Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Reported without comment


From an article about a dispute over last year's Nobel Prize for literature:

"The choice of Nobel laureates is often dismissed as obscure when the winner comes from outside the publishing mainstream of Anglophone authors translated into dozens of languages."

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Les Canadiens sont la, encore (finalement)


Last night's exhibition game between the Canadiens and Leafs (won by the Canadiens 3-2) made it real. The NHL really is back. There really will be hockey again all this fall winter and spring.

It's a good feeling.

More than that, the Canadiens right now are faced with an interesting puzzle: they've got a lot of young kids coming up, most at forward, and how do you fit them all into the line-up? Just trying to work out a 23-man roster, never mind figuring out your starters, becomes tough when you balance open roster spots versus waiver vulnerability versus who's outplaying who. It's like one of those Chinese finger-traps; a fun game, except sooner or later you've got to get your damn fingers free, and whichever way you pull you can't figure out how to make it work.

For the record, my guess for the moment is that Alex Perezhogin gets sent down to Hamilton, Guillaume Latendresse returns to junior, and in a couple months we see somebody like Pierre Dagenais traded. I also suspect we'll see one or more of the forward prospects (Perezhogin, Tomas Plekanec, Marcel Hossa, and Chris Higgins) dealt for a defenceman around the time of the trading deadline. If Josef Balej and a draft pick got the Habs Kovalev, maybe one of the aforementioned players can get some much-needed help on the blue line.

In the long run, with even more players likely to come up and fight their way onto the roster at forward over the next two to four years, more moves will likely be made. It's shaping up like a Darwinian battle for positions over the next little while, and it's anybody's guess at this point what kind of a beast will result. All the players mentioned in the paragraph above impressed me. All of them look like they can play in the NHL right now. The Canadiens have some interesting decisions to make as a team about how they intend to develop themselves going forward, and what strengths they want to develop.

(And one other thing about the forwards I really want to say: after a fashion, the player who most impressed me was Jonathan Ferland. His play wasn't at the level of the other four, but he didn't look like he was that far away from the NHL. I remember when the kid was drafted, and the quick summary was 'good size, could be a power forward, can't skate, will likely never make it'. But he's developed himself well, constantly moved forward, and it's not impossible now that he could fight his way onto a fourth line spot in a year or two. More power to him.)

Meanwhile, watching the game last night I found it impossible to make up my mind whether I preferred Ron Hainsey or Mark Streit as a 6th or 7th defenceman. So many penalties are being called it's become very clear that the NHL is trying to really change the way the game is played. More specifically, they're trying to change the way defence is played, and not just by defencemen. If this keeps up, every player in the league is going to have to be re-evaluated with respect to their defensive ability. Some players formerly regarded as solid players may not have the careers they used to (people are already looking nervously at Philadelphia's defence corps, especially Derian Hatcher and Chris Therrien). In the meanwhile, I don't really know how you evaluate defence prospects. This will be an interesting battle to watch.

Anyway, we know the Canadiens will be good. Aragorn hath decreed it.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Quote of the Day

"So long as you can read good books in the languages they effect, that's enough for education: but it adds greatly to your pleasure if you have memory enough to remember the why and wherefore of the waxing and waning of peoples, and to trace the slow washing up and down of event upon event. In that way I think history is the only knowledge of the easy man."

— T.E. Lawrence

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Media and communication

This could be interesting: Brian Mulroney's upset because Peter Newman's written a tell-all book revealing some conversations Newman and Mulroney once had. It's not terribly surprising that Mulroney dislikes Trudeau, but hearing him trash-talk Kim Campbell, if not surprising, at least should be somewhat revealing. So are Mulroney's thoughts on his place in history; he compares himself to Sin John A. MacDonald. Now, in the sense of 'corrupt drunkard', there's probably some truth to that. Otherwise — no.

Meanwhile, Bono continues to win more flies with honey than with vinegar, reassuring Canadians that Paul Martin listens to us and calling him a "great leader for Canada" who can "lead the world out of poverty". According to the CBC. This continues the trend noticeable before the Live 8 event, when Bono and company consciously tried not to offend the politicians who lead the wealthy countries of the world. I can see their logic; confrontation hasn't really worked, maybe praise will. If you make them aware of their power, and phrase the eradication of poverty as a challenge to that power, maybe they'll take action.

The link between these two stories is simply the handling of the media. And the need for an awareness of how to communicate through the media in order to succeed in politics. The need to watch one's words in a forum even slightly public.

Um, not entirely unlike blogs.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Mainstream drying up


There's an interesting interview here with Devin Grayson about the mainstream comics industry. It's a solid run-down of what toiling in the trenches is like. In other words, horrifying. Control over your story is, of course, impossible. Basic rights given to writers in all other fields are routinely denied comics writers (even the right to pull your name from a script you didn't write is taken away from you).

But what's really interesting about the piece, to me, is the way it calls up memories of debates from the late 80s. The way I recall it, there used to be an argument that the mainstream comics companies — Marvel and DC — could be 'reformed', with respect to their publishing practices, and become viable venues for a wide range of artistically-ambitious material. The more extreme versions of this theory held that the super-hero genre would evolve to accomodate this sort of work, but most sane thinkers felt that the companies could or would move away from a strict super-hero focus, branch out into other genres, and perhaps even begin publishing 'literary' fiction on the order of Maus or Love & Rockets. All of this, of course, could only happen when creators in the mainstream won greater rights from the big publishers. A Creator's Bill of Rights was drafted. Work-for-hire was denounced.

As I recall, and I may only be projecting my perceptions of the time on to the comics field in general, 1986 and the years after were key. Maus showed the sophistication comics were capable of, not only in technique, but in intellectual approach. Watchmen showed that even a superhero comic was capable of great structural complexity and formal daring. But: did it represent a new way forward, or the far limit of what could be done? Alan Moore left DC not long afterwards, faced with the same creative restriction Grayson lists. Other creators, like Frank Miller, went as well.

But a new wave of writers, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison prominent among them, created a range of titles which ultimately went on to be grouped in its own imprint, Vertigo, distantly related to the mainstream DC universe yet tengential to it; it was where the superhero books went to grow up. People tend to forget now that many of the original Vertigo books were based on old DC concepts — Doom Patrol, Kid Eternity, Shade the Changing Man, even Sandman started out as a reworking of the DC character and featured other DC heroes and villains in its first issues. Some of these creators became highly acclaimed, leading to them winning new rights from DC. The fights for creators' rights that Moore and Miller could resolve only be leaving what they felt to be a corrupt system looked like it might be winnable after all.

Now, what happened to change all this, in my view, was the rise of star artists at Marvel which in turn led to the phenomenon of the early Image Comics. Art was all. Stories became simplistic. The ideal of more complex stories told within the mainstream began to dwindle, as Vertigo moved further away from what was considered 'mainstream', and got lost in the collectors' frenzy. Speculation led to an emphasis on the comic as consumer item: on the simple, the easily graspable. This book was worth money because of x artist working on y character.

The mainstream, in other words, gave up the ghost. Rather than reform itself, the mainstream industry took the easy way out — as it usually does. Creators' rights in the mainstream industry faded as a topic for general debate, and never quite returned. There have been some flash-point incidents in the years since, but no movement, no general call for the formation of a union. There have been fine comics coming out of the mainstream — 1994's Marvels being a case in point — but none have had the artistic cachet or daring of Watchmen or even Sandman. Vertigo has had its horizons narrowed; it published sf, crime fiction, fantasy, decent genre stuff but nothing earthbreaking even in these fields. Alternative comics ended up carrying the banner for what comics could be, and so the graphic novels making it into libraries and the New York Times book reviews are all published by Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, and the usual suspects. In retrospect it all seems inevitable.

But I sometimes wonder ...

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

More Books

The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde, by Norman Spinrad, is a collection of short stories from over thirty years ago. Spinrad's one of the odder new-wave sf writers I know of. At his best he mixes gutter idealism with fucked-up humour and radical politics. No wonder he's one of Warren Ellis' favourites. Anyway, this isn't Spinrad at his best; you can see him working through standard sf tropes, conventional short stories with Twilight Zone-style twists. That said, the collection gets better as it goes along, including the weirdest Superman story I've ever read ("It's a bird! It's a plane!"), until it reaches the final and title story. It's a sample of Spinrad's "mature" style, starring Michael Moorcock's multiversal assassin, Jerry Cornelius.

Still, the weirdest sensation I got reading the book came during an otherwise-unremarkable story named "The Equalizer", in which a doveish Israeli scientist invents an easily portable, easily concealed, doomsday bomb which any country in the world would be capable of building. He wants to destroy the device. A hawkish Israeli army colonel insists that he turn it over to the government of Israel, believing that of course it's pefectly okay for Israel to have the ability to destroy everybody else on the planet.

The colonel's name? Ariah Sharet.

I have no idea if Spinrad was thinking of Ariel Sharon when he named this character; the story would have been written in the 60s, when Sharon was still in the army. It's possible, I guess. But it gives an odd resonance to an otherwise workmanlike tale.

The Monsters of Morley Manor, by Bruce Coville, is a wild ride of a children's book in which a boy buys a box at a garage sale held in a supposedly-haunted house, discovers a group of half-foot high monsters in said box, and accidentally brings said monsters to life. Turns out they're friendly. In fact, they're a family, a group of adventurers shrunk by an evil genius who is also their greatest enemy. If this sounds familiar to you, it's because you've read the same issues of Fantastic Four as I have (the leader of the monsters, who is — no lie — a genius-level scientist who was once attracted to a woman several years younger than himself, shouts out at one point during the story "Family Morleskievich! Assemble!" — which is one of those other Marvel super-team, but, you know, close enough for government work). Anyway, the resemblance to classic Marvel comics follows through nicely, resulting in a wild ride full of ghosts and aliens and sorcery and super-science. Not classic stuff, maybe, but a fun fast read.

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Briefly Noted ...


Three books completed today.

The Ill-Made Mute, by Cecilia Dart-Thornton, is the first book of a fantasy-adventure trilogy. It's not bad. The characters are very broad, and the action bits aren't terribly thrilling, but there's a better-than-average sense of reality to the world brought on by the judicious use of an extensive vocabulary. On the other hand, there's also the occasional use of modern scientific terminology in the narration, which is somewhat jarring. Dart-Thornton uses Celtic myth and fairy lore a lot in this book, and while the story themselves are fine things, it does tend to undermine the feel of a true original fantasy world. That is, the myths and tales of this world don't seem integrated into the fantasy world; they're not re-imagined strongly enough. Still, it does make the book stand out from the hosts of other fantasy trilogies out there.

The Revenge of the Rose, by Michael Moorcock, is one of the later-day Elric books, an insertion into the original run of stories. It works well enough; Moorcock brings in characters from other series and books of his, connecting up his works in one great multiversal crossover. The writing's not terribly sharp or well-honed, as is often the case with Moorcock's fantasy fiction, and the philosophy the characters spout really isn't very well-integrated into the action. That is, the philosophies are in character, but I find that the fantastic elements don't go far enough towards reflecting or synthesising them into a meaningful myth. But the characters do come across as convincingly intelligent, too intelligent for the story in which they find themselves; as to compensate they become knowingly melodramatic. It's a lot of fun, in its way.

Last Chance to See... , by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, was published back in 1990. I hadn't read it in fifteen years. It's a survey of some of the most endangered species on the planet. It's interesting in its own right, but also interesting as an example of how Adams could make anything interesting. His style was incredibly well-honed and easy to read, extremely funny and incredibly informative at the same time. In a way, it seems that Adams missed his calling. He could have made a mint as a non-fiction writer, making difficult topics accessible and amusing. Mind you, the Hitchhiker's books are nothing to sneeze at, either.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Some Hockey Thoughts


Trying out a new idea here: keywords to highlight the content of a post. We'll see how it works.

So ... the Canadiens have the fifth pick in the NHL draft this Saturday. Bob Gainey's said he's going to talk with the Penguins about getting the first overall pick, hence Sidney Crosby. It ain't gonna happen. The Penguins need Crosby for short-term survival. Just as they needed Mario Lemieux twenty years ago. The Canadiens don't have anything they can offer which would make up for the PR hit the Penguins would take if they let Crosby go. Maybe if somebody came to the Penguins with a ridiculously lopsided deal similar to what Philadelphia gave Québec for Eric Lindros. Maybe if somebody came to them with a deal which would guarantee them a Stanley Cup this year and next. But such deals do not exist, and should not.

The bigger question: should the Penguins continue to exist in the league, or at least in Pittsburgh, if the only thing that keeps them going are once-in-a-generation talents like Lemieux or Crosby? Isn't this effectively an admission that hockey, regular NHL-calibre hockey, is not sustainable in Pittsburgh? A lot of people are happy that because of Sindey Crosby Pittsburgh's probably going to be able to keep their team for the next little while. I'm not, necessarily. Instead, I'm a little sad that because of Sidney Crosby, a real hockey market (say, Winnipeg) is going to be deprived of a franchise they deserve more than the fairweather fans of Pittsburgh.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Back in action

So the NHL is back in business.

What does the new CBA mean? It looks like the owners won handily. But then it looked like they won back in 1995. In fact the CBA that resulted then benefited the players tremendously. So, essentially, time will tell who won this deal.

But because the owners were perceived as winning, because they seem to have gotten what they wanted, the pressure is on them to do well by the deal. What I mean is this: Gary Bettman's negotiated two CBAs for the NHL owners. The last one ... well, it kept them in business, but it didn't do much for their bottom line. This one's going to have to do better. Bettman's always had a vision of the NHL as a truly national league in the US; expansion to places like Nashville, Dallas, and Florida was meant to pave the way for a national TV deal, to eliminate the notion that hockey was a 'regional' sport. Instead, the popularity of the league's dropped, and TV ratings never hit the heights Bettman envisioned. Will this CBA allow things to be changed? Or will it at least allow all the franchises to keep going while the popularity of the sport increases?

Essentially, Bettman has to start realising his dreams. He's got the CBA he dreamed of. There's no excuse, nobody else to blame. It's time to put up or shut up. We'll see what happens, but something to consider: the cost certainties of the new CBA reopen the possibility of putting NHL teams in markets formerly considered too small to host a franchise. Say, for example, Winnipeg or (gah) Québec City. Pittsburgh's been talking about moving for a while. What happens to Bettman's great dream of American national popularity if teams move from the States up to Canada?

(And, of course, what about other dreams for the sport which won't come true while Bettman pursues his own? Expansion to Europe, for example. Risky — but is it any more risky than scattering franchises south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and cancelling a whole season of play?)

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Curiously Fine Writing

Mark Haddon's book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a real interesting read.

To begin with, it's good. It's the first-person account of a fifteen-year-old with severe autism who sets out to figure out who killed the dog owned by the woman across the street. Christopher Boone's detective story is broken up by his personal reflections, his take on the world, which both let the reader into his way of seeing and are fine bravura pieces of writing. The story doesn't suffer; it's increasingly compelling, and takes a radical shift halfway through. It does read a bit like a screenplay in terms of structure, complete with a slightly aimless third act. That aside, it's well worth the read.

What's most interesting to me, though, is the way in which Haddon (probably unintentionally) sends up modernist and post-modernist notions of 'good writing'. His prose is bare of metaphor and (intentional) emotional content, because Christopher understands neither. The fact that the book is so gripping follows from Christopher saying more than he understands; which is theoretically where the punch in most modern literary fiction comes from. But look again: the narrator here is autistic, suffering from neurological impairment. If that's what it takes to produce the ideal literary protagonist, what does it say about literary fictoin? Christopher's story is punctuated with sharp observation of people around him, concrete tactile details such as are suppposed to be the hallmark of good writing. How does he know to include them? Because his creative writing teacher told him that details make for good writing, and because one of the symptoms of his autism is an acute Holmes-like power of observation.

So: what we learn from The Curious Incident is that literary fiction's ideal narrator suffers from autism. If this is so, what can we conclude about literary fiction's ideal readers, writers, and critics?

Friday, July 8, 2005


Recently read: Collapse, by Jared Diamond. It's an interesting book, with a weighty theme, but it has to be the worst-written important nonfiction bestseller I've ever read. Misplaced adjectives, dull text, creaky attempts to personalise vast issues ... but the ideas and the information are so intriguing, it just about makes up for it. Diamond looks at how and why societies collapse., and sometimes why they don't. He makes a strong case for the environment, and a society's management or mismanagement of the environment, as a key reason. He looks at a number of societies quickjly, and a couple in depth, including the Greenland Norse. The problem is that most of the societies he examines — the Maya, the Anasazi, Easter Island — have left little or no written records behind them, meaning that there's little to be gleaned on an individual level. It's not surprising that when he examines modern societies the book becomes much more interesting. It's too simple to say that the book provides a warning or a wake-up to the modern-day First World; rather, it demonstrates some ways in which the First World interacts with the rest of the world, and puts that in a historical context, implying certain patterns of societal development. It's a worthwhile effort, and worth reading, but the prose really does get in the way.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Sunday Morning Thoughts

Well, that took longer than I thought.

It is Sunday, June 19; as I write it is 7:52 AM. I'm in Philipsburg, Québec, and it is a beautiful day out with the sky clearing after several dull cloudy days. I'm looking out on morning sun shining on green trees, a field of mowed hay in the foreground before me, low blue and purple mountains off on the horizon. It is eleven degrees celsius, with no wind but very many birds chittering away at each other.

What better way to mark a return to blogging than by taking on the bloggers' natural prey, the So-Called Liberal (American) Media? Herewith, thoughts on some of the Sunday morning chat shows from south of the border.

(Incidentally, has anybody in the States ever commented on the juxtaposition of Saturday morning cartoons and Sunday morning political talk shows? I get the sense some TV programmer way back when was trying to make a point. Mind you, with Saturday morning cartoons now all but gone, the point's no longer quite so trenchant. All we can do is be lucky that Bob Novak is there to take the place of Gargamel and Cobra Commander.)

Okay, let's begin with the warm-up act: Sunday Today.

A lot of coverage about missing or kidnapped kids, including a long story (the lead) about a girl who went missing in Aruba. Also, a boy scout's gone missing in Utah. Meanwhile, a suicide bomber kills 8 people in Iraq and Bush rejects the idea of an exit strategy in Iraq. 60 percent of Americans believe the war's going poorly. Lots of pictures of people protesting, with a lingering shot through the White House fence of a sign reading ‘impeach Bush'.

Then a couple stories about airplane mishaps.

During the report on Iraq, there was an audio clip of Bush essentially promoting the flytrap theory of American operations in Iraq. Still missing: any connection between this theory and reality.

Segment about a family with fifteen kids. Segment about a classical music child prodigy. It's Father's Day.

This is such a slow Sunday the hosts can't even be bothered with awkward banter.

Big interview with "the runaway bride" on Wednesday. Apparently, some people in the media are still trying to claim this was a real story.

Now some guy's playing ‘Ordinary People' on piano. This show is increasingly surreal.

A big report on the Downing Street Memo's coming up ... on MSNBC (that's Monday). Evidently it's not a big enough story for the full network.

On the other hand, now there's a segment with two writers from Seinfeld about how to deal with life's embarrassing moments, like showing up overdressed to a cocktail party or forgetting somebody's name. So ... well, there's that. Oh look: the next segment is a mini-fashion show. And then there's a piece about what to serve at brunch.

Screw this, I'm going out to trim the lilacs until 9.

Okay, now the main event begins. Meet the Press, featuring a full hour with John McCain. This could get nutty.

Russert's stunned that 6 of 10 Americans think things are going poorly in Iraq. McCain is one of the 4 in10, no big surprise, but he's honest enough to say that mistakes have been made in the war and in the way the US government's talked about the war. Also to say that the war will be a long, hard struggle. Fair enough, and he goes on the record as seeing the war continuing for at least another couple of years at best.

Russert asks about recruitment, and McCain admits there'll be trouble if the army consistently falls short of its goals. He suggests increasing rewards, shortening terms of service. Also suggests talking about patriotism and the need to serve. On the one hand, it's difficult to imagine Americans talking even more about patriotism. On the other hand, McCain's correct in noting that the need to serve one's country isn't really talked about — perhaps because it's implicitly a left-wing idea (the individual giving of oneself to serve the community; compare Kennedy and Trudeau). McCain does reject the idea of a draft out of hand.

Then he makes some dark comments about Syria. Syria may well deserve having a few dark comments lobbed its way, to say the least, but if the American military effort in Iraq is meeting with such problems, I'm not sure pointed threats muttered in anybody's general direction are really going to do much.

McCain calls for adjudication for prisoners in Guantanamo — noting that even Eichmann got a trial, which is a good line. He agrees with Ross Perot that American troops taken prisoner now and in the future are or will be at risk due to the way the current administration allows its own prisoners to be treated. I agree with Ross Perot on something. I am suddenly very afraid.

McCain thinks that Dick Durbin was out of line (he wasn't) in his comments in the Senate in re: Guantanamo Bay prison, resemblances therein to Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot. McCain then claims that Americans in Guantanamo are doing their jobs in a humane way. So there's the predicted nuttiness. It makes an interesting slogan, though: ‘humane torture, conducted on prisoners humanely deprived of their right to a fair trial.'

In response to a question from Russert about the Schiavo episode, McCain does a delicate side-step, calling the whole thing an "American tragedy". What else can he do? Decent political performance, and Russert (unsurprisingly) doesn't push him.

McCain comes out in favour of stem cell research. Evidently he's changed his mind on this. Good for him.

Russert's got some howls of outrage from conservative commentators over the deal McCain helped broker on Bush's last round of outrageous judicial nominees. God knows why. The deal wasn't exactly ... well, put it like this. Somebody puts a knife to your throat, demands your wallet, and then tells you that rather than kill you and take your wallet he'll be happy to take two thirds of everything in said wallet. Are you gonna say you got a good deal?

Anyway, McCain points out that Republicans have filibustered judicial nominees themselves. He positions himself as bipartisan, and talks about how the deal sets the stage for a probable upcoming Supreme Court nomination. He's likely right. Then he claims that the standard of "extraordinary circumstances" is clear, that he's convinced that the President's Supreme Court nominee won't touch "extraordinary circumstances", and that Justice Scalia shouldn't be filibustered. So that's one "likely right" versus three "what the hell is he thinking"s.

Next, McCain is gently critical of the administration's environmental stance, or lack thereof. He takes a serious stand on climate change; nice to see. Then he has to "clarify" previous criticism of the administration he made in another interview. Note that Men's Journal asks tougher questions than Tim Russert.

Russert goes back to Men's Journal interview (do they do all his reporting?) to bring up the fact that Kerry talked about the vice-presidency with McCain. McCain claims he was happy with Bush's record in the "war on terror" and is therefore happy that Bush is still President. Russert pushes McCain on whether he's going to run in 2008, thus bringing up memories of an old Saturday Night Live skit. Which McCain himself later points out, making me wonder if he took part in that skit specifically so he'd have a gentle way of deflecting questions about his running in 2008. Anyway, McCain refuses to commit himself one way or another. (Also, McCain claims not to have thought about his results from the 2000 primary. With a straight face, even.)

McCain claims to agree with Bush more than he disagrees with him, lists off a number of issues he says he sees eye-to-eye with the President on — and one of them is "fiscal discipline".

McCain closes by noting that he's a Republican, and proud to be of the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. I really have no idea how much resemblance or continuity there is between the contemporary Republican party and the party of those gentlemen, but it does occur to me to wonder why I have never heard a Canadian politician ever talk about belonging to the party of either MacDonald or Laurier. Although I did once hear one of the post-Broadbent pre-Layton NDP leaders say "Tommy Douglas was right about a lot of things." I believe that was just after she'd led the NDP to a new low in Parliamentary representation.

Okay, time for the Chris Matthews Show.

First up, Matthews and panel talk about new signs of resurgence from the middle of the political spectrum. The middle of the American spectrum, that is. From the perspective of almost any other industrialised Western country, the "middle" looks an awful lot like the "right". I've got nothing against Howard Dean, but if he's considered a leftist, you really don't know what the left is. Oddly, other than Dean, nobody specifies who on the left is being extreme and inflexible.

There's a constant whine from south of the border about the need for moderation, and how "both left and right" are being unreasonable over this issue or that. And how important it is to find middle ground. Even when, as in the Schiavo case, there was no middle ground. Then when somebody does demonstrate bipartisanship, they get punished for it by the voters who find them ‘indecisive' or ‘weak'. The fact is, Americans (like everyone) don't want moderates, as such — they want people who are capable of real, free, and independent thought. Not many people like that in politics.

Discussion about the negative view of the Iraq war. Now the media people on the panel talk about the importance of the "goals" of the war, and how can America draw its troops out without betraying its goals? The goals, in case you didn't know (I can't keep track, myself), involve establishing freedom in the middle east. In other words, the neoconserative plan of building a representative democracy in Iraq and using that to transform the region has now been adopted as gospel by media insiders. Just not by the American people at large. So the media insiders wonder how the American people can be so weak-willed as to imperil the great and noble mission in Iraq.

Then people told Chris Matthews things he didn't know. According to one of the panellists, despite the allege desire for moderation and bipartisanship calls to the DNC were running four-to-one in favour of Howard Dean's recent outspoken comments on the Republican party. Aha, the panel says, Dean's firing up the base. And they move on. Who knows? Maybe they're right.

Then Matthews showed some of his family pictures. No, I don't get it either.

10:30, and time for Face the Nation. A discussion with Joe Biden. Could be worse.

Biden's back from Iraq with a bleak view. Bad elements are creeping across the border. Iraq's turning into a training ground for terrorists. So: big gap between administration rhetoric and reality. Biden sez: better for the President to level with people, or else (and he's pretty sharp on this) people are going to presume that the reason the administration's afraid to be honest is that there is no hope of success.

Biden's still hopeful; sees a sixty percent chance of success if policies change. Without that change, no chance.

Biden mentions that he's not allowed to be present when the bodies of American soldiers are flown back home from overseas. Absent approval from above, the Department of Defense will not allow him on military bases to, for example, accompany his constituents to pick up the body of their son. This ruling was made by civilians in the DoD, not the military hierarchy.

More outrage over the Durbin comments. Biden claims Durbin said in a letter that he wishes he hadn't made the comments, which have proven distracting. Biden turns the conversation to Guantanamo, and what to do with it. The idea of giving everyone in there a free trial is, as usual, conspicuously unmentioned.

Asked about John Bolton, and the possibility of the President making a recess appointment to unilaterally appoint Bolton for a year and a half, Biden pointed out, correctly, that this would seriously undercut Bolton's ability to represent the US to the world. He's more of a defeatist with regard to the Supreme Court, admitting that Scalia probably would get confirmed as the Chief Justice of the Court if Bush picked him for the job, but hoping that Bush would refrain to avoid setting off another political firestorm. Fat chance, says I.

Asked about Dean, Biden tries to present himself as the moderate alternative. He states that he intends to seek the Democratic nomination of 2008. Evidently, he intends to run from the centre. Which is to say, the right.

One of the local PBS channels broadcasts the McLaughlin Group at 11. Discussion here of the "Homeward Bound" resolution, calling for withdrawal of American troops by October 2006, which unaccountably was not discussed by Chris Matthews when he was talking about bipartisan politics.

But again: discussion of how important it is to win the war in Iraq. Even by people on the (relative) left. Also: much comparison of Iraq to Viet Nam. And the need for a viable exit strategy, currently nowhere in evidence.

1700 dead Americans, over 40 000 wounded, more than 110 000 dead Iraqis. Panellists on the McLaughlin Group and the Chris Matthews Show both think the President's "strong enough" to stick it out in Iraq. Katty Kay, on the Matthews Show, came closest to getting it right, saying that Bush has to keep going because he's staked his presidency on the war. In fact, Bush will stick around in Iraq firstly because there's no way to pull out without causing a massive disaster which would be forever linked to his name, and secondly because he's too weak to admit he's wrong. I'm afraid Biden's hopes for Iraq will go unfulfilled because Bush hasn't got enough strength to accept that he and his administration have made a series of mistakes. Bush is a weak man, and a weak leader — and the messes at home and abroad currently bedevilling the US are the result of many people desperately trying to convince themselves that weakness is actually strength. In my opinion.

Much discussion of Iran then followed, with nothing terribly outrageous said that I caught. Either John McLaughlin is mellowing with age, or Pat Buchanan's making him look soft.

George Stephanopoulos talks with Condoleeza Rice. Condoleeza Rice continues to impress me as having two facial expressions: sinister, and help-me-I'm-out-of-my-depth. She has one tone of voice, and it's the latter. In a way, she makes a good match with Bush; Bush has the nervous smile of a schoolboy who thinks he's getting away with selling his teacher a line about why he wasn't in class last week, while Rice has the agonised awkward tone of a schoolmarm who knows she knows her material (even when her facts are wrong, as here when she claims that real progress is being made in Iraq) and can't figure out why everybody's snickering at her and nobody takes her seriously, darn it, and why do people insist on asking questions about whether the Iraq insurgency is really in its last throes when she's already given them an answer and that answer has facts in it and why isn't that good enough and what else does she have to say?

Later in the show, during a panel discussion, Katrina Vanden Heuven from the Nation became the first person I saw today to correctly analyse the significance of the reaction to Dick Durbin's comments — namely, that the right wing was trying to whip up a furor over some of his phrasing to distract people from the point. More importantly, she noted that outrage ought to be involved in the debate over Guantanamo, but it would be proper to aim it at the prison itself. Then Michael Duffy from Timemagazine noted that the government's begun hinting that they just might keep people at Guantanamo "in perpetuity". So that'll end that sort of talk.

Oh, and apparently Antonio Gonzales is talking again about taking the US out of the Geneva Conventions so that it can't be accused of war crimes.

Some discussion of whether Congressional Republican dissent from the Bush program represents something more than Bush's second-term lame-duckiness. Answer: probably. Congressional Republicans have to worry about 2006, and it's difficult to blame everything on Democrats when they don't have the numbers in government to affect much.

Then a poll came up saying that about 60 percent of Americans believe that global warming is inevitable, but about the same number don't think it'll affect their lives and don't favour immediate government action. George Will responded by digging up press clips from thirty years ago claiming that global cooling was inevitable. Everybody else laughed at him. Politely.

And that was pretty much all I found to write about.

So what does it all come out to? Well, it was easier to take than the same set of shows a year ago. I get the sense that the American people are beginning to see the reality of at least a few things, and the American media will have little choice but to follow along. On a more specific note, it was nice to see Vanden Heuven on the Stephanopoulos show; that's one person I'd feel confident describing as a leftist on the mainstream American media. Hey, it's a start.

Let's see where we go from here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Time flies

Geez, this blogging stuff isn't as easy as it looks.

I must ponder this.

Sunday, March 6, 2005

Zombies of Kentucky

I'm too tired to properly deal with this right now, but the unlikely agency of Ain't it Cool News brings to the attention of the internet a tale of zealousness and of paranoia run amok. Some high school kid writes a short story about zombies attacking a high school. He is therefore arrested and held on five thousand dollars bail. That's right, held. In jail. For writing a story.

You know, and I'm just talking out loud here, it'd be a really neat idea if the United States amended their constitution to, say, protect the freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the freedom of writers to write and artists to create. That'd be wonderful, and something I think the rest of the world could and should really look up to.

Oh ... hey, wait.

Thursday, March 3, 2005

Go Lloyd Go!

Lloyd Axworthy, of all people, steps up to Condoleezza Rice. Check it out in the Winnipeg Free Press.

In other news, "Sticks and Stones", the Fifth Estate show slamming Fox News, is available for download on the CBC website. If, like me, you're on a dial-up modem, you can download the three-minute clip of Ann Coulter insisting that Canada fought alongside the U.S. in the Vietnam war.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

The long and the short of it

Pogge has the best post I've seen so far about Paul Martin, Paul Cellucci, and missile defence.


If Martin truly had a spine he'd stop disputing Cellucci's comments in the Canadian media, which is really for the benefit of Canadians and not the American government, and send The Mouth back to Washington, D.C. with a formal diplomatic note suggesting that Canada would welcome a representative of the White House who's capable of looking the word “diplomacy” up in the dictionary and understanding its meaning. But I'll guarandamntee you that ain't gonna happen.

Go read the rest.

At least he's not predictable

Over at Kyle's Republic, there's a link to a Vanity Fair article by lefty-turned-contrarian-conservative Christopher Hitchens about the last American presidential elections, and various statistical anamolies in Ohio. Hitchens essentially argues that something stinks, and ought to be investigated. Lots of numbers and data follow, filling out what seems like a self-evident proposition: you can't be too careful when it comes to the basic mechanism of democracy.

Ever since election night, people have been arguing for a thorough examination of the results in Ohion and Florida, with specific reference to the new voting machine technology used in those states. This piece may be a sign that these arguments are moving beyond the fringe and into the mainstream.

Personally, I've spent the past few months wondering what Bush's second-term scandal was going to be. Every two-term American president in the past thirty-five years has had one. Nixon had Watergate, Reagan had Iran-Contra, Clinton had Whitewater. Maybe too much time in power makes one careless, maybe the press finally gets fed up with the administration, but for whatever reason something about the second term seems to lead to massive public outrage. With Bush the questoin becomes: given his track record, what more can he do that'll raise the already-existing outrage to true full-blown scandal level? What will it take to turn his fans against him? Tampering with voting results would be one possibility, I think. It's simply indefensible. Which isn't to say that partisans wouldn't try to defend it, if it were true.

At any rate, it's early days yet. Nothing may come of these doubts about the election results. But for the moment, 'vote tampering' is the early favourite in the Second-Term Scandal watch.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Newsflash: Satire not dead

Check out this excellent, disturbing diary at Daily Kos.

Extra! Extra!

After mucking about the template a bit, I've added a news feed to Hochelaga Depicta.

Robert McClelland at My Blahg keeps a feed of left-wing Canadian news pieces over here, with cut'n'paste html so that you can add the feed to your own site. As I have now done; just scroll down, and look to your right.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Politics as usual

Ralph Goodale's budget came out today, and the Canadian blogosphere seems to have met it with a resounding 'eh'. The most impassioned post I found came from the Gracchi, who live up to their populist name (and good on 'em, I say).

On other fronts, we're out of the missile defence program. Wait, no we're not.

It's firm leadership from the Prime Minister that has made this country great.

Not this Prime Minister, mind you. But, well, some Prime Minister. At some point in the past. Um ... not necessarily a Canadian Prime Minister, I guess.

Or, put another way: what happens when a minority government is headed by a PM with multiple-personality disorder? Stay tuned to find out.

A little bit about myself ...

The Dante's Inferno Test has sent you to the First Level of Hell - Limbo!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:
Purgatory (Repenting Believers)Low
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)Extreme
Level 2 (Lustful)Low
Level 3 (Gluttonous)Low
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)Very Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)Low
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)High
Level 7 (Violent)Low
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)Moderate
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)Very Low

Take the Dante's Inferno Test

Link found on Warren Kinsella's site. Apparently I get to kick back and hang out with Homer, Vergil, and Socrates for eternity. There are worse fates.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Cat, meet chickens

Appearing before a Foreign Affairs committee today, Frank McKenna, Canada's next ambassador to the United States, claimed that Canada has already agreed to participate in the American missile defence program. According to McKenna, since Canada agreed to allow Norad to participate in the program, we've given missile defence our tacit approval.

Way to go, Frank! Way to bring a long-simmering issue up to the front burner. You know who I bet was glad to hear what you had to say? Paul Martin. I bet he was just overjoyed. Another chance to show his knack for balancing domestic popular sentiment against his incisive understanding of the needs and desires of foreign allies.

Ho ho ho I am a kidder.

The missile defense program is a bad idea. Everybody knows it's a bad idea. The damn thing doesn't even work. Opinion in Canada is massively opposed to it. But the Bush administration is pushing for it hard, to the point where Bush bitch-slapped Stephen Harper for not seeming sufficiently enthusiastic about the idea.

Martin really has no choice, given the way Canadians feel on the issue, but to disengage from the program as much as he can. It'll take some finesse to do it, though, and given Martin's apparent spinelessness it is quite possible that he'll go the other route and quietly allow Canada to be roped into the missile defence program bit by bit.

Which makes it interesting to speculate about why McKenna came out at this point saying that we're already hip-deep in the program. One is not normally made an ambassador because of one's complete pig-ignorance of the political ramifications of one's statements.

There's already been a furor in Parliament today, thanks to McKenna. This is national news, and big news. The spotlight is now on missile defence. And it's a big, bright spotlight, picking out every move the government makes.

Which will make it awfully hard for Paul Martin to do any finessing for the next little while.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Random bits of comic book news

Joss Whedon's doing another year's worth of Astonishing X-Men stories, with a Giant-Sized Astonishing X-Men #1 at the end. He's also doing a three-issue Serenity mini-series at Dark Horse, which is going to cover ground between the end of the Firefly TV show and the beginning of the Serenity movie.

The long-promised Astro City storyline The Dark Ages is being promised once again; it'll be sixteen issues, dividing into four four-issue arcs.

At the same link as above, we learn that Alan Moore's Halo Jones will be reprinted by DC. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere will be adapted for comics.

Hunter S. Thompson, the man who was the inspiration for Doonesbury's Uncle Duke, has died. It appears to be a suicide. Let the conspiracy theories begin.

Finally, Kyle's Republic is featuring a reprint of Salon's Alan Moore interview. If, like me, you have issues with Salon's day-pass weirdness, you can check it the piece out here.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Understanding sentences

In his instant-classic Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud suggested that the comics form is based around 'closure', on the comics reader instinctively filling in the gap between two images. The comics reader sees a comics panel; then sees a second panel; then imagines, based on those two panels, what happened between the panels; then moves on to a third picture, and imagines what happened between the second and third panels, and so on to the end of the comics story. As McCloud puts it, "Comic panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality."

McClous sees closure happening in other mediums, but in different ways. The eye automatically blends 24 projected frames per second into a movie, or a quick-moving dot of light into a TV show. But closure deriving from the imagination of the audience is key to comics: "... a medium of communication and expression which uses closure like no other ... a medium where the audience is a wiling and conscious collaborator and closure is the agent of change, time, and motion."

McCloud doesn't compare closure in comics with written literature, other than to state that "Closure in comics fosters an intimacy surpassed only by the written word, a silent, secret contract between creator and audience." It doesn't seem as though he's implying that the intimacy of the written word derives from closure, or at least not closure as he's been talking about it. A bit later, McCloud does spend some pages talking about the use of minimalism in art and storytelling. But that's something which is a constant in any kind of narrative art: how much and how little information do you give your audience?

Beyond questions of narrative closure, I'd argue that written literature uses closure on a smaller scale. Specifically, on the level of the sentence, and on the level of the word.

Here's a paragraph from the beginning of a chapter in Iain Sinclair's book Radon Daughters, talking about visionary theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg:

"Emmanuel Swedenborg, a young man, twenty-two years old in 1710, takes passage from Göteborg to the port of London. A sorry sequence of annoyances, delays, mental trials. Traditional picaresque colouring: Danish privateers, sandbanks, fog. A bad novel. Plague warnings, quarantine: Wapping Old Stairs. He comes in on the tide like an ugly rumour. This sheep-head scientist, holy fool. A celibate enquirer. The youngest of the dead. A walking corpse with peach-fuzz on his cheeks. He hunts the soul to the innermost recess of the body. Place: an undefined riverside geography has its hooks in his chest. He is fetched. As they are all fetched, these madmen — necessary, an ingredient; humid, vegetable menstrum. Potential fossils, future deposits, we must scratch their darkness in order to see. They lay down memory-traces in the clay of our city. Strange communings, reveries, visions. Their posthumous sleep poisons our weather."

It's a strange paragraph, and Sinclair is a strange writer. Like many modernist writers, he pushes his prose to the point of near-incomprehensibility. In this paragraph, we can see meaning almost distintegrate, coherency fade and return; return changed, in the sudden appearance of the voice of the first-person plural.

Think of that paragraph in terms of closure. The first sentence presents no difficulty. You move from word to word and end up with a coherent sentence expressing an idea. Then you jump to the second sentence. A bit of a leap there, from "a man taking passage" to "a sorry series of delays". But it doesn't take much effort to conclude that the delays occur during the man's passage. The third sentence, much the same. Then a bit more of a leap with the fourth sentence, and you may have to pause a fraction of a second to relate "A bad novel" to the "Traditional picaresque colouring" of the third sentence; the image is extended. Probably you take it in stride; but then what happens in the next sentence, with its quarantines and plague warnings? Presumably the man finds them in London, or on his way there; but where? Do you happen to know where Wappig Old Stairs is?

Sentences describing Swedenborg follow. Hard to understand all of them. "Sheep-head scientist"? "The youngest of the dead"? How about these two sentences together: "He hunts the soul to the innermost recess of the body. Place: an undefined riverside geography has its hooks in his chest." You can see a connection. After a fashion. If you squint. Sinclair's sentences skip over connective ideas that the reader must struggle to recreate; who are the madmen who are fetched? Are they 'fetched' by being brought from one place to another, or are they haunted by ghost images of themselves? Sinclair is pushing literary closure as far as he can.

One might say that prose in which closure becomes difficult, in which meaning seems to dissolve and idea does not smoothly lead to idea, involves disjunctions in consciousness. I think Sinclair does this deliberately, using his incantatory rhythms to create a certain state of mind in his readers. It's good modernist writing, the sort of style which in another context is called "stream-of-consciousness". That's a technique which establishes character by what is left out from conscious thought; the things the character doesn't think about, the things the character takes for granted. Closure breaks down as McCloud's "continuous, unified reality" is mediated by the subjectivity of the individual character.

Closure, in other words, is the key to written literature. The manipulation of closure is central to literary technique. How much information do you give the audience? How little? Return to the idea of closure in narrative: the same questions arise. How much information? How little? Literature and comics are fractal forms, where the same questions have to be answered at every level of creation: the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the book.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

It's dead, Jim

It's official: the 2004-2005 NHL season is cancelled.

I can't say I'm too sad about it, if only because I've been prepared for the worst for a while. It's been very clear for the past year or so that everybody involved in these negotiations was ready to scrap at least one full season of hockey. That's now a done deal — the only done deal in sight. Is it a good thing? No. But it's better than going ahead with a deal which won't fix any of the financial problems that seem to be afflicting the NHL.

How do I know there are financial problems? Do I believe the owners' line implicitly? Not really. But consider that a) Canada is still the heart of the NHL in terms of player generation and fan support, and b) Calgary, Canada's fourth-largest city, has real problems maintaining a competitive lineup due to salary concerns. Put these two facts together and you can see that there's a problem somewhere along the line.

With any luck, the cancellation of the season will result in a deal which will fix the above-cited fact. Maybe it'll even allow for the return of a city like Winnipeg to the league. Unfortunately, it may also result in the possibility of a new franchise in Québec City, but you gotta take the bad with the good.

Especially since the other real possibility is that the labour dispute may result in real long-term damage to the NHL. Nobody wants that.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Pins and needles

Nobody now knows what's going to happen.

Late last night, last-ditch talks to end the NHL lockout seemed to have reached a breakthrough. The National Hockey League owners agreed to abandon their idea of 'cost certainty'; of linking revenues to salaries. NHL players agreed to accept the idea of a salary cap in some form. Apparently, the players gave the league a proposal for a collective bargaining agreement including a 52 million dollar cap. The league responded today with another of their famous 'final offers', this time proposing a 42.5 million dollar cap.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has a press conference tomorrow at 1 PM. The players have until 11 AM, two hours before Bettman steps up to the microphones, to accept the league's proposal. If they accept it, than Bettman announces it at 1. If they don't, then he announces that the NHL season is cancelled.

If the players do accept the proposal, the league plays a 28-game schedule, followed by a full playoffs. Presumably that means each team would play two games, one home and one away, against every team in their conference.

At the moment, nothing else seems certain. A lot of questions, that's all we've got. Would the new CBA fix the sport? Could a 28-game season have any credibility in the context of the modern NHL? How long will teams have to fix their rosters, sign players, and hold training camps?

I'm wondering what prompted the NHL to back off their 'cost certainty' fixation. Did they accept the fact that the players weren't going to move? Or did they think that the union had been given enough of a check? Rumours suggest that union head Bob Goodenow was insulted by players during a weekend conference call;that he was sidelined from the negotiation process after player Trevor Linden arranged for his own negotiations. Did these things really happen? If so, were they what Bettman was really after?

As usual: Wait and see. Wait and see. But this time, there won't be too long to wait.

While waiting, go here to check out Spector's take on developments. And go over here to read the letter from Bettman to Goodenow.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Stormfronts approaching

You know that post I had a little while ago about there didn't seem to be much brewing on the Canadian political horizon?

Well, as Dick Irvin would say, cancel previous memo.

The Montréal Gazette published an article at the start of last week revealing that U.S. religious groups were funding Canadian opponents of same-sex marriage. Outrage followed, mostly in the Canadian blogosphere, with the exception of this CBC article and a mention on the American Daily Kos site. Here's a blog post on the subject. And another. And another. And another, and another, and another. Follow the links in the posts to find even more commentary. If you're new to Canadian political blogs, and I am, this is a good way to get into the swing of things.

A follow-up article in the Gazette quoted Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, author of the same-sex marriage legislation, as saying that he was examining the situation to see if there were any measures which might limit foreign financial intervention in internal Canadian political disputes. The same article had the American groups claiming that the Canadian organisations they were funding were all completely independent, and the American leadership had no say in what they would do with the money, and if the Canadian groups did use it for a political cause, well, they knew best. Another Gazette article later appeared in which Cotler essentially admitted that no statute on the books could be used to prevent the American funding from crossing the border.

There's not an awful lot to say about the issue. Like most of the commentators I've linked to, I don't see this as a free-speech issue; I see it as a story about foreign lobbyists trying to influence decisions made by representatives of the people of Canada. As far as affecting the same-sex marriage legislation, I don't see it having much of an effect. Unless, that is, it's a boomerang effect. Canadians are very touchy about American influence in their politics. Especially, across most of Canada, influence from the American Right. In the last election, Stephen Harper had to spend an awful lot of time dodging accusations from the other three parties that he was too friendly with the American right wing. This situation will not help his cause, and is not likely to help the cause of opposition to gay marriage in general.

This isn't so much a question of Canadians being more sympathetic to the left than the right. It's a question of the American right representing a value system that Canadians don't relate to at all. Meanwhile, Harper's already finding himself in trouble for trying to drum up opposition to gay marriage among ethnic minorities. There's a Conservative party convention coming up later this month, in Montréal, no less, and division was already expected between the far-right ex-Reform wing and the socially-liberal Red Tories. Heaven only knows what'll happen now.

Personally, I don't expect to be shedding any tears.

I could have wept, though, when I read about this. The Canadian government apparently went to bed with Monsanto, the world's largest producer of genetically modified crops. The issue here wasn't to do with healthier crops or larger fruits; it was about Monsanto's notorious ‘terminator' crops. It seems that the issue has been settled, thankfully against Monsanto (again), but they're gearing up for the next fight (again). How deeply have they corrupted the government? Stay tuned for further details.

And, lastly, a new poll suggests there is an issue out there that Canadians are steamed about. It's not what you could call controversial, though, since so many people are against it. Yes, it's the always-unpopular American Missile Defense Program. Here's a link to The Gracchi, who will tell you more about the poll. Key quote for me, from the EKOS pollsters: "I don't think Canadians feel that intensely about missile defense, in and of itself. I think it's become a proxy for deeper anxieties about what the American administration (is) doing." Sounds likely to me.

So on the one hand, the Bloc, the NDP, many Liberals, and most of Canada oppose the Missile Defense Plan. On the other hand, the Bush Administration and much of Canadian industry want Canadian participation. Conclusion: there's a reason Paul Martin looks so nervous these days.

But hey, at least things are getting interesting.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Everything the others don't get

Here's a bit of long-overdue recognition for Kyle's Republic, a thoughtful blog by a thoughtful American living in occasionally-thoughtful Canada (or, a thoughtful blog by a thoughtful Canadian of American birth; whichever). I recommend it highly for everybody.

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

A whiff of sulphur and brimstone

I read a very odd book the other day: The Hellfire Club, by Daniel P. Mannix. The Hellfire Club was a group of aristocrats in 18th century England; their founder and focal point, Sir Francis Dashwood, managed at one point to get himself appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer — meaning that he controlled the finances of the British Empire. Other members of the club were similarly well-connected, and one, John Wilkes, has gone down in history as a champion of free speech. But Wilkes, like Dashwood and the other members of the Hellfire Club, was pure sleaze. Take the Earl of Sandwich, who loved gambling so much he once had his butler put some roast beef between two pieces of bread and bring it to him at the card table so he wouldn't have to quit playing to have dinner.

Of course, that's mild next to the shenanigans the Hellfire Club was famous for. All sorts of tales are told. They dressed up as monks and parodied Catholic rituals, perhaps even staging mock Black Masses; they hired prostitutes to play the part of nuns. Some say that not all the Black Masses were necessarily mockery. Written in 1961, Mannix's book claims to give the full story of the Club and its activities.

(You Marvel Comics fans no doubt have already heard of a group called the Hellfire Club. The historical version was based in England not America, they fizzled out not long after they were created, and there were fewer mutants involved, but they really were a society of ultra-rich libertines.)

It's hard at this remove to be sure what was true, and what was false. Some people think the Hellfire Club was essentially a bunch of drinking buddies with tons of cash and a strange sense of humour. Mannix goes the other way, painting a picture of a literal cabal of England's best and brightest engaged in debauchery, whoring, drinking, gambling, rape, seduction, incest, diabolism, and anything else you can think of.

As I say, it's hard to say now what the true story of the Hellfire Club really was. It seems well-attested that Dashwood had part of the grounds of his estate landscaped in the form of a naked woman. Supposedly, the caves where the Club held their orgies was reached by passing through "the door by which we all entered the world", as they said two hundred years ago and some. Was there a large statue of a phallus out front as well? That's the way the story has it.

Mannix believes all these stories implicitly. And adds more. He gives no references whatsoever, so it's hard to judge how credible his facts are. Some of what he writes is undoubtedly factual. The rest ... who knows? Mannix obviously read widely, but it looks like he believed everything he read. And that's always a problem.

It's debatable how much faith one should put in the absolute veracity of Hogarth's prints, for example. Sure, there's a lot of reportage and observation in Hogarth. But there's also a lot of caricature, too. Mannix doesn't stop with Hogarth, either; he also takes John Cleland's Fanny Hill as an authentic testimony to real sexual attitudes in the 18th century. Which is an awful lot of faith to put in what is, basically, a stroke book.

In a sense the book does create a feel of what the time might have been like. A Terry Gilliam feel; extravagant, inventive, based on a core of truth, but ultimately unreal. That's great for fantasy films. It's something more ambiguous in a history book.

The odd thing —

Excuse me. As I write this (about 3:15 AM), ultra-conservative classic-rock dinosaur radio station CHOM-FM just began playing an Iron Maiden song for the first time in, like, ever. "Run to the Hills". Seriously. This is stunning.

— As I was saying, the odd thing about the book is that it doesn't deal much with the Hellfire Club itself. Instead, the main narrative thread of the book follows the weird and wild career of John Wilkes, who admittedly was a member of the Club, but whose story goes off into all sorts of other places. Mannix doesn't hesitate to wander away from Wilkes either, telling us about public executions, bare-knuckle boxing, and the exploits of the transvestite spy called the Chevalier d'Eon (about whom at least one utterly fictional biography has already been written). Among others. Being American, Mannix naturally has an interest in the background to the Revolution, too — and Ben Franklin certainly hung out with Dashwood when he visited England.

So Mannix retells some interesting stories. His book ends up an eclectic but involving look at the 18th century, carried along by a slightly breathless prose style. So long as you don't accept it blindly as good history, it's an interesting read.

The most interesting thing in the book is this: on page 136, Mannix describes the cave system under Dashwood's estate where the Club met, and gives a quotes from a man named Dr. G.B. Gardner on the sexual symbolism of the cave layout: "The swollen Banquet Hall represents the womb, where new life originates. After being born in the womb, the worshippers pass through the pubic triangle and into the flowing river. Then[,] born and purified, they go on to the joys of resurrection that await them in the Temple." The quote's not the interesting point. It's the man who gave it.

Gerald Brousseau Gardner, described by Mannix as "a well-known British expert on the occult who had the famous Witches' Museum at Castletown on the Isle of Man," was the man who invented (or, to some, publicised) Wicca — modern witchcraft. Over-enthusiastic Mannix may have been, but the guy was clearly well-connected.

Sunday, February 6, 2005

Harry Potter and the Military-Industrial Complex

I know war's supposed to be surreal and all, but this is getting ridiculous.

First Iraqi insurgents threaten to execute an action figure and now ... well, this.

I look forward to seeing it debated on the Sunday morning talk shows.

Great SF & F

I've been spending some time, off and on over the past several days, browsing through the pages on this web site. It's quite a nice overview of fantasy and science-fiction, all told, although inevitably I have points of disagreement. Obviously, I'd argue with the ratings of some of the writers; I think John Crowley is undervalued, for example, and Terry Pratchett significantly overvalued. I also find a few writers, like Alan Moore, Peter Ackroyd, Elizabeth Hand, Samuel Delany, and Clark Ashton Smith, notable by their absence.

Also, while in general I appreciate the critical commentary and discussion of the criteria for inclusion of an author on the site, in practice those criteria are still based on personal opinion; is Jack Vance, for example, really worth a five-star rating? Some people would say so. I, with admittedly less of an exposure to Vance's writings, wouldn't be willing to go so far, and I suspect I'm not alone in that. In other words, this site, like all good literary criticism, is the beginning of a discussion and not the end of it.

Mind you, the discussion itself is worth having. It's invigorating. Good criticism makes you think about what you read and what you like and why; good positive criticism makes you feel what's valuable in what you read and what you like, and therefore may be of a higher order of writing. To see what I mean, take a look at the appreciation for John Bellairs' excellent book The Face in the Frost. Obviously, if you've read the book, this essay reminds you what's worth while in it; if you haven't read the book, then the essay stands (I think) a good chance of giving you the desire to track it down. Either way, the energy of the piece communicates itself. It tells you that the book matters, and so it reminds you that fantasy matters. That writing matters.

If nothing else, the site puts together in one place a rigorously-chosen list of writers worth investigating. And it's a list which extends well into the past. The paradox of science-fiction and fantasy is that sf&f readers are often passionate about their favourite contemporary writers, but almost oblivious of previous generations. There are exceptions. But while everybody knows J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, I suspect very few people have heard of, much less read, their friend Charles Williams. Or inspirations like George MacDonald, E.R. Eddison, and William Morris.

To gather all these writers together is worth something in itself. Like John Clute and John Grant's Encyclopedia of Fantasy, the Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works site provides inspiration and direction. It gives you names to keep in mind as you scan shelves in a second-hand book store; but it also keeps those names alive and associates them with their present-day successors. I'd argue that the real literary tradition of the 20th century is the semi-underground tradition of fantasy writing, as opposed to the above-ground tradition of modernism; spend some time with this site, and maybe you'll see why.

(And if not, well, it's just possible I'll write a post about it sometime.)

Friday, February 4, 2005

Political zeitgeists

The other night, the President of the United States stood up before his countrymen and repeatedly lied through his teeth. Here's an examination of the State of the Union address, complete with analysis and exposure of Bush's untruths. Warning: they are numerous. And grave.

Having said that, what I want to talk about now is the reason why I bothered to post a link to a web page fact-checking a speech by a foreign leader to his people.

The U.S. right at the moment is gripped by greater controversy than I can remember seeing in my lifetime. Much of it has to do with the war in Iraq. There are other issues, though, including various deceptions of the President (see above link). This, more than anything, is the contribution of the internet; it's harder to cover up dirty tricks these days. And easier to yell about them. A high-volume war of words is being fought over every single issue on the American political scene. Everyone involved seems to agree that it's a war of basic principles; even, a battle for the soul of the country.

Like most Canadians, and like most people outside of the United States, I deeply hope that the forces of conservatism lose. The U.S. is already far to the right of most Western industrialised countries, Canada included, and obviously I'd like to see the U.S. come into line with generally accepted international ideas of social justice. But, philosophical differences aside, the conduct of the right wing since assuming control of the American government has done nothing to provoke optimism about their ability or desire to be a positive force in the world.

The conduct of the Iraq war is a case in point. The recent elections were a heartening sign, yes. But the elections ought to have gone well. Most people, most places in the world, want to have control over their government. What the elections proved was that for most Iraqis, the Americans hadn't bungled so incredibly badly as to taint the entire concept of freedom. Which may just be saying something about the perspicacity of the Iraqi electorate. On the flip side from the elections, of course, are 100 000 dead civilians, incidents of torture and allegations of rape committed by American troops, and a general collapse or weakening of the infrastructure of the country — the ability of the government to provide electricity, clean water, and safety.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, refuses to accept that there are any problems in Iraq. Bush himself claims that his recent election victory meant that the American public supported his war, and the way the war was run. Other international issues of mounting concern, such as the situation in North Korea, Iran continuing to press for nuclear weapons, an increasing mood of repression in Russia, and a possible genocide in the Sudan, all develop with no sign of concern from the White House. Instead, Bush continues to weaken the fiscal health of his country, and aims at undermining the American Social Security system — in other words, reducing the role of government by reducing services provided to the elderly, and dismantling Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Compared to the high-stakes high-tension American political scene of the moment, things in Canada seem oddly sedate. Oddly, because a minority government's in power, and that usually generates something interesting. But at the moment Canadian political chatter is occupied by only three issues, all of which I'd argue are relatively minor.

The first is the ongoing saga of the sponsorship inquiry. This is a soap opera that's been going on for quite a while, and unless some new discovery comes to light, it seems to me unlikely to generate much further outrage on the part of the Canadian public. The fact is, allegations of kickbacks and back-room deals have always been a part of Canadian political life. Conservatives, for those of us who remember the Mulroney era, still have a worse taint on this issue than the Liberals. I think that the Canadian public gave its verdict on the sponsorship scandal in the last election, when the Liberals were deprived of their majority. Again, unless something new is uncovered, I think the sponsorship scandal is going to die a slow, painful death — despite the best efforts of the Tories to keep it going.

The second major issue of the moment is Paul Martin's recent deal with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia over energy revenues. Anodyne on the face of it, it's already become an excuse for Ontario, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories to press Ottawa for more money for themselves. It's beginning to look as though Martin bit off more than he could chew with this deal. But as an issue, it hasn't yet taken hold with the Canadian public. Squabbles between the federal and provincial governments over cash is nothing new. Or unexpected. And it's not yet clear that the protests from the other provinces are going to go anywhere.

(Links in the preceding paragraph from The Gracchi; scroll down a bit to find a nice entry about Martin's errors in the energy deal.)

The third big issue facing Canadians is no doubt the most divisive, and that is the gay marriage bill that's just been tabled in the House of Commons. The Tories have turned up the invective over this bill, and to fight it they've aligned themselves with religious leaders, with the American right, with anyone they can find. But I still don't see how they can stop the bill from becoming law. The Liberals and the NDP are solidly behind it. At least three of the Tories' own MPs support it. So, probably, do most Canadians. A recent poll in the National Post suggests otherwise, but all previous polls show that a majority across the country are in favour of gay marriage — and given the quality of reportage in the Post in general, and its habit of playing games with polls about Medicare in particular, it's hard to take this new poll very seriously.

Most likely, the Conservatives hope to use the gay marriage issue merely to divide the Liberal party. There is dissent within the Liberal caucus over gay marriage. The party may end up weakened, when all is said and done. There will certainly be a lot of noise generated, and some vigorous debate. But it seems inevitable that the bill will become law.

That's not to encourage apathy; the struggle isn't won yet. But if gay marriage is the most pressing issue on the mind of the country, I think it's safe to say that things are fairly placid in Canada.

This obviously has not always been the case. But for whatever reason we seem to be in a bit of lull, controversy-wise. The federal government will be handing down a budget later this month, and that may strike some sparks. The Parti Québecois is holding a convention in slightly more than a week, and one never knows what may come out of that. For the moment, though, things in Canada are calm — especially next to the ongoing meltdown in the United States.

All of this should explain why, so far in this blog, I've talked about American political issues but haven't yet referred to Canadian politics. I don't think there's much happening on the Canadian political scene right at the moment. The American scene, though, is a completely different animal. And what happens in America always affects Canada. It also often affects the rest of the world. Which is to say that the United States is always worth keeping an eye on. At the moment, with the situation growing increasingly dramatic, it's quite hard to turn away.

Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Transcript fun

The other day on the CBC, The Fifth Estate ran a good hour-long documentary called "Sticks and Stones". It lookd at what passes for political debate in the US these days, and the general lowering of the tone, accusations of treasons, and ad hominem attacks which have begun floating around — typically emanating from the right wing, and specifically from Fox News. The most amusing part of the documentary came during an interview with noted wingnut Ann Coulter, in which ... well, after some searching, I came across a transcript here.

No, I'd never heard that Canada had fought in the Vietnam war either. Oh, wait; that's because we didn't.

The funniest and scariest thing about that moment wasn't Coutler getting a basic historical fact wrong. It was her complete refusal to back down, or to admit she was wrong — even when the person she was dealing with clearly knew more about the subject than she did.

All you can do is shake your head and have pity. Not for Coulter. Not for her audiences. But for everybody else down south who has to put up with these people.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Something new every day

Maybe you didn't know — and I sure didn't — but it turns out George W. Bush is a free speech advocate. He says so right here in this article. Oh, sure, he's looking for an FCC chairman who'll call people to account if they go too far, but, you know, other than that. Free speech all the way, that's our George.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

A newer world order

Excellent, excellent article here about a new internationalism emerging aorund the world. Highly optimistic and energising, so long as you have no vested stake in American power or in America remaining Top Nation. Go take a look. Interesting that this piece was first published in the Financial Times.

Link found at Matthew Gross' blog, which is also worth a look.

Various comics notes

So here's an interview with Dan DiDio about DC's upcoming plans for their comic lines (DiDio is DC's VP, editorial). Much discussion about various high-impact mini-series coming out, and the general shift in tone following Identity Crisis. DiDio seems to be aiming to give the world of the DC characters more of a sense of danger, a feeling of more at stake. That's good. On the other hand, the way DC went about it in Identity Crisis was not good. But the sales were high, so that's probably all that matters. At any rate, to me the most interesting thing DiDio says is this:

"Part of my job here, and has been since day one is that I always wanted to rebuild the sense of the periodical. I love the idea of getting the issue, reading it, and not being able to wait for the next one to come out the following month. The idea of waiting for the trade is boring to me. We create comic books that are bought on a monthly basis, and my job, and the job of everyone here is to make people go back into the store the next month or next week, and buy the next issue because they can’t wait for something to come six months or a year down the road."

Given the widely-perceived market realities of mainstream comics these days, that's almost a brave thing to say. Again, whether it ends up being supported by reality is as yet an open question, but explicitly favouring the periodical over the trade is a surprising tack to take. Me, I like it, but I'm one of those increasingly rare people who buy their comics each week and don't care to wait for the collection.

In other news, one of the guys running the Shuster awards posted on the thread I linked to below, confirming that there will be no separate awards for French comics. This seems unusual to me. The Governor General's awards have separate categories for French writing, while the Giller prize explicitly states that it's given to works written in English. Can anybody tell me of another Canadian literary award that puts both French and English writing in the same category?

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Comics news and links

A group connected with the Toronto Comicon has put together a set of awards for Canadian comics creators. It'll be called the Shusters, after the Canadian-born co-creator of Superman, and the first ceremony takes place April 30 in Toronto. There's more info here, and you may notice I've posed a question in the comments down below the press release, basically asking how these awards are going to deal with French-language comics and the Québec comics industry.

Other interesting stuff: Alan Moore was interviewed on a BBC radio show the other week. You can find a link to the audio from that show here, if you scroll down to "Chain Reaction" on the list of shows. That link should be good until this Thursday. Or you can just go over here and read the transcript of the program.

"It worked for Byron." Heh.

Quests and questions

Now, about the Holy Grail ...

Richard Barber's book The Holy Grail presents the history of a concept. That's a daring thing to do when the concept's origins are hotly disputed. Barber makes a convincing case for the purely Christian origin of the story of the Holy Grail, linking the Grail to debates about the nature of the Eucharist and changes in the ritual's form dating from the end of the twelfth century — in other words, at exactly the same time as the Grail began to appear in the romances of King Arthur. Claims of a Celtic origin for the Grail story are dealt with, but in later chapters.

So Barber begins with Chrétien de Troyes and medieval Arthurian romance; slightly more than half the book is a close reading of the images of the Grail presented in these texts. Barber's essential point is that Chrétien was the first writer to begin a story of the Holy Grail, but that Chrétien left his Grail story uncompleted — which meant that later writers, attracted by the idea, used the Grail as a story element without really knowing what Chrétien would have done with it. In other words, they had to make up their own story and their own meaning for the image of the Grail. Naturally, therefore, stories and meanings proliferated.

Barber traces some of these stories and meanings as he traces the development of the idea of the Holy Grail forward in time from the twelfth century to the edge of the twenty-first. He looks at Wolfram von Eschenbach, at Thomas Malory, and then hits a period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries where Grail stories began to fall out of favour. After which Barber finds a gradual rebirth of Arthurian romance; but a rebirth with some curious ideas about its ancestry.

The concept of pagan and Celtic origins for the Grail are considered as Barber's story moves through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His argument here is, essentially, that real scholarship on the Grail was corrupted during much of this time by various ahistorical ideas — including nationalism, occultism, a cod-Jungian insistence on the power of archetypes, and a generally hazy sense of the context of many of the original texts. Barber goes some distance to proving his point by ably deconstructing some very fuzzy thinking from older writers.

In a sense, then, this book is part of an ongoing historiographical process in which a complex of ideas surrounding the oral transmission of religious or folkloric ideas in Europe is coming into question; one thinks of Ronald Hutton's works, such as Seasons of the Sun and Triumph of the Moon. It's interesting work, digging not only into resonant ideas (like the Holy Grail), but also into the odd shapes that imagination and twists these ideas. It's work that is by its nature part of a dialogue, analysing and revising preceding interpretations — therefore implying that the current interpretation itself will one day be analysed and perhaps altered.

This is the real problem with conspiracy theories like Holy Blood, Holy Grail (and Barber considers these in his survey of Grail-related notions, as well). Conspiracy theories live by faith. Once a few vaguely-connected notions are put together in an ill-fitting jigsaw, then questioning any part of the overall construction becomes a heretical attack on the whole. Unless the questioning can be seen as an expansion, extrapolating from the original revelation out to ever-weirder areas. Actual examination of source documents or historical context is frowned on. Barber, whose book largely consists of a careful examination of source documents and historical contexts, does a decent job of pointing out some of the obvious problems with these more fantastical ideas of the Grail, but wisely refrains from growing too involved.

Having said that, I did find that the original Grail idea, as Barber describes it, was less intriguing than the developments and mutations it went through in succeeding centuries. That's not because of claims for the historical actions of the Grail or of some order of Grail knights, though; it's because, as Barber himself points out, the Grail has been the subject of some fascinating literary treatments. Barber's survey of these writings may not be thorough — simply too many tales have been told about the Grail for that — but he has a fine eye for which works to mention. I give him special credit for his excellent discussions of John Cowper Powys' A Glastonbury Romance and of the work of Charles Williams. Barber's own work recalls Williams' prose writings on the development of the Grail and Arthur myths; like Barber, Williams argued strongly for a purely Christian origin to the Grail, discounting notions of Celtic influence.

Barber notes that he's an agnostic, and expected to spend more time dealing with Celtic stories and mythological precursors for the Grail. But his research led him to reconsider his old ideas. This is history as it should be written, then; history as science, where the historian's opinion changes as the facts come to light. I don't think this book is the final word in the history of the Grail. But it is a remarkable step forward.