Author Archives: voyageur2014

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.

tetrad-138-1.jpg

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.

 

Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles I: Tuesday.

I am going to suspend my guided tour of Stephen Leacock’s places for the next eight weeks. I will pick up the thread on Tuesday, October 22nd, by which time much will have happened that could change the plan. The reason: I am now writing the book that I said from the start I was going to write for the 100th Anniversary of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, and my mind simply cannot cope with two major writing streams at once.

I think I will call the book The Marriage of Social Justice with Unsolved Riddles, the idea being that Social Justice and Unsolved Riddles, first outed in their cohabitation by Stephen Leacock one hundred years ago, now need to be officially married so that their union can be recognized for integration into social, economic, and political life. You can’t have one without the other, despite the fervent wishes of ideologues. Or at least you don’t have, which is one of the reasons ideology doesn’t work and, in fact, invariably inflicts such cruel suffering.

DRAMATIS PERSONNAE
1. Social Justice, a Radiant Ideal;
2. Unsolved Riddles, her consort;
3. Mnemochirianne, a centaur, with Slug-Horn;
4. Eulalie, an Owl, with ears;
5. Ursula, a Bear, with nose;
6. Astranasus, a Star-Nosed Mole, with star;
7. Vulphystrix, a Fox-Hedgehog (or Fox-Porcupine) Both-Andian, with difficulty;
8. Prophet Isaiah, personal attendant to Vulphystrix;
Three Muses acting as Interpreters:
9. Calliope;
10. Clio;
11. Terpsichore;
12. Mosjaur; the Story of the Pilgrimage, handmaiden to the Muses;
Three Guides:
13. Marshall;
14. Northrop;
15. Bedoubleyou;
16. I-Me, the Narrator, a Dreamer;
17. The Valley, site of the Pilgrimage, occupied by
The Charged Membrane, consisting of:
18. The Yottapede, and
19. The Ooze;
20. Olde Stephen, the ghost of Stephen Leacock, hovering overhead;
21. The Chapel, where the Wedding will take place if they can find it.
All these are living creatures, except the Slug-Horn who comes alive when blown.

It will come as no surprise to readers of this Tuesday Blog, a.k.a. the Mariposa Blog or the Walking Blog, that the Pilgrimage will follow a labyrinthine path of Cretan or Classical layout. This means that the Days of the Pilgrimage will be recounted in this order: Third, Second, First, Fourth, Seventh, Sixth, Fifth. The Preface walks you up to the labyrinth, L’Envoi is the centre point. Then of course you have to walk back out, in reverse order, but that’s a separate pilgrimage in its own right. I am not going to explain further here, tempted though I am. Maybe next week.

That’s the set-up. Mosjaur the Story is hard at work. Things are starting to rumble.

The Preface was released on Saturday, August 24th, and the first chapter will be released on Saturday, August 31st, one hundred years to the day since Stephen Leacock published his first chapter in the New York Times, the Toronto Star, and other newspapers. If you want a copy, e-mail me at voyageur-at-bmts.com and you shall have it. There’s no charge, but there is a condition: I am looking for feedback, and reserve the right to beg you for it.

Stephen Leacock Looks at Orillia. Or does he?

The City of Orillia lies about 100 kilometres north of Toronto, as the crow flies, or about 140 if you are driving because you have to make your way around Lake Simcoe. If you were a crow, travelling as crows do, you would fly right over the old Leacock farm just south of the lake. The old Leacock farm, however, was a place Stephen simply passed through and got out as quickly as he could. Orillia was another matter. But what kind of matter?

It is commonly believed that Stephen Leacock ‘came from’ Orillia. He did not. He ‘came from’ four places in the formative sense: the south of England; the dirt farm south of Lake Simcoe; the lake itself where his family spent summers; and Upper Canada College in Toronto. I have found no evidence that he had anything to do with Orillia, at the north end of the lake, until his late teens or early twenties. His mother may have lived there briefly after she left the farm, at about that time. Leacock bought his summer place there in 1908, when he was nearly forty.

I have a database containing some 2,700 titles of books, chapters, stories, articles, lectures, etc. used by Stephen Leacock in the fifty years of his writing and speaking life. One of them contains the word ‘Orillia’. The story involved was not written by him, but may have been translated. He sent it to the Orillia newspaper after finding it in a Swiss journal. The record shows that he spoke there twelve times from 1908 to 1926, although half of these speeches were political, on behalf of Conservative Party candidates.

In sum, it appears that Orillia qua town was not haunting his thoughts to any great extent. His summer place, his own piece of property, probably did even when he was not there, which was two-thirds of the year. He was deeply attached to that particular place, just outside the town proper, now well within the present city. His thoughts about Orillia itself, if any, go completely unrecorded.

Unless, of course, Mariposa is Orillia, as many believe. I do not, although I grant that Mariposa looks like Orillia, to the extent its appearance is described, and contains some people with names that somewhat match Orillia people, but that is a long, long way from saying that the characters in the book are those people, or that Mariposa is that town, or that there is any but the most superficial resemblance.  Surely, when we are speaking of a literary work with considerable depth we should not be seduced by anything superficial. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is literature, a witty and occasionally profound caricature of a place and people, not a work of sociology.

In fact, I have found no evidence that Leacock remotely cared about Orillia except as any cottager cares about the nearest town, although he had friends there and cared about them. Nowhere does he write about Orillia the way he does, for example, about Montréal. Cities, for him, whether he knew them by living, visiting, or reading, were centres of economic energy and romance, actual, prospective, or historical. Orillia, in his mind, was not that kind of place, nor I suspect was any small town.

Here’s my hypothesis: To write about a place properly you need to have a feel for it. You get that by growing up there, by living there year ’round when you can take it in with all your senses without thinking much about it or having any opinions. Then, when you combine that in adulthood with a writer’s skill, you can write about it. But you have to stay there. Stephen Leacock never had the chance. He was raised in too many places, and he never did settle. Of his fifty-three books only two are about real places: Montréal, and Canada. And even there he makes them imaginary. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is not really about a place, it’s about people in a place, imaginary people. I don’t think he ever bothered to imagine Orillia.

 

Professor Leacock Looks Askance at “Utopia”

DJ Afternoons UtopiaOne of his most notable books was titled Afternoons in Utopia (1932). The lead entry, “Utopias Old and New,” includes an hilarious send-up of every imagined paradisiacal society from Plato’s Republic to last month’s issue of Flabbergasting Fables. … I wish I had room for some hilarious excerpts from Leacock’s collection, but the bottom of the page is looming. You’ll have to snag a copy of the Leacock book for yourself. Just keep an eye out for Dr. Oom, the sandal-wearing and berobed, bearded future sage speaking oddly pseudo-Biblical English—and his lissome, doe-eyed daughter. 

So writes, or rather is quoted, one Richard A. Lupoff on https://www.fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20170133, the page of that estimable site where one can find the text to Afternoons in Utopia. My own copy, bought second (or more) hand, came from the Ladysmith General Hospital, wherever it may be. I don’t remember where I found it, or how much I paid. Not much, I hope.

I quote Mr. Lupoff in the interests of fairness, so that you may know there are two opinions about this book. Mine is the other one. When I was searching for a word to describe this book, ‘sophomoric’ was the one that sprang to mind. On behalf of Stephen Leacock I searched for excuses to explain how he could have come to have written such a book: he was getting on, aged sixty-two; as a political economist he was demoralized by the Great Depression, its grotesque inhumane effects, and the prevailing failure to take them seriously; he had been teaching at McGill for nearly thirty years, in which constant exposure to the humour of undergraduates had dimmed his faculties; the book was artificially conceived, written in a hurry, and untested in the magazine market before it was published; he didn’t really have the talent for such a book and was straying outside his envelope; he was frustrated by the fact that people still seemed to be taking Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) seriously; all of the above perhaps. In any case, the book did not sell well, showing that readers knew better. If it had not been written by Stephen Leacock it would have long ago disappeared into the oblivion it deserves.

I search in vain in this book for signs of the Stephen Leacock of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, of that kind of complex understanding of the whole realm of social and economic practice and shrewd assessment of what is possible and what is not. He might even have taken the trouble to understand what Edward Bellamy was talking about, before he set out to lampoon him. Bellamy’s prescriptions may have been silly, but the evils for which he was prescribing, writing in the late nineteenth century, certainly were not. Instead, from Leacock, writing in 1932, pretending to write in 2020, we are granted only nostalgia for the old days when “the world … was economically a very simple place, regulated by a few maxims”: hard work; saving, honesty, trade, education with a scientific focus for the purpose of stimulating “invention, the very key to progress.” Of course Stephen Leacock did not believe in an economic society with such a limited outlook, let alone education. His other writings show how well he knew better. I will say more about that in the Wednesday blog tomorrow, because he addresses Edward Bellamy explicitly in the chapters of The Unsolved Riddle coming up then.

In Afternoons in Utopia he appears to be attacking, or satirizing, the genre of literature that seeks to prescribe for society’s problems by imagining ideal places, just as Mr. Lupoff believes. In order to make himself familiar with the objects of his scorn, however, he visits them as a cruising tourist, perhaps even of the armchair variety, not as a scholar-humourist. Instead of a richly conceived, imagined alternative in the tradition of the genre itself, he gives us glib jokiness of the kind that appeals to people who haven’t read any utopias but like to think they know something about them. To paraphrase Robertson Davies who found the same carelessness in Leacock’s treatment of Ibsen: If Stephen Leacock had known more about utopias he would not have written as he did.

The ports of call where Leacock lands so briefly and lightly are, in the six “parts” of Afternoons in Utopia: “Utopia” itself, which is not the Thomas More’s original at all, but Edward Bellamy’s Boston of the year 2000; then a world that, through the agency of the League of Nations, has done away with war because the “common sense of humanity revolts at slaughter by machinery”; then a place of doctors with “contraptions”; then  Shucksford College; then back to “Utopia” for a witless excursion into equality of the sexes; and finishing with the “Memoirs of a Future Communist”.

But why am I going on and on about this. My friend Stephen Leacock was having a bad day, or a bad however many days it took him to write this book. He was also getting old. In the real Eutopia to come (at least I hope it will come), when the world will be a glad place full of music, all people will be granted the right to occasional bad days, and to get old, and will be judged, if at all, according to their good days. He had had many of those and some were still to come.

 

Wiarton and Lion’s Head: Stephen Leacock Takes Notice

As far as I have been able to find, Stephen Leacock did not visit anywhere in Bruce County, let alone Bruce Peninsula where I live, but he talked about it, about two places in particular: Wiarton and “a small place, just a village, away out past Wiarton”, a small place called “Something-Head”. From my point of view Lion’s Head is not “out past” Wiarton; Wiarton is out past Lion’s Head. But that’s my point of view, and Stephen Leacock is entitled to his.

When Stephen Leacock wrote Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, beyond doubt the most famous of his 53 books, he tells us how he located the little town. In the Preface he says: “Mariposa is not a real town. On the contrary, it is about seventy or eighty of them. You may find them all the way from Lake Superior to the sea, with the same square streets and the same maple trees and the same churches and hotels, and everywhere the sunshine of the land of hope.” But anyone can see he’s stretching the boundaries, because in 1912, when he wrote that book, Stephen Leacock’s personal world of little towns was bounded by Montreal on the east, Strathroy on the west, and Muskoka on the North. He had by then visited cities to the east all the way to Moncton and Halifax, and beyond to New Zealand, but cities are not little towns, as we all know.

Now in those days Ontario had about 250 small towns, so that Leacock’s seventy or eighty represents somewhere around 30%. That’s pretty select company for Wiarton, even more so because in the entire span of his 53 books and hundreds of other pieces he only mentions a handful of others.

What he says about Wiarton is … not much. Here is the whole kit and caboodle:

. . . He didn’t belong to the city as Dannie did. He’d just come from a small place, just a village, away out past Wiarton . . . You know what fellows look like when they come from past any place like Wiarton.

“He” is Slugger Pethick, one of two main characters in a story called “Damon and Pythias” in a book called Happy Stories Just To Laugh At, published in 1943, the year before Leacock died at the age of 74. You can find that story on-line at http://www.fadedpage.com/showbook.php?pid=20160410. You won’t find it in the Bruce County Public Library, or the Owen Sound & North Grey Union Public Library, which is a pity, because reading these stories in a well-set-up book is much better than on-line.

. . . He’d had no advantages, brought up rough, away off in the country, somewhere back of Wiarton.

. . . when he met anybody he used to say, “Pleased to meet you,” and start to pull off his gloves, even if he didn’t have any on—the way they do back of Wiarton . . .

. . . Slugger’s father, I say, was just a little country clergyman . . . a “horse and buggy” clergyman, for on Sunday, after he’d preached in his own place in the morning—it was called, what was it? Something—Head—he drove out seven miles to take an out-of-town service at another place; seven miles out and seven back.

. . . The country clergyman was, of course—though he never saw the advertisements—the Rev. Arthur Pethick, of Something-Head beyond Wiarton.

. . . Success? Why, of course, no end of it. In the very first year the Slugger was able to send home to “mother” back of Wiarton a sewing machine—and a washing machine and an ironing machine—presents dear to the heart of people like “mother” . . .

. . . There was something about “nobility”—I mean about being connected with nobility—that hit Dannie and Pethick where they lived. It naturally does hit anyone who lives beyond Wiarton, or even anyone living above College Street, Toronto.

. . . Slugger Pethick pulled off gloves he didn’t have on and said, “pleased to meet you,” as clumsily as the day he left Something-Head. The phrase is, of course, not one to be used to a lady with a title. It should be kept for society beyond Wiarton where they take pleasure in one another’s society. People of birth don’t. (If you think this story may be getting dark don’t worry; remember: it’s a happy story, just to laugh at.)

. . . Mrs. Fordeck had said: “Doesn’t this heavenly night remind you of Capetown?” He had answered, “Wiarton is very much like this in September,” and she said, “I should just love to see Wiarton,” and he said, “I hope you will some day. I could give you a letter to Bill Furze, the postmaster, and he’d show you round,” and he had added, “If I was up there, I’d like to show you round myself . . .”

. . . Slugger in his dreams went through scenes in which a cross-examining barrister said:
“Answer the question, please, without evasion. Did you, or did you not, on the evening of September twelfth compare Capetown to Wiarton?

That’s the lot. It’s not much, I know, but it’s something. It puts Wiarton-and-beyond-to-Something-Head on the literary map in special company, probably one in a handful, since “seventy or eighty” is definitely a stretch. Lion’s Head would have got there too, if the elderly Stephen Leacock had been able to remember the name. “Something-Head” indeed!

I am curious to know the unknowable, which is, where had Stephen Leacock heard about Wiarton and Lion’s Head? Alas, he did not tell us. If he had only talked about Wiarton, I would have suspected a conversational evening with William Wilfred Campbell, who was active in literary circles in Ottawa when Leacock was sometimes speaking there. Campbell’s father was indeed a clergyman, although many years before this story, but not in Lion’s Head. In the years since the parish was founded Lion’s Head was served by many Anglican clergy; Leacock might have had a conversation with any of their sons and made his sketch from there. The most likely candidate for the clergyman father, given the dates, is the Rev. R.W. James, who was rector there from 1911 to 1934, and brought about the construction in the 1920’s of St. Margaret’s Chapel near Cape Chin, a few miles north of the village. Rev. James might have gone to officiate there in a horse and buggy, or he might not. This distance is, in fact, about seven miles.

Someday, when some graduate student writes her thesis on Stephen Leacock’s geography (a rather more circumscribed phenomenon than his imagination, just right for a master’s thesis), Wiarton and Lion’s Head will have to be mentioned, although probably only that. It’s interesting to me, however, that he does speak of these places, so close to home.

My Last Word on Mariposa

I have written before about Mariposa, what I think it both is and is not. Today I am going to do that for one last time, before taking you on a walk (this being the Walking Blog, after all) through Stephen Leacock’s places. He doesn’t often write about places as characters, although he often places his characters and stories in them. So it is with Mariposa.

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is not about Mariposa, although the sketches are placed there. Mariposa, he tells us explicitly, is a town of 5,000 people. His sketches are about a dozen or so people in Mariposa, most of them not particularly dominant in community affairs. A few others are assigned bit parts, or are mentioned by name. I don’t care where it is, a dozen people and a few out-riders do not a town of 5,000 make. To suggest that Leacock intended any generalization about small-town life from these few anecdotes about these few people is absurd on the face of it. And yet people, even reputable scholars, do it.

I acknowledge that the townspeople do appear occasionally as a collective, in reacting to Josh Smith’s enterprise, or to Jeff Thorpe’s speculations, or taking an excursion on the Mariposa Belle, or judging Dean Drone’s sermons, or donating (or not) to the Church, or taking in the Pupkin-Pepperleigh romance, or, especially, voting in the Great Election, but these appearances are sketched in so lightly and casually that they must be intended simply to illuminate the stories of the principals rather than as any statement about the town as a whole. They contribute even less than a typical opera chorus. If Leacock intended any satire, as he might have done in the Church and election episodes, it was not directed at small-town life, but at Canadian habits more broadly. The inspiration for the conditional donations came in fact from a fund-raising campaign for McGill University, and sheep-herd voting, if it exists at all except as a figment of the imaginations of supercilious commentators, could be found anywhere.

In short, Mariposa is not Orillia, or “about seventy or eighty” “real” towns, or anything except the setting for characters named Josh Smith, Jefferson Thorpe, Dean Drone, Peter Pupkin, Zena Pepperleigh, John Henry Bagshaw, with comprimario roles for Billy the desk clerk, Judge Pepperleigh, Lawyer McCarthy, the two bank managers Mullins and Duff, Gogotha Gingham, and flitting appearances or walk-on parts for a few others.

Please note that only one of the principals and comprimarios is a woman: Zena Pepperleigh, who vanishes as soon as she is married. Leacock’s Mariposa is a profoundly male-chauvinistic place, as admittedly were his times, and he himself. Whatever may then have been the legal, social, and economic subordination of women, however, I doubt it stretched to that extent. Strong-minded women have always found ways to assert themselves; Leacock allows them none. Furthermore, a count of all the sayings directly quoted in the book reveals that none of them are spoken by women. The women of Mariposa have no voices! How improbable is that, in any Canadian place?

Lest you think that “L’Envoi” at the end of the book makes a difference to what I am saying about Mariposa, let me draw your attention to the fact that “L’Envoi” does not present the town Mariposa at all, but rather the retrospective home-town revisions by a bored, surfeited, dyspeptic businessman dozing in the Mausoleum Club in some distant city, a perspective that is something else entirely.

The fact that Mariposa is sometimes taken for Orillia, or a typical Ontario small town, surely represents a scandalous misreading of the book that could justifiably be made the butt of satire in its own right. To take from a book what we want to take from it, instead of  what’s there, may be a normal human foible, but it hardly deserves to be celebrated. Joseph Conrad tells us: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand; and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” That is a noble statement of a writer’s task, but it is not Stephen Leacock’s, at least not in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. I think his aims are much more limited: to tell stories that he has invented or stretched from what he has observed or heard about here and there; to take a dig at some human or Canadian foibles; to amuse.

If he had any more serious purpose in this book,—and he might have done,—it has been discovered by the scholar Ed Jewinski, who summed up Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town as “a supreme achievement of fragmentation, incompleteness and inconclusiveness.” It is difficult to assess Leacock’s intentions in this, and much of his humorous work, because he could be a shamefully careless writer. He is like Robertson Davies’ character who likes to “get off a good one.” He fires these things around almost at random sometimes. He also likes a catchy title, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town being superior in that regard to Highly Ambiguous Sketches of a Few Fictional People in a Fictional Place, which is what the book really is. If he had called the book that, however, people might not have misread it so persistently. They probably wouldn’t have read it, or bought it, nearly as enthusiastically.

I am not judging Stephen Leacock by this one book. He wrote 52 others, and many more short pieces. These form his true literary legacy. To view Sunshine Sketches as a masterpiece of ambiguity, however, whether he intended so or not, brings the book within the realm of the “Unsolved Riddle”, a phrase he puts in another catchy title, and which I think is, or at least could be, his great contribution to Canadian understanding. Others have dealt with it more solemnly; Leacock reminds us that we should approach the dilemmas of that realm, not only with Knowledge, Imagination, and Compassion, but with Humour.