Play It Again, Sam

This essay is the first in a series of four short essays that I wrote for the National Post’s Afterword section.

When I was a child, my father bought the house that his father had built and then lost during the Depression, a lovely old place on Kingsway Avenue in Winnipeg’s south end. There we had “Communists” living next door. Bourgeois Communists, I guess: the father of the house was a professor of mathematics who had been drummed out of the U.S. for his political beliefs during McCarthy’s circus, the Red Scare.

But at the time, as a kid, I knew our neighbours were Communist because they had cats, whereas we had dogs. My mother knew they were Communists because the man’s wife had a thing for my dad, and would seek any occasion to brush up against him in the back yard. After the neighbour’s wife put her hand into my father’s pant pocket purportedly looking for a finishing nail to fix the fence, my Liberal mother began to call the Communist mother “Busy Fingers.” I would associate Communism with carpentry for years thereafter.

In this way, a Canadian child comes to politics. Through sensuality, through shenanigans, through deceit, through farce. The real stuff, our neighbour’s political convictions (or the way our neighbour’s politics were construed by the FBI) that had forced him to leave his country and go into exile in pleasant Canada – this material is run through the sieve of human perception, by the hall light left on at night to alleviate what that well-known 19th century satirist Karl Marx once called “the tradition of all dead generations that [would] weigh like a nightmare” on my ten year old brain.

One of the most interesting satirical observations by Karl Marx is this: “… all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice… the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Farce is a comedy of exaggerated and improbable situations – such as the disingenuous Mike Duffy’s possible sabotage of the next federal election – with incomprehensible plots comprised of many twists and random events, purposefully convoluted to mask its own futility. The farcical quality of history that our friend Karl Marx so deftly identifies is tragic and relentless, a “march of folly,” as Barbara Tuchman has written. A horrible example is the current reiteration of revolutionary ISIS, with its bizarre costuming of pathological murder in the language of religion, a video game in real life.

Political rhetoric, often silly yet disturbing, comes out of Mr. Dressup’s Tickle Trunk. Human relations are wildly uncertain, as if conducted through semaphore. This makes it complicated to get along with one’s family. And it appears to make peace impossible between “civilizations.”

But fiction thrives on betrayals and secret codes, finding its nutrients in the schisms, the doubts, that private sense of fraudulence and other manifestations of self-consciousness in human beings. Fiction seeks the heat created by secrecy and thwarted desire, and it is innately, often tenderly ironic. It’s an interesting place to live, fiction. It helps us gird our loins for the real stuff, to get a handle on things.