I Witness

Two Canadian writers show their mastery of first-person journalism.

In his new book, Curiosity, Alberto Manguel explores, through the prism of his own experience and those of perennial favourites such as Dante, Plato and Montaigne, the privileged life of the thinker and the very human impulse to repeatedly ask the imaginative question “Why?” He writes, “curiosity is a means of declaring our allegiance to the human fold” and “seldom rewarded with meaningful or satisfying answers, but rather with an increased desire to ask more questions and the pleasure of conversing with others.” Indeed to be inquisitive about our social and political structures, to appraise our own beliefs and assumptions, and to engage in the thinking of those with whom we may not always if ever agree, are all hallmarks of a willingness to own and lean into our humanness, for better or for worse, as a subject worthy of scrutiny.

For writers such as Jeet Heer and Rick Salutin, whose recent essay collections Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles and What Was I Thinking? The Autobiography of an Idea and Other Essays respectively bespeak a seemingly endless supply of authorial curiosity, there is an imperative to examine the constantly evolving thinking behind many of the thoughts—and the resulting beliefs, behaviour, actions and policies—that exist in the world today. Such an imperative compels them to explore a wide range of topics and texts, from the Holocaust to comics, from right-wing politics to CanLit. In their doing so, of course, we learn a good deal about the authors themselves, for as Manguel notes, “every reading is, in the end, less a reflection or translation of the original text than a portrait of the reader, a confession, an act of self-revelation and self-discovery.” While there is perhaps more self-revelation to be had in Salutin’s introspective collection than in Heer’s more scholarly work, both writers proceed under the assumption that to investigate great thinkers and their thoughts, one must, as Salutin notes, “take account of the autobiographical setting of thought,” including their own. “You can strip an idea from its context and lend it a certain autonomy,” Salutin says, “but that won’t change the fact that it has a background, an address it came from, which affects its content and authority.”

In the introduction to his collection, Heer offers his own autobiographical setting, his political and cultural leanings, and suggests how these have so far influenced his thinking and writing over the course of his career. Currently one of Canada’s most interesting and sought-after cultural commentators, as the popularity of his Twitter essays attests, Heer is many things: a journalist, an academic, an immigrant, a proud but non-nationalist Canadian citizen, a “social democrat living in a conservative era.” Recently made a senior editor at The New Republic, Heer is positioned to become a public intellectual of the magnitude he revels in profiling in Sweet Lechery. With a solid sense of the critic’s ideally non-partisan role, gestured at in a few places in the book and largely adhered to by the author, Heer is convinced that the critic’s job is to be empathetic, to attempt to understand another’s point of view, even while censuring it. Furthermore, “the critic should help readers gain a better understanding of the writer but not eclipse literature with flashy and irrelevant displays of intellectual pyrotechnics.” If truth be told, intellectual pyrotechnics abound in this collection as Heer dazzles the reader with his knowledge, research and ease in forging meaningful and elegant connections between ideas and their progenitors, happily rarely to the detriment of the subjects under discussion.

In all, there are 38 essays in Sweet Lechery, assembled in five categories: culture at large, Canadian culture, right-wing politics, science fiction and comics. Heer admits that despite establishing these divisions, several of the essays could easily fall into one or more of the other categories. All but one of the pieces were previously published over the past ten years in, among other places, the National Post, The Walrus and The Globe and Mail, and have in some cases been “gently” revised or extended. Some of the essays, such as “Oedipus Updike” and “Updike: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fan,” and “The Messiah Is the Message: McLuhan’s Religion” and “Hugh Kenner, RIP,” pleasingly function as pairings, doubling back to revisit similar themes in different contexts. Others, like “Cannibalistic CanLit,” a retrospective on the theme of cannibalism in Canadian fiction, and “Vegetable Sex,” a tongue-in-cheek inquiry into writers’ fascination with phallic-shaped vegetation (“A full academic analysis of cucumber love would discuss why these delicious edibles, so essential for salads and sandwiches, are also so sexy”) stand charmingly on their own as unexpected, quirkier fare.

In a collection largely outwardly focused, Heer’s most personal essay, “Rob Ford and Rexdale,” is an impassioned defence of the neighbourhood in which he grew up and continues to live for part of the year, a community that is home to many of his family members, including his mother, and that became known for its connection to the exploits of Toronto’s notorious former mayor. Outraged by the media’s contemptuous coverage of Rexdale at the height of Fordism, Heer argues that Rob Ford’s appeal to his Rexdale constituents was grounded in his understanding of their needs and objectives, and a willingness to take seriously a typically disregarded place where “genuine multiculturalism occurs more … than in downtown Toronto.” He concludes his essay by suggesting that in order to overcome the vestiges of Ford Nation, politicians will have to show some respect for Rexdale.

Sweet Lechery’s towering pieces are the profiles of writers, artists and intellectuals Heer admires. Of particular note are his portraits of The New Yorker art editor, Françoise Mouly, “a great editor” with “an unerring instinct for confronting—and confronting us with—the sources of her unease,” and Guy Davenport, whom he describes as “a presiding spirit” in the collection. A writer of fiction and a literary critic, Davenport was also, although less well known as such, a painter, illustrator and cartoonist. Heer traces Davenport’s career and his attempts to create texts that merged language and imagery. He attributes Davenport’s masterful skill with description in his writing in part to his “intense visualness,” and with unabashed appreciation proclaims Davenport a “fully rounded creator, a genuine exemplar of the Renaissance Man ideal.”

Falling in the middle of Heer’s book is a handful of reviews of contemporary Canadian literature by or about familiar names, including Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Leon Rooke, John Metcalf, Lisa Moore and Yann Martel. Several of these reviews demonstrate the impressive degree of Heer’s critical acumen, but “Shoah Business: Yann Martel’s Holocaust Novel,” a review of Martel’s novel, Beatrice and Virgil, deserves special mention as a deeply thoughtful and fresh examination of an enduring dilemma: the capacity of art to represent atrocities like the Holocaust. Theodor Adorno’s weighty pronouncement “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” is invoked here in relation to Martel’s novel, which, as a “meta-Holocaust novel,” is “not so much about the Holocaust directly as it is about the problem of representing the Holocaust in art.” By locating Beatrice and Virgil in the postmodern tradition, “a major mode of Holocaust literature,” Heer suggests that Martel’s use of allegory in his novel allows him to write reflectively about the Holocaust without “looking directly at the monster.”

The Holocaust also features in Rick Salutin’s book, What Was I Thinking?, in the first of ten eclectic, meandering essays, most of which are original to the collection. Compelled to understand why he writes as he does and what drew him to writing in the first place, Salutin, a playwright, novelist, journalist, teacher and Toronto Star columnist, is preoccupied in this book with ideas, large and small, his own and others’, and how they transform over time. In many ways, What Was I Thinking? is a work of autobiography that offers a history of significant events, thoughts and beliefs from the author’s formative student years through to his departure from The Globe and Mail in 2010. Thinking, for Salutin, is “an endless, evolving detection process, in which you investigate and complexify your previous ideas. There’s always something to learn, somewhere deeper to go.” While the governing philosophy in the collection—that it is crucial to examine personal and cultural bias and the limitations of our thinking and to allow that our thinking can and will change depending on our life’s circumstances—may seem obvious, it bears repeating in an age of fiercely guarded prejudices and fearful, intractable minds.

Salutin’s point of entry into the collection is a piece titled “Uniqueness of the Holocaust: The Autobiography of an Idea” that confronts, by way of his own experience, the idea of the Holocaust as a uniquely evil event in world history. As a Jewish adolescent growing up in Toronto in the 1950s, he was strongly influenced by the belief of his teacher, the philosopher and rabbi Emil Fackenheim, that “the Holocaust was evil for evil’s sake” and, therefore, an unparalleled historical occurrence. Salutin describes, however, that over time his education, wavering faith, evolving politics, bullying father, exposure to other teachers and thinkers, including Hannah Arendt and her concept of “the banality of evil,” and the events of 9/11 all led him to recognize the potential for evil in everyone. “Whatever happened in the camps was not a new beginning to human affairs,” he asserts, but rather “it was on the continuum.” Salutin rather bravely uses the example of a multilayered, controversial, emotionally charged moment in history to illustrate his simple point that despite the origin of a thought, thinking progresses, as it should, as we collect experiences and live more deeply.

Similarly to Sweet Lechery, What Was I Thinking? pays homage to several influential intellectuals in Salutin’s life, most of them male, and many of them former teachers or mentors that Salutin met along his educational path. These include John Seeley (to whom the book is dedicated)’ Aharon Appelfeld, whose assertion that “in the modern world, every choice to be Jewish is a complex choice” helped Salutin to better understand why he embraced nationalism and chose to identify himself as a Canadian writer rather than a Jewish one; and Hans Jonas, from whom he gained a more profound “sense of what we can contribute to the world in our lifetimes.”

In addition to a heartfelt defence in “The Mystery of Teaching” of the centrality of the teacher in the classroom in a time when we “downgrade teaching to such a technical, fill-in-the-blanks activity that many of those with a true teaching gift despair and leave the field,” some of Salutin’s most lovely thinking shows up in his writing about his son, Gideon. In “Good Guys, Bad Guys and Little Guys,” he describes a trip he made to Nottingham to visit Sherwood Forest with the five-year-old Gideon, obsessed with Robin Hood. Reflecting on his son’s already sophisticated sense of right and wrong, Salutin takes to task the famous developmental psychologist Jean Piaget for his notion that small children lack moral judgement unless it is imposed on them by adults.

The final two sections of What Was I Thinking? take stock of Salutin’s years writing for The Globe and Mail, and there is a fascinating sampling of his often controversial columns that articulate his views on Canadian politics and politicians, Canadian media, Canadian nationalism and the arts scene, terrorism, the Olympics, Obama, Israel and Palestine, and more. Emphasizing that the conservative, right-leaning Globe was never a particularly good fit for him, he says, “in the end, the Globe did me a favour by hiring me, and then they did me another one by firing me. It was the only honourable way to get out of there and on to whatever comes next.”

No doubt what comes next for both Rick Salutin and Jeet Heer will be more writing, more probing of compelling ideas, more revival of neglected or forgotten thinkers. The strength of both of these collections lies in their expansive reach and their ability to pique the curiosity of their readers, fire their imaginations and encourage the continued asking of important questions.