Saturday, 10 November 2012

The phenomenology of being Canadian and not American

Phenomenology, in Husserl's conception, is primarily concerned with the systematic reflection on and study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness. This phenomenological ontology can be clearly differentiated from the Cartesian method of analysis which sees the world as objects, sets of objects, and objects acting and reacting upon one another. Wikipedia entry on "Phenomenology"

There was a question recently posed by the Canadian edition of Huffington Post basically asking if Canadians were more interested in American politics than Canadian politics. I just watched a documentary by Glenn Gould called, The Idea of the North. For some reason I'm always struck by the cold, wet autumnness of 1970s Canadian films (always that slushy, cold steamed up look of the camera lens capturing the sad, dreary Canadian autumn-winter on grainy film - must be the filming season of Canadian documentary makers at the time).

Anyhoo, I was watching the film and kept thinking about the Huffington question. I think the main difference between American and Canadian experiences is that the Canadian mythology has more to do with a Cartesian outlook rather than the Husserlian one. What I mean is this: Canadian film-making has the wide, open spaces writ large in its films (almost invariably, though Gould was not one for focussing on people to begin with); whereas the American film-makers tend to focus on the personalities of its characters.

There is something of a tendency for an impersonalization of the Canadian experience - an object reality that is Canadian politics, literary bent, film-making: I think, therefore I am. The top soil is thin and not much can grow. The contents of the policy is a conservative take on the immediate now: we've only got so much to spend and no more. The Canadian North, as romanticized as it is by Canadian mythology, is a perfect example of a conservative vision: bare, undeveloped and sadly lagging behind the times by all measures, literally. It is a polite negligence and alienated don't-know-what-to-do-with-it mentality; there is no grand vision here. I guess the primitive Eskimos (themselves an intrusion to the romantic notions of the North) kind of ruin the idyllic notions of the North. Like the unfinished poem of Keats', Hyperion, the Canadian experience was found unoriginal and the author left it there hanging unable to transcend his grief of losing a loved one besides.

In the American experience, besides the persistent classicalism (Greco-Roman - perhaps it's precisely because of this), it is the drama that ensues when strong personalities clash that make up the story. In keeping with the hapless Hyperion analogy, America is Milton's Paradise Lost (ie, the original vision inadvertantly imitated by Keats). Where Keats aimed too high and couldn't quite make the poem work, America recasted the classical vision in Judeo-christian terms and out came a poem that worked beautifully, epically, capturing the substance of humanity in all its glory and infamy.

The differences between the Canadian and American experiences are of a deep phenomenological nature. But both have its possibilities and limitations. Where one was found not quite adequate to capture what it is to be human, the other finds it can renew itself because that is its nature.


Sunday, 4 November 2012

Sweet and Lowdown

Sweet and Lowdown is a Woody Allen (one of my step-son's favourite film-makers, such a smart kid) boipic of one of the jazz guitar greats, Emmet Ray. Personally, I had never heard of Emmet Ray until last night when I watched the movie with my aippakuluk, but I was blown away by his music. I was also intrigued by Sean Penn's portrayal of Ray, who was a socially awkward, extremely talented, hopelessly honest, guileless artiste with a slight hint of kleptomania and a strong but awkward imperative to compensate. He was completely self-absorbed (but not malicious): he took his dates and friends out to the local dump to shoot rats, or to watch trains - which were his idea of a 'good time'.

In many ways, I immediately identified with Emmet Ray. Not so much the outward person but the personality type. Like Ray, I tend not to relate to people at the personal level and have a hard time appreciating the social rituals of relating at the emotional level, telling personal stories because I know these are particular, dynamic aspects of our personhood. Besides people can be cruel and stereo-type other people using these things. I take comfort at the spiritual level, in partaking in structured stories (movies, music, books, etc.).

There is also an obsessiveness, the need to systemize human experience. My particular thing is I love mathematical structures: of numbers, of music, of language, of philosophical and scientific principles. The human story is ultimately judged (not in a judgemental fashion) by how much or how little it deviates from principles (in far as the limits of these principles are tested and proven). I'm obsessive about politics for two reasons: I love the notions of social justice and personal dignity; I seek order and reason for the political process. I'm not at all impressed by power, fame or money. I'm impressed by how these means are used to noble ends. I get taken up by stories and the narrative this way.

My children also have this trait: my oldest watches all her tv and movies with the subtitles on (the better to read dialogues and partake in the plots, it's a literate thing for her); my son is a great gamer and figures things out not by the written rules but by doing and trying out all possibilities; my youngest and I used to talk ad naseum about the stories she heard and movies she saw. Though I haven't seen nor heard from my youngest in years, I have every faith that she will never lose her spirit.

Already by the age of three and four she was a talented artist. I mean 'artist' in the real sense. I still have her water colour which she entitled "flowers and butterflies" (in my biased opinion it is gorgeous), and her multi-media mural which she called "Snow White and the wicked witch". It is a dynamic retelling of the classic beginning from the bottom right corner with meeting of Snow White and the seven dwarves and culminating with the death of the evil stepmother (a black blob) on the left top corner (she dies on a mountain struck by lightening). In presenting it to me she told me the whole story using the blobs and spots on the mural, and it touched me deeply. She will always be Franklin to my Bear.

My life with my aippakuluk is likewise my humanization story. I love her deeply. Our life together is not perfect - who ever had a perfect life? - but there is something organic, lyrical, real and beautiful about our love. Having gone through both good and bad, I know in my heart I need her spiritually, physically, psychologically, personally. The lichen on the rock - that's how I see our love, our lives together. She brings out the poet in me. Love has no rhyme or reason: it just is. And I've found it in her.