We took a lot of photos on our trip this summer. That’s the curse of digital photography: you can just keeping snapping away, deleting the duds later. Much later…
I won’t be posting many pictures of our trip, but there are bound to be a few, marking the high points of our thirty memorable days in Greece-Turkey-Czech Republic.
Here I am, touching the stones of Homeric-era Troy. Can’t put into words how powerful it felt visiting a place I’d read about since childhood. Glorious!
I also got the opportunity to make a pilgrimage, of sorts, to the grave of one of my literary heroes, Franz Kafka. Sherron snapped this one, then discreetly wandered off, letting me have a few private words with my old Master. No touristas about, no unwelcome intrusions. Special, special moment…
Recently, my wife and I returned from a dream holiday: a month in Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Mere days before we were to leave for Istanbul, however, Turkey experienced a coup attempt in which nearly two hundred and fifty people died, many of them civilians. Friends and family urged us to cancel this leg of our trip but, then, some stability was re-established and we decided we couldn’t miss visiting that ancient capital, truly one of the world’s “eternal” cities. We flew into Kemal Ataturk Airport and spent an incredible ten days walking its teeming streets. But while we were out and about, chatting with waiters, hawkers and people from various strata of society, I started composing an article on the attitude of ordinary Turkish citizens to the bungled coup and their autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Here it is:
The woman in Taksim Square is insistent: we must buy two Turkish flags. Thrusting another red pennant at us, even though we’ve just paid five lire (about $2.50 Canadian) for a colourful souvenir of our time here in Istanbul.
We’re trying to be polite in our demurrals but she’s an annoying, persistent huckster, her demeanor bordering on insolence. We’re backing away, hands raised, but she’s having none of it—until two passing gentlemen upbraid her in Turkish, clearly telling her to leave us alone.
That does the job; she withdraws, muttering and scowling.
For the past week there have been “celebrations” in Istanbul’s most popular gathering spot, every evening thousands of people streaming into the square, waving flags, listening to live bands and exhortations condemning the recent botched coup attempt, praising President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his steadfast and courageous defense of democratic principles.
We’ve kept away from these government-approved rallies, finding other things to do, other venues to patronize, an easy task in this city of twenty million souls. In our eyes, Erdogan’s idea of “freedom” includes the suppression of any dissent, journalists and political opponents rounded up en masse and spirited away to swelling detention centres, held for thirty days without any outside contact or legal representation. He has even gone to the absurd extent of suing school age children for drawing cartoons satirizing their glorious leader.
We arrived in Turkey’s largest city mere days after the rather inept coup plotters had been crushed, their compatriots either killed or carted off in disgrace. The nightly news showed men and women being led into waiting police vans, while pro-Erdogan commentators and television personalities heaped scorn on them—so much for independent journalism. The fifth estate here definitely know their place.
All that said, we’ve felt perfectly safe here in Istanbul throughout our visit, able to move about freely, and as a result we’ve had the opportunity to speak to Turks from various levels of society. What we’re hearing doesn’t exactly jibe with Erdogan’s point of view.
Every single person we’ve chatted with has made it plain (in halting English) that they regard their president with absolute contempt and hold him largely responsible for the country’s political and economic woes. From our hosts to sales people and backstreet vendors, everyone who feels compelled to broach the subject says it is Erdogan’s machinations that have endangered democracy in Turkey, not the designs of some obscure cleric operating from exile in Pennsylvania.
The problem is that while the loathing of Erdogan’s tactics is widespread, there is no cohesion or cooperation between those alternative voices…and a splintered, squabbling opposition is next to useless.
President Erdogan is clearly a canny operator but his heavy-handed tactics are alienating and infuriating an increasingly larger proportion of the population and may end up backfiring on him. Along with the jailings and intimidation, he has fired tens of thousands public employees, closed many schools and universities, politicizing groups and individuals who had previously been either compliant or indifferent (or too fearful to act).
And can the uneasy alliance he has forged between right-wingers, militarists and religious fundamentalists hold together, can his vision of a New Turkey be perpetuated once his reign is over?
After all, the nation’s secular character has been present since modern Turkey was formed, it was one of Kemal Ataturk’s foundation stones when he composed the country’s constitution almost one hundred years ago. Can a mere cult of personality supplant an ideal shared by generations of Turks who have grown up believing in and fighting for Ataturk’s magnificent legacy?
As one older Turkish gentleman told us, “Erdogan wants to take us back in time but time, as we all know, only moves forward”.
He made this statement with great assurance and I feel I am not qualified to challenge or undermine his optimistic assessment. I can only hope that for his sake, and the sake of those whose Erdogan’s tactics are hurting, the husbands, wives and children of the detained, that he is right.
August 1, 2016
Never mind, if we are to believe the Buddhists, “life is suffering” and there ain’t a whole helluva lot we can do about it. Just pop plenty of Tylenol, drink green tea and hope for the best.
A philosophy perfectly in synch with our do-nothing times.
A lovely bit of news this morning, Hollywood North has posted (in two parts) my critical essay on the films of Canadian auteur and enfant terrible, Alain Marchant. You can find the article here–Hollywood North is an on-line site devoted to Canadian film-making and thus I was pleased that they recognized the merits of “The Toxic Cinema of Alain Marchant”.
I’ve followed Marchant’s career with a kind of sickened fascination for the past 8-10 years and in terms of sheer hubris and poor taste, only Danish director Lars von Trier can compare with Marchant. Have a look at my feature, you’ll see what I mean.
Great weather of late, which helps pick up the spirits. Hard to stay inside, slaving over a desk, with the sun shining and birds singing.
But such is my lot.
Back to work…
Over the past couple of years, I’ve increased my readings of history, economics and politics, and I think that comes from my determination to better understand the world as it is unfolding, and gain at least a few hints into what the future might hold for those of us who are left vulnerable to larger forces because of our class/caste, income, race, etc.
I’ve kept track of relevant quotes, statistics and observations by jotting them down in a black notebook, filling it to the margins. Recently I came to the last few pages of the notebook and decided to try and distill what I had gleaned from my readings into a mini-essay.
I’ve polished it some, clarified my thoughts in a few places, but tried to retain the surge of inspiration and anger that provoked its composition:
“Now and then I see the truth above the lies…”
Paul Banks, “The Base”
The uneasy truce between capitalism and democracy is breaking down.
At some point—if it hasn’t happened already—we’re going to have to choose between those two opposing ideologies and that choice will define (and haunt) our species for generations to come. Which will it be: a smoothly running corporate machine or our personal freedom?
Slavoj Zizek (among others) insists we’re living in a “late capitalist” world.
Capitalism is in the process of transforming into a more autocratic version of itself—something like China or Singapore, where individual rights, many of the privileges we enjoy as a western society, either do not exist or are drastically scaled back. Doled out in increments by an unholy alliance between state and industry.
It has gotten to the point where capitalism can no longer tolerate the constraints of democracy. Anything that slows or inhibits growth/profit, must be neutered, rendered harmless. And that can be accomplished, for example, through trade pacts that supersede or nullify a country’s legal codes and charters, fatally undermining national social institutions and standards.
Environmental laws, legislation restricting monopolies or policing the financial industry, are anathema to the one-percenters and business elite. They still exist in a magical land where growth is limitless, the stock market their personal Ponzi scheme and there are sufficient resources to sustain their extravagant lifestyles indefinitely.
Their narrative simply does not allow for maintaining a more modest standard of living, conservation, thrift, environmental stewardship…
All their talk of GNP and GDP and TTIP, but they persist in refusing to factor in the short and long term consequences of ruinous, wasteful industrial practices, mindsets that more properly belong to the notorious robber barons of the 19th Century, rather than enlightened and highly educated men and women (okay, mainly men) of today. And the toll continues to mount: pollution and ecological devastation on an unimaginable scale, with all the attendant health problems; a growing disparity between rich and poor; human populations becoming more fearful and anxiety-wracked as they face a future that no longer guarantees food security, let alone the safety and sanctity of their homes and persons.
Clean air, safe food, pure water, human dignity and basic, inalienable rights…these things are non-negotiable. In fact, they are the basis for life itself.
Why would we cede responsibility over such crucial issues to petty bureaucrats and corrupt apparatchiks?
Have we become so lazy and stupid, such sheep, that we would willingly hand the keys of liberty to our warders and bare our throats to ravenous wolves?
Or, at least, that’s how it seems.
Where did the past month go? Well, I’ll tell you:
Mostly it was swallowed up by a 12,000-word novelette set in my “Ilium” universe. At one point I spent eighteen consecutive days slaving away on said project, from eight in the morning until eight at night. Fun, fun, fun.
Because for me to be at my most creative I have to be fully immersed in a work, utterly incognizant of the “real world” around me.
And so it’s been with this latest piece.
I’ve barely been reading, just some essays from a posthumous collection by the great Tony Judt. So burned out the most I can manage in terms of entertainment the last few nights are a couple of old Gene Autry westerns. I kid you not. The singin’ cowboy a balm on my brain.
But yesterday I finally printed up my “Sherron Draft” and this weekend my devoted and long-suffering wife will go through the novelette and render her verdict. And from there: revisions and more revisions until at last I’m satisfied I’ve got it as note perfect as I can.
The ceaseless grind. That’s the part they don’t tell you about in those helpful “how to” articles in Writer’s Digest or that expensive creative writing class you just enrolled in. Creation, getting words down on paper, that’s the easy part…it’s the process that comes afterward that tests your mettle. How much effort are you prepared to expend to make your story or poem the best it can possibly be? Meticulous, tireless editing. That’s the difference between genius and wannabes.
Somehow I also managed to complete an overview of a fictional Quebecois film-maker and enfant terrible, a 2000-word “mockumentary” that’s the best piece of satire I’ve written in ages. I have some plans for that one and will likely release it in the next week or so. I’ll update you as soon as there’s anything to report on that front.
…and like everybody else, I’ve been watching the political shenanigans south of the border with growing incredulity.
Here’s my two cents worth:
First of all, this talk of a “contest” on the Democratic side is a joke. Hillary has the money and power, Bernie is a nice guy with some cool ideas. Bernie represents a movement; Hillary is a fucking machine. She’s got this one wired tight. End of story.
Regarding the Republicans, I’m starting to see shades of Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Name not familiar to you youngsters? He’s the dude who famously said: “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice”.
Still doesn’t ring any bells?
Never mind. The point is that in 1964 Goldwater and his followers were like today’s Tea Party—pissed off about special interests and insiders controlling Washington, the whole thing in need of a radical overhaul, etc. Richard Nixon and the GOP hierarchy came to the conclusion that Lyndon Johnson, wearing the mantle of an assassinated president (JFK), was unbeatable in 1964 and decided to let Goldwater and his lunatic fringe seize the reins of the Republican party. Once they were annihilated, they would go slinking back to their rat holes and the true king-makers and lever-pullers could take back the party in time for 1968.
Which is exactly what happened.
Makes me wonder if today’s Republican poobahs aren’t intending the same thing in 2016. Let Trump and his dickhead followers lead the party to certain ruin against the Hillary juggernaut, and then regain control in time for congressional and senate elections and a run at the presidency (hopefully with a more proven, viable candidate) in 2020.
Right now the GOP establishment is spooked—their two star candidates, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, have failed to produce any excitement or momentum. Bush, in particular, never looked statesmanlike and comfortable in the spotlight and clearly wasn’t interested in making a serious bid. Hopefully, we’ve seen the last Bush in the Oval Office (my daily mantra). Rubio’s been rallying of late but does he have the balls to go toe-to-toe with the Donald? That remains to be seen. He needs better gag writers and he has to take the gloves off. Marco, if you can’t manage to engage with and whup a coiffed, spoiled blowhard, frankly you don’t deserve a shot at the big chair.
I’ve been a political junkie for as long as I can remember and that sphere (especially south of the border) just keeps getting weirder and weirder.
Money has distorted the process and attaining power and stature have become the primary motivations of those seeking to represent us.
Public service? Accountability? Transparency? Ethics?
Mere words, lacking currency or value in a world increasingly fixated on satisfying selfish desires, while consciously and arrogantly absolving itself of the consequences of its greed and stupidity.
Don’t make me laugh.
People, it has been said, get the form of government they most deserve.
In that sense, today’s theatrics and hijinks don’t say much about us as a society and civilizing influence, do they?
I suppose it’s understandable that young and developing writers mine personal experience for inspiration, borrow from real life for key characters, settings and episodes in their narratives.
But sooner or later, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to abandon this rather narcissistic approach and begin to invent, extrapolate, imagine, conflate, collage, transpose. Eschewing a slavish imitation to the “facts”, finding the courage and tenacity to follow a story no matter what strange paths and nooks it might choose.
For a good many authors, the idea of leaving their safe, tidy, self-appointed microverse and venturing Outside is too terrifying to ponder. Their protagonists thinly disguised versions of themselves, storylines and essential details paralleling their own life arc. To these literalists, their writing is a chance at redemption, to make sure their viewpoint is somehow vindicated and wins out in the end. Writing is not an act of imagination, it is a form of exoneration. But is such a mindset healthy—for them or for literature? I would offer a firm “No”, on both counts.
I confess that on occasion I’ve written “autobiographical” stories, tales that include some detail or nugget from life, a small touch that adds to the overall atmosphere, a dab of authenticity. Other offerings contain what I would call “emotional truths”, characters reliving some trauma drawn from my convoluted psychological history. Primal terror, feelings of self-loathing and disgust; manic spasms of joy, rapid disillusionment.
I think of older short stories like “Invisible Boy” or “Carl” (from Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination). Raw and edgy. Spare and relentless and credible…and all the more powerful and frightening for that reason.
More recently, my novella “Second Sight” (from Exceptions and Deceptions) features a married couple that bear a strong resemblance to Sherron and I. If you want a semi-accurate portrait of what daily life around Casa Burns is like, check out “Second Sight”. Not a word of it is true, of course, but the couple at the heart of the tale have a depth and subtlety that take the offering to another level.
The unnamed narrator of my last novel, Disloyal Son, is a Canadian writer and some of his genealogy is borrowed from my family history, but Mr. X, candidly, is a lot nicer than me, much more passive and considerate. Yin to my Yang.
It could even be fairly said that I share some traits with my all-time favourite character, Evgeny Nightstalk (So Dark the Night). I certainly manifest Nightstalk’s ferocious loyalty and hair-trigger temper. His twisted moral code is like an externalization of my id.
But while there are definitely similarities, I would argue that none of these characters is really me—they’re all composites, Frankenstein monsters, a jumble of body parts. I made them up. In my humble opinion, working exclusively from real life is boring, not to mention lazy.
The art is in creating individuals and scenarios from dust and mud, shaping them with your own hands, breathing life into them with each word, each sentence.
On those rare occasions when I recognize that I’ve come up with something undeniably original and unique, there’s a thrill of joy and accomplishment that quickens my very soul. It’s the ultimate high. Nothing else I’ve experienced in my creative/artistic life compares to that peak moment.
So put away your diaries and journals, smash every mirror in the vicinity.
Time to write stories that defy expectations and conventions, yarns that even the author cannot control or confine.
Surprise us, amaze us, take us somewhere we haven’t been before.
Make us laugh and cry.
Anger us, if you have the nerve.
Show us a face other than your own.
But, to me, right from the start there’s been a miasma of smugness surrounding the magazine, Kalle Lasn & contributors revelling in coming across as hipster despair mongers. Using all the tools in the ad-man’s arsenal (splashy graphics, catchy slogans, minimal substance) to cleverly subvert the corporates at their own game. Mocking and vilifying the consumer mindset while making sure each issue contains at least of couple of subscription cards, not to mention plugs for “approved” gear and cool doodads. Join Team Nihilist, wear “Black Spot” sneakers and feel superior to the rest of the dumb proles in their Nike/Converse/sweatshop apparel.
At times they give the impression of a bunch of black-clad, no logo-ed arseholes who’ll be standing around when the shit finally hits the fan, going: “Nyeah-nyeah-nyeah-nyeah-nyeah. Told you so, motherfuckers!”
I don’t know who’s worse, someone like that or one of those “magical thinkers” so common these days, complete doughheads who believe that technology got us into this mess and, dagnabbit, human ingenuity will get us out again, save us in the nick of time. Just like in the movies.
Where I do agree with Adbusters is that there is a war for reality going on and we have to resist the reassurances and blandishments of capitalism (“Don’t worry, be happy”, “You’re richer that you think”, “You deserve to spoil yourself”, etc.) and see the underlying truths the string-pullers are working so hard to efface. Wipe away the smog of unreality spewed out by the spin doctors and heavily indoctrinated economists and view a world in the midst of another great extinction event. This one largely of our own making.
Ocean currents that have served as the planet’s heating and cooling system for millennia are shifting, prevailing airstreams changing, the climate around the world reacting the environmental impact of the modern industrial era. We’re seeing massive human migrations, desperate people seeking to escape privation, hunger, loss of arable land. Historically, resource scarcity is the one condition guaranteed to provoke conflict; a hungry populace will seek radical solutions the way a drowning man will grasp the point of a sword.
But what can be done? As Charles Eisenstein points out, it’s natural to lose hope, feel completely overwhelmed by the scope of the disaster confronting us. The head knows we’re probably fucked, Earth headed for a massive meltdown…but the heart insists we have to at least try, for the sake of those as yet unborn. And so we feel at odds with ourselves, a fundamental split in our being. What to do?
And, of course, it all comes down to a personal transformation. That is the one aspect of the world we can control. We have the ability to just stop buying, stop craving stuff, more crap. We can divert a small amount of our salaries each month to good causes. We can volunteer, become better citizens, contributing to our community, getting to know our neighbours. We can seek out and support political candidates who recognize the seriousness of our plight and pledge themselves to finding solutions, even if that means forsaking the status quo. We can preach the gospel of thriftiness and frugality to family and friends and we should never miss the opportunity to shame conspicuous consumption, ridicule the pretensions and props of the wealthy and stupid among us.
There’s no such thing as fair play in this war for reality, no Geneva Convention guidelines to follow. There’s too much at stake. The corporates and their shills have their greasy mitts on the levers of power and those of us who still hold out some hope at preserving a semblance of human life on this planet must employ the mindset and tactics of guerrilla warriors since antiquity—speed, stealth, cunning—to achieve our objectives. Nibbling at the edges, gnawing away at the underlying supports and institutional foundations. Sowing seeds of dissent, doubt. Subverting authority, sabotaging power structures. Never failing to offer alternatives, fresh perspectives, while stubbornly withstanding the temptations and treasures dangled before us by our insidious foes.
There comes a time when each of us has to make a choice, balance our current, comfortable lifestyles against a near future where our grandchildren suffer because of their ancestors’ indifference, profligacy, selfishness. Once you make that choice there’s no going back, no compromise possible.
Welcome to the Resistance, comrade.
Now do you have the courage and mental strength to face your final test?
Which will it be: the blue or the red pill…
Photos by Liam Burns