Sunday, January 31, 2016

Lyautey and Time

Marshall Lyautey was a soldier in Napoleon’s army and, while in Egypt, he collected seeds of a tree he admired. Upon his return to France he gave the seeds to his gardener and asked him to plant them that afternoon. The gardener recognized the type of seed and said, “My general, the tree from these seeds will take 100 years to bear fruit.” Lyautey thought for a moment and then said, “In that case, plant them tomorrow morning.”

This story is one that I seemed to have gotten backwards. I probably misread it the first time and that misreading has stuck with me. I recently searched the internet for this story and came across a reference to John F. Kennedy having told it. But his version is about hastening one’s pace and his account of the story has the Marshall initially telling his gardener to plant the seeds tomorrow only to learn of the 100 years it will take the trees to bear fruit and to which he says, “In that case, there is no time to lose, plant the seeds this afternoon.” I have loved this story – i.e. my version – for many years. I’ve always liked the seeming whimsy of planting it a day later in a 100 year growth cycle. And planting the seed “this afternoon” or “tomorrow morning” is charming nonsense in both versions.

Almost


One day, a talmudic student was meditating in the synagogue when the rabbi came in, went to the front of the synagogue, fell down on his knees, shouting, “I am nobody! I am nobody!” The student, so overcome by this display joined his rabbi, fell to his knees, and also shouted, “I am nobody! I am nobody!” This went on for a while when the caretaker of the synagogue witnessed this strange scene and, also overcome, joined the rabbi and the student shouting, “I am nobody! I am nobody!” It was then that the student nudged the rabbi, saying, “Look who thinks he’s nobody.”

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Messiah Is One of You

Long ago, a monastery in the woods that had been famous and much visited by the faithful, fell upon hard times and was reduced to only a handful of monks who carried on their duties with heavy hearts and sour moods. The abbot, hoping to learn how to change things, travelled to a neighboring monastery whose abbot, it was said, was very learned and wise. Upon meeting the wise abbot, the monk from the troubled monastery, told his story and asked, “What can be done?”

The wise abbot looked at the despondent monk and said, “I have studied and contemplated for years and so I can tell you a secret that I have learned. I happen to know that one amongst you in your monastery is the messiah and he is in disguise.

The monk returned to his monastery with a feeling of astonishment. He related what he had learned to his fellow monks and all pondered what this could mean. Each looked at the other and wondered if it was he that was the messiah in disguise. One thought, “could it be Brother Baker? But he is always short-tempered and quick to anger. Ah, but perhaps that is his clever disguise.” Another thought, “could it be Brother Treasurer? But he always seems so disorganized and even lazy. Has he been acting that way to fool us about his divinity?” Yet another thought, “Surely it couldn’t be Brother Librarian? He is forever getting angry about us all not studying enough. Is this his disguise against discovery?”

A remarkable thing happened in the following days and months as each of the monk’s began to exercise more patience and love towards his fellow monks. Each was convinced the Messiah was one of them and also a master of disguise. Before long the monastery was filled with kindness and compassion and, as word spread, new people came to ask admittance to the order and the monastery thrived once again.

Is That So?


Once, in a small village, a girl became pregnant and her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. The girl was fearful and embarrassed and impulsively named Hakuin, the Zen master respected by everyone for living such a good life. When the parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter's accusation, he simply replied "Is that so?" When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin and demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. "Is that so?" said Hakuin calmly as he accepted the child. Everyone treated Hakuin as a pariah. And for many months he took very good care of the child, feeding, loving and tending to the child's many needs. One day the child's mother could no longer live with her lie and she confessed that the real father was a young man of the village. The parents immediately went to Hakuin, apologized profusely, explained what had happened, and asked for the child back. "Is that so?" Hakuin said as he handed them the child.

Celebration of Re:Framing

While walking in the monastery garden one zen monk approached another and asked if it wouldn’t be nice to smoke a cigarette. “Let’s ask the abbot,” suggested the other.  

The next day, the second monk saw the first and asked, “What was the abbot’s answer?” 

The first monk replied, “The abbot was very quick and strict and said, ‘no, definitely not.” 

The next day the first monk saw the second monk walking in the garden and smoking. He approached him and said, “did the abbot say you could smoke?” 

“Why, yes, he did.” 

“But I do not understand. If I was forbidden, how is it that you are not?” 

“Ahh,” said the second monk, “Please tell me precisely what you asked the abbot when he forbade you to smoke.”

“I asked, is it permissible to smoke when I am meditating in the garden?” 

“There you have it,” said the second monk. “What I asked the abbot was, ‘when I am meditating in the garden, is it permissible for me to smoke?’”

Celebration of Mistrust

Many years ago i was an anthropology student studying cults, mass therapies and evangelical religions. This involved reading a lot about human psychology and personality transformation. I can remember reading of experiments (which probably had dubious ethics behind them) in which all the students in classroom (save one who was, unbeknownst to them, excluded) were instructed to insist, once the excluded student returned, that two lines on a chalkboard of obviously different length were the same length. Apparently, it took little time before the excluded student, having shared his observation that the two lines were different lengths, conformed to what the majority of students stated. I do recall thinking that such an experiment was kind of mean, even while I appreciated the lesson. And i recall in some of the anti-cult work that I became involved in that we often used the analogy for groupthink of a person whose watch had the correct time but who, upon entering a room full of people whose watches were all five minutes fast, would quickly conform and defy their own certainty of their dependable and correct watch.

Many years later i came across this story - which i adapt - recounted by Eduardo Galeano in The Book of Embraces (WW Norton, 1989, p. 158):

Once a professor brought a small bottle of some clear liquid to his class and which he placed on a desk at the front of the room. He explained that he wanted to do an experiment. The bottle was filled with a liquid and he wanted to see how fast the odor dispersed across the room once the bottle was uncorked. Each student was to report when they smelled the odor. He uncorked the bottle and after a few minutes a student in the front row said that he could smell something. A moment later students in the second row reported that they could definitely smell the odor. More and more students reported the odor. One said that it was very strong and not that pleasant. Finally all agreed that they could smell the odor and one student in the back coughed and asked to open a window to relieve the air. Afterwards the professor asked to students to come up one by one. He poured a bit of the liquid on each of their fingers and asked them to taste it. The liquid was water.

Dissent - both noisy and quiet

A story from the 80s:

It was, of course, business as usual.  They were selling weapons again. And they were so proud.  A Dutch company, in partnership with Canadians, had developed an anti-missile system that was now being showcased for eager shoppers. However, this kind of shopping seemed indistinguishable from any number of lofty pronouncements of new government policies. According to the papers there was to be a press conference with the Minister of the Department of Defense, assorted other federal and provincial ministers and corporate representatives collectively to hype this newest piece of lethal merchandise. I had friends who were organizing the requisite protest of this grim carnival and i trusted that things would go well.

I wasn't surprised when Christine called me up and, with characteristic urgency, told me to join her at the Ritz Hotel immediately. With urban-bike-speed, I was there in moments. Christine filled me in: the protestors had already been cleared away. Everything was quiet. And Christine had an idea. She thought just the two of us stood a chance to sneak into the hotel and then get near enough to the press conference to slip under their guard and perhaps get a bit of attention.

As Christine elaborated her plan she pulled a rubber Brian Mulroney mask from her bag and explained that she would squirt ketchup on the cheeks for effect. I remember thinking, "What the hell? What's another trip to the cop shop for righteous action?"

We sallied forth into the five-star hotel. Looking as nonchalant as possible we scoped out the lobby  looking for access points. We boldly ventured down one hallway and, barely begun in our clandestine efforts, were spotted by a hotel worker.  Acting as natural as possible we ducked into the nearest door and found ourselves standing before an elevator. To our dismay the worker followed us into this small foyer. He looked sympathetic and, throwing caution to the winds, we explained that we were looking for the press conference. The worker looked at us silently and, with a perhaps conspiratorial glint in his eye, motioned us to follow.

We followed him into the elevator, up one floor, along a corridor, down and up stairways  - the kind of stairways that look left over and unused since the bygone days of Victorian intrigues - along more corridors until we stood before a small door.

We were lost. For all we knew this door led back onto Sherbrooke Street. The worker smiled enigmatically (is there any other way to smile in such a circumstance?) and left us. He never uttered a single word. We had no idea what was behind the small but as we pushed it open we could hear the hushed tones of officialdom nearby. We slipped into what seemed a small, dark room oddly crowded with chairs, coffee tables and grand pianos. We could hear someone giving an address to a room full of people. We jostled our way quietly amidst the pell mell pile of furniture until we stood before the door that separated the conference room from the closet we were in. We realized with glee (and a small amount of terror) that the worker had led us to the backstage storage room behind the dais of the press conference.

As Christine and i looked into the glaring lights of the many camera crews we exchanged the look that substitutes for the long conversation that boils down to, "Are we really going to do this thing?" We'd come this far and we were resolute. Christine donned the mask and i squirted the ketchup onto the cheeks. In a flash we had leapt into the room with me yelling, "But Mister Mulroney, we don't want anymore weapons manufactured in Montreal. We already manufacture 60% of Canada’s armaments." Those few words exhausted my creativity, if not my bravado. And i managed to repeat them a few times. We were almost undone by the shock of media attention that hit us the instant we entered the room. As luck would have it we had jumped into the front and centre of the room where the cameras merely had to turn a fraction of a degree for what proved an irresistible photo opportunity.

i barely recall being bodily lifted from the room. I lost sight of Christine amidst the sea of suits. And, within seconds, we were once again standing on Sherbrooke Street. Our escapade had taken a little over half an hour. And, with a feeling of relief at not having to hassle with cops, we were free to make our way home.


That night as i watched the news I was gratified to see every news broadcast carry the footage of our escapade. I was also counting down what I had left of my Warholian fifteen minutes of fame. And I remember thinking that while there were only two of us on the news as the protesting activists who had caused a disruption, our action really involved three people and would not have happened save for that silent and nameless partner.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Unique

I grew up on comics. They are part of my cultural and even moral DNA. I barely remember my first comics (i’m fairly sure my firsts included Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern), but i do vividly remember discovering New GodsMister Miracle, and The Forever People. These enchanted me no end. I have since read thousands (well over 10,000, in fact). And i’ve also read novels, seen movies, listened to operas, seen live theatre. I’ve developed a deep appreciation and knowledge of storytelling and narrative. And i’ve always wondered about the uniqueness of each form. 
Actor/writer/storyteller Ricardo Keans Douglas, talking about his origins as a storyteller growing up in Grenada described how his parents  would go to the movies on Sunday evenings. Such evenings were dubbed “moving going night.” The next evening, Monday, was called “moving telling night” as everyone would gather to hear his parents recount the story that they had seen. And it is clear from his recounting of this weekly ritual that “movie telling night” was as enchanting an experience as “movie going” might be.
Using one medium of communication or artistic expression to describe (or relate a piece of) another medium is common. And different media allow for different facets of a narrative to be exposed, focussed on, whathaveyou. This has lead me (and many others, of course) to realize that narrative is a powerful connecting thread across most, if not all, artistic media. Which allows for us to ask, what does each media do uniquely? Verbal description of movies or novels or comics can do a pretty good job of conveying what is going on with those media. Indeed, we accept that many movie and literary reviews represent well whether their subject is worth our time reading/viewing. There is even the technical term ekphrasis which is the act of describing or depicting one art in the medium of another (e.g. a written description of a painting). 
Which brings me back to comics. One of the appeal of comics for me and many has been their pulpy/underground/underdog position in the hierarchy of cultural production. Comics, despite the many examples of mainstream acceptance, still draw on their cachet as cheap, unserious, for kids, etc. It’s a niche i don’t expect comics to give up anytime soon. Thus the vast majority of comics remain firmly rooted in the pulp terrain of superhero-horror-fantasy-crime narratives. And many of these are both easily and accurately rendered in other media - principally novelizations and film adaptations. And that’s cool. I like many of these ekphrastic undertakings. Which leads me to wonder if there is a comic that simply cannot be rendered ekphrastically. And, by jove, i think i’ve  found it.
Ray Fawkes’ One Soul, is like no comic i have ever encountered before. Sure there are elements of simultaneity, parallel narratives, grid layouts, black and white, that are common and have been for a long time. But One Soul does something unique. Not “very unique” as my beloved Aunt Margaret once lambasted me for saying. “Something is unique or it is not unique. One cannot qualify "unique,”” she explained patiently. And thus, i say again, One Soul is unique. It does something not only that i’ve never before seen in comics, it does something that can only be done in comic form. It is both dazzling and challenging to read. Using an eighteen panel grid (3x3 on each facing page) he recounts 18 life stories. Each panel in the grid is part of a sequence with all the subsequent panels in that grid position. One could, i suppose, flip through this book 18 times, though that seems a bit excessive in terms of enjoying this work. My preferred method was to read all 18 stories simultaneously which, after a few pages, became a matter of personal contest/pride. It requires, as you might infer, holding 18 narrative threads in your head simultaneously. The choice of using exclusively black ink drawings and limiting words by focussing exclusively on the inner thoughts of the characters facilitates reading smoothly and quickly. Nonetheless, the several times i picked up the book to carry on reading after a break, necessitated some serious backtracking to get back into the story. 
There are numerous delights in this book which i will leave to the reader to discover. But there is one that has caught my imagination and has been rattling around in my brain for the past year. It is the narrative of reincarnation. Now, on the one hand, the structure of Fawkes’s narrative corresponds to the common sense understanding of reincarnation - i.e. one incarnation follows another along a timeline that we accept is a linear progression from antiquity to our current point in time. The sequence of the 18 stories follows the dominant (if “Western”) understanding of human history: from hunterer-gatherer antiquity through early agricultural societies to “classical: and “Han” civilizations to medieval and Victorian and early and mid-20th Century contemporary civilization. But there is another aspect of the common sense understanding of reincarnation that is perhaps challenged. Given the dominance of the Hindu notion of reincarnation, (which includes karma, sadhana, debt) it is common for people to attach a “western” notion of ‘progress’ to the process - i.e. experience enough reincarnations and you will eventually achieve emancipatory enlightenment and be free of the process of reincarnation altogether. When we look at the 18 incarnations of Fawkes’s story, it is hard to see what “progress” the “soul” is experiencing. Each life seems equally filled with success and happiness and suffering - some moreso, some less. Some lives are distinctly shorter than others - one life cutting to black barely a quarter of the way through (however the ghost? disembodied soul? does carry on with some thoughts).
But here’s where the uniqueness of the book form allows for an interesting revelation. But first a bit of Einstein on time and some admiration for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
So, at the risk of dangerous over-simplification, Einstein theorized that time is an illusion. Jim Holt in a piece for Lapham’s Quarterly explains it well:
Einstein, through his theory of relativity, furnished a scientific justification for a philosophical view of time that goes back to Spinoza, to St. Augustine, even to Parmenides—one that has been dubbed “eternalism.” Time, according to this view, belongs to the realm of appearance, not reality. The only objective way to see the universe is as God sees it: sub specie aeternitatis. We should all be like William Blake and say, “I see the past, present, and future, existing all at once/Before me.”
Now, here’s the thing: if past, present, and future co-exist and what we experience of time (its “appearance”) depends on our point of view, then our childhoods actually co-exist with our adult selves which co-exist with our senior selves - of course, from a certain point of view. This gives rise to some interesting new meanings of "inner child” as well as all those therapies that fancy themselves dealing with something that happened “in the past.” But i digress. As applied to One Soul this thinking gives rise to, what is for me, a very new perspective on reincarnation. Rather than see these eighteen lives as proceeding sequentially, like a series, from past to present, we can view them as happening simultaneously or in parallel. Imagine our soul dividing itself up into eighteen (or more or fewer) pieces/iterations and incarnating all-at-once (in an einsteinian sense) into all these lives. Whatever is being learned in each life is not being banked and applied (for good or ill) in the next life. The story of a soul is a story out of time, you might say. And the comic book form is wonderful for this for, indeed, the story does exist all at once, albeit the pages need to be turned or, as suggested above, the viewer merely adjusts their vantage. The simultaneity of the existence of the narrative (in book form) is perhaps a rough approximation of what Einstein was perhaps getting at in his theories of time.
Nolan’s Interstellar adds another remarkable piece to a discussion of time. (And if you’ve not seen it and would prefer to avoid spoilers, proceed at your own risk.) The climax of the film takes place in some kind of tesseract - a structure that includes the dimension of time and which allows one to navigate to different “locations” (coordinates) in time. As our hero Cooper figures out just what he is in he realizes he must find a specific point in time - a specific point in an infinity of points. And he realizes that his love for his daughter Murph is the key to successfully navigating this infinitude. Cooper simultaneously realizes that this fantastic structure was not built by aliens but by humans in the “future” who have learned to perceive time as a dimension and who can build with it. And the motive force of this building and of Cooper’s navigating of the tesseract to find the key moment (required for his relaying of crucial data to his daughter) is love.
And so with One Soul. As all the lives end and cut to black, one continues on for a few pages. It is as much of a climax as such a form of story could have. An aging singer takes the stage for one last performance and gives it her all. It seems the kind of performance Federico Garcia Lorca is describing in his essay on the duende and in which he describes an 80 year-old dancer:
Years ago, an eighty year old woman came first in a dance contest in Jerez de la Frontera, against lovely women and girls with liquid waists, merely by raising her arms, throwing back her head, and stamping with her foot on the floor: but in that crowd of Muses and angels with lovely forms and smiles, who could earn the prize but her moribund duende sweeping the earth with its wings made of rusty knives.
Such is the performance of this fading life. And as the singer reflects on her life and sinks, for the last time, into the comfort of an armchair, her final thought is “thank-you”. It is a poignant, bittersweet, and perfect ending to this fantastic narrative which begins with the book’s heartbreaking dedication: “To Dorian our beloved son, born and died March 13, 2010. In Memoriam.”