The Unsolved Riddle of Everything: Thoughts on the withdrawn Teck Resources Oil Sands Project

Today, when I heard about the company’s withdrawal, I wrote an e-mail to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney. It said:

Dear Prime Minister and Premier,

I am writing to congratulate you both on the happy outcome of this matter. It is difficult to see how it could possibly have worked out better for both of you.

Mr. Trudeau, you have been saved from the need to make a decision about a project that did not yet exist except as an idea. It is difficult to see how you could possibly have made any decision that would not have caused trouble. I did think it odd that you and your colleagues, on behalf of the Canadian people, were being asked to approve a project that was entirely hypothetical. What could you possibly have said, except that years from now, when the company provides details, you, assuming you are still the government of the day, promise to look at them very carefully with due regard for benefits, costs, and the net public interest? I am delighted you been rescued from this necessity, although possibly not as delighted as you are.

Mr. Kenney, while I sympathize with your loss of this particular dream, I am sure you are aware that the people of Alberta have many dreams that you can help them pursue. They may not be as big as this one, but they are within reach as this one never was. I speak from experience, because I was an Albertan myself for twenty-five years, as my children and grandchildren remain. I always found Alberta to be fertile soil for my dreams, which took me from the Cypress Hills to the Crowsnest Pass, from Rainbow Lake to Fort Chipewyan, and just about everywhere in between, talking to people in their communities as they tried to understand what was happening and to make decisions.

I make no judgement as to whether there should or should not be another massive oil sands project on the lower Athabasca. I was there for Syncrude, and know something of the complexities: technical, economic, environmental, social, cultural, and political. It was my job at the time to know them. Of course circumstances may have changed, but I suspect the underlying reality has not: that the benefits of these massive projects are immediate and ephemeral, and some of their very real costs slow to reveal themselves and possibly permanent. I also believe that they bring opportunity costs with them that may never be directly observed, because they are the things that did not happen as the massive project took all the attention and money, and did not leave them room.

I believe there will always be an oil economy in Alberta, because that’s where the oil is, and because oil, in some form, is such an amazing gift of Nature that people will always be able to find uses for it, no matter what happens to specific uses along the way. My experience tells me, however, that producing raw bitumen and shipping it elsewhere in bulk for low margins is an extreme form of the Old Oil economy, and that dreaming, and inventing, and investing, ought to focus on the New Oil economy and all the potential it offers. I don’t pretend to know exactly what the New Oil economy looks like, but I suspect it will be more creative, more value-added, more human-scale, more beneficial, with fewer costly externalities, than any mining and shipping of raw bitumen can ever be.

The people I met in the resource industries of Alberta were very smart people indeed. I suspect they know that the Old Oil economy and way of thinking is going to be replaced by New Oil, and they passionately want to be part of it. I respectfully urge both of you, Prime Minister and Premier, to get behind those people and to help them put Old Oil out to pasture, along with the people who cannot see beyond it. We can argue about the past merits of Old Oil, and whether its huge accomplishments out-weigh its ultimate costs, but the evidence now seems overwhelming, for many different kinds of reasons, that its day is done.

Out with Old Oil, Old Politics, Old Journalism, Old Thought. In with New!

Thank you for listening.

A few subsequent thoughts:

1. I do not blame the company for this decision, but I do for having kited this project in the way they did, and getting Premier Kenney and others all worked up about it. I do congratulate them on having the grace to withdraw it. I suspect, however, there is a strategy of some kind being played out. I have no reason to believe that a company of this stature would truly offer Canadians a pig in a poke, and expect anyone (except Premier Kenney perhaps) to want us to buy it. Teck Resources has done us all a favour. I wonder what the quid pro quo will look like, when they present that.

2. I see no future in massive energy projects. They are intensely political, and the politics have become bad. They have always worked on the assumption that their short-term economic benefits matter, and that their environmental and social costs do not. Anything and anyone that gets in their way can be pushed aside. They hold governments and peoples hostage: do what we want, or we’ll pull the plug. Fortunately this company did that long before they had even started to fill the tub. That is refreshing and unusual. The usual phalanx of loud supporters who would have invested in expectation can surely not have got around to it yet, at least on any large scale. Few should be hurt by yesterday’s decision.

3. We should not get trapped into thinking that huge projects are the only possible channel for investment, even in energy projects. While controversy may swirl around large projects, making them highly visible, smaller ones are going on all the time. We just don’t notice them. Statistics Canada does. We need to pay more attention to the macro-statistics and to understand what they are saying.

4. We should not get trapped into thinking that there are pat solutions to the Unsolved Riddles of our time, we are legion. A recent CBC opinion column spoke of people’s impatience with the inability of the Federal Government to articulate a policy that would occupy the space between the contradictory extremes of our Unsolved Riddles. Policy can clarify the extremes, and specify their relative importance. The space between them cannot be generalized. It is discovered, issue by issue and project by project, through the application of human ingenuity and conversation, a continuous creative process.

5. A little patience and understanding would go a long way towards lowering the pressure, on all sides.

To Catch the Polar Drift and Thus Your Mind Uplift

If you must go down to the sea again, the lonely sea and the sky,—I am thinking specifically of the Arctic Ocean with its particular aspect of lonely sea and sky,—you will need more than a tall ship and a star to steer her by. In fact, you probably don’t want a tall ship at all, as Sir John Franklin and many others discovered. It’s one thing to go coasting along the edges of that sea or among the passages between islands, as Roald Amundsen did for example, and the St. Roch, and many others, and quite another to chance your seamanship upon the broad reaches of said ocean where land is only a distant memory. For that you need a tubby kind of specially reinforced ship like the Fram, of one Fridjof Nansen. A modern icebreaker will do too.

We are setting out to explore, as best we can from our vantage ground, the country we will call, for brevity’s sake, Northcapia, a.k.a. the North Circumpolar Region, that part of the Earth lying north of 55° north latitude, a.k.a. the Fifty-Five. None of the governmental sectors we have previously identified matters if you are north of the Eighty-Five, where our minutely conscientious survey of the country begins, in that expanse of snow and ice where the strange device on your banner should be “Latior!”, rather “Excelsior!”. Judging by historical accounts, however, you are equally likely to have left any maidens behind, the more fool you.

We intend to explore Northcapia by a method we call “girdling”, or “pucking”, which takes its inspiration from Shakespeare’s puck Robin Goodfellow and his promise to “put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes”. We will do it in modest bites of words. Once we strike land at Kaffeklubben Island in the Eighty-Three (that is, between 82.96 and 83.95 degrees north latitude), and especially when we begin to encounter permanent human habitations, we will need to girdle each puck several times to pick up everything of interest. The first seven girdles are both simpler and more complicated, due to the terrain, which is not terrain at all, of course, but a shifting mosaic of aquain, nixain, and glaciain which we will call ‘ocearcticain’, and which scientists for some reason call the ‘cryosphere’. Let there be no crying in the cryosphere when we put out to see the sea.

Most people nowadays who have any opportunity to observe the expanses of ocearcticain at all do so from the air and indeed, flying over them, even without landing (or icing, as it should be termed) has become an accepted form of exploration. Those desiring more intimate acquaintance can select one of two modes: trekking, or drifting.

Trekking usually has some objective in mind: to reach the North Pole, for example, located by definition smack in the precise centre of Northcapia, or the North Magnetic Pole, now wandering through the Eighty Six or thereabouts, or the North Pole of Inaccessibility, apparently now officially fixed in the Eighty-Five, although some volcano in the high latitudes supposedly could someday change that. It doesn’t matter very much in any case. The point of trekking is to choose an objective and trek to it, or as close as you can get. Given the nature of the ocearcticain even those who don’t get to it leave their footprints honourably on the pages of history.

Drifting is usually pursued for the purpose of taking scientific observations, and here the Soviets, later the Russians, excel, although the inventor of the sport was a Norwegian, Fridjof Nansen. He “confirmed the existence of the Transpolar Drift and discovered that the Polar Basin was deep,” according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, whom we may trust to get their facts right. Somebody else discovered the Beaufort Gyre, confirming the existence of poetry, even in the deep cryosphere of the Arctic Ocean itself, not to mention visual art showing interesting patterns of arrows, as the picture below sets out to show. As for the poetry:

O the seas of the world are seven, they say, all of them large and deep;
To tell their stories one by one would put you, no doubt, to sleep;
But there’s one that won’t, and I’ll tell it you, as I’ve been so often urged,
About how I got caught in the Beaufort Gyre, and never again emerged.

Of the Arctic Vortex you may have heard, but it’s away up high
In the stratosphere, a lifeless place where only airplanes fly,
But here on ocearcticain, where the wind o’er the cryosphere streams,
The dreadful clutch of the Beaufort Gyre comes to haunt a sailor’s dreams.

And so on to its monotonous conclusion. The artist who created the following meant to convince us, it appears, that girdling comes naturally in Northcapia.

Retrieved from National Snow & Ice Data Center :: :: Image courtesy of Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Figure 3.29, AMAP (1998)

Girdling the Earth: The Puck Starts Here!

That memorable puck, Robin Goodfellow, as reported by one William Shakespeare, promised to “put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes”. Since we may assume from his location, apparently near Athens, Greece, at around 38° north latitude, his distance would be about 30,000 km, for a speed of 45,000 kms/hour, which is a pretty good clip. If he moved further north, however, to 55°, say, he could girdle at a more leisurely pace, around 34,500 kms/hour, and the further north he went the slower he could go, until he arrived at the North Pole where he could girdle the earth in no time at all, literally, no matter how fast or slowly he went. This matter is of more than academic interest, since in Canada the velocity of pucks consumes a significant share of the national attention span.

Fifty-five degrees north latitude (“the Fifty-Five”) is a mystic line, at least in the minds of one Canadian government agency, which has given us a map of what it calls the North Circumpolar Region, defined by that latitude. Since this line cuts the area of Canada more or less in half, it constitutes a Significant Canadian Latitude, one of several, some of the others being 45° (part of the southern boundary of Québec and also, interestingly, approximately the median latitude of the Canadian population: 45.7° according to one estimate), 49° (the southern boundary of almost all of western Canada), and 60° (the southern boundary of the northern Territories).

If we girdle the Earth along the Fifty-Five and take in everything to the north of it, we find ourselves passing through an interesting array of countries, parts of countries, or territories attached to countries. Moving from Canada easterly:

We recognize that some controversies could arise from our choices of who is in or out. Why is Belarus left out, for example? It could be in, of course, because the Fifty-Five does cross it, although not nearly bisecting. The same rationale applies to England, even more strongly. Why are Denmark, Lithuania, even perhaps Latvia and Estonia in, since they would not normally be considered “northern” countries? We include them because they are north of the line, and face the Baltic Sea, the bulk of which lies north of it, as do Sweden and Finland, which are certainly northern, although they do not touch the arctic seas as most of the others do. But the crucial criterion for our purposes is the line of the Fifty-Five. We wish to understand what it means to live in Earth’s North Circumpolar Cap, or to have it within your jurisdiction. We wish to be true to the axioms of Pluralism, one of which says that elements should not be excluded simply because they do not conform to some predetermined set of assumptions. We have defined the geographic area of our interest, and then we will find out what the patterns are, and if they emerge as diverse, then so be it. The Cap is the Cap, the “nordicity” of its elements merely one of their features, although for some it will have vital even defining importance.

People sometimes accuse others, or themselves, of “not being able to see the forest for the trees”. We hold this blindness to be impossible. The forest is the trees, and all creatures great and small living under and in them, or feeding on or using them, either directly or indirectly. You can’t see the forest without looking at the trees, and all these other denizens. As we engage with the North Circumpolar Cap, and everything else we engage with, we are going to start by looking at the trees, because they are most conspicuous, and through them to comprehend the forest. Who are the people of Northern Earth, and how do they live? What lands and waters surround them, and just how frozen are they? What conditions do they face? What do they hold in common besides latitude, these hardy people, and how do they differ? What stories would they tell each other if they ever got together? “Where are you from? What’s it like there? How did you or your ancestors get there? How do you live? What have you learned? What do you still not know?”

We have a preliminary list of “settlements”, using the term broadly, from 55° north latitude on up, and it tells us there are about 800 of them. We have already discovered that the list is not complete. The furthest north is about 82.5°(Alert, closely followed by Nord at 81.7°; these are the only ones north of 80, although no doubt when we start looking around in detail we will discover some no longer inhabited), yielding (with a few gaps at the top) about 25 inhabited “girdles” of one degree each, averaging some 30-plus inhabited place names per girdle. Girdling down from the North Pole we first strike land on Kaffeklubben Island, at about 83.66°. That’s where we’ll start. Nobody lives there, but it appears the island has been explored, and by Canadians too! We’ll find out more about that, along with the rest of the 82nd Girdle, and report back.

As we girdle the Earth twenty-five or thirty times, or however many times we do, we will adopt the convention that we start at 141° west longitude, an obvious choice for Canadians, and work our way around widdershins.

Not Yet a Voice of Fire, but Working On It

I published this image today, as it says, on the Voyageur Storytelling web site. Much of what happens here for the next few months will evolve from the new rendition of Leacock’s title, which itself evolved from last year’s writing of The Marriage of Social Justice with Unsolved Riddles, which itself evolved from the previous year’s writing of The Unsolved Riddle(s) of Stephen Leacock, which itself evolved from the “My Discovery of the West” Re-Tour of 2017, which itself evolved from performing Stephen Leacock’s stories in our Country Supper Storytelling Concerts, which themselves evolved from the wondrous unfolding of my life.

During the Leacock Project I wrote fairly regularly on two blogs, which are linked on the margins of this one. Now they have served their purpose, and need a new one. Four principal channels opened during the writing of last year’s book. First, if we want Social Justice as we must if we intend to remain human in the sense that has evolved over the centuries, if we wish, that is, to be something more than highly sophisticated scavengers, then we must elevate the idea to top spot in our hierarchy of political goals. Second, in order to cope with the Unsolved Riddles, the complexities and internal contradictions that come with Social Justice, we must learn to think in new ways, which we must frame both analytically, that is with our minds, and narratively, that is with all the sensory, mental, emotional, and spiritual resources that come into play when we create, hear, read, or watch stories. The third channel has to do with Tetrads and Labyrinths, heuristic devices that may help us to think in the new ways required. The fourth has to do with the Œvirsagas, the super-stories that we use to frame and shape the plethora of stories we are told or tell about ourselves, and thus to create our notion of who we are. I don’t want to get bogged down in an explanation of those last two today. They will take weeks or months to work out, and I am just getting started.

To begin, I think I will devote the “Playstephenleacock” blog to the Tetrads, Labyrinths, and associated ideas, calling it the Tetrads Blog for short. The “Mariposabyconway” blog can suitably become the Œvirsagas Blog, because there is a sense in which Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town was intended by Stephen Leacock to represent a particular telling of the Canadian National Œvirsaga, or perhaps a prophetic demi-œvirsaga intended to serve as a warning,—in any case the fact that careless reading turned it into a petty undirsaga of no great importance beyond casual amusement makes Mariposa an interesting element in the CNŒ and forms a link that I might as well use.

This blog, then, which I have tentatively calling the Politico-Literary Blog, will serve I think to keep the whole thing grounded in the reality of events and practices both historical and current, in all their absurdity and potential for instruction.

In other words: one blog for how we think; one blog for stories; one blog for what we are doing and have done. The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice may then evolved beyond today’s image into something that will really do justice to the title of Leacock’s book.

The renaming, describing, and linking of all this may take a week or two. I apologize for any confusion caused by uneven adjustment.

PWC; January 16, 2020

Stephen Leacock’s 150th Birthday!!! December 30, 2019

Leacock Post 12-30.jpgStephen Butler Leacock was born on December 30th, 1869, in southern England. His parents emigrated to Ontario six years later and he, as he put it, decided to go with them. He lived on a farm south of Lake Simcoe, then in Toronto, then in Chicago (as a graduate student), then in Montreal for the rest of his life, except in the summers (after 1908) when he migrated to his cottage on Lake Couchiching just outside Orillia.

By profession he was first a teacher, first in Uxbridge, Ontario, for six months, then at Upper Canada College in Toronto, for ten years, then at McGill University, for 35 years. His academic field was Political Economy.

By profession he was also a writer, first of academic texts, then as a humorist and popular historian, then as an essayist writing without fear about anything he chose. His production is, or ought to be, legendary, although largely forgotten.

By profession he was also a public lecturer, beginning with learned propaganda concerning the British Empire, and expanding eclectically from there.

He was a dutiful son to his mother Agnes, eventually a hostile son to his father Peter, a conscientious brother to his ten siblings, a loving but somewhat overbearing husband to  his wife Beatrix (who died in 1925) and father to his son Stevie (born in 1915), a generous sponsor and employer to his niece Barbara Ulrichsen, and a good friend to many.

He died of throat cancer in Toronto on March 28, 1944.

His legacy, viewed in the best way: He planted seeds, in particular, a perception of Social Justice as embedded in Unsolved Riddles, and tools for thinking about them embracing Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour. He left to us the rich satisfactions of cultivation.

My tribute to him:

The Ballad of Stephen Butler Leacock

Come, readers and writers and I’ll sing you the song
Of a man who could write even when he was wrong;
He wrote his way to money and fame :
You’d best remember if you want the same;
He wrote, and he thought, and he talked, and he read,
Up early in the morning and early to bed :
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Remember if you want the same.

He wrote in the morning when the day was new;
He wrote the words that he thought were true;
He wrote in the hope that people would laugh,
But of all that he wrote that was never more than half;
He wrote of the rich, and he wrote of the poor,—
Social Justice and a whole lot more:
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Remember if you want the same.

He preached prosperity, he cursed at graft,
He teased their foibles and the people laughed;
He told the stories of the present and past—
Much that he wrote wasn’t fated to last;
He wrote for his time, and he wrote for his place,
He wrote stupid things about women and race :
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Remember if you want the same.

He wrote his country, and the Empire wide,
He wrote his people and he wrote with pride,
He wrote through depression, and he wrote through war,
He wrote for peace, and romance, and more;
He wrote for laughter, and he wrote to touch;
He wrote for money, and he wrote too much :
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! He had his moment of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Enjoy it if you get the same
As much as he did.

With a little effort he can serve to inspire English Canadians who read, write, explore, create, think, care, and laugh. Our cultural lives will be richer if we remember him well.

Approaching Stephen Leacock’s 150th Birthday

Leacock Post 12-19.jpeg

In less than two weeks, on Monday, December 30th, we will celebrate Stephen Leacock’s 150th birthday with a party of friends, a cake, and an unveiling of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice as manifested in 2019. Stephen Leacock wrote a book about that in 1919, one hundred years ago, making 2019 another significant Leacock anniversary. The third was the 75th anniversary of his death, on March 28th. I have been celebrating his Anniversaries since that day, an endeavour that did not, I regret to say, go viral. It appears that Stephen Leacock, if not absolutely dead, is well along that way. Leslie and I know, of course, from our 2017 western tour, that there remain people who still find him interesting, rather more who still find him amusing, at least when he is at his best.

The writer of Ecclesiastes pronounced, many years ago, quite accurately as it turns out, that there is no end to the writing of books, and new writers can be forgiven if they prefer that the number of old books in circulation should be kept to a minimum. We can remember an old writer for his books, of course, if they are good enough, but perhaps a worthy alternative for some writers is to remember them for the seeds they planted. I think it entirely likely that I will never read another Leacock book, having read a great many during the several phases of this project. There are fifty-three of them; I have not read them all. From now on I will remember him, not for the few favourites that I find worth remembering, but for two seeds that he planted in my mind. I have been cultivating those seeds, and intend to continue, for their own sake, not for his, but primarily for the sake of my children, grand-children, and beyond, and for everyone else’s.

The two seeds are, first, the title of the book whose 100th anniversary I am celebrating:


It’s the title that matters most to me, not the book. I consider that Social Justice, widely conceived, is the greatest cause that humanity can and does pursue. Stephen Leacock identified it as an Unsolved Riddle, a type of ideal that is not to be answered with some pat “solution”, but to probed and wrestled with endlessly in the cause of improvement, or “progress” as it used to be called, and should continue to be called. Because when the world’s store of poverty, pain, misery, alienation, exploitation, oppression, violence, unnatural death, and other ills has been lessened, then that is progress, even if these ills persist. To identify Social Justice as an Unsolved Riddle is a huge, brilliant insight, a creative response to idealogues of all kinds, whose prescriptions have a nasty habit of increasing the ills, not the reverse. It is unfortunate that Stephen Leacock himself did not enlarge upon his insight, even in his book. That work remains.

The second seed grew out of my efforts to summarize the lessons he was trying to drum home to us in his fifty-three books, numerous individual pieces, public lectures, and lifetime of teaching about economics, politics, education, culture, and ways of life. The tools that he brought to his quest, and that he recommends to us, form a Tetrad:


One of my favourite passages in all of the literature I know is the opening to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress where the narrator, walking through “the wilderness of this world”, falls asleep and dreams of a man with “a great burden on his back”. Our burden comes with the benefits we have created for ourselves in our adoption of the industrial, commercial, technological, scientific, intricately interconnected way of life that brings us such a range of benefits. The burden is the costs that come with them, and the duty to deal with them for our own and the futures’ sakes. There is nothing wrong with wanting our lives to be prosperous, comfortable, secure, convenient, richly informed, and entertaining. We fool ourselves tragically when we can assume they can be that way without cost.

The Leacock Tetrad does not remove the burden, but has the capacity to lighten the carry, because these tools, taken together, will help us work to alleviate the costs without adding new ones, and to reassure us that we are doing the best we can. We are fated to muddle our way through the muddle we have ourselves created, because that is the nature of our creation. We all crave Social Justice, although we may vary somewhat in our definitions. Social Justice is an Unsolved Riddle. We cannot make it otherwise. Stephen Leacock is one of those people who gives us tools we need to work with it.

Who else? My current list: William Blake, Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, George Eliot, Henry George, Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, B.W. Powe, and newly arrived to my notice this week: Marilynne Robinson. More about them in the weeks and months ahead. I will also tell you about the œvirsagas and where they fit. Stephen Leacock had something to do with them too, or one of them at least. In Canada they are four in number, another Tetrad: Aboriginal, National, Political, and Urbanismal. They too are tools to grapple with the Unsolved Riddles and lighten the burden.

Ringing in the Tetrads

I have not posted here for some time. I apologize. I have been running three blogs during the months of the Leacock Anniversaries, with different postings. This week, for a change, as I swing into yet another break, this one for two or even three weeks, I am posting the same text on all three. When you have read one you have read them all.

This week’s pictoverbicon, as displayed on the Voyageur Storytelling web site (, the Leacock’n Bulletin linked thereto, and my Twitter page ( introduces the Idea of Tetrational Thinking:

Leacock Post 10-31.jpeg

I have occupied much of the past two months in writing a book called The Marriage of Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles, in which I am attempting to convince readers that Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles belong together. The narrative approach that I adopted for this task I find subsequently to be consistent with Northrop Frye’s intention which was, according to his biographer John Ayre, “to spread imaginative poetic thought throughout society to soften and cancel the effects of procrustean logic and ideology.” This is most satisfying, because for a Canadian of my generation who graduated from the University of Toronto, to be consistent with Northrop Frye is always consoling.

I have talked before about Stephen Leacock’s Tetrad of Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour as a form of quadruple-thinking Both-Andian (or All-Andian) cast of mind able to work us toward Social Justice. When we pursue the Tetrational Way we find ourselves of course in a forest of Unsolved Riddles, that is, inherently conflicting or contradictory goods, but what is the alternative? How difficult would it be to tune our collective minds in all four of these directions at once? Quite difficult, I think, but possible with practice. Both Northrop Frye and Stephen Leacock insisted on Imagination as the linchpin of this whole way of thinking. That seems obvious, because the Tetrad demands that we step outside our normal, simplified, linear ways of thinking, the ones that enable us to get on with our lives from day to day without going mad, and view our lives together, our society, in a much more complicated way. In order to do that we have to free our imaginations from the “procrustean logic and ideology” which powerful forces press upon us so insistently.

One of the great Unsolved Riddles of our time declares the possibility that the simplified, linear thinking which helps us individually to avoid going mad from day to day, when applied collectively, to our social situation, constitutes itself a form of madness. I am convinced that Tetrational Thinking would ease the collective madness. We might too find that it creates an even higher form of sanity for us individually.

Reading Northrop Frye’s biography (by John Ayre) I learned that he set down a Tetrad of his own in a letter to one Betty Cole in April of 1974: “I think there has to be an assumption that life is better than death, freedom better than slavery, happiness better than misery, equality better than exploitation, for all men everywhere without exception.” (In the interests of exact quotation I leave in Frye’s “all men” and do not substitute “all people” or “everyone” as I feel strongly inclined to do, because that is obviously what Frye meant.) Is his assumption perhaps the irreducible first principle of Social Justice?

As an exercise in Tetrational Thinking, I invite you to stare fixedly at the following tetragammon (Is it a mandala? I’m not sure.) keeping in mind the four elements simultaneously. I have tried it, and find that it does in fact tend to break apart the procrustean logic and ideology.  When I have time I’ll create one for Frye’s Tetrad of Life + Freedom + Happiness + Equality, as well as its antipode, the Death + Slavery + Misery + Exploitation that is the tragic lot of so much of humanity and that we must never willingly accept.


Stare at that Tetrad for a long time. Think about the words and what they mean both individually and for each other. Weave circles around them and close your eyes in holistic dream. Imagine them becoming more than they are, more than you ever dreamed they could be. Don’t become discouraged if nothing magic happens the first time you try. It will come.

When I resume posting here later in November I will take up these ideas more fully, both theoretically and practically. I shall strive to integrate the Tetrads of Stephen Leacock and Northrop Frye with B.W. Powe’s “attentive sensitivity to multi-dimensional meaning”, Isaiah Berlin’s “loose texture  and a measure of inefficiency and even muddle”, Marshall McLuhan’s gnomic utterance that “The Medium is the Message” (which I think means that how we think or communicate determines, or at least heavily influences,  what we think or communicate), and George Eliot’s celebration, in one of her characters, of a benign influence that is “incalculably diffusive”.

We are not machines. Our minds are not governed by sequential cause and effect. They can leap.

In the meantime I leave you with the following jingle:

The Mud between the Minds
Like muds of other kinds,
Constitutes a kind of wealth
Or viscous form of filth :
This is the Unsolved Riddle
Of the Muddle.