Swimming in Beautiful Metaphorical Soup

Week Four of the Leacock Anniversaries, Monday April 15th: The week before Passover and Easter, and therefore somewhat truncated in its blogs. We start the week admiring, somewhat ruefully, an abundant blessing of April snow. The migrating birds seem to take it in stride; we do our best.

Olde Stephen and I left you last week with a question about the profusion of metaphors that has invaded this … what is it, anyway? Is it hunt? An analysis? An investigation? A discourse? I like Marshall McLuhan’s term: a Probe. It’s a Hunt and a Probe. We hunt by probing. We probe while hunting. Eventually we want to catch the Wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, or WUROSJ, and convert it into a Tame Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, or TUROSJ, after which it can live out its days, which will no doubt be long, as an UROSJ, dreaming all the while of becoming a SROSJ, or Solved Riddle of Social Justice. I personally have my doubts, well-founded I believe, that it will ever get that far.

Olde Stephen, so far, has been of little help. He likes the profusion of metaphors,—dark tower, slug-horn, Unsolved Riddles, etc.,—but doesn’t seem at all inclined to follow them to their metaphorical conclusions if they have them. I, on the other hand, must do so. I need his help. At our meeting today I decided to push.

“Olde Stephen,” said I, “in 1919 you made made your way to the Dark Tower, after visiting several other lighter towers on the way, you dauntless set the slug-horn to your lips, and you blew “The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice”. What happened then?”

“I walked all around the Dark Tower, observing its superficial features and describing them, I spotted some false ways into it and described them, I spotted one good way and described it. Then, having spotted more pleasant terrain in another direction, I went there, leaving the Dark Tower for others.”

“Did you ever return?”

“Yes indeed, during the Depression. I went back, the good way in was still there, I pointed it out as did others, and then left the entry to younger hearts. I did point out that the old false ways were still there and apparently attractive to many.”

“What happened to those who tried to go in the bad ways?”

“They scrabbled away at the walls, sometimes ineffectually, sometimes doing damage, without ever getting inside, then marched off to war, another dark tower with many easy ways into it and pulsing to its own warped slug-horns.”

“And those who went in the good way?”

“Few did, and none whole-heartedly. They fiddle-faddled around for a while in the ante-chambers, then they too marched off to war, slug-horning their hearts out just like the rest.”

“Then what did you do?”

“I turned away to other things. Then when the time came I died.”

“You did not see the great experiments that followed the war.”

“I did, but from Beyond.”

“Or what happened to them.”

“That too.”

“What would you say if I told you that the Dark Tower of your day is still there, vastly complicated now by recent construction of more rooms, more turrets, and all manner of architectural gewgaws, as substitutes for going right at the heart of the edifice. I would like to go there with you. We will have a difficult time. I fear that many of the new parts are rickety echo-chambers full of noise, distraction, and falling debris, the whole surrounded by menacing legions armed with wrecking balls and other powerful siege engines. The Tower may fall down while we are in it.”

“Then we will have to give the slug-horn a right good toot, will we not?”

“That we will.”

Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set, and blew. “Olde Stephen and friend to the Dark Tower came.” Will set, and will blow, that is, when we get to it. I am getting ahead of myself.

To be continued.

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.




Troubled Times or Confused People? Another Unsolved Riddle.

Week Two of LEACOCK 150~100~75!

“We live in troubled times.” So Stephen Leacock began his book The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, written one hundred years ago. I think, when the time comes, I could just as easily start our re-write of the book in exactly the same terms, and perhaps I will. The troubles of our times may or may not be the same as Leacock’s, but we certainly have them. Whether the times are troubled, or we are, or both, may not be an unsolved riddle in the technical sense, but it’s a good question.

Before I tackle it, I want to answer some other questions that may or may not crop up to trouble you. First, when I say “play Stephen Leacock”, as I do  in the name of this blog, I do not mean that I am pretending to be  him. I mean that I am trying to make a valid and pleasing interpretation, for people of my time not his, out of the score he left behind, even where it consists only of a confusing jumble of notes. Secondly, I am no scholar, and although I could claim to have once had the makings for some credentials that way, they are now worth approximately the paper they are written on. In the fifty years since the last one I have turned them into something quite different from their original intention. Thirdly, this blog is one of three I am using for my interpretive purpose, each picking through the jumble of  notes, mingled with the noises of our own time, from its own point of view. The point of view in this one is that of Stephen Leacock’s ghost, Olde Stephen, who did indeed shimmer up from the vasty deep last Thursday, March 28th, when I did call for him. He has a agreed to stand by for the duration.

I greeted him warmly. He had accompanied us on our re-tracing of his tour of western Canada in 2017, and we had parted on the best of terms. I was anxious to get down to business, however, and he more than willing.

“Olde Stephen,” I began, “I am not going to ask you what you meant by ‘troubled times’ in 1919, because you describe them succinctly, if not always with the explicit support of data. I am wondering what you think of our times, whether they are indeed as troubled as they appear to be, and in particular what you make of two specific current troubles: the SNC-Lavalin controversy, and Britain’s agonies over its relationship with Europe.”

“If the people are troubled, and are doing something negative about it, especially with violence, then the times are indeed troubled. If they are doing something positive, then the times are in good heart, just where they should be.”

“What if they are doing some of both?”

“Then that is a trouble of its own, which needs to be addressed before the underlying trouble can be approached positively. Unfortunately the ectoplasmic reverberations of which we consist do not receive signals from the electronic news and related media, but only from human hearts, all human hearts, all at the same time. The result is what I believe is called ‘white noise.’ I am not informed about the controversies you mention. Give me the gist of them. I can’t handle much detail.”

“That’s okay, because my readers will either know the issues, or can easily find out. The gist, you say. Well, in the SNC-Lavalin affair, I think it is an example of the Unsolved Riddle of Corporate Malfeasance, including whether politics should play a role in unravelling the riddle. In the case of Britain,—it would be mockery to describe the country as ‘Great’ these days, or as a ‘United’ Kingdom,—it is the Unsolved Riddle of Europe: so near, and yet so far.”

“Oh dear. Again. Or still. Any shooting yet, or bombing?”

“Not yet, although the verbal sniping is pretty intense. It may come to that in Britain, where feelings run very deep on the matter. In Canada, on the other matter, it appears to be roiling the press and political opposition much more than the people themselves. The government thinks corporate malfeasance is both a political and a legal matter, where the voice of the elected government can legitimately be heard; the former Attorney General and her followers think it is a legal matter, where only the voices of lawyers and judges have a place.”

“That sounds to me like a ‘Both-And’ situation par excellence. And the Attorney General, is she not still the Minister of Justice also, and thus the two-hatted embodiment of an Unsolved Riddle?”

“Indeed she was, and her successor still is. But on this issue she took off one of the hats, and set it aside, then she took off the other and used it to swipe the Prime Minister. Opinions are divided on whether she should have done that.”

“You mean you have a politician, taking political action, claiming to be a jurisprudent, acting on legal principle.”

“I think that is the essence of what this Unsolved Riddle has become. The Unsolved Riddle of Corporate Malfeasance is underneath, now submerged by the more superficial controversy.”

“Then if you want to celebrate what I was when I was still alive,—for death has reduced my powers significantly,—I think you should try to unsubmerge it. Try to look at it in the whole complex of government-corporate relations, and not just this one incident, which is probably trivial itself except as one example in a very large phenomenon.”

“And Britain?”

“It’s none of your business. Sit back and watch the fun. For the rest, trust to the inspired collective wisdom of the people. You may think I am being satiric when I say that, but the historical evidence, on the whole, says I am not. Systems may fail, leadership may fail, but the wisdom of the people does not, although it can be temporarily overwhelmed, especially by loud noise.”

“Okay. So the Unsolved Riddle of Corporate Malfeasance is on the agenda. Good, because I think it’s a crucial part of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. We demand that our corporations fulfill social purposes that do not come naturally to them. When they fail in those we see social injustice. Governments have their own litany of potentials and frailties. The whole situation is extremely complicated, and almost any simplistic generalization is inevitably wrong.”

“Call it the Unsolved Riddle of Righteousness.”

“All right. I will. See you next week.” He gave me a nod, and shimmered away, positively.



Launching LEACOCK 150~100~75: The Slug-Horn Plays the First Post

Monday, March 25th 2019: First Post here, First Post overall. (Posts will flow weekly here on Mondays.)

Well, here we are, exactly a month after the previous post, surging forward into Launch Week of LEACOCK 150~100~75. Launch Day is Thursday, March 28th. I will play appropriate fanfare on the slug-horn then. If you are wondering which slug-horn, it’s Childe Roland’s, with which he sought to challenge the Dark Tower, according to the poet Browning.

You will perhaps recall that Childe Roland, on that occasion, was surrounded by the ghosts of those who had gone before. So we will be if I have anything to say about the matter. At least for blogging purposes I can call spirits from the vasty deep, and they will come when I do call for them. Leading the parade, or chorus, or whatever they are, will be Stephen Leacock’s ghost, known as Olde Stephen. We can’t expect to see him , however, until Thursday, the 75th anniversary of his death. I will make sure that he checks in here next Monday. (“Olde”, by the way, is an archaic usage signifying a teacher, just as “childe” signifies a knightly squire, a learner.)

We should also draw attention to the likelihood that this week, or thereabouts, is the 150th anniversary of his conception,—his birthday being December 30th,—although his parents did not record a specific date. Perhaps they were sufficiently vigorous and devoted at that stage to allow for several eligible dates. Later on they gave up, but not before a further eight children. They already had two when Stephen arrived.

If you are interested in all these goings on, please remember to keep in touch with http://www.voyageurstorytelling.ca, where the story of proceedings will be told and always up to date. Up-dates on Twitter (@conwaypaulw) and Facebook (Voyageur Storytelling) will appear on Thursdays. Postings will appear on the other two blogs (Mariposa’s, and my own) on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, respectively. It may take a few weeks for all this to come together and shake down. I will do my best to keep up the pace until December 30th.

I leap into these nine months of anniversary blogging and posting with two purposes in mind: first, to revive a full awareness of all that Stephen Leacock was. I profess to be aware of the breadth if not the entire depth. I am aware in particular that he was an opinionated man with a difficult personality. I am also aware that his accomplishment was enormous, as far as I know not matched quantitatively until Northrop Frye came along, and for breadth of quality not even then. Depth is another matter. I am not aware of any Canadian writer who did as much over such a wide field, and if there is one please tell me who it is. I would be most grateful to learn more.

My other principal purpose is to re-write Stephen Leacock’s almost forgotten book, The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, written in 1919, published first as a series of newspaper articles from August to October that year, and as a book in January 1920. We have not solved the unsolved riddle of social justice, not by a long shot, and to suggest that it is a moving target should not remove the incentive to try. I intend to probe its unsolved riddleness, find out how deep it runs,—I believe it may well run deep, indeed down into the very heart of the matter,—and explore how we can cope so as to move resolutely and steadily towards the goal and not become discouraged. I believe that Stephen Leacock started a line of thought about social justice that needs to be continued.

We think of Stephen Leacock as a humourist. Much more than that, however, he was a teacher. We may do ourselves harm if we assume we have nothing to learn from him.

I intend to conduct this probe on-line, in the hope that you and many others will respond, using the comments facility on this blog or the others, or writing to me by e-mail: voyageur@bmts.com.

Stephen Leacock began The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice with this statement: “These are troubled times.” Since I believe that to be one line of the book that is not out of date, I will start there next week.

Posted by Paul Conway, Voyageur Storytelling, producer of LEACOCK 150~100~75.


In Search of the Essential Stephen Leacock

This could be a very brief post, because there is no essential Stephen Leacock.

Unless, of course, we take his “Unsolved Riddles” trope as somehow capturing it, which is in effect what we are doing for his Sesquicentennial, at least until someone comes up with a better idea. We embrace both the singularity and the plurality of the man.

In how many ways was he plural? Let us count them.

His parents must have been believers in pluralism, because they had eleven children, of which Stephen was the third.

He was raised in plural environments, first as a village lad in England, then as a farm boy in Georgina Township, Ontario, then as a schoolboy in Toronto at Upper Canada College. From there he went on to study at the University of Toronto, to teach briefly in Uxbridge and much longer at UCC, then on to the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Political Economy, which was not a plural discipline in his day but probably is now.

He then taught for the rest of his working life at McGill University in Montreal, but overcame the singularity of that by teaching and writing academically in both Economics and Political Science, and by creating for himself three other careers as a writer of humour, a public speaker, and a public intellectual concerned with all kinds of things with no regard for academic boundaries. His innate pluralism shines through in his writing and speaking perhaps more than in any other aspect of his life.

He wrote 53 books and some 1,500 “pieces” (many of the latter appearing also in books) and gave some 750 speeches that we know about.

He had one wife, one son, and in later years after his wife died, one special female friend. He had many male friends, although it appears only one especially close one.

He felt some sense of belonging in three countries — Canada, England, and the United States — although not completely in any one of them. He felt a strong loyalty to one empire, which he excoriated on every possible occasion for being less than it could and should be.

I think it is fair to say that he had four homes, three in Montreal (his house, McGill, and the University Club), one near Orillia. The nature of his relationship to Orillia has caused such a plethora of interpretations as to be almost a pluralism in its own right.

His reading was pluralistic to extremes.

He was a liberal social democrat in political ideology, attached to the Conservative party. In Canada this is not as pluralistic as it sounds.

He drank copiously, but whether of blended or single-malt scotch is unknown. Probably he drank whatever was available, which is a pluralistic approach.

He is widely known nowadays for the creation of one place — Mariposa — which has however been characterized (by Ed Jewinski) as a locus of “fragmentation, incompleteness and inconclusiveness”, which is a pluralistic way to be. He himself said that Mariposa is “about seventy or eighty” “real towns”, which is very plural indeed. It has been subject to plural interpretations, of which only one is correct: mine.

The degree of pluralism manifested in Stephen Leacock himself remains, therefore, yet another Unsolved Riddle.


Sesquicentennial Ho! (After a Pause)

For the past nineteen years summers have been anything but relaxing for Leslie and me. In 1999 we left Yellowknife in June, drove to Ontario to begin re-establishing ourselves at my father’s place in Puslinch Township southeast of Guelph, including moving all our stuff from Yellowknife and all my stuff from Edmonton. Then we went to Halifax for the annual meeting of Storytellers of Canada. All that took care of that summer. In 2000 Leslie’s mother died while we were in the midst of full-time palliative home care for my father and management of his land and household. In 2001 we were winding up his estate and looking around for a place to live. We bought our new home on Bruce Peninsula that August. Then from 2002 until 2016 we performed our annual summer season of Country Supper Storytelling Concerts, a full-time job from May to September. Last year we spent the entire summer preparing for our Fall tour of western Canada, called Stephen Leacock’s “My Discovery of the West” Re-Tour, which launched on October 19th with previews in the preceding two weeks. Our friends and neighbours tell us that summer is a fine time on the Peninsula. We hardly know as much from our own experience.

This year is going to be different. We are going to take the summer off. This will therefore be the last posting to this blog until early September, when preparations for the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial will start to roll in earnest. It launches March 28 2019, the 75th anniversary of Leacock’s death, and runs for 277 days until December 29th, the 150th anniversary of his birth. The pace will be hot.

The entire idea began with the notion that Stephen Leacock prepared the ground and planted the seed for a General Theory of Unsolved Riddles which, in the broad field of Canadian political economy, compares in importance with the Keynesian General Theory of Employment Interest and Money. The Great Depression and World War Two slowed the growth of this vital plant, but grow it did, coming into flower in the decades after the war, which Leacock did not live to see.

Cycles, theories and ideologies have come and gone but in very general terms what we have created in Canada (and other countries) since the war is a complex economic, social and political organism that is part liberal democracy, part social democracy, part institutional democracy, and part communitarian democracy, all these parts being partially realized. I would call it a pluralistic democracy. I see it as resting on an underbed of democratic and legal arrangements in constant need of cultivation and refreshment, and another of financial institutions and practices some of which are perpetually half-starved (the public ones, i.e. taxes) with others relying on an unhealthy amount of speculation verging on outright gambling. Somehow this intricate ecosystem remains afloat, and long may it do so.

I believe that we can use the General Theory of Unsolved Riddles, when we understand it fully, to explain how a pluralistic democracy — a democratic political-social-environmental-cultural-communitarian-institutional economy — works and how we can make it work better, which begins with thinking about it better. It won’t be a neat set of diagrams and formulas, but an organic n-dimensional matrix of some kind that we will learn to navigate deliberately and rationally. Right now, in its early years, we walk blind with halting steps, ad hoc-ly feeling our way along and following our noses. We can do better than that. But we will have to give up the dream of seeing our way forward, because light moves in straight lines and there is nothing straight-line about this creature. Sound is more surrounding, but the air-waves are full of it and the noise is deafening. My money is on the intellectual equivalent of an olfactory sense, picking up the drifting molecules of data and making sense of them the way a dog does, or a bear even better.

What I am saying in these tangled metaphors is that we have created for ourselves an amazing maze of Unsolved Riddles floating around on all sides, all of which are there for good reason or as by-products of good reason. Our capacity to create them has out-run our capacity to detect and comprehend them, or to imagine what they would look like if they were Solved Riddles. Stephen Leacock, in his copious writings on education and in his entire literary orientation, proposed a Tetrad of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion and Humour. I think that’s a good place to start, and that is where the Leacock Sesquicentennial will start in September.

Have a good summer!

Posted May 28th 2018, 304 days before the Sesquicentennial Launch.

Playing Stephen Leacock: The Unsolved Riddle of Pipelines for the Oil Sands

This morning I am wondering what Stephen Leacock would have made of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Controversy, also what might be made of it by application of the General Theory of Unsolved Riddles. The Controversy is hot this week, having branched out in the David Suzuki Honorary Degree Controversy, and if that doesn’t bring Stephen Leacock immediately to mind, I don’t know what would. I am referring, of course, to the spectacle of an angry bunch of blinkered people accusing David Suzuki of being blinkered, and wanting him to be denied an honorary degree (of which he has many), a recognition that is in fact nobody’s business except the conferring institution (in this case the University of Alberta) and the conferee. The world at large cares nothing for honorary degrees, and neither I suspect does David Suzuki. He doesn’t need any more. His reputation is firm.

I find it difficult to answer the first part of my question, which is why I put the second. Stephen Leacock was certainly an strong advocate for resource development as a means to prosperity, employment, and well-being. He usually sided with the federal government on constitutional issues, believing that provincialism undermined the sense of national purpose that he so acutely desired. He would have been sympathetic to the federal government’s claim that that pipeline serves the national interest. On the other hand, he urged (in his 1936 article “Reflections on the North”) that we “see to it that in the new trust of the future of the North we make fewer errors than in the old.” He would have been sympathetic to the counter-claim that that pipeline is simply a repetition of the old errors. Judging by what he said about the landscapes of British Columbia during his 1936-37 tour he would have been appalled at the idea of their pollution by anything as noxious as diluted bitumen. He might well have listened to those who argue that the pipeline is no longer needed by the market as a whole, however much it may serve narrower interests. As he assimilated the lessons of the Great Depression he would not have been impressed by any analyses of economists, for or against. In short, he might very well have consigned this pipeline to the realm of Unsolved Riddles, and been content simply to define the problem.

If he proposed a decision it might possibly look like this: Let private enterprise and capital build the pipeline if they think it worthwhile, but regulate them firmly to make sure they act not only in their own interest but in the public interest. He would have seen nothing wrong with imposing stringent risk-reducing conditions on such a project.

The second part of my question therefore becomes the more interesting. Now Stephen Leacock did not develop the General Theory of Unsolved Riddles, although he first raised the possibility. Development will, I hope, become an accomplishment of the Stephen Leacock Sesquicentennial in 2019. I don’t want to get too far ahead of the conversation, but I am tempted to practise on the Trans Mountain Pipeline.

I suggest, for starters, that the General Theory might well contain the following three principles, applicable to this case:

  1. That where the resource development clashes with stewardship for the environment, as it almost inevitably does with large projects, the result is an Unsolved Riddle.
  2. That Unsolved Riddles should be analyzed in the light of the Leacock Tetrad of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. Under all the complexity and contradictions of contemporary conditions, I believe that this Tetrad is what “Reason” means. We are being “reasonable” when we think this way.
  3. That such analysis is unlikely to yield a clear decision. To make the best decision we can under the circumstances will require Conversation, Negotiation, and Mutual Accommodation, leading not to a “Solution”, that being by definition out of reach, but to a Resolution of the Riddle.

I say Accommodation, and not Compromise, because I believe this to be one of those situations where both sides are right. Prosperity is not a trivial pursuit and is in fact one of the prerequisites for social justice. There seems little doubt that the Trans Mountain Pipeline will contribute to prosperity, at least for some. When I look at my own way of life, which is comfortable but not opulent, I am in no doubt about my reliance on fossil fuels, and while I see many possibilities for reducing it, I think it will remain for the foreseeable future. Neither is stewardship of the environment a trivial pursuit. Just last Fall I passed through the country where that pipeline will cross, and the idea of one of those river valleys or that coastline being flooded with diluted bitumen chills my blood. I know that the pipeline system on the whole, all 75,000 kilometres of it, is remarkably safe. I also know that it is not perfectly safe, that accidents will occur. We have seen them and we know how terrible they can be. We do well to be afraid of them. We also know that our west coast is an earthquake zone, and may well elevate our fears accordingly.

Let us see, very briefly and in a preliminary way, what the Leacock Tetrad yields us:

Knowledge: While many will argue, quite rightly, for an “evidence-based” decision, I fear we will find the evidence conflicting, at least as it concerns the fundamental conflict between perceived economic benefits and environmental risk-avoidance. A careful look at evidence might tell us whether the pipeline is necessary under current market conditions. If no longer necessary it therefore must be classified as a boondoggle and should not be built. Evidence would also tell us whether it has become a symbolic issue in one or more partisan or other arenas of narrowly defined interest. If so, we should treat all arguments for or against with extreme care, as being possibly propaganda rather than reasonable conversation.

To be clear in my beliefs: There is nothing unreasonable in being either for or against this pipeline. The controversy relies on differing subjective weights assigned to both probabilities and magnitudes of perceived benefits and risks, both private and public.

Imagination: I think that Imagination has two obvious roles in this conversation. First, everyone engaged in it needs to imagine that the others, regardless of their points of view, may be right in some important sense. We usually have no difficulty seeing how people are wrong. We struggle often with the other. If both sides in a controversy can see the rightness in the other side, then the whole tone of the conversation changes and the search for solutions or accommodations can become creative. Seeing only the wrongness makes that much more difficult. Second, both sides need to start imagining what a creative solution or accommodation might look like. I will return to this suggestion.

What we don’t need are people on one side of the issue imagining cornucopias of benefits and a complete absence of disasters, and an equally stubborn bunch on the other imagining few benefits and horrible disasters. Imagination of those kinds contributes nothing positive.

Compassion: I am prepared to accept that everyone in this conversation — I hope it will become a conversation — is being compassionate to someone. Those in favour are being compassionate towards the people who need jobs and those who need the products. These are important. They are also being compassionate towards the legion of concerned shareholders, who might suffer a diminution in their rates of return, and in a broad sense towards the tax-payers of Alberta who might otherwise have to contemplate the imposition of a sales tax and its resulting trauma. To assess these importances on a  national scale of weights requires careful calculation. Those against are being compassionate towards the natural environment, certainly, and towards all those whose livelihoods and well-being would be damaged or destroyed in the event of an accident. These too are important, and increasingly so, as the power of our machines and the size and ambition of our projects steadily increase our capacity to inflict damage.

Humour: This element is Stephen Leacock’s distinctive contribution to the Art of Deciding What To Do. He defined Humour not merely as something that makes us laugh, although it often does that, but as the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life and the expression thereof. Well, what could be more incongruous than the sight and sound of a great public institution like the University of Alberta seeking to recognize, also bask in the reflected glory of, an aging celebrity while defending its right to do so on the grounds of academic freedom, coupled with the accompanying howls of outrage with demonstrations and cuttings-off of donations from and by those who don’t agree with him, further coupled with the pomposities of politicians seeing some advantage to them in taking one side or the other? “Tempest in a teapot” is the image that hops to mind. Much deeper, however, is the sheer incongruity of the whole approach that we, the people, our governments, our politicians, and our beloved news media, are taking to this whole vexed question which is either important, in which case our whole approach is grotesquely inappropriate, or not, in which case it is stupid. Either way, to contemplate it with kindness, and to laugh at ourselves for the fools we are, might well stimulate our imaginations to work as they must if we are to find the best available resolution.


I would like to suggest that the conversation necessary to resolve this particular Unsolved Riddle might reasonably proceed on the following lines:

  1. That as long as the financing of this pipeline remains in the private sector — at least to the extent normal for such projects — we can safely leave the financial and micro-economic aspects of this decision to the private financiers. As soon as they begin asking for public participation, however, we should consider whether that means that the economic benefits are deteriorating. In that case we can legitimately give them less weight in our our own wider calculations which necessarily take in environmental, social, macro-economic, national, provincial, regional, long-term developmental, widely strategic, public-interest, and other considerations about which the financiers are unlikely to be concerned. After all, arguments for a pipeline are largely economic — whether the viewpoint is national or Albertan. This is not a great enterprise of public art, or even wide-use infrastructure like a highway, railroad, airport, electrical or communication system, etc. It is not proposed in order to make oil available for domestic use. It is designed to move bitumen from mine sites onto ships, for transport overseas.
  2. The argument being made by Alberta, that being a land-locked province in a largely sea-coasted confederation the problem of getting its products to market is a constitutional one, is important, but may not apply in this case. The question here concerns getting one particular product to market — diluted bitumen — which, given its composition, must be considered a dangerous good. The constitutional argument being raised by British Columbia is equally valid, because Alberta wants to move not just the occasional shipment but a massively huge quantity of the stuff every day for years. I think that both provinces would have the right to be equally offended if a decision were rammed down its throat. Since the decision to build or not to build is, in its present form, an either-or decision, then the constitutional argument is self-cancelling.
  3. I believe that the contributions of Knowledge (with one important exception) and Compassion in this riddled conversation are largely unhelpful, because equally strong in both directions. Given the uncertainty and subjectivity involved, people should be perfectly entitled to interpret the evidence differently without imputation of ill will. We must needs rely therefore on Imagination. A modest application of Humour, by contemplating each other with some kindness or even laughing at our collective ritualized mutual intransigence, will allow us to move the conversation into the imaginative realm.
  4. Or maybe Knowledge can help, if we look at the important exception. I remember attending a talk by a senior executive of either Syncrude or Great Canadian Oil Sands, as it was then called, back in February of 1974, in which he proudly showed us two vials of oil-sands product, one raw bitumen and the other synthetic crude of high quality. Even then they knew how to make the latter out of the former, the latter being a clean form of a product that we move around through pipelines all the time, hither and yon, through all kinds of terrain. Occasionally there are accidents, to be sure, but they are rare and largely containable. Even the occasional serious one, like the recent spill into the North Saskatchewan River, is nothing like what the same phenomenon would be if the effluent were diluted bitumen. There may be risks in moving synthetic crude, but they are the same risks as we take in moving crude oil generally, and we seem to find them tolerable. I read that 40% of oil sands and heavy oil production is now up-graded to synthetic crude. Is it unreasonable for us to imagine 100%? If 40% is possible, and affordable, then so is 100%, or at least, if anyone wants to persuade us otherwise they should show us the numbers.
  5. Affordable too, I am sure, are measures necessary to lower the risks of leakage, breakage, and spillage to acceptable levels, which should be zero in those places where accidents would do severe damage, such as river valleys and coastlines. There are places along that route, including the sea lanes beyond the pipeline, where accidents simply cannot be allowed to happen, where zero risk is the only acceptable level. Pipelines, transfer stations, and ships can be made to meet that standard, at a cost of course. If the cost is deemed too high for the value of the product, then the project is uneconomic. Period. The idea that it should be made “economic” by infusions of public funds, beyond what is normal, is completely unacceptable under these circumstances.

There. The General Theory of Unsolved Riddles, at least as applied here, got Alberta a Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion carrying synthetic crude from the oil sands through British Columbia under high technical standards backed by tough regulations to lower the risk of accidents, totally preventing them in especially sensitive areas. Did it get us anywhere, here in the blog? Not likely. Could it get us anywhere, if transported out of the blog and into a public discussion?

I am sure this resolution has been proposed by others. Why are we not hearing about it? In the early years it was the standard plan for the transport and sale of oil-sands and heavy oil. What happened?

What do you think?


Posted April 26-27 2018, 336-5 days before onset of a Stephen Leacock Sesqui-cum-triaquarteria-centennial in 2019.