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The Critical Mind by Ray Robertson

In this excerpt from Why Not: Fifteen Reasons to Live, Ray Robertson applies his critical reading skills to history.

The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Book Cover Why Not

Edmund Wilson was the son of a Princeton and Columbia-educated lawyer, a man whose tools of trade his son described as “learning, logic, and dramatic imagination and eloquence,” the very same tools Wilson would employ over the course of fifty years of elucidating, advocating, and exposing the books and ideas (good, bad, and inconsequential) of his time. A literature-as-subject-of-study autodidact, I – among many others – owe a great debt to Wilson for not only consistently steering me in the right aesthetic direction, but also for helping to develop my own critical sensibility. Give a person a good book, he’ll have something to read for a week; teach a person how to critically separate the wheat from the chaff, and you provide him with the skills to read well for the rest of his life. Note: read – not study. The most valuable result of the finely tuned critical mind turned toward the world of books is assisting the common reader in reading – and therefore living – better. “Reading,” Bacon reminds us, “maketh a full man.”

Virginia Woolf liked this idea enough to entitle a collection of essays The Common Reader, quoting with approval Dr. Johnson: “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be generally decided all claim to poetical honours.”

Of course, books are not the only place one’s mind can – and should – be applied critically. There is also what Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses dubbed the nightmare from which he was trying to awake: history.

Until relatively recently – September 11, 2001, to be precise – most North Americans not old enough to remember Pearl Harbor would likely have had as much difficulty comprehending Stephen’s lament as they did the novel from which it came. To them – to most of us, that is – history has always been something that happened over there to other people, something that we, happily cocooned on our cozy continent of steady technological progress and world-envious wealth, might observe on television or read about in the newspaper and occasionally tsk tsk over. But not anymore. History has finally come home.

At the very least, it’s undeniably invigorating to be a part of the game again after so many dull, delusional decades of sitting smugly on the sidelines merely keeping score and emitting the occasional cheer (South Africa’s freedom, the fall of the Berlin Wall) or boo (Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia, Pol Pot’s horrors). Or, for instance, and much more recently, whereas it was always fascinating to learn about McCarthyism and marvel at how silly all those Red-hating Republican-types were way back there in the Middle Ages of the 1950s, it is chilling – and yet, somehow, also fascinating – to see the same insidious censoriousness occurring today in our freedom-smothering, Uncle-Sam-organized world, where if you’re not firmly in favour of American Imperialism there’s a good chance that your record albums will be burned or at least banned from the airwaves, employment opportunities will shrink and even disappear, and you’ll run the risk of being labelled a terrorist, a rogue state, or whatever other term it is that the bad guys are going by this week.

But one doesn’t have to be a super-savvy intellect like Noam Chomsky or an actual eye-witness to the horrors being perpetrated in Iraq in the name of cheap oil to think more clearly and correctly about the world outside one’s window. George Orwell wrote many uncommonly sensible things, probably none more so than “the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them.” Because, unlike Orwell’s, our evil is thermal nuclear, multi-national, and usually accompanied by its very own soundtrack when it appears on CNN, we tend to believe that the source of our post-modernist political sorrows is anything but tied up with matters merely linguistic. Wrong. In the beginning is always the word.

If one were to read, watch, and listen to only mainstream, corporate-controlled media, for example – which, of course, the majority of any population always does – the United States’ invasion of Iraq is not only understandable, but laudable. For one thing, it’s implicit that it’s not an invasion, it’s a war, a crucial distinction. The Americans, it would seem, are only defending their country – and, by their munificence, all other freedom-loving countries – with pre-emptive strikes against the recent rise of world terrorism.

Ray Robertson

Spin the bottle of Babel, however, and you’ll often get a very different understanding of who hit who first and who was only striking back. If, for instance, we define terrorism as Jonathan Barker does in his straight-forwardly sensible No-Nonsense Guide to Terrorism, as having three central elements – “violence threatened or employed; against civilian targets; for political objectives” – the popular image (in North America, at least) of a terrorist as a crazed fundamentalist (usually dark-skinned and religious) is significantly altered, expanded, and necessarily reconsidered. Reasoning like this – reasoning one obviously isn’t going to read in the National Post or see on Fox News – helps to answer the question that George Bush infamously asked and that the majority of American citizens silently and sometimes not so silently (e.g., the Midwestern diner owner who changed the name of “French fries” on his menu to “freedom fries” to protest the French government’s inexplicable refusal to join the American-led attack on Iraq) wonder: “Why do they hate us, when we’re so good?”

To what end, though? “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” Edmund Burke said. But dutifully applying one’s critical skills to the political arena won’t keep people from dying for the sake of discounted gasoline prices or stop the environmental suicide human beings seem so determined to commit any more than good critics will ever stop the majority of people from reading and praising bad books. Ultimately, as Seneca observed, it would seem that “One has to accept life on the same terms as the public baths, or crowds, or travel. Things will get thrown at you and things will hit you.” But at least one will know why and by whom and even, if one is especially cunning, when to duck.

I’m glad that Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazin and Virginia Woolf and Noam Chomsky and Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson and Gore Vidal and Edward Abbey and many others have taught me how to read better and think clearer and understand more. More than that. I’m grateful.

Ray Robertson is the author of six novels, a book of essays, and is a contributing book reviewer to the Globe and Mail. This piece is an excerpt from his most recent book Why Not: Fifteen Reasons to Live, which has been shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

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