What I Learned from Breaking Things

Those of you who read newspapers or live in Toronto will be aware that construction of the G20 containment fence is about to begin in the lead-up to this month’s big conference downtown and the hordes of protestors that the event will likely draw. Perhaps fewer of you will know that I consider myself something of a retired member of that horde. In my teenage years I did everything from local protests, rallies, and campaigns through to the big Teargasapalooza in Quebec City in 2001. It’s not a part of my life I’m eager to revisit but, awash with twitter posts and facebook updates from friends on all sides of the political spectrum (well, okay, more on one side than the other), I find myself thinking back to that unwashed youth and his staggeringly specific sense of moral, economic, and political rights and wrongs. I’m sure he’d have me pulling my hair out in frustration if we ever met in some metaphysical test tube, but he was mostly a good kid. His heart was in it.

A couple of years ago, while a student at the Guelph MFA program, I wrote a personal essay in response to George Orwell’s “Why I Write” that dredged up this period of my life for marks. Not a lot of marks, as it turned out, and upon reading through the paper again I see that it’s really poorly written and deserving of the dreaded red ink of my professor. However, I’ve managed to piece together (and slightly polish up) its two most readable sections for your review. The thesis was essentially that it wasn’t a coincidence that I stopped my involvement in protest politics around the same time I started writing, and that the two likely responded to similar personal itches, despite the fact that much of my work is apolitical, and the political element of it tends to be ambiguous in its intent. This thesis relies on a simplification of my own life story, as there was a period in between the two where I was drafted into mainstream politics and worked as a speechwriter. But that’s neither here nor there. And the thesis might not even be correct. A more interesting discussion would have been of my ongoing distrust of my relatively apolitical adult life, placed against my embarrassment at the shrillness and naiveté of my teenaged idealism. If there’s a third way in between these two approaches that doesn’t sound like an excuse for itself, I’d love to know where to find it.

Anyway, as the wall goes up in Toronto, I give you two selections from Jake’s C- paper on Orwell. I know what you’re thinking, but really, this is me trying to be topical. Honest. I’m not phoning it in or nuttin’. Consider these two excerpts to be drafts for some future, better-fleshed-out personal essay on the topic.


2. What I Learned from Breaking Things

To back up a bit, I should now explain that I spent my high school years active in radical left-wing politics tied vaguely to the “anti-globalisation” movement that peaked in mainstream coverage around 2000 or 2001. Being the only one in my circle of activist friends without piercings (at the time) or an obvious hairstyle, I was selected as ambassador to the rest of the world. This meant I spent my free time at town council meetings, at fundraisers, and on the phone canvassing friendly parties in government and media to pay attention to such things as cultural imperialism, privatized services, and multilateral corporatism. It was an immensely fulfilling time and probably the period of my life where my learning was both the most intense and the most varied. I had found an early portal where the world, as both a massive abstraction and a visceral immediacy, was being offered to the touch. I got tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed and remember talking to a handful of people who may have been truly unique thinkers. I can remember two distinct thought-shifts that occurred during that period, both of whom are important now to my current ambitions towards writing.

First, I felt a sense of identity assimilation, or at the least, a sense that my individual persona was merging into a newer group identity. There are many reports of this phenomenon among people who attempt to cooperate with others in a high-stress environment. Professional athletes speak of getting lost within the team, as do professional soldiers. The outcome of this paradigm shift was that while my teenaged peers were all starting to differentiate themselves from each other; starting, essentially, to become more individualistic, it was the opposite force, towards the communalization of “the individual”, that was dominant in my life.

Secondly, I remember sensing a growing mistrust and even contempt for language. Because so much of my extra-curricular time was spent reading and parsing the meaning out of politically persuasive text, I grew a sense for the manipulative power of language before discovering its aesthetic power (I was, at this time, a reader, but not a particularly close one, and likely easily swayed by cheap propaganda). This mistrust of language coupled with a mistrust of identity to build a somewhat strange starting point for a would-be writer. As Orwell said in Why I Write, “I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development…before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.” My emotional attitudes were both social and cynical. Chief among them was a nascent worry that the power of language to seduce and pervert was at least as great as its power to inspire and incite…

6. Conscientiousness and Consciousness

I want to close with a poem. This poem comes out of an invitation I received a few years ago to participate in a reading for “socially conscious poets”. Rather than accept the invitation I spent several days fuming over the concept. What in the world does “socially conscious” even mean? Aren’t tyrants socially conscious? Isn’t it that ability to see how a society works that makes them so effective as controllers of the population? What about someone who thinks long and hard about the world and comes up with solutions that are far removed from the political opinions of those who created the event and sent the invitations?

These and other questions, as rhetorical and essentially obnoxious as they are, still cling to my identity as a poet. I don’t want to be socially conscious. I want to have good ideas. If I am confident enough in those ideas to stop questioning them and simply go on trumpeting them, I’d argue that I’d no longer be as conscious as I was before but also that nobody would notice.

The poem, of course, is imperfect. The riff against the cult of the metaphor can be translated for our purposes as a riff against language as infallible tool both for communication and for art. I feel like the demand for clarity inherent in the poem’s subtext is a sort of adolescent fantasy. Somewhere in there, though, I can still hear something of the fantastic adolescent who would never have thought to write it, the one who demanded that the physical world stop spinning and begin to unpack itself for his personal exploration.

A Guide to Conscientiousness
(from The New Layman’s Almanac, McClelland & Stewart, Ltd, 2008)

Here comes a word, so proud you can hear it
applauding in the back of your throat. As a kid I

dug up anthills with the whipper-snipper, not just
dug them up, but burrowed in neck-deep, blister-

buzzing, all violent automation chucking through
the undergrass. Dirt rained home and the lawn

reoriented around a new point, decided on bottoms and tops.
I went on to win and to lose. I got older. Nations rearranged,

and now address each other differently. Cop-outs are
too simple for anything but metaphor. Simile, even

suggests that opinions are different, though they might
share a common root. There is room for

departure between them. But soft consensus hopes
they’re the same mass creation, and with effort

everyone can be right and
warm within the bullshit of

A Company Word
like conscience. Give me
………………….. art that’s decided, just

………………….. once. Give me someone who’s
……………………read everything and knows what

……………………they like and don’t like. Allow me time to
……………………decide if I agree, a year or so in the cellar

……………………where they keep the banned books, food and
……………………water, some paper to write stuff down.

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