Succinct

In a long-ago world, I had the pleasure of being introduced to the joys of French literature, principally by Miss Shelley at Lowell High School beginning in the second semester of Grade 10. It was very challenging at first, because few of us in the class had had much real experience with the language and it was a task to lift a corner of the literature curtain when reading the texts was a bit of a plod involving frequent recourse to the dictionary. I soon realized that using contextual clues, along with an increased linguistic awareness, allowed for focus on the content of a piece that transcended the text itself. I watched as the curtain slowly drew back and revealed a universe of tales and verse that mirrored the world back at me and brought on a wealth of insights into politics, social unrest, wars, pestilence, sex and violence. I suppose this might have happened without the linguistic stumbles had someone been able to light the same fire about English (American, Canadian, Australian…) literature, but that never happened, other than little sparks over Conrad and Faulkner in Mr. Lombardi’s English 11 class. Also, there seemed something mildly exotic and risqué about French  material, due to the prejudices of the time and place and the prudish newness of North American society. I couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm for the oriental works that ran across my desk in the course of the World Lit class in Grade 12 because I had to read them in translation and thus didn’t feel the same connection experienced in Miss S’s class.

It follows on that I continued this through a somewhat checkered university stint, and finally, into the public school system here in BC, wherein I found myself attempting to replicate, in some small way, the wonders of what a few had done for me in those risky late-teen days, that is, to drag a small number of students to a point in the study of the language where they could experience the real language and some interesting thought through the study of literature from a somewhat foreign perspective.

So here’s our lesson for the day, a poem by Jacques Prévert:

Composition française 

Tout jeune Napoléon était très maigre

et officier d’artillerie

plus tard il devint empereur

alors il prit du ventre et beaucoup de pays

et le jour où il mourut il avait encore

du ventre

mais il était devenu plus petit.

—Jacques Prévert

Basically, and I’m a poor translator, but there aren’t enough subtleties in this case for me to wreck:

In his youth, Napoleon was very thin

and an artillery officer

later, he became emperor

and he packed on weight and lots of countries

and the day he died he still had

a belly

but he had become a lot smaller.

This looks to me as though someone was encapsulating the decay of empire in a few short lines. It happened to France in Metternich’s time, and again after the Second World War, it happened to the British, and we seem to have a front-row seat (popcorn optional for some) for the American Empire, and we all get to pick our favourite figurehead to substitute for Napoleon.

Since some of us have benefitted materially from empire, it’s a bit of a daunting prospect, no matter how fervently we wish the end of empire, to suffer the consequences, especially if we’ve been paying attention to the lot of Cubans and Russians in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the hot mess that has been part of existence in Africa, say, or Southeast Asia. A good part of the fear stems from not having the option to resign gracefully, or to exert any measure of control over the descent from the heights, especially when combined with the disquiet that accompanies the thought that the same perpetrators are also driving humanity off an ecological cliff, seemingly without much real possibility of restraint or course change.

We might as well have a little poetry to usher us down the hallway to that much-vaunted new normal that isn’t likely what the puppet masters wanted us to see.

Tom Lehrer:

Soon we’ll be out amidst the cold world’s strife.

Soon we’ll be sliding down the razor blade of life.

DOUR DOERS?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is sophie-louisnard-tJXo5S5_8U4-unsplash-199x300.jpg

Photo by Sophie Louisnard on Unsplash

I sent a copy of Rebecca Solnit’s most recent essay (it came out in print October 19) to a friend in Vancouver, partly as a thank-you for a favour done some months back, and also because he’s the kind of reader that likes material that tickles the brain. He phoned this morning to tell me that Solnit was going to speak with Matt Galloway on The Current, a conversation you can both find and whose transcript you can read at:

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-oct-29-2021-1.6229890/how-george-orwell-s-roses-gave-rebecca-solnit-a-new-perspective-on-the-author-1.6230540

I’m finding that Orwell’s Roses adds a lot of insight, both in my appreciation of the life and work of the Orwellian one, but also, in typical Solnit fashion, in general little life hacks. One of the items she discusses in the interview with Galloway is the incident where Orwell was told by a fellow activist and hard-line socialist, that flowers are bourgeois, and therefore worthy of the scorn of progressive activists. So ought those most persistent in the search for a better world to swear off all forms of pleasure and appreciation that don’t directly add to the effort to tear down the capitalist edifice? Evidently, not according to Orwell himself, given that he planted and tended notoriously bourgeois roses and indulged in the sensuality of gardening, amongst other pleasures without, seemingly, diminishing his efforts to warn us of the rise of authoritarianism and the surveillance society.

My mother Maggie was a long-time activist involved in anti-war protests, advocacy for women, housing issues, voter registration, racial equality and pretty much any other cause that worked for a more just society, but who maintained a passion for art, music, design, gardening (including those pesky bourgeois flowers), food, books, and conversation as belonging in everyone’s more just existence, and often mentioned the thought that beauty and humour needed to feature prominently in efforts to broaden people’s perspectives on social and economic justice. She and Dad were both seriously activist in their attitude, but his outlook was more straightforward and looked to simple facts to take the converts down the road. There are echos of Maggie in a lot of the mental meanderings of Orwell’s Roses, a lot of them reflecting the need for balance in the search for a better life.

The Key

The Globe and Mail this morning has a post on its site in which it, unsurprisingly, trumpets that:

Private sector holds the key to reaching sustainability, climate goals

The problem is the skepticism engendered by the long history of the private sector spending lavishly to buy favour in the corridors of power precisely so as to keep the aforementioned key buried under a mass of commercial profit-making activity and hidden in a safe where no one is allowed to see it. This goes a long way to explaining why so many governments have continued to be willing partners to destructive business initiatives, and it wouldn’t surprise many of us that the global media have been active in lulling people all over the world into a sense of security and entitlement of what has come to be known as “normal” The recently-concluded G20 hasn’t produced any tangible results, and COP 26 could easily turn into a brilliantly-laundered word-churn accomplishing nothing.

Environmental Clarity

 

A fellow climate campaigner circulated this link as worthy of an hour’s reading time:

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/environmentalists-what-are-we-fighting-for-an-environmentalist-argues-it-s-not-clear-1.4917208

The lede:

Environmental problems are well-known and have been for decades, but we still appear to be edging toward a global catastrophe. Why?

Environmentalist Graham Saul believes that part of the problem is environmentalism itself. He argues it has a message problem — mainly because it doesn’t have a single, coherent, unified message that people can grasp.”

Certainly, there is a multiplicity of views on what constitutes the length and breadth of the perceptions of how we got where we are, and likely an equal plethora of prescriptions on how to bail ourselves out of the corner into which we seem to have painted ourselves. Even within the confines of our little community, there are several groups working to address questions relating to the environment without necessarily arriving at a consensus on the whys and wherefores as well as a direction to solution.

Does this mean that we’re doomed to failure? Will our lack of a unified and clarified message doom our efforts to enlist a broader swath of society in efforts to stabilize what we have set a-kilter?

I would like to offer a couple of analogies that seem relevant, the first somewhat silly and of dubious origin, the second perhaps more pertinent and certainly more thoughtful.

My wife brought a very fancy pasta maker in 1983, and part of the promotional material for the machine touted the fact that, despite the difficulty of getting Italians to agree on anything, this machine was universally accepted the length and breadth of the country. Imagine that!

The second insight was from a book called A Fair Country, by John Ralston Saul, published in 2008, in which Saul posited that there are three pillars of culturak tradition in Canada, the French, the English, and First Nations, and that one of the tenets of First Nations culture that has tempered the effect of fervent opinion in Canada (as opposed to the fiery hai-triggeer revolutionary spirit of the United States) is the longer perspective of First Nations culture and the willingness of First Nations to tolerate a higher level of unresolved ambiguity.

Based on this outlook, I would argue that we ought not get overly exercised in the quest for perfection of clarity in our message. I see this in contemporary readings where some will advocate for the immediate dissolution of the capitalist system at the base of our society, while others, equally implicated in efforts to put our living space back together, will argue that it’s imperative that we enlist to the cause those constituencies traditionally hostile to considerations of the environment, advocates of free-market economics and some communities of faith. Where there is no consensus among the recognized environmental leaders on such questions, it seems unlikely that we will do any better locally or regionally, and that perhaps we ought to shift our focus to actions that will lead to better outcomes and accept that there are multiple ways to both look at the process and to work toward resolution.

Influence Peddling

It would be a rare person who is entirely immune to the blandishments of Madison Ave. to unload his family fortune for some article or service that might increase community or financial status, or allow said person to blissfully ignore the storm of miscreants and their misdeeds that seems to surround us all. As if Madison Ave., and its lesser equivalents in the hinterland, was not enough, we now have internet influencers to fill in the gaps and create new cravings, with the same assurances as to quality and utility of goods and services provided. Perhaps somewhat more pernicious from operating mostly out of public view are the lobbyists who troll the halls of government and like bodies to ensure that corporations can flourish and, optimally, feed copiously at the public trough. Influencers, lobbyists and their benefactors also tend to form up in institutions called think tanks, where much brain power is focused on whatever the central theme of the think tank might be. One of my favourite tanks is the Canadian Centre For Policy Alternatives, who pool their ganglions in support of building a society that benefits the broadest possible spectrum of citizens and whose prescriptions seem to be best received by politicians identified with the left, though they themselves are not overtly political. They are distinguished from their opposite numbers by the question of whose interests they serve. There  are many of them, one of which, The Fraser Institute, falls on the opposite end of the social and political spectrum. In my adult life, I have seen more credits to the FI in the press than all other tanks combined, possibly because their greatest influence might be in our region and their greatest impact therefore at the level of provincial, regional and municipal politics. The influence exerted by these organizations becomes problematic when it moves from politics to policy and when the privileged few directing the Think Tanks get to translate their desires into legislation. The little screen capture at the top of this screed, and which is its inspiration, was from Libération, part of the daily read-around. You can find it here.

Montaigne has been chosen as a symbol of rational thought, an iconic figure of the Renaissance in France, to legitimize the view of the institute and to ensure the widest acceptance of the policy that stems from the institute’s influence. It would seem that there really isn’t anything all that original, apart from reference to contemporary challenges, but that the answer for those challenges is likely to result in More Of Same, emerging from pandemic restraints into as close a mirror of “before” as possible.

…un agenda à faire rougir de plaisir les entreprises : assouplissement du marché du travail, subventionnement de l’investissement, libéralisation des soldes, augmentation de la durée du temps de travail, réduction des dépenses publiques structurelles…

 

… an agenda to make businesses blush with pleasure: loosening of the labour market, subsidizing of investment, loosing restraints on remuneration, extending work hours, reduction of structural public spending…

Nothing to displease the FI crowd, nor the CD Howe bunch or any of their analogs. French President Macron has much in common with our PM in this, and so many other ways. Rien de nouveau sous le soleil.

Olympian

Head Under Heels

Newest Olympic Sport

 

 

 

Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash

Mount Olympus was held to be the abode of the Greek gods, from which comes the idea that something olympian is of great stature, lofty, admirable and worthy of the aspirations of the best of humanity. So why is it that every time a new sport is added to the Olympics, I get the feeling that the Olympic Movement has devolved into a marketing board for cheap distractions, tawdry displays of gaud, and colossal misappropriations of public funds?

This is how I felt when baseball and tennis were included, with a grudging nod to the ubiquity of some pursuits. This is how I felt about beach volleyball with its yahoo culture and skimpy get-ups…why not do as the wrestlers apparently did back in the origins and go full monte?

I also hear disturbing rumblings of the coalescence of a group looking to bring the Olympics back to Vancouver. We have had no meaningful reckoning for the binge of a decade ago nor a cost-benefit analysis of the temporary glow of winning some medals and the costs (still sealed) in money and disruption caused by the supporting infrastructure so that the IOC could bring its Spendy Circus to town and say the usual trite things about what wonderful hosts and suckers we’ve been. Tamp it down! There are several layers of more pressing issues that should be on the agenda.

Oh, and break dancing? Yet another marvel of one-time innovation, athleticism, and culture. No worries there, just that the IOC needs to work on the idea of universality and appropriateness as represented by the rings.

 

Visionary? Really?

 

Last fall i had occasion to be on the UBC campus for the first time in a decade and the visit was revelatory. The view I had of the campus had been almost entirely submerged in new construction, and a whole new city had sprung up on the Endowment Lands to the south of campus, including the rising spires of the temples to real estate speculation. My guide, who taught at BCIT and who lives in one of the older developments on the EL, pointed out that only full-time tenured faculty could actually afford the rents/mortgages in the neighbourhood. So I had to have a rueful laugh at a headline on the landing page of the Times-Colonist this morning mourning the passing of the real estate visionary who revolutionized UBC housing. I suspect that the visions were likely that of pecuniary symbolism pasted on his eyeballs.

What’s Old Is Still Old

…but it often keeps resurfacing.

 

Camus, himself

Long ago, in student days, I read a couple of plays by Albert Camus, Caligula and Le malentendu, each of which dealt with some fairly weighty questions that get left out of most of the day-to-day conversation. With thoughts of a couple of other Camus pieces (Noces and L’été) that had shown me a side of the author not generally acknowledged (reflections of sun-drenched vistas and the general beauty offered by nature, however indifferent or absurd that nature might be), I plunked down some serious coin for a Pleïade edition of the man’s complete works and invest some time in broadening that horizon while keeping some language skills activated.

Caligula

 

As is often the case with works read in the deep past, the reader’s perspective will have morphed through piled up time and experience, and such is the case with Caligula, a ruler who has forsaken the conventions for his own individual struggle with a lack of limits, something that rings true with a number of authoritarian administrations, yet only partially in the case of our own Mr. Trump (he is a product of a confused and twisted world, and therefore belongs to all of us). The big difference between Trump and his Roman analog is that Caligula is fully conscious of who he is, what he is doing, and the nature of his relationship to those he rules. As devastating as Caligula’s rule might have seemed at the time, the threats to civilization posed by Trump and his associates are, if you’ll pardon a smarmy Camusian observation, existential.

And I’m sure it’s an utter coincidence that I arrived at this particular spot in Camus’ oeuvre at this juncture in the Trump narrative (impeachment, assassination of the top Iranian military figure).

Look What Crawled Out Of The Woodwork!

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash, with thanks.

 

So, as Huffpost opines, Justin Trudeau and a new star candidate for the fall election: Terry Lake, former minister of Health in the BC government of Christy Clark.

Lots of folks used to insist that Clark’s idea of a Liberal was different from the Federal Party, but the lat three-and-a-bit years of Trudeau’s reign will have solidly put paid to that notion. In fact, there are pictures of CC and PMSH seated side-by-side where it seems it would be easy to substitute the the-PM for our current cardboard cutout. While Lake seemed to be less aggressive in his pursuit of the bent dealings that characterize most of what happened during the Campbell/Clark years, he was still a willing participant in the shenanigans and is unlikely to be terribly constructive in the context of a Federal government. This reminds me a little of the revolving door between Federal appointees and Industry, both here and south of the border. Anyone exercising a modicum of neural networks will know that it doesn’t much matter who the Libs and Cons throw up in front of us as a candidate because policy isn’t formulated in cabinet: it comes from the board rooms of Bay Street and Oil Alley in Calgary (also SNC, Irving, Davie, various Pharma and Ag giants…). So Sad.

Another dead giveaway that we’re seeing an opportunist supporting other opportunists? In the above link, it states that it was Trudeau’s Climate Plan that brought him to filing for candidacy, and we’ve had ample opportunity to discern that said Climate Plan is full of lovely rhetoric, and no action, or actions that no sane person would include in a plan to scale back the destruction of the planet’s life systems. Interesting how groups of the like-minded mendacious find each other and connect.