Why Nobody wants a new Vancouver Art Gallery or gives a ratsass about Photo-conceptualism by Joe Canuck

Charles Watts with Warren Tallman (right) with cigarette

In memory of Warren Tallman, (born 17 November 1921, Seattle; died 1 July 1994, Vancouver).

This essay was completed in August 2010, just a little over one year after I had returned from Asia. I had been away from Canada for close to 2 decades. In May of 2010, the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) initiated a publicity campaign to drum up support for its bid to build a new art gallery. I wrote this essay in response to VAG’s plans for the new art gallery. Or rather, the intended audience of my essay was the VAG board of directors. I remember making about 26 hard copies for each and every board member, including, of course, one for Kathleen Bartels, the Managing Director of VAG. The copies were delivered in person on a rainy day in November and I had to double-park in front of VAG, which I still remember vividly for some banal reason.

In retrospect, this essay was my olive branch of sorts to VAG, but because on certain key issues, I didn’t bite my tongue or kiss ass, VAG perceived this essay less as a peace offering and more as an indictment. Nevertheless, over the course of the following 2 years, I did try to be more humble and even offered my services for free to help VAG. But all I ever got from VAG was a wall of silence and contempt. I ended up suing VAG in May 2013, but that lawsuit quickly got derailed. The cavalry did not come, and I had to make a hasty retreat. The official political opposition, in particular, Adrian Dix, its leader, was totally and absolutely clueless and useless. I’m in the process of regrouping, and will pick my battles more carefully and more strategically the next time out. Qui fugiebat rurus proeliabitur. For he who fights and runs away may live to fight another day. There is no statute of limitations on fraud; these crooks will be brought to justice eventually.

Click here to read what my lawsuit was all about. To sum up, I took on more than I could chew, namely B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, both of whom I also sued because both of them are complicit in the cover up of a 55 million dollar fraud and hoax to build a new art gallery for Vancouver. The 55 million dollars (public money, by the way) was allocated to the City of Vancouver and VAG in 2008, but as of today, 5 years later, there hasn’t even been one single site study or conceptual plan produced for the new art gallery. How was this then not a scam and hoax from the very beginning? Whatever happened to 55 million dollars of our hard-earned tax money? When will the new art gallery be built, if ever?

Surrey, August 21, 2013


What I am about to say will not be politically-correct and I will make many enemies in the art establishment by saying it: photo-conceptualism is undemocratic. Photo-conceptualism or the so-called “Vancouver School” is fundamentally at odds with those core values we now identify as Canadian and best exemplified by Terry Fox, Steve Fonyo and Rick Hansen.

Presently, there is a cultural battle being waged among the art elites over the building of a new public art gallery. The two sides of the cultural divide in Vancouver are the ‘Build-baby-build’ camp of the board of trustees at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG); and opposing this is the ‘Say No to Starchitecture’ camp spearheaded by Bob Rennie, local condo-king and international art-czar. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Vancouverites do not know that a war is being fought on their behalf.

Through no fault of their own, our citizens simply do not give a ratsass when it comes to matters of art and culture. They do not see art as being relevant to their lives. But the current debate to build or not to build is really part of the larger debate on the long-term strategic development of this city and quality-of-life issues that are central and relevant to all of us. These quality-of-life issues are intrinsically linked to culture and art is an undeniably large part of what we know as Culture. Why this isn’t obvious to the general public is probably the real root of the problem and explains our incredible apathy and ignorance of the real issues at stake.

My interest in photo-conceptualism or the so-called Vancouver School is very recent. It began a few months ago, when VAG began the publicity campaign to generate public support for its current bid to build a new mega-gallery at the former bus depot on Cambie Street. This is a large city-block site and one of the last downtown properties owned by the city of Vancouver. There wouldn’t be a need for public consultation and support if VAG had enough funds to buy the land and build the new gallery, but it doesn’t. It wants Vancouver to donate the land free-of-charge, and this is really the crux of the matter. In addition, the building costs for the new gallery are estimated at 350 million dollars.

By the way, the ‘Build-baby-build’ is my own catchphrase. VAG has shown not one hint of creativity in its ad-campaign. VAG’s rationale and focus on the fact that the present gallery is simply too small to display much of its present collection is not only truly prosaic, but also truly banal. On one of their print “infomercials” it solicited testimonials from some of the photo-conceptualists, notably Jeff Wall; but no names that the general public would know, such as Alex Colville, or our own local and best-loved Robert Bateman, who has been denigrated by the art elites as an “illustrator.” The obvious choice to rally public support would have been Bryan Adams, local rockstar-cum-photographer; but I guess VAG hasn’t patched things up since it dissed him 10 years ago.

Internationally, Vancouver has earned a reputation for being a center for contemporary art. Specifically, this city is known for photo-conceptualism, commonly referred to as the Vancouver School. The main proponents of this school are Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall, Ken Lum, Roy Arden, Rodney Graham, and Stan Douglas. According to Kathleen Bartels, the director at VAG, Vancouver was named by “TIME Magazine” as one of the top 3 places in North America for contemporary art; the other two cities being New York and Los Angeles.

When I left Canada, Brian Mulroney was still the prime minister. I came back to Vancouver a year ago, after spending 17 years in Asia, mostly in Hong Kong and the last two years in Manila. Until I came back to live full-time in Vancouver, the two people that I had heard of and read about were Jeff Wall and Ken Lum, only because I subscribed to “Canadian Art” and “Artforum” magazine until about seven years ago. Otherwise, I only took a slight backward glance at Canada. For instance, I did not learn about Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s death until several months after the fact. I was pleasantly surprised and delighted to hear that my old hometown had, during the years of my long absence, become the mecca of contemporary art. Really?

I don’t buy it. I know the art world and art market well enough to know better. I also know the art history of this place too well and know when to squeeze my nose when I smell bullshit. After all, I almost became a photo-conceptualist myself, had I gotten a cushy teaching job at one of the colleges or universities. I say this because nearly all of the photo-conceptualists are academics and subsidized their art in the early days with their teaching jobs. This may explain why photo-conceptual art is so academic and so intellectual and why the public has so little interest in it. My research into the Vancouver School brought back a lot of repressed memories of this place and my time spent here in those godawful years in the mid-eighties. Back then, being a conceptual artist in Vancouver was miserable and that was why I left.

Twenty-three years ago, on the eve of Rick Hansen’s return to Vancouver after his “Man In Motion World Tour,” I cannily staged an exhibition of my artworks as a tribute to him and to his predecessors. The exhibition took place in a huge (5,000 sq. ft. or 475 m²) empty store on Beatty Street, literally a stone’s throw away from BC Place Stadium. Local poets were invited to read from Homer’s Odyssey for 24-hours non-stop; a marathon reading of an epic poem of an equally epic journey was a fitting tribute to Hansen, who had just finished his own real-life epic marathon, so went the reasoning. Along with the poetry reading, I was exhibiting some of my large (6 x 12 feet or 183 x 366 cm) paintings of Canadian flags. In the middle of the red maple leaf, I painted or superimposed black silhouettes; some were of Rick Hansen, others Terry Fox and Steve Fonyo. And in the middle of some of these flags, I painted or stenciled in the words, “Hero,” “Sacrifice,” and “Super Hero.”

I did not know it at the time, but what I was staging was an “art-happening.” The exhibition was by no means a painting exhibition in any traditional sense. I dare say, I was producing a very conceptualized or photo-conceptual exhibition, even though I did not use photographs per se. The materials I used were ordinary, commercial-grade house paint, and I painted on store-bought, off-the-shelf regular bed sheets. I did so not because they were cheaper than artist’s paints and canvas (they were), but because bed sheets and house paints were mass-produced and therefore consistent with the message or concept of my art.

During the previous year or so, we were getting almost daily news reports of Hansen’s progress on the radio and on nightly television broadcasts. The more I paid attention and heard him speak, the more monotone Hansen’s voice became, and the more his message seemed rote and mechanical like his wheelchair, continually spinning. I wonder if the term “spin” originated from him? The image of a wheelchair with a talking head also comes to mind. He was definitely “on message,” though that term was not in usage then. After all these years, I still remember the manner in which he delivered his message; but not the actual message itself.

Hansen had fallen off a truck when he was a teenager and broke his back (spinal cord) and henceforth was confined to a wheelchair — a fact I relearned recently by Googling him. His “Man In Motion World Tour,” as the name implied, was his international publicity campaign to raise awareness and money for spinal cord injury research. Wisely, perhaps indicative of his media savvy at the very outset and since, Hansen chose not to focus on road safety issues and the dangers of reckless joyrides at the back of unsafe trucks; because that would have been banal, like the life that has turned out for Steve Fonyo, who fell from grace too many times (even by a very forgiving Canadian standard) and so he had to forfeit his status as hero and Order of Canada medal. The poor sod was recently in the news again for credit card fraud. Fox succumbed to cancer a month before his 23rd birthday and is now regarded as a saint, of course. At the time, however, my feelings towards Rick Hansen, and by extension, Terry Fox and Steve Fonyo were highly ambiguous, if not conflicted. I wasn’t alone. Many young men of similar age to Rick Hansen had a very different take from the mainstream and mass media propelled picture of him.

In retrospect, my exhibition was a polemic on identity and an attempt to find my own in the absence of any singular or dominant Canadian identity. I was still relatively young and trying to find my place in society. I was also a visible minority, thus making my search for an identity that much more complicated and complex. As a 12-year-old going about my paper delivery route, the neighbourhood bully routinely stalked and harassed me and, on one occasion, nearly kicked the shit out of me because I was a “chink!”  Later on in life, totally unprovoked racial slurs and invectives from absolute strangers were hurled my way. But it never occurred to me to run across Canada to raise awareness and money to stop racism and prejudice. As a matter of public record, it has never occurred to any other member of the visible minorities in Canada because the idea was (is) absurd.

Nearly three decades after Terry Fox’s “Marathon of Hope,” when the idea of running across the country or even around your high-school track field to promote a worthwhile cause is no longer strange but embraced as part of the Canadian consciousness and character, I cannot imagine, today, a visible minority running across Canada in order to raise awareness and money to stop racism and prejudice or, for that matter, a gay man or lesbian running across Canada to raise awareness and money for their causes. Such a spectacle would be decried as a mockery and make us all feel uneasy, if not queasy.

But for young white men similar to my own age and socio-economic class and limited education, it was OK; more than OK, it was phenomenal in the particular case of Terry Fox. The public did not perceive, nor should they have, any selfish or ulterior motives when this young man who had lost his right leg to cancer decided to run across this country to raise awareness and money to find a cure for the disease. No one had ever done it before Fox, and his historic journey made him the new media darling in Canada. But to what extent was his journey and story really new, if we place him in the larger North American context and zeitgeist?

As Canada was not a slave-owning nation, our history evolved without the guilt and burden and necessity of imposing Affirmative Action, a public policy in the States which aimed to counter-balance institutionalized racism and redress social inequities with mandated hiring quotas and promotions of African-Americans, though they were known then and pejoratively called “negroes.” No disrespect intended, but Terry Fox, Steve Fonyo and Rick Hansen were our white-negroes and became successive poster boys for the Canadian version of Affirmative Action. For all intents and purposes, Terry Fox is Canada’s Martin Luther King, Jr.  and represents the kinder and gentler nation that George Bush senior promised America but failed to deliver to those Americans who simply moved north of the border to find it.

What are the odds that all three men, Terry Fox, Steve Fonyo, and Rick Hansen would come from this place, the last frontier of Canada? They were The Boys from BC, our own inverse version of The Boys from Brazil, a fictional novel-cum-movie of Hitler’s Aryan clones getting ready to take over the world again. How parochial and peculiar they were to this place and to our circumstances was evidenced by their reception and media coverage in the States, which was non-existent. If Americans had any opinions of them, it was probably similar to that of my mother’s. She didn’t see their heroics. Hard physical work and endurance was something uneducated, blue-collar working-class immigrants of her generation experienced everyday; but nobody gave them much attention, let alone any adulation. I still remember her remark, 23-odd-years later, that the “Man In Motion Tour” was a clever charity for Mr. Hansen to subsidize his globetrotting and sightseeing of the world. It was a backhanded compliment to his ‘smarts’ rather than to his physical feats of endurance or sacrifice.

Of the three, Terry Fox is special. He was the first and the one who best represents a set of values or moral imperatives that is distinctly Canadian and defines who we are as a people today. It is a value system that was then diametrically opposed to what was going on in America, where the media attention, when not on Hollywood, shone on ‘super-studs’ or ‘specimens’ like Hershel Walker and Mike Tyson — both barely out of their teens, and already multi-million dollar athletes. Walker, the football star, never got much traction outside of America and Canada; but boxing, being more of a universal sport, helped Tyson achieve worldwide pop icon status. Tyson’s behaviour outside the ring and his rape charge and conviction also contributed to his notoriety and media exposure and our fascination with him.

What exactly was so special about The Boys from BC? This was never really debated except by young men similar in age to Fox and company. Although none of my friends articulated any resentment, it was there as an undercurrent in their remarks and jokes, and when Fox was still alive, I remember someone came to a Halloween party as a one-legged marathon runner. In varying degrees, there was a sense of bemusement, if not resentment at what may have been perceived as a kind of reverse discrimination against able-bodied young men, who, if push came to shove, would have just as easily put their lives on the line in the call of duty or in defense of our country. But the vast majority of us never got that chance, and intelligent and perceptive young men like myself saw Fox, Fonyo and Hansen as the lucky ones; not as victims deserving of our pity and praise.

Beyond the novelty of their journeys, Fox, Fonyo and Hansen were just trying to figure out who they were and where they fit in society. It is fundamentally a male instinct and ritual: the eternal rite of passage that all young men must go through in order to be contributing and full-fledged members of their tribe. Most of us never got the chance to prove our worth to ourselves and to our society, though it wasn’t for lack of want. Ostensibly, Fox, Fonyo and Hansen are modern day archetypes of the mythic hero who must protect the home village by going out into the world to slay dragons, real or imaginary, and in whatever form those dragons may take. Today, the same can be said of those young Canadian soldiers fighting for us in Afghanistan. Our presence there, however, is a discomforting indication to me of just how far to the right we have come from the sixties, when Canada was politically autonomous from U.S. foreign policy and we opposed her imperialist war in Vietnam.

With the advantage of three decades of hindsight, we now know that their personal identities cannot be extricated from their public journeys. In other words, they are their journeys, and this is still how we identify Fox, Fonyo, and Hansen. More significantly, while they were trying to find out who they were, we also found out who we were as a nation. To paraphrase a Bono song, we really found what we were looking for!  Before these three men went on their quixotic journeys, we did not have an identity that we could point to as being quintessentially Canadian. Today, there is no dispute as to what the essence of that Canadian identity is or what our core values are in the post-Fox era.

Twenty-three years ago, I did not realize just how special Terry Fox was. Ironically, it has taken me 17 years of exile from this country to realize this, and how much of a Canadian I really am. Back then, the utter lack of public interest in my exhibition was earth-shattering and confirmed my belief that this country was no place for able-bodied young men whose ambitions far exceeded the outlets to express and fulfill them. In hindsight, I really don’t know what I had expected, but I was hoping to get just a little media attention. It never happened and only about forty people showed up for the art exhibition, and they were mostly family and friends.

The only good memory I have of that night is that of a slightly sauced older gentleman in his 60s who came and played the baby-grand piano that I got Tom Lee Music to donate for the event. I had no clue as to who this man was. To my astonishment, he played the piano like Thelonious Monk, a jazz genius and eccentric, and one of my teenage idols. He was a riot with the other musicians. Russell Baker, who now co-owns Bombast Furniture, later told me that his name was Al Neil — the first, if not the only avant-garde jazz musician British Columbia has ever produced. He is also generally regarded as a seminal multi-media or assemblage artist, still alive and active in his 80s, I’ve been told.

There was another local poet of note who read from Homer’s Odyssey, but I don’t recall his name because this is the first time in 23 years that I have really tried to recall the events of that evening. (I think it was Gerry Gilbert.) It was a disaster, and I think that I have been trying to suppress and repress my memories of it. I had promoted the art exhibition and poetry reading as a marathon, but some of the people got quite upset with me because they participated mistakenly thinking it was a telethon. I remember a pretty red-haired flautist who was quite upset about the ‘deception.’ She, too, like me, also wanted some media coverage and her 15-minutes of fame. Lastly, I remember a rhetorical question from a friend-of-a-friend who said in a rather accusatory tone, “Does your art imply that Canada is a nation of cripples?”

In the mid-1980s there was a TV commercial that got quite a bit of play in British Columbia. I think it was a travel company promoting wanderlust and adventures overseas by reminding people my age that our options were limited, to say the least, ‘when all the good jobs were already taken by the baby boomers.’ I belong to what Douglas Coupland famously coined as Generation X. The bright and ambitious left B.C. in droves. I would leave a few months after the art exhibition for Toronto, where a year earlier my friend, Steve Campos (what ever happened to him?), got a job as an actuary. ‘Brain Drain’ was bandied about in the media and just about everybody I knew who was remotely intelligent or even slightly educated had to go away in order to make something of their lives. Fast-forward 23 years to today.

It was reported in the “Vancouver Magazine” that Stan Douglas’s 2009 “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August, 1971,” a photographic mural of the 1971 Vancouver Gastown riots cost more than a million dollars to produce. Am I the only one who thinks this amount is excessive and obscene? During a public info-session, Douglas said that he is concerned with forgotten historic events or ‘ruptures’ that impacted our city. He said that as a result of the riots, the City rezoned Gastown as a strictly commercial area to keep out undesirables and that was why the area fell into decline. In Douglas’s own words, “If this neighborhood had been allowed to have a mixed-use designation, with people living there, I believe it would have a very different character. Instead, it has been in decline for more than three decades.”

If I was interested in the history of Vancouver in the early 1970s and wanted to research what really happened in Gastown on August 7, 1971, I would do exactly as Mr. Douglas did: go to the library, city archives, etc., and I would try to locate any living witnesses who were there on that day and get their side of the story. At a budget of over one million dollars, Mr. Douglas certainly could have made a  documentary, if it had been his intention to spread his message and reach a larger or mass audience.

So what does he do with all that money and all his research material? He makes a photo-mural!? Why? How many people will go see his mural? How many of those who go see his mural will actually get his message? One, two, three people? Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can get Douglas’s message merely by looking at his mural, without being told what the message actually is. Otherwise it’s just a guessing game. So the correct answer to how many people will get his message is Zero! In fact, what we now know about the mural and about its message is what Douglas actually told us in his info-sessions and in his interviews with the Media.

Marshall McLuhan, probably the most important but underrated intellectual Canada has ever produced, wrote in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man that all media have characteristics that engage the viewer in different ways. For instance, a passage in a book could be reread at will, but a movie had to be screened again in its entirety to study any individual part of it. So the medium through which a person encounters a particular piece of content would have an effect on the individual’s understanding of it. Some media, like movies, enhance one single sense; in this case, vision, in such a manner that a person does not need to exert much effort in filling in the details of a movie image.

McLuhan contrasted this with TV, which he claimed requires more effort on the part of the viewer to determine meaning. Comics, due to their minimal presentation of visual detail, require a high degree of effort to fill in details that the cartoonist may have intended to portray but left out. A movie is thus said by McLuhan to be “hot” (intensifying one single sense) and “high definition” (demanding a viewer’s attention). A comic book is said to be “cool” and “low definition” (requiring much more conscious participation by the reader to extract value). This concentration on the medium and how it conveys information rather than on the specific content of the information is the focal point of “the medium is the message.”

Herein lies the fatal flaw of photo-conceptualism: despite the fact that the photos and or tableaus are meticulously and fastidiously constructed (high definition and hot), they come across as comic strips (low definition and cold) and require extreme focus and attention on the part of the viewer to make sense of it all. Oftentimes a Yoda or an oracle (art critic) is required to mediate meaning and extract value. In terms of a temperature reading, photo-conceptualism, like a still-shot from a movie snipped and taken out of its original context and hot medium, is sub-zero freezing. It’s really freaking cold!  It’s a frightfully frigid art that has deserved its cold shoulder treatment from the public. The only chance it has of competing with other mass mediums for the public’s attention is when all hell freezes over. It’s so damn cold it comes with a ‘Do not lick warning!’ Photo-conceptualism is so cold-blooded only a cold-hearted mother could love it…. Get it?

So what exactly are we to make of Mr. Douglas’s mural? Is it a political statement? If so, it’s a rather expensive, but ineffectual one. It’s also about four decades too late, a point which Vancouver Police Chief, Jim Chu, was quick to pounce on. “That’s the past,” he said.  “It’s not the same police force.” Well, of course it’s not. You don’t need to tell us. The fact that the chief-of-police is a Chinese-Canadian should have signified to any reasonable man or woman that things have greatly improved, both in the police force itself and in society at large. If Mr. Douglas had dug a little deeper and a few decades earlier in his research, he would have discovered that only three generations ago, Vancouver was probably the most anti-Chinese and bigoted city in North America.

If anything, the police force is conservative by nature and lags behind societal changes. In other words, Vancouver was already known as a Chinese city, or rather, it was called ‘Hongcouver’ by polite racists 15 to 20 years before Jim Chu became police chief. In reality, Vancouver and the lower-mainland is home to all sorts of people from all over the world and we proudly embrace multiculturalism. Hasn’t Mr. Douglas heard the good news yet? That august and internationally respected magazine, “The Economist,” has, for the second time in 5 years, voted Vancouver as the best place on earth to live. Is Mr. Douglas being a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian? Is it mental masturbation?

Indeed, Mr. Douglas is a world-class masturbator. To give him credit where credit is due, his photo-mural is very slick and highly polished — no puns or sexual innuendos intended. The photo-mural could easily be mistaken for a Diesel ad; someone else said Gap ad. In any event, the demographics are right: Gap and Diesel patrons would be about the same age as those who got clubbed and brutalized by the Vancouver Police on that fateful day. And yet, there is no blood or mayhem in the mural. It’s a rather calm scene; almost orderly, if not precise, as if the people in the mural were like the plastic toy soldiers I played with as a kid and arranged to do mock battle.

In terms of its composition, it’s rather vacant. There’s more empty space than people in the photo. For a scene depicting a riot, it just doesn’t look right: there isn’t enough action or danger or menace in it. On the contrary, it looks tame and strangely inviting, due in part to all that empty space. I am tempted to drive a Mac truck through his mural; there’s literally enough room to do it. The sense of tameness is, moreover, reinforced by his choice of a long-distance shot and angle from above, as if Mr. Douglas were viewing the riot in the comfort and safety of his upper-floor art studio.


Musings on F. Scott Fitzgerald, Immortality, Marc Lepine and other American Psychos by Joe Canuck


The essay below was written in the winter of 1989. That previous summer, I returned to Vancouver after having lived in Toronto the previous two years. It was a year and time of great transition. The date on the original essay is December 28, 1989, and about 3 weeks after the Montreal Massacre. That was the moniker later given to the shooting spree by Marc Lepine who killed 14 female students and wounded 10 more at the École Polytechnique in Montreal.

Twenty-four-years later, that incident is still Canada’s most notorious and highest-count killing spree. Hence, the reference to Lepine in my essay’s new title. It was originally entitled “The Comeback.” It was a response to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack Up,” a highly confessional essay about his mental break down and general misanthropy, which, unfortunately, had rubbed off on me. A comeback is, of course, the opposite of a crack up, and I meant my essay as a rebuttal to Fitzgerald’s essay.

However, in reading my essay today, I think I was really trying to tackle the big issues of the day, and the most topical and biggest one then was the Montreal Massacre. Ostensibly, I was trying to come to terms with the meaning of life in the context and backdrop of a national tragedy that had had a profound impact on just about every Canadian at the time.

I still remember, all these years later, my mother being seized with so much fear that she irrationally asked me to be her bodyguard to accompany her whenever she had to go out in the week immediately following the massacre — we lived in Vancouver, 4 thousand miles away from where the killings took place. This gives you an idea of the oppressive mood in the country during that godawful winter of 1989.

Surrey, August 15, 2013

Update: December 3, 2015

Yesterday another mass school shooting occurred in San Bernardino, California. According to a CBC news report last night, as of 2010, a mass shooting occurs every 60 days now in the United States. Prior to that, when my essay was written in 1989, mass shootings were rare—1 in every 260 days, according to the CBC [Communist Broadcasting Corporation].

There are some who believe these mass shootings are hoaxes and are staged by the Government, or at the very least have the foreknowledge of the Government. But why is the Government or The Powers That Be (TPTB) staging these horrible hoaxes and or false flags?

An armed American populace is a real threat to TPTB and this is why some believe there is a sinister agenda to take away their guns. If the American public ever found out what was really going on and how royally they have been screwed by the bankers and their puppet politicians, they would all be shot.

Think about it for a minute, do you think politicians really care if we killed one another or them?

The right to bear arms is a right guaranteed by the American Constitution; actually the 2nd Amendment was added on later by the founding fathers precisely because they sensed things might go south, even with a Constitution, and hence they made sure they had the right to bear arms in order to protect themselves from a tyrannical government.


I rarely ever watch television or the CBC any more, not since about 2 years ago when I realized it was a subtle form of brainwashing and programming. They don’t call it TV programming for nothing. The CBC is actually Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; but I find it an insidious propaganda outlet run by Jews and why I call it the Communist Broadcasting Corporation. (Communism was funded by Jew bankers.) Recommended: Nobody Died at Sandy Hook by Jim Fetzer


I was twenty-three-years old and the year was 1983. That was the year that I was involved with an older woman, my English Professor. That was also the year that I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack Up.” My lover was sophisticated, cynical, and sixteen-years older than me. She influenced me, of course. She formed me. And as I think back now, after four years of loathing my fellow man, loathing the stupid and mediocre of the species, I realize that Fitzgerald’s “The Crack Up” also formed me. I now realize that I had had my own crack up. But whereas Fitzgerald didn’t have his crack up until his late-forties, I had mine when I was in my mid-twenties. At least I beat him at something.

It has been demonstrated by writers no less talented than Marcel Proust that autobiographical writing, when it approaches great literature, will benefit all of mankind. Indeed, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is vastly superior to Fitzgerald’s “The Crack Up” — the two aren’t even in the same league, as far as I’m concerned. And as I think of Proust, and how he obsessed over the Dreyfus case, I also think of John F. Kennedy, famous public figures who we do not personally know, as Proust did not personally know Captain Alfred Dreyfus, and yet we know them like we know our own fathers and mothers. We (those of us of a certain age) remember where we were when Kennedy was assassinated. We all grieved, as we would have, if a member of our own family had been cruelly and suddenly taken away from us.

Paradoxically, it could be said that Kennedy’s death has a life of its own. By happenstance, the assassination was filmed by an eyewitness named George Lucas Zapruder. By now, 26 years after the event, his film has probably been shown on television hundreds of times and seen by tens of millions of people all over the world. We have all been made eyewitnesses after the fact, if not eternal voyeurs. We are there vis-à-vis his film as the bullets whiz by. We are there when the fatal bullet blasts off part of Kennedy’s skull. The thing is live and alive. Kennedy’s assassination is the American Tragedy that has usurped the Greek Tragedy and the Zapruder film is the never-ending Greek Chorus of our times, albeit a silent one. It plays like a silent movie on a continuous loop in our heads. The assassination occurred almost 30 years ago, and yet it is as fresh in our collective memory as if it occurred yesterday. You only need to see the film once. Once you’ve seen Kennedy’s red brains blasted out in Technicolor, you do not ever need to see it again. It will forever haunt you.

How does the historian, the storyteller of our shared and collective past, compete with the Zapruder film? Truly, one picture is worth a thousand words. As far back as the late ‘twenties, Fitzgerald bemoaned the sorry state of the man of letters. He foresaw the doomed fate of the novelist and writer competing with motion pictures, competing and losing miserably. And although he diagnosed the illness, he could not resist Hollywood, writing screenplays for a paycheck to pay off his debts; hating it, and eventually drinking himself to death. There are no second acts in American life, he famously quipped, and so he should know. He could not repeat his phenomenal success as a novelist of the early 1920s — The Roaring Twenties — and that was how and why he ended up in Hollywood. Fitzgerald is a tough if not impossible act to follow. He wrote when the Hollywood system was at its most efficient, when writers were on contract and movies were manufactured as if on an assembly line in a Detroit automobile factory.

What options are left for intelligent men of today like myself with literary ambitions? Literature arguably died with the coming of motion pictures, or moving pictures, as it was then called. But the motion picture industry of today is virtually impossible to break into now. You need an agent these days just to get your feet in the door, and I wouldn’t even know how to go about finding an agent in the first place. Old Hollywood or the golden age of Hollywood was the 1930’s; Fitzgerald’s arrival in Hollywood was in 1937, when it was at its zenith. He would die on December 21, 1940, a good time to die, I suppose, if he didn’t want to see the fall. But the fall would not occur for another 20 years, not until the 1960s, when the curtains finally came down on the old Hollywood studio system.

For so long I had wanted to be a “SUCCESS,” in capital letters, just like Fitzgerald, but was not. The drive to be a success consumed me, as it had consumed Fitzgerald. Looking back, I think it was rather silly of me to expect so much and at so early an age. My crack up at 28 was rather premature, if not unheard of in literary circles. But at the time, that was how I saw myself, as a great writer yet to be discovered. I say that half-seriously and half-jokingly. In any event, nothing had gone as planned. My career as an academic had been stillborn, and I had long abandoned it as a dead thing. My clique of smart and hip friends at university was no more. It had disbanded after graduation. Friends scattered all across the country looking for work and just naturally getting on with their lives after university. I now regard those years spent at university as the best years of my life. My memories of that period immediately after graduation are bittersweet. But the most painful of all, my relationship with the love of my life — that, too, was over, though to this day, no one really knows why it ended and neither one of us is willing to admit who finally dumped whom?

F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife, Zelda, circa early 1930s, in happier days before their breakup and his crack up.

At the age of twenty-seven my life in Vancouver was quickly going down the toilet, just as Vancouver was also going down the toilet. The city was experiencing its biggest economic depression of the century. On the other side of the country, Toronto was booming and everybody with half-a-brain was already there by the winter of 1986. In the summer of 1987, I finally set out and drove four thousand miles across Canada to Toronto. Actually, I drove to Toronto with my high-school pal, Jimmy, (James Gaylie) who had also recently broken up with his girlfriend and was at a low point in his life and needed to get the hell out of Vancouver, too. There were good times in Toronto, naturally. We were all still relatively young and still on the prowl, though I don’t remember having much enthusiasm for it or any luck, to be honest. In terms of emotional sustenance and romantic relationships, those two years in Toronto were barren like a desert. I was unable to love anyone else, really. For a brief period of about three months, I was involved with another woman, but that relationship was doomed to fail from the start, or at least I took every opportunity to sabotage it. Consequently, there were times, perhaps sitting in a café by myself, or lying in bed alone, I would weep inexplicably and uncontrollably. How pathetic!

Why had I chosen this lonely and loveless existence? Why didn’t I take the safe route?  Why did I instead gamble away my professional career and chance for marital happiness on this reckless and selfish life of the bohemian artist? Was I deluded in the belief that I could beat the astronomical odds of achieving the immortality of the great artist?  And in Canada!? — not exactly a country with any sort of distinguished cultural history or history, for that matter. Why was I such a miserable underachiever, was what one of my new friends in Toronto (film-maker, Les Rose) ironically asked me, without knowing that he was being ironic or idiotic, of course.

Why, indeed, was I such a loser? I remember ever since I was a young 9-year-old boy, the story of Vincent van Gogh moved me deeply and irreversibly. And later in my teens, as I was drawn to music, I was also drawn to Bix Beiderbecke, the tragic jazz cornetist who died at the age of twenty-eight. He had been my teen-idol, a queer choice for a teen-idol, I know, but I had always been unconventional, even during those hormone-charged teen-years of conformity. Upon reflection, I think I was more enamoured with his myth than with his music. Beiderbecke was a contemporary of Louis Armstrong. But he pales by comparison to Armstrong who revolutionized jazz and had a long and great performing and recording career that did not end until his death in 1971 at the age of 70. But then again, I have always had a perverse fondness for the hopeless underdog, for those who died young and left a beautiful corpse. I took it at face value if not as my destiny that I would somehow replicate Beiderbecke’s life and die before I turned 29. But after having reached my 29th birthday and coming to the realization that an early, tragic death is not in the cards for me, I am faced with the sobering task of figuring out just what the heck it is that I want to do for the next 40 to 50 or more years that I still have left on this earth.


Two weeks ago, a twenty-five-year-old man by the name of Marc Lepine went on a rampage at the École Polytechnique at the University of Montreal. He specifically targeted female engineering students and murdered 14 of them in cold blood. He also shot and wounded 10 more students who survived the massacre. Then he shot and killed himself. Lepine carried on his person a three-page diatribe against prominent and successful women in Quebec society and feminists in general. In his diatribe, he also claimed as his hero, Denise Lortie, another lunatic whose claim to fame was killing 3 people during a shooting spree inside the Quebec legislature in 1984. Was Lepine a copycat killer? Investigators later revealed that Lepine was a ‘war film freak,’ as if that explained anything. Or does it?

The American counterpart of Marc Lepine is Patrick Purdy, the twenty-four-year-old man who gunned-down school children at play in Stockton, California on January 17, 1989. He killed 5 children and wounded 29 others before shooting himself in the head. Purdy, we are told, was a ‘horror film freak.’ He was a Freddy Krueger fan, and his favourite movie was “Freddy Stalks Manhattan.” One wonders why instead of inscribing the name of Freddy Krueger on his AK-47 assault riffle, Purdy chose to inscribe the acronyms and symbols of Hezbollah, the Islamic militant group in Lebanon. What was Purdy’s connection to that group and why was Hezbollah killing Asian kids in Stockton? Curiously, this was never really explained. But true to form and profile, both Lepine and Purdy were quiet loners. This is perhaps less comforting than if they had been raving and ranting lunatics during their killing sprees. One witness who survived the Stockton shooting recalls that, ‘He was not talking. He was not yelling. He was very straightforward about it. He was not frowning. He just did it matter-of-factly.’

Patrick Purdy [Misc.]
Young Asian girl, wounded in chest during shooting at Cleveland School by Patrick Purdy, being attended to by medical personnel.
Philip Caputo writing for “Esquire Magazine” further explains that Purdy, “as he picks up the trigger; squeezing, is now at psychological singularity, his mind a black hole in which all moral laws and codes that govern humankind have broken down.” “Singularity” is a word or term borrowed from theoretical physics. It is, as Caputo explains, “the center of a black hole, a collapsed star.” At the point of singularity, “the star’s imploded matter achieves infinite density; hence gravity becomes infinitely powerful, allowing not even light to escape its pull and causing all the known laws of Newtonian and Einsteinian physics to break down. Nothing can be seen, nothing can be predicted, and anything becomes possible.”

However, it needn’t be described so scientifically or so rhetorically rather, since by doing so, Caputo convincingly explains away a crime that he had earlier claimed could not be explained. Instead of the Racist Narrative or the Manchurian Candidate Narrative, or the Psychiatric Narrative or the Drug-crazed Killer Narrative, all of which Caputo dismisses, he unintentionally confers upon us the Theoretical Physics Narrative. In this respect, Caputo gives coherence to a crime that he claims has no coherence. Here, for example, is a passage by Caputo that seems to me to be unwittingly giving cosmic and literary significance to a heinous crime that does not deserve any:

 “It was the absence of a motive that gave the massacre the awesome power of the inexplicable. It awakened within us the dread of the unknown that neoliths must have felt when the tops blew off mountains, or lightning bolted from the primeval skies to blast their kinsmen out of existence. Early man helped manage his awe of such disasters by ascribing them to angry gods or evil spirits, but we like to think of ourselves as far beyond such barbaric hocus-pocus. Why, we’re even beyond the historically more recent hocus-pocus of clergymen, who might have said of Purdy what Joseph Conrad said of Mister Kurtz: his mind was sane but his soul was mad; that is, he had been seized by the power of the Devil. None of that for us in post-industrial, post-Freudian, post-modern microchip America; we are a technological people beyond gods and devils. We want our dread explicated. By uncovering a motive for Purdy’s crime, we hope to create a classical, coherent narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, cause and effect.”

But Purdy’s crime, or for that matter, Lepine’s crime is not without a motive. In Lepine’s case, he hated women and simply wanted to kill them. In Purdy’s case, he hated Asian immigrants because he believed they took jobs away from Americans. He couldn’t find a job or when he did, he couldn’t keep it, and so he blamed the “gooks.” The kids he killed at the Cleveland Elementary School were Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants — children of refugees who escaped the bloodbath of the Vietnam War only to be executed in a schoolyard in Freedom’s Land. The irony and pathos were just too much and too heart-wrenching. How many millions were killed in that preposterous war against communism? Why is it socially acceptable to kill innocents overseas but not on one’s own native land? Had Purdy and Lepine actually joined the armed forces instead of pretending to be real soldiers would their indiscriminate slaughter of innocents in distant lands even be reported in the media? Both men were literally dressed to kill: Marc Lepine in his hunting regalia and Purdy in his Rambo getup.

A new gun is a lot of funNo one mourned or will ever mourn for them. They were monsters. But why were they monsters? Were they born monsters; and if not, who or what made them monsters? Why is it so often the case that a young man will kill a dozen or so strangers for no other reason than he is pissed off at somebody or at some group of people, but the actual culprits who are to blame for the young man’s problems, real or imaginary, are never the ones who get their comeuppance? It’s always innocent bystanders who get killed. Alas, precision was not a virtue valued by either Lepine or Purdy. Precision is not likely to be looked upon as a virtue by people who are essentially illiterates. A culture and civilization that does not read or does not want to read is doomed. This generation that has been weaned and brought up on television and mass media has already produced an inordinately high number of violent killers and criminals in our bulging prisons and will continue to produce more psychopaths in the future, unless we do something to stop this.

But what exactly must we do to stop these massacres? How about asking the right questions and addressing the real issues that afflict our society? How about “the disinterested pursuit of truth,” as Mathew Arnold proposed? However, when the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, as ours is, the disinterested pursuit of the truth may be too abstract and too difficult for many. The good news is that there is a literacy campaign sweeping across North America at the present moment. Will the good-intentioned people behind this campaign be able to make a difference with the hoi polloi? When people become more literate, does it follow that they will also become more civilized and stop killing one another? Would it have made any difference had Marc Lepine or Patrick Purdy spent more time reading the classics instead of wasting their time and minds on dumb-ass junk movies? My mind boggles at this fantastic thought.

I began this essay with F. Scott Fitzgerald and his confessional essay, “The Crack Up.” It was the model that I had in mind for this essay, which is my confession of sorts, my way of exorcising my demons. However, it has come as an ironic revelation to me that the greatest demon that needed to be exorcised away from my life was none other than Fitzgerald himself. I think I read him too early in my life. In retrospect, I think I read too much literature too early in life. It has led to a very lonely existence in this world populated by not a whole lot of people who share my interests and worldview. Fitzgerald wrote “The Crack Up” towards the end of his bitter life. I never should have read it as young as I did. It is not an essay for young men to read, especially impressionable ones with delusions of artistic grandeur and fame. I read it when I was 23 and it nearly killed me with self-pity and bitterness. Luckily, my crack up occurred when I was 28 and I am slowly but surely recovering, if not fully recovered. At 29, I still have a lifetime ahead of me. It’s time to finally say goodbye to Fitzgerald and move on, as they say.

Vancouver, December 28, 1989

A Nice Little Essay for Warren Tallman by Joe Canuck

Allen Ginsberg in Vancouver (1963)
Poets gather outside the Vancouver home of Ellen and Warren Tallman in 1963. Tallman is the one with glasses, second right in the top row. Below him is Charles Olson. Allen Ginsberg is in the middle of the photo, the one with the Hasidic beard, of course. Dan McLeod next to Ginsberg’s right side.


I took three courses with Professor Tallman at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the early 1980s. Tallman passed away in 1994, but his contribution to the local literary scene and in particular to the poetry scene was and still is legendary, or at least it is among the literati. I have already written about Tallman, although rather obliquely and sentimentally in my 2010 essay, “Why Nobody wants a new Vancouver Art Gallery or gives a ratsass about Photoconceptualism.” In fact, that essay was dedicated to him and discusses in detail his influence not only on the poetry scene in Vancouver in the 1960s and 70s but also on the current visual arts scene and cultural scene in general.

I wrote this essay on D.H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound for him in an introductory poetry course that he taught at UBC in 1982. This is one of the first essays I ever wrote for him. This is also the only one that I was able to find in my mother’s basement. It’s not a great essay, but it’s not a bad essay, neither. It’s just a nice little essay. It’s still a nice and easy read 32 years later and not at all academic per se. I’m publishing it here more to get Professor Tallman’s comments recorded for the digital record than anything else. Nothing ever dies on the Internet. Incidentally, Professor Tallman really loved my essay and gave me an “A” and ever since that day, we got along famously. Here are his comments on my original essay:

“The word for this that comes most readily to mind is “brilliant”. You bring a twin force of perception and thought to bear. That womb guess is wonderful. But it all is — intelligence working at a much more than “½ watt rays” intensity. Now, then, there, those double spaces. [The original essay was hand-written and single-spaced.] An Excellent 1st Paper.”

Surrey, British Columbia. June 29, 2014


Young Ezra Pound

D.H. Lawrence’s “Piano” and Ezra Pound’s “Medallion”: Two poems that look back in time in search of refuge and remembrances of things loved and lost.

Written for Dr. Warren Tallman, Department of English, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. November 1982.

It is human nature: to run far away from your fears and problems, though you can never really escape, but, for a moment, you may seek refuge in the past. This is true for both D.H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound who seek refuge in the past. For Lawrence, the return to the past is fleeting and emotional. But for Pound, the return to the past is prolonged and intellectual. Whereas Lawrence’s return to the past in “Piano” is motivated by a yearning to recapture innocence, security, and the curiosity of childhood, Pound’s return to the past in “Medallion” is motivated by a yearning to recapture the tradition of Homer and of the Classicists.

Quite obviously, the memory of the closeness and love of Lawrence’s mother evoked by the singing woman causes Lawrence both pleasure and pain. He knows he cannot reverse the clock, yet it is his true desire to do so. The more he reminisces, the more pain, and the less pleasure he feels. This is why the poet uses the word “betray.” That part of him which longs for his childhood betrays his manhood. Clearly, the simplicity of childhood is preferred over to the complexities of adulthood, but the conflict within Lawrence goes beyond the tension between past and present, innocence and experience. I ask you, is the wish to return to “a mother who smiles as she sings; to the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside; to the cosy parlour” really not the wish to return to the womb? Do you not see that the “cosy parlour,” which provides warmth, protection, and an environment where child and mother are united, is analogous to the womb?

The desire and need to recapture the bond between child and mother go beyond mere escapism, however. It is true that Lawrence’s mother is a source of warmth and love, but more importantly, she is also a source of poetic inspiration and refinement and, evidently, Lawrence’s poem in particular and his art in general. Among those familiar with Lawrence’s oeuvre, there is a consensus that he was fixated with his mother, which some have argued, is best exemplified, if not exposed in his 1913 novel Sons and Lovers. This poem, “Piano,” was written just before the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and may be a condensed version of his novel, and a more telling example of his ‘mother fixation.’

Similarly, the woman with the “clear soprano” in “Medallion” the last mini-poem in Pound’s long poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” also stands for culture, but the culture she stands for is a culture more about glitz and shiny veneers than about substance and soul. Femininity, humility, good taste, some of the attributes usually associated with a woman of culture and class, are not to be found in Pound’s woman. Ostensibly, Pound’s complaint is with the post-war years after the Great War. The poem was written in 1920. The woman in “Medallion” may, from Pound’s viewpoint, be an unwanted symbol of her times and the dawning of the Jazz Age in the 1920s.

The definition of a medallion is a large medal usually given as a prize for outstanding achievement in sports — the Olympics come to mind. It is also sometimes given as a prize to award outstanding achievement in non-sports events, too, but it is always given out after a contest or competition. A medallion is also usually very ostentatious. If the woman in “Medallion” is glassy (“Luini in porcelain!”); if the woman is gaudy (“Honey-red, closing the face oval”); if the woman is snaky (“The sleek head emerges”); if the woman is devilish (“The eyes turn topaz”); and if the woman represents the culture of her times, then, certainly, it is a culture that is decorative, decadent, degenerate and demonic.

Is the woman in Pound’s “Medallion” a symbol or a parody of the crass capitalism that would make the 1920’s the most affluent and debauched decade in American history? Is she a real prize, something that we should cherish or is she ersatz, a parody of the real prize that cannot be taken seriously? Is she really the new Venus (“Anadyomene”) of her times?  No, the woman in “Medallion” is probably not Pound’s Venus or Helen of Troy, for that matter. Of course, Pound’s true Venus is by Botticelli, his true Helen of Troy is by Homer. What Pound desires to do is “to “resuscitate the dead art/Of poetry; to maintain ‘the sublime’/In the old sense.” But in order to do so, Pound must go back into time.

As we have seen, the past is a period of creative energy for both Lawrence and for Pound, but here the similarities end. “Piano” is written by a poet who places high priority on emotion, blood, and instinct. “Medallion” is written by a poet who places high priority on intellect, eclecticism, and academicism. In other words, “Piano” is wish fulfillment: Lawrence wants to live the present in the past. “Medallion,” on the other hand, is wishful thinking: Pound wants to live the past in the present. And the differences do not end here.

D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence is an Englishman, and he writes like one, too. The tendency of the English to think in sentences is revealed in “Piano,” a poem that closely resembles prose. Pound, the American, on the other hand, thinks in phrases. For this reason, “Medallion” seems more verbal, and more spontaneous. In fact, “Medallion” is a dramatic monologue. Indeed, much of our difficulty in trying to understand the poem stems from this fact. For many of us who have enough trouble understanding ourselves, the task of trying to comprehend the dramatic monologue of a man as complex as Ezra Pound seems impossible. Not exactly humble, but egocentric, it may very well be Pound’s intention to be difficult, to write “poetry of the classroom” as William Carlos Williams has accused him of doing. I suspect that this has something to do with the obscure references in “Medallion,” and throughout “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” it must be said.

However, and more likely, the difficulty in comprehending Pound is due to the fact that Pound is fighting what Lawrence is practicing in “Piano”: convention. Pound, the iconoclast, if not the maverick, is using a technique called vorticism. For example, “King Miho’s hall,” “Anadyomeme,” or “Luini” (Bernardino Luini) are nouns which imply a meaning outside their own meaning, and which cause the reader to spin off associations connected with these nouns. Hence, Pound’s approach to language is intellectual and associative. Furthermore, practically all of Pound’s allusions in his poems are classical and therefore the reader is forced to go back to a time of classical antiquity and myths in order to understand the poems. Needless to say, if Pound had it his way, the reader would remain there in classical antiquity forever, as that was where Pound was happiest and where he would like us to join him.

To say that “Piano” is straightforward and conventional is not to say that Lawrence is the lesser poet. Indeed, Lawrence is very much the craftsman “in the old sense.” Lawrence’s consistent use of the soft vowel “o” throughout “Piano” gives the poem its unity and resonance. In fact, the mood or atmosphere is very well developed in Lawrence’s poem. “Softly in the dusk,” and “Sunday evenings at home” contribute to the poem’s melancholy and reflective quality. Furthermore, it seems Lawrence writes long sentences that do not want to end anymore than Lawrence wants to end his “flood of remembrance.” It is as if rivers of sentences flow over with emotions which are overcoming him, until he is drowned by his own sorrow in the end.

In the tradition of classical poetry, both Lawrence and Pound are very, very meticulous, but with Pound it can sometimes be too academic. To explain, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is like a jigsaw puzzle: you really have to analyze the words and phrases carefully in and of themselves and also as part of a larger whole before you can see the entire picture and understand the larger themes and psychological gestalt of not so much the poem, itself, but of the mind of the poet. This is the key to understanding Pound. His poems are not so much finished products as they are in flux, as if the poet’s mind is at work and on display, in the moment, now! In this respect, Pound’s approach to poetry is similar to Chinese poetry, which he read and admired and emulated.

For many, Pound may be too innovative and too experimental and maybe even too oriental (too inscrutable?) to be easily understood or liked. And like a jigsaw puzzle, no word in “Medallion” is unnecessary; every word is exact, or else it would not fit. Again, this attests to Pound’s intellectualism, which tends to make his poetry meticulous, if not academic to the average reader. Lawrence was, of course, the more accessible of the two and is actually better known as a novelist. With different personalities and different backgrounds and different intentions, both Lawrence and Pound go back into time: the former to return to the metaphorical womb, the latter to return to a mythical culture. Although the differences between Lawrence and Pound are enormous, both have achieved poetry of the sublime.


Here are the 2 poems:

Ezra Pound (30 October 1885 – 1 November 1972)


Luini in porcelain!
The grand piano
Utters a profane
Protest with her clear soprano.

The sleek head emerges
From the gold-yellow frock
As Anadyomene in the opening
Pages of Reinach.

Honey-red, closing the face-oval,
A basket-work of braids which seem as if they were
Spun in King Minos’ hall
From metal, or intractable amber;

The face-oval beneath the glaze,
Bright in its suave bounding-line, as,
Beneath half-watt rays,
The eyes turn topaz.

D.H. Lawrence (11 September 1885 – 2 March 1930)


Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see

A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong

To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour

Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

A Provocative Essay on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises by Joe Canuck

Ernest Hemingway at the Bullfights

I wrote this essay in the summer of 1981 when I was 21-years-old and taking my first English course at the University of British Columbia. This is the first of three essays that I had to write for an American literature course focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. I am particularly fond of these essays because they bring back good memories. I actually prefer these essays much more than my academic papers, for I believe these essays were creative essays that are as fresh today as they were 33 years ago. It would be, well, “academic,” to reprint some of my academic papers; no one would be interested in reading them. I, myself, haven’t the inclination to read my own academic papers from university — all really dry and boring stuff. But this essay is special. All three essays I wrote for this course weren’t just critiques per se but attempted to be works of art in themselves.

That summer, the summer of 1981, for some reason, remains vivid, maybe because I had been trying to be a writer and I nearly found my voice and style that summer with these three essays. The style and the diction of these essays are closest to my writing style and diction today. Ironically, my subsequent years at university were strictly about fitting in and speaking in the collective and institutional voice. University was not about searching for my personal identity and speaking in my own individual voice. I also remember vividly reading my essays out loud in class, as did everyone else taking the course. It was an unusual approach taken by the Professor and the result was that it brought the class closer together and created a camaraderie that to this day I still remember with great nostalgia.

The name of my Professor was Bickford Sylvester, a truly unforgettable name and remarkable man, though I did not know it at the time. I did a search for him on the Internet and discovered that he is living in Bellingham, which is just south of the Canada/US border, about a 45-minutes drive from my apartment in Surrey. The article I found is dated June 16, 2013, from “The Bellingham Herald.” The newspaper article is entitled, “37 years after contest win, Bellingham man says his dad is still Father of the Year,” and is really more about his son, John Sylvester, and why he thinks his dad (Bickford) is the best dad in the world. It’s a rather sweet and sentimental story that was published for Father’s Day in 2013.

Bickford Sylvester is a well-known and respected Ernest Hemingway scholar and expert. The other two essays that I wrote for him that summer in 1981, incidentally, was on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I hadn’t seen or really thought about Bickford Sylvester in all these years. I am happy to see that one year ago at 87-years-of-age he still looks healthy and alert, though in the photo he has a walking cane. I assume and hope that nothing has changed from a year ago and that he is healthy and alert as before and still, without a doubt and hands down, the best Hemingway expert alive.

Surrey, June 12, 2014

Update: November 26, 2015

Just learned that Bickford Sylvester passed away in 2 summers ago aged 89 in August 2014, just 2-months after I first posted this essay on my Joe Canuck art website.

Poster of 1957 film adaptation of the novel

Ernest Hemingway, as we all know or ought to know, was a mucho macho man. Of course, we all know about his big-game hunting expeditions in Africa, his deep-sea fishing off the coast of Cuba. And all of us, or most of us, at any rate, know he volunteered and served as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross during World War I. Hemingway certainly crafted an ultra-masculine persona of himself for his adoring fans and public. But do you suppose such a manly man could be impotent?

On a superficial level, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is about a bunch of rich boozers romping around France and Spain sometime during the 1920s. Nothing really exciting ever happens to them until they hit Pamplona, where it is Fiesta time. At the bullfights, and like a cheap Mexican TV soap opera, jealousy and passion cause fistfights to break out between the men vying for the love of Lady Brett, the main female protagonist of the novel. In the end, however, nobody wins because in literature no man ever gets to win the heart of the femme fatale. That’s the novel in a nutshell. But is there anything deeper to this novel than just your boy-meets-girl and boy-gets-girl and then boy-gets-dumped-by-girl story? We shall find out soon enough.

Lady Brett is indeed a femme fatale, if she is not your average slut. She changes men as often as I change underwear. At one time or another, she has had affairs with four of the five major characters in the novel. She has had affairs with Jake, with Mike, with Robert and with Pedro. I wonder how having had so many men, how she doesn’t also have syphilis? Femme fatale, rich bitch, Euro-trash, or whatever you wish to call Lady Brett, she certainly has Jake, the central male protagonist of the novel, wrapped around her fingers. All she has to do is call and Jake comes running like an obedient dog, as this is precisely what he does when Lady Brett wires him to come and fetch her only a few days after she dumped the young matador, Pedro Romero. Incidentally, this scenario of a small clique of young men aimlessly romping and sleeping and whoring around Europe during the post-war years of the 1920s sums up Hemingway’s generation or the so-called Lost Generation to a tee.

At 34-years-of-age, Lady Brett is too old to be a mother, really. In fact, her best years to have a baby have long passed. Whatever Jake sees in Lady Brett, it certainly isn’t the quality of motherhood. However, Jake isn’t thinking of Lady Brett as the future mother of his children. No, Jake isn’t going to fool himself or be a fool; rather, he wants to be fooling around. Fooling around is really fun, but when you’ve got an old war wound that makes you impotent, fooling around can make you look very foolish, indeed. So rather than risk being found out in bed with Lady Brett, Jake tries to be the strong and silent type and feigns aloofness. Actually, what Jake really wants is to be young and virile and 18-years-old again, just like Pedro, the dashing young matador whom Jake secretly admires, even though Pedro is his main rival for Lady Brett’s affections and sexual favors.

But then again, I guess Jake wanting to be a naïve 18-year-old boy who believes he will turn a 34-year-old slut into an honest woman by marrying her is not so ridiculous if the same naïve 18-year-old boy pleases the woman you cannot please because you just can’t get it up anymore. What exactly do I mean by this? Here’s an old Hollywood joke circa the late-1960s that will hopefully make my point more clear and more memorable: Young Warren Beatty in a motel room with a beautiful starlet is speaking on the telephone to the old and aged George Raft: “George,” says Warren, “your erection is ready.”

To be precise, Jake lost his testicles on the battlefields of the Great War (1914-1918). I kid you not. When Jake was wounded in the war, he lost that thing, the thing, which brings not only the most enjoyable sexual satisfaction to a man, but also the most enjoyable sexual satisfaction to a woman. Whether we are honest enough to admit it or not, a man’s ability to attract the opposite sex depends greatly on his ability to make love and reproduce. How can a man feel good about himself if he can’t even get it up? What use was Jake to a sexually voracious woman like Lady Brett if he couldn’t even get an erection? Jake never had a chance with this femme fatale, with this ball-buster, to use the more descriptive vernacular.

Jake was literally ‘damaged goods.’ Thankfully, I personally do not have this problem and so cannot speak from first hand experience, but I would imagine that any man who did have Jake’s problem would really hate life, or himself; or both. No wonder Jake is bitter. If I were in Jake’s shoes, I would be bitter as hell. Of course, there is nothing funny at all about getting your balls blown off. Getting your balls blown off is the kind of thing that makes grown men cry:

“I lay awake thinking and my mind jumping around. Then I couldn’t keep away from it, and I started to think about Brett and all of the rest went away. I was thinking about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around and started to go in a sort of smooth waves. Then all of a sudden I started to cry.” [1]

OK, admittedly, the above passage does not prove that Jake got his balls blown off. I am guilty of being provocative. But then again, if there was nothing physically wrong with Jake, what the heck was really wrong with him? What could explain his self-absorption and maladjustment and misery?

If Jake’s personality was like that of the proverbial shell-shocked war veteran, no doubt it was because he had seen too much shit and was traumatized by it. The ‘shit’ I am referring to is the death and destruction of World War I. Jake was indeed very lucky to have come through that bloodbath alive. But having come through it (minus one or both testicles?) you can never ever be the same. Nor are you ever going to be the same after you’ve seen your buddy’s head explode as the bullet makes impact.

Poor disillusioned Jake. Poor disillusioned Hemingway? Did he have illusions of glory and chivalry in The War To End All Wars? Did he not know that war is about killing and maiming people? But if Jake is disillusioned, he is not the only one. Tens of thousands of young men eagerly volunteered and poured their manhood and blood into the battlefields and trenches of the First World War. And so, like the Vietnam veteran who today suffers from Post War Traumatic Syndrome, Jake also can’t get over the fact that the enemy shot back. Or am I being too harsh on Jake? Am I being too harsh on Hemingway?

Hemingway evidently paid a high price for his volunteerism, if not adventurism in the Great War. Even if he came out of that horrible war with his balls intact, he acted as if they had been blown off. The remainder of his rather long life was engaged in all manner of high-risk activities and any kind of sports that involved killing and maiming animals. He simply and sadly overcompensated. He had a death wish for both himself and others. But in those days people saw it differently and Hemingway was thought of as just being manly and living life to the fullest — that is until that fateful day in 1961 when he blasted his head off with a 12-guage shotgun. Were there any warning signs that he would do such a terrible and bloody thing? It was everywhere and nowhere. The clue is both here and not here in this passage, representative of both Hemingway’s deadpan prose style and deadpan attitude towards life:

“That winter Robert Cohn went over to America with his novel, and it was accepted by a fairly good publisher. His going made a row I heard, and I think that was where Frances lost him, because several women were nice to him in New York, and when he came back he was quite changed. He was more enthusiastic about America than ever, and he was not so simple, and he was not so nice.” [2]

Reading Hemingway’s deadpan if not lifeless dead prose like the above passage, the reader feels that the narrator (Hemingway) can’t get excited about life anymore; and that’s an understatement. Furthermore, the reader suspects something is not quite right in Paris, the famous city of lights and love, when it is described like this:

“It was a warm spring night and I sat at the table on the terrace of the Napolitain after Robert had gone, watching it get dark and the electric signs come on, and the red and green stop-and-go traffic signal, and the crowd going by, and the horse-cabs clipperty clopping along the edge of the solid taxi traffic, and the poules [prostitutes] going by, singly and in pairs, looking for the evening meal.” [3]

Incidentally, Pedro Romero was more than just a pretty boy in the novel. Pedro represents a masculinity that is foreign and therefore exotic and attractive to Jake (Hemingway) the American. But Pedro’s masculinity is more symbolic than practical, more stylized than spontaneous, more fake than real in other words. In Pedro Romero we have an intoxicating cocktail of eroticism and exoticism, of high drama and real danger, of both glory and gory in the spilling of blood, sweat, and tears in the bullring. Some may disagree and say that the stylized movements and mannerism of the matador are more feminine than masculine, but that’s for another essay entirely. Moreover, the ritualized slaughter and sacrifice of bulls (the bull is a phallic symbol) further complicates an already complicated and complex issue.

In the end, nothing ever seems to satisfactorily explain Jake and what it is he is searching for, if he is indeed searching for anything. They called Hemingway’s generation the Lost Generation, and here it is on splendid display and totally and truly LOST! To say that Jake got his balls blown off is probably too simple and simplistic. Whatever it was that Jake feels he has lost and why he, himself, is lost, adrift and rudderless in life, as it were, we will never know. Jake may or may not have had his balls blown off, we do not know for sure; but we do know with certainty that Hemingway didn’t. The proof is in the fact that Hemingway sired a rather large brood of descendants. He was prolific in life as well as in make-believe fiction and produced a voluminous body of work. By any standard, he was not impotent but very potent. There, I’ve answered my own question and I’m sorry to have led you on, if you had expected an answer in the affirmative.


[1] Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, New York). Page 31.

[2] Ibid., Page 8.

[3] Ibid., Page 14.

Essay on George Orwell’s 1984 by Joe Canuck

Newspeak: “War is Peace”

Newspeak is the fictional language in the novel 1984, written by George Orwell. It is a controlled language created by the totalitarian state Oceania as a tool to limit freedom of thought, and concepts that pose a threat to the regime such as freedom, self-expression, individuality, and peace. Any form of thought alternative to the party’s construct is classified as “thoughtcrime“. (Wikipedia)


This essay was written in the fall of 1983 at UBC (University of British Columbia) on George Orwell’s famous novel 1984. I found it in my mother’s basement, after being there and collecting dust for more than 30 years. There are a few more essays there. If I ever get around to digging them up, I’ll post them here one of these days, when I have more spare time.

Incidentally, my professor was Dr. Fred Stockholder, who gave me a split grade of B-minus/C-plus on this paper. Dr. Stockholder taught a literature course on the dystopian novel and this was my first essay for the term. The final term paper was on J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting For The Barbarians. This was the 2nd course I took with him. The other course was on the theories of literary criticism. Dr. Stockholder’s comments on this particular essay were: “Disorderly — this paper is filled with good ideas which need development. Go back and read Orwell’s essays. The style, the orderliness of his prose is a good model for so cynical a temperament as the one you displayed here.”

I remember Professor Stockholder well. He was one of the more intelligent professors whom I go along with swimmingly; perhaps this may explain my arrogance, which, along with my “cynical temperament” is also on full display in this essay. If I do say so myself, this paper strikes me as highly implausible for an academic paper. I was 23-years-old at the time, which may mitigate the bad writing.

Rereading my essay, I am rather shocked that I got as high a mark as I did. His comments were equally generous and forgiving. For the sake of clarity, I have slashed quite a bit from the original 10-page essay and rewritten some passages. Despite the heavy editing, some passages still read like a freshman essay. In retrospect, this is probably one of my first attempts at reinventing the essay and or first experiments at writing in the free-flowing, all-knowing voice of the Bard.

Surrey, August 6, 2013


George Orwell’s relationship to the past, to history, and how he uses it in 1984 is more interesting to me than his critique of totalitarianism, which I believe is the standard reading of his famous novel. Like so many of his literary contemporaries, Orwell is obsessed with the past, with, ostensibly, the centre of power and the men who write our history. Hence, his famous dictum in the novel: Those who control the present control the past, and those who control the past control the future. This is the greatest lesson and warning of 1984.

Evidently, the pining for a lost golden age has become a literary convention which, as early as the 18th-Century, was employed by English poets to convey their disaffection for the culture of their own time. And in the 20th-Century, this disaffection for the culture of their own time, or rather, the dissatisfaction with the lack of culture of modern times was most profoundly expressed by T.S. Eliot in his poem “The Waste Land” and by his lesser known contemporary but great mentor, Ezra Pound, in the latter’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Orwell’s novel 1984, too, it seems to me, is pining for a lost golden age.

But this pining for a golden age is made more complex and complicated by the fact that individuals in a totalitarian state are not permitted to have a memory. Everything is controlled in Oceania, where private memories are supplanted by collective memories manufactured by the State. For Winston, “everything faded away into a shadow world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain.” Essentially, what you have here is a State induced amnesia and alienation, exactly what the Party must sustain in order to remain in control. However, Winston becomes aware of his past when fragments of his childhood memories resurface after years of being repressed:

“The first fragment of chocolate had melted on Winston’s tongue.The taste was delightful. But here was still that memory moving round the edges of his consciousness, something strongly felt but not reducible to the definite shape, like an object seen out of the corner of one’s eye. He pushed it away from him, aware only that it was the memory of some action which he would have liked to undo but could not.”

Indeed, Winston’s awakening directly corresponds with the surfacing of his subconscious. The faint memory of chocolate from his childhood is a catalyst of this awakening that reaches its climax with Winston’s analysis, if not psychoanalysis of his long repressed dream. For the first time in his life, he begins to question everything. Consequently, he not only gains insight into himself but also into the proles. More importantly, he now understands why he must rebel against the Party, which comes (no pun intended, and not insignificantly) after having sex with Julia.

“The terrible thing that the Party had done was to persuade you that mere impulses, mere feelings, were of no account, while at the same time robbing you of all power over the material world. When once you were in the grip of the Party, what you felt or did not feel, what you did or refrained from doing, made literally no difference. Whatever happened, you vanished, and neither you nor your actions were ever heard of again. You were lifted clean out of the stream of history. And yet to the people of only two generations ago this would not have seemed all-important, because they were not attempting to alter history. They were governed by private loyalties which they did not question. What mattered were individual relationships, and a completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man, could have value in itself. The proles, it suddenly occurred to him, had remained in this condition. They were not loyal to a party or a country or an idea, they were loyal to one another. For the first time in his life he did not despise the proles or think of them merely as an inert force which could one day spring to life and regenerate the world. The proles had stayed human. They had not become hardened inside. They had held on to the primitive emotions which he himself had to re-learn by conscious effort. And in thinking this he remembered, without apparent relevance, how a few weeks ago he had seen a severed hand lying on the pavement and had kicked it into the gutter as though it had been a cabbage-stalk. ‘The proles are human beings,’ he said aloud. ‘We are not human.'”

In time, Winston arrives at a vision of the world not unlike William Blake’s vision. The original innocence of childhood lost and the natural sex impulse distorted, are for Blake and for Orwell, evidence of society and power corrupted. And just as Nature (with capital “N”), for Blake, is the restorative norm, so too, one senses that Winston’s and Julia’s countryside rendezvous and the act of making love is perhaps the closest thing to being natural or normal in Oceania.

“There was a direct intimate connection between chastity and political orthodoxy. For how could the fear, the hatred, and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force? The sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it into account.”


Blake, the idiot-savant of English poetry, is blissfully resigned to the universal truth that so long as evil men exist, evil things will be done to the good men and women on this earth. It matters not what form of government or political system is in place. Evil people will do evil things for the sake of simply being evil. Blake puts it concisely in his short poem, “The Human Abstract”: “Pity would be no more, / If we did not make somebody Poor / And Mercy no more could be, / If all were happy as we.” Orwell also comes to the same conclusion as Blake, but is much more prosaic when he writes:

“All of the disputed territories contain valuable minerals, and some of them yield important vegetable products such as rubber which in colder climates it is necessary to synthesize by comparatively expensive methods. But above all they contain a bottomless reserve of cheap labour. Moreover, the labour of the exploited peoples round the equator is not really necessary to the world’s economy. They add nothing to the wealth of the world, since whatever they produce is used for the purposes of war, and the object of waging a war is always to be in a better position in which to wage another war. By their labour the slave populations allow the tempo of continuous warfare to be speeded up. But if they did not exist, the structure of world society, and the process by which it maintains itself, would not be essentially different.”

What is described in the above passage is arguably more akin to imperialism than to totalitarianism. Perhaps the two are not that different, not according to Orwell. Whereas the quintessential novel against imperialism is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Orwell’s 1984 is the quintessential novel against a totalitarian police state, against, what, some have argued, England was becoming in the post-war years. (1984 is the inverse of 1948, the year the novel was completed.) Both novels are stridently anti-authoritarian, if not overtly anti-imperialist works of literature in my opinion. Both novels argue against Imperialism and Totalitarianism in their own way, if the two aren’t really the same thing. If it’s the subjugation of an alien race, it is called Imperialism, but if it’s the subjugation of your own race, then it is called Totalitarianism. Same dif’, as we say here in Canada.

In conclusion, Orwell’s main thesis in 1984 is this: Those who rule the world get to write the history. In this respect, Orwell’s obsession with history, with, really, those at the centre of power who write our history, is typical of political writers of his generation. Indeed, the task of politically aware writers such as the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott has been to rewrite history for the oppressed peoples of the 3rd-world and former colonies. In his epic poem of self-discovery called “Star-Apple Kingdom” Walcott writes:

And these groined caves with barnacles
Pitted like stone
Are our cathedrals
And the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
Into marl and cornmeal
And that was Lamentations—
That was just Lamentations,
It was not history

So, truly, it’s relative, as Albert Einstein said it all was. The questioning of history, or rather, the rewriting of it is perhaps the most political and powerful act of dissent, the most dangerous threat to Power, in whatever form that power or system may take. And just as “TWO AND TWO MAKE FIVE” is “newspeak” to Winston, so “DOCTOR LIVINGSTONE DISCOVERED LAKE VICTORIA” was “newspeak” to the sons of the black men who carried the sick and dying Livingstone through the jungle to where he “discovered” the lake. This discovery, of course, is rubbish. Lake Victoria existed long before it was “discovered” and named by the White Man. This is the fallacy and folly of Empire that is exposed by Orwell. Newspeak is now part of our lexicon and I984, is, indeed, a classic novel and important lesson that we should never forget.

Vancouver, 1983

Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: An Appreciation by Joe Canuck

EH 1306N
July 1934 Ernest Hemingway with marlin. Havana Harbor, Cuba. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

This essay was originally written in the summer of 1981 when I was 21-years-old and taking my first English course at the University of British Columbia. This is the last essay of three essays that I had to write for an American literature course focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The Professor was Bickford Sylvester. The first essay I wrote for him was on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night, followed by an essay on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and then this third and last essay for him on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

The first two essays were very rebellious essays. I was 21-years-old, after all, and the hormones were still raging. I was also a very angry young man. I was angry that my parents had recently divorced, angry that I wasn’t cut out to be a major league baseball player, angry that I had no clue what I wanted to do with the rest of life, really. I was the proverbial rebel without a cause. I was, in retrospect, like the wild marlin in The Old Man and the Sea. Much to his credit, Bickford Sylvester understood me. And he showed impeccable style and grace, too, which I can now fully appreciate as a mature man. I am 54-years-old or about the same age he was when I first met him in 1981.

Bickford Slyester
Bickford Sylvester

As a matter of fact, not only did he tolerate my arrogance, he was gracious enough to play the part of the old man to my part of the marlin in our little classroom tug-of-war. I somehow understood this at the time, and understand it even more profoundly today, 33 years later. In the end, I submitted to the master and showed him my respect and turned in this essay, my least provocative and most respectful one as a peace offering to him. I am indebted to him for pointing out the symbolism of the old man’s circular journey and the allusions to Christ at Calvary, which were incorporated into my essay and duly accredited to him in the footnotes.

Surrey, June 13, 2014

Update: November 26, 2015

Just learned that Bickford Sylvester passed away in 2 summers ago aged 89 in August 2014, just 2-months after I first posted this essay on my Joe Canuck art website.


There is no room for the meek and weak in The Old Man and the Sea. It is a hash world, indeed, where only the toughest and fittest survive, and this suits Santiago just fine. Santiago, the old fisherman of this sublime final novel by Ernest Hemingway, is probably the toughest guy I’ve ever known. They don’t come any tougher than Santiago. They certainly don’t make men like Hemingway’s Santiago any more — that’s for sure. If nothing else, Santiago’s stoicism sets him apart from the rest of the men in his small Cuban fishing village.

For Santiago, each day is a struggle and each fish caught is a battle and a small victory. In order to scrape by a subsistence living, Santiago must fish every day, alone and in his tiny skiff. But for 84 days in a row he hasn’t caught anything of substance that would give him any sustained sustenance. Beyond merely existing, he hasn’t been put to the real test. He hasn’t been physically or mentally challenged. He hasn’t known what it feels like to be alive, really alive, hyper-alive, for 84 days now. On the 85th day he sets out again, but this time it will be a voyage like no other. His voyage will be a condensed 72-hour version of Homer’s epic Odyssey. Insofar as Santiago’s solo fishing expedition seems more fantastical than believable, more myth than reality, he could very well be the Ulysses of our times.

There is no doubt in my mind that Santiago is a modern day warrior. He is not afraid to go way, way out into the Gulf Stream in search of the big prize, not even during the height of the hurricane season. He will go to the far corners of the earth if he has to. He must! The man is fearless. All he has with him when he goes to do battle with the giants is his pathetically tiny skiff and the bare basics, such as a harpoon and finishing lines. He tempts the Gods too much and on the 85th day the Gods humor him: the grand prize, the big fish he has searched for is found, and for the next 48 hours, he will literally be engaged in a tug-of-war with the biggest marlin he has ever encountered. He will be engaged in the biggest existential threat and toughest battle of his life, too.

The old man gives it his all, and before 48 grueling and bloody hours have passed by, Santiago will single-handedly kill a dolphin, a Mako shark, and two or more Shovel-nosed sharks who got in the way of this epic battle of wills and strength between himself and the big marlin. But really, and fundamentally, the battle is between Man and Mother Nature. Santiago’s trial and tribulations are worthy of sainthood. It was a marathon test of strength and endurance that would have humbled much younger and much stronger men. The triumph of Santiago’s will over physical pain and fatigue is truly transcendental, if not Christ-like.

Santiago is like Jesus Christ in one obvious respect: he, too, is an outcast. He is a prophet among sheep. Santiago’s contemporaries pity him while the younger fishermen do not understand him. His only fan and loyal companion is the young boy named Manolin. It is not clear if they are related or who adopted whom, but the young boy seems to be as devoted to Santiago as much as Santiago is devoted to him. Santiago is like a father to the boy. But more important than this father/son relationship is the master/pupil relationship. Santiago is a mentor to the boy. Santiago is a good teacher and Manolin is an eager pupil. What the boy learns from the old man, no one else can teach him. No one else is cut from the same cloth.

What is Santiago’s philosophy of life? Just what exactly is the boy learning from the old man? Santiago is an individualist: he likes to do things his own way. Santiago is resolute: he will not be dissuaded from doing what he knows he must do. Santiago is a realist: he does not want to kill the marlin, but he knows he must in order to survive. Santiago is steadfast: he suffers from physical aches and ailments, but he does not complain nor will he ever shirk his duty. The boy is in good hands. Manolin will grow up to be a good man.

Although it is true that Santiago does not want to kill the marlin, he knows he has no other choice. (The marlin really ought to get equal billing beside Santiago as the other central protagonist in this novel.) It is either kill the marlin or be killed by it. Life cannot exist without death. This, of course, is a paradox. The tragic tones of this paradox are underlined by the fact that Santiago calls the marlin his brother. Is it not indeed tragic and cruel to kill our “true brothers” to survive? [1]  Another paradox that this short and lovely novel deals with is this: It is through pain and suffering that we truly experience our beings to the utmost degree of intensity. This is why Santiago believes “fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive.” [2] The old man’s fight with the marlin is terribly painful, but he would not want it any other way.

Furthermore, Santiago believes that “pain does not matter to a man.” [3]  Hence, manliness is measured by how much pain you can endure, for necessary purposes and for the right reasons, of course: Santiago is neither a sadist nor masochist. For men like Santiago, there is an unwritten law that says you do not give in to your pain under any circumstances. Sigmund Freud said suppression leads to neurosis. Perhaps this is why in insane asylums men out number women. In any event, one thing is for certain, Santiago is not insane. However, he doesn’t fit into mainstream society neither. He is wise but his wisdom is ignored. Mainstream society has no room for wise men. Mainstream society is full of men who scorn Santiago. Mainstream men do not wish to labor and sweat like an ox when modern devices and gas-motored boats will make their work and lives easier. Mainstream men see Santiago as an anachronism, as a dinosaur. Mainstream men are lame.

Though small in numbers, Santiago has his admirers. He is called El Campeón (The Champion) or numero uno (number one) by those who appreciate the old man and the old ways and can remember when Santiago walked tall and proud in the village. Soft-minded and soft-bodied fishermen who use buoys rather than sticking to traditional ways and ‘good ol’ fashioned elbow-grease’ don’t get half the respect that Santiago gets, even if that respect is unspoken. But the narrator does not have this problem: he wants us to know that in a world full of common folk, Santiago is singularly uncommon, if not the ideal. Hence, scavenger sharks like the Shovel-nosed are “hateful” and “bad smelling”[4]  but Makos are all right because like Santiago, Makos have “no fear at all and would do exactly what [they] wished.” [5]  If Santiago could be reincarnated, he would probably wish to come back as a Great White Shark, the most feared and fearless top predator of all the oceans. In other words, Santiago is at the very top of the food chain. He is the majestic white king of the deep blue seas.

Of course, men do not want to be weak or to be perceived as weak, especially men like Santiago. I think Santiago would rather die than be weak or be perceived as weak. Nor should real men fear death. The old man is not afraid at all to die, but he will. He is very close to the end of his life and he knows it. This marlin, or what remains of it after the sharks were finished eating it, will be Santiago’s last. Against what’s fair and just — The Gods are cruel — he has brought back the 18-foot-long skeletal remains of the once mighty marlin back to his shack on the beach. Santiago may have won the battle but he has lost the war. He knows this all too well but he does not want our pity. Manolin will be his comfort and legacy. When Santiago dies, he knows that Manolin will take his place. And when it is Manolin’s turn and time to die, you can be sure someone else will take his place, too. So long as men and women procreate, life will be eternal. Death is inevitable; so is life. You cannot stop either death or life. Neither should be feared.

When Santiago dies, the world will continue to turn as always. This is the law of the Universe. Animals sense this intuitively even if they don’t know it intellectually. This is why the marlin makes “a very big circle” just before it dies. [6]  This is also why Santiago’s voyage is circular. Is the old man an archetype? More precisely, is Santiago our redeemer? It was not for no reason that Santiago’s humble fishing trip has miraculous and biblical overtones that allude to Christ at Calvary. [7]  This is sublime stuff. Hemingway is at his very best and spiritual here. He saved the best for last, in this, his final novel and his most mature work of literature. Knowing that the young Manolin will carry on after he is gone, the old man can die in peace. The circle is complete. [8]  The novel ends with Santiago lying down to sleep the eternal sleep. Totally spent from his 72-hour ordeal and odyssey, Santiago quickly fades away dreaming of the magnificent lions he once saw in Africa. Alone and in quiet solitude, he is finally at peace with himself and the cosmos.


[1] Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, New York., p. 75.

[2] Ibid. p. 106.

[3] Ibid. p. 84.

[4] Ibid. pp. 107-108.

[5] Ibid. p.101.

[6] Ibid. p. 86.

[7] Ibid. p. 121.

[8] The circular theme and or circular scheme of Hemingway’s novel is well articulated by Bickford Sylvester in his essay, “Hemingway’s Extended Vision: The Old Man and The Sea” by Bickford Sylvester (Publication of the Modern-Language Association of America, New York, N.Y. 10003, March 1966). p. 132.

An Unwitting Feminist Attack on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night by Joe Canuck


This essay was originally entitled, “A Creative Approach to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night” and written when I was 21, in the summer of 1981 or 33 summers/years ago from today. In the summer of 1981, I was taking my first English literature course at the University of British Columbia. This essay was written for a course taught by Bickford Sylvester. I believe he is still alive and would be is his late-80s today. (I did a quick Internet search for him the other day.)

Bickford Sylvester is a well-known and respected Ernest Hemingway scholar who is the emeritus professor of English Literature at the University of British Columbia. He has served on the board of the Hemingway Foundation and the editorial board of the Hemingway Review. In February of this year, his latest book on Hemingway was published: Hemingway, Cuba and the Cuban Works, by Larry Grimes and Bickford Sylvester (Published by Kent State University: February 21, 2014.)

I found this old university essay recently in my mother’s basement when I helped her move house. I didn’t have the heart to trash it. Among all my university essays in my mother’s basement, I also found a copy of one of Bickford Sylvester’s first published essays on Hemingway that he had given the class as a handout for study. Apparently, I also hadn’t the heart to trash his essay neither, all those many years ago. I reread it yesterday, having not laid eyes on it for 33 years. His essay, “Hemingway’s Extended Vision: The Old Man and The Sea” (PMLA, March 1966) is now online.

I wrote 3 essays for Bickford Sylvester but I am particularly fond of this one on F. Scott Fitzgerald. I remember writing this essay, which is quite curious because I wrote a lot of essays at university that I have no memory of writing. This was the second essay that I wrote for Professor Sylvester. The other two essays were on Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea. In hindsight, his course on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway would have a profound effect on my life that, at the time, I had no way of knowing or realizing until many, many years later.

Surrey, British Columbia, June 14, 2014

Update: November 26, 2015

Just learned that Bickford Sylvester passed away in 2 summers ago aged 89 in August 2014, just 2-months after I first posted this essay on my Joe Canuck art website.


Once upon a time, in the summer of 1924, it seemed charm, humor, and money gushed out of Dick Diver with the intensity of a waterfall. At the age of thirty-four, Dick had everything going for him — a beautiful wife, two beautiful kids, and a beautiful villa in the Riviera. Thanks to his wife’s wealth, he literally bought glamour into his life, and into the lives of those who flocked to him. For a while it seemed the good times were never going to end. Like the rest of America, Dick never expected the stock market crash of 1929. Dick never expected the American dream to explode in his face. As the Roaring Twenties passed by; so too Dick, leaving only fragments and shards of a broken man.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night is classic American folklore: the poor boy climbing to the top of the social ladder, succeeding, and, therefore, confirming the superiority of the American way of life. Also euphemistically called the American Dream, the American way of life is ostensibly crass capitalism and mass consumerism, but this critique is nowhere to be found in Fitzgerald’s novel. Instead, we get all the clichés. We get the broad sweeps of the brush but no fine or refined details. People just automatically act and are inexplicably driven to succeed in America no matter what, and we are not told why they act the way they do or why Americans are so obsessed with success and being “winners.” The reader is left to fill in the blanks.

For example, I know that at the turn of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe poured into New York’s Ellis Island hoping to start a new and better life. For these weary and impoverished people running away from oppression and hunger, and also for the millions who came before them, America was the Promised Land. You could be anyone you wanted to be, and do anything that you wanted to do in America. If you were an American, nothing was impossible, improbable, or implausible. These are certainly the clichés and they are unabashedly writ large in Fitzgerald’s novel. But why?

Fitzgerald was not from this immigrant class or ethnic tribe, nor was he a publicist for the Dream Factory a.k.a. the United States of America. So why did Fitzgerald give us a cliché character in Dick Diver, the central protagonist of Tender Is The Night? Why did Dick Diver act like a fresh-off-the-boat Jewish immigrant who was maniacally driven to become a success, maniacally driven to be rich and famous or a ‘big shot’ as they used to say in Fitzgerald’s time? Implicit if not explicit in American culture is that there was something wrong with you if you weren’t a ‘big shot’. (This is an underlying theme or rather recurring psychosis in all of Fitzgerald’s major novels, incidentally.) Did Fitzgerald become a believer and victim or ‘sucker’ of his own fiction?

In any event, Dick Diver was certainly an American who wanted to be a winner and a ‘big shot.’ He wanted to be the best at everything he did. Trained as a psychologist (a peculiarly Jewish-cum-American profession) Dick was not content with being just a good psychologist; he wanted to be the very best. Asked about his goals in life, Dick replied: ‘I’ve only got one, Franz, and that’s to be a good psychologist — maybe to be the greatest one that ever lived.’ [1]  (This American obsession with being the very best and the leader of the pack is actually very Jewish; not that Fitzgerald was necessarily making this point about Dick’s character, if indeed Fitzgerald was conscious of just how Jewish a character he created in Dick Diver. In fact, the entire notion of American Greatness or  “Exceptionalism” is arguably Jewish and Talmudic, as in ‘We are God’s Chosen Ones.’ The quintessential American character is fundamentally Jewish!)

Dick’s mind, however, was not exceptionally brilliant; in the words of the narrator, Dick “had only one or two ideas — that his little collection of pamphlets now in the fifth German edition contained the germ of all he would think or know.”[2]  As a matter of fact, everything Dick Diver did seemed too great to be true, especially his parties. The narrator makes this observation: “The reaction came when he realized the waste and extravagance involved. He sometimes looked back with awe at the carnivals of affection he had given, as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal blood lust.”[3]

The truth of the matter is that Dick Diver did have his doubts. As a young man he had asked himself: “God, am I like the rest after all? Am I like the rest?” [4]  Of course, this was the bleak moment of truth. Furthermore and further on in the novel, the narrator writes: “In the dead white hours in Zurich staring into a stranger’s pantry across the up shine of a street-lamp, he used to think that he wanted to be good, he wanted to be kind, he wanted to be brave and wise, but it was all pretty difficult. He wanted to be loved, too, if he could fit it in.” [5]

In the above quotation, the key word is “wanted,” and it is therefore repeated four times. The narrator, I believe, is suggesting that Dick wanted too much and so, in the end, got nothing. Notice also that the verb “want” is in the past tense. We know what Dick wanted, but it is uncertain what Dick now wants for the future. If Dick does have a future, we are not told about it. What, for example, are Dick’s desires and ‘wants’ for the future? It has been said that people who do not know what they want for the future (because basically they have no future and no hope) eventually commit suicide. This ambivalence about Dick’s future foreshadows his demise. Indeed, when his wife divorced him in 1929, it was just too much for Dick to take. Like the country in which he was born, Dick’s entire world shriveled up like a raisin in the sun. What could never happen happened: The Great Depression! America the Dust Bowl!

What happens to a man when he turns forty? Does his childhood dream of playing baseball in the major league recede like his hairline? Does the zip in his life suddenly fizzle out like soda pop that has gone flat? No one will disagree that life is filled with disappointments, but if you are to continue, you must try your best to fix up your life and look forward to the future. Sadly enough, this simple bit of advice is, for many men, easier said than done. Do you suppose Dick was one of these men who simply gave up on life? And if so, should we have any sympathy for him?

At the age of forty, if Dick had shown more insight into life or more remorse for the things he did wrong in life, he would have been a more sympathetic character. But Fitzgerald will not allow this. Dick will fade away into obscurity unrepentant and true to his American character and mythos. Nevertheless, reading this last sentence in the novel — “Perhaps, so she liked to think, his career was biding its time, again like Grant’s in Galena; his latest note was post-marked from Hornell, New York, which is some distance from Geneva and a very small town; in any case he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another.” — I am overwhelmed with pathos.

The final sentence of the novel is, of course, an elliptical sentence and what is unsaid is more meaningful and pitiful than what was actually said. The star that burns the brightest also burns the shortest. How sad and pathetic had Dick’s life turned out to be; how atypical and yet also how typical was Dick’s life in the end? Dick may have been rich and special for a brief period of time and in comparison to the rest of the anonymous men of his generation. But in the final analysis, Dick ended up just as hopeless and as anonymous as millions of other Americans whose careers and families and lives were all destroyed in the Great Depression. Dare I say destroyed in pursuit of the American Dream? Isn’t the American way of life just a big con, a rigged game at best? It was not Fitzgerald’s intention to make Dick Diver an allegory for America, the country, itself; but isn’t it incredibly ironic that he was, all the same?

And now for something completely different….

Judy Campbell, my good friend and sociology major from the University of Hawaii, had this to say about Dick Diver: “One thing is for sure, Dick was having a hell of a time coping. We all know the stereotype: the middle-aged man who abandons his wife and kids to live with a younger woman, and who turns in his station wagon for a foreign and exotic sports car in a desperate and pathetic attempt to be twenty-something again. As for Dick, this description fits him. Take for example the boating scenes near the end of the novel. Dick, at the age of forty, was doing water acrobatics that not even an experienced water-skier would attempt without practice. Unless Dick was immune to the physical deterioration which afflicts all living organisms, Dick was lucky he didn’t die of a heart attack.”

Ms. Campbell shook her head in disgust. Then she continued:

“Think about it. Dick was a loser; he was a failure at everything he did. He wasn’t satisfied with being a good psychologist, no, he wanted to be the best there was. So what happened?  He can’t even cure his wife. When he failed to cure his wife, he failed not only as a doctor, but he also failed as a husband. Dick was never at the clinic when he was needed most. When the anonymous woman-artist died of neurosyphilis, Dick was sprawled out drunk and nearly beaten to death in the back alleys of Rome. His relationship with his children was hardly a flesh-and-blood one. He was a miserable father!

“As a matter of fact, if it had not been for his wife’s money, he never would have been able to open his clinic. So to repay her generosity, he cheated behind her back! He had no true friends to speak of, and when his absenteeism and drinking got out of hand, not even his partner wanted anything to do with him. With no one else to blame, he blamed the closest person to him, his wife. He resented her wealth now, felt it belittled his work. What nerve! Finally, it was best for Dick and Nicole to break up before they stopped being human beings. The divorce was inevitable — the tension was so thick you could cut it. It’s a classic case of male menopause! Isn’t that obvious?”

I looked at Ms. Campbell and smiled. She is still the excitable and emotional person I met a year ago. I thought about what she had said, and then I thought about what my Professor would think about such an unorthodox, if not anti-literary interpretation of this classic American novel. No doubt, my Professor will not be pleased when I tell him that Dick Diver, the hero of one of the better-known novels about the Roaring Twenties and from one of America’s greatest novelists of the 20th Century, was simply a middle-aged man struggling with male-menopause. How banal then was Fitzgerald and his Tender Is The Night?


[1] F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is The Night, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, Copyright 1933, 1934, p. 32.

[2]  Ibid., p. 165.

[3]  Ibid., p. 27.

[4]  Ibid., p. 133.

[5]  Ibid., p. 13.