Homegrown truths are the worst truths. If only because you know what you used for fertilizer and how often you watered and tended them. When the harvest is lacking or the fruit is rotten, you only have yourself to blame, which does little to sate an appetite for fiction, fantasy, and falsehood.
The Birdcage Archives
Sunday, 26 February 2023
Tuesday, 21 February 2023
Freedom to Read
Hello Gentle Reader,
Doris Lessing the renowned contrarian and keen-eyed scrutinizer of the 20th Century and early 21st Century, is renowned for her literary endeavors, especially those blockbuster novels which explored with increasing interest the rapidly changing social and political realities of the 20th Century. Born in the shadow of the First World War, Doris Lessing became the first order surveyor and skeptic of the 20th Century, becoming one of the most uncompromising visionary writers of the last century, who viewed her literary works as having both social and political responsibilities, grappling with the changing winds of social reforms, political engagement, rising ideologies, all the while exploring the psychological interiors of the 20th Century individual. Throughout her early life, Doris Lessing provided support and allegiance to various causes and ideologies, only to later heap scorn on them. In her old biting years, Lessing proved she was one thing, an exceptionally independent minded and singular individual, whose concerns were holistic and humanistic in scope and vision, which is why (and for good reasons) she refused to be called a feminist, which she viewed with equal skepticism as any other movement or practice, whose eventual goal is to subjugate and indoctrinate. Doris Lessing tried on a variety of different ideals in her early life—including being a registered communist—became not only disillusioned of such movements, but increasingly distrustful and disgusted by them. As for the individual, Doris Lessing had equal amounts of praise for and pushed to safeguard independent though and intellectual freedom. The very notion of freedom. These are the principles, in which Doris Lessing had found her strength and stride, by not resting on her laurels, but by being primed and prepared to pounce on the foolheartedly and unprepared. A staunch defender of democratic values, of human rights, egalitarian principles, and freedom, Doris Lessing was never short of powerful and impactful quotes. Yet, her description and defense of libraries becomes increasingly resonate:
“With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates. It is the most democratic of institutions because no one – but no one at all – can tell you what to read when and how.” – Doris Lessing
It should come as no surprise that libraries are one of the first institutions that authoritarian governments, institutions, politicians, and movements target. They ensure libraries are first to be closed, burned, defunded, or demolished. Why? Because libraries are the bastions for freedom of thought. They are the fortresses of intellectual curiosity. These are the strongholds of open discourse and discussion. They facilitate, foster, and nurture. Within their walls and on their shelves exists worlds, perspectives, opinions, experiences, lives, lifetimes, knowledge, and travels, all readily available to read and review. Libraries don’t question what you read or stifle curiosity. They curate it further with references, suggestions, and recommendations. Learning, knowledge, and a natural inquisitiveness are tended. A free-thinking society, a learned society, an independent society, is one that completely contravenes and aggravates any to all institutions who have an otherwise authoritarian streak or harbour those ambitions. The reality is, those with power and authority do not enjoy being questioned; being held accountable; or being criticized. Those are all inconveniences they’d otherwise swat away with indifference, but now and again they hit the mark and land a punch. Then they can no longer be dismissed but must be confronted. Explanations need to be made; rationales delivered; then excuses need to be aired; before insincere apologies are uttered in disgruntled tones. To remedy this and even prevent it, ideologues and politicians know they need to control the narrative and by extension the notion of truth. Libraries have little care for political machinations, and curate to endorse and create an environment that facilitates free thinking, and true intellectual autonomy through self-determination and actualization, by asking questions and seeking answers, which are readily provided by another book, by another source, by further reference material. Libraries are the world trees, whose roots, branches, and leaves reach out and sprawl, opening and connecting to new worlds. In turn, ideologues, politicians, political and social movements are the lumberjacks. Who through administrative power; sheer will, force, and pressure; through demonstrations, protestations, contestations, and defacement—whatever the means—it becomes the measure and axe in which to chop, saw, severe, mutilate, amputate, and ultimately censure before enacting censorship.
Censorship is broad in both terms and applications. Immediate thoughts conjure indignant rallies fueled by stoked anger and ignorance. There at the centre of such rallies is the instigator who through falsities, fallacies, and delusions, sows Erisian discord, enticing book burnings, to protest, denounce, and vilify the ideas of the written word, of the writer, and how any consumption of the text would inevitably corrupt others. It should be forewarned anyone who is that firebrand in their evangelical outrage and proclaims themselves somehow a saviour or purveyor of moral acceptability and decency is obviously not what they preach with regards to decency and upstanding moral principles. But this is an exaggerated form of censorship. There is another form of it, a more backhanded one, which smiles at you while it is enacting parameters and limitations around you. As the adage goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
That’s what makes censorship of a paternal or maternal nature a particular appalling breed. The smug assurance that somehow someone knows what’s best for you and therefore can dictate what you choose to consume in a literary manner or intellectual format, is that disturbing backhanded slap, that patronizing pat on the head, while the world grows darker, narrow, and more limited. As for the reader their world becomes shallower and more neglected, as they slip into the mire of ignorance. Of course, those who advocate for such censorship always rest on the tired old excuses of having good intentions; protecting the vulnerable; safeguarding the innocent; disrupting the proliferation of indecency; stopping the consumption of violence; shielding the world from the pornographic. Though these causes may have noble and righteous, even legitimate components for concern and pause, they lose their credibility through their inflexibility and absolution. To refuse to publish, showcase, promote, or make accessible, a piece of work because its contents may or may not (as it’s a matter of personal preference and perspective) be viewed as controversial in nature, defeats any legitimate concern they may have.
Frequently throughout the ages, someone or a group or movement has taken issue with something that is written, depicted, performed, or said. Like striking a match on dry tinder, the following outrage explodes with roaring indignation. Books must be banned and pulled from shelves. Films must be pulled from cinemas. Production of plays can no longer be performed. In far more extreme cases, from recent memory, writers are subject to death threats and assignation attempts as in the case of Salman Rushdie. Thankfully then there are those fine and great institutions who stand forth and push back against the calls for censorship, and instead allow readers and individuals to come to their own conclusions regarding a piece of work, regardless of the controversy. Even when a work is seen as intentionally transgressive or offensive by nature, it must have the ability to be read, consumed, and discussed openly. Growth can only be achieved within the light. When ideologues, politicians, parental groups, religious institutions, or movements take issue or concern with any material written or otherwise, they do not reserve the right to pull it from circulation and locked away in the attic or basement. Nor do they reserve the right to restrict or limit access to the material. They can provide a counter perspective; release criticism of it; they can choose not to read it themselves, but they do not have either the right or the agency to destroy, deny, restrict, limit, or remove it from anyone else’s consumption.
This is what makes Freedom to Read an important week in Canadian society. Despite its limited advertisement and marketing, it is an important week for all Canadians to pause and consider the importance of intellectual freedoms, which includes freedom of speech and expression, information access, and freedom of the press. Despite these fundamental rights being entrenched within democratic societies, they are continually under threat from authoritarian forces, on both sides of the political spectrum. Since the attack of Salman Rushdie last year, it is imperative now, more so then ever, to recognize the growing threat to these fundamental human rights.
Recently, in a university in Canada, a controversial academic was invited by a professor to give a speech on campus regarding the erosion of academic integrity and freedom in the era of ‘woke-ism.’ Initially the university maintained staunch support for the academic to make her appearance and give her lecture, as it is the universities place to provide the platform for wide-ranging view of opinions, perspectives and discourse, in order to encourage dialogue, debate, and growth on both an individual level but also academic one. Perhaps through force or mob mentality, the university by pressure from its student body and some faculty, rescinded the offer for the academic to give her lecture on campus. This academic in question still showed up to the campus and was met with such hostility that even I think the student body of that institution should be ashamed of their lack of decorum and ability to foster civil disagreement and discourse. Instead, they did themselves a disservice by displaying themselves in such a histrionic state of lunacy. This is not rationale nor is it engagement. Its self-indulgent indignation that refuses to listen or facilitate any opinion, perspective, or view point that does not subscribe to their own. Anything contrary must be censored. This is wrong. On the contrary in Florida, there is an increasingly disturbing trend, where books are being banned or removed from schools if they are perceived to discussing race or gender outside of the prescriptive norm as defined by the politics of today. There are photos of classroom libraries empty or inaccessible to students, because the books must be vetted by a state sponsored media specialist. Non-compliance and violation including teachers losing their licenses or being formally charged with a felony. This too is cause for concern.
In both of these situations the human right for intellectual freedom is being willful dismantled, for entirely different reasons. On the one end is the progressive far left turning regressive, abandoning all classical liberal principles in favour of baptismal indoctrination and subjugation, whereby anything oppositional or contrary to their prescribed ideological stances regarding race, history, and gender, must not only be denied but physically confronted and intimated, with the singular goal of censorship. In turn, the situation in Florida provides that smarmy parental censorship, that patronizing backhanded censorship, which pulls reading materials from you because of their perceived ‘political,’ elements regarding discussions of race, gender, and history, until they receive state or legislative approval to be consumed. Both cases prove just how important it is to safeguard and promote intellectual freedom, which is being eroded by these institutions, ideologues, and movements. Universities are failing in their mandates to facilitate and preserve academic integrity and freedom; inspiring their students with broad perspectives, opinions, lectures, and view points on a diverse subject matter. While schools are being censored and censured by legislative authority and parental groups on the grounds of political posturing. Who would have thought through all the battles, fights, and pushes for less censorship and further open media and discourse, we would now be entering a new age of McCarthyism.
It’s a point of irony then with censorship that despite all of its lofty good intentions and ideological compliance that it promotes and propagates otherwise transgressive or controversial material. The problem with forcing anything into the underground or shadows of society, is it grows within secret and in turn becomes more powerful, more resonant, and in more extreme situations more militant in scope. At which point I am reminded of the importance of always doing battle in the light, as eloquently discussed by William Horwood in “Duncton Wood,” when discussing the tyrannical mole Mandrake and his memory:
“But there was one more, the seventh. A mole whose shadow had the smell of evil, whose very name still seems a curse on the mole whole mutters it. Many a mother has tried to still the tongues of youngster’s moles who ask in an excited unknowing whisper: ‘who was Mandrake? Tell us about him.’ Many a father has cuffed a son as he pretended to be as strong as Mandrake was. They felt his name was better left unsaid; his memory much better scratched with talons from the recesses of the mind. But that is not the way to fight evil. Let its name be called. Let the fire of the sun do battle with its form until it lies dried out and colourless in the evening shade, no more than a dead beetles wing to be carried off on the midnight wind.”
There is always a movement to censure and maintain a sense of silence regarding the past. This was something German language writers were forced to confront and face after the Second World War. How does a society come to terms with its own shameful history? Rather then be silent and close the chapter and move towards a better future, writers such as Heinrich Böll sought to reclaim and reconcile with the recent history of Germany and the atrocities committed during the Second World War and the Holocaust. This mantel was picked up and continued by other German writers including Günter Grass. In turn, as Alice Munro pointed out in an interview in 1979, when her short story collection “The Lives of Girls and Woman,” was being pressured to be removed from school reading lists, she pushed back. As Munro said these groups say they are not interested in removing the book from bookstores or libraries, they just don’t want their children reading them, they would rather preserve them. Yet, Munro eloquently states that when a society or movement condones and makes that first step towards censorship, by removing it from the hands of a select group, the next step to remove it from libraries and then bookstores, and then not even being published become easier and more acceptable. It is imperative that the first step never happens and is resisted in full. This is what makes Freedom to Read week such an important week, it reinstates and affirms our societal commitment to oppose all censorship and uphold and maintain all intellectual freedoms, including the freedom to read. Where at the end of the day, if a reader doesn’t enjoy a book, or chooses not read it, at no point in time are they obliged to do so. The point in the matter is they have the freedom to shut it and walk away.
Therefore, it seems fitting to sign off with another quote from Doris Lessing, whose continued salt of the earth sage wisdom becomes increasingly refreshing for its straightforwardness:
“People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.” – Doris Lessing
And heavens know the world needs further inoculations of this sort in order to truly combat the rampant rise of authoritarian perspectives in the world, regardless of their so called good intentions.
Thursday, 2 February 2023
The Memory Police
Hello Gentle Reader,
Winter is an authoritarian season. One of complex contradictions. A reduction and redaction of daylight. Long shadows and lengthening nights prevail. In turn there is the whiteout of snow blanketing and highlighting the world. The landscape changes beneath the weight of the snow. Roads, driveways, streets, alleys become impassable, treacherous to traverse, and altered in function. Mounds of snow pile up along embankments and curbs. Trees take on a menacing and clawed visage, gnarled branches framing a cataract white sky. The way the snow settles reshapes and reforms the world; hills become mountains, lawns and trails disappear. Just as the other seasons have their function, so too does winter. The spring melt provides necessary water to the spring seeding. The dormant plants are renewed and restful for the coming spring and summer, and if those two seasons remains amicable with both rain and heat, the autumns harvest will be bountiful in turn. Each season in turn brings their own charm. The rejuvenating green of spring buds, the thaw and warmth spreading throughout. Summer blossoming into a brilliant showcase and bouquet of flowers, greenery, and light. Those days long with a sense of never-ending charm. Summer always comes across as the eternal season, but even it burns out. As summers days die down into the ruminating coals, autumn takes flight. Dressed in golds, reds, oranges, yellows, and browns, autumn brings the feast through the harvest. Autumn’s regalia wears down as all the bright and brilliance falls away. What’s left are the barren brown husks of dormant trees. Fields reduced to a stubble. The days recede and before long that gravestone grey of November begins to hang over the days and haunt the nights. Yet as the year unwinds there remains a glimmer of hope in December, as the days turn their shortest and the nights their longest and darkest, there is the glint and sparkle of Christmas lights twinkling down streets and within windows. Despite its follies, its rampant consumerist propagation, there’s a certain splendor and decadence to the Christmas season. The lights become beacons of festivities, pushing back the shadows of the deepening dark of winter. January as a hangover month fills the space with endless sweeping shadows and frostbitten winds. Still, we persevere through January into February on the green dreams of spring; the memory of enchanting summer heats; the regalia of autumns bounty and bonfires; before we return to the sparkling lights of Decembers celebrations. Yet, if the seasons fell out of order or lapsed and disregarded the cycle of their natural order, what would an eternal and endless winter be? In Ogawa Yōko’s parable novel “The Memory Police,” an endless winter comes to settle over an unnamed and isolated island after calendars are sacrificed in another act of disappearing. This in turn means dates, history, and the seasonal cycle become obsolete in turn, and winter settles in as permanent season. The whiteout affects of the snow falling and replacing the dirty snow, recalls a landscape on the verge of being redacted and obfuscated in turn, as the snow continues to pile up.
“The Memory Police,” is one of Ogawa Yōko’s first novels. Originally published in 1994, after more then two decades it has finally been translated and published into English. Despite the gap between publications, “The Memory Police,” gained further prominence for its publication being just before the pandemic and then seen as a metaphorical resonance of the changing landscape caused by health orders and restrictions to curve and circumvent the virus. Daily life was immediately usurped. Changes to the simple and most mundane components of life altered and changed. Ogawa’s “The Memory Police,” provides a dystopian parable of what happens when the normal routines and confines of daily life are slowly eroded by measures far beyond the individuals control. Inspired by Anne Franks Diary, Ogawa’s “The Memory Police,” follows in a similar fashion of individuals finding refugee in hiding as an authoritarian atmosphere takes hold of normal life. This in turn has meant that “The Memory Police,” is compared to other famous dystopian anti-authoritarian novels, such as George Orwell’s “1984,” or Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” Yet, Ogawa’s novel shares greater kinship to Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” or the twisted dark parables of Jose Saramago, such as his novel: “Blindness.” On this unnamed island there is a phenomenon simply known as the disappearing, whereby unknown decree or force, objects, items, and their associative memory are erased from the public consciousness. Citizens of the island accept the fate with alarming acceptance, though even they are perplexed by the choices. When roses have disappeared, residents comply by digging and ripping up their rose bushes. Afterwards the notion of roses having existed slowly evaporates. This scene is poignant, as the river runs with the spectrum of roses, from pink, to red, to white, their petals drift down the river into oblivion.
Early in the novel, the unnamed narrator remembers a scene with her mother, who not only archives and retains lost and forgotten objects, but also remembers their names and applications. For the narrator, however, these objects are foreign and alien, and can only be described via rudimentary and almost childlike language. Soft things. Beautiful things. Furry things. Small things. They can only be summarized as things. The mother provides a treatise on the objects and their applications. Perfume for instance, she laments the loss of their tender scents and beautiful bottles. While the narrator’s childhood self can only see a clear liquid, having no sense of smell to discern anything special. Emeralds in turn are turned over in one’s hands with beautiful satisfaction. The enchanting green stone brilliant and beautiful, but now forgotten, worthless, and lost. Other objects being lost are utilitarian in scope such as hats and boats, which inevitably means the milliner (hatmaker) and ferry operator are unemployed or redeployed to new careers, as their functions to the world no longer exist. While other disappeared objects are more mundane in nature such as ribbons. Then comes the haunting romantic ones, which provide clarity to how far reaching the redactions of memory can go, and to what extent items are obliged to disappear. When birds are deemed surplus to requirement, they are removed from the island. This includes not just physical living, singing, and flying birds, but all studies of birds, photographs, articles, books, drawings, recordings, films et cetera. The narrator’s father was an ornithologist, who thankfully is dead before his life’s work and area of study slips into the abyss. Birds maintain an associative meaning as well in turn. They represent flight and freedom. Their sudden and usual unexplained absence cements the already established suffocating claustrophobia of the island, which has now erased the notion of escape be it ferry, boat, or flight from the inhabitant’s mind, entrapping them on the island.
The titular memory police are an ambient threat. They enter and exist within the novel as a customary component of life on the island. Their neat uniforms complete with green fur lined collar coats and matching green trucks with canvas tarps roaming up and down streets, their impassible and expressionless faces, and their occupation of an old theatre as their headquarters, have them cemented as a mere facet of reality, however mundane and unpleasant all the same. They exist in the background only coming to attention when they’re operational or visible. This often means rounding up people who dissent by being able to still remember or have been discovered providing refugee to dissidents or retaining contraband items which have been disappeared. Their menace is more bureaucratic in nature, encompassing the notion of the banality of evil. When the narrator’s mother is taken by the memory police, the threat of the inevitable is glossed over by how nice the car is, and their pleasant demeanor as if they were escorting her mother on a holiday trip. It is only later when there is the observation of watching others round up into the canvas trucks and transported away is the threat of violence more palpable.
Despite the sensation of dread and violence in parallel with the increasingly bizarre acts of disappearances, Ogawa Yōko creates a multilayered novel, encompassing a multifaceted version of what existence is like on the island. The mundane elements of cooking, shopping, eating, and meeting under such increasingly bizarre circumstances, become rituals of survival as well as dissidence. Grocery shopping takes on new dimensions of horrors, as food becomes increasingly scarce and rations are instituted with tighter and tighter austerity measures. Yet the ability to bake a cake, celebrate a birthday, enjoy a meal, become acts of inspirational hope while clinging to the meager sense of normalcy. Then comes the fact that the unnamed narrator is also a writer (or novelist) in turn. Her books are in turn inflected with loss and disappearances, including her current novel, where a typist becomes trapped by her typing insturctor and looses her voice. Then there is the relationship between herself, her editor, and the old man. Her editor is one such individual who has the innate ability to retain their memories after the shared severance has taken place. To shelter him, the narrator, and the old man, create a new room in the house to hold and safeguard the editor, where he will remain in hiding from the machinations and authority of the memory police. This is done without any political inclination or messaging. The motivations of the narrator are merely out of altruism, and perhaps a sense of romance which is never acted upon. Unfortunately, details are added, and vague plot lines are added within the various stories of “The Memory Police,” but ironically are lost or evaporate, and are never finished, remaining loose. Yet as the novel progresses further memories are severed, further reductions are created in society, and in turn they become increasingly more twisted and Beckettian in their absurdism. Finally, the novel ends the only way it can. As more and more whiteouts take place, more and more holes and gaps begin to expand and widen, soon there can be nothing left to erase.
The publication of Ogawa Yōko’s “The Memory Police,” has been considered politically timely by some. The comparisons that Ogawa’s novel has with other dystopian novels such as Orwell’s “1984,” or Atwood’s “The Handmaids Tale,” are rather misplaced and even superficial in their association. Ogawa’s work is not as palpable or as forewarning as Orwell’s work or Atwood’s novels. “The Memory Police,” is more closely related to Anne Frank’s Diary for its interest in capturing a sense of ambient dread and banal evil through the mundane, but also living within the confines of a space which continues to shrink both physically and metaphorically. This is the space that both the editor and the inhabitants of the island face. Their physical reality and their interactions, perspectives, associative meanings, and memories of the world become increasingly confined through the confiscation and termination of memories. For the editor the space becomes even more reduced when he’s forced to find sanctuary within a makeshift room, further isolated from the world. The novel also has no political message intended; it has no antiauthoritarian significance beyond the superficial elements of a group of people being oppressed, yet its more Kafkaesque and Beckettian then its revolutionary or explicitly political. Ogawa is not criticizing any political faction or providing any palpable forewarning to the dangers of the resurrected extremism being exhibited by the far-right and the far-left. Rather the novel is parabolic in structure, being less inclined to provide any particular meaning and instead envisioning how one lives within such trying and impossible circumstances. Memory (to no surprise) is a focal theme of this novel, its both torturous curse and the very ethereal element providing meaning to our lives. Its importance to how we interact, understand, perceive, and live in the world should not be abandoned or severed with casual ease. Ogawa Yōko’s ability to remain enigmatic and ambiguous with political stances is a testament to her work being more concerned with more abstract themes and elements of the human condition, while avoiding the pitfalls of the explicitly political. If I were to leverage any criticism against the novel it would be the language itself. Ogawa is renowned for her blanc prose. Its bleached and minimal, best described as being a still pond only slightly rippled with the disturbance of action, though it tends to take on a very still and lulling lyricism. Yet, there were times when the language came across exaggeratedly metaphorical, especially during emotional moments, which caused the novel to veer towards the edge of melodramatics. When so much of the novel is written in such pristine unadorned prose this sudden wellspring of metaphorical and emotional language, often came across as obscene and disruptive. Despite this, in “The Memory Police,” Ogawa Yōko is already establishing the foundational elements of her long literary career, which includes dissertations on memory, service and caretaking, absence, loss, preservation and curatorship, the sense of dread and absurd, and claustrophobic spaces and landscapes. Here’s hoping Ogawa Yōko has more of her works translated into English now. She’s proven herself to be a singular talent and vision, one whose work grapple with the truly impermanence and amorphous unknown of the human condition, exposing the frailty of such systems, without being absorbed in political overtones. In that regard, it is imperative readers understand that “The Memory Police,” is only Orwellian in marketing nature, but absolutely but Kafkaesque for its exploration of the absurdity of the abyss of reality.
And As Always
Stay Well Read