Books, like fish, like to move about

“Books make us climb higher, and I always have my hand on a book, as if on a banister. But unlike some readers I know who effortlessly bound up the stairs four steps at a time, floor after floor, never stopping to catch their breath, I creep up slowly. If there’s an autobiographical character in Life of Pi, it’s not Pi, it’s the sloth. To me, a good book is a rich lode of leaves, and I can read only so many pages before my tummy gets full and I nod off. My banister is more of a branch and from it I hand upside down, nursing the book that is feeding my dreams. I read slowly but continuously. Otherwise I would starve.

Art is water, and just as humans are always close to water, for reasons of necessity (to drink, to wash, to flush away, to grow) as well as for reasons of pleasure (to play in, to swim, to relax in front of, to sail upon, to suck on frozen, coloured and sweetened), so humans must always be close to art in all its incarnations, from the frivolous to the essential. Otherwise we dry up.

So this is the image I’d like to finish with, the quintessence of stillness and a visual summation of what I’ve been trying to convey to Prime Minister Stephen Harper with dozens of polite letters and good books: the image of a sloth hanging from a branch in a green jungle during a downpour of tropical rain. The rain is quite deafening, but the sloth does not mind; it’s reviving, this cascade of water, and other plants and animals will appreciate it. The sloth, meanwhile, has a book on his chest, safely protected from the rain. He’s just read a paragraph. It’s a good paragraph, so he reads it again. The words have painted an image in his mind. The sloth examines it. It’s a beautiful image. The sloth looks around. His branch is high up. Such a lovely view he has of the jungle. Through the rain, he can see spots of bright colours on other branches: birds. Down below, an angry jaguar races along a track, seeing nothing. The sloth turns back to his book. As he breathes a sigh of contentment, he feels that the whole jungle has breathed in and out with him. The rain continues to fall. The sloth falls asleep.”

(pages 12-13)

Yann Martel. What is Stephen Harper Reading? Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2009.

Borrowed from the Bibliothèques publiques de Montréal, succursale Mordecai Richler.

The opposites must be free to range themselves against each other

“A novel of ideas becomes art when the views most opposite to the author’s own are allowed to exist in full strength. Without this a novel of ideas is mere self-indulgence and didacticism is simply ax-grinding. The opposites must be free to range themselves against each other and they must be passionately expressed on both sides.”

Saul Bellow, qtd in Nathaniel Rich, “Bellow: The ‘Defiant, Irascible Mind’.” The New York Review of Books, June 4, 2015.

To read a book, one must be still

“So there I was, in the House of Commons, wowed by the place, and I got to thinking about stillness. I guess the word popped into my head because the unsettling brawl of Question Period was just coming to an end. To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must also be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Gazing upon a lake in autumn or a quiet winter scene — that too lulls us into contemplative stillness. 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, but 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.”

(pages 3-4)

Yann Martel. What is Stephen Harper Reading? Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2009.

Borrowed from the Bibliothèques publiques de Montréal, succursale Mordecai Richler.

All thorough study is basic, all education is self-education

“As basic rules of any language must be practiced continuously, and therefore are never fixed, so exercises toward distinct colour effects never are done or over. New and different cases will be discovered time and again, and should be presented to the class again and again. In this way the study will be a mutual give and take. It will also show that all thorough study is basic, and that all education is self-education. This indicates that we expect from every student several solutions to each problem.

In the end, teaching is a matter not of method but of heart. Therefore the most decisive factor is the teacher’s personality. His enthusiastic concern with the student’s growth counts more than how much he knows. It is well known that “the teacher is always right,” but rarely does this fact elicit respect or sympathy; even less often does it prove competence and authority.

But the teacher actually is right and always will gain confidence when he admits that he does not know, that he cannot decide, and as it often is with colour, that he is unable to make a choice or to give advice.

Besides, good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.”

(page 70)

Josef Albers. Interaction of Colour. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963/2013.

Borrowed from the Grande Bibliothèque (Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec).

Beschäftigungstrieb und Gestaltungstrieb

“After too much non-teaching, non-learning, and a consequent non-seeing – in too many art “activities” — it is time again to advocate again a basic step-by-step learning which promotes recognition of insight coming from experience, and evaluation resulting from comparison. This, in sum, means recognition of development and improvement, that is, of growth, growth of ability. This growth is not only a most exciting experience; it is inspiring and thus the strongest incentive for intensified action, for continued investigation (search instead of re-search), for learning through conscious practice.

Gestalt psychology has proved that 3-dimensionality is perceived earlier and more easily than 2-dimensionality. This explains why children do not begin – as most art teachers still wish – with painting and drawing, which are lateral abstractions on a 2-dimensional plane, but begin all by themselves with building, constructing in space, on a ground and upward, in 3 dimensions.

We believe that art education is an essential part of general education, including so-called higher learning. We promote, therefore, after a natural and easy laissez-faire as an initial challenge, an early shift from aimless play to directed study and work, which offers, with a basic training, a continuous excitement of growth.

To say this in psychological-educational terms, it means a shift from a recognition of the first but primitive drive for being occupied, entertained – Beschäftigungstrieb – to a more advanced drive, or better, need, for being productive, creative – Gestaltungstrieb.”

(pages 68-69)

Josef Albers. Interaction of Colour. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963/2013.

Borrowed from the Grande Bibliothèque (Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec).

Writing, prose, length, narrative, and protagonist

“Every novel has all of these elements. If any of them is missing, the literary form in question is not a novel. All additional characteristics — characters, plot, themes, setting, style, point of view, tone, historical accuracy, philosophical profundity, revolutionary or revelatory effect, pleasure, enlightenment, transcendence, and truth — grow out of the ironclad relationships among these five elements. A novel is an experience, but the experience takes place within the boundaries of writing, prose, length, narrative, and protagonist.”

(page 15)

Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. New York: Anchor Books, 2005.

Bought at the annual Rockcliffe Park Public School booksale, Ottawa.

Qualities and chain connections

“Earlier, when explaining light intensity as lightness and colour intensity as brightness, we found that agreement is easier in the first case, and difficult in the second.

This is because, in defining such qualities, we deal on the one side with physical facts and on the other with perceptual reactions, which permit either a factual measure or an interpretation of illusions. As a result, there are in the latter case various views and opinions and different, if not contradictory, readings.

Any measuring of light-dark qualities is not unrelated to a scaling of light-heavy relationships. Light-dark and light-heavy lead easily to soft-hard comparisons; or, quick-slow and early-late connect with young-old, and with warm-cool, as well as with wet-dry.

Such and other chain connections have led even to such opposites as here and there, indicating spatial differentiation.”

(page 59)

Josef Albers. Interaction of Colour. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963/2013.

Borrowed from the Grande Bibliothèque (Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec).