McFee's Musings

October 18, 2010

In Praise of LEWIS LAPHAM

Filed under: Culture & Entertainment,Politics — dwightmcfee @ 10:19 am

LEWIS LAPHAM, the former editor for 25 years of the 160 year old Harper’s Magazine, now editor of Lapham’s Quarterly and a national correspondent of Harper’s informed his avid readership in the November issue, 2010 that the Notebook section that leads off every issue, “departs this month from the table of contents, it’s purpose served and it’s license expired after a term of twenty-six years in office.”

My heart and head sank. But then, after a pause, I remembered the hundreds of wonderful moments that the notebook provided. The brilliant half column one sentence paragraph to be read over and over for it’s sheer resonance, craft, meaning and perspicacity. I have marveled for years at the vast knowledge and readings of this teacher. Mr.Lapham is a motivation, a dynamo of words. As well as the Notebook, Lapham’s Harper’s has been a leading magazine for the investigation of the issues of the day, criticism, essay’s, photo journalism, literature, review’s, the Harper’s Index and the Findings. A treat to find in the mailbox every month and a template for magazines such as The Walrus.

Mr. Lapham in the final notebook reveals to us how the notebook came about, how he had to learn to write an essay, the resources at his disposal. Using the “ notion of the essay borrowed from Michel de Montaigne, the sixteen century French auto biographer, a contemporary of Shakespeare and Cervantes, derived the approach to his topics from the meaning of the word essai from essayer ( to try, to embark upon, to attempt ), asking himself at the outset of his reflections, whether on cannibals or the custom of wearing clothes, “ What do I know?” The question distinguishes the essay from the less adventurous forms of expository prose– the dissertation, the polemic, the article, the campaign speech, the tract, the op-ed, the arrest warrant, the hotel bill.” What a card!

Mr. Lapham goes on to tell us that the essay seemed appropriate for the American experience and that the essayist becomes as the poet Archbald MacLeish stated, “ the dissenter [who] is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself.”

“ The monthly Notebook called for remarks somehow related to something visible in the news…”

Mr. Lapham is the author of several books as well, including, 30 Satires, Money and Class in America, Imperial Masquerade, The Wish of Kings, Hotel America, Waiting for the Barbarians and Theatre of War.

The following are excerpts from the last Notebook entitled ‘Figures of Speech’. The Notebook always lead off with a quote:

“Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times.” Gustave Flaubert

Mr. Lapham writes: “ My object was to learn, not preach, which prevented my induction into the national college of pundits but encouraged my reading of history.”

“ The reading of history damps down the impulse to slander the trend and tenor of the times, instills a sense of humour, lessens our fear about what might happen tomorrow.”

“ On being informed by the propaganda ministries of the Republican right that money is a synonym for peace on earth and good will toward men, that the capitalist free market is virtue incarnate, I resist the call for a standing ovation by remembering that Hugo Boss dressed Hitler’s troops, that the Ford Motor Company in the 30’s outfitted the Wehrmacht with it’s armoured trucks, that the Rockefeller Foundation financed the prewar medical research meant to confirm Nazi theories of racial degeneration.”

“ What preserves the voices of the great authors from one century to the next is not the recording device ( the clay tablet, the scroll, the codex, the book, the computer, the iPad ) but the force of imagination and the power of expression. It is the strength of the words themselves, not their product placement, that invites the play of mind and induces a change of heart. Acknowledgment of the fact lightens the burden of mournful prophecy currently making the rounds of the media trade fairs.”

“ The questions in hand have to do with where the profit, not the meaning, is to be found, who collects what tolls from which streams of revenue or consciousness. The same questions accompanied the loss of the typewriter and the linotype machine, underwrote the digging of the Erie Canal and the building of Commodore Vanderbuilt’s railroads, the rigging of the nation’s television networks and telephone poles, and I expect them to be answered by one or more corporate facilitators with both wit and the bankroll to float the pretense that monopoly is an upgraded synonym for a free press, “prioritized” and “context-sensitive,” offering “quicker access to valued customers.””
“How do we know what we think we know? Why is it that the more information we collect the less likely we are to grasp what it means? Possibly because a montage is not a narrative, the ear is not the eye, a pattern recognition is not a figure or a form of speech. The surfeit of new and newer news comes so quickly to hand that within the wind tunnels of the “innovative delivery strategies” the data blow away and shred. The time is always now, and what gets lost is all thought of what happened yesterday, last week, three months or three years ago. Unlike moths and fruit flies, human beings bereft of memory, even as poor a memory as Montaigne’s, or my own, tend to become disoriented and confused. I know no other way out of what is both the maze of eternal present and the prison of the self except with a string of words.”

I remember several years ago, on a crisp early winter late morning, hastily running out the door for some engagement or other and there in the mailbox was my Harper’s. Stepping onto the Gerard streetcar, sliding into a sun drenched single seat and expectantly opening my Harper’s to the Notebook like a child at Christmas. The words trilling off the page, my heart bright as the snowy sun, images of words searing my soul.

I wrote Mr. Lapham about that day on the streetcar, the joy it had brought me in an early winter funk and how I had been compiling his articles and reading his books in hope of some day mounting a one man show in the tradition of Will Rogers or Mark Twain.
Weeks later I received a personal reply, humbly thanking me for the encouragement and that if I wished to embark on such a project then he would be amenable.

I have never achieved the goal. The essay is a difficult form to translate to the stage. Reading Laphams words resonate in the skull as an intimate cathartic experience. It’s Action of the Mind. And laziness wins the day.

I encourage all to read Lewis Lapham. His essays compiled in book form are in the library. I encourage all to get subscriptions to Harper’s and to Lapham’s Quarterly. The Quarterly takes on single issues per quarterly with essays and articles from different approaches.

Lewis Lapham has been of great public service to America. Would that there were more of his integrity, honesty, humility and intelligence. Long Live Lapham!

THE TROTSKY and A SINGLE MAN

Filed under: Culture & Entertainment — dwightmcfee @ 10:16 am

A comedy and a drama: two fabulous films that deal with taking control of your life. For Jay Baruchel as Trotsky amidst the apathy, boredom and ‘oppression’ of school and a ‘Fascist’ father. For Colin Firth the apathy, numbness of the college professor after the loss of his 13 year relationship with his lover in a car crash.

Both films ask the question: What do I do, can I, and is it worth it to affect any change? Trotsky to effect social change, A Single Man personal, intimate change to continue to live.

THE TROTSKY is a brash wonderful look at the efforts of an idealistic young man who thinks he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. His efforts to unionize his father’s business and later to unionize the student body at the public high school he has been sent to after private school has been denied him are outrageous, funny and heart felt.

When the author was in high school, I shant reveal when, students of the city went out on ‘strike’ as a result of the school board locking out the teacher’s. I was also on the picket line when local 2251 Steelworker’s went out on strike at the steel plant the same year. To watch Jay Barushel and a wonderful Canadian cast execute this polemic against apathy and boredom rekindled the reason’s social justice and caring are not irrelevent and misplaced. We live in an age were communal aspirations and the fight against total domination by authorities, whether a Texas school board against sex education or a giant corporation privatizing profit and socializing debt, must be dealt with.

The Trotsky accomplishes this with humour, wit, charm and principle. The added bonus is that it is a Canadian film. Kudos to Jay Baruchel, Domini Blyth, Genevive Bujold, Anne Marie Cadeaux, Jesse Camacho, Colm Feore, Emily Hampshire, David Julian Hersh, Tiio Horn, Ricky Mabe, Michael Murphy, Jessica Pare, Tommy Amber Pire, and the incomparable Saul Rubinek. Written and directed with love by Jacob Tierney.

A SINGLE MAN is a beautiful, delicate walk through grief and the appreciation of now. Through the memory of the relationship of his deceased partner and the compassion of a student in the professor’s class that brings him to the appreciation of the moments lived and to be lived in the here in now, Colin Firth’s performance is luminous.
I don’t want to give away the plot of the film for it is essential to the catharsis of the audience member. There are moments in this film that are so intimate that I felt like I should turn away so that I wouldn’t intrude on the delicacy of the interchange for fear of ruining the completion of the understanding of the moment.
The Music in A Single Man is haunting, captivating and mesmerizing. A small but big film, A Single Man.

Both these films have learning as a central theme. The student body learning that the past can help them in the here and now with the institution that leaves them apathetic and bored. The institutional man shaken out of torpor by accident and learning to live in the present through seeing the individual student.

Effective and affective, THE TROTSKY and THE SINGLE MAN.

Dwight McFee

October 7, 2010

Governor General: Nice Man, Wrong Time

Filed under: Politics — dwightmcfee @ 12:47 am

The new Governor General of Canada is a very nice man as witnessed at his investiture on Friday, Oct. 1, 2010.

His Excellency David Johnston comes to the office with a civic spirited family of four daughters and a supportive and independent spouse.

David Johnston has spent a goodly portion of his life in academe as either a professor and later administration. He is a constitutional expert. He has left good will wherever he has worked.

Mr. Johnston, a university president has also been appointed to several commissions and informal investigations. The latest was for Prime Minister Harper setting the parameter’s for the Ostrey commission into former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s dealing with the Karl Heinz-Shrieber Affair. Undoubtedly at the Prime Minister’s wink, the parameter’s of the inquiry were limited to the three hundred thousand dollar undocumented payout to Mulroney but not the what for, meaning the Air Canada/Air Bus quid pro quo.

I don’t wish to imply that Mr. Johnston did anything untoward. Mr. Johnston travels in the circles where these kind of situations are understood. Mr. Johnston is held in high regard not only for his good character but also Mr. Johnston knows what a nod and a wink is in the establishment.

The above event set off an alarm bell when I heard the announcement last month.

What would Mr. Johnston bring to the Governor General’s office?
The first thing that came to mind was that if Our Great Leader ever wanted to Pro Rogue Parliament again, he wouldn’t get much fight out of Mr. Johnston. Although versed in the constitution, I would make a large wager that deference to the Prime Minister would be the over riding principle irrespective of the Governor General’s obligation to the Queen to protect the integrity of the democratic process.
As my nephew said, just another connected old white man from the fifties. Harsh but valid ?

What did Mr. Johnston say in his speech to the people of Canada?
His three pillars were; family, education and philanthropy/volunteerism. Sounds like Grande Mere and Tortierre. But let’s examine the pillars for meaning in 2010 Canada.

Family: Code for the right and anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion minority religious right or just old fashioned communal sensibility. We all want the family, the basic social unit, to love and thrive. You have to ask the question? Which families? No mention of how families struggle to survive in an inequitable economic climate that leaves a quarter of the ‘families’ in this country in poverty. Not to mention the disgrace that our native population lives in.

We owe a great deal to our families and they should be honoured. But, come on….

Education: honouring teachers is a worthy and an about time pillar. Teachers are thought of as elitist and have to much time off. Hogwash! In the public elementary and high school systems it is a profession that needs all the help it can get. With the pace of change and the problems of the young to integrate and understand, learn how to learn, a great teacher is a life long asset to have had. I thank mine. J.J. Casey, Tom Peacocke, Jim De Felice, Bernard Hopkins to name a few.

For the last two decades higher education has been turned into a utilitarian processing school for the needs of the unspoken truth of our age, finishing schools for the corporate agenda. What are business schools doing in Universities. University professors become pimps for the justification of ideologies. Particularly economics departments, which is called the dismal science for a reason.

People go to university to meet the expectations of the corporate job search like we used to in the sixties take trades in high school to feed the industrial machine. We go to university, not to learn how to learn and think, but to be smart (self interested) and utilitarian.

Mr. Johnston has spent his life in this environment, becoming the bright light of one of these institutions while raising tuition’s exorbitantly and redefining the purpose of a university.

Which brings us to the third pillar, philanthropy/volunteerism. I have no doubt the good intentions of Mr. Johnston. As funding for universities has declined to levels that leave Canada at the bottom of the OECD, through no fault of Mr. Johnston, he had to find funding somewhere. The great American Universities have endowments and of course whatever happens in America can only be good for us as well.

In the age of in-equality, excess and greed, the wealthy are wealthier than at any time in history. The Schulick this, the Munk that. What happened to naming buildings after inventors and humanitarians like Fredrick Banting. As our universities have become more exclusive, the rich have moved in for posterity (philanthropy) to create ideological centres of ‘excellence’. Toronto has a new Opera home (which is good) but has not had a new medium size theatre in fourty years. And the ones that do exist are falling apart. Elites recover a great deal of their philanthropy through tax breaks. So who is really paying for these Munk Centres for International Studies? Donate 19 million, get a tax break for 12 million and have the governments chip in 66 million for the operating funds. We do. So Philanthropy is a sometimes good but double edged sword.

Canadians, per capita, are one of the most volunteering societies in the world. But as a substitute for the strengthening of society while corporation’s and the wealthy absolve themselves from contributing to the tax base is no solution.

His Excellency Mr. Johnston from all appearances is a smart and caring man which is his slogan for the country: smart and caring. But the boys down on bay street are smart. And when they go home to their families I am sure they are caring. But do they have vision and creativity. Two words I don’t think I heard from Mr. Johnston. I heard no mention of the creative arts. Only the cliches to the cultural communities and to that sacred word, innovation.

I wish Mr. Johnston and his family the best. But as inspiration and vision, Mr. Johnston is just another member of the establishment being used by this Prime Minister, cleverly, to fall in in line with the paternalistic fifties regressive agenda in The Age of Inequality.

Dwight mcFee

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