The First Decade of Stephen Leacock, 1870-79. Ready to Learn.

If you read last week’s posting, in which I listed the decades of Stephen Leacock, you will know that his first decade was, practically speaking, 1870-1879. He was born on December 30, 1869; he therefore had little experience with the decade of the 1860’s. The nine months of it that he spent in utero do not seem to have been notable in any way. I will therefore ignore them, as having contributed to the personage he became only in the most basic biological sense.

His parents were Peter Leacock and Agnes Butler, married under somewhat hasty circumstances three years before Stephen was born. Their first child was born six-and-a-half months after the wedding. Peter was then nineteen, Agnes twenty-three. It would appear that Agnes and Peter, despite the vicissitudes of their early married life including three forays into the colonies two of which ended dismally and a third just as dismal but more persistent, and forced exile from the gentrified comforts of both their up-bringings, continued to find comfort with each other throughout the decade of the 1870’s and into the next. The years of their eleven children’s births were 1867, 1868, 1869, 1871, 1873, 1875, 1877, 1878, 1880, 1884, 1886. We see from this list that Stephen’s first decade was enlivened by the births of five of his siblings, added to the two he already had when he was born.

It was also enlivened by his father’s failed attempt to establish himself as a farmer in Kansas (1874), and by the whole family’s emigration to the wilds of Ontario, just south of Lake Simcoe (1876). Grandfather Leacock was determined to get rid of them. Before emigration they had been living in Porchester (which now seems to be spelled Portchester and maybe was then,—Stephen is not always reliable on such matters), a village in the south of England just outside Portsmouth. Stephen had happy memories of Porchester, not as many of Georgina Township a little southeast of Sutton. “Our own farm with its building was the damnedest place I ever saw,” he reminisced in old age.  Nevertheless, it’s where he was once the family arrived in 1876, and where he stayed for the rest of the decade, during which he published not a word.

I see no reason to believe that any of his experiences in the first decade had any abnormal effect on the personage he became. He began it as a puling infant, ended as a ten-year-old boy. With his brothers he attended the local school in nearby Egypt for a brief time, until his mother began to fear it would corrode their gentility. She tried home schooling with herself as the teacher, then turned the job over to a tutor named Harry Park who was unusually capable and conscientious. Thus the young Stephen ended his first decade and began the second, which I will tell you all about next week.

Since justice to the first decade for my purposes leaves me some space I will now muse a little on an interesting general question, viz., this “personage he became”, what is it, for our purposes? Is it the works he left behind? Or the accessible remnant thereof? Or the memorable remnant? Or the currently respectable memorable remnant? Or something conjured up by his biographers? Or by scholars? Or by readers? Or by the Leacock Museum in Orillia? Or by the Orillia Chamber of Commerce? Who has laid claim to Stephen Leacock and what are they claiming?

I myself pursue him for somewhat limited purposes of my own. I find him a good story,  and as I am a storyteller that is one purpose good enough for me. He tells good stories, which I like to read. Some I like to tell. That’s another. Most important to me, however, is the belief that he left behind an important idea,—the idea of the “Unsolved Riddle” applied to Social Justice,—that I think has been overlooked: not the idea itself, but his catchy label and the easy way he hands it over, handle first, edge turned away. It’s not even clear that he realized how sharp it was, although he certainly saw what it had to cut. Maybe it wasn’t even all that sharp, coming from him. I say that because he might have entertained the idea that if we scraped off some of the irregularities the edge wouldn’t have to be all that sharp. We know better now, that the irregularities are who we are as a nation. As I put it in a poem recently composed: inside our Dark Tower we search in vain for simplicity, finding only a rampant Pluralism. Isaiah Berlin is the man for that, not Stephen Leacock, wise as he was on his good days.

Stephen Leacock was a great teacher, however. What he wanted most for us was that we should learn. Such was the personage he became. I will tell you how he got there. At the end of his first decade he was on his way, but only just. Harry Park was about to give him the first boost.



The Decades of Stephen Leacock, a Song, a List of People, and an Unsolved Riddle

These are the Decades of Stephen Leacock, born December 30, 1869, died March 28, 1944:

1870’s :: Born to poor, rejected, dejected, fecund (11 children eventually) gentry in Hampshire England; unwilling emigration of the family (1876) to a bush farm near Lake Simcoe, Ontario.

1880’s :: Rescued into Upper Canada College, Toronto, (1882); graduates as Head Boy; enters University of Toronto (1887) but drops out due to finances. Trains to teach high-school Latin, Greek, French, German & English. Teaches one term in Uxbridge (1889).

1890’s :: Back to Upper Canada College as a teacher of languages; studies evenings at the University of Toronto and receives BA degree (1893); reads widely; discovers political economy; writes and sells a few humorous sketches; enrols (1899) at the University of Chicago for graduate studies.

1900’s :: Marries Beatrix Hamilton (1900); begins lecturing at McGill University (Montréal); awarded Ph.D. in Political Economy by the University of Chicago (1903); hired full-time by McGill; writes political science textbook, one other book and more humorous sketches; tours British Empire as public speaker; made professor and head of McGill Department of Economics & Political Science; buys land for summer place near Orillia; starts building.

From 1910 to 1936, for all his public fame as a writer and speaker of both humorous and serious works, he was primarily a teacher, professor and administrator at McGill University, spending his summers at his cottage near Orillia.

1910’s :: First collection of humorous sketches: Literary Lapses; 1910); followed by: Nonsense Novels (1911); Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912); Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914); plus other lesser works; emerges into fame as humourist and successful academic, writer, & public speaker; tours eastern Canada for Belgian Relief during WW I; son Stephen (Stevie) born in 1915; ends decade with a quite different book: The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice.

1920’s :: Stupendous quantity of writing & speaking but nothing notable; tours England & Scotland in 1922 as public speaker; Beatrix dies of breast cancer in 1925; Leacock completes building of his summer house (1928), the one that still stands, serving as the Leacock Museum.

1930’s :: More writing and speaking; notable works on Great Depression; unwilling and deeply hurtful retirement from McGill (1936); speaking tour of western Canada (1936-37); willing retirement from public speaking.

1940’s :: Continues writing both humorous & serious works; begins unfinished autobiography; final illness and death (March 1944); posthumous publication of three final books.

Stephen Leacock wanted to call his autobiography: My Memories and What I Think. He completed only the first four chapters. In publishing them after his death, his publisher called the book, The Boy I Left Behind Me. Although this title is catchier, it diminishes the scope of the book. Leacock’s title is more accurate. Leacock’s entire œuvre could accurately be called My Discovered and Imagined World and What I Think — not a catchy title at all.

I wrote a song about him, a work-song for readers and writers in the rousing “John Henry” tradition. It has its own tune.

The Ballad of Stephen Butler Leacock (© Paul W Conway)

Come, readers and writers and I’ll sing you the song
Of a man who could write, even when he was wrong;
He wrote his way to money and fame—
You’d best remember if you want the same;
He wrote, and he thought, and he talked, and he read,
Up early in the morning and early to bed :
A hard-working, hard-reading,
Hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking,
Hard-writing man:
Stephen Leacock, the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock: Remember if you want the same.

He wrote in the morning when the day was new;
He wrote the words that he thought were true;
He wrote in the hope that people would laugh,
But of all that he wrote that was never more than half;
He wrote of the rich, and he wrote of the poor —
Social Justice and a whole lot more :
A hard-working, hard-reading,
Hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking,
Hard-writing man:
Stephen Leacock, the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock: Remember if you want the same.

He preached prosperity, he cursed at graft,
He teased their foibles and the people laughed;
He told the stories of the present and past —
Much that he wrote wasn’t fated to last;
He wrote for his time, and he wrote for his place;
He wrote stupid things about women and race :
A hard-working, hard-reading,
Hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking,
Hard-writing man:
Stephen Leacock, the name of this man of fame;
Stephen Leacock: Remember if you want the same.

He wrote his country and the Empire wide,
He wrote his people and he wrote with pride,
He wrote through depression and he wrote through war,
He wrote for peace, and romance, and more;
He wrote for laughter, and he wrote to touch;
He wrote for money, and he wrote too much :
A hard-working, hard-reading,
Hard-talking, hard-thinking,
Hard-smoking, hard-drinking,
Hard-writing man:
Stephen Leacock! He had his moment of fame;
Stephen Leacock! Enjoy it if you get the same
As much as he did.

The principal people in Stephen Leacock’s life were:

Agnes (Butler) Leacock, his mother, a huge influence;
Peter Leacock, his father, a huge disappointment;
His Siblings, especially George, but ten in all: five brothers, five sisters;
Beatrix (Hamilton) Leacock, his wife, a gracious presence;
Stephen Lushington (“Stevie”) Leacock, his son, a fond worry;
Barbara Nimmo née Uhrichsen, his niece and general factotum;
René du Roure, his close, billiards-playing, drinking, McGill friend;
May (“Fitz”) Shaw, the dear female friend of his later years.

Plus many friends and colleagues, in Montréal and Simcoe County. He was a popular, sociable, if somewhat overbearing man. In a real sense those whom Churchill called “The English-Speaking Peoples” were also Leacock’s people, but that is another whole topic.

Unsolved Riddle arising from contemplation of Stephen Leacock’s life and works:

How should we remember the flawed giants of our past? Do we focus on their accomplishments and gloss over the flaws, or do we focus on their flaws and gloss over the accomplishments? Our history abounds in men and women who worked wonders, amply recognized in their day, who held opinions, or did deeds, or were the kind of people we no longer want to celebrate. How do we do justice to them?

The Literary Accomplishment of Stephen Leacock

To start to give you some idea of Stephen Leacock’s literary accomplishment, I am going to start with a list of titles, preceded by a warning: There remain vital qualities, both good and bad, in that accomplishment that are not revealed by a list of titles. I will talk briefly about those after the list. As you read down it, try to imagine the amount of work that went into the writing, and the amount of reading (and retention) that went into the preparation. It represents, I think, about five million words, all scratched out with a pen, then typed by some long-suffering typist, read by a long-suffering editor, type-set by a long-suffering type-setter, printed, bound, shipped, and sold, often in large numbers, occasionally not. That’s 125,000 words per  year in books alone, plus all the research and creation that went into his 600 or so articles and booklets that were not later collected into books (maybe another 2,000,000 words), plus all that he put into preparing for his 750 public lectures, and you can see that he was indeed a busy man, a “hard-working, hard-reading, hard-talking, hard-thinking, hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-writing man”, as I have said in a song I wrote about him.

Those who remember him only for one book studied in school, plus a couple of humorous short stories placed in those school-room anthologies called “readers”, let alone those who judge him entirely on the basis of a few opinions no longer acceptable, don’t really know the man.

Here’s the list (Leacock, born in December 1869, was 33 years old in 1903; he was 40 when he had his big breakthrough as a popular writer in 1910):

THE DOCTRINE OF LAISSEZ-FAIRE – 1903 (Ph.D. Thesis in Political Economy, University of Chicago)
LITERARY LAPSES, A BOOK OF SKETCHES – 1910; the first collection under this title was published by Leacock himself; a somewhat expanded LITERARY LAPSES was published by John Lane – 1910
PRACTICAL POLITICAL ECONOMY – 1910 (25-chapter magazine series)
“National Organization for War” (booklet) – 1916
THE UNSOLVED RIDDLE OF SOCIAL JUSTICE – book 1920 (published serially in 1919)
“The Case Against Prohibition” (booklet) – 1921
“Stephen Leacock’s Plan to Relieve the Depression” (booklet) – 1933
“The Pursuit of Knowledge” (booklet) – 1934
“The Gathering Financial Crisis in Canada” (booklet) – 1936
Note: Leacock died in 1944.

You can usually tell from the titles which of these are humorous and which serious works. Those with confusing titles are usually mixtures.

I have previously referred to The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice as a climactic work, drawing attention to a progression in Stephen Leacock’s books, articles, and speeches. This begins with his Ph.D. thesis in political economy (1903) and his textbook on political science (1906), where his approach is academic. It becomes progressively more out-reaching, culminating in his series of public articles on “Practical Political Economy” (1910). In the same year he emerged as a popular writer of humour. He therefore adds humour to his serious preoccupations in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), and Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914) and in many short pieces. The progression effectively comes to an end with The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice (1919-20), where he identifies, but does not pursue, the trope (“Unsolved Riddle”) that, I think, essentially captures his view of the human political-economic condition. He writes of the Depression in the 1930’s with passion and concern, but without drawing attention, as he could reasonably have done, to the possibility that the whole sorry mess was caused by people not seeing and therefore mishandling the unsolved riddles inherent in economic, social, and political life. If you come to see life in terms of unsolved riddles you become less reckless, less dogmatic. That is the natural, and sensible, reaction.

I think it correct to speak of Stephen Leacock’s life and works as literary accomplishment. I wish I could speak of it as one of expanded understanding and mind-changing interpretation, because I think the “Unsolved Riddle” trope has that capacity. Leacock himself, however, did not grasp the implications. He treated it as a catchy title, not as the brilliant insight it could be. But better late than never.

To be a plural society, to embrace Pluralism as a reality and an ideology, as Canada increasingly tries to do, and with some success, is to embrace Unsolved Riddles as inevitable corollaries, and to act accordingly. The economic, social, and political art is not to treat them as solvable, but to accommodate them creatively and humanely in their unsolved state. It’s what we do in fact, as we muddle our way along. The other part of the art is to enjoy it.

The people of Mariposa do that, silly as they are, which is why we love them. The people of Plutoria Avenue think they know the answers, which is why we do not. But that conversation is for another day.

Exit the Yottapede, pursued by Mole, Centaur, and Both-Andian

In the Eighteenth Week of the Leacock Anniversaries in 2019, on Monday, July 22nd, we bid a partial farewell to our merry band, consisting of Astranasus the Star-Nosed Mole, Mnemochirianne the Centaur, Vulphystrix the Both-Andian, and the Yottapede wallowing in its Charged Ooze. They have done their bit to tame and put to work the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. They are now going to set about the rest of the work, with others, in another place. Their role will be to add the necessary Metaphorical Dimension.

Starting next week this place will be taken by Stephen Leacock himself. We are after all in the midst of his anniversaries. The first of these, the 75th of his death in 1944, passed by on March 28th and launched this whole celebration. The middle, the 100th of his book The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, is about to crescendo, leading, beginning in late August, to chapter-by-chapter release of a new treatment of the subject, quite possibly to be called The Unsolved Riddles of Social Justice. Reporting on progress there will pass to the Wednesday Blog, a.k.a. “Paul W Conway’s Blog”, a.k.a. the Talking Blog. The third, the 150th of his birth, much the most important one, will bring the celebration to an ecstatic close.

Thanks to this, the Monday, or Stalking Blog, we have identified the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice as an organic thing, a human creation, making its way through a medium which is also a human creation. I have called them, respectively, the Yottapede and the Charged Ooze. The first barrier to be overcome in the taming and putting to work is the temptation to treat these creatures as if they were forces of Nature, outside our control. Every aspect of their behaviour traces back to human beings, individually or in groups, making decisions, each and every one of which could be made differently. The key lives in the cast of mind, and I’m sorry, you are going to hear a lot about casts of mind if you stick with this conversation.

The three “scouts” who have tracked down these creatures for us, represent my beliefs about what it will take to adjust the Inertia of the Yottapede and the Charge in the Ooze in order to advance Social Justice: to extend our powers of sensation, of apprehension, following the precedent of the Star-Nosed Mole; to expand our strength and fortitude to achieve in the social and moral realm what the Centaur does by combining the intellect and heart of a human with the strength and speed of a horse; to adapt our cast of mind by adopting the ingenuities of both Fox and Hedgehog (or Porcupine), tempering our natural either-or, single-minded tendencies with hearty doses of Both-And and Doublethink.

I am not suggesting any of this will be easy, given how attached we have become to the old ways, and how strong the resistance will be from those who are profiting from them. Some effective notion of fair-sharing, however, must lie at the heart of Social Justice, not unfair-profiting. We have not always been as obsessed with narrow concepts of “profit” as we are these days, however. The distance we must travel is truly not all that great. A relatively small measure of adjustment to our collective cast of mind will take us a long way. We will meet many unsolved riddles on our journey, however, and will have to overcome them one by one.

Stephen Leacock set out on the same journey about 120 years ago, and wrote about about it in 1919. He proposed a Canadian political economy pursuing National Development and Social Justice through a liberal, creative, enterprising economy and society, regulated in the public interest by democratic politics and institutions to smooth out its excesses, fill any gaps it might leave, deal with its harmful side-effects, and provide for its future. He imagined a contented, creative, fulfilled Canadian population, meeting their own needs, caring for each other, enjoying life, and expanding its possibilities. In pursuit of Social Justice he embraced the ideals of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” without denying the complications and difficulties thereof. They could be transcended, he believed, by people “of good will whose hearts are in the cause.”

I suspect that we would find very few Canadians who would disagree with that vision, very few indeed, no matter what their political persuasion. What we would find, I think, are disagreements about means, varying degrees of fear about what might be put at risk if we reached for it in a whole-hearted way, and distractions in our political discourse that weaken our common resolve, many of them concerning single or narrow issues.

The Canadian Yottapede will have somewhere around 75,000,000 feet by the time we vote in October 2019. These walk in many different directions. Since we are a pluralistic country, have been from the beginning and are determined to remain that way, that is how it should be. The intention of Social Justice is not to make us monistic, simply to bias us effectively in a socially just direction, and away from contrary ones. We have come a long way in the past 100 years, and have substantially established the regime that Stephen Leacock proposed. But the standards of 1919 are not the standards of today. We have elaborated our concept of Social Justice to keep up with the many other elaborations we have embraced. Good for us. One result, however, is that Social Justice remains an Unsolved Riddle. Furthermore, some quite nasty forces are chewing away at its foundations.

The principal foes of Social Justice are fear, unkindness, and a diminished sense of our own collective possibilities. We can find no justification in our own circumstances, if we look at them roundly, for any of these. But we may need help from Astranasus, Mnemochirianne, and Vulphystrix to overcome them.

Beginning here next week and running until Monday, December 30th: The life, times, and works of Stephen Butler Leacock, 1869-1944. Was he really “fragmented, incomplete and inconclusive”? Or was his vision so wide, his creative ambition so large, that that was the best he could be?

Pluralistic Reasoning for Social Justice: From Metaphorical to Poetical

In the Seventeenth Week of the Leacock Anniversaries in 2019, on Monday, July 15th, our merry band, consisting of the scouts Astranasus the Star-Nosed Mole and Mnemochirianne the Centaur, who are now joined by Vulphystrix the Both-Andian whose role remains undetermined, carries on the quest to mutate both the Yottapede and the Charged Ooze and thus to tame and put to work the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice. They now understand that understanding the creature and its environment is not enough to ensure they can get the job done.

You will recall, perhaps, that this whole thing began with quite a different merry band, consisting of a ghost named Olde Stephen, and myself. We conversed, and eventually decided that in order to hunt down the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, tame it, and put it to work, we would need to use Metaphorical Reasoning. We may even have said, there or someplace else, that if we could ever figure out what Poetical Reasoning was, we might need that. Faute de mieux, we went ahead with the Metaphorical, yielding a fine parade: a dark tower, a slug-horn, star-nosed moles, a centaur, a  yottapede, a charged global membrane (thanks to B.W. Powe) that morphed into a charged ooze, and finally a fox-hedgehog (or porcupine) both-andian. Somehow, in all this confusion, Olde Stephen slipped away, or was forgotten,—I am not sure which. I may have done too, depending on who “I” is in this narrative.

I should explain that the question of who “I” may be has strong Leacockian roots. You can find it in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) over which controversies rage concerning whether the narrator is Stephen Leacock himself, or a character invented by him. I myself believe the latter, but that’s a question for another day. So too is the question of whether Stephen Leacock, in that book, is engaging in Metaphorical Reasoning or describing a real place and real people, caricatures though they may be. I have waffled on that issue, but now believe he is using Metaphorical Reasoning to talk about some aspects of Social Justice. By dropping hints, however, that the place and people could possibly be real, he allowed the thread of his Metaphorical Reasoning to be overlooked by the reading public and even by some scholars. George Orwell, in Animal Farm, did not make that mistake, nor do I intend to make it. Hence the Slug-Horn, Yottapede (successor to the Dark Tower), Charged Ooze, Mole, Centaur, Both-Andian, etc.

“Is not a Centaur also a both-andian?” I hear you asking yourself. Or do I? Yes, it is, I reply, but a different kind of both-andian from the fox-hedgehog (or porcupine) species. Which one will have the greatest effect on the Yottapede and the Charged Ooze remains to be seen.

It suddenly occurred to me that so too is the star-nosed mole, a creature, a kind of mammalian fish, who “swims” through the dirt (in water too) assisted by an almost unique sensory system and physiology. By blundering around in all this for sixteen weeks I appear to have evolved three interesting approaches to the bi-polarity essential to the unsolved-riddleness of Social Justice: one a blend of polarities (what we used to call in high-school chemistry a “solution” (and isn’t that an interesting pun in our context), who is Astranasus the Star-Nosed Mole; one a fusion or “compound”, who is Mnemochirianne the Centaur; and one a collusion, or “mixture”, who is Vulphystrix the Fox-Hedgehog (or Fox-Porcupine). Now what can be done with that, by way of Metaphorical Reasoning? That too remains to be seen.

The professor who taught me and my classmates the Theory of Finance showed us how a Diversified Portfolio becomes the best kind in a Stochastic Environment, that is, one governed by Uncertainty, and why. This was a most excellent lesson, and I intend to profit from it. I will use, therefore, not only Metaphorical Reasoning, but also Colloquial Reasoning (that is, the play of several minds in conversation) as the Labyrinth Walkers have been doing, or trying to do, in the Tuesday Blog, and also Rhetorical Reasoning, as Stephen Leacock did in his The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice and which is, or should be, the approach of the Wednesday Blog. Referring to him and others who have tackled the problem brings up the possibility of Historical Reasoning, which I have not been attempting yet but probably should. How I will manage to weave those four together remains to be seen.

What the Metaphorical Challenge, if I may so term it, boils down to is this: How are both the Yottapede and the Charged Ooze, living as they do in a symbiotic relationship, to be changed so as to advance the cause of Social Justice? Some kind of gradual evolution by incremental self-induced adjustments would seem to be called for, given the nature of these creatures as it has become entrenched. How are Astranasus, Mnemochirianne, and Vulphystrix to stimulate the necessary processes in the face of the inherent difficulties and inevitable resistance? Perhaps to combine the Metaphorical with the Colloquial, the Rhetorical, and the Historical in one joint endeavour is not only the diversified, but the only possible way. Perhaps that is what is meant by Poetical Reasoning.

You are wondering, perhaps, because I am wondering, why I am not making a place for Scientific Reasoning. I mean no disparagement by this omission. The capacity of Science to understand and explain what is exists in the real world remains unmatched by any other cast of mind and technique. We will make what use of Science we can, what we can find, to understand the Yottapede, the Charged Ooze, and their symbiosis. These are hugely complex organic creatures undergoing their own processes of constant evolution, however, and we run the risk that Science, with its cautious incrementalism and infinite capacity for taking pains, cannot take us where we need to be on time. Stephen Leacock taught us the importance of Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour in the quest for Social Justice. I have extended him into an explicit recognition of Doublethink as an important addition to the necessary cast of mind. He did not have the word, and therefore did not get that far, at least explicitly. I think that Science is doing and can do great things for us in Knowledge. Imagination, Compassion, Humour, and Doublethink belong to the realm of the Humanities, although not when they are being cautious and taking infinite pains. We need the Humanities when they are taking giant, inspired leaps, when they engage, that is, in Poetical Reasoning.

The Slug-Horn is the weapon, not the microscope, or the rocket engine, or the super-computer (with or without AI), or the laser, or any of the other amazing tools. We just have to figure out how to blow it with effect.

To Mutate the Yottapede: Expand the Team

In the Sixteenth Week of the Leacock Anniversaries in 2019, on Monday, July 8th, our scouts Astranasus the Star-Nosed Mole and Mnemochirianne the Centaur welcome Vulphystrix the Both-Andian to the quest to mutate both the Yottapede and the Charged Ooze and thus to tame and put to work the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice.

The back-story:

It all started with Archilochus, a Greek poet from the island of Paros, who observed that, “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing,” or words in Greek to that effect. This idea was taken up by Isaiah Berlin in a famous long essay called, appropriately, “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, which is actually about Tolstoy. “Is he a fox or a hedgehog?” Berlin believes he was trying to be both. Maybe we need Tolstoy more than Stephen Leacock, for the work that lies ahead. Stephen Leacock was all fox, or so I will believe until convinced otherwise, despite his end-of-life pronouncements.

All the foxes and hedgehogs on the island of Paros were entirely disconcerted by Archilochus’s dictum, due simply to their natural distaste for being stereotyped. To cut a very long story short, they held a series of meetings involving only themselves, then a series of bilateral meetings, and eventually resolved that those who wanted to prove Archilochus was wrong should make of themselves a new combined species, and leave the others alone who were entirely comfortable with being one or the other. They would do this by a process of unnatural selection (defying Darwin, although they didn’t know that). If you know anything about foxes and hedgehogs, you will realize that this was a tall order indeed. In fact, it failed miserably all over Europe, and many were the casualties on both sides. Even when the foxes pitched the idea to porcupines on both sides of the Atlantic.

In despair, the survivors finally decided that the best they could do would be to conjoin themselves for practical purposes retaining, indeed embracing, their separate identities for purposes of survival but walking intimately side-by-side as if they were one whenever the need arose. This yielded some highly comical appearances which evoked the contempt of some foxes and hedgehogs (or porcupines) alike. But under pluralistic conditions, where being exclusively one or the other was necessarily uncomfortable, it worked wonderfully. The resulting eight-legged creatures came to be called by various hyphenated names, depending on the exact partnership. They resisted fiercely the idea, floated by some who did not understand, that they, especially if both females, should be called Heterodoxies. Taxonomically they came to be recognized as Both-Andians.

Thus it was that Astranasus and Mnemochirianne, realizing that their own considerable talents, however useful for understanding the Yottapede in its native Charged Ooze and even anticipating its behaviour, were insufficient to achieve alteration in its cast of mind, that being the first step in the process of mutation. They put out the call for a fox-hog, hedg-fox, fox-upine or porc-enard, who duly arrived, incorporated under the name Vulphystrix.

They made a curious sight, this bizarre quartrio, as they circled the Yottapede through the Charged Ooze, reversing and unreversing the charge as they want, confusing the great beast with that and their antics. How was it to deal with Astranasus the Star-Nosed Mole snuffled his way around the perimeter, as much at home in the Charged Ooze as the  Yottapede itself, although unable to see, hear, or smell anything about it, yet understanding it fully by touch alone? How was it to deal with Mnemochirianne, the Centaur, half horse and half woman, and a very attractive one at that? The Yottapede of course uses attractive women all the time, but this one didn’t fit any of the stereotypes. Beware, beware! But of what? The mesmerizing face? The penetrating, inscrutable eyes? The strong white teeth? The perfect breasts? The sinuous arms with their two elegant hands? The potent hoofs, shifting and dancing like a picador’s horse but with that feral, female intelligence behind them? And now this new threat, if it was that, this incorporated partnership, Vulphystrix, both fox and porcupine, confronting the conflicting monistic pluralism of the Yottapede with an integrating pluralism of its own: what menace did it hold?

The Yottapede watched the newcomers warily with its myriad million eyes. Both parts of Vulphystrix, observing this scrutiny, danced elusively but temptingly within reach, varying the space between themselves without breaking the connection, causing the myriad million tracking eyeballs to swivel and cross, back and forth, up and down, giving the whole massive creature a massive headache. How will it respond?

All this is happening, of course, within sight of the Mariposa walkers who are about to experience the last three rings of their labyrinth, the longest, the second longest, and the third longest, in that order. They will soon go out the way they came in. They have but three more weeks to come up with something useful. Are the Yottapede and its Charged Ooze becoming sufficiently malleable? Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll see.



The Yottapede: Ultimate Unsolved Riddle

In the Fifteenth Week of the Leacock Anniversaries in 2019, on Monday, July 1st, Canada Day, in collaboration with our scouts Astranasus the star-nosed mole and Mnemochirianne the centaur (see previous posts), I persist in the effort to corral, tame, and put to work the wild Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice.

Before I do that, however, I am going to write into the record the text of the e-mail I sent to the Leacock Anniversaries list last Friday, under the title “A Canada Day Weekend Wish from Stephen Leacock”:

Stephen Leacock opens the original The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice with the words, “These are troubled times.” That, at least, has not changed, although I suppose we might ask whether the times are troubled, or we are. Perhaps both. Of course, if we ourselves are the ones troubling the times, then perhaps we might well prescribe a little more activism and a little less fatalism.

Stephen Leacock proposed a Canadian political economy pursuing National Development and Social Justice through a liberal, creative, enterprising economy and society, regulated in the public interest by democratic politics and institutions to smooth out its excesses, fill any gaps it might leave, deal with its externalities, and provide for its future. He imagined a contented, creative, fulfilled population, meeting their own needs, caring for each other, enjoying life, and expanding its possibilities. Prosperity, in other words, in the fullest sense.

He thought we might achieve this by cultivating a cast of mind blending Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour, using Education as the primary tool. These are more complicated times. I am proposing the addition of “Creative Doublethink” to the blend, “Both-And Accommodation” to the tools. All these terms and the arts of their cultivation need to be carefully worked out, of course.

My wish for Canada this weekend and beyond is that we may join in the work according to Stephen Leacock’s wish, as people “of good will whose hearts are in the cause.”

I wish you a splendid celebrating and forward-looking weekend,

This can serve, at least for the time being, as a reasonable summary of where this whole project may be going. It’s all about cast of mind. If we as a society find our policies and practices to be flawed, which we do, because they are, and if we encounter impediments to change, which we do, then we need to locate their source. We often hear suggestions that some come from the self-interest of powerful agents in society, and to some extent they probably do. They may also come from our own cast of mind, perhaps based on our own self-interest, perhaps merely based on force of habit and an inability to  imagine something else.

The CBC, as part of its contribution to Canada Day, published analysis of a recent poll under the headline: “Conflicted and worried: CBC News poll takes snapshot of Canadians ahead of fall election”. On Wednesday I will pick that story apart in some detail; suffice for today to say that this story represents the impedimental cast of mind at work in blatant fashion. This is the “the sky is falling” cast of mind. I suggest it might well also be a grotesquely inaccurate statement of the general outlook, although it might reflect a accurately the answer to the questions, depending on the nature of the sample and how the questions were asked. But that’s all for Wednesday.

I was hoping that today our two scouts would report something about the relationship between the Yottapede and the Charged Ooze through which it moves. Fish, and other aquatic creatures move through the water and may be said to exist, move, in a double medium formed by water and the force of gravity kept in balance physiologically in all three relevant dimensions: up, down, and sideways. We, and other land creatures, exist, move, in air held down by the force of gravity, up by the land, and sideways by our own structure and musculature. We are therefore multi-media creatures, pluralistic by the very nature of our physical being. But what of the Yottapede?

To cut a long story short, and at considerable risk of over-simplification, the Yottapede is both “aquatic” and terrestrial. It occupies land and breathes air as we do, under the same combination of forces and capacities. It “swims” in the Charged Ooze and respires from it, as fish do, and with the same system of balancing. The unique thing about it, however, is that the Charged Ooze itself, in both substance and charge, is extruded by the Yottapede! It continuously creates for itself the environment that sustains it!

What an amazing creature: both parasite and host to creatures who are both parasites and hosts to it in a self-sustaining symbiosis! This is so surprising and wonderful that I have sent Astranasus and Mnemochirianne back to the field for another week to find out more. When we understand how it works, then we may understand  how to re-direct it towards Social Justice. What a reward that would be!

Posted by Paul Conway, Hunt Secretary.