good life.

At the beginning of these posts on the good life, I described my own idea of the good life while also suggesting that my definition would not be yours.  Maybe you don't think that creativity is central to the good life, for example, or that people seeking the good life should take long walks in forests or through the prairie. Maybe you think gratitude is just nice--a bonus if it happens.  But we can probably agree on some central principles.  Love, with its assistants, empathy and compassion, can probably sit at the core.  (There is no love, after all, without empathy and compassion.)  We don't necessarily mean romantic love; love for one's fellow human beings, or at least some of them, will do just fine. I think generosity would be important:  without our generosity, those we love would never know it.  I think most of us would agree that it is difficult to truly live the good life in an unjust world--indicating that ideas of justice and fairness belong in the inner orbit of the good life.  But beyond the core, beyond that chaotic centre of your life, when the dripping of the tap or the gusting of the prairie wind becomes hard to predict, you should put the things that matter to you

If you don't like chaos theory, think about a nebula with a dense core, like a core of central beliefs, and the outer, looser orbiting dust that is being drawn in to the gravitational orbit at the centre that constitutes your individual, idiosyncratic idea of the good life. 

The point is that we reflect on the good life, that we make it a horizon we walk toward, a horizon that orients us, not something we will necessarily achieve, but also not a formula offered to us by others that we passively accept.  Maybe the good life is spent seeking the good life--though Google tells me that Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre said it first!

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Good Life and Politics

Saturday was Boris Pasternak's birthday, and by sheer coincidence I finished re-reading Doctor Zhivago on Friday night.  I had undertaken it because I am  in a Russian kind of mood as the result of reading War and Peace for the first time since 1973.  As well, concerts I have been to or listened to on the BBC kept immersing me in the most amazing Russian music--particularly Shostakovich and Prokofiev, both of whom had an uneasy relationship with communist governments. 

I did not expect to find creative writing lessons for me in Doctor Zhivago, but they were there.  Pasternak's characters--particular Zhivago ("zhiva" means life in Russian) and Lara--are to some degree embodiments of Russia and the strife she is undergoing from pre-revolutionary days until after the Second World War.  I am hoping that Soul Weather will be a "condition of Canada" novel, one whose characters undergo the stresses and strains of Canada in 2011 and 2012.  That is not inconceivable to me.  But how to position characters in Russia over a period of extreme turmoil?  How to write a "condition of Russia" novel set among such circumstances?  The answer, intriguingly is to create weather and landscapes or cityscapes that are larger than life, so that when a larger-than-life character walks on to declaim his lines and live his life, the character doesn't seem too big for the world.

At the same time, I could clearly see that one of Pasternak's purposes is to consider how political and historical circumstances make it impossible to live "the good life."  Zhivago is both doctor (an amazingly good diagnostician) and poet.  He believes in the revolution, which he learns about when he is at the Russian front during World War I:  having lost his father, who commits suicide because he loses the family fortune, as well as his mother; having grown up as a penniless orphan in the houses of other people; working in hospital wards, Zhivago well knows that drastic and inhumane inequality permeates Russian society.  But two things happen after the war ends.  First, living conditions are appalling.  Zhivago must sometimes go out and quietly take apart someone's wooden fence in order to keep his family warm.  Indeed, there is a brisk black market in destroyed fences and unground grain.  Secondly, those who brought the revolution about have splintered into (at least) three groups:  The Whites, The Reds, and the Partisans.  Within the territory controlled by each of these groups, it is very dangerous not to understand and accept the persnickety and in some ways arbitrary party line, elements of which are sometimes absurd.  Every group knows exactly what principles should obtain in a new Russian order, and they are not reluctant to kill those who do not agree.  After Zhivago has been kidnapped by the Partisans, escapes, and returns to Yuriatin to live with Lara, the people at the hospital are very grateful for his intuitive diagnostic skills.  At the same time, appealing to "intuition" is somehow ideologically forbidden by the party in control:  they love him for the same reason they would put him in prison or shoot him.

But let me back up for a minute.  In order to escape some of this insanity, Zhivago, his wife Antonia, their son, and Antonia's father, move to the old family estate in the Urals.  If you've seen the film David Lean made of this remarkable novel, you will doubtless remember Omar Sharif in fingerless gloves writing poetry in front of a frosty window at a desk lit only by a candle.  Here they manage--briefly--the good life.  To Yurii Zhivago, the physical labour is a tonic; it feels real after the labyrinth of political correctness he needed to navigate in Moscow.  Living alongside of nature, repairing an old building and doing your own laundry and eating your own potatoes seems authentic in a way that living in Moscow did not.  The fact that this life allows Zhivago to read and write and think during the long winter emphasizes how honest and fulfilling it is--not unlike Thoreau's time in his cabin.

What forces conspire to wrench the good life away from Zhivago and his family?  First, the doctor who is taking care of anyone fighting for "The Forest Brotherhood" (a splinter off the Partisans) dies, so the group kidnaps Zhivago one night as he is coming back to Varykino from Yuriatin.  Then circumstances become so difficult at Varykino without Yurii that his wife, two children, and her father return to Moscow, where they find themselves on the wrong side of someone's arbitrary ideologies, and they are exiled to Paris.  Yurii will never see them again.  After escaping from the Brotherhood, Yurii, not knowing where his family is, returns to Yuriatin with the plan of going from there out to Varykino, only to learn from Lara that his family has fled.  Then it becomes obvious that both Yurii and Lara hold unacceptable beliefs and are soon to be arrested and "re-educated" or shot, so they too leave Yuriatin for a brief and blooming time at Varykino before Komarovsky comes to "rescue" them both and take them by train to someplace safe.  Yurii lies to Lara so that she leaves with Komarovsky while Yurii remains in Varykino for a while before literally walking back to Moscow.

If you were to see Yurii on your doorstep in Moscow, you would quickly assume that he is an importunate street person whom you must get rid of as quickly as possible.  His life from that time until he dies of a heart attack is fractured and marginal, largely because he has PTSD.  (In a harrowing scene, Reds who have captured a member of the Forest Brotherhood cut off one of his legs and one of his arms, tie them to his back, and force him to crawl back to the Brotherhood's camp to warn them of Red displeasure.  This is only the most harrowing scene from Zhivago's time with the Brotherhood.  He sees plenty of cruelty there.)  Without the hope of work to do and someone to love, he simply has little energy to put into living.  And besides, 'living off the grid' leaves him with more freedom he would have in a steady job.  

Despite the fact that his name means "life," his life and his peace have been made impossible by these groups vying to parse socialism in the truest and most accurate way, without any compassion for anyone who does not share their assumptions. I have long believed that one of the founts of evil is individuals and groups who are certain they have the only correct beliefs and that everyone else is wrong if not immoral and vile.  Certainly that is borne out in Pasternak's novel.

We see a similar view of ideological destruction of the good life in Anthony Doerr's remarkable All the Light We Cannot See, particularly in the life of the orphaned young Werner Pfennig, who is destined on the eve of World War II to go down into the coal mines where his father died as soon as he reaches fifteen.  In some ways, he is rescued by a glimpse of the good life, when he is taken to the house of one of the mine officials to see if he can fix a radio.  There he sees carpets, piles of cakes (where rationing is the order of the day where he lives with other orphans), comfort he has never imagined existed.  He can indeed fix the radio, and the official is not likely to waste a gift that could be put to use by the Nazi government.  So Werner is sent off to a special school where his best friend is a lovely upper-middle-class boy named Frederick whose greatest joy is birds.  

Werner's gift is indeed valued and rewarded:  being recognized for his expertise is immensely rewarding, and he feels--not powerful, exactly, but perhaps not powerless for the first time in his life.  Frederick, on the other hand, rebels against some of the brutality that characterizes life in the National Political Institute of Education # 6 at Schulpforta.  While Werner attempts to protect Frederick by polishing his shoes and making his bed, overtly standing up for him is too dangerous.  Here is one of the ways the good life is made impossible:  under a triple threat of going down into the mines, being sent to the front or being badly beaten by his schoolmates, Werner cannot do what he thinks is right.  The good life is not luxury or comfort, Doerr suggests.  It is believing that your life is your own--something Frederick tells Werner that he wrongly continues to imagine.  Werner's time in the army with transceivers he has invented to locate enemy broadcasters merely provides variations on this theme.

For both Pasternak and Doerr, one of the foundations of the good life is at least freedom from political or social forces that seek to control the way you think and that invent brutal and clever ways of reinforcing their control over you.  Frederick is finally beaten so badly after his refusal to conform that this bright young man spends the rest of his days drawing spirals.  Brain damage has reduced him to a two-year-old who no longer registers the birds that gave him such joy.  Any time Werner thinks about rebelling against the ideology and brutality of the school, Frederick stands as a visceral and personal warning.

At the best, however, one has freedom to discover, observe, reflect, think about what one loves and what one hates and why, as one defines the good life for oneself.  The good life is not offered by ideology or politics--which may certainly contribute some values.  An intrinsic part of the good life, both Doerr and Pasternak suggest, is the freedom to reflect independently on what one values.  One of the things that Canadians--or at least white middle-class (and male) Canadians--need to realize is that we have an almost ideal society for defining for ourselves and pursuing the good life.  We have no excuses if we define the good life unwisely or unproductively.  White Canadians in turn need to be aware of the many ways in which this process has been complicated for the Indigenous community, the LGBTQ community, and for the frightened refugees who come to us for safety after years of lacking such freedoms.

Your idea of the good life is molded from your life and experience:  from the things you love, from what delights you, from what seems to you unfair or unjust, from your family and from relationships that widen your frame of reference, from your ideals gleaned from your life experience, from what you learn to imagine about other people's experiences.  Rigid ideology, both Pasternak and Doerr suggest, only gets in the way.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Good Life II

Last spring, when I was called away from drafting my novel, Soul Weather, so I could revise my manuscript on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics, I promised to write a post about how questions about the good life find their way into novels.  I was finding that question posed by the characters in my own novel as well as seeing the question resonate through the novels I was reading.  That was April; it's now the end of January.  I'm back thinking about Soul Weather but not writing yet.  Instead I'm reading current nonfiction about trolling, about relationships in the 21st century, about economics, about the effects of social media on millennials.  I have yet to settle down and read through The Globe and Mail for the time period of my novel.  I'm reading contemporary novels to see what they have to say about the novel at this historical moment--which,  you must admit, is pretty singular.  I'm also reading through the notebooks I have been keeping for nearly ten years both to see what kinds of good ideas I had and to jettison the bad ones. But ideas about the good life keep returning.

As far as I know, Aristotle was the first person to think systematically about the good life.  A major part of his thinking was to distinguish between goods that were a means to an end and goods that had no practical use that he called goods of the soul.  Love, friendship, aesthetic enjoyment are some of these.  They won't keep you warm or buy you food, but something is missing from a life without them.  Aristotle thought is not all that different from that of psychologists who collect hard data on happiness and well-being.  Whether we're motivated by hedonia or eudaimonia--feeling good as opposed to doing good, as Veronika Huta so efficiently put it, will determine how happy we will be--how much of a sense of well-being we'll experience.  (I'm a bit nervous about the word "happy.")  I've written here as often as you would read about the difference between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation--a distinction that is quite robust in the research.  (Thank you, Katherine Arbuthnott.)

Donald Trump is my poster boy for extrinsic motivation:  he seeks outward signs of his success that can easily be read by anyone else:  power, money, attractiveness (or an attractive partner).  So is he happy?  Clearly not.  Mother Teresa and Jack Layton are good examples of intrinsic motivation.  Within themselves they found the passion and the skills that translated into good in the world.  In a classic study, researchers gave graduating students a questionnaire that would reveal whether their motivation was intrinsic or extrinsic and then asked them where they wanted to be in three years.  In the three-year follow-up, most students had achieved what they'd hoped, but only those with intrinsic motivation--the teachers, the artists, the social workers--were happy with their progress.  There isn't enough stuff, money, or power to make someone devoted to extrinsic motivation happy.  On the other hand, the pleasure of creating something new, the discovery of a new idea or a new way of teaching, the nudge you can make to improve someone else's life are very satisfying.  I should also say that these kinds of motivation can be seen on a continuum, with intrinsic and extrinsic on opposite ends.  If I write a poem I'm proud of, do I want to share  it with someone else and for that person to admire it?  Yes, I do:  I'm not poetry's Mother Teresa

Why have ideas about the good life migrated from philosophy to the novel?  As I've been thinking about both my characters and this blog, I have come to realize that the good life is idiosyncratic and individual, and probably changes for each of us as we move through our lives.  I can tell you what I think the good life is:  it's a life with a purpose you have embraced, whether that purpose has befallen you or been chosen by you.  It's a life of kindness, generosity, gratitude, hope:  of rich and often intimate relationships with others, relationships built on how well you know them and how that knowledge plays a part in how you care for them.  It's a life questing for the balance between what Jane Austen thought of as "duty to self" and "duty to others"--one of the most difficult balancing acts humans undertake.  It's a life with a voice, a life that expresses its meaning to those who matter.  It's a life which has making or creating as part of the daily or yearly round:  making a meal, a garden, a sweater, a poem, a Christmas decoration, a painting, a quilt.  Otherwise, we lack agency; we are simply consumers of someone else's idea of a good life, and we lose the pleasure inherent in creating something that wasn't there before.

In all likelihood, if you are a reader of this blog, none of those ideas about the good life will seem questionable or absurd.  But they won't seem quite right to you either.  That's because they're not yours.  And in some ways, they are only the latest incarnation of my ideas of the good life.  I don't think gratitude always played the enormous role it now does in my sense of well-being:  it took my cat Twig and his terrifying illness, along with the daily ritual of telling him I was grateful we'd had one more day together, to move gratitude from a peripheral quality of the good life to one that is front and center for me. 

Only something as various and particular as art can give us insight how people like us or unlike us have solved--for the moment--the problem of a good life.  Our intimate contact with myriad characters, all questing for meaningful and ethical responses in an often unethical world, can help us with our own quest.

Zoe Whittall's The Best Kind of People illuminates some of these ideas about "the good life," particularly how fragile it is and how quickly it can change from intrinsic to extrinsic. George Woodbury is heir to a sizable fortune, but has chosen to teach science in a rather elite school instead of following in his father's footsteps.  He finds immense pleasure in helping students understand the mysteries of the universe in his physics classes.  He is the town hero, having tackled a man with a gun who clearly meant to wreck some havoc at the school where he teaches and where his youngest daughter goes, but that status isn't something he takes seriously.  Joan is an emergency room nurse; you have to want to help people and believed in your carefully-honed craft--all intrinsic qualities--to serve in that capacity. Their gay son is a lawyer in a loving relationship and his choice is fully respected by his family.  Their daughter is in her last year of high school:  she's beautiful and smart and has a wonderful boyfriend.  She's so successful that she doesn't even need to think about it, but can focus on her studies, her sports, her relationship with Jimmy. 

But what happens to this ordinary extraordinary family when dad is accused of sexual assault during a school field trip?  (I promise; no spoiler alert needed, except to say that there's a plot twist that reveals how fine a writer and how nuanced a thinker Whittall is.)  What happens to a family and its members who have pursued the intrinsic ideal of the good life when their lives are suddenly subject to intense scrutiny and venom?  Interestingly, they are forced to shift their emphasis toward extrinsic markers of the good life.  Whittall's novel points to the ripples that radiate from such questioning and abrupt shift.  It isn't simply that the characters undergo a kind of dissolution that starts from within;  the community makes those family members into pariahs.  We may think that our idea of the good life is an integral part of us, created solely by us, but Whittall's novel suggests that social approval or censure can have a profound effect on our definition.

Cats undoubtedly have intrinsic motivation.  Freud once said that happiness was easy:  work to do and someone to love.  They clearly love one another:  you can see that Lyra's white paws are around Tuck's neck.  And their work--oh how hard it is!--is to cuddle with us and make us laugh.

Next week:  the good life in War and Peace, Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, Kate Atkinson's God in Ruins, and Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Monday, January 15, 2018


On November 17 and 18, First Nations University at the University of Regina hosted "Land and Imagination," a symposium on "Sustainable ways to Inhabit Rural Saskatchewan," largely the brainchild of Sheri Benning who is now teaching creative writing at U of S.  Writers and visual artists came together to share their artistic practice and to create a dialogue about how art helps us understand the natural world and our place in it and about how our art can encourage its audiences to engage with the environment.  Presenters of papers that were provocative, angry, playful, insightful, challenging, and often guilt-inducing included Jesse Archibald-Barber, Heather Benning, Lori Blondeau, Terri Fidelak, David Garneau, Trevor Herriot, Tim Lilburn, Randy Lundy, Sherry Farrell Racette, and Jan Zwicky.  I'm not sure the symposium's subtitle reflects what actually happened that day, which seemed to variously--and rightly--triangulate between Indigenous Issues and art practices, environmentalists of a variety of stripes, and the way the making of art can bring us all closer to a just engagement with the natural world.  Because Bill still was not entirely well, I attended only about half of the symposium--and perhaps that's all my brain could have taken in.

At one point, when the guilt had gotten particularly thick, Jan Zwicky provocatively said that the best thing she could do for the planet was to volunteer to be shot.  Interestingly and appropriately, this led us all to ponder, via Zwicky's reference to one of Plato's Symposia, 'what is enough?'  How much stuff do we really need?  To put this question in context, let me cite an article in The Guardian on November 28.  The production of clothing produces 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year--more than international flights and shipping combined.  World wide, a truckload of clothing is taken to the dump every second of every day.

Curiously, I was reading two very different books that could contribute something to our conversation:  Tolstoy's War and Peace and Thoreau's Walden.  Two books that couldn't be more different both have something to say about this issue of "enough."

Tolstoy was born to an aristocratic, land-owning family, but toward the end of his life became an anarchist and a pacifist; his ideas about nonviolent resistance informed those of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  Even before his conversion, he believed his privilege and his responsibility went hand in hand, so that in years when there was famine from which agricultural workers were dying, he and his family opened up countless soup kitchens.  I love the image, from  Alexandra Popoff's biography of Tolstoy's wife, Sophia, of her scouring the streets of Moscow for someone who would donate a railroad car full of onions:  high in vitamin C, they would prevent scurvy among the starving peasants.  

Toward the end of his life Tolstoy's ideals became more extreme.  Tolstoy wanted to earn no money from royalties and to give away all his property.  He had a Christ-like idea of purity in mind that he felt he couldn't achieve laden with material wealth.  Sophia--who took a lot of abuse from Tolstoy--pointed out that they had brought 13 children into the world, 8 of whom survived.  How were they to be educated if the family decided to live in poverty? Popoff's wonderful, award-winning biography makes its easy for us to see how difficult Tolstoy made her life:  how Sophia was faithful to him--even copying a manuscript that put her in a bad light--even while attempting to balance between Tolstoy's extreme spiritual needs, the needs of her family, and her faith in the integrity of his work.

War and Peace is an earlier work begun in 1862 and finished in 1869 when Tolstoy was 41.  Sophia copied out no fewer than 7 complete drafts of what is generally believed to be one of the longest novels ever written.  Although its composition predates Tolstoy's more extreme beliefs about the evils of property and ownership, Tolstoy does not fail to critique the generation of aristocratic landowners who lived between 1805 and 1814--the years of the novel's events.  

The two heroes of War and Peace are Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Count Pierre Bezukhov, both in their early twenties when the novel opens, both of whom have liberal leanings.  Prince Andrei regards the well-being of the serfs who work his land as part of his responsibility.  He sees to it that their children are educated and that everyone has the medical attention they need.  All this is done without fanfare, and although it works efficiently his serfs are not exactly happy.  In a sense, he's trying to be an enlightened slave owner, so his serfs' dissatisfaction is understandable.

We first meet Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count, at at party where he reveals himself to be a well-informed young man with ideas.  Having spent his late teens and early twenties largely in France, he is full of the revolutionary and philosophical rhetoric that imbued late-eighteenth-century Europe.  When he inherits his father's estates and title, he plans to carry out reforms.  Tolstoy lets us see that in spite of Pierre's good intentions, each of his far-flung estates is run by a steward Pierre barely knows and certainly should not trust.  At one point, Pierre observes that he actually had more money for himself when he was a poor student:  now the incompetence and corruption of stewards and the requests of distant family members seem to require far more money than he actually takes in.  At the end of the novel--two wars with Napoleon later--Pierre marries Natasha, the novel's heroine, who keeps a well-run, efficient house.  Pierre, who has sold most of his land, realizes that running his private finances well is more cost-effective than trying to manage estates that are several days' travel away.  (Pierre is not the only one who discovers this; Natasha's father, Count Rostov, is nearly ruined by his greedy steward.  His finances are only rescued when both his oldest son and middle daughter marry well.)  Like today's CEOs, Russian aristocrats are too far away from their sources of their income to understand what their serfs need or how their income is derived.

While much of the information about the characters' relationship to money is offered by the characters themselves, Tolstoy clearly suggests that the Russian aristocracy has more than enough and often uses that excess very badly.  Many of the novel's most vital moments in characters' lives occur in moments of great privation--as when the Rostov family is on the road out of Napoleon-occupied Moscow with several cart loads of wounded officers, staying in mere huts. If you are dying, as Prince Andrei is, Natasha's loving, open, patient heart is enough.  Similarly, Bezukhov spends several months nearly starving in prison, accused by some of Napoleon's officers of being a spy, but it is here that he learns how little is enough if there is food for thought and reflection and if he can maintain his curiosity about his fellow prisoners, one of which is an uneducated peasant who is nevertheless very wise and  who knows the answer to the question Bezukhov has been puzzling over since the novel began:  why does one live and how does one live well?

In some ways, Henry David Thoreau's Walden couldn't be more different from War and Peace, though the two authors' lives intersect chronologically, Thoreau born in 1817 and dying merely 45 years later in 1862, Tolstoy born in 1828 and living on into the twentieth century until he was 82.  At least three different Thoreaus inhabit the pages of Walden.  There's Thoreau the purist, who is so delighted that he can make bread without yeast out of simply grain, water, and salt (though he admits pensively that no one ever comes to eat with him). Somehow that bottle of yeast that he carries all the way from Concord to Walden Pond is just too much--heavy, profligate, unnecessary and "trivial" as well.  I feel as if the purist in Thoreau, in paring down to "enough" has eliminated some things that many of us would consider important to a good life. His first (sometimes annoying) chapter is called "Economy," where he argues that all we need is food, shelter, clothing, fuel.  Oh, yes, and a few tools with which to build a house and hoe a bean field.

The purist in Thoreau makes me want to growl.  He seems unaware of the fact that his Harvard education--supported by Harvard's large library that he made excellent use of--forms the foundation of his thought and accompanies him in the woods.  Where's the simplicity in that?  He doesn't see the cultural richness of the few physical books he takes with him, nor does he consider what has gone into the paper he writes on or how books are made, transported, and sold.  Like many purists, he cherry-picks his ideals, ignoring those that don't quite fit. It's good to remember--just in case your New Year's resolutions embraced some absolute idea--that purity is entirely ideological and cultural:  you can't prove its presence or its absence except by appealing to ideas.

One of the babies he throws out with his ideological bathwater is man-made beauty--except insofar as it is  inevitably present in the books he reads and in the book he writes and rewrites to describe his time here. As he carefully describes his hut, I longed to have him mention a beautiful quilt to keep him warm or a beautiful bowl to mix his bread in.  Perhaps the taste of the day for "gewgaws" had sullied his ideas about domestic beauty.  Yet if we must have a table, a plate, a glass, a bed covering, why not have one that is beautiful?

Then there's Thoreau the philosopher who, like Bezukhov, wants to know what the good life is.  For him the good life contains enough time to be self reflective and time to observe the natural world.  The good life--in contrast to what it means now:  a life of wealth and power--can be had rather cheaply:  "Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul" (221).  Rather, one should "Love your life, poor as it is."  With a bit of blindness about what real poverty is, Thoreau observes that "You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house.  The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.  I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there and have as cheering thoughts, as in palace" (220).  It is the phrase "a quiet mind" that reveals Thoreau's shortcomings:  at least in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, the poor and homeless seldom have quiet minds, struggling as they do with mental illness. In another sense altogether, Thoreau is reflecting on the fact that the beauty of nature is available to most of us.  (And even here, I want to argue with him: I doubt there is much nature in the "projects" we have built to house poor families.)  Nevertheless, Thoreau's image of the good life proceeds from the age-old tradition of self-knowledge:  "Explore thyself.  Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve."  A life that is pared down to 'enough' makes this easier:  "In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, not weakness weakness."  Simplifying life gives one time for reflection and observation which we don't have when we are glued to our cell phones or our 24/7 jobs.     

And then there's Thoreau the naturalist, constantly and closely observing the natural world--and gobsmacked by the order, ingenuity, and beauty of what he sees. His very reason for trimming his life down as much as he could was to afford him unencumbered time to wander the natural world, observing, keeping records, indulging his curiosity.  Thoreau kept daily journals between 1837 and 1861 which give us a sense of the shape of his days; many of them begin by outlining where he walked to in the afternoons. 

 The tie between simplifying his life and his observations of nature are clear throughout much of Walden, but particularly potent in his comment on watching spring arrive;  "One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the spring come in.  The ice in the pond at length begins to be honey-combed, and I can set my heel in it as I walk.  Fogs and rains and warmer suns are gradually melting the snow...I am on the alert for the first signs of spring, to hear the chance note of some arriving bird, or the striped squirrel's chirp, for his stores must be now nearly exhausted, or see the woodchuck venture out of his winter quarters....I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me."  

I have been to Walden Pond and have seen a replica of Thoreau's 10 feet by 15 feet house there. He had a bed, table, desk, bookshelf, and three chairs (so he could have company).  It bears quite a bit of resemblance to the rooms at Sage Hill or St. Peter's or Banff--or to a dormitory room, for that matter.  There are times in our lives when a monastic cell is the perfect form for us, the smaller space ironically liberating us into creating the inscape that can now dwell in our unassaulted brains.

What the conference on "Sustainable ways to Inhabit Rural Saskatchewan," War and Peace and Walden have in common is that they urge us to think about "enough."  Pierre Bezukhov's concept of "enough" will seem an excess to many of us, while Thoreau's might seem a little sparse.  But if we all think about "enough" in terms of both time and money--how much time on our cell phones is "enough?" how much wardrobe is necessary? how much income? I suspect we would find two things.  One is that our environmental footprint would shrink.  The other is that we would be happier, more engaged with the important people and the beauties of our everyday lives.

The Manchester Guardian's essay on how wasteful our relationship with clothing is can be found here.