Saul called Chapter 2 of The Unconscious Civilization – the second of the speeches he originally gave as the 1995 Massey Lectures in Canada – “From Propaganda to Language”. To bring (Western, or maybe even global) civilization to a more conscious state, to encourage genuine democracy and real citizenship in pursuit of the general good, he advocates fundamental changes in the way that we communicate, and in the role of
education in producing such true and meaningful expression. These are big ideas. Saul is often criticized for his sweeping generalizations. Even his fans might find occasional pronouncements positively tsunami-like in their breadth, force and where-did-that-come-from suddenness. This is also his greatest strength: he describes philosophical and historical forests to a public too often entranced by the trees.
And speaking of sweeping general statements, then, here are my no-more-than-500 words in summary of “From Propaganda to Language” by John Ralston Saul:
Faithful readers may have been expecting a different BRTN, the third part of the series of summaries I’m doing on John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization. Today’s review is of a decidedly less weighty book, a borrowed one that I finished a while back and have to return to my friend Ladon, who lived parts of it. JRS will return soon.
by Rudy Kong (Bing Long Books, 2010)
Teacher Conradi had a story to tell, actually ten years worth of them, the tales of a foreigner spending an unexpected decade in China. Not only China, by the way, but my very own neighbourhood, the modest and reputedly lovely small city of six million where I’ve spent a half decade of my own: Dalian, the number-two burg in Liaoning province. Conradi is a Canuck, too, and spent his time teaching in the Canadian-based high school that I at one point thought would be my professional home and visa-provider. He left town not long after we came, but he left behind a book and a few mutual friends. I’m glad to know him.
The first story of Dragons, Donkeys and Dust is told in Conradi’s pen name, Rudy Kong. Much as Chinese young people usually choose, often with startling or laughable results, an English version of their name, “RK” is the anglicized version of the Chinese name that this Canadian ex-patriate was given by local friends. Conradi begat Kong Ruidi begat Rudy Kong. (This strikes me as a mild and fairly sane version of an Internet game that has replaced the old “Telephone” fun of seeing how much a message changes with repeated re-telling — put a phrase into Google Translate, and watch what happens to it after sloshes through a few languages. My son loves this.) I’m guessing at how his pseudonym came about,
but Mr. Kong has dozens of tales, and he is an engaging and appealing story-teller. He’s a foreigner who genuinely lived in China. He wasn’t here to score a quick million, or view a changing China from the safety of his chauffeured SUV, or to cure his chronic bachelorhood with a compliant (or financially or geographically ambitious) local woman.
They say, don’t they, that small things amuse small minds. Here’s proof!
I grin sometimes when I drop my shorts at the end of a warmish day and they stand where I stood. I decided that you, dear readers, should not be deprived of this odd bit of jollity. Clothing that “wears like iron” is a desirable quality in my world, though not in my bride’s. She grimaces at a garment that stands on its own two pant-legs, rather than softly swirling. I, on the other leg(s), will be proudly wearing these shorts in 2023. I bought ‘em on a steep discount from my usual low-fashion outlet, and later bought a similarly reduced fall/winter jacket under the same label and made with the same heavy, durable canvas. (And with such numerous, handy and sturdy-zippered pockets! I’m not into backing companies with no need of my support, but it’s good stuff.)
The next load of laundry was ready for hanging in our south-facing balcony, but these bad boys don’t dry too quickly. I took them off the line, then stood them up on the ottoman to finish drying. No extra starch. No hidden supports. No photo magic. Just an upstanding pair of shorts, just the way Howdy likes ‘em.
These things happen when you’re a wai guo ren in the most Chinese places, instead of hanging safely in the ex-pat havens. I had boldly gone – and only through the dumbest of luck – where no “outside country person” had likely gone before. No big deal: I was in the mid-court seats of a chilly Dalian gymnasium, the ones where Party members or other administrative kingpins sit for the bigger ceremonies. It’s the closest thing to corporate boxes at my university’s indoor stadium: padded office chairs roll freely behind a ten-metre-wide desk, instead of the moulded blue plastic bum-holders in the rest of the building. Can you see me now?
minding my own business avidly minding every bit of business connected with the on-court director of our newly-stumbled-into youth basketball club, and with my son’s performance of a medley of this young coach’s greatest hit, “50 Ways to Beat a Pylon”. (It’s probably just a coincidence, but in my head it has the same tune as Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”.) Reassurance to my sports-averse readers: this isn’t really about basketball. It’s about me, and China, and Chinese fathers (one of ‘em),
I’ve come back for a second assault of John Ralston Saul’s 1995 book The Unconscious Civilization.1 It’s a brainy thing, but not awfully long. And it’s not that it was such tough going; Saul’s prose is quite readable even on difficult subjects. I just wasn’t bringing my mind to it, and there are always Other
Things to Read. Saul made his early reputation as a novelist, but that phase of his career has been eclipsed by his recent prolific output of essays and book-length arguments on globalization, citizenship, the true nature of democracy and of his Canadian homeland. He is something of a gadfly, and sometimes the epithet “philosopher-king of Canada” is muttered irritably, usually by fellow Canucks suspicious of both thinkers and those who dare to do it in public.
I find him a witty, scarily smart and superbly opinionated voice. In the mid-oughts, when I was writing for the Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, I got to spend some time in various front-row seats for the JRS experience.
There I was, though I wasn’t sure why, mostly minding my business, loitering in a new place but with enough quasi-official approval that, even though I didn’t know anyone well, they sort of knew me and blandly accepted that I was fiddling around in some vaguely useful way behind that desk. That’s one thing.
I don’t know why they ran a film, but they’d have probably argued for some linguistic or educational purpose behind the CGI, though I think they were just as bored as I was and equally content to be that way. So there we were. This happened:
It’s the evening of Mid-Autumn Festival day in Dalian, China. It has been a lazy but pretty day. Zhong qiu kuai le literally means “middle autumn happy”, the standard holiday greeting. We wandered through the nearby university on the way to the first restaurant we entered in this city, in September 2009. Then, an American veteran of the Dalian scene noticed us dazedly looking around, and came out of Fengxin Jiujia (literally “harvest money alcohol home”), a homey little restaurant/tavern with a menu in English. It’s been a mainstay since.
We’ve eaten a little bit of “mooncake” (yue bing), which is a little like what Christmas cake used to be in Canada — everyone gives them or serves them during the season, but many don’t actually like them. We smile, imagining the furious cross-country scurrying of couriers delivering elaborate and requisite mooncake gifts to people who then have a disposal problem. Some people love ‘em, though, and there are decadent and non-traditional ones that my sweet tooth would likely savour. (This is a short greeting, so don’t be afraid to continue!)
* Ice cream counts as part of “everything”, even if I could only manage a McD’s sundae today. But then so do peace, justice, education and clean water. (And basketball.)