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.