I can’t be the only book maniac here who associates odd places with profound book experiences. I can even remember which subway stop my train was pulling into, when I first encountered life-changing paragraphs. Perhaps the strangest place I have found conducive to deep reading is a local laundromat. More than one of these have appealed to me, but all which did had one thing in common, they let a flood of sunlight in the front window. Very few things help us make a fond attachment to great thought better than that great illuminating orb.
My personal favourite will always be the Vaughan laundromat, tucked into that funny triangle where Vaughan first branches off from Bathurst – facing the Wychwood library (provider of countless great reads) and then protected from being shadowed by a tall building opposite by the width of the two converging streets.
My wife Catherine and I were newly married, we had a nice old (albeit slightly haunted) apartment on the corner, with the coziest fifties kitchen ever. There was a Jamaican roti place just down the street where the relentlessly cheerful owner was ever amused by how much of her fantastic fresh carrot juice I could (and did) drink every day, and there was even a lovely tiny comic shop started by a friendly recent history graduate from U of T, where I could stop in for a conversation on anything from the entirely silly to the momentous and serious, or rather frequently – both at once!
I was an apprentice technician at the time, and I especially enjoyed the rare treat of door to door transit service. Back then the streetcar “barns” for that line were in the Wychwood Yard – just down at the foot of our side-street, which meant the Westbound Queen St car had to first travel south down Bathurst, before turning along Queen and arriving right in front of the shop where I worked to learn and also to entertain the eccentric owner. The drivers weren’t supposed to be ‘on’ when they passed our place, not for another few kilometres – but they got to know me, and over time most would let me hop-on early and enjoy the front window urban panorama with them, as we crested the prehistoric shoreline high above the downtown core, and then descended into it at a rate which still gives cyclists pause (since they will either have enough braking power to pause at Davenport, or else be in very serious trouble).
My marriage to Catherine remains the single best decision and best fortune of my entire life. There is no chance I could have grown as I have, without the irreplaceable nourishment of her love. It was also, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, incredibly helpful for my artistic and romantic head to take on a serious scientific discipline, and I am always excited by learning, so this was a time of a having little, but enjoying a whole lot of hope and upswing.
All of which added to my earlier discovery of yoga (my first serious self-mastery), to help give me the strength to try to work my way through the (still) vexing question of – WTF happened to my childhood?
We all know as readers, and discover doubly when we write, that words are indicators, signposts – and we rely on our readers adding their own imagination to our project, in order to deliver the freight of meaning we have in mind. This means that the more unusual our experience is, the more we can struggle, just to find signposts which will mean the same thing to us and our readers both.
As a kid, I was brought up short when I saw the movie “Ticket to Heaven” and suddenly realized that the commune in which I’d spent my whole life shared many features, including many of the scary ones, with that notorious cult. Years later, I was again surprised, though this time happily, when the film “Trainspotting” took a moment to remind viewers that all the mayhem they were about to see, came from the fact that the hard drug use they were describing actually did feel fantastic in the moment. It was the long term consequences, entirely invisible in that transported moment, which really bit.
The defiant and purposeful disconnection from consensus also has great appeal, some would even say it is a moral imperative, when you live in a culture which is demonstrably crazy, (like our own, perhaps?). But there is a big difference between hopes and realities, and there is just as big a difference between our level of personal emotional certainty, and the appropriateness and morality of our means and actions.
I was sitting in the sunshine filled Vaughan Laundromat when I read the two books which to me, best describe the highest and lowest aspects of my crazy childhood.
When any social experiment ends in utter disaster, in this case dozens of ruined families and hundreds of traumatized individuals, you feel a strange weight as an escapee and survivor of the doomed and wrecked utopia, to find some way that such a costly lesson might be of use to others. At least to try to keep naive and hopeful souls from repeating those destructive patterns which seem so obvious in retrospect, but which whole communities can willfully and effectively ignore together, when so motivated.
But as I mentioned elsewhere, my first post cult apartment quickly became a drop-in centre for runaways and rejects from all over town, so I was flooded with evidence that pain and alienation was everywhere in childhood now, abuse almost the new normal. The harder part to describe was the attractor – what would make someone ever get on the bus in the first place – long long long before anyone started handing out the kool aid?
My book for that, and even more for the extra insane school within the cult, is “Magister Ludi” by Herman Hesse (also called “The Glass Bead Game” in countries where readers are presumed to be too dumb for a bit of German in the title). Hesse creates the kind of cultural mythology which feels right on first hearing – an art which encompasses all art and knowledge – a field of study which includes all study – and ultimately, a game which unfolds in a way which will remind any musician of a head-cutting session. Competition through dazzling beauty, innovative juxtaposition and main force skill.
The level of excitement we feel, as the virtuosos of this game link a masterwork of painting with a geometrical proof with a sonata with a chemical reaction – all by tightly controlled and highly aesthetic rules, of course – gets at something which many new spiritual movements and also radical educational dogmas attempt – breaking out of the specificity of a tightly controlled path (‘on rails’ in gaming terms) and instead being open to every aspect of everything which life contains (albeit, with their own particular rules and goals, to give them an adequately unifying starting program).
We also get a taste of the strangeness of stepping out of an ideal monkish ordered world and into chaotic reality, where none of the players’ courtly manners work or even count, and most people are playing by rules he can barely even understand – so long has he lived in the clouds.
Ursula K LeGuin’s still brilliant “The Dispossessed” (about a capitalist earth and a communist moon) is the natural companion volume to this one, politically. Her American radicalism adds the bite that for all its richness, Hesse’s sophistication can’t quite manage. Magister Ludi also includes two things I especially appreciated. A student essay written by one of the characters (in perfect voice, and with much extra meaning for the story, even though it is left for afterward, to reward the more determined readers). And the single sweetest death I have found in literature.
Please note I said sweetest and literary, there. For all time most impactful death recorded in letters I go with Attar over St Lawrence over Socrates – to triangulate my paragons.
The other book I first read at the Vaughan laundromat which excited me, for how many of my own strange experiences it captured, was John Brunner’s still dazzling “Shockwave Rider”. The main character is a fugitive escapee from “Tarnover” a spiffy and well appointed school for the gifted, which is actually a secret government program for creating the next generation of strategic geniuses, no matter what the cost to the genius kids themselves.
Being isolated for years from our parents and all adults other than our psychotic headmaster was something I shared in common with this protagonist, and as I read on and on, I felt almost as if I was reading about a ghost of myself, from a parallel universe. Like the glass bead player Knecht, the hero of Shockwave Rider has been raised in such a specialized and odd way, he really can’t ever just be a part of the normal social activity around him.
Instead we must study it, try to understand the rules and patterns, then find some way to pretend that what is actually calculation and hopeful guessing, comes as naturally to us as it truly is for everyone around us. This permanent alienation from natural ease and comfort puts a proscenium arch on every interaction, and also gives an overtrained super ego plenty of material with which to confirm our worthlessness and failure to meet standard, later.
What makes “Shockwave Rider” and Brunner at his peak in general so exciting is that having established a bizarre but entirely credible psychology for his main character, he then takes us on a dizzying thrill ride through a world no less strange, and yet even more familiar. Being on the run, means constant reinvention. New identities, new personalities to learn and perform, new kinds of bullshit to master, just to get by. We first encounter him as a new age preacher in an inflatable dome, who polls his parishioners’ attitudes real time (writing in the early 1970s, remember) to calculate stock trends and guide his investments. Next he is working for G2S “ground to space” and finally running for real, he makes a friend and ally who every counterculture reader will fall in love with immediately. (Happy to live in a disaster zone with extremely limited government services, because there the rules are relaxed enough that they let her keep her best-friend lion in her apartment).
“Disasterville USA” from this novel, remains my all time favourite literary utopia – a commune done right (and this from someone who lived it). Fair warning for animal lovers though. If you read this book, you will be sorely tempted to name a dog Natty Bumppo!
I should pause here to note that neither of these books answers the most fundamental questions – what went wrong and how could that be prevented? The best insight on those unusual questions that I’ve yet seen came from “Group Studies Paradox” in Idries Shah’s “Seeker After Truth.”
“…Learning groups collect around an individual or a doctrine, or both. Because virtually all human actions are motivated by greed and fear (whip or carrot) these are the mainsprings of all study groups. But these negative characteristics, although they alone cause the individual to enter and persist in the group, are a distinct barrier to learning. The level of greed and fear, because these emotions disturb the learning and digesting processes, must be reduced to tolerable proportions. It is always hard, and sometimes impossible to do this without introducing new people who have lower than average levels of these two characteristics. Such people are almost always found in the general population, not mainly interested in the spiritual purposes of the group which their presence can help. The only method for attracting them to the group so they can fulfill this function is if they are contacted and interested on a human, not a fear or greed based footing.
This is the paradox. This, too, is the real reason for people who are ‘magnetized’ into an esoteric or spiritual grouping to establish lines into the general population which are in areas and on subjects free from the bias of the group. The extent to which this can be done will determine the future of the group and the interaction of the committed ‘groupists’ with the general population. Each provides something which the other lacks. Through their interaction a healthy community may form. Neither, on its own, will be able to develop into an advanced organism…”
Everyone knows about Hesse, but the Brunner books you must take home if you spot them (now mostly out of print) are “Stand on Zanzibar” which is kind of like a Pynchon novel told as a Hunter Thompson speed trip and directed by Tarantino. Breathless tour de force stuff. It won many awards, but was also widely criticized for being too cynical about the direction we were all headed. So he followed it up with the thousand times darker (and no less brilliant) “The Sheep Look Up” which opens with insurance companies panicking, because actuarial lifespans are decreasing, messing up all of their amortizations and projections, and ends with righteous eco warriors driving steam powered cars which they believe are greener, but are actually even worse than the vehicles they replaced, blocking the one piece of big state policy which might actually save humanity. No possible relevance there, of course. “The Jagged Orbit” – his take on the weird combination of psychology and artificial intelligence, also belongs with these two and “Shockwave Rider” as unimpeachable examples of science fiction that was on point and trying to help us, back when we still had time to turn the ship.
Two other Brunner works I must mention (the man was relentless – more then sixty-five titles, among which I have so far found zero stinkers)
“The Stone That Never Came Down” is a short but super fun romp about a highly contagious disease that permanently raises intelligence, and the outright panic it causes the power elites who still think they are entitled to run the place – convincing results or not.
And “Polymath” is a super compact masterpiece of classic space ships and ray guns science fiction. Bradbury fans will swoon and writers will not just take note – but take notes, too!
As for the inimitable western Sufi teacher Idries Shah – just buy anything you see by him – even if you already have a copy of that particular volume. That way, you won’t be upset when you lend it away to a dear friend, and it doesn’t ever come back again!
(as it should be – function over artefact, every single time)