December 27, 2007

Here in the Islands

Cutline on a poster for a health information seminar:
"1 in 8 Men are Expected to Develop Prostrate Cancer."

How exactly is this expectation conveyed I wonder? Any thoughts? Mass mailing perhaps? And how exactly do they pick the 1 in 8 they expect will shoulder this burden? Is it completely random or are there certain categories of exemption? Inquiring minds want to know.

Canvassers asking if you want to donate to a disease are already endemic.
"Would you care to make a donation to cancer?"
"I don't guess so, it's already had my testicles, I think that's more than enough to give in one lifetime."
"I'd just as soon keep the other breast if you don't mind. I might feel differently if I could afford reconstructive surgery."
"Care to give something to Alzheimer's?"
"I'm just about certain I already--isn't it lovely here in the islands, Jen?"

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

December 22, 2007

Ahh, Go Ahead. . . Follow Your Heart

"Very few men, properly speaking, live at present, but are providing to live another time."
--Jonathon Swift

There are cliches that have only the shallow meaning they typically display, but these are actually quite rare. Far more frequently a cliche is a phrase or expression capable of deep meaning in proper context, but in the present instant being used as a cover for shallow thought. It's easy enough to prove a saying false if you ignore its depth and focus on the shallowest of its available meanings, but what does that net you? A cliche rebuttal of a cliche.

It's possible I suppose to understand "Live each day as if it were your last" in the stunted and empty sense Jonathon Kay (Nat Post, Dec 11 '07) is at pains to refute, but who that took the idea seriously ever did mean what he accuses us of meaning by it? What's almost invariably behind a life lived in hellbound excess, without plan or goal, is an increasingly desperate attempt to cling to the delusion that one is untouchable--indestructible--will live forever. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, weeks before his untimely death, was saying to people "Stick close to me if there's an atomic war. You'll be in a safe zone, no bomb's going to kill me." He was right--no bomb did.

There's no necessary contradiction, on the other hand, between living each day as if it were your last and making plans--even long distance plans--in case it turns out not to be. There might be if you were obliged to live by one maxim and one maxim only, but how stupid is that? I recently finished, in a thirty day spurt of activity, a play whose first partial and abandoned draft I started twenty years ago. My awareness waxed and waned, but I always carried somewhere in my mind the intelligence that one day would be my last, and that I had no guarantee it would be twenty years, or twenty months, or twenty days away. So fine, make plans, recognizing they're all contingent, but recognize as well that each day is a gift that will not be repeated in the same form ever again, and may not be repeated at all. Don't grow so engrossed by plans for the future that you ignore this precious jewel of time and space, yours to shape (within limits) as you choose. (Definitely lay off any plans that'll take more than a century to realize.)

Kay is more cautious in attacking the maxim "Follow your heart"--he makes it clear he's talking about a common understanding whereby following any superficial impulse is described as "following your heart". Why accept the misuse of language then? Why not say what people really mean is "follow your nose" or "follow the prickling of the hairs on your forearm", or whatever superficial guide you prefer, rather than one so firmly embedded at the core of existence as the heart?

If I understand him correctly, Kay believes it's reasonable in youth to pursue the dream the heart prompts you to, and acceptable to continue if you succeed; if not, wise at some point to come up with a plan B. Not the worst advice in the world, but how likely is it that anyone with a deep passion will follow it? If Louis Armstrong had spent twnety years in the wilderness instead of achieving considerable success early in his career, do you think he'd have looked for a plan B? William Blake with his incredibly wide-ranging gifts could have succeeded in any number of careers other than the one he stubbornly clung to all his life, at which he only succeeded posthumously.

He was as politically astute as any British Prime Minister. He had as much unforced eloquence as any three combined. Only one of them might be considered--not by me--his equal as a writer. None was close to his equal as a painter, but then that's not exactly a Prime Ministerial qualification. Very likely that gift would disappear into doodling impulses during idle moments at session, and his great power as a writer be chained to partisan political discourse. Blake as Prime Minister. What countries would he have forced war on, in what far-flung corners of the globe, to vent the bitterness of his frustration over unacted desires?

Are there follies and even crimes associated with following the heart? I suppose. But the ugliest crimes human beings are capable of, the ones it freezes the blood even to have described? All of them, without a single exception, follow from stifling impulses of the heart.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

December 15, 2007

Mulroney v. Schrieber

"Mulroney will triumph in the court of public opinion because he's up against Karlheinz Schrieber. If he were up against no one, he would lose."
--John Ivison, Nat Post, Dec 14 '07

I'm not so sure. A Breakfast Television poll may give early indication, and it was running better than 75% against Mulroney. I doubt Karlheinz Schrieber would have come out better in a poll answered by the same people, but see here's the thing: people do not necessarily and invariably choose sides in an adversarial contest. Sometimes they say 'a plague on both your houses'. They're particularly likely to despise, more or less equally, two adversaries who've had a bitter falling out, but were questionably allied for an uncomfortable length of time. As Ivison points out at the top of this article, Mulroney began by calling Schrieber's allegations 100% false and ended by citing the man as a character witness: "[Schrieber] told the Toronto Sun that accusations of bribery against Brian Mulroney were as much a hoax as the Hitler Diaries." Not a word-for-word quote I suspect, since it lacks that curious Karlheinz broken English flare: but it's syntactically and referentially challenged enough; 'twil serve.

(Incidentally years ago I saw an interview on television with one of the people who exposed those diaries as a fake, and he said they were written in ballpoint pen. With camouflage that cunning it's hardly a surprise they fooled so many of the world's major news bureaux for so long.)

Then again in his opening remarks Mulroney only said Schrieber's allegations in the affidavit that led to the inquiry were "completely false". Perhaps Schrieber has superstitions against lying to reputable newsmen? no wait, this was the Toronto Sun, he'd have to have reservations against lying to journalists of any kind. But I imagine the three envelopes of cash were cited in the affidavit, and Mulroney contests only the amount--75,000, not one hundred thousand. That allegation, then, is at least 75% true.

And there's a difficulty with Mulroney's claim. The amount he declared for tax purposes, six years later than he ought to have filed, was three hundred thousand. This was the amount admitted to by Mulroney and his press liaison, and I've never heard them contest it since. If he was given 75,000 a pop along with the coffee which was all he admitted to at the time of the airbus lawsuit, he met Schrieber four times. In which case it's a coin toss whose account is nearer the truth.

(Or was this the amount the Mulroney team admitted to at the beginning of all this pother? Commentators are already taking Mulroney's revision as read, which means either my memory is cloudy or theirs is convenient. I was pretty sure that's what I'd read though, and that I'd read it in statements from the Mulroney team as well as Schrieber. Did Mulroney take the totals Schrieber initially gave on faith, until he'd counted the amounts still left in the safety deposit boxes and checked them against expenditures?)

This is a problem likely to persist throughout Mulroney's testimony. Given the number of half truths, quarter truths and evasions both have insisted on as the whole truth and nothing but, is he or Karlheinz Schrieber more to be believed? At best you could give a shade or a shaving to one or the other on this point or that. And you'd be speculating at that. Give Mulroney maximum benefit of the doubt at every point and what do you come up with? Maybe not as dishonest as Karlheinz Schrieber. There's an accolade. Add in that your first known association with Karlheinz Schrieber was in 1983, when he spearheaded a team backing your successful bid for the Conservative Party leadership, which led to a ten year term in the PMO, during all which time you insist there was never any payback to a man who doesn't do favours withot expecting payback--well, I'd say the old legacy's pretty much built.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

December 7, 2007

This is Not an Art Critique

From the defense his roommate and fellow artist Peter Moheddin makes in a commentary (Nat Post, Dec 6, 2007), I hope Thorassin Jonsson has the sense not to call him as a witness, should his public mischief charge come to a trial. If I were a judge subjected to such nonsense in defense of somebody planting a fake bomb as an artistic statement, I'd find my thoughts shifting from a stiff fine or community service to moderately serious jail time.

Apparently Jonsson agrees with Moheddin's essential argument (whether point by point I don't know) since he's taken to expressing great pride in the success of his project--planting a realistic-looking bomb, labelled (after Magritte?) 'This is Not a Bomb' at the Royal Ontario Museum on Nov 28 and phoning in a 'no bomb' warning to the ROM switchboard. This replaces an initially apologetic tone. I think he's got the whiff of publicity up his nostrils.

Peter Moheddin begins his defense with a reference to the curious fact that audiences at 'The Great Train Robbery' were so startled by a shot of a train coming toward the camera full speed that they fled the theatre--an effect similar to that achieved by Thorassin Jonsson's 'not-bomb'.

It seems a curious example. Apart from the fact that this was not intended, who has ever talked about'The Great Train Robbery' as a serious work of art? Not even its makers. It occupies a place in the history of cinema as the first film to tell a sustained story, but if I were listing the great short films of movie history, I'd certainly name Mack Sennett's 'Teddy at the Throttle', Laurel and Hardy's 'Big Business', W.C. Fields' 'A Fatal Glass of Beer' among many others. I would certainly not name 'The Great Train Robbery'.

Coming down to present cases. After a long rambling paragraph about the controversy over the not-bomb, Moheddin concludes: ". . . the defining function of a bomb is that it can explode." And?

The implication here--and it's pretty well what you have to argue if you want to claim Jonsson's false alarm was a work of art rather than a high misdemeanour--is that the reaction of the bomb squad was stupid. Duh! guys, this is not a bomb, it can't explode, it even says so right on it. What are you so worried about? To which the obvious answer is duh! how do we know something that looks exactly like a functioning bomb isn't until we test it? It would have been stupid, if not criminally insane, to look at it, see the sign and say "Hey guys, look at this! Says here it's not a bomb. That's a relief! now we can all go home."

What was stupid, profoundly cynical or both (my money's on both) was Jonsson's imperviousnes to the actual consequences of what he was doing, the impact on people's lives as well as the possible juridical implications. The law student who assured Jonsson if he attached a note saying 'This is not a bomb', he'd be absolved of liability? I suspect--what's more I hope--he's getting nothing but Fs on all his courses. It's certainly the grade Jonsson deserves for this project.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

December 1, 2007

What's Sushi Like?

All quotes below are from James Geary's 'The Art of the Aphorism' (Nat Post, Nov 29, '07). He may not have contributed the title, which seems to be error-free.

"There is an aphorism for everything, and everything its aphorism: That's my philosophy."
? Can a single sentence be a philosophy? Not if its redundancy serves only to make its intended statement incoherent.

". . . only a fool makes a speech in a burning house. Aphorisms must work quickly because they are meant for use in emergencies. We're most in need of aphorisms at times of distress or joy, ecstasy or anguish."
Ok, I'll bite. In what way do joy and ecstasy figure in moments of personal emergency? Sorting from this sentence the terms that do apply, I don't see how despair or anguish is likely to heighten anyone's appreciation of even so embattled an aphorism as Swift's "Is this an Age of Man to consider a crime improbable merely because it is great?" Anguish might make you more sensitive to emotion, though it's likelier to deliver you over to indiscriminate puddles of it; in neither case does it necessarily heighten sensitivity to sharp, precise thought; and despair tends to flatten response to thought and feeling both.

A little later he quotes, as an example of "the surreal one liners of standup comic Steven Wright:
'When everything is coming your way, you're in the wrong lane.' "
Not the sharpest one liner I've ever heard, and surreal? Put it in a box of four with 2.) a fur covered coffee cup, 3.) a landscape of melted watches, 4.) a man looking in a mirror at the image of the back of his head, and sing "One of these things is not like the others."
Geary himself manages an (unintentionally?) surreal effect though, in his final paragraph:
"Aphorisms are food for thought--always fresh, always in season, always delicious. Like sushi, they come in small portions that are exquisitely formed. And, like sushi, I can never get enough."
Sushi can never get enough of aphorisms? This I never heard.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides