Saturday, February 25, 2012

Joys of Reading

John Berger is one of a handful of author's whose work i buy sight-unseen (others are Eduardo Galeano, Ursula K. Le Guin and Neil Gaiman) and this new book is a gem. Having read Ways of Seeing when in CEGEP in Montreal in 1976 my capacity to "see" in this world is very much influenced by Berger's work. I'm only a third of the way in this one and it reads like one of my favourites of his And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. His observations of art, literature and politics have long since inspired me to see the ever-present connections amongst all these - i.e. art cannot be understood without also understanding the context of politics.

I'm surprised to learn In Bento's Sketchbook: How Does the Impulse to Draw Something Begin? that he didn't go to university. He's always struck me as a titan of an intellectual. Something for which a university-education would seem to be an essential. But there was a tradition of public intellectuals in the nineteenth and 20th Centuries that has, unfortunately, been eclipsed (if not supplanted) by the culture of punditry - a pale shadow - if glitzy and glammy - of what public intellectual life could be. Berger represents a kind of public intellectual that we have little of in North America but which seems to thrive still in France (where Berger has lived for 35 years) and where the death of intellectuals is front page news (as when Pierre Bourdieu passed away some years ago).

From Bento's Sketchbook:
Along with many others I sent a small contribution: a little portrait in charcoal of the Subcomandante Marcos which I had made in the Chiapas, southeast Mexico, around Christmas 2007.
He, I, two Zapatista comandantes and two children are taking it easy in a log cabin on the outskirts of the town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
We’ve written letters to each other, Marcos and I, we’ve spoken together from the same platform, but we’ve never before sat face to face in private. He knows I’d like to draw him. I know he won’t take off his mask. We could talk about the forthcoming Mexican elections or about peasants as a class of survivors and we don’t. A strange quietude affects us both. We smile. I watch him and I have no sense of urgency about drawing him. It’s as if we’ve spent countless days together, as if everything is unremarkably familiar and requires no action.
Finally I open my sketchbook and pick up a stick of charcoal. I see his low brow, his two eyes, the bridge of his nose. The rest is concealed by ski-mask and cap. I let the charcoal, held between my thumb and two fingers, draw, as if reading by touch some kind of braille. The drawing stops. I blow fixative onto it so it won’t smudge. The log cabin smells of the alcohol of the fixative.
In the second drawing his right hand comes up to touch the cheek of his mask, a large hand splayed out, with pain between its fingers. The pain of solitude. The solitude of an entire people over the last half millennium.
Later a third drawing starts. Two eyes examining me. The presumed undulation of a smile. He is smoking his pipe. Smoking a pipe, or watching a companion smoking a pipe, is another way of letting time pass, of doing nothing.
I fix the drawing. The next drawing, the fourth, is about two men looking hard at one another. Each in his own manner.
Maybe the four are not proper drawings but simply sketch maps of an encounter. Maps that may make it less likely to get lost. A question of hope.
It was one of these maps that I gave to the Helen Bamber Foundation.
Apparently the bidding for it was prolonged and fierce. The bidders were competing to give money to a cause in which they believed, and, in exchange, they hoped to get a little closer to a visionary political thinker, sheltering in the mountains of south-east Mexico.
The money the drawing fetched at the auction will help to buy medicines, care, counsellors, nurses, lawyers for Sara or Hamid or Gulsen or Xin . . .
We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.
A Paris Review interview with John Berger
A Guardian profile of John Berger

Inspiring Words - Fiction and not

Reminded recently of Charlie Chaplin's speech in The Great Dictator (which i wrote about on FB) i have been noting several moving speeches of resistance against oppression which i have read/heard/seen over the years. I want to believe that such language is the powerful and persuasive "speaking truth to power" that Quakers speak of. I am certainly persuaded by them.

I saw the Great Dictator many year's ago and filed away the memory. Now i am struck by how much of what Chaplin says accords with how i see the world. Not so much his appeal to "science and progress," but his talk of kindness, care and love strikes deep into my heart. When he says, "Only the unloved hate," i was powerfully reminded of Alice Miller’s words (from Thou Shalt Not Be Aware):
Children who are respected learn respect. Children who are cared for learn to care for those weaker than themselves. Children who are loved for what they are cannot learn intolerance. In an environment such as this they will develop their own ideals, which can be nothing other than humane, since they grow out of the experience of love.
These words and all of Alice Miller's work have had a huge impact on me. This short quote is a kind of manifesto to me - one that i both hear and see echoed in Chaplin's speech. The tone of fearful desperation that he strikes, the weary urgency that you see in his hand dragging through his hair as the speech begins all makes me wonder just how much he was acting. His appeal to soldiers not to "give [them]selves to brutes," is an appeal to all children who, being twisted out of shape by violence and neglect, must choose either to resist or collude. The constraint on these choices from the brutality of our society that creates the conditions for such violence and neglect (with the inexorable and heartbreaking pattern of abused children becoming adults who, in turn, abuse children) is immense. I am reading In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
by Gabor Maté which is challenging my understandings of family violence, attention deficit disorder and addictions. And i thought i knew a great deal. I've certainly been very mindful and sensitive about such things for a long time and i have educated myself constantly. And yet, as i read Maté's work i realize two things: i am more ignorant than i thought; and i, like most people, find it easier not to think about such things - to turn away from the hand raised in need and not ask the questions that are always present, if implicit. Now, in reading Maté's work i find it impossible not to think of the people he describes, people living with addictions, as once having been innocent children who wanted nothing else but to be held, loved, cared for and yet who were neglected, assaulted, abused. Their souls having been shattered, they grow to be adults with shattered souls who, failing to ameliorate that destruction by "acceptable" means (i.e. relatively "acceptable" behaviours like workaholism, compulsive shopping or gambling) turn to even more self-destructive behaviours of any one of several chemical dependencies. And yet, as Maté shows again and again, alongside the self-destructive behaviour there still exists kindness, longing, decency. I feel if we don't pay attention to the poorest, most oppressed in our society the more surely we will bring into existence a world of carelessness and disregard. We either learn to act with kindness or we will see more and more of the contempt that our current government has for the mass of Canadians (something echoed around the world) as those with the most share of earthly wealth seek to ensure that they keep what they have even while their fellow humans suffer. Is it a wonder that there seems a proliferation of post-apocalyptic literature, film and television? I see in this a tricky message of both despair and warning. We worry about apocalypse (from alien invasion, geological/climactic disaster, disease, zombies & vampires, asteroids) almost as if we have a desire for such things. Perhaps it is the same grim behaviour as rubber-necking for traffic accidents. But there is also warning as well. And i wonder if the popularity of such apocalypticism doesn't include a warning to the world's ruling classes: share or else. And thus i am reminded of another (fictive) speech - that of the character V in V for for Vendetta. A post-apocalyptic call to action that should perhaps be heeded even now.

Finally, another speech i am reminded of (and it is no fiction) is that of Salvador Allende prior to his death in the American-backed coup in Chile on that other fateful September 11 date:  Salvador Allende's last speech (english translation). You can listen to it with this video.  It is an appeal to resist oppression like few i have ever heard.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Unexpected Uses of the Ordinary and the Music of the World

There is delight (if not a touch of delicious mischief) in using something for a purpose not only not intended by the maker but probably never imagined. This latest exploit by OK Go fills my heart with mischief. As one friend said, "I want to change jobs." Indeed, as i watch our three-year-old spend ALL of his time playing (when he's not sleeping), i think and rethink the world of play and just how incapacitated are so many of us grown-ups. The playfulness of OK Go's work is, to say the least, inspiring. And it's also obviously incredibly hard work. But why do we separate work and play the way we do? Such is one of the building blocks of the current and dominant common sense. I daresay this is one dichotomy that is profoundly BAD sense.

My friend dian marino told me of a visit to her mother's during pickling season. Knowing that she was going to enter a house over-run with pickles she was surprised to see none. She asked about the pickles and her mother's response of "in the basement" was so matter-of-fact that dian was halfway down the stairs before the oddity of the situation hit her. Why would the pickles be in the basement when clearly no pickling had yet been done? Nor were the pickles in evidence once dian reached said basement. Shouting up to her mother she was told to check the washing machine and, sure enough, the pickles were being duly cleaned in the Maytag's gentle rinse cycle. "Not what the manufacturer had in mind," dian thought.

dian was a student of Corita Kent, an artist and educator who taught at Immaculate Heart College (and whom i blogged about previously). While dian made it clear to me that her ingenuity was 'genetic', i am positive that it was her work with Corita that educated that ingenuity and allowed dian to follow in Corita's footsteps and 'teach' that ingenuity to others. Jan Steward, Corita's co-author of Learning By Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit (2nd Ed.: Allworth Press, NY, 2008), writes:
Neighbours around the corner from us have just added a beautiful deck to their house. I was sure when i saw it that it had been made by some Japanese master. Woodgrains were perfectly matched , joints formed and held - not with nails - but by interlocking pieces of wood. I was surprised when I was introduced to the carpenter, a young man of thirty-two. I asked him where he had learned to do such fine work. I went to Immaculate Heart, he said, and was taught by a woman whose teacher had been a student of Corita. Did you ever hear of her? A few months ago I went for a new pair of glasses and told the young woman who helped me how much I liked her cheerful store. There were serigraphs, children's drawings, banners hanging from the ceiling, and a parrot in a cage with his vocabulary written out so visitors could talk to him and get an appropriate reply. I asked who had put it all together. I did, she answered, and I asked her how she knew how to do this. I had a wonderful art teacher,  she said.  She didn't teach us how to draw or paint so much as she taught us to care. She was a student of Sister Corita.
While i do believe there is that about artistic talent that is mysterious, i also believe that far more can be taught about how to create than we allow ourselves to believe. But perhaps artistic talent is mysterious only because we fail to respect the ability to exercise our imagination - something everyone can do and everyone can learn to do but which, unfortunately, though we start life with amazing capacities, we seem to unlearn most of them by the age of ten.

OK Go is a group of people who haven't forgotten how to play. From their rube goldberg machine and marching band versions of This Too Shall Pass to the treadmills of Here It Goes Again and all the others, they play and play and play and, what's more, inspire that play in others (we've been tumbling dominoes in this house for months). But what raises this to another level is that each of these creations is obviously the work of many hands and minds. What we see here is collective, cooperative creative power. And in that lies much hope.

I learned last year about the hindi word jugaad which means "jury-rigged", clever inventiveness, workarounds. It is also the name of a slapped together motorized vehicle. It is a powerful and playful manifestation of creative power.

I can remember this creative power as a child as i recall imagined worlds (notably the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise and the comic book landscapes of Apokalips and New Genesis, Krypton and Gotham City) and see that the memories of such are as vivid as those of "real" places in which i lived.

The ingenious play of Ok Go is something i hope inspires people to connect with their own ingenuity. And then, my deeper hops is that we will apply this wondrous ability to the daunting challenges which confront us now - climate change, species loss, food uncertainty, etc.... Surely we can find ways to live our lives better and more joyfully while also making the sacrifices we have made inevitable by our centuries of exploitation of our precious planet.