Monthly Archives: February 2014

Brave New Canada [sic]

Canada’s rightward lurch over the past eight years resembles in many ways the transformation of the American political landscape after 9-11. Like the Bush Republicans, the Conservative Party came to power on a raft of election scandals and, understandably suspicious of free elections, has lately developed its own programs for voter suppression. There is a similar war on the welfare state, the same contempt of UN conventions, and a familiar top-down stifling of scientific research that challenges the government’s social and economic agendas.

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The prime minister, hailing like Bush from a provincial oil demographic, now presides over a swaggering, belligerent petro-state that snubbed the Kyoto protocol in order to bet on an apocalyptic end-game of peak oil and shrinking resources, of inevitable global warming and expanded northern frontiers, that sees itself as rich enough to go it alone in the pursuit of its own economic interests, except when, in slavish mimicry of the US, it squanders its international reputation by supporting the extreme right wing of other misunderstood, embattled, victimized pariah states (e.g., Israel).

A major difference, however, is that Canada’s news media has not fully caved in to the market forces that have poisoned the American public sphere and undermined critical journalism. One strange result of this situation is that Canadian media often seems to be caught in a time lag, trying to maintain journalistic integrity and norms of civil discourse in a political context of hypocrisy, deception and sheer obscenity (e.g., the Rob Ford circus). On the other hand, this time lag means that for observers of the media old-fashioned critical tools of close reading and psychological analysis still have some purchase on the rhetoric of capital and neo-liberal empire.

A case in point: this week’s CBC program The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright (2/16/2014), which featured a segment on Canada’s current foreign policy. Enright’s guests were Lloyd Axworthy, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Fen Osler Hampson, free market tout and author of various screeds, including the forthcoming Brave New Canada. Enright asked his guests what has become of Canada’s former role as the “middle power” and “honest broker” in international relations and global diplomacy — the honorable tradition of Pearsonian “soft power”?

Axworthy, the elder statesman, speaks smoothly, calmly, authoritatively about the erosion of Canada’s ties with the US and the broader world. Hampson, on the other hand, speaks in the strained soft tone of someone who’d rather be shouting, using clipped articulation as bid for authority. His phrasing shows the halts and breaks of a mind moving from talking point to talking point: the tamped-down civility of barely suppressed rage. Responding to Enright’s question, Hampson acknowledges there has been a recent shift in foreign policy but avers that it’s simply based on the realities of a “fast-changing world.” He points to Canada’s contribution to the UN’s budget and insists that Canada has not turned its back on the world body. What follows, though, is language rife with revealing tics, slips and lapses:

Is the UN the centerpiece of our foreign policy? No, I think our foreign policy is being driven by developments which include the rise of the Asia-Pacific, the need to tap into emerging markets, the need, quite frankly, to work more closely with the regional security architecture, and that includes in the Asia-Pacific to promote stability in that region. So what we’re seeing is, I think, in this government, is fundamental change that’s taking place in our geostrategic orientation which, quite frankly, those who hark back to the Pearsonian era are ignoring the changing context of the world in which we live in [sic].

CBC listeners may not have noted the run-on sentence, but many must have heard, if only unconsciously, the grammatical infelicity toward which Hampson’s words seem inexorably drawn. Hampson’s line “The world in which we live in,” is, of course, an echo of a famously impaired phrase from Paul and Linda McCartney’s Live and Let Die. “You used to say live and let live,” the song begins, before taking a sudden rightward swerve with the memorable and sinister refrain, “live and let die.” The lyrics in fact seem to be the subtext of Hampson’s whole interview, as his earlier realpolitik reference to a “fast-changing world” already echoed the McCartneys’ song: “But if this ever changing world in which we live in / Makes you give in and cry / Say live and let die.”

American pundits and even some elected officials have no qualms explicitly voicing attitudes as brutal as “live and let die.” In Canada those sentiments are still largely repressed. But the unconscious can be strikingly articulate. Hampson’s unconscious choice of Live and Let Die as subtext to his screed makes Canada’s current transmogrification replay the epochal shift in geopolitics between the 60s and 70s. The McCartneys cynically made that shift in the world’s political climate resonate with their own biographies as they morphed from the Beatles era (Let it Be / “you used to say live and let live”) to a less innocent age when they could sign their names to a soundtrack for the Cold War’s most glamorous neo-imperial fantasy franchise.

The film and the theme song Live and Let Die were released in the summer of 1973. That October began the OPEC oil crisis. It was the beginning of the end of the world.

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Julio Cortázar, R.I.P.

Julio Cortázar

The great novelist, short story writer and leftist political militant Julio Cortázar died in Paris thirty years ago today. Or as the French would say, he “disappeared.” To an English speaker the euphemism may seem bizarre, even more so to a Latin American, though only because of an error common to foreigners: viewed from outside, other people’s figures of speech can look odd, dressy or artificial, while we take our own tropes for granted. Is it any more plausible, after all, to say we “pass on” rather than to say we vanish? And how can it be possible to lose your life, as the expression goes? Isn’t it rather everyone else who loses ours?

To consider the strange artifice of such expressions and the hopeless urgency of what they try to convey is to enter the zone of mystery characteristic of Cortázar. Maybe this means that as readers of Cortázar’s work we have to become like foreigners, estranged from language and pulled into weird enchantments, as often happens when, seduced by his deft and delicate prose, we suddenly cross over into another realm. A man reading a tale of murder is killed by one of that story’s characters (“Continuity of Parks”); someone behind a camera is absorbed into his own photo (“Blow-Up”); a man survives a motorcycle accident only to die in an Aztec sacrifice (“The Night Face Up”). None of Cortázar’s stories conveys this mysterious passage into another reality as succinctly as the marvelous opening paragraph of “Axolotl.”

AxolotlThere was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.

Cortázar read Edgar Allan Poe as a child and credited him as a major influence on his work. The debt is noticeable in the Argentine’s first published work, “House Taken Over,” with its themes of home, haunting and sibling incest. More generally one sees a shared fascination with death, though Cortázar renders the theme differently than Poe’s more gothic style; death for Cortázar is the cipher for puzzles that fantastic tales alone can approach: the mystery of transformation and metempsychosis, of the unsayable and unknowable; of sheer otherness.

One of Poe’s stories, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” relates in a deceptively straightforward manner an experiment conducted on a dying First_medical_X-ray_by_Wilhelm_Röntgen_of_his_wife_Anna_Bertha_Ludwig's_hand_-_18951222man. The narrator intends to find out whether the physical process of dying can be suspended when a subject is put to sleep under the influence of mesmeric suggestion. The tale has a horrifying and gruesome conclusion, but the most chilling moment happens earlier, when the narrator asks Valdemar whether he is still sleeping. After a long pause that suggests the man is actually passing away, his mesmerized body speaks the words, “Yes;—no;—I have been sleeping—and now—now—I am dead.”

The shocking effect of Valdemar’s pronouncement is due in part to Poe’s canny use of the present perfect continuous verb tense (“I have been sleeping”) which links the past to the immediate present (unlike the distancing effect of the past continuous I was sleeping). “I have been sleeping” means that Valdemar has been doing so up to now, and his “now” therefore carries the full force of the moment of death itself. Consequently, by immediately following the “now” of Valdemar’s passing, the words “I am dead” are as close as possible to the passage itself, but just over the line, on the far side. As readers we feel this almost viscerally as a brush with death.

Such moments of passage are the crux of Cortázar’s work. However, Poe vexes the issue of this precise moment of death by repeating the “now,” which therefore serves not merely to accentuate the moment but to duplicate it. Here Poe creates another surprising verbal effect, for without this duplication the story’s “now” would remain in the past. Paradoxically, the repetition of the singular “now” emphasizes the presence of the moment of death by marking its rhythm on the page we read, carrying the “now” forward to us, so that we sense the movement in the moment, hearing time as a ticking present in the mortal here and now. 

*

“now—now—”

*   *

“almost just now…” (“Blow-Up”)

*   *   *

Roland Barthes (d. 1980) was drawn to Poe’s story and was fascinated by Valdemar’s last words, “I am dead.” The critic calls these the only words a person cannot truly speak.

Jacques Lacan (d. 1981) famously spoke the final words “Je disparais” on his death bed, as if meaning to say the impossible.

Georges Perec (d. 1982) authored a novel titled La disparition, an extended “lipogram” in which there is no letter e. Translated as A Void, it could also be called Death.

Paul de Man (d. 1983 — two months before Cortázar) asks, “Why is it that the furthest reaching truths about ourselves and the world have to be stated in such a lopsided, referentially indirect mode?”

Cortázar (d. 1984) seems to have transposed Poe’s more “direct” line so as to give it the “lopsided, referentially indirect” quality of De Man’s elusive truths. The clue lies in the abruptness of Cortázar’s “now” in the passage from “Axolotl” cited above.

Valdemar: “Now—I am dead.”

Cortázar: “Now I am an axolotl.”

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