Monday, November 30, 2009

Who on Earth Are All These Romanians?

One particularly unusual discovery I made on the internet this weekend was the wikipedia page for Romanian Philosophy. I stumbled on this during a typical bout of procrastination while I was editing one of my essays. Sometimes, I look up random countries on wikipedia and see what our semi-democratic encyclopedia has to say about them. I noticed that the page on Romania had a link to a separate item on Romanian philosophy. I decided to check it out, expecting a brief summary of university growth in the country, perhaps a paragraph on restrictions under the Ceausescu regime, and a list of a few people writing today.

When I got there, I discovered a page that described, in chronological order, every figure who made some original contribution to philosophy in Romania from the 17th century to the present. Each figure got at least one paragraph describing their basic concepts, publications, and place in the philosophical societies and divisions of Romania. The entire article was easily 10,000 words long. The grammar was sometimes mildly sketchy, as if every now and then an English sentence would be written with a Romanian word order at the beginning. But these were rare enough that I could tell this incredibly comprehensive page was written by a fluent English speaker. English was certainly a second language, but the writer was fluent.

The page was first created in summer 2007, by an editor named Bogdan Rusu. And I must say that I am impressed. Not only is this page clearly the summation of a great deal of research, but it strikes me as having a sense of futility about it. I was fascinated to read through such a detailed summary of the development of the philosophical institution about which I previously knew nothing. But as I read through the article, what struck me was how none of this sometimes very creative philosophical activity ever made it outside Romania to any degree.

There’s an engagement with Hegel and Kant that has travelled in entirely different directions than in the regions more mainstream to a philosopher in Canada, the English, French, and German languages. This has lasted just as long in Romania as in Germany, because many of Hegel’s students were Romanians who returned to work in philosophy departments of their home country. From what I can gather, Heidegger was appropriated into the Romanian scene in the way I’m used to seeing, but there are a couple of idiosyncratic engagements with his ideas. Analytic philosophy never made much headway, aside from a few smaller groups of logicians and knowledge theorists. I think this might be because it took a long time for Russell and Wittgenstein’s works to be translated into Romanian. And the continental traditions, with its roots in Hegel, would have found a fertile conceptual ground in Romania, which already had quite an affinity with Hegel anyway.

What I think about most, though, is the degree to which a thriving philosophical scene can be isolated by political and linguistic factors. Romania spent much of the twentieth century isolated from the philosophical revolutions happening in Germany, France, Britain, and America. So their philosophers weren’t able to enter a dialogue with the vanguard in those countries. The English language attacks on Hegel made no impact there. And now we’re left with a country that has had a fascinating philosophical development, but that has made no contribution to what we in North America think of as ‘mainstream’ philosophy. Accidents of development and politics have made an intriguing tradition practically irrelevant.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Few More Thoughts on Unadulterated Terror

So as I finish reading the fourth, most brutally violent part, of 2666, I discovered this piece of news about one of the latest killings in Juarez. In this example, a 28 year old man and his 7 year old son were both shot, execution style, in their car. The BBC writes about it here. Even after the descriptions of constant violence in that fictional, yet accurate, book, I think this even pushes the limit past what Bolaño was writing about.
In other political news that provokes my utter disgust, the Canadian government has been slandering one of its leading career diplomats, Richard Colvin, because he's whistleblowing over our complicity in torture. After all, when the government's complicity in violence we would never condone in our own country is discovered, our leaders should act like real professionals and try to buy off the whistleblowers and cover it up. Instead, they act like spoiled bullies in an elementary school insulting a tattler.

I'm against torture and violence as political activities myself, but if you're going to break the ethics of your culture, society, and country, then the least you could do is understand that what you're doing is wrong. Attacking those who call you on your reprehensible acts adds ignorance to your list of offenses. Reacting as if the one who denounces torture is wrong implies that you think torture is right. If you think you should commit crimes for the sake of national security, you should at least be aware that you've made yourself a criminal.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Because, as You Know, Time Is Unreal

This is something funny I say lately when people ask me to be philosophical, even if it’s after 8.00 in the evening or I’ve had my second pint or equivalent wine or liquor. That’s the subject of an essay I read a couple of weeks ago by John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart, which was incredibly controversial at the time, because no one could deal with the idea that time wasn’t real. He wrote that we can never identify time itself, only the relative succession of events in order. Once I realized that was the point of his essay, I understood that it wasn’t controversial at all anymore, and that he only anticipated the conceptual leap of special relativity physics, just without the math. When I use that phrase at a party, I usually follow it up with, “But that doesn’t matter anyway.”

The reason I bring it up is that I started reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 again just after I got back from Edinburgh. The story had stuck with my memory, involuntarily popping up in my consciousness ever since I read it last winter, and no novel had done that to me before. I’ve been able to see a lot more of the interconnections and callbacks among the different parts now that I hadn’t noticed the first time, which has made it a much more rich reading experience. But just now, I was thinking about why the parts are arranged out of chronological order as they are in the book, and I came to an idea that makes an incredible amount of sense. Whether it was Bolaño’s or not doesn’t matter, but it’s a fascinating idea.

The Chronological Order of 2666
One: 1998-late 2003
Two: 1980-2000
Three: early 2003
Four: 1993-1997
Five: 1920-2003

I never really understood why a writer would arrange their work out of chronological order (unless it was actually a time-travel story, in which case the concept becomes kind of laughable, or at least it should) before I wrote A Small Man’s Town, which is told out of chronological order. You could say that I organized the events of my book not in chronological order, but in emotional order. My book is organized in a series of arcs in which my characters mature emotionally. Some of them move more chronologically than others because those characters don’t have as many setbacks in developing their maturity. I found that kind of structure to be more significant than a simple order of events from 2001-10, because none of the events in that book are really all that significant. So that’s why I never adhered strongly to chronology.

Just before I started writing this, I had this idea about why Bolaño didn’t adhere to chronology. 2666 is a novel about the abyss, a maelstrom of violence and death bubbling underneath the surface of the ordinary life we think is so secure, but that when we least expect it can swallow us whole (or chomp us up in pieces) and spit us back out days, months, years later reduced to a bloody pulp. This is not an uplifting Mitch Albom style story where everything is alright because we love each other. The problem with the abyss is that it’s a void, it’s so terrifying that it’s unspeakable. So all we can do is approach as close as we can without falling in.

And that’s what the order of the five parts of 2666 do. The protagonists of each part, as you progress from part one to part five, become better able to approach, perceive, and understand the abyss. The four literary critics of part one- Jean-Claude Pelletier, Manuel Espinoza, Liz Norton, and Piero Morini - are sheltered, cultured western Europeans of the 1990s and 2000s. They understand it only through art, particularly the literature of Benno von Archimboldi (whose work we never actually read or have described in any detail), and perceive it only through their incomprehensible dreams.

Oscar Amalfitano, the protagonist of part two, is a philosophy professor in Santa Teresa, the ficionalized Juarez where the killings of hundreds of women takes place. He perceives the abyss through his estranged wife’s madness and death from AIDS, and the voices he hears as he edges into madness himself. Oscar Fate, the American journalist visiting Santa Teresa by accident to cover a mediocre boxing match for his magazine, meets up with some low-level gangsters in the city, one of whom is dating Amalfitano’s daughter Rosa. He sees the violent criminal culture that renders the murder of hundreds of women so ordinary, and understands it well enough to know that he and Rosa are both in way over their heads.

The fourth part is about the killings themselves, or at least the first few hundred of them, and the investigations that the police, narcotrafficers, and gangs get involved in. This part puts us in the thick of the massacre itself, with only one young cop, Lalo Cura, standing out among a large ensemble cast this time, as the only one who believes that the police can solve the crimes, and actually working towards this himself.

And part five tells the life story of Benno von Archimboldi: how a young German boy who loves to swim gets enlisted in the Nazi army, fights on the Eastern Front, is shot in the neck, recuperates in the reclaimed cavern of a long dead Jewish sci-fi writer whose works inspire him to begin his own literary career, plucking his pen name from random thoughts at the time, falling in love with a slightly mad girl after whose death he wanders Europe as an itinerant even as his books becomes increasingly famous, while he himself embraces life for its impermanence, instability, and finitude, and all the small moments of joy that come throughout it if you’re ready to receive them, until one day he hears from his sister, an ordinary woman with a son who moved to America to start a business and found himself roped into this terrible matter of these murders in Santa Teresa. So Archimboldi flies to Mexico to help.

I think it’s intriguing that the character of Prof Amalfitano turns up in the most parts. I think, and this is entirely unfounded speculation, that if the rumours that a sixth part of 2666 exists or was planned or prepared, it would feature Amalfitano finally succumbing to complete insanity. It would perhaps involve Archimboldi as well, and perhaps an older Lalo Cura, though I cannot say if he would be jaded by then or just as determined to stop the killings even if he understands them as deeply as my reading suggests.

Monday, November 9, 2009

An Ancient, Subtle City

Well, the strike lasted a little over a week, and the deal we ended up with was pretty mediocre. The membership voted 58%, according to the union leadership, in favour of the university administration’s latest offer, even though there’s a practical pay cut across the board. I suppose it’s pretty hard for people in a position as prestigious as graduate students to realize when their contracts are terrible. The role of an academic is still held in high esteem. To most people, academics included, the idea that we’re exploited is pretty laughable.

I met one workman waiting at the Cootes drive picket line this afternoon who asked what we were striking over, and when I explained our issue with the high benefit charges for teaching assistants with families, he told me he had no sympathy for us because he had never had a benefit plan at all for his entire working life. It puts us in the absurd position of trying to argue that we have a right to strike when we already have better privileges than many other unionized people, like merely having a benefits plan at all. We’re in training to become one of the elites of society, and it’s very difficult to explain that trainee academics are considerably underpaid, and that an increasing number of professional academics have low-paying insecure university and college positions. The social prestige in which university professors and graduate students are held, I think, prevents us from making our case that we are shafted with growing frequency.

I hope the irony of this situation is appreciated.
It’s one thing to read that a city is several centuries old, and another experience entirely to walk through such a city, like Edinburgh. I have never been in a city built of stone, and it was immensely surprising to wander along a cobblestone street down roads flanked by some of the oldest skyscrapers in the world, huge grey apartment buildings the same colour as the streets themselves. For the three days of the conference, I walked there each morning, usually chilly, with the sun hanging low in the sky, often obscured by centuries-old masonwork stuffed to bursting with shops selling pastries, curry, fish and chips, secondhand books, and novelty hats, the last of which I meant to pick up for my Halloween costume, only to drop the ball again.

My friends Ray and Erin, who I stayed with, live in a comfortable if slightly drafty apartment on High street, the centre of the old town of Edinburgh, the district that was over five hundred years old. I spent the bulk of my time in the city in this neighbourhood, a decision I think was for the best. The whole neighbourhood is a dense maze of streets winding into each other in three dimensions. It was the easiest city to get lost in that I’ve ever experienced, and for the most obvious reason. Going in the same direction as you started the previous day could take you to an entirely different destination, which would be underneath where you wanted to go. Many streets are bridges leading over other, even older, streets, and I would not be able to tell you how to get back to the level on which you began.

One of the walking tours the conference booked for us took us to the large stone apartment complex that used to be the most prestigious place to live in all of Edinburgh. David Hume and Adam Smith once lived in that very building only a short distance away from where I was staying for that week. It is now University of Edinburgh’s most prestigious, and expensive, student residence. As our tour guide was telling us stories about Hume’s particularly crazy parties, a notably nerdy young Chinese man was taking his garbage out.

Stories about J. K. Rowling’s coffee shop, the ubiquity of kilts, and the best chicken vindaloo I’ve ever had in future entries.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Strikes and Music Leads to Thoughts on My Political Art

The expectation after my post last week was that this would be about some of the rest of my University of Edinburgh trip, but I’ve found myself in the middle of a labour action by the McMaster teaching assistants this week. I’m doing my twenty hours per week on the picket lines, though despite the university administration’s stonewalling, I don’t think the strike will last very long. This is more of a tangent about my art and the ideas that motivate it than the strike itself, which is being covered to death.

When I talk to people in cars giving them news about the negotiations and what our demands are, one piece of information that I’ve found especially compels them is the amount of money that TAs with families of their own have to pay for their family-rate health insurance. It’s too high, and TAs’ pay scales are mediocre enough without having these expenses on top of it. I can afford it, but I have no dependents, cheap rent, and no real expenses other than basic life.

So even though I’m on the picket lines to help the TAs who need help more than I do, I can’t help but feel disingenuous precisely because I’m fine. Who am I to speak for people in genuine financial trouble? Who am I to speak for people who go to sleep every night wondering if they’ll be able to feed their kids the next day, or next week? It’s condescending for a comfortable person to speak for someone in that situation.

Tonight, I’ve been listening to a free mixtape K’Naan (in my view probably the best rapper in Canada) and J.Period made, The Messengers. It’s a series of remixes of songs by Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan, interspersed with K’Naan discussing the role these artists played in his life, and in the political, social, and personal movements they sparked at the height of their careers. I downloaded it a while before I left for Edinburgh, and its music has stuck with me for weeks. K’Naan has crafted these remixes into duets, linking the African democracy movements, global anti-poverty activism, and the civil rights movements of the twentieth century to the political conflicts of the current time.

Among of the most affecting and powerful songs are a duet on “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” where Dylan’s verses alternate with K’Naan’s raps about global poverty, African gangsterism, and endless cycles of violence; and his remix of Bob Marley’s “Jonny Was a Good Man,” where K’Naan creates new verses between Marley’s chorus, describing a traumatized Iraq veteran who refuses to follow his orders and return to yet another tour, including graphic scenes of children mutilated and killed by the bombing raids of the soldier’s own army.

K’Naan grew up in Somalia through the collapse of the government. He fell in with gangster life in Baltimore, and only survived after the American INS chased his family to Toronto, where he discovered his musical talent. He can tell these stories because these are stories of genuine violence and hardship that he overcame. As a novelist, I want to write about these stories: these are the stories that matter today. Just as Bolaño can write about the crimes of the Latin American dictators because he lived there, and fled from there; just as K’Naan can write about the violence of Somalia because he lived that violent life: these are the stories of our era.

Contrast this to me. I’m a white male from an upper middle class background. The only stories that I can legitimately write about are breakups and love stories, tales of other rich white people who don’t get what they want. This is the situation of a great many artists in the West who want to tell important stories about the violence and injustice of our world. But our affluent lives insulate us from this injustice: we don’t have the rights to tell stories that really matter. The only pain in our lives comes from breakups; we know nothing of violence. I would be condescending to try to tell these stories, and I would probably get it all wrong precisely because I haven’t lived it.

I understood my solution as I wrote my first novel, A Small Man’s Town, my book about Newfoundland. My characters, especially in their youth as leftist student activists, interacted with people from genuinely violent regions like Palestine and Colombia. And I worked out how a person like me, who has never known violence or had to overcome it, can write about that violence. The very quest to avoid condescension itself, striving to escape being part of the problem, straining against the indifference that comes with wealth, is the awakening political consciousness of the wealthy.

It’s a kind of political shame that we have lived for so long without knowledge of our luck, and our unwitting roles in the exploitation of others. The political task of the affluent in this world is to become mindful of the suffering of others, and accept that this cannot be our world. I don’t think I’m articulating this concept well, but I want at least to try, to make one first attempt to understand this political consciousness the longs for redemption for his mindlessness to suffering, yet accepts that it is impossible.