On March 28th, 2007, at 3 pm, I was sitting in the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons, I and forty-nine other artists from across Canada, fifty in all...Hang on: forty-nine, plus Martel himself, that makes... OK, the math checks out. On with the essay.
...and I got to thinking about stillness.Uh oh. Going abstract this early on is a bad sign.
To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still.I guess this makes the hero of Johnny Got His Gun a kind of aesthete. "He's not paralyzed, he's contemplative!" Remind me never to invite Martel to a midnight viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene—doesn’t that lull us into contemplation?Um, sure. So getting back to the House of Commons?
Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by.There's one at every party, isn't there? Stick to beer, Yann.
So, anyway, getting back to the House of Commons...
I was thinking about that, about stillness...Jesus, any more banal repetition and this will start to feel like an evening with Philip Glass. (Just establishing my high-culture credentials for what's to come....)
...and I was also thinking, more prosaically, about arts funding, not surprising since we fifty [hang on: forty-nine, plus Martel... yup, still works out] artists were there in the House to help celebrate the fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts, that towering institution that has done so much to foster the identity of Canadians. I was thinking that to have a bare-bones approach to arts funding, as the present Conservative government has, to think of the arts as mere entertainment, to be indulged in after the serious business of life, that—in conjunction with retooling education so that it centres on the teaching of employable skills rather than the creating of thinking citizens—is to engineer souls that are post-historical, post-literate and pre-robotic; that is, blank souls wired to be unfulfilled and susceptible to conformism at its worst—intolerance and totalitarianism—because incapable of thinking for themselves, and vowed to a life of frustrated serfdom at the service of the feudal lords of profit.Like I said: stick to beer if you can't handle the hard stuff. What Martel is saying here is that the Canada Council is the only thing keeping us from becoming robots in a post-historical, totalitarian world that also somehow possesses a pre-industrial feudal economy. It's like an early Rush album, without the drum solo.
Just so that you know: the parliamentary appropriation this year for the Canada Council for the Arts is $173 million. Next year it will be $182 million. Does that sound like a lot?I don't know whether it's a lot, but it sure sounds like $9 million more. Not exactly the most efficient way to set about erecting the Temples of Syrinx. Martel's the math-whiz, however, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Let me put it into perspective. A budget of $182 million translates to $5.50 per Canadian per year. Most Canadians I know spend more than that in a week on parking, some in a day on coffee. Sure, the federal government supports the arts in other ways, too, through industry-support grants and the funding of cultural agencies such as the CBC, the National Gallery, the Museum of Civilization, the National Arts Centre, Telefilm Canada, and so on, but these are institutional venues. Only the Canada Council for the Arts sustains our living arts of today and tomorrow where it really counts, at the level of the individual artist. And they’re supposed to do that on $5.50 a year per Canadian.OK, so tons of money gets spent on artistic institutions and industries, but a paltry five-and-a-half bucks – per person – goes into the pockets of the stillness-makers themselves. It's like every citizen in Canada has to buy Yann Martel a half-a-pack of smokes every year.
The moment had come. Question Period was over and we were now going to be officially acknowledged by the House.So the problem is that there was not grateful weeping and rending of garments on the part of federal MPs because a bunch of subsidized artists were in their midst?
The Honourable Bev Oda, Minister for Canadian Heritage, whose seat on the government benches is as far away from the Prime Minister’s as is possible for a member of the cabinet, rose to her feet, acknowledged our presence and began to speak. We stood up, not for ourselves but for the Canada Council. Her speech was short. There was a flutter of applause. Then Minister Oda sat down, our business was over, MPs instantly turned to other things, and we were still standing. That was it. Fifty years of building Canada’s dazzling and varied culture, done with in less than five minutes.
You just know what's coming, don't you?
Do we count for nothing, you philistines, I felt like shouting down at the House.There it is: the p-word. No one gave Yann his due, so they are all philistines. Makes you wonder how Canadian writers got a reputation for being whiny, doesn't it?
I hate to be the one to break it to you, Yann, but no, in the grand scheme of things, you don't count for anything. You write literary fiction. In Canada. I'm sorry if you were expecting the elected representatives of this country to go down on one knee in your regal presence, but even the most junior cabinet minister has a lot more on his or her plate than what you face every morning when you sit down in front of the computer. That's the reality of it. At at much reduced, much less celebrated, and certainly less remunerative level, it's the reality I face, too. We're brothers in irrelevance. On the other hand, you won one of the most prestigious literary awards available, your novel is still on the bestsellers list after
Where were we? Oh, right: Martel was calling down damnation upon the heads of those philistines in the House.
Don’t you know that Canadians love their books and songs and paintings? Do you really think we’re just parasites feeding off the honest, hard work of our fellow citizens? Truly I say to you, there are only two sets of tools with which the rich soil of life can be worked: the religious and the artistic. Everything else is illusion that crumbles before the onslaught of time. If you die having prayed to no god, any god, one expressed above an altar or one painted with a brush, then you risk wasting the soul you were given. Repent! Repent!OK, seriously, who invited this guy? He's really killing the mood.
But I have no talent for spontaneous prophecy. Besides, guards would have landed upon me like football players and I would have been hustled out, bound for Guantanamo Bay.You don't think Martel's losing perspective a little here, do you?
The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute, certainly not. I don’t think he even looked up. The snarling business of Question Period having just ended, he was shuffling papers. I tried to bring him close to me with my eyes.Kneel before Zod!
Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares not a jot for the arts.Not a jot! Not a piffle!
But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness.Yes, arrogance would be wrong. Pretentious is definitely the way to go.
For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister, on this website.So that's that: Martel's going to mail Harper a book – a book "known to expand stillness," mind you – every other week. Attica! Attica!
I'm going to guess that the response, if there ever is one, is a signed 8 1/2 x 10 glossy of the PM that says, "Thanks for your thoughtful gift, Yan. Yours Conservatively, Stephen."
[More here and here.]