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Knowing Nothing

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

I had been wondering about writing a column on religion when I turned on the car radio one day and caught part of a debate on the subject between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair. Hitchens is the author of a book defending what someone called the New Atheism, and Blair, the former British prime minister, is a recent convert to Roman Catholicism.

The most interesting moment in the debate came when a clever young woman, one of the students invited to ask questions at the end, asked each what was the strongest point in his opponent’s position. Hitchens’ answer was of particular interest to me. He mentioned three things. The first was a little obscure but what he seemed to be referring to was the kind of short-hand, by which we say things like Thank God, God willing, God knows, without necessarily believing in any specific deity, the word God a shorthand for the vast powers beyond our control, what we fear or desire but know to be out of our reach.

Hitchens went on to make the related point that religion encourages humility. We ought to bear in mind, he suggested, that we are an aberrant species on a small planet in a huge universe. A look through the Hubble telescope, he suggested, will produce appropriate awe at the vision of what is beyond us. His third point was that many, if not most, human beings, have some sensitivity to the numinous, some sense of absolute mystery of the sort religion studies.

Hitchens’ presentation of these best arguments against his own position sums up the reasons I call myself an agnostic, not an atheist. More or less always have. Though my parents attended church and I attended Sunday school, I didn’t later lose my faith, only became more strongly aware that I had never had it and by and large never missed it.

However, because I love to sing and sing well, I have spent quite a bit of time in church choirs. A favourite joke is that I will believe anything if it has a good enough tune put to it. But of course that’s not entirely a joke. To stand in a choir singing the great contrapuntal Amen from Handel’s Messiah is an extraordinary experience. The word Amen, means, we are told, So Be It. That presents no doctrinal difficulties, and the music is … transcendent. Anyone who lets a philosophical assumption interfere with that transcendence is wasting his life.

So I have sung that chorus as if I believed something, but who knows what?

As if.

Perhaps that phrase leads us to the point where the aesthetic confounds the rational, where poetry makes disbelief irrelevant.

As if.

The rabbi and philosopher Emil Fackenheim once said in my hearing that agnosticism was intellectually incoherent. One must make a commitment, to live as if God existed or as if God did not. I admired Fackenheim, but I don’t agree. To keep things simple in this short column let’s say that the choice is to live as if the universe has meaning or as if it does not.

Why not both? Are absolutes more than another human invention?

Religion is frequently rigid and blind. So is atheism. Both advertise humility and display pride. Credulous child or rebellious adolescent: neither is quite grown up. Either extreme is likely to accuse agnosticism of a weak-kneed refusal to choose, but that is a rhetorical trick, not an ethical necessity.

Certainly a stone dropped from a tower will always fall to earth. The dead are dead. History is not providential. But those are narrow certainties. Cosmologists will continue to strive to explain the expanding universe, but aren’t there things that by the nature and limits of our observing cannot ever be measured? Some cosmologists have suggested this is so. I can’t do the mathematics, so I’m more than ever uncertain.

I don’t know.


Tangled Yarn

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

The story begins, or so he imagines, on an empty beach, in the autumn. He expects something—a sea monster, a goddess—to come toward him, but nothing does. This is the first scene in the tale the Saturday man will tell himself. Absence, expectation: the unmeaning of the grey ocean.

But now he is sitting in a train. The journey is familiar, the empty fields hold his gaze. Other characters—remembered, imagined—exist beyond the dim horizon of a winter morning. He waits for them.

A young woman in a tight T-shirt: it says Molson’s Ukrainian.

He reads the signs on the passing stores, The Racer’s Edge, The Store Famous, Mystic Convenience.

He will record these things in his notebook. Inside it he finds a pressed and dried flower—an orange poppy. A note describes a photograph of a dead child, dated 1858.

Just after dawn, he arrived at the station, waiting to buy coffee as one of a pair of paraplegics, a young man with a thin moustache, manoeuvred his electronic wheelchair into the station snack bar, an unlit cigarette between his fingers. He asked the Lebanese counterman for the use of a lighter.

The counterman said he didn’t smoke.

‘I get you a lighter anyway,’ he said, but instead he walked into the small kitchen to toast a bagel.

Across the room sat a nun in the traditional floor-length black habit, white wimple, only her pale old face revealed. An aluminum cane leaned against the square table.

‘Praise the Lord, sister,’ the paraplegic said, lifting his hand, the fingers bent almost into a fist.

The Saturday man recalls the gesture. A secret sign. No one, he thinks, wears the old fashioned habit now. Nuns are brisk women in knee length skirts.

He will record all this, not to forget.

Beyond the window of the moving train the winter scene expresses itself in monochrome. The rivers reflect blackness with occasional flashes of light. The sun is far away. The train rolls through the landscape he has seen many times before. Beyond the horizon always, the characters from the past, or the future.

‘Sometimes,’ a woman once said to him in a childlike voice, ‘when I’m very bored, I faint.’ This was in the course of a description of her first marriage.

The day moves on. The afternoon darkness causes the window to mirror what is occurring inside the train. The Saturday man catches sight of a reflection, a couple kissing in the seat across from him, but when he turns from the window and looks furtively over his shoulder, there is no one. The seat is empty.

He recalls the nun in her long black habit. The scene he witnessed hints at farcical possibilities.

‘Praise the Lord, sister.’

A few rows ahead of him a young woman has stood up in her seat, and she is moving her shoulders and bare arms, a young body in need of activity. Her slender arms meet above her head. Perhaps she is so bored she wishes someone, almost anyone, to look at her. The Saturday man believes young women are often deeply bored. Not all of them faint. Sometimes the eyelids blink rapidly, the eyes turn up, revealing only the white.

The dead child was posed, lying back against pillows as if she might be asleep. The photograph was dated 1858. A different world.

A man’s voice: someone is speaking to him.

The Saturday man realizes that what he hears is a member of the train staff making an announcement on the public address system.

‘We will be arriving at our next station-stop in ten minutes. We hope you have had a pleasant journey. Passengers leaving the train are reminded to take with them all personal illusions. Thank you for travelling with us.’

The Saturday man studies the dark landscape, trying to decide whether it is time to disembark, wondering what is waiting on the beach.

Wag That Tale

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

“What’s the name of your dog?”


“I can’t. Just tell me. What’s her name?”


“Don’t be mean. Just tell me her name.”


My grandmother liked to tell that story about her little dog, whose name was, of course, Guess. I have seen pictures of Guess in an old photo album, but I think she had grown old and died before I was born. Or if we overlapped I was too young to remember.

We recently got a new puppy, and since then, I have been thinking about all the dogs in my life. The new one, Star, is the ninth by my count. The others, in chronological order, were Mickey, Perky, Skipper, Buddy, Sandy, North, Thurber, and Jessie. I can’t claim to have been very original in my choice of names. I think Thurber was named by one of my daughters.

The earliest ones have left behind them only odd bits of mythology, vivid anecdotes. The first, Mickey, was a wire-haired terrier we owned when we lived in Hamilton, Ontario, during the Second World War. My father was working in a factory, for a company called Otis Fensom who made elevators, though I think they were also involved in some kind of war work.

The story goes that my mother and I were on an outing to Gage Park (Can I remember this? Maybe). Mickey ran away, and my mother, assisted or perhaps hindered by small me, gave chase but was unable to catch him. He vanished, and we were helpless. However, so the story goes, a day or so later my father set off to the factory one morning, and when he arrived he made his way to his workbench where, sitting waiting for him as if they met there every day, was Mickey—who had never been taken anywhere near the factory before.

So I learned that dogs are magic. And what happened to Mickey later on? Don’t know. Probably he ran away again and this time didn’t turn up.

Our next dog arrived after we moved to Toronto. All I can recall about Perky is that he (or she?) came down with distemper and that my father stayed up all night struggling to keep the animal alive. I do remember a kind of tall box my father made to contain and protect the puppy in the grip of convulsions. But Perky’s fate has vanished into time.

The conclusion of Skipper’s story is more robust and satisfying. Skipper was a big dog, thick fur, black and white. There is a photograph of me playing in the snow with him. As a puppy he suffered a misadventure at a summer cottage when he discovered a fishing line smelling satisfactorily of worm and fish and swallowed the hook. This took place while I was asleep, though I have a vague memory of being wakened from my sleep by the terrible noises. My father—the hero of all my dog stories—managed to extract the barbed hook from the dog’s throat, though the animal passed out from fear and pain in the process. But Skipper seems to have survived and become large and adventurous enough that my parents found him beyond the capacities of our small Toronto house and yard. So off he went to a farm.

It’s at this point that Skipper enters mythology. Here’s the story that we were told. Not long after getting to the farm, Skipper, who was obviously a reckless critter, confronted the farm’s bull. This was unwise, but when the bull took after him, the defiant puppy sank his teeth into its nose and just hung on. That’s the tale we heard. Apparently dog and bull survived the encounter, and Skipper became a farm dog and a family myth.

And what about all those others? Well, maybe we’ll come back to my canine memories someday. I’ll tell you how Sandy discovered sex and decided to leave home.

I Go On Writing

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

This column is all about me. The occasion? A new book of mine has just recently been published, a collection of short and not-so-short fiction called Mystery Stories.

So you can turn the page now or stay for the ride.

My first short story was published in Canadian Forum, a magazine once well known, now gone, a bit more than fifty years ago. Really. That long. And my only previous collection of short fiction, The Streets of Summer, was published in 1969. It was, of course, a different world then. It was the time when new Canadian publishers, House of Anansi, Coachhouse Press, Oberon Press, many others, were being founded and were bringing into print a new generation of writers. Margaret Laurence had become well-known, but names like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje were brand new. The place to buy books in Toronto was Britnell’s bookstore on Yonge Street, Coles, the slightly raffish beginning of a Canadian chain, was further down Yonge. Soon, a few blocks away, Longhouse Books opened, an entire store selling nothing but Canadian books. In Montreal The Double Hook did the same thing. All over the country Canadian books were visible, popular, widely reviewed.

Around that time, with my friend Tom Marshall, I founded the Oberon Press annual collection of stories—initially New Canadian Stories, soon to become Best Canadian Stories—but myself I more or less stopped writing short fiction. Two or three stories in the new book come from those days, written in the period just after my 1969 collection and before I was led astray by the impulse to write novels. In rereading these quiet stories I find myself face to face with an almost stranger, the different man I was in that other world. It’s an odd experience.

It was only when I moved to PEI in 1996 that I returned to writing short fiction. In between I had lived much of my adult life, published poems and novels and some essays. A few weeks after I moved here and while sitting in the car alone one afternoon, I heard a mysterious voice. Speaking to me? Not exactly. But that voice and the new world of the Island embodied itself in the first short story I’d written for a very long time.

I didn’t abandon novels, but increasingly the novella and the long story seemed to be the shape that my imaginings took on. I became aware that a lot of my new stories involved something enigmatic, and I began shaping a collection to be called Mystery Stories. The more recent ones have tended out to be—in the old theatrical phrase—louder, faster and funnier.

In 1969, when The Streets of Summer came out it was reviewed in a handful of Canadian newspapers and a number literary magazines and sold in bookstores like Britnells and the Longhouse. A couple of stories were adapted for broadcast by CBC television. Now, of course, fewer newspapers review books, and though a few independent bookstores like Charlottetown’s The Bookmark remain, most books are distributed through Chapters/Indigo and the internet retailers.

But Mystery Stories will not be on sale in Indigo. Tim Inkster, the strong-willed, long-suffering publisher at the Porcupine’s Quill, has had serious disagreements with some of the company’s business practices, and he refuses to sell to them. But independent bookstores still exist, and Mystery Stories will be available from what Inkster likes to call “the e-tailers”—Amazon and the rest.

The bloggers who will serve as some of the book’s main reviewers, were most of them not born when I began publishing fiction. Every year I hear of new writers, some young enough to be my grandchildren, who are developing their skills and demand attention. Mystery Stories is coming to birth in a new universe. If I want to go on writing—and I do—my work must seek its audience in the world as it is. And it will.

For What It’s Worth

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

It was a conversation about compulsory retirement that started me thinking about universities. I wasn’t entirely convinced that academics should have the right to teach as long as they wish. This was partly on the grounds that senior academics have had the benefit of the exceptional security that comes with tenure.

Tenure, a guarantee of employment based on an ideal of intellectual freedom, is itself a complicated and difficult issue.

Universities these days are very often kept going by teachers without tenure, on ill-paid sessional appointments. If these teachers are not properly paid because they are not fully competent then it could be argued that students are being cheated. If they are fully competent why not pay them just as much as the tenured staff?

In 1980 I gave up a permanent position at Queen’s University. I had been on the staff there for eighteen years, but for the last six of those I had been on leave of absence or teaching part time for a fraction of my salary. The choice I made was the right one for me, and I never regretted it. But twice in the next decade I got a phone call late in the spring saying that the English department was short of staff and asking me to teach one course for the next academic year.

The normal work load for a department member was three courses. Common sense might suggest that I would be paid one third of the salary I would have been paid had I stayed on staff. No such thing of course. There was a standard (low) for sessional appointments and I was paid according to that standard.

Since I earned most of my income as a free lance writer this wasn’t a hardship, but no one will ever convince me that it made any sense. I was the same man, with the same mind, but I had given up the position of tenured academic. By some magic I was now worth less. No doubt there are those who will claim that full time faculty earn their salaries by their work on committees and such things, but it’s my impression that at least three quarters of the time spent on such things is wasted.

So should the idea of tenure be abandoned? Well no, I don’t think so. If universities stand for anything, it is the spirit of free enquiry and some level of freedom from the marketplace. We are all too aware that conditions of employment in the big world these days are often harsh, and if a woman or man wishes to spend a lifetime pursuing recondite matters the university, traditionally, is prepared to offer shelter, on the grounds presumably that truth is all one and ought somewhere to be free from the promptings of money and the current vogue.

Old-fashioned? You bet.

Some academics in the old days when everyone was tenured grew tedious, but personally I think tedious is preferable to slick. Don’t get me going or you might find me arguing that university schools of business are among the most destructive institutions in our society and should all be replaced by compulsory study of Greek and Latin.

But I’ll admit that the question of what universities can and should do in the contemporary world is a vexed one, not to be compassed by a short column.

Last words, then, notes from the ancient world, fifty years back: I recall sitting in a seminar given by Professor A.S.P. Woodhouse of U of T’s University College. Woodhouse read his lectures, complete with well-rehearsed jokes, from handwritten scribblers, full of marginal emendations. And the reason he did was an absolutely valid one. He had spent a lifetime working out and refining what seemed to him the truth about Milton and Spenser. His job, as he saw it, was to convey the best truth he could muster to those who sat under him each year, and that’s what he did.

Summer Passage

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Times and timetables being what they are, you are reading this in October,  words about how, one rainy afternoon, I gave some thought to the passage of summer—much as Catherine MacLellan did in her Buzz column last month. It’s a Canadian habit, I guess, natural enough since our summer is so brief and intense.

My season was not especially big with events or travels, yet it kept me busy enough. It seems no time ago, that fine June morning in the garden at Rideau Hall on a trip to Ottawa for the Order of Canada investiture, the occasion celebrated with family and old friends. Then suddenly we are taking an evening walk on an Island beach where I watch a Greater Yellowlegs stepping along, head bobbing up and down with its strange mechanical motion, and it’s almost time for fall migration. That’s how quickly the summers go by.

I’m getting older, and in recent years I seem to have a medical episode every summer. This year it was cataract surgery that punctuated the season, but the event itself was not much more dramatic than a visit to the dentist, and soon enough I was out and about. To the beach, the theatre.

I find myself thinking back and analysing the plays we saw at the Montgomery Theatre—Pygmalion one Sunday and Johnny Belinda the next—and reflecting on how good playwrights, through the clever shaping of a story, provide gifted performers with sharply defined situations in which the actor can create an intensely human moment, outrageously funny or sharply poignant. I remember the comedy of Rebecca Parent in Pygmalion calmly telling a prim and proper drawing room an outrageously unrespectable story in her newly mastered posh accent, remember too Shannon Taylor as the deaf-mute Belinda expressing the pain and joy of her life in an expressive silence or with the dance of hands and arms after she has learned sign language.

I don’t keep a journal, so the summers exist in such remembered moments, standing out from the anonymity of days spent in the garden, weeding, or picking peas, or digging garlic. As everyone kept saying, it was a perfect year for growing things.

Books? Oh of course I was reading books. One of them was Gore Vidal’s novel Julian, the story of one of the later Roman emperors who tried to defeat the spread of Christianity and bring back the Hellenistic world. (I later saw at City Cinema a film called Agora, about a similar subject.) It was intriguing to look into Vidal’s book shortly after I had finished the Canadian novelist Annabel Lyon’s book about ancient Greece, The Golden Mean, and to wonder how much the difference in the treatment of the ancient world was the difference in subject—Aristotle and Alexander the Great as against Julian the Apostate and a couple of his teachers and friends—and how much the difference in the sensibility of the writer—Lyon seems closer to the earth. Or how much of it may be a change in the way fiction is conceived and conveyed now, as against the way it was conceived fifty years ago.

Yes, it was a perfect summer for gardens, and, astonishingly, this was a season when two different painters that I know and admire suggested the possibility of recording on canvas my balding head and wrinkled old face. Imagine that.

Music? Not a lot this year, though I have new discs from a friend who is a fine pianist, and we did get to one of the noon hour concerts at the Kirk of St James to hear music for flute and keyboard by Telemann, Poulenc and Reger, splendidly played by Frances McBurnie and Morgan Saulnier.

Small pleasant memories. I notice the rain is over now, the stems of the gladioli bent from its force. And when these words appear in front of you it will be October, and everything will be different.

Debt to Society

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Conrad Black’s release from prison in July, on bail while parts of the case against him are reconsidered, quickly became news. It was the CBC that called my attention to the column he wrote about his release, and I was able to find it on the Internet. He still, obviously, regards himself as an innocent man railroaded by the feverish and rancorous assault of American prosecutors. After his release he drew attention by a sharp attack on the American justice system.

I think I can fairly claim not to have experienced a resentful pleasure at the rich Lord Black’s fall from grace. Well, with one small exception. When he founded the National Post the editors seized every opportunity to criticize Canada for its presumed inferiority to the United States. In a fawning piece by Jonathan Kay published in the National Post after Black’s release on bail, this attitude is referred to as “a strong voice against anti-Americanism.”

This is perhaps a little like a car owner taking pride in being a strong voice against those animals who persist in getting under his wheels on the highway.

I always regarded this endless adulation of American ways as an attack on my country. A book on the founding of the National Post claims that Black later said he regretted this attitude in the paper, but when it was the justice system of the much vaunted USA that committed itself to bringing him down, I couldn’t help an awareness of the irony.

Conrad Black’s recent remarks about the American “prison industry”—beginning with the well-known fact that they imprison vastly more people than Canada and other prosperous democratic countries—are very much to the point these days as the current government goes on with its plans—adopted in defiance of the best evidence—to spend billions of dollars of public money on new prisons and legislation to increase the length of sentences.

In 1962 I moved to Kingston Ontario, a city with two federal prisons inside the city limits and two (later three) others in the countryside nearby. I lived only a few blocks from Kingston Penitentiary. I have a vivid memory of driving down the street near my house and seeing a tiny man in arm and leg shackles being led across the road to the doors of KP by two large law officers. As the years passed I did a little voluntary teaching in Collins Bay Penitentiary and had some connection with a prison drama program. I didn’t serve time, but I learned more about prisons than I wanted to know.

Prisons are strange institutions with varied, perhaps contradictory jobs. They keep under guard the moral monsters. They punish those convicted of crimes by taking away their freedom for a set period. They try to help educate and rehabilitate some of the inmates. They are not pleasant places to pass the time.

Fortunately, the amount of crime in Canada is decreasing in most areas. The best response continues to be an intelligent pragmatism. Politicians who claim to be “tough on crime” and want to imprison more men for more time are adopting a pose that hopes to flatter the resentment of those who feel they have been good and got little by it, who can gain nothing from more severe punishments except perhaps a momentary thrill at the thought of someone else’s pain. More and longer sentences will eventually make society worse—more angry and conflicted—not better.

So does the recent column on the excesses and inequities of sentencing and the vast growth of US prisons announces the birth of a new Conrad Black—Lord Black the liberal? Who knows? I expect that those of us who consider ourselves, in the late Jane Rule’s wonderful phrase, “hot-eyed moderates,” would welcome him aboard.

Certainly his observations on the nature of imprisonment in the USA are valuable to his native country at this moment.

American Classic

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

What makes a movie touch us, resonate? With such a collaborative, highly artificial form of narrative it’s hard to say, but sometimes the combination of script, actors, cameraman, director creates something like art. In my CBC days I saw filmmaking from the inside, and given the cost, the organizational difficulties, it seemed a wonder that anything made sense at all. The French have invented a theory that calls the director the film’s author, its guiding spirit, but the industrial moviemaking of Hollywood often appears to make a mockery of the idea. Yet with certain movies there is a sense that something has led a group of talented people to a convincing unity of vision.

I have a subscription to, and as they choose, pretty much at random, from the list of things I’ve asked for, I’m sometimes unsure when a movie arrives why I put it on the list months before. We are Friday night regulars at Charlottetown’s City Cinema, and sometimes when we miss an interesting film there it goes on my ziplist, but that doesn’t explain why The Deer Hunter, a film from 1978, recently arrived in the mail. But I’m glad it did. I believed that I had seen it many years ago, but when I played the DVD I was less than sure.

The film, one of the earliest made about the disastrous American adventure in Vietnam, is both suspect and powerful. It is a violent movie, which has been called racist and is at least xenophobic. Robert De Niro plays an American whose heroism and spiritual insight are unrelenting and never seriously challenged, and the movie largely avoids the political issues behind and around the war. Yet it has whatever it is that makes movies endure.

I’m easily persuaded by evocative pictures and The Deer Hunter is full of them. It summons up a proletarian, industrial USA like that in The Americans, the famous book of photos by Robert Frank. The director of photography for The Deer Hunter was the brilliant Hungarian-American Vilmos Zsigmond, and from the first frames the camera is always right. The opening shots are of a steel town in Pennsylvania at first light. Inside the mill, the dangerous molten steel flames against the darkness. Masked and gowned figures move about in the furious noise. A signal horn. The central characters of the movie come off shift, drive to a bar, one of them preparing for his wedding. He and two others, Nick and Mike, are about to ship out to Vietnam.

Though the action develops slowly, there is a sense of narrative compulsion. How it is that a scene of four old Russian-American women carrying a wedding cake down a working class street can seem important, even exciting? As we watch the wedding, Meryl Streep’s performance as Nick’s girlfriend Linda catches and reflects the story’s complexities. The camera captures the texture of working class life in both landscape and performance.

In a single brilliant cut, with soulful piano music drowned in the noise of helicopter blades, the three men are shifted into the craziness of the Vietnam war. The alien world of Asia is pure danger. They are all, in various ways, wounded, and two of them return to the USA—Nick gone AWOL and left in Saigon, addicted to heroin and the melodrama of Russian roulette. Mike and Linda begin a tentative, inevitable affair.

Then De Niro’s Mike, the deer hunter whose moral purity is never questioned, returns to Vietnam during the fall of Saigon to rescue Nick—the Hero going into the Underworld to bring back his Beloved. Absurd perhaps, and yet the film makes unlikely history into convincing narrative. Mike’s journey fails, and after Nick’s funeral, the little group of friends gathers in a bar, and they spontaneously begin to sing God Bless America.

With what level of irony? Hard to say, and yet in some bizarre fashion, it works.

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