December 27, 2008

Year in Review

Though I'm in a fallow period right now, this has been a busy year for me as a writer. In February, I began work on a play, FIREWATCHER'S WAGES, which fulfilled a long-time ambition of mine: I've long wanted to write a play about which I could make the double boast Ben Jonson makes in the prologue to VOLPONE, the last half of which is: 'five weeks have fully penn'd it." But in some ways that was the least remarkable thing about a play that seemed to arrive from nowhere. I'd often thought about the ORESTEIA of Aeschylus, particularly the first and finest play in the trilogy, AGAMEMNON. I'd certainly often meditated on the brilliant image that dominates the first half of that play: sentinels with signal fires dotted along mountains from Troy to Argos, to alert Clytemnestra of Agamemnon's return some hours before his ships can speed their way home. I'd certainly thought often enough about the poor sod of a Herald at the beginning who's been watching, sleepless, a year for that distant mountain signal, can't they hurry up and finish the sack of Troy already? But I hadn't considered at all, before I suddenly found myself exploring them, the possibilities in a play with the Herald as its lead character, and his opening monologue in verse where did that come from? In fact everything about the play as it unfolded--the shifts from verse to proe and back, the rhythms of progressively deepening and darkening comedy scene by scene, the three original song lyrics with tunes that seemed to arrise out of the action and speech spontaneously--all of it was just about as much a surprise to me as it could be to anyone viewing or reading it.

That was only the beginning of a remarkably concentrated period of activity that lasted through mid-May. Apart from a number of flash fiction pieces, poems for the collection I was compiling, MIND MADE SYLLABLES, opinion pieces for my blog The Evitable, one full length short story, I was working, rapidly and overlapingly, on a series of theatricales: EMPTY BOWL, extensively rewritten from an earlier one act 'Zen play', inch foot time gem; LIVE PERFORMANCE, also reworking an earlier fragment (with a title so uninspiring I can't now recall it), I FORESEE TROUBLE, about a telephone psychic, and a screenplay I'd been mulling over in my mind for a little over a year, WITH A BULLET (FARGO meets the song stylings of Leonard Cohen).

You'd like these periods of sharpest inspiration to go on forever, but sadly and annoyingly, they sometimes pick the most inconvenient moments to grind to a halt. By mid-May I'd finished I FORESEE TROUBLE; LIVE PERFORMANCE was beanced and foundering, didn't know how to connect the first act to a second that was refusing to assume definite shape, partly because I was far from sure I was happy with the first act (Joss Whedon was asked to help work out problems in the 'third act' of a Hollywood blockbuster a few years back, and told the producers 'The problem with the third act is the first two acts.'); EMPTY BOWL had a first act of monumental ambition that i was mostly happy with plus two complete scenes of the second act and part of the long third scene, I thought I knew just about everything that should follow from this in Act II and III, but I wasn't writing them, only brooding day after day about the architectonics (which is a word I've always wantaed to use somewhere, but you'd be amazed how rarely an appropriate context comes up): I didn't know how to manipulate the action on the stage set as I'd devised it so it could flow and move the play forward. Irksome, especially when you consider the play was written to epic scale, with thirteen speaking parts and the need for at least that many extras to swell a fairground scene. If a play's going to be almost impossible to produce in toady's budget conscious theatre climate, is it too much to ask that it not be equally difficult to write?

WITH A BULLET was thoroughly plotted and maybe 75% written except for a necessary line-by-line overhaul, but it was difficult to bring enough concentration to bear.

A lead character in EMPTY BOWL--whose last decisive action brings the play to its close--is a poet named Wabi. Nonnie Augustine, poetry editor at the online magazine The Linnet's Wings, had read Wabi's songs (independently of their play context) in an online writer's workshop we both belonged to and asked me to submit them. So I sent them along to Marie Lynam Fitzpatrick, the overall boss editor of Linnet's Wings and with it the first act so she'd know the context in which the poems appear.

About mid-June I had a letter from Marie saying they'd like to publish both the poems and the act I'd sent them. Agreeing to this I began proofreading PDF pages and typing into my own file the scenes from Act II I realized I hadn't got around to putting in yet, and discovered I'd worked out the problem I'd had which kept me from finishing. In about two weeks I'd completed Act II and III--which combined are slightlly shorter than Act I by itself, you'd likely play it with just the one intermission should anyone (and the sooner the better) choose to do so. Conscious that the immediate prod for finishing the play had been Marie's letter, I wrote to offer her the whole play if she wanted it, if it didn't seem too big a page-gobbler for one issue; which is how my largest publication to date, and my first full-length play publication, came about.

Though I was still writing the odd flash fiction piece, and one more full length story in the period between mid-May and June, the late June-early July completion of EMPTY BOWL was my largest sustained effort then and for a while to come. Brooding about WITH A BULLET--planning to work it out seriously during a week's holdiay in the sand dunes around Bellfontaine in late July-early August. I was already feeling looser and more creative on the drive up--wrote a complete ten minute play, 'Please May I Live?'--except for a little fine tuning later, strted and finished on the five hour drive.

At the cottage I got to work on the logistics and even ballistics of WITH A BULLET. Hours of free time stretching out before me, I'd sit in a butterfly chair with clutters of draft pages and compile, compose, revise. On the way back into the city it was finished and ready to type into files.

That was my last powerfully sustained burst of creativity this year. I worte a fair number of flash fiction pieces in August and September and a diminishing number, sometimes fewer than one a week, since. I've been mainly occupied with sending out playscripts to theatre companies and stories and poems to magazines that accept email submissions. Finally a way of sending out manuscripts that my budget can always accomodate.

Apart from EMPTY BOWL, The Linnet's Wings ( has published an essay I never expected to see in 'print' (and there are plans to publish physical copies beginning with that issue, so--fingers crossed--I may even see it in PRINT) I AM BEING EVERYBODY THEY CRIED, an essay on the work of Peter Barnes, the greatest playwright for the stage in the English language in the 20th Century. There's been a delay in a 'day calendar' anthology of flash fiction pieces, 366 stories each on a single page of which six are mine, and the same editor is still in process of organizing an animated anthology which will feature the animated version of one of my short stories, 'Who Was That?' Next year perhaps, one of the two dozen or so theatre companies who currently have one or another of my plays in their submission files will decide to be the first to premiere one of them onstage. Ideally two or three at once, each with a different play. Might rack up serious frequent flier miles if I were expected to attend at each. I'm not holding my breath--I've discovered that's a dangerous thing to do in the writing trade.

December 5, 2008

Harper & the Coalition

{I wrote this to my neice in response to a couple of letters cheerleading the coalition from her current residence in Brussels}:


You'll have heard by now I imagine that Stephen Harper's dodged the bullet for the time being with a prorogation of the House. If you want to catch up with debate on this subject over here, check out and The Globe and Mail website for Ed Broadbent's comments (and Rick Salutin's in the Globe as well). And definitely check out Rick Mercer's latest Rant on All our national news sources are worth googling on this subject. I've been reading the three Toronto dailies just to keep up with who's saying what.

The National Post, curiously enough, has little to say in defence of Harper--loads to say against the (potential) Coalition on the other hand. Lorne Gunter seems to tacitly approve Harper's attempt to bankrupt the Opposition parties, but even his comment seems mainly aimed at the (potential) Coalition, who he accuses of avoiding confrontation on matters of principle throughout the previous Harper government, only to finally stand up on their haunches and protest when their funding was endangered. considering how much Harper got away with by bluff and bluster in the last parliament, Gunter has a point, but the more cogent point is that voter representative funding was intended to replace large donations to political parties by private interests, and somewhat has. (I'm not up on the ins and outs, but I seriously doubt either private interests or political parties have entirely divested themselves of loopholes.) The key point is that it was a democratizing influence, and the secondary point is that the recent election has drained every party's coffers. the party in power gains a huge advantage over parties stripped of this entitlement: Mercer's not being the least bit alarmist when he says the only tendency of a move like that is toward a one party state. I wouldn't want the NDP or the Green party in power under those terms, because no party whatever its principles can be counted on to act well without strict democratic oversight. Giving that kind of power to Harper and that group of thieves he has in cabinet--Flaherty had higher ambitions obviously than merely fleecing the treasuries of Ontario and its chief city--now he can do the country and the capital--fuggedaboutit, giving them that kind of power would not be materially different from committing suicide. Harper's shown himself capable of doing quite enough harm without diverting an inch from his principles.

Harper's something of an anomaly in Canadian political life--apart from Mulroney he's the only Conservative Prime Minister I can think of who wouldn't be considered left of centre in the U.S. John A. MacDonald might been conservative in comparison with Laurier, but he was more radical than Lincoln--and a politician as wily as MacDonald in the U.S. mihgt have brought slavery to an end without a war. We should return to our traditions I think before we forget what they were.

All for now,
love, Uncle Martin

November 19, 2008

Friedrich Durrenmatt, Plays and Essays

"If we consider how art is practiced these days, we cannot help but notice a conspicuous drive toward purity. The
artist strives toward the purely poetic, the purely lyrical, the purely epic, the purely dramatic. The painter ardently works to
create the pure painting, the musician pure music; and someone even told me that pure radio represents the synthesis
between Dionysos and Logos. What is even more remarkable for our time, which is not otherwise renowned for its purity,
is that each and everyone believes he has found his own unique and therefore the only purity. Each vestal of the arts has,
if you will, her own kind of chastity. Likewise, too numerous to count are all the theories of the theatre, of what is pur theatre,
pure tragedy, pure comedy. There are so many modern theories of the drama, what with each playwright keeping three or
four at hand, that for this reason, if for no other, I am a bit embarrassed to come along now with my own theories. . . "

--p 237, 'Problems of the Theatre'

It amazes me to realize that I've owned this book for several years and only now, when it caught my eye among a jungle thicket of books pilled everywhere, many of them on the floor, stacked in rows a little haphazard (there've been instances of toppling) where a shelf had been, and collapsed under their weight--we had clearners coming and you can't really leave books piled high on a rug that's to be cleaned, not unless you want 'em wetted and shampooed and the rug under them badly cleaned if at all, so I was stacking 'em in the closet, quite a few went into gaps on the other shelves, whatever worked basically but of course I found my fingers tripping over titles and a small pile on top of one shelf forming a to-read list, and finding the one I most wanted to reread was this Durrenmatt collection, what do I discover immediately but that I've never read in all these years the first of its two plays, Romulus the Great? Why would somebody who's an actual Durrenmatt fan overlook for so long such an unconditional masterpiece of the theatre? Sure, if I'd read it ten years ago I might barely have registered the sly theatricall allusions, to Antigone and so on though. . . could hardly have missed the farcical parody of Shakespeare's assassination scene from Julius Caesar--the action after all takes place on the ides of March, 476, but the conspirators against Rome's last Emperor Romulus aren't an organized party of citizens, they come together accidentally, each separately concealing himself and when they do come together with one intent--as Romulus alone anticipated, having planned things so they must--they're scattered at the last minute by a sudden cry: "The Teutons are coming!" (which they are, but not for another twelve hours). Like history itself, the great scenes of epic historical theatre are played the first time as tragedy, the next time as farce. (Romulus has been a completely inactive Emperor, living in retirement on an estate. His great passion has been chicken breeding, and his chickens are all named after predecessors on the Imperial throne. He eats their eggs for breakfast, and when they don't reliably lay any longer, the chickens for dinner. The previous evening it was Caligula.)

I'll stop here describing the play, since you might as well discover its qualities yourself. Don't wait as long to read it as I did.

The other play in this collection is The Visit, though I'm pretty sure from his introduction that the editor Volkmar Sander would have preferred that it be The Physicists:

"Of far greater weight and of comparable stature to The Visit, though not quite so popular. . . is [The Physicists], written in 1962"

Do you get the same feeling I do, that this is an editors indirect protest at an inclusion/exclusion imposed upon him by a publisher? For personal reasons I think it's unfortunate The Physicists wasn't included here, because I've read The Visit more than once, but i've never been able even to find a copy of The Physicists elsewhere. Not only that, the one time it's played in Toronto friends and I missed seeing it because we were too new to the city and couldn't find our way to the theatre 'til well past the first intermission. Bugger.

One of Durrenmatt's great metaphysical satires in detective novel get up, The Judge and His Hangman, is included as well, and two fascinating essays, 'Problems of the Theatre' and 'A Monster Lecture on Justice and Law'.

"We writers are often reproached with the idea that we are nihilistic. Today, of course, there does exist a nihilistic art,
but not every art that seems nihilistic is so. True nihilistic art does not appear to be nihilistic at all; it is usually considered to be
especially humane and supremely worthy of being read by our more mature young people. . . People call nihilistic what is merely
uncomfortable. People are now saying that the artist is supposed to create, not to talk; to give shape to things, not to preach.
Certainly. But it becomes more and more difficult to create 'purely' or however people imagine the creative mind should work.
Mankind today is like a reckless driver racing over faster, ever more heedlessly along the highway. And he does not like it when
the frightened passengers shout: "Watch out," and "There's a stop sign," "Slow down," or "Don't kill that child!" Moreover, the
driver hates it when someone asks who is paying for the car or who's providing the gas and oil for this mad journey, to say
nothing of what happens when he is asked to show his driver's license. After all, unpleasant facts might then come to light. . . "

--pp 259-260, "Problems of the Theatre"

November 16, 2008

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

I've been reading Hemingway's complete short stories just to see if I'd been judging him too harshly all these years. It appears I haven't been judging him harshly enough. What kind of mass hypnosis are the people under who insist Hemingway innovated a lean, economical style--'the Iceberg style', which was named 'multum in parvo' in Ancient Rome and described a style thousands of years old even then? 'A Reader Writes' is one and three quarter pages long, and only the letter embedded in it is necessary to tell the story; the frame device is a laborious description of the letter writer deciding to write to an advice columnist in the newspaper, followed by an even more laborious account of her thoughts after writing the letter, none of which adds anything to the thought process already revealed in the letter. It would be a slight enough story even at half a page, but that's its correct length, and it's typical of the percentagest in more serious, and lengthier, stories such as The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. On average his best stories are about twice as long as they should be if his aim is any degree of concision.

I'll grant you though that it's hard to say in some cases how much overwritten a story is because his other consuming vice, a persistent mislaying of tone and emphasis, makes it difficult to know what was intended, and therefore what the natural length of the story might have been. 'A Natural History of the Dead' starts out promising, and might have turned out remarkable if he'd kept to his initial idea--describing the battlefields he's witnessed from the laconic, emotionless perspective of a scientist, a satiric technique that if well handled produces a mood the opposite of detachment (see Swift's A Modest Proposal). Alas, unlike Swift, Hemingway is concerned to make it impossible for literal-minded readers to think badly of him as coldblooded, so he keeps breaking in with sentimental effusions. The flaccid floundering this occasions is not pretty to watch:

"Most of those mules that I saw dead were along mountain roads or lying at the foot of steep declivities whence they had been pushed to rid the road of their encumbrance. They seemed a fitting enough sight in the mountains where one is accustomed to their presence and looked less incongruous there than they did later, at Smyrna, where the Greeks broke the legs of all their baggage animals and pushed them off the quay into the shallow water to drown. The numbers of broken-legged mules and horses drowning in the shallow water called for a Goya to depict them. Although, speaking literally, one can hardly say that they called for a Goya, since there has been only one Goya, long dead, and it is extremely doubtful if these animals, were they able to call, would call for pictorial representation of their plight but, more likely, would, if they were articulate, call for some one to alleviate their condition."

The sentimental overwriting, far from taking you viscerally into the pity and horror of the scene, has the opposite effect--blocking even an effective picture arising in the mind's eye (sure, I can do Ernest bloated too).

Goya understood multum in parvo far better than Hemingway ever did. Find a well-printed copy of 'Los Caprichios' and take your mind off this bloated nonsense.

November 14, 2008

Groucho Trilogy (a modest revue)

Down below (ratatatatata)
Down Below(ratatatatata)
Sat the devil talking to his son
Who wanted to go
Up above(ratatatatata)
Up above(ratatatatata)
But the Devil said listen lad
Listen to your dear old dad

Stay down here where you belong
The folks who live above you don't know right from wrong

To please their kings they've all gone out to war
And not a one of them knows what he's fighting for

'Way up above they say that I'm a Devil and I'm bad
Kings up there are bigger devils than your dad

They're breaking the hearts of mothers
Making butchers out of brothers
You'll find more hell up there than there is down below

One can only speculate on the reasons Irving Berlin was embarrassed every time Groucho Marx--the only one who ever did--sang this song. It's as bold, imaginative, witty and daring as any lyric he ever wrote, but perhaps as his success waxed with the ongoing years he lost the desire to be, or to have it thought that he ever had been, daring. Groucho in a letter incorporated into the memoir Groucho and Me told Berlin that with all the great songs he'd written, he could afford to have it known that he'd let slip the odd turkey, but anyone who's heard his heartfelt rendering of it in An Evening With Groucho Marx, the Carnegie Hall concert, will know Groucho's real sentiments. He thought it was a great song that should be kept alive in people's memories. He was happy at every opportune moment to sacrifice the hundred dollars Berlin had promised to pay him each time he didn't sing the song. I think it'd be better for the world at large if this song and not White Christmas were his best known and most often recorded number.

This is one of many stories told in Groucho and Me (but I've gone to the Carnegie Hall concert for its rendition of this lyric. The quoted version in the book, and in the lryic sheet on Google, is less concise, so I suppose Groucho's rendition is a lyrical collaboration between the two. A good many of the same stories are retold in An Evening With, some of them more succinctly. It's in the book however that he developed the easygoing memoir style that (along with about a dozen great songs) drove the Carnegie Hall concert, and about a third of the book is just as good and didn't get into the concert. About a third of it would have been worth trimming, but two thirds of a fine book is two thirds more than you can find between most book covers.

In Groucho and Me he says the two films the Marx Brothers made with Irving Thalberg were their best, but in later years the first film that came to mind when interviewers posed the question was 'the war picture'--Duck Soup, which I think was far and away their best film but what do I know? I missed a golden opportunity to sell Enron stock at its highest posted value, just before the bottom fell out. What stopped me was that I didn't own any Enron stock, otherwise I'd have made a killing.)

The Groucho Letters is more uneven, but there are quite a few comic high points, some from other correspondents such as Fred Allen and Harry Kurnitz. A letter about attaching a remote control to his television to mute commercials seems prescient, even more so one to the President of Chrysler urging him to stop advertising speed so much and start advertising (and improving) auto safety and reducing carbon monoxide emissions. Ralph Nader didn't get around to tackling this subect for at least another decade, but then he'd have been in High School when this letter was written.

I've only begun Memoirs of a Mangy Lover, but so far it seems a slighter book than Groucho and Me.

I have a friend in Hollywood... I think I do, but I'm not sure. [laughter] His name is Harry Ruby [applause] and he wrote a lot of songs that I've sung over the years...
Today, Father, is Father's Day
And we're giving you a tie
It's not much we know
It is just our way of showing you
We think you're a regular guy
You say that it was nice of us to bother
But it really was a pleasure to fuss
For according to our mother
You're our father
And that's good enough for us
Yes, that's good enough for us

November 5, 2008

The Days Ahead

From a Toronto Star report by Royson James (Nov 5) on election night in Selma, Alabama:

" 'I just feel overjoyed that God let me live to see this day--after the long struggle we had,' says Alice WEst, who alone registered 300 voters here at a time when that could get you killed.
'I just wish my husband (Lonzy) were here. He'd be so proud. He was in jail for the movement almost as many times as we slept together.' "

I'm quietly optimistic. I do hope the Messianic expectations being attached to Obama blow over quickly, because 1) a Messiah is a bad enough leader in an autocratic society--it's just about the worst leadership model possible in a democracy; 2) hopes keyed well above the possible might dangerously fester on contact with the inevitably plodding pace of change.

Some changes, particularly in domestic policy, might happen very quickly with a Democratic majority in the house and senate as well as the White House, but I don't know how long it'll take the most dedicated administration to wean the U.S. from its most dangerous foreign policy delusion. Obama may not even more than half agree with me on what that delusion is, but I expect he'll talk a great deal less than George Bush did about the War on Terror, and if he keeps his word will end the most disastrous phase of that war, the occupation of Iraq. He won't come right out and say, even if he believes, that the War on Terror has been a bountiful gift these past seven years to militarists, weaponeers and terrorists the wide world over, and far from containing the threat of terror has dramatically increased it. (Bin Laden if you'll remember endorsed John McCain. Or whoever that was presenting himself as Bin Laden--has there been serious voice analysis recently I wonder?) What he will do I hope is gradually help America's citizenry withdraw from their highly hyped Fear Fix.

Look at what's happened since 9-11--what has actually worked, not in some cases, not in most cases, but in all cases to prevent terrorist acts, contain terrorist cells and save actual lives? Dedicated police work backed by solid intelligence. The intelligence was available to head off 9-11 if infighting among the intelligence services hadn't prevented it being taken seriously. Has the war in Iraq prevented a single act of terror? No, it's provided a fertile breeding ground for terrorist action and training ground for tomorrow's terrorists. And reconstructors.

What we can rationally expect from the beginning is a President who realizes other nations exist, and doesn't use preemptive strikes the way he once used whiskey and cocaine--that's enough to be going on with for starters, and after that we'll see.

November 4, 2008

Congo Situation

The photos were taken by my neice Ula on a recent working trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a happy and remarkable trip during which she worked with a number of local companies on dance and theatre workshops and studied the work of Congolese companies. It was a tremendously inspiring trip, she made many remarkable friends, and she's profoundly concerned about the crisis beginning to well up there again. The BBC stories she cites are a good place to start if you want to know more about the current situation, and the photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale is one of many sources for more background on the situation, as is an article in the Independent from May 2006. The photos say a great deal about the beauty of the land and its people.

Subject: Trouble in DRC Congo

Date: Sat, 1 Nov 2008 12:38:51 +0100

I am very worried about the situation in Eastern Congo -
The area where I visited this summer, which was enjoying
a relative moment of calm has since become flooded with refuges
descending from the North where rebels are fighting, threatening to
start a next civil war.

The friends I visited in Goma who run an art center say their
building and grounds are becoming a refuge for friends and
young people who live on the outskirts of town.

I hope recent diplomatic efforts will end the fighting
and the displacement of thousands of people.

You can read these links for more information:

My prayers are with those in Goma!


October 3, 2008

Chesterton's Dickens and Swift's Drapier's Letters

Chesterton's Dickens and Swift's Drapier's Letters

It's sometimes interesting to consider books in tandem, even if the overlap between them is merely tangential. This is the only reference to Swift in Chesterton's remarkable study of Dickens (you'll have to wait for it a little, since what precedes it is crusial to Chesterton's argument and mine--nicely expressed too, which is always a bonus):

The optimist is a better reformer than the pessimist; and the man who believes life to be excellent is the man who alters it most. It seems a paradox, yet the reason of it is very plain. The pessimist can be enraged at evil. But only the optimist can be surprised at it. But only the optimist can be surprised at it. From the reformer is required a simplicity of surprise. He must have the faculty of a violent and virgin astonishment. It is not enough that he should think injustice distressing; he must
think injustice absurd, an anomaly in existence, a matter less for tears than for a shattering laughter. On the other hand, the pessimists at the end of the century could hardly curse even the blackest thing; for they could hardly see it against its black and eternal background. Nothing was bad, because everything was bad. Life in prison was infamous--like life anywhere else. The fires of persecution were vile--like the stars. We perpetually find this paradox of a contented discontent. Dr. Johnson takes too sad a view of humanity, but he is also too satisfied a Conservative. Rousseau takes too rosy a view of humanity, but he causes a revolution.
Swift is angry, but a Tory. Shelley is happy, and a rebel. Dickens, the optimist, satirizes the Fleet, and the Fleet is gone. Gissing, the pessimist, satirizes Suburbia, and Suburbia remains. (p. 13, Charles Dickens)

On Swift, Chesterton was, regrettably, a little tone deaf. There's an absurdity in the characterization of Swift here that Chesterton would have been the first to laugh at if it had been pointed out to him. Anger is a passing mood, even in people who are considerably disposed to it; people are never angry in the same sense as they have fingers and toes. Certainly if they lost their fingers and toes as they lose their tempers, they'd be hard pressed to make up the deficiency. But only on the most superficial reading is anyone likely to find Swift unusually disposed to anger. No single passage out of Swift gives anything like his full emotional range--this passage for instance (concluding the 'Letter to Lord Chancellor MIddleton' from The Drapier's Letters) has relatively little of his characteristic humour:

I sent these papers to an eminent lawyer (and yet a man of virtue and learning into the bargain) who, after many alterations returned them back, with assuring me, that they are perfectly innocent; without the least mixture of treason, rebellion, sedition, malice, disaffection, reflection, or wicked insinuation whatsoever.

If the bellman of each parish, as he goes his circuit, would cry out, every night, "Past twelve o'clock; Beware of Wood's halfpence;" it would probably cut off the occasion for publishing any more pamphlets; provided that in country towns it were done upon market days. For my own part, as soon as it shall be determined, that it is not against law, I will begin the experiment in the liberty of St. Patrick's; and hope my example may be followed in the whole city But if authority shall think
fit to forbid all writings, or discourses upon this subject, except such as are in favour of Mr. Wood, I will obey as it becomes me; only when I am in danger of bursting, I will go and whisper among the reeds, not any reflection upon the wisdom of my countrymen; but only these few words, BEWARE OF WOOD'S HALFPENCE.
(Letter to Lord Chancellor Middleton, Drapier's Letters.)

But this passage is not at all untypical of Swift's mood, especially when he wrote to persuade: direct, with a persistent lilt, the words lightly outlined by a shimmer of sadness. Of acourse there's rage prodding beneath the antic humour in much of his writing, but it's worth bearing in mind he had to watch the daily spectacle of the nation where he passed most of his life being brutalized and starved deliberately, with calculation, the upper crust of that nation (who mostly resided abroad) collaborating in that oppressive effort. Sure it would try your patience.

As for Swift being Tory, he switched allegiance from the Whigs early in his life for two principal reasons: he was a devout minister and at least the avant garde of the Whigs were openly atheistic; and the Whigs were a party devoted to war. He was uneasy identifying with any party, and certainly enraged Tories as much as he did Whigs, and for the same reason: neither party at its core was either thoughtful or humane, and he was more than happy to rag at them both continuously over that. He certainly always aimed at changing the status quo ante, and if the wider reforms he sought persistently remained illusive, some of the finest passagaes in Chesterton's Charles Dickens show precisely how partial Dickens' success as a reformer was as wellj, meaning how much is left to us still to do. While Swift is certainly not alone in the concerns he championed, and would never for a moment have claimed he was, it's notable how many of the reforms that have been shakily established over the centuries, and how many we still hope (many of us) to establish, read as if they were cribbed from Swift's Irish and English Tracts. And Swift did lead one successful small revolution at least, whose record has come down to us in The Drapier's Letters (quoted above): the campaign against the imposition from England upon Ireland of William Wood's halfpence and farthings. Either Swift was an exception to Chesterton's astute prescription for (partially) successful reformers, or Swift was far from permanently encased in a carapace of rage, and whatever his temporal dissatisfactions, had made his own peace with life as it's normally lived.

I think it would be more true to say that Chesterton's an exception, the sole one I know of in fact, to the general rule that Swift's most savage critics tend to see, and faithfully describe in their monstrous characterizations of him, not Swift but what he showes them in the sort of glass he typically employs. Not really an exception either, since Chesterton's far from savage in his criticism of Swift, only profoundly mistaken, and he never attempted a full length study or even an article on Swift, and may have read, and innocently absorbed, more of others' corrupt judgments of Swift than of Swift himself.

But if the impulse to reform is always born of embattled love for the world just as it is, humanity even as we find it, what then? Does Swift's impassioned medley of hilarity, invective, irony rough and smooth, eloquence sharp and gentle, the steadfast gaze of his fierce mild eyes amount to an ignorant denunciation we can safeably shrug aside or an urgent warning we ignore at our peril? Are humanity's many defenders really protecting us from Swift's unwarranted abuse, or encouraging us to prefer any shipwreck no matter how absolute, rather than the slightest rebuke to our self-esteem?

September 26, 2008

Servicing the Leaks

All right, seriously: is there any doubt anymore that wealthy conservatives a) take it as a first principle tht people ought to be accountable for the consequences of their actions b) make it the first principle they abandon the moment it's applied to their actions?

What are the usual consequences of financial management that ranges between criminal negligence and outright fraud? Particularly in commodities that, because of slack government oversight, have been able to instintutionalise c.n. and f. as normal practice? Restitution as far as that's possible I would have thought, and a considerable term segregated from the population at large in orange jumpsuits. Apparently not: what conduct like that merits is a heavy government subsidy to encourage further reckless and criminal speculation. Swift, who most of his life identified as Tory, would have found this logic quite impersuasive.

A bailout of people who put their money into these c.n. and f. institutions in good faith--that might make sense. They could be counted on to make responsible use of the money. Ideally they'd be sharp-eyed and invest more wisely next time, though in the present climate of institutional corruption they'd have to peer about them very carefully indeed. A great many 'sound', 'rock solid' investments these days are minefields of opportunity. Boom! there goes an arm and a leg or worse.

A bailout of people who acted cynically, in bad faith and if anybody could be bothered to investigate, criminally even according to laws that favour sharp practices among the rich that the poor go to jail for? Besides being morally repugnant, it's sure to produce disastrous consequences. Far from saving the world's economy, it will encourage the usual suspects in preparing the world for its next--will it be 2 trillion this time?--fiscal sucker punch.

C 2008 Martin Heavisides

August 25, 2008

Post Olympic Toss

Post Olympic Toss

So I'm reading about preparations for potential protestors in Denver and this sentence sort of leaps off the page at me (Thomas MacCharles, Aug 25 '08):

"The city of Denver also has spent $2.1 million on protective gear for police and passed bylawns to ban the hurling of feces or urine."

You mean to tell me neither the city of Denver nor the state of Colorado has any law on the books that would make it at least a high misdemeanour to fling feces or urine at a prominent citizen or a candidate standing for election to the throne of high office? And nobody's noticed this loophole and acted on it in the past?

"Nyaah! nyaah!
Can't jail me.
I only tossed a
Bucket o'pee.
Nyaah! nyaah!
You can't do squat.
That was shit I
Threw not snot."

If nobody's taken advantage of a law as seriously disabled as that, it shows a seriously disappointing lack of enterprise and initiative among Colorado's miscreant population. Let me tell you, we had a loophole like that in Toronto, we'd be all over it like flies on. . . well. Never mind. They've plugged the hole now, unless . . . I wonder. Does the new bylaw say anything that specifically excludes airplane flyover delivery? There must be a rock band in the vicinity with a Lear Jet currently not in use as they're between tours. Get your asses in gear, boys and girls of the great midwest--you may be in business yet. You just have to think ahead.

C 2008 Martin Heavisides

August 13, 2008

Not Twice This Play

{This is the introduction I wrote to accompany my play, Empty Bowl, now published online at Linnet's Wings [] Take a look any of you that care to, and if you like what you see and care to spread the word, I'd be very much appreciative. }

Not Twice This Play

Empty Bowl is rewritten, rethought and considerably expanded from a one act play I wrote in 1973, inch foot time gem, which for a one act play intended to run an hour had far too many irreducible flaws. Whole scenes intended to capture the enigmatic character of the Zen koan came out obscurantist and befuddling rather; those I excised. In Act III of Empty Bowl I re-used about two pages of Eshun's long speech from the earlier play, though most of Eshun's dialogue's original to this version. None of the other characters already featured--Nobunaga, Nobushige, Hakuin, Peasant in Blue Kimono (renamed Ainu in Empty Bowl)--spoke in their real voices yet, so their dialogue here is totally fresh. (I tell a lie. I did retain two lines from the earlier, much shorter version of the fairground shell game scene:


It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.


I dunno. Six of one, half dozen of the other if you ask me.

Well, would you have cut that?)

The prologue, 'inch foot', and the epilogue, 'not twice this day', considerably reworked, still frame the action of Empty Bowl. Quite a few images I thought effective have been retained, such as Ainu, back from numerous campaigns, a one-eyed double amputee. Narrative threads originally independent of each other have been integrated into one continuous story line.

Wabi, Tamago, Minaki, Taka and various secondary characters are entirely new to this version. inch foot time gem was missing them.

It often takes a long time for the true form of a play to be disclosed, even to its author.

March 15, 2008



Nobody before me or since has ever been such a stalwart and steadfast defender and believer in change. If we fear change, how can we change fear to hope? If we have no hope we're hopeless and what can change that? Only change.

Change, not fear, is the law of life. Fear is a valid reaction when you need to run away from something dangerous, but what's the safest getaway rout? Change.

To flee from change out of fear is to stay in the same place while running, and how is that even logical?

Chose to be changed in the immortal words of the poet Reiner Mary Wilker. Even better: choose to change!

Bear in mind when contributing that change is good. Folding money is better.

March 8, 2008

excerpt from Firewatcher's Wages


"We'd heard your fame as a seer
but no one looks for seers in Argos"
Aeschylus, Agamemnon
Robert Fagles tr.

"I wa-wa-wa-want you like the rich want wa-war
So ho---old me darling like prisons hold the poor."
Sheilah Gostick

Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
Thomas Wyatt

Act I

Flames Leap Mountains From Troy to Argos

Scene i Heraclitus Firewatcher Brilliant Noses

[the first light onstage is a tiny glow like a candle flame, but fixed, above a wigwam shape with sticks protruding, on the backstage wall left further points of light over stylized bonfire images will appear at intervals throughout, until they form a complete row stage lights begin to come up slowly]


Awake! stay awake, a year awake! you tell me that's not excessive
A dog's life? not by a long shot, dogs sleep all the time
Wake at the slightest unexpected sound or flicker of light
Wake up and yap like a Barbarian on cue

[stage lights fully up on an otherwise bare stage heraclitus firewatcher, with a few possessions gathered about him, stands by a wigwam- shaped bonfire just waiting to be lit another light flickers up on the wall behind]

Brilliant nose a dog has! might even sniff the blaze
Starting up on a miles-distant hill but that's never been tested
My damn luck, I'm not a dog, I have hands not paws
Opposable thumbs, you need that to hold a torch
Set a fire going to match the fire in the distance
Not to mention how few dogs speak excellent Greek
See what I mean? as you hear me speaking it now
The better to bring the news to our faithful Queen ho ho
What she has in mind for Agamemnon I've heard the rumours
I wouldn't wish on a dog but shh! (fingers to lips)
I might on a King

Scene ii Heraclitus Philosopher beneath skin, above bone

[a man enters wings left, in tattered once-white toga not unfamiliar with holes, and begins to speak out aggressively at the apron
of the stage]


intelligence damped and sickened by green paper colour of mould midas it seems is your epitome of earthly success because his touch was instant death to the daughter he loved above all human creatures? i'll grant you, she made an impressive statue had he been a sculptor, known a few friends who resembled the gods, his curse might have served some function statues of gold, colour of mead-darkened piss, more godlike than the gods because he starved, every bit of food he tried to eat turning to useless gold? donkeys are brighter than that, they know garbage at least is edible, gold is just too tough a chew

haven't heard medusa celebrated the same way women had it rough in my time as well

do you imagine croesus diverted the river to right and left so the stream in the middle would no longer be impossible for his soldiers to ford? his money, his implements, many slaves of his purchase and some few skilled workmen in his hire, carried out the work of hands but the work of mind, without which the rest, bold solid streams of mead-darkened piss, would have had no effect, was thales' money is not mind, it has no power apart from the skill deployed in its use (and we thought we were overloaded with gods of our own election, no earthly function in 'em) no value at all if hoarded and stockaded, then it chokes and kills

name a shoe for running after a goddess of swift intelligence, confusing the fiery rapidity of thought more than humanly supple with the gangly fleetness of sweat-reeking ankle, instep and heel (what a lovely libation to offer the goddess that caps their toes!)

claim to know the river you step in is not the river you stand in (any phrase can be turned to gabble it seems) but don't know you who step there are a river coursing vertically beneath skin, above bone, ceaselessly changing, well? (some that only half learned this found a sudden panic as they stepped into the river dissolved their skin carried them rushing away on the current, one with the current, one with the undertow and gone to the grief and astonishment of loved ones and strangers watching from shore

[darts off wings left, pops his head back]

if their bones were ever found i never heard of it)

[exits completely]

Scene iii Heraclitus Firewatcher A Fixed Reliable Commodity


Don't mind him, we get philosophers all the time coming by to harangue the populace, it's a fulltime occupation among us Greeks Not always that well-paying as you can see, though there are those do all right by teaching Diction, vocabulary, sneaky ways to fool people in an argument mostly This one has the same name as me, Heraclitus and I quite like him Not very social, I'll grant you that, says his piece and then off, not nearly as personable as Diogenes but between the aggression in his voice and the challenge trying to riddle out what his speeches mean, he's useful for keeping a body awake Some of the others could put you to sleep so fast and do I need that? Like I need to forfeit my life on the gibbet or the chopping block (Shivers) Our local chief axeman? gives me the creeping willies I'm sorry but if you've just severed permanently the relationship between a man's head and body, you don't say to the mob of drrols and leers panting looking on "It's been a slice" Hemlock you say? That's for a higher class of gent

A knife in a dark corner, extrajudicial? that'll happen
Bold to speak out as these fellows do when you think
How permanent a silence the wrong word can buy you
I do find the more I hear this one speak
The more sense I discover in his words
Some I can't make hide nor hair I'm told these philosophers in their trance states
Sometimes look deep into the future, you'd lose your present day audience there
As if the past and present aren't more than enough mess to deal with!
I tried once you know, stepping in a river?
Sure seemed like the same river when I was standing in it
Even when I stepped out, rivers are a fixed reliable commodity
Compared to human life as it flows out its course
My son among the fallen at Troy? we had messages at irregular intervals
Until three years ago or a little more, since when dead silence
Not a word from him, no other messengers will tell us anything
Sparing our feelings I expect, prize method of accomplishing that!
Confirm our worst fears almost and yet leave hanging
Above our heads on a thin string like Damocles' sword
The fraying hope that if he's far less a hero than Achilles
His prospects of survival at least are better
Not so it seems though perhaps. . . I can't sleep thinking about it
That was a joke, though a bitter one I admit

February 23, 2008

Movie Lines, a new quiz

Just lines from movies this time around. Mostly single lines, but a couple of exchanges. Also two song couplets. As before, I don't have a library of scripts encompassing all these, so the wording may not always be verbatim.

1. "By the authority vested in me as Captain of this ship, I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution."
2. "To me that gassy smell is. . . victory. One day this war is going to end."
3. "The cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river."
4 "I feel like my life's going on without me in it."
5. "What's left after love dies? Only admiration and respect."
6. "All right. I'll be your dumb decoy duck."
7. (sung) "We are all the singing waiters.
We will sing or serve potatoes."
8. "He was a bad cop."
"But he was a good thief."
9. "And what magazines sell best?"
"The ones with ladies on the front covers and no front covers on the ladies."
10. "A man in Michigan was sentenced to 12 years in jail for having two joints."
11. "I bet on a clear day you can see the class struggle from here."
12. "Sheriff Deeds is dead, honey. You just sheriff Jr."
"Story of my life."
13. "Shoot straight, you bastards. Don't make a mess of it."
14. "Ah, before, madam. Before I was a mass of light. Mad, you see. Nothing was fast enough to match my inner speed. Now I'm sane. The world sweats into my brain, madam."
"Don't keep calling me madam."
15. "We're not laughing at you, Dawn. We're laughing with you."
"But I'm not laughing."
16. "Do you think he knows how much trouble he's in?"
"He must. He saw the sme things I did and they certainly made an impression on me."
17. (sung) "Come now, gentlemen, your love is all I crave.
You'll still be in this circus when I'm laughing, laughing in my grave."
18. "The English lion will be drinking his tea out of German saucers, eh?"
19. "Why did you start the rumour that I am. . . with one foot in the grave?"
"What you said to me the first time we met--"I've heard of you. You said that in a very nasty way."
"That's all?"
"That's all?! Hell, isn't that enough?"
20. "What are they saying?"
" 'Meat, meat, fresh meat, coming up the river.' "

January 28, 2008

Fxing Up a Place

"Bandaids no Solution to Low Income Housing" is the headline on a small story from the inside pages of a newspaper I remember from some time ago. I've never been able to guess, then or since, who ever imagined they would be a solution. In the first place you'd require an impractical number of them to make even the most rudimentary dwelling, in the second place unless they were stiffened in some way, they'd be far too flimsy--a moderate breezze would tear holes in the fabric of the walls. And why go to all the trouble of stiffening and reinforcing band aids, and making them a much larger size so they'd be usable for building, when sturdier materials are readily available? (How would you ever install electricity? and plumbing? one ill timed flush and a three bedroom unit could come down like an overpadded, majorly sticky house of cards.)

I can understand if it was a government sponsored feasibility study. The more impractical an idea, the better suited to study by dedicated committee, and the number of tests you'd need to run, simply to show willing, would be minimal. After that, gravy--collating the opinions, majority and dissenting, of experts analysing test data minutely. One or two grant extensions to handle cost overruns, and all concerned can bank a tidy sum. Apply that to your mortgage et voila! housing solution.

Amazing there was no study commissioned of bandaids for housing by FEMA, in the wake of its advance scouts Katrina and Rita. (Then again considering the number of black holes down which money swirled in course of that rescue effort cum Fortune 500 feeding trough, perhaps they did. And there's this to be said for a house made of bandaids--a mid-sized wolf could blow it right down, but it wouldn't stand day after day delivering toxic fumes to the lungs, skin tissue and other vital organs, as FEMA's trailers do to the people living in 'em--if nobody's taken to calling them gas chamber specials, it's past time somebody did.)

I ought to get in on this myself, if someone can point me the right direction to apply for funding. I'm thinking maybe. . . for condo highrises. . . surgical gauze? Practical? who knows? but picture it: you have to admit there's a certain poetry. . .

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

January 6, 2008

Two Thousand Eight

A New Year's letter to the Globe and Mail reads:

Why, oh why, do people say two thousand and eight?" Shouldn't it be called twenty-oh-eight," in the same way that we said "nineteen ninety eight", "eighteen ninety nine" etc. etc.?

I've never heard anyone say "nineteen hundred and forty two". Have you? Please explain.
Zelda Ruth Harris, Toronto

I think people say two thousand eight--generally discarding the 'and' as superfluous--for the same reason they say nineteen ninety eight--verbal fluency. Nineteen hundred ninety eight is cumbersome and takes too long to spit out. Twenty oh-eight takes no longer to say than two thousand eight, but I've never encountered an epiglottis that was comfortable with a three word phrase it's impossible to speak without a break between the first and second word. People will soon enough be saying twenty ten, but only those with a pedantic bent and a tin ear will ever say twenty oh-nine.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

January 4, 2008

Some Assembly Required

" "

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

January 3, 2008

Shedding the Dead Skin of Language

Robert Fulford had a column [Nat Post Dec 31 '07] concerning the tendency for buzzwords to crowd into spoken and written language, pushing thought clear out of the picture. The main targets he had in his sights were 'carbon footprint' and 'paradigm shift', and I thought he was right about both. I liked the phrase 'paradigm shift' when I first heard it, because if you excavate far enough back to its earliest uses, it has a clear meaning that can't be expressed with equal succinctness otherwise. But when people start talking about the paradigm shift in their thinking that has led to buying coffee at Starbucks instead of Tim Horton's, or vice versa, it's time to call a halt. And if you've got a phrase like 'carbon footprint' that can be easily and righteously slotted into sentences because it's become ubiquitous, you tend to write sentences that much more mechanically. My only complaint with this part of his thesis is that he doesn't go far enough. I don't mean he doesn't comprehensively list the deadassed words and boxcar phrases that choke and clot commentary pieces of all descriptions--how could you list more than a small fraction of them in a column of only eight hundred words? But if we're going after ubiquitous expressions that convey a glow of unearned righteousness to a sentence while at the same time stifling the possibility that it might contain solid meaning, I can think of at least two, far more prevalent than 'carbon footprint' and 'paradigm shift' , that are equally worthy of ruthless excision. I'll come back to that in a moment.

Fulford concludes this piece by complaining about big words, which strikes me as off the point he's been making--neither 'carbon', 'footprint' nor 'shift' is a conspicuously big word, and 'paradigm' is only three syllables unless you pronounce it wrong. I also don't see where the use of small words invariably leads to clarity. There are no big words in the phrase 'do your own thing', but if it has ever been used to express a lucid notion, I can't recollect when that was.

Neither are big words invariably more obscure than the itsy bitsy ones. I'm pretty sure you could convey what's meant by translucent in words of one or two syllables--but such a lot of them! And odds are in the thicket of words you'd need to convey it, the meaning would not be clarified but considerably obscured. What chiefly makes for clear writing is thought, and it's easily possible to think very little and yet use very tiny words.

So what recurrent buzzwords would I retire, along with 'carbon footprint' and 'paradigm shift', at least until people are prepared to use them thoughtfully and honestly? 'Terrorist' and 'coward' (and all their variant forms). At the very least I'd insist people not lead with these, drop the 't' word, the 'c' word or the ever popular 'c-t' combination in the first sentence of a think piece to colour all that follows. Give us a little evidence first, to back up the clamouring insistence of your jerking knee. But if the evidence is there, what exactly do you gain by affixing the gummy label? Do you seriously think the average thoughtful person anywhere in the world is going to read an accurate account of a suicide bombing that claims from 12 to 72 lives and think this is a noble act if not rigorously prompted from the wings: "Hey! heads up there--cowardly terrorists." Do you seriously think anybody who does think it's a noble act is going to be suddenly stricken with conscience when attacked by the label? You know perfectly well it's far likelier they'll feel glamorized by the distinction (and snicker gleefully at the grotesque misuse of the word 'cowardly').

'Cowardly terrorist'--the only one-two rhetorical punch I can recall that matches this one was the phrase used by Communist and Trostkyist radicals in my university days over anything at all that got up their noses--'fascist, racist'. They were a little more single-minded--they never used one word without the other for reinforcement. I once helpfully suggested that they merge the two into one word, 'fracist'. The suggestion was not well received. Shall we update it? 'Cowartryst'? It's a thought.

Anyone who thinks 'cowartryst' is a less dangerous compound than 'carfonbootprint' ought, in conscience, to ask Maher Arar's opinion, or that of the likely hundred similar innocents still in the rendition cycle in Syria or points east. I suppose we can congratulate ourselves that we rescued him at last, after unconscionable delay--but if we hadn't shipped him off as a cowartryst on essentially no evidence, and ignored the evidence in his favour until it was possible to ignore it no longer, we would have saved ourselves the trouble of redeeming a great injustice by not committing it in the first place. It's amazing how wise a plan that seems in retrospect. The only reason it didn't at the time was that 'coward' and 'terrorist' lay over all our thought like a security blanket we could collectively shiver under. If we don't cower like rats in holes, fearful of shadows and the smoke in our minds of imaginary poisons, the nasty, ugly, cowardly terrorists will have won. Could we all just grow up a little please?

There's one very good reason to avoid buzzwords like 'cowartryst' and 'carfonbootprint' as far as humanly possible--they grossly impede our ability to think. There's a reason they recur with the frequency of addictions--they relieve us of the obligation to think. No committed democrat can have any excuse for succumbing to that addiction, because none of the world's tyrannies, the external forces we are constantly being urged to cower back from in terror, has anything like the force required to unseat any of the world's democracies. Tyrannical forces within democracy are powerful enough to unseat it, but only if we thoughtlessly succumb to their agendas. So let's try and do without the buzzwords that urge us to surrender our freedoms in exchange for the chatter of fear and trembling in the night--shall we?

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

What Do You Mean?

In a recent review of the film adapted from it, the Toronto film critic Rick Groen referred to The Kite Runner as "the kind of book that is read even by people who don't read books." This is the most recent citation I'm aware of, but as anyone who reads reviews will tell you, there are many books like this. So here's what I'm wondering: how many books can a nonbook reader read before ceasing to be a person who doesn't read books?

Form over content. A writer I quite like has a habit of marring three to five passages in each of his books because of his fetish for this phrase. Every time it comes up it sucks meaning out of the sentence and sometimes the whole paragraph it pops up in, because it's a phrase empty of any coherent meaning. Form can be deceptive if insufficiently studied, from too narrow a range of perspectives, but the idea that form and content are separable is a trick of oversphistication played by the mind on its very own self. Thoughts and feelings, as much as any physical entity, have detectable existence insofar, and only insofar, as you can discern in them a shape. Form isn't a transparency laid over content which can be stripped away to reveal content more fully, as a snake sheds its skin to reveal--well, another skin underneath, so it seems even a snake can't exist independent of the form its skinsack supplies. But if we're looking for analogies, form is at least as much the breath of content as its skin, and content is discoverable without form to the same degree life is discoverable without breath.

A film critic in our local alternative weekly writes of a colleague who recently died: "he wrote with absolute honesty." Maybe this is partly excused by deadline pressures, but how `can someone write nonsense like that and expect to be believed? Any of us might aim to write with absolute honesty, but if we're honest with ourselves we know that the best aim in the world isn't always true. Mailer may have been exaggerating in the opposite direction when he said "all writers are dishonest except when, bless us, we're honest for a minute or two--which are the moments that inspire us to go on writing," but it shows a far more nuanced understanding of what a difficult negotiation honesty actually is. Anybody who has the nerve to accuse me of absolute honesty after I'm gone had better hope I have no way of getting back from the beyond; it's not an insult I'd take lying down.

A blurb taken from a review by Henry Louis Gates Jr. refers to The Great Debate as "an intelligent masterpiece that must be seen". It might be worth hunting up the piece that quote comes from, since it sets up a distinction that hadn't occurred to me, and I'm curious whether he names any of the "unintelligent masterpieces" he's implicitly comparing this to, or just leaves us to presume there are a great many out there, and make our own lists.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides