Monthly Archives: June 2020

Literary Casts of Mind: Confronting the Onefold Imperative in Public Affairs

I would a fourfold vision see, and a fourfold vision be granted to me. I myself am a long way from getting all the way there, although I think I do pretty well at avoiding the onefold trap. I struggle day by day to reach at least two-fold, and damned hard work it is too. I wish I could say the same for the discourse that swirls around me. A maelstrom of competing onefolds, each stridently promoted, is not a fourfold, but only a maelstrom of onefolds, each often insisting on its superior validity and the dire consequences that will follow from the others. Fourfold, the “supreme delight” of William Blake who is the great prophet of multifold perception, involves, in the words of Isaiah Berlin, “a measure of inefficiency and even muddle”, inevitable in a pluralistic society such as we enjoy, for which we routinely excoriate our politicians. They are our professional fourfolders. Many of us make it our onefold mission to make their job as difficult as possible, calling that “holding governments to account”, or “speaking truth to power”. This is all self-indulgent nonsense of the intellectually lazy kind, of course, and fully apparent as such, which does not mitigate its prevalence.

I am calling our foe the “Onefold Imperative”, not because we have no choice except to follow it, but because its instinct is imperious. We have had that amply demonstrated recently, as we became convinced that the new corona virus is a threat of such magnitude that all other considerations (“The Economy”, “The Environment”, the normal comforts and pleasures of family, social, and commercial life), no matter how important we may have thought them in the past, must be set aside while we fight this battle of all battles. This fight, urged on us by everything that expert opinion and official propaganda can hurl into it, has been accompanied by an outburst of authoritarianism such as Canadian society has, I believe, never seen and would not normally tolerate. Isaiah Berlin, in the same paragraph of his essay “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century” (1950), warns us: “We must not submit to authority because it is infallible but only for strictly and openly utilitarian reasons, as a necessary evil.” It appears that the Canadian general public has accepted that the Covid-19 meets that standard, and perhaps it does. Or perhaps it did only in the early stages, when the disease was new and unknown. The medical authorities were desperately afraid of what it might be, and they passed that fear on to us. Fair enough. We know a lot more now, however, and the costs of that onefold obsession are showing their teeth. We are returning willy-nilly to the multifold world to which Fate and our own cumulative choices have consigned us, with its concomitant need for robust multifold conversations.

Robust multifold conversations. Strident onefold advocacy. These are the polarities of public discourse in a democracy. Both are legal, subject only to rules about hate speech and slander. Robust multifold conversations are the everyday, internal, sub-articulate experience of individual human beings in all complex societies or situations, provided they are minimally healthy in their minds and emotions, as they wrestle with the choices, benefits, costs, and unknowns before them, the unknowns usually and widely out-numbering the knowns. They are the everyday articulate or tacit experience of healthy families and friendships. They should be the everyday experience of discourse on public affairs, but if they are, the evidence is difficult to see in the conspicuous media. And the conspicuous media are what we have to inform us about what is going on in the world outside our immediate range of vision. These can be received first-hand, through actual viewing or listening, or second-hand (or third-, or more) from others. These methods are all highly imperfect, but they are what we have. The important question concerns not their flaws, but the judgements we bring to the information we thus receive. I am going to the common term “cast of mind” to label the faculty we use to shape those judgements.

I will note, in passing, but without elaboration, that I believe collective casts of mind to be possible and observable. For example, I have said before on this site that each political party has a cast of mind, to which we should pay close attention, and so can any specific corporation (using the term most broadly). Whether a society can truly have one is a complicated question which I will leave until later.

I am interested right now in imagining those human beings I referred to above, engaging in their internal, even sub-articulate, robust conversations, and wondering what cast of mind they would need to cultivate in order to become truly and effectively multifold, especially when aggregated into public policy for the benefit of the common weal, the advancement of social justice, and the personal contentment of the individual. Any such aggregation will be, of course, an almost infinitely complex process. I do not know how it works, but have no doubt that it does, and that in a democracy it grows, however imperfectly, out of public discourse, whatever that may be.

I am going to suggest, hypothetically at least, that we commonly observe three different casts of mind in public discourse, all of them diverse, one of which we ought to cultivate, in order gradually to supplant, or at least constrain, the other two. I will, with some nervousness, label these casts of mind as Mariposan, Ideological, and Literary. For purposes of this article I simply toss these into view, pending more thorough study and, I hope, wider participation in the conversation.

Mariposan Casts of Mind. I chose this label in order not to use the word “muddled” because I want to preserve that one for more constructive, Berlinian usage, as a creative rather than pejorative idea. “Mariposan” comes of course from Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), characterized by Professor Ed Jewinski as a “supreme achievement of fragmentation, incompleteness, and inconclusiveness”. Jewinski was describing the book; Leacock imagined a town, and people, whose minds roil in fragmentation, incompleteness, and inconclusiveness and who manage, nevertheless, to get on with their lives and and make their collective decisions, rightly or wrongly, possibly both. The question, indeed the necessity for our time is that those decisions should be made more rightly, a matter of increasing complexity and urgency, as recent events clearly demonstrate. The trend, however, is not new.

Ideological Casts of Mind. Many of these are familiar, in particular those considered “left-wing” and those considered “right-wing”. These are great ideologies, wide in their scope and powerful in their attraction to large numbers of people with the best of intentions. They are also embraced by more questionable people interested in the acquisition of power or the accumulation of financial wealth, possibly both. I do not believe, however, that we should judge an ideology according to the worst people who adhere to it, or according to the best, but by its broad effect on the common weal, its capacity to advance social justice, and its contribution to individual contentment. Both-and, or middle, or pragmatic ideologies, incorporating elements of both great ones, have much appeal in public affairs, although they may not be ideologies at all, but rejections thereof. We must entertain the possibility that rejection of ideology is itself an ideology. A more recent one becoming more articulate, although perhaps not as powerful as it wants to be (and ideologies always want to be powerful) is the ideology of “evidence-based decisions”. It is not yet clear however, at least to me, whether this represents a genuine ideological breakthrough or simply a more up-to-date form of Mariposanism.

I want to suggest that in pursuit of what me might call ‘multifoldarity”, neither Mariposan nor Ideological casts of mind are going to serve us well, one being too confused, the other not confused enough. I want to expand the potential of the third set, or at least to explore what it might mean, because very clever people have suggested it. I am referring of course to:

Literary Casts of Mind. I want to make it clear immediately that I do not mean simply the minds of people who read books. I mean people who are innately attracted to multifoldarity, and who deliberately cultivate the capacity to practise it intellectually and even bring it into the realm of public affairs. I mean people who, when I mention the Leacock Tetrad of Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour, as I do often, perhaps even ad nauseam, are at least prepared to pause reflectively and ask if there might be something in it, instead of dismissing it as silly or inconsequential. (Saddest of all are those who do do that simply because they have stereotyped Stephen Leacock himself.) I mean people who grasp, at least intuitively, the nature and prevalence of complexity and want to understand how to deal with it creatively and constructively. I believe such people exist, that they are of excellently benign intention, and that their voices need to be heard respectfully in public affairs.

In 2019 I announced and undertook an organized hunt for the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, for the purpose of taming and putting it to use. The hunt was successful, the taming and putting to use are works in progress. The quest that I am launching with this article is related, but not exactly the same. To celebrate the Summer Solstice of 2020, which I am sure is a significant date, I invite you and all who cultivate, aspire to, or are prepared to believe in a Literary Cast of Mind, to engage in a great collective enterprise to track it down, study its ways, articulate its value, and invent tools and processes through which it can be made effective in the public affairs of this country and beyond.

To what purpose? For the benefit of the common weal, the advancement of social justice, and your own personal contentment.

This quest, or pilgrimage, or whatever you choose to call it, will play out here on this blog, on the web site of Voyageur Storytelling (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca), and somewhat tangentially in the pages of KnICH Magazine (https://www.patreon.com/knichmagazine). By tangentially I mean that the four KnICH threads and Sunday Serial display the editors’ exercise of certain aspects of the Literary Cast of Mind. Call it an illustrative approach, using etymology (explorations among old words), archeology (ditto old magazines), labyrinthine girdling (in geographic circles), and random ramification (in search of œvirsagas). The Sunday Serial, currently a translation of Jules Verne’s Le pays des fourrures (Land of Furs), illustrates pleasant reading of the entertaining kind, so important to the Literary Cast of Mind.

Please join in. We are going to have a most enjoyable time, and maybe do some good.

Paul Conway

We Have Let the Virus Fire Us in New Ways That Are Old

An Up-Date for those who read this blog and are wondering what has happened to it. Answer: It has been temporarily pushed aside by KnICH Magazine, whose needs were more immediate and pressing. They still are. A little TLC for this blog is, however, long overdue. I have managed each week to refresh the Voyageur Storytelling web site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca) and my Twitter page (@conwaypaulw) with a new pictoverbicon and a few musings which don’t add up to much. A framework for thinking about Social Justice and its Unsolved Riddles is beginning to emerge on the web site, where I have also estabished a link and introduction to KnICH Magazine. The principal use for this blog in the months ahead will be to expand on that and bring it to life.

Earlier today I put the following four paragraphs into a letter to a friend. I apologize to him for double-using them, should he happen to read this. They summarize what I am thinking these days, and will do to keep this blog alive for the time being. I have not enclosed them in quotations, because I will no doubt keep fiddling with the wording.

In my naturally self-isolated spot, I entertain the hypothesis that things are not really as strange as we think they are, at least not at the heart of them. We have become accustomed to obsessing on one single threat-and-cause and organizing our entire lives around it, at the behest of “experts”, who are often stakeholders, and their receptive politicians who take upon themselves the burden of telling us what to do using some mixture of carrots and sticks. The threat-cause used to be “The Economy”. Now it is “The Virus”. The threat used to be that “The Economy” would leave us out, the cause that complete devotion to its imperatives would lead us into universal prosperity and social justice. “The Virus” has a somewhat different twist, but is fundamentally the same, the threat being that it will embrace us, the cause being the utter banishment of risk and death. Under this hypothesis the “new normal” becomes like a photographic negative of the old normal.

William Blake argued that “single vision” was something we should avoid. He called it a form of sleep. He recommended “fourfold vision”, but was prepared to settle for “threefold” or “twofold” if necessary. For me the principal outcome of the Stephen Leacock project was his framework for a four-fold vision, the Tetrad of Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour that emerges from his copious writings on education. That is essentially what Northrop Frye meant, I think, by arguing in favour of a “literary” or “poetic” cast of mind. Of course it’s one thing to mean along those lines, quite another to translate them into policy. In order to do that we must learn not only to think four-fold-edly, but to act that way. The very best politicians know how to do that, unedifying as their apparent contortions may sometimes appear. Most, even some of the most successful, choose a single vision and exercise their art by subordinating all others effectively while embracing them verbally. The democratic public go along with that way, by yelling either in support of that single vision, or in favour of another one they want to put in place as the new global subordinator.

What a relief it must have been to such-minded politicians to be handed a single vision that so effectively subordinated everything else, at least for a time. Almost no one was yelling at them to do anything except to pursue more single-mindedly and ruthlessly the single vision and to subordinate all others. That is changing now, of course, and they are back in the hot seat once more. The public were prepared to be single-mindedly ruled for a little while. Now they are becoming democratically unruly once more.

My own incremental pursuit of four-fold-edness was most conveniently served by Stephen Leacock for three years. He remains in my thoughts, but has been joined by a wider cast: Isaiah Berlin, Northrop Frye, George Eliot, Ethel Wilson, Jules Verne, and a fine array of arctic explorers and eccentrics. I am working on three arenas where all these can sport in public display: the Voyageur Storytelling web site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca), a thing called KnICH Magazine, and my blog. You might be interested in KnICH Magazine, which is linked through the web site if you are curious. It is a joint venture with my son Patrick. This is all work in progress of course, as everything always is with me, and will take shape gradually.

That’s where the letter ended, the effort to think in complex ways in the midst of complex times, and to articulate those thoughts even while they are evolving, goes on.