Book Review: “Marcovaldo” by Italo Calvino

Marcovaldo is a collection of stories recounting the adventures and misadventures of an unskilled labourer with the heart of a romantic. Marcovaldo seeks the magic amid the ordinary, and the beauty of nature amid cramped and bleak city life, the drudgery of work, and the demands of a large family to take care of. He gets into trouble often, sometimes with marvelous results, and sometimes disastrous. Each chapter is its own self-contained vignette, but they work together to paint a picture of Marcovaldo’s life (which is often larger-than) and his world. 

Before I continue, you ought to know that Italo Calvino is a fabulous writer. Here, although I am fond of his work, I use the word “fabulous” in a stricter sense: he is a fabulist, a storyteller, a spinner of yarns. Calvino is known for writing stories that have the ring of fables. There is often a sense of the marvelous, and the whimsical in his tales.  They feel more like “tales” than they do “short stories” or what we may have come to associate with the term short story, which is the slice-of-life kind of realism, from Chekhov down to Munro. He has more in common with the fantastical authors like Jorge Luis Borges and Kurt Vonnegut. Of course, he has a style all his own.

It opens with a vignette called “Mushrooms in the City” where he comes upon some mushrooms growing under a tree:

Bending to tie his shoes, he took a better look: they were mushrooms, real mushrooms, sprouting right in the heart of the city! To Marcovaldo the grey and wretched world surrounding him seemed suddenly generous with hidden riches; something could still be expected of life, beyond the hourly wage of his stipulated salary, with inflation index, family grant, and cost-of-living allowance.”

To him this is buried treasure, and he doesn’t want anybody else to find out. For him, such small things as mushrooms in the midst of the hustle and bustle of city life are precious signs of life, signs of a world beyond the confines of the city.

In another story, he decides he can’t sleep at night at home, cooped up with his family, so he goes out to a park bench and tries to get the sleep he’s always dreamed of, all while trying to evade the nightwatchman Tornaquinci.

The stories often have a rich comical vein, almost vaudevillian at times. In one, his doctor prescribes something called “sand treatment” for whatever is ailing him, which is to be buried up to the neck in sand. He goes to the beach, which is covered in machinery, scooping up the sand and putting it all into barges. Determined to get his treatment, he jumps into a barge and tells his children to bury him in the sand. He falls asleep and then wakes up only to find the barge is floating along the river, with him still in it.

His children have a penchant for trouble as well. In “Smoke, Wind, and Soap-bubbles” his children dump loads of detergent into the river, and it gathers at the bottom of a waterfall and builds up into a massive plume of suds and bubbles, which start to float up over the city, and mingle with the smoke from the factory smokestacks. 

The stories can border on the fantastical, such as “The Rain and the Leaves” where he takes care of the wilting office plant by riding it around on the back of his bike for the weekend, seeking out rainy weather. The plant itself grows to monstrous size, much to Marcovaldo’s delight.

Marcovaldo possesses the kind of wonder and disdain for realism that a child might bring to a story. They are almost cartoonish, and simple, though never simple-minded. This collection of qualities is the source of its charm. Perhaps this is me misreading it, but to me Marcovaldo has a touch of Chaplin’s Tramp to him, that is, if the Tramp had a wife and several children. Like the Tramp, he is by turns selfish and scheming, and generous and tenderhearted.

A constant theme running throughout is the transcendence of nature, set against the mind-numbing and soul-crushing power of modern city life. Marcovaldo is a seeker of that transcendence, as perhaps we all are in our own ways. The book was written in the 1960’s, and even though society has changed rapidly in the past fifty-odd years, the world of Marcovaldo is still familiar. The pace and pressure of modern life has only intensified since then, making the theme that much more resonant, and Marcovaldo’s desire for escape that much more relatable.

For me, the story that conveys this most poignantly is “The Moon and GNAC”. In it, a neon sign advertising cognac flashes outside of Marcovaldo’s family’s window on a hot summer night. The huge sign turns off every twenty seconds, and then on for twenty seconds, lighting up the entire neighbourhood, thwarting everybody’s hopes for peace, and repeating this process all night long. Like his other stories the premise is slightly over-the-top, but its poignancy comes from knowing what Marcovaldo longs for. When the lights are out, suddenly the infinity of the night sky opens up:

The darkness that now reigned at roof-level made a kind of obscure barrier that shut out the world below, where yellow and green and red hieroglyphs continued to whirl, and the winking eyes of traffic-lights…raising your eyes, no longer blinded, you saw the perspective of space unfold, the constellations expanded in depth, the firmament turning in every direction, a sphere that contains everything and is contained by no boundary…”

These passages are Calvino at his most poetic, where you can feel the longing within Marcovaldo, and perhaps Calvino himself as well. The heavens, the cosmos, the infinity of time and space, has a habit of intruding on Calvino’s stories. In doing so he instills in me a feeling of delight in the grandeur and strangeness of it all, without losing a feeling of humanity. At his most cerebral there is still a beating heart in Calvino’s works. The stories in this book are less overtly philosophical than other stories such as you might find in his short story collection Cosmicomics.

Marcovaldo on the other hand is more down to earth. It paints a portrait of a labourer, one who  would love to live the life of the mind but is preoccupied with the daily grind, try though he will, again and again, to transcend it. But he is resilient, he never gives up, so naturally, you root for him.

I’ll admit it’s not my favourite book that I’ve read of Calvino’s. Maybe I feel that longing for escape almost as keenly as the book’s hero, and seeing it constantly thwarted in Marcovaldo’s life is less satisfying than the flights of fancy I have found in his other works. And not all the vignettes captured my attention in equal measure. All the same, even if a story here or there doesn’t hold me so well (and perhaps that’s my failure as a reader), it is worth it getting to know Marcovaldo, and it would be worth meeting him again in the future.

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A Reading Journal

I thought I’d try my hand at book reviews. Well, maybe not straight up reviews, and more reflections on the book(s) I’m currently reading. Part book review, part personal reflection, let’s say…I haven’t really hammered out the details yet.

Thing is I’m not interested in doing it to be some arbiter of taste, but more for the sake of finding and making community through the wonderful world of reading. Reading is such a solitary activity and it gets lonely; since I’m not part of a book club, I turn to blogging. However, If anybody would like to join me, by all means! If someone else is picking up what I’m putting down, so much the better. Three cheers for making and finding community through books!

I’m also doing this in the hopes that perhaps by writing about what I’ve read I’ll become a better reader. Hopefully all those book reports and novel studies from elementary school will finally pay off!

My to-read list isn’t terribly systematic right now. I have different subjects and authors I lean towards. I like what I like, although I do try to stay loosey-goosey, so I’m happy to take recommendations from time to time. I’m letting this develop organically, although later on that might change.

Currently I’m about to start “Marcovaldo” by Italo Calvino, picked up from the library on a whim:

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I’ve read a few of his other works before, and I typically find his stuff often funny, sometimes dark, sometimes poignant, and always highly imaginative. He’s probably best known for his short story collection “Cosmicomics” and his novel “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller”, but my first encounter with his work was his collection of earlier fiction, “Numbers in the Dark”. It kind of blew my mind in terms of what you could actually do with short fiction (answer: far more than I realized). With that, I was smitten. I’ll let you know how this one goes.

Finally, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the books I talk about, or better yet to hear about what you are reading!

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Part 3: The Great Matter of Life and Death

For a while I told myself that the questions of life’s meaning without God were secondary, that they would be answered in the living of it, and didn’t require any grand metaphysical framework. We may never truly know what lies at the bottom of all existence. If we do, it may be through our instruments of science; but even if we were to understand the superstructures underlying everything, that information alone won’t tell us why it was that way and not another. The question of “why” is a distinctly a human preoccupation, so it likely has little meaning when grafted onto the universe at large.

When it comes to the most pressing questions that dog our every step–why are we here? Why do we suffer? What happens after we die?–  everything is speculation, so to trade one unprovable belief system for another, you still end up in the same place. In my less charitable moments, the vast bulk of philosophy has seemed to me like a big, pointless game, an exercise in intellectual masturbation. At the end of the day what matters more than anything is how you live your life here and now, because for all we know that’s all there is. I’ve always felt that whether there is a God or not, it wouldn’t change how I live my life.

And yet. And yet…

The problem I come upon is that even if I behave the same as before, I feel I need an underlying “why”. We act on our beliefs every day. Maybe belief is too strong a word. Let’s say “assumptions”. We get up every day and go about our business, acting on the assumption that life will go on. The ground will likely not open up beneath our feet. Eventually, of course, it will; we won’t be able to escape private misfortune forever. Even if by sheer fluke nothing bad happens to you all your life, you will still die. But nevertheless, we act on faith that things will go on, business as usual.We are always acting on assumptions. A belief is a sort of articulated and crystallized assumption about the world. So whether we are conscious of it or not, we are acting out a belief system of sorts, a religion, a philosophy of life, albeit a semi-conscious one.

And what’s more, we believe implicitly in our behaviour, that our labours and struggles are building toward something. Otherwise why would we go through it all? And what happens when it’s not like that? When it ends up just being an endless succession of goals? What do we do when the rug is pulled from under us, as it often is? What then? Those “secondary” questions suddenly rush back in and become quite pressing. It’s hard not to ask what’s the point of it all. Maybe God’s absence does matter more than I thought.

With this in mind I’ve realized that even if we can never really know “why” we are here, to engage in asking such questions is important. The attempt to find a framework within which to live our lives is vital, even though the attempt will always be flawed.

But I feel that our relationship with one another is not all that matters. We must clarify our relationship with the deep mysteries of existence as well. This is why religion and philosophy have been so important. They challenge us to confront those deep mysteries. Even if they have often let us down, the attempt is what matters.

It feels a bit silly, a bit self-indulgent to obsess over these things, especially since they have no obvious bearing on my most immediate needs. Yet I sense they are connected, the grand questions of our existence, and the problems of the mundane. Because how you choose to spend your day is how you choose to spend your life. The daily tasks can become intolerable when there is no perceptible purpose for them. And when they are underscored by a greater purpose, those menial tasks become sacred. Even a shitty job can be tolerated when I know I am doing it for some greater purpose, one which I feel strongly in my bones. Yet when that something greater is missing, or I have lost sight of it, even the best kind of work can feel like torment. Perhaps the latter is less likely to happen, especially if you’re well-suited to your work, but is there any guarantee of that?

However, it also feels foolish to obsess over these things for two very big reasons. One, on a personal level, what I want to be doing is writing stories, not abstract philosophical essays, so I’d be better off leaving these matters well enough alone, at least in the form that I have been approaching them (i.e. these kinds of blog posts). And two, they seem to pale compared to the constant smorgasbord of problems driving the social and political upheaval going on all around the world. It’s a banquet of catastrophes all the damn time. The world is on fire, and here I am playing armchair philosopher.

As perverse as it sounds, it is such an immense privilege just to have the time to worry about things like puzzling out the meaning of life. This private conflict of mine seems to have little bearing on my day-to-day life from the outside. Yet if I may be so bold it is the very tumult of the world that in some ways prompts us to consider these existential problems. My own personal life has prompted me to consider them, and not just because of my ill-fortune, but my good as well. And whether it’s my environment or my temperament they are nevertheless problems that often paralyze me. And I know I’m not alone. Eventually, everyone has an existential crisis. The problem is we don’t talk about it, at least not so directly. We make jokes about it. We develop amazing senses of humour around the absurdities of life–look at the great work of Monty Python, for example!–but while humour helps us cope, I wonder if it truly confronts the problems that drive it.

My grievance is not that I don’t have the answers, but that we live in a society that doesn’t take the questions seriously. If I am depressed, it could be a combination of genes and misfortune, but it could also be because I do not want to adjust to a fundamentally sick society, and I find we are being forced to, just so we can live. This is a great offence.

We as a culture do not take seriously the person who asks these questions, even though there cannot be a more serious matter to attend to. I understand why. First off, there’s a huge risk in sincerity. You can come off as boring, or holier-than-thou to other people.  Secondly, in the hustle and bustle of life it is simply not as urgent. People are too busy trying to just stay alive let alone ask themselves why they are doing it, and risk undermining their own efforts. Bills must be paid, the lights must be kept on in the house, the wolves must be kept at bay.

Sure, there’s something a bit cartoonish about asking “what is the meaning of life?” It’s the sort of thing you’d associate with people lying on their bedroom floor, stoned out of their mind, listening to Pink Floyd. It’s not a question that mature adults should be bothering with. Perhaps we pay lip service at best, but such pursuits as the search for meaning seem like a private matter. We consider it some game, or some abstruse mathematical problem we cannot possibly work out ourselves, and so we leave it to the professional philosophers and theologians and try not to think too much about it, at least not out loud.

Except of course until tragedy strikes; then those problems that were once merely intellectual puzzles for those with too much time on their hands become very real and very urgent. Why must we wait until we suffer great misfortune before we become philosophers? It is no game, and it never was. In fact, I can’t think of anything more important.

“Great is the matter of life and death,” said the great 13th century Zen Master Eihei Dogen. “All is impermanent, quickly passing. Wake up! Wake up, each one! Don’t waste this life.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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Part 2: My Search For Meaning

I like to think I have become more intellectually mature in the sloughing off of faith. In reality, I have lost nothing that was of any true value. If I had any sort of belief it was shallow, intellectual. Beautiful ideas that, being born of the mind, must die in the mind as well. Whatever convictions I have gained have been earned through lived experience, not theory, and therefore are studier by far.

And yet even so, I have struggled to regain any over-arching meaning ever since. This is hardly extraordinary. In fact, this is all too common. This is what people have been struggling with at least since Darwin came around two centuries ago and turned everything on its head. Grand narratives are no longer possible, or if they are they will not be given to us from some divine being. We must each of us hash it out for ourselves, and even then, it is we ourselves who have created it, not received it from God. Some manage to keep their faith intact in light of advances in scientific knowledge, but as much as I wish I could I can’t go back. Knowledge is necessary, but it is painful.

Which is not to say I haven’t found meaning throughout the years. Of course I have. And I continue to. But even when I have been able to make meaningful experiences, they have felt incomplete. I have tried through work, through art, through meditation, through reading, through volunteering, through relationships–all of these things have helped immensely. My life is far richer for them. But they all feel somewhat compartmentalized; they appear to have little to do with one another.

It has often felt to me like there’s something missing at the centre of it all. I don’t know what’s holding it all together, besides my own desperate mind. I am not a moral relativist. I do not accept the postmodern idea that truth is completely subjective, just because I am unable to perceive it. But if there is something, I am only dimly aware of it. I take some comfort in knowing I’m far from the only one who feels this way, but I am still not content with this situation, and I don’t want to be. I have even used the aforementioned activities to distract myself from what I had been feeling. This only reinforced my suffering because I was too aware of the reasons why I was turning to them in the first place. Again, art, love, knowledge, community involvement, contemplation, these are all wonderful things when used mindfully, but they are not worth anything if that basic suffering is not confronted.

I have become quite depressed from time to time, but I hesitate to say the cause of my problems is depression. Perhaps I am deluded in thinking this, but depression feels more like a symptom than a cause. I acknowledge that medication and therapy are crucial, life-saving treatments, but for myself it’s insulting to suppose that my problems are merely the result of a chemical imbalance in my brain. My problem, and perhaps many who suffer from more severe forms of depression, is an existential one. And strangely enough, from that viewpoint it somehow becomes a bit easier to bear. It is easier to cope with my suffering when I view it as an opportunity for spiritual growth.

In Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search For Meaning” he quotes Nietzsche, saying when one has a “why” one can endure almost any “how”. Which is to say my suffering is bearable so long as there is a worthy purpose for it. This was the point Frankl was trying to make, which was that humans are not driven by the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain, as Freud had argued, nor by a “will to power” as Adler had said. Rather, he claimed, human beings are motivated by a “will to meaning”. Pleasure and power are only worth something insofar as they have some meaning for those who seek them. To seek pleasure or power for their own sake can lead to a feeling of emptiness. We desire a sense of meaning above all else.

I recently read a book called “Lincoln’s Melancholy” which examines the President’s depression, how it was viewed in his time, and how he learned from it and because of his suffering went on to do great things. Reading his story was incredibly helpful, especially because at the time of reading it I was quite depressed. I’m still recovering from it now, but I am better and bolstered by his story. Lincoln’s depression never lifted permanently, but he was able to successfully weave it into his identity, and when he was not suffocating in his depressive episodes, he used it as a strength. He took his suffering and transformed it, himself, and his country. When the Civil War broke out, it was the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen, utterly senseless in its brutality. It was not until Lincoln turned it into a war for the emancipation of black slaves that it began to truly mean something. I wouldn’t dare claim such violence was inevitable, and such a cause did not absolve it of its barbarism, but if it had to come, then at least there was some greater meaning that could be found from the wreckage.

In my own life, there is nothing to say my problems are inevitable; I don’t believe in preordained fate. But if I become depressed, while I want to know how to manage it it’s not something I want to lose touch with entirely, however painful. I can use it as grist for the mill, can I not? My suffering has made me more compassionate than I ever could have been without it. That appalling sense of meaninglessness can force me to call upon my creative faculties, endowed by nature, to find meaning.

But maybe even here there is a danger in being too intellectual. Maybe all that matters is that we live from the heart in everything we do. Forget building big theories of everything; at the end of the day they are only pretty castles in the sky. And like any mass of clouds they will billow and roll and melt away. I may never know what the point of all of this is, or if that is even an appropriate question. All that’s truly in my power is to live from the heart, from the centre of my being, and perhaps if I am lucky, meaning will arise of itself.

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Life After God – Part 1: The Death of God

I can still remember the moment I lost faith.

It was a fairly undramatic event. In fact, event is too big a word to describe it. It was hardly even an occurrence.

It was not the result of some personal trauma or even disillusionment with religion per se. It was almost imperceptible: one moment I believed, and the next moment, I didn’t. It was early 2012. I was lying on the floor of my apartment in Victoria, listening to a CD of meditation music from around the world. The track in particular was called “Polieleos Servikos”, a piece of liturgical music from the Russian Orthodox church. Polieleos means “Of much mercy”. It was one of the most haunting pieces of music I had ever heard. The singer cried “Alleluia”, yet the tone was mournful and dirge-like. “For His mercy endureth forever. Alleluia.” It pierced my heart. And, somehow over the course of listening to this song I realized I no longer believed in God. It was not only a hymn of praise, but a funeral dirge for my faith.

Maybe it’s not quite accurate to say that that was when I lost it. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I had lost it long ago, and only realized it at that moment. It was the culmination of minor occurrences in my inquiry into what exactly it was I believed. It was not long after I had finished reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and as annoying as Dawkins can be, he made some very compelling cases against belief. Every argument I had marshalled in its favour he dismantled one by one, until I had virtually nothing left in my arsenal.

Once I had listened to that track I realized how hollow my ideas were. How thin and pale my God had become, had always been, because my “God” was merely a product of my mind. God was an idol, something I made in my own image. And if such a God could be explained away with a blitzkrieg of rational argument, I probably didn’t believe that strongly in the first place. And any God that could be explained away by a book was not worth believing in anyway.

I should clarify that I never believed in a great Being who lived up in the sky and meted out rewards and punishments, doling out pellets or electric shocks to us depending on how well we behaved, like lab rats in some cosmic experiment. For me there never was literally such a being, and if such a being existed I would not want to worship it. The most that I did have was a vaguely conceived belief in some sort of divine presence that permeated all things, including myself. This, I called ‘God’.

Yet as I grew older and learned more, and saw far too many inconsistencies in the faith tradition I grew up with, I became disillusioned. Common enough story, of course. But my sense that God was still there persisted, although my idea of God had changed radically over the years, and seemed different from what others around me meant by it. Except that I got to a point in my early 20’s where even this view seemed untenable. Once I had rejected the simple view of God as a person, the meaning of the word kept expanding and expanding, until one day it became something so vague that it could mean literally anything, and therefore it meant absolutely nothing at all. The centre simply could not hold.

I am still moved when I encounter the symbols of my erstwhile faith: the Garden of Eden, the crucifixion, the bread and wine as symbols of the body and blood of Christ. They hit me in a level deeper than logic ever could. This is not proof of anything, but that the rich imagery of my religion has so shaped my consciousness that I cannot escape its influence, and to deny it feels wrong. Yet at the same time I am too aware that it is a human construct. I suppose I can call myself a “christian atheist”; indeed such a class of individuals does exist. I cherish my spiritual heritage, though I don’t really know what to do with it now that I no longer believe in the supernatural being that is its whole raison d’être. Other people may be able to make heads or tails of it, and I envy them for that ability, because I can’t.

I can look to Jesus of Nazareth as a great teacher, and one whose life may be worth emulating. But is that enough? What do I do when he starts talking about Judgment Day and all that? Surely, I can interpret it as metaphor, but it was not so to him or his disciples; they believed in the literal Resurrection at the end of time. So already I and Jesus have parted ways. I may look to him for inspiration, but if I am not exclusively following his teachings (and I’m not; I try to learn from as many different traditions and philosophies as possible) does it even make sense to call myself Christian anymore at this point? What lies at the centre of it all? What is holding it together?

My fascination, and even desire for religion has not died out. If anything, it has strengthened. But as hard as I have tried, I cannot trick myself into believing something I simply don’t. Maybe I never truly believed. I read some very sophisticated arguments by intelligent people who sought to rescue religion from its worst manifestations, writers such as Karen Armstrong, John Shelby Spong, Northrop Frye, Richard Holloway, and even the atheist writer Alain de Botton. I’m grateful to have been exposed to their ideas. I strongly recommend anyone and everyone read their books. They succeeded in preserving my deep respect and sympathy for the quest for meaning as expressed symbolically through religion. But for myself…if I had tried to kneel down and pray I felt like I was just kidding myself. The jig, I realized, was up. Whatever I did, God was gone. He was never coming back.

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On Being a Bad Canadian

Over the years I’ve been trying to figure out what the idea of Canada actually means to me. What do I actually feel about this place? Often I didn’t really give it much thought, and when I did it would be different each time. At most I can say my feelings are mixed. Maybe there’s something quintessentially Canadian about such a tentative statement, but I will attempt to put it under the microscope.

I can say that at this point in time, I am grateful to be Canadian. So, so very grateful.

Am I proud to be Canadian? No. I don’t think I can say I’m proud.

Perhaps it’s my temperament. The concept of being proud of something you did not earn and was basically due to an accident of birth has always eluded me. And now more than ever I have a hard time feeling proud.

I’m grateful to live in such a vast country, filled with an abundance of natural beauty, delicate yet immensely powerful. I am never filled with more awe and humility than when I stand among the Rocky Mountains, or when I have driven beneath the prairie sky so blue and so immense it could crush you and yet it chooses not to. I am never more at peace as when I stand at a shoreline and hear the lapping of waves at my feet and the cry of the gulls overhead, or when I am standing in the deep spine-tingling silence in a cathedral of cedar, oak, fir, and maple. But how can I be proud of how we as a society continually imagine ourselves separate from the natural world, and then exploit it, poison it, pillage it, clear-cut it, or at best use it as a place for a weekend getaway (IF we are the lucky ones who can afford such a lifestyle)? How can I be proud when we reduce it to merely a thing instrumental to our own pleasure and comfort? A means, and not an end in itself?

We have become a haven for refugees all over the world, a relatively more palatable alternative to the United States, yes, especially now as right-wing nationalism is on the rise all across the western world. I’m grateful that Canada is at least attempting to buck the trend, and I am grateful to know the ordinary Canadians who embody the compassion, the kindness, the neighbourliness so sorely needed in the fight against xenophobia.

And yet we have people who were here all along, the indigenous peoples, living in urban centres, rural communities, and reserves, who have been living in abject poverty comparable to the conditions many refugees were trying to escape in their homelands. I hope we continue to welcome immigrants to Canada with open arms; it’s a false dichotomy to say it has to be one or the other. But is there not something seriously fucked up that for well over 150 years our government has neglected the rights, freedoms, and standard of living for indigenous peoples, without whom none of us would even be here, and on whose land we all now live?

Yes, I’m going there. 

Canada is many things, but for now I choose to talk about it as an institution. Canada, as an institution, is built on a legacy of genocide, and revisionist history fueled by colonialism, racism and greed. It is like this by design, and although we in the 21st century like to think we have transcended the parochial attitudes of our forebears (i.e. the founders of Confederation) we are still nevertheless their beneficiaries. And while they have put into place many good things that have improved the lives of Canadians generations hence and should be recognized for that, we still need to have the courage to be critical of our national myths, and call bullshit. It may be painful, but it is necessary.

We often feel good about ourselves because we are not America. We did not have slavery as the basis of our economy. We have universal healthcare. We have a reputation for peace-keeping abroad (at least we used to). We have maple syrup and poutine. Hurray for those things! (And as long as the gravy is vegetarian, I too can enjoy the poutine!)

But we are not blameless. Far from it. And the things that make Canada admirable are always at risk of being lost. And to be proud of being Canadian because it is not as bad as America is, well, kind of a sad thing to be proud of.

Yes, my tone is negative but my aim here is not to shit on anyone’s parade. I don’t mean to diminish the many contributions Canadians have made to civilization, and honestly I do think in a very tangible sense the world would be poorer without Canadians. This country is a powerhouse of artists, writers, thinkers, and doers. And I don’t mean to attack anybody who wants to celebrate. Please, go and celebrate. Life is too short otherwise. But at least consider what it is you are celebrating. For myself, it is important to sort that out. I want to ask myself if it’s worth it, and to not stop this difficult but necessary process of self-scrutiny.

I also like to think that I’m trying to be patriotic in my own way. Criticism, dissent, and protest are just as much an expression of patriotism as are odes, fireworks, and miniature flags. We cannot build a nation if we are content with the status quo. I join the many voices who don’t want the “Canada 150” brand shoved down our throats, especially as we stand on stolen land and ancient ways of life constantly under threat by mainstream society. But I speak not just to tear it all apart, but in the hope of creating a better narrative, wider in scope, deeper in understanding. I call bullshit because the only other option when one feels this way is to remain silent, which would be to hold the entire enterprise in contempt. And I think I actually do care about this place quite a lot. So I thought I’d say something, however clumsily articulated.

There are some who choose not to acknowledge Canada Day in protest, because for them it stands for some truly hideous things and nothing else. All power to them; it is their right to do so, and in a way I consider them to be the vanguard of our collective conscience, because while it is so easy to say “but look how far we’ve come!” and leave it at that, they are the ones who are saying “this is not good enough.”

However, I also think that while Canada as an institution is deeply, deeply flawed, it is not an unalloyed evil. And those who do feel proud of their Canadian-ness deserve more credit; many are probably well aware of our “problematic” history, but choose to be hopeful that we can transform Canada into a better place than it was. Some of these proud ones may not know what it feels like to be disenfranchised, but I would still prefer their optimism, so long as it is not a dismissive, bull-dozery, “la-la-la I’m not listening” kind of optimism.

There are many good things about being a Canadian citizen. I say I’m grateful, but even as I write this I know I don’t even fully grasp my situation as does a refugee who has come here in search of a new and better life which they were denied, sometimes brutally, back home, and finds in Canada a sanctuary, a place to lay their burdens down. I have a lot of freedom here, and I have little idea of what that truly means.

Nevertheless I try to express my gratitude however I can. If for no other reason than that I can’t escape being Canadian. A sense of national identity is highly contingent and history-bound. There’s nothing Canadian about who I am in any ontological sense. I’m a human animal among other animals on a spinning rock in a backwater of the Milky Way Galaxy. There’s no knowing if there will be a Canada five hundred years from now, and frankly I would not lose sleep over that thought. Whatever I am, it is because of an accident of birth. Yet I would not be who I am if it weren’t for the forces that have shaped me, namely my environment, social, economical, cultural, and ecological. And at this point in history those many contingent factors for me are Canada, for better or worse. They didn’t have to be just that way, but that’s just how it is. And for the good it has done me, which I can’t even begin to measure, I am deeply grateful. But that doesn’t mean I must unthinkingly participate in the pageantry of civic religion. And that doesn’t mean I must feel proud to be Canadian.

This might be a useless game in semantics. Perhaps what I mean by grateful is what others mean when they say proud, and vice versa. But when we’re talking about the fictions which make up our national identity–if we are the stories we tell ourselves–then the choice of words and the way we use them makes all the difference. So I’d rather be grateful albeit deeply ambivalent than unequivocally and uncritically proud.

Or maybe it’s because I’m not interested in hockey, and I’m a vegetarian so I don’t eat bacon, so I don’t have much of a stake in those precious totems of identity. Maybe I’m just a bad Canadian, I dunno. But if all we are is what we can buy in a souvenir shop, then I would not want to be Canadian at all. I’d like to be proud, I really would. I’ve wanted to be for years. I imagine that must feel really good, to be proud of your country. Maybe if I was at Vimy Ridge, when Canadian forces helped turn the tide in the first World War, maybe then I would have felt it. Or maybe if I was in the stands watching the Canadian hockey team defeat the USSR back in 1972, perhaps then. Maybe the trick is to be right there in those pivotal, nation-making moments, and that’s how you get your moment of satori, your feeling of “my God I love this country!” I even envy those who do feel that way.

Perhaps one day I can be proud. Maybe people feel proud of their country because in those defining moments they equate their country with justice, with righteousness, and goodness. I sort of get that. It seems to me like a logical fallacy, but I get it. And perhaps true, healthy national pride comes from a deeply felt sense of stewardship for this land and the welfare of this people. That I can get. But what do you do when your country falls so appallingly short of its ideals? Can you still feel that pride? For now I simply cannot summon such an emotion. It would not be honest.

I am grateful that there are so many people still fighting for the environment in Canada. I am grateful there are still people fighting for equality, and decency toward strangers. I am grateful that people have not given up. I am grateful that the struggles of indigenous peoples are in the public eye now more than ever because of Canada’s sesquicentennial, and because of the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission just a few years ago. I’m glad that indigenous leaders, elders, activists, and artists are making their voices heard, clearer and louder than ever.

they are a force to be reckoned with, and some people are starting to pay attention. I am grateful that there is still music, and art, and the space to speak your mind. These things make me hopeful, but a sign of hope doesn’t mean a sign of victory. Rather, it’s a reason to keep fighting.

There are good things about being Canadian, and long may it remain that way. But for now those good things are not extended to everyone, and that is shameful. So I am grateful, but I am not proud. Not yet.

Yes, look how far we’ve come. Yes, let’s do that. But it’s still not good enough. We can do better. We have to.

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The Future? Make It So

A few weeks ago I was talking with my friend and co-worker about Star Trek. We had each just discovered that the other was a fan, so naturally we couldn’t help but gush about it. There are quite a few reasons why I’m a big fan of the Star Trek franchise as a whole, but while we were comparing notes, my friend mentioned something I hadn’t even considered before, and which has since stuck with me and has even become for me yet another rallying point in the show’s favour. He noted how the general trend of contemporary sci-fi/fantasy film & TV is to become grittier, darker, more cynical, and more bleak. Even the bold primary colour blue-red-yellow of Superman, possibly the most optimistic vision of a superhero ever created, has been tinted and faded into gunmetal greys and sepia tones of Zack Snyder’s vision, to suit the pessimism of our age.

What my co-worker pointed out, which is no secret of course, is that the overall trend is for these shows to become either more post-apocalyptic or more dystopian; what he appreciated about Star Trek, and I immediately agreed with him on this, was that it is so refreshingly neither of those things. In fact, it is just the opposite. Unlike every other major sci-fi franchise that comes to mind, Star Trek alone seems to be the only one that is unapologetically utopian in its outlook. I had always admired the show for its commitment to high ideals, but I never considered it in such blunt terms as “utopian”. This is a term we in our jaded age tend to look upon with scorn, or with pity at best. Yet that is pretty much what Star Trek is.

While sci-fi is often an excellent vehicle for telling cautionary tales about human folly and arrogance, too seldom do we see a picture of humanity at its very best. Star Trek seems like an outlier in its optimism. It takes as a given that humanity has overcome virtually all of the ills currently facing us today. And if that wasn’t ambitious enough, it goes beyond that and asks what we would do if we as a species didn’t have to worry about things like inequality or poverty or war or environmental degradation. The particular answer that Star Trek offers is that we could put our energy and resources into some great, lofty aspiration, such as exploring space and meeting different species and learning about the vast cosmos we live in. Because why not?

The crew of the Enterprise is not one of space warriors (Star Wars), or outlaws (Firefly), or refugees (Battlestar Galactica). Rather, they are explorers, diplomats, and scientists. They are people going out into space because they think that that’s a pretty amazing way to live their lives. The Starship Enterprise’s mission, which in my 90s childhood was recited by Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, was simple: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” I think there’s something beautiful in that statement. Even that notorious split infinitive feels right.

Of course the concept is farfetched. Currently space travel is an option available only to astronauts and perhaps intellectually-inclined billionaire playboys and literally nobody else. Even then, our version of space travel is currently restricted to the moon, and maybe eventually Mars. But the fact that anything beyond that is inconceivable is a result of our current perspective in time. The fact that it is this way now does not mean it will be this way always. Maybe none of us will be alive to see interstellar space travel, but that doesn’t mean it will never happen. Future generations may not be subject to as earthbound a fate as we have been, just as we are in many ways better off as a species than our forebears were. Star Trek casts its view forward into the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th centuries, when we earthlings don’t have the problems we do now.

Of course even if we could reach that point as a species there’s no guarantee space exploration will look anything like that. And I don’t think everything in Star Trek is something we have to strive for, anyway. As much as I adore this franchise, it has had some pretty corny moments. And just because humans have found stability and peace and a place at the table among other intelligent life forms, there is still conflict within and between galactic governments. For example, the United Federation of Planets, of which Earth is a member, was once at war with the Klingon Empire, (the two superpowers being rough stand-ins for the NATO and the Soviet Union). After that, the Federation had become embroiled in conflicts with other species, such as the Romulans, the Cardassians, and perhaps most terrifying of all, the Borg. And all is not necessarily well on the home front. There is as much political intrigue within the Federation itself as there is on its borders. After all, the series would probably not resonate with 20th and 21st century viewers if there was no conflict whatsoever in the 23rd and 24th centuries.

And after all it does seem extremely unlikely. The age of Starfleet and the Federation was only possible because all the right conditions were in place at just the right time: humans had discovered faster than light travel called Warp Drive, at the very same time that another more advanced species, the Vulcans, were in the neighbourhood, and happened to take notice of our quantum leap and thereby decide we were worthy of their attention. And all of this only came about after we finally triggered an apocalypse and finally got World War III out of our systems and came to our senses (so in a way the earth of Star Trek is like a post-apocalyptic utopia). The likelihood of all of those conditions being met is extremely unlikely. So maybe it’s cruel to imagine such a bright future when it is all so very depressingly out of reach. At the end of the day, we may not ever get to that point at all.

But, if I may boldly say, that doesn’t necessarily matter. What matters is that we imagine a possible future for ourselves at all. A good one, to boot. What matters is that we envision a better present; that we exercise our imaginative powers toward this end. Furthermore we must do this on a regular basis, and if we don’t do this on a regular basis we won’t be able to break out of this destructive cycle we have found ourselves in, and we will succumb to despair. Despair is essentially a crisis of the imagination. It is, as Lesley Hazleton puts it, “the inability to imagine oneself into the future…a failure of the imagination–of the human ability to conceive of a different reality, and to act accordingly.”* For this reason I believe that art, specifically narrative art, can be a powerful antidote to despair.

Envisioning a world like Star Trek can have the at least temporary effect of making our current world a little more like Star Trek. A little more tinged with wonder and curiosity. A little more of Captain Kirk’s boldness, a little more of Deanna Troi’s empathy, of Picard’s diplomatic poise and Janeway’s commitment to a life of principle, a touch more Spock-like logic, and a generous serving of Data’s curiosity. If this is escapism, then it is a highly useful kind of escapism. Star Trek is not really about the future, after all. It’s about us, here and now, and what we could be if we put our collective minds to it. It can have the effect of seeing the best in ourselves. It can even have the effect of making us for a time a little more optimistic.

I’m temperamentally wary of optimism. Too much of it can quickly devolve into Pollyanna-ish delusion. But honestly I’m not sure we have to worry too much about that right now. We need hope. We need to imagine good worlds not yet born that we can bring into being, however much time that may take, and however painful that may be. We need the optimism of Star Trek to counterbalance the grim view of dystopian fictions, the post-apocalyptic wastelands, the worlds of extreme decadence and decay, filled with heartless villains and slightly less heartless anti-heroes. I do love those kinds of stories as well, and I’m glad they exist, they should not have a monopoly on the imagination.

The future will not resemble anything we imagine, but we will shape it whether we are conscious of it or not. We are shaping it right now. Not just with trends in technology and politics and culture, but moment to moment on a personal level. Like it or not, we are always creating our future. So we might as well take responsibility for our creative agency. And if we don’t make the effort to imagine something, anything at all, then there will be no future to project ourselves into. And if all we can imagine is one dystopia after another, then that’s all we’ll ever get.

*Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, Hazleton, 2016
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