Category Archives: Mariposa

What then, cried Plato’s ghost, what then?

In previous posts I have tried to sketch a little at least of Mariposa’s mission as a City of Literary Refuge. During my long brain break this summer I have been persistently pestered by Mariposan messages demanding that I recognize also the other essential part of the mission, involving Thinking Action.

Finding cities that are committed to action is not difficult, claims the Mariposa of today, but Thinking Action is another matter. Of course these other cities think they are thinking — no jurisdiction wants to believe that it acts without thinking — but Mariposa insists that what passes as thinking in other places will not pass muster for them. Only the best in thinking will do, and they have passed any number of thoughtful by-laws to this effect.

Being a City of Literary Refuge is important both as a means to Thinking Action, and as an end in itself. There may have been a time in human history, they say, when it was possible to think without reading, in the days before there were any books, for example. But nowadays it is not possible. Period. Human affairs have become so complex — due to the arrival of books and all the enrichment of analysis, understanding, and memory that they allow — that any thinking unsupported by reading must remain ridiculously superficial. Reading does not make thinking easy, of course, it only makes it possible. Reading and Thinking Action are inextricably entwined.

It is true that in earlier times Mariposa was more famous for its lack of thought. The current inhabitants look back with shame on the amiable oblivion that inanimated public discourse in the early years of the twentieth century, so richly and ironically documented by Dr. Stephen Leacock, or by someone pretending to be him. (The latter seems more likely, as there is no evidence that Dr. Leacock himself ever set foot in the place.)  To be so taken in by the machinations and manipulations of Josh Smith! To be so blind to the corruption of the courts and politics, the senility of the church, the incompetence of the crew of the Mariposa Belle, the mindless sentimentality of their own reactions to the human dramas around them, the unmitigated mediocrity and self-interest and general meanness of community life! When after the experience of two world wars and a major depression the Mariposans came to take stock of themselves, they concluded that while they could not escape the stupidity of their history they need not persist in it. They would read, they would think, they would act thoughtfully, and they would atone for their ancestors by building a city around those ideals.

I will tell you how they went about that in future postings. To begin with I will explain what I mean by what I say about the old Mariposa. For there has been much nonsense spoken of that too. Please stay tuned.

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It’s Coming! The Great Election in Missinaba-Mariposa-The Lakes

There is no doubt that elections make pulses race in the City of Mariposa and surrounding areas. Ever since the Great Election in Missinaba County in 1911, where it was decided whether Mariposa should become part of the United States, and whether the flag that had waved over the school house at Tecumseh Township for ten centuries should be trampled under the hoof of an alien invader, and whether Britons should be slaves, and whether Canadians should be Britons, and whether the farming class would prove themselves Canadians, and tremendous questions of that kind, matters which were resolved to such thunderous applause and stupendous effect. Since then the riding has enjoyed 30 more federal elections, along with myriad provincial and municipal ones, sometimes surging one way and sometimes another, but always in the certainty that elections ought to be festive occasions when the electorate is always the winner, occasions worthy of community-wide celebration in that spirit, simply because the event took place and regardless of which party or individual comes out on top.

The constituency now has a hyphenated name, as is the current custom: no longer simply Missinaba County, but Missinaba-Mariposa-The Lakes, to be inclusive.

Mariposans believe, quite possibly unfairly, that elsewhere in the country the election in 2019 will be fought on whether the sitting prime minister is a villain and a fool, or whether the leader of the opposition is one of these or both, or whether any other party leader is, or whether it’s time for a change, or whether it’s too soon for a change, or whether the country can afford the continued presence in public life of person X, Y, or Z, or whether the country is bankrupt or will be or can afford to exist at all, or whether the economy is strong, or whether the land is being systematically destroyed, or whether the middle class is getting a fair shake, or whether the rich are poor enough or the poor are rich enough, and tremendous questions of that kind. Not in Mariposa, however. Perhaps in the past its electors might have indulged in such grotesque over-simplification, but since the Great Transformation into a City of Literary Refuge nothing but the loftiest in political deliberation will do.

But not yet. All that lies ahead. Summertime approaches, when the watchword is recreation, and the song on everyone’s lips is:

Stephen Leacock’s Song for Summer, sung to the tune of the Policeman’s Chorus from Pirates of Penzance. The entire song is too long for this medium. The first and last pairs of verses give the flavour:

Let us sing a song for summer, when the weather waxes warm,
And the worker wobbles, weary with the strife,
When the busy man is wishing that he had more time for fishing :
Let me sing to you the Vanity of Life.

Let me lie among the daisies with my stomach to the sky,
Making poses in the roses in the middle of July;
Let me nestle in the nettles, let me there absorb the dew
In a pair of flannel britches with the stitches worked in blue.

… (16 verses in between)

Let us gambol, let us ramble, o’er the flower-embowered lea,
O’er the meadow in the shadow of the elderberry tree;
Let us dress us as may bless us, with no public there to see–
Care not which is proper breeches for a summer negligee;

Or array us to display us in a pair of flannel pants,
Taking chances on advances from the enterprising ants;
Then at even when the heaven reddens to the western sky,
All together in the heather sing a summer Lullaby.

And there we will leave them until September. Your humble scribe is taking a brain break. Or a brain braik. Or a brean break. Whatever.

Have a good summer!

Literary Mariposa: A Little Quick History

If you walk down Mayne Street in Mariposa you will be astonished at the number of bookstores. That is, you will be if you have not already heard of the place, or have heard but don’t know much about it. If you take the Professor’s old description at face value, and think that the place could not change in the ensuing century-plus, then your astonishment will be fully justified, not to mention the moment when you first behold the amazing edifice that is the Peter Pupkin Memorial Public Library, and all those people in the parks and coffee shops reading or talking about books.

Just to get one point out of the way: the Professor who first described Mariposa, in the old days when it was only a little town and had not yet flowered as a city of literary refuge, was not the Stephen Leacock of McGill University and Old Brewery Bay near Orillia, Ontario, but another summer-cottaging professor of the same name. If you want to understand Mariposa past or present you must learn to distinguish between the two.

A quick recapitulation of the history: You probably recall that Zena Pepperleigh married Peter Pupkin around 1910 and they promptly (too promptly, according to gossip) had an enchanted baby, Lena. Then, a year or so later, they had twin boys, Marval and Norval. Then in 1914 Peter went gallantly off to war and was killed. Zena eventually married Josh Smith’s son Hector and had more children. In time she inherited all the property accumulated by Judge Pepperleigh in a long career of crooked judging; Hector inherited the proceeds of his father’s graft; Lena, Marval, and Norval inherited the Pupkin real-estate fortune. In 1946 the whole clan of them — Zena, Hector, her children, their children and their spouses, all significantly bruised by the record of the times — perceived how the wind blew and decided that three ill-gotten fortunes should not simply be allowed to grow with the flow, but should be put to some radically alternative purpose. By now they owned most of Mayne Street and a good deal of the rest of Mariposa besides, so were in a position to make things happen, as soon as they could figure out what they should be. Since they had also inherited the Professor’s library and were all tremendous readers, they decided to go with books. They would turn Mariposa into the most bookish little town in Canada, if not the world.

Thus was born a new Mariposa, a City of Literary Refuge. Of course, in order to be that, it had to be a City of Much More. You can’t hide behind a book, by itself. You have to meet the book in a protected place. Eventually I will tell you the whole story. For today I will simply describe, very superficially, what Mariposa looks like now.

The population, by the latest count, is 47,620, and if all of them lived in a heap it would indeed deserve to be called the City of. But in fact less than half live in town; the rest are scattered among the rural areas that were amalgamated with the urban into the present municipality. Calling it a City was simply a sudden effusion of side on the part of the Council of the day, now long diluted of Pupkin family influence, although not of memory.

Mayne Street, formerly a short stump running westward up-hill from the old bridge over the Missinaba River, now runs a considerable distance on both sides of the new one. The literary area, however, is confined to the old, west side, the east having been zoned commercial ugly in accord with current fashion in urban design. Its ethos, however, permeates the whole place. You may find people reading books even in the Tim Horton’s out at the Junction where Mayne Street meets the By-Pass, and as for the motels along the way, you have to book ahead at almost any time of year if you want to get a bed before the literary refugees. Most likely, however, you will be one yourself, because the proprietors of establishments of all kinds, having learned that literary folks are prepared to pay above the going rate for what they crave, and also tip often and well, make no effort to attract other kinds of tourists. Occasionally a party will stray in, and quickly move on.

The Pupkin clan, now swelled by another two going on three generations, still owns the whole square in front of the Peter Pupkin Memorial Library and intentionally nurtures the bookstores, galleries, coffee shops, and bistros that surround it. These overflow into the blocks behind and along the river, where cunning remolding and restoration have turned the old linear lanes into pedestrian pods where conversation reigns. The river is a little too large and lively for recreational boating of the leisurely kind, and since the other kind is resolutely inhibited by low speed limits and a ferocious municipal noise by-law, most of it stays away. If you want to swim you can take a bus to one of the beaches on Lake Ossawippi or Lake Wissinotti. Nobody ever calls them that, by the way —  they are the “north” and “south” lakes respectively — any more than anyone calls the Missinabi anything but “the river”.

What makes Mariposa exceptional is not only the magnificence of its public library, the rich number and variety of its bookstores, coffee shops and bistros, the size and excitement of its four annual literary festivals, its Mariposa Literary Hall of Fame, or the pervasive bookishness of its public spaces, but the way it has woven the book, and now the electronic writing and reading device, into its whole society and economy. When I have room I will tell you about its fine paper mill, its book binderies, its publishers, its editors, its writers tapping away on their keyboards, its poets declaiming in the parks and places, its songs, its plays, its accommodations for readers and for conversation, its money and influence and authority behind them all, and in short the whole wonderful interconnected vitality and verbosity of the place, but not today.

The Train to Mariposa still goes there, but in a very different way.

Posted April 23, 2018, 339 days before the Stephen Leacock Sesqui-cum-triaquarteria-centennial officially begins.

 

The City of the Beginning of Things

In 1912 Mariposa was, famously, a little town. Just exactly what kind of a little town it was remains, or should remain, controversial although largely irrelevant. Now it is a little city, and unlike Stephen Leacock I am going to be very careful not to give you even the slightest grounds for guessing which city it is. He said that Mariposa was “seventy or eighty” little towns. This remains not a bad estimate, as Canada now has somewhere between seventy and eighty little cities, taking that to mean a population roughly between 20,000 and 100,000. Orillia is on the list, of course, but so are a lot of other places from Corner Brook to Nanaimo to Whitehorse and Yellowknife.

If it helps you to give it a specific location, then think Thunder Bay, but Mariposa is not Thunder Bay of course, unless you live in or come from Thunder Bay and would like it to be. A location near to where the great watersheds divide is of course a good thing. So too one somewhat removed from the great metropolitan centres, where small cities nearby tend to get caught up in the maelstrom. I think that when I come to describe it I will centre it around Nipigon. I once located the home of a character in a story “where East and West and North all come together and he can be whatever he wants.” For the little city of Mariposa this is very important.

I will nest it in a regional municipality, in order to make it more creative. I am told that Pierre Trudeau once suggested that tension among levels of government — federal, provincial, municipal — would be stimulate the creative juices of democracy. If tension cubed is good, then how much more can we expect from tension raised to the fourth power? I haven’t done the calculations yet, but it’s a lot more, as any student of logarithms knows well.

The little city of Mariposa demonstrates this arithmetic principle admirably, and particularly in its great Civic Experiment, launched some years ago: its collective resolve to conduct its affairs according to the precepts of the General Theory of Unsolved Riddles, as articulated by their great Patron Scholar (he was no saint) Stephen Leacock.

You will no doubt be anxious to know what adventures they had, and you shall know. But not today, except for one. It led them to dedicate an entire year, beginning tomorrow (March 28th 2018) to preparation for the Great Riddler’s combined sesquicentennial and septuagintaquinquennial (150th and 75th) anniversaries in 2019. He was born on December 30 1869 and died on March 28th 1944.

This blog, its companion blogs (www.playstephenleacock.wordpress.com and http://www.paulwconway.wordpress.com), and its connected web site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca) are doing the same. The Mariposa part of that story will be told here.

 

 

 

Exploring Conundropia: Leacock’s Land of Unsolved Riddles

In my previous post I called the country I was mapping for you Leacockland. I have decided not to go forward with that name. I suppose it’s all right to name a country after its first map-maker, but “Leacockland” is neither euphonious enough for my taste nor descriptive. This being a country of Unsolved Riddles, its constitution grounded in the General Theory thereof,  I have decided to call it Conundropia.

Conundropia, of course, comes from “conundrum”, a word which appears to be an unsolved riddle of its own, as nobody knows where it came from. It sounds like Latin, but is not.

Welcome to Conundropia, Land of Unsolved Riddles. Location: your surroundings, however you imagine them; Population: diverse; Gross Domestic Product: multifarious.

Foundational Documents: The General Theory of Unsolved Riddles; The Conundropiad (National Epic); The Declaration of Interdependence; The Constitution; The Charter of Liberalities and Optimisms.

Motto: Knowledge, Imagination, Good Will. (These are of course packed words, each one an unsolved, or at least only partly solved riddle.)

The Capital of Conundropia is, of course, Mariposa, the well-known, much misunderstood little town, perpetually asleep in the sunshine, or so it is said, bearing approximately the same relationship to The City, where things get done, as Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I am talking about the relationship, not the cities. Mariposa is nothing like Jerusalem, either in fact or mythologically. I don’t know whether The City is like Tel Aviv; I have never been in Tel Aviv. I know The City well, however, in several manifestations. I have been in that other place called The City, which is the financial district of London, centre of the Empire. I even had an offer of a job there, many years ago, but turned it down. The City of Conundropia, however, is not the City of London.

The City has a name, of course, but nobody uses it.

Mariposa is the birthplace of The General Theory of Unsolved Riddles and hence mythologically vital. Hence its designation as The Capital. For you, and for everyone like you, it is the place where you learned to be human.

The City is the place of work, of action, of the machinery of government and business, of crowds and excitement, of demands and stress. Due to modern transportation and communication, The City reaches away out into The Country and may even have absorbed it.

The Country is the place, the physical place, you go to find relief from The City. It may be a farm, or a cottage, or a resort, or a retreat, or any spiritually similar kind of place. It could be a church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of worship. It could be the branch of a public library, or a club. It could be a park or a trail. It could be your home, or a room therein. If your home life is inescapably tumultuous it could even be your office or workplace, if you are among the fortunate who have workplaces of that kind. It is the place where The Rus can rule.

The Rus is the place where you imagine things were different, or are. If you came from a good place you remember it with nostalgia. If you came from a place like most places, with some good and some bad, you may pour over your memories the blessings of nostalgia, and conjure up only the good. If you came, or come from a bad place, it is the place you dream of being.

I have named these regions of Conundropia with reference to Stephen Leacock’s own experience, as I understand it. For him, Mariposa was Mariposa, the place he passed through briefly in his early years. I have no reason to believe that he viewed it with nostalgia, although he thought others might. His City was first Toronto, then Montreal, with the city of Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich thrown in. His Country was clearly the cottage in Orillia, and the University Club in Montreal. His Rus is, I believe, an unsolved riddle. It might be his British Empire, which was certainly not the real one. But I am sure it’s more complicated than that.

That leaves one more region, which I have called The University, which is the place where you learn to be wise, to the extent that you do. To a notable extent Leacock’s three universities — Toronto, Chicago, and McGill — were his Universities, and that’s how it should be. But I think perhaps his reading was more important. He was a tremendous reader, in several languages. I am not sure what kind of a listener he was — perhaps a good one, when he was listening. But I get the impression he tended to be more of a talker.

Perhaps reading should be dignified as the National Pastime of Conundropia.

More of all this anon.

 

Stephen Leacock, J.M. Keynes and Professor Ed Jewinski

Now it is time for us to bear down again on the rediscovery of Stephen Leacock and his Mariposa, where we began. He has so much to offer in these confused and conflicted times, and people who can do what he did remain so rare, that we do ourselves an injury when we forget about him.

Memorials like the Leacock Museum in Orillia and the annual Stephen Leacock Medal keep him in our minds in important ways. But he gave much more to the people of his day, when they chose to pay attention, and his gift remains for us, in his writings and the story  of his life.

As with most wide-ranging commentators in any era, we do not need to pay attention to everything he said. Others have pointed out his “dark side”, or rather dark sides, which certainly showed themselves from time to time; the best we can say about them is that they were the dark sides of his times, and we have dismissed at least some of them. But I am finding that some even of these were perhaps not as dark as quotations out of context would suggest, and that his writings on these subjects can reveal considerable complexity. I will go into detail in subsequent letters.

We are a little prone these days to dwell on the dark sides of phenomena and ignore the illuminated and illuminating sides. Stephen Leacock showed a more than generous measure of those too, and they are worth understanding.

More than that, however, I am finding the content of his ideas on political, economic, social, environmental, and cultural matters less intriguing than the cast of mind he brought to their discussion. That is what I want to explore, understand, and communicate to you and more widely. I view him now primarily as a teacher, one who sought to encourage us to think and to discuss in certain ways, to serve not as a provider of ideas on important public questions, but as a catalyst.

When I studied chemistry, a long time ago, a catalyst was defined as an agent that brought about a reaction without itself being changed. Something along those lines anyway. Stephen Leacock cannot now be changed, because he has been dead for nigh on 73 years. I am not yet sure how much he changed in the 74 years of his life, when he was in a position to be more than a catalyst. Perhaps he never was more. Perhaps that was enough, gloriously enough.

I grew up with the humorist cast of Leacock’s mind, and revere it still. I began to discover the rest of it when I came across, and thought about, two phrases. The first came from the great economist John Maynard Keynes, who judged one of Leacock’s economic books to be “extraordinarily commonplace”. It seems clear enough on the surface that Keynes did not think the book worth publishing, and so it was treated by that publisher. But in my lexicon “extraordinary” and “commonplace” are antithetical words. Why did Keynes put them together? What was he trying to say? (See note (1) below.)

The second came from Professor Ed Jewinsky of Wilfrid Laurier University. He judged Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, considered by many to be Leacock’s masterpiece, as a “supreme achievement of fragmentation, incompleteness, and inconclusiveness.” Another antithesis! Most people, including myself, would not instinctively understand the book that way, but Professor Jewinsky, who had thought about the matter more than most and with more tools, did. (See note (2) below.)

If Stephen Leacock, Anglo-American Canadian professor in his time, is the Prophet of Inherent and Inescapable Antithesis, then is he perhaps a prophet for our time? I think he might be. And I think it possible that the importance he attached to laughter is part of his prophecy. And is Mariposa the home of his imagination? Maybe it is. Maybe I have been on the wrong tack about the place all along.

And so the exploration continues, and will as long as necessary.

Thank you for reading.

 

Sources of quotations:

(1) Keynes was hired by the MacMillan Company of England to read Economic Prosperity for the British Empire, submitted to them by Leacock in 1930. The book was published in England by Constable and Co. Ltd. It was previously published by MacMillan of Canada. Found in Carl Spadoni, A Bibliography of Stephen Leacock and other places.

(2) Professor Jewinsky’s conclusion comes from his article in Stephen Leacock: A Re-Appraisal, U of Ottawa Press, 1986 and available on-line.

The Gold and the Dross: for the Love of Stephen Leacock

January 12, 2016

What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross

What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lovest well is thy true heritage …

—Ezra Pound

To love Stephen Leacock in the year 2016 is to beat against the stream. But since when have we, in this country, objected to up-stream travel? The whole story of Canadian discovery and settlement—and I am not talking only of the past few hundred years—rings with the strokes and steps of people working their way up-stream, or up-hill, or both, to see where the water came from, and what lay beyond. I believe we must do the same in the unending need to discover our literature. No coasting with the current in that sphere, nor in most others.

With Stephen Leacock we travel at a disadvantage, because the best of him that people loved died when he stopped speaking—to his students at McGill when he reluctantly retired in 1936; to his audiences when he returned from his western Canadian tour later that year; to his family and friends when the cancer gripped his throat and he died in early 1944. What remains is what he wrote.

Even if he had made recordings of his lectures—and I have as yet seen no evidence that he did—I do not think they would have captured what made them so funny. From all accounts, jokes and laughter bubbled up through him in a constant flow, making him wonderfully amusing company as long as you were able to catch his humour on the fly and did not try to think about what it was saying. Speech is ephemeral, and you can remember of it what you choose; what someone writes is much more exposed.

When we try to love him for what he wrote we must first get past the quantity of the stuff, and the carelessness with which he sometimes wrote. One does not read the bulk of the remnants of Stephen Leacock, one must mine it. Gold there is, in plenty, but dross too, even more. Monumental is the slag-heap of Leacock verbiage, because it is bad, because it is sloppy, because it is wrong-headed, or simply because it does not matter any more, if it ever did. But ah, the nuggets of gold, and the delight in finding!

I will continue to confess, as I have before, that I cannot discover much gold in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), except perhaps of the pyritical kind. The portrait of John Henry Bagshaw, the “representative” politician, is pure gold. Occasional bits of coloured rock pop up here and there, often not well polished. But I cannot forgive the author for his treatment of the female characters, and some of the men, which I find unkind and reprehensible in a writer who claimed that kindliness is the foundation of humour. And I cannot join the whole school of interpretation that sees in the book a well-grounded satire or portrayal of small-town life. A few cheap shots perhaps, but I am not convinced even they were intended. I have experienced a great deal more small-town life than Stephen Leacock ever did, or ever claimed to do, and believe we do him and his book an injustice if we colour it in ways he never meant. He was trying to tell funny stories about comical characters in an imaginary comical place, and his concluding effort to railroad us into believing that we should view that Mariposa with nostalgia fails to convince. It’s a comic book, that’s all: Astérix in prose.

I find abundant gold in his first two collections of humorous sketches: Literary Lapses (1910), and Nonsense Novels (1911), not much in the remainder, which appeared almost annually for the rest of his life. The problem, I believe, lies in the fact that most sketches were written as magazine pieces, a form which tends to lose its vitality when concentrated into whole volumes—see also Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Richard Needham, and many others. Not all the good ingredients of a soup make a good whole meal.

The above is a long-winded way (for a blog) to say that I do not believe we in our time should try to love Stephen Leacock for his humour, enjoyable as bits of it remain. If he is, in fact, our greatest humourist, then that is a sad, not a triumphant, statement. And we cannot love him for his academic writings, which never rose above the commonplace (or even “extraordinarily commonplace”, as Keynes called some of them). We can respect him, warmly I think, for what he wrote professionally for teaching purposes, which was solid and useful in its day. He was first and foremost a teacher, a great gift to his students, almost all of whom must be dead by now. For his teaching to have carried forward into future generations, he would have needed to be a greater scholar than he was.

Despite all these reservations, however, I persist in believing that his legacy remains golden, well-loveable, a fitting part of our true heritage. I do so, because he had yet another voice, another vein. He was a public intellectual, who read widely, thought intensely, and cared deeply about his country and his world, and how they could be made better. He was distressed and angry at the poverty, the indifference, the ignorance and greed, the lack of principle, the injustice, the violence, the bad policy and governance, that surrounded him, and he would remain so today. He wrote about these evils with passionate common sense, rising to wisdom, and if we cannot love a man for that, then something is wrong with us.

For the next year, or however long it takes, I am going to interpret his life, his work, his essence, as the search for a Mariposa that is worthy of the nostalgia he invites us to feel at the end of his most famous book.  He didn’t find it then, and when he went back, thirty years later, almost at the end of his life—in his last collection: Happy Stories, Just to Laugh At (1943)—when he tried to make it worthy of our nostalgia, he was not strong enough to rise above the sentimental. He was old then, no doubt exhausted, deeply saddened by the Great Depression and the recurrence of hideous war, in the early stages of a mortal illness, and simply not up to the task.

I am just as old, but fresh to the quest. I am going to find the true Mariposa, and tell you about it. I am going to find it in his writings. I am going to mine them. But I have read enough already to know that I will find both gold and dross, that they together are our true heritage, that Nostalgia-Worthy-Mariposa is not an utopia, but an attainable place where we can live if we choose.