Category Archives: Stephen Leacock

The Unsolved Riddle of “Multiculturalism”

Oh dear! “Multiculturalism”! From an aesthetic point of view, what a terrible word. I much prefer “Pluralism”; if we want to be more explicit we should call it Cultural Pluralism, or Ethnic Pluralism, or Linguistic Pluralism, or Land-of-Birth Pluralism, or Religious Pluralism, or even Racial Pluralism, or whatever we mean. Because whether we like it or not — and we should like it — we are surrounded by plurals of all kinds — natural plurals, human plurals, economic plurals, social plurals, plurals without end — and we might as well enjoy them.

I recently found a beautiful poem called “Snow” by Louis MacNeice in which he says, “The world is crazier and more of it than we think,/Incorrigibly plural.” And so it is. We all need to feel “the drunkenness of things being various.”

I am still on my brain break (for another two weeks), but the recent brouhaha about “extreme multiculturalism” and immigration triggered by Maxime Bernier and the Progressive Conservative Party’s exploitation of the “immigration crisis” or “refugee crisis” (which isn’t a crisis at all, merely a surge in migrations of distressed people to which we can easily adjust if we put our minds and our resources and our copious good will to it, as we are in fact doing) has brought the whole matter into my mind and I might as well spill some of  it out.

I am going to talk a lot about pluralism during the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial and its run-up, because I consider him a kind of proto-pluralist, not necessarily in his specific beliefs, but in his cast of mind and way of thinking, the intellectual tools that he brought to the task of understanding and discussing human affairs. That he did not always use these tools in ways we now consider acceptable, particularly when it came to matters of women and race, says nothing about the quality of the tools. Within his academic field of political economy and often in his humour he demonstrates them quite well enough for us to acquire them for ourselves. Our job is to learn them, put them to use, and pass them on to the coming generations.

These tools for the comprehension of and navigation through the ambient plurals, the landscapes of various things in which we live, Stephen Leacock labels as Unsolved Riddles, which is a way of thinking about them, and his tetrad of Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour  which he urges us to apply to them. Education, his favourite subject, is about learning how to do that, and is life-long.

I would say, therefore, to Maxime Bernier and anyone else who suggests we should be less plural than we are: “There is nothing Canadian about monism, or even small-set-ism, in any sphere. We have always been plural. That is who we are. We may have clashed occasionally over our varieties, or been made uncomfortable by them from time to time, and some of us may have sometimes yearned for a more simple national landscape, but we have never embraced it as an ideal. Why should we do that now? Why should we believe that now we must become less than we are, and always have been? What has changed to make such diminution desireable?”

Think of the variety of our natural landscapes, and how we glory in them. Why should we treat our human landscapes any differently?

That will do for now. More of this in the Fall and next year.

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On the Trail of Unsolved Riddles

Yesterday I wrote a Missive for the on-rushing Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial, in part as follows:

When what is plural about us becomes perceived as an entanglement of identities and tribes, then we are in trouble. When the institutions that we have created to realize our hopes yearn for the simplicity and powers of monism and act accordingly, then we are in trouble. When we cannot or will not converse with each other in humane ways across the intermedia of our plural beings, then we are in trouble. When we think we cannot afford to be what we are, then we are in trouble. When we cannot remember how we got here and why we set out in the first place, then we are in trouble. I am not sure how much trouble we are in, but I worry about the trends.
What are we, and what do we want to be? A liberal democracy? A social democracy? An institutional democracy? A communitarian democracy? All of the above: a pluralistic democracy? I think so, but the traditions of collective reflection and conversation and accommodation that we need to make that work are under pressure from monistic interests and simplistic misunderstandings on all sides, and the sheer difficulty of the combination.

If we can’t find some way forward we will eventually find ourselves with no democracy at all, or only the pale shadow of one in the form of representatives duly elected to parliaments largely powerless. Of course the journey will be difficult, but why should we blinch at that? We are, on the whole, a thoughtful, articulate, educated, humane people, who can handle a complex conversation if only given the opportunity. Such a process is hard work, of course, and we are, on the whole, also humanly lazy. But we constantly prove ourselves quite capable of working hard in a good cause. Why not this one?

It would be helpful if those who aspire to inform us were not so eager to climb onto and sustain the simplistic bandwagon itself. Off the top I can think of two unhelpful illusions that are regularly presented to our credulity. First, and most ludicrously: that “the economy” is a singular thing that is and can be “managed” by our governments. Nonsense! Economic life is a tremendous organism of mind-boggling complexity. Those who claim to understand it — and they are many and vociferous — need to retain a just measure of humility, and to remind us, and themselves, as they spin their informative webs, that what they are able to see and describe on any one occasion is only a tiny slice of the reality. Such blatant absurdities as the CBC’s nightly “business report” consisting of a few stock market indices and a couple of spot market prices should be hooted off the stage. Likewise any politician or journalist who talks about “the economy”. Such talk is pure bamboozlement.

It would be helpful  if those who aspire to inform us would abandon the idea that the identity of a political party can be expressed in the person of its leader. I think that our political parties are complex organisms in their own right, and that all the main ones, those who try to embrace a wide perspective and have any hope of being elected, have something wise to say. They also indulge themselves and try to tempt us with much twaddle and intellectual candy floss borrowed from consumer marketing and branding. It would be helpful if our journalists would not go along so lazily with these unhelpful habits. I think that if we put all the platforms of all the parties together, after cutting out the candy floss, we would see the mind of the body politic in all its colour and richness.

I believe also that we would have a manifesto for the pluralistic democracy that collectively we hope for, that is a liberal democracy, a social democracy, an institutional democracy, and a communitarian democracy, all rolled into one. A monumental Unsolved Riddle perhaps, but a good one.

You may well ask whether I have done such a thing. The answer is that I tried, at the time of the last federal election, and made some progress. I tried to capture it in the persona of the Muddle Party. Some of the platforms were so incredibly verbose and disorganized that I was unable to finish in time. A vision of pluralistic democracy did indeed emerge, a flickering shadow glimpsed through the partisan fog. I have not tried for the Ontario election soon to come, for reasons peculiar to this particular occasion. I am going to try again for the federal election in 2019, which may, if we are fortunate, be more about ideas than personalities, or can be made so.

And guess what? It will coincide with the height of the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial. He gave us the Great Election in Missinaba County. A fitting precedent for an election conversation chock full of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour, just as he would want.

 

Onward to a Toward Canadian Enlightenment

Did you know that “toward” is an adjective as well as a preposition? Meaning, among other closely related ideas: in process, promising, auspicious? I think I would have known that if I had thought about it, but I didn’t. Until today. I am trying to probe, or grope, toward (or equally towards) a toward notion of Canadian Enlightenment, hoping that nothing untoward happens on the way. Onward, upward, forward, outward, grasping the wheel and turning windward, and all that good stuff. Excelsior-ward!

An early result from the first e-mailings of our Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial — in fact a Sesquiettriaquatariacentennial (both 150th and 75th) — has been a firm pulse of interest in Canadian Enlightenment, be it “a” or “the” or without prior article.

This stimulated me to reply, along these lines: I think we have some plausible form of Canadian Enlightenment, although there are those who would sneer at the idea I am sure. There always are. My hypothesis is that it is organic, evolutionary, incremental, cumulative, with all manner of people contributing their fragmentary, incomplete and inconclusive bits which seep their way into the national consciousness or subconsciousness and gradually influence our behaviour for the better. Instead of the “dream of a perfect world or no world at all” deplored by W. H. Auden we have a dream of a world or a country that becomes better in stages. This process becomes first visible and memorable in what people wrote, not just the Big Writers, but all kinds of lesser ones. In what they spoke too, of course, but that is ephemeral. This view makes me particularly interested in what shows up in literary magazines down through the ages, and not only in published books. I am fascinated by The Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Art and Literature (1893-1944), also Andrew Macphail’s University Magazine, as an early witnesses to this whole project. I look down the list of names in the early volumes and I ask myself, who are these people? I intend to find out, but it’s going to take a while. I think many of them will turn out to be “folk writers” adding their little osmotic bits to the whole creature in almost complete anonymity.

Of course there is another osmotic creature out there too, that I call the Yottapede, a beast of quite a different hue. If we are looking for an epic struggle on which to build a national epic — and we should be looking for one — we could set Canilluminia against the Yottapede and let them slug it out. Canallumina has not yet triumphed, but she is still in the game, represented not by any of our favourite polarities, but by those who seek to reconcile them. That is Unsolved Riddle territory.

I am wondering if “osmotic” in this context is the opposite of “apocalyptic”, in the sense that B.W. Powe uses the latter in his recent book Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. Powe sees those two as apocalyptic writers (i.e. revelatory, prophetic) and no doubt they qualify. Who else? Expanding on Matthew Arnold I think we would find Canadian Enlightenment in the best that has been thought, written, and voiced in memorable ways by Canadian writers and about Canada. I think the question of who is a Canadian writer and who is from somewhere else and writing about Canada depends on how much he or she has imported or learned here, and needs to be handled delicately. We owe much to our immigrants, but possibly not the automatic right to define us. I think that comparable care must be taken with the word “Canada”. When does “Canada” emerge from “pre-Canada”? In the political context, which is extraordinarily important in any useful concept of enlightenment, I think it comes some time in the 1840’s, when local leaders began to assert themselves against the pipe dreams of the colonial authorities. I would be prepared to find that the process began even earlier in the Maritime Provinces, but I am not as familiar with the history. It was certainly mature in some practical sense by the time of Confederation.

I do not think we need to own the unenlightened policies of the colonial authorities or the practices condoned by them, nor should we try to claim credit for the enlightened ones, until after the time when we had grasped the political initiative to some effective extent. By 1837 that extent was not effective, as the rebellions showed. When Responsible Government arrived, it was. The date when “Canada” emerged for Enlightenment purposes probably came somewhere in between.

Whether Stephen Leacock is “apocalyptic” or “osmotic” in this whole process remains for me an unsolved riddle, at least for the time being, and perhaps forever. In any case, I think he is perhaps the most interesting figure in the early stages of the Canadian Enlightenment creature’s evolution, because he emerged from folk writing into a position of such literary prominence which has to some extent endured, and because he lays out — fragmentarily, incompletely, and inconclusively — his tetrad of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour, and because so many people read him and thus were subjected to his osmotic influence, and because he himself was so thoroughly also in the grip of the Yottapede impelling him to a life of comfort, security and academic mediocrity. His intense absorption in it and equally intense struggles against it make his life story a parable, compelling in its own way. He becomes an Unsolved Riddle of a man.

The people of Mariposa don’t struggle. They embrace the Yottapede, and when they become successful and assume they know the answers to the riddles (as in The City of Arcadian Adventures) they become childishly foolish and morally monstrous. That is why I believe both those books to be prophetic, and why he abandoned that stream, because the next prophetic work was going to be too painful to write, a black hole of nihilism fed by successive waves of war, speculative madness, economic depression, and political insanity. No wonder he drank.

That’s enough for today. Thanks for reading.

 

Toward a (the?) Canadian Enlightenment

I write this on the eve of the launch of formal preparations for a Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial, a 277 day celebration to take place in 2019 from March 28th to December 30th, these dates being the 75th anniversary of his death and the 150th anniversary of his birth. If you want to plug into this event, the place to start is http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca.

In my most recent post I came down on the side of a humanistic approach to economics, part of my belief in a humanistic approach to everything. I am not always sure that some of our ways of thinking about huge issues are as humanistic as they need to be. For example, spokespeople for the indigenous point of view often advocate on behalf of Mother Earth, and they are right so to do. But over the course of history certain decisions have been taken about our relationship with Mother Earth, decisions which cannot be reversed without wholesale destruction of humanity, either in the crude mortal sense, or in regression to a primitive state of poverty, hardship and brutality. While I do not believe that a high level of material prosperity, a high “standard of living”, should be the limit of our aspiration, I am not prepared to sneeze at it either.

Our relationship with Mother Earth is often brutal and exploitative and wasteful to a degree that our descendants, if we have any, will find difficult to believe. They will turn away from it with the same kind of revulsion that we feel towards slavery, child labour, gratuitous massacre, the gorier forms of capital and corporal punishment, rape, physical abuse, and other practices that we believe to be conspicuously evil. But our relationship with Mother Earth has another dimension too, which has allowed us to sustain ourselves and to prosper wonderfully despite our burgeoning population which, relatively speaking, is not a new phenomenon. We have been actively manipulating Mother Earth to increase her productivity for our benefit for quite a number of centuries, even millennia, and doing very well out of it. Irrigation works, the torching of countryside to encourage new growth, the breeding of plants and animals, the damming of streams, these are all blatant intrusions into the natural realms of Mother Earth, and they go back a long time. Our power to make such intrusions destructive has increased enormously in the past 200 years, but so too has our power to make them productive and beneficial.

It is this kind of worry, for which I claim no originality, that makes me so interested in the Stephen Leacock trope of the Unsolved Riddle. I think that our relationship with Mother Earth is an Unsolved Riddle and that any person or point of view claiming to have the answer and with the power to impose it is likely to do us great harm. The truth, as one Charles Simeon said years ago, does lie at one extreme or the other, nor half-way between, but at both extremes. The question of how to do that is an Unsolved Riddle.

But we can’t simply run around wringing our hands. We have to find ways to think, and act. Stephen Leacock said of his Great Detective that to think was to act and to act was to think—frequently he could do both together. That is what we need to learn to do.

When we have found a way, a new way, or an old way reinvented, then we call it, or the ideas behind it, an Enlightenment. I am interested in the question of whether something has percolated through the pages of our history that could be called a Canadian Enlightenment, and if so, who lit it. I think it quite possibly has, incomplete and imperfect as the application has been. Obviously it must have several strands and that the application is a species of weaving. I think that the European Enlightenment wove the strands of Knowledge and Imagination to an unprecedented degree. I think that Compassion was soon added, because Knowledge and Imagination by themselves can lead too easily lead into darkness. To make them work in a Canadian context, however, we need something else, because our context is inherently uncongenial and maybe even impossible. But here we are, and we have to do our best. Humour becomes the necessary fourth strand for us. I believe that that discovery belongs to Stephen Leacock.

Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour: the four strands in the Canadian Enlightenment, woven and perpetually re-woven by investigation, conversation, experimentation, and negotiation, the next step forward forever an Unsolved Riddle. That, at any rate, is my hypothesis. Pursuit ho!

Ahoy! Have you seen the Canadian Enlightenment?