Monthly Archives: February 2009

It has been suggested to me by several people that I should provide some context when I post poetry or creative prose pieces, so as not to surprise those who have become accustomed to my usual narrative voice.  The difficulty is that I most often choose to write in poetry precisely because I feel that my usual narrative voice is more than usually inadequate to the subject.  So, in the present case, I will only say that I have been reflecting on the problem of what we might call balance or moderation.  Either the poem will say the rest, or it will not.

To Touch the Earth and Sky
To touch the earth and sky with my desire
And grasp them, both, though torn between the two;
To stretch across a void I cannot fill
And be suspended by its emptiness;
To be a heretic formed to the rack,
And a thief dangling from a crucifix:
This is the condition of all worship.

In the introduction to The Practise of Everyday Life,  Michel de Certeau argues that a certain kind of visuality has come to dominate our perception.  “Our society,” he says, “is characterized by a cancerous growth of vision, measuring everything by its ability to show or be shown, and transmuting communication into a visual journey.  It is a sort of epic of the eye and of the impulse to read.”  It is not vision itself that is the problem here, but a cancer of the vision, not the eye itself, but the eye grown epic.  The problem is the demand that everything be shown to the eye in order that everything might be read, a demand that automatically reduces all communication to mere spectacle.  The problem is that things are understood to have value only insofar as they can be measured and consumed by the eye.

For this reason, de Certeau argues for a particular kind of reading.  In this kind of reading, “the reader insinuates into another person’s text the ruses of pleasure and appropriation.”  The reader “poaches on the text, is transported into it, pluralizng himself in it like the rumbling of one’s body.”  The reader thus produces the book rather than merely consuming it as a visuality, producing it as something to be remembered rather than merely read.  Using “ruse, metaphor, arrangement,” de Certeau argues, “this production is also an invention of memory.  Words become the outlet or product of silent histories. The readable transforms itself into the memorable.”  The text that has been only a readable object for the consuming eye, becomes a memorable invention of the productive mind, dislocating the reader from mere consumption and the text from mere visuality.

A few pages later, in the beginning of the book proper, de Certeau begins to speak of a writing that also disrupts consumption of the text through the figure of the anonymous man, the everyman, the one who is everybody and nobody at once, arguing that “the straying of writing outside of its own place is traced by this anonymous man.”  Here de Certeau describes a writing to parallel the kind of reading that he has just been discussing in his introduction, a writing that invites its readers to reproduce it, to rewrite it, to remember it, rather than merely to consume it.

This kind of writing offers the reader the opportunity to identify with the anonymous man as “the metaphor and drift of the doubt that haunts writing,” as “the phantom of its vanity,” as “the enigmatic figure of the relation that writing entertains with all people, with the loss of its exemption, and with its own death.”  The image here is of the ghost or the phantom, the reminder and the remainder of death, that haunts the house, that makes it enigmatic, that becomes the source of stories and legends, that makes of the house more than can be seen and measured.   This is the function of the anonymous man also, to haunt the text, to remind us of our relation to the everyman who is both tragic and farcical, both ghostly and material, both dying and surviving.

This figure, the one with whom I am invited to identify, opens the text to a reading that is memorable, that is related to my own history and my own memory.  It is no longer a text that allows me to see it at a distance, but one that invites me participate in it, to produce it, to remember it.  The anonymous man, to play a little on this idea, is presented to me as one who is dismembered but in whom I can nevertheless recognize myself, despite or even because his dismemberment has made him anonymous, and this figure requires of me that I remember it, that I suture its limbs together so that I can see myself in it.  I am forced to make something of it, to actively create something that never was and never could be presented to my eye, something that escapes a mere passive and consumptive visuality.

In this sense, I would like my writing to be haunted, to be monstrous, to be uncanny.  I want it to stray out of its place.  I want it to be the habitation of things that neither I nor you can wholly see or understand, but that therefore confront us with ourselves, and with each other, and with our limit.

My friend Tom Abel comes and meets with me on Tuesday afternoons.  The purpose for our meetings, ostensibly, is to read Martin Buber’s I and Thou, but we make remarkably little progress week over week.  We begin with the text, but it always takes us elsewhere, which is, as I have argued many times, exactly what reading should do.

Yesterday, one of the ricochets in our conversation struck the question of how we come to define ourselves as human beings in our social and cultural landscape.  More plainly, we were wondering exactly how we managed to enter highschool with very little idea of who we were and exit it with an idea of ourselves that has remained largely operative ever since.  What, we asked, was the catalyst for this self-realization.

As we proceeded to tell the stories of this experience in our lives, it became obvious that the central element in both narratives was the role of writing.  Both of us identified our increasing ability to define ourselves with an increasing ability to express ourselves through language, particularly in its written forms.  For both of us, it seemed that our growing linguistic ability allowed us to define ourselves precisely as people who had this ability, and also provided us with the tools and the vocabulary to express this self-definition to ourselves and to others.

Now, there are those, perhaps, even probably, whose aptitudes and interests produce an experience of self-definition that is not primarily linguistic.  There are also those, almost certainly, for whom this experience of self-definition does not occur during highschool.  There are even those, I suspect, unfortunately, who never have this experience at all.  Even so, I am interested in the degree to which both Tom and I found this self-defining process to be interrelated with a coming to writing.  I am curious to know how common this experience is and to understand more fully how writing and self-definition are related.

My very preliminary thoughts on the subject would include a strict insistence that a linguistic facility can never be adequate to the self as such, but can only ever define the self sufficiently for my own needs.  Though my linguistic self-definition certainly bears a relation to the self that I am, I would argue that this relation is not essential.  Its function is not to reveal the self, but to translate, construct, produce, define, delimit the self in ways that permit me to function in the world.  Beyond this, however, I am uncertain how to proceed, and I would welcome the contributions of others on the subject.

Three Saturdays ago, there was a new vendor at the Farmer’s Market.  She was selling various dry goods, including a fair variety of South Asian spices, so I stopped to ask whether she had any curry leaves, a spice that I am not able to find elsewhere within walking distance.  She told me that she did not, but assured me that she would have some the following week.

I somehow missed the vendor’s stall the next week, but I found it again this past Saturday, and I remembered our conversation, so I stopped.  The vendor clearly remembered me.  Before I could even ask after the spice I wanted, she had pointed to a bag that contained, not dried curry leaves, which would have been more than satisfactory, but a whole branch, practically a small tree, of fresh curry leaves.  The price she asked was almost embarrassingly cheap, so I pretended not to have change and overpaid her an amount that I was still more than happy to pay.

I dried much of the plant, but while I still have some fresh leaves, I have been using it continually, and it has been a lovely luxury to have enough of it allow some culinary experimentation.  I have found an interesting recipe for a tomato suace that includes curry leaves, for example, and I will also be trying a potato dish that combines the fresh leaves with yoghurt and other spices.  Of course, depending on how all of this cooking turns out, I may now have to keep a curry tree or two growing on my window sill, just to feed my habit.

I decided to screen something a little different for this Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc.  I usually show films that are addressing a topic that I think will stimulate some discussion, though I try to make selections that have some artistic value as well. This month, however, I decided to show Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which is a fabulous film, but one that has no single organizing principle beyond the life of Dieter Dengler and, therefore, no obvious place to begin a discussion.  Though I was certain that we would find something to interest us, I had no idea what shape our conversation would take.

As I expected, the interaction after the film was a little more scattered than it usually is.  A few shared their initial impressions, and then we followed several tangents, and then we got sidetracked altogether, but the end result was still interesting, at least to me, and the conversation did not come completely to an end until some time around midnight. Among the many ideas that were shared, someone suggested that perhaps the appeal of Dengler’s life is as much due to his narration of it, to the way that he tells it, as it is to the events that comprise it.  Someone else made another comment almost immediately afterwards, and I did not make an effort to return to this idea, but it intrigued me nevertheless, and I began to reflect on how the narrative is actually structured.

The film is basically divided between two narrators: Dengler himself, who is most often an on-screen narrator, and Herzog, who is always an off-screen narrator.  This approach to the narration is uncommon for Herzog, who usually prefers to do most of the narration himself, and who appears as a participant in almost all of his films to one degree or another.  The two voices, both male, both with German accents, do not contrast each other strongly, but they are clearly different.  Dengler’s less pronounced accent and more casual diction always distinguish him from Werner’s heavily germanic English and his tendency to rhetorical excess.  The two compliment each other, but remain always distinct.

Dengler’s narrative voice begins the film.  The opening scene has him speaking to an artist who has drawn one of the visions that he saw during his escape through the jungle.  Dengler explains to the artist how his drawing is inaccurate, and this explanation includes an expressive account of the vision itself, which he describes as hundreds of horses galloping through huge doors in the heavens.  This scene establishes his narrative voice in a way that the film continually reinforces, as both the authentic and authenticating voice of the one who was there and who has lived through a real event and also the mystical and mystifying voice of the one who is now here after having experienced the surreal and the miraculous.

Herzog’s narrative voice usually lies across Dengler’s.  It summarizes and informs, and it thereby abstracts from Dengler also.  It is the voice of the one who was not there, who has not experienced, but who therefore has the capacity to draw the narrative back from Dengler’s intimate voice and to examine that voice at a distance, as an object and as a specimen.  There is one fascinating scene that illustrates this function very clearly, where Herzog’s narration of a story is superimposed on a shot of Dengler, whose hand gestures clearly indicate that he is telling the same story at almost exactly the same time.  Here, the scene says clearly, Herzog thought that his directorial voice was more appropriate to the story of Dengler’s life than Dengler’s own, and I would argue that it is more appropriate, not because it is more authentic, but precisely because it is less authentic, because it is less intimate, because it forces the viewer to see Dengler rather than hear him, to watch his gestures rather than to be drawn into the intimacy of his narrative.

In this way, the two narrative voices function to continually reposition the viewer between the intimacy and authority and mysticism of Dengler’s voice and the distance and exteriority of Herzog’s voice.  Dengler’s voice alone would have told a story that was too compelling, too hypnotic.  We, as viewers, would have fallen into the illusion that we were not really viewers at all, not really observers, but somehow participants also in the narrative of his life.  We would have convinced ourselves that his narrative was adequate to his life, that it was somehow capable of giving us its essence.  This is the quality of Dengler’s voice, what makes it irresistible, and it is this that Herzog’s directorial narrative serves to disrupt.  It permits us to be enraptured with Dengler’s account only so long before it brings us up short, imposes itself between him and us, forces us to look at him from a distance and to see the man whose story and whose life has been allowing us to see the visions, both terrible and beautiful, that he once saw.

Graeme Ross, a friend of mine from soccer, dropped by on Wednesday afternoon to return a film that he had borrowed from me.  We had also arranged to watch a documentary over coffee while he was there, and we settled on James Longley’s Gaza Strip.  As we were watching, people were occasionally coming and going, patients of the physiotherapy and osteopathy practise that my mother-in-law runs out of our home.  One gentleman arrived a little early to pick up his wife, so he came to watch the film with us for ten minutes or so, and I was interested to see how his mere presence changed the viewing experience for me.

Prior to this gentleman’s arrival, I was focused mostly on Longley’s film, which is good but not terribly remarkable.  It uses some interesting editing techniques, including one sequence of high speed still shots interspersed with longer freeze frames, all depicting a Gaza city at night, but these experimental elements are largely outweighed by what is otherwise very conventional cinematography.  At times, it conveys surprisingly intimate moments, particularly with one young man, whose narrative forms a loose structure for the documentary, but I felt that its total effect was too loose, episodic, unfocussed, and disunified.  As I said, it was good, but not very remarkable.

The moment that our unexpected visitor arrived, however, I began to experience the film very differently.  Rather than being concerned primarily with the film itself, with its subject and technique and politics, I found myself attending also to the film as the element through which this man was first seeing me and coming to know me.  What was  he was thinking as he was sitting there with us?  Was he wondering why two grown adults were sitting around watching a documentary in the middle of a weekday afternoon?  Was he evaluating the politics of people who would watch a film that advocates so strongly for the Palestinian cause?  How, in short, was the film introducing us to him?

Suddenly, I realized how uncommon this kind of experience is.  Culturally speaking, we are not often confronted by another person first in the context of viewing a film.  We are frequently in the position of watching a film with strangers in the setting of the theatre, of course, but we are not usually confronted by these people.  They exist for us, and they help form our film experience, but we do not often recognize them in their particularity, and certainly not in a situation where the film has been selected by us in a way that it has not been by them, in a situation where the film might be understood to be representative of us in some way.

When we do watch film in a context that confronts us with others, we almost always ensure that it is in an intimate setting, with those we already know, where even the choice of film is most often made between us.  The film experience on these occasions is something that we construct among us.  It is not that we are able to determine all of the factors in this experience, but that we actively participate with each other in producing the event of the viewing, much in the way that Graeme and I arranged to meet together, chose the film together, and sat down to watch it as an event in our relationship.

When our visitor arrived, however, the viewing experience became radically altered.  Now, rather than an event taking place in an already existing relationship, it became the moment through which a relationship was begun, and a moment that was produced far more by us than by him, so that his introduction to us was almost entirely restricted to that of observation.  He was not introduced to us directly, where we might interact with him.  He was introduced merely to our choice of film, where he could only observe this choice and us through it, without over really entering into it.

I am uncertain what to make of this kind of interaction, though I think that it must occur in less obvious ways in almost every communal viewing of a film.  It is causing me to examine more closely the realtional elements that go into screening a film as factors in responding to film and to others in the context of a film viewing.  I have not yet thought very far through these ideas, and I am uncertain exactky how to procede with them, so I would appreciate any thoughts that others might be able to offer me.

My mother gave me Tim Lilburn’s Going Home for my birthday in October, and I have only just now finished it.  Though I began reading it almost immediately, and though I returned to it several times during the intervening months, I never seemed to make any progress in it.  I enjoyed it when I was actually reading, but something else always needed to be read or done, and there was a month or so over Christmas when I lacked the inclination to read anything philosophical at all, and my appetite even since then has too often been for other sorts of reading, so I moved through it only haltingly, episodically, in fits and starts.

For all of this interruption, or perhaps even because of it, I found myself reflecting often on Lilburn’s ideas, even when I had not actually been reading the book for a week or more.  I resonated with his attempt to recover the role of desire through his readings of Platonic philosophy and patristic theology, the subjects of the book’s first two sections respectively.  I resonated even more with the third and final section, which was comprised of reflections, often narrative, often lyrical, on Lilburn’s experience of returning to Saskatchewan and of trying to find, or create, or encounter in it, a home.

Not surprisingly, considering my interest in the idea of home, this last section was the most profound for me, particularly as it situated Lilburn’s earlier ideas of desire into a particular life, a particular location, a particular landscape.  Plato had his desire, it seems to say, and Cassian had his, but here is mine.  Let me introduce you to its climate, and its contours, and its careen.  Let me enact for you also the desire that I have been trying to articulate.  Let me show you the home that is the object of my own yearning, this thing that escapes articulation in any language except the language of the erotic.

Confronted by the place to which he has returned, Lilburn’s response is a kind of lostness, a desire to be at home in a place that he no longer recognizes as home.  “I had done nothing,” he says, “to educate myself to be someone who could live with facility, familiarity, where he was born.”  He describes this placelessness as resulting from a lack of desire.  “We are not craning, not small, not hurt by desire,” he says, “We are disastrously kept, healed of a saving disquiet – so how can we be where we are?”

Confronted by homelessness, by placelessness, by unfamiliarity, Lilburn embarks on a practise that physically reconnects him with the place of home.  He describes digging in the Saskatchewan dirt to build a root cellar, walking through the landscape, taking the earth into his hands and passing over it with his feet.  “Being in a place demands a practise,” he says. “It is not tourism or romanticism: things are not laid on, nor are they occultly given: here the practise is putting yourself out there and walking.”  Elsewhere, he describes this tactile practise of a place and its history almost mystically, saying, “We need to find our own way to take this place into our mouth; we must re-say our past in such a way that it will gather us here.”  This language and this practise are the language and practise of desire, a desire to be at home where one is.

Interestingly, at least to me, some of Lilburn’s language of a desire for home comes very close to the language used by George MacDonald in his novel Lilith.  Though written more than a century earlier, MacDonald’s book is concerned with some of the same issues.  His protagonist, a man named Vane, finds himself in another world, asking much the same questions as Lilburn: Where am I, and Where is home?  Mr. Raven, who appears as both a raven and as man and who guides Vane through this new world, also responds to these questions in much the same way as Lilburn does.  “The only way to come to know where you are,” he says, “is to begin to make yourself at home,” and the only way to make yourself at home is “by doing something.”  His solution to Vane’s homelessness is also a practise of place, an activity that the place demands in order to make it a home.

For Vane, this activity will eventually take the form of returning water to the barren landscape, but he initially resists Raven’s council, choosing to ignore the practise that has been presented to him.  It is only after his own plans have brought about disaster and left him still rootless that he realizes for himself what Raven had told him from the beginning. Reflecting on his situation, he says to himself, “I had not yet, by doing something in it, made anywhere into a place,” and it is this realization that returns him to the task that was initially set for him.

There are, of course, as many divergences as parallels between the texts of Lilburn and MacDonald, and it would do both of them an injustice to emphasize their similarities too strongly, but I appreciate how they serve to reinforce one another in at least this one respect.  They remind me that home is never merely granted to me, that it does not come preconstructed, even if, at the same time, it is never merely created by me either.  On the contrary, home is always a matter of taking the place where I am, with its inhabitants and its history and its topography, and putting it into my mouth, holding it in my hands, walking it with my feet, doing in it what my desire for it requires of me.  Home, as the object of my desire, is only ever this practise, and nothing else.

I have decide to change how I go about offering online content for my Dinner and a Doc events.  Rather than posting it on my course website, which basically functions like a glorified blog for this material in any case, I will be posting information for upcoming Dinner and a Doc nights here, where it can also be more naturally linked to the other writing that I do on documentary.

This coming Saturday, February 14th, we will be screening Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the story of Dieter Dengler, a young German boy who watches Allied bombers destroy his village during World War II and decides that he needs to be a pilot.  He moves to the United States, becomes a pilot for the Navy, and is sent to Vietnam, where he is shot down over Loas and held as a prisoner for some time.  Herzog accompanies Dengler as he returns to the jungle and tries to come to terms with his past, creating an intimate portrait of a remarkable life.

Here are links to the film in four parts for those who want a preview or who cannot make the screening: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

The event will be at my place, 130 Dublin Street, Guelph, and all are welcome, though I do appreciate an email to let me know that you will be coming.  We will eat at about 5:30 and begin the film at about 6:00.  I hope to see some of you there.

I usually avoid commenting on contemporary events in this forum, not because I lack the interest, though this is often true as well, but because it is one of the ways that I am trying to write the web more slowly, one of the ways that I am trying to contest the internet’s habitual demand for speed and currency.  Today, however, I discovered an article in the Globe and Mail that I feel compelled to discuss, and so, since it is probably necessary to prove the rule in any case, I will make this one exception.

The article, for those who would prefer not to read it for themselves, reports that professor Denis Rancourt has been fired from the University of Ottawa for refusing to provide individual grades to his fourth year physics class.  During the first class of the semester, he informed his students that they would each be receiving a grade of A+, which would free them from the pressure to test well and permit them to be scientists instead.  Though Rancourt had previously been involved in his share of controversies, it was this refusal to grade that finally convinced the university to take the very rare step of firing a tenured faculty member.

This should not surprise anyone very much, of course.  I could write for pages about how the ability to measure knowledge through grades and and courses and degrees is essential to the viability of the educational institution as such, about how this imposes on the institutional instructor the necessity of justifying grades through all the procedures of marking and commenting and correcting that consume so much of their time, and about how this permits the educational institution to attain only, at its highest, to a kind of editorial approach to learning.  I will spare us all those pages.

Instead, I just want to express my saddness at seeing the inevitable suppression of the desire for learning by institutionalized education.  I know almost nothing about Rancourt, and I am not otherwise endorsing him in any way, but I applaud his attempt to encourage learning to take place in the cracks and crevices of education, and I sympathize with him in his present situation.  Though I am cynical enough to believe that this must necessarily be the result of what he was attempting to do, I am grieved, as I always am, that learning can find no place for itself in the university.

I never had a chance to read George MacDonald’s fairytales when I was a child.  It was not until I was a teenager that I discovered his two most widely read novels, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, not until I began teaching a course in Fantasy Literature that I read Lilith and Phantases, not until the following year in a Children’s Literature class that I read At the Back of the North Wind.  It was also only then that I first read MacDonald’s fairytales.

They are an eclectic mix of stories.  Some are clearly intended for children, including moral tales like the The Golden Key and whimsical stories like The Light Princess.  Others are perhaps written for a more adult audience, including The Gray Wolf, an eerie little story about a werewolf, and The Day Boy and the Night Girl, a tale that explores some relational themes of a more mature nature than most fairytales do.  In every case, though, MacDonald’s characteristic imagination makes them beautiful.  They have the quality of dreams, narratively ethereal but imagistically vivid all at once.  They are exactly what I want fairytales to be.

If I did not come to read MacDonald’s writing until much later than most, I still know very little about Maurice Sendak’s art at all.  I cannot now recall when I first discovered Where the Wild Things Are, a perennial children’s favourite, but it remains the only book of Sendak’s that I have ever read.  I have glanced at his illustrations for the Little Bear books, which were adapted into a tolerable children’s television show that my son now enjoys, but until recently I knew nothing else about Sendak and had no reason to suspect that he would ever be related to the MacDonald fairytales that I loved so much.

Last year, however, I found a used copy of MacDonald’s The Golden Key.  It was a small blue hardcover edition illustrated with the most beautiful line drawings.  They reflected  MacDonald’s dreamlike sensibility well, interpreting the story without forcing themsleves onto it, and they were drawn by Maurice Sendak.  I bought the book, of course, fully intending to discover whether similar editions had been made of MacDonald’s other fairytales, but it was an intention that I promptly forgot, and the book went on the shelf,  and I did not think much more about it.

There the story might have remained had I not gone into a used bookstore this past fall and discovered The Light Princess in the same edition and with the same illustrator.  I bought it even without really looking at it, and I can remember vividly heading straight home so that I could check the publisher’s website and find which other fairytales they might have published in the same edition.  Somewhere between the store and the front door, however, something intervened, and I forget once more, and so, it was only today that I saw the books again on my shelf and finally completed the task that I had first set myself over a year ago.

In retrospect, I think that my forgotten intentions may have been an unconsious attempt at self-protection.  As long as I did not actually find anything definitive to the contrary, I could always hope that Sendak had produced illustrations for a whole number of MacDonald’s books, and I could keep watch for them as I browsed my way through thrift stores and used book stalls.  As soon as I knew for certain, as I now do, that there are no other such books to find, I can only regret that there are so few to be had.  I must confess, I preferred it when I was ignorant.