Tuesday, December 25, 2018
About four days before Christmas 2018, an impasse arose between President Donald Trump and the Democratic party soon to control the House of Representatives. This impasse, leading to a government shut-down that is ongoing as I write, arose from President Trump’s demand that Congress allocate five billion dollars in funds to building a security wall on the southern border with Mexico. As everyone knows, Trump campaigned on the promise to build this wall, a rampart ostensibly designed to keep criminals, rapists, and drug traffickers from leaving Mexico and flooding into the United States. In his campaign, candidate Trump repeatedly promised to fund the wall with Mexican money, a concept that was as risible then as now.
For two years, Trump’s Republican party controlled all the levers of power in Washington but was unable to secure funding for this wall. The mid-term elections swept many Republican congressmen from office, a harbinger that it would be impossible to built the wall, even with American appropriations, after the newly electred representatives took power in January 2019. President Trump, who has no ideology but self-interest, never cared much about the Wall (now with a capital "W") and was willing to compromise by accepting a grant of 1.3 billion as opposed to his demand for 5 billion for border security. But after being thoroughly trounced by extreme Right Wing commentators, chiefly Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, Trump withdrew his compromise offer and reverted to demanding that the Wall be funded in the original five billion dollar sum. In a previous televised conference between Trump and Democrat leaders, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, the President bluffed – he said that he would gladly shut-down the entire government if his Wall was not funded with a five billion dollar budget. Indeed, the President went so far as to say that he would "own" this shutdown as his creature and, even, be "honored" to take this radical and self-defeating measure. The Democrats called his bluff and the government was partially shut-down at midnight on Friday, December 21, 2018.
In light of this political context, ongoing as I write, perhaps, it is well to consider the implications of a Wall on the border.
The Poor Capitol
On the night before the shut-down, rain fell in Washington. Live images on cable-news of the Capitol dome showed the white iceberg of marble afloat in a sea of mist. Lights theatrically illuminating the Capitol cut bright swathes through the encircling fog and rain. The Capitol seemed embattled.
TV commentators were swift to ascribe symbolic significance to the murk, the falling sleet, the lonely rays of light piercing the gloom around the great egg-shell of the Capitol dome.
In my family, it’s traditional that, on Christmas Eve, we eat a supper comprised from various hors d’ouevres – chips and crackers with Parmesan crab dip, deviled eggs, stuffed potato fritters, cocktail wieners in barbecue sauce laced with Welch’s grape jelly, Swedish meatballs, cheese and cookies and shrimp served cold in cocktail sauce. Theoretically, these dishes are easy enough to prepare but, in practice, a great deal of chopping and grinding in the food processor is required. Cream cheese, in great quantities, has to be melted and mixed into the food. (Who eats cream cheese except on holidays?) Potatoes must be peeled and boiled and shrimp pinched out of their tail-carapaces, hamburger has to be browned and drained, and hard-boiled eggs have to lose their shells. All of this takes a long time. With my daughter Angelica, I worked on preparing these dishes from about 12:30 in the afternoon until 4:00 pm, carefully placing the finished food outside on my cold back step since the refrigerator was full.
While working on these hors d’ouevres, I listened to some CDs. We heard a Blondie greatest hits CD, a couple of Motown compilations, and a CD comprised of duets sung by Willie Nelson with other performers. Three songs captured my attention on the Willie Nelson record.
The first was Townes van Zandt’s "Pancho and Lefty", a ballad first recorded in 1972, but made famous when performed as a duet by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard eleven years later. The song is enigmatic, parallel lives of the kind invented by Plutarch. In the lyrics, we learn that a Mexican bandit named Pancho terrorizes the border country. The bandit is betrayed into the hands of the Federales who kill him. The song’s chorus is "All the Federales say, they could have caught him any day/ They only let him hang around out of kindness I suppose." The life proposed as parallel to Pancho is that of Lefty. Lefty lives on the road, a life that makes him "hard and lean" but gives him "breath like kerosene." He dies alone in a hotel room in cold Ohio. The songwriter tells us that the ballad laments the deaths of both Lefty, the lonely alcoholic loser, and Pancho, the flamboyant Mexican bandit. By drawing a comparison between the two men, Townes van Zandt implies that both were bandits of a certain kind, both betrayed, and that the bright light and heat of Pancho’s Mexican desert is a wasteland that symbolizes both the aspirations and the doom of the other outlaw in cold and gloomy Ohio. Obviously, a summary of this sort doesn’t do justice to the fusion of melody and lyrics in this great song, but the point of the ballad seems to be that Mexico, perceived as place of flamboyant freedom, is central to Lefty’s dreams. (Of course, the song obliquely alludes to the great Lefty Frizzell who died of alcoholism in Nashville when he was 47.)
Ray Charles’ duet with Willie Nelson on "Seven Spanish Angels" is also a ballad, this song inspired, it seems, by Hollywood Westerns. Although the song sounds ancient, it was written and first recorded in 1984. In this Tejano-inspired ballad, an outlaw and his lover flee a posse sent to return them across the Rio Grande into the United States. The lovers are trapped in an abandoned mission at the "altar of the sun" – a box-canyon that comes to be named "the valley of the gun." After saying their farewells, the outlaw fires at the posse who shoot him dead. The girl, unwilling to live without her man, picks up the outlaw’s rifle and brandishes it at the lawmen – they kill her as well. At that moment, there is "thunder from above" as the seven Spanish angels, presumably stucco decorations in the old Mission, carry the girl to heaven. This is kitsch but of a very high order and, in fact, the song is very beautiful, particularly with wordless cantabile lament, almost a kind of yodeling with which Ray Charles decorates the song. The lovers flee to Mexico to escape the law but are mercilessly hunted down in an apocalyptic landscape of hovering angels, sacrificial Aztec altars, and blazing rifles. (The song seems a gloss on Raoul Walsh’s great 1949 Western, Colorado Territory, in which fleeing lovers die in a hail of bullets under the inscrutable walls and towers of an ancient cliff dwelling. The bandit’s money, left at a ruined mission, is used to restore the church’s campanile and the bell tolls for the doomed lovers in the final shot.)
By contrast, Willie Nelson’s duet with Carlos Santana "They all went to Mexico" (1983) seems upbeat and jaunty. But, when you study the lyrics, "going to Mexico" means "to die." The singer remembers his old mule and dray, his hound dog, his friends and the women he’s known, "all the jaunty crew" on motorcycles with side-cars "who have gone to Mexico." This song contains a few Spanish lyrics – for instance "buenos dias got to go" and, also, has conjunto stylings. Death means Mexico and, of course, in this context, Mexico means freedom.
These three songs moved me. Christmas is a sentimental holiday. I ran out of cream cheese and, of course, didn’t have waxed paper for the potato fritters (who keeps that stuff around?) and, so, Jack and I drove to the grocery store to buy these things. I thought about the songs and the Border Wall and Mexico.
The Big Bend
It’s more than 300 miles from El Paso to the Big Bend in the Rio Grande, Rio Bravo del Norte, "the wild river of the north." As you approach the river across immense golden waves of chaparral, the country grows more savage: the chaparral dissolves into eroded badlands and strange islands of mountain hover in the heat shimmer. The Rio Grande cuts through some of these mountains, hacking deep red and yellow-orange canyons in the rock. The road narrows and becomes bumpy with patches and potholes. In the distance, the mountains are like great skeletons defiantly displaying raw, stony ribs and skull-shaped peaks. In the little village of Study Butte, we stopped for provisions at a small Mexican grocery. The hamlet was mostly abandoned, a scatter of fractured adobe houses, thorn corrals and fences, and the smashed scaffolding of mine works on the sandy hillsides, hooks poised overhead like a black scorpion’s sting. In the grocery, a little Latino boy, apparently sent to the market by his mother, was buying a sack of about 30 dangerous-looking jalapeno peppers.
Later, we drove down to the river crossing near the Mexican village of Boquillas del Carmen. The sheer escarpment of the Sierra Madre Occidental rose three-thousand feet above the level, barren desert, slit open where the Rio Grande had sawed through the mountain. We paid some thugs to watch our cars in a little parking lot enclosed in a bamboo glade. A man rowed us across the river and offered to take us to town on the back of several leathery-looking burros. We elected to ride instead in a battered pick-up truck through the bamboo stand and up the hill to where the adobe village was set on a bony vertebrae of chipped rock. The village was surrounded by wrecked cars on all sides, smashed and cannibalized pickups and VW buses. The teacher dismissed the students at the Benito Juarez Elementary School so they could beg and an American guy, apparently something like the town mascot, invited us to drink tequila with him in the Cantina. He seemed too shady and so we decided instead to walk a little along the village’s ruinous main street. The mouth of the huge canyon loomed over the village like an awful destiny and the top of the great escarpment was curdled with clouds entangled around stony pinnacles. Another guy dragging a goat on a rope led us to a shack, sold us a handful crystals that he had "found in an old cave." We paid ten dollars American for the crystals. An old lady seemed to be laboriously dying in an adjacent shack. On the way back to the rowboat on which we crossed the Rio Grande, we saw innumerable dusty white crystals of the kind that the man with the goat had just sold us. They were lying everywhere on the ground.
Once mines occupied the great level terrace atop the mountain range in Mexico. The ore was cut out of the ground, hauled to gondolas, and, then, dropped several thousand feet to the desert floor in the United States. The ruins of the aerial tramway were visible as outcrops of rusting metal, twisted iron towers, embedded in the face of the cliffs. Some cracked stone slabs rimmed with ocotillo marked the ruins of the processing plant on the U.S. side of the river. It was all just too remote to be economically viable. Amidst the prickly pears, peccaries were snuffling and grunting.
In the evening, we drove to Terlingua. The isolated ranges of mountains hung in the sky like fairy-tale castles. In Terlingua, some entrepreneurs had built a Mexican restaurant in the wreckage of an old church. The church had thick walls, six to eight feet of adobe and packed mud, and it was cool and dark in the café. The sun set over a graveyard all rugged with lathe crosses, and heaps of stone marking the places where bodies were buried. Broken mine-works stood like gaunt sentinels on the hilltops and the town was mostly abandoned. Dogs trotted along sand lanes between collapsed adobe houses.
The café played jazz interspersed with radio reports as to the traffic on the principal LA freeways. I suppose that the point was to demonstrate to you that this place was the exact opposite of Los Angeles, a tranquil oasis in the desert where you could sip your margarita and watch the sun outline the hulks of mountain ranges, stranded in the desert like vast battleships, and listen to the coyotes howling in the badlands.
I wished I could cross the river into Mexico and spend a few days exploring the huge sierra looming over the Rio Grande. But the National Park rangers told me it was too dangerous there – the canyons were full of bad hombre, drug-traffickers and smugglers and outlaws.
Many years later, I was in Sicily. It was the last night of our tour and we were dining in an expensive restaurant in Palermo. The famous "golden conch" of mountains surrounding the harbor were lit by the setting sun and, indeed, seemed to be gilded like the saints and halos of the madonnas in the churches.
We were traveling with very wealthy people. Wealthy people are often competitive and the topic of conversation at our table was travel. "Tell us your most memorable travel experience," someone asked. And, so, everyone, it seemed, was obliged to provide an answer. Not surprisingly, some people in our group had seen the blue icebergs, big as mountains in the Antarctic ocean, and others had climbed Kilimanjaro or walked on the Great Wall of China or snorkeled on Australia’s barrier reef.
When it was my turn to speak, I began to tell our companions about the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca. After a few preliminary comments, I said that people spend lots of money to go to exotic places, but that no place was stranger and more fascinating than Mexico. "And it’s right across the border," I said. The rich people in the group looked at me skeptically. Then, one of the ladies said: "Well, that’s not okay with me. Mexico takes advantage us and they flood our borders with immigrants that we have to support. So I understand why it might be attractive to travel there – after all, it’s cheap – but I’m not willing to so much as buy a Margarita in that country. It’s a matter of principle. They violate our laws and it’s just not okay."
I was surprised at her attitude. After all, we had been traveling in Sicily, a part of the world not exactly known for its rectitude and obedience to the rule of law. Like many ignorant people, the woman was completely convinced by her own opinion and I decided that the better part of valor was discretion and, so, I held my tongue.
This colloquy took place about three years before Donald Trump ran for president.
The last free decade
A couple days ago, I heard some critic on a Criterion commentary track claim that the last time anyone was free in this country was during the late sixties. The notion is questionable. However, it’s worth noting that Sam Peckinpah made his most well-known movies at that time and these works characterized in some ways the radical libertarian tendencies in our culture. Peckinpah’s greatest movies, The Wild Bunch, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, and Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, all take place in what one writer (David Thomson, I think) has called "a sun-bleached dream of the old Southwest." Certainly, the Mexican border looms large in these Westerns. Freedom lies south of the Border. When a man crosses into Mexico, he enters an ancient, enchanted world – a place driven by codes of honor that can’t be reduced to mere law. Mexico signifies for Peckinpah the promise of liberty that has been lost north of the Border – the Mariachi bands playing by the fountain in the dusty park, the ruined missions, the dark-eyed Indian maidens, the volcanoes and the mountains and the tropical fruit of the land ripe for the taking, the pyramids soaked with human blood and the treasure of Sierra Madre.
The songs that I heard on Christmas eve have a similar meaning. Mexico means escape from the constricted Anglo-Saxon world, flight to a place that is profoundly pagan because Roman Catholic, a land full of ancient powers and gods. Of course, the real Mexico is not precisely like this – although, in some ways, the country is, indeed, an approximation of the way Americans from el Norte conceive of it. The idea of Mexico is the idea of valor, courage, independence, freedom from the law, a sort of radical liberty in which each man is able to make his own way notwithstanding the powers in authority – officials are corrupt and can be paid-off and, so, you can flourish if only you have the guts and stamina to survive in this barren, but beautiful, land. Mexico is the place outside the law, but, also, the golden land where a prospector hewing stone in the oven of mountain mineshaft might begin as a pauper and end as a millionaire. People in Mexico live according to their own code. Bandits and outlaws flourish. The persecuted gunman and his moll from Cincinnati or St. Louis or Chicago can buy a villa in the mountains, pluck tropical fruit from their trees, and live in peace happily ever after. At least, these kinds of immigrants are welcome south of the Border – the American dollar buys much, including freedom from America.
Things changed after 9-11. The charm of the exotic turned into fear. Dark-skinned people are terrorists. They are swarming across our borders. Everyone is afraid.
Mexico’s promise of liberty has as its inverse the threat of death. The bandit fleeing across the border is generally stopped on this side of the Rio Bravo del Norte and gunned down. The prospectors laden with gold looted from the Sierra Madre run afoul of bandits who kill them for their boots. Peckinpaugh’s "wild bunch" dies in a hurricane of gunfire. In the American imagination, "going to Mexico" sometimes meant death – but it was worth risking death to pursue this dream.
Mexico has always been the American dream materialized. It’s the frontier.
The hideous secret of Trump’s wall is that it has already been built in our minds. And, even, more frightening: the wall exists not to keep Mexicans out, but to imprison us. We’re the refugees against whom the Wall will be built
December 25, 2018
Thursday, November 8, 2018
On the Confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice
These are dark days. An old man can only be wished to be done with them.
On being a gentleman
I don’t know whether Brett Kavanaugh is an attempted rapist, a black-out drunk, or an accomplished liar. I do know that he is no gentleman. His performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27, 2018 demonstrated this proposition. The essence of gentlemanly behavior is restraint, courage, and a scrupulous regard for sensibilities of others. Kavanaugh’s testimony revealed a man inebriated by rage, wrathful, inarticulate, and craven. Most seriously, the Supreme Court candidate showed no regard for the most fundamental element of gentlemanly behavior – that is, a sense of self-esteem that will not brook dishonor. Some may say that Judge Kavanaugh demonstrated a high regard for himself by indulging in tears, by sobbing, by hysterically threatening revenge, indeed, by his very undignified excess of emotion. Undignified displays of emotion are mistakenly thought to be a warrant of sincerity. Yet, anyone with experience in life will tell you that it is the easiest thing in the world to feign an utilitarian rage, a phony indignation, intended to intimidate others. Conservatives should agree with this statement: after all, exponents of the media use this strategy all the time to highlight their agendas.
I have said that one aspect of gentlemanly behavior, perhaps, it’s main component is self-restraint. A gentleman must not desire anything so much that he will behave dishonorably to achieve that goal. No one profits by winning a prize that has been achieved by craven or cowardly behavior. A gentleman must not appear "serviceable" – that is, willing to sacrifice his self-esteem in the pursuit of an office or other political objective. There is a good practical reason for this principle: a man who will do anything to attain office is not likely to show restraint when faced with the temptations inevitably concomitant upon public service. If you are willing to debase yourself to attain office, you will be willing to debase yourself to hold that office and profit from it. Judge Kavanaugh has disqualified himself from the office he seeks by demonstrating that he is willing debase himself to attain that office. This disqualification is only tangentially related to the unsubstantiated accusation of attempted rape.
To pose questions publicly about teenage black-out drinking and attempted rape, acts alleged to have occurred 36 years ago, to a candidate for the Supreme Court is to debase the man and the office. No one is obliged to answer such questions. Indeed, a gentleman will not tolerate questions about what he has been doing with his genitals. To even assume that a gentleman might be questioned on that topic is to fatally besmirch him before any answer is given. Self-respect is a virtue. A gentleman’s self respect is inimical to inquiries that are intended to make him seem small or petty or base. If such an inquiry is proposed, the gentleman has no recourse but to withdraw from the controversy and maintain silence on that subject. Senators are not priests nor psychiatrists and a confirmation hearing is not a confessional nor is it therapy. When challenged on this topic, Judge Kavanaugh had a completely reasonable right to refuse questioning and to withdraw his nomination. It’s a fatal character flaw to believe that you are the indispensable man – in fact, right-wing idealogues with strong academic credentials are common currency: the University of Chicago law school, for instance, issues them freshly minted in the dozens each year. Judge Kavanaugh should demonstrate humility in understanding that he is fungible with hundreds of his kind. He brings nothing to the Bench after the delirium of this week except dishonor. Rather than subject his wife and daughters to the hideous circus conducted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, he should have taken the better course of simply withdrawing. His participation in this spectacle merely shows that he desires the position more than he respects himself. I say this on the basis of an ancient proposition: A gentleman will not abide being accused of a dishonorable act. If he can not, without debasing himself, disprove the dishonor, he is obliged to withdraw from the quarrel. (The other option time-honored, but no longer available, is a duel – thankfully, that option can’t be exercised. The presence of women in positions of public authority has mitigated some of the more deplorable, and blood-thirsty, elements of the gentleman’s code of honor.)
I hope my point will enrage all sides of this present dispute. I maintain that Judge Kavanaugh is not obliged to answer questions about sexual misconduct in this forum. Putting those questions to this judicial candidate presupposes that he is person without self-respect and willing to dishonor himself by submitting to interrogation on this subject. No useful purpose is served by answering questions in this forum. The entire exercise is readily avoided by simply withdrawing from the nomination – this course protects the institution, serves the country, and doesn’t further the humiliation of the nominee’s wife and children. It must be remembered that Judge Kavanaugh’s appearance is voluntary – he controls the process and it can not proceed except with his consent. When the process obliges its nominee to behave like the suspect in a criminal case, the candidate shouldn’t dignify the accusation with an answer. He should simply withdraw.
No political office is so important that it is worth the sacrifice on honor and self-esteem. A man who ascends to an appointment at the cost of his honor has no credibility. If Kavanaugh persists in his candidacy because of outside influence, he shows himself to be a coward. If he remains a candidate on the basis of a craven willingness to submit to any humiliation to attain the judicial appointment, he shows himself to be profoundly dishonorable. A gentleman understands self-respects demands that he withdraw from a dilemma that presents only dishonorable outcomes.
On fighting back
It is reported that the President, who is no gentleman himself, much esteems Mr. Kavanaugh for fighting back against his accusers. The specious argument is made that if he doesn’t stand his ground, his ideological opponents will prevail and win the day. This argument is wrong because not all fights are worth winning if the outcome is irremediably destructive. Here Kavanaugh’s furious riposte to his adversaries makes him a figure of fun, a comical red-faced little man sobbing because someone has said mean things about him. But worse this process degrades the Supreme Court. The "high-tech lynching" that debased Clarence Thomas seems to have wounded that Justice in some terrible way. For 27 years, Thomas has scarcely uttered a hundred words from the Bench. In his official capacity, he seems to have spent a quarter of a century sulking, exercising little in the way of independence, and, indeed, almost always voting obediently for arguments and outcomes advocated by the late Justice Scalia. I have no idea why Justice Thomas has shown this odd demeanor and, perhaps, his reticence on the Bench has nothing to do with the awful spectacle preceding his confirmation. But it is, at least, arguable that wounds inflicted in a bloody confirmation process don’t readily heal and that Judge Kavanaugh’s ascent to the Bench will be just one more discredit to the High Court that was, within living memory, the last universally esteemed division of government.
It does no one any honor to win a fight at all costs.
On Judicial Temperament
I didn’t support Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court on the basis of disagreements with policies that he has endorsed. But, until September 27, I had no reservations about his judicial qualifications – that is, his ability to comport himself as a rational person on the Bench. His frantic, bellicose, and self-pitying defense against Dr. Ford’s accusations, however, now casts a dubious light on the candidate’s judicial temperament.
Judicial temperament is the concept that a magistrate will display equal courtesy to all litigants who come before his or her Bench. A good judge must be tolerant, gracious to petitioners before the Court whatever the merits of their arguments, and should display neither arrogance nor prejudice in deciding causes of action. Ideally, this temperament requires a poker-face, modesty, and patience. In essence, a Judge must be gentlemanly and, thus, I revert to my earlier arguments on this point.
Judge Kavanaugh’s petulant rant was immoderate, intemperate, and offensive. In an open forum, he denounced opponents as partisan and went so far as to vow revenge against them. (Of course, his opponents are bitterly and dishonestly partisan as are his supporters – judicial temperament is adopting the fiction that a good judge rises above partisan bias. There is an important reason for maintaining this fiction, the mask of impartiality, that I consider below.) Kavanaugh’s epic harangue, punctuated by maudlin episodes of weeping, was the exact opposite of what one expects as judicial temperament as a judge of this nation’s highest court. His speech was self-serving, petty, vindictive, promising a "whirlwind" of revenge. It was all-together unseemly and, in itself, both profoundly disquieting and disqualifying.
Does Judge Kavanaugh propose to recuse himself from any controversy in which political issues arise or in which the party-politics of one or the other litigants is known to him? He has openly declared himself the enemy of one-half of the petitioners who will appear before him if he is confirmed. This is an awful problem prompted by the nominee’s undignified display of wrath against the Democrats.
On the unreliability of the accuser
My criticism of Judge Kavanaugh does not imply endorsement of Dr. Ford’s accusation. Quite to the contrary, I don’t regard her accusation as being credible. Therefore, her charges are not probative in my view.
Good lawyers and judges will tell you that the most unreliable evidence comes from eye-witnesses. And it is evident that interposing 36 years between the event at issue and subsequent testimony is fatal to granting credence to Dr. Ford’s account. Memory isn’t an electro-magnetic tape inscribed somewhere in our brains that we can access and play-back to establish the truth of things that happened a long time ago. To the contrary, it is now understood that the mind constructs memories. Our imagination fills in blanks and builds narratives. Dr. Ford’s bizarre remark that the assailant’s laughter was somehow inscribed in her "hippocampus" displays a naive, even grotesquely mechanical, understanding of memory. As with everyone else, Dr. Ford’s memory is a pliable instrument, a flexible device that synthesizes what actually happened with what we have been told and what we have subsequently come to believe about the event recalled. All of us recall events significant to us that simply didn’t happen or details about memorable things that are entirely false. Once a memory has attained the status of a story that we tell ourselves we construct our own truth. People are almost invariably persuasive when providing eye-witness testimony from memory – that is, because they have come to believe the story constructed by their recollections. (For this reason, lie detector tests are meaningless – this applicance, to the extent that it works at all, and this is questionable, merely measures whether the proponent of a story believe what she is saying. I have no doubt that O. J. Simpson firmly believed that he didn’t kill his wife and the man that she was with. Once you have declared something to be true, you come to believe it as true – declaration proceeds faith; this is something known by all religions: if you speak the creed enough times you will come to believe it.)
Jails are full of people credibly accused of profoundly memorable crimes who have turned out to be innocent. DNA testing has exculpated hundreds of men who were condemned for terrible crimes on the strength of eye-witness testimony. Dozens, most of them African-American men, have been judically executed on the basis of what now seem to have been false memories. Every day in Court, people swear on stacks of Bibles to the truth of memories that are simply mistaken – these people are not lying; rather, they are recounting memories that have developed into narratives for one reason or another and that are, therefore, unreliable. Thus, we can not believe the literal truth of an account spoken from memory and detailing an encounter 36 years ago.
The pliable, negotiated aspect of memory, is well-understood by criminal lawyers and judges. Legislators recognize the frailty of memories by establishing statutes of limitation. After a certain number of years, cases can’t proceed because they are simply too old. The defect in a case relying on ancient memories is not merely the probability that the eye-witness has the facts wrong or misremembers certain things – further, the lapse of time has erased memories in corroborating witnesses and has resulted in the destruction or loss of tangible objects or writings. It is well-known that eye-witness testimony must be corroborated. And corroboration becomes problematic after the lapse of several years, let alone decades. Most civil and criminal cases are subject to a six year statute of limitation. Dr. Ford’s accusations are old by a factor of six times six years. This means that there is no basis to believe her story.
On the Mask of Impartiality
I have said that judges must display forbearance, gentility, patience in the highest degree, tolerance, and respect. Judges must be scholarly and, even, their most vicious decrees must be delivered without the slightest traces of emotion or partiality. It will seem, therefore, that I am requiring super-human qualities of the mere men and women who assume this role in our society.
This understanding is correct. But, with the caveat, that I don’t require judges to actually possess these magnanimous attributes – rather, I expect judges to pretend to have these qualities. We all know that judges are prone to every fault to which flesh is heir. But, in the discharge of their public duties, they must always display the mask of impartiality and, indeed, should act as if invested with virtues far beyond those accessible to most mortals.
Why is this pretense necessary? We have Courts to avoid the violence that necessarily ensues when two unassailable rights conflict with one another. Courts are bulwarks against murder, plain and simple, the kind of violence that arises when people feel that they have suffered a grave injustice. People will tolerate all kinds of pain and anguish, but there is no one who can accept with equanimity an injustice at the hands of another. Courts are constituted to address the conflict of right and right and, indeed, many problems presented to judges are literally insoluble. Where an insoluble question arises, the intervention of providence is required. Thus, in a very real sense, the offices of the court are divinely instituted. If human reason can’t discover an answer, then, we must petition the gods for their intervention. And this remains the role of the courts even in this secular age.
A case doesn’t reach the Supreme Court of the United States except by a remarkable concurrence of accidents. Courts don’t legislate. They don’t select the causes that they decide; rather, by happenstance, those causes seek out the Court. First, you must have litigants properly positioned to raise the issue requiring deliberation. Then, settlement and compromise must be avoided – and, almost, all cases are resolved by some kind of conciliation. Then, a trial must occur and the case must be decided in such a way that someone can allege error on the part of the tribunal. An appeal must be lodged and, again, settlement avoided. After years, the case, if properly managed and financed, may reach the Supreme Court where then, it may languish as not worthy of the High Court’s attention – that is, certiorari, the Court’s permission to advance the dispute to a hearing, must be granted, a decision that is often invested in clerks just graduated from law school. Throughout this process, any number of events can occur to derail the proceeding: litigants can die or run out of money or their lawyers become disabled and die themselves. The issues may become moot or, something may intervene, to deprive one or the other of standing to pursue the claim. Accordingly, it is only the tiniest percentage of disputes that reach of the High Court and, then, on the basis of a concatenation of factors likely not reproducible. The case finds the Court and not vice-versa.
Supreme Court judges are more like soothsayers than the servants of reason and justice. They are imagined to be conduits for some transcendental force, a divinity that deflects events toward righteousness and justice. For this reason, a certain aura of the sacred must invest judges serving this institution. It is this aura that I call "the mask of impartiality". Judges are human before they put on their robes to preside over the tragic conflicts that arise when one right conflicts with another. But once they assume the Bench, they are cloaked in beneficence, guided, so it must seem, by impartial supernatural forces, or, stated in another way, implacable historical imperatives.
Accordingly, we cast aside the "mask of impartiality" only at grave risk to the institution.
I saw the Senator Lindsay Graham shouting with contorted features that the accusations against Judge Kavanaugh were a disgrace. I observed him to declare that no compromise was possible and that the struggle to confirm this judge must continue without surcease, a battle waged without quarter, mercy, or any acquiescence to opposing views.
People often erroneously assume that explosions of wrath are actions that have meaning. These assumptions are generally untrue. The expression of rage, generally, is meaningless and, in fact, often a prelude to compromise – some emotion has to be aired before an agreement can be reached.
Not 24 hours later, Senator Graham participated in an accord completely inconsistent with his emotional tirade the preceding afternoon. I watched both episodes on television. The Senator’s bellicose howl disturbed me. The next day, I was cautiously optimistic after witnessing the compromise negotiated through Senator Flake
Reaching compromise is always a good thing. I am hard put to agree that there are any exceptions. The art of governing is reaching accords that don’t totally defeat an adversary. An adversary who has been humiliated will be an implacable enemy and it is folly not to understand that human affairs are cyclical – the victory of my party today is a prelude to defeat tomorrow.
Compare the two sessions, both of which were televised, and ask yourself which was the better proceeding.
On Righteous Indignation
Senator Graham’s willingness to compromise was a rebuke to the concept of "righteous indignation." There is no such thing as "righteous indignation." To be indignant is to be angry. Anger is a mortal sin. Persisting in anger is persisting in mortal sin. Righteous indignation has never accomplished anything but slaughter.
Some say that Judge Kavanaugh’s harangue to the Committee on the 27th of September was a salutary expression of "righteous indignation." What I saw was raw anger, petulance, the feckless Cri de coeur of a pampered bully, someone who has never been told "no." If Kavanaugh’s display was "righteous indignation," the world needs less of this.
On declaring the Supreme Court to be a partisan tribunal
My opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court is based on the fact that the candidate has been a bare-knuckled partisan for most of his life. It is impossible to imagine that he will not bring his form of no-holds-barred partisanship to the High Court.
Kavanaugh has never been an attorney in any capacity recognizable to most practicing lawyers. He has been so warmly ensconced in the womb of bitter political partisanship that he seems somewhat fetal, a person who has never been properly born. Immediately out of law school, he joined Ken Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton and was a participant in writing the 1997 report that urged impeachment proceedings against the President. After a brief stint at Kirkland & Ellis, he was hired by George W. Bush’s legal team to labor on the election dispute in Florida that eventuated in the Supreme Court litigation that installed Bush in the White House. From that position with the Bush administration, Kavanaugh went to work for attorney general Alberto Gonzalez, a man who is, by any definition, a war criminal. Gonzalez authorized "enhanced interrogation techniques" in Guantanamo Bay and other places following an infamous memo written by John Yoo. Somewhat implausibly, Kavanaugh has claimed complete ignorance of this so-called "torture memo", although it is curious that the day after Yoo published this writing, Kavanaugh enthusiastically recommended him for a Federal court appointment. Although some commentators have baldly condemned Kavanaugh for his involvement in these issues relating "to the conditions of detention" of terrorist suspects, the evidence is unclear as to his exact role. Crucial documents on this subject have not been released or disclosed.
Slavoj Zizek wrote this about torture:
Open declaration that the Supreme Court is politically partisan. Cynics will say – "what’s wrong that declaration. Of course the Court acts along ideologically partisan lines.
You can’t achieve a good end by evil means
Both those supporting Brett Kavanaugh and those unalterably opposed to his nomination to the High Court are engaged in a battle in which the ends are thought to justify the means.
Those who support Roe v. Wade feel licensed to do anything to maintain that case in effect. Similarly, those who oppose abortion as a right are inspired with a "righteous indignation" that masks evil means in support of an arguably virtuous end. But the simple fact is that evil means cannot be justified by a good end. Evil is infectious – it taints the outcome with the means sought to achieve that end. This is the moral of every single war ever fought on the face of this earth. I didn’t believe this when I was younger and, in fact, argued to the contrary. I’ve now seen enough conflict and wars to know that good is never accomplished by evil.
On achieving victory over others
The wise man knows that nothing good ever arises from the defeat of an enemy. My victory diminishes my adversary and inspires him to revenge. When a man defeats another man, he merely perpetuates the strife that caused their conflict in the first place.
The only enemies worthy of defeat are those that we harbor within us. The only victory worth achieving is a self-overcoming. The adversaries that will destroy us reside in our own hearts. We must strive to defeat our own fears, our greed and lust, our bitterness and animosity toward others. This victory is the only triumph worth achieving.
These are dark days. An old man can only wish to be done with them.
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
The City of Winnipeg was built where two large, sluggish rivers intersect on the flat Manitoba plain. No hills grace the city and it has no lakes, only the great confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. Near this confluence, called "the Forks", Manitoba’s legislative building rises, a polished limestone block with allegorical figures at its cornices surmounted by a pinched dome. Atop the dome, a naked figure with gold skin bearing a torch and a sheaf of wheat runs northward – this is the so-called "Golden Boy". About 800,000 people live in the cheerless provincial capitol.
Around 1982, civic leaders in Duluth finally accepted an unpleasant economic reality: the city’s industries, mining and grain storage, were moribund. Employment was declining and those who worked at the elevators or loading taconite on the huge iron piers extending over the seaport were poorly paid. Mining is unsustainable in the long run and commodities hostage to unpredictable business cycles. Duluth was poor but beautiful, dramatically situated in a deep and intricate harbor where the great St. Louis river flowed into the turbulent inland sea of Lake Superior. And, so, the place was re-visioned, re-invented as a city catering to tourists – the waterfront dives were transformed into airy bars and dining rooms where women and children were welcome. The nasty slums around the harbor were cleared and replaced with luxury hotels. The utilitarian piers extending into the brutally cold waters of the great lake were restored and, then, loaded with boutiques and food arcades. The city’s ancient, moldering train station became a museum. In this way, the city was saved but, in a meretricious form, unrecognizable to its older inhabitants.
Thunder Bay, the twin ports in Ontario at the head of Lake Superior, was similarly transformed. And, now, it seems that the city of Winnipeg has embarked on this sort of metamorphosis as well. An enormous museum dedicated to the history and commemoration of human rights rises over "the Forks". The city built this vast and spectacular building because, of course, there are humans living in Winnipeg and they have rights and, so, why not commemorate that subject in a destination museum – a facility with aspirations to be like Bilbao’s craggy Guggenheim, a place that would attract tourists. Downtown, the humble Winnipeg Art Gallery ("WAG") is excavating foundations for another wing on the curious wedge-shaped tract of land where the museum stands. WAG has a world-famous collection of aboriginal art, mostly soapstone and ivory carvings from First Nations people living in Northern Manitoba and Labrador. Clearly, the objective is to make this museum a tourist destination as well. Like Duluth and Thunder Bay, Winnipeg is a place in the process of re-imagining itself – but this transformation is infinitely more difficult, I think, in this city because there is in the place something inherently, and resolutely, opposed to glamor.
Three landforms meet at Winnipeg. A few miles to the East, the territory is raw with granite outcroppings and swift rivers that plunge through stone gorges connecting networks of wilderness lakes – this is the Laurentian shield, terrain that extends across upper Minnesota and Ontario to the St. Lawrence Seaway. Pines cluster around cold, stone-girt lakes, water surges over cascades and falls. North of Winnipeg, boreal forests enclose vast tracts of tamarack swamp. The forests surround enormous, frigid lakes – Lake Winnipeg, about 100 miles north of the city of that name, is the tenth largest fresh water lake in the world. Beginning near the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red River of the North, flat, featureless prairies run west 800 miles to the Rocky Mountains.
Presumably, people in Winnipeg enjoy winter sports. The city is famous for hockey. But there is no place for downhill skiing, not even a hill sufficiently imposing for a decent toboggan-run. The rivers flow in barren gullies about thirty-feet deep. Outside of town, there is a place called Bird Hill. This is a conical prominence, unnatural in appearance, possibly a garbage dump where the detritus of a hundred years has mounded to forty or fifty foot pyramid clad in brown prairie grass. (Guy Maddin’s film, My Winnipeg, confirms this impression – in fact, the place was a garbage dump.) A couple pathetic ski-runs are gouged into the side of the hill and there is a sort of plexi-glass structure on stilts at the top of the chutes used for sledding – the plexi-glass structure looks like a post-modern deer stand.
Winnipeg is an unsightly city: it has few public parks and most neighborhoods are humble, small brick or frame houses tightly assembled along nondescript residential lanes. Despite the nightmarish cold in winter, it seems that most of the smaller homes don’t possess garages with the consequence that cars are parked along the streets at curb-side. These parked cars narrow the streets and create siphons too narrow for two vehicles to pass one another in opposite directions. If this is how the streets function in the warmth of early autumn, what is it like when the lanes are further narrowed by monstrous accumulations of snow? Because many neighborhoods were built for one-car families, before most house-wives drove, small groceries, hardware stores, and dry-cleaning businesses are interspersed among the homes. To ameliorate the town’s ugliness, artists have been commissioned to paint innumerable colorful murals on any wall that is the size of semi-truck trailer or larger. But this amenity isn’t uniformly successful – some murals are gloomy, enigmatic, or simply executed poorly. Along the side of a hair-stylist’s emporium, three gents with Edwardian moustaches and military hats look down upon the street – these are Canadian heroes from the Great War and the painting is drab -- its colors which were mostly dun and ocher are now fading. One of the Wild Things as imagined by Maurice Sendak lounges in an easy chair in a small room. Fur traders and Indians transact business. A First Nations man, who looks drunk, leans against a street lamp that emits a scream of expressionistic yellow light – the man outstretches his hands as if crucified and vignettes show other Native men, some of them dressed as soldiers or playing in rock bands or kicking soccer balls. The side of a bakery is decorated with faded aquamarine images of large, predatory fish swimming among parking meters and cars and, on another wall, a Buddhist luck god, fat and merry as a sea lion, stands in a landscape blue and green and white with waterfalls. The murals are innumerable – even people who live here have not seen them all. Some of the paintings are like fever-dreams emanating from the morose commercial buildings that they decorate. Winnipeg is an unreal city – it seems to be always sleeping.
An endless commercial street runs east and west. At one point, a mostly treeless golf-course is on one side of the road. The zoo is on the other side of the road. People go to the zoo to experience a hike called "Passage to Churchill" – this is a series of curving walkways that leads to a great, barren enclosure where polar bears are kept. The path descends along an imperceptibly sloping ramp until the visitor is within a concrete grotto. The grotto leads through a glass tube to a viewing station situated so that the spectator can look into the murky blue depths of a plunge pool agitated above by simulated cascades. Some aerodynamically-designed, sea lions with eerie white eyes – it seems that they have cataracts – are effortlessly propelling themselves through the depths: oblong shadows with whiskers that perform loop–de-loops showing their slick black backs on the up-stroke and their white bellies, navel-puckered on the descent. A big polar bear stands on a ledge overlooking one of the plunge-pools and worries a soccer-ball sized slab of salmon. The polar bear is also designed for swift swimming – on land, it is ungainly, a kind of white torpedo supported by stubby legs, but the beasts prowl the water with the lethal aplomb of a shark. "He is a sweetheart," a zoo guide tells the people marveling at the vast creature. "Very gentle." The bear’s paws are a half-a-yard long decorated with obsidian claws each the size of my hands.
Beyond the underwater observation grotto, an exit (sortie) leads to a road. The road runs a hundred yards to a mock-up of Churchill on Hudson Bay, a remote village that is Canada’s only deep-water Arctic port. (Churchill is 650 miles directly north of Winnipeg on the 57th parallel – train service from Winnipeg passes through the Pas in Saskatchewan and, then, curves back to Churchill, a distance of 1063 lineal miles or about 1700 kilometers.) Most people in Winnipeg have never been to Churchill and it is an exotic place for them – the encampment at the zoo displays a couple of Snowcats, two quonset huts and a replica of a saloon facade. The saloon facade, in fact, is the entry to the Tundra Café, a little cafeteria where you can buy foot-long hot dogs and hamburgers. A great glass wall with a vista of barren grassland and boulders, faux-tundra, displays a small blonde woman dressed like a janitor and wearing knee-high rubber boots. The woman pitches heads of cabbage, strewing them across the fake tundra. Then, the polar bears come, ambling clumsily across the uneven grassy hillocks. They graze on the cabbage heads like cows, showing their white and furry rumps to the people who are likewise feeding on foot-long hot dogs in the tundra café.
Over the weekend, 34 bears had to be trapped in Ottawa, some of them within a few kilometers of the Canadian capitol buildings. It’s been dry and hot in Ottawa and there is a huge natural preserve, the Parc de Gatineau, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa river. Bears are good swimmers and they paddle across the river and, then, wander the streets of Ottawa looking for food that the drought has otherwise denied them. Cars smash into the bears and they climb eight or nine meters high in trees and lounge there and so the beasts must be trapped, inspected for disease, and, then, carried deep in the Gatineau preserve to be returned to the wild.
Also over the weekend, tremendous rain fell in Winnipeg. More rain fell in 12 hours than is normally measured for the entire month of September. Low spots in parking lots were flooded and some of the fields outside town reflected acres of gloomy sky in water ponded there. This part of Manitoba is flat – the water simply spreads out across the sodden plain. The sky is angry-looking and congested. In the city, everyone wears coats and windbreakers and, even, woolen gloves – this seems odd to me since the temperature is always between 56 and 70 degrees. But it’s autumn and a few of the trees show golden in the groves lining the Red and Assiniboine rivers and people here know that the weather is unpredictable – in the course of a few heartbeats, the rain can turn to snow and the winds can whirl into a tempest and, then, all the world goes polar-bear white.
WAG was mostly closed. A flooded pit stood next to the windowless prow of the current gallery. A new larger museum is under construction. Architectural renderings of the new museum show floor to ceiling cases filled with art objects made by aboriginal people from the Arctic. Open galleries in WAG feature large sculptures of sea mammals and birds with human faces embedded in them. The sculptures are Brancusi-smooth and seem inviting to the touch, cool and slippery as a fine glass paperweight and some of them are the size of large suitcases. There is some scrimshaw ivory delicately incised and paintings that show ravens and bears bearing lunar human faces in their bellies. One statue shows a glaring, hideous troll with strings tangled between prongs in her hair – the statue is labeled "Grandmother String Game" and it is from Nunavik, that is, made by a First Nations’ sculptor in Dorset Bay. A wall-sized pen sketch, elaborately hatched and shaded like an engraving, shows a squat native man stretched between a huge raven with scimitar-shaped beak and a missionary pulling the hapless Indian in the other direction. Almost all of the art is visionary, based on the experiences of First Nations’ shaman. Shaman are practical mystics, people who can inhabit the bodies of birds and orca and polar bears – they know the future and can heal the sick.
Nunavik is the northern third of Quebec, the part of Canada that was once called Labrador. It is vast, comprising territory larger than the state of California – about 12,000 people live there. The Atlantic coast in the Arctic is an autonomous zone with uncertain political affiliation to Canada. This territory is occupied by Inuit people who claim self governance – this claim is opposed by some corporations with mining interests in the area and the Metis people, the half-blood Cree or Dene and French population. Much of the art displayed at WAG comes from this area.
What do you call a female shaman? A shawoman? Usage varies – some writers favor "shamaness"; others use the word "shamanka", applying the "ka" that signifies "female" or "woman" in Russian to the term. The idea of the "shaman" derives from Russian ethnographic studies of its Siberian and Arctic natives.
My wife once knew an authentic female shaman. Each year, an organization called Split Rock conducts seminars in Duluth. These seminars are geared to affluent women who have the leisure to paint or write elaborate diaries or compose poems and short stories. Seminar participants live in dormitories on the University of Minnesota high atop the bluffs overlooking Lake Superior – those dormitories are empty during the summer and, therefore, ideal as lodging for the women enrolled in Split Rock programs. During the day, the teachers instruct the students in pleasant studios overlooking the great bay where the St. Louis River pours itself into the icy inland ocean. My wife’s friend, a talented artist, enrolled in a class in print-making and painting conducted the shaman, a native woman from Alberta, Canada. The shaman is now quite famous, in fact a member of the prestigious Order of Canada – I will refer to her as "Sue."
Sue was a skinny woman born in the early 1950's. Once, she had been beautiful, with exotic Asian features and dark skin. When my wife met her in Duluth, she was still striking – her long hair was grey and straight and she was skinny to the point of emaciation with perfect, erect posture. The artist told her students that she was a shaman. She pointed to scars on her arms and legs that marked her as a result of healing other people from illnesses and taking their pain into her own body. The shaman was from a tiny hamlet far north in Alberta, a place where sea-planes landed on a huge lake that flowed like a river. In the summer, no roads access that village. During winter-time, there are treacherous ice highways that lead to other hamlets on the tundras. Trucks cross innumerable frozen lakes and rivers transporting goods and, often, the drivers pick up native girls fleeing the isolation of their tiny villages, offer the hitchhikers passage to Winnipeg or Edmonton and, then, after raping them, throw their strangled bodies into the rivers to be swept away when the ice breaks up. There was no electricity in the hamlet where Sue was raised until 1959.
Sue’s mother died from tuberculosis when she was 6. She was raised by the German schoolteacher’s widow, a German woman who scarcely spoke English let alone the Cree language that was the little girl’s tongue. The schoolteacher had fled from Germany. He was an educated man and had a picture of Hegel framed in his little study. Hegel understood that life is transformation, one thing becoming its opposite and, then, transforming into a third thing – this is the essence of shamanism. Sue was sent to a residential school in Edmonton and, later, attended college where she took a degree in cell biology. In the evening, she attended art classes. Her art teachers recognized her potential and Sue went to graduate school in New York City at Columbia. She became a world-famous artist – her work is the National Gallery in Ottawa, and featured in the collections of the great art museums in Montreal and Toronto. She frequently shows in Paris and is represented by the Bear Claw gallery in Edmonton where she now lives. Her paintings are brightly colored, contain photographs and other found items (including in some cases eagle feathers) and depict native themes. She has made a series of paintings in vibrant Art Brut style depicting shamans howling at the sky – the pictures look to me a little like Dubuffet or, even, Basquiat.
It was unseasonably and dangerously hot in Duluth when my wife attended the Split Rock conference at which Sue was teaching. Dormitories built for cold weather were stifling. Sue and her companion, an old Indian man, complained that they were suffocating. They dragged their mattress out of the oven of their room and slept in the courtyard, under the stars. But there were mosquitos and it was still unbearably hot and humid with no respite until the hour before dawn when the winds stirred from the lake and carried a hint of the smell of icy water to the hilltop. There wasn’t much wind and the lake looked glassy when the sun rose, strange limpid causeways of motionless water making intersections over the depths. Sue told the Split Rock administrator that the heat was abusive and that, unless she was installed in a hotel at the program’s expense, she would contact the Canadian consulate. In high season, in the summer, it is very hard to book a hotel room in Duluth, but, after much effort, the program director found her a room in an old motel between the train station that was now a museum and the point with the Lift Bridge into a precinct of boutiques and restaurants.
For the other participants in the Split Rock program, the relentless heat and humidity was wearying. The only thing that could be done was to find a tavern and sit in the air-conditioning drinking beer. Although Sue had a cool hotel room, she said that she sympathized with her students and so went to the bar that they frequented, regaling them with stories about her life and hard times so long as they picked-up the tab for her Leinenkugels. The old man sat in the corner scowling at the table where the pretty ladies sat around the shaman. He was a heavy smoker and, so, every half hour, he would go outside for a cigarette. Sometimes, he walked down to the bus-stop a couple blocks away to talk to the other Native Americans, mostly teenage kids, who frequented that area, begging for money from the passing tourists. After a few hours in the bar, the ladies would go to an expensive restaurant with a view of the smooth, glossy lake. Someone would always buy Sue’s dinner. When they ordered wine, Sue arranged for an extra bottle that she could take back to the hotel to drink with the old man. He didn’t go with them to the restaurant, instead, preferring to remain in the tavern. One of women participants in the program paid for the wine with her credit card. Sue had expensive taste in wine.
My wife’s friend, Pam, thought that there was something fraudulent about Sue. There was a quarrel and Sue put a curse on Pam. Sue showed everyone the scars on her body incised in her flesh after battles with demons of mental illness and alcoholism. The heat continued. Sue repeated her mantra: "Everyone wants to fuck the shaman." When Sue cursed Pam, they were at her hotel room. The old man had a bottle of something and he had gone down the street to the Lift Bridge in the harbor and the esplanade along the canal where Native kids stood around cadging small change and dollar bills from tourists. My wife noticed that Sue wore tight white men’s jockey shorts. Dirty underwear was strewn around the room. Sue sat on the bed and offered to remove the curse from Pam. Pam said she wasn’t worried about the curse. Pam was a doctor’s wife and her husband could cure just about anything. "It’s a burden," Sue said. "Everyone wants to fuck the shaman."
Can a shaman transform herself into a snow-mobile or a snow-cat? Why aren’t their carved soapstones showing human faces embedded in Arctic cat snowmobiles? Could a shaman become a rifle? Could a shaman hike out into a desolate place, flat and treeless, where two brown and sluggish rivers bend ever so slightly from the parallel toward an intersection that both streams seem to reject, an imperceptible joining of waters that are on their way to a big, cold lake and, then, a bigger, colder bay -- could the shaman stand at the point between the rivers and, then, envision a city and elaborate its streets and alleys and sidewalks from within herself? Could a shaman transform herself into an unreal city complete with glass towers and shopping malls and neighborhoods comprised of thousands of little stone and lathe houses arrayed across an endless grid flat as a sheet of paper and, perhaps, as perishable, a windy place where a naked boy covered with gold kicks up his heels atop a pinched dome and polar bears wander in the vacant lots?
Across from the river where Louis Riel is buried, the Museum of Human Rights rears up, an implausible and vast apparition. The structure is embedded in the river bank atop a slightly sloping gradient planted in tall grass prairie and adorned with wild-flowers. The Museum is comprised of three elements, a raw-looking ziggurat opaque and heavy with brick that embraces a glass facade shaped a bit like the wings of a dove. The wing component, vertically oriented, is made of big glass panels that overlap one another, thatched like the feathers on a bird. A thorn-shaped tower, also made of glass rises from the top of the building, ascending another hundred-fifty feet upward – this is the Israel Asper Tower of Hope. The interior of the museum is an unlikely combination of grotto-like dark sheds, soaring atriums with glass sides and ceilings, and transparent elevator shaft that rises like a needle to pierce the sky. From the small, warm glass case atop the tower, the visitor can look down into Winnipeg – you can see the ruins of St. Boniface, the Romanesque castle of the Fort Garry Hotel, and the tops of the smaller towers in the city.
A traveling exhibit of artifacts associated with Nelson Mandela occupies the first dark shed adjacent to a brick lobby with a long pool and a wall on which animated figures inscribe the word "freedom" in forty languages. In the exhibit, you can see identity cards, shackles, a mock-up of the cell where Mandela was confined on Robyn Island together with video showing marches and massacres. Mandela’s shadow is projected against the side of his cell – not surprisingly he shadow boxes. The exhibit ends on a hopeful note. Ramps ascend to other galleries where the narrative is the same: homo homini lupus – man is wolf to man – but, then, there are reforms and the rights of the oppressed are tentatively acknowledged and, though there is always the possibility of backsliding, some progress is made. Every kind of oppression is visualized in video imagery and artifacts and, then, manifestos opposing that oppression are quoted on the walls. In one gallery, heroes of human rights stride forth in the form of illuminated stelae: Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and others. The life-size photograph of Aung San Su Mi, the Burmese politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is pointedly shut off – no light emerges from her figure which stands dull and shadowy amidst those brightly lit figures that were previously thought to be her comrades. Some of the exhibits are surprisingly witty and it’s not as grim and dull as you might expect.
The visitor to the Museum of Human Rights strides ever upward, crossing over cavernous voids on glowing bridges made from alabaster. The bridges rise as ramps forming an criss-cross pattern of ascent within the big, echoing hollows of the structure. In the ancient world, medicines were kept in alabaster jars and vases – the stone was thought to have healing properties. Therefore, the climb upward over these innumerable soaring ramps symbolizes the ascent to truth, a slow passage that involves reversals every sixty feet. To use Kojeve’s formulation, this is the Hegelian ascent from the darkness below to the recognition that Desire desires Desire – that is, that each of us becomes human only in his or her desire that another recognize us as desirable, as a human being and, therefore, an end intrinsic to itself. The ascent culminates in a fast dash in the elevator up to the vertiginous, glass viewing platform overlooking the city. The apogee of human rights, therefore, is the vista over Winnipeg.
A docent stands on the patio-like balcony from which the elevator ascends. She tells us about the symbolism in the building. For instance, the garden of contemplation in one of the atriums is comprised of small pillars of basalt set among reflecting ponds. "Basalt is the most common rock on earth," she says. "It symbolizes that all human beings are more or less alike in their needs and desires." I ask her: "What about the Palestinians?" She must get the question often. "We want to let history sort this out," she says. "Once history has sorted this out, we will have an exhibit." Canadians in Manitoba pronounce "out" as "oot." The docent’s statement seems questionable to me: if we let history sort itself oot withoot human agency, we would probably still have slavery, child labor, and prisons full of suffragettes.
A walkway that seems to have been designed by Simon Calatreva crosses the river, a bridge supported by a web of white cables angling down from a central mast in the center of the span. On the other side of the river, Saint Boniface, now a part of Winnipeg, but once a Francophone village stands. The shops are small and Parisian, selling chocolate and expensive clothing. The area is named after a big Catholic church that burned in 1960. The church facade with a great barrel vault entrance remains as do some of the grey stone sidewalls of the vanished building. In the church cemetery, a visitor encounters the grave of Louis Riel. Behind the ruins of the church, now immaculately preserved in a garden, a Catholic college with a white cupola occupies a couple of city blocks. On the lawn of the Catholic college, some high, polished granite walls form a semblance of a vast cell. Confined within the cell, a knobby, tortured giant gestures at the world. The giant looks like a monster made by Henry Moore – he is contorted and full of voids and sinuous hollows. The name of the monument is "The Torment of Louis Riel."
Louis Riel is the unlikely hero of modern Winnipeg. His journey from criminal terrorist to being proclaimed as "the father of modern Manitoba" is a curious exercise in historical revisionism. This ascent from martyrdom to icon justifies the optimism cautiously implicit in the Museum of Human Rights. As we ascend the alabaster ramps of history, healing occurs and those once disdained or feared become heros.
In 1863, when the U. S. Army was chasing the Dakota Sioux across the empty grasslands of what is now North Dakota, their pursuit was interrupted by a curious encounter. The army found that the river valley that it was crossing was blocked by a vast procession. More than 10,000 people were migrating along the water-course, hunting as they went. The people pushed carts with six-foot tall wheels laden with their belongings and pitched tent cities each night as encampments. Men, women with babies, children, marched together each day, hunting parties scouring the bare hills and badlands for game. At night, around the fires, people sang and danced and many of the older men carried fiddles that they played. The people spoke a strange creole – a language called Michaf in which the verbs were all Cree and the nouns French. Most of the people were Catholic and there were black-robed priests among them. These were Metis, that is a half-breed population, the result of French-Canadian voyageurs and fur traders taking Cree women as their wives "after the manner of the country." The Metis were numerous and occupied an ambiguous status – they were neither Indian nor White. Later, the Canadian government entered into treaty obligations with the so-called First Nations, that is, the Indians. But the Metis were not Indians and no one made treaties with them. They were also not White and, therefore, didn’t possess the rights of the European settlers. Louis Riel was a Metis and, therefore, disenfranchised – he led two rebellions of Metis and Cree people and, ultimately, was hanged for his role in these insurrections.
Riel is a strange figure, part politician, part terrorist-guerilla, part religious visionary. At present, people in Manitoba regard him as a freedom fighter for the rights of the Metis and numerous statues and monuments suggest a bad conscience about what happened to him. These monuments are regarded as evidence of reconciliation between the Catholic French-speaking population in Manitoba, now a tiny minority, the Cree and Assiniboine Indians, and the dominant European people, largely Protestant Scotch Irish. Of course, the reality is intricate and far beyond the scope of what I might present in this essay. However, a few notes are in order.
The south part of Manitoba from Fort Garry at the Forks of the Assinboine and Red Rivers to Pembina in today’s North Dakota was owned by the Hudson Bay Company and called Rupert’s Land. At that time, Manitoba wasn’t a province in which the Hudson Bay Company was resident – rather, the Hudson Bay Company was a private firm that, in effect, owned a vast territory. After the American Civil War, Canadians feared that the aggressive and warlike Minnesotans would invade what is now Manitoba and seize it. So the Hudson Bay Company sold Rupert’s Land to the Canadian Federation. (Thus, a Minnesota invasion of the Red River country would be an offense against both Canada and the Commonwealth.) A territorial governor, an English speaker politician, named MacDougal was appointed, much to the dismay of the French-speaking and Catholic Metis.
In the late 1860's, the Dawson road was being built. This was a highway from the Red River Colony at St. Boniface (now Winnipeg) and Port Arthur on the upper coast of Lake Superior. One of the laborers on the Dawson Road was a thoroughly unpleasant fellow named Thomas Scott. Scott was a trouble-maker and brawler, an Orangeman from Northern Ireland. Scott led a strike on the Dawson Road work, assaulted some people, and was fired. He moved to Winnipeg where he distinguished himself by bullying "half-breeds" – that is, the local Metis people. Scott was affiliated with the territorial governor, also an aggressive and racist Protestant. Louis Riel was the leader of the Metis people congregated in St. Boniface, across the river from Fort Garry where the governor and Scott were headquartered. On the steps of the St. Boniface cathedral, now an imposing ruin, Riel gave a fiery speech and, then, led a rebellion. With about 400 men, he crossed the river and seized Fort Garry. The uprising was bloodless and no one was hurt in the coup that resulted in the Metis occupying the fort.
At first, Scott was captured. But he was so belligerent and obnoxious that Riel’s men let him go, ordering him out of the Red River Colony. Scott continued to harass the Metis at St. Boniface so Riel had him to be arrested again and jailed at Fort Garry. While imprisoned, Scott developed a severe case of diarrhea which distressed both his captors and fellow prisoners. Scott continued to insult everyone and make threats, but, now, he was also physically filthy and malodorous. The combination of a foul mouth and diarrhea was simply too much to tolerate. Riel convened a firing squad and told his men to execute Scott for "insubordination" – presumably failure to control his bowels. Scott was blindfolded, protesting his innocence and persisting in making hair-raising threats. The firing squad was drunk and, although lots of shots were fired, Scott was only wounded. One of the men tried to administer the coup de grace with his pistol, but his hand was shaking and, despite the close range, he missed. The bullet ripped through Scott’s cheek and, then, exited through the cartilage of his nose. This wound knocked Scott out, but, apparently, didn’t kill him. The executioners loaded Scott into a makeshift casket, but the ground was too cold to bury him (it was January) and so he was dragged outside to the banks of the river in the rough pine box. There, Scott revived and begged someone to put him out of his misery. The wounded man screamed for five hours before Riel himself hiked out to the casket and shot him through the heart.
Most of this narrative is murky and every point disputed. When Scott’s casket was exhumed a few years later, no corpse was found in it. Riel denied that he had executed Scott personally although he boasted that it was "a good thing" that he had done ordering the man to be shot. The Canadian government sent an expeditionary force to the Red River Colony, ostensibly to defend the place against the dangerously aggressive Minnesotans, but, more probably, to roust Riel from Fort Garry. Before the expedition reached Manitoba, using the Dawson Road as its thoroughfare, Riel issued declarations pronouncing that the territory would henceforth be a part of Canada, established to afford equal rights to its Metis and English-speaking citizens. Riel, then, fled, moving to Plattsburgh, New York. He was tried in absentia and convicted of the murder of Thomas Scott. Despite this conviction, he was three-times elected, also in absentia, to represent the Red River Colony in the Canadian parliament’s House of Commons.
Thomas Scott, who seems to have been a thug, was regarded as a martyr by the Protestants in Manitoba. On Princess Street, not far from the Manitoba capitol building, an elaborate Romanesque building with towers and a cavernous portico, its shadowy half-circle doorway round as a train tunnel, still stands. Although without name now, this structure was once the Thomas Scott Building.
The first insurrection led by Louis Riel, concluding with his escape to the United States in 1870, is called the Red River Rebellion. The second uprising that Riel fomented is the so-called Northwest Rebellion, a brief conflict that ended in 1885. In the interim between these two armed conflicts, Riel had become a religious fanatic. During his exile in upstate New York, he took refuge with the Oblate Fathers. Gradually, Riel developed a religious mania that led him to disrupt Roman Catholic Church services with wild proclamations that "Rome has fallen." Some friends spirited him over the Quebec border and he was confined in a lunatic asylum for several months under the name "Louis David." (Although he was a member of the House of Commons in absentia, warrants remained outstanding for Riel’s arrest.) During his mania, Riel prayed for hours and hired servants to hold his arms upright in a crucified position for days on end. After a while, Riel recovered his senses and, then, moved to Montana. Indefatigably political, he tried to curtail the whisky trade to the Indians and mixed blood people in the Sun River territory and, then, ran for the legislature as a Republican. He married and, ultimately, his wife had two children.
When the bison were hunted to extinction in what is now Saskatchewan, the Metis people in that area starved. The government tried to educate the nomadic clans in the ways of dry-land farming. But the Metis were not willing to surrender their old ways without a fight. They gathered at a village named Batoche in north-central Saskatchewan and drew up a list of grievances to present to the government in Ottawa. Riel was recalled to Canada and went to Batoche where he issued manifestos demanding treaty rights for the Metis. His religious mania had returned and Riel was reported to be agitated and erratic in his behavior. Riel now was the proponent of a new form of Catholicism that made common cause with the Protestants against Rome. He called his congregation the Exovedote – a neologism meaning "the ones who have been ousted."
There is dispute as to whether Ottawa was about to accede to some of the Metis demands when Riel declared war. Allied with the Cree, Riel’s Metis cut telegraph lines and attacked the railroad. The world was different in 1885 and the government was able to send a large force of soldiers cross-country by train. The buffalo were gone and the Indians were debilitated with booze and sickness and the frontier had closed. The Royal Mounted Police and the army fought the rebels at Batoche and defeated them. Riel was captured. The Cree continued fighting for a few weeks but were decisively defeated in the battle of Loon Lake.
Riel had declared himself the "governor of the provisional state of Saskatchewan." He was transported to Regina and tried for treason. The jurors said that Riel was "tried for treason but convicted for the murder of Thomas Scott." The rebel’s lawyers pled with Riel to allow them to advance a plea of insanity. But Riel refused saying that "life without dignity" was not worth living. Appeals were argued in Ottawa. The head of the judicial council there is reported to have declared: "He shall die though every dog in Quebec bark in his favor." This remark reveals the persistent schism in Canada between its English and French-speaking people – one of the terrorist cells of the Quebecois separatists in the seventies was named Louis Riel. Riel’s appeals were rejected and he was hanged in the Northwest Mounted Police barracks in Regina on November 16, 1885. The hanging was botched – he died by strangulation after struggling on the end of the rope for four minutes. Before the hood was pulled over his face, Riel said: "Remember Madame Forget". No one knows for sure what this was supposed to mean. When the hood was removed from his head, Riel’s features were said to be composed and his eyes closed. People cut souvenir locks of hair from his head.
The great rebel’s body was sent to Saint Vital near Winnipeg and Riel was buried in the graveyard at Saint Boniface, across the Red River from Fort Garry and the place on river bank where the Human Rights Museum now points its glittering glass finger to heaven.
Twice life-sized Louis Riel stands indignant and four-square on a plinth overlooking the marble landing where water taxis deliver passengers on the Assiniboine River to the legislative building. The sculpture is imposing, but primitive – it seems rough-hewn, a monolith with human features mostly dominated by a big bronze moustache under a big bronze nose. Riel leans forward slightly, nodding his giant head, and he holds a legislative enactment rolled as a scroll in his right hand. Between 1999 and 2011, 13 bills were introduced in Canadian parliament pertaining to Louis Riel, most of those were devoted to a posthumous pardon or reversal of his conviction. Since 2008, the third Monday in February is declared Louis Riel Day in Manitoba – in other provinces, the holiday is called "Family Day."
Across the street from the monument to Louis Riel, another symbol of Manitoba stands on the legislature building’s grounds. This is a ten-foot tall Inuksut, that is, a cairn of balanced rocks built by the Inuit to mark places of significance in Arctic. The Inuksut on the parliament lawn made from bronze or, possibly, concrete and has a kitsch aspect. The base of the imitation cairn is comprised of two hunched polar bears on which the simulated stones are stacked. This Inuksut has the form of a niungvaliruluit – that is rocks piled to form a window-shaped opening that aims the eye at some geographical feature significant to the hunters traversing the empty landscape. (The place aligned with the sighting window may be a bay where seals are common or a low pass frequented by caribou or simply an ancient trail leading along the barren sea-shore.) I walked up to the Inuksut and looked through it but saw only a couple of nice brownstones beyond the parliament lawn. Trees have grown up blocking the view, something that would not happen in the Arctic, and, perhaps, the window was aligned toward the statue of Louis Riel on the river-bank although shrubbery prevented me from testing this hypothesis.
Many facsimile Inuksuit (the plural of Inuksut) grace Winnipeg. A massive cairn made from what seems like ocher-colored fiberglass stands at the entrance to the Churchill journey at the zoo in Assiniboine Park. Actual Inuksuit in the Arctic are small, knee-high or, perhaps, as tall as a man, although there is one cairn on Southwest Baffin island that is nine feet in height. The faux cairn in the zoological garden is probably eight feet high. It is accompanied with a explanatory plaque that says that the Inuit word Inuksut means "that which acts in the capacity of a human being." Some Inuksuit look like doorways ("tupqujaq"); others are shaped like men with extended arms and globular stone heads. Simpler forms include turaaq – that is single pointer stones identifying alignments – napataq which are upright monoliths and caribou spirit stones, smaller boulders set side by side by big rock outcroppings. Phallus cairns complete with testicle boulders are common. Some of the Inuksut are very ancient and thought to have been built in the time before there were human beings in the land – spirits made them or polar bear people. Ancient Inuksut are often covered with colorful lichen. In some ceremonial sites, there are dozens of them. The Inuit understand that each rock cairn or monument of this kind is significant and must be paid respect but, often, even the elders can’t recall what the stones are supposed to mean. In Winnipeg, the Inuksut are entries opening into the far North. They form pathways to the Arctic, a place whose spirit, it seems, suffuses the city.
Everyone at the Holiday Inn where we are staying is Native. In the elevator, two teenage boys wear hoodies. "Do I look punk enough?" the one kid asks his friend. They are bound for downtown where Metallica is playing. People have flown in from the Arctic to see this concert and every hotel is full of Indians who have traveled to Winnipeg for the show. On Portage Street downtown, we see a great queue of Indians waiting in line for entry to the gleaming glass concert hall. Later in the month, Sir Paul McCartney will play that venue. The Metallica fans are well-behaved and none of them seem to be drunk.
Metallica’s fans in Churchill (who are legion, I suppose) had to fly down to Winnipeg. The train line to Hudson Bay was washed-out by flooding in the Spring of 2017. Aerial photographs show the brown abraded tundra, broken by eskers where little twisted trees shelter in the lea of piles of fractured rock. Lichen-painted stone shelves hold bog-water and the train tracks seem soggy, sinking into the muskeg. The parallel rails are warped and the sleepers are rotten and in disarray. The Winnipeg Free Press announces that there will be a great celebration in Churchill in mid-October 2018 to commemorate the restoration of rail service from Winnipeg to the deep water port on Hudson Bay. But the line is not yet fixed and there are a number of shattered places a hundred miles south of Churchill that wait repair. The October celebration seems more hopeful than is, perhaps, warranted, but, perhaps, is intended as an incentive to the railroad to complete these repairs. It is important to remember that the vast majority of Canada is without roads and without rail access. In the Free Press’Sunday supplement, an article praises a First Nations tribe that has just completed a 100 mile road down from where the reserve occupies an isolated peninsula on Lake Winnipeg to the trans-Canadian highway. The reservation is very poor and has bad water – the people have been under a "boil water" advisory since the late 1980's. The road will allow the people in the tribe to seek employment in Winnipeg and travel back and forth from their homes without availing themselves of the expensive services of a bush pilot.
Lake Winnipeg, as I have noted, is not at Winnipeg, but north, eighty to 100 miles depending upon the side of the vast body of water to which you drive. I went to eastern shores of the lake to the tip of the peninsula on which Victoria Beach is located. The road to the lake passes through the Brokenhead First Nations reserve and, then, forges a way through dense pine forests to the resort town of Great Beach. There isn’t really a town at that place, just some narrow gravel roads that curve into the woods where there are cottages built next to the water – you can’t really see the lake from Grand Beach: it’s the place where the trees stop and a plain of grey water shows as a dull glint. A couple of trailers, along the little gravel lane in the woods, have been painted in Day-Glo colors, reds and blues and eye-assaulting yellows and some naked mannequins stand sentinel to the tee-shirt and souvenir shacks built as lean-to’s against the garish mobile homes – one of trailers is placarded "Langey’s: home of the 24 inch hot dog." Farther up the peninsula, the road slides a little downhill out of the woods and crosses a big marsh (grand marais) where lagoons and muddy canals shimmer in several acres of brown, man-tall reeds. Once this was an estuary, but it is now a marsh vibrating with bird songs and the belch of innumerable frogs. A tower stands on the higher ground above the marsh, a ridge that dips its finger northward into the cold waters of the lake. This is Victoria Beach, a place marked by a cast-iron archway in which the name of the settlement is displayed in wire letters against the cold, crisp air. A broad, grassy lane runs down to the water. There is a windowless stone bunker of a wastewater treatment facility at the point. Some wooden steps lead to a beach covered with toppled sofa-sized boulders. The horizon is all sky and water although there is an island across from the point with low, grey cliffs facing to the south. The cottages along the shore are hidden – you can surmise their location by the Maple Leaf flags trembling in the wind above the tops of the birch and fir trees.
The sand yields under my feet. Some water has slopped between two reddish-brown boulders lying on the edge of the lake. Waves slap against the stones. I stoop to dip my finger in the lake’s water. The wet brown sand is sprinkled with white, smashed sea shell fragments.
Fort Alexander is a very old settlement where the Winnipeg River flows into the great lake at Traverse Bay. Ojibway (Anishinaabe) Indians have lived there for hundreds of years and the French explorer, LaVerendrye established a fur trading post near the bay in 1739, although the exact location of this place is disputed. It is clear that the Northwest Company and Hudson Bay Company operated competing trading posts at Traverse Bay, these outposts built beginning in 1795. A large residential school for Indians was constructed at Fort Alexander in 1912. (This is a bit ironic because the local First Nations Sagkeeng Ojibway are participants in a class action, the so-called Scholar Day litigation, seeking redress for abuses committed at just such schools.) Today, the place looks impoverished. The headlands above the wide, turbulent-looking river mouth are bare granite and little shacks are strewn atop the rocky promontory, small wooden structures that look like ice-fishing huts, temporary, it seems, with tin chimneys pushed up through their shingle roofs. The inlet is dotted with small row-boats where natives are fishing for their supper. The bay is windy and the trees growing from fissures in the big boulders crouch and cower. The water glitters with icy-looking white-tops and, where the bay narrows, the river gushes forth through a canyon mouth, incensed with the distance that it has flowed from Rainy Lake on the Minnesota border. There are signs along the road winding through the reservation that order people to boil their drinking water – unpumped septic tanks have overflowed and poisoned the soil. Some larger wooden buildings are half-lost in the woods. It’s a barren-looking place, lichen growing like graffiti on the big granite outcroppings, and the houses are horned and antlered with trophies and an ancient Inukshut would not look out of place on the slabs of stone above the bay.
Off the reserve, the villages along the Winnipeg River are ghost towns. Once there was a big paper mill in Powerview, a few miles inland from Fort Alexander. But the plant failed and was torn down in 2012. Some hydro-electric dams block places in the river where there were waterfalls once – it doesn’t take many workers to staff those plants which provide power to Winnipeg. The towns are empty and the sad little graveyards overgrown.
At the provincial Capitol, an official Manitoba Deputy Hierophant is in the well of the rotunda, Dan-Browning for an attentive group of elderly people. The Chief Hierophant wearing a suit coat and a grey tie stands to the side, attending to what his deputy is saying to the tour group. Sometimes, he gently corrects his deputy, mouthing a word or making a gesture to revise something that the Deputy Hierophant has said. The Deputy Hierophant has already had the visitors count the number of steps leading up to the broad floor under the capitol dome – 13 steps in three ascents: 39. He has shown them the 13 stars in the cupola above and had them count the alabaster balustrades around the opening down to the rotunda well where the old people are now ranged along the wall listening to him. Above on the balcony one-third of the way to the top of the dome, there is a whispering gallery. The tour guide has shown them the acoustics at that place and had them count the carytids bearing the dome on their shoulders – thirty-nine as it turns out. In the well of the rotunda, the Deputy Hierophant says that the corner stone was laid on a day in June 1908 when Venus was conjoined with Mercury. Mercury is Hermes, the trickster, and he appears atop the capitol dome as the Golden Boy of Winnipeg, dashing toward the promise of the north with torch in hand. The child of Venus and Mercury is Hermaphrodite. The Deputy Hierophant points out that the bronze torch posts supporting electric-light globes in the rotunda show a bearded male on one columnar side and a bare-breasted maiden on the opposing surface – "Hermaphrodite," the Hierophant says. He adds that the astronomical conjunction of Mercury and Venus occurs only once every "several years" – the Chief Hierophant raises three fingers: "Every three years," the Deputy Hierophant tells his listeners, amending his account.
Tradition holds that, if you stand in the middle of the rotunda surrounded by the 39 hermaphroditic torch-bearers and whisper your wishes out loud, they will come true. The Deputy Hierophant stands atop the 13-pointed star embedded in the floor and sotto voce whispers his desire that Winnipeg’s hockey team win the Stanley Cup this season. Everyone laughs. One by one the old people stand upon the 13-pointed star and whisper their wishes. When they have departed, I walk to that place and whisper something about world peace, but it’s insincere – in fact, I am wishing to see the grain elevator and cold shores of Hudson Bay at Churchill where the great white bears wander, so many of them that on Halloween, men stalk the streets among the trick-or-treaters carrying flares and pepper spray bear-repellant, each cradling a shot gun or thirty aught six in their arms.
One wall in the capitol rotunda unfurls a large mosaic image of wounded and victorious Canadian soldiers returning to their homes after the Great War. The colors are autumnal except the shroud-like white bandages worn by the injured soldiers. Bronze Canadian soldiers are everywhere in the town, blowing whistles to encourage troops forward, waving their arms in the air, or running into a hail of bullets bent over as if breasting the icy pellets of a Manitoba blizzard. (It must be remembered that, as members of the British Commonwealth, the Canadians fought in all of the major engagements of the war – by contrast, American doughboys were deployed only in 1918, that is the last year of t he Great War.) I see no monuments anywhere to World War Two – perhaps, this is due to shame. The City of St. Louis, a German cruise-liner crowded with Jewish refugees tried to dock repeatedly in Halifax and other cities on Canada’s Atlantic coast but was denied entry into those harbors. The St. Louis returned to England and, then, France and more than half of its passengers were later captured by the Nazis and murdered. The story is told in the Museum of Human Rights under the sleek, glass tower aimed at heaven.
The 39 steps to the rotunda are flanked by massive life-size bison cast in bronze. The bison are immensely heavy and they seem to bear down on the marble pedestals that they are pawing with their mighty hooves. The legend is that the bronze bison were so heavy that it was feared that hauling them into the building would mar the delicate terrazzo flooring underfoot. So crews cut slabs of ice from the Assiniboine River below the place where Louis Riel now waves his scroll-shaped manifesto. The bison were set on the ice-slabs and, then, slid into the building.
Ye’s Buffet across the street from the Polo Park mall is a few blocks south of Ellice Avenue where we are staying. It’s a popular place with a chaotic parking lot always full with some vehicles idling and, even, double-parked. Inside, the banquet hall is immense with high ceilings where fans are lazily rotating and dark stone walls decorated with colorful murals of Chinese people feasting. The buffet offerings, set out under sunny-looking heat lamps, are numerous – each long table with its multitude of steam-trays adorned with a great green jade dragon at its end. The place is packed with Natives eating as if their life depended upon it. During the hour that Jack and I were at our table, we didn’t see anyone departing the hall – grim-faced patrons picked at their food or drank beer, waiting for their second- or third-wind. A group of Chinese nerds, apparently just released from some gaming or robotics convention, charges into the room and the boys are huge and look very hungry and the Asian waitresses in their black blouses and slacks grin at the boys, covering their mouths as they giggle to one another. A cardboard sign posted on the table says: "Love food. Don’t waste it." Ye’s up-scale place is good because all Chinese buffets are good in their own way, but there is nothing special about the food which is, in fact, generic Chinese buffet food. Ye’s operates restaurants in Kitchener and Toronto. The toilets have spectacular fixtures and obsidian-black walls but the ebony marble floor is entirely puddled with urine and, accordingly, the stone is very slippery. The ostentatious stone-work creates an unnecessary hazard.
The night before we ate at Ye’s, we drove to the buffet but found the parking lot so crowded and so confusing with narrow one-way lanes that we drove down Ellice west all the way to the Peripheral Highway and, then, beyond where pagoda-shaped kiosks mark the entry to the big Assiniboine Downs race-track. West of the race-track, the prairie is mostly empty all the way to Brandon and big storm clouds were scouring the flat, dark land. Finding no place to eat on the outskirts, we drove back down Ellice toward the city and stopped at the Yafe café, a Palestinian place. I couldn’t see any parking places on Ellice and, so, I turned into the residential neighborhood, a dark lane where small brick houses stood closely pressed together on tiny, withered lawns. For some reason, there were two sidewalks running parallel to one another and enclosing a boulevard where sad trees stood in a line on a sliver of grass, wet leaves plummeting down on our heads and shoulders in the cold drizzle. Ahead, I saw a square brick building, a commercial structure with its downstairs store-front dark but a frieze of brightly lit windows on the second floor – the windows were like a mural looking into the early 1960's, several mannequin-like people peering out into the intermittent rain, the men wearing suits and the women top-heavy with big bosoms and bee-hive hairdos, a sort of social club from which faint music was emanating from the blue-tinted and tiled interior.
Almost all of the food on offer in Winnipeg is ethnic. But it isn’t good ethnic. Rather, it’s cheap, hand-me-down ethnic food made to be micro-waved and poured onto plates from cans. If you want an elegant dinner in Winnipeg, you have to go to one of the licensed supper clubs where you can sit in comfort on slick, red upholstery in small booths in a dimly lit room lined with velvet and bordello paintings. Here you can eat chops with baked potato while, whispering from hidden speakers, Sinatra croons to a tune by Henry Mancini.
Homer’s is a Greek restaurant, a little like the old Italian places near the University where my father took me when I was a little boy. The outside of the windowless shed is painted with the Aegean Sea and, next to the door, there is a stucco bust of the blind poet. The tables are set under bowers that are made from white-washed lathe and wire with plastic grape vines heavily laden with plastic grapes tangled around them. Another mural inside shows some cliffs and the snow-white domes and turrets of a fishing village a little like a wedding cake – the picture is labeled "Sandorini." On the wall by the cashier, a TV screen displays images of Tuscany. I don’t think Tuscany is in Greece, although, I suppose, there may once have been Greek colonies in that place – on the screen, I can see an Etruscan tomb surrounded by funereal pines. Homer’s is about three blocks from where Winnipeg’s film-poet laureate was raised. Guy Maddin lived in the building at 800 and 802 West Ellice. Today, the place is Tam’s dry-cleaning and tailor-shop, a chunky, heavy-set structure with a grim-looking storefront and residential quarters upstairs. Maddin’s mother was a hairdresser and operated a salon out of the family’s home. The place was mysterious to Guy, a female sanctum, and, sometimes, his films feature delirious recollections of the salon and its habitues. Across from the dry-cleaning place, a Korean restaurant, "licensed" with a sign that says "dine-in or take-out" flashes to the empty intersection that it is "open." Jack says to me that the place looks absolutely poisonous.
Guy Maddin’s first film shown in the United States was Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988). Gimli is a little town founded by Icelanders about 90 kilometers north of Winnipeg on the great lake. Maddin’s film struck me with the force of a revelation and I admired it intensely – his sensibility was unlike that of any other film maker known to me. One night, at a party at my house, we got a little tipsy and tried to call Maddin. I dialed the International Operator and, in fact, was given his phone-number. At that time, the director still lived year-round in Winnipeg. We drank some more beer to stiffen our resolve and, then, I dialed the number. The phone rang for a long time but no one answered.
Louis Riel’s walking stick occupies a glass case at the Manitoba Museum. The stick is cherry-colored, so brightly polished that it glistens like a finely tumbled agate. The stick is gnarled, with a spiral, corkscrew grain. When Riel was captured after the Battle of Batoche, he expected that he would be executed and, so, he gave the stick to a friend and told him to keep it. The museum is immense and brilliantly designed. There are sad tales of blizzards and diptheria epidemics and small Indian children cruelly confined in residential schools. A number of panels depict the heroic efforts required to complete the train line to Churchill. An aerial shot of Churchill shows some big grain elevators standing in front of piers extending into a green lagoon. Another Inuksut monument dominates a room devoted to the doomed Franklin expedition lost in it’s search of the Northwest Passage. In a nook, you can put on headphones and listen to elderly Inuit recalling how their grandfathers told stories of strange white men starving on islands where caribou grazed and the seas were full of fat merry seals, wonderful places made for human beings to hunt and be happy.
Karst-country is pierced with sinkholes and there are caves underground. Narcisse, Manitoba lies in the center of this formation and, in that place, the sinkholes dotting the prairie are full of garter snakes, thousands of them tangled together in dense balls. The snakes spend the winter underground, coiled together to conserve body warmth – they are in a state called brumation (this means they wake sometimes to eat and drink water, but, then, become inert again.) In the Spring, the sunlight stirs the snakes and the females release a pheromone that attracts males, twenty or thirty at a time. The snakes form mating balls, tightly knotted globes of writhing serpents. The snake dens at Narcisse are about one hour from Winnipeg, a half-hour from Gimli and so the exhibit in the museum is a bit redundant – after all, you can drive out to the dens in May and see the pits filled with living carpets of garter snakes. But the diorama in the museum is spectacular and I take some pictures to send to Julie: "Snake Den near our Hotel" is how I caption the images. Crows and ravens gather over the snake dens and feast on the serpents – snakes with their bellies ripped open sometimes drop out of the sky when you are gazing down into the fifteen-foot deep sinkholes. The guides will tell you that garter snakes may bite, but they are not venomous – this is untrue: in 2000, it was discovered that the rear teeth in a garter snake’s mouth exude venom when they bite, but that it is very weak. The web site for the famous snake dens at Narcisse say that you can handle the "snakes so long as you are gentle with them."
Near the Manitoba museum, the Ukrainian culture center occupies an old Victorian building that was, once, a Labor ("Labour") Temple. The structure is heavily built with turrets and a crenellated cornice. Inside, there is an exhibition of icons painted on the lids of ammo boxes that contained AK 47 bullets. The ammo boxes were retrieved from battlefields in the Ukraine where Nationalist forces have fought the Russians, particularly near the Donetsk airport. A Tv set plays a loop explaining the conflict and the icons – the Russians are alleged to have used poison gas at Donetsk and other places. The icons are beautiful. One of them shows the Madonna as the Theotokos (or "God-bearer") – she holds seven swords and the epithet that describes her is "the Softener of Evil Hearts." On the Tv, the narrator reminds us that "after every war, peace must come." The icons, it is alleged, are not about the war, but about the peace after war.
At WAG, sculptures adorn a rooftop terrace. Some angular steel works that look like industrial equipment occupy pedestals near the door that leads to the elevators. Metal chairs accompany a nondescript table on which someone has left a can of diet Pepsi dive-bombed by a fat bee. A big Inuksut with a window-torso beckons from atop a smooth travertine plinth. The raw texture of the cairn stones, all irregular and fractured, contrasts with the sleek platform on which the man-tall Inuksut has been erected. Two conical heaps of irregular stones the color of cardboard support the long vertical uprights that frame the window. Stubby arms protrude from the side of the cairn, rock flippers that seem to channel the breeze and the Inuksut is crowned by a small pile of rubble on the flat stone serving as the frame’s upper cross-member.
If you look through the window, sighting across the roof tops, the frame encloses the northeast quadrant of the city where there are low towers built in the 1890's with heavy stucco cornices and, in the distance, a great expanse of parallel train-tracks, engraved as if with a burin into the horizon. The view through the stone frame vibrates almost imperceptibly with the heartbeat of the broken rocks that "act in the capacity of a human being." The light inside the window has a different texture than that surrounding the monument, radiance that is more mixed with shadow and, thus, casts things in sharper relief. Far away, above the gleaming rails, you can see a little cloud, not more than the size of a fist that approaches on the faint respiration of the breeze. The cloud sheds grey lobes in its wake and the air darkens. Snow plunges from the cloud, driven downward by a burst of air and mist rises from the river, grey with faint blue highlights if you stare into it long enough. Traffic slows on the streets, impeded not so much by the fog but by the pingos erupting like volcanoes at the intersections and asphalt is shattered by the frost into polyhedral patterns. The concrete and brick sides of the building are painted with lichen and the trees along the boulevards are stunted larch and white spruce, avenues ending in sedge meadows and muskeg with tussocks where herds of caribou are grazing. Igluvigaq line the sidewalks and you can hear dogs barking in harness to a gamatik that someone drives across an intersection that is like a frozen lake. The biting flies arise from the muskeg and moving shrouds of mosquitos roll across the land and Frog, Oma-ka-ki, who is the king of the insects, sings in the alley that is a deep, hollow cistern. The unreal city unfurls from its center and the white bears prowl the rim of the sea where the great weight of ice has displaced the permafrost and tilted it upward like the cup-shaped edge of a crater and the field of train-tracks becomes a harbor where pods of orca are hunting the swift, lithe seals. The sun is fixed in the sky and can not set and hunters emerge from their caribou skin lodges to survey the desolation around them which is not desolation at all in their eyes, but the navel of the earth and a bounteous table set for their delectation and, then, the white whirls in as a great polar bear sits silently beside a manhole in the center of an empty, snow-clogged street, waiting for a seal to emerge from the sewers and, then, the great darkness comes and the sky is full of sheets of green and violet flame shaken the way a woman might shake-out a rug during Spring cleaning.
On our last night in Winnipeg, Jack suggested that we drive downtown to see the statute of Louis Riel standing by the legislative building on the Assiniboine River bank. The street on the south side of the capitol lawn was empty and we parked close to the monument. The lawns around the legislative building were silent except for the rhythmic cries of Oma-ka-ki who is the king of insects. Louis Riel was lit by a street-lamp over his shoulder and his features were in shadow except for the great bronze moustache bracketing his lips and giving his head the aspect of a winged being. The colossus tilted toward us, the bludgeon of his metal manifesto in his right hand. We went down the steps to the river flowing soundlessly past the marble landing. Park police in an amber-lit, electric-powered cart glided by and a solitary jogger appeared from the river-walk, complicating his run by repeatedly dashing up and down the steps in front of the Great Rebel. The jogger was bald and the street lamp put a little highlight on his bare skull. From the stone landing, we could look up and down the river. The only bridge was to the west and the river walk in the opposite direction led along the winding course of the stream for hundreds of yards, shadowed by trees and shrubs that shone emerald-green where the street lamps lit them. The moon had risen and was bathing her toes in the place where the Assiniboine bent toward the Forks and, above the bronze insurgent, hovering over the darkened capitol dome, the Golden Boy shone in the sky like a remote and faded planet.
It was windy in Grand Forks. We reached that place about noon and, so, Jack and I stopped to eat at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant. The afternoon was hot – it was 94 degrees. The gale stripped corn husks away from the corn and pitched them, like discarded snake skins, across the four-lane highway. Out in flat distance, combines were sitting in pale splashes of dust. The dust was shapeless and bright in the hot sunshine. I decided to drive back to Austin instead of stopping at Alexandria as had been my plan. Later, around sunset, we drove into Northfield and ate at a McDonald’s. On the way to the freeway, the nose of my car was pointed into the setting sun. The sun was bright red and had spilled its blood all over the highway so that I seemed to drive on the asphalt’s soft scarlet tongue.
An hour earlier, we were driving through Brooklyn Center a north suburb to Minneapolis. A big sign advertising a Ford Dealership said: Welcome to the North Country. I was skeptical about the billboard. "The North Country?" No, not exactly – in fact, not by a long shot.