The Automatiste Revolution: two brief visits and a reading of “Refus Global”

The first part is a brief visit to the Art Gallery of Alberta.

I dropped by the AGA briefly a few days after the Automatiste Revolution opened. As I waited for my companion’s washroom break to finish, I noticed that the Gallery Shop had copies of The Automatiste Revolution by Nargaard and Ellenwood for sale. I always try to get a copy of the catalogue/book which goes with exhibits in order to read and study them between visits (this has been the one disappointment about the tremendous Janvier show). I leafed through the big book for a moment before we headed up to the second floor. I wasn’t sure what to expect. While I often appreciate abstraction in its various schools and forms, it rarely grabs me (Janvier being a great exception). We went through the doors, my companion making a bee-line for a bench (her ankle becomes painful quickly although the infected sore is almost healed due to the wonderful ministrations of Alberta’s public health care system.) As I remember it, I rounded a bit of wall and was riveted. And then I was blown away. That first visit I didn’t know what I was looking at, who the painters were, what the theoretical underpinnings might be, or even where I was actually standing, I learned later. But the paintings – there’s no other verb fit for it – grabbed me. They reached out through my good eye and grabbed my brain/body. A moment later, after consulting one of the guides, I found my disappeared companion standing before Borduas’ Sans Titre (no. 6), somehow paralytically still and yet slowly and smoothly gliding toward the textured field of red. “Don’t touch it,” I said, although I had to resist the urge myself.

And the brief visit was over after stopping again at the shop to buy a copy of Ellenwood’s translation of Refus Global.

The second part is the reading of Refus Global.

Ray Ellenwood’s translation, particularly of the pieces by Claude Gauvreau, is a wonder and a bit of a mystery. The verbal abstraction of Gauvreau’s dramatic pieces leave one perplexed as to how such a collection of absurd yet evocative non sequiturs and neologisms could ever have been translated between languages.  But Ellenwood has given us something wonderful.

One passage in Paul-Emile Borduas’ “Comments on Some Current Words” seems particularly relevant to the present exhibition at the AGA:

Looking at the pictures in the exhibition your mind will be blank. You won’t even be allowed the idea of a picture. These paintings don’t correspond to a landscape, nor to a still life nor to any scene you’re familiar with, nor even to a geometrical abstraction. Thus, with all your mental habits put to flight, unable to make any kind of visual contact, you will have the uncomfortable feeling of a serious illness, a painful and needless amputation, a frustration.

You’ll want to cry sacrilege, madness, early senility, hoax. If you’re less honest, more cagey, you’ll talk about visual and intellectual clichés and phony drawing-room revolutions. And the more obviously impotent your sensitivities, the louder you’ll shout, despite the clarity of these written forms.   p. 30

“these written forms” is a very important phrase, for these paintings are in a real sense, written pieces, an argument flowing from initial gestures marked on the canvas, through revisions and additions building on what has gone before. Each painting is a record of the development of itself. As well as any illusion of physical space produced by line and colour, there is a real temporal space contained in the fully developed composition.

I find Gauvreau’s dramatic pieces, particularly “In the Heart of the Bulrushes”, to be melancholic to the point of tragedy. I can’t help but think that this (and much of the Automatiste thing) is sort of an early twenties (age, not period of the century) sophomore phenomenon. And the man who escapes down the stream and disappears off stage . . . has he achieved adulthood? Is the poem/play an unconscious acknowledgement of the childishness of the thing? And Gauvreau’s suicide after the suicide of his muse Muriel Guilbault? Did he himself later sink beneath the flow without escaping? I can’t help but feel that Gauvreau is the head in the river, doomed to never escape the absurdist flow past the angel into – what? And “The Good Life”, the next piece by Gauvreau, makes me feel the above even more. Gauvreau’s life followed the sad pattern his art anticipated.

Where Refus Global becomes most coherent – perhaps most compelling – is in Françoise Sullivan’s discussion of dance. Sullivan opens with

More than anything else, dance is a reflex, a spontaneous expression of intense emotion.  p.88

This is no Wordsworthian “strong emotion recollected in tranquility”. Automatism in dance (as in all art) is immediate expression and development of expression.

Sullivan argues that academic dance such as that taught by the ballet schools is a dead language, and she goes on in her densely argued essay to lay the theoretical groundwork for Modern dance. As I read “Dance and Hope” from 1948 the constant image in my mind was Louise Lecavalier circa 1985:

The dancer plays with his weight by falling, leaping, balancing, by the simple fact of standing, by wobbling, by whirling, etc. He can follow his impulse and make himself very heavy or very light, not by tricks designed to escape the laws of nature, but through the harmonious use of those laws.  p. 99.

Two bits I also found most interesting:

Today there are those who believe in a revolution to transform the world. The instrument of change will be instinct, and part of our effort must now be directed to unearthing that instinct so long stifled.

Fortunately, there are the basic needs of life, irresistible forces; there is hope, and there is also science, which is wrong to isolate itself but should instead, take the place it used to have in religion and magic. All our forces must be directed towards liberation, towards a rediscovery of ecstasy and love.   pp. 94-5


Art can only flourish if it grows from problems that concern the age, and it is always pushed in the direction of the unknown. Hence the marvelous in it.“p. 100

The third part is a return to the gallery.

The grabber? Borduas’ Abstraction Verte.

But it’s not around the corner. It’s the first painting you see, right at the entrance.

It’s a tiny piece but it reaches out from the wall and grabs again. It is stunning.

Some others I noticed:

Riopelle’s Composition1951 is phenomenal. This is a painting I noticed on the first visit with fascinating knife work in the upper right quadrant in green and blue.

Fernand Leduc’s Napoleon in La Dernière campagne de Napoléon is an hilarious vindication of the Automatist method.

Ferron’s Cerce Nacarat has stunning knife work creating a fascinating feeling of night, of the sea, of a city . . .

Barbeau’s Au château d’Argol has amazing depth, as though looking through a cracked stained glass window at a Mediterranean hill town in a heavy sunshower.

Pierre Gauvreau’s sans titre, 1946 is a tiny, beautiful gem.

Not to be missed are the collages by Jean-Paul Mousseau and the artifacts of Sullivan’s dance.

I found it disconcerting to walk into the gallery and find the first few paintings in different places than I remembered them. Somehow that first encounter truly disoriented me.

The fourth part is a political comment.

The Automatistes in Montreal have not been given the historical notice they deserve. Unlike the roughly contemporary Abstract Expressionists in New York, the Automatistes included designers, dancers, poets as well as painters and sculptors. And, perhaps more important from the Canadian point of view, the Automatistes were the political Avant-Garde, standard bearers of the revolt against the Church and Duplessis which would lead to the Quiet Revolution and the Quebec we know (or, sadly, don’t know) today. The great art of these artists’ manifesto, Refus Global, is that it is a political manifesto. Although few realize it, or are even aware of it today, Refus Global remains a foundation document of contemporary Canadian society.

The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941-1960 is showing at the Art Gallery of Alberta until October 14, 2012.

On First Looking into Humphries’ Latin

I first encountered Rolfe Humphries’ translations from Latin in approximately 1980, perhaps it was first year Comparative Literature, perhaps a Classics class, or maybe that first year Latin class that concluded with journeying to the Underworld with Virgil. Humphries’ Aeneid seemed to be one of the few inexpensive translations in print at the time – Mandelbaum’s appeared about mid-term. A year or two later, when faced with Ovid, I found Rolfe Humphries’ Metamorphoses handy. Again, an alternative, Horace Gregory’s, appeared to late to be of much use.

And then . . .

Late in 2011 I found The Art of Love (actually Amores, Ars Amatoria, Remedia Amoris, and Medicamina Faciei Femineae) at the Book Seller, — one of the great second hand bookshops in Edmonton — not having imagined the boy had done anything other than the Big Two. Read it. Loved it. Was startled by its modernity and honest earthiness, particularly in the context of the straight-laced 1950s when it was published.  These poems — for they are poems, not just translations — remain fresh and alive here in the second decade of the third millenium.  They are as full of life now as they were half a century ago and as they were two thousand years ago.

Back in the 80s I hadn’t known anything of Humphries beyond what was in the blurb on the back of the two books and that one picture of him looking like an undertaker on the back of the Aeneid. But now I had the internet.   I googled the old boy for other works, of which there are many, and I found the story of the Poetry prank in which he pwned the editorial staff of the most important poetry journal in the U.S. and publicly insulted a very wealthy and influential advisor to Presidents.   In retaliation, the Editors banned Humphries from the pages of the magazine, a Pontic exile which lasted two years, although I suspect   Humphries was chuckling through it all.

I simply had to read all of such a wit’s Latin translations.

At this point I’ve read The Art of Love, The Satires of Juvenal and Selected Epigrams of Martial over the last six months and made a start on Humphries’ Lucretius. Soon I will reread his Aeneid and his Metamorphoses, but I simply felt I had to rhapsodize without further delay.

It’s been many years since I last read Humphries Aeneid so I’ll simply mention W. H. Auden’s remark that Humphries, for his Aeneid, should be awarded the highest possible public honour. But, Humphries left us far more than his Aeneid and has far less public honour than he deserves.

Apart from that Latin thing Ovid wrote, the only Metamorphoses I’ve read in more than just snippets is Humphries’, and, again, that was many years ago. For what it’s worth, Ovid and Humphries between them inspired me to cobble together my own verse translations of some passages of Ovid years ago, and to dream of one day, after I’d translated all of Old English poetry, to return to Ovid and translate all of his works. Oh, dreams of youth. I’m bogged down about half way through the Old English stuff.

But, to what I’ve read more recently.

The Art of Love. Published in the 1st century B.C. And 1957 A.D., it describes urban bachelor life and dreams in the heads of  millions of young men in every western city this very evening, it seems to me. For a brief, remarkably stupid moment while reading Humphries’ translation I thought it might be worthwhile to reread C. S. Lewis’ The Allegory of Love to see what he says of Ovid. I quickly dropped Lewis. That tiresome prig seems to have lived in the only time in history in which relations between men and women weren’t at least to some degree a bit of fun. Or maybe it’s just that Lewis hadn’t figured out relations between men and women yet. Either way, Lewis is a road better not taken.

Ovid (and Humphries) writes of a world in which men and women, married to each other or not, but more often not, enjoy the play of physical love — not just sex — and are fully aware of its pitfalls and ephemerality. It is a world of dinner parties with friends, of students struggling to make ends meet while frittering money away at the tavern with the mates or on the wife of a rich man. Lewis dismisses Ovid’s advice to young lovers as satire but to me Lewis seems shockingly insensitive to the love and nostalgia Ovid – he was into his middle age – is expressing about this youthful, reckless, urbane life.  One night a few decades ago in some place on Whyte Avenue (I think it was Yannis), Dave said to me, his belly full of ouzo “We’re sho shuphisticated!” Moments like that are the preludes of Ovidian nights, and Ovid loves that world in all its silliness and absurdity and foolishness.  He is not just satirizing it, Jack.

Humphries is not in the least insensitive:  Humphries gets Ovid. Humphries revels in Ovid’s poetry and helps us to revel in it as well. I am saddened by the sexism which any honest translator must preserve. Ovid’s was a man’s world as was Humphries’, as ours still is in so many ways. Perhaps I’m wishing it on him, but I have a suspicion that Humphries was also saddened by the sexism.

Something that must be mentioned in a discussion of Humphries is anachronism.  Humphries translations read like a sort of amalgam of the classical and modern, Togapunk, if you will.  This  love of anachronism pushes itself to the fore in his Satires of Juvenal into which Humphries inserts at least one spaceship and a very popular singer named Elvius. Juvenal seems to quote Shakespeare, mentions twentieth century race horses by name, discusses secret intelligence about the doings of the Russians and the Chinese (Thracians and Chinese in Latin), and refers to safety deposit boxes. As impossible as it may sound, it works and it works marvellously!  Humphries is translating Juvenal’s comments on Roman society into comments on Western society.  The satire of Rome is retained but there’s another level of modern satire in Humphries translation.  In a sense reproducing the Poetry prank with it’s surface layer of classical reference and the acrostic layer of the contemporary horse’s ass.

In his note to his Selected Epigrams of Martial, while discussing the meters he has chosen, Humphries remarks: “I have had no consistent principle in this matter, nor in my use of anachronism.” We have been fairly warned. A number of the epigrams are translated as limericks:

If you’re passing the baths and you hear,
From within, an uproarious cheer,
You may safely conclude
Maron’s there, in the nude,
With that tool which has nowhere a peer.

[Audeieris in quo, Flace, balneo plausum,
Maronis illic esse mentulam scito]

As impossible as it may seem, what Humphries calls in his introduction to de Rerum Natura his “pigheadded brashnesses” pays off. Humphries’ limerick is far funnier – better, in fact – than Martial’s couplet.  Humphries has Martial at least once refer to a character in the Mikado and Ben Hur even takes a turn around the Circus.  The list of anachronisms in Humphries’ Martial (yes, I made one) would run to many, many pages.  We know  (I hope) the anachronistic references today as well as Martial’s audiences knew the references Humphries has replaced. We know that “Elvius” signifies a Roman who was the Elvis of the time.  And we also know that Martial regularly used false names for contemporaries mentioned in his epigrams, names which suggested the nature and character of the person in question.  Why shouldn’t Humphries choose new names which will have similar resonances for a modern audience?

I hope I’ve not given the impression that Humphries is some sort of Bowdlerizer or popularizer. He is not. Nor is he a students’ crib. These works are frequently very challenging, always charming, very serious poetry in their own right. Humphries has a marvellous handle on what the Latin poets were aiming at, and he is unerring in hitting those same targets for a 20th and 21st century audience. If Martial had lived in 1966, he would have certainly written at least a few limericks. Lucretius in 1968 would have chosen blank verse.

As an undergraduate I was annoyed that Humphries did not hew to the lines of the original (like Lattimore’s Homer) but rather followed the sense as he saw it and put line number references at the top of the page (like Homer by Fitzgerald) or, left out the numbers altogether, as he did in the Aeneid. But now I am an oldster with a share of my own translations under my belt: Humphries is the Man!

Nowadays, if I want a crib, I go to the Loeb. But if I want to read poetry on a quiet evening (and who doesn’t?) I’ll pull out Humphries (or Fitzgerald for Homer) and keep a copy of the original at my side for those times I come across a Gilbert and Sullivan reference about two thousand years out of place. And I’ll chuckle or laugh out loud, charmed again by the wit of a poet — of two poets — far too unknown today. And in coming days I will seek out Humphries translations of Lorca, and, most excitedly, the many volumes of his own poetry.

The breadth of poetic tones Humphries confronts in his translations and the apparent effortlessness of his execution is nothing short of breath-taking. From the high dignity of Virgil, through the hilarious vulgarity of Martial and back to the Wordsworthian philosophizing (without the Wordsworthian pomposity) of Lucretius. From Ovid’s serious and finally tragic playfulness to all the well-placed grumpiness of that curmudgeon Juvenal. Humphries achieved a feat of poetic translation I would argue unequalled in English since the age of Dryden and Pope – if even then – and, unlike the heroic-couplet masters, Humphries did it all on his own. I stand in awe, wondering what he might have done with Catullus. And, if ever a scrap of paper is turned up in the storage rooms of Amherst College with idle bits of a translation of Tibullus’ first elegy, I’ll be at the head of the line for my copy when it’s published, squealing like it’s 1964 and the Beatles – or Elvius — have stepped off the plane.

The Famous Naess Gallery Raid of 2012

Last evening I stopped by the paint Spot to get some varnish (20% off, by the way).  I’m going to be using a lot of it for the series of bit portraits I’m doing for a show in October.  The Paint Spot has been my main place to go for art supplies forever.  More recently the Naess Gallery at the Paint Spot has become a place to add to my exhibition list: a number of my chalk pieces were hung there as part of The Sketch in 2010.

Last evening I was a strange combination of observant and dense.  I noticed that long faces had replaced the staff’s usual joviality, that they seemed somehow distracted and that K. F. Seemed uncharacteristically on edge.  I also noticed a number of men wearing surgical gloves working with extreme care in the gallery space.  I thought the fastidiousness remarkable for setting up a gallery show.

The degree of my density suddenly became evident to me when I got home and caught up on my TwitFace feeds:

The Naess Gallery had been raided by the Cops!

Here’s my understanding of what went down:

The Naess Gallery arranged/agreed to display works by street artist DP.  All well and good. Personally, I kind of liked the works, from the glimpses I had as Edmonton’s Finest carried them about.  A bit monochromatic, but . . .

It seems that some of the stencilled images have also showed up in the past – without property owners’ permission – on various structures.  So, the EPS followed up on reports that these images were in the show, got a judge to issue a warrant, and sent some of the constables around to collect the evidence.  All of it.  The whole show.

Whether the seizure of every piece was warranted (sorry for the pun) rather than just of the pieces that had been allegedly duplicated on property without permission I don’t have an opinion.  I expect that is an issue which will be addressed as the wheels of justice grind.  I do, however, have some other opinions rising out of the show and the siezure:

DP, if no one else, should have expected the police to act.  Graffiti has been deemed a problem in Edmonton, deemed so both by the police and at least some portion of the public.  The white-washing of the Rollie Miles mural a month or so ago did not go over well, particularly with rapper Cadence Weapon, Miles’ grandson.  Tagging and unsolicited street art costs small businesses huge amounts of money every year in Edmonton.  DP putting images that he’d (Daft Punk is a “he”, right?) already unwelcomely and illegally installed elsewhere into a legal gallery show was either a foolish or intentional invitation to the police to act.  The police very graciously accepted the invitation.

I have no problem with seeing street art as legitimate public art.  I do have a problem with property damage. Painting someone’s home, garage or place of business without permission is both illegal and very rude.  I don’t care if you’re the new Michelangelo: if the owner of the wall doesn’t like your nocturnally installed Last Judgement, you’re in the wrong, Buonerotti, and the local Swiss Guard should be after you with their pikes.  I don’t respect you and I don’t respect your art.  I say that as someone who has displayed work in the same gallery DP caused to be raided and as someone who has done legal street art – check out my Capitoline Wolf the next time you have Calzone at Battista’s — it may be crap and you may not like it, but it’s legal crap you don’t like.

Street art, even when illegally and rudely installed is one thing.  Tagging is something quite other and totally illegitimate.  At a time when the Canadian Arts Community is campaigning for resale royalties to be legislated – a legal affirmation of artists’ property rights —  it would be beyond hypocritical to stand up for street artists’ violation of non-artists’ property rights.  And tagging isn’t even aesthetically pleasing.

I am a working artist.  I don’t want my art tagged.  I don’t want my house tagged.  And, I don’t want a DP work stencilled on my garage.  In fact, I’m intending to paint something I want on my garage.  If I wanted a DP work, I would try to contact DP and buy or commission a piece I liked.  Identically, I don’t want some British guy to leave a shark in a tank on my lawn or some American to stand a Piss Christ in my garden.  If some guy knocked on my door and offered to give me a free Tom Thomson I’d say “Right.  Now pull the other.  Found a few tubes of Prussian Blue, did you?”

“What’s my feeling about what the Paint Spot raid should spur?” I hear you not asking.  I don’t care whether you want my opinion or not: I’m going to spray it in your eyes anyway, just like all those other legitimate artists.

Street artists should realize that they are better off if they ask permission and go through the same sort of proposal/commission process the rest of us legitimate artists go through.  Java Jive gave such a commission for the west exterior wall of their Coffee Factory a number of years ago.  It’s not my cup of chai, but I respect the work, the artist and the patron.   If street artists don’t pursue legitimacy , they’re not seen as free-spirited guerilla artists – they’re just taggers with more paint in their bag.  Gallery operators should continue to welcome and encourage street artists of quality, but they should require the artists to not display any work which has in the past been illegally installed – if only for the protection of the gallery.  And, legitimate artists, street and otherwise, should speak out and strongly discourage taggers, no matter how big their paint sack, from continuing the illegal side of their work.

I’m sure many will disagree with my opinions.  I’ll be sure to warn Battista to watch out for the Tagging Army of artists.  I don’t expect The Paint Spot’s walls will long be immune from the spray bomb of vengeance either.  A manifesto I read online made clear in no uncertain and certainly no grammatical terms that the street art community of Edmonton was about to rise up against their persecution (they actually said “prosecution”).

Put down your paintbrushes and pick up your scrub brushes, Edmonton.

Update, August 17, 2012:  Yesterday the Edmonton Police Service announced that over thirty-five charges had been laid against an individual partly as a result of the Naess Gallery Raid.  “Police investigated graffiti reports involving 35 locations and 10 complainants between June 2009 and July 2012. . . .”  It seems, contrary to DP’s public statement just after the raid, that in at least some cases DP was putting his art where it wasn’t wanted.

In a recent brief twitter conversation it was pointed out to me that there will always be an illegal aspect to street art.  I don’t deny that.  But there will always be an illegal aspect to lots of things.  Perhaps there will always be illegal drugs, but that doesn’t mean that there is somehow a moral equivalence between a meth lab operator and a pharmacists.   Some of us choose to encourage the creation of legal avenues for individuals to express themselves and/or to make a living.  As I said in that twitter conversation, to me, someone putting their paint on my garage without permission is just as criminal as smashing the window, no matter how fine his art is.  I’ve said to my neighbours, I don’t want some guy painting stuff on my garage — I want to paint stuff on my garage.

Update, August 19, 2012:  In light of ongoing frustration in trying to have a reasoned discussion the 140 character twitterverse, I’ve come up with a few questions which strike me as requiring  resolution in a discussion of Street Art’s place in Edmonton’s society at large.  I’ve put them into  post for August 19th, higher up in the archives.  I’m not certain of answers myself, but I hope the questions might help to focus discussion.

And, I’d like to give a shout-out to Foundmonton, which is doing a great job of seeking out and recording Edmonton’s street art.


Update, June 19, 2014:  The Wheels of Justice have ground slowly but, in the case of the Great Naess Gallery Raid of 2012, they’ve finished their work.  The artist pleaded guilty to sixteen counts and has been sentenced to restitution ($3660), the maximum amount of Community Service (240 hours) and eighteen months probation.  The Edmonton Journal‘s article about the sentencing has a few more details.

Let’s Light That Eighth Fire

This afternoon I was listening to Definitely Not the Opera on CBC on the way to the afternoon pickup when I was pleased to hear some of the Electronic Powwow music of A Tribe Called Red.  I am always happier when aboriginal voices speak and are heard in our public spaces.   I openly admit to my Wacousta Complex.  I was a child in Rainbow Country.  I was a tween on the scene of Wacousta.  I think there might even be some other connection between me and that old veteran-of-1812-turned-novelist …

But, back to A Tribe Named Red:  on the show Sook-Yin spoke briefly to two members of the band (please forgive my memory – I was driving) and one remarked, as I paraphrase it, that the aboriginal people of Canada are in a confusing position of  living in their traditional land without having their own country while European Canadians have this country and still have their homeland across the sea.

I do feel the point is well taken.  I intend none of my following remarks in any way as a denial or dismissal or minimization of the sense of displacement Native people feel in their homeland.  But I can’t help but consider the comment as it relates to me:  do I still have a homeland in Scotland and England whence my ancestors came in the 1700s?  Gaelic is as foreign to me as Quiche – slightly more foreign, in fact.  Sure I enjoy haggis, but when I have it, it’s made by a Ukrainian-Canadian and I more often have his merguez.  And Irn-Bru makes me nauseous.  Many “European” Canadians are in the same boat, I suspect, feeling no particular attachment to “The Old Country” but a strong sense that this is the home of their ancestors.  And we recognize that we share this land with people whose families have been here far, far longer than ours.

No one can question the sad history of European/Native relations in Canada, and the general invisibility of the First Nations to Whites for much of that history.  But, I sense that change is in the air and has been for some time. This evening I mentioned Anishinabe player Jordan Nolan of the L.A. Kings  to a Franco-Albertan teenager and she knew what “Anishinabe” meant and seemed pleased to learn of Nolan’s achievement.  When I was her age I’d never heard of the Anishinaabeg — they were Ojibwas and Algonquins and Ottawas when anyone was being more specific than “Indians”.  Their voice was not heard.  And we certainly didn’t imagine Indians playing hockey.  My teenage friend is so much better for the knowledge, and so are we all.

That teenager and I are members of Canada’s Second Nations.  One of her ancestors was M. Hebert, the first European farmer at Quebec, and others of her ancestors hid in the Acadian woods when the British troops arrived for the Expulsion.  My family’s ancestors came a few generations later but still long enough ago that I know of no relations, no distant cousins in Britain.  I have no more connection to Britain than I feel to Italy or France:  they are places I visited in my youth.

I guess what I’m saying is that for some Second Nation Canadians this is also our traditional land.  For better or worse, we have no other homeland.  We, too, have our racines dans la plaine … Et ses vents.  Our roots are not as deep as those of the First Nations, Inuit and Metis, but our roots are in no other soil, our families walk no other land.

Certainly, Britain is the land of a language and literature I love (but so is Rome)  and is, in part, a source of the political system I quite truly enjoy.  But England does not have the canoe.  Scotland has no bison. There is no Estipah-skikikini-kots in Wales.  Britain has no Tribe Called Red.     As a scholar I think of Prometheus or Loki.  As a child I thought of Coyote.  What I know of the “Old Country” I had to be taught.  My experience, from childhood, has been the evolution of our hybrid Canada.

Yes. I am privileged, more privileged than I can know, by my colonial ancestry. I and my nieces (one is Metis) and nephews and cousins and in-laws and parents and even my  daughter, disability and all,  are privileged by the homeland of our ancestors. Perhaps it would be conceivable for us all to actually move back to Scotland and England and Ireland and Poland and Ukraine and Northern Alberta, to return to the places of our forefathers. But, then we would be without our actual homeland, the place that has allowed us to be a British-Polish-Ukranian-Cree-French … Canadian family.

John Ralston Saul has spoken and written of Canada as a Metis Nation.  I would suggest, pointing to myself and even more emphatically to the wonderful and inspiring teen and tween Franco-Albertans I spend so much time with, that we are a Metis People.  Our families, for better or worse, have grown over the centuries with this land.  We have no other land.  We have no other tradition.  We have no other place.   France and Britain and every state not named Canada are foreign to us.  In no way am I saying “Look at us poor sixth and seventh and eighth generation White Canadians! Boo hoo!”  We Whites have it real good, I know.  But, we too have no homeland across the sea.    And, without you, A Tribe Called Red, and without every single Native, First Nation, Indian, Metis and Inuit neighbour, we have no homeland here much worth having.  We need you.

Let’s honour the Treaties.

Let’s light that fire.  That Eighth Fire.

I can see it glowing now.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

For a decade or more the normal Saturday morning here, except on those rare occasions when eggs are not needed, begins with the first stop of a round of errands (including a visit to a truly local and very honest butcher):  the local Farmers’ Market.  For years I’ve been a vocal Farmer’s Market booster. This morning, for the first time in my memory, despite needing eggs, I consciously decided against going to that icon of locavorism, the weekend temple of foodieness.  I intentionally said “I’ll get ’em at the supermarket, and here are some of the reasons why:

I’m very partial to Quebec’s marvelous Oka cheese, which I personally feel ranks as one of the finest cheeses of the world.  I regularly buy a wedge of it at whatever supermarket I happen to be passing.  At the “local” producer from Somewhereville Alberta at the Market I can buy a wedge of “Gouda” for two to three times the price of one of the finest cheeses in the world.

Oka.  Shipped from Quebec. The money I pay goes to pay the expenses of the supermarket, including wages for Local workers, to pay the expenses and wages of the trucker or rail workers, to pay for the employees of the cheese maker, the expenses of the cheesemaker, the feed for the cattle . . . and so on.

Alberta Gouda.  Hauled in the back of the cheesemaker’s truck.  The money I pay goes to the low rent of the stall in the Market, to put gas in the cheesemaker’s truck, to put feed in the cheesemaker’s cattle, etc.  The rest is the cheesemaker’s profit, pure and simple.  I’m sorry, but “Local” isn’t worth spending three times as much as the price of the finest cheese in the world when I know full well that “Local” does not actually cost even a third as much to produce and ship as the far superior Quebecois product.

Over the years, the products I actually purchased at the Market have grown fewer and fewer.  I don’t want to pay five dollars for a head of lettuce. It’s not that much (any?) better quality than I can get at the local grocery store.  Local greenhouse produce? Have you ever thought about the carbon footprint of a greenhouse in our neck of the woods? When eggs came within two bits of six dollars a dozen at the Market I realized that my days at the Market were numbered.

I couldn’t help but feel a little concern when I saw that rubber stamped “not inspected” on each carton, but I got over it.  I’ve also gotten over the blood-spot in every second egg. But it didn’t help when I heard one of the behind the counter guys at the egg place say that each customer was limited to three dozen because “The Federal Government was limiting the number of hens we can keep in our barns”.  Yes, the “Organic”  (what does that mean, anyway?) “Free-Range” (I’ve long known that that means nothing more than that the hens are not kept in individual cages — they’re all kept in one big cage) place had been told by the Feds to stop overcrowding their indoor, never-seen-sunlight chickens.


No.  Until the premium being demanded at the Farmers’ Market for “local” is eliminated, I’ll shop at my local supermarket, where the eggs, pork, beef, chicken and most of the fruits and vegetables in season are produced by local Alberta farms, and where every single person on the payroll lives in my local city.

I’ll also keep going to my local honest butcher. He gets everything he can from local producers because it reduces his costs and he lives in Edmonton, pays taxes in Edmonton, sends his kid to the neighbourhood Edmonton Public school. And when people ask if he has gluten free products, he tells them the truth: he doesn’t add wheat products to most of what he makes, but he uses flour for some things so everything is likely cross contaminated with enough gluten to cause Celiac problems.

He’s local and he’s honest. I like that.

I like its lot better than calling hens in a big cage “free range”.

And a final bit of food for thought:

If a regular producer has a sick animal, she can call the vet, medicate it, make it healthy, have it grow to market weight and send it off to your table.

On the other hand, the “organic”farmer faced with a sick animal has a choice between slaughter-for-rendering at a financial loss or slaughter-for-your-table at a substantial profit even if the animal is below market age and weight. Which do you expect he’ll choose?

I will no longer pay two or three times as much for what is, in fact, nothing other than fashion and fad.

Update, July 2, 2012:  Now it seems that there’s a bit of a kerfuffle over at one Farmer’s Market in town where vendors are bringing produce in from the United States and they’re not even sneaking it in.  It seems the the rules governing these “local” producers allow them to import produce from wherever.

“While many of the stalls stick to local produce, some include wholesale fruit or products from the United States, no different than what could be found in a grocery store,” reads a part of this CBC news story, “Farmers’ market feud over foreign fruit

With each passing day I’m more convinced that Farmers’ Markets are becoming nothing other than a marketing fad.  “Local” and “Organic” and “Sustainable” are labels being flung about by the big chains and the little guys with equal precision of definition — none at all.  Indeed, the green, sustainable, local, organic Emperor is standing before us absolutely starkers.  “Better Living Through Chemistry” had more meaning (and probably trustworthiness and safety, I suspect) for goodness sake.

When will someone notice?

Update, May 30, 2015:  Well, an interesting thing is happening at my “local” Farmers’ Market.  Seems a gravel parking lot that used to be a rail yard is the subject of a proposal to develop a new green space in the heart of Edmonton’s Old Strathcona festival district.  The only fly in this healing green ointment for the dusty heart of Dirt City is that the “local” Farmers’ Market has a ten-year lease on that dusty parking lot and a commitment to pave it so that the suburbanites who come from afar each Saturday to load up on “Green” and “Local” will have a nice place just across the street from the market to leave their SUVs.  In the Edmonton Journal, this: 

“We’re a destination market,” says executive director Stephanie Szakacs-St. Louis. “We did a survey of our customers in October of 2014, and 87 per cent of them drive to the market.”

87% of these green, locovore customers drive to the market.

I’ve got a suspicion that these markets are still not truly about supporting local businesses, eating local food, food security or sustainability.

I think they’re still mostly about food fashion for those that can afford it.

Reflections on Edmund Burke’s “Philosophical Enquiry”

Are the literary and visual arts in the midst of a Gothic revival?  Twilight in print and on the screen, two Sleeping Beauty films at pretty much the same time, Lemony Snicket and Harry Potter and umpteen other children’s and adult series.  And less than a decade ago Damon and Ledger as the Brothers Grimm and I seem to remember a novelist named Rice.  But . . .

Is it real Gothic or just a pale (and sparkling) imitation?

I’m in the slow, savouring, wonderfully dark and delightful process of re-reading Matthew “Monk” Lewis’ exquisitely tortuous The Monk (first published 1796) and I feel compelled to say, no, the modern crop of “Gothic” doesn’t measure up to the originals, Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, Beckford’s Vathek, the inimitable novels of Radcliffe, Shelley’s Frankenstein and that other Shelley’s Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, Stoker’s Dracula and, the pinnacle of Gothic creation, Lewis’  The Monk.

A little book written by a young man two and a half centuries ago has helped me come to realize the two main reasons Modern “Gothic” doesn’t rise to the level of the classics.  The first is that the authors of the new Gothic have, for the most part, not read and absorbed Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  The second is that no one in the audience has read Burke either.  Very few readers or viewers today have any understanding of the meaning of “Sublime” in the Gothic context.  And I would wager a firkin of good claret that this lack of understanding of the sublime is a wall cutting off most readers of today from a full and happy appreciation of not only classic Gothic fiction but also from a real understanding of the work of the Romantics and even much of Victorian literature.  Today we don’t feel the sublime, and the sublime is what literature and art was all about from the middle of the 18th century to perhaps the First World War, when sublimity was shattered, perhaps for good.

Burke’s youthful work (he was 28 in 1757 when the Enquiry was published) is such a tour de force that it is itself an example of the sublime almost as much as was Lewis’ production of The Monk before he’d finished his twentieth year.  That either work could be produced by such youth is awe inspiring, and even a little frightening.  This awe and fright – Burke would call it Terror — is one side, a portion of this thing our ancestors termed “sublime”.  The other portion is what Burke called “Delight”.  The Sublime is that which stirs in our mind and body a delightful terror. Terror is “the common stock of everything that is sublime” he writes in Part 2, Section V. This terror is not sparkling vampires before whom we willingly suspend disbelief – rather it is Lucifer himself, before whom we are unable to suspend an unquestioning belief.

As I read Burke I can’t help but ask myself “is Burke’s ‘sublime’ not similar to Eliade’s ‘Terror of History’?”  As much as I have been influenced by Eliade’s writings, I’ve never myself felt the terror he describes as being a necessary after effect of the rejection of the divine.  I wonder as I read Burke “Is the sublime not lost to/transcended by the Modern World?  We contemplate the Pale Blue Dot and we feel wonder and delight, but not Terror, surely.”  And when I read Burke’s contrasting of the wild animal (sublime) with the domestic I wonder if science has not by now domesticated the universe.  Are we anymore able to experience the sublime?  As much as I enjoy and appreciate The Monk, I am as unable to feel it’s sublimity as I am unable to feel Eliade’s Terror of History.  All the world has been domesticated.  In Part 3, Section IV, Burke praises the new English gardens which with their mock wildness have begun in his time to replace the formal, ordered French gardens as the aesthetic standard.  I wonder whether we have made the world as a whole into a very formal garden where everything is ordered and predictable, and even wonder has something familiar about it.  I simply don’t think we experience Burke’s terror anymore.

Burke is, of course, flailing about in what from our point of view is a vacuum.  Neuroscience today stands at a point so firm and far removed from Burke that, although the Enquiry is fundamentally an essay in neuroscience, he has – can have – little to tell us about how our brains function.  But, the important thing for us about Burke is that he tells us how minds worked in the eighteenth century.  I remember the lamentation as an undergraduate:  Freud was used to interpret art and then artists started to produce to match Freud’s theories and then ordinary people started thinking according to Freud’s theories and so Freud was proven right.  It has happened with any powerful or popular psychological or literary or artistic theory. Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House entertainingly and frighteningly showed the fact of theory crushing art and then becoming the art itself, but sadly few seem to have noticed.  And so, that most horrid of literary expressions persists:  The Artist’s Statement.  And it happened in Burke’s time, it seems.  The sublime was the It Girl of the time.  Find her!  Hold her!  Let me get a picture!  What does she mean for us?  Burke, in his Philosophical Enquiry tried to pin her down. Whether he set the standard or grasped the concept that was developing in the artistic consciousnesses of the period, his book is a key to understanding and appreciating so much of what came after, although it may be quite impossible any longer for us truly to experience the delightful terror of the sublime.