Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Winnipeg


From the old “Moving to Canada” blog, originally posted on 10 July, 2005:

To begin with, I should say that, for the first time ever, I was on a Canadian train that arrived on time.  In fact, it was half an hour early.  Of course, that’s just the flip side of the casual timing that I mentioned in my previous posting.

At home, I am rarely out of contact with real-time news sources for very long, so one of the real novelties of travel is that I get to be surprised by an accumulation of news.  We arrived Thursday, July 7 in Winnipeg, and one of our fellow travelers, someone we had spoken with in the Jasper station, told us she had heard that there had been a major terrorist attack in London.  No further information.  Then we walked out into the city.  We passed the provincial parliament building, and noted that the flags were flying at half staff.  It was another couple of hours before we learned that several dozen people had been killed by four separate bombs on public transport in London: horrid, but not another 9/11, not even (apparently) another Madrid.  Such is the calibration of our times.

Winnipeg was a bit of a surprise.  Knowing nothing about the city except its geographic location, I expected it to be like all the flat US cities I know, pedestrian in all but the literal sense.  In fact, Winnipeg is a good deal more attractive than that, on a human scale, pleasant to walk.  I had been warned that torrential rains over the past several weeks had caused an upsurge in mosquito activity, and potentially an early start to the West Nile Fever season.  It sounded bad enough that we considered giving the city a miss — and we might have, if not for the extra fees that Via Rail would have charged to change the dates for our travel, about $600 extra on $700 tickets.  I’m happy they dissuaded us, though, because Winnipeg is definitely worth visiting.  I got a few bites, but nothing terribly unpleasant, and there didn’t seem to be any toxic spraying going on either.  I wish we had more time to see the city, because we ended up spending most of our time (as planned) at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

The Winnipeg Folk Festival

The summer in Canada is short, and filled with frantic efforts to celebrate, mostly with music festivals.  Every city of even moderate size has at least a couple.  Even little Kingston has a busker festival next week, and a blues festival in August.

The Winnipeg Folk Festival, an annual event, started Thursday evening July 7, and continued until today.  The ground was a swamp, but once you’d accepted that and taken off your shoes, that was not much of a problem.  I won’t comment on the music, which was variable, certainly worth the price of admission.  I want to comment on the crowd and the organization, in particular on what differed from events of a comparable sort that I have seen in the US and Europe.  Most striking — other than the fact that all of the acts started on time — was the lack of commercialization.  A few sponsors were mentioned here and there, but nothing very prominent.  The children’s tent was sponsored by local unions, and the crafts activities were all generic: crepe paper, pipe cleaners, etc., rather than samples of expensive branded merchandise that the parents should be induced to buy more of.  The food was mostly of high quality and local, rather than fast food from international chains.

It was announced that this festival wanted to set a record for the smallest volume of trash produced.  Talk is cheap, but the organizers understood that exhortations only get you so far: I know that Earth Day in Berkeley each year produces a quantity of high-flown rhetoric that is matched only by the 17 tons of trash, only a small portion of which ever gets near a trash bin.  As the Tao Te Ching teaches, the sage leads, but the people do not know they are being led.  If you want people to behave responsibly, you need to make it almost as easy as the alternative.  Thus, food was served on reusable plates, which were centrally collected, against a two-dollar deposit.  Drinks purveyors were encouraged to encourage people to bring or buy reusable mugs.  I did not see a single overflowing trash bin, nor did I see litter.  There were even — and this I found almost incredible, clearly going beyond the influence of the organizers, to the nature of the people — hardly any cigarette butts on the ground.  I have never seen even a moderate-sized festival, parade, or outdoor gathering where the ground was not covered with Philip Morris’s finest.  A country where even the smokers make some effort not to behave like slobs and spoil the park for everyone else is one with a phenomenal sense of social responsibility.

Chaya at Winnipeg Folk Festival

Crowds at Winnipeg Folk Festival


Canadian Intellectual Macho

It is rare that I encounter a laudatory book review that makes me loathe both the reviewer and the book being reviewed.  More common is the opposite experience, the disparaging review that makes me think, this must be a powerful hunk of prose, to arouse so much bile.  In RM Vaughan’s review of John Carey’s book What is Art Good For? in the July 9, 2005 had this effect on me, and it started to fit into a pattern that I have noticed, of an even more exaggerated version of the American macho intellectual anti-intellectualism that I am familiar with.  (This mode of discourse was well summarized by Kurt Vonnegut, describing Ernest Hemingway’s oft-quoted and barely comprehensible comment that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”  Vonnegut opined that Hemingway — a less Twain-like author could hardly be imagined — may have meant that, within a cultural framework that fits all artistic endeavor into the distaff side, Twain showed by example that a writer could be a “man’s man” and also a first-rate artist.)

Not having read the book, I will express no opinion about it.  Since the author is British, it falls outside the purview of these notes.  An encomium by David Lodge gives a far more favorable view, and even the harsh criticism of Jonathan Keates in the Times Literary Supplement  did not create such a negative impression.  But Vaughan, the Canadian?  (I know nothing of his biography, but he is a regular art critic for the National Post.)  To begin with, in a text of fewer than 1000 words, we have “goes after […] with a chainsaw”, “pulls the wings off”, “attack”, “skewer”, “free-for-all”, “jungle” — remember, this is a book about art criticism, not the Vietnam War — not to mention “terrifying vertigo”, “snobs”, “twits”, and that critical clincher par excellence, “absolute crap”.  Particularly damning — is there a more embarrassing kind of self-revelation than telling someone what we find really really funny? — are the banalities that he quotes from the book, with the comment that “I never thought it possible to laugh out loud while reading a book of art essays”.  One of them concerns Churchill burying National Gallery treasures in slate mines in Wales.  “Civilian populations could not, of course, be provided with comparable protection and were killed in large numbers.”  I am willing to go out on a limb and say that there is nothing funny about this remark, except in the sense of a group of teenagers spurring on one of their number who has just disparaged the late-night commercial activities of the mother of the teacher’s pet: “Yeah, good one!”  “You got him!  Ha!”  Presumably, he doesn’t think that it really is hilarious that the elitist Churchill government chose to protect paintings, when they should have been burying the civilian population in slate mines.

Vaughan is not really talking about Carey’s book at all, except as a talisman.  He is most anxious that we know that he (like “us”) thinks that art is whatever gets your rocks off, and that anyone who thinks questions of artistic value are worth exerting some effort on is from the prissy “book- tote set currently running Canadian culture, the earnest, teary ladies (of both sexes)”.

I don’t want to delve into national-psyche analysis — at least, not until I have collected some more examples — but I will just remark that this disposition reminds me of the frequently quoted “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun!” a citation which seems to raise up Hermann Göring as an authority worth naming, usually without irony or disapproval, an attribution made all the more bizarre for being apocryphal.  I think it is worth asking oneself, what would make someone want to attribute a phrase that he or she approves of to one of the twentieth century’s greatest criminals?  At least, it sounds a lot tougher than citing the real author, the minor Expressionist playwright Hanns Johst.

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