In search of the “congenial reader”
Editor Boris Castel aims for what he calls "the congenial reader," which has a nice, 19th-century ring to it and means the curious amateur who wants to be both informed and entertained
As you will learn by looking at the volume number on the spine of a recent issue, the Queen's Quarterly is now in its 117th year of publication, a feat unmatched in Canadian literary journals. Its first issue appeared in 1893. One of its founding editors was then-Chancellor Sir Sandford Fleming, LLD 1908, whom author Clark Blaise, appropriately enough, has called "The Time Lord" for his invention of world-wide standard time zones. Time has served the Quarterly well.
Another founder was Rev. George Monro Grant, the principal of Queen's College at the time and poised to publish his monumental work, Religions of the World in Relation to Christianity, within months. There was also John Watson, who has been called Canada's greatest philosopher, who came to Queen's from Scotland in 1872 and taught here until 1924. Watson Hall is named for him. Watson wrote eight books, among them Kant and His English Critics and The Philosophical Basis of Religion, works that made him one of the first Canadian scholars to gain an international reputation.
Published from offices at suitably Victorian 144 Barrie Street under the current editorship of French-born Physics Professor Emeritus Boris Castel, the Queen’s Quarterly remains a fertile mix of a wide range of overlapping disciplines. Castel aims for what he calls "the congenial reader," which has a nice, 19th-century ring to it and means the curious amateur who wants to be both informed and entertained.
There is much in each issue that will please the congenial reader. For example, several of the articles in the Spring 2010 issue inform us about entertainment. In his article “The Glittering Skull,” American writer Stephen Marche meditates on the proliferation of "celebrity culture."
As a columnist for Esquire magazine, Marche knows what he's writing about. He establishes his point—that celebrities now occupy roles in our society formerly reserved for the monarchy and religious leaders—by reporting that when Britney Spears had her head shaved in 2006, the salon that did the shaving auctioned off her hair with a reserve bid of $1 million, and that photographs of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's twins were bought by the owners of People and Hello magazines for $14 million. Clearly, something is amiss.
"The dominance of celebrity culture," Marche writes, "is the long triumphal march of image over substance." He traces this tendency back to Louis XIV, "the original king of poses," and follows it to the present, when, in the absence of gods and true heroes, celebrities (who portray gods and heroes in the movies) "dwell in the dark recesses of our souls where we crave the images of gods."
Whether or not we engage in it ourselves, he argues, we can't escape it. Even those who eschew current fashion in dress, for example, are undoubtedly imitating some former celebrity no one remembers.
The celebrity idea is continued, in a way, by Robert Fulford, a regular contributor to the Quarterly and the former editor of another long-lived but sadly now-defunct Canadian magazine—Saturday Night.
Fulford writes about nostalgia, our willingness to believe in "the lies of the past." This touches on celebrity culture, since one of the lies we choose to believe is that celebrities are somehow elevated, even magical, creatures with lineages that connect them to what Shakespeare called “the deep backward and abysm of time.” In fact, the rituals with which Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953 were devised in the late 19th century. The kilt, which we imagine Scots and Picts wore in their battles against invading Roman legions, "was invented by an Englishman in 1730," and they weren't made of clan tartans, either, because clan tartans weren't invented until the 1800s.
So is it all fakery and illusion? Joe McGinniss wrote a book in 1990 called Heroes, in which he suggested that a society without heroes soon disintegrates and that America was a society that had lost faith in its heroes. If Stephen Marche is right, then Americans have replaced real heroes with fake heroes, and it hasn't worked. The United States is coming apart at the seams.
Canadian journalist Jeffrey Simpson. Arts’71, LLD’05, had an article in the Spring issue of the Quarterly that supports this contention. In “Canadian Foreign Policy: Time for a Revolution,” he notes that when Canada worked out the free-trade agreement with the U.S., no one suspected that America was "at the apogee of its power, from which it has slowly slid, and will continue to slide in the decades ahead." Canada has hitched its wagon to a falling star. Perhaps Canada saw America as one, huge celebrity.
That’s not to say the Spring issue of the Quarterly is all doom and gloom. There is an article by Peter Liepke about his own photography— either bichromate or platinum/palladium prints, dark and a bit sinister, but completely compelling cityscapes—and another on the colourful, indeed cheerful, oil paintings of Christopher Broadhurst, who lives in Tamworth, Ontario. And there’s a quite wonderful poem by former Queen’s professor and renowned poet-novelist David Helwig, called "Marine City," about the lasting majesty of the city of Venice.
Unlike the Paris evoked by Fulford in his tirade against fakery, Venice has held its fascination for centuries. Helwig quotes Mary McCarthy, who said that "the rationalist mind has always had its doubts about Venice." But the poet's mind is not always rationalist, and the poem belies McCarthy's view that "the tourist Venice is Venice," or that of Henry James, who complained that in Venice there was "nothing left to discover or describe." Helwig takes us on a visual tour of the city's "Mazed escapades, the labyrinthine ways /of love among the dark-dismayed..."
The Spring 2010 issue of the Queen's Quarterly examined the phonomenon of celbrity culture.Like Peter Liepke's photographs of Manhattan, Helwig's poem of Venice is moody and thought-provoking, but not bleak. It offers hope that art can still triumph over entertainment, that in our society true culture will prevail over celebrity culture. It is a view of which Sir Sandford Fleming and even the reportedly dour John Watson would approve, and one I hope the Queen's Quarterly will continue to purvey to this congenial reader.
Writer Wayne Grady chooses to retreat from celebrity in his rural fastness north of Kingston.