Begin again, and again


Over at Alex on Film I’ve added notes on three movies taking the premise that an individual has to relive the same day in their life over again and again in a loop until some condition is met. I think Groundhog Day (1993) was the first, or at least the best known film to do this. We still call it a Groundhog Day plot. More recently the idea has proven itself to be highly portable, being featured in Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Happy Death Day (2017).

What I find interesting is how different, in most other respects, these films are. In Groundhog Day the time loop has a vaguely spiritual dimension to it, related to Buddhist teachings or Nietzsche’s eternal return. In Edge of Tomorrow there’s a ridiculous explanation for it based on some connection between alien biology and time travel. This is a throwaway, as the real connection being made is to video game play. In Happy Death Day it seems like the device is being invoked in a more ironic way. What do these different approaches have in common? I’m not sure. I can’t help thinking there’s some deeper connection though.

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Election round-up

Thoughts on the 2018 Ontario provincial election.

(1) They changed the location of my polling station from a hotel that’s just down the street to a public school out in the boonies. I didn’t appreciate this at all. Kids are still in school so the hallways were filled with ankle-biters. I arrived just before the poll opened so I sat on a bench outside the principal’s office. They told me I had to wait outside the building. I didn’t move. Bad enough they had to change the location to such an unsuitable place. I wasn’t going to be inconvenienced any more.

(2) I really hate the first-past-the-post system. The PCs got a resounding majority with just barely over 40% of the total vote. But I no longer wonder how much longer this bullshit will go on. I know it’s never going to end.

(3) Province-wide the voter turnout was considered very good, at around 58%. This was up significantly from the 2014 election when it had been 51%. This underlines a depressing reality: that in most elections, federal and provincial, here and in the U.S., roughly 40% of the electorate are never going to vote. Never. You can’t make them.

(4) In his victory speech Doug Ford declared Ontario now “open for business.” Why does that sound so threatening? It shouldn’t, but it does. It also reinforces the widening gulf between what are the two main party positions, again both here and in the U.S.: the party of business and the party of the state, private vs. public sector.

(5) Ford gets compared to Trump a lot. I think he’s smarter. Plus he can actually deliver a speech. But he may be an even nastier guy.

(6) The collapse of the Liberals isn’t that surprising. Basically what happened to them was a re-run of what happened to the PCs federally in the 1993 election, when they were basically wiped out nation-wide. This was because the PCs had unexpectedly won a majority in the previous (1988) federal election, at a time when they were deeply unpopular. The spring of resentment against them was then pressed even tighter for another five years before it could finally be unleashed against them. Similarly, the provincial Liberals won an unexpected majority in 2014, despite being widely disliked, mainly due to the hopelessness of the PC leader Tim Hudak. Again, the spring of resentment was pressed tighter, and when it came to be released the party was swept away.

(7) Of course they’ll be back. After fifteen years (or whatever it’s been) voters just wanted to punish them with a time out.

(8) In my own riding the Greens got their only seat, which was their first ever. I’m glad they’ll have a voice at Queen’s Park but I don’t know where they go from here. At some point the party has to make the case for a green economy and get people to buy into it. We seem so far from that now.

(9) I don’t know where the NDP go either. Their “success” was only to inherit the Liberal’s doomed position. Now they can’t do much, given their seat total, and are probably just going to be placeholders until people go back to the Libs. How do the NDP make the case for being a real opposition? I can’t think of anything other than aligning themselves even more with public sector unionism.

(10) Justin Trudeau should be happy. Ford is a perfect foil for him to play off, and since Canadians tend to like divided provincial and federal government a Ford majority in Ontario should keep the province’s federal seats with the Liberals. Especially since . . .

(11) I think Ford will be a lousy premier. Though I suppose his “ready to govern” cabinet might help him avoid the worst of it. He’s going to say the province’s financial situation is worse than anyone knew, which I can actually believe. This is going to lead to cuts in services and other belt-tightening measures. Round and round we go.

Talking about books

Every now and then you read a book that you don’t want to review so much as enter into a conversation with. Here are some excerpts from a dialogue between myself and Joe Queenan’s One for the Books.

Somewhere along the line, I got into the habit of reading several books simultaneously. “Several” soon became “many,” and “many” soon became “too many.” . . . In my adult life I cannot remember a single time when I was reading fewer than fifteen books, though at certain points this figure has spiraled far higher. I am not talking about books I have delved into, perused, and set aside, like Finnegans Wake or Middlemarch, which I first took a crack at in 1978, or The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I have been reading, on and off, since I was about twelve. That would get me up way over a hundred. No, I am talking about books I am actively reading, books that are right there on my nightstand and are not leaving there until I am done with them. Right now, the number is thirty-two.

Right now, the number for me is forty-three . Most of these are piled up on the headboard of my bed, which is where I do most of my reading. Queenan says he doesn’t understand how anyone can read in bed. I don’t understand how anyone can read any other way.

I’ve only read the first few pages of Finnegans Wake and have no great interest in reading any more. I still have a copy though so I might get back to it . . . someday. I’ve read Middlemarch a couple of times and hope to again before I die. Gibbon I’ve read and still dip into it whenever I have a chance.

Only the greatest books can withstand the damage inflicted on their reputations by bad movies: The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice. Hollywood has always been reasonable good at turning electrifying hooey like Gone with the Wind and The Bridges of Madison County into movies that are far superior to the novels that begat them. But it has trouble when it takes a run at War and Peace. Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with serious fiction, so it does what it does best: It annihilates it.

So true. My own version of the general rule is just that bad novels make good movies. But only a certain kind of bad novel. That type of bad novel, in turn, becomes popular both among authors and audiences, who have now been trained in what to expect.

I am deadly serious about the way I parcel out my reading time. I may have time for this, but I do not have time for that. Several years ago, I calculated how many books I could read if I lived to my actuarially expected age. The answer was 2,138. In theory, those 2,138 books would include everything from Tristram Shandy to Le Colonel Chabert, with titles by authors as celebrated as Goethe and as obscure as Juan Filloy. In principle, there would be enough time to read 500 masterpieces, 500 minor classics, 500 overlooked works of pure genius, 500 oddities, and 168 examples of first-class trash.

I think every confirmed reader does this sort of rough accounting once they make it to a certain age. They often also say things like “I’ve got to quite wasting so much of my time on lousy books.” I’ve made the same resolution. And yet, one still keeps reaching for the trash. Even the second- and third-class stuff. I think there are times when we need that diversity in the quality of what we read. If all we did was read the classics life would get pretty boring.

But the numbers! I think I have close to 2,000 books in my “to-read” pile now, and it is growing every day. I’ll never read them all.

Critics are mostly servile muttonheads, lacking the nerve to call out famous authors for their daft plots and slovenly prose. Academics fear that an untoward word will hurt them somewhere down the line when their own daft, slovenly books come up for review. Blurbs in particular can no longer be trusted. Usually they are written by liars and sycophants to advance the careers of bozos and sluts.

Bozos and sluts? I don’t know. The rest of it is mostly right though.

Unless you are a complete idiot, genre fiction will eventually tire you out.

I’m not sure. It depends how much of it you take on. If 90% of everything is crap then if you stick within a single genre for a long period of time you’ll probably get tired of the regular fare. But here’s the thing: genres of fiction have been around for a long time, suggesting that, as with any literary form, they are inexhaustible. One sticks with them because they’re always being made new. I’ve written a regular SF column for several years now, and while a lot of what I read can start to seem the same, I do come across interesting new works every month.

Then again, I may be a complete idiot.

Can an obsession with reading prove detrimental to one’s well-being? Yes, I think it can.

Reading as mental illness. Well, it certainly seems that way today!

Any obsession is, almost by definition, unhealthy. I think Queenan’s point is more that reading removes us from reality. I’d agree with this, but while it may be detrimental to my well-being I think it’s a price worth paying, since I despise reality.

I have spent countless hours over the years chatting with people about Anne Tyler, Tom Robbins, and David Lodge, all of them fine, accessible writes, none of them writers I especially enjoy. Conversely, I have never discussed Juvenal’s work with anyone. It’s been years since anyone I know has mentioned John Donne in my presence. Decades go by without anyone breathing a word regarding Italo Svevo, Italo Calvino, or anybody else I admire named Italo. Among my favorite writers are Marcel Aymé, Ivan Doig, J. G. Farrell, Georges Bernanos, Thomas Berger, Junichiro Tanizaki, Robert Coover, and Jean Giono. I have never once been engaged in a conversation about these writers.

Ah, the loneliness of the reader of serious literary fiction. I can relate (for what it’s worth, he also writes that “I have never had a wide-ranging conversation about Canadian literature with anyone. Nor do I expect to.”). From the list of names Queenan gives as his favourites the only one I share is J. G. Farrell. I’ve been a fan of Farrell for years, and have often pressed his novels upon friends. These advances have all been rejected. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who has read Farrell, though I think he is a relatively popular novelist. I’ve certainly never had a conversation with anyone about him. But then I wonder: Would I even want to, should the opportunity present itself? Perhaps not. Reading is a solitary activity. Every man dies, and reads, alone.

Political event: Guelph All-Candidates Meeting

Guelph All-Candidates Meeting

Italian-Canadian Club, May 10 2018:

So, last night I did my civic/democratic duty and attended the all-candidates meeting for the upcoming provincial election. It was much too long. The candidates didn’t debate or engage with each other at all. They gave quick set speeches on questions that had mostly been provided to them in advance. Not the most interesting format, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that each of the seven candidates responded to every question and they stuck to the same order throughout.

There was quite a full house, forcing the event coordinators to open up the room at the back. They said there were over 400 people and that may have been right. Though people did start to drift away as the night wore on. Here are my immediate thoughts and impressions on the line-up, moving from left to right (I mean in terms of the order the panel were seated, not as a description of their political alignment):

Sly Castaldi (Liberal): Castaldi is stepping into the shoes of long-time incumbent Liz Sandals. She struck me as a bit stern, but probably capable. I think she has a background in running a women’s crisis centre. I got the impression that she wasn’t that keen on being a politician though, and that she was having to work hard to get up to speed. Her remarks were well prepared, which means that she at least stayed on topic and answered the questions even if she sounded like she was reading from a card most of the time. She also could have used some more energy, especially as there is a real air of “time’s up” hanging over the Liberals this election.

Michael Riehl (Libertarian): Mr. Riehl didn’t show up and nobody knew why. I thought this seemed appropriate for a true Libertarian. I mean, the guy’s free to do what he wants on a Thursday night, right?

Juanita Burnett (Communist): most of Burnett’s comments were kind of vague and not well delivered. She did, however, get one of the most audience-approved lines of the night when she said that she was going to fund various government programs by a progressive taxing of the rich, and especially big corporations. Applause!

Ray Ferraro (PC): I thought Ferraro (whose background is in real estate development and who I believe is the brother of a former Guelph MP) had the best opening remarks, but somewhere along the line he lost the crowd. Not that the crowd was ever going to be on his side anyway. The event was sponsored by the Guelph Coalition for Social Justice and most of the big applause lines during the evening were for backing unions. Given that, it seemed as though he decided at some point that he had zero fucks to give and began making some bizarre statements, like saying that in 45 years in the construction industry he’d never heard of someone being injured at work. At least that’s what it sounded like he said. Maybe he meant something else. In any event, he was the only speaker who was getting heckled, which is something he seemed indifferent if not oblivious to. In general he struck me as reasonably well informed but perhaps a bit old for the job.

Paul Taylor (None of the Above): I’ve never heard of the None of the Above party. I assumed they are a joke party, along the lines of the Rhinos, and that Mr. Taylor was only there to provide some comic relief. But apparently not. According to their website their mission is “to elect independent MPPs who are not bound by party control and who truly can represent their constituents first. We support the 3Rs of Direct Democracy: Referendum, Recall and Responsible Government laws for true Legislative and Electoral Reforms.” I quote the website here because I didn’t get any sense from Mr. Taylor that he was aware of a party platform or that he had spent much time thinking of the issues in this election. Most of his remarks seemed off the cuff, or were offered up as “just my personal opinion.” As the night went on he seemed increasingly clueless. It didn’t help that he was always speaking right after Mike Schreiner either.

Mike Schreiner (Green): Schreiner may have been the only political veteran on the panel and it showed. I think Ferraro was a city councillor years ago, but that’s a different game. Schreiner was the pro. He sounded great and stayed on-topic all night. This wasn’t hard because many of the questions had an environmental angle (power generation, water conservation, climate change). Aside from what has become an obligatory nod to an undefined and perhaps mythical “indigenous world view” most of it sounded right to me. I don’t know if it’s because he’s the provincial party leader or because Guelph just has a strong Green organization, but the Greens around here always seem to work the hardest come election time. They easily have the most boots on the ground. Not that it’s ever got anyone elected, but if they’re going to make a breakthrough then this is the place.

Agnieszka Mlynarz (NDP): “Aggie” probably had the most energy on the night (though Schreiner was close) and she generally came across well. Unfortunately, our lousy first-past-the-post election system penalizes the number of parties on the center left who are largely indistinguishable as far as their main policies are concerned. I came away from the  meeting not knowing what Mlynarz, Schreiner, Taylor and Castaldi really disagreed on.

Thomas Mooney (Alliance Party): as with the None of the Aboves, I’d never heard of the Ontario Alliance party. Apparently they were only founded less than a year ago, as part of the fallout from the Patrick Brown affair. From what I can gather from their website they are a sort of libertarian coalition. They are against government (or government-as-usual) and pro-free enterprise, family values, personal responsibility, and hard work. Everything Mooney said seemed like a platitude to me. No policy specifics.

Final thoughts: I thought Schreiner was pretty clearly the best speaker. The three fringe party candidates didn’t seem prepared or even that interested in what was going on (or, for that matter, the election). Schreiner and Mlynarz were the only two who showed any enthusiasm. Castaldi’s demeanour seemed to reflect slipping Liberal morale but she might have just been having a bad night. As noted, Ferraro appeared largely apathetic, which may have been a sign of confidence that broader trends were pulling in his direction anyway or may just have meant that he really didn’t care.

As with any political rally, there were endless calls for the government to provide people with more. Meaning more of everything. More for health care (home care, mental health, drug plans, senior care). More for education. More for the environment. More affordable housing. Aside from the Communist call to soak the rich there was little desire to nail down how all this was to be paid for though. Schreiner thought that moving to a green economy would result in savings and he’s probably right. Castaldi, stuck having to defend the party in power, could only point to the fact that the Ontario Liberals have been spending more, much more, on health care and education already. But the feeling seemed to be that all this has been a waste.

I won’t call this election yet, but if the Liberals really are as vulnerable as they seem and this riding is up for grabs then there is a slim possibility that Schreiner gets in. But given the clutter on the left and the weakness on the right I’d say that Ferraro’s confidence at this point is merited.

Re-reading Shakespeare: Hamlet

(1) In his book On Shakespeare Northrop Frye talks a bit about problems and pseudo-problems in Hamlet. By pseudo-problems he basically means the kinds of thing that are open for debate but that you shouldn’t be worrying yourself about. However, he then goes on to say that “there’s no boundary in the play between the actual and the pseudo-problems” and that “there’s no other play in Shakespeare, which probably means no other play in the world, that raises so many questions of the ‘problem’ type.”

I’ve always had this warning running in the back of my head when thinking of problems I’ve had with Hamlet over the years. Am I only imagining pseudo-problems, or are they real?

Well, I think they’re real, if only because they’ve never gone away. Here are some examples:

First: why, in the opening scene, does Marcellus have to explain to Barnardo why he has brought Horatio along with him to see the Ghost? We’ve already been told that Barnardo was expecting Horatio and had already discussed the matter of the Ghost with him. So why does he need to be filled in again now? Of course, the short answer is that it’s a way of informing the audience about what’s going on, but this seems a really awkward way of doing it and Shakespeare usually isn’t awkward in his handling of such things.

Second: Before he takes his leave, Laertes makes a long speech to Ophelia warning her about Hamlet’s intentions and the gap in their respective stations. Then, right after he leaves, Polonius keeps after her on the same point. Why the repetition, especially when what’s being said doesn’t seem that well-grounded in the first place? Gertrude later says that she expected Hamlet to marry Ophelia, and apparently she was fine with that.

Third: why does Claudius get so upset at the action of the play-within-a-play when he’s just seen the dumbshow? He already knows what’s going to happen and how closely it mirrors his murder of Hamlet Senior. I’ve seen various explanations for his delayed reaction – that, for example, he tries to play it cool during the dumbshow, knowing what Hamlet is up to, but loses it as the story is fleshed out on stage – but I find such explanations unconvincing. The dumbshow serves no good purpose I can see, and only makes Claudius’s later guilt-ridden meltdown more confusing.

(2) Hamlet is a play that’s full of lines so well known that reading it seems like skimming through an anthology of famous quotations. But am I the only one who finds the whole “To be or not to be” speech flabby? Meanwhile, my favourite line in the play, for its sheer quotability, is one I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say outside of a theatre. It comes when Horatio sadly reflects on the fate of the court ass-kissers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They “go to’t” (meaning go to their deaths). Hamlet responds “Why, man, they did make love to this employment.” In other words, they were asking for it by taking on the job in the first place. I find I use this line a lot, as it has many everyday applications.

It’s weird how some lines become adopted into the cultural consciousness while others don’t. I mean, how many people really think about suicide the way Hamlet does? And yet “to be or not to be” lives on.

(3) Every time I read Hamlet I find myself struck by something new. In this latest re-reading here’s something that I smiled at. It comes when Polonius is warning Ophelia about Hamlet’s lovemaking:

The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.

The conceit being worked here is that Ophelia’s virginity is like a bud in the spring that a blight may kill. But those “contagious blastments” . . . I mean, given that the whole tenor of the passage is sexual I don’t think there’s any way he couldn’t have meant what in our day goes by a legion of pornographic euphemisms. It’s the money shot!

On the utility of truth

Over at Goodreports I just posted my thoughts on Timothy Snyder’s little book On Tyranny. While I sympathize with a lot of what Snyder says, I think things are more complex than he makes them out to be (something I think he would agree with, as the book is meant only as a primer). One point in particular has to do with his warning about entering a post-truth era.

10: Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis on which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual — and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.

We have heard a lot about this in recent years: the rise of “truthiness,” the rejection of the “reality-based community,” the branding of any story one doesn’t agree with as “fake news.” And I agree with Snyder about the dangers of giving up on truth. What I’ve found myself wondering about more recently however is the utilitarian value of the truth for many people. For example: it’s widely accepted that man-made climate change is real. To be a climate-change denier is to reject the truth. But I’ve known such people and whenever I engage with them I come away thinking that believing in climate change is something that is of no use to them. It does them no good at all. I’m not talking about oil company executive or coal miners here either. These are just regular people for whom the truth is of no value. Or, if anything, it’s a negative. This isn’t to deny Snyder’s broader point, but it does highlight the difficulty in doing anything about it.

There’s a saying, I’m not sure of its origin, that when the facts turn against us we turn against the facts. More and more when I find myself talking with people who can’t believe the ignorance or stubborn resistance to “what is actually the case” among those they disagree with I find myself asking them why they think such holdouts would even want to believe the truth. We like to think of the truth as being its own reward, an objective good, something that will set us free. This may be overstating its worth.

On trial

Joseph K. Before the fall.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve posted my notes on two film versions of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. The first is the Orson Welles film from 1962. It’s not my favourite Welles, but he manages the text well and really makes it his own. The second is a far more literal adaptation, directed by David Jones, which came out in 1993. I didn’t like it nearly as much, but it’s still worth seeing if you’re a fan of the book.