Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Twist of the Kaleidoscope

When I first thought of writing a blog, I was going to use the adjective "kaleidoscopic" in its title in order to signal my intention to employ the kaleidoscope as a metaphor for the human person. Our individual experiences of sensory data, what we are capable of perceiving of whatever is there, are continually constructed and deconstructed through language and perspective; shifting as we move through life from one time to another, through space from one context to another; just as the bits of coloured glass are formed and fractured by turning a kaleidoscope, emerging as new patterns; changing patterns that make a life. A friend suggested the use of that adjective rendered the blog title more than a little obscure, so I chose the more straight-forward one of "brucethoughts". What I am describing here represents another turning of the apparatus; a different configuration of the bits of the self; something which, in its specifics, may be of interest only to me, but is an instance of a process present in each of us.

In my last post describing some of the narratives that construct my present life, there is a striking absence of one that informed earlier times in my life: there is no significant political narrative; no struggle against oppression or repression; a detachment from the major issues of the world. The political narrative remains as a part of my thinking, but is embodied in my activities hardly at all.  As an illustration, despite my contention that older gays should continue to be included in the political life of the gay community I have taken no action to further that goal. Today, it is almost exclusively my interventions as a therapist that represent a domain of action informed by a political perspective: the propensity to often view conflicts within a person as a product of oppression and repression.

My decision, made nearly ten years ago, to spend almost half of my time at a cottage on a lake in the woods, was an enactment of the recession of the political narrative that had formed so much of my previous life. My close friends were quite shocked by the decision, as I had previously responded with horror to the suggestion of even visiting the country; I saw myself first and foremost as a citizen, a person of the city. Gay activism was and to a large extent remains a phenomenon of urban life. While I still keep in touch with what's happening in relation to sexual minority communities across the globe though the internet and, occasionally, sign a petition or write a cheque, I could no longer be considered a gay activist.

The receding of that political narrative into the background of my life could be seen simply as a product of growing older, a retreat, though it doesn't feel like that to me. In fact, in some ways, it represents a picking up of an earlier thread (to employ another metaphor) that has run through my life.  There was the Thoreau-like narrative that informed a part of my adolescence: retreating from society and becoming a forest ranger. A narrative that is modified by including among my companions my lover and not just a dog; by receiving guests; by continuing to spend part of the week in the city. In the discovery of philosophy, during the first two years at William and Mary, I was drawn toward the Stoics, especially Epictetus, and their detachment from the collapse of Empire that was going on around them. Later, there was the flirtation with monasticism and withdrawal from the secular world. Though the current working of that thread is less radical than its previous manifestations, I see a potential for its becoming increasingly pronounced as I approach the final and inevitable detachment.

Another factor influencing me in later life to be more interested in tending to my own garden is one which I realize isn't defensible for anyone in whose life a political narrative is more dominant: the fact that I don't experience personal oppression as a gay person in Canada and, especially, in Quebec. While I know some gay people, especially adolescents, continue to experience personal repression and hostility, those of us who are adults have obtained the civil and personal rights for which we fought. Even as an open gay couple, my lover and I have yet to experience any hostility, even in the rural area where we spend a good deal of out time. In fact, one of the owners of the General Store where we shop once pointed to our rings and said, "I like that". Were I living in the States, where the experience of repression is a lived reality, I believe I would remain as politically active today as I once was. We are very fortunate in Canada not to suffer from a significant presence of the religious right, which promotes so much repression and hurt in the States. I have no doubt that, were that ilk to gain enough influence to threaten the accomplishments of sexual minorities in Canada, I would take to the streets again, even if I had to use a walker.

A factor that fed my retreat from political life has been the increasing reality that progressive political activity in Quebec takes place almost exclusively in French and is usually accompanied by a nationalist agenda. Though I have no strong feelings related to the idea of an independent Quebec, as long as it were progressive, I also have no particular identification with the culture of Quebec. I have some concern that nationalism easily lends itself to fascism; an association that has been present in the history of Quebec. Accordingly, I'm more comfortable having another, federal, layer of government above the provincial as protection against a possible right-wing turn that could take place in an independent Quebec. Having said that, living in a progressive, independent Quebec can seem quite attractive when a conservative federal party is in power in Canada. Unfortunately, that nationalist/federalist debate attaches itself to all others in Quebec and it is not one in which I feel strongly enough to participate.

Even if I wanted to participate more actively in the political life of Quebec, I'm not comfortable enough with my French to do so. I've spent decades attempting to master the language and, although I have an extensive vocabulary and some fluency with grammar, I'm stymied by the persistence of a heavy English accent; which means I can be babbling away rather fluently in French, yet it is nearly totally incomprehensible to listeners. I suspect that part of my brain which is involved in accent formation is very, very resistant to being re-wired; something I've finally come to accept. Those of you who have had the experience of hearing Stephan Dion, a failed candidate for Prime Minister of Canada, speaking English have some idea of my problem in French.

Perhaps, in addition to whatever neurological deficits are responsible for my lack of proficiency in speaking French, there is, as well, a subtle lack of motivation. I still, after some forty years living in Quebec, see myself as an American in exile.  I think I'm quite comfortable with being an outsider in relation to both Canada and Quebec. Interestingly, I've had almost no English Canadian friends since moving to Canada and those that I do have tend to be in some way outsiders themselves. My close friends have tended to be either fellow Americans or Quebecers who are well-disposed toward anglophones. Recently, a client, who lived for several years in Japan without knowing practically any Japanese, remarked that he in some ways liked being apart from the society which surrounded him; something which I found had resonance for me. Although it is very comfortable visiting the USA to know that almost everyone communicates in English, I often find it annoying. Riding in public transportation in an American city, for example, I can't help but overhear stupidities and prejudices in the conversations of others, while in Montreal I can readily tune them out; just not make the effort it would take to understand.

As I describe the comfort which I feel with the distance between my self and the society in which I live, I anticipate judgmental reactions; anticipating that detachment readily characterized as elitist and a form of reactionary, liberal individualism. As I hope I've communicated I find those sorts of moral/political judgments neither helpful nor accurate in their descriptive power; to defend against them is only to give them strength as forms of oppressive discourse. When I find myself using them I realize that they contribute little more than expressions of dislike. What is important to me is to acknowledge the diversity in the narratives which compose us; to be aware of and at ease with the tensions amongst different parts of ourselves; not to think that we need to suffocate diverse parts of ourselves in the name of consistency.


  1. When I first started coming to Brockville, first as a summer resident, and permanently for the past 15 years, I had initial concerns about how the openness with which I led my life in Montreal would fly in small town and rural Ontario. Somewhat to my surprise, as you found, it has never been an issue. If anything, I sometimes get the impression that my local straight friends, neighbours, and coworkers believe that being friends with a gay person has enhanced to their own cachet somewhat. Occasionally reflecting on this, I concluded that generally people accept you to the degree you have accepted yourself. I'm reminded of something I read many years ago (in high school, actually) in, as I remember it, Peter Freukin's "Book of the Eskimos". He related how Eskimos, when they went on long seal hunts, would get horny and a hunter might be inclined to fuck a still-warm seal he had just killed. If it were done openly, his hunting companions took no notice and seemingly accepted it as a perfectly normal thing to do. However, if he felt discomfited by his actions, hiding what he was up to by dragging the seal behind a rock or whatever, and was then discovered "in delicious fragrance" (as Anna Russell used to say), he was teased unmercifully by his fellow hunters.


    A few weeks ago I was driving back to Canada at the small Ogdensburg border crossing nearby. The Canadian immigration officer, a young woman, asked me the significance of my licence plate (XQ28). I explained it was genetic code for the location of the alleged gene for male homosexuality. "Oh wow!" she exclaimed, "That's so cool; in fact it's made my day. Welcome back to Canada". By contrast, when any of the insouciant, heavily armed US border officers ask me the same question, I always reply that it is my boat registration number. That's always been dispositive, but someday perhaps I should actually buy a boat and find out if they really have to be registered.

  2. Does that mean it's possible to have oral sex at the corner of a busy intersection, as long as we were comfortable with it, and people would pretend not to notice. Would be a proposition that could be readily validated.

    Yes, prudence is still called for in crossing into the land of the free and home of the brave. This Summer a US agent, after asking if we were friends, asked where we met; another time, after being asked the same initial question, an agent asked with a semi-sneer what was the nature of our relationship. Tell me what that has to do with homeland security. Not that it would ever be prudent to ask.

  3. Sometimes an allegory is just an allegory, and is transubstantiated at one's peril.

  4. Yes,transubstantiation is a perilous procedure, best left to those who have miraculous powers.