Category Archives: Mariposa

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 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.


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.

Walking from Centre to Clockre-5-60-9: Education and Learning

The Eleventh Meeting of the Mariposa Hunt Club (hunting the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice), recorded this 4th day of June, 2019, took place in blissful oblivion to the fact that since the previous meeting Mariposa has been elevated from a city of conventional location to an aerial floating island somewhat similar to Jonathan Swift’s Laputa. Similar, that is, in geography, not in culture. From the point of view of the inhabitants, Mariposa remains the middling, muddling city it was before. Only from the outside does it appear as an aerial floating island.

It floats above the land of the Sagacities whose dire streets run with Charged Ooze, or “Chooze”, an organic amalgam of the Charged-Charmed Global-Perceptual Membrane-Medium-MemBrain, where a star-nosed mole and a feminequine centaur are busily engaged in stalking the Yottapede of the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice while blowing their version of the Slug-Horn,—see the Stalking (Monday) Blog for clarification, or obfuscation, or whatever lurks there. Right along the edge of the floating island of Mariposa winds a trail wide enough for three to walk abreast, from which can be observed both the Labyrinth being walked by the Mariposan Hunt Club and the Sagacities below. Along this trail Olde Stephen (Stephen Leacock’s ghost), you, and I, are making our slow conversational way. Our progress and findings will from now on be described in the Talking (Wednesday) Blog. This one is the Walking (Tuesday) Blog and so it will remain for quite some time.

The Mariposans have tuned their walking to their own version of the Slug-Horn, which is their Slogan, which came to them when they arrived at the Centre of their Labyrinth:


In order to help us understand what it means and how it works, the walkers have condescended to apply it this week to Education, a phenomenon relevant the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, well established, well known, and well respected even in the midst of its controversies. In my role as minute-taker I will summarize the conversation as best I can.

First question: Of what importance is Education to the pursuit of Social Justice? Our Answer: Of crucial importance, as being essential to the fundamental goal of Equality of Opportunity. Elaboration unnecessary.

Second question: What does our Slogan mean, when applied to Education. Our Answer: It means exactly what it says, that in order for Education to serve Social Justice it must be conducted dauntlessly, step by step, both one at a time and all together. In other words, it must be led by courageous people, prepared to learn and experiment as they go along and whose judgement is not perverted by ideology into untried, revolutionary, and hence inevitably destructive upheavals, relying both on individual and collective effort. The former is multifarious, the latter embodied in our public institutions of learning, our schools, colleges, universities, and the rest.

Let us assume, for the moment, that it is reasonable to apply the Leacock Tetrad of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour to our analysis of the current state of Education, as seen through a Social Justice lens. All answers are tentative, because we are lay people observing through our own experience, not professional investigators backed by all resources necessary for definitive answers. This begs the question of whether anyone can validly claim the latter kind of authority, valuable as may be their informed contributions to the conversation.

Third Question: Are our students, young or old, being exposed to the kinds of Knowledge they will need to become intelligently aware of the Social Justice realm and all its needs? Our Answer: We sense a great deal of confusion about the kinds of kinds of Knowledge that our institutions ought to teach. How much of the learning we gain from experience as adults can we effectively encapsulate and inject into the minds of the young? Do we want students to emerge from their Education with skills for livelihoods, or with tools that will enable them to become wise with age and experience? Undoubtedly both, but the superficial attractions and short-term benefits of livelihood skills may push the other aside. If our educational tool is the classroom and its teachers, then we ought to use it appropriately, and not in the effort to teach things better learned in other environments with other kinds of people. The best kind of knowledge we can pass on to the young is the knowledge of how to learn.

Fourth Question: Are the minds of our students being developed so that they can imagine a world more socially just than the one we have now, and are encouraged to do so? Our Answer: That kind of mind is bicameral. It must have a “scientific” chamber cultivated to see things as they are and to understand how they work, and a “poetic” chamber cultivated to imagine beyond there into realms of better. These are essential “Both-Ands”, not “Either-Ors”. We fear that “Either-Or” has become entrenched in favour of the “scientific” chamber, not ideologically perhaps, but simply because it is easier both to teach and to explain. Efforts to cultivate the “poetic” chamber by “scientific” methods are fundamentally misguided.

Fifth Question: Are the spirits of our students being developed so that they can feel Compassion for the people around them who are in distress? That’s a tall order these days, because “around” is a big place, and distress takes a bewildering plethora of forms. Our Answer: Compassion is a “Both-And” power of Intellect and Sympathy. It is not merely a feeling. The Intellect required relies heavily on the “poetic” chamber of the bicameral mind. Sympathy of the necessary kind comes from real experience of diverse people, or from indirect experience acquired through the works of inspired artists. Indirect experience acquired from people who are uninspired non-artists may be perverse, almost as bad as what comes from perverts. The rest is clutter.

Sixth Question: When “Humour” shows up in our schools, does it take a form that will balance young minds and enable the kind of perspective that will serve Social Justice? Our Answer: No. From our vantage point, much of what goes on in formal Education at all levels seems singularly humourless. Occasionally teachers may be “funny”, but that is not the same thing. Making Education “fun” is not the same thing. Both these temptations may distract from the real need.

Next week’s walk has been postponed for certain lack of a quorum. The next one will take place on Tuesday, June 18th.


Walking Countre-5-60-7 Into the Centre: Slogan Time!

The Tenth Meeting of the Mariposa Hunt Club (hunting the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice), recorded this 28th day of May, 2019, began with a debate. The date is significant, by the way, because it marks the end of the second month of the Leacock Anniversaries, which began March 28th, the 75th anniversary of his death, and will end December 30th, the 150th anniversary of his birth. In between will come a re-writing of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice in time for its 100th anniversary. The Mariposa Hunt Club knew all this, of course. I am simply reminding you.

The debate concerned the nature of the Centre of the labyrinth. Is it a ring in its own right, or simply an extension of Countre-5-60-7 on the way in, and Clockre-9-60-7 on the way out, according to the naming scheme previously adopted? All agreed that in either case the number 8 ought to be awarded to it, as being 2 to the power of 3, or 10 in base-eight arithmetic. So much was obvious.

I did not take detailed notes of the debate, only the decision, which was pragmatic and both-and. The Centre was deemed to be both a ring and not a ring, both a stage in its own right and an extension of the rings immediately prior and posterior, arrival and departure being both events in their own right and each too brief to be made the agenda for an entire meeting. The walkers would consider the contents of their slogan while they walked Countre-5-60-7, and make their decision when they reached the Centre.

They found in Ring Five a little relief after the tight turns of the previous two. (In the labyrinth in my yard Ring Six must wind its way among some trees, making it unusually tortuous. Milk and garter snakes occasionally sun themselves there at the base of the trees, although I have never seen a rattlesnake in the labyrinth. Nearby occasionally, but not within it.) Ring Five is not all that long, however, and they felt the pressure to work quickly.

They decided their Slogan needed to express four ideas:

First, that Social Justice is, or appears to be, an Unsolved Riddle because of Fear;

Second, that Social Justice is, or appears to be, an Unsolved Riddle because of Impatience;

Third, that Social Justice is, or appears to be, an Unsolved Riddle due to a preoccupation with Individuality instead of Collectivity;

Fourth, that Social Justice is, or appears to be, an Unsolved Riddle due to a preoccupation with Collectivity instead of Individuality.

They fully realized, of course, that both Social Justice and the unsolved riddleness of it are more complicated than that, but they agreed that those four ideas captured the essence of what needed to be done and the right way to go about it.

For a brief time at the Centre they stood considering alternative wordings. They then gathered in a circle around Mayor Josie Smith who closed her eyes, paused to let the spirit move her, and announced their Slogan:


Afterwards, as they sat around diminishing the supply of refreshments and feeling good about what they had done, they asked Mayor Josie why she had chosen ‘Dauntlessly’ instead of ‘boldly’ (more positive, thought some), or ‘fearlessly’. “I didn’t choose it,” she said, “it just came to me. But I think it’s the right word. It sets the right tone, strong enough for the job, neither too aggressive nor too cautious. It’s a both-and word. And I’m hearing an echo from somewhere, but I can’t think where it is. Dauntless the something something from high school or university, I think, but I can’t remember the rest.”

“Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set and blew ‘Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came'” quoted Deanna Drone. “Browning.”

“Well done, Deanna!” enthused her brother Thoreau. “And do you know that ‘slug-horn’ and ‘slogan’ come from the same root? They’re from the Gaelic sluagh-ghairm, meaning a battle cry.”  And all agreed that with such a pedigree, ‘dauntless’ it would have to be.

“So how to we proceed now?” asked Martha Yodel, evoking much head-nodding and affirmative vocalization.

“Dauntlessly, step-by-step, one at a time and all together,” said Mayor Josie. “We walk out of the labyrinth in exactly that way, and if we do, repeating it over and over as we go, we will discover what each and all of us must do, individually and together, as neighbours, as citizens, as Mariposa, as our Province, as our Country, as our World must do. We must push past the Unsolved Riddle, push it aside, render it irrelevant, and meet Social Justice face to face: dauntlessly, step-by-step, one at a time and all together.”

“Amen to that!” said they all. And away they went, over hill and down dale, to their several or shared dwellings, happy in their work.


Walking Clockre-6-40-6: Today we have Consideration of Slogans

In the ninth week of the Leacock Anniversaries in 2019, on May 21st, we continue the Saga of the Labyrinth Walk by citizens of Mariposa in search of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, under the guidance of Mayor Josie Smith.

The whole conversation in these meetings is becoming a little more focussed, which is what one would want in such a process. The Mariposan system for naming and numbering the rings of their labyrinth are described in the previous posting. Today they are walking clockwise around the 6th ring in order numbering from the outside, this ring being 40 units long (longest 140, shortest zero because it is not a ring at all but rather the chute into the centre), and the 6th in order of walking.

Last week the gang decided that when they reached Centre-8-Zero they wanted to have a “slogan” that would frame their search for practicalities, and that they would devote the next two walkings (Clockre-6-40-6 today; Countre-5-60-7 next week) to consideration of slogans used by others with the same objective, if they could find any.

I think it is appropriate at this stage for me, the taker of minutes for their deliberations, to point out that their slogan-hunt may have some link with the slug-horn blowing of the two moles-in-aspect whose adventures are unfolding, albeit slowly, in the Dark Tower Saga of the Leacock blog. ‘Slogan’, and ‘Slug-Horn’ are etymologically related, closely. Blowing a Slug-Horn and shouting a Slogan may be the same act.

When Mayor Josie proclaimed the search for slogans open, Sheldon Uttermost immediately reached for his lap-top, but the others asked him politely to put it away. They would see what they would come up with for themselves before they invited Aunt Google into the room. They would devote today’s walk to generating a long list, and next week’s to winnowing it down and inventing their own variations. When they reached Centre-8-Zero they would make their choice.

Here is their Long List:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (The Golden Rule)
Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you. (The GR reversed)
Love your neighbour as yourself. (Anglican Prayer Book)
Liberty, Fraternity, Equality (French Revolution)
Life, Liberty, Happiness (American Revolution)
All for One and One for All
From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. (Karl Marx)
Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. (John Kennedy)
We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. (Martin Luther King)
Ask not just what will government do for me, but what can I do for myself. (Richard Nixon)
With malice towards none, with charity towards all. (Abraham Lincoln)
We have nothing to fear but Fear itself. (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
Try to be a little kinder. (Aldous Huxley)
The essence of Social Justice is equality of opportunity and the alleviation of misery. (Stephen Leacock)
Give us people of good will whose hearts are in the cause and our happiness is assured. (Stephen Leacock)

The attributions I have assigned to each of these may be correct, or may not. They came from the group, and I haven’t checked them. This is a record of their conversations, not something scholarly.

The list could have been a lot longer. Each idea evoked discussion, because many beg for clarification. The meeting went on until nearly midnight. As the group made its way out into the street, I overheard Deanna Drone say, “It’s the Both-And part that’s difficult, isn’t it. We don’t want to take away the chance to be rich, only the chance to be poor. The chance, that is, the bad luck. Not the choice. We want to leave things alone when they are relatively harmless, and meddle with them when they are not. It’s all a big muddle.” And they danced off down the street singing:

Meddling with the Muddle
Is like falling in a puddle!
Let us throw off the befuddle-
Ment arising from our huddle
And go home to have a cuddle.

This sounded like a good idea to me, so I did it too.

Labyrinth Ring Moonbeam : 4th Walked : Getting Ready to Clobber the Bawl

Describing what was achieved during the Seventh Meeting of the labyrinthine Hunt for the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice in the middling city of Mariposa. As this posting turned out, it is appropriate that these folks are walking the ring they  have called Moonbeam, related to lunar, related to lunacy. This metaphorical reasoning is truly very, very difficult to control.

If you think the order of walking this kind of labyrinth is strange, don’t blame me. Blame the Cretans. Apparently they worked out the whole scheme: A circle of seven rings in convoluted array with a chute to the centre, to be walked alternating between clockwise and widdershins at each turn into the centre, then back out again; from outside into the third (numbered from the outside) ring, then second, then first, fourth, seventh, sixth, fifth, into the centre, out of the centre, then fifth, sixth, seventh, fourth, first, second, third, and outside again; in all, including entry and exit, 18 separate stages just like a golf course. This analogy is apposite because our little band of Mariposans had resolved in their previous seance to carry fourteen tools, like a golfer.

I wish I could recount for you in detail the conversation leading to the final list, but I cannot. It lasted four hours, continuing unabated during breaks, and all were talking fast because they were excited. Including the times when two or three were talking at once, I figure the average flow was a minimum of 150 words per minute, and could easily have been 175. Using the lower estimate, in four hours that’s 36,000 words. Nobody wants to read a 36,000 word blog post, least of all you. Perish forbid! I have already written 220 words and haven’t said anything yet. I had better cut to the chase and tell you what they came up with for their fourteen hunting tools, or “clobs”, as they decided to call them.

Before I give you the list, however, I draw your attention to the other essential occupant of a golf bag, that being the ball, or rather for most golfers, a supply of balls. The purpose of the clubs is to overcome the inertia of the ball. The ball may therefore be described as an inert force which refuses to move in the desired direction until firmly overcome. Those who dream of Social Justice face many such forces, equally inert or more so. A golf ball, after all, is designed to fly or roll when struck. Unlike a soccer ball or a hockey puck, however, it is a sitting target. A skilled practitioner using the right club for the situation, therefore, can do almost magical things with it. I could embroider my analogy at much greater length but will not, having passed 400 words and still not said anything.

Golf clubs used to have colourful names, like driver, putter (both still used), spoon, mashie, niblick, cleek, brassie (all now obsolete). Most clubs are numbered nowadays, a great loss to the poetry of the game. But I digress.

The fourteen ‘clobs’ finally chosen by the Mariposan band on their trek around Moonbeam, the fourth ring, are as follows:

Pluraliser :: used for recognizing Pluralism;

Puzzler :: used for recognizing Unsolved Riddles;

Coherenator :: used for overcoming Fragmentation;

Completer :: used for overcoming Incompleteness;

Concluder :: used (always most carefully) for overcoming Inconclusiveness;

Congruver :: used for reconciling incongruous juxtapositions;

Both-Ander :: used for coping with hazards of the either-or kind;

Knowledge :: should always be complemented by application of the Both-Ander;

Imagination :: the indispensable clob; no inertia can be overcome without it;

Compassion :: clob for choosing the appropriate direction;

Humour :: clob for dealing with inherent imperfections;

Conversation :: everyday, working clob;

Negotiation :: clob for overcoming conflicting inertias;

Education :: clob for learning the game and basic clobbing skills.

The game, which could be called Gulf but also might be called Bridge (if that game-name were not already taken), must also be further learned by playing it, a process called Experience.

It is important to note,—and the participating Mariposans did note it,—that except in those situations in golf where one is permitted to “tee-up” the ball, the player will  find that the ball, after application of the club, always rolls into a ‘lie’ of some kind, be it good, bad, up-hill, down-hill, level, etc. Thus each stroke of the game may be succinctly described as overcoming the inertia of the ball as it rests in its lie and moving it closer to the hole. Gaining the hole is an incremental process which cannot normally be accomplished in one felled swoop. Furthermore, the game is not complete until the player has put the ball into 18 holes, that being the number for Life in Jewish numerology.

By changing the spellings slightly we can thus describe each stroke of the ‘game’ which is the Hunt for the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice: To address the ‘bawl’ (as in Vale of Tears) and its ‘lie’ with the appropriate ‘clob’ (using a ‘tea’ where allowed), and to move it stroke by stroke into the ‘whole’. Since courses in this game are always found in natural environments, the number of wholes may vary.

The Mariposans now have their bagful of clobs and are ready to address the bawl and clobber it, as the expression goes. I urge you to remember, however, that this gulf course is a labyrinth, convoluted in shape, and requiring to be walked both ways to attain its end. Imagine what the game of golf would be like if it were played from tee to green and back again along a route that offers no fair way but only a crudely cultivated, ever-changing, un-mapped wilderness of rough, scrub, bunkers, water hazards, pine straw, and areas that are out of bounds.

Hunting the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice is no game for the faint of heart.




Walking the Labyrinth of Possibilities

Week Two of LEACOCK 150~100~75! April 2nd, 2019.

Since the group had acquiesced in Mayor Josie Smith’s insistence that they should pretend they were on a Hunt for the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, that that was the best available metaphor for what they were doing, they were a little startled when she began talking about labyrinths. “Aren’t you rather mixing your metaphors?” asked Deanna Drone, and a consensus quickly appeared that she was.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large,  I contain multitudes,” replied Mayor Josie, airily. “Or rather, I believe we may find the Truth not in one metaphor, nor in the other, nor half-way between them if there is such a place, but in both metaphors.” She then went on at some length to describe what happens when you walk a labyrinth of the ‘Cretan’ or ‘Classical’ design. Your project is to walk a set area of ground intensively, thoughtfully, meditatively, with absorption, following the seven circular paths which segue one into the next. Numbering the circles from one to seven from the outside, you begin in the third one, and walk it around its circle. Effectively, you are taking a middle view of the ground. Then you bend around the opposite way into second circle, and walk around it. You are viewing the ground more widely, but not as widely as you could. You then bend around into the first circle, for the full perimeter view. Then, following the path, you bend back to the middle, into the fourth circle and then, surprisingly, into the seventh, which circles tightly around the centre, where you are going, but not into it. Instead, you bend back to the sixth, then back to the fifth,—circling the centre but keeping in touch with the outside,—at the end of which the path opens straight to the centre. But you don’t stop there. You then go back along the circles, bending from one to the other in reverse order, until you are back around the third ring and out the way you came in.

When Mayor Josie had finished this long and complicated exposition, with the help of diagrams, nothing would do of course but a mass pushing back of chairs, a finding of chalk, much drawing of circles on the floor, and a solemn parade around the circles and back, so they could truly understand what she had said. Dimly, somehow, they thought it might be important, if not for itself, at least for setting their minds up properly.

They had thoughtfully laid out their labyrinth with the entrance-exit right next to the refreshment table, around which they gathered for a few final words from Mayor Josie, because the hour was now late.

“We’ll start here next week,” she told them, “but our hunt will be much more difficult, because the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice lives in a wilderness whose extent we do not know, laced with many confusing paths which we can only trust will give us the shape we need, into the centre where the Unsolved Riddle lives. But it may move around while we are hunting! This will be, indeed, a tricky hunt, for a slippery and elusive quarry.  But when we have found it, and tamed it, we will indeed have something not only for ourselves, but for our children, our grandchildren, and beyond.”

“When it moves around, will it oscillate around a centre, or will it wander over the entire wilderness?” asked Thorpe Bagshaw.

“I think we had better hope for centralized oscillation, don’t you? But I don’t think we can know for sure. We’ll have to take our chances.” And with that thought they adjourned.

Now you may wonder why I have taken up your valuable time this way. It’s because I believe the Cretans, or whoever it was, may have been onto something. I think that their ‘classical’ labyrinth says something profound about the way the human mind, or conversing group of minds, naturally tackles difficult questions of the Unsolved Riddle kind. You start with the two,—often more,—polarities that constitute the Riddle, the “extremes” (as Charles Simeon called them) both,—all,—of which are True in some valid sense. The area between them is the ‘ground’ for the labyrinth, at the ‘centre’ of which is the ‘solution’, whatever these words may mean in the specific context. You can try linear approaches, or a spiral path, and there is much cultural attraction for us in so doing. But if the poles are in fact both true, and if the ‘solution’ does not lie at one pole or the other, but at both of them, then I don’t think a linear or spiral approach is going to work. It might get you to half-way between the poles, but it won’t get you to both of them at the same time.

I find it interesting, and encouraging, that the Mariposans are prepared to try the Cretan approach. Over the next few months in this blog I will tell you how that went. In the Stephen Leacock blog Olde Stephen and I will explore Stephen Leacock’s approach, if we can pin it down. Olde Stephen is a ghost, and his intellectual prowess remains uncertain. Stephen Leacock’s approach may turn out to be more of a maze than a labyrinth, but perhaps not. I will work out my own approach in my own blog, using the tools I learned in my youth and over the years. Both these other blogs are linked in the panel to the right. I will try to keep these approaches connected in the weekly Leacock’n Bulletin, and in the Voyageur Storytelling web site, also linked on the right.

It will take a month or two for this whole approach to shake down and work properly, if it ever does. Be that as it may, I am confident that at the end of the whole process we will have a new The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, and that whatever clouds of uncertainty it may trail, they will at least be no cloudier than were Stephen Leacock’s, all those one hundred years ago.

Posted by Paul Conway, Voyageur Storytelling.




In the Beginning: Tohu-Bohu of the Most Civilized Kind

Tuesday, March 26th 2019: First Post here, Second Post overall. (Posts will flow weekly here on Tuesdays.)

Council for the middling City of Mariposa meets formally in the Council Chamber of course. It is a room that the mayor, Josie Smith, particularly hates on account, she says, of its mind-boggling pretentiousness and the elevated stage on which Council sits, looking down on any members of the public who can get past the City Clerk and onto the agenda. Mayor Josie is a levelling democratist of the most severe kind. When she has been in office long enough,  knows her way around, and has enough support, she will do something about that room. If she can get away with it she will elevate the public above the Council, where they belong. Josie intends to be mayor for a long, long time. She wants the whole hog. She won’t squander money and political good will on half measures. She has promised the voters a level, democratic process aimed at Social Justice, and that is what they are going to have, try her patience however it may.

She is devoted to her home city with every fibre of her being, equal to but not greater than her devotion to her husband and eleven children. She is a Smith of Mariposa by direct descent who kept her maiden name because her husband, Omur Ugabu, coming from a sternly matriarchal tradition, thought it more fitting. The children call themselves Smith, or Ugabu, or Smith-Ugabu, or Ugabu-Smith, according to whim and to the immense confusion of bureaucracies. Josie is short, slight, blonde, and pale, Omur the opposite. The children mix these extremes variously. They all get along very well.

It was inevitable that the first meeting of the Mariposa Official Symposium on Social Justice, or MOSOSJ, would start with an argument. Mayor Josie wanted it that way, and the citizenry were only too happy to oblige. She made sure there was plenty of booze on hand, because it was after all a symposium, and she cast the affair in simple-minded almost childish terms, as a Hunt. She allowed a half-hour for drink-and-chat before discussion began, and added further to the irritation by referring to the disposable paper drinking vessels as “stirrup cups”.

“Madam Mayor,” intoned Sheldon Uttermost when the gathering had once more filled their stirrup-cups and settled in a circle, “I do not understand why the City  is serving alcohol at this gathering, which I believe has a solemn purpose. And what’s all this nonsense about a hunt?”

“What’s that in your glass, Sheldon?” asked Josie.

“Water. I am here for Social Justice, not for incontinent dissipation or puerile jocosity.” Groans from the gathering.

“Indeed,” replied Josie, “let us have no incontinence. A little jocosity from time to time, perhaps, to lighten our labours.” In the pause while Sheldon groped for enough syllables to give him the upper hand she went on: “We are having alcohol because cannabis cannot be smoked in a public room and such food and drinks are not yet legal. The City is paying for drinks for the same reason that it pays for ice at the arena: so that the pursuits of the people will slide along with less friction. I call it a Hunt because it is one, and I believe that if we take that for inspiration rather than inhibition, we will have better success. Council wants this creature caught, and tamed. Since first spotted ages ago it has proved itself elusive and slippery. It lives in the jungled wilderness of human affairs. It will not be caught and tamed without cunning and resolve. The metaphor is exact.”

“Our Founder called it an Unsolved Riddle,” said Deanna Drone, who read a lot.

“And so it is,” said the mayor. The gathering buzzed its agreement.

Then Uncle Henry, as he was always called, who was seated off to one side, and who lived a contradictory kind of life as a sociable solitaire in the bush just beyond the city limits, rose to his feet and chanted: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail. Many the travellers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, or the tramp of the horse, or even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.

“Yes indeed, but even more elusive and slippery than that,” said Mayor Josie Smith. “Thank you Uncle Henry. And now, I think we had better fill our stirrup-cups once more, and get started.”

And there I will leave them until next Tuesday.

Posted by Paul Conway, Voyageur Storytelling

The City of the Beginning of Things

In 1912 Mariposa was, famously, a little town. Just exactly what kind of 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 Owen Sound to Nanaimo to Whitehorse and Yellowknife.

In other words, Mariposa is an imaginary place. If Peter Ustinov can have an imaginary country that he carries around with him for restorative purposes, then I can have an imaginary city. It will have its own story eventually, I hope, to be called perhaps All-Weather Sketches of a Middling City, in order to avoid some of the pitfalls of sunshine sketches of little towns, pitty and fally as they inevitably turn out to be.

I hope it will prove restorative for you too.

Mariposa is many things, from hockey leagues to chamber concert series to seasonal carnivals to promenades along Main Street to coffee shops to pubs to churches to schools to all kinds of stores to factories to train and bus stations to service stations to medical clinics and hospitals to a university and a community college to a fine public library in a new building to a city council and all the trappings in an architecturally significant city hall and in short the whole panorama of contemporary small urban life. It is also, somewhat unusually, a City of Literary Refuge, as it likes to style itself, officially a UNESCO City of Literature, which is not exactly the same thing. Most of all, of course, it is a city of people, diverse people, women and men both dong and ding summer autumn winter spring reaping their sowings and wenting their came sun moon stars rain and all the rest of it.

Most importantly for my present purpose, however, Mariposa is to the hub of the great 2019 Hunt for the Wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, that purpose, in case you have not heard, being to produce a celebration of the Stephen Leacock Anniversaries this year: the 150th of his birth in 1869, the 75th of his death in 1944, and the 100th of his book The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. I am resolved that we should celebrate the life and work of this phenomenal Canadian voice, hunt down the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, tame it, and re-write the book. I view this as a national endeavour, and will do everything I can to make it so. This post is written as we approach the launch date of March 28th.

This whole extravaganza will, as far as I know right now, take place entirely on line. I am establishing several ways that you can engage in it:

  • by following my Twitter spot @conwaypaulw;
  • by following Voyageur Storytelling’s Facebook page;
  • by following any one of the three blogs, each of which will link to the others;
  • by sending me an e-mail at and asking to be on the mailing list.

If you are following either Twitter or Facebook I ask you most politely to ricochet any postings to your friends so that we can swell the group, even exponentially.

The three blogs are:

I invite you to comment in any fashion that these various media allow, or send me an e-mail, and look forward to hearing from you.

Posted by Paul Conway