A Conversation with one of Voltaire’s Bastards

The easy answer is that decision making must be decoupled from administration: the former being organic and reflective, the latter linear and structured. . . The rational advocacy of efficiency more often than not produces inefficiency. It concentrates on how things are done and loses track of why. It measures specific costs without understanding real costs.
–John Ralston Saul,
Voltaire’s Bastards, pp. 626-7


The other day I returned a call from a fellow at the City of Edmonton’s Drainage Department and found myself in a bit of a Joseph Heller novel, all because I wanted to make a sensible suggestion.

Although Edmonton is a remarkably young city from a built point of view, my neighbourhood’s sanitary sewer system is about a million years old. My neighbourhood also has a substantial part of one of the world’s largest healthy stands of American Elms. Taken together, these two are a recioe for disastrously root-plugged sewer pipes and black sludge spilling onto basement floors.

As well as an ongoing program of replacing or relining these old pipes, the City sensibly has something called “The Root Maintenence Program”. When my house was built over twenty years ago, the builder sensibly put a new, modern sewer line to the property line, tying into the old system there. For as long as I can remember, every twelve to eighteen months a City crew has politely and sensibly come to my house and augered out the roots blocking the old City pipe, sometimes sending a herbicide down the pipe to put a bad taste into the mouth of Old Man Elm.

Last year the main line on our street was relined, leaving only the short million year old lateral between the main line and my property line open to night-soil-seeking tree roots. So, the City crew came again a week or so ago, finding lots of roots again, saving me from a stinking basement, and generally being sensible and polite.

The Root Maintenance Program is a common-sense stop-gap until the sewage system is upgraded — the cost of routinely removing the roots is almost certainly less than emergency overtime and damage claims that would be filed by sludge-flooded homeowners if City trees were allowed to spread with wild abandon through the sewer pipes of the metropolis.

Yes. A sensible stop-gap until the scheduled upgrades proceed.

The evening of the Friday after the crew politely and sensibly augered my main drain, I found a voice mail message from a man at Edmonton Drainage Services.

“The lateral line to your house is going to be relined in the next year or two so you’ve been removed from the Root Maintenance Program. If you have any questions, call me at, etc.”

Oh. In a year. Or two. Every eighteen months the sewer has been on the verge of backing up. If it’s left for two years . . .

The next Tuesday morning I called the number and identified myself.

“Yes, I remember,” the fellow interrupted, and he immediately started into a defensive speech about how there would be no charge . . .

I squeezed in with “No, I just want to make a modest and, I think, sensible suggestion: they’ve been coming to clean it out every twelve to eighteen months and now you say it may be two years before it’s relined. Wouldn’t it make sense to leave me on the Program? Then, if the relining is done in a year, take me off, and, if it’s done in two years, I’ll get one more visit from the crew and be assured of no back up.”

“If you have a back up just call and we’ll clean out the roots. No charge.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement. Wouldn’t it be sensible to have me on the program for one more visit?”

“I can’t put you on both lists at once. Once you’re on the relining list you have to be taken off the Root Maintenance list.”

“You can’t put me on both lists?”

“No.” I could sense a “No charge” about to float out.

“So,” I asked, sensibly, I thought, “policies and procedures take precedence over what makes sense?”

“Yes” the fellow replied, without any trace of regret, or irony, or anything other than “that’s a mildly interesting but obvious fact.”

I was speechless for a moment. This fellow was the sort of person John Ralston Saul described in Voltaire’s Bastards: the devotee of the System at the expense of any human consideration, a person who had bought into the idea that the assembly line is more important than the product of the assembly line, that the mission statement is bigger than the mission.

“So, rather than leave me on the list, I have to watch my drain and hope I don’t find sludge in my basement.”

“Call at the first sign of a blockage and we’ll come and clean it out.”

“But I’ll have sewage in my basement.”

“Free of charge.”

I shifted  gears and joined the game:

“So, it would make sense for me to just call next summer and say I’ve got a blockage when I don’t actually have one.”

“Yes, that would be a good idea.” No appearance of seeing the mild absurdity of it.

“So it would be a good idea to lie? Okay. I’ll call next summer.”

“If you have any further questions, feel free to call.”

If the Socratic question can still be asked, it is certainly not rational. Voltaire pointed out that for the Romans, sensus communis meant common sense but also humanity and sensibility.  It has been reduced to only good sense, “a state half-way between stupidity and intelligence.” We have since reduced it still farther, as if appropriate only for manual labour and the education of small children.  That is the narrowing effect of a civilization which seeks automatically to divide through answers when our desperate need is to unify the individual through questions.
Saul, op.cit., p. 630

I’ve told this story to pretty much everyone I know and it has been met with unanimous recognition of the absurdity of rules so slavishly followed that common sense is abandoned. It’s reassuring that we aren’t all Voltaire’s bastards. And yet, the routine maintenance of the physical system is being replaced by emergency maintenance, probable overtime expenses, potential damage claims against the City, all because the Management System says “I can’t have you on both lists at once.”

Saul was depressingly accurate in his description of the dystopia we have created. From the needs of people with disabilities to the fundamental infrastructure underpinning our technological society, I’ve noticed that maintenance of the Rules has come to take absolute precedence over the needs and desires if citizens, over efficiencies of labour and cost, and, at root of it all, over common sense — sensus communis. As individuals we are forced to play the game according to often absurd and arbitrary rules or risk wading through sludge on a winter morning.

It pains me, but I guess I’ll play the game, make a phone call next summer, and lie about some tree roots.

But, tonight I’ll have a slightly bitter laugh or two while watching Gilliam’s Brazil again. But this time I’ll watch it as a documentary.

And I’ll try to remind myself:

“We’re all in it together!”

“The Comeback” and “The Myth of the Eternal Return”, or, “I’m Rambling Again!”

As I was reading John Ralston Saul’s brief but very important book The Comeback I felt more and more that something seemed familiar, particularly in the final section in which Saul reprints the words of a number of Indigenous thinkers.  As I finished up, I realized that I was recognizing a strong parallel to historian of religion Mircea Eliade’s uncomfortably dated but still important The Myth of the Eternal Return, also known as Cosmos and History.  To me, that strong parallel could point out a key patch of common ground shared by the settler population and the original peoples of what we call Canada.

The Comeback is principally a recap of the constitutional facts of Canada along with repeated reminders that the indigenous people of what is now Canada have been consistent for centuries in their desires and constitutional  and treaty claims.  Saul is careful to discuss the  symbolic truth of the Authority and of the Honour of the Crown as seen by the indigenous treaty negotiators and, increasingly, by the Canadian courts.  As well, Saul reiterates the major point of Voltaire’s Bastards, that the Western, linear, specialist ridden  world-view, as materially productive as it has been, is not the only functional world view and has, perhaps outlived its usefulness and become a danger.  In Chapter 4, of The Comeback Saul describes how our society has come to be dominated by amoral managers who view an election as “an all-purpose referendum or plebiscite.  In Voltaire’s Bastards Saul emphasises that for the managerial mind, there is no method imaginable other than the managerial method.

Compare Eliade:

With us, it is an old conviction that Western philosophy is dangerously close to “provincializing” itself (if the expression be permitted): first by jealously isolating itself in its own tradition and ignoring, for example, the problems and solutions of Oriental thought; second by its obstinate refusal to recognize any “situations” except those of the man of the historical civilizations, in defiance of the experience of “primitive” man, of man as a member of the traditional societies. p. x

As blinkered as Eliade can be by his own European culture and training, he is reaching for something other, a different way of seeing.  Eliade is observing in Western philosophy the same sort of narrow technocracy that Saul sees in Western society in general.

A few pages later, using some unfortunate antiquated terminology, Eliade writes of “the archaic ideology of ritual repetition” as the central subject of his study (p. xiii). When Eliade writes “archaic” he is not meaning to denigrate the ideology: he is using it in a technical sense to place it as something apart from the “Modern”.  And then Eliade continues:

The chief difference between the man of the archaic and traditional societies and the man of the modern societies with their strong imprint of Judaeo-Christianity lies in the fact that the former feels himself indissolubly connected with the Cosmos and the cosmic rhythms, whereas the latter insists that he is connected only with History.” Of course, for the man of the archaic societies, the Cosmos too has a “history,” if only because it is the creation of the gods and is held to have been organized by supernatural beings or mythical heroes. But this “history” of the Cosmos and of human society is a ” sacred history,” preserved and transmitted through myths. More than that, it is a “history” than can be repeated indefinitely, in the sense that the myths serve as models for ceremonies that periodically reactualize the tremendous events that occurred at the beginning of time. The myths preserve and transmit the paradigms,  the exemplary models, for all the responsible activities in which men engage. By virtue of these paradigmatic models revealed to men in mythical times, the Cosmos and society are periodically regenerated. pp. xiii-xiv

Compare this to the words of Jim Dumont quoted by Saul:

The Creator drew a circle on the darkness, and that was the first work of art.  He thereby created the way by which all creative activity would unfold, in a circular manner.  And so everything is circular in our worldview.  It is understandable within the circle.  When life moves out equally in the four directions, if forms a perfect circle.  Each of those energies that cause the circle to move equally in each direction is a different energy.  So, the energies of the four directions is what holds all of life together in the great circle of life’s unfolding  Thus it was established for all time that the circle would be the way in which all life unfolds as it moves forever towards the creation and recreation of life.

The view that life is circular, after all, is far more intelligent than saying: “Everything happens in a linear sequence; that there is a beginning and there is an end.  You are born here and you are dead there and that there are these steps that you take in between.” In my estimation, that is almost an infantile view of reality; and yet, that is supposed to be the most intelligent view.  It is puzzling how we have been talked into getting rid of our own circular view to be replaced by something that is far inferior to our original way of thinking.(p. 237-8)

What I find particularly relevant about Eliade’s argument is that he bases it largely on European society:

We must add that this traditional conception of a defense against history, this way of tolerating historical events, continued to prevail in the world down to a time very close to our own; and that it still continues to console the agricultural (=traditional) societies of Europe, which obstinately adhere to an anhistorical position. p. 142

And, interestingly, Eliade suggests that two forces have torn traditional European societies out of the cyclical, regenerating world view, two forces which had such horrific effects on Indigenous Peoples in North America:

If we turn to the other traditional conception — that of cyclical time and the periodic regeneration of history, whether or not it involves the myth of eternal repetition — we find that, although the earliest Christian writers began by violently opposing it, it nevertheless in the end made its way into Christian philosophy. We must remind our- selves that, for Christianity, time is real because it has a meaning — the Redemption. “A straight line traces the course of humanity from initial Fall to final Redemption. And the meaning of this history is unique, because the Incarnation is a unique fact. Indeed, as Chapter 9 of the Epistle to the Hebrews and I Peter 3:18 emphasize, Christ died for our sins once only, once for all (hapax, ephapax, semel); it is not an event subject to repetition, which can be reproduced several times (pollakis). The development of history is thus governed and oriented by a unique fact, a fact that stands entirely alone. Consequently the destiny of all mankind, together with the individual destiny of each one of us, are both likewise played out once, once for all, in a concrete and irreplaceable time which is that of history and life.” 1 It is this linear conception of time and history, which, already outlined in the second century by St. Irenaeus of Lyon, will be taken up again by St. Basil and St. Gregory and be finally elaborated by St. Augustine. p. 143


From the seventeenth century on, linearism and the progressivistic conception of history assert themselves more and more, inaugurating faith in an infinite progress, a faith already proclaimed by Leibniz, predominant in the century of “enlightenment,”and popularized in the nineteenth century by the triumph of the ideas of the evolutionists. p. 145-6

The Church and the Enlightenment unwittingly conspired to tear Western society out of the holistic, cyclical, regenerating world view which had sustained it for thousands of years, and continued to sustain the common people until very nearly the present day:

The peasant masses, in antiquity as in modern times, took less interest in cyclical and astral formulas; indeed, they found their consolation and support in the concept of archetypes and repetition, a concept that they “lived” less on the plane of the cosmos and the stars than on the mythico-historical level (transforming, for example, historical personages into exemplary heroes, historical events into mythical categories, and so on . . . ) p. 147

Eliade imagines a future very different from the world view we have inherited from the Church and the Enlightenment:

There is also reason to foresee that, as the terror of history grows worse, as existence becomes more and more precarious because of history, the positions of historicism will increasingly lose in prestige. And, at a moment when history could do what neither the cosmos, nor man, nor chance have yet succeeded in doing — that is, wipe out the human race in its entirety — it may be that we are witnessing a desperate attempt to prohibit the “events of history” through a reintegration of human societies within the horizon (artificial, because decreed) of archetypes and their repetition. In other words, it is not inadmissible to think of an epoch, and an epoch not too far distant, when humanity, to ensure its survival, will find itself reduced to desisting from any further “making” of history in the sense in which it began to make it from the creation of the first empires, will confine itself to repeating prescribed archetypal gestures, and will strive to forget, as meaningless and dangerous, any spontaneous gesture which might entail ‘historical’ consequences. p 153-4

After a fairly long imagined dialogue between “Archaic Man” and “Modern Man” (which I reproduce below, because it’s well worth reading in its entirety) , Eliade concludes that

Christianity incontestibly proves to be the religion of “fallen man”: and this to the extent to which modern man is irremediably identified with history and progress, and to which history and progress are a fall, both implying the final abandonment of the paradise of archetypes and repetition.  p. 162

In The Comeback, Saul eloquently reminds us of the importance of symbol and ceremony *until very recently* in the workings of our Parliament.  And he points out the ceremony and symbolism at the very heart of the treaty making process, ceremony and symbolism that had huge importance for all parties to the treaties at the beginning.  But the Government, and we, the settler people of Canada fell away from any sense of that importance.  We have become caught up more and more in the simple, linear, quotidien and largely meaningless and ultimately solitary life we live in a “Modern” society.  Place has become nothing more than the location of resources.

And so we scramble for meaning, with our Indian yoga mats and our Tibetan meditation and to often in our appropriated Anishinaabe sweatlodges.  What Eliade points out is that we have turned away from and abandoned our own ceremonies, our own rituals, our own Eternal Return to the source of regeneration in exchange for a lonely place in linear history: “You are born here and you are dead there” as Jim Dumont writes, quoted in The Comeback.  Eliade calls this “The Terror of History”.

The common ground shared by settlers and First Peoples which I mentioned at the beginning is this lost, in the case of settlers, and battered, in the case of First Peoples, supportive world view rooted in shared ceremony and symbol.  We all need to regain our respect for the ceremonial order we’ve inherited from our ancestors. Non-aboriginal Canadians need to learn and honour the Treaties. As Saul mentions, we need demand that our elected leaders to the same.  We need to return to a place of regeneration, to repair the damage done, and fulfil the promises unfulfilled. We need to regain a vision of “the paradise of archetypes and repetition.”

Eliade’s exchange between Archaic Man and Modern Man

In this total adherence, on the part of archaic man, to archetypes and repetition, modern man would be justified in seeing not only the primitives’ amazement at their own first spontaneous and creative free gestures and their veneration, repeated ad infinitum, but also a feeling of guilt on the part of man hardly emerged from the paradise of animality (i.e., from nature), a feeling that urges him to reidentify with nature’s eternal repetition the few primordial, creative, and spontaneous gestures that had signalized the appearance of freedom. Continuing his critique, modern man could even read in this fear, this hesitation or fatigue in the presence of any gesture without an archetype, nature’s tendency toward equilibrium and rest; and he would read this tendency in the anticlimax that fatally fol- lows upon any exuberant gesture of life and that some have gone so far as to recognize in the need felt by human reason to unify the real through knowledge. In the last analysis, modern man, who accepts history or claims to accept it, can reproach archaic man, imprisoned within the mythical horizon of archetypes and repetition, with his creative impotence, or, what amounts to the same thing, his inability to accept the risks entailed by every creative act. For the modern man can be creative only insofar as he is historical; in other words, all creation is forbidden him except that which has its source in his own freedom; and, consequently, everything is denied him except the freedom to make history by making himself.

To these criticisms raised by modern man, the man of the traditional civilizations could reply by a countercriticism that would at the same time be a defense of the type of archaic existence. It is becoming more and more doubtful, he might say, if modern man can make history. On the contrary, the more modern n he becomes — that is, without defenses against the terror of history — the less chance he has of himself making history. For history either makes itself ( as the result of the seed sown by acts that occurred in the past, several centuries or even several millennia ago; we will cite the consequences of the discovery of agriculture or metallurgy, of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, and so on) or it tends to be made by an increasingly smaller number of men who not only prohibit the mass of their contemporaries from directly or indirectly intervening in the history they are making (or which the small group is making) , but in addition have at their disposal means sufficient to force each individual to endure, for his own part, the consequences of this history, that is, to live immediately and continuously in dread of history. Modern man’s boasted freedom to make history is illusory for nearly the whole of the human race. At most, man is left free to choose between two positions: (l) to oppose the history that is being made by the very small minority (and, in this case, he is free to choose between suicide and deportation) ; ( 2) to take refuge in a subhuman existence or in flight. The “freedom” that historical existence implies was possible — and even then within certain limits — at the beginning of the modern period, but it tends to become inaccessible as the period becomes more historical, by which we mean more alien from any transhistorical model. It is perfectly natural, for example, that Marxism and Fascism must lead to the establishment of two types of historical existence: that of the leader ( the only really “free” man) and that of the followers, who find, in the historical existence of the leader, not an archetype of their own existence but the lawgiver of the gestures that are provisionally permitted them.

Thus, for traditional man, modern man affords the type neither of a free being nor of a creator of history. On the contrary, the man of the archaic civilizations can be proud of his mode of existence, which allows him to be free and to create. He is free to be no longer what he was, free to annul his own history through periodic abolition of time and collective regeneration. This freedom in respect to his own history — which, for the modern, is not only ir- reversible but constitutes human existence — cannot be claimed by the man who wills to be historical. We know that the archaic and traditional societies granted freedom each year to begin a new, a “pure” existence, with virgin possibilities. And there is no question of seeing in this an imitation of nature, which also undergoes periodic regeneration, “beginning anew” each spring, with each spring recovering all its powers intact. Indeed, whereas nature repeats itself, each new spring being the same eternal spring (that is, the repetition of the Creation), archaic man’s “purity” after the periodic abolition of time and the recovery of his virtualities intact allows him, on the thresh- old of each “new life,” a continued existence in eternity and hence the definitive abolition, hie et nunc, of profane time. The intact “possibilities” of nature each spring and archaic man’s possibilities on the threshold of each year are, then, not homologous. Nature recovers only itself, whereas archaic man recovers the possibility of definitively transcending time and living in eternity. Insofar as he fails to do so, insofar as he “sins,” that is, falls into historical existence, into time, he each year thwarts the possibility. At least he retains the freedom to annul his faults, to wipe out the memory of his “fall into history,” and to make another attempt to escape definitively from time.

Furthermore, archaic man certainly has the right to consider himself more creative than modern man, who sees himself as creative only in respect to history. Every year, that is, archaic man takes part in the repetition of the cosmogony, the creative act par excellence. We may even add that, for a certain time, man was creative on the cosmic plane, imitating this periodic cosmogony (which he also repeated on all the other planes of life, cf. pp. 80 ff.) and participating in it. We should also bear in mind the”creationistic” implications of the Oriental philosophies and techniques (especially the Indian), which thus find a place in the same traditional horizon. The East unanimously rejects the idea of the ontological irreducibility of the existent, even though it too sets out from a sort of “existentialism” (i.e., from acknowledging suffering as the situation of any possible cosmic condition). Only, the East does not accept the destiny of the human being as final and irreducible. Oriental techniques attempt above all to annul or transcend the human condition. In this respect, it is justifiable to speak not only of freedom (in the positive sense) or deliverance (in the negative sense) but actually of creation; for what is involved is creating a new man and creating him on a suprahuman plane, a man-god, such as the imagination of historical man has never dreamed it possible to create. pp. 155-9

All quotes from Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History are from my old Bollingen paperback edition, Princeton University Press, 1974.

John Ralston Saul’s The Comeback is available from Viking.

Second Thoughts(?) on Abstract Expressionism, Conceptual Art and Contemporary Art in General

L’art fleurit uniquement sur les problèmes intéressant l’époque, toujours dirigés vers l’inconnu. D’où le merveilleux.  La danse et l’espoir, Françoise Sullivan

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 marvellous in it.”  Dance and Hope, Françoise Sullivan (translated by Ray Ellenwood)

In The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe is stirred to action when he reads in the New York Times that “In looking at a painting today ‘to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial.'”

Is it true? Is theory necessary – “crucial” to appreciating contemporary art.  Has it always been so?

Theory has long had a part in Western Art from Medieval Catholic symbolism and dogma, through the Renaissance, to Seurat and beyond.  But has it always been crucial?    Is the necessity of theory a good thing?  Can an under- or untheorized painting have value?  Is a pretty landscape painting which stirs emotions and perhaps memories less “art” than the equally hard won marks on the canvas of the post modern abstract expressionist?  does it matter if the piece only has actual, visceral meaning for the artist (if even for her)?

I look at most works of abstract expressionist art — indeed, of contemporary art generally —  and think of some of the more ornamental pieces “that would look unobjectionable or even nice in a bank or a theatre lobby, but I’ve no place for it in my home.”  And conceptual art is pretty much a creature of galleries rather than living rooms.  I do have two small Janvier pieces hanging at the top of my stairs, but Mr. Janvier’s work has personal resonances for me from a life long observation of the man’s work and from actual conversations with him.  Similarly Paddy Lamb’s work I find fascinating because I have been honoured with extended conversations about the “work”, the “process” of which the canvases are the tracks.  If my friend the butcher were to see a Lamb or a Janvier on my wall, he’d probably just be uncomfortable (he’s a little highly strung).  And, yes, he might say “my kid could do that” and I might pretentiously answer “but she didn’t!” but you know, he’d be right:  young Amy, given a canvas and some paint and asked to paint an “abstract expressionist” piece likely would produce something that would look similar to other abstract expressionist pieces — to her father!

If I may add a personal note — of course I may! This is my place!

I paint a lot of landscapes.  They’re sort of impressionistic I guess one could say and I work from a bit of theory derived from that bit of Pliny the Elder that haunts my practice. But, you know what?  I have never heard anyone say after looking at my stuff “My kid coulda done that!”  In fact, when I told Mrs. Janvier that I painted mostly kinda realistic landscapes, she replied “Oh? Don’t you find that difficult?” The fact is I can’t imagine painting abstraction.  I have huge respect for artists such as Lamb, Robert Dmytruk, Les Graff and, to me the epitome, Alex Janvier, who can pull it off.  I’ve never been able to do it.  I feel like a fake when I try.  My kid could do as well as I can!  I only seem to be able to paint pieces that people “get.”

On the other hand, unlike my butcher friend, I have studied and made art for most of my half century.  I have poured over history and theory.  When I look at a piece, no matter how unacceptable to the butcher, I can usually say at least “Okay, I see where this is headed” and that lets me make something like an informed decision on whether I like the thing or not. I’m part of the “club”. For the butcher the response will most often be “I don’t get it. I don’t like it.”

If, however, I show the butcher a Poussin or Claude or even a portrait of him working in his shop, he’ll at least be able to say “cool landscape!”, “That’s pretty!” or “You made me look like an old Chinese woman!” No need for theory.  No need to understand the pigments.  No need for mythology or mathematics. Just pretty universal points of reference making contact.

In a section titled “Soapbox” in his book The Art of Science Fiction, legendary Science Fiction illustrator Frank Kelly Freas writes:  “The essential object of a work of art is communication, regardless of the contrary opinion in fashionable intellectual circles.”  I can’t help but agree with Freas.

Venus3I’ve just finished a painting of a young woman standing on the shore of the Spray Reservoir in the mid-1970s.  I used titanium white, zinc white, red ochre, yellow ochre and Prussian blue.  I titled it Ἀφροδίτη Ἀναδυομένη. I don’t know if anyone will like it, but I doubt that many who see it will respond positively only because they read Greek, understand the mythological reference, make the connection to Apelles or Pliny or even can identify the location or the (now forgotten) young lady.  Few will have any inkling of the theory.  Most will be able to connect to and respond to my Ἀφροδίτη Ἀναδυομένη in some personal way, whether they like it or not, without reliance on theory.  It will stir in them some tiny bit of “outside interest.”

But it is this very “outside interest” which has been to be avoided in modern art for more than a century:

Perhaps we should avoid the term ‘abstract,’ because it is so often taken to mean that the artist has analyzed and simplified the shapes of visible reality (compare Cézanne’s dictum that all natural forms are based on the cone, spere, and cylinder). This was not the method of Kandinsky.  Whatever traces of representation his work contains are quite involuntary — his aim was to charge form and color with a purely spiritual meaning (as he put it) by eliminating all resemblance to the physical world.  Whistler, too, had spoken of “divesting the picture from any outside sort of interest”

— Jansen, History of Art,  p. 651

But, is there not a danger of divesting the painting of any interest at all?  When I consider Kandinsky’s works, and Mondrian’s even more so, I can’t help but feel that we’ve crossed the line from interest to ornament.  But when I consider an abstract artist such as Paddy Lamb, who actively engages with his landscape and the society that dwells there, I find myself interested, even if knowledge of the theory is necessary to find anything other than a diffuse sense of mysterious foreboding. As I write elsewhere of Lamb’s work:

The fullest, most satisfying appreciation comes through viewing a series of these developing images, the tracks of the artist’s progress.

A surprising result of this process of gradual and preserved abstraction is that, when examined leisurely, the images of decayed human structures at times become anthropomorphic. There is an allusiveness to both human beauty and human violence.  Hooded figures converse with each other in whispers, faces peek from the darkness, the empty landscape is repopulated with shadows, ghosts, sometimes ominous revenants of memory.

But is there not also a joy in things simple to apprehend?  I remember a Christmas season years ago when a friend and I went to see a production of The Second Shepherds’ Play at a downtown Edmonton church.  The Second Shepherds’ Play is a pretty uncomplicated medieval drama originally intended to be staged by amateurs in the village square for the ordinary villagers.  It is as simple as the society that produced it.  As we left the church that evening, my friend seemed troubled and perplexed.  “It was a little simple, wasn’t it?” he said in apparent disappointment.  Expectations of complexity and obscurity can sometimes be detriments to enjoyment it would seem.

What do we – artists and non-artists – want from art?

John Ralston Saul mentions in Voltaire’s Bastards that “Almost no one travels today to see the future” (p. 485) Can the same be said of much contemporary art? Is it not an artifact, an imprint of past actions? Is there a futurity to it? Do we approach art as a living conversation, a continuing creation of our future?  Is art created as a question to the future? or is it just muddy footprints of dinosaurs long passed?

I wonder what the goals of artists are with their art.  I can’t help but think that ultimately getting the stuff sold must be a goal.  If that is the case, then theory may really be marketing.  After all, what is the “Artist’s Statement” if not advertising copy?  I wonder if artists are willing to admit that.

As I mentioned at the beginning, some theory has always been a part of art, if only to ground the universal references.  But if theory is necessary to any appreciation of a work of art, the criticism levelled by Wolfe in The Painted Word, is this not just elitism? How much of a market can there really be?  It seems like theory is a barrier.  Who is the gatekeeper? Why do we want barriers? Do we want barriers? Is the point simply an ambition to corner a small market made up of exceedingly wealthy individuals with a dilettante urge to keep up with the Jones-Mueller-St.Jean-Smythes?

It just seems like the canvas on the wall or the sculpture in the gallery is no longer really the point of the work.  And engagement with regular people of society at large is most definitely not the point.  Art has become about the artist and the process, and the obect itself is inscrutable and largely meaningless, often unattractive, and, understandably of little value in the estimation of all but the most wealthy and “cultured” (if even to them).

Or is it a time thing?  Does History have to judge before the common people can?  Can it be that today’s art will be easily appreciated tomorrow?  After all, art which shocked contemporary audiences in previous era’s  is popularly appreciated and loved today.  But Rothko and Pollock, for example, are still waiting after half a century, for their day in the popular sun.  Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire continues to draw scornful rage from Canadians of all sorts.  Will non-representational art ever be popular art?

Do we want art to be popular?

I think we should and most probably do.  But, I suppose, we don’t want to compromise our visions or, perhaps more today than ever in history, our theories.  And why make representational art in the age of photography and Photoshop?  What’s the point?  And wasn’t the perfect painted image made back in 1512 or something?  Is abstraction a rebellion against the uncompromising reality of photography and the achievements of the Renaissance?  I don’t know.  But people still buy representational paintings and reproductions of such paintings to hang on their living room walls. People seem to want pictures of something. Do photos have the same draw as something made by a human hand?  Is not the knowledge that someone’s hand made each of those marks more moving than the impersonal technical perfection of the photographic process?  And here we come back to process.  The process has become paramount in Abstract Expressionism and too often, I think, invisible to the uninitiated.  Contrary to some early intentions, art has turned away from the ambition to kinship with music – accessibility without mediation – viscerally moving regardless of experience.

Consider Jansen on Picasso’s Demoiselles and the slightly later portrait of Ambroise Vollard.  With a certain dissatisfaction Jansen says of the material of Les Demoiselles that it is “hard to describe with any precision. But the portrait of Vollard  is embraced with a certain critical joy as having “the balance and refinement of a fully mature style.”  Here is something the critic can get his theoretical teeth into!  But I think the theory tried after the fact to describe Les Demoiselles and then the artist painted Vollard to the theory.  This willing yoking of oneself to theory is a common artistic habit.  Having a template to work from/to is comforting, but too often, I think, is narrowing and in the end, isolating and ossifying.  I can’t help but feel that this very trend has been damaging to contemporary art through the Twentieth Century.  The object, as I have mentioned, is no longer the point of the artist’s practice — the practice is the point.  Why then, I ask, do we have galleries?  Visual artists have become performance artists, but no one is allowed to go to the show.  We are presented only with the empty stage and theatre after the curtain falls.  How far can that go?  How long will it last? How many people want an empty stage on their living room wall?

As fascinating as I find the process of many contemporary artists once it is explained I have doubts as to the sustainability of this sort of art.  And, do we really, really want our art to be unsustainable?

Refreshingly in “Landmarks on a Studio Wall”, a current exhibition at the Gallery@501 in Sherwood Park, Robert Dmytruk, Les Graff and Paddy Lamb try to show their process on the walls of the Gallery.  But oddly, they have presented the gallery-goer with an almost textless accompanying book.  The audience is given a few extra clues to the meaning and theory of the show, but the actors have left the stage and we can’t even read the program!  There is a tension between the necessity of theory to understanding and the desire for the art to function unmediated. I’m not sure how successful the communication would be with the uninitiated.

When I look at contemporary art and its apparent disengagement from the audience, I worry about what John Ralston Saul, echoing the Montreal Automatistes, terms “refusing society”:

So much of what was happening to the image in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century and the first forty of this century was apparently new.  Certainly these changes seemed to carry the optimism of newness and of great excitement. Invention was felt everywhere. Barriers were being crossed. Not only was the image finding new forms at the time, but those pictures still have the shock of newness when seen today.

And yet all the revelry of that period was less a celebration than a shattering.  The Cubists, the Surrealists, the Expressionists, the frenzies of obscure lines, the slabs of raw paint or raw steel, the lumps of stone — what was it all, except a dance of death? Brilliant, overwhelming and evocative of man’s discomfort with his own rational civilization.  But the dance of what death: On one level, of the image. More important, it was the death of a certain expectation from the image.  In terms of art history, each of these schools deserves great attention.  In terms of civilization’s relationship to art, they were part of a single demonstration that the image was no longer a pillar of society, as it had been in the Middle Ages; nor a constructive critic, as it had often been during the romantic rise of the ego; nor even a servant of power.  The new image neither reflected nor criticized the rational, structured world that man was creating.  Instead it exploded in turmoil, off on a separate plane, as if it had no place in this new world.  For the first time in history, the image was
refusing society.  John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards, pp. 475-6

But what Saul is calling for in Voltaire’s Bastards, and what Paul-Émile Borduas called for in 1948, is not the refusal of humanity. On the contrary, the Refus Global is the fundamental criticism of the inhuman system of our society.  Borduas’ words are even more relevant today:

La méthode introduit les progrès imminents dans le limité. La décadence se fait aimable et nécessaire: elle favorise la naissance de nos souples machines au déplacement vertigineux, elle permet de passer la camisole de force à nos rivières tumultueuses en attendant la désintégration à volonté de la planète. Nos instruments scientifiques nous donnent d’extraordinaires moyens d’investigation, de contrôle des trop petits, trop rapides, trop vibrants, trop lents ou trop grands pour nous. Notre raison permet l’envahissement du monde, mais d’un monde où nous avons perdu notre unité.”  Refuse Global, Paul-Émile Borduas

“Scientific method showed us that progress was imminent in the short term.  Decadence became pleasant and necessary, encouraging the birth of versatile machines capable of dizzying speeds.  It allowed us to straight-jacket mighty rivers as a prelude to the wilful destruction of our planet.  Our scientific instruments gave us astonishing ways of investigating and controlling things that were too small, too fast, too vibrant, too slow or too immense for us. Reason allowed us to conquer the world; a world in which we have lost our unity.” Total Refusal, Paul-Émile Borduas translated by Ray Ellenwood

I very much wish more contemporary artists would use their work to be what Saul names “faithful witnesses” to people — all people — about the uncomfortable, difficult facts of our collective life:

The faithful witness, like Solon and Socrates, Voltaire and Swift, even Christ himself, is at his best when he concentrates on questioning and clarifying and avoids the specialist’s obsession with solutions.  He betrays society when he is silent or impenetrable, or worst of all, when he blithely reassures.  He is true to himself and to the people when his clarity causes disquiet. Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards, p. 620.

Two Dystopias: “Voltaire’s Bastards” and “Paris in the Twentieth Century”

I’ve told this story before:

. . . . I recalled a brief exchange, one of many conversations we shared over clattering golf clubs.  These words came shortly after my reading crossed a very special threshold:

“Dr. Crowther, do you find that the more you read the more everything seems to connect together?”

Dr. Crowther held her golf bag still and looked at me.

“Oh, yes, John!”

When one reads a lot and widely, the connections come fast and furious.  Now and then, when one is, like me, a reader who always have a dozen books on the go, the connections appear unexpectedly between two books one is currently reading.  This pleasant surprise has happened to me recently.

In 1989, Jules Verne’s great-grandson discovered the manuscript of an unknown novel by his famous ancestor.  Paris in the Twentieth Century was published in French in 1994. Shortly after it was published in 1996, I bought Richard Howard’s English version, read it as a curiosity, and set it aside, largely forgotten save for its title.

That title, however, has stuck in my mind for almost two decades as the kernel of an art project I have finally started concrete work on.  As I began preliminary sketches, I realized I should probably reread the novel whose title had been rolling around in my mind so long.

Two years before Verne’s lost novel was published, John Ralston Saul published the sweeping yet remarkably readable study of modern Western society and it’s history, Voltaire’s Bastards.  Somehow, it took me two decades to get to it.  And, somehow, I found myself reading Voltaire’s Bastards with Paris in the Twentieth Century as its tag-team partner.

So, 19th century French science fiction writer and 20th century Canadian philosopher. Two hundred page dystopian novel and six hundred page carefully researched (I’ll ignore the little Frankenstein error) philosophical study of western social history since the Renaissance.

What’s the connection?

Just this: Verne and Saul describe virtually identically structured societies, although the details are, inevitably, different.

As I remember, the marketing of Verne’s novel in North America concentrated on the Gosh! Wow! factor of his predictions.  This emphasis is evident in the blurb’s on the back of the paperback.  People Magazine is quoted about the “overcrowded metropolis”, the homeless, and automobiles.  And elevators and fax machines.  Of course, when we really think about it, none of these predictions were that unpredictable.  Indeed, Paris in Verne’s time was far from sparsely populated or free from the homeless.  In fact, Verne’s technological predictions are minor details of the novel.  Ray Bradbury, as quoted on the paperback, is perfectly correct that Paris in the Twentieth Century is “an absolute necessity” for those interested in the history of Speculative Fiction.  But Verne’s novel, hidden until just twenty years ago, has not been at all an influence — it was unknown.  Its science fiction interest is purely antiquarian and its technological prophecy is modest.

Of another kind of interest — again antiquarian — is Verne’s predictions about the shape of Western society in the second half of the Twentieth century.  It is here that Verne is startlingly on the money, and on the money to a degree made clear by a reading of Voltaire’s Bastards.

Voltaire’s Bastards is a challenging book, not because of its size — it is stunningly artful and, as I mentioned, readable — and not because its arguments are complicated — Saul is conversational, straight-forward, and eminently sensible.  I took thirty-seven pages of notes while reading  Voltaire’s Bastards — not as a chore, but because Saul’s points are so darn well taken and so worth remembering. What is challenging about Voltaire’s Bastards is that it challenges almost everything you think you know about Western Society and its historical underpinnings.  If you read Voltaire’s Bastards well, you will be changed, the scales may just fall off your eyes, you may just have taken Morpheus’ Red Pill.  But it probably won’t make you feel too happy.

The world Saul delineates — our world — is a society run by administrators of a system — technocrats.  The System, either the perpetuation of it or personal advancement within it, is the ultimate reason for every decision.  The bottom line is always the bottom line.  Saul is emphatic that all the social -isms — Fascism, Communism, and so on — are “dialects” of the single language of “Reason” that has ruled the West with ever growing strength since the Renaissance.  Art and literature are no longer about pursuit of beauty or social engagement.  Rather, artists and writers have become technocrats within their own branch of the system.  Saul argues that everything in Western society is directed at sustaining the system rather than toward the well-being of the people trapped within it.  When one considers, as Saul does at length, the obscene waste of money spent on arms in the modern world, one can’t help but conclude that most of Voltaire’s Bastards is filling in the details.

Verne’s Twentieth Century Paris is drawn with less detail — it’s a novel, after all, concerned with character and the personal impact of Verne’s future, not with the minutia of that culture.  Verne concentrates principally on the arts in his future.  And the state of the arts is disturbing.  All art is absolutely dismissed from 1960 Paris unless it has been turned to the purposes of applied science, technology or finance.  Great drama of the past is rewritten to conform by assembly lines of dramatists, each specializing in a type of scene.  Symphonies are written to commemorate great chemical experiments.  The languages of the past have been abandoned, poets are out of print, universities have become the “Academic Credit Union” which now teaches only science and business.  The language itself is changing into a collection of jargon.  I’m afraid I see too much of Verne’s Paris 1960 in the 21st Century world, not least in the fact that most universities have become mildly glorified vocational colleges producing technocrats in their bloated business schools, defunding “frills” such as the humanities, and turning students’ minds to “this is how” and away from “let’s ask why?”

Saul ends his book referring back to Rome through Voltaire, calling for “sensis communis”, a true, old common sense, a sensibility which relies on questioning, including self-questioning.  Saul is calling for the embracing of dissent, of kicking at the traces of all that we do without thinking.

Verne’s protagonist, Michel, is just such a dissident in 20th century Paris, a poet in a world with no use for true poetry.  He is unable to live the life of the system drone, and, in the end, is crushed by that system and its failure.  Verne’s vision of the future is a brutal dystopia a hundred years ahead of, and so more prescient perhaps than Orwell’s.

Disturbing is the uncanny resemblance of Verne’s fictional dystopian Paris to our own society as Saul exposes it.  Here, all decision is administration, fundamental doubt or questioning is either ridiculed or impossible to consider, and the corporate model is applied to all aspects of life, including the life of the individual.  Can anyone really deny that today “public good” means not increasing individual well-being but “economic growth” and “economic growth” means “maximized profit and maximized GDP”.  As Saul writes on p. 74:

In other words, reason equals structure equalls happiness and that is freedom.

What both Verne and Saul point out is that technology and systems administration are dehumanizing when accepted without questioning and doubt.  Absolute reliance on “Reason” leads to failure followed by ever thicker layers of “reasonable” systems.  Not only are doubts and questioning the only route to discovery and invention, but only the flexibility doubt brings us, indeed, sometimes only panic gives us what we may need to see and solve a crisis.  In the closing chapter of Verne’s novel, a killing winter descends on Europe.  The administrative State’s efforts to help the poor are ineffective and “Scientific resources were impotent.” (p. 196)  But “Public charity did somewhat more.” (p. 197)  Only individualParisians operating from their hearts can help their fellows where scientific management has failed them.

A good portion of Voltaire’s Bastards is devoted to pointing out the failures of scientific management in the real 20th century.  Saul is very careful to explain that the system our technocrats manage, whatever the -ism they labour under, is the hopeless idea that human society can be managed by rational means alone:

Perhaps the most damaging part of our obsession with expertise and systems has been the restructuring of elected assemblies to make them more efficient.  This equation of the idea of efficiency . . . with the process of democracy shows just how far away we have slipped from our common sense. (p.28)

[Professional managers] have been free to apply the theory of unfettered capitalism as if it were a perfectible abstraction, not a human reality. (p. 29)

These technocrats Saul describes are the identical twins of the horrid, joyless cyphers who labour to no real human purpose in Verne’s 20th Century Paris:

“A hundred times over,” Jacques opined. “This world is nothing more than a market, an immense fairground, and you must entertain your clients with the talents of a mountebank.” (p. 78)

In his novel, Vern concerns himself principally with the life of his poet protagonist, Michel, and with Michel’s writer and musician friends, the hardship of their lives under the Parisian technocracy.  In Paris, poetry is moribund, just as, Saul argues, it is passé in our society.  Poetry has led the charge into obscurantism, followed closely by the “serious” novel, Saul argues.  If Byron were alive today, he would be a rock star, Saul writes (p. 610), lamenting the disengagement of the poet and the common folk.  Of course, in the early ’90s, Leonard Cohen had not yet resurged to the stadium-filling rock star poet he is today.  And I expect Saul would find hope in the remarkable engagement and popularity of Canadian spoken-word artist Shane Koyczan.  Perhaps Cohen and Koyczan are exceptions that proves  Saul’s point.  “Serious” writers, Saul argues, no longer engage with society at large.  In contrast, Verne anticipates a society which no longer engages with its poets.  But, is it not a two way street?  How long will a poet be a voice in the wilderness before she either caves and writes what sells, or, on the other side, starves in a garret, or freezes in a cemetery above Paris?

Both Verne and Saul describe a world which has lost human meaning, in which individuals carry on within the system they’ve inherited, unquestioning, never imagining the possibility of a different way, let alone a better one, deriving little joy from their petty advancements.  Verne’s novel is disturbing because it is at once absurd and prescient.   Such a society in fiction seems impossible, but our own society is a pea in the same pod.  Saul’s sensibly argued examination is terrifying because he is brutally correct.  Modern society is an organism which serves only its meaningless self, not the humans who service it and are indifferently sloughed like so many skin cells or fingernail clippings.

A technocratic, systematic society always has answers, whether or not those answers are helpful.  But, as Saul concludes of societies such as ours

If the Socratic question can still be asked, it is certainly not rational. Voltaire pointed out that for the Romans, sensus communis meant common sense but also humanity and sensibility.  It has been reduced to only good sense, “a state half-way between stupidity and intelligence.” We have since reduced it still farther, as if appropriate only for manual labour and the education of small children.  That is the narrowing effect of a civilization which seeks automatically to divide through answers when our desperate need is to unify the individual through questions. (p. 630)

John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards is published by Penguin Books.

Richard Howard’s English translation of Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century is available in paperback from Del Rey Books.

Now I think I’ll reread Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.