COMING HOME Essays By Tim Lilburn
Anansi, 200 pages, $21.95
PERSONAL HISTORY By Roo Borson
Pedlar Press, 106 pages, $20
JUST LOOKING And Other Essays By Helen Mclean
Seraphim, 122 pages, $16.95
PATHOLOGIES By Susan Olding A Life in Essays
Freehand, 272 pages, $24
LOVING THE DIFFICULTY By Jane Rule
Hedgerow, 205 pages, $21.95
OPENING GAMBITS Essays on Art and Philosophy By Mark Kingwell
Key Porter, 293 pages, $29.95
Please find my omnibus review of these books in today’s Globe and Mail. Below, an extended version:
Alanis Morrisette is a talented singer who has written songs with memorable melodies and intriguing, if occasionally syntactically challenged, lyrics. Her voice is powerful, possessing impressive range, and qualities reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. Her person exudes energy and beauty. But despite this, most of what she performed at a concert I attended recently in Ottawa, lacked the clarity and form of her most successful hits. The evening air hummed mostly with an innocuous, though not altogether unpleasant, drone. Opaque “sung therapy” is what, for the most part, played, save for when the hard memorable edges of her early, affecting anthems jutted and rang out. During the long gaps between them, a stoned yet weedless haze seemed to hang over me, mixed with a vague, frustrating urge to grab onto something real.
I relay this story, unrelated as it may seem to the reviewing task, both because it exemplifies how mood and inclination affect the reception of art, and because it best describes my experience with, and response to, Roo Borson’s Personal History and Tim Lilburn’s Going Home. Both authors possess award-winning talent, both have produced essays in well-combed volumes which contain poetry that isn’t prose, prose that isn’t poetry ; fog, in other words, lacking, as Montaigne put it, “speech succulent and sinewy, brief and compressed, not so much dainty … as vehement and brusque.”
In attempting to resuscitate our North American lack of attentiveness and lapsed ability to feed on place, Lilburn weds an erudite if recondite “walk beside a line of texts” with musings on how to “be in” Saskatchewan. Exegeses of the erotics of Plato, the works of John Cassian and “Europe’s true erotic masterwork,” The Cloud of Unknowing, along with “sporadic mulling” of the works on which these books depend, including the Odyssey, are bound in the same book with thoughts on how Buddhist-type contemplative practice can be achieved from the correction and training of desire.
If this sounds difficult, reading the actual essays is even more so. Ekstasis, noesis, alacritous, architectonic, hybritistic, ascesis epektatic, and other such words (the majority accompanied by red underlining from my Word program) lie thick on these pages, as do passages such as: “Odysseus is a philosophical exemplar in his solitary apartness, in his large capacity for travel to extreme places both within himself and the numinous regions, in his burgeoning passivity to divine exigence, in his stripping, in his daimonic affliction, but above all in his affective apokatastatic nostaligia…”
Lilburn is a deep, serious thinker. These essay I’d say, are not going to appeal to most Sunday afternoon readers. They are perhaps best read, studied and contemplated within the confines of a seminary, augmented by the tutelage of an articulate, well meaning scholar. A toke or two mightn’t hurt either.
Speaking of which, Roo Borson’s essays take us too into a world of fuzziness. Hallucinogenic they are, almost. Psychedelic. Here’s a description of southern Ontario: “the abandoned silos and mills, factories and industrial stacks, loom up like shadows of themselves, like grey hulking Chartres in the pre-dawn.” Here’s a painting that “looks at me with its blueness and translucent whiteness until I come into the living room where it hangs on the wall”; and another that brings this on: “Knowledge and light have been equated for a long time now: what would change if we thought of knowledge as darkness? I’m curious about that flash of yellow, the farthest thing from a shadow, in The Whole Light of the Sky – limpid, nothing to it. The most we can honestly say would be ‘Ah! Yellow.’ Words we can carry with us anywhere, but you have to travel to a painting.”
Following recently deceased literary critic John Leonard’s practice of writing not about how “good or bad” a book is, but on how it is best read: In this case, I’d say – in a wide bath of patience. Although at times beautiful (berries weighing their canes in “graceful arcs,” and the like), a preponderance of deep unanswerable questions about art (Does it dwell in the humanly, intentionally created object, or the eye of the beholder? What is it that makes great writing unbearable? ) plus palettes full of ethereal descriptives, submerge many of these essays, suffocating and ultimately rendering unsuccessful this reader’s search for substance. Despite or perhaps because of their poetic elegance, they suffer from a lack of tangible definition. The experience is like reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. You know something important is being said, but damned if the words express it.
In contrast, little guesswork is required in Helen McLean’s Just Looking. She tells us exactly what she thinks about art, and life, and aging, and looking. Over-cerebralizing, she says early on, diminishes the direct perception of what is before one’s eyes. “Becoming aware of oneself as observer is the death of observation. Oh, I can still see the landscape, but it has separated itself into parts that can’t be put together again. The scene has ceased to be a whole. I have particularized it to death.”
The only way she has been able to un-fracture the fractured, McLean tells us, is by translating it into paint and canvas; in so doing, she experiences feelings both of timelessness and loss of self. When you are addicted to looking, she says, you are forever being thrown off balance, shaken up, transported.
Her essays go on to describe the unsettling influence artist Pierre Bonnard has had on her work, the strengths of her heroines Margaret Laurence and Carolyn Heilbrun, life’s brevity and time’s irrelevance. They discuss too the importance of quality over quantity of life, the wisdom of C..S. Lewis, Paul Tillich and Seneca, and lessons such as: “Living well means staying awake, and listening, looking and noticing things. It’s the entrenched routines, the fixed opinions and attitudes which eliminate the need for thought or decision that will find us rearing bolt upright on our deathbeds, belatedly aware that we’ve spent this precious gift of time sleepwalking.”
Finally, for one resonating observation alone, McLean’s sweet, wise little book, reminiscent at times of Winston Churchill’s Painting as Pastime, is very much worth reading: “I am convinced that many, if not most of us, live with an unexamined awareness in some deep level of our hearts that our place of birth was arbitrary and home is elsewhere.”
Wise, too, is Susan Olding’s Pathologies, filled as it is with honest reflection on the relationship between a daughter and her father. There is no ether here, just raw, in some instances, literal, sinew. For example, Olding’s father, the pathologist, has just brought home a human heart: “The heart looked different, somehow, than I’d imagined. Bigger and smaller, both. Hard and soft at the same time, the ventricles like open eyes. I watched as he dried the thing off, wrapped it in a plastic bag and an old towel and placed it in a sturdy cardboard box.” The book is filled with this kind of well wrought, pithy observation about life, pain, parenting, illness and other essential components of human existence.
B.C. writer and social commentator Jane Rule, who died in 2007, also observes existence, here from a gay perspective, in her collection of beautifully lyrical essays, Loving the Difficult. In the title essay, she frames the rest by informing us that “However hard it is, however frightening, however dubious the worldly rewards, I have lived my life doing what I want and love to do, practising in private, performing in public, offering the gifts I have against the silencing odds.”
Hers are heartfelt writings filled with conviction and charming personal detail – Indian Baskets, one-sided records, fishing rods, tea cups, needle point covered chairs, books and paintings – all culled from a lifetime of accomplishment. There are also lessons to be learned. Book critics for example, are encouraged to use their knowledge to give readers greater access to the works they review.
Finally, after swinging from the soft and hard branches found within these collections, we land on ground tilled by Mark Kingwell. In Opening Gambit, he delivers what I think is the most substantive, engaging book of the lot by taking us into a clearing and rooting in logic of many of the slippery questions raised by the other essayists.
In short, this porridge is served at just the right temperature. Kingwell examines, and puts into perspective, much of the most interesting art, and many of the most challenging artists and topical issues, of our time. Whether quoting the late David Foster Wallace on popular culture (“the symbolic representation of what people already believe”), determining if photographer Edward Burtynsky is a crusader for sustainability or an unwitting purveyor of eco-porn’ or explaining how the whole of painter David Bierk’s works are intimately related to their parts, these essays not only intrigue and stimulate, they confer on their readers a chicness of being au courant.
Their philosophic and linguistic underpinnings help to convey and contextualize the depth and profundity of works by featured artists. Makes me wish I’d studied these disciplines, so deftly do they harness notions of art and language and interpretation. In providing the wisdom of perspective – an intellectual grounding to the conversation – Kingwell make sharp the innately fuzzy.
Here we pick up the jagged melodies sought at the outset of this article. Not answers, because they simply aren’t forthcoming, but concrete definition. Explanation we can grip onto when surrounded by haze. Despite the occasional dead end and vexing presence of one too many “I will explore this position in a moment, later, in the next section,” Open Gambits renders what is often excruciating into something as close to satisfying as can be found in the heedless run many of us make “from one longing to another.”