Archive for June, 2011

When I was twelve, I thought J. R. R. Tolkien the greatest writer in the world. By the time I was 15, I was appreciating Shakespeare, and reading systematically through the collected poems of Byron and Shelley. But it wasn’t until after my bachelor’s degree in English that I could read Dickens for pleasure, and I was doing my master’s before I became a fan of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and the other Victorian novelists. These experiences, I believe, indicate something that is often overlooked in high schools and universities – namely, that you can only read a writer in your own time, and when that time occurs is partly dependent on gender.

The question is not just one of age, although those who try to classify young adult fiction would have you believe everything is that simple. Admittedly, my own trail shows a progression in subtlety, from Tolkien’s action-packed adventures to the verbal cleverness of Shakespeare and the iconoclasm and revolutionary spirit of the Romantic poets (so suitable to a boy who believed in social causes), and becomes increasingly nuanced after that. But it is also a matter of increased experience and perception as well.

Just as few great novels are written by anyone under twenty-five, so few great novels are likely appreciated by men under twenty-five. The majority of teenage boys (and I was no exception) simply don’t have the experience to have developed the taste for demanding works when they’re young. The insights that underlie a novel, let alone the rhythms of a strong prose stylist, represent a kind of aesthetic puberty that teenage boys and young men haven’t reached yet. Few of them can appreciate such things any more than a pre-pubescent child can appreciate the intricacies of sex and love.

By contrast, plot-driven stories such as Tolkien’s seem accessible to males at a relatively young age. You only have to see the selection of blockbuster movies aimed at the taste of young males to see the truth of this fact. In much the same way, as a dramatist, Shakespeare externalizes experience, with introspection served up in the breaks in the action represented by the soliloquy. The shift to perception and point of view that is characterized by the novel is subtler than either – and also a relatively recent literary development, and one that wouldn’t have been possible without adventure tales and plays having been developed first.

The trouble is, the average male adolescent, no matter how full of social causes and good intentions, isn’t socially conditioned to want to seek out a female point of view like Austen’s. The definitions of male sexuality in the culture don’t encourage them to be aware that a female point of view even exists. If they do discover it, they are likely to be too egocentric to care much about it. If they approach it at all, they usually do so with reservations.

With the best will in the world, the female perspective is too foreign to them – and the novel, whoever writes it, has always been more about female perspectives than any other structural genre in English (which is why terms such as “chick lit” are nonsense). The average male in modern industrial culture needs five to ten years of relationships and even marriage to appreciate a socially-centered or psychological novel.

By contrast, the female experience seems quite different. Women start off with an advantage because, if they are interested in adventure at all, they have to learn early how to read around the male dominance in such stories. Probably, too, they are ready for the novel earlier, because its territory is more familiar to them – when I was teaching university English, I couldn’t help but notice that in the novel courses I taught, three quarters of the young students were women, while poetry and drama courses tended to have a slight majority of men.

Middle-age is a great equalizer, and I am glad to have arrived at an age where I can view both Tolkien and Hardy as great writers, each in their own way. But when I think of the gender-influenced delays and detours I took, I wish that I could have more daring or imagination and expanded my horizons more quickly. If I had, I could have had another decade or more to enjoy George Elliot! But, considering the odds, maybe I should just be glad that I managed to reach my current perspective at all.

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Todd Stephens is one of maybe a dozen First Nations artists whose work I watch closely. A graduate of the Freda Diesing School and two-time winner of the YVR Art Foundation Scholarships, he paints in a style that is traditional, yet displays his technical skill and individuality. “Jorja and I,” a painting of Stephens and his young daughter, remains one of my favorite pieces in my collection, hanging above my workstation. So, a couple of months ago, when Stephens was selling another major painting, “Txeesim’s Escape,” (“Raven’s Escape”) I jumped at the chance to buy, also purchasing two smaller pieces, “Midiik” (“Bear”) and “Ganaa’w” (“Frog”).

To my surprise, I’ve heard another art buyer dismissed Stephen’s work as scholastic, suggesting that he hadn’t evolved a style of his own. However, that description confuses classicism with lack of originality. In a classically oriented piece in any field of art, what you look for is discipline, and originality within the tradition. By these criteria, Stephens’ work sets a high standard – in fact, it often shows a surprising amount of variation, even with the same piece.

Look, for example, at “Ganaa’w.” Even in this relatively simple piece, the formline varies from the length of the back to the thinness of the hind leg, parts of which are half, or even a quarter the thickness of the back. As you trace the formlines, you will also find variations in how they are joined, with most tapering long and dramatically in the primary black formlines, and often hardly at all in the secondary red formlines. Notice, too, how often the black formlines create a T-shape out of negative space, especially at the throat and the base of the back, reducing the overall weight of the forms. The contents of the ovoids shows a similar variation in their contents, although the feet, naturally enough, are nearly identical.

Many of the same things happen in “Midiik.” In this piece, though, the thick black formlines are used together with the ovoids and U-shapes to create a sense of the bear’s powerful legs – in fact, there is a distinct impression of musculature in the upper legs that, more than the claws or the rough outlines of the teeth, convey a sense of the bear’s strength. Another interesting aspect is that the asymmetry of the eye leaves the impression that the bear is looking out at the observer, possibly in a menacing way.

However, of these three pieces, “Txeesim’s Escape” is by far the most accomplished. The title refers, of course, to the story or raven causing himself to be born as the grandson of the chieftain who keeps the light in a chest so that he can steal it (you can see the light at the tip of his beak, and the shape of the grandson in the tail). It’s an old story, and one that I sometimes think is depicted too often at the expense of equally interesting stories, but one that can always be renewed by originality or craft, as Stephens proves.

The design of “Txeesim’s Escape” is a bold one. It makes me think of house-fronts, the decorative boards that the northern First Nations of British Columbia brought out of storage to decorate their longhouses during celebrations. Evidently, that is what Stephens had in mind as well, since the painting is not only just short of three feet by two, but also so busy that many of the details are lost at a smaller size.

The design is economical. The raven’s body is hardly shown at all, except for a thick formline. Instead, the design is dominated by the head, wing, and tail, with a single foot whose main purpose is to balance the design. These body parts are shown in a profile that would be almost impossible to hold for any bird to hold for more than a second in reality. Here, though, the position suggests startlement, as though the raven has heard or glimpsed something behind him, and is flashing a quick glance over his shoulder to check for pursuers.

But the most outstanding feature of the design is the sheer amount of variation in the ovoids, U-shapes, and other elements within the form lines. The amount of variation seems almost disorganized in the tongue and upper beak, but Stephen keeps it partly in control in the wing and tail feathers by having the design elements in the outer feathers match. As for the many faces in the ovoids – or appearance of faces – they serve as a reminder that the raven is a master shape changer, capable of assuming many forms. The overall impression is a pleasing confusion that seems not only suitable to a creature being chased, but completely appropriate to a being that is, in many ways, the embodiment of chaos.

I have no idea how conscious Stephens is about such things – some artists are very conscious of the effects they create, while others are either unaware or wary of examining the process too closely. However, these comments should be enough to show why I consider Stephens an artist skilled in working in a classic mode. He displays his work regularly on his Facebook page, and is currently selling glicée prints of the four main clan crests at a surprisingly affordable price.

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The debunking of popular knowledge has always been heady stuff to me. I love knowing that Bonnie Prince Charlie, far from the romantic figure of Scottish tradition, was an alcoholic and illiterate in several languages. Was Richard III not a monster, but, if anything too honorable for his own good? Were some Puritans so far from prudish as to be advocates of free love? Is it possible that, until the last few decades, the First Nations of North America were no more ecologically sensitive than other cultures? Did Neandertals contribute to the modern gene pool? I could get drunk on such knowledge (or its possibility) as easily as on the fumes of the finest brandy. And nowhere does it delight me so much as in the difference between the public persona and private reality of people.

For instance, years ago, when my partner and I were helping to organize a Mythopoeic Conference, Loreena McKennitt slept in our spare room. Conditioned by the ethereal, Celtic Twilight persona of publicity, we expected a shy, quiet woman who only came alive in her music. But between breakfast, and ferrying her to the conference and then to the Mission Folk Festival, we quickly discovered that she was a hard-headed business woman, determined to keep control of her music and career, with a down-to-earth attention to details and a formidable store of daily knowledge.

I am in no way suggesting that she was a hypocrite – she obviously loved what she was doing – but the gap between how everybody thought of her and the way she moved through life was so broad that I had trouble reconciling the two. Still, I couldn’t help smiling with satisfaction as I watched countless fans trying to engage her in conversation about New Age spirituality (about which she obviously knew quite a bit without necessarily believing it or accepting it uncritically). These fans thought they were seeing the real McKennitt when I knew that they were seeing only a controlled aspect of her.

Of course, the same was probably true of me – but I knew that, and the fans didn’t.

The same was true of Paul Edwin Zimmer, a member of the circle of fantasy writers in Berkeley that included his sister Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana Paxson. People who met Paul before his far-too early death in 1997 might have assumed he was a hard drinking, charismatically boisterous party-goer who spent his days in formal Scottish attire and roaring with laughter.

Having stayed over at his communal house once or twice, I realized this was his persona for science fiction conventions – a kind of controlled bursting loose from his ordinary life. Most days – or nights, to be exact – he spent working, dressed in a ragged red kaftan. For days at a time, he might not leave the house. Instead of acting like a student in his first semester in the campus dorms, he lived quietly and studiously, partly because of poverty, but also, I think, out of choice and dedication to his writing.

Yet few of the people who knew him from conventions believed that they knew him only in holiday mode. And, again, I had the satisfaction of knowing a real complexity that ran far deeper than his public appearance.

More recently, I have seen glimpses of the same dichotomy in a person well-known in free and open source software community (I’m deliberately withholding details that might identify them) Ask around, and you’ll be told that they are an assertive, no-nonsense person who has arrived at the pinnacle of their career.

Yet almost immediately, I observed that, while they are intense, they also suffer from at least occasional bouts of self-doubt. Nor does assertiveness always come easy to them – clearly, they have to nerve themselves up for it once they have concluded it necessary. And while they are praised for their success and contributions, in private they have doubts about what they have accomplished and are looking for more satisfying careers.

I admit that I laughed when I observed the first hints of this incongruity — but incongruity, of course, is a key element of humor, and I had to quickly explain why I was laughing to avoid sounding like I was being insulting. Here was a person who was respected on the basis of rumors that were half-truths at best, and gave them no more than limited personal satisfaction.

The only downside to such revelations is that they can leave me wondering if anyone is what they are popularly supposed. Even worse, they make me despair of ever knowing anything or anyone with any degree of accuracy. Yet I am addicted to them all the same. Whenever I discover such dichotomies, I gleefully glom on to them like a limpet, pleased to have another small sliver of truth in my perception of those around me.

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Just because a number has a couple of zeroes in it doesn’t make it special. Still, I notice that, with my last entry, I have now posted five hundred entries to this blog. Not bad, for a blogger who doesn’t believe in blogging.

By that, I mean that the average blog has all the excitement of a wet dish towel. The problem isn’t that the topic is personal, or about everyday joys and angsts – a skilled writer can make any topic absorbing, even when the topic sounds uninteresting in the abstract. But a few paragraphs of stream-of-consciousness can rarely persuade me to read. Even when I know the writer, reading such material is a chore. And, when I don’t know the writer, their outpourings often seem an expression of self-importance more than anything else.

That’s why, when I started this blog, I decided to ignore what everyone else was doing. I wasn’t going to write stream-of-consciousness, but short essays, with a central topic, a beginning and an end, and an organized middle. So, for the most part, that’s what I’ve done with each of the past 500 entries.

The result is often entries between 800 and 1200 words (or even more), which people occasionally tell me is far too long for a blog entry. And, had I listened, I probably would have far more readers; give people what they think they want, and you’ll never lack an audience.

However, because I have no trouble getting an audience for my paid writing, I’ve never worried much about how many people read this blog. In fact, one of the reasons I started this blog was to publish pieces that I wrote purely for myself – sometimes to warm up before starting my professional work, sometimes to wind down at the end of the day, and, sometimes to get down a line of discussion that formed spontaneously in my mind as I exercised or cooked.

For these selfish reasons, I’ve never worried too much about the size of the blog’s audience. I know that, if I chose to write about free and open source software, as I do for pay, I could get more than 1800 readers a day, because two or three times I have. But, on the whole, I’m content to laze along with 130-150 daily readers, writing — as the coat of arms of the Dukes of Denver would have it — as my whimsy takes me.

Overall, I’ve no complaints, so I plan to keep going the same way for the next five hundred entries. And if that sounds arrogant, that’s okay. I don’t suppose I’ll be any fond of other approaches to blogging at the end of the next five hundred entries than I am now – or than I was four years ago when I started.

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Recently, a gallery owner said to me, “Your collection of Northwest Coast Art has some really unusual pieces in it. After a moment’s thought, I replied, “Why would I want pieces I could find anywhere?” I’m not buying tourist junk, and most artists are at their most interesting when they are doing something outside of their normal range. Certainly, that is one reason why I bought Kwakwaka’wakw artist Steve Smith’s “Raven Mask.”

Smith’s work is regularly on sale at the Lattimer and Coastal Peoples Galleries in Vancouver. Most of his work has two characteristics: first, it is painted with intricate geometric shapes, primarily in black,green, and red, and, second, it has a wide varieties of forms – everything from boxes and vases to canvases, baseball caps, leather cuffs and Munnies. It’s a highly distinctive style, one identifiable from a distance, and I’ve enjoyed it for some years without being quite moved to buy, although I figured it was only a matter of time before I found the right piece.

I found the right piece while attending the opening of the Lattimer Gallery’s Annual Bentbox Charity Auction in November 2010. Having admired the boxes being auctioned, I was leaning on the main display case when I glimpsed “Raven Mask” out of the corner of my eye, and went over for a closer look. I looked several times again that evening, and a few times more on subsequent visits to the gallery, until I bought it a few weeks later.

Perhaps because I remember black and white television and photographs from my early childhood, I often find monochromatic work more dramatic than colored work, especially when in shadows. But even without this personal preference, Smith’s “Raven Mask” is striking among his more colorful other works. Even the black is more faded than on his other works, and the white is closer to a dirty silver color. And instead of Smith’s usual geometric shapes, the piece is simply painted with a few basic shapes. It could almost be a survivor from the 19th century, except that it is not a functional mask.

Not only that, but it seems a survivor that has come through fire, singed so that it looks like charcoal or ash, and the paint has started to blister. So far, I have not been able to ask Smith why he departed so far from his usual color palette, but to me the piece seems a reminder of the art that was burned as unacceptably pagan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the same time, its appearance of being lightly damaged suggests the artistic tradition of the coast today – damaged, yet still powerful. Extending the metaphor even further, you might say that the bundled cedar and the feathers are a literal grafting of new media and techniques on to the old.

However you view it, it remains an arresting piece, especially in darkness. As I type, it is a few meters away on a tea tray, pointed so that it catches my attention when I glance over my left shoulder. I have to be deep in the torments of writing before it fails to capture my attention and make my glance linger for a few moments.

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I rarely admire conservatives. However, in reading 19th Century English history, I grudgingly make an exception for Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington. His dry wit and clear-sightedness make him unusual among people of any political opinion.

That’s not to say that he would have been an easy person to spend time around. As both a general and a politician, he liked praise, was physically vain, and always conscious of his class superiority. A contemporary description said that he was socially condescending to his intellectual equals, and intellectually condescending to his social equals, which must have made him a hard man to know or tolerate at times.

All the same, anyone with his sense of humor is hard for me to dislike altogether. Although his most well-known quote is probably, “Publish and be damned!”(to a writer who threatened to publish an account of his involvement with the famous courtesan Harriet Wilson), many of his quotes show a sardonic turn of mind.

Because of the way he dominated English public life in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is hard to be sure what he actually said and what was attributed to him. Probably, he did not explain that he was English despite being born in Ireland by remarking that being born in a stable doesn’t make you a horse, but I would like to think that he did. Probably, the same is true of his comment on some troops newly arrived in Spain: “I don’t know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but by God, they terrify me.”

However, he did comment on the first reform parliament, which brought in the first middle-class MPs with a snobbish, “I never saw so many shocking bad hats in my life,” and, when some French soldiers accidentally turned their backs on him at a diplomatic event, shrug off the unintentional insult with, “I have seen their backs before.” Since the apocryphal remarks have the same sort of sting, he could very well have said them, too.

Probably my favorite Wellington quote occurred when Caroline of Brunswick, the wife of George IV, reappeared in England for his coronation after years of scandalous behavior throughout Europe. Although Caroline was a stranger to personal hygiene and had many other unsavory habits, the Whigs championed her as a way of embarrassing the equally unpleasant Prince Regent. A group of Whig supporters stopped Wellington’s carriage in the streets and demanded that he acclaim Caroline as Queen.

“Very well, gentleman,” Wellington is reported to have said, “Since you would have it so, God Save Queen Caroline – and may all your wives be like her.”

But as enjoyable as such quotations are, what really makes Wellington remarkable was his pragmatism. Unlike most Conservatives – or people of any ideology, for that matter – he rarely seems to have mistaken his political convictions for reality when the two conflicted. He may have been a chauvinist who believed in the superiority of the English, but he could work with the sepoys of India or the Portuguese when he had to. Similarly, the Spanish guerrillas were hardly fighting the kind of war he had learned, but he was sensible enough to know that he needed them. And if he described his troops in the Peninsular War as “the scum of the earth,” he also immediately added, “it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are” and took care to keep them supplied and not to waste their lives in long sieges or battles where they were vastly outnumbered.

The same attitude is seen in his later political career. As a conservative cabinet minister and prime minister, Wellington was not a supporter of Catholic emancipation or parliamentary reforms. Yet he introduced Catholic emancipation, and, for a while considered leading a government to bring in reform because he realized that some action was inevitable. True, he granted the minimum of reform that was necessary to defuse the issues, but where other Tories stood on principle and refused any change whatsoever, Wellington knew some action was necessary.

For all his class prejudice and conceit, there is a kind of honesty in everything Wellington did. When he learned that Napoleon had outmaneuvered him in the Waterloo campaign, his first response was, “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God” – no attempt at denial or excuses, but perhaps a reluctant respect for his opponent. And, after the battle, in which tens of thousands were killed on both sides, he admitted that it was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life,” and, reflecting upon the loss of both friends and common soldiers, remarked, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”

Unlike Napoleon, Wellington never talked about glory, never wasted energy or lives in grandiose plans, and was only rarely wrong in his estimation of a martial or political situation. He would have been an easy man to dislike, but, I suspect, also one who was impossible not to respect.

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