Some Thoughts on a Year of Reading

16-01-02 READING picIt’s been an aver­age year of read­ing. 160 books and about 500 aca­d­e­m­ic papers, arti­cles, short sto­ries and oth­er short items. His­to­ry and anthro­pol­o­gy dom­i­nat­ed the book read­ing, as usu­al, with an empha­sis on Aus­tralia, the Pacif­ic, the Cana­di­an North and West, and the ideas of 19th cen­tu­ry Cana­di­an demo­c­ra­t­ic reform­ers. I became par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ed by the 19th cen­tu­ry con­vict colonies of Aus­tralia and the French Pacif­ic pos­ses­sions, and I ampli­fied pre­vi­ous read­ings (such as Robert Hugh­es ven­er­a­ble The Fatal Shore, and the eye-open­ing but lit­tle known Australia’s Birth­stain, by Babette Smith). Thomas Keneal­ly, giv­ing Hugh­es a run for his mon­ey in A Com­mon­wealth of Thieves, cov­ers the gen­er­al sub­ject with extra­or­di­nar­i­ly vivid prose, and Siân Rees makes a clos­er case study in The Float­ing Broth­el — The Extra­or­di­nary True Sto­ry of an Eigh­teenth- cen­tu­ry Ship and Its Car­go of Female Con­victs.

The bulk of the con­victs sent to Aus­tralia were pick­pock­ets or pet­ty thieves from the slums of Lon­don, poach­ers from the West Coun­try who snared a hare on some aristocrat’s estate, or ser­vants who pil­fered han­ker­chiefs or stock­ings from their mas­ters. Their exile to Aus­tralia was con­ceived of as “bleed­ing heart lib­er­al­ism” — most of them had been con­demned to death, or had been rot­ting in the prison hulks for years. It is hard for a mod­ern read­er to grasp that the British courts of the time rou­tine­ly con­demned small chil­dren to death by hang­ing for steal­ing a spoon, with the judges stern­ly lec­tur­ing the pub­lic about the need to be tough on crime, and the con­tem­po­rary equiv­a­lent of Fox News scream­ing that the courts were too lenient. Siân Rees describes the case of a woman who was con­demned to be pub­licly burnt alive because she had shared a room with a coun­ter­feit­er. She was held to be guilty of the same crime mere­ly for giv­ing the coun­ter­feit­er lodg­ing. He was only hung, but the law, unchanged since the Mid­dle Ages, required a woman to be burned at the stake. She wit­nessed anoth­er woman burnt before her sen­tence was com­mut­ed to trans­porta­tion. She sur­vived the long voy­age (many did not), served her term, and even­tu­al­ly became pros­per­ous and respect­ed in Aus­tralia. Over two cen­turies, Aus­tralians have had an ambiva­lent atti­tude to the trans­portees, with some gen­er­a­tions strain­ing to cov­er up the “stain” of con­vict ances­try, and oth­ers roman­ti­ciz­ing them into “work­ing class” heroes, nei­ther atti­tude hav­ing much to do with real­i­ty or com­mon sense. Most of the trans­portees were guilty of noth­ing more than being poor, but among them were some cut­throats and ruf­fi­ans. Few were ready for fron­tier life, but most prob­a­bly end­ed up bet­ter off in the long run than they would have if they had stayed in Eng­land.

Among the trans­portees were some of the African-Amer­i­cans who had fought with the British in the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. In the north­ern colonies, many African-Amer­i­cans fought on the rev­o­lu­tion­ary side, but in the south­ern states the new Amer­i­can Repub­lic was deter­mined to keep them enslaved, and made this per­fect­ly clear with a bru­tal reign of ter­ror on the plan­ta­tions. Britain offered them eman­ci­pa­tion, and many heed­ed the call. But they were ill-used when Britain, lick­ing its wounds from a bun­gled lost war, let many end up unem­ployed and starv­ing in Lon­don. Some of them were trans­port­ed to Aus­tralia. Cas­san­dra Pybus tells their tale in Epic Jour­neys of Free­dom — Run­away Slaves of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion and Their Glob­al Quest for Lib­er­ty. But per­haps the odd­est group were French Cana­di­ans, who were among the few real “polit­i­cal pris­on­ers” trans­port­ed to New South Wales. Their sto­ry is lit­tle known, even in Cana­da. In 1837–38, there were simul­ta­ne­ous rebel­lions against British rule in (most­ly) Eng­lish-speak­ing Upper Cana­da [now Ontario] and (most­ly) French-speak­ing Low­er Cana­da [now Que­bec]. In both cas­es, a large­ly egal­i­tar­i­an soci­ety of self-suf­fi­cient farm­ers was fed up with being ruled by a tiny coterie of self-styled aris­to­crats — in Upper Cana­da, the “Fam­i­ly Com­pact” and in Low­er Cana­da, the “Chateau Clique.” Hard­en­ing oppo­si­tion to rea­son­able demo­c­ra­t­ic reforms led even­tu­al­ly to out­right rebel­lion, in both cas­es crushed by well-trained British forces and Con­ser­v­a­tive ele­ments in the colonies. The lead­ers of both rebel­lions eas­i­ly slipped across the bor­der to exile in the U.S., lat­er to come back and go on to suc­cess­ful careers. But imme­di­ate­ly after the rebel­lion, in Low­er Cana­da, tri­umphant Con­ser­v­a­tives used mar­tial law to round up quite a large num­ber of less­er “trai­tors” who did noth­ing more than attend a rebel meet­ing, or per­haps were incon­ve­nient busi­ness com­peti­tors, or owned a juicy lit­tle prop­er­ty that could be expro­pri­at­ed. Hun­dreds were tried in kan­ga­roo courts and exiled to the Aus­tralian prison colonies. Their sto­ry is told by Bev­er­ley Bois­sery in A Deep Sense of Wrong — The Trea­son, Tri­als, and Trans­porta­tion to New South Wales of Low­er Cana­di­an Rebels after the 1838 Rebel­lion. Unlike most of the Eng­lish and Irish con­victs, even the poor­est Cana­di­ens were lit­er­ate, and many were well-edu­cat­ed, tech­ni­cal­ly skilled, and used to hard pio­neer­ing work. Some kept jour­nals, pro­vid­ing the only his­tor­i­cal souces for the con­vict sys­tem writ­ten from the prisoners’s point of view. Once in Aus­tralia, they beavered away, mak­ing the best of it, even­tu­al­ly win­ning the Aussies’ respect with their sober work eth­ic. But they all had friends and fam­i­ly wait­ing for them back in Cana­da, and an aston­ish­ing num­ber of them even­tu­al­ly got back home from the oth­er side of the plan­et.

The fail­ure of the rebel­lions in Cana­da led even­tu­al­ly to the emer­gence of two remark­able men, both of whom deserve to be dis­cussed at length, because the trend of their think­ing clear­ly led to the Cana­da that exists today, and at the same time rep­re­sent­ed an aston­ish­ing alter­na­tive path to what the rest of the world was tak­ing. And my learn­ing about this can be traced to a gift I received from my friend Peter Svi­lans. He ran across an old book in New­mar­ket, a town 55km north of Toron­to, and think­ing it might appeal to me, gave it to me. It turned out to be a 1793 Eng­lish verse ren­der­ing of Les aven­tures de Télé­maque, a work writ­ten in 1699 by François de Sali­gnac de la Mothe-Fénelon. It was a superbly appro­pri­ate gift choice, con­sid­er­ing my inter­ests. Fénelon is large­ly for­got­ten, now, but he had an enor­mous impact in his time, and he could best be described as the open­ing canon-shot of the Enlight­en­ment. His Téle­maque was a “didac­tic epic” recount­ing the sto­ry of Telemachus from the Odyssey, but most­ly focus­ing on the advice the boy is giv­en by a sage Men­tor (who turns out to be real­ly Min­er­va, the God­dess of Wis­dom). Such a thing would have nor­mal­ly been writ­ten in verse, but Fénelon chose to write it in sim­ple ver­nac­u­lar prose, with the aim of mak­ing it acces­si­ble to every­one, includ­ing women and chil­dren. It was imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized as a fierce attack on the pre­vail­ing autoc­ra­cy and the con­cept of “divine right of kings”, and Fénelon was prompt­ly exiled to a coun­try parish for the remain­der of his life. The book denounced auto­crat­ic rule and mer­can­til­ism, advo­cat­ed par­lia­men­tary gov­ern­ment and con­sti­tu­tion­al monar­chy, and argued that war should be avoid­ed by nego­ti­a­tions in a fed­er­al coun­cil of nations. It pret­ty much laid out the basic pro­gram pur­sued by Enlight­en­ment thinkers in the next gen­er­a­tion. It was a favourite of Mon­tesquieu and Rousseau, and Thomas Jef­fer­son is said to have re-read it many times. A French his­to­ri­an has called it “the true key to the muse­um of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry imag­i­na­tion.”

Now, what does this have to do with rebel­lions in Cana­da? Well, the failed rebel­lions had a trans­form­ing impact on two young men who were both ardent demo­c­ra­t­ic reform­ers, Louis-Hip­poly­te Lafontaine in Low­er Cana­da, and Robert Bald­win in Upper Cana­da. Both men had come to the con­clu­sion that the rebel­lions led by fire­brands like Louis-Joseph Pap­ineau and William Lyon Macken­zie, which they had ini­tial­ly sup­port­ed, had been more destruc­tive than pro­duc­tive of reform, and that a more ratio­nal strat­e­gy was required. Lafontaine still had faith in the demands made by the Patri­otes in the rebel­lion: demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment by uni­ver­sal male suf­frage, with prop­er­ty qual­i­fi­ca­tions abol­ished; equal­i­ty of Eng­lish and French as legal and gov­ern­ing lan­guages; tri­al by jury in all crim­i­nal and most civ­il cas­es; abo­li­tion of the death penal­ty for all crimes except first degree mur­der; equal rights for all abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples “the same as any oth­er cit­i­zen”; guar­an­tees of free­dom of speech and the press; free­dom of reli­gion and total sep­a­ra­tion of Church and State; abo­li­tion of seigneur­al tenure and rem­nant “feu­dal” prac­tices; a free mar­ket in land; pub­lic edu­ca­tion. It should be not­ed that these demands, made in 1837, went much fur­ther in the direc­tion of mod­ern democ­ra­cy than any­thing con­tem­plat­ed else­where. But the rebel­lions had only brought about a tri­umphant Con­ser­v­a­tive reac­tion, with mas­sive abus­es of civ­il rights. In 1841, the two colonies were con­sol­i­dat­ed, after this was urged by the inves­ti­gat­ing emis­sary from Britain, Lord Durham. There would be an elect­ed assem­bly for the new “Unit­ed Cana­da”, but the inten­tion was to dilute the pow­er of the French-speak­ing major­i­ty in Low­er Cana­da, with a long-term goal of “assim­i­lat­ing” French Cana­di­ans into obliv­ion. While there were some con­sti­tu­tion­al gains, the assem­bly hav­ing more pow­er on mon­ey bills than before, there were obvi­ous loss­es. Low­er Cana­da had actu­al­ly rejoiced in a degree of women’s suf­frage: women who met the prop­er­ty qual­i­fi­ca­tions had the vote, and these qual­i­fi­ca­tions were low enough that they applied to a sub­stan­tial num­ber of women. There was, in fact, noth­ing like it in any oth­er place in the world. In one con­tem­po­rary doc­u­ment I ran across, it is casu­al­ly men­tioned to a vis­i­tor that “in our coun­try, women are the polit­i­cal equals of men.” This female suf­frage would be abol­ished by the new Unit­ed Cana­da. In Upper Cana­da, the auto­crat­ic pow­er of the Fam­i­ly Com­pact was strength­ened, and reform stymied. Lafontaine and Bald­win, both ardent democ­rats, looked upon the ash-heap left by the rebel­lions and tried to think out a strat­e­gy to bring the reform move­ment back to life.

Lafontaine & Baldwin

Lafontaine & Bald­win

At this point, Lafontaine gave a speech in his home rid­ing of Ter­re­bonne, where he was run­ning for the new par­lia­ment. He told the crowd that the best strat­e­gy was not to boy­cott the new regime, as many advo­cat­ed, but to embrace it, use all the polit­i­cal pow­er they could muster, and win reforms step by step. Foil the plans to assim­i­late French Cana­da by becom­ing the colony’s most adept par­lia­men­tar­i­ans. Win through grit and deter­mi­na­tion what the rebels had failed to win with arms. Lafontaine would eas­i­ly have been elect­ed to his rid­ing, but Con­ser­v­a­tive hooli­gans, beat­ing and intim­i­dat­ing vot­ers, kept him out of office.

News of these events reached Robert Bald­win in Upper Cana­da. The young man, whose equal­ly young wife had just died of ill­ness, had with­drawn into a twi­light of grief. His father, also a life-long reformer, told him he must find a new strat­e­gy for reform, and pur­sue it, or wal­low use­less­ly in self-pity. He sug­gest­ed that Lafontaine’s speech held the key. The elder Bald­win resigned from his seat in the Assem­bly, forc­ing a bi-elec­tion in the rid­ing of New­mar­ket. Robert Bald­win wrote to Lafontaine, invit­ing him to come to Upper Cana­da and run as a Reform can­di­date in New­mar­ket. This was the first step in what turned out to be a life-long col­lab­o­ra­tion and inti­mate friend­ship. Bald­win was even­tu­al­ly to learn French, and send his daugh­ters to be edu­cat­ed in Low­er Cana­di­an schools. Lafontaine, unwill­ing­ly child­less, lived with the Bald­wins in New­mar­ket and came to think of them as fam­i­ly. Both men were prodi­gious read­ers. Even before his arrival, Lafontaine sent a gift with his “yes” to the Reform­ers’ pro­pos­al: a copy of Fénelon’s Les aven­tures de Télé­maque, the sym­bol­ism of which would be obvi­ous to the book­ish Bald­win.

Now, I know this because it is men­tioned in the first let­ter from Lafontaine to Bald­win in their col­lect­ed cor­re­spon­dence. I had been led to Lafontaine’s writ­ing by a total­ly dif­fer­ent line of inquiry. Upper Cana­da passed its Act Against Slav­ery in 1793, mak­ing it the sec­ond gov­ern­ment in the world to do so (they were pre­ced­ed by a few years by Ver­mont, which did so dur­ing it’s peri­od of sov­er­eign inde­pen­dence between 1777 and 1791). Low­er Cana­da fol­lowed suit with­in a few years. There had nev­er been a large num­ber of slaves in Cana­da, but they were owned by the rich and influ­en­tial, and it was tes­ti­mo­ny to their deeply felt pop­u­lar hatred of slav­ery that Cana­di­ans were able to get such leg­is­la­tion passed in a polit­i­cal sys­tem rigged to sup­port the inter­ests of the rich. While inves­ti­gat­ing this peri­od, I came across Lafontaine’s De l’esclavage en Cana­da, in which he sought to bring to light every doc­u­ment con­cern­ing slav­ery in Cana­da. Read­ing this lit­tle known doc­u­ment led me to read his bet­ter-known works, the Deux giri­ou­ettes, ou l’hypocrisie démasquée, the Address to the Elec­tors of Ter­re­bonne and the cor­re­spon­dence of Bald­win and Lafontaine [My Dear Friend: Let­ters of Louis Hip­poly­te LaFontaine & Robert Bald­win, ed. Yolande Stew­art].

I will indulge in some wish­ful think­ing. I like to think that the copy I now pos­sess of Fénelon’s Télé­maque is the one that Lafontaine gave to Bald­win. This par­tic­u­lar edi­tion is very rare. I could find no copy list­ed in any Cana­di­an pub­lic or uni­ver­si­ty library, not even in the Thomas Fish­er Rare Book Library or the Library of Par­lia­ment, which con­tain many arcane trea­sures. The only copy, oth­er than my own, which I could trace, is in the British Nation­al Library. It’s not like­ly that there was ever more than a sin­gle copy in Cana­da. My friend Peter found it in New­mar­ket, Ontario, with­in a mile of Robert Baldwin’s fam­i­ly home.

Bald­win and Lafontaine are far more impor­tant char­ac­ters than Cana­di­an his­to­ry books would indi­cate. In their writ­ings and cor­re­spon­dence, you see the emer­gence of a set of ideas that were unprece­dent­ed. Cana­di­an his­to­ri­ans are most­ly inter­est­ed in the fact that their activism even­tu­al­ly led to the cre­ation of the Cana­di­an Con­fed­er­a­tion in 1867, but do not notice the pro­found orig­i­nal­i­ty of their polit­i­cal think­ing. At the time, most polit­i­cal reform and rad­i­cal­ism was built on the premis­es of roman­tic nation­al­ism. It was tak­en for grant­ed that the nation was the nat­ur­al unit of pol­i­tics, and even where polit­i­cal move­ments envi­sioned demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nance, this was seen as sec­ondary to the mys­ti­cism of the nation as a col­lec­tive agency. The “nation” embod­ied bio­log­i­cal descent, and required “uni­ty” — con­for­mi­ty of lan­guage, faith, and cus­tom. No Euro­pean intel­lec­tu­al of the peri­od, that I can find, val­ued diver­si­ty or felt that it was a good thing to com­bine dif­fer­ent lan­guages, faiths, or eth­nic­i­ties into the same poli­ty. It was seen as a defect that might have to be tol­er­at­ed, but not as some­thing of pos­i­tive val­ue. Pro­mot­ers of empires con­sid­ered diver­si­ty the weak­ness of their realms. Pro­mot­ers of nation­al inde­pen­dence envi­sioned their “lib­er­at­ed” states as cul­tur­al­ly uni­form units.

Lafontaine and Bald­win had come to the oppo­site con­clu­sion, putting them into a dif­fer­ent cat­e­go­ry from oth­er reform­ers of the era. They explic­it­ly advo­cat­ed a mul­ti-lin­gual, mul­ti-eth­nic, mul­ti-reli­gious state, held togeth­er by a com­mit­ment to share a polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty with­out con­for­mi­ty. In their view, democ­ra­cy and the rule of law formed an abstract frame­work of val­ues that could allow free­dom to pros­per with­out need­ing any of the tra­di­tion­al defin­ing fea­tures of nation­hood. As they saw it, and stat­ed explic­it­ly, this diver­si­ty con­sti­tut­ed a strength, not a weak­ness, just as they had found in their per­son­al friend­ship. But this was not some­thing that any sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of intel­lec­tu­als were advo­cat­ing. The only avail­able prece­dent was Switzer­land, which had just gone through a civ­il war, and accom­plished some­thing sim­i­lar with an intense com­part­men­tal­ism. Europe would go on to more extreme and dis­as­trous man­i­fes­ta­tions of Uni­for­mi­tar­i­an­ism. The colo­nial empires of Britain, France, Spain, Por­tu­gal and Ger­many left no doubt that there was to be noth­ing equal about the eth­nic­i­ties, lan­guages and cus­toms with­in them. The Unit­ed States strug­gled with a schiz­o­phrenic her­itage, the implied val­ues of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion in con­stant con­flict with the urge to cre­ate a uni­for­mi­tar­i­an state, immi­grants under con­stant pres­sure to “melt” into con­for­mi­ty. But in Cana­da, the ideas of Bald­win and Lafontaine became the main­stream shap­ing the country’s des­tiny. Con­fed­er­a­tion in 1867 was clear­ly found­ed on them. Wil­frid Lau­ri­er, our Prime Min­is­ter between 1896 and 1911, tried to bad­ger the British Empire into accept­ing this vision, pic­tur­ing a broth­er­hood of equal nations, and strug­gled hope­less­ly against the Empire’s relent­less march toward the First World War. Time and again, some ver­sion of these ideas has brought out the “bet­ter angels of our nature” [Charles Dick­ens wrote this phrase in Barn­a­by Rudge in 1841. He seems to have got­ten it from Shakespeare’s Oth­el­lo. Abra­ham Lin­coln used it when fac­ing up to the schiz­o­phre­nia I have just men­tioned]. When inter­viewed while wel­com­ing Syr­i­an refugees to Cana­da, a few weeks ago, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau pret­ty much stat­ed them as if they were obvi­ous. But they are by no means obvi­ous to most of the world, or there would be no refugees to wel­come. So read­ing Lafontaine and Bald­win, see­ing these ideas being born, was emo­tion­al­ly, as well as intel­lec­tu­al­ly sat­is­fy­ing.

Anoth­er pecu­liar case of pre­scient think­ing in 19th cen­tu­ry Cana­da came to my atten­tion through anoth­er friend, Tim Kyger, an author­i­ty on the his­to­ry of the space explo­ration. William Leitch was an astronomer and dean of an Ontario uni­ver­si­ty, who seems to have been well-versed in the most advanced physics and astron­o­my of his time, and incor­po­rat­ed them into a book called God’s Glo­ry in the Heav­ens in 1862. Because of the title (Leitch was a Pres­by­tar­i­an min­is­ter), the book remained in the­ol­o­gy sec­tions of libraries and archives, rather than astron­o­my col­lec­tions, and its impor­tance was only recent­ly real­ized. It dis­cuss­es some ideas in physics that had emerged only months before the book’s pub­li­ca­tion, and one amaz­ing pas­sage hints at Einstein’s rea­son­ing for rel­a­tiv­i­ty. But what has caught the atten­tion of schol­ars is that he pro­posed that space be explored with the use of rock­ets, giv­ing per­fect­ly good rea­sons why they would be the only prac­ti­cal method. This was decades before sim­i­lar sug­ges­tions by Tsi­olkovsky, God­dard and Oberth, though he does not, as they did, demon­strate the math.

I final­ly got around to read­ing Simon Schama’s Cit­i­zens : A Chron­i­cle of the French Rev­o­lu­tion. Yes, I know, I should have read it long ago. But I tend to fol­low my enthu­si­asms where they take me, and obvi­ous choic­es get shunt­ed aside. The book sat on my shelf for years. Well-writ­ten, as all his books are, but I don’t think it presents a major re-think­ing of the peri­od. His virtue is large­ly in omit­ting the ten­den­tious abstract claims that have been made for the French Rev­o­lu­tion as the foun­tain­head of this or that idea. But you do see, clear­ly enough, the prece­dents for all the dis­as­trous total­i­tar­i­an “rev­o­lu­tions” that fol­lowed. Long before Robespierre’s ter­ror, there were already wealthy aris­to­crats order­ing the arrest and exe­cu­tion of poor peas­ants while denounc­ing them as “counter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary aris­to­crats.” What “rev­o­lu­tion” in the two cen­turies since then, hasn’t abound­ed in that hipocrisy?

A fanciful contemporary woodcut portraying Jeanne Baret

A fan­ci­ful con­tem­po­rary wood­cut por­tray­ing Jeanne Baret

There were some enter­tain­ing biogra­phies in this year’s read­ing. Gly­nis Ridley’s The Dis­cov­ery of Jeanne Baret — A Sto­ry of Sci­ence, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Cir­cum­nav­i­gate the Globe was part of my Pacif­ic read­ing. This tru­ly remark­able woman, who accom­pa­nied Bougainville’s explorato­ry voy­age in the South Pacif­ic dis­guised as a boy, seems also to have been a first rate botanist. Rid­ley care­ful­ly takes apart the doc­u­men­tary evi­dence and demon­strates that the account of her “unmask­ing” in Tahi­ti, which I had read in numer­ous his­to­ry books, was prob­a­bly a fab­ri­ca­tion. What’s most remark­able is that Baret was a peas­ant girl from a small French vil­lage, whose adven­tur­ous and event-filled life far sur­passed rea­son­able expec­ta­tions. Anoth­er book about the Pacif­ic was In the South Seas — The Mar­que­sas, Pau­mo­tus and Gilbert Islands, a nar­ra­tive made by Robert Louis Steven­son of his first encounter with Poly­ne­sia. Ben MacIntyre’s Josi­ah the Great, the True Sto­ry of the Man Who Would Be King tells the sto­ry of Josi­ah Har­lan, an Amer­i­can adven­tur­er who became Prince of Ghor in Afghanistan, among the con­tentious Haz­ari, and before the dis­as­trous British occu­pa­tion of that coun­try. In fact, he end­ed up fight­ing against the British. It is said that Harlan’s check­ered career inspired Rud­yard Kipling to write The Man Who Would Be King. I would also have to count as a “biog­ra­phy” the 15th Cen­tu­ry chron­i­cle La chronique du bon duc Loys de Bour­bon, writ­ten by Jean Cabaret d’Orville in 1429. There is no Eng­lish trans­la­tion of this work, and my friend Steve Muhlburg­er, a renowned schol­ar of chival­ry, is pro­duc­ing one. But trans­lat­ing medieval French is not easy, and Steve has farmed out some of the research leg­work to me. This is noth­ing like the mod­ern French lan­guage, obsessed with pre­ci­sion, clar­i­ty and the mot juste. French was then a dis­or­der­ly hen­house of region­al dialects and sin­gle words used in a hun­dred ways. Often one can only guess at what D’Oronville was say­ing, by sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly com­par­ing it to uses of the same words or phras­es in oth­er medieval texts.

Robert Young Pelton’s The Hunter, the Ham­mer, and Heav­en — Jour­neys to Three Worlds Gone Mad didn’t offer me any sur­pris­es, but it was a good read. Pel­ton spe­cial­izes in going to dan­ger­ous places, and the three he deals with in this book are Sier­ra Leone, Chech­nya and Bougainville. I don’t envy him. I’ve found myself in such places by acci­dent, rather than design, and don’t find pants-piss­ing ter­ror or over­dos­es of adren­a­lin to my lik­ing. It isn’t this aspect of the book that inter­ests me, but his fair­ly acute obser­va­tion of peo­ple and his real­is­tic appraisals of motives and sit­u­a­tions. There is only one place in the book with which I can com­pare some first-hand expe­ri­ence, and every­thing in that sec­tion rings true, so I’m guess­ing that the oth­er parts are reli­able, too.

Mark McCormack’s The Declin­ing Sig­nif­i­cance of Homo­pho­bia — How Teenage Boys are Redefin­ing Mas­culin­i­ty and Het­ero­sex­u­al­i­ty out­lines a social trend (for a change, it’s a good social trend) that seems to be more advanced in Britain than in North Amer­i­ca, but does man­i­fest itself here — at least it does in Toron­to. It’s inter­est­ing to com­pare it to the curi­ous book After the Ball: How Amer­i­ca Will Con­quer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the ’90s by Mar­shall Kirk & Hunter Mad­sen, writ­ten in 1989 (I read it in 2007) which made some prac­ti­cal points, but, with typ­i­cal­ly Amer­i­can opti­mism, gross­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed the strength of the oppo­si­tion. Kirk and Mad­sen assumed that hatred of gays was more or less the prod­uct of unfa­mil­iar­i­ty and mis­un­der­stand­ing, all of which would be straight­ened out by the open­ness and vital­i­ty of Amer­i­can soci­ety. There was no under­stand­ing that there is also a hard core of vile peo­ple who are moti­vat­ed by actu­al evil, and in the end, gays will have to fight for their free­dom, not just let it evolve.

Dou­glas Stone’s Ein­stein and the Quan­tum straight­ened out some con­fu­sion I had about the role Ein­stein played in the devel­op­ment of Quan­tum The­o­ry. It has become a cliché that Ein­stein said “God does not play dice” about Heisenberg’s work, and there is a wide­spread impres­sion that he reject­ed quan­tum physics and gen­er­al­ly behaved like an old fud­dy-dud­dy in lat­er years. But this does not appear to be so. Ein­stein always had a pro­found inter­est in quan­tum effects, and in fact did much of the ground­break­ing work that led up to mod­ern Quan­tum The­o­ry. He strug­gled for much of his life­time to find an inter­pre­ta­tion of quan­tum mechanix that would sat­is­fy him. He was, in fact, as much one of the founders of mod­ern Quan­tum The­o­ry as were Heisen­berg, Schrödinger, Dirac and von Neu­mann.

Which brings me to the short­er non-fic­tion read­ing of the year, most­ly of aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nal arti­cles. One of these stands out from the oth­ers in impor­tance, but I had to read it three times, months apart, to under­stand why. I’m refer­ring to Jean-Paul Gagnon’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic The­o­ry and The­o­ret­i­cal Physics, which appeared in the obscure Tai­wan Jour­nal of Democ­ra­cy, and will no doubt take years to sift upward to vis­i­bil­i­ty and influ­ence. Gagnon pub­lished Evo­lu­tion­ary Basic Democ­ra­cy: A Crit­i­cal Over­ture in 2013, which attempt­ed to make sense of the maze of ill-defined and con­tra­dic­to­ry notions that appear in the cur­rent glob­al dis­cus­sion of democ­ra­cy. To say that this project was ambi­tious is gross under­state­ment. I think Evo­lu­tion­ary Basic Democ­ra­cy is a very good book, and it deserves to be wide­ly read. But it did not entire­ly clear up the epis­teme­l­og­i­cal fog. Demo­c­ra­t­ic The­o­ry and The­o­ret­i­cal Physics moves much clos­er to doing this.

Gagnon has long held a posi­tion that is dear to my heart, that democ­ra­cy is a phe­nom­e­non with broad and ancient roots in human cul­ture, going back, in fact to the ear­li­est evo­lu­tion of hominids, and is not some­thing that should be arbi­trar­i­ly pinned to some par­tic­u­lar human com­mu­ni­ty or cul­ture. As Steven Muhlberg­er and I argued as far back as 1993, the roots of democ­ra­cy are glob­al, cross-cul­tur­al, and root­ed in basic human rela­tions, as well as a tran­scen­dant moral­i­ty that is not mere cus­tom or tra­di­tion. It has tak­en decades for any sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of schol­ars to escape from the provin­cial­ism that dom­i­nat­ed democ­ra­cy schol­ar­ship, and the process is still ongo­ing. You still hear prat­tle about “the West­ern con­cept of democ­ra­cy.” But most democ­ra­cy advo­cates all too eas­i­ly con­cede that their propo­si­tions do not hold the same kind of valid­i­ty as a physicist’s state­ments about the nat­ur­al world.

Schol­ars in the “social sci­ences” often suf­fer from “physics envy” — a yearn­ing to make their dis­ci­plines look more like phys­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal sci­ences, which they feel will enhance their pres­tige among the hoi poloi. But in their attempts to do so, they often show a pro­found mis­un­der­stand­ing of how the phys­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal sci­ences actu­al­ly work. For exam­ple, there have been gen­er­a­tions of archae­ol­o­gists, soci­ol­o­gists (and some his­to­ri­ans) who have tried to force human soci­eties into schemes of “social evo­lu­tion”, sup­pos­ed­ly par­al­lel to bio­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion. How­ev­er, they mis­un­der­stand what biol­o­gists actu­al­ly think about bio­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion, and try to make “social evo­lu­tion” cor­re­spond to a grotesque car­toon ver­sion of it, in which many of the con­cepts are dis­tort­ed or down­right wrong. There were decades of talk about nec­es­sary pro­gres­sive stages of social evo­lu­tion, when no actu­al biol­o­gist ever con­ceived of evo­lu­tion as embody­ing nec­es­sary pro­gres­sive stages. Anoth­er mis­take is evi­dent when schol­ars assume that demo­c­ra­t­ic the­o­ry can nev­er be dis­cussed with the rigour of phys­i­cal the­o­ry, assum­ing that Physi­cists are pos­sessed of a kind of absolute cer­tain­ty that, in fact, they do not pro­fess.

In Demo­c­ra­t­ic The­o­ry and The­o­ret­i­cal Physics, Gagnon looks at the actu­al meth­ods that physi­cists use to bring forth, elu­ci­date, and accept the­o­ret­i­cal con­structs of the phys­i­cal world, and shows that phys­i­cal ideas are encased in very much the same epis­teme­l­og­i­cal puz­zles as those that plague schol­ars of democ­ra­cy, but that they have long accept­ed these puz­zles as “the cost of doing busi­ness” in con­struct­ing phys­i­cal the­o­ry. Physi­cists work with­in para­me­ters of (quot­ing Gagnon) “sym­me­try, uni­fi­ca­tion, sim­plic­i­ty, and util­i­ty” to sug­gest a the­o­ret­i­cal solu­tion, then devel­op paths of inquiry that enrich and test the the­o­ret­i­cal con­struct, main­tain­ing it as long as it fat­tens up on its diet of evi­dence, while always look­ing for weak­ness­es and oth­er angles. As a col­lec­tive endeav­our, physics occa­sion­al­ly under­goes a sea-change of fun­da­men­tal the­o­ry, but always main­tains a degree of con­fi­dence in a real world out there that the math and spec­u­la­tive con­structs have some­thing to do with. Gagnon is con­fi­dent that his for­mu­la­tion of “evo­lu­tion­ary basic democ­ra­cy” meets the same sort of cri­te­ria, and that we can start step­ping a lit­tle beyond the cur­rent state of “I like democ­ra­cy because, well, ya know, like it’s cool, but I don’t know what the hell it is.” I agree with him. These issues have to be sort­ed out in this gen­er­a­tion, because sow­ing epis­te­mo­log­i­cal con­fu­sion among those who seek rea­son­able ends is a stan­dard tac­tic of those whose ambi­tion is to achieve unrea­son­able ones. Peo­ple who would like to see their soci­eties be more demo­c­ra­t­ic, or wish to pro­tect what democ­ra­cy they have, are often drawn to a kind of epis­te­mo­log­i­cal and cul­tur­al rel­a­tivism that can eas­i­ly be turned against them. Soon they find them­selves sell­ing the farm to total­i­tar­i­ans, because, after all they can’t prove that its bet­ter to be free than a slave, and that a con­cen­tra­tion camp isn’t moral­ly equiv­a­lent to a Sun­day pic­nic. And unless they find the equiv­a­lent of the work­ing tools used by physi­cists, they will be for­ev­er fail­ing to cre­ate democ­ra­cy because they fear they can’t define it.

I’ve read sev­er­al arti­cles about the Komi rein­deer herders of arc­tic Rus­sia, most­ly by Kir­ill Istomin and Mark Dwyer. They have pro­duced a wealth of knowl­edge about the dynam­ics, eco­nom­ics and soci­ol­o­gy of herd­ing rein­deer, and an equal amount of insight into sub­jects like alco­holism and school per­for­mance, all com­piled with enor­mous care and a huge invest­ment in the hard­est kind of anthro­po­log­i­cal work — the kind where you spend weeks in the bush in -40 weath­er. This kind of social sci­ence is not a com­fy desk job. Since much of what they write could equal­ly apply to the Cana­di­an Arc­tic, with which I have some famil­iar­i­ty, it’s all been a plea­sure to read.

I’ve read a lot of papers about the evo­lu­tion of lan­guage in ear­ly humans, but I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly pleased when some­one brings a skep­ti­cal and inci­sive scalpel to trends and spec­u­la­tions that rest on mea­gre evi­dence. Rudolf Botha’s The­o­ret­i­cal Unde­pin­nings of Infer­ences about Lan­guage Evo­lu­tion: The Syn­tax Used at Blom­bos Cave, Bon­ny Sands & Tom Güldemann’s What Click Lan­guages Can and Can’t Tell Us about Lan­guage Ori­gins, Karl C. Diller & Rebec­ca L. Cann’s Evi­dence Against a Genet­ic-bases Rev­o­lu­tion in Lan­guage 50,000 Years Ago, Wil Roe­broeks & Alexan­der Verpoorte’s A “Lan­guage-fee” Expla­na­tion for Dif­fer­ences between the Euro­pean Mid­dle and Upper Pale­olith­ic Record, James R. Hur­ford & Dan Dediu’s Diver­si­ty in Lan­guages, Genes, and the Lan­guage Fac­ul­ty all fit that descrip­tion.

Most of the hun­dreds of papers I read are fine work, but usu­al­ly I am not expert enough to have any spe­cial opin­ion about them, or they are so straight­for­ward in their pur­pose as to need no com­ment. When I pick one to men­tion, it’s usu­al­ly for a tanden­tial rea­son. For exam­ple, P. Thami­zoli & Ignatius Prabhakar’s Tra­di­tion­al Gov­er­nance Sys­tems of Fish­ing Com­mu­ni­ties in Tamil Nadu, India: Inter­nal Man­date, Inter­fac­ing and Inte­grat­ing Devel­op­ment con­firmed a sus­pi­cion I had, based on oth­er times and places, that fish­ing vil­lages have often been shield­ed from the inter­nal intru­sions and pow­ers of the State by the spe­cial nature of their economies and inter­nal orga­ni­za­tion. The same pat­terns seem to pop up in places as diverse as India, Indone­sia, Japan, Scot­land, and Atlantic Cana­da. Sim­i­lar­ly, William D. Hop­kins, et al’s The Neur­al and Cog­ni­tive Cor­re­lates of Aimed Throw­ing in Chim­panzees: A Mag­net­ic Res­o­nance Image and Behav­iour­al Study on a Unique Form of Social Tool Use backs up some of the spec­u­la­tions I dis­cuss in Yes, We Have No Savan­nah.

Fic­tion has not been neglect­ed. I always read a sci­ence fic­tion nov­el when I want to un-stress, usu­al­ly chos­ing an old one. I’ll either re-read an old favourite, or final­ly get to one that I always meant to read. I start­ed out the year by re-read­ing H. G. Well’s The Time Machine, and then read The Chron­ic Arg­onauts, a short sto­ry that Wells wrote in 1888, which con­tained the germ of The Time Machine. But this ear­li­er sto­ry was only humor­ous bur­lesque, a kind of shag­gy dog sto­ry padded out with Welsh jokes.

Peter S. Beagle, grown up.

Peter S. Bea­gle, grown up.

Some­times turn­ing to old paper­back SF books, with their won­der­ful cov­er art and nos­tal­gia-induc­ing molder­ing paper smell, can be a dis­ap­point­ment. For exam­ple, I’ve always want­ed to read Poul Anderson’s World With­out Stars, because the con­cept of a plan­et orbit­ing a lone star in the vast empti­ness between two galax­ies is just, well, deli­cious. But Ander­son wast­ed it on a rou­tine, assem­bled-from-an-Ikea-kit adven­ture sto­ry, and it didn’t have a par­ti­cle of “sen­sa-wun­da.” The oppo­site can be said of Peter S. Beagle’s 1960 fan­ta­sy nov­el A Fine and Pri­vate Place. I have no idea how it is that I nev­er read it. It’s an acknowl­edged clas­sic, and its been sit­ting on my shelf for decades. Now I’ve read it, and I’m pissed off. It’s a fuck­ing mas­ter­piece, and Bea­gle wrote it when he was twen­ty. Writ­ers ain’t got no busi­ness writ­ing that well when they’re twen­ty. It just makes the rest of us look bad. If I ever meet him (he’s on my face­book page) I’ll shake his hand, then punch him. Kurt Siodmak’s Donovan’s Brain, writ­ten in 1942, has held up rea­son­ably well, and inspired me to watch the 1953 screen adap­ta­tion. Thomas Bur­nett Swann’s The Weir­woods is one of the best of his mytho­log­i­cal fan­tasies, just ooz­ing with a gen­teel eroti­cism. I have writ­ten of his work in The Sen­su­al Fan­tasies of Thomas Bur­nett Swann. L. Sprague de Camp col­lect­ed some amus­ing short sto­ries in The Pur­ple Ptero­dactyl — The Adven­tures of W. Wil­son New­bury, Ensor­celled Financier. Samuel R. Delany’s The Jew­els of Aptor, a very ear­ly work, shows some of his future fire, but is basi­cal­ly con­ven­tion­al. Daniel M. Pinkwater’s Alan Mendel­sohn, The Boy From Mars is a sur­pris­ing­ly intri­cate SF com­e­dy-dra­ma writ­ten for kids. It would have appealed only to the bright­est ones. David Mitchell’s Ghost­writ­ten has con­vinced me to try out his oth­er, more famous nov­els. It uses some tech­niques that I hope to bring into my own fic­tion. [Yes, I write fic­tion. Been bad­ly burnt. Pre­fer not to talk about it.] I sup­pose you would count as fan­ta­sy-read­ing my re-read­ing of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, this time in three sep­a­rate ver­sions, one of them in untrans­lat­ed Mid­dle Eng­lish.

Of the main­stream fic­tion I read, what stood out were Mar­guerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien, Shyam Selvadurai’s rather grim autho­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el Hun­gry Ghosts, set in Sri Lan­ka, Toron­to and Van­cou­ver, Jonathan Safran’s Extreme­ly Loud & Incred­i­bly Close which felt like a 1960s-70s book, and two by the Nor­we­gian nov­el­ist Per Pet­ter­son: Out Steal­ing Hors­es [Ut og stjœle hes­ter] and In the Wake [I kjøl­van­net]. I much pref­ered Out Steal­ing Hors­es. While read­ing them, I noticed that much of the atmos­phere and style would be famil­iar stuff to Cana­di­an read­ers, and won­dered if Nor­we­gian writ­ers read Cana­di­an books. Then, in one of the two nov­els, the main char­ac­ter men­tioned that his favourite writer was Alice Munro, and went on to ana­lyze her work.

In a cat­e­go­ry by itself, I would have to put François Mandeville’s This Is What They Say — A Sto­ry Cycle Dic­tat­ed in North­ern Alber­ta in 1928, ed. and tr. from Chipewyan by Ron Scol­lon [ᐯᑕᐠᐢᐊᐧ ᒪᐠᑌᐱᔆ ᐁᐢᓂ]. Chipewyan is a Dene-Atha­paskan lan­guage of the Cana­di­an arc­tic, remote­ly relat­ed to Nava­ho and Apache, and com­plete­ly unre­lat­ed to the Cree and Ojib­we lan­guages that are in my turf. But the hunt­ing lifestyle is sim­i­lar, and the Dene peo­ple will dance Cree-style dances and recite Cree sto­ries, albeit always dis­tin­guish­ing them from their own. Ancient sto­ry cycles have been kept alive until this gen­er­a­tion by the Dene peo­ple, and this one seems to have come down from the old times with­out seri­ous alter­ation.

I read Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Jour­ney Into Night, then watched the dyna­mite 1962 film pro­duc­tion with Katharine Hep­burn, Ralph Richard­son, Jason Robards and Dean Stock­well.

Final­ly, a word on Damon Run­y­on. I read A Trea­sury of Damon Run­y­on, edit­ed by Clark Kin­naird, which put togeth­er what appears to be a bal­anced selec­tion of Runyon’s sto­ries. Run­y­on is one of those Amer­i­can writ­ers that was once oblig­a­tory read­ing, but has drift­ed away into the cor­ner where you’ve heard the name but feel no urgency to read. The New York City that Run­y­on wrote about so lov­ing­ly is now so dis­tant and alien that it might as well be on anoth­er plan­et. You get bare­ly com­pre­hen­si­ble whiffs of it from slang-filled 1930s gang­ster films and come­dies. Even by the 1950s, his sto­ries had mutat­ed into the broad­way musi­cal Guys and Dolls, and were already hazy nos­tal­gia. By the 1960s, it was get­ting dif­fi­cult to under­stand the archa­ic slang, and the sto­ries were large­ly read for their quaint­ness. Today, I can’t imag­ine what a new read­er would make of them. After a few sto­ries, how­ev­er, you start to be able to trans­late the slang. Run­y­on had a knack for pulling you in and keep­ing you going until you reach the sat­is­fac­to­ry denoue­ment, and it still works, despite the con­fus­ing patch­es. His char­ac­ters were most­ly pet­ty crim­i­nals, gam­blers, shop girls, gang­ster “molls” and flat­foot cops, and they talk in a kind of clipped, frag­ment­ed, near­ly stream-of-con­scious­ness pat­ter with plen­ty of interup­tions and diver­sions. Here’s a sam­ple:

Well, I am going by the jock­ey house on my way home, think­ing how nice its that Hymie Ban­jo Eyes will no longer have to live with Mahogany, and what a fine thing it is to have a loy­al, ever-lov­ing wife such as ‘Lass­es, who risks her nerves root­ing for her husband’s horse, when I run into this dizzy Scroon in his street clothes, and wish­ing to be friend­ly, I say to him like this: “Hel­lo, Frankie,” I say. “You put up a nice ride today.” “Where do you get this ‘Frankie’?” Scroon says. “My name is Gus.” “Why,” I say, com­menc­ing to think of this and that, “so it is, but is there a jock called Frankie in the sixth race with you this after­noon?” “Sure,” Scroon says. “Frankie Med­ley. He rides Side Burns, the favorite; and I make a suck­er of him in the stretch run.” But of course I nev­er men­tion to Hymie Ban­jo Eyes that I fig­ure his ever-lov­ing wife roots her­self into a dead faint for the horse that will give her to Brick McCloskey, because for all I know she may think Scroon’s name is Frankie, at that. [That Ever-Lov­ing Wife of Hymie’s]

To a read­er of today, the sto­ries hov­er uncom­fort­ably between cyn­i­cism and sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty. Bank rob­bers are saved from death by stray kit­tens, there are (implied) hook­ers with hearts of gold. But at the same time, almost every­body is dou­ble-deal­ing almost every­body else, and the under­cur­rent of vio­lence is always there:

The moment the train got under way good, Soup­bone says: “Now my pret­ty boy, you’re such a —good trav­el­er, let’s see you jump off this train!” The kid thought he was josh­ing, but there wasn’t no josh about it. Soup pulled a gun. The Shine, with his own gun in hand, crawled clear on top and lay flat on the cars, try­ing to steady his aim on Soup­bone. The kid was plead­ing and almost cry­ing, when Soup­bone sud­den­ly jumped at him, smashed him in the jaw with the gun bar­rel, and knocked him off the train. The Shine shot Soup­bone in the back, and he dropped on top of the train, but didn’t roll off. As the Shine was going down between the cars again, Soup­bone shot at him and broke his arm. He got off all right, and went back down the road to find the kid dead — his neck broke. [The Infor­mal Exe­cu­tion of Soup­bone Pew]

Damon Run­y­on is now thought of as a light-weight writer of com­i­cal sketch­es from a bygone era. Well, that’s sort of true. But the com­e­dy is icing on a cake of pain.

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