B.W. Powe & the Solitary Outlaws
Marshall Soules, PhD.
Out age. Bring the age out into the open, its obsessions and potential. Out age. It's time when each person can become the antenna of the race.
In our outrageous age, with its passionate intensity and deflected moral compass, we need writers - and readers - who do not panic in the maelstrom of the mediascape. B.W. Powe is such a writer: literary critic, media analyst, novelist, poet, philosopher, and teacher - someone who mashes up the personal with the political, and reveals the spirit animating the machine. He has his ear to the figure and the ground, even when reversed. His published writing since 1984 provokes thought - for he is a thinker - and inspires passions both dark and light. His writing is steeped in media theory and great literature. His learning and life experience run deep, and he has a vision for Canada that deserves a wider audience.
A Climate Charged
In A Climate Charged (1984), Powe writes cultural and literary criticism with the attitude and ear of a rock musician. In his essays on Canadian writers from Marshall McLuhan to Mordecai Richler, he rehearses his love of provocative writing with an edgy, popcult-inspired joie de critique. While perhaps somewhat flawed in its author's estimation, A Climate Charged is still fun and instructive, as this excerpt on Margaret Atwood's famous survival thesis illustrates:
For my purposes Margaret Atwood's Survival (1972) remains the most controversial example of the nationalistic theme book. It has a thesis which acts as a grab-bag into which you stuff various specimens...Despite Survival's slap-dash approach, and the fey reticence Atwood indulges in, she is saying something important. Her theme is that the content of Canadian writing is frequently, if not entirely, survival of the victim, the isolated figure at odds with nature, society, the past, or himself....Atwood's thesis is self-effacing and morose, when you think about it....However, Atwood has indeed identified a repressed and repressive strain in Canadian writing, and she sometimes nicely describes the tensions and barren indifference with which the early authors had to contend. (75-76)
While the argument of Survival may not have survived Canada's (re)discovered confidence in its writers - not all of whom are repressed outsiders - there are still many Canadian artists who feel the "tensions and barren indifference" she describes. Her thesis still provokes reflection, and the same can be claimed for the punchy essays in this early work. Look, for example, at the essays comparing the grand visions of McLuhan and Frye, a refrain Powe returns to twenty years later in his PhD thesis: "Critical Agon, Apocalyptic Orchestration: Conflict and Complementarity in the Thought and Writings of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye" (2009).
Solitary Outlaws: On the Edge of the Crowd
Since the mid-80s, Powe's cultural writing has traversed the common ground between the personal and the political...and back again. The Solitary Outlaw (1995) profiles five men - Pierre Trudeau, Wyndham Lewis, Glenn Gould, Elias Canetti, and Marshall McLuhan - all of whom felt "the power, passion, and accountability of the printed word":
All are private men who went outside into their society. This tension between privacy and publicity is a source of their strength, and of their complexity. They are divided men who often contained within themselves the turbulence of their time and place...Each tried to understand the role of the rational and humane action in an often self-destructive world; each saw communication between individuals as a necessity, and when each returned to privacy or silence, he remained resistant to an easy scan of his character. (6)
I hope you can hear the deep empathy in this writing, brief as the excerpt is, because the same can be said of B.W. Powe: a writer and thinker who resists an easy scan of his character; a private individual who thrusts himself onto the stage of public discourse with tales of personal passions and redemptions; an artistic intellectual.
While ostensibly a series of profiles of five solitary public figures who feared the decline of print literacy and the concomitant erosion of rational democracy, The Solitary Outlaw is a fable beginning and ending with a vision of burning books: we read on the opening page how "Pyres celebrate the death of the humanist enlightenment and the triumph of Mass Man"(3). As described in the final pages:
In a novel [The Blinding, by Elias Canetti] a library burns. Smouldering leaves. Crackling papers. Blackened books. Ash smell. The book man is about to be consumed on his pyre of books. "Fire," he shouts. The burning spreads faster and faster. But the writer imagines this annihilation, teaches himself to find the words that push from solitude outwards, an old message reaching from author to reader, calling and repeating...Are you there? (206).
In this parable of the writer contemplating the destruction of the printed word - the barbarism of the electronic mass media threatening the equilibrium of the senses - the choice is between enlightenment or blitzkrieg: "Canetti's insight is that the fires of annihilation and revelation are often the same: they are born out of each other. This is why it is difficult for us to tell who is dedicated to dialogue and who to propaganda, coercive monologue. Or: why is it hard to see who is devoted to enlightenment and who to blitzkrieg" (188).
Powe relates Canetti's insights to those of McLuhan, who was "realistic about any attempt to shut off electric input and influence: it was impossible. In the new post-literary society, the printed word could function as a DEW line: the Distant Early Warning about overload, saturation, and dissolution of psychic integrity. The book kept you critically conscious: it could restore the balance of a point of view to the imbalance of instantaneous information. The printed word could be a weapon against unconscious trance" (197). Burning books, then, is the sure sign of totalitarianism, the death of the conscious individual.
Powe is finding his way as a writer in The Solitary Outlaw by contemplating five writers who bucked the waves of the age and used words to probe and provoke, sometimes, as in the case of Wyndam Lewis, going too far. Powe confesses:
Now I'd like to speak personally about my own interest in becoming a writer today...It has been said that the role of the author is obsolete, so I'll pursue McLuhan's perception that books have lost their central position as cultural guides....Canetti...sensed from the beginning that a consciously critical, imaginative writer could defy from the margins, outside the silicon dynamos of electrical force....The literary person is an outsider today. Yet this exile, as it were, may give the literary person an advantage. To read and write may be as unique an accomplishment as it was in the thirteenth century....Readers and writers will have the role of maintaining the freshness and ferocity of language. They will have the job of staying out of tune: to make certain that human beings remain ambiguous and complex. (201-203)
Canetti's fear of the crowd and its power treads perilously close to the superior sentiments of Ayn Rand and Nietzsche's Übermensch, though he pulls back from the brink of egotism with a commitment to the literate reader, who just may participate in the transformative crowd. "These periods of solitary reflection may refocus the necessary rage to change the world....[T]oo much monkish removal will turn the hopeful heart to ashes" (204). Powe, learning the craft of writing, (re)channels McLuhan, Lewis, Trudeau, Gould, and Canetti to articulate a communications identity for the post-literate world. Through force of will - and good faith - the solitary outlaw joins the crowd to change the world.
The Unsaid Passing: Wind in the Trees
In this 2005 collection of poetry, Powe fans the embers of his soul to create warmth and passion in dark times. There has been a divorce from the mother of his twin children, Thomas and Katharine, and possible estrangement from the shadowy and sensual "lady of the roses" in the dedication. Thoughts and feelings, observations and ideas are held in exquisite balance. As Eric Miller comments, "In his first book of poetry, B.W. Powe wears his heart on this sleeve...[but]he possesses a thinking heart" (Malahat Review, Summer 2007, 91). The confessional nature of this cycle of poems avoids self-indulgence because writer and reader share a journey of discovery where wonder is the watchword and love the destination. Salvation is close at hand:
The Master looked from east to west,
We are guided by a master who bids us stop for the divine moment in a snowfall, listen for the thunder of truth in a storm, and hear that "the wind needs pines to speak." Unseen forces bid the poet speak, force the solitary person to engage with the world and inch towards paradise. "The soul should be left / slightly open like a window - / when the nameless knocks / it may be ready" (155).
For me, also a father with a loving father, one of the more moving moments of these poems comes when the writer attempts to answer the "grounding" question of the son: "That night, Thomas asked,/ While he undressed / for bed, / Dad, can you / really see / the soul?" The magic of flicking a switch to turn darkness into light reminds the poet of the birth of his twins - "I saw their souls / when they were born" - but he is brought back to the present, and his own love for his child: "I thought I saw the soul / then roused, awakening - / knowing my own / as if for the first time / like an ember's spark" (170-1). The wind indeed needs pines to speak.
After the poet witnesses a near accident along a littered highway, he recalls Nietzsche's notion of amor fati, the ability to love one's fate whatever it brings: "Love what scathes, gaze joyfully / on suffering ruin, wreckage and waste." For Nietzsche, amor fati helped define the &umU;bermensch, who makes an appearance in the poem "Song for the Superman" where the philosopher's "insane" embrace of a horse being whipped in the streets of Turin is told from the perspective of the horse. Eric Miller comments perceptively on this scene:
Powe brilliantly - yet affectingly - revises Nietzsche. It is in Nietzsche's gesture of humaneness that the true nature of the notorious &umU;bermensch, or "superman," is revealed. The poem's implications expand far beyond the specific incident, to question the proper task of philosophy, the real definition of sanity in the present age, in any age. In fact the definition of &umU;bermensch implicitly proposed by the poem typifies Powe's aesthetics and ethics. Where he differs from many poets now practising in Canada is in his disavowal of a tough stance...Powe opposes militarism; that The Unsaid Passing wears scant armour is one manifestation of his integrity.
Powe makes explicit Miller's observations about the role of the poet, and tells us much about his own poetic journey:
Why I have trouble with so much contemporary verse:
The summer his father went to the hospital to sit with his mother, the poet apprehends the "unsaid passing." That same summer his uncle went to the hospital while his aunt withered, "disappearing into bafflement / and he spoke with a gentleness not typical of him..."
It was the season when I saw the people I love
In this moment of personal vulnerability when the poet sees and feels the loss of others, as well as his own loss, the compulsion to communicate is most pressing, and most difficult:
I wish I'd had benedictions
The "unsaid passing" is both something that happens - as a wind passing through a window - and something that does not, as something felt but not communicated. I take this passage to be a coda for the emotional tenor of Powe's writing: it is infused with love and humility and a desire to help; it is comfortable with ambiguity and paradox. His grand vision of Canada as a caring communications state may not be a popular vision circa 2010 when tough economic realities force themselves on the public consciousness, but his time will come. His fables of listening will be heard as the rustling of leaves blown by the wind. There is life after the apocalypse: "If trees, clouds, rain and sky / spoke / would their stories be ours or theirs?" The poet answers his own question: there will be a "cosmos of luminous communication / saying nothing / of the human" (61). Here is the communications imperative: listen with humility and love, unfashionable as those sentiments may be.
Towards a Canada of Light: Getting it Right
When it was originally published in 1993 as A Tremendous Canada of Light, this short visionary book was Powe's heart-felt letter to both Brian Mulroney and Canada. To Mulroney, he asked, "So when there is massive debt, how do you best employ your vanishing financial resources?" Powe imagines Mulroney's response: "Drop the walls of government regulation, diminish the role of the federal government, dismantle the unprofitable Crown corporations, let the transnationals rule, change the symbolism of Canada from a place with a distinctive and yet enigmatic and withdrawn spirit to a commodity for investment and sale" (18). Carrying on in the tradition of George Grant's 1964 lament, Powe sums up the Mulroney legacy: "What looked like the removal of domineering government forces became the abdication of government responsibility. What was supposed to be an agenda of renewal became the politics of deal-making and retrenchment, of slash and burn" (27). Not a pretty picture in 1993, and perhaps not so different when republished in 1997 as A Canada of Light and in 2006 as Towards a Canada of Light. In personal correspondence, Powe calls Canada of Light his Leaves of Grass--"I keep trying to get it right...an attempt, but merely an attempt, to sing my country."
Towards a Canada of Light (2006) offers a (new) prayer for Canada, with a mission:
I wrote this book to counter the mood in my country...What was that mood? It was the powerful feeling, wrenching really, that there was a dead-end sign at the turn of what should have been a wide thoroughfare. It was the feeling...that the circuits were being blocked when energy, a great free sweep, should have been flowing through, flowing on....[P]oliticians' words were swords blindly used: cutting people, separating us from one another, driving cultures into an atmosphere of perpetual war. (3)
Since 2006, this mood has surely intensified as we see a minority government pursuing a "single vision" - power unto itself. Powe refers to William Blake's notion that the beginning of tyranny is "always in the levelling of single vision": "What is single vision? The imposition of one way of seeing things, and subsequently the belief that there is only one way of being: so when a society and a culture, a political system and an economic model, begin to appear uniform in their power and effect, people feel that narrowing in their lives, as if their voices are being cut off, their avenues of travel blocked" (4-5). If we accept the single vision, we become slaves to "whatever system sets the coordinates for the discussion. Democracies," Powe asserts, "should be a delirium of choices--more options, not fewer; more avenues to travel, not fewer."
What has changed since 1992 and 1996 "in a devastating way is our relationship to a militarized America. After 9/11, the Patriot Act, the advent of Homeland Security, the suspension of civil rights for suspected terrorists and non-combatants, the exporting of suspects without lawyer or trial to countries that sanction torture, Canada seems more like Athens, cerebral and contemplative, during the time of Sparta"(9). To preserve a Canada of lightness, peace, and openness - not darkness, war, and closure - Powe suggests that embers of a national vision be inflamed by strong words to evoke
a Canada of light, a promise, a flash, an opportunity for reverie, a turning leaf, an opened door, a rendezvous of many cultures, a sometimes quieter street or pathway in the wailing world, an outpost, a DEW Line, the least likely place to incite mass ethnic hatred, a glimpse, a turning away, a provocation to think beyond single vision, a drama of inwardness, a site for talk and contemplation, a celebration of solitudes, a generous spirit wrestling with the demon of closure and the shadow of uniformity, where the vision of the country remains, fortunately, always ahead of its politicians. (19)
Powe - poet, philosopher, visionary, communications critic - opens up the field of play with his own vision of Canada, a "communication state."
I perceive communication to be the value of Canada, the highest good of a state where understanding and misunderstanding, conciliatory conversation and vitriol, where constant negotiation and the expansions and limits of language, coexist. We have had to learn how to contact one another over an enormous land space...Technology forges connections and disconnections here.(35)
Because our unity as a nation is "loose, provisional, varied and improvised" (42), the story of who we are is equally provisional and improvised, and may be maddeningly tentative to those who would see Canadians as resolutely something or other. Here we see the national character, so resistant to summary, defined as a medium, not a message. In this view, Quebec becomes an opportunity for dialogue, not a province seeking political and cultural autonomy. (Where else in the world do people discuss revolutionary independence, at length, in a national assembly?) But Canada is "an experiment in an alternate current" (58). It is a communication state by virtue of its "condition of receptivity." Electronic communications, argued McLuhan, fragment the sense of identity fostered by print and the solitary act of reading. Instead, "Canada has a discontinuous, contradictory character. Without a singular purpose or predetermined historic goal...Canadians have lived with, and have invited, many stories, moods and visions that must come with many different kinds of people and voices" (60). Here Powe echoes John Ralston Saul's argument that Canada is a "M&eaccute;tis nation." The ability to accommodate and adapt, to live between cultures, may give Canada the ability to fast-forward, jump-start, find a "new pattern, a model of communication linkages, a civilization that is more than a grab for power and dominance," where "imagination and perception...could prevail over the ideology of capital" (65-66). "Canada's lack of definition - it's lightness - is its strength" (71).
"There must be engagement: there must be protest."
As in the first iteration from 1992, Towards a Canada of Light includes a letter, this time not to a Prime Minister, but to "Those in Power." In this letter, Powe tells us that Canadians have been sold a bill of goods, namely that their own country is measured by capital, what it produces as measured by GDP, what it owes as a national debt. For Powe, this is identity theft and we can sense his indignation in enumerating the balance sheet from federal and provincial governments that "merge the energies of production with ruling."
And in this merger we've observed these assumptions surface and dominate: dismantle the idea of a government responsive to any citizen, drive issues of governing away from questions of inequality, ethics, environmental protection, dehumanization, push the question of citizen engagement away from the broad public sphere into the narrowed zones of homes and neighborhoods...promote the language of trade and unfettered production...hand power over to unelected officials in institutions identified only by gnomic abbreviations like the IMF or the WTO...cut massively into areas where people need more investment...change the symbolism of Canada from a place with an enigmatic and shrouded evolutionary spirit to an investment property meant for a fire sale.(88)
In this letter to those in power, Powe articulates the progressive social agenda that the majority of Canadians say they want when asked, but are denied by the market fundamentalists currently holding political sway. "There must be engagement: there must be protest" (77).
Our lack of engagement, our reluctance to protest - and this is where Powe the dissenter becomes Powe the media theorist, student of McLuhan - has been abetted by the overload of the electronic post-literate mediasphere. "What were once the wilderness trials and baptisms of adepts and wandering mystics...are now our transactions and preparations, everyday spectacle. We overdose on electricity, the force fields of the universe, through TV, radio, microwaves, fax machines, cellulars and computers, and, acute receivers that we are, we reel - cranked, battered, boosted, infinitely suggestible" (135). Powe wants to imagine a new vision for this "antenna culture" (under the sign of the CN Tower), a new "North American visionary intelligence" (138).
In the end, Powe believes that Canada's spirit is an "improvisational one" involving a "genuine plurality of different approaches and interpretations." While we may appear to be solitary, ambiguous outlaws on the global stage, we are certainly not speech-less, nor without self-consciousness and ethical awareness in our noisy communications state.
Mystic Trudeau: The Fire and the Rose
He haunts us still.
Pierre,once more: this is unfinished business. Old friend, here is another reflection on you before you recede into fragments of memory and fading archival footage. Pierre, again, because there is more to say about you, especially to those who may be starting to forget your visionary pride. Your uncanny unfolding won't rest. Ghostlike you visit, posing unanswered questions. You are still sounding on deep vibrating frequencies.(3)
Powe's portrait of Pierre Trudeau is an uncommon meditation on politics, spirituality, and friendship. He resurrects the spirit of Trudeau for a Canada hungering for truth and vision. Mystic Trudeau is a worthy companion piece to Towards a Canada of Light, and extends Powe's own poetic, personal, and mystic vision for a nation he feels as passionately about as his subject. This eulogy will not be for everyone; it is more Blake than Machiavelli, more Teilhard de Chardin than Leo Strauss - maybe not quite of our time, when expediency belittles justice.
Powe discovers Trudeau at the crossroads of passion and reason, where the pilgrim must find balance to answer the riddle of the Sphinx. "But the one model of grace and self-discipline, of eloquence and commitment, of authenticity and intelligence, of solitary philosophical reflectiveness and physical playfulness, of rage and vision, was Trudeau"(153). High praise indeed.
Who speaks for Canada?
As much mystical philosophy as political commentary or biography, this is another uncommon, questioning book, a book of dreams:
I have long dreamed of a book that would reveal the hidden elements of personality. It would be a book moving away from chronology and history towards mystical biography, the contours and mythologies of spirit and soul…It would dispense with linear sequence, and work with epiphanies and radiances, incidents and traces of dialogue, in expanding spheres of learning and knowing. (11)
The October Crisis and the War Measures Act. The Just Society. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms and patriation of the Constitution. Trudeau lived at the crossroads of politics and justice. With a rose in his lapel: "A flash of style. It gets attention. And people talk" (57).
Trudeau remains one of Canada's most charismatic and controversial leaders, serving as Liberal Prime Minister from 1968 to 1979, and again from 1980 to 1984. Powe recounts his own early exposure to Liberal politics and growing friendship with a reticent Trudeau beginning in 1985. They arranged to converse over lunch in Montreal, Trudeau asking for a list of books he could read and, perhaps, they could discuss together. It was usually a Chinese restaurant, with fortune cookies, where they explored the notion of having a calling: "From an early age I felt from afar the importance of Trudeau's political engagement. The sense of calling in him was impossible to ignore. It was about more than politics. It was about mind, intelligence, society and culture directed towards a new kind of inspired consciousness"(30).
One of the enduring clichés about Trudeau was his aura, his charisma. Powe takes an opportunity to map the concept of charisma onto one of the organizing symbols of his portrait, the crossroads: "Charisma comes in the moment when vertical information (beauty, imagination, intuition, emotion, the spiritual seeking expression) strikes the horizontal experience (the existential, the material) in the person willing to let those forces coincide, or collide" (86). Powe weaves a network of influences from McLuhan to Mounier to create a mythopoetics expansive enough to accommodate both Trudeau's vision of a just and unified Canada and his own mystical reading of the wired planet, pulsing, resonant, inflaming.
And we see how Trudeau powerfully gravitated towards McLuhan's vision. His myth of the planetary culture "resonant with tribal drums" implied that the world was evolving into the heartbeat of consciousness, "the coiling of complexity." The global village is Teilhard's "super-hominization" and "planetization" reborn. McLuhan's insistence on the bedrock of the personal was an echo of Mounier. Separatism was therefore viciously regressive, a retreating into isolated groups, only to be achieved through the purgation of others and bloodletting. (119)
How do these influences contribute to Trudeau's charisma? Perhaps there was a kind of synesthesia between the televised image and the way his personality and governing philosophy resonated with the time. Perhaps it had something to do with maintaining the mystery and eros of power. "At what point do you become enigmatic?" Powe asks Trudeau, for both of them. (127)
The image of Trudeau still taunts us as a nation, and we continue to conjugate that image. As a poet, Powe wants to understand how images affect the body and resonate with universal symbols and mythic stories. So he gives us a theory of images derived from Dante and rehabilitated by McLuhan (in Laws of Media) and Frye (in The Great Code). Images are hieroglyphic and resonate on four levels: (1) they are literal, visceral, immediate, and transitory; (2) they have a moral dimension, and carry a lesson; (3) they are allegorical and refer to another story deeply embedded in the traditions of the culture; and (4) they are symbolic, "drawn from the deep wells of analogy and yearning" (165). And again we have the image of the crossroads:
This hieroglyphic nature of images can be confusing for observers. The cruxes of the literal plane (the horizon of physical experience) and the symbolic plane (the whirlwind of possible meanings) defy the nihilism of consumerism, the parodic self-references of pop culture, academic deconstructions which attempt to keep interpretation only on the social and political level, and the homilies of preachers who (at all costs) want to preserve their definition of community. (166)
A theory of the power of images becomes an opening for understanding the enigmatic image of a man who haunts us still. Could it be that Trudeau the politician became pure image in the public mind, somewhere between mystic and dandy, "tattooed with strangeness"? As when he pirouettes behind the back of the Queen at Buckingham Castle in 1977: "Consider this: the moment was an act of defiance that spoke in the code of ritual rebellion....It was a gesture that kept alive the idea of Canadians making their own destiny, reminding others - and ourselves - that we are capable of shearing away from established tracks" (186-87). The image planted a seed in the Canadian imagination, suggests Powe, that we are still nurturing.
Powe further invites us to contemplate the possibility of forming a republic of Canada with a referendum process: "What would it mean to affirm our eccentric solitudes through an exchange on the premises of republicanism. Remove the queen or king from our hearts and minds, in our systems and representations, and what would we be free to invent?" (193) And in his imagining, we see the contours of his politics as they resonate under the sign of Trudeau: "The symbolism once attached to royalty and nobility, the emblems of chivalry, dignity, philanthropy, service, courageous protectiveness, would be revealed to thrive where they were always meant to be - in and through each of us. The true queens and kings: ourselves" (194). Powe and Trudeau: republican liberals.
"Nothing necessary remains in one's hands." (Nietzsche)
Nietzsche taunted George Eliot and John Stuart Mill in Twilight of the Idols for wanting liberal freedom of person and conscience without Christ, or the soul. Powe asks how can we understand a person like Trudeau without considering the mystical or spiritual dimension of his character:
Look at Trudeau's political imagination, actions, style and will. Here was a statesman drenched in the spirituality of confirming the rights and potential of personhood through the Charter, of witnessing (and altering) history through wholehearted existential engagement, of demanding that we pursue what is best in us, of recognizing that words and speeches, public ritual and gesture carry intention and allusion, of seeing what is inescapable in our lives, of finding a unity with other souls in our essential engagements, thus to fight at every turn the alienating agonies of separation. (212-13)
How is it possible to appreciate the contribution of such a person without delving into realms of the spirit? For Powe, "charisma and metaphysics are inextricably linked"(221). And perhaps mysticism in the age of McLuhan is found in the global pulsation of alternating current, the prima materia of the alchemists.
Trudeau liked the quote B.W. typed for him from Erich Fromm's The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness:
...reason is more than intelligence; it develops only when the brain and the heart are united, when feeling and thinking are integrated, and when both are rational….The loss of ability to think in terms of constructive visions is in itself a severe threat to survival. (232)
This sentiment, subsequently confirmed by the neuroscience of Antonio Damasio and others, confirms Trudeau's conviction that reason and passion shaped one another, and we see its application when he responds to questions about the need for authority to be tempered by love:
More strongly still people are driven by the sense of justice. They are moved by a sense of fairness. From where does the striving for justice come? Why is it there? Why do we fight so hard for an elusive concept? If we can't get people to love one another, at least for now, then we try to guide them towards being more just….Against hate, violence and greed, against authoritarianism, we can see justice emerging as a force. Perhaps it's the one element of reason in history, the one force hate can't suppress (243-44).
In this formulation, justice is passion shaped by reason and reason shaped by passion. There is still room for love, still the danger of authoritarianism. Perhaps justice resides at the nexus of loving authority and authoritative love. (Such is the power of this text to encourage reflection!)
This profound and uncommon book of fragments, conversations, reflections, history, and news is also a compendium of references to mystical works and ideas to waylay the attentive reader. All this - and more - is embedded in an exploration of the electronic mediascape which provides a shimmering and flickering ground for the play of images that is Mystic Trudeau. Do these communication networks absorb our souls? Does Trudeau float off the page in abstractions? No, I think not. In this place he is grounded by love and justice and authority - his own, and of the author who calls him to us.
Pierre, I remember when you quietly said--something you thought so obvious it didn't need to be emphasized--
Outage: A Journey into Electric City
Sounding the Depths
In his 1995 Financial Post review of Outage, media philosopher Derrick De Kerckhove suggests that "sound is the key" to this work that lies somewhere between fiction and autobiography. "Sound, the quest for the original sound, is the narrative, the 'deep structure' of Powe's therapeutic book." With the turbulent and disjunctive sights and sounds of the electric city pulsing through the lines of writing, the author listens intently for the origins of sound, for the first utterance, for the sound of waves speaking of love and loss. There is an epiphany, in Venice, near the end of the book:
The wind churns up the water and after a time it calms down. In the rises and falls I hear sources, the tide's beat, the waves speaking. The Ursound, the sound of our origins, before books, before technology. And beyond that? The crackle of stellar pulses. And beyond that, music that escapes the ear, a message outside the realm of articulate comprehension. Yet felt, there, close to words, close to us. (320)
After passing through the paradoxical darkness of the brightly-lit electric city, the intent listening of the narrator - let's call him P. - pulls him forward to "a still-point of understanding, where the sounding still calls you and the current is still moving…" pulling his reader along with him. Weaving in and out of the story, Lena and a broken marriage haunt the investigation of a secret knowledge embedded in the electronic spillage.
Outage is more than therapy; it is a novel of ideas about media and the self, an investigation of media ecology. Outage uses words on the page to conjure up simulacra that flicker and glow and blaze in the mind's eye. Words reverberate in the mind's inner ear, the seat of equilibrium. Are the sounds of the words we read less abstract than the images we co-construct with the author? I suspect they are. As we sound these words inside us, they resonate, they sound us out. On the opening page: "I love the cooler wind. It makes the sound of the city sharper and finer, a sound that can enter and carry everywhere, penetrating me. Listen to the air, to what it stirs inside us and outside us, the incoherent fears and hopes, the waves of unspoken longing, the current that pulses toward a blowout in time" (3). Notice the transition from "I love" to "stirs inside us" - an invitation.
We start our journey filled with questions we are familiar with in Powe's writing: how are electronic technologies shaping individuals and cultures? Is the constant bombardment of the senses sending us towards nervous breakdown and loss of equilibrium, or are we vibrating towards a transcendent mysticism? How do we participate? "What can we use to handle the oversupply of messages without damaging our responses? What filters through? Is the electromagnetic field an exercise in tyrannical control or the beginning of an authentic human radiance? The cityroar may be the voice of life. I can't say, and I have to know" (4).
The journey is organized around a series of encounters, as if the narrator is doing ethnographic field research. Michael Tannikis, a former student, leaves anxious messages on the author's answering machine: "It's cycles man. It's all musical. Like you have to listen first. You have to play. It's all in the flowing. The rhythm's in our skin" (8), talking of the stock market crash of 1987, the "first global outage." Michael himself soon crashes: "Bombarded, irradiated, Michael considered himself a veteran of a sound bite and image hazing" and was ordered by his doctor to "rest in bed" (23).
In his own room, the hum of the electric typewriter in the background, P. reflects on books, and reading, and their intersection with the electric media mesh: "Is the private world of the book - of ownership and personal copyright, of libraries and collections - a cherished myth of writers unable to follow along with the inventions, innovations, and experiments that occur daily?" The narrator is thoroughly in the isolated world of McLuhan's Gutenberg galaxy, wondering if the structure and order of words on the page can capture the simultaneity and seeming disorder of the electric cosmos: "If you withdraw too far into a bookish chamber, a room of your own, you could turn in on yourself; if you stand too inflexibly, stubbornly, in the firestorm of information, you could burn yourself out" like Michael T (30). Data overdose is the electronic drug.
The ghostly Lena haunts these pages with her mediated presence and is first associated with television and the remote control. "And if I were a different sort of writer, I'd stop to describe what happens between two people when sympathy and warmth decay...But I tap the button and flip through the panoramas, the faces, the graphics like hieroglyphs, this skittering glow" (43). Instead, memory changes the channel to Christine and how, in the glow of the television, she and the narrator trade their virginity: "Black-and-white rays bathed our squirming bodies" and tattoo their conductive skin. Another night, again in front of the television: "Jesus, TV makes me want to fuck," she says. Television and music from the stereo invade the privacy of their lifeworld: "the protean element we called electromagnetism had stolen indoors, subtly and deeply into the living room and basement, the den and kitchen and bedroom, impressing our senses and sensitivities, affecting what was forming in the slippery center of our private selves" (61). The penetrating power of the electronic media, the confusion of then and now.
One of the most moving chapters in Outage for me is "Piano." When he was growing up, the narrator recalls, there was always music in the house, playing on the radio or the stereo or a succession of tape players, and "...my mother played the piano softly in the morning" (74). She had studied to become a concert pianist until the events of life intervened, but she played before breakfast without letting anyone watch her. "I never saw my mother play." When arthritis began to stiffen her fingers, she suddenly stops playing and "the piano turned into a piece of furniture." One day, P. discovers his mother sitting at the kitchen table, "without seeing me, pressing imaginary keys," painfully, with her gnarled and reddened hands. The silencing of a sound associated with the warmth, security, and love of the home, the passing of the body's vitality provides another touchstone in this searching book.
Later, in a night club, with rhythmic music throbbing through the speakers, P. tunes in to fragments of conversation, reads graffiti in the bathrooms, and talks with Jack Latour, public relations advisor, about women and sex and the isolation of the crowd. The deejay plays the room with his beats, incantations, and exhortations. The music "badgers the word 'love'" (101). "Popcult appears to have the dazzle of pagan ecstasy," observes P. Out in the cold night streets after the club closes, he reflects on the mystic Pythagorus and the music of the spheres, always reaching: "I wonder if the danceclubs reflect the ancient concerns, the old knowledge. A dance of attunement, a dance to achieve harmony, a circling with others that imitates the turn of the planets around the sun, everything in our lives an echo of the movements in nature" (121).
Next, a visit to Ava Bernstein, a CBC television producer, in her studio surrounded by twelve monitors with the same bland test face on all of them. When P. asks her about the face, she replies, "What face?" Discussing the power of television, Ava tells him about all the fan letters they receive for a rock show: "They write and write. You'd be amazed at the effect the most perfect dummies have just because they're on TV. Total nadas. Zoned-out heads. I'm talking specialists in stupidity. Kindergarten dropouts. But somehow they come across" (133). Television contributes an aura to those with presence, says Ava, and can be used for propaganda. "A ruthless leader can affect us through TV without us knowing why or how. He could look soft or gentle, and he could be a dictator...Charisma is what TV's all about" (137). The narrator takes this observation and runs with it in his characteristic way: "I make the mental leap to the symbolism of the mystery rites and the Cabbalists, the theologians of the human junction with the cosmos. They were students of the human face, and believed they could foretell a person's destiny from the wrinkles in a forehead, the cut of a hairline, the curve of a mouth, the shape and colour of the eyes" (139). For Ava, TV reminds her of the Wizard of Oz, the huge face on the screen, the fireworks, and Toto the dog scampering over to pull back the curtain to reveal this old man working the levers. "These images are half-alive. That's what you must mean by their presence," Ava adds. "Maybe that's how we'll get to know about ourselves. Through the images...TV is pure emotion. That's why I stay. That's why TV drives everyone nuts. This deep stuff just keeps welling up" (142).
Other encounters. In his converted warehouse by the lakeshore, Virtu-Man dresses like a bank executive: "With VR, spectatorship will end. By wearing hardware, wetware, the body and the mind and electronic engineering become one" (143). P. registers the evangelical tone, the body held rigid in the stark room. When he asks for a demonstration, Virtu-man replies, "Only corporations can afford to do this. AT&T, Disney, the military. They're building a nomad society of the mind" (146). Michael Senica, someone P. worked with during a summer job, is discovered drunk and dirty in the city streets. Back in his apartment, Michael tells P. about being a political prisoner in Yugoslavia: "All the chaos you talk about" experienced in confinement. Later, gangs of punks and Chinese youths add contempt and threat to the city streets, threading through the "burnout of affluence" where the "expanding city begins to consume people" (187). And Frauke Voss, the fiber artist who coaxed and knotted the colourful materials into "islands of thread": "She knitted the cotton like connecting tissue. She'd ply and massage the material, her frail-looking body emboldened by her hands' strength. She kept mending, searching for points of union and intensity, link and clutch, seeking inner levels, structural disclosure" (193-94). Do all the threads connect? Are they meant to? Or do these encounters resonate just beyond our reach to give them sense?
Walking the city streets, P. reads the writing on the walls of a drug culture taking the accelerated route to transcendence, or not, and he maps what he reads onto the geography of the electronic journey: "Anonymous graffiti is a series of comments on the way that the information maelstrom feeds on affluence, on individual availability, the mayhem in minds, the soul isolation of people" (204). The graffiti reminds him of his high school experiments with LSD, grass, and hash to the music of Rimbaud, Hendrix and Page. Now, the city is enthralled with the white goddess cocaine: "I note the harsh shift in the voices. Nameless shouts, crude signatures, abstract scrawls. Some of the graffiti has the appearance of a transnational ad campaign" (215).
The narrator's friend Raymond Price - a "journalist, a radio talk-show host, and a poet, with the gift for self-promotion and a talent for ruin" (217) - falls in with the white goddess. Rumours begin to circulate about Price's binges, his deceptions, and lapses of professionalism. When his apartment is firebombed twice, the police investigate while Price claims it's a mistake. When he disappears into his writing and traveling, he leaves only questions and speculation. P. concludes that the "true fix in the drugcult is power. Explosions, crosswiring, adrenaline, and heat. The addiction is to force. It's about knowing details that make you part of a privileged group, eluding surveillance, learning the use of fictions, pseudonyms, covers. It's about making images of yourself and thinking that you're in control of your destiny" (230). Did television chart the drugcult itinerary?
The dark journey of the soul taken by Raymond Price and anonymous drug users becomes personal with the letter P. writes to Lena. She takes on substance. He identifies her beauty, vigor and desire to control, and admits to his obsessions, to losing himself in the noise. "I became a poor husband - adulterous, impatient, even more self-obsessed, sometimes self-pitying; I was even drinking too much. I who valued communication above all couldn't communicate with you. I dealt with things by plunging in to turbulence, roaming in danceclubs, in techno-wonders, attaching myself to people whose minds were imploding...and it's time for me to say I'm sorry for my ignorance, selfishness, and arrogance, and to say goodbye to what we were" (239-40). The journey into the electric city has stripped away another mask to reveal barefaced humility and remorse.
While computers hum and map the planet with networks, information marked up in hypertext and scrutinized in databanks, P. hears another brutal confession,this time by the vice-president of public affairs of a transnational company, just about to retire after the market crash of 1987-88:
We live in a mythology of a global economy whose only survivors will be multinationals, brave entrepreneurs, and family mafias. What government experts really mean when they talk about interdependence is everyone's in debt to everyone. What they mean by diversity and deregulation is freedom for the big boys to do what they want. When they say restructuring they mean say goodbye to your job. When they say globalization they mean screw the Third World (245).
There has been a breach of trust; a compact has been broken. A fissure has opened up in global consciousness, and another world is glimpsed through the crack : "Only where there are interruptions, fissures, cracks, do we see the pattern, the structure, what goes unrecognized, concealed by the familiar, the clichéd, the routine" (254). It was time for another kind of journey - to the city of canals and bridges, ebbs and flows.
Venice, At Last
The Signora who manages the pensione near St Mark's tells the writer in search of inner peace that Venice goes by many names, including "La Serenissima," serenity. He soon meets Benjamin Sarnoff, an American director living in Europe and making a film about Venice sinking. "What is she?" Sarnoff asks. "Slime and flies beside a cathedral. I love her because she's about to become nothing" (270). P. breaks into Sarnoff's monologue to pursue his own interrogation: "I've been thinking that echoes are links, signs of influence and continuity. The interweaving of all things. It's about call and response, human history talking to us, resurging in our names, in people and their work and desires" (271). For Sarnoff, Venice is a mashup of delights, vices, and contradictions, her sublime beauties and her dirty secrets. "Venice is nothing except for people amusing themselves before the shitfilled lagoon swallows them" (273).
Speaking now from greater experience, P. argues against Sarnoff's nihilism: "Technology can unbalance us. Information can overwhelm us. We can become lopsided, specialized, out of whack, insensitive through excessive attention to one invention. But each person has to recognize themselves as a medium." Channeling McLuhan, P. suggests that being a medium is like speaking in tongues, finding the middle way, discovering an appropriate ratio of the senses to create equilibrium. Sarnoff is unimpressed; appearance is everything, and nothing - his filmic fragments contend with P.'s "great radiant network" of links, nodes, and connections. The next morning, Sarnoff is gone, off to Paris to make a perfume commercial.
"There's no drift, only current."
The writer flows with the currents of air, water, and sound of La Serenissima: "What endures here is the wind's stirring of the water and air, and the stirring of our senses. People visit and depart, adding their voices, leaving their echoes" (297). In his dreams, the seductions of a beautiful woman in a theatre, and the raw, thundering power of Toronto at war with elements and senses. He speculates that humans can take the fury and destruction of the technological world at war with nature and turn it toward creation: "an outage can be a blackout, a shock, a shattering of routines and rituals, and it can be a moment when the darkness is brightened, when meaning pours into you" (305). For the moment, he is caught between the magnetic poles of Toronto and Venice: "One a place that crystallizes force and expansion, one a place for replenishment and recovery" (306).
On his last day in Venice, the narrator takes refuge on the island of Saint George, with its monastery and twin lighthouses close by. The waves of water bring messages from the cosmos, while his heartbeat brings him to himself, gazing back from his reflection in rippling water. "This is where it starts. Each of us an amorphous self, each of us capable of coming undone" (323). "Tonight I know that I'm moving away from the information rage, its pressures on the instant and on simulations, the hyped extremes and the cult obsessions with Armageddon, to the music I'm still learning." The feeling of peace, at last, is accompanied by the memory of a power outage in his family home, all the lights blacked out. But in that darkness, following the first spike of panic, voices of the neighbors call out from the darkness asking if they need help.
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Mystic Trudeau: The Fire and the Rose. Toronto, ON: Thomas Allen, 2007.
These Shadows Remain: A Fable. (Forthcoming) Toronto: Guernica, 2011.
Apocalypse and Alchemy: Visions of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. (in process) Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, forthcoming.
© 2011 Marshall Soules