Of Pandemics and Papineau

As Montreal tentatively lifts some of its restrictions in the face of the COVID pandemic’s second wave, it is worth looking back at the city’s previous experience of epidemics. In 1832, Montreal, along with much of north America, was dealing with the second wave of the cholera epidemic. Here the politician Louis-Joseph Papineau is writing from the city to his wife, Julie, in the country with their children. There is much that we might recognize about our own situation, the worry and the sense of powerlessness, but also renewed attention to life’s smaller things. Some things do never change: there is worry about the effect on children’s education and development and of a husband who concerned about sending his wife the wrong crackers. 

My translation is not the best – Papineau, a great rhetorician, loves a run on sentence and punctuates erratically – but I think it gives a sense of the day-to-day concerns of the time, even if it is not as immediate as Julie’s.

Louis-Joseph Papineau by Alfred W. Boisseau (1878)

Montreal, 6 July 1832

Dear Mother,

The public health improves but is not re-established. Every day there are some new cases, which unfortunately, defy the resources of the doctors. Nevertheless, for eight days, there has been no case in the city, only in the suburbs, where yesterday, Monsieur Raciot, living with the Madam Osterout, died. The sickness has nearly ceased in the suburbs of Quebec and it is those of Sainte-Anne and Sainte-Antoine that suffer now, even if it is much less than in the first invasion. The illness of Dr [Robert] Nelson isn’t cholera but the extreme weakness that follows, a worrying exhaustion following the excessive fatigue seen among the ill, [and]an obstinate cough like you have sometimes had, which does not leave him able to close his eyes. I hope and believe that there is no danger but I cannot let go the chagrin and worry about his state.

I hope you all are in as good health as I am. Good sleep, good appetite, the good company of my father, de Côme and Viger, reading, meditation on the strange and terrible state of the land, all this keeps me usefully busy. The absence of my wife and children, the discomforts they are momentarily exposed to, worry for their health and that of so many other exposed parents, friends, and fellow citizens in this time of universal calamity are a subject of renewed alarms, to which it is appropriate, it is right and reasonable to oppose among such resignation, strength and courage that is possible so as to be always ready to see, to seize all the precautions which might diminish the danger. For as long as one is able to say in the morning: today I want to complete all my duties, and one is able to say in the evening, there is nothing I have missed, one has ten chances against one to not be attacked by the contagion, or, in the case of attack, to rediscover a strength of spirit, a moral energy which overcomes it.

I have spoken with the workers: it is difficult to get them, such is the great number of their employees who have left the town for the country. Nevertheless, on Monday, they started. I am not sending you lemons: you will have had some from M. Donegani and I will bring you some next week. The crackers are from the same worker and of the same pastry you like, some may not be the same shape so taste before censuring; bite them before biting the buyer. 

Adieu, beautiful and good and dear friend, have care of yourself and our children, kiss them for us both. The time lost for the cultivation of their spirit will be made up if they return with a body more robust and capable of application. Nevertheless, it is only by exercise that one gains the taste for application for the study of good principles and the sciences; and in this taste is found, more than in any circumstance, the chance to live happily and usefully to others, to escape vices and misery, to enjoy the constant friendship of honest people.

Adieu, salutations and friendship to all our parents, and my sincere wishes for the recovery of Madam Amiot whose condition sounds very dangerous.

Your sincere friend and faithful husband

L. J. Papineau

Louis-Joseph Papineau, Lettres à Julie. Ed. by Georges Aubin and Renée Blanchet (Sillery, QC: Septentrion, 2000) 249-50.  
Julie Papineau with her daughter Ezilda by Antoine Plamondon (1836)

Book Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

An architect friend, whose speciality is restoration, tells me that one of the problems he and his firm face is finding expert knowledge of old construction methods and techniques. A story possibly apocryphal: after the York Minster fire of 1984, the leading expert in stained glass restoration was a murderer who had devoted himself the craft during his incarceration. Trusted and towards the end of his sentence, he visited site daily until the work was done, whereupon he simply walked away. Whether such skills are available for the restoration of Notre-Dame in Paris is an open question. Until recently, we saved our computer documents by clicking on the symbol of a three-and-a-half inch floppy disc, unknown to most people born in the past twenty-five years. Now the symbol itself has been consigned to what Yoko Ogawa calls the “swamp of our memory”. Forgetting and its phantom loss is the theme of her 1994 novel, The Memory Police, now published in English in a translation by Stephen Snyder.

Set upon an unnamed island whose residents might wake to find objects – roses, hats, birds, libraries – have been disappeared by the titular Memory Police, no less ruthless than the secret police of a twentieth-century dictatorship, the novel follows the course of a writer, an old man from her childhood and her editor. Like the majority of the islands inhabitants, the first of these two participate in the ritual destruction of these objects, covering rivers with petals, burning photographs, no longer comprehending their meaning. The third though is among the persecuted who, like the disappeared writer’s sculptor mother, cannot forget. For his safety, he is hidden in a secret room in the writer’s house while she continues her novel about a woman who loses her voice and can only communicate through her typewriter. 

In this world, where even the forgetful fear that old things are disappearing faster than new ones are created, human relationships endure, but only to a heartbreaking point. What conversation can exist between those who remember and those who forget? More subtly, it asks questions about our personal and spiritual relationships to our material and ultimately corporeal existence.  

Although technological advance does not play a role here, The Memory Police speaks to our own headlong embrace of technological “progress” even as we forget how to build cathedrals, read cursive or stare at the symbols on our screens in blank, thoughtless incomprehension. It also resonates with our current concern with the destruction of cultures, personal meaning, and the forms of knowledge our contemporary technologies find inconvenient.

This is a story rich in sinister metaphor and whose various strands create a puzzle of complicity and resistance. It is vital, urgent and exquisite.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. Vintage $22.00

Notes to Self #1

Advice for anxious times: a compilation

Advice for anxious times from the FT’s management columnist, a French children’s newspaper, and a former commander of the Israeli Defense Force. On a practical level, they all boil down to the same thing: carry on as normal. I must remember to do this.

After Britain’s EU referendum, Lucy Kellaway didn’t do any work either, but when she did get back to it her sanest conversation was about shoes (and not Theresa May’s). The former IDF commander, Amos Guiora, says we must “live life as if there is no terrorism while recognizing the reality of terrorism.” If you need help doing this, you could follow the advice given in Le Petit Quotidien  and put fear outside yourself by writing.


Seen: Make Every Show Like It’s Your Last by Ryan Gander


Imagineering by Ryan Gander (2013)

Is Ryan Gander laughing or screaming? He offers straight-faced parody of such perfect pitch, I find it impossible to tell. 

Almost as impossible as distinguishing boredom from daydreaming by the expression on a child’s face. And therein lies the parody: no minister for Business Innovation and Skills would allow either in the classrooms, not with our financial and environmental “better futures” depending on it. 

Far better to test a five year-old’s sense of childish play and their teachers into oblivion with specific measurable outcomes and leave the “imagineering” to the grown-ups.

You see. Boredom or daydreaming? Sincere intention or the latest iteration of corporate love? Laughing or screaming? Whichever, Gander’s is a marvellous sense of humour.

Exhibition at the MAC.

Recommended reading: “Wagner in the Desert” by Greg Jackson


No post-ironic, desert-bound playlist is complete without Moby and Gwen Stefani
As my fortieth birthday was imagined, my closest friends were to gather around a Porsche drinking martinis and practising their aim before setting fire to the Porsche. Obviously this was to happen in the desert and just as obviously it didn’t happen. Falling on a Wednesday gave pretext enough to scale back the celebrations to the lesser decadence of macaroons, prosecco, and watching Jane, Dolly and Lily take aim in 9 to 5.

This was probably for the best as in all likelihood I’d have discovered that I am not alone in my party plans and that Palm Springs is surrounded by other groups aspiring to a similarly elegant desperation. Emptiness and mortification could have only resulted.

Better then the mortification found on reading, in timely fashion, Greg Jackson’s “Wagner in the Desert”, which, at least on a personal level, distills C.S. Lewis’ belief that “we read to know that we are not alone” down to its bitter aftertaste. More specifically, dreams are rarely your own and that, like Tyler, of Coupland’s Shampoo Planet (“New skis! I can die now!”), vanity’s claim to orignality may have lost some of its credibility by the time it achieves the culturally recognizable perfection required by Instagram. (I cannot escape the feeling that mine is the generation in which Instagram finds its raison d’être but which by some failing of the market was came a decade too late. You can follow me here.)

After such humiliations, it is immensely reassuring to think that, in lieu of Porsches in the desert, degraded aspirations are just as flammable. Thanks to Jackson we see them burn in the lacquer of high-gloss prose.

First we did molly, lay on the thick carpet touching it, ourselves, one another. We did edibles, bathed dumbly in the sun, took naps on suède couches. Later, we did blow off the keys to ecologically responsible cars. We powdered glass tables and bathroom fixtures. We ate mushrooms—ate and waited, ate and waited. Then we just ate, emptied the Ziplocs into our mouths like chip bags. We smoked cigarettes and joints, sucked on lozenges lacquered in hash oil. We tried one another’s benzos and antivirals, Restoril, Avodart, YAZ, and Dexedrine, looking for contraindications. We ate well: cassoulets, steak frites, squid-ink risotto with porcini, spices from Andhra Pradesh, Kyoto, Antwerp. Of course we drank, too: pure agaves, rye whiskeys, St-Germain, old Scotch. We spent our hot December afternoons next to the custom saltwater pool or below the parasols of palm fronds, waiting, I suppose, to feel at peace, to baptize our minds in an enforced nullity, to return to a place from which we could begin again.

Read the rest of Greg Jackson’s story at the New Yorker.

Forms of Meditation That Are Not Mediation: Lessons from New York

Version 2
The High Line. Not recommended for walking practice.
A character in Jonathan Letham’s Motherless Brooklyn describes mediation as sitting and thinking about nothing without falling asleep. Awake is a higher form of consciousness than asleep, but thinking about nothing is a challenge. I have attempted it on the metro and each time ended in failure; like an infant in a car or an elevator, I soon fall asleep. Beyond public transit,  boredom, self-consciousness, and my cat assail me. I did for a period succeed by viewing unwanted thoughts as alien craft in a video game, but, like thoughts themselves, good video games lead to obsessiveness and the bad ones are merely tedious.

Better then to approach mediation obliquely and, as I discovered in New York, eliminate either the sitting or the thinking about nothing. Eliminating both will end in failure for the novice. Only for the advanced practitioner will it bring total enlightenment.

Here then is the start of the practice.Continue reading “Forms of Meditation That Are Not Mediation: Lessons from New York”