Tuesday, January 29, 2013


This has been a tough couple of weeks, partly because I'm teaching a class I've never taught before, partly because instability and uncertainty remain pervasive on campus, partly because on some days I feel as if I don't know people I've worked with for twenty-two years.  Then there have been the largely grey skies, the wind sweeping in from the east, long walks across parking lots without a single windbreak while avoiding ice and admiring a cold moon.  When the plows strip away the snowbanks at the sides of streets, they leave behind an archeology of city life:  layers of grit and grey.  Yet this has been precariously balanced by the riches in my life:  a husband who has seemingly unlimited amounts of TLC; cats who know I'm distraught (right now Sheba is on my left thigh and has parked her paws and chin on the back of my left hand; typing is an amusing challenge); a daughter who radiates calm in the time I spend with her; friends who are wise and yet as befuddled and sometimes as despairing as I am; two classes with curious and engaged students.  Still, this weekend was an occasion for a little excess, I thought, an antidote to grey and uncertainty.

As I've been thinking about my own relationship to minimalism, I couldn't really get my need to quilt to fit my paradigm.  True, quilting in the nineteenth century had an air of conflicted simplicity about it:  quilts were not only women's expression of their love of beauty and their need to be creative.  They were also part of "making do."  You had calico scraps and you worked these leftovers into something at least practical and perhaps beautiful and joyful.  There is nothing minimal in the quilt at the top of my post today:  all the applique required many hours, and the result isn't even big enough for a bed.  Today millions of dollars are spent on quilting:  there is nothing minimal about going to a quilt shop and spending a hundred dollars on fabric to add to your already excessive stash.  Fortunately, the minimalism lurking around the edges of my life has influenced my fabric-buying habits.  I have enough fabric and plans for at least a dozen quilts, and little time to get to them.  (I actually stopped by one of my favourite quilt shops in Moose Jaw early in the new year--The Quilt Patch--and came away with nothing!)

If quilting has a minimalism about it, that is expressed by the most basic block, the nine patch.  But this weekend, I wanted nothing minimal at all in the hand work I needed to do as a respite from reading Hardy's beautiful and despairing (and certainly not minimalist) Tess of the D'Urtbervilles.  So I began "Ode to a Basket," designed by the ladies who run my other favourite quilt shop, Calgary's "Traditional Pastimes."  When you are making nine patches, you simply cut a whole raft of fabric strips, pick two from the pile to combine, and then simply cut and sew squares.  "Ode to a Basket" offers no such short cuts.  Each piece is cut separately, instructions are painstaking, then the applique forces you to search your thread collection for matching thread in three or four different colours.  You cut out the tiny pieces and turn them under a scant quarter inch with your needle as you go, and your stitches should be invisible and less than 1/8th of an inch long.  This requires a maximal time commitment, or at least  temporarily putting into abeyance your sense that you really must get as much done as possible.  You slow down to take your joy and pleasure in great draughts, as you would take in the air on a cool summer morning.

We seemed to need excess in our food as well.  Last Mother's Day, Veronica introduced me to the magic of clay bakers, having found me one at Value Village.  Again there is the paradox of simplicity and excess.  Cooking in a clay baker is simple:  you soak the baker while you peel potatoes, carrots, yams, parsnips, then dump them in the baker with sausages.  Put it in a 450 oven and go do something else (like complicated applique) while you wait for the smell in the house to tell you that dinner is ready.  This weekend, we needed sausages.  You could also roast a chicken or make ratatouille.  The clay baker is probably related to one of our oldest means of cooking, yet in this modern age of fusion food the intensely pure flavours it produces seem like a kind of excess.  I always eat more slowly when I cook in the clay baker.  Then chocolate zucchini cake (Bill's favourite, and a great canvas for almost any kind of nut or dried fruit or flavouring) that we drizzled with pureed raspberries into which I'd slipped an ounce or so of Amaretto.

But even as I thought about the meal I cooked in the clay baker, with the minimal preparation and the intense flavours that result, I wondered if there is a rhythm between minimalism and excess in many of our lives. On my drive home yesterday, through the park, you couldn't quite say that it was snowing.  Rather, the air simply was snow, attenuating the landscape as if it were trying to disappear, trying to make itself as insignificant as possible.  Wascana Park was a mood I frequently have when my energy is waning, I'm feeling discouraged and even on the edge of depression.  Yet into that landscape I was bringing Anton Bruckner's monumental Third Symphony with its vast harmonies and slow, spiritual melodies that seemed to drift on and on in a kind of beautiful ecstasy that demands your attention.  I loved the juxtaposition: Bruckner and a disappearing landscape.  The contrast doesn't stop there, however.  The conductor was Georg Tintner, a man who combined his love of Bruckner's grandeur with the simplest life:  he was a vegetarian and bicycled to the concert halls where he conducted.  Bruckner himself had a deep sense of his insignificance and inferiority, yet he was convinced that his long, monumental symphonies deserved and even repaid our attention.

When we think about aesthetic unity--which indeed we have been thinking about since the Greeks--we look for a certain coherence of style, for occasions when all the pieces of a story or a painting or even a quilt work together in harmony.  Perhaps for the unity of our lives, or the knife-edged balance of a mood, we need something different.  Maybe someday a physicist or a mathematician will find the logarithm or the Fibonacci series that expresses the balance between simplicity and excess that we crave at this moment of our lives, a rhythm unlike the one we will need tomorrow.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Week with the Liberal Arts

Monday, January 13, 2013
I needed to give my Honours and Graduate students some context for understanding the importance of George Eliot's last novel, Daniel Deronda--also the only novel she set in the time of her writing.  Her biographer, Frederick R. Karl writes that "Her approach to Deronda in these final months indicates she saw it as her most significant, and perhaps final, statement in fictional terms.  She had located all of her voices, all of her beliefs, and all of her strategies for composition, especially in the juxtaposition of opposing elements, and she had resolved them in a renewal of spiritual beliefs."  That seems to me a lot to hope to accomplish, with any confidence, in a single work.  So I thought we needed to get back to first principles.  What is a novel at the end of the nineteenth century?  Again, the question is too big, but just manageable.

The novel, I told them, is about common people--unlike myths or fairy tales or epics or Romances. We thought about the vast array of characters Eliot collects here--from knights to artists to middle-class families of women trying to keep body and soul together by drawing and doing needlework to Jewish pawnbrokers.  Toward the end of the nineteenth century, particularly after the passage of the Forster Education Act, the values of such a disparate group of individuals is diverse and conflicting.  The class system is in flux; consequently, heroes and heroines make themselves up as they go along.  There seems to be more promise of freedom in the air, yet even in an atmosphere that gestures toward the "modern," characters can suddenly find themselves smack up against limitations and social proscriptions.

What followed was a lively discussion of some of the main characters--Daniel himself, Gwendolen Harleth, and the evil Grandcourt.  The challenge for me was not allowing students' "first impressions" to go unquestioned:  in this novel Eliot put so much energy into exploring the characters' complex motivations that it is a travesty to lapse into certainty or put labels on characters.  Interestingly, the only character of whom this is not true is Grandcourt, who is consistently described as unimaginative.  In one of her final descriptions of him, Eliot notes that "There is no escaping the fact that want of sympathy condemns us to a corresponding stupidity" (509-10).  In contrast, Daniel tells his mother that "What I have been most trying to do for fifteen years is to have some understanding of those who differ from myself" (540).

While trying to read Daniel Deronda twice over the Christmas break was a bit of a stretch, it seems like the perfect place to begin our exploration of the novel for the 50 years the bridge the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.  For what does the novel itself do, but to help us "have some understanding of those who differ from myself"?

Tuesday, January 14, 2013
Earlier in the term when I'd talked to my first-year students about poetry, they'd revealed that finding the "message" in a poem was often frustrating.  This notion that any literature or art has a "message" was one that I wanted to put to rest quite quickly, so I asked them to describe what it's like to be reading something you're so immersed in that you look up and are surprised to see where you actually are.  Beatific smiles flashed across several students' faces; they didn't at all mind talking about the delights and surprises of that kind of reading experience.

So when we began to read Margaret Atwood's "Death by Landscape," I suggested that the author didn't have a message but rather wanted us to have an experience along with Lois, the character whose best summer friend disappeared while on a canoeing trip.  "What's it like to be sitting on a rock with your back to your friend, to hear a shout, and to find her gone?  How would that change your view of the world?"  "What's it like to have someone accuse you of having pushed her off the cliff?  How does that affect the rest of your life?"  "How does such a disappearance affect your relationship to nature?"  Towards the end of the class, we moved from the central story of the camping trip Lois and Lucy take when they are 13, out into the narrative frame of Lois's life after her children have moved out and her husband has died.  She lives in a condo that keeps nature at one remove:  the plants are in pots and she can only see the landscape that's far away.  She can't even hear the wind.  Yet she has a whole wall of small Group of Seven paintings.  I left them with a question for Thursday:  Do those paintings help Lois in any way to understand Lucy's disappearance?

Thursday, January 16, 2013
My first-year students had some remarkable thoughts about how the paintings play a role in Lois's life.  They noted that both the paintings I'd shown them on Tuesday and Atwood's descriptions of those Lois owns are layered:  there's a tangled foreground, and then a mysterious background that seems to hide things--like Lucy.  They express the mystery of Lucy's death, one student thought.  Another said that they help her grieve by keeping the memory of Lucy always present.  Wonderful fights broke out.  Well not really, but there were disagreements--which made me smile, of course.  Because the real question for Lois is where Lucy is.  On the one hand, she can't simply have disappeared; on the other, she remains at the centre of Lois's sense of who she is and how she relates to the world.  So they tried to imagine how works of art could express those contradictions between remembering Lucy, suggesting where she might be, and articulating her absence.

I handed out their next two assignments and explained my expectations; it seems to me easier for students to write well if they understand what the assignment is trying to teach them to do.  At one point, I talked about three formal vocabularies.  One is jargon:  language used, in essence, to say "I'm smarter than you are."  Writers who use jargon aren't really trying to communicate.  A second is legitimate specialized vocabularies.  What if we didn't have words like "metaphor" or "depression"?  How would we communicate these ideas?  A third is  "How I think the professor wants me to sound."  I urge them to avoid the syntax and vocabulary associated with this style.  "Express good ideas clearly and you will sound formal," I told them.

Next I introduced Earle Birney's "David," another death by nature narrative, so we can start it next Tuesday.  One of my keen students asked "Is Birney using jargon when he uses words like "arete," "pika," "bergschrund," and "serac"?  How will I convince them next week that Birney is using language that is remarkably precise, language that suggests we know or understand the ways of mountains, which the poem itself clearly queries?  How will I explain Kant and the sublime?  They get their heads around quite a number of things that I certainly can't conceive of, so I may have difficulties finding a way to explain this mid-twentieth-century idea of nature as a dangerous unknown.  I also have the sense that my students might tire of paradoxes and contradictions by the end of the term.

Thursday afternoon
I moderated a presentation given by Dr. Ken Coates about the Future of the Liberal Arts Education.  Dr. Coates is currently the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.  He's an historian who has turned to university administration, serving as Dean of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan and Dean of the College of Arts at the University of Waterloo. He gave us, in essence, a terrifying pep talk.  It seems true that we now have to justify the liberal arts; in times of economic uncertainty, students are eager to pursue professional degrees.  It is also true that governments across Canada and around the world are investing less in post-secondary education.

But the most meaningful moment came when Dr. Coates talked about being asked to justify the liberal arts and did so with a kind of thought experiment.  "Take a piece of paper and write down the ten things that worry you at night before you go to bed.  Turn it over and write down the ten things that give you joy or pleasure.  Now cross anything off either list that isn't illuminated or created by the liberal arts."  And of course, there's that "aha" moment, for most of us realize that there isn't anything on those lists that we are inclined to cross off.  He argues that we need to have more faith in ourselves.  But we also ought to be building bridges with high schools and employers.  We should also make at least some of our research speak directly to the wider world, something the Faculty of Arts is trying to do in a variety of ways. 

Friday, January 18, 2013
I'm trying to prepare Monday's Honours/Graduate class today so that I can free up Monday for preparing my first-year class, and hence empty Wednesday for research.  Finding the rhythm of a term when it changes every 13 weeks is always a challenge, but when it means you have a day to concentrate on the ideas and the literature that feeds your soul, it's worth it.  I've not taught Daniel Deronda before, so I continue to read secondary material about it.  Today before making Monday's lecture notes (which I will have to finish Sunday when Bill is watching the Superbowl semi-final games), I read "Daniel Deronda:  A New Epistemology" by George Levine.  Levine begins by reminding us that one of the challenges left to us by the Enlightement, which promised (among other things) that if we observed the world carefully we could understand it, is the difficulty of moving outside one's own viewpoint.  Levine writes "Disinterest and objectivity are always impossible and always necessary....[But] detachment is an aspiration rather than an achievement."

This problem makes its way into George Eliot's wonderfully sympathetic and ethical novels by asking "How is it mentally and morally possible to know others without imposing on them the distorting desires of the aspiring self (without which there would have been no particular reason to understand the 'other' in the first place)?" (Levine 59).  Levine argues that Daniel is the character who is most gifted at this process of understanding others, and that again and again Eliot's narrator attributes sympathy to Daniel's every interaction with people.  It is as if Levine has picked up where I left off my first lecture, noting (after Terry Eagleton), that the novel is the genre whose very raison d'etre in the nineteenth century is to take us into the lives of others so that, attracted by intriguing people and unpredictable but inviting plots, we can understand the lives of people entirely unlike ourselves.

We have a kind of mise en abyme here or a set of Russian dolls.  The point of the liberal arts is both to query how we know the world and its inhabitants and to provide us with more self-conscious ways of understanding and constructing such knowledge.  In turn, we study novels which, psychologists tell us, allow us to 'rehearse' being someone else in situations completely unlike our own.  And then comes Daniel Deronda, where the evil character, Grandcourt, in spite of his wealth, is consistently described as "unimaginative." In contrast, Daniel, who has no distinct social place in nineteenth-century Britain as the abandoned child of an opera singer, is valued for the sympathy he brings to every encounter. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Minimalism revisited

In spite of the fact that Mies van Der Rohe's dictum that “less is more” was uttered in 1959, the fifties were not a very minimalist time in my home. Perhaps the very fact that he felt the need to offer this piece of advice for designers and decorators is related to the historical moment with its postwar boom built at least partly on consumption of things we didn't, strictly speaking, need, but things which must have met some aesthetic hunger, no matter how ill-informed. The boom, combined with my mother's desire to move solidly (if fictitiously) into the middle class, meant this was a time when things were important. For my wealthier aunts, more was more, a condition my mother aspired to, though we never went in for doilies or knickknacks. My mother's watchword might have been elegance: an octaganal class plate, a very tasteful Madonna with fragile hands. Her living room and dining room were painted a complicated shade of grey: I still remember how hard it was to find carpet to match. 

But the pride she took in things was unmistakable in how she arranged a table or decorated a Christmas tree with nothing but blue lights or in her knowledge of which colours were in style. For my part, I painted, sanded, painted, steel-wooled, and painted a small white bookshelf that has just recently moved to my daughter's apartment. It held the books I'd been given every Christmas and birthday (sometimes by one of the wealthier, more educated aunts). But I had begun to frequent a small shop in the street behind Grand Rapids' main shopping avenue. My allowance bought me pairs or trios of tiny porcelain deer, rabbits, cairn terriers, and once a tiny Tinkerbell with the thinnest wings.

Half a block down the street from my home was St. Joseph's Seminary, surrounded by urban forest. Here, play was simple. You climbed the trees to spy on the seminarians walking two by two in their swinging black cassocks, talking of meaning, talking of the spiritual, the ineffable. Or you made “forts” in the shrubs. While forts for girls could sometimes be surprisingly domestic, with bits of carpet or a plastic tea set, these were not. They were made only of talk and curiosity. In a time when TV and movies romanticized the sexual unavailability of the priest, we were curious about their talk and about the apparent simplicity of their lives which involved the same clothes worn day after day, an old crennelated building, and lots of reading. What would such a life be like? In turn, the seminarians found girls hanging out of trees amusing, and perhaps even as puzzling as we found them. 

When I visit museums or galleries that attempt to give us a glimpse of the decor of the late fifties or early sixties, it see this kind of tension between too much and too little.  The lava lamp is perhaps the synecdoche for this contradiction between my mother`s elegant grey walls and the fussy Madonnas, between my carefully-sanded white bookshelf and the scattered menagerie frolicking there.

The  toe-in-the-water minimalism of the fifties and sixties makes a kind of historical sense to me.  There was, as I have suggested, the post-war boom, which has given me my favourite recipe for  bread--bread that has everything you hadn`t been able to put in it during the war, things like milk and butter.  But there were also the edicts of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, as well as the desire for a kind of space-age sleekness.

But unless I`m in some kind of denial, I don`t fully understand my yearning for minimalism now.  My closets get emptier, more and more boxes go off to Community Living.  I feel a week isn`t complete unless I`ve taken something out of my house and parked it in front of the AdHum elevators, or passed on a book to someone whom I knew would like it.  My most recent clothing purchase is two white cotton shirts, which make me think about Bogart and Bacall in Key Largo, the Bogart movie with the simplest, most essential, unpretentious wardrobe worn by them both:  khaki pants and white shirts.  

 Consciously I know that I`m getting ready for the big move in ten or fifteen years time when I may find the stairs difficult, but that doesn`t explain the aesthetic pleasure minimalism gives me.  I`m working some minimalism into the way I spend time, choosing to meditate or even (pretend to) nap.  Not doing, but simply being seems like a minimalism essential to my life at this point of busy classes, crisis in the academy, being 62 and reaching toward some important decisions about how much longer I will work or how I will pare down my life and give it a shape that is both meaningful and serene.  I suspect that unconsciously I`m getting myself ready for an even bigger move, that there is some calm leaning toward death, wanting the rehearsal of being less encumbered, wanting for the last twenty years of my life to be deliberate about saying `this stays; this matters`and `that goes; it`s getting in the way.`