Ravensaga II: The Art of Ramification

Rose and Stanley came to think of their quest as a search for the Great Canadian Story or, employing the kind of terminology they preferred, the Ultimate Canadian Œvirsaga, the pluralistic story, the story that includes the myriad stories, small and large, the “trees” and other creatures that together make up the Canadian “forest”. “One may not be able to see the Forest for the Trees,” they would intone to one another and to their children when the time came, “but you can find the Forest through the Trees.” And so they set off on precisely that kind of mission.

They decided they would have to be careful about how they entered the forest, in order to prevent their route from influencing their interpretation. A rigorously random entry would solve that problem, which is difficult to do with a real forest, but much easier with a book, even one in four volumes with 2,736 pages, like The Canadian Encyclopedia (1988). They wanted to be able to locate a particular entry on a particular page, to start their exploration randomly on any particular day. For complicated reasons having to do with William Blake (and others), they needed it to be built of fours, or multiples of four. Explanation of that peculiarity will have to wait. The method worked like this:

The easiest and most portable random number generator is a coin. The number of times it is flipped yields a binary number; the one they needed had to be larger in maximum value than 2,736, the number of pages in the book. After some exploration they settled on eight flips of the coin, to which they would add four zeros, yielding a binary number whose maximum value is 4,080. They then, in their first actual trial, flipped their coin eight times (the coin was a 2019 Canada 5-cent piece with an aging queen on one side and a beaver on the other), added their four zeros, and came up with 110011000000, which is 3,264 in decimal notation. They then divided that by 4,080 and multiplied the resulting fraction by 2,736, yielding 2,188.8. Their entry into the forest would therefore be the first one after 80% of the way through page 2188 of The Canadian Encyclopedia, a spot both as precise and as random as anyone could wish, and wonderful in its result.

The entry revealed itself to be “Transportation in the North”, written by one Robert Bothwell. Now if you were looking for an omen, as Rose and Stanley certainly were, it would be hard to beat that one, Stanley and Rose being experienced northern voyagers of both the actual and the armchair variety, and much entranced by the romanticism of the experiences in all their variety. Not only that, but Stanley remembered Robert Bothwell from their mutual days as undergraduates. Their first essay into the forest yielded most pleasing connections, or, as they liked to call them: Ramifications.

They then set out to ramify “Transportation in the North”, using the links in the entry and the resources of the internet and their own minds. This of course led them straight into the Fur Trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Canoes, which they immediately ramified into exploration, trade, and transport by water; canoes, york boats, and voyageurs; and the heavily symbolic reality that modern transportation in the North began because men, for whatever reason, were prepared to sail or paddle up-stream, against the current, into the unknown, and to accept the inherent risks and difficulties, including the probability that they would have to get out and walk, hauling their boats after them, along with the risk that they might not survive to coast back home downstream later. Transportation in the North, regardless of its mode, was not for the faint of heart until modern airlines began to fly there. As for the strength of heart needed for some transportation in the North even nowadays, ask the truck drivers who venture the ice roads to the diamond mines in winter, or even anyone who drives the highway to Fort McMurray, although now twinned, and with proper shoulders, and no longer what it was.

“Now there’s a piece of the Ultimate Canadian Œvirsaga!” exclaimed Stanley. “Or at least one of its mighty branches.”

“It would have to be the exploring-developing one,” replied Rose. “The money-seeking one, the conquering-Nature one, the populating the country with immigrants one, the rolling over and pushing aside the indigenous one.”

“It’s a mighty saga, and a great blessing for many, but it does look different from the other side,” agreed Stanley.

“Somehow the Ultimate Canadian Œvirsaga has to find room for both,” said Rose. “We must find a way to teach the children both. There’s the Conquering Saga, and the Being Conquered Saga, whether it’s Nature or people,—the Exploiting Saga and the Being Exploited Saga, and they’re all inside the borders, and the history, and the present.”

“The voyageurs are a good metaphor,” said Stanley, “both exploiters and exploited, newcomers and indigenous, noble and foolhardy, adventurous and routine, wild and tame, free and enslaved, men and pack animals, eternal and short-lived. They sang songs. An old English professor of mine sang a song about them.”

The Voyageur
by Philip Child (1898-1978)

A voyager of lakes and windblown spruce
He breaks the misty morning, spans the noon
And dreams the midnight chuckling of the loon,
The day the night he holds in midway truce
The morning ashes are the evening gleam
His journey’s dawn and journey’s night are one.
Life is his paddle flashing in the sun
And time its swirl that eddies down the stream,
That eddies down the stream and is no more;
The swirl has vanished like the fire’s heat,
Cold, cold the fire, still the paddle beat
As still as needles on the forest floor;
Strong was the paddle thrust and quick as birth
But deep and dark and silent lies the earth.

So you see where random ramifying can take you.

Ravensaga I.—Opening

(Note: This posting is a draft from a work in progress.)

Nothing happened, nothing out of the ordinary, that is, when Raven’s mother extruded him onto the blanket held by the midwife. Now it’s all very well for Koheleth to assert that “all are from dust, and all turn to dust again”, the second half of which may eventually turn out to be factual. Raven, however, came not from dust, except perhaps metaphorically, but from the bonding within his mother, whose name was Rose, of two half-cells, one contributed by her and the other by his father, whose name was Stanley. There was nothing visibly exceptional about either of these microscopic demi-plasms at the time, nor about the circumstances of their conjunction. Rose and Stanley had by then been married for quite some time, and had been “trying”, as the saying goes. No meteors flashed across the night sky, no Aurora Borealis, no stars appeared in the east, no cosmic sign blazoned that this birth differed in any way from the 360,000 other births taking place on Earth the same day. The result, however, was stupendous, at least for Canadians.

Rose and Stanley named the boy Raven because they wanted to imbue him with All-Embracing Canadian Spirit. After consulting range maps for everything from birch trees to chickadees, they decided that ravens had about as much Canadian Spirit as any living creature found in the country. “When we have a girl,” said Rose, now confident of her fertility, fondly watching him nurse, “we will call her Chickadee.” And when they did, they did. Her too they inducted into their quest for the All-Embracing Canadian Spirit, and their siblings thereafter. To list the whole clutch, however, even to mention them again except in passing would unduly complicate the narrative. This Saga does not really need them. It needs Raven and Chickadee, Rose and Stanley, and the four grandparents: Frank, Belle, Oscar, and Gloria. As to which grandparent belonged to which parent, the question is completely irrelevant. What is important, is that Frank’s antecedents were British, Belle’s French, Oscar’s Scandinavian-American, and Gloria’s Cree. For it was this ancestral diversity that inspired the quest for a generation with the All-Embracing Canadian Spirit.

Diversity flourished also in professions: Frank started out as a miner and logger, and became a politician; Belle had dreamed of a life on the concert stage, stayed home, and taught children to play piano; Oscar crafted fine furniture from the hard and soft woods around his farm; Gloria wove the tales and pain of her people into blankets and garments for those with money enough to purchase. Rose and Stanley ran the web sites and produced the handsomely illustrated the books that kept the family endeavours in the public eye. Business was good, all around.

“I have been thinking about the phrase: ‘can’t see the forest for the trees,” said Stanley, who was prone to pontificate with some considerable verbosity, to Rose as they sat in bed one morning after a pleasant interlude of early trying. “It doesn’t make any sense. The forest is the trees, and the shrubs, and the flowers and ferns, and the grasses, and the mosses and lichens, and the myriad cellulars all the way down to the smallest infusorium in the moisture of the soil, and the creatures who feed on them, and the creatures who feed on them, and the creatures who feed on them, and so on all the way back up the food chain.”

Rose was with him all the way, and together they plotted the scheme that would dominate their life as parents. They would have as many children as Nature and their affection for each other would provide,—a minimum of two, they hoped,—and they would raise them to appreciate their country as a whole, by immersing them in the knowledge of its details, of all kinds, and letting their imaginations do the rest. The knew that each child would be born with an imagination, but they also believed in hearty doses of cultivation. They would teach them to feel with its people and places, through all the stories of their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and failures, the things done, undone, and yet to be done or undone. And they would teach them to see what was admirable, what was human, what was funny in the antics of their compatriots, as they went about their serious national project, whatever it was. For a long face never warmed anyone’s spirit.

Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, Humour: words to live by, and to grow children by, thought Rose and Stanley, and so did Frank, Belle, Oscar, and Gloria when they found out.

And so it came to pass that Rose and Stanley’s first gift to their new-born son was a copy of the four-volume 1988 red (and to be read) edition of The Canadian Encyclopedia. For there, they reasoned, along with such supplements as technology might provide in the future, would be found on each and every page (all 2,736 of them) some trace of the All-Embracing Canadian Spirit. They knew, from reading Stephen Leacock, that these traces could be rightly interpreted using Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. They knew already that the Forest of the All-Embracing Canadian Spirit is diverse almost to the point of chaos, as much or more so as the countryside itself. What is Canada, anyway? Does it have an all-embracing story? Is it a “forest” or simply an expanse of “trees” with nothing much in common except their conflicting ideas and interests, their sense of their own particularity? In the fresh new dawn of their lives as parents they would set out to find out, bringing their children with them.

From Mariposa to the Canadian Œvirsagas: An Epic Transition

This blog began in order to explore the real nature of Stephen Leacock’s fictional “little town”, called Mariposa. I was under the belief, and still am, that the place has been routinely misunderstood by scholars, teachers, and readers, and is in fact much more interesting than what people have taken it to be. I exempt Professor Ed Jewinski from this conclusion. He called Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town “a supreme achievement of fragmentation, incompleteness, and inconclusiveness.” And so it is, with a purpose. I believe that Stephen Leacock intended to issue a prophetic warning, using all the resources of knowledge, imagination, compassion, and humour he could summon as he, at the age of forty-two, entered the prime of his observing, writing and speaking life. Desiring something simpler, however, people enjoyed the humour and assumed it must be satiric, because they liked the idea that he was putting somebody down, translated the compassion into an easy sentimentalism, reduced the imagination to its caricature by assuming that Mariposa must be a real place (Orillia, Ontario), and paid no attention to the knowledge, thereby missing the prophetic message. It is fair to say, however, that Leacock set this trap for himself, and could have set the record straight had he so chosen. But the money and fame rolled in, and he saw no reason to contradict them. He tried again two years later, just as tentatively and much more narrowly, with Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich, absorbed the experience of the War To End All Wars and its immediate aftermath, put a match to the prophetic fire on the title page of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice and then blew it out right away. He had the right stuff in him, but he kept it bottled up, for entirely human reasons, becoming a successful literary man although a prophet without honour in his own mind. Right at the end of his life, in the midst of another war, he tried to re-light the fire, but it was too late, and nobody cared.

A good, happy life for him, on the whole; a sad outcome for the rest of us because people with his gifts do not often come along. We need prophets who are less distracted.

Stephen Leacock’s prophesy ran along the following lines, I believe: If we Canadians, people of a liberal democracy which is what we are constituted to be and for very good reason, disregard the corruption, duplicity, incompetence, and triviality that surround us,—not to think for a moment that these are all that surrounds us,—then we will end up with the kind of farcical politics represented by John Henry Bagshaw and Josh Smith and with the governments that such politics produce. The people of Plutoria Street carry the same message for our business and economics.

That this message remains of concern to us today comes across clearly in a story on the website of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation,—routinely calling it the CBC hides what this public company is supposed to be,—written by Éric Blais, a Toronto marketing fellow they say, under the headline “6 ways the Conservatives could shake things up to widen their political appeal”.  He says the Conservatives are at a “strategic inflection point”. The six ideas for their strategic inflection are: to “pick a spokesperson with impeccable communications skills who is fluent in Canada’s two official languages”; to “think outside your box”, to “adapt the Conservative brand’s promise to a changing Canada, while remaining true to the principles of conservatism; to “find something inspirational about the kind of change [they will] bring to people’s lives” and tell us about it without calling us taxpayers, or “being so negative”; employ “micro-targeting to reach specific groups of voters with a specific, tailored message”, especially one for what he calls “the Québécois nation”, terminology to which I do not myself object. I make that four things, not six, although maybe some of them are doubles. I wish I were Stephen Leacock so that I could comment on this string of banal political marketing clichés as it deserves, but I am not. As a devoted liberal-conservative progressive myself, I can only fret and protest against such a paucity of substantial and creative ideas. Stephen Leacock began his The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice with the minatory words: “These are troubled times.” So they are, and I earnestly desire that our great political parties, all of them, should stimulate their thinking accordingly, to present me and all my fellow voters with a range of interesting, constructive, exciting alternatives. Are we not entitled to that? Must we be forever presented with a bunch of Bagshaws and Smiths clothed in twenty-first century fashions of speech?

Perhaps Stephen Leacock is right, however, to depict the political débacle of the Great Election in Mariposa as being fed by the voters themselves. After all, those voters did have an alternative in Edward Drone, and are portrayed as having no interest in what he had to say. We vote what we are, says this tale, not what we would like to think we are. The banner for this blog intones that “We are the stories we tell about ourselves”. What stories are they? Many, and various, no doubt, but what are the narrations that run through their intense pluralism, the great national epic or epics that colour them all, that I am calling, nordistically, the “Œvirsagas”?

I believe that if we can chase those stories out into the open and hear what they really have to say, not what self-interested people are telling us they should say, we would find that they express the best we can be, the journey we have taken together in what is after all a brief history trying to become the best we can be, all fragmented, incomplete, and internally contradicted as it is, but not necessarily inconclusive beyond the short term.

I have been thinking about these stories for several months now, arriving for the time being at a belief that the proper image for the ultimate Canadian œvirsaga is a musical one that would imagine an uniquely discordant harmonization of four themes, each with an œvirsaga of its own, which I have labelled the Aboriginal, the National, the Political, and the Urbanismal. I am going to use this blog to work out the telling of those four stories separately. Then I am going to work out possibilities for their harmonization, all discordant as they may prove to be. And if it turns out that we are, deep in the heart of us, the People of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, as I suspect we may be, then so be it. We will bless the name of Stephen Leacock for giving us the term, even if he was himself able only to warble a few transitory passages of notes, hardly amounting to much.


Stephen Leacock’s 150th Birthday!!! December 30, 2019

Leacock Post 12-30.jpg


Stephen Butler Leacock was born on December 30th, 1869, in southern England. His parents emigrated to Ontario six years later and he, as he put it, decided to go with them. He lived on a farm south of Lake Simcoe, then in Toronto, then in Chicago (as a graduate student), then in Montreal for the rest of his life, except in the summers (after 1908) when he migrated to his cottage on Lake Couchiching just outside Orillia.

By profession he was first a teacher, first in Uxbridge, Ontario, for six months, then at Upper Canada College in Toronto, for ten years, then at McGill University, for 35 years. His academic field was Political Economy.

By profession he was also a writer, first of academic texts, then as a humorist and popular historian, then as an essayist writing without fear about anything he chose. His production is, or ought to be, legendary, although largely forgotten.

By profession he was also a public lecturer, beginning with learned propaganda concerning the British Empire, and expanding eclectically from there.

He was a dutiful son to his mother Agnes, eventually a hostile son to his father Peter, a conscientious brother to his ten siblings, a loving but somewhat overbearing husband to  his wife Beatrix (who died in 1925) and father to his son Stevie (born in 1915), a generous sponsor and employer to his niece Barbara Ulrichsen, and a good friend to many.

He died of throat cancer in Toronto on March 28, 1944.

His legacy, viewed in the best way: He planted seeds, in particular, a perception of Social Justice as embedded in Unsolved Riddles, and tools for thinking about them embracing Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour. He left to us the rich satisfactions of cultivation.

My tribute to him:

The Ballad of Stephen Butler Leacock

Come, readers and writers and I’ll sing you the song
Of a man who could write even when he was wrong;
He wrote his way to money and fame :
You’d best remember if you want the same;
He wrote, and he thought, and he talked, and he read,
Up early in the morning and early to bed :
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Remember if you want the same.

He wrote in the morning when the day was new;
He wrote the words that he thought were true;
He wrote in the hope that people would laugh,
But of all that he wrote that was never more than half;
He wrote of the rich, and he wrote of the poor,—
Social Justice and a whole lot more:
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Remember if you want the same.

He preached prosperity, he cursed at graft,
He teased their foibles and the people laughed;
He told the stories of the present and past—
Much that he wrote wasn’t fated to last;
He wrote for his time, and he wrote for his place,
He wrote stupid things about women and race :
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Remember if you want the same.

He wrote his country, and the Empire wide,
He wrote his people and he wrote with pride,
He wrote through depression, and he wrote through war,
He wrote for peace, and romance, and more;
He wrote for laughter, and he wrote to touch;
He wrote for money, and he wrote too much :
A hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man,—
Stephen Leacock! He had his moment of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Enjoy it if you get the same
As much as he did.

With a little effort he can serve to inspire English Canadians who read, write, explore, create, think, care, and laugh. Our cultural lives will be richer if we remember him well.

Approaching Stephen Leacock’s 150th Birthday

Today is Wednesday, December 18th. In less than two weeks, on Monday, December 30th, we will celebrate Stephen Leacock’s 150th birthday with a party of friends, a cake, and an unveiling of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice as manifested in 2019. Stephen Leacock wrote a book about that in 1919, one hundred years ago, making 2019 another significant Leacock anniversary. The third was the 75th anniversary of his death, on March 28th. I have been celebrating his Anniversaries since that day, an endeavour that did not, I regret to say, go viral. It appears that Stephen Leacock, if not absolutely dead, is well along that way. Leslie and I know, of course, from our 2017 western tour, that there remain people who still find him interesting, rather more who still find him amusing, at least when he is at his best.

The writer of Ecclesiastes pronounced, many years ago, quite accurately as it turns out, that there is no end to the writing of books, and new writers can be forgiven if they prefer that the number of old books in circulation should be kept to a minimum. We can remember an old writer for his books, of course, if they are good enough, but perhaps a worthy alternative for some writers is to remember them for the seeds they planted. I think it entirely likely that I will never read another Leacock book, having read a great many during the several phases of this project. There are fifty-three of them; I have not read them all. From now on I will remember him, not for the few favourites that I find worth remembering, but for two seeds that he planted in my mind. I have been cultivating those seeds, and intend to continue, for their own sake, not for his, but primarily for the sake of my children, grand-children, and beyond, and for everyone else’s.

The two seeds are, first, the title of the book whose 100th anniversary I am celebrating:


It’s the title that matters most to me, not the book. I consider that Social Justice, widely conceived, is the greatest cause that humanity can and does pursue. Stephen Leacock identified it as an Unsolved Riddle, a type of ideal that is not to be answered with some pat “solution”, but to probed and wrestled with endlessly in the cause of improvement, or “progress” as it used to be called, and should continue to be called. Because when the world’s store of poverty, pain, misery, alienation, exploitation, oppression, violence, unnatural death, and other ills has been lessened, then that is progress, even if these ills persist. To identify Social Justice as an Unsolved Riddle is a huge, brilliant insight, a creative response to idealogues of all kinds, whose prescriptions have a nasty habit of increasing the ills, not the reverse. It is unfortunate that Stephen Leacock himself did not enlarge upon his insight, even in his book. That work remains.

The second seed grew out of my efforts to summarize the lessons he was trying to drum home to us in his fifty-three books, numerous individual pieces, public lectures, and lifetime of teaching about economics, politics, education, culture, and ways of life. The tools that he brought to his quest, and that he recommends to us, form a Tetrad:


One of my favourite passages in all of the literature I know is the opening to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress where the narrator, walking through “the wilderness of this world”, falls asleep and dreams of a man with “a great burden on his back”. Our burden comes with the benefits we have created for ourselves in our adoption of the industrial, commercial, technological, scientific, intricately interconnected way of life that brings us such a range of benefits. The burden is the costs that come with them, and the duty to deal with them for our own and the futures’ sakes. There is nothing wrong with wanting our lives to be prosperous, comfortable, secure, convenient, richly informed, and entertaining. We fool ourselves tragically when we can assume they can be that way without cost.

The Leacock Tetrad does not remove the burden, but has the capacity to lighten the carry, because these tools, taken together, will help us work to alleviate the costs without adding new ones, and to reassure us that we are doing the best we can. We are fated to muddle our way through the muddle we have ourselves created, because that is the nature of our creation. We all crave Social Justice, although we may vary somewhat in our definitions. Social Justice is an Unsolved Riddle. We cannot make it otherwise. Stephen Leacock is one of those people who gives us tools we need to work with it.

Who else? My current list: William Blake, Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, George Eliot, Henry George, Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, B.W. Powe, and now, recently arrive, Marilynne Robinson. More about them in the weeks and months ahead. I will also tell you about the œvirsagas and where they fit in. Stephen Leacock had something to do with them too, or one of them at least. In Canada they are four in number, another Tetrad: Aboriginal, National, Political, and Urbanismal. They too are tools to grapple with the Unsolved Riddles and lighten the burden.

Ringing in the Tetrads

I have been running three blogs during the months of the Leacock Anniversaries, with different postings. This week, for a change, as I swing into yet another break, this one for two or even three weeks, I am posting the same text on all three. When you have read one you have read them all.

This week’s pictoverbicon, as displayed on the Voyageur Storytelling web site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca), the Leacock’n Bulletin linked thereto, and my Twitter page (https://twitter.com/conwaypaulw) introduces the Idea of Tetrational Thinking:

Leacock Post 10-31.jpeg

I have occupied much of the past two months in writing a book called The Marriage of Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles, in which I am attempting to convince readers that Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles belong together. The narrative approach that I adopted for this task I find subsequently to be consistent with Northrop Frye’s intention which was, according to his biographer John Ayre, “to spread imaginative poetic thought throughout society to soften and cancel the effects of procrustean logic and ideology.” This is most satisfying, because for a Canadian of my generation who graduated from the University of Toronto, to be consistent with Northrop Frye is always consoling.

I have talked before about Stephen Leacock’s Tetrad of Knowledge + Imagination + Compassion + Humour as a form of quadruple-thinking Both-Andian (or All-Andian) cast of mind able to work us toward Social Justice. When we pursue the Tetrational Way we find ourselves of course in a forest of Unsolved Riddles, that is, inherently conflicting or contradictory goods, but what is the alternative? How difficult would it be to tune our collective minds in all four of these directions at once? Quite difficult, I think, but possible with practice. Both Northrop Frye and Stephen Leacock insisted on Imagination as the linchpin of this whole way of thinking. That seems obvious, because the Tetrad demands that we step outside our normal, simplified, linear ways of thinking, the ones that enable us to get on with our lives from day to day without going mad, and view our lives together, our society, in a much more complicated way. In order to do that we have to free our imaginations from the “procrustean logic and ideology” which powerful forces press upon us so insistently.

One of the great Unsolved Riddles of our time declares the possibility that the simplified, linear thinking which helps us individually to avoid going mad from day to day, when applied collectively, to our social situation, constitutes itself a form of madness. I am convinced that Tetrational Thinking would ease the collective madness. We might too find that it creates an even higher form of sanity for us individually.

Reading Northrop Frye’s biography I learned that he set down a Tetrad of his own, although John Ayre does not tell us when or where Frye said it. “I think there has to be an assumption that life is better than death, freedom better than slavery, happiness better than misery, equality better than exploitation, for all men everywhere without exception.” (In the interests of exact quotation I leave in Frye’s “all men” and do not substitute “all people” or “everyone” as I feel strongly inclined to do, because that is obviously what Frye meant.) Is his assumption perhaps the irreducible first principle of Social Justice?

As an exercise in Tetrational Thinking, I invite you to stare fixedly at the following tetragammon (Is it a mandala? I’m not sure.) keeping in mind the four elements simultaneously. I have tried it, and find that it does in fact tend to break apart the procrustean logic and ideology.  When I have time I’ll create one for Frye’s Tetrad of Life + Freedom + Happiness + Equality, as well as its antipode, the Death + Slavery + Misery + Exploitation that is the tragic lot of so much of humanity and that we must never willingly accept.


Stare at that Tetrad for a long time. Think about the words and what they mean both individually and for each other. Weave circles around them and close your eyes in holistic dream. Imagine them becoming more than they are, more than you ever dreamed they could be. Don’t become discouraged if nothing magic happens the first time you try. It will come.

When I resume posting here later in November I will take up these ideas more fully, both theoretically and practically. I shall strive to integrate the Tetrads of Stephen Leacock and Northrop Frye with B.W. Powe’s “attentive sensitivity to multi-dimensional meaning”, Isaiah Berlin’s “loose texture  and a measure of inefficiency and even muddle”, Marshall McLuhan’s gnomic utterance that “The Medium is the Message” (which I think means that how we think or communicate determines, or at least heavily influences,  what we think or communicate), and George Eliot’s celebration, in one of her characters, of a benign influence that is “incalculably diffusive”.

We are not machines. Our minds are not governed by sequential cause and effect. They can leap.

In the meantime I leave you with the following jingle:

The Mud between the Minds
Like muds of other kinds,
Constitutes a kind of wealth
Or viscous form of filth :
This is the Unsolved Riddle
Of the Muddle.


Where is Here, when Here is Where We Are?

Northrop Frye was, I believe, the first to suggest that Canadians habitually ask themselves, “Where is here?” I suggest that we can and should answer that question, and that yesterday’s election gives us a convenient opportunity to get started. Here is likely to turn out, however, to be rather more muddled a place than we would prefer.

Unfortunately for easy answering, at least for 95% of the population, Here has never been over-run by a foreign invasion, and even the 5%, although struggling valiantly these days for a coherent identity were when the invasion took place resolutely plural and appear resolved to remain that way for many practical and political purposes. Sadly for them, too, the really effective invasion was by germs. The invasion of people and governments followed the germs. The people who came before the germs were primarily traders. I believe that statement is more or less correct, because the germs came very early.

In any case, whatever we make of the history, we gained from it no reason to wrap ourselves in the ‘Mother Canada’ kind of metaphor, as for example the Russians could. When I was in public school we were very big on ‘The Mother Country’ but that made Here into a branch of There, which failed eventually to meet either the facts or our evolving notions of Here, and was discarded. Recent events in what used to be Great Britain and has now become Ridiculous Britain have shown how wise we were. But that still left us with an unresolved question of Here.

We have learned to do quite well with Here in sporting applications. Here is the place where athletes are supplied with red and white uniforms adorned with maple leaves and expected to own the podium. Here is the place the athletes call home for sporting purposes, and not the place they go back to when the season is over, or their careers. If they win we give a great cheer for Here, and then get on with our lives. But where is Here for them?

Since the land where we live is so huge and diverse, and since we have failed to imagine for ourselves a Motherland we can latch onto, we tend I fear to identify Here as something much smaller, a province perhaps, or even part of one, or a city, or even a neighbourhood. We are instinctively tribal, in that sense. It is very difficult imaginative work to place yourself in a countrywide Here unless you have had the opportunity to become at least somewhat familiar with the entire sweep of the land, and to meet on more than casual terms its people in some of their diversity. I have been fortunate that way, because of my work. Perhaps that is why Here to me takes the shape that it does.

I submit that Here belongs not to geography, or demography, or history, but to a four-dimensional continuum that I call Time-Place, analogous to, but not the same as, the Space-Time of mathematicians and physicists. (In order to make sure that I am not talking complete nonsense I looked up ‘space-time continuum’ on Google, which took me to Wikipedia, where I found out that, “In physics, spacetime is any mathematical model that fuses the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time into a single four-dimensional continuum. Spacetime diagrams can be used to visualize relativistic effects such as why different observers perceive where and when events occur differently.” That statement cheered me immensely.

Time-Place, therefore, is any imaginammatical model that fuses the three dimensions of Time (Now, Then, and When) and the one dimension of Place (Here), into a single four-dimensional continuum. My suggestion, therefore, boils down to this: that as Canadians, which we all know we are, we should assign the name ‘Canada’ to this continuum as it exists for us collectively, identify it formally as a ‘Muddle’ fit for human habitation in a state of enjoyment, and get on with living in it. If this sounds silly, and evasive, well perhaps it is, but in an affirmative sense that does no harm and may indeed do us much good.

In other words, we should look at yesterday’s somewhat muddled election result as an entirely appropriate manifestation of Here in continuum with Now, Then, and When, and with the necessary capacity to serve its intended purpose and evolve as required. We don’t have to look it through the partisan eyes of our political parties, any of them singly or all of them together. It may suit them to be adversarial, and may even suit us, the people, but we do not have to be adversarial too.