By Frank Moher
In my previous post to this section I said I’d be back in seven days with my thoughts on Yann Martel’s bibliophilic jihad against Stephen Harper. That was, er, um, six weeks ago. But hey, who hasn’t been following the Paris Hilton news coverage 24/7?
In any event, in the interim a correspondent has asked, “What is so ‘insufferably pompous’ about presenting Orwell’s 1984 to our disgusting, neo-fascist wannabe dictator?”
Thankyou for asking, “Avid Aphid.”
Maybe it has something to do with the circumstances that launched Martel’s campaign to send Harper a book every two weeks. He and 49 other artists attended a session of Parliament in order to mark the 50th anniversary of the Canada Council — an important anniversary, worth noting. Martel, however, was piqued that when the 50 of them were introduced, there was but a “flutter of applause,” and the Prime Minister, Martel thinks, didn’t even look up. This prompted his outburst in The Globe and Mail shortly after. “Do we count for nothing, you philistines, I felt like shouting down at the House. Don’t you know that Canadians love their books and songs and paintings? Do you really think we’re just parasites feeding off the honest, hard work of our fellow citizens?”
Now, this sort of thing is embarrassing, as embarrassing as when Margaret Atwood went off on the Conservatives as “people who have never seen any arts in their own lives,” the more so because Martel crossed party lines to slag the whole House. It puts me in mind of Constantine Treplieff, the misunderstood genius in Chekhov’s The Seagull, railing against the rubes who aren’t sufficiently appreciative of him or his art, with the difference that Martel, while he may be a genius (I have no idea; I haven’t read his fiction; no, not even Life of Pi), is hardly misunderstood. He’s been rewarded rather nicely for his work, and hasn’t a lot of reason to be shouting about his fate in Parliament, even internally. Nor have those other 49 artists, who were there precisely because, at some point in their careers, via the Canada Council, the government of their country gave them financial support. Stephen Harper didn’t give them the further recognition they think they deserve? Suck it up. Maybe they shouldn’t have been in Ottawa seeking the approbation of politicians anyway; maybe they should have been at home, making art.
This attitude of wounded hauteur gets us nowhere as artists trying to convince the unconverted of the worth of what we do (a constituency that is in any event, and as Martel implies, ever-shrinking). Unfortunately, Martel has decided to extend his passive-aggressive hissy-fit indefinitely, or at least for as long as Harper is Prime Minister, with his “What is Stephen Harper Reading?” project, which sees him sending His Right Honour a book every two weeks, with a letter explaining all the reasons Harper should dig right into it. So far, Martel’s selections have tended to the high-brow; his first was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, and the most recent, as of this writing, was The Bhagavad Gita.
Misnomers aside (The Bhagavad Gita is almost certainly what Stephen Harper isn’t reading this week), Martel’s project carries the clear implication that Harper is an idiot. This is carried through into the letters, which begin with lines like “Now that your Flames have been knocked out of the playoffs . . .” (translation: Hey, you big hockey-loving oaf; listen up), or go on about how many books Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King owned. Now, say what you want about Stephen Harper — call him a “disgusting, neo-fascist wannabe dictator,” even — but one thing he isn’t is stupid. And while Martel will no doubt eventually get a nifty little collection of literary criticism out of the project, he won’t have made even a cinch-mark on Stephen Harper’s brain. Because, as any good teacher will tell you, the best way to ensure the failure of a lesson is to begin by letting the student know how impeccably learned you are, and, by extension, how stupid he is.
And that, Ms. or Mr. Aphid, is what makes Martel’s bi-weekly two-man book club so “insufferably pompous.” But as I said, thanks for asking. And I hope we’ll hear from you at least every two weeks.