The Death of the Artist

December 18, 2013 § 8 Comments

In her brilliant The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Sarah Schulman spends some time discussing the consequences of the lost imagination, for both the individual and society as a whole.  What struck me is her discussion of what existed on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan in the 1980s in terms of culture and art.  It also got me thinking about my own experiences in the punk scenes of Montréal, and Vancouver in the early 1990s, and the creativity of the artists in those scenes.  Schulman also pointed out that the artists in New York City, like the ones I knew in Canada, lived in poverty, scraping to get by, sometimes begging, borrowing, and/or stealing, or even turning tricks, in order to make rent.  We also threw rent parties, where our friends would all give us a few bucks to help us cover the rent for the month.

I used to sit amongst these scenes pondering individuality.  What initially attracted me to the punk scenes was that: individuality.  Growing up in suburbia, I felt an intense pressure to conform, and punk offered me a way out.  But, from the inside of the scene, I began to grow somewhat disenchanted, in that we all looked the same, the bands all sounded the same.  Sort of, anyway.  In 1994, Courtney Love’s band, Hole, released their epic album, Live Through This, which ended with the dystopian punk song, “Olympia.” Yes, there was once a time when Courtney Love was a musician, and not the butt of a joke.  Love sang:

When I went to school in Olympia
Everyone’s the same
And so are you in Olympia
Everyone is the same
We look the same, we talk the same, yeah
We even fuck the same
When I went to school in Olympia!

And that was kind of it, but we were also so far out of the mainstream it didn’t matter.  We may have been the same, but we were different than everyone else.  I have a feeling it wasn’t that different in New York City in the 1980s.  Schulman’s friends, mostly gay artists, stood out from society due to their vocation and their sexuality.  We stood out due to our fashion and our aesthetic.

But now, it’s 20-30 years later.  What was then the fringe is now the mainstream. Hell, for that matter the various Fringe Festivals in North America and Western Europe are mainstream.  Punk exploded into the suburbs around the time I was down and out on the Eastside of Vancouver.  As Schulman notes, being gay has gone mainstream (though she has a blistering critique of this, and I would note that LGBT people remain essentialised and discriminated against in the mainstream of society).

Our society has become corporate and cookie cutter.  This isn’t s surprise to anyone reading this blog, I’m sure.  Schulman blames this on the rise of lifestyle magazines.  These magazines sell a lifestyle and a design ethos.  We shop at Crate & Barrel or Ikea or Anthropologie for our home furnishings.  When I look at all the urban hipsters in whatever city I am in, whether it’s Montréal or Portland or Seattle or Vancouver or Denver of Indianapolis or Boston or Pittsburgh, they all look the same.  They wear the same ironic glasses, the same ironic clothes, and adopt the same ironic poses.  And their older counterparts are pretty much the same, the women in yoga wear and the men in North Face wear.

Schulman bemoans the younger artists she meets who are corporatised and, as a result, larger uncreative, or their creativity is sucked up by a corporate mindset.  I wish I could disagree with her.  But I can’t.  As a culture, we’ve lost our creativity in so many ways because we can’t really escape the corporate world.  So it turns out I still have a little punk in me.  Who knew?

Immigration: The More Common North American Experience

September 6, 2013 § 4 Comments

The scenery as we drove across the United States and back was amazing.  So were many of the place names.  There is a town in Colorado named Rifle.  Another town in Colorado is called Cahones.  I kid you not.  But perhaps my favourite highway road sign in all of the United States was this one we saw on the side of I-84 in Eastern Oregon.

photo The sign pretty much says it all.  Canadian and American culture is full of stories of the successful immigrant, the ones who came to these shores with nothing and made lives for themselves, who made fortunes and found fame.  And while certainly there were a few who experienced this good fortune on North American shores, the majority did not.  Most settled somewhere in between fame and fortune and poverty and despair.

Certainly, pop culture contains references to the downside of emigration.  In Canada, university students in Canadian history and literature are tortured with perhaps one of the worst books in Christendom, Susanna Moodie’s interminable Roughing It In the Bush, Or, Life in Canada, about the trials and tribulations of Moodie and her husband, John Weddiburn Dunbar Moodie, a down-at-the-heels member of the British gentry, in the wilds of Upper Canada in the 1830s and 40s.  While Moodie was a horrible writer and her husband an even worse poet, the book is a key text on the struggles of even wealthy emigrants in the British colonies in the mid-nineteenth century (it worked out ok for the Moodies, they ended up moderately wealthy and living in the thriving town of Belleville, Ontario).

One of my favourite Pogues songs is “Thousands Are Sailing,” which is the story of downtrodden Irish emigrants in New York City in the 19th century.  The song is actually kind of heartbreaking.

So this sign for an exit on I-70 in Eastern Oregon struck me as a remarkable site.  Old Emigrant Hill Road is on the northern side of I-70, and it runs into Poverty Flat Road on the southern side of the highway.  Obviously, these two roads have been there for a lot longer than the Interstate.  And, as you can see from the terrain surrounding the sign for the exit on the highway, the landscape around Poverty Flat Road isn’t exactly all that welcoming.  This was also a common experience for emigrants to the “New World” in the 19th and 20th centuries: they ended up farming lands that were not conducive to growing much of anything.  Generations struggled to make a living on these farms until someone, whether out of optimism or desperation, decided to clear off the land and make his or her fortunes elsewhere.

Perhaps this is the more common story of the immigrant in North America than the one of fame and fortune.

The Terror of History

June 8, 2013 § 8 Comments

I’m teaching a summer course, a quick, 6-week course wherein I’m supposed to cover World History from approximately the Enlightenment in Western Europe in the mid-18th century until the late 20th century.  It’s impossible to do this topic justice in a 15-week semester, let alone a quick summer course.  For that reason, and because I’ve been teaching variations of this course for far too long, I decided to try something new with this class.  In essence, my students are my guinea pigs this semester.  I am teaching the Terror of History/The History of Terror.

A few years ago, I read a fantastic book by UCLA History Professor Teofilo Ruiz, The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization.  Ruiz expanded on something that had been travelling around the back of my own brain since I first read Boccaccio’s The Decameron some twenty years ago.  In his Introduction, Boccaccio lays out the response of people in Florence to the Plague: What they did.  According to Boccaccio, there are three basic human responses to terror and misery: 1) Religion; 2) Debauchery; or 3) Flight.  To that, Ruiz adds that there’s a 4th category: those who remain in place, who attempt to carry on in the midst of chaos.  Since I read Ruiz, I’ve been thinking about this more explicitly, and I have re-read The Decameron (as an aside, I find it rather insulting that my MacBook insists that Decameron is a spelling error).  Sometimes it’s hard not to become a miserable cynic when teaching history.  We humans have come up with so many ways to terrorise, torture, and kill each other. If you don’t believe me, look at how Romans dealt with traitors: crucifixion.  Or the Holocaust or any genocide you want.

Religion, it occurred to me when I was a teenager, was simply a means of ordering the world in order to allow ourselves not to lose our minds, to try to find wider significance and meaning for the bad things that happen.  When I was a bit older, I dabbled in Buddhism, which was much more explicit about this.  This isn’t to demean religion, it is a powerful force for some, and it allows an ordering of the universe.  But, as the Buddha noted, life is suffering.  What we control is our response to that.

So, Ruiz pointed out the terror of history, of the endless crashing of shit on our heads.  Pretty much everything in our world is predicated on it.  We live a comfortable life in North America because my shoes were made in Vietnam in a sweat shop.  My car emits pollution into the air.  Historically, systems of power are predicated on fear, terror, and awe.  That’s how order is kept.  Uplifting, isn’t it?

So, this semester, I’ve made that explicit in my class.  I cannot even hope to do justice to World History, so I am trying to cherry-pick my way through all the mire.  I am focussing on the chaos and terror at moments like the American War of Independence or the French Revolution.  Or the terror of slave owners in the American South or in Brazil.  Or the use of terror by the world’s first terrorist, Maximillien Robespierre, who explicitly declared that he wanted to terrorise his enemies.  Lenin and Trotsky rolled in a very similar manner.  So, too, did the Qing Dynasty in China.  Or the British imperial system in Africa or India.  Or the Belgians in the Congo.  But this wasn’t an export of Europe.  Slavery has existed since approximately forever, and was an integral part of Ancient Warfare, but it was also central to African warfare in the 18th century.  The list goes on and on.

How do we survive in this endless cycle of bad news? We do what Boccaccio said we do.  We find religion.  We despoil ourselves in debauchery.  We find joy in religion or debauchery.  Or we find it in flight.  Flight doesn’t have to be literal, like the 10 young men and women in The Decameron, flight can be symbolic.  It can be a search for beauty, awareness, or knowledge.  In many ways, the three categories can overlap, like in the mystic cults of the Roman Republic.  But we are remarkably resilient creatures, and we find our joys and happiness in the midst of the shit of life.

Ruiz notes that people almost always attempt to step outside the colossal weight of history by following these paths to religion, debauchery, or flight.  Events like Carnival, whether in Medieval Europe or Rio de Janeiro (or Québec City in winter, for that matter), is exactly that, an escape, temporary as it might be, from history.  We escape systems of power and oppression for brief moments.

The hard part in teaching the Terror of History is finding the escapes and not making them sound like they are hokey or unimportant or trivial, which is what they sound like in the face of this colossal wave of bad news.  But we all do this, we all find means of escaping the news.  Right now, the news in my local newspaper concerns the government spying on its own citizens, a war in Syria, and people trying to recover from a bomb going off during a marathon.  If I took each at face value, I’m sure I’d be lying prostate on the floor, sucking my thumb.  So, clearly, I have coping mechanisms.  And humans have always had them.  But it remains difficult to talk about these in class without making them sound hokey.

This week, we’re reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, SlaughterHouse 5, which takes place in part at the end of the Second World War and was Vonnegut’s attempt to make sense of having been in Dresden in 1945, when the city was firebombed by the Allies.  The terror of that, the horror, the devastation.  All throughout the novel, the narrator declares “So it goes” when dealing with death and other calamities.  We have a philosophy, then, here, one of stoicism.  Stoicism and Buddhism are fairly closely related.  This is an attempt to deal with the Terror of History.

At any rate, this is making for an interesting summer course, and it seems as though my students are, if not exactly enjoying it, are learning something.  Along with SlaughterHouse 5, we’re also going to watch Triumph of the Will this week.

Stephen Harper: Revisionist Historian

May 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

By now, it should be patently clear that Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is not a benign force.  He likes to consider himself an historian, he’s apparently publishing a book on hockey this fall.   But, I find myself wondering just what Harper thinks he’s doing.  I’ve written about the sucking up of the Winnipeg Jets hockey club to Harper’s government and militaristic tendencies.  I’ve noted Ian McKay and Jamie Swift’s book, Warrior Nation: The Rebranding of Canada in the Age of Anxiety (read it!).  And I’ve had something to say about Harper’s laughably embarrassing attempt to re-brand the War of 1812 to fit his ridiculous notion of Canada being forged in fire and blood.

Now comes news that Harper’s government has decided it needs to re-brand Canadian history as a whole.  According to the Ottawa Citizen:

Federal politicians have launched a “thorough and comprehensive review of significant aspects in Canadian history” in Parliament that will be led by Conservative MPs, investigating courses taught in schools, with a focus on several armed conflicts of the past century.

The study was launched by the House of Commons Canadian heritage committee that went behind closed doors last Monday to approve its review, despite apparent objections from the opposition MPs.

When this first passed through my Twitter timeline, I thought it HAD to be a joke.  But it’s not.  Apparently, Harper thinks that Canada needs to re-acquaint itself with this imagined military history.  I’m not saying that Canadians shouldn’t be proud of their military history.  We should, Canada’s military has performed more than admirably in the First and Second World Wars, Korea, and Afghanistan, as well as countless peacekeeping missions.  Hell, Canadians INVENTED peacekeeping. Not that you would know that from the Harper government’s mantra.

As admirable as Canada’s military has performed, often under-equipped and under-funded, it is simply a flat out lie to suggest that we are a nation forged of war, blood, and sacrifice.  Canada’s independence was achieved peacefully, over the course of a century-and-a-half (from responsible government in 1848 to the patriation of our Constitution in 1982).  And nothing Harper’s minions can make up or say will change that, Jack Granatstein be damned.

To quote myself at the end of my War of 1812 piece:

Certainly history gets used to multiple ends every day, and very often by governments.  But it is rare that we get to watch a government of a peaceful democracy so fully rewrite a national history to suit its own interests and outlook, to remove or play down aspects of that history that have long made Canadians proud, and to magnify moments that serve no real purpose other than the government’s very particular view of the nation’s past and present.  The paranoiac in me sees historical parallels with the actions of the Bolsheviks in the late 1910s and early 1920s in Russia.  The Bolshevik propaganda sought to construct an alternate version of Russian history; in many ways, Canada’s prime minister is attempting the same thing.  The public historian in me sees a laboratory for the manufacturing of a new usable past on behalf of an entire nation, and a massive nation at that.

Every time I read about Harper’s imaginary Canadian history, I am reminded by Orwellian propaganda.  And I’m reminded of the way propaganda works.  Repeat something often enough, and it becomes true.  The George W. Bush administration did that to disastrous effects insofar as the war in Iraq is concerned.  But today, I came across something interesting in Iain Sinclair’s tour de force, London Orbitalwherein Sinclair and friends explore the landscape and history of the territory surrounding the M25, the orbital highway that surrounds London.  Sinclair is heavily critical of both the Thatcherite and New Labour visions of England.  In discussing the closing of mental health hospitals and the de-institutionalisation of the patients in England, Sinclair writes:

That was the Thatcher method: the shameless lie, endlessly repeated, with furious intensity — as if passion meant truth.

I suppose in looking for conservative heroes, Harper could do worse than the Iron Lady.  But it also seems as if Harper is attempting nothing less than the re-branding of an entire nation.

The Strange Anglo Fascination with Québécois Anti-Semitism

December 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am a reader.  I read pretty much anything, fiction and non-fiction.  As I have argued for approximately forever, reading, and especially, literature, is what keeps me sane.  So I read.  It’s also the end of the semester, so what I read devolves in many ways from lofty literature to murder-mysteries.  I would argue, though, that a good murder-mystery is full of the basic questions of humanity, right down to the endless push/pull of good v. evil.  I came to this conclusion when someone once tried to convince me that Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment was, at the core, a murder-mystery.

So, it is that I came to find myself reading the third in John Farrow’s so-far excellent series of murder mysteries set in my home town, Montréal, and featuring the crusty old detective, Émile Cinq-Mars.  The third novel, however, centres around Cinq-Mars’ early career in the late 60s/early 70s.  And Farrow, who is really the esteemed Canadian novelist, Trevor Ferguson, took the opportunity to write an epic, historical novel.  It’s also massively overambitious and falls under its own weight oftentimes in the first half of the book.  The novel opens on the night of the Richard Riot in Montréal, 17 March 1955, with the theft of the Cartier Dagger, a relic of Jacques Cartier’s arrival at Hochelaga in the 16th century.  The dagger, made of stone and gifted to Cartier by Donnacona, the chief of Stadacona, which is today’s Québec City, has been central to the development of Canada.  It has ended up in the hands of Samuel de Champlain, Étienne Brulé, Paul de Chomedy, sieur de Maisonneuve, Dollard des Ormeux, Médard Chouart des Groselliers, Pierre Esprit Radisson, and so on.  But it has ended up in the hands of the Sun Life Assurance Company, the very simple of les maudits Anglais in mid-20th century Montréal.  Worse for the québécois, Sun Life has lent it to that mandarin of ‘les maudits anglais,” Clarence Campbell, president of the National Hockey League, and the man responsible for the lengthy suspension to Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.  Clearly, Farrow subscribes to the theory that the Quiet Revolution really began in March 1955 (I do not agree with this one bit, thank you very much).

Farrow then takes us through the history of the dagger, from Cartier until it ends up in the hands of  Campbell, to its theft on St. Patrick’s Day 1955.  And from there, we move through the next sixteen years, through the Quiet Revolution, Trudeaumania, and the FLQ, as Cinq-Mars finally solves the mystery of the theft of the Cartier Dagger in 1971 (which was also the year that an unknown goalie came out of nowhere to backstop the Habs to the Stanley Cup).

All throughout the story, Farrow, in true Anglo-Montréal style, is obsessed with franco-québécois anti-semitism.  This is especially the case from the late 19th century onwards.  We are brought into the shadowy underworld of the Order of Jacques Cartier, a secret society hell-bent on defending French, Catholic Québec against les Anglais and the Jews.  Characters real and fictive are in the Order, including legendary Montréal Mayor Camillien Houde, and Camille Laurin, the father of Bill 101, and others.  And then there’s the Nazi on the run after the Second World War, Jacques Dugé de Bernonville.  We also meet Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his nemesis, René Levésque.

Outed as anti-semites are the usual characters: Maurice Duplessis, Abbé Lionel Groulx, Houde, Laurin, and, obviously, de Bernonville.  Also, Henri Bourassa and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine.  And so on and so forth.  And, ok, fair enough, they WERE anti-semites (though I’m not sure you can call Bourassa and Lafontaine that).  Québec, and Montréal in particular, was the home of Adrien Arcand, the self-proclaimed fuhrer of Canada.  These are disgusting, dirty men.

But all throughout the novel, only French Canadian anti-semitism matters.  This reminds me of a listserv of policy wonks, academics, and journalists I’ve been a member of for a decade-and-a-half.  Years ago, we had one member who liked to rail against the sovereigntists in Québec, accusing them of being vile anti-semites (sometimes he was right).  But, whenever evidence of wider Canadian anti-semitism was pointed out, he dismissed it out of hand.  In his mind, only the French are anti-semites (to the point where he often pointed to the Affair Dreyfus in late 19th century France as proof the québécois are anti-semites to the core).

I am not suggesting that anti-semitism should not be called out for what it is: racism.  It must and should be.  But whenever we get this reactionary Anglophone obsession with Franco-québécois anti-semitism, I get uncomfortable.  This is a bad case of the pot calling the kettle black.  Anti-semitism has been prevalent in Canada since the get go, in both official languages.  The first Jew to be elected to public office in the entire British Empire was Ezekiel Hart, elected to the Lower Canadian legislature in 1807.  But he was ejected from the House almost immediately upon taking his seat because he was Jewish.  The objections to Hart taking his oath of office on the Jewish Bible (which was standard practice in the court system for Jews) were led the Attorney-General, Jonathan Sewell.  But the people of Trois-Rivières returned him to office nonetheless.  He was again refused his seat. Opposition came from both sides of the linguistic divide in Lower Canada, and you will surely note Sewell is not a French name.  Lower Canada, however, was the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to emancipate Jews, in 1833.  The leader of the House, and the Parti patriote? Louis-Joseph Papineau.

At any rate, this isn’t a defence of the franco-québécois record on anti-semitism. It’s not good.  But it is to point out that Anglo Canada isn’t exactly pristine.  Irving Abella and and Harold Troper’s book, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948 makes that point clear.  Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s immigration chief, Frederick Blair, made sure that Jews fleeing Nazi Germany weren’t allowed into Canada.  Jews had been coming to Canada since the late 19th century, and there, they met an anti-semitic response, whether it was Montréal, Toronto, or Winnipeg. Even one of our great Canadian heroes, Lester Bowles Pearson, Nobel Prize-winner for inventing UN Peacekeepers and Prime Minister from 1965-7, was an anti-semite, at least as a young man before the Second World War.

And anti-semitism has remained a problem in Canada ever since.  While anti-semitism is relatively rare in Canada, B’Nai Brith estimates that, in 2010, upwards of 475 incidents of anti-semitism happened in Toronto alone.

So clearly Canadian anti-semitism isn’t a uniquely franco-québécois matter.  Indeed, one of the few Anglos to feature in Farrow’s book, Sir Herbert Holt, was himself somewhat of an anti-semite himself.  And I am left feeling rather uncomfortable with this strange Anglo Québec fascination with the anti-semitism of francophone québécois, especially when it’s presented out of the context of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  This was a period of pretty much worldwide anti-semitism.  It was “in fashion,” so to speak, in the Euro-North American world, from actual pogroms in Russia to the Affaire Dreyfus, to the US and Canada refusing to accept refugees from Nazi Germany thirty years later.

Bloomsday Montreal 2012

June 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Montreal’s first annual Bloomsday gets underway tomorrow at 12.30pm at the Atwater Library, with a a reading and music inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses, hosted by Dana O’Hearne.  And also tomorrow night, 5pm, at Hurley’s Irish Pub on Crescent, we will be hosting a Trivia Night, so come on down and check out both events.

The full schedule for the 3-day event can be found here.

Highlights, aside from what I’ve already noted:

4pm, Friday 15 June, Bombardier Theatre, McCord Museum, Official Launch, featuring Prof. Michael Kenneally, Principal of the School for Canadian Irish Studies at Concordia, who will speak on “The Achievement of Joyce’s Ulysses.

8.30am, Saturday, 16 June at Le Vieux Dublin Pub on Cathcart, I will be hosting a breakfast event featuring the indomitable Don Pidgeon, who will tell stories about Griffintown.  Don’s ALWAYS entertaining, a natural-born story-teller, this is not to be missed.

9.45-11.30am, Saturday, 16 June: Prof. David Hanna of UQÀM will be leading a tour of Griffintown, which will meet at Métro Square Victoria.

10am-5pm, Saturday, 16 June: Our main event at James Square on McGill’s Campus (the entrance on University), where we will have daylong readings from Ulysses, as well as performances by the Bernadette Short Dancers, and Irish and classical music performances.

1pm-3pm, Saturday, 16 June: I will be screening a viewing of William Weintraub’s 1970s documentary, The Point, at the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning, which is located at 688 Sherbrooke Ouest, I’ll be in Room 1041.  I will also talk about Pointe-Saint-Charles, my favourite Montreal neighbourhood (and also my home).

2.45pm-4.45pm, Saturday, 16 June, in the Bombardier Theatre of the McCord, film-maker Brian McKenna will present his new film, The Coffin Ship Hanna.

On the Difference between being a Reader and a Writer

June 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Upon the recommendation of the fine people at Argo Bookshop, I read Italo Calvino‘s If on a winter’s night a traveller, which was in and of itself an excellent read, a meditation on the multiple meanings of reading, amongst other things. I was struck by a discussion between the protagonist, The Reader, and The Other Reader, who at least got a name, Ludmilla.  Both The Reader and The Other Reader have been continually frustrated in their attempts to read a book, any book, as they are continually met with incomplete manuscripts, so they get into their novel, only to have it end.  Up to this point, it has been due to publisher’s errors and problems in the actual process of printing and binding the books.

But The Reader has made a contact within the publishing firm, who has given him reign to peruse the completed manuscripts, and he excitedly tells The Other Reader when they meet in a café.  He then wants to rush back to the publisher to continue their investigation.  But she refuses.

Why don’t you want to come?

On principle.

What do you mean?

There’s a boundary line: on ne side are those who make books, on the other those who read them.  I want to remain one of those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line.  Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least is transformed into something else, which is not what I want.  This boundary line is tentative, it tends to get erased: the world of those who deal with books professionally is more and more crowded and tends to become one with the world of readers…I know that if I cross that boundary, even as an exception, by chance, I risk being mixed up in this advancing tide; that’s why I refuse to set foot inside a publishing house, even for yourself.

It is clear that for The Other Reader, this is her own stance.  Of course, within a few chapters, she has violated her position.  But that’s irrelevant.  What is relevant is the point she raises, and the separation between authors and publishers and readers.  I had a thought similar to this last week when I was in Archambault looking for a book.  I didn’t find what I was looking for, a history book, but I did see my friend Simon Jolivet‘s book on the shelf.  Now, this is not surprising, Simon wrote a book, based on his PhD dissertation, and it got published.  That’s the way it’s supposed to work in academia.  In fact, that’s the very process I am presently engaged in myself.  And certainly I have known many, many authors throughout my academic career (to say nothing of the fiction writers I know).  And certainly, books get treated differently in academia than in the general public: we have to publish them if we want to survive in our field, it’s part of the job (which is why I find it obnoxious when people presume that because it’s summer I’m doing nothing if I’m not teaching).

And yet, it’s one thing to see my professors’ books on the shelf in the bookstore, it’s another to see a friend’s, especially when we did our PhD’s together.  It’s not an incredibly profound statement, I realise, but there is still something rather exciting about seeing your friend’s book on a shelf in a busy downtown Montréal bookstore, to know that people have bought it and read it and will continue to do so, and to finally have it sink in that this will also happen for me, my book will be on these same shelves and people will buy it and read it, beyond the academy (I hope).

But does that change my relationship with reading, both fiction and non-fiction? I doubt it.  And, of course, The Other Reader eventually realised that herself when she started to get mixed up in book production and forgery rings.

The Names and History

May 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

[Ed.’s note: I wrote this about a year ago, it’s already been published. But it’s been front and centre in my mind of late as I read more history, more Don De Lillo, and as world events continue to unfold. It’s often been said that history repeats itself. It’s a trite comment, but there is some truth to it. Anyway, I like this piece. So I’m republishing it.  Enjoy.]

Historians take the long view when examining global affairs. I was recently reading microfilm of newspapers from the early 1920s, doing some last research for my book. The countries that dominated the headlines then were the same ones that dominate them today. The Third Anglo-Afghan War had just concluded with the Treaty of Rawalpindi, ostensibly settling boundary issues between India and Afghanistan. The Levant was under British and French mandate following the First World War. The Republic of Turkey was in its infancy under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the British had just revoked Egypt‘s independence.

I had the same sense of déjà-vu in reading Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names.  It’s set against the geopolitical backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, the rescue of the American hostages in Tehran, the Lebanese Civil War, the 1980 Turkish coup d’état, chronic Greco-Turkish tensions over Cyprus, and the instability of Greek democracy. The Names centres around a group of expats involved in various shadowy activities  involving international banking, risk analysis, security, and archaeology. Its hero, James Axton, is a risk analyst for a mysterious American group found to have ties to the CIA. David Keller, another American, is based in Athens. He works for a bank that has heavy ties to the Turkish government, and becomes the target of an assassination attempt in Greece. Charles Maitland, a Brit, is a security specialist. The men spend their time flying around the Middle East attending to business in dodgy locales: Tehran, Ankara, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut in particular.

Control is a central theme of the novel, whether it’s states trying to manage their politics or DeLillo’s characters handling their personal affairs. Axton loses control in his marriage as his wife, Kathryn, slips further and further away from him (she moves from a Greek island to Victoria, British Columbia – about as remote and obscure a locale from Greece as possible). He loses control over his own reality, holding on desperately to his job, revelling in mundane office paperwork as he becomes increasingly obsessed by a mysterious, murderous cult. He eventually travels to the Pelopennese and as far as Jerusalem, Damascus, and India in an attempt to learn more about it. Along the way, something interesting happens: language, the means by which people order and make sense of their mental worlds, takes on a new importance for Axton; religion, as exemplified by the mystery cult, is what orders the meaning that he finds through language. The connections they establish and the control they represent suggest a world made in the cult’s own image, which Axton sees painted on a rock on the outskirts of an abandoned village in the Pelopennese: Ta Onómata, The Names.

As the novel closes, Axton is back in Athens. After the CIA revelations, he resigns from his job. Rootless, his wife and son on the other side of the world. He regains control of his life, while the world around him continues to spin out of control; he witnesses the assassination attempt on Keller. Geopolitics and the personal chaos caused by the characters’ involvement in it are useful allegories these days. In the continuing drama of the Arab Spring, states and their residents, the masses and their leaders, are locked in a competition over who gets to dictate the terms of order. The newspapers of the 1920s were clear about who was meant to maintain control over the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Today, questions of empire, language, religion and politics, domesticated and boiling over, are much more complex. For that we should probably be grateful.

New Bloomsday Montreal 2012 website

February 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

I will have much more to say shortly, but for now, I just want to update my previous Bloomsday Montreal post with our new website.  Everything is coming together nicely for our celebration of Joyce’s masterful Ulysses, 14-16 June.  We’ll be updating the site soon.  In the meantime, you can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Bloomsday Montréal 2012

February 4, 2012 § 19 Comments

I am on a steering committee attempting to launch Bloomsday Montréal this year on 16 June.

For those who don’t know, Bloomsday is an annual celebration worldwide of James Joyce’s masterful novel, Ulysses, which was first published in 1922.  Ulysses traces the travels of one Leopold Bloom, a Dubliner, across the city on 16 June 1904. That date was significant for Joyce as it was the date of his very first outing with his wife to be, Nora Barnacle.  Many consider Ulysses the finest novel of the 20th century.  The first Bloomsday was celebrated on 16 June 1954, the 50th anniversary of Bloom’s travels, in Dublin, where the Irish artist John Ryan and the novelist Flann O’Brien decided to re-trace Bloom’s route around the city.

From there, Bloomsday has grown to be a massive cultural phenomenon, celebrated in over 60 nations around the world.  In 2004, the 100th anniversary of Bloom’s travels, a massive celebration was held in Dublin, with over 10,000 people in attendance.  On 16 June 1958, the star-crossed Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married on Bloomsday.  Why Montréal, a major city of the Irish diaspora has not had a Bloomsday until now is beyond my ken.  But, it is time.

We are just getting organised, our webpage will be up soon, but in the meantime, follow us on Twitter or Facebook for updates and news of our events on 16 June!

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