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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Letters Sent Me

When the readers write back

Mark Kingwell

Every writer craves fans. The reasons for committing words to paper, or whatever medium is in favour in your historical moment, are many. But high among them is surely the basic human desire to communicate, to reach across the chasm that yawns between discrete minds and forge a connection of thought or sensibility.

It follows, rather uncomfortably, that reaction to one’s writing is part of the bargain. Many writers claim to have an ideal reader in mind when they address the blank page: a beloved but sharp-eyed aunt, a favourite adolescent friend, a former teacher. I can’t say there is a single perfect auditor for my own mental voices, in part because those voices are plural. For example, the imagined reader of this essay is somebody very much like me, I suppose, possessing elements of sassy irony that I don’t always apply to myself in everyday life. “Don’t say that, you silly git!”

If ideal readers are a tricky business, real ones are even more so. Every writer I know personally has some version of the nightmare scenario depicted in Stephen King’s Misery, in which a demented superfan captures, keeps, and brutally injures a wayward scribe. This is one step more violent than the endgame of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, where Tony Last is condemned to a lifetime of servitude as the imprisoned reader for a demented old Amazonian rancher. (The captor is depicted with chilling calm by Alec Guinness in the 1988 film adaptation.) Every writer is a prisoner of his or her audience, that benign tyranny.

The ivory tower can’t protect the philosopher who ventures out.

David Parkins

I’m a mild-mannered soul myself, and though my written opinions are sometimes sharp, I don’t really fear the kind of insane devotion that might lead to action in the world. It’s true that I have had what might be called intellectual stalkers. Philosophy is a subject that attracts the questing and the lost, and sometimes lectures are interpreted as coded messages meant for just one member of the audience. I have arrived at my office more than once to find tokens of derangement left at the door, from papier mâché sculptures to collages of mutilated photo‑ID cards. Sometimes the offerings are more benign: anonymous compilation CDs, greeting cards, drawings. In an age of easy electronic communication, though, the most frequent form of response is email. This holds for both lectures and, even more so, published work.

Right now, I get almost daily unstable messages from a former student who assumes new personas — and email addresses — for each bout of letters. She thinks auto-correct is trying to manipulate her meaning, which sounds about right to me. (Despite her accusations to the contrary, she is under good care.) I also have a faithful reader of my newspaper columns who regularly sends me encouraging notes and once gave me a copy of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, with the Arthur Rackham illustrations, when I mentioned it in print. Years ago, he invited me to a Blue Jays game, with seats right behind home plate. (I couldn’t resist that offer, and he turned out to be a gracious host.)

Then there are the rest. It is a basic assumption about reader response that if someone is moved to write, it is usually because they were very happy or, more commonly, very annoyed. My columns don’t carry an email address, but interested parties have no problem searching for and finding my University of Toronto faculty page. I’m always a little surprised by this effort, however modest. They must really have something to say! In contrast to the slew of online comments that trail after every newspaper article, often dominated by long-term participants who all seem to know each other and use insult freely, this labour is almost Herculean. It is also more intentionally intimate than the studied responses that sometimes make their way into print as letters to the editor. That used to be almost an art form, and the best of them were published in anthologies such as Shocked and Appalled, a hundred-year compendium of Globe and Mail letters published in 1985.

Like the newspapers themselves, I rarely get physical letters anymore. But now and then they still dribble in, missives from what Kingsley Amis liked to call “the green-ink brigade.” Mine are often manifestos of one kind of another, sketches of philosophical systems or warnings of deep-state conspiracies I have overlooked. This flavour was especially pronounced after I published, many years ago now, a book about millennial cults and wacky end-time beliefs. There were things I needed to know about Konspiracy Kanada, including evidence, excellent in its familiarity, of mind-control rays emanating from the CN Tower and GPS codes somehow embedded in municipal tap water.

Yes, I have received the usual death threats and personal abuse. The former have been, so far, fairly mild — nothing suggesting actual transition from ideation to execution. Wishing someone dead, as Freud noted in his essay on the uncanny, is the most basic form of magical thinking. Everyone has indulged in it at some time or other, and if expressing the desire on paper allows someone in Red Deer or Victoria or Lutterworth to get through their day, who am I to deny them the satisfaction? The personal abuse, however, is often more precise and more hurtful.

This is a delicate subject for me or any writer, especially if irony is part of the overall literary game plan. I mean, you have to develop a thick skin if you are going to present your thoughts in public, even more so if there is any sort of wry twist in play. I’ve been writing for newspapers and magazines for thirty-five years. It’s just par for the course that people will disagree with you and express that disagreement as abuse. Sometimes, they just seem to have missed the joke or decided to cast an offending sentence in the worst possible light. Yet it still shocks me a little when perfect strangers are moved to tell me the most hateful things via email.

I am a cocksucker, an asshole, a jerk, a dork, a moron, a stooge, a fag, a son of a bitch. Well, of course. I am a socialist, a Communist, a closet fascist, and a squishy liberal. I am woke. I am not nearly woke enough. I’m arrogant, condescending, and snooty, and I have bad teeth. Up close, I look like a monster. My headshot makes me look younger than I am. (Fair point: It does. So do most of them, per logical necessity.)

I think all this swirling invective is part of a larger pattern in literary culture more generally. Open-access forums like Goodreads, not to mention Amazon’s starred review function, have made the situation even worse. These allegedly democratic venues import the intoxicating bile of social media to what might otherwise be the sober consideration of thoughtful work. Negative reviews have always had a role in intellectual culture, but we used to depend on responsible reviewers to have a sense of judgment and consistency.

If critics had biases, for instance, these were made clear so they could be incorporated into our judgments of their judgments. There is a certain vanishing nobility in being at the sharp end of a long judgmental spear. My friend Michael Hofmann, a poet and translator, once told me with a wry smile that he was considered “rather bloodthirsty.” Disagree with him as you might, he had earned the right to bite with years of deep reading and acute judgment.

This is all part of establishing that essentially contestable thing called the standard of taste. Eighteenth-century philosophers struggled to make this standard rational and potentially universal, not just the expression of innate qualities, lucky experience, or high birth. Here they notably failed, but they did furnish the worlds of art and letters with an idea of good criticism as reason-based, accurate, and expert where possible. These aspirations guided two centuries of critical writing, from Hume and Kant to Eliot and F. R. Leavis to (perhaps) Harold Bloom and James Wood.

Not so with most so‑called reviewers in our own day, who often possess neither experience nor expertise, and certainly not class advantage. I suppose there is little point in offering another lament about the decline of literary culture, the expiration of books sections, and the disappearance of the professional critic. But it is dismaying when a newspaper assigns, say, an unknown lawyer with too much time on his hands to review a book of philosophy. Or, even more so, when populist reaction can tank a book even before it has a chance on the shelves.

Personally, I will say only that I used to write critical reviews a lot — sometimes indulging the pleasure of articulate nastiness. I don’t do that anymore. There is no real public culture of book talk to make such reviews creditable. In Canada, which is after all a very small place, the discourse tends to whipsaw between smug in‑group coziness and a dismaying violence rooted in the narcissism of minor differences. The poet and critic Jan Zwicky wrote not long ago that negative reviews, especially of poetry, do little to advance the cause of a dying art form. That position might seem too nice, but a peek at what used to be called “poetry Twitter”— that tiny enclave of poets dedicated to hashing out aesthetic and political disputes on the socials — might make you long for an online pause button.

I don’t spend time on social media myself or maintain a personal website where I might engage (or not) a theoretical readership. There is no “Mean Tweets” segment for writers to cheerfully turn irrational hostility on its ear, the way celebrities used to do on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show. There was always something delicious about watching Cate Blanchett or Jon Hamm deliver in deadpan a tweet that craps on them for being ugly and talentless. No such satisfaction for scribes, who are as usual left to fume alone.

Email, though, remains inescapable. You can avoid online forums and delete comments sections. You can even get personally reclusive. But it is hard simply to ignore every message that comes unbidden into your inbox. I wonder if any of my correspondents ever consider that having a discernible institutional email address is not, in fact, an invitation to receive targeted abuse.

No, of course they don’t. It’s just too easy. In the past, venting your ire cost at least a piece of paper, an envelope, and a stamp — plus a trip to the corner. Nowadays it is, as Bertie Wooster would say, the work of a moment.

I tried to make this point with one persistent commenter, a reader unusual for using his real name in abusive messages. He is a medical doctor living a few provinces away from me and very proud of his credentials, including membership in the Order of Canada (good for him). When his nasty notes began to arrive, about three years ago, I googled him. He has Tourette’s syndrome, according to online profiles. I cannot say whether that condition of compulsive behaviour, often including profanity, has anything to do with his messages to me. I can say that the only other person with Tourette’s I have known was obsessive in the same way, and that he punctuated his sentences with the insult or salutation or something of “slut-bitch.”

My faithful reader is less profane, but there is a recurring theme in his communications to me. “You certainly are an arrogant, pompous prick,” his first such pointed out. This was soon elaborated after another column of mine was published, a plea for the virtue of humility. His subject line read, “No humility here.” And so: “Your column in today’s Globe paints you as an arrogant, full-of-yourself, stick-in-the-mud ivory-tower elitist prick.” There was a delay of about half an hour and then another message pinged into my box: “I neglected to add holier-than-thou elitist.”

As fine a string of hyphenated adjectives as you are likely to find on a sunny day. “Stick-in-the-mud” implies intransigent or fuddy-duddy to me, and maybe that’s what was implied. However, that seems a little odd when combined with “holier-than-thou,” which suggests active arrogance. “Full-of-yourself” goes along with that smoothly enough, but is the mere act of publishing an opinion article the crime here? And “ivory-tower”? Well, yes, I suppose so, in one sense. But here I am, friend, in our national newspaper — and not holed up in said tower. If I wanted to do that, I’d write an academic journal article rather than an easily accessible column.

Initially, I felt like this was all a little generic as abuse, but the next message made things somewhat clearer. My piece that time was about the shortcomings of Donald Trump as a human being: “Your pseudo-erudite column in today’s Globe and Mail, peppered with copious name-dropping, is about as illuminating as Donald Trump’s vacuous, incoherent ramblings.”

I like the ring of “pseudo-erudite,” though I’m not certain what it really means. Not to violate humility or anything, but at least some of my erudition is real. Or so I hope, anyway. “Name-dropping”? Okay, sure — but I would suggest that it’s a matter of intention whether a name is mentioned, used, or merely dropped. And yes, I get it: some people find any philosophical argument inherently pretentious, especially when it challenges what they already believe. (This is a common complaint in large first-year philosophy classes.) Anyway, at this point I did what I almost never do: I wrote back and asked him to stop sending his commentary to my work email, which is really supposed to be reserved for university matters. Of course, that didn’t work. Replies to hostile messages invariably escalate into hateful nonsense; that’s why friends don’t let friends take the bait. A few weeks later, following another column, there was an immediate response, almost word for word the same. Still an elitist prick. Still pretending to be smart. Would I never learn?

Then I realized something strange: I’d grown to expect the feedback. In fact, it had become a twisted highlight of my work schedule. This guy was my most dedicated reader! Sometimes a column would generate a widespread reaction, and I would get responses of all kinds flowing in. Other times, especially when the Globe ’s cruel hit-based algorithm blocked my musings from the website’s landing page, relegating my work to the lowly print-edition readership, there was resounding silence — except for the compulsive physician on constant call in a distant town. Perversely, I had grown accustomed to his faceless abuse, and I missed it when it was gone.

Then, early last year, I wrote an account of my recent experience with alcoholic liver disease and transplant. It was and is a sad tale of my own compulsive behaviour and struggles in recovery, and my piece prompted a large volume of personal messages, from friends and strangers alike. Almost all of them were sympathetic and moving, though a few shamed me for moral weakness or chided me for being “a whiny little bitch.” Some even shared their outrage at my getting a new liver at all — let alone the second one I needed later, after massive graft failure. Moralism is selectively vindictive about self-harm, especially if it stems from vice. I should know, I do it to myself.

Nice or nasty, the most obvious feature of this correspondence was that all of it spoke more about the reader’s obsessions than they did about me, or even what I had written. The death of the author is enacted, and the filter became the content. Well, fair enough: it was ever thus. I was honoured to have many difficult stories shared with me, to know my own experience resonated with other people, even the angry ones. Then arrived the longest missive so far from my superfan. Subject line: “What a shame, what a waste.”

“Professor Kingwell,” it began — a nice first in civil address. “I know of you only through your columns, about which I have twice written you, criticizing your lofty, erudite prose and incessant name-dropping, inadvertently (or not) letting everyone know your superior status vis-à-vis the rest of we (or is it ‘us’) plebes.” This was a superb opening, I thought. Actually, it was more than twice that he had written, but who’s counting? Also, I noticed that my prose was now actually “erudite,” as well as “lofty”— an adjectival duo that needs no “pseudo” to be negative. And by the way, yes, it’s “us,” not “we.” Go on.

At this point, my correspondent was done with niceties and grammatical shilly-shallying. He was ready to get down to business:

Your story in the Saturday Globe recalled for me an incident in 1959, in which my med school class at U of T arrived one morning to find the class on the Principles of Medicine cancelled; it did not take long to find out that our well respected Professor of Medicine, “Big Mac” we all called him (I can’t recall his full name), had been found slumped against his car in the TGH parking lot, dead at 43 from alcohol poisoning. “We hardly knew ye,” Big Mac. The general feeling of the class was “what a shame, what a waste.”

Let us pause and spare a thought or two for the late Big Mac, whose real name cannot now be recalled by his pitying former student. Forty-three is too young for anyone to die without reason, and alcohol poisoning is a terrible way to go at any age. But, of course, Big Mac was the occasion, not the issue, of this note. We were not done with me and my failings.

“It is not my place to be judgmental as to how you arrived at this sad denouement of your career and life,” the doctor continued. “Sadly, over my 50 plus years as a surgeon and professor, I have seen this scenario too many times, often to people of your stature. I genuinely empathize with your situation, and all I can say is: ‘What a shame, what a waste!’ ”

There was, I thought, something awesome about this twisted wish, with its mix of apparent sympathy and generalized head-shaking denunciation. The thinking of it likewise fascinated me. Was the circumstance described in my article really a “sad denouement” to my life and career? After all, unlike poor old Big Mac, I was still around the place, being all erudite and name-droppy. Otherwise, how did we get here? Also, if I’m such an irritating, holier-than-thou, ivory-tower prick, why would my demise — assuming it has come — count as a waste or a shame? Obviously, I suck, dead or alive, but saying so is not judgmental!

On a whim, I googled “sad denouement,” just to check whether it had some subtle secondary meaning other than . . . well, end. But no, it just means what we all thought it did: the final windup of something, the gathering and snipping of narrative threads. In case you’re wondering, things that are described as having or being a “sad denouement” include King Edward VIII’s reign, the life and times of a once glorious Green Bay Packers offensive tackle, the late career of Groucho Marx, post-apartheid South Africa, the Corning kitchenware family, Juliet’s abject self-stabbing in Shakespeare’s play, and, somehow, Mike Duffy. In one passage about Aristotle’s Poetics, I found the general principle neatly summarized: “It is essential for the plot that the ending be a tragic one; the sad denouement usually includes the sorrowful death of the hero.” Upon reading that, I heard in my head a high-pitched voice delivering the famous line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “I’m not dead!”

It may be unhelpful, or maybe just unseemly, to ponder the incoherence of what is, after all, random hate mail. We all know that norms of public discourse have been plunging steadily since Trump’s mediated ascension of puerile insult, mockery of frailty, and fondness for schoolyard nicknames. But this seemed like a special case. Reading my self-appointed physician’s message gave me a curious feeling of elation, like Tom Sawyer watching his own funeral. It was not the typical interest in seeing how we might be judged or remembered after death, in the hypocrisy of eulogy. Rather, it was a feeling of tremendous vitality. Why?

Nobody knows as well as I how close I came to dying during my long sojourns in the transplant ward. No critical word can ever touch me in the same way as before. My skin is maybe a little thicker, but my liver — that organ the ancient Greeks considered the seat of the soul and the emotions — is what matters. It once belonged to someone else. Now its tremendous gift is mine to care for.

A character in Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels reminds us that true chastity is to have the body in the soul’s keeping. Perhaps true humility is having the soul in the body’s keeping. Either way, my job now is to make the most of my second life. I don’t repudiate the first one, and I don’t mind the judgments people may pass on me now or then.

Not long ago, after my byline once again hit the newsstands, my would‑be doctor delivered his up-to-date diagnosis. The gist: I might be alive, but I am ailing. “Some would see your columns (including today’s) as the product of a deeply insightful, well-read super intellect,” he acknowledged handsomely. “On the other hand, one might suspect that they are tainted with confabulation resulting from the brain-addled effects of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and subsequent Korsakoff’s psychosis.” For readers who don’t thumb the DSM every day, those conditions are the medical terms for brain damage associated with excessive drinking. They most often manifest in bouts of amnesia and other memory-related cognitive deficits. Confabulation is a little more rare but still typical.

Now, I’m pretty sure I don’t suffer from these debilities. Perhaps it will be worth getting a second opinion sometime. Meanwhile, I forgot to say something important earlier. Let us recall that Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, made a good general point about readers and writers. (Plato, you inveterate confabulist! You vacuous, incoherent name-dropper!) A main reason we write, besides looking for a response from other humans, is to set down somewhere what we might otherwise forget.

All writing functions as a kind of memo left under the fridge magnet of the mind. Whatever its manifest content, these are notes from me to you, and indeed from present‑me to future‑me. The written word knits a skein of hope stretched over time. Taken in sequence, arranged for sustained effect, such notes sometimes rise to the rank of messages for the like-minded — and, sometimes, for the resolutely other-minded. They are about what it means to be here, each and every one of us, waiting for our sad denouement, smiling our crooked smiles.

Mark Kingwell is the author of, most recently, Singular Creatures: Robots, Rights, and the Politics of Posthumanism.

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