Canadian Bacon

from New Partisan, Sept 11, 2004
When Robertson Davies died in December 1995, Canada’s state broadcasting corporation, the CBC, offered live radio coverage of his funeral. Unthinkable south of the border, but as last rites go, his were far less ostentatious than the televised send-off that other culturally self-aware Commonwealth country, Australia, gave to its antipodean Adonais, suicidal rocker Michael Hutchence. Could Canada have offered any lesser honors to its grand old man of letters?

Not only did Davies look every bit the part with his pentateuchal white beard, he conspicuously played it to the hilt, never turning away a fathead interviewer he could dazzle with his unflappable erudition, bespoke aphorisms and ready wit. So he was a borderline celebrity and a national literary hero. To their credit, though, a good many Canadians had actually read the novels penned by one of the century’s most beguiling and lucid writers.

Of course there was sniping from the sidelines as the cortege rumbled by. “He went to Oxford, you know,” sniffed a poet, “one of those colleges” — an unintentionally perfect Evelyn Waugh line if ever there was one. Another scoffer took Davies to task for his scant concern for “the unexamined privileges of color, class and gender”. Actually, much of this sort of thing had been said before, most famously in a 1978 piece by Joyce Carol Oates which is that much more effective on account of its relative restraint and grudging acknowledgement of Davies’ “charming” traits.

Yet Oates was reviewing not the novels but a collection of Davies’ essays, lectures and journalistic oddbins. Several such miscellanies appeared during Davies’ lifetime and two more after his death. In all of them, he remains charming but also waxes windy and repetitive as he hits the declamatory grace notes required to keep a gaggle of graduate students or an after-dinner audience from nodding off. Along with the two volumes of posthumously collected letters, these miscellanies are as balm for us Davies diehards but irrelevant to his achievement as a novelist. That so many such cullings were printed only attests to his thwarted vocation for the theater and the adrenaline rush of playing to an audience. No reason to be put off by just a lingering whiff of Canadian bacon (no offense intended — he loved, taught and knew everything there is to know about 19th century melodrama). But he was never, alas, as good an actor or a playwright as he had hoped to be.

Before arriving at that conclusion and moving on, he had been on the boards at Oxford, where he made a specialty of playing “pedants, idiots, old fathers, and drunkards” and of the Old Vic, where he first met Tyrone Guthrie, married his stage manager, and later became Guthrie’s chief-of-staff when the director came to Canada to get the Stratford festival off the ground. Davies’ dozen or so plays range from the negligible to the un-actable. Several were “about” the Canadian identity issue, which must have been a sure-fire way of getting them performed in the 1950s and 60s as well as helping focus his thoughts on something more successfully articulated in the novels.

There were, however, two more careers to be exhausted. The war drove him back to Canada, where he edited the newspaper owned by his father, a self-made immigrant who became a very rich man, and subsequently a senator who eventually returned to Wales and bought a castle to die in. Later Davies fils did a 20-year stint as the master of Massey College, a graduate school at the University of Toronto, and it was during this period, when he was exiting middle age and occupied with teaching, administering, thesis advising, and churning out preposterous ghost stories at Christmas, that he experienced his real flowering as a writer.

Three previous novels had been concocted out of daubs of Canadian local color, humor and a squaring of accounts with the constricted, self-regarding and bigoted world of the upper Ottawa Valley, finally getting up to cruising speed in A Mixture of Frailties. But there were deeper reserves of intellect and sensibility that remained untapped until Fifth Business came along in 1970, amazed reviewers, sold like crazy, was cited in sermons, translated and talked about, making a splash well beyond the frog pond of Canadian belles lettres. It’s still a good point of entry into the world of Robertson Davies.

That book and its two unforeseen sequels organized themselves into the first of his trademark trilogies after Davies found he wasn’t ready to let go of some of the characters he created or the predicaments he devised for them. That special Davies touch comes, however, in his exploration of the ongoing albeit subterranean roles of magic, myth, mystery, religious ritual and rank superstition in contemporary human affairs. How the author of World of Wonders would have relished the fact that nearly a decade after his death, Massey students have made a fixed good-luck ritual out of touching the nose on the bronze bust of Davies in the college library that bears his name before defending their dissertations. (Surely he would also have inquired dryly as to its effectiveness as fertility fetish). The authorial snout has become quite shiny, one hears.

“What I am really trying to do,” he once said, “and what I think a moralist generally does, is to point out patterns in human behavior which are inexorable; they are archetypes of behavior, and I’m not saying that they’re either good or bad. I am simply saying they are so.”

Well, actually not all that simply. Without getting into a list of heat-and-serve term paper topics, you start out with Davies’ understanding of Jung as a useful road map for exploring the human psyche or of comedy as way of illuminating the mysteries of selfhood, with excursions into eclectic sidelines such as scatology, hagiography, art forgery and opera production.

What Melville did for whalers, Davies does for obscure saints, actor-managers, defrocked monks, itinerant carnival hucksters, and Rabelais scholars. Often for the core narrative of “individuation” a spiritual father or mentor is required, but in a sense broad enough to encompass a pair of off-duty guardian angels, a frighteningly ugly woman with nymphonic tendencies, a Jesuit priest with a sweet tooth, the Limbo-locked spirit of E.T.A. Hoffman, or an Indian shaman (shawoman, actually). The narrator of Murther and Walking Spirits gets killed off in the book’s first sentence and discovers that death makes a wonderful shortcut on the path to self-knowledge.

As to my own take, then, as a Davies reader of long standing…

The Manticore makes the Deptford trilogy sag in the middle — not too much, but a little. What’s Bred in the Bone is best read apart from its flanking volumes — it really is on a different level than the goings-on at the extraordinary College of St. John and the Holy Ghost. Which is not to diminish its side-iron companions. Read sequentially, The Rebel Angels and The Lyre of Orpheus make a double-decker Victorian comic novel that leaves Thomas Love Peacock looking like Thomas Love Turkey. And if you really want to find out about Canadians' collective identity issues, hold off on the one that addresses the question directly, Murther and Walking Spirits until you’ve digested the supporting cast of Fifth Business and What’s Bred in the Bone, because just like Flaubert’s Homais, a “minor” character drawn with deadly accuracy can reveal all that needs be known about blighted and blinkered provincial life — and Davies churns them out a dozen a time.

The last trilogy was cut short at number two. Since he was in his eighties by then, sensibly enough, rather than waiting for the fraying pullcord to be severed, he rang the curtain down preemptively in The Cunning Man with a Prospero-like valedictory: “No, this is the Great Theatre of Life,” the character says. “Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night.”

Goodnight to you, too, up there in the firmament where your star shines as brightly as does your nose down here on the planet where, you’d no doubt be pleased to know, Penguin has been pretty good about not letting your books go out of print.

Paint It Blacker

from The National Ledger,  October 10, 2005

A country as arrogant as only a superpower can be, throwing its weight around at the whim of a God-obsessed dimwit leader. Its military gets bogged down in a futile attempt to impose incompatible values on a country it had no business occupying in the first place, while back home, brave Not-in-Our-Namers echo correct-thinking world punditry in denouncing their own country's criminal conceit. Come on, you knew all along it was Spain we were talking about, didn’t you? 

Spain, the original modern superpower. Around the year 1580, before the world was even completely mapped, that country’s King Philip II had become sole owner and operator of what some considered far too many of its important bits. Following Spain's annexation of Portugal and its colonial assets, all of Central and South America came under direct control of Madrid, along with chunks of Italy, the Netherlands, North America, Asia and Africa. 

That concentration of power spawned a backlash of resentment, wholesale libel, invective and vituperation that historians have dubbed “The Black Legend” and you know, it was a lot like what the United States gets these days from the left-leaning media that crack the dominatrix’s whip over public opinion in almost every Western European country – not least of all in Spain. 

Well, they ought to know. For centuries vilifying Spaniards as lustful, bloodthirsty and intolerant was all the rage. Basically, it was a vast Protestant conspiracy spearheaded by Holland, Britain, Germany and of course, France, where conventional wisdom preached that “Tyranny is as normal to the Spaniards as laughter is to a man.”

Spain had its Vietnam, a long and unsuccessful military entanglement in the Low Countries under  the Duke of Alba, who was blamed for a kind of Abu Ghraib avant la lettre, the torching of Antwerp in 1576. Long before the word genocide had been coined, booksellers in London and Geneva churned out best-selling exposés of Spanish iniquity such as the one promising ”a faithful narrative of the horrid and unexampled massacres, butcheries, and all manner of cruelties that hell and malice could invent” to liven up the extermination of millions of Indians.

The cheesy stereotype of the Latin lover is the after-image of the insatiable, moustache-twirling lecher of legend and if you think American perceptions of Spain weren’t affected by all this, give a thought to how the bad guys are depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. But why should Spaniards be hostile to the United States? Recall that America is the last foreign country Spaniards fought a war with, in 1898. Not only did Spain lose big-time; it had to watch helplessly as Washington stripped away its remaining colonies. No wonder it raises hackles to hear that American forces are in Iraq so the Middle East can be primed for democracy. Spaniards were told the same thing about Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines.

So the Black Legend is making a comeback and this time Spaniards are helping it along I’d rather skip over the gratuitous offensiveness (to human intelligence as well as to Washington) that informs Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s foreign policy, which is small potatoes compared to the sticking power of a libel enshrined in a work of fiction. Thanks to the talents of Schiller and Verdi, Philip II stands forever and falsely accused of having ordered the execution of his own son, while Peter the Great of Russia, who actually did have his son killed and made no bones about it, is considered one of history’s good guys.

But I don’t think anyone is going to make an opera out of Pilar Urbano’s best-selling Jefe Atta. Concocted from a skein of urban legends and conspiracy theories, plus an expensively-researched “insider’s view” of the White House, Al Qaeda training camps and other places she has never been to and imaginary conversations (“Dick, I can’t allow a bunch of terrorists to scare the President of the United States away from Washington,” etc.) It may convince  her readers they are getting the inside dope about the Sept 11 attacks: namely, that the Pentagon fire was faked, scrambled F-16s shot down American Airlines Flight 77, and a cabal of Texan plutocrats made a killing selling short their holdings in airline, insurance and oil stocks as prelude and pretext for the invasion of Iraq and take-over of the world’s petroleum supply.  

Anti-war Americans are lavished with attention by the Spanish media. Not just Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and the usual suspects. Try Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s guaranteed a good press because in her palmier days, she spent a year studying in Spain, living with a Spanish family and loving every minute of it. Spaniards love her back when she goes on about how she “simply can’t understand how 55 million people could vote for [George W Bush]. It used to be friends would say, how can you have a president like that, who’s done all this and that, who doesn’t want to abide by the Kyoto Treaty and sends soldiers to die in Iraq. At least then I could answer ‘Right, but he didn’t win legally [in 2000]’. Now, though, I just have to clench my teeth.” 

Clench away, Gwynnie. The funny thing is that the Spanish empire also had plenty of detractors from within whose dissenting views got avid play abroad. The liberal establishment of Hapsburg Spain was represented by Bartolomé de las Casas, the Dominican friar who dedicated his life to campaigning for better treatment of the Indians – please note I did not say “rights” as neither he nor his contemporaries would have understood what is meant by the modern sense of the word. A one-man NGO, Las Casas wrote an inflammatory book denouncing Spanish atrocities against the Indians that was reprinted over 140 times between 1552 and 1800, all but a handful of editions for circulation outside Spain. 

Like modern-day spinmeisters, Fray Bartolomé knew that a lie told in a good cause acquires enhanced credibility when cast in numbers. So he insisted 30 to 50 million Indians were wiped on the island of Hispaniola, as if somebody had actually counted them, but for there to have been room for that many they would have had to be stacked in layers. The combined present-day population of Haiti and the Dominican Republic is 16 million and even at that  it’s getting pretty crowded.  

Another area where role-reversal has taken place is religion. Despite the Inquisition, however, Spaniards are neither more or less intense in their religious beliefs and practices than other peoples of the Mediterranean Catholic world and their knee-jerk anti-clericalism has become a tributary trickling into the mainstream of European secularism. Like their counterparts in France or Italy, Spaniards look on with perplexed dismay at a country where the vast majority of people openly proclaim their belief in God, and a fair number even go to church, and not just to get married or buried or look at the pretty pictures. 

Still and all, at least Spanish anti-Americanism is not fuelled by resentment over being eclipsed as a political and cultural powerhouse. Despite the revenge-crazed, ruffle-necked Don Whozis of the Jacobean stage, anyone who knows the first thing about Spaniards cannot possibly imagine them trying to lynch Americans because they were beaten by them at rugby, as the French did during the 1924 Olympics. With national self-esteem not endangered, it should be easier for both sides to smooth out their disagreements.          


Welcome Back, Kenner!

from the New York Press, 9 November 2005 

“Odd, dangerous speculations which no decent professor ought to propound,” was Anthony Burgess’s take on a book -- not this one -- by the late (d. 2003) Hugh Kenner. Let’s use it anyway as a fanfare riff heralding the autumn’s reissue of The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy from the Dalkey Archive. Funny, short, yet jaw-dropping in the scope of its subject matter, Kenner’s book originally appeared in 1968, and for some years thereafter drifted in and out of print without really finding the readers it deserved among English majors weaned, teethed and packed off to grad school under the influence of The Pound Era and Kenner’s other scholarly spadework into the rich loam of literary Modernism. Maybe this time around will be different.

If it is, it could be because enough time has gone by for us to realize how much the world we live has been conditioned by the phenomenon Kenner was alert enough to spot coiled up in the cultural crabgrass of the Vietnam era and poked at with his professorial pointer. Though his conclusions do not lend themselves to dogmatic reformulation or even paraphrase, they mainly have to do with the contention that, from the eighteenth century onwards, human artifacts loosely classified as works of art and literature are being created by their creators and contemplated and evaluated by their end-users “as stylish quotations, [so that] the environment they create is a cultural echo chamber, reverberant with scraps of dead languages. Things are utterances.”

His case histories include a good many “which the Dewey Decimal System (a Romantic artifact) prefers to keep in different parts of the building: the Enlightenment; Buster Keaton (stoic comedian); bad poetry, Albrecht Durer; Joyce, Swift, Pope; closed systems, mathematical and mechanical; Charles Babbage and his Calculating Engines…" They all illustrate of what happens when art becomes simulation (the posterization of Van Gogh’s sunflowers), impersonation (the memoirs of a non-existent Robinson Crusoe), satire, forgery or plagiarism (all of which involve appropriating a pre-existing creation or mannerism) reiteration (Duchamp's urinal transformed by curatorial label into a“fountain”), and allusion (Ulysses, of course, considered as a tapestry of allusion to Western culture).

Strange to think that Kenner was on to all this back in 1968, long before you could browse the Vatican Library on your computer screen, dial up one of the 30-odd Elvis impersonators working Vegas according to your“preferred incarnation” (Rockabilly Cat, 1968 Comeback Black Leathers, Majestic Vegas), or witness the ablation of critical values that allowed the Modernist masterworks Kenner examined with enthusiasm and insight to be trampled underfoot by tenured jackasses, or pick up a born-again alt weekly hyping a 40-year-old book under a heading that struggles to resonate with a long extinct eighties TV show.

In 1968, Andy Warhol was only just beginning to shed his reputation as a media zany and be taken seriously on the way to becoming --- as he must, with all due justice, be considered -- the most influential artist of the century. Kenner saw that it was not the soup cans silk-screened on canvas (imitation, representation) that would take Warhol far beyond famous. Nope, it was the soup cans he acquired for 17 cents at Safeway’s and resold for six bucks a pop after affixing his signature to them. As Kenner perceived, at that point the can ceased its existence as an object and became “a statement by Andy Warhol…transformed from a mere item of commerce into a slight but irreducible, complex, somewhat facetious utterance having to do with the status of the artist, the nature of art, the autism of a culture that buys what it eats unseen and then looks at nothing it buys, photolithographed abundance, conspicuous nonconsumption and the long history of artifact as counterfeit.“

Around that same time, in a book called Painting and Reality, Catholic intellectual Etienne Gilson was agonizing over the question of whether authenticity still had any residual meaning and Orson Welles, himself no stranger to connivance and duplicity, undertook an on-camera exploration of his lifelong fascination with the subversive potential of forgers, hoaxers, con artists, charlatans, quacks and shams. Though it could just as easily have been Kenner, it was Welles, in fact, who remarked in F for Fake that “Man cannot escape his destiny to create whatever it is we make -- jazz, a wooden spoon, or graffiti on the wall. All of these are expressions of man's creativity, proof that man has not yet been destroyed by technology. But are we making things for the people of our epoch or repeating what has been done before? And finally, is the question itself important?”

The same year Kenner’s book came out saw Charlton Heston don a loincloth (in Spanish known as a taparrabos, or weenie-wrapper) for his travels and adventures on the original, never-to-be forgotten Planet of the Apes. A liftetime or so later, the mailman delivers a lavish catalogue from an outfit known as Profiles in History that invites me to bid on a selection of prop house discards and high-end Hollywood collectibles including Dawn Wells’s (Mary Ann to you) hand-annotated scripts for Gilligan’s Island, but it is the Crucified Gorilla on Page 52 to which I am irresistibly drawn.

You know which one — in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the primate crucified upside down in a vision induced by post-Apocalyptic mutants endowed with psychic mojo. This“beautifully-crafted” artefact lashed to crossed poles, is in near-mint condition. It languished in a Minnesota car dealership for 30 years, until it was recognized as a work of art and (we may hope) given a thorough vacuuming. Going by the estimates, it could have been yours (or mine) for about $12,000.

But if I were the lucky owner of the life-size crucified ape, what should I tell people when I had them over for cocktails? What they would be seeing depends, as Kenner says, on the statement being made and that would depend on the Certificate of Authenticity that the auctioneers promise to supply.

So it might very well indeed be a prop once featured in a 1970s sci-fi classic. But it just as easily could be a present from a well-wisher in the Indian state of Assam where, Sir James Frazer tells us, crucified primates (Entellus monkeys) were at one time used by the Garos tribe in “certain ceremonies which are observed once a year by a whole community or village, and are intended to safeguard its members from dangers of the forest, and from sickness and mishap during the coming twelve months.” Or it could it even be an original work by Monika Steinhoff, the Santa Fe, New Mexico artist who put her crucified gorilla in a painting entitled “And God Gave Dominion” which was refused by the local community college she wanted to donate it to. Now, there’s real art for you and probably a hell of a lot more affordable than an original Andrés Serrano.

Any one of these pedigrees could validate the inverted ape as a work of art, as well as a conversation piece, but as Hugh Kenner points out, without a statement of intent from the artist, or the ape itself making its own contextualizing utterance, it’s hard to say what the subject of the conversation would be. This, however, would not be a problem, if you go instead for Charlton Heston’s taparrabos.



Happily Never After