Monthly Archives: August 2008

There is a drifting and a falling that seizes time when the sun is setting and a summer is becoming an autumn and the heat of a day is fraying into the cold of a night. Each moment then genuflects to the circling of the sun and of the seasons, and their adoration makes us all the hushed attendants of a mystery. This time disdains all measure, passing with the incalculable rhythm of rustling leaves and blowing grasses and singing insects and cresting waves, finding the hollows and the spaces of the dimmed day. Such moments are marked only in their passing. They leave no inheritance. Without memory or remainder, they are only the splendid instant of their worship.

Elexander van Elsas wrote a post several weeks ago on having a home on the web, and I have been reflecting ever since on the idea of what it means to have a home or to be at home on the internet. I may return to some of the directions this thinking has taken me, but I realized last night that there may be a more fundamental problem with thinking about home on the web that must be confronted before we I can even begin to address the kinds of issues that van Elsas is raising: that is, the internet is not actually a virtual space at all.

Let me explain my logic here.  The temptation to think of locality on the web in terms of home is a direct result of understanding the internet as a whole in terms of locality and spacialization in the first place, complete with metaphors of domains, homepages, navigation, and hosting. The web, however, is not a space that I can inhabit, not even virtually, because the web is a physical space, not a virtual one. It consists of physical networks that relay physical patterns of energy between physical machines. The web as virtual space does not actually exist apart from this physical infrastructure, not until the point where a machine uses the information it has received over this network to create the illusion of a space on a monitor. This virtual space that the machine creates can exist only on the monitor. It exists nowhere else except the monitor. Even seemingly interactive spaces like social media sites and massively multiplayer gaming environments do not exist as virtual spaces on the web, but only in the physical space of the web and in the virtual space of the monitor. The web’s existence as a virtual space is always and only a product of the monitor.

What this means is that the current language of the internet, which relies heavily on metaphors of space and territory, is in fact highly misleading. It implies that the web is a virtual space that I enter and explore, concealing the fact that the web is actually a physical space that I cannot enter but that I use as a tool to create a virtual space at the point of the monitor. I cannot inhabit the web, even and especially in a virtual sense, because it does not exist as a virtual space except as I construct it for myself as such.  Rather than entering the web in any way, I always remain essentially external to it, requesting information from it, creating virtuality with it.

To speak of a home on the web is, therefore, strictly speaking, impossible.  I can only speak of a provisional and temporary home that I create for myself at the point of the monitor so that I may make use of the physical infrastructure of the internet, but this home will always remain entirely distinct from the web, however much it may depend on the web to construct itself.  Understood in this way, the primary change that the web enables in regard to home is not the ability to maintain a personal space within a larger virtual sphere, but the ability to replicate, to recreate, my virtual home wherever I have access to the necessary technology.  My home on the web, recreated for me each time I sit down at my monitor, is now capable of appearing in my physical home, in my workplace, or, as at this particular moment, at a public library in rural Ontario.  Far from creating a stable though virtual home that I can access from anywhere I go, the web forces me to recreate my virtual home everywhere I go, which is perhaps another reason why van Elsas should feel like a refugee.

One of my friends, who prefers on principle to remain anonymous to the web, asked me yesterday about how exactly I go about writing for the web.  She is, and I hope this does not threaten her anonymity too much to say so, a teacher of writing and composition, and she is interested to know how it is that writing in the mode of a blog, or in other web modes, differs from more traditional writing practises.  She claims that writing for the web can be paralleled most closely to the tradition of the personal essay, a form that is strongly connected to print journalism in various forms, and her hypothesis is that it may be productive to compare the writing style of print journalism at the height of its influence with the writing styles emerging in new media journalism today.

I am not sure if my responses helped her very much, but our conversation did cause me to spend some time thinking about the process through which I come to write in this space.  What I realized is that writing for the web, at least my writing for the web, may indeed resemble the personal essay in function and even at times in form, but that it is a mode of personal essay that intensifies the personal to extremes that would rarely have been possible in print journalism.  This is the case even in my own writing, and I am someone who consciously limits the amount and the nature of the personal information that I include.  It is this intensification of the personal, this intensification of personality, that I think is a key marker of writing for the web, so I though that I might explore the reasons why my own personality has accorded so well with tthis mode of writing.

What I realized, in effect, is that I enjoy the nature of writing for the web because I am not a focussed thinker.  I never have been.  This was true even when I was under the duress of having to perform in the academic institution.  It is still truer now that I have little external direction for what I need to think and read and write.  At any given time, I am thinking through several problems having to do with a whole range of activities, from gardening to teaching to philosophy to whatever.  A short list at the moment, for example, would include the following questions, some of which will very likely provide the source for future writing in this space or elsewhere:

1.  What is the nature of home on the web?  What does it mean to be at home in virtual spaces?

2.  How exactly might I create a physical barrier around the corner of my yard that would protect the garden that I want to plant without blocking the view of the house?  Might it be possible to do this in a way that would integrate the barrier into the garden in a productive way?

3.  How might it be possible to encourage spiritual community in the home or the neighbourhood as a way of contesting and resisting the homogenizing influence of church institution?  Can something like this be conceived that would not immediately become a church institution by another name?

4.  What are the ways that I might pattern a reading practise to my students that would model an appreciation for the classic literature that we are studying precisely in terms of reading contemporary culture?  How do I contextualize this kind of reading historically?  How to I represent its significance personally?

5.  How will I schedule this fall’s canning around our new household rhythms?  When might I pick and prepare and cook without interfering with with my Mother-in-law’s physiotherapy practise, with my increasingly napless children, with my family time, and with my activities outside of the home?

This is only a very partial list, but it gives a sense, I hope, of the unfocused nature of my thinking, which is directly related to the unfocused nature of my living.  I am interested in many things, so I think about many things.  I do not have, not in sufficient quantities, the capacity for the kind of sustained and focused writing that is required in traditional academic work.  I recognize this and am not terribly disappointed by it.  What I need is a mode of writing that enables me to write on the various things that interest me, but in a way that also enables me to return to these things, as I will, building a broad and integrated writing and thinking rather than a narrow and isolated writing and thinking.

My process of writing for the web, therefore, as I said to my friend yesterday evening, is not very different from my natural and personal process of living and thinking and being.  What I write is personal in this sense, though it does not always take the form of the essay or always include personal content.  It appears best on the web because the web enables precisely this kind of personal writing, this kind of personalization.  While there may some similarities between current writers of the web and the old personal essayists, therefore, the very personalization that the web allows, and the variation that this personalization allows in turn, will mean that there will also be a great number of dissimilarities.  The web does permit and encourage writing in the mode of the personal essay, but it also permits and encourages writing in very different modes, because it is open to the personal and the idiosyncratic.  This may be, in my opinion, one of the web’s greatest strengths.  It is certainly one of its greatest attractions to me.

I had two experiences of sharing yesterday that, while seemingly different in many ways, taught me something about how it is possible to share or introduce a place, a subject that has been turning in my head since I returned from Manitoulin Island.

My friend Chris Land came by with his young daughter in the morning, and we had a chance to walk to a downtown used bookstore together in the afternoon.  Chris is not from Guelph and had never been to this particular bookseller, so I showed him around the shop a little, and we spent some time browsing, occasionally noting a book to one another or asking each other’s opinion on a title.  Chris bought Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, which was a fairly revolutionary text for me when I read it in university.  I bought two collections of essays: George Orwell’s Inside the Whale and Other Essays, and William Styron’s The Quiet Dust and Other Writings, neither of which were known to me before I saw them on the shelves.  We both left the store well pleased with our purchases.

In the evening, I went to help my mother move a desk from the house of Bob Brown, a mutual friend.  While we were there, Bob took the opportunity to show me a little of his unique garden.  It was not the first time that I had seen it, since the Browns allow me to pick their grapes every fall, but I am almost always picking when Bob is at work, so I have never heard him explain how unique some of the plants in his garden really are.  He cultivates only those plants that are native to southern Ontario, and he tries to include as many uncommon species as he can.  Not wanting to take these plants from the wild, he notes where developers will be beginning a new project, and takes any valuable specimens from these areas before the bulldozers arrive.  From among his many interesting edible specimens, too many to mention, he was gracious enough to give me some mayapple plants (podophyllum peltatum) for immediate transplantation, and to promise me some pawpaw tree seedlings (asimina triloba) for transplantation later in the fall.  Of the two, mayapples can still be found wild in various places in Ontario, but pawpaws are almost never seen this far north any longer. Along with the sandcherry bushes (prunus pumila var. depressa) that I am trying to force grow from seeds, these new plants will make an interesting beginning to a garden of local and edible plants.

In each case, I would suggest that what was being introduced was, more than anything else, a space, a specifically local space, a locality.  In the first instance, I was the guide; in the second, I was the guided; in both, what was actually exchanged between us was a familiarity with a locality, a familiarity both with the space of a bookstore or of a garden, and, through this locality, an increased knowledge of the broader spaces of literature and of southern Ontario flora.  The sharing is not really of literature or flora, of course, not as a whole, not even as the whole of what might be shared.  It is the sharing only of those aspects of literature and flora that appear within a particular locality, a locality where one is familiar and is willing to familiarize another.  In the same way, my opportunity last week was not to introduce the Humphreys to Manitoulin, or even to everything of Manitoulin that I know.  Rather, it was an opportunity to make them familiar with a place where I am familiar, in order to introduce them to the experience of Manitoulin that is particularly mine.  They may gain a broader knowledge of Manitoulin through this experience, but this is not primarily what is being shared.  What is being shared is my familiarity with the locality.

I would argue that this understanding of sharing has implications far beyond physical space, because I think that it characterizes, or at least should characterize, every instance of sharing that takes the form of an introduction.  In terms of pedagogy, for example, I think that it is far more useful to understand the teacher’s function to be sharing in this way.  Clearly, despite frequent pretence to the contrary, the teacher is never able to introduce students to the entirety of a subject.  The teacher is never able even to introduce students to all of the possible knowledge of a subject that the teacher has to sharet.  The teacher is really only able to introduce students to a locality within a subject, a locality with which the teacher is familiar, a locality which the teacher can make familiar to the students also.  This kind of teaching does not pretend to somehow cover a subject entirely, but to familiarize a locality of the subject in such a way as to cast light on the whole, which will always remain beyond mastery of both teacher and student.

In this sense, I familarize Chris with the bookstore so that he can carry out of it something that was always larger than the bookstore in any case: the text.  Bob familarizes me with his garden so that I can carry out of it something that was always larger than the garden in any case: the plant.  Without these localities, and without a familiarity with them, taught and learned, there would be nowhere to begin discovering the things that we need to carry with us.

While on Manitoulin Island this past week, I discovered an interesting literary coincidence.  I am always looking for bargain books and films to add to my collection, even in as unlikely a place as Manitoulin, and I purchased several things during the course of the week.  At the Providence Bay Fair, in a stall of used and abused odds and ends, I found Rob Epstein’s and Jeffrey Friedman’s The Celluloid Closet, a very good documentary on the history of how homosexuality has been depicted in Hollywood film.  At the Providence Bay Library, which is open all of three hours a day on two days a week, I also acquired George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and Aldous Huxley’s Island.  I watched The Celluloid Closet several months ago, and I have read The Princess and the Goblin several times over the years, so, the moment that I finished Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, I turned, with immeasurable relief, to Huxley’s Island.

Island is a fascinating novel in many ways, though it is sometimes a little stilted, in that the events of the plot often seem to serve the necessities of the philosophical argument rather than to tell an involving story.  This is probably a greater issue for readers today than it was for those who were contemporaries of the book’s initial publication, simply because so much of its philosophy is historically circumscribed and no longer compelling.  The sort of utopia that the novel advocates, a pseudo-Buddhism mixed with some scientism and topped with a little mescaline induced self-realization, is too much the idealism of another time to have much intellectual force any longer. Even so, the structure of the story is strong, and its conclusion, which I will not disclose for those who have not read it, is forceful.  Also, despite the now unconvincing solutions that it presents, the novel’s political, social, and economic critique remains often valid and insightful.  There is much in this respect, along with a very readable story, to recommend the novel even now.

None of this, however, has much to do directly with the literary coincidence that I set out to discuss, a coincidence that appears very early in the novel, when Will Farnaby, the protagonist, refers to another utopian novel, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon.  The coincidence here is that I only just recently read Erewhon after finding it in a North Carolina used bookstore on my last trip, so that, with the strange illogic that seems to characterize my existence, I actually purchased two different novels by two different authors in two different countries on two consecutive trips, and one just happened to reference the other in an explicit and substantial way.

What makes this coincidence even more interesting is that it plays a significant role in establishing one of Island‘s central themes.  The reference consists in Farnaby saying, borrowing the words of Higgs, Erewhon‘s protagonist and narrator, “As luck would have it, Providence was on my side.”  Farnaby actually quotes these words three times, twice mentioning their source explicitly, and dwelling on their irony each time.  I am not interested in providing a definitive explanation of why Huxley emphasises this allusion so heavily.  There are probably several such reasons, and there have likely been more than one unreadable PhD dissertation written on the subject.  My own interest has to do with how the allusion defines the nature of Faraday’s appearance on the island, either as chance or as destiny.

Higgs, who spoke the words first, during his discovery of Erewhon, very much confuses the ideas of luck and providence.  Though he clearly believes himself to be under the influence of a divine providence, his words unconsciously make this providence seem to depend on luck, revealing that he is less a man of religious belief than he is a man of convenient belief, which is characteristic of how Butler depicts him.  His real religion is in profit, and providence is merely a convenient word, roughly equivalent to luck, that he can use to describe the good fortune that he finds in his pursuit of gain.  His story is not one of spiritual or even personal growth.  Quite the opposite, Higgs ends the novel almost precisely as he began it, determined to exploit Erewhon for his own ends just as he was initially determined to exploit the unclaimed mountain pastures for his own ends.  Higgs’ story is entirely irreligious, entirely unprovidential, in this sense.  He is not brought by an external force toward a salvation.  He merely pursues his own interests and uses the idea of providence to justify his successes after the fact.  He sees no irony in a providence that depends upon and is little different from plain luck.

Faraday, however, is acutely aware of how ironic Higg’s phrase really is, and he uses it to describe his equivocal feels about how has arrived on the island.  “As luck would have it,” he keeps saying, “Providence was on my side.”  Though he does not believe in providence, neither can he fully believe that the circumstances of his arrival on the island and of his survival of the storm are merely luck.  He seems to quote Higgs defensively, seeing something almost providential in what has happened to him, ans desperately placing Higgs’ irony between him and this possibility.  Whereas Higgs does not even recognize that he makes providence depend on mere luck, Faraday sees and clings to this dependence as a defence against the possibility of providence, even when other characters present him explicitly with the possibility that he was destined to come to the island.

Faraday’s fear and rejection of providence are interesting because his story, in contrast to Higgs’, is precisely a providential one, where he is brought to salvation, seemingly by forces beyond himself.  In opposition to Higgs, whose experience of utopia fails to change him any significant way, Faraday’s narrative is one of a journey to a kind of intellectual, political, social, and personal salvation.  His is a conversion story and a salvation story, though he is converted and saved in ways that are quite different from his preconceived religious notions.  His journey, though he fails to recognize it entirely, has all the markers of the providential.  It is a religious journey, for the same reasons that Higg’s journey is irreligious.  Where Higgs espouses a providence that really depends upon luck, Farady espouses a luck that comes to depend upon providence.

Huxley does not actually decide for his readers in favour of providence, of course, and I will refrain from doing so also.  Huxley does, however, decide for his readers in favour of posing the question of luck and providence, not just as a simple binary, as in most utopias, nor just as a simple irony, as in Erewhon, but as a complex question that cannot, and perhaps should not, ever be answered definitively.  Rather than argue for a providence that can be defended as such, he seems to propose a kind of providence that never appears clearly as what it is, but can always be understood as merely luck, a providence that might just exceed the very opposition between luck and providence.  I think there is something true in this.

So long as I am reading for pleasure rather than for work, so long as I am really reading rather than merely studying, I prefer to measure a novel in hours or, at most, in days.  In the case of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, however, which I have only just finished, my reading has been measured in weeks, three long weeks, not because of any abnormal amount of distraction, and not because of any abnormal lack of opportunity, but merely and utterly because I had to force myself, against all inclination, to finish the book at all, page by page, word by word. I have not felt such complete disinterest for a novel since I read Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi, which is, perhaps only coincidentally, also written by a German.  Except that my sample of German novelists is so small, and except for the salient anomaly of Franz Kafka, I would begin to suspect that there was something essential about German novels that disagrees with me.

It is not that Doctor Faustus is badly written, or that it is without its artistic and intellectual excellences.  It is that, like with Victorian novels, for example, or with Restoration poetry, I find myself admiring the craftsmanship and the genius of writing that nevertheless bores me so completely that I can hardly bring myself to read it.  I can recall reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch with precisely this same sentiment, appreciating the complexity of the tale, the aptness of the characterization, the unity of the narrative, and yet yearning through every page for its conclusion.  I reflected at the time that Eliot had authored a work that was the literary equivalent of a perfectly cut jewel, with every angle ground to precision, only that she had practised her art, not on a gem, but on a piece of gravel.  Her cutting was superb, but her material was entirely unremarkable.  She had produced a perfectly cut hunk of granite.

I have much the same opinion of Dactor Faustus.  The narrative voice is well controlled and maintained.  The protagonist and his tale are interestingly conceived and rendered.  The parallels between his story and the story of Germany during World War II are often masterly.  None of this, however, comes together to make a compelling novel.  Except for certain scenes, which, perhaps by design, stand out all the more in comparison, most of the narrative is comprised of long conversations on music, theology, politics, philosophy, and a myriad other things, mostly of the sort that would have been better suited to another medium than the novel.  The result is a sort of technical mastery that mostly falls short of inspiring artistic interest.  I am glad to be done with it.

My family and I have just returned from Manitoulin Island, where both my parents were raised and where both sets of my grandparents still live.  We stayed at my Mother’s place in Providence Bay, an old family house that she purchased a few years ago as a kind of cottage and will now be using as a full time residence and a place to run art workshops and summer programs.  She calls the place Providence House, and she was gracious enough to let us use it for a week and to bring along our friends the Humphreys.

Manitoulin is a deeply significant place for me.  I spent almost every summer there as I child, either at the farm of my Grandparents Hill, which is just outside of Mindemoya, or at the hunting camp of my Grandparents Gordon at Carter Bay, which is on the south shore of the Island east of Providence Bay.  I am by no means a farm boy, but it was during my summers on the island that I learned to ride the workhorses by leaping onto their bare backs from the apple trees, to drive a tractor poorly, to help birth a breach position calf, and to mow more hay than I care to remember.  I am no more a naturalist than I am a farmer, but the island was also the place where I learned to identify some animal sign, to distinguish one tree from another, to cut trails, and to fish.  My most vivid memories are of picking raspberries from along the dirt roads, of fishing in the little Mindemoya river, of wandering among the dunes at Carter Bay, and of reading in the old stuffed arm chair at the camp, the night already black, the moon hidden by the trees, the only light coming from the coals of the open wood stove.  It is into these memories that I always return when I come to Manitoulin.

It has been meaningful to bring others, first my friends, then my wife, then my children, and now my friends’ children, as I have returned to these memories over the years.  The island that I can introduce to them is not the same as the one of my childhood, of course, but it connects to that childhood in strange ways, and it connects to the person I am now as well.  It is no longer possible to get fresh fish from the dock at Providence Bay, for example, because there are no boats that still fish from there.  It is no longer possible to get icecream at the dairy in Mindemoya, because the dairy has now been demolished.  It is still possible, however, to find fresh fish, even if it is now sold from a truck in the grocery store parking lot, and it is still possible to get icecream made by the local dairy, even if it is no longer quite as local.  These things are still important to me now, though perhaps for other reasons, and it was a real pleasure to share them with the Humphreys.

It was also a pleasure to begin building some entirely new memories with my family.  I returned to Carter Bay to take some photos with my eldest son after the Humphreys had left.  While we were photographing, we met a woman on the beach who was able to confirm my uncertain identification of the sandcherries.  We collected several handfuls of them, my son biting into them, making faces, spitting them out, then biting them again, while I filled my shirt pockets.  We also caught crayfish.  We threw rocks from the tall stones into the water.  We found a stick that looked like a sword.  We saw a bear on the road.  Most importantly, when we returned home, we turned the sandcherries into a startlingly red syrup that went beautifully on icecream before bed and only slightly less beautifully on pancakes in the morning.

It is these kinds of memories that have made Manitoulin so important to me.  I feel it most strongly now, just after I have left it.