Vol. 13, No. 3
The fine Portland-based quarterly Tin House marks the publication of its 50th issue with, among other delights, the lengthy essay On ‘Beauty’ by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson. With a title like that, you’re probably thinking it’s some attempt to provide a bedrock definition of the beautiful or to elucidate why various notions of the beautiful are wrong or at least misguided. It’s sort of about that, but at heart it’s a call for humility, for humankind to recognize both its grandeur, “alone in our capacity for awe,” and our tendency to forget just how hypothetical so much of our thinking is. Especially in the U.S., where in a climate of “urgency and anxiety,” she writes, the populace has become “inappropriately loyal to our hypotheses, rather than to the reality of which they are always a tentative sketch.” Robinson’s essay is also an impassioned defence of the enduring value of narrative (i.e., fiction). A teacher at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she likes to tell her students that she and they are doing something “so ancient ... and so central to human culture, that we can assume its significance, even if we cannot readily describe or account for it.”
Man from bland. This is the impression you’re left with at the conclusion of Charlotte Gray’s profile of David Johnston, Canada’s 28th Governor General. Named to the post last year, the 70-year-old Johnston seems a decent enough guy with a numbingly impressive list of academic credentials. But after having two exciting G-Gs back-to-back (Adrienne Clarkson from 1999 to 2005, Michaëlle Jean 2005-2010), His Excellency is something of a let-down, just one more distinguished white guy in a largely uninterrupted line of distinguished white guys. Gray argues this is entirely intentional on the part of the Harper government which, she writes, is keen to erase “the Liberal-dominated narrative of recent Canadian history, with its emphasis on the Charter, multiculturalism and the flag, and replace it with other, older traditions that embrace military victories and historical identification with Britain.” There’s no way Johnston, “an affable supporter of old values,” is going to rock this drift. Largely forgettable now, he’s likely to be forgotten soon after he leaves the post.
Nov. 28-Dec. 5, 2011
The old saw about a Canadian being someone who is “as Canadian as possible under the circumstances” came to mind while reading David Frum’s anatomy here of the pitiful, helpless mess that is the U.S. Republican Party. Early in the article, Frum declares, “I’ve been a Republican all my adult life” – quite the accomplishment for someone who, at 51, has managed to have an entry in 21 consecutive editions of Canadian Who’s Who. Apparent confusions of electoral allegiance aside, the Toronto-born Frum writes with great and impassioned authority on the malaise of Republicanism, even declaring at one point: “I helped to make the mess” – a reference, one supposes, to his stints as a speechwriter for George Bush, an editorialist with The Wall Street Journal and a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. While Frum’s no Barack Obama convert, he acknowledges that the current prexy at least is grappling with real issues in the real world. In the good ole days, with Reagan ascendant, the conservative movement “got most of the big questions – crime, inflation, the Cold War – right.” This time the party that Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich call home “is getting the big questions disastrously wrong.”