Toward the Dark Tower: A Race, or a Crawl?

Week Five of the Dark Tower arm of the Hunt for the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. April 23, 2019.

I am going to leave out the whole tedious account of the trek undertaken by Olde Stephen and me as we made our way towards the Dark Tower. If you want to get the flavour of it, read Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. Our geography was very different, although the ethos of the journey was not. Complicating our progress were the myriad voices of those who had gone before, or tried, blaring contradictory advice or singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly.

We were somewhat impeded by our lack of knowledge concerning the exact appearance and nature of the Dark Tower. We had been led to believe we would find there the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, but whether the Riddle was the Tower itself, or a creature who lived inside the Tower, we knew not, and none of the voices was willing to tell us. Probably they didn’t know either.

We faced other problems too. We were standing on the edge of a darkling plain, blanketed in fog, trying to gather our wits amidst the cacophony of the myriad voices, and contemplating the complex of trails whose opening few steps we would see, and which appeared (this could have been illusion) to group themselves into three parcels which I will call, at considerable risk of over-simplification even to the point of absurdity, the Left, the Right, and the Centre. By looking carefully I could see Olde Stephen’s lips moving, but could not make out what he was saying. I was very confused, because he was pointing with his fingers, but in all three directions at the same time, waving his arms this way and that, pointing with one finger, or two, or several, or all of them. I tried the Right-hand path. He pulled me back and pointed down the other two. I tried the Left. Same result. I tried the Centre. Same result.

At last I could tolerate the uncertainty no longer. I seized the Slug-Horn and blew a mighty blast out across the plain. The fog did not clear, but the voices did fall silent, so that I could hear what Olde Stephen was saying. It was not very consoling. “You have to take all three,” he said.

“At the same time?” I quavered.

“At the same time.”

“How on Earth am I going to do that?”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it,” he replied. “You have to do it on Earth, because that’s where we are. You can’t do it in Heaven, because we aren’t there, and when we try to do things on Earth in Heavenly ways we always seem to end up in Hell. I never did figure that out. Or maybe I did, but no one believed me. The result was the same.”

“Suppose we link them with bridges,” I ventured.

“But the bridges will go cross-ways between the paths,” he said, “and not forward to the Dark Tower which, may I remind you, we don’t know where it is.  The only way we can go forward, under that regime, is to run back and forth across the bridges from one path to the other and moving forward by building more bridges each step of the way. It will take a long time, and by the time we get there the Tower may have moved. Oh, woe is me!” He was the one quavering now, and quivering, ectoplasmicly. I felt sorry for him, and decided to chance my arm more boldly than I might otherwise have done.

“Why don’t we change the plain,” I suggested. “Why don’t we make it in three dimensions instead of two. As long as we have only two dimensions, then our paths remain incompatible. If we add a third, then perhaps we can make in that dimension a new path out of the materials of the old.”

“Isn’t that the same thing as flying?” he asked. “Isn’t that just building Dark Towers in the air?”

“Not at all,” said I, “at least perhaps. Air is its own dimension, and would be unaffected. I am talking about a third dimension of ground. I am talking about doing what painters do when they move from flat representation into perspective. That, visually, makes a third dimension. Maybe we can do the same with our darkling plain. When we are in only two dimensions, and visualize our situation as we are wont to do, then we see only on the one hand or on the other hand. In the third dimension, if we learn how, we will see on the one hand and on the other hand, at the same time. We will take from the Right-hand path with one hand, and from the Left-hand path with the other hand, and from the Centre path with both hands, and we will build a new path in the New Dimension.”

“But where is it? We have to put the contents of our hands down somewhere on Earth, in order to make a path that we can walk. I say,—I said,—put them in the Centre path, make the Centre path into a new one out of the materials of the old, in the old dimensions, and walk on it. It will prove a sturdy and useful path.”

“It did prove useful for a little while, but not sturdy. It showed a strong tendency to drift either to the one hand or the other, or to lose sight of Social Justice altogether and walk towards a Dark Tower of its own conception, not in a New Dimension, but in a reconfiguration of the old one.

“To walk on the surface of the plain is unstable, to float above it a separation, not an engagement. I can think of only one other possibility.”

“Under ground, you mean.”

“From here on: burrowing.”

“Unable to see or hear, having to find our way by smell.”

“Like moles, or worms.”

“Guided not by what is on the surface, or in the air above, but by what is below among the roots. A truly radical approach to the Dark Tower.”

“I both wanted that and did not want it.”

“It has been discovered recently that trees can talk to each other through their roots.”

“If you follow the root, you will find the tree.”

“The route is among the roots.”

As I Walked Through a Wilderness of Metaphors …

Week Three, Monday, April 8th

I am, as usual on Monday mornings these days, engaged in ethereal conversation with Stephen Leacock’s ghost, called Olde Stephen. The question remains open whether Olde Stephen came to the Dark Tower, or from it, or indeed had any relationship whatsoever with anything that could be called a Dark Tower. None of his house in Montreal, nor his office at McGill University, nor the nearby University Club, nor his cottage in Orillia, nor its boathouse where he worked, could fill the bill. Upper Canada College perhaps? The farmhouse on the hilltop in Georgina Township perhaps? The latter is a distinct possibility, considering what he wrote about it later. In that case, he came from it, as quickly and permanently as possible, with or without accompanying slug-horn.

“Let us suppose,” I said to him after we exchanged the usual pleasantries and reminded each other what we were about, “that you, Olde Stephen, are coming to the Dark Tower of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, and that you are either carrying a slug-horn, or find one hung outside the door. Dauntless you set the slug-horn to your lips. What do you blow?”

“Olde Stephen to the Dark Tower came, of course. Do you think I have forgotten everything?”

“Not for a moment. Then what did you blow. The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice is inside, you know. You want him to come out. You have announced your presence. What next?”

“I thought we were hunting for that thing, said to be wild, in a wilderness.”

“We are. We are trying to flush it out of its Dark Tower too. We are large. We contain multitudes of metaphors. Right now we are working the Dark Tower. Maybe we will end up with a Dark Tower in a Wilderness, the Wilderness of this World, as John Bunyan called it. In any case, we will be expected to blow the slug-horn when we get there. I am hoping you will be able to tell us what to blow, what you would blow. ‘Olde Stephen to the Dark Tower came,’ you say. What does ‘Olde’ mean, by the way?”

“The opposite of ‘Childe’, which means a would-be learner, a pre-knight, a becoming. ‘Olde’ means a has-been teacher, a post-professor, a bygone.”

“All right, Olde Stephen, thank you. Back to the story. What blowest thou next?”

“I think I would blow ‘On the One Hand, and On the Other Hand.’ I think that would make a good blowing to flush out an Unsolved Riddle, that one in particular.”

“Very nice. I like it. Would you then blow anything more, or simply storm your way inside?”

“I’d blow Knowledge,
I’d blow Imagination,
I’d blow Compassion,
I’d blow Humour.”

“Just at the Dark Tower, or all over this land?”

“Both, but especially all over this land. I did that, in fact. Fifty-three books! Fifteen hundred separate pieces and articles! Reprints and anthologies galore! Seven hundred and fifty public lectures! Forty years of teaching!”

I knew his numbers were correct, because Carl Spadoni told me so in his A Bibliography of Stephen Leacock. All that blowing, and good stuff too, a lot of it, but how much remembered now? We remember the name, but not much that he said. These anniversaries in 2019 are a good time to remedy that. Unsolved Riddles. Both hands. Both-And. Knowledge. Imagination. Compassion. Humour. I knew that’s what he stood for. If the medium is the message, as a later sage opined, and the medium is a great river of verbosity, then maybe the message gets lost.

What about the great river of verbosity and stridency we’re in now? Was there ever such an age for talk! What message is being lost there? It just might be that whole series about Unsolved Riddles, Social Justice, and other preoccupations of wisdom down through the ages.

“The title of that book, The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice: did you come up with that, or did your publisher?”

“I think I did. Why do you ask?”

“Because the term never occurs again in the book or in the titles to anything you wrote. Riddles of any kind seldom appear at all. Imperial defence in 1912; the Depression in one speech in 1933; a bit of persiflage about fiction in 1927. It’s such a useful trope. I wonder you didn’t work it harder, do more with it.”

“I don’t remember very well, but I am not sure I was all that interested in unsolved riddles. More in solved riddles. And so were my readers. I think unsolved riddles are your fetish, not  mine.”

“I don’t agree. I think your time was just as immersed in unsolved riddles as the present. In fact, I think they came in with the industrial revolution, as soon as productivity began to go one way and just distribution the other on a mass scale. You certainly wrestled with that, in all its aspects. But I think you believed these riddles could be solved, just as the laissez-faire folks did, and the socialism folks. You just didn’t believe in their solutions. You thought a mixture was the solution, but we know now it simply creates more unsolved riddles. If the situations created by modern condition are nests of unsolved riddles, and the ‘solutions’ are more unsolved riddles, then I think we had better come to terms philosophically with unsolved riddles, and not pretend they are ever going to be ‘solved’ unless some kind of creative, flexible, and dynamic accommodation, always temporary and experimental, can be called a ‘solution’. We are always yearning for something more permanent, something we can wrap in institutions. We are inertia looking for a place to rest. I think the Goddess of Unsolved Riddles ought to be Ertia: restless, experimental, artistic in a broad sense, never afraid to try something different, in a positive sense never satisfied.”

“I think I knew that. I think Inertia was the popular deity I was protesting against in Sunshine Sketches and Arcadian Adventures. Maybe Ertia inspired The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice and I never quite put a name to her.”

“We’ve remedied that today, in any case. Excelsior! Our reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a metaphor? (Borrowed from Marshall McLuhan,—is he or is he not a metaphor? Or Northrop Frye? Or Stephen Leacock?) Unsolved Riddles. Dark Towers. Slug-Horns. The Goddess Ertia. The Hobgoblin Inertia. Olde Stephen. What kind of a metaphor soup is this anyway?

Posted by Paul Conway.