The Power of Facing

There is only one serious aesthetic question: what to name a collection of essays about art, politics, and their collisions that's not s...

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Decontesting the Case of Sarah Jeong

One of the greatest movies of all time is the 1987 Billy Crystal / Danny Devito joint Throw Mama from the Train. The plot of the movie isn’t pertinent for my present purposes, and I suggest anyone go out and watch it right away. What is important is a line that bookends the movie that I find relevant now: “A writer writes — always”. So far this year I have read 38 books, but I have found it very difficult to write very much about any of them. This is not because these books have been uninteresting or haven’t engendered some thought and reflection, but because of two rather boring reasons: I don’t think that people much care about what I have to say about anything, and I haven’t been able to come up with very deep and important things to say that would merit attention anyway. To the first point, I think that my self-deprecating humility contains an ironic narcissism: thinking that anyone’s life is uneventful enough for them to care one way or another, whether I post something or not (although my friend Ryan Huckle, whose own blog and reading projects partly inspired my own, has consistently nudged me out of torpor). To the second point, I think that I just need to take the perennial writer’s advice and write, no matter how boring my thoughts may be. The point of this blog isn’t to change the world; it’s to keep me reading, writing, and thinking, and maybe with enough practice I’ll think up and write something worth reading.

With that in mind, the theme of this blog / my reading project is to try to face unpleasant facts, so what better way to inaugurate this transition into half-thought-out articles than to address the recent, weirdly contentious question of the word “racism”?

I have recently read, as part of my political readings, an essay called “The Morphological Analysis of Ideology” by political science writer Michael Freeden (for some reason calling people of this field “political scientists” seems inappropriate, and has the same silly ring as when I once called my physicist cousin a “quantum mechanic”). Freeden’s essay has a big, fancy, jargony title for a likewise jargony essay. Noam Chomsky has criticized some writing in the humanities as being needlessly opaque and difficult to read, expressing in polysyllables concepts that could easily be expressed in simple sentences. Often, this is done to, at best, mask the fact that what’s being said isn’t really anything that novel or profound, or, at worst, to mask the utter incoherence of the argument. I felt the former was the case several times while reading this essay, but I have to give Freeden his due and say that his approach to language, politics, and ideology has some useful observations and ways of thinking.

The basics of Freeden’s essay are that certain concepts make up “core” components of ideologies, and radiating out from these “core” concepts are “adjacent” concepts, and even further, some “peripheral” concepts. Freeden is interested in looking at concepts in all of these valences, looking at how they evolve, and considering them in their proper contexts within an ideology. For Freeden, certain ideologically important terms, some of which make up the "core" of an ideology, aren’t as straightforward as we’d like or need them to be. So, one of the key functions of an ideology is to “decontest” these important terms. For example, we may all think we mean the same thing when we say “freedom”, and it arguably makes up the core of what is supposedly our Western Liberal Democratic ideology. But there is a famous distinction between what are called “positive freedoms”, or the right TO things, and “negative freedoms”, or the freedom FROM things. Although they differ only in one preposition, these two definitions are what lie at the heart of a lot of political disagreement; for example: does a gay couple have a right to a creatively decorated wedding cake that they'd have if they were a straight couple, or does a Christian baker have the freedom from having to exert his creative skills to make the cake? Do members of the Trump administration have a right to eating in a nice restaurant so long as they pay their bill, or does the restaurant owner have the freedom from having to serve those who members of an administration that he detests? Does anyone have the right to anything? Can anyone claim to be free from having to do certain things? This is one example of a word that is semantically different depending on its ideological context. There are others, like “terrorist”, “violence”, “justice”, “sovereignty”, “feminist”, and (I would argue) “anti-fascist”: all of these words will have importantly different meanings in different ideologies, and so for different groups.

“But goddammit”, you might say, “surely there’s a way to decide which is the more correct definition and settle if for good!” If you have this impulse, then you aren’t alone. At a more nerdy, benign level, people always complain about what they see as the corruption of the English language by the inclusion of new slang terms in the dictionary. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a dictionary does: a dictionary is merely a record of the words spoken in a language and their commonly used meanings (that's why there's an American and British version of English dictionaries). So while I see and sympathize with the intuition that putting a word in the dictionary confers on it a sacred status that should be conserved for only the most refined of English words, I would say you need to take your problems up with the people coining these new phrases (I've read somewhere that teenage girls, interestingly, are usually the culprits behind these new words and phrases) and not with the meek publishers of the OED. But this reaction of needing certitude is anticipated by Freeden, who offers his morphological analysis as a way to take this feeling into account. Freeden writes,

Every form of political thinking hence contains an ideological dimension, anattempt at a semantic ‘solution’ to the messiness and indeterminacy ofperceptions and comprehensions of the political world. The decontestationsproffered by ideologies are temporary stabilities carved out of fundamentalsemantic instability in the social and political worlds. The solutions they provideappear as apparently firm and ‘final’ pronouncements on issues such as socialjustice, liberty, sovereignty, and the like, supplying charts for navigating throughwhat would otherwise be a bewildering social environment. Ideologies provideresources that nourish the crucial capacity of political agents and agencies tooffer policy options, without which society, debarred of the routes to makingdecisions for collectivities, would collapse. That role is vital to the politicalprocess. Whatever other noteworthy dimensions political thought also possesses—philosophical, rhetorical, historical—its ideological attributes are striking,salient, and ineluctable.

For Freeden, a function of ideologies is something called “decontestation”: the way an ideology tries to take the competition (or contest) over different definitions of the same word and put a definitive end by imposing its own definition. This can be done in many ways, like through propaganda or force, but ultimately it’s what all ideologies try to do. This function is also what makes ideologies so appealing to people who can’t stand the semantic instability of such important terms: an ideology neatly organizes all its definitions so that there’s a solid basis for its adherents. This is no simple issue, either. How can a policy maker, for example, decide on what is the “just” policy if he or she doesn’t have a solid conception of what justice is? How can you argue for when violence is necessary if you don’t know what violence is? How can you argue with your friends over Facebook over whether an incident was an act of terrorism without a firm definition of what terrorism is? These are not simple issues. And it's not just people who need solid definitions of words to whom ideologies appeal: everyone, to some extent, needs some sort of map or guide to get them through what is a fundamentally chaotic and messy world of ideas, and ideologies act as the port in the storm. This is why Freeden doesn't characterize ideologies in a negative way as false ideas or consciousnesses; they are simply, but importantly, a complete and generally coherent set of organizing principles. This is not to say that some ideologies are less coherent and / or more deadly than others; this is just to say what they are and that we all, to some extent, take part in them.

Enter Sarah Jeong. I think that Freeden’s essay is very relevant now during what seems to be the tail-end of a controversy surrounding the New York Times’ recent tech-writer hire. For those of you who haven’t followed the brouhaha, the plot is basically:

  • NYT hired Jeong 
  • it came to public attention that in her past she had posted some racist tweets about white people 
  • some people were calling for Jeong to be fired
  • NYT said that while the tweets were regrettable, they’d spoken with Jeong and everyone was on the same page about their regretablness
  • since then, a big debate about double standards when it comes to anti-white racism has been raging on, with defenders saying that Jeong was jokingly counter-trolling the racist and sexist comments that she received by giving the commenters a taste of their own medicine, and others saying that it was definitionally impossible for Jeong to be racist, because she isn’t white

For my purposes here, and how this relates to the Freeden essay, I want to take a look at the claim that “non-whites can’t be racist, because racism = power + privilege, and non-whites, by definition, do not have either power or privilege, or have neither”. My purpose here is not to discuss the validity of this definition of racism (I think it’s false and incoherent for what seem to be obvious reasons) nor the consequences of holding it as true (excusing obviously racist remarks as not racist), but to show that this struggle for defining an important word is neither new, nor unexpected, nor unsympathizable, nor necessarily a Left-wing phenomenon.

I think that the reason there is this kind of contestation at all is because there are genuine intuitions that lead to paradoxes. In this example of racism, I always thought growing up and watching stand-up comedy that it made sense that, yes, people of all races can be (and often are to some degree), racist, but that there were some conditions where the racism didn’t have the same harmful effect that it has in other situations. In effect, there were two "racisms": (1) racism that was pernicious, and (2) racism that wasn't. For example, if a black employee who works for a ruthless white boss goes home and complains about this honky, peckerwood, cracker-ass son of a bitch (I don’t know any black person who would ever use such words), I don’t think this has the same material effect as if the white boss were to go home and complain about his employee in similarly racist language. I have some personal experience with such a situation, as my father was a bricklayer for more than 20 years until the racist proclamation by one of his Scottish formans that “there’s no such thing as a Lebanese bricklayer” ended his possibility of working in Windsor and contributed to him moving to California when I was 12. Incidentally, as this relates to the Jeong case, the lesson that my father taught me from this experience was to never give the racists a taste of their own medicine, as it were, and become racist myself, thus allowing the oppressor to become my teacher. But had my father developed a hatred for white, specifically Scottish, people (which would’ve been tough for me, as my mom is of Scottish descent), I think that there is an intuitive case to be made that his racism would not be as pernicious as the hatred of the man who discriminated against him; in other words, that his racism would've been (2). The difference, however, wouldn’t be that one is racist and the other is not, because they both are. The difference is that one’s racism doesn’t have the same potential to be damaging as the other, and so isn't looked at with the same level of moral outrage.

So far I’m in agreement with the “power+privilege” group. Where I’m not with them is their assumption that, by definition, all white people have the power+privilege in all circumstances, and I think the empirical facts back me on this. For example, my father at one point owned his own bricklaying company that he named after my sister and I, NessMatt construction. He had white employees, so if he was racist against white people, he could've visited the same iniquities on them that were unjustly visited upon him. I also don't think that the intuition that someone who has power over another person can be more harmful to them has much of anything to do with a reasonable change of the definition of racism; at most, it necessitates my clunky racism (1) and racism (2) notation. But again, I’m not arguing about the validity of their argument. I only want to point out that I think there is a kernel of intuitive truth that drives their argument that can’t be ignored, and which leads to this ideological battle of decontestation. I find that in all the cases I can think of, there is no one ideology that has a monopoly on the intuitive sense of those key words. Now, it’s true that I have my own biases, and so I do end up favouring certain definitions of words over others, as I have in this case favoured a certain definition of racism that sticks to what I think is the more widely used sense. But I think I’m able to overcome some of my ideological bias because I can at least see the legitimacy of the other intuition, see it in myself, and so understand the impulse towards deconsestation.

Thinking through this idea of deconstetation and how it often leads to deep misunderstandings and arguments, I have found yet another reason to be skeptical of quick labels and heuristics. I've noticed, and there's probably a Greek term for the rhetorical manoeuvre, that if you can take a word with very palpable and obvious moral valences (like racism, sexism, etc) and covertly and subtly redefine it, you can get people to agree to your ideological program without them really knowing what you're saying. I'm of course not the first person to notice this (I never am): Noam Chomsky is one example of someone who has made part of his career around pointing out the ideological weaponization of language, particularly by States. I think the usefulness of this technique comes out of a fetishization that we all have for the perfect word or phrase that can encapsulate a large and important sentiment. (And yes, I think fetishization is the right term: tell me you've never felt a pseudo-sexual satisfaction when you've finally come upon the perfect word or phrase to express yourself! I hope to God I'm not the only one...) And while it’s obviously useful to have small words for big things, I think that it’s even more important to be accurate.

This is why I detest political jargon so much: in its endless vomiting up of cliché and buzzwords, it satiates our linguistic frugality fetish and feeds into the conflict that is inherent in this battle for decontestation. How does political speech do this? When a speaker who is an advocate for one very definite ideology uses a term that is loaded and ripe for contestation without proper nuance, they ignore, and encourage their listeners to ignore, any legitimate intuitions about that term which would conflict with their usage. But this doesn’t mean those intuitions go away, or that those who don’t agree with the ideology don’t have them; it just means that when two ideologically-possessed people try to have a conversation, they’ve been so conditioned to only listen to one aspect of their intuition about a concept that they speak past each other.

The photo I chose to represent this article is an 1850 painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau called "Dante and Virgil", and it depicts the titular characters looking over a pair of damned souls intertwined in eternal combat. A bit dramatic, yes, but the image, in both its depiction of violence and, more pitiably, the ultimate futility of that violence, captures the likewise futility of attempts at ultimate decontestation. I think that the best way forward is to pay enough respect to these important questions and concepts to suspend the easy labels and have nuanced conversations with our political adversaries about how their intuitions about certain things resemble or conflict with our own. Until then, I think there will be a proliferation of terms which fall into this pit of interminable contestation, like the word “racism” unfortunately seems to be doing, as ideologies try to expand towards their own totalizing and total solutions.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Is Ethical Teaching Necessarily Conservative?

Having just finished a 5-week placement and rounding out my first year of teachers' college (which also included a 3-week placement last year in December), I’m starting to reflect on my weaknesses as a teacher. At the end of each semester I ask my students to write comment cards which include: those things I did which they thought were ineffective and need to be changed; what, if anything, they learned during my time with them; and what, if anything, I did that they appreciated and think I should keep on doing. I do this to knock my ego back into reality so that I can more properly align my actions in the classroom with my more romantic goal, taken from the great educator Horace Mann to “win some great victory for humanity”. The victory I hope to win is vicarious: I hope to show my students how to become individuals via the cultivation of their aesthetic instincts specifically (a process which I’ve taken from Joseph Brodsky), and the cultivation of their opinions on anything more generally. In this way, I hope to set my students up to be able to win their own victories for humanity, and maybe share in some of the formative credit. I break this down into a three-part consideration which I tell my students guides all my evaluations of them: can they think a thought?; can they think about their thoughts?; can they express themselves clearly? If they can do all of these, they will do fine in my class. The problem is that it’s very hard to do any of these, let alone all three, and because of both the difficulty and ethical weight of the project, I find myself asking: is ethical teaching necessarily conservative?
No, not that kind of conservative; note the lower-case ‘c’. I am not referring to some ideological commitment to teach only the same subjects in the same way (or whatever conception of a Conservative pedagogy might be); I am referring to the impulse to tend towards what is known to work generally, rather than press on into exciting new methods and practices of teaching to benefit the few students who are not served by the typical methods. While I am not referring to anything explicitly political, I’ve found that the same problems that have been raging on between Liberal and Conservative ideologies present themselves in my consideration here; namely, when, and how, is it right to recognize the inefficacy of a way of doing things, and what is the proper solution? I should also emphasize that by “conservative” I do not mean “traditional”. I am not deferring to the democracy of the dead by only employing those methods that are said to have worked in the past. My approach is as empirical as I can have it: has it been tried in my context and has it been effective? If so, is there ever a reason to change it? How should that change occur?

To give an example: when my students and I were studying Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannous, I ran every class the same: 

I began with a recap of what we had read and discussed on the previous day using an online quiz website called Kahoot (multiple-choice questions were put on the board, and all students were able to answer them using their phones. Not only was this an efficient and effective means of testing my students’ knowledge and correcting any misconceptions about what they had read, it also added to my Progressive Teacher cred by letting them use their phones to do school, man). 

I then had students move their desks away and arrange their chairs in a circle that I would join into. The rest of the class was spent in this circle: when we read, I would have the reading students go into the middle of the circle to dramatize their reading; when we discussed, I would throw a question into the middle of the circle and students were free to contribute to and build on that question and what their colleagues said. 

My own anarchist tendencies were certainly at play in my choice of leading each class in this circle. I told my students at the outset of the course that we were all equals in our pursuit of the truth, and that I was no authority, but simply a resource that they could use as they came to understand what they thought about what was being argued in what they read. I opened an online forum where students could anonymously post feedback during the unit about things I was doing that they did or did not like, and I would address each piece of feedback in class the following day, making changes where appropriate. I also made the terribly great joke in the first class that the course code for the class (ENG4U) meant that this was an ENG(lish) class 4 (for) U (you); that what was most important in this class was not what I thought, but what they thought and could argue effectively for. 

All very good Hip Progressive Teacher fun. 

However, when the second unit on Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie started, I asked what students thought about sitting in the circle. While a great majority said they enjoyed the circle, that it helped discussion and made them more interested in the readings, a minority of students said that they simply did not like it. They were short on details, but adamant in their objection. My choice was now: do I persist in doing something that I have done before and that seems to work for a majority (the conservative approach), or do I try to do something different so that I am not consciously excluding an unserved minority (the liberal approach). I took the latter option, and did it poorly. Instead of the circle, I had students continue to sit in their desks and ran the class as usual, with myself at the front and the students sitting in grouped islands. 

As an aside, I find it ironic that this approach, which I am marking as the “liberal” one because it was different from what I had done before and was done to service the unsatisfied minority excluded by my previous policy, was itself an even more conservative approach, as it’s what students are typically used to. I’m sure there’s something I can make of this — about how students are conditioned to feel comfortable by some ideological state apparatus only in the environment of a single authority figure before them as they take their undifferentiated and regulated seats as passive receivers of my knowledge — but that’s for another, more pompous time). 

Reflecting on this, I think I did my students a disservice. I feel I should have continued the circle despite the vague objections. The discussions for this unit weren’t nearly as engaging as for the previous, and I could tell from student reactions that they weren’t as engaged. Granted, I could chalk this up to the fact that most of them had received their university acceptances and so couldn’t care less about anything we were doing now; and it was the end of the year in any case, and students (myself included when I was in grade 12) are starting to check-out. Nonetheless, I feel that by not doing the circle I made it easier to lapse into this unengaged posture. But does this mean that the conservative approach, of doing what is tried-and-true despite leaving a few students behind, is the right one? 
I find that the stakes of me getting this question right are pretty high, and I don’t take any solace in the fact that I will have many classes to try new things on and hopefully get it right the next time. The reason this consolation doesn’t wash for me is that, while it’s true I get to teach many more classes, each class that I teach only has one opportunity to take, in this case, Grade 12 English. If I fail to make the topics and considerations, which I view as incredibly ethically important, interesting, then I will have failed these students. They will come away, as so many do, “hating English”, and all of the benefits that I believe they could’ve enjoyed from a deep and genuine interaction with the texts will be lost. I only have one chance to get it right for each class, and every time I get it wrong I lose a few dozen battles for humanity. 

The common answer to this question is to “differentiate instruction”; that is, to give different choices to my students so that they can choose what is best for themselves. While I have general problems with this approach, it usually works well; but in this case, there was no way to “differentiate” whether or not students would sit in a circle for readings and discussions. I could not have one student still sitting at their desk, surrounded by a circle of their classmates. Nor do I think that the confusion of having one day of circle and one day of no-circle would serve any student well. The objecting students’ remarks didn’t give me much to go on either by way of any compromise; they simply did not respond well to this seminar-style approach. Maybe there is a way to effectively differentiate, but I’m not creative enough to think of how that would look.

In the end, I took away some pretty unsatisfactory, though perhaps true, lessons from this experience. One is that you can’t please everybody (a comment left by one of my students on their exit cards), and so perhaps it would be better to stick to what I have tried and what has worked, changing it only when a majority of the class feels it doesn’t work. Another (from my teacher mentor whose class I was teaching) is that students are more resilient than I give them credit for: a student may walk away from my class not liking English, but this doesn’t necessarily “ruin” them for the subject, as other teachers could rekindle their love of the subject. Similar to this, it’s possible that some students simply aren’t ready for the things that I would want to teach them in class, and it may not be for a couple of years that they come to realize some kernel of importance that can be shaken from the sieve. For now, though, I think the only thing I can do is learn as many ways to approach a subject as I can so that it’s not for lack of options that I resort to older methods.

This question of liberal vs conservative approaches to teaching remains open for me, and is something that I’m sure I’ll obsess over for a while.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Responsibility of Readers

  A few weeks ago, I read a highly-acclaimed book in Eliot studies called The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner. The following lines, where Gardner is explaining the significance of the various stress-patterns in Eliot’s Four Quartets, had a profound and ironic effect on me:
The norm to which the verse constantly returns is the four-stress line, with strong medial pause, with which Burnt Norton opens:
   /          /                 /        /
Time present | and time past
          /                      /               /       /
Are both perhaps present | in time future
          /        /                 /             /        /
And time future | contained in time past
The ear accepts as perfectly natural the extension to five stresses in the third line; which gives finality to the opening statement, without creating uncertainty of expectation. 
Etc. etc.. Reading these lines, I heard the voice of some dead master whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled:
Having counted the adjectives, and weighed the lines, and measured the rhythms, a Formalist either stops silent with the expression of a man who does not know what to do with himself, or throws out an unexpected generalization which contains five per cent of Formalism and ninety-five per cent of the most uncritical intuition.
This is from Leon Trotsky’s essay “The Formalist School of Poetry and Marxism”. When I first read Trotsky’s essay, I didn’t want to believe the criticisms he was levelling against the Formalist approach to analysis, as I consider myself a formalist. But reading Gardner here I can’t help but agree. As I read, I oscillated between boredom and incredulity: boredom because there’s nothing more boring than scansion, and incredulity because of the “uncritical” conclusions being drawn; does my ear accept “as perfectly natural the extension to five stresses”? Does the stress pattern of a line make it “movingly authoritative”, as is later claimed? I don’t know. But I certainly didn’t feel anything being described, and it’s a bad method which relies on the subjectivity of the audience, or worse, the critic, to make what is supposed to be an objective point (objective because the analysis is supposed to inhere in the object of the poetry). 
          But more important than boredom and mockery, another, more ethical tone struck in Trotsky’s essay rang out in my mind:
The effort to set art free from life, to declare it a craft self-sufficient unto itself, devitalizes and kills art. The very need of such an operation is an unmistakable symptom of intellectual decline.
The obscure, microscopic, detached technicality of Gardner’s analysis here represented to me the narrowness of my own reading project focus. I had insulated myself from life by consigning books with much more interesting and pressing topics to dusty shelves and underneath my couch (I needed to find extra storage room; thank God for the extra storage in my Ikea Friheten™). By insulating myself within the circumscribed focus of reading only one poet, I had separated myself, and my study of art, from life. It was as though I was putting a noose around the neck of my imaginative and educational growth: the tighter and narrower the focus of my reading, the tighter and narrower that noose became; the tighter and narrower that noose became, the more I was cutting myself off from the world around me. 
          This is not what I wanted. It was this kind of hyper-specialization, at the expense of being well-rounded, that was among the reasons why I didn’t want to pursue a PhD and go into academia. Something about the jarongy technicality of Gardner’s writing, and the utter inconsequentiality of the point being made in the analysis, brought to mind Rilke’s imperative that I must change my life. Trotsky’s critique of the tendency of formalist analysis to separate art from life came rushing to my mind as though a dam had just given way. Ironically, Gardner later summarizes my feeling through an analysis of Eliot’s poetry:
The progress is from abstract thinking, and an intensely personal experience -- so personal and private that it becomes almost impersonal, the private incommunicable experience of all men -- to the concrete, the established in place, time, and circumstances, and the general, the common experience which persons can share to some extent with each other.
What I appreciate most in Eliot’s poetry, and always have, is that the poetry does not forget about life. Eliot takes the boredom and the horror and the glory in concrete terms and makes poetry from them. All of this is done, according to Gardner, in order to move the deeply “personal and private” world of nearly inexplicable and ineffable experience into something that “persons can share to some extent with each other”. This is what makes Eliot’s poetry ethical. I thought I knew this, and I had written as much in previous posts. But this revelation made clear that I have uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.
          Virginia Woolf, in “How Should One Read a Book?”, writes that “to enjoy freedom, if the platitude is pardonable, we have of course to control ourselves. We must not squander our powers, helplessly and ignorantly”. The “freedom” that Woolf is writing about here is the freedom from “furred and gowned” authorities that would tell us what and how to read, and how our reading is to be valued. I am lucky enough that I can read several hundred pages a week; this is a freedom that I know not many people have. I couldn’t go on squandering this freedom by only reading Eliot, because to do so would be to miss that ethical quality I admire most in his poetry. But what is the responsible way to handle this freedom? This was the question that now faced me, that I now had to face. 
  In his famous long essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, Noam Chomsky writes that “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to tell the truth and to expose lies”. In his follow-up,
“The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Redux: Using Privilege to Challenge the State”, Chomsky concludes:
As for the responsibility of intellectuals, there does not seem to me to be much to say beyond some simple truths. Intellectuals are typically privileged — merely an observation about usage of the term. Privilege yields opportunity, and opportunity confers responsibilities. An individual then has choices.
I am not an intellectual, nor was meant to be. I do not claim that I am in a position to tell the truth, because I have not read enough, nor thought enough, to know what the truth is about much of anything. I have only vaguely formed ideas about politics, economics, philosophy, history, and science, and this is unacceptable to me, because it means I have not properly and fully engaged with life. In concrete terms, it is unacceptable because I am a member of a democracy, so my choices have consequences. I am also a (soon-to-be) teacher, and so my ignorance has consequences. But I am in the privileged position of being able to read, and so I too have choices.
          My new approach is that each month I will read 8 books — 2 each week — broken down into the following categories:
  • a book on philosophy
  • a book on history
  • a book on economics
  • a book on politics
  • a book on science
  • a book on literature
  • a book on Eliot
  • a work of classic literature
Each week I’ll write an article about the books that I read, and open myself up to discussion to hopefully learn from people who know better than I. It is my responsibility as a reader to begin to learn important truths about the world so that I can sensitively, intelligently, and ethically act within it.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Apprentice Years

My subject is the first volume of The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, a series which, for the moment, is conveniently and exclusively available electronically on Project Muse (I have access by virtue of being an alum of UWaterloo; my degree is already starting to pay off). The volume is subtitled “Apprentice Years” and covers Eliot’s writings from 1905 to 1918. The bulk of the writing are Eliot’s essays from his time as a philosophy undergraduate at Harvard and graduate student at, among other places, Harvard and Oxford.

The vast majority of the writing is about narrow, technical questions within philosophy, and as such is written in narrowly technical philosophical jargon, the kind of writing that made me never want to take a philosophy course in university (incidentally, I did end up taking one, The Philosophy of Love and Sex, in which the readings were refreshingly lucid). Despite the difficulty, the papers were not opaque, but translucent, and after much squinting (i.e., Googling definitions and rereading), I was able to discern some interesting aspects of Eliot’s philosophy.

There are two topics in particular that interest me, and that I am paying special attention to while reading Eliot: his disposition, evidenced in his poetry and prose, towards the use of “symbols” (which I define loosely as metonymic abstractions of some idea, as opposed to what I call “instances”, which are manifestations of some idea in reality. For example, the act of helping someone is not symbolic of charity, but an instance of charity; in Eliot’s The Dry Salvages, the horseshoe crab is not a symbol of eternity or antiquity, but an instance of that antiquity; it is a living fossil whose existence is a reminder of the distant and pre-human past) and towards the project of bio-aethetics (a relatively new field of inquiry in the humanities which seeks to account for the aesthetic impulse and instinct in humans from an evolutionary and cognitive-neuroscientific approach). 

I plan on reporting my findings about what Eliot thinks about these things periodically as I make my way through the volumes of his prose and find something interesting to say. For now, I want to write about some interesting, reassuring, and ego-boosting similarities that I found between the young Eliot and myself.

Eliot worked as a teacher to support himself from 1915 to 1918. Reminiscing for the Jubilee Celebrations of the Tutorial Classes in 1959, TSE wrote to chairman Harold C. Shearman on October 2nd: 
But I was happy in my classes and I must admit that I learnt more about English literature than my class did, in as much as I had to read a good many books which I ought to have read but had not read, in order to take my pupils over the ground properly.
I plan on being a teacher, and having already taught a few classes for a few weeks in a high school, I can say that I think my own English Literature education has just begun. Case-in-point: I had to teach Oedipus Rex to a class of grade 12 students, and so I read it, reread it, and then read a few books of criticism on it. I can now say that it’s one of my favourite plays, and something that everyone should immediately read.

In the spring of 1905, he passed his preliminary exams for Harvard University in all subjects except physics; physics was my strongest subject coming out of high school, and it’s what I studied first in university; this is perhaps the only area that I can claim any kind of superiority, but knowing how educational standards have “changed”, even that is an unsafe assumption.

Eliot’s initial plan to was to earn his doctorate in philosophy and settle into a life as a professor (even, perhaps, becoming the president of Harvard like his cousin). He abadoned this plan right at the last minute, deciding not to return to America to perform his oral exams to earn his PhD, although his dissertation was enthusiastically received and he surely would’ve had no problem. Eliot did not, however, regret his time spent as a philosophy student: in a letter to his mother from February 3rd, 1929, Eliot wrote:
I am sure that I should have made a very poor professor of Philosophy, because, after my first enthusiasm, I found modern philosophy to be nothing more than a logomachy . . . on the other hand, I learnt all that I know about writing prose from studying the works of F. H. Bradley, and from the criticism I had from H. H. Joachim while at Oxford; and my study of philosophy has been of great advantage to me in directions in which I never expected it to be. So one never knows what to regret and what to be glad of!
Philosophy was to Eliot as Physics is to me: I am incredibly grateful for my time spent in a STEM field, because it helped to develop my analytical and critical faculties. In fact, I never felt much a tension between the way that I approach literature and the way that one approaches questions in STEM: I remember specifically, when taking my first English course (Poetry), I thought that analyzing a poem was just like solving an integral in calculus. To solve an integral, you sometimes need to be creative, think of a clever substitution to simplify the equation, and even at times guess and hope that your intuition leads to a clearer problem. This is analogous to analyzing a poem: you need to be incredibly sensitive to curve and texture of the language, bringing to bear prior knowledge of poetic conventions, noticing patterns, and then noticing patterns between those patterns, to lead to a higher understanding of how the language is functioning to form a sensed idea. I am also happy, as a humanities student, to have actually spent time in STEM so that I can recognize the ridiculousness of some contemporary “criticisms” of the field coming from what I think are rather jealous and insecure departments in the humanities. This is not to say that STEM makes rational humans of us all. But at the very least I know that the theory of General Relativity has to do with how gravity produces curvatures in space-time, and involves impenetrably difficult tensors to describe this phenomena, than it does with the philosophy that “everything is relative”. 

In his essay “The Validity of Artificial Distinctions”, Eliot writes that:
And I conceive that any philosophic explanation which involves the taking over of a term or terms from daily use and disposing the rest of reality according to them–and this is a procedure which enters inevitably into every philosophic progress–is an explanation which is lamentably deficient. You not only cannot prove your result; you cannot within the rights of your own conscience impose it upon your neighbour. It can only be maintained by faith, a faith which, like all faith, should be seasoned with a skilful sauce of scepticism. 
I share Eliot’s view in this. In general, I am frustrated with discourses that co-opt common words and overload them with new and unintuitive connotations. I can give what I think is a contemporary example: the growing, pernicious, and wholly incorrect “philosophy” that “words are violence”. Whenever I’ve debated this idea, I find that defending it involves an unacceptable redefinition of “violence”, and this redefinition, because it is so tenuous, usually reveals a credulity within its proponents, who believe in the philosophy first and come up with reasons later. Redefinition is one thing, and it is even permissible as long as everyone involved agrees to the terms. My problem is that I find the terms are less and less explicated in these discussions, so that proponents of these new definitions cash in on the emotional and moral valences that the word already has in order to smuggle in support for their position based on redefinition. 

In his essay “Disjecta Membra”, Eliot writes:
Literature must be judged by language, not by place. And standards may come from Paris, or even Rome or Munich, which London as well as Topeka must respect. Provinciality of material may be a virtue, as in the Sportsman’s Sketches; provinciality of point of view is a vice.
Eliot articulates, better than I could, a viewpoint which is sorely missed in today’s appreciation of literature: appreciation of it as art, as an attempt, successful or not, to refine and extend language, as opposed to serving as a mere auxiliary for some unimaginative, uncreative, philistine political ideology. Examples of this in today’s “discussion” of art abound, and you’re free to pick your favourite. But any critique of art which focuses primarily, if not solely, on the “place” (or race) of the artist is risking, or overtly calling for, a provinciality of point of view. Reliance on such uncritical apparatus, aside from being boring, stands in between the reader and the work that conveys whatever important effects it has through its only material: language. But worse, it is a boring, ready-made approach which can explain all of art from a handful of axioms, and which encourages automatization in its practitioners. Rather than this approach, let’s consider Eliot’s advice when, in “Observations”, he writes about one of the functions of a literary critic:
Perhaps the essence of his work is bringing the art of the past to bear upon the present, making it relevant to the actual generation through his own temperament, which must itself interest us… A great deal of critical writing is aimless appreciation which is pernicious in so far as it encourages people to the lazy occupation of reading about works of art instead of forming their own opinions.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Why Eliot Matters

T.S. Eliot matters because of the way in which he matters; in other words, to answer “why” T.S. Eliot matters, I am going to explain “how” he matters, what it is he does that is so important. Incidentally, this is one of the same ways in which his and all good poetry matters. 

T.S. Eliot matters because he comprehends and reckons with the whole of human experience in a truthful way. One of the things essential to Eliot’s poetry is his tendency, and ability, to take as a subject of poetic treatment those things which are typically unpoetic: a “love song” made of only desperation, whose last word is “drown”; a poem of deep religious contemplation which forms the images of “wind in and out of unwholesome lungs” and an “eructation of unhealthy souls” (“eructation” means a burp or belch); a poem called The Waste Land which figures everything anticipated by the title. This is important for two reasons: it shows that he’s honest in his poetry, that he’s not trying to fool us with pretty words or phrases, and in doing so he is able to bring into formulated and ordered expression those negative, or even quixotic, aspects of the human experience that need to be faced. 

Crucially, I do not mean to suggest that he sublimates things; he does not pretend that something which is unbeautiful is beautiful. What makes Eliot matter is that he does the opposite: he is able to deal justly and frankly with the totality of experience, including the bad things as bad things. 

An example of what I mean: one of the worst pickup lines I’ve ever heard used is when a man said, “I want to find perfection in your imperfections” (thankfully this was not said to me). What makes this pickup line so stupid is the same thing which makes all pseudo-intelligent and pseudo-romantic phrases stupid: it confuses not making sense with being profound, or romantic. To “find perfection in imperfections” is to obliterate either the imperfections (by finding them to, in fact, be perfections) or your concept of perfection (because it is defective in being able to include supposed “imperfections”). If they truly are “imperfections”, then there’s no “perfection” to be found in them. You’d be better off by saying something like, “I want to learn how to appreciate those subpar things about you” (which is what you mean in a supposed sense), or “I want to take advantage of your insecurities so that you’ll sleep with me” (which is what you mean in a true sense). If Eliot were to be a poet who sublimates, or tries to make unbeautiful things beautiful because they’re in a poem, and a poem can only deal with beautiful things, he would be lying, fundamentally. His poetry would be no better than the pickup line. Keep this in mind when you read poetry on Instagram.

Another example: think of a time when you’ve felt very sad. If a person came by and tried to convince you that the thing making you sad was, in fact, something positive, you’d probably want to punch them in the face. This is because they are fundamentally lying to you, albeit, perhaps, with the best of intentions. When we feel we’re being sold a lie, it offends us in a very deep way. The person trying to cheer you up may be better off to recognize, with you, that the thing making you sad does indeed suck, it’s an awful thing, and it’s reasonable to feel bad about it, without saying “but”. However, from this place of commiseration, they are able to help you see beyond it, or perhaps (and this truly does take some skill), to see the place and importance of bad things in life as bad things. The fault comes when a person tries to convince you that a bad thing isn’t a bad thing after all. This is false. Eliot’s poetry is not false. His poetry deals with ugly things as ugly things, and then shows us, possibly, how they are to be properly appreciated. 

 Eliot is not undesigning in this, either. He makes frequent reference to the importance of dealing with the whole of life:

“The contemplation of the horrid or sordid or disgusting, by an artist, is the necessary and negative aspect of the impulse toward the pursuit of beauty. But not all succeed as did Dante in the expressing of the complete scale from negative to positive. The negative is the more importunate.”


”But the essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.”

So Eliot has no problems with dealing justly and frankly with the cruel and kind realities of life. However, why this matters to people other than T.S. Eliot fans like myself is because of what this can mean do for a person, any person. Aristotle famously put forward the idea of catharsis: the phenomenon of seeing a tragedy on stage and thereby purging and purifying one’s own soul of stress and sin by releasing, through pity and other emotions, one’s own feelings. In other words, if you’re sick from feeling, a tragic drama is the ipecac you need. This may be the reason why you like to hear sad songs when you’re sad: you need to be able to release those emotions, and feeling pity for (and often with) the sad singer on the radio is a good way of doing that. This is a fine theory, and heaven forfend I should disagree with Aristotle. However, I think that there is another reason, which is compatible with catharsis but may take precedence.

The reason that it’s important to be able to experience in art a truthful and beautiful representation of our pain is because art is able to formulate feeling. It is a well-attested-to fact of psychology that writing about a traumatic event helps a person overcome it; or even more commonly, I know from personal experience that I’m sure isn’t idiosyncratic that when I’m overwhelmed with things to do, writing out a list can help calm me down. This is because you move from the infinity of emotion and thought inside your own head to the finitude of what’s in front of you. To see all the things you have to do compacted down onto a list is comforting, because no matter how long the list is, it’s never longer than the infinity of your mind. 

I think a similar principle is at work in the poetic conception of feeling, of seeing an emotion or thought formed into, or carved out of, language. This is especially the case when you find that phrase which perfectly encapsulates a sentiment, which says it in just the right way. You don’t listen to every sad song when you’re sad; you listen to those songs which are perfect for that particular sad occasion. This doesn’t change the emotion, and it doesn’t make you feel better necessarily. But it shows two things: that you are not alone in the feeling, and that it can be captured out of the infinity and formed into something you can comprehend. Art presents us with the transition of chaos into order, which takes place in our understanding of and communication with the art. It is a fundamentally ethical skill to be able to do this, and I think that T.S. Eliot succeeds in finding the words and formulating the phrases for a wide swath of life's experiences. He is able to face unpleasant facts in his poetry, and in doing so, shows us how to face them in our lives.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Next Year's Voice

"What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from."
-T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding (from Four Quartets)

53 years ago today, T.S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets and critics of the 20th century, died. This is a morbidly convenient date for me to begin my reading project for 2018: to become an expert on T.S. Eliot by reading everything he’s ever written, and a good deal of that which has been written about him. His end is where I start from.

After a brief back-of-the-envelope calculation, I figured that an undergraduate degree clocks in at at least 1440 hours. I calculated this way: a student is required to take a total of 40 courses (20 credits); each course entails 3 hours of class per week; and each course runs for approximately 12 weeks. From this (40 x 3 x 12) I get 1440 hours. While this is usually spread out across 4 years, I’ve decided to give myself this unofficial undergraduate degree in Eliot studies in 1 year, meaning each day I will dedicate no less than 4 hours to reading his work. I will be reading Eliot’s complete poems and plays, his complete 8-volume collected prose, his 6-volume collection of letters and correspondence, and 52 books (1 per week) of Eliot criticism written by others about the man and his work. Every Sunday I'll write an essay reflecting on some or all of what I've read.

As I prepare myself more and more to become a high school teacher, I want to return to those things which first inspired me the most to teach the subjects I hope to teach (high school English and French). I do this so that I can bring as much passionate intensity into my class as possible and hopefully give my students a fraction of what literature and my English teachers gave to me. 

In terms of my love of literature, it was the poetry of Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran that first pulled me into the world of the written word when I was in high school. However, it was T.S. Eliot’s poetry, beginning with The Waste Land, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Portrait of a Lady that gave me bizarre and romantic notions of human life, which experience and reflection have never been able to cure me of. And so it is to the man, his poetry, and his criticism that I will now return. 

There is also an element of the anxiety of influence that I have from Eliot that I hope to overcome. I refuse (and this will be the subject of another essay by and by) to write poetry unless I am sure that what I am writing has not yet been done better. Again and again, I find that Eliot has written in such a way on subjects that it is impossible for me to ethically and honestly make a substantial contribution to the pool of poetry. One of my hopes is that, after reading all of Eliot and reflecting, I will be able to comprehend him in a way that emancipates me from the anxiety of his influence. As Eliot wrote, 

For last year's words belong to last year's language
    And next year's words await another voice.

Great poets are those who can write their time into eternity. The hope after this year of reading is that I am able to find the voice of this year in time. (And I am aware of the supreme irony of my quoting Eliot in order to express how I want to stop trying to sound like him and assert my own voice).

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Down and Out in Kitchener-Waterloo, pt. 3

III. Reflections

"I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this — which is what makes it essential." - David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life

One of the reasons I chose to be homeless was to test the hypothesis put forward by Milton's Lucifer in Paradise Lost: "The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." In my context, the hypothesis took this form: how would difficult (I wouldn't call them "hellish" by any means) living conditions affect my disposition towards literature? Is it really the case that I could find comfort in a poem while I was getting little sleep, and the little sleep that I had was incredibly uncomfortable? Could a piece of writing really lessen the loneliness and boredom? This is all to say, could pleasures of the mind overcome material suffering?

The conclusion I came to is no. I almost always chose to get an extra hour of sleep rather than go to my lecture on Children's Literature. I always took an extra shift to make more money rather than take time to put extra thought into writing an essay. While it's probably obvious to most normal people, I think it bears repeating that, in the final analysis, material suffering is a pressing concern that takes more than literature to alleviate. 

In his book How Literature Saved My Life, from which I quoted at the top, David Shields takes up this idea of what literature can actually do for a person from a few different angles. Another quote in the same vein: 
I want work that, possessing as thin a  membrane as possible between life and art, foregrounds the question of how the writer solves being alive. Samuel Johnson: A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it. Acutely aware of our mortal condition, I find books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it). 
Both quotes gesture towards the same message: it's no use thinking that the ethical force of literature, or any art, is in its ability to change the material conditions of a person. I agree, also, that the ability of literature to offer its reader "an escape" is incredibly unethical; it is a flight from reality, the desire to be credulous, and the desperate turning away from facing unpleasant facts. While I don't go so far as to say "to live is to suffer", it is of course the case that suffering is a part of life, and reading a book isn't going to change that. Auden's much-abused view that "poetry makes nothing happen" comes to mind here. But I don't think that this observation destroys art and literature. Now that experience has cured me of my bizarre and romantic notions of literature, I'm in a place where I can be effective with my analysis. What I think now about the force and ethics of literature is exactly what Joseph Brodsky (via David Williams' analysis in Defending Poetry) thought: that it acts as a kind of meta- or proto-ethic. What I mean by that is that literature presents us with an aesthetic experience, ideas, and questions. Insofar as we take those experiences, ideas, and questions seriously, and we respond to them thoughtfully, we become individuals capable of acting ethically in the world. Literature can't save the world, or make a person's life any better. Only a person acting ethically can do that. What literature can offer, however, is the chance for us to come into contact with something that helps individuate us so that we can become that person acting ethically.

It's probably unfortunate that it took being homeless to really drive home what is probably an obvious point to many people. But this experience has also taught me the truth of the Biblical framing of God speaking to Job from the whirlwind: the deepest truths about reality seem to only reveal themselves through adversity.

These are some of my reflections on the four months I was homeless. That was a way of putting it -- not very satisfactory. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Down and Out in Kitchener-Waterloo, part 2

II. Experiences

It’s generally hard to distinguish between a homeless person and a certain variety of Arts student. This is the stereotypical, faux-bohemian variety that has no compunction about sleeping in public places on campus, going a month or two without shaving, and/or being awake at all odd hours of the night, skulking around downtown. This arts student was me. But at the University of Waterloo, I found this description more generally applied to the engineering and computer science students who, within their respective buildings, I think made more of a home of campus than even I did.

When I first told my friends what I had planned, there were two reactions beyond the initial astonishment and incredulity: bets on how long I could actually last doing this, and offers to crash in their places if I ever needed to. Looking back at myself as an undergrad, I was pretty insufferable (even more than I am now, I’d say), but it was nice to know from the outset that those who could stand me thought that they could also stand me sleeping in their living rooms. The wagers were also helpful, because they brought my pride into the mix. I’ve heard that a useful tactic when trying to lose weight is to tell people about your goals so that you are accountable to people other than yourself; that’s how this wager talk functioned for me. I told as many of my friends as I could about my plan so that I couldn’t back out without hurting my reputation (whatever kind of reputation it was that I was building). This worked in the reverse with one of my good friends said that if he saw I was destroying myself too thoroughly, he’d rat me out to my parents and the university administration for my own good. I had outsourced both the responsibility to stick with my plan and a sense of rational proportion to my friends, which definitely helped.

The first thing you notice when you’re homeless is the sheer boredom. There’s a constant feeling of waiting, of anticipating when you’ll be done for the day and you get to go home. So when you’re done for the day and home isn’t coming, there’s a palpable void, and the mind, unfamiliar with the idea of not having a home, makes you think that there must be more to do. When it can’t find that phantom task, you’re left wanting. You don’t realize how much time you spend at home until you have to spend that time elsewhere; I could no longer retreat to my home after an exhausting day, nor cap off an exciting day with some relaxation in the privacy of my own room. I think I’m an introvert by nature, and so I had to turn myself inside out to overcome the boredom. I started hanging out with my friends more than ever before, visiting them during overnight shifts at the student residences, hanging out until 4 in the morning smoking shisha. But ultimately, inevitably, you’re faced with the unfamiliar, unending silence of the dead of night. This first real conceptual obstacle is the baptism into the homeless world, because the only way to cope is to realize that the street is your home, in the most unromantic, frightening interpretation of that idea you can think of. Luckily the intensity of the feeling didn’t last for me after the first week or so of sleeping on campus, but every now and then, when it’s been a trying day, I missed my little slice of sanctuary like a missing limb.

In terms of accommodations, I was a very rich man. This final semester was the last in my tenure as co-president of the UW English Society. This position came with an on-campus office in one of the arts buildings, to which only I had a key. The building opened at around 9 am or so (I never went there early in the day), closed at 11 pm, and stayed closed on the weekends. In the office was a desk, book shelves, and a nice old couch that was almost 6 feet long. At the beginning of the semester I brought a few choice outfits that I put in the drawers of the desk, three large boxes full of my books, and the couch, being only a few inches shorter than me, was probably the most comfortable place I slept all semester. I moved all of my other belongings (mostly kitchen appliances that I guarded jealously) to the apartment of a close friend that I could trust, and left my mattress for the tenant I was subletting to. I was able to shower in the university gym after my workouts, and I’d get my beard trimmed every few weeks when I got my hair cut (although my facial hair style is literally indistinguishable between when I was homeless and now, when I’m not).

Finally, I brought my guitar along with me. Every Friday evening, anticipating the arts building being closed and locking me out of my office, I took my guitar and carried it on my back the whole weekend. It had been a plan of mine early on to try busking downtown with my guitar and to donate anything I made to a charity I’d volunteered for once called Food Not Bombs. The charity meant a lot to a friend of mine, and having worked with it first-hand, I could see that it was on the up and up. (My sole contribution to this group was one Saturday I used my car to collect day-old bread from bakeries around the city, then bring them to the Kitchener city hall to be handed out to the needy, along with soups and other meals put together with contributions from grocery stores.) Unfortunately, I’m not talented enough on guitar to attract donations, and singing was definitely out of the question. But more than that, I felt that busking would be too much like playing at being a homeless person, which wasn’t the point of this experience. I didn’t need to busk to make money because I was already working, nor was music the passion that I was trying to explore during this time. The whole busking enterprise struck me as inauthentic, so I never did it.

This sense of inauthenticity became a guiding force for the rest of my homeless experience. I briefly tried to take up smoking and started bringing a flask filled with Baileys to put in my coffee during the day to have a buzz in class, all to add to my edgy Bohemian artist image. The problem was that I couldn’t take a drag or a sip without laughing at myself in judgemental disgust: life isn’t a movie, there’s no one watching me do these things, and there’s nothing noble or authentic in being some pathetic poser (I also couldn’t stand the smell of tobacco on my fingertips, and coffee gives me the shits). It was also this feeling that eventually made me give up sleeping in my office at all. After taking some naps there during the day, I felt that it would be deeply inauthentic for me to use the office for anything other than clothing storage (which was already pushing it). Instead of being homeless, by using the office it would be like moving into my own cramped bachelor pad. Although this was plenty uncomfortable, it wasn’t in the spirit of what I was trying to do. On the back of this feeling, I made a rule that I needed to sleep in public places (even this rule I relaxed near the end of my experience when I would sleep on the couches of two close friends every now and then).

But there was also a pragmatic reason for not sleeping in the office anymore, which was the possibility of being caught and probably charged with something like trespassing. This happened once early on, when I overslept and woke up past 11 pm. I was caught by a janitor who came in to make sure the room was clean, and after explaining myself I hoped to smooth things over with a gift. A few months before this, I made the decision to try and read the Bible cover to cover over the summer before graduating. I was surprised to find out that I couldn’t readily get a free copy of the King James Bible anywhere, so one day when I happened to be in Stratford I went to a Christian book store, resigned to buying a Bible. I picked one out, and when I was speaking with the clerk about my plan and attempt to find a free Bible, I dropped the unscrupulously manipulative line, “you know, I didn’t think salvation would cost me anything”. Fortunately for my wallet (and probably unfortunately for my immortal soul), she was moved by this and found an old white leather-bound Bible in the back for me, free of charge. In my conversation with the janitor, I found out that he was Christian (his church was raising money to help a family whose house had burnt down in Serbia). I showed him my Bible and told him about my little project, and when he complimented the Bible I offered it to him; I decided that I could just read the Bible online if it meant getting out of this situation. He accepted, and said that he would let me go this one time. I took that as my cue to find somewhere else to sleep. Hopefully this gesture of gifting a Bible to a pious Serbian janitor will be sufficient repentance for my fork-tongued display in the Bible store.

I generally opted to sleep outdoors when I could. The best place for me was under a tree in a courtyard of one of the student residences. The tree was on a small slope and its roots curved well for my back. The only problem was the occasional goose trying to stake out more territory (which is always the problem in Waterloo), but luckily things always remained civil. Sometimes I would sleep on the grass in an open field near the library, though this was more dangerous as campus police patrolled there often. When I started working with the campus shuttle about midway through the semester, I got more of a sense of where the campus patrol may be, as the shuttle service was run out of the campus police building, and I passed by their control room at the beginning and end of each shift when I picked up the shuttle keys.

During the day I would catch a nap at individual cubicles in the libraries; this was ideal for short-term naps (nothing more than an hour), because the uncomfortability of having to sleep slumped over in a chair made me especially receptive to my alarm when it went off. As soon as it sounded, the cramp in my legs would rush to my attention and ensure that I got up to stretch out. On some nights I would go to the silent study lounge on the third floor of the student centre on campus (which never closed) and sleep, as most students did, on one of the couches there. These couches were about a foot shorter than I am, so it was actually preferable in terms of comfort for me to stretch out in nature.

Occasionally I would sleep in one of the rooms of two close friends, who were dons on campus and so had their own rooms in the student residences. This became much more frequent during the last month of the semester, when I had a key to one friend’s room so that I could go whenever I wanted, make dinner, and sleep, but more often than not I tried to keep my visits conscious.
One other place that I could’ve slept would’ve been a specific lounge in the math building that was known for being a place of communal rest. It was filled with long-broken-in leather couches, and I don’t recall ever seeing it not full of sleeping students. I didn’t sleep there too often for the simple fact that it was near impossible to get a seat without waiting, that’s how well-known this lounge was. Incidentally, the university had decided that it was going to convert this lounge into a more professional conference room-type area. (I seem to recall one of the reasons being that the room was not being “used appropriately”, but I don’t think the university is quite that evil and callous towards the students, particularly the math and computer science students, that slept in that lounge while pulling frequent all-nighters to keep up with the inordinate demands of class.)

Working a lot also helped, because I could take overnight shifts (from midnight to 8 am) and so have somewhere to be when everyone else was at home. It also gave me a place to nap during my 30-minute breaks: I would lay out in the mailroom on a mattress of broken-down cardboard boxes.

My shelter being sufficiently uncomfortable, it was now time to deal with food. As I said before, I reverted back to an old regiment of only eating one small meal a day during these four months. Because I usually had nowhere to cook, I generally ate pre-packaged meals. My personal favourite meals were from a local Indian restaurant called Aunty’s Kitchen that were packaged and sold in the student convenience store, which was open 24/7. Like most Westerners I loved butter chicken, but I more often went for the spicier chicken tikka when it was available (I sometimes refer to my time in Waterloo as my years spent in India because of my extensive exposure to South Asian cooking and culture through my almost exclusively South Asian friend group. It would probably be more accurate to say my time spent in South Asia, because most of my friends were in fact Sri Lankan or Pakistani, but then again, if I wanted to be accurate, I’d just say my time spent in Waterloo. But I digress).

For about the first month of my semester I would also eat raw pieces of beef that I bought from a local butcher or the nearby Mennonite farmers market in St. Jacobs. It was all organic, naturally, and I knew that raw beef is something of a delicacy, so I would buy the tenderloin (I felt the filet mignon would put me in the “inauthentic” category) and eat it with some pasta salad. After the fourth or fifth time I went to the butcher for the same cut, asking the same questions about the safety of eating raw beef, he warned me that too much could be really bad for my teeth, causing them to decay and become pointier. I briefly considered becoming a werewolf, complete with fangs, but decided to stop eating the raw beef so frequently.

I had also decided to fast on Sundays (that is, not eat, only drink water) not out of any particular religious observance, but because fasting has religious connotations to me, and so does Sunday. To help keep me on the righteous path, I left my money in my office on Friday evening so that I had no way of buying food during the weekend. Every Saturday I bounced at a bar called Chainsaw, and at the end of each shift all the workers were given something to eat, usually a hamburger with fries from the kitchen. I took that as my Saturday meal, and on the rare occasions when I wasn’t scheduled to work on Saturday, or if there was no meal, it was simply what I called my bravery test.

I got the term “bravery test” from a Bob Ross painting video I watched once: it refers to when you, the artist, have to strike out onto the canvas and decide where to put a tree. My use of the term refers to when I had to be “brave” and face the pains of my homelessness directly. Generally my bravery tests came out of two specific situations I encountered while homeless: when I didn’t get a meal after working my shift at Chainsaw, and so had to go roughly two days without food, and when my schedule of working 5 jobs and being a full-time student aligned in such a way that I couldn’t get any sleep for a prolonged period. These two needs were sometimes related: the longest “bravery test” I had was when I went 70 hours without sleep. The problem was that I would have about an hour or two between a shift and a class, and had to decide whether to get something to eat or take a nap. Ironically, the more tired I was the less likely I would be to opt for the nap, because an hour nap when you’re dead tired makes you feel even worse. The weekends were always the realest times for that reason: whether or not I went 24+ hours or 48+ without food was fundamentally dependent on chance and the kindness of others (my boss and the cooks at Chainsaw); these few times my well-being was genuinley out of my hands, and that is probably the closest I got to an authentic feeling of homelessness.

I found that this sensitivity to authenticity started to affect my literary sensibilities as well, and helped me at least recognize ideological thinking, if not also to avoid it. Joseph Brodsky wrote that “evil, especially political evil, is always a bad stylist”, and my attempt at making my homeless experience as authentic as possible leads me to believe that he is correct.

What is a bad stylist? R.P. Blackmur, an American literary critic, once wrote of the poetry of Robert Lowell that it “produces not a tension, but a gritting”. I’m not calling Lowell a bad stylist (I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his poems), I just love the expression “not a tension, but a gritting”, and think it will work well here. Any idea or concept can be expressed in a functionally infinite number of ways, or styles (e.g.: how many books can you think of that have to do with love?); a bad stylist is someone whose chosen method of expression creates “not a tension, but a gritting”.

The way I think about tension is two people leaning back pulling on a rope: they’re pulling in opposite directions, and in so doing they create a mutually-supporting tension. The opposition creates a stable equilibrium. Now think about something gritting, like sandpaper: it doesn’t jive with the surface it touches, it rubs it away, changes it. It’s abrasiveness seeks to remove the present surface and replace it with the nothingness of a smooth surface. As is the case with good or bad style: good style embodies the idea seamlessly; it works together with the paraphrasable content to produce something that feels right and gets the right message across. Often the bad-ness of the style becomes its own idea, and completely wipes away the original idea. A case in point is any inane or stupid phrase of propaganda or publicity stunt: there’s the idea the person says they want to express (“I’m just an average guy”; “I deeply care about the trials and tribulations of minority group X”), and then there’s the way it is expressed (a campaign ad where the candidate is drinking a cheap domestic beer in a t-shirt; dropping the ‘g’ from the end of ‘ing’ words to sound more folksy). Bad style is the sandpaper of the mind, and you can notice it yourself: any time you find yourself saying, “what do you take me for?”, you’ve caught a bad stylist. Naturally, bad style has an impact on authenticity, because it puts what you say you mean in gritting opposition with what your style is expressing; it’s the quintessential saying one thing while meaning (or doing) another.

This happens in literature, too, where style and content are one and the same. When writers are clichéd, or are obviously trying to sound like some other writer, or when their writing is padded with unnecessary polysyllabic words to make them sound smarter, any original idea they may have had is corrupted by this style. They’re hacks, and their message is hackneyed, and they aren’t worth reading because someone else has said it better and probably more simply.

Of course propaganda and art aren’t mutually exclusive, and there are plenty of examples where a writer combines all the ugliness of bad style together in their “art”. George Orwell wrote several times that “all art is propaganda” because all artists have an implicit message or way of thinking that they’re trying to express (he contradicted himself once when he wrote that art may not be propaganda, because writers can’t always mean the manifold messages of their work). Fair enough: all art tries to propagate some message. I would distinguish between the good and bad kind the way that Brodsky does: if the message is artfully and appropriately expressed, where the message and its form of expression aren’t gritting, then it’s all good; but when the artist is so preoccupied with their desperate attempt to express a message, we get ham-fisted, stereotypical, and short-lived pieces of forgettable trash. This is why I was do disappointed recently when I saw a campaign poster that unironically displayed the term “artivism” (art + activism, get it?) on the Ryerson University campus. The term is a kind of meta-propaganda: it’s a propagandized bastardization of the very word “propaganda”, but that’s a topic for another time.

That was a long way around to say that my experience with the ethics of authenticity and appropriate style during my homelessness helped me sense authenticity and appropriate style in literature. I’m sure there’s an easier way to learn this, though.