Friday, July 28, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Healing the Sores

Angel Wings: 1:22
“Happy is the man…”

“The lost dog who sleeps on a bed of rags
behind the garage won’t appear
to beg for anything. Nothing will explain
where the birds have gone, why a wind rages
through the ash trees, why the world
goes on accepting more and more rain.”
Philip Levine [1928–2015],
Rain in Winter” (2016)

In pairs,
as if to illustrate their sisterhood,
the sisters pace the hospital garden walks.
In their robes black and white immaculate hoods
they are like birds,
the safe domestic fowl of the House of God.

O biblic birds, who fluttered to me in my childhood illnesses
—me little, afraid, ill, not of your race, —
the cool wing for my fever, the hovering solace,
the sense of angels—
be thanked, O plumage of paradise, be praised.
—A.M. Klein [1909–1972], 

There is much to be said and found in the poetry of A.M. Klein, a Canadian poet but more of a Montrealer as I am one (since the city is so instrumental in forming the man), whose use of religious imagery make us acutely aware of earthly concerns, including those of place and identity. Much of the politics of identity that we are witnessing today comes from a place of hurt, and more often than not is a result of many unhealed sores that inflict people’s souls, taking away their sense of  self, their very dignity.

Much anger evident today comes from this place of humiliation; anger is a response to loss of belief, a sense of betrayal, to thoughts that “no one cares.” Belief leads to hope. And real hope as it implies can never be an abstract idea; it must be taken as real and robust. Someone should care; even if most don’t; someone with a sense of righteousness and the ability to do something should care. I recommend also the reading of Philip Levine, an American poet born during the Great Depression, and who never forgot the past and the importance of giving voice to the voiceless. Building life.

Toronto is an expensive city in which to live, and our money does not purchase much in the way of comfort. It is more American than Canadian (“Toronto is a kind of New York operated by the Swiss,” actor Peter Ustinov said of the city’s efficiency in a Globe & Mail interview (August 1, 1987)). Even if the actor meant it as a compliment, it sounds as if he was damning with faint praise the city. After all, Toronto has neither the charm nor the beauty of Montreal, yet for now I remain here, looking for signs of renewal and redemption, for a softening of the ground.

As an outsider, as one living in exile, I have witnessed many incidents of humiliation and this is one of those things that having lived it, you wish with deepest desire to escape. Writing provides an intellectual and an emotional space, a place to work out the sacred vision, but it does not contribute in my case to any significant secular means of provision. Upward mobility is a chimera, a winged creature that falls to the grounds, never taking flight, never cooling the wrinkled brows of failed dreams and broken crowns.

Lack of success has nothing to do with lack of trying or lack of willpower. That’s only in Hollywood movies, where the pep talk leads to success. I wish this were true, but it’s not. Neither is getting a good education, or having years of work experience, or knowledge or intelligence or being a decent guy; the facts are all there to see. One or two losses (job, house, health, etc.) can set you back indefinitely; three or four will set you back even longer. The problems are much deeper and much wider than even the media know or report, although admittedly the media manage to do a good job in telling such stories.

No, I don’t fault the government, since Canada provides a generous and comprehensive social safety net and this safety net remains in place no matter the political party in power. (There is no guarantee, however, that this can’t change.) No, the fault lies elsewhere, deriving from a certain ethos that predominates south of the Canadian border, one that has infiltrated and infused our thinking with malevolent intentions.

An ethos that takes delight in violence and hostility; an ethos that thrives on disorder and chaos, an ethos that operates on lies and deceptions. An ethos that gives license for the rich to exploit the poor, thus uplifting higher only the few that require no uplifting. All for the love of money–a love of so deep a devotion that it causes a multitude of others so much pain and suffering, so much humiliation and anger. So many places venerate the dumb gods of materialism and consumerism, in keeping with their spiritual denudation.

There is no other word to describe this ethos of selfishness and greed than “cruel.” This is a gross failure of understanding, hiding behind policy and political trickery so as to not appear cruel. But cruelty is cruelty, no matter how you slice it or pretend otherwise. The solution to pain and suffering is not more pain and suffering; yet, this is what some think and do. They are cruel men and women, unlike the “Sisters of the Hotel Dieu.” If you have walked in such shoes for only a while, you will understand. The sores are painful; the scabs are formed on top of the old ones.

This is what I have been writing about the last seven years; and now I am screaming. My voice is raw and now it hurts. I can't continue to scream. Others must now keep on writing, so as to protect the values that we care about, protecting society’s most vulnerable, including the land under our feet, and holding on to a religious belief that values social good and common good—a religion that doesn’t benefit or bank on the accumulation of cruelty. A religion that improves the human condition, that uplifts people and gives them dignity and hope is the only faith that anyone should consider. Religion needs to remember what its ultimate purpose is for us.

A devotion to goodness, love and truth; a devotion to healing the sores.

—Perry J. Greenbaum,  July 28, 2017

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Mordecai Richler: Last of the Wild Jews (2011)

Mordecai Richler: Last of the Wild Jews (2011): The scriptwriter is Charlie Foran; the director Francine Pelletier. Here is a short clip. As for the title, it is a nod to Isaac Babel [1894–1940], the writer from Odessa and the first modern “wild Jew.” In comparison to Babel, it appears that Richler was less wild and better able to direct his prodigious talents. If only Babel had been born in Montreal, his future would have been better, more secure.

In Last of the Wild Jews (2011), made a decade after the Montreal writer’s death, the implicit question raised are the chief influences on Mordecai Richler [1931–2001], those that formed the man and writer that he famously became. The answer, like so many such questions, can be found in his early childhood, in the streets in which he grew up, the streets of St. Urbain, in the period before and after the Second World War. As an English-speaking Jew, Richler straddled the two solitudes of English and French Montreal (an expression made famous by Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 novel, which we read in high school). These experiences formed many of his views of the world, as they did for me growing up on Park Avenue, a few blocks from St. Urbain in the same Mile End neighbourhood. (Yes, to be sure, the back streets and alleyways, also called lane-ways played a role.) It also made him an honest witness, which made him unpopular with the rich and dominant classes and popular with the outsiders, those who identified as true what he wrote and said. It is equally true that Richler’s satire was biting and humorous; and in its writing and publishing he articulated, both in his novels and in his essays, what many who were from the third solitude keenly felt. He was a true Montrealer.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Leonard Cohen: It Seemed the Better Way (2016)

Via: Youtube

Leonard Cohen sings “It Seemed the Better Way,” which is the seventh track on the 2016 album You Want It Darker, released on October 26th. The album was released 19 days before Cohen’s death; he was 82. There is much to recommend in these four lines; the wisdom of the world sees this as full of literal truth; the poet and dreamer as full of irony: It sounded like the truth/ It seemed the better way/ You’d have to be a fool /To choose the meek today. There are few such fools evident today, and even less who admit such in a public fashion. Romance died when the better way was denied.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Reading Now (July 2017): Like One That Dreamed

Montreal Poet

Like One That Dreamed: a portrait of A.M. Klein (1982), by Usher Caplan
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Like One That Dreamed: a portrait of A.M. Klein (1982), by Usher Caplan, is published a decade after Abraham Moses Klein’s death at the age of 63. When you make attempts to write about such a multi-dimensional man, you find that you are not writing about someone who can be easily described, easily delineated. Such is the case of A.M. Klein [1909–1972], the Montreal writer and poet, a lawyer, a dreamer, a worker for Jewish causes, an admirer of James Joyce [1882–1941] and in particular his modernist masterpiece, Ulysses (1922).

This is about a man who believed in the virtues of intelligence and decency, as part of his noble and moral vision of the world. When you carry the names of two of Judaism’s leading visionaries, your path is set out for you at an early age. Even so, when he viewed his fight for justice as not achievable, as his poetic voice no longer heard, in his forties he not only stopped writing, but, equally important, stopped communicating with the outside world, which is what this biographer says filled Klein’s last 20 years.

Or, as the Foreword, by Leon Edel [1907–1997], says: “And so bit by bit the will to achieve was eroded” (11). True, one can achieve only when the will to do so is present and active, when the Self believes that this will lead to an artistic achievement. In view of the sparsity of facts of this period of silence on the part of Klein, the biographer fills the lacunae with mostly fact and some speculation, doing so with a determined detachment that has become the de rigueur for biographies.

No doubt, he does a commendable and worthy job in presenting Klein’s words, both public and private, and we have a better understanding of Klein the man. Yet, I am left with a gnawing feeling that there must be more to know, especially what took place the last decade of his life. What were his thoughts? That what this biography presents cannot be all of the facts? Perhaps it is, and there is no more to know; the story has been written.

So, we read about Klein’s descent into “irrational suspicions and unprovoked bouts of anger” (205), his subsequent electroshock treatments at both the Douglas Hospital and the Jewish General Hospital, and then a deepening withdrawal from public life and a continuing silence. Today, he would likely be diagnosed as having some form of depression, and treated by some anti-depressant and cognitive-based therapy. The outcome might have been better or worse. We can’t really say.

Yet, allow me to add an addendum, a postscript, another thought based on my personal observations. After all, what else can a man of dignity, a man of depth, a man of decency, who was humiliated by defeats of the soul, do? What happens when your work is not understood or sufficiently appreciated? Klein wanted to be known as a poet, and in keeping with his knowledge of the Bible, as a poet of righteousness; everything else that he did was secondary to his primary desire. Poets, like prophets, are rarely acknowledged in their lifetimes.

Not everyone can easily shrug off such indignities. It is true that all dreamers suffer, because dreamers are made of finer feelings, which the world tends to ignore. Klein’s behaviour, including his increasing insularity and his “vow of silence” makes perfect sense to me; and I don’t think I have yet descended the “stairs of madness.” There is no denying, given my sensibilities, that one day I might.

—Perry J. Greenbaum, July 25, 2017

Monday, July 24, 2017

A.M. Klein: The Mountain (1948)


Many of us have memories of the mountain, Mont-Royal, especially those of us who grew within close proximity to it during our youth, as the poet A.M. Klein [1909–1972] did during his and I during mine. The mountain was a place to explore, and find out history and plan futures to match the fantastic dreams of our imaginings, made more real when and while looking at the skies, blue and white. It was where magic was made and where the mysteries of the universe were viewed, with awe and understanding.

If you lived near the mountain, you couldn’t help but notice its cross, which some consider an intrusion, but many a welcome intrusion. There has been a cross atop Mont Royal since the days of Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, Jeanne Mance and the founding of the city (officially celebrated as May 17, 1642; the City of Montreal is 375 years old); the current cross dates to 1924.

The second terrace recalls Dante’s Purgatorio (Cantos XIII, XIV), the place where envy is purged, only to be replaced by love. It is a place where covetousness, which includes the love of money, is expunged. Truly, “the love of money” and a devotion to it has contributed to and resulted in much human suffering.

As noted in the poem, one was always aware of the mountain’s illuminated cross, bathed in a white luminescence; its steel-metal structure visible from a distance. Its presence familiar and comforting, clothed in dignified strength, always calling you to come closer. Many heeded its invocation; many undoubtedly did, making declarations of love and obedience.

The Mountain
by A.M. Klein

Who knows it only by the famous cross which bleeds
into the fifty miles of night its light
knows a night—scene;
and who upon a postcard knows its shape —
the buffalo straggled of the laurentian herd, —
holds in his hand a postcard.

In layers of mountains the history of mankind,
and in Mount Royal
which daily in a streetcar I surround
my youth, my childhood —
the pissabed dandelion, the coolie acorn,
green prickly husk of chestnut beneath mat of grass—
O all the amber afternoons
are still to be found.

There is a meadow, near the pebbly brook,
where buttercups, like once on the under of my chin
upon my heart still throw their rounds of yellow.

And Cartier's monument, based with nude figures
still stands where playing hookey
Lefty and I tested our gravel aim
(with occupation flinging away our guilt)
against the bronze tits of Justice.

And all my Aprils there are marked and spotted
upon the adder's tongue, darting in light,
upon the easy threes of trilliums, dark green, green, and white,
threaded with earth, and rooted
beside the bloodroots near the leaning fence—
corms and corollas of childhood,
a teacher's presents.

And chokecherry summer clowning black on my teeth!

The birchtree stripped by the golden zigzag still
stands at the mouth of the dry cave where I
one suppertime in August watched the sky
grow dark, the wood quiet, and then suddenly spill
from barrels of thunder and broken staves of lightning —
terror and holiday!

One of these days I shall go up to the second terrace
to see if it still is there—
the uncomfortable sentimental bench
where, — as we listened to the brass of the band concerts
made soft and to our mood by dark and distance—
I told the girl I loved
I loved her.

The Mountain is part of a collection of poems in A.M. Klein's The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, published in 1948 by The Ryerson Press; it won the Governor General’s Award for poetry.

—Perry J. Greenbaum, July 24, 2017

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Leonard Cohen: Show Me the Place (2012)

Via: Youtube

Leonard Cohen sings “Show Me the Place,” which is the third track on his album Old Ideas, released on January 31, 2012. Show me the place where the suffering began.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Dreams of Peace

Moral Good 1:21
“Happy is the man…”

Photo Credit: ©2017. Eli G. Greenbaum

“Of all our dreams today there is none more important—or so hard to realise—than that of peace in the world. May we never lose our faith in it or our resolve to do everything that can be done to convert it one day into reality.”
Lester Bowles Pearson Acceptance Speech
Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, Norway, December 10, 1957

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer,
to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Abraham Harold Maslow,
Toward a Psychology of Being (1962)

We are far away from peace today, since we read everywhere and all the time that conflict is all around us, the same conflicts for the same reasons that have started conflicts for thousands of years (i.e., land, resources, power, greed, etc.). Truth be told, politicians from the same countries have a knack for starting conflicts they cannot end, for making messes they cannot clean up. There are no stories of peace breaking out, but many of war and conflict and the threat that each pose for humanity.

We seem to be at a phase where we cannot find a way to get people together to end it; well, we are always stuck at this phase for one reason or another. So, peace cannot come until there is a serious effort to end the many conflicts around us. This will only take place when humans have exhausted their will to continue conflicts, to act violently, to feed their “impure,” albeit normal and common, impulses.

On one hand violence is abhorred; on another it is applauded. For many, “the hammer” seems the only tool to use, since everything under the sun—every human problem, every human himself—can be reduced to “a nail.” Some might call this a natural state of being, a part of practical politics. I call it madness. Most would agree if they would consider this statement, but most do not, since they are indifferent, asleep, fearful. Some, however, believe that war and violence are necessary; that the earth needs to be cleansed of all that is evil.

Religions, notably the three Abrahamic faiths, would suggest that peace is achievable by giving oneself over to the norms of the religious life, adhering and following its traditions and its restrictions. In other words, peace is found only by leading a life devoted to the religious ways first told and taught thousands of years ago by a founding religious and spiritual leader. Some, perhaps many, find comfort and truth in such teachings and attempt such a way.

Others do not, including many who have tried and left the religious way of life; and view the idea of peace as living a moral life devoted to good that is not necessarily bound up in ideas primarily found in religious teachings and instructions. It might be better and far more beneficial to read Maslow’s book, notably his astute observations on the “higher human motives.” There is also a video interview from 1968 here.

Human ideas on the place of man in the universe have evolved over the centuries and decades. One example of such changing moral views is on slavery; another is on our views on animals; while another is on extending individual freedom. All three hold views that confer humans the right to think and act independently, with dignity, but also to treat animals fairly and justly, without violence.

It is a modern idea that both humans and animals have the inalienable right to live without fear, to live without repression, to live with dignity, to live in freedom in accordance to their essential being. In many places and during many times, regimes have, as Vaclav Havel says, “reduced man to a means of production and nature to a tool of production.” That they have done and much worse; and this continues unabated today and in the foreseeable future, until we decide that we’ve had enough.

Nature will survive man’s indifference and cruelty, since it is itself indifferent and is often harsh, if not seemingly cruel and violent. Nature lacks a morality, a moral center, but despite this can offer beauty.  Americans talk about conquering nature, likely as a way to achieve order. (Canadians, on the other hand, would rather accommodate themselves to nature.) Our own human natures are another matter; the most ambitious among us have taken on the role of political leaders.

As for these modern humans who rule over us, they have often failed to see the necessity of goodness, truth and justice clothed in humility and have made legit hatred, lies and deception bound in the large cloth of expediency and personal gain. The acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake is the clarion call today; it sounds absurd, no doubt, but such is the way it is today and for the foreseeable future. Pile it higher and higher and make a cathedral of money.

Greed in all of its forms and faces is at the center of it all; this is better left unsaid. It might make the greedy uncomfortable. After all, they are not a outwardly violent lot. Their tools are pen and paper or digital versions of it. Can one call it violence if no one is physically hurt? if no one lays hands on your person? if it only leaves permanent marks on your psyche? on your ability to work? There is that kind and there is the everyday greed called normal business practices that does lead to great loss of life.

Whom does it profit? Financially and economically, it profits many, it seems, with very little consequence (whether legal, social or moral) to their perfidious and unethical ways (“all things are lawful” when you are the ones who make the laws). After the public outrage subsides, there is often a public inquiry, a few are fined, even less are indicted and even less go to jail, but no real or significant changes are ever made. Things return to “normal.”

A good part of normal in the world of economic transactions is to follow the Objectivist principles of Ayn Rand (a proponent of laissez faire capitalism, or pure capitalism, and an opponent of altruism), and apply these to business, at least superficially. Never really a good idea, since there is much more to business than reason, including human relations, which often defy cold, calculating reason. Yet, this fact alone is sufficient to make her the hero of extreme libertarians, who view reason and self-interest as solely sufficient to conduct their lives.

But the majority of humanity is pro-social and wants to be helpful and get along; altruism is not only normal, it is normative. That some don’t view the world and human relations in this way is not only exceptional, it is an exception to the way that most people view the world, an exception to most people's ideals. The sad fact is that the opposite appears true today; that one must think only of one’s self and no one else.

When this seems the norm, which it is in many cases, you have unthinking, thoughtless man “scratching and fighting” his way to the top of the pyramid, which is what it takes to be at the top of a system built solely for financial gain. Such a model is unsustainable, yet it continues along the same fault lines of human greed and human self-interest (without any enlightenment to moderate it). Most, however, will fail in their climb to the top, despite putting in great and many years of effort, but some will no doubt “succeed.”

It’s truly nasty brutish stuff. I hardly think that it’s worth the effort, even in my younger years it was a turnoff. I found it far better to work on other things that can elevate or at least better the human condition. An example is becoming a self-actualized individual, which is a lifetime devotion, a way of thinking and of being.

This used to be religion’s calling and strength, its universal appeal, while also providing both answers and comfort to all of humanity. Yet, how can it be so when religion gets into bed with politics, despite dire prophetic warnings of long ago of what would occur in such a relationship. And politics with big business. “What a tangled web we weave…;” religion has not only welcomed big business, it itself has become big business, thus making a mockery of all that it ought to be. The rich are admired much more than the poor, no matter their personal ethics or morality.

Is it any wonder that the union of religion and politics can provide no real answers for any of the problems it has created, even if such were their chief desire, which today seems more doubtful than ever. The “business as usual” approach offers little consolation. I guess that it is never too late to return to what it should be saying and doing, but this will take great effort in apprehending and understanding, with the risk of offending the rich and powerful. Toward this effort. I recommend an excellent opinion piece, by Prof. George Yancy, in The New York Times entitled “Is Your God Dead;” June 19, 2017.

As much as this is important, there are deeper concerns that need airing; it is about another side of Christianity, notably as practiced in America, one that does not speak about peace and love. It is true that in a large and established religion like Christianity, one can find many sets of beliefs; one that I find particularly problematic is Armageddon, a violent showdown, in Israel, to end the world, which takes literally the prophetic passages in the New Testament’s book of Revelation and the Old Testament’s books of Daniel and Ezekiel. Such a worldview informs the everyday thinking of many Christians (notably dispensationalists, a group who make up about one-third of America’s 40–50 million evangelical Christians) in so many ways—this is hardly a recipe to end conflict and bring peace to the world.

But it might explain America’s preoccupation with Israel (e.g., Christian Zionism), and how it views its relationship, one that is based in the end on a final battle of good versus evil—one in which one-third of the earth is destroyed and two-thirds of Israel. It is important to say that there is no mention of America in the Bible, since America did not exist and was not known to exist when the Bible was written and codified. Yet, Americans view their nation (as well as Russia) playing a prominent role in what is referred to as “end times prophecy.” This might explain, on some level, why the U.S. (and perhaps also Russia) cannot acknowledge the need to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

In such a way of thinking, part of God’s plan to redeem mankind is to destroy a large part of it and rebuild a new kind of people, one that would be more obedient and faithful. After all of the death and destruction, there would be a thousand-year messianic reign of peace; the third temple will be rebuilt and animal sacrifices will begin again for reasons that are not entirely clear. There are many problems with such a scenario, not least of which is “the need” for billions of people to die, including children and babies—all necessary to satisfy and placate a vengeful and angry God. Is there no other way?

This sounds as it were right out out of the annals of modern sci-fi, part of what is called dystopian fiction, but it is in the Bible, a story that is thousands of years old. After all, what such describes is a nuclear holocaust of unprecedented proportions. There is nothing good about it. The future will show that holding on to nuclear weapons is the wrong decision, the wrong choice. If the fear of annihilation doesn’t work to convince world leaders, what will? The world is in a very nervous state, full of anxiety. Some would say despair, given the direction that we are going.

Here’s a thought. It is time for nations like Canada, which has no nuclear weapons, to take a greater leadership role in world affairs, taking to heart the words of Lester B. Pearson almost 60 years ago. This is the model that the world can now apply. It is about dreams of peace. I know that it is an impossible dream, but it is a dream about a future the now does not exist or seem possible. But it might, if only …

Lester B. Pearson was prime minister of Canada between 1963 and 1968. He was a member of the Liberal Party.

Abraham H. Maslow was an American psychologist, best known for his hierarchy of needs, which culminates in an individual who has reached self-actualization. 

—Perry J. Greenbaum, July 21, 2017