Orpheus, opium and Robert Lepage


Photo: Stefano Corso/flickr

The Greek myth of Orpheus hints at the paradoxical relationship between creativity and anguish. Orpheus was the one mortal whose musical ability was as great as that of the gods. The renowned lyre player fell in love with the maiden Eurydice and the two were married. Shortly after the wedding, Eurydice was stung by a serpent and died; Orpheus, unwilling to accept her death, decided to descend into the underworld to rescue her. The gods were touched by the musician’s plea and released her from Hades on the condition that he did not look at her face until the two had returned to the world of the living. They climbed back up towards the surface of the earth, but as they approached the cavern’s end, Orpheus turned back to ensure she was near him, and then she fell into the darkness and was lost to him forever. He tried to follow her, but the gods would not allow him to enter the land of the dead for a second time. Forsaken, he wandered alone, playing his lyre with ever more beauty and intensity until discovered by a band of frenzied Maenads who tore apart his body.

The tale of Orpheus underpins Robert Lepage’s brilliant theatrical production Needles and Opium, playing in Toronto this week. Lepage, one of the world’s greatest experimental theatre directors, is well-known for his improvisational method, technical wizardry and continuous refinement. I first saw Needles and Opium in the mid-1990s; this latest version is even more poignant and focused on the drama of artistic creation. The play tells the story of a lovelorn actor who goes to Paris and is beset by the spirits of the Surrealist Jean Cocteauand the musician Miles Davis. Cocteau travelled to New York and Davis went to Paris at the same time in 1949. Throughout the play we hear passages from Cocteau’s A Letter to Americans and Opium, the Diary of a Cure and music from Davis’ film music for Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows).

When Davis first stayed in France he was surprised by how little racism he experienced. During his time there, he fell in love with the actress and singer Juliette Gréco. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, a friend of both, encouraged Davis to marry Gréco, but the musician refused, saying that he did not want her to have to go through the experience of being part of a mixed-race couple in the United States. Davis returned to the U.S. but became a drug addict; the play suggests that the seduction of opiates lay in the attempt to alleviate the pain caused by the loss of Gréco and the tragic social contradictions which led to that loss.

Eventually the great artist would overcome his drug addiction, come back to Paris in 1957, and record the romantic, tender music for Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, an album made as an improvisational response to film sequences, including one of a beautiful young woman wandering alone through the streets of the city. An elevator to the gallows is of course a powerful metaphor for the plight of Davis, of Orpheus, of all artists, and it serves as a moving backdrop for Lepage’s inspired and stunning play.



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The Most Interesting Mayor in North America

Bill de Blasio/flickr. Photographer: William Alatriste

Bill de Blasio/flickr. Photographer: William Alatriste

The most interesting mayor in North America is not Toronto’s superego-averse Rob Ford, the conservative populist who has received much publicity from comedians across the world, but is instead the recently elected progressive populist Bill de Blasio — the new mayor of New York City. De Blasio’s campaign “One New York, Rising Together,” was a refreshingly progressive one that did not emphasize crime, as did the slogans of New York’s previous Republican mayors. De Blasio campaigned to support workers, teachers’ unions, undocumented immigrants, welfare rights and the need for affordable housing, while criticizing the New York Police Department’s unconstitutional use of stop-and-frisk tactics. De Blasio proposed raising taxes on those making over $500,000 a year in order to pay for universal pre-kindergarten classes and to expand after-school programs at middle schools. His campaign document mentioned that 400,000 millionaires reside in the city while close to half the population struggles to survive: according to an April 2013 report, 45.8 per cent of the city’s residents live in poverty or near poverty — characterized as a family of four earning less than $46,416. His campaign was inspiring and effective: on the day of the vote de Blasio had 10,000 volunteers working at 40 locations while his Republican opponent had 500 at nine locations; when the results were counted, De Blasio had received majorities across colour, gender, age, religion, income and education levels, offering him the possibility to implement some of his best proposals.

De Blasio was able to reach out to the city’s diverse communities because of his fluency in Italian, his basic Spanish, and his decision to emphasize his bi-racial family, namely his activist wife Chirlane McCray, who is of African-American descent, and their children — both possessing Italian names — Dante and Chiara. De Blasio’s first television advertisement was narrated by his charismatic son, exhibiting an unforgettable sky-high Afro and noting his father’s commitment to the city.

De Blasio’s universal reach was complemented by his campaign strategy. In the wake of a popular leader, the standard tactic — such as that adopted by his opponents — is to reassure the electorate by promising to follow in the footsteps of the master. De Blasio cleverly did the opposite: he first polarized the debate. He railed against Michael Bloomberg, the popular previous mayor of the city. By campaigning against the past, de Blasio established a unique political position and identity that tapped into the injustice and resentment experienced by the large majority of the city that had not benefited from the previous mayor’s three terms in power.

Second, and most importantly, De Blasio polarized for the sake of a common good: “One New York, Rising Together.” If he had polarized simply to differentiate himself, as Tea Party candidates like to do — then he would have mobilized his opposition. Alternatively, if he had presented himself as just continuing on the road of Bloomberg he would have soothed some voters but lacked the originality and magnetism needed to stand out from the other contenders. By attacking the seemingly popular Bloomberg for the sake of greater unity he dismantled all of his opponents’ campaigns.

Progressives around the United States and Canada should learn from the de Blasio campaign. It is not a bad idea for progressives to polarize the debate if they make clear that they are polarizing for the sake of a greater unity. The Democrats in the United States and the left in Canada constantly try to gain or hold on to power by proving to the electorate that they are as technocratically dependable as their right-wing adversaries. This is a weak tactic: solid management and balanced budgets are not the stuff of which dreams, or votes, are made. Technocratic skills are not a substitute for higher ideals.

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Robert Redford: When all is lost


Photo: Sam Javanrouh/flickr

There is certainly no other actor who can command our attention — our empathy, our loyalty, our love — with such efficiency.

– A.O. Scott

Even at the age of 77 there are few more admired symbols of American optimism than Robert Redford. The magnetic actor, who starred in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Oscar-winning director of Ordinary People, the tireless promoter and producer of The Motorcycle Diaries, the founder of the Sundance Film Festival, the activist who supports the rights of Native-Americans and LGBT communities, and the environmentalist who has fought hard against the ratification of the Keystone XL pipeline, exemplifies the best of the United States like no other performer. For this reason, Redford was the perfect choice to play the central role in the enthralling film All is Lost.

The movie asks: how does a man survive when he loses all of the illusions and accoutrements that keep him afloat? Redford’s character, referred to simply as “Our Man” in the credits, is alone on a sailing boat somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean. He is wealthy enough to be engaged on a solo voyage on an expensive boat in a distant locale. There is a ring on his wedding finger that appears to be designed in the form and colour of one from the American Southwest. He has at least one child who has left him a card that he has not read. He does not say more than a paragraph of words in the 100 minutes of the movie; the ingenuity of this film is that it presents a compelling, meaningful, action narrative that is almost completely devoid of dialogue.

The story begins with the main character waking to find water gushing into his boat: the hull has been pierced by an adrift metallic shipping container, holding a load of children’s sneakers presumably made in China. The metaphor invokes multiple interpretations: on one hand the symbol is suggestive of the Asian country’s relationship to American power, while on the other hand it can also be taken to symbolize the dangers associated with technological breakdown.  The main character however is up for the challenge: he methodically frees the boat, patches the hole and even has the equanimity to take time to shave: he is in control of the situation. This first trial however opens the gate to numerous others, and the protagonist will face the blind volatility of the sea, the threat of unblinking predators, and the indifference of commercial shipping boats that follow their pre-set computerized timelines. All of which will require him to cut the cord to the main vessel, board a lifeboat, and eventually, in a circle of fire, lose that craft as well. He will be left with nothing, and what is left when nature threatens and technology fails, when there is nothing left to grasp in an infinitely unconcerned ocean?

Like the recent movie Gravity, the main character is an American floating in unconquerable space. In Gravity however, redemption comes along the lines of mainstream society’s favourite unambiguous trope: the individual is always potentially resilient because they have a reservoir of willpower that they can invoke when all their moorings have been cut. All is Lost, in contrast, is more perceptive: its conclusion is less self-indulgent but offers equal redemption.

Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.

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OECD Skills Outlook 2013: The skills needed for the 21st century


Q. What skills are required in order to be employed and receive relatively high wages in the 21st century?

A. You mean, other than blindly furious industriousness, continuous calculation of one’s self-interest, being raised by wealthy parents, and having good luck amidst the crises produced by neoliberal mismanagement of the economy?

According to the new OECD Skills Outlook 2013, key capacities for economic success in the 21st century include information-processing competencies defined in terms of proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving in technology-rich environments. These abilities have become crucial, first, because of the expanding availability of computers; second, because ICTs (information and communication technologies) are changing how services are supplied and utilized, for example, the substantial growth of e-commerce; and third, because employment in knowledge-oriented work is increasing. Occupations with a substantial focus on data analysis, such as finance, real estate, insurance and business services, have been among the most rapidly growing sectors of the economy, while other sectors, even if, like agriculture, characterized by low-skilled labour, have incorporated various forms of computerization.

The OECD report notes a number of interesting statistics: Finland and Japan have the highest shares of information processing skill; that is, one in every fifth person has high skill, whereas in Spain and Italy it is only one in 20. In terms of literacy, 12 per cent of U.S. adults attain the highest levels (Level 4/5) which is consistent with the average across OECD countries, whereas Japan and Finland at 22 per cent score highest. In terms of numeracy, 8 per cent of U.S. adults reached Level 4/5 compared with an OECD average of 13 per cent and a 19 per cent score in Japan and Finland. In terms of problem-solving in technology-rich environments, 31 per cent of U.S. adults completed Level 2 or higher which was below the 34 per cent average across countries. The Netherlands and Finland graded highest with 42 per cent of their adults achieving Level 2 or higher. Socio-economic background does not have a strong impact on adult literacy in Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden or Norway but it has a very strong impact on literacy in the United States. In the U.S. the likelihood of being low-skilled are ten times greater among those born to low-educated parents than among those born to high-educated parents. This statistic is drastically worse than in other countries.

The report also noted that 21st-century workers do not just need to be adept at information-processing, but must also possess “generic” abilities, such as interpersonal communication, self-management, and the ability to learn, “to help them weather the uncertainties of a rapidly changing labour market.” What is also crucial for examination is the importance of developing workers’ capacities for collective advocacy. It is these latter capabilities that have prevented a poor socio-economic background — in Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway — from inhibiting the development of information-processing expertise among large sectors of their populations.

When studying these competencies, it is not only misguided but ironic to confuse correlation and causation — and this misguided vision is exactly what the OECD is perpetrating with this report. Do information-processing skills make countries successful, or do successful countries produce (or, as has often been the approach in the United States, import) these skills? The OECD would do well to observe that countries with strong labour legislation, unions and social movements have strong incomes and strong education — as well as more people who know how to calculate a tip at a restaurant and interpret data.

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Acts of gaiety, acts of assimilation

University of Michigan Press

University of Michigan Press

Sexual liberation was a core principle of the social movements of the 1960s. The desire to emancipate desire was central to the belief that a new society and a new experience could be created. The United States’ LGBTQ (lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans/queer) movements are often described as having begun with the Stonewall Revolt in Greenwich Village in New York City. The rebellion consisted of hundreds of gays resisting a police raid over the course of three days. In The Power of Identity, the sociologist Manuel Castells notes that there were 50 organizations for sexual minorities throughout the U.S. in 1969; after Stonewall the number rapidly increased, reaching 800 organizations by 1973. From that point on it took a mere 40 years, negligible by historical standards, for a U.S. president to declare that he supported the right to same-sex marriage. As readers of this column know, I have praised President Obama’s backing for the legalization of same-sex marriage: it is the most courageous affirmation of equal rights on the part of any president since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There are of course many criticisms of same-sex marriage from conservatives, usually claiming to draw on nature or religion, but they are rarely scientifically accurate or logically consistent. A much more persuasive argument comes from those on the left who contend that the current LGBTQ agenda — oriented as it is by a quest for equality by assimilation — is actually hampering the long-term pursuit of freedom.

One of the most thoughtful articulations of this critique comes from Sara Warner, a professor at Cornell University, who proposes in her new book Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012) that movements for sexual liberation need to reconstruct their agendas based on a reactivation of the themes, practices, feelings and visions of their more radical predecessors. The book reflects on various forms of performance, “acts of gaiety,” by drama queens, jesters and guerrilla activists such as Valerie Solanas’ “Theater of the Ludicrous,” zap actions by lesbian feminists protesting marriage, Jill Johnston’s anarchic forms of civil disobedience, the musical theatre adaption of Diane DiMassa’s ‘zine Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, and Five Lesbian Brothers’ Oedipus at Palm Springs. Warner’s hope is that the visionary writers, artists and performers profiled in her text will inspire the public to turn away from the current LGBTQ assimilationist agenda and instead move towards goals that are genuinely emancipatory.

Warner suggests that we are now witnessing the onset of what she calls “homoliberalism,” that is, an LGBTQ program that pursues mainstream inclusion such as the right to marry, to serve in the U.S. military, and to engage in capitalist enterprise. She argues that this is a set of political goals that, in contrast to the movements of the past, will demobilize, privatize and depoliticize sexual minorities while affirming the worst aspects of American consumer culture. The author notes that, a generation ago, “union organizing, nuclear disarmament, peace, urban renewal, prison activism, immigration reform, the environment, rape, abortion, domestic violence, protection and birth control topped the list of lesbian causes.” Today, LGBTQ communities — save a few remarkable exceptions — no longer make this intersectional model of freedom their priority. It is striking to witness how so many progressives can thoughtfully discuss their own particular agenda while being relatively ignorant or indifferent to the concerns of those outside their priorities. The logic of specialization which organizes the modern market and the state appears — at least in North America — to have also configured the imagination of the activists who resist it.

The triumph of neoliberalism, which occurred not with its conservative inception in the 1980s, but with its consolidation by liberal political parties like the Democratic Party in the USA, the Labour Party in Britain and the Liberals in Canada in the 1990s, has corresponded to the victory of assimilationist policies among formerly radical groups. Movements and individuals have abandoned social change and instead embraced integration: contemporary women, LGBTQ communities, and people of colour appear to desire membership in the U.S. establishment much more than they wish to alter it. This strategy may be understandable in light of the formidable forces opposing genuine transformation, but it is not prophetic. Warner should be applauded for her attempt to investigate the historical emergence of “homoliberalism” and to reanimate gaiety — in all its complexity, affection and aspiration — as a political value for those progressives whose eyes remain focused not just on the ebb and flow of the moment but on a grander possibility just over the horizon.

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The trials (and triumphs) of Muhammad Ali

Photo: Visionello/flickr

Photo: Visionello/flickr

“I don’t have to be who you want me to be.”

– Muhammad Ali

There are a number of fascinating interviews between the 20th century’s greatest boxer Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell, one of the most intelligent sports commentators of the era. In one conversation, Cosell asks Ali, “Who would you like to fight?” Ali replies, “I would like to fight whoever you think is the best, the number one man…” Cosell, responds with resignation and awe, telling the young man, “I am not sure that there is anyone left really for you to fight.

No athlete in the past century has captured the hearts of progressive activists, writers and commentators around the world more than Muhammad Ali. Ali was born Cassius Clay in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1954 his new bicycle was stolen and he reported the theft to Joe Martin, a white police officer, telling him that he was going to find the thief and beat him up. Martin advised the 12-year-old that he better take some boxing lessons before getting into a fight. Good advice: six years later Cassius Clay won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Upon returning to Kentucky, the young man was stunned to discover that Olympic victory did not translate into equal rights; he was still treated as a second-class citizen, and for example was not permitted to eat in many restaurants in the segregated South. In 1961 he began to attend meetings held by the Nation of Islam and in 1964, after beating Sonny Liston to win the World Heavyweight title, changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

For the next three years, he was undefeated and considered by many to be the greatest fighter of all time. In 1966 he was drafted to fight in Vietnam but refused as a conscientious objector. While many Americans repudiated the war, Ali was the most famous and the one who in the short-term lost the most. From 1967 onwards, State Athletic Commissions across the United States rescinded acknowledgements of his heavyweight crown and withdrew his boxing license, preventing him from fighting competitively or in exhibition matches. A federal grand jury in Houston, Texas indicted Ali; he was released on bail, but on the condition that he was not allowed to travel outside the United States. From 1967 to 1970, Ali went from campus to campus, 200 in all, giving speeches about his views on life and defending his decision not to support the Vietnam War. In 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed Ali’s conviction. He returned to boxing and in 1974 defeated George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire regaining the World Heavyweight crown — a battle immortalized in the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings and in Norman Mailer’s superb account The Fight.

A more recent documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, directed by Bill Siegel, focuses on Ali’s relationship to Islam, his decision not to fight in Vietnam, and the consequences of that decision. The film is filled with insightful discussions with Ali’s brother, one of his past loves, a daughter and members of the Nation of Islam. The movie also has entertaining footage of Ali in all his dimensions: the dazzling fighter, the clever self-promoter, the perpetual clown, the magician — Ali loved doing magic tricks — and the principled man who stood up to the U.S. government at a time when the vast majority of the public supported the Vietnam War, hated the Nation of Islam, and denied African-Americans equal legal and cultural rights. It is difficult to imagine the most privileged of our contemporary celebrities giving up any of their money, their fame, or the recognition of their achievements for the sake of principle, conscience and integrity.

The film is enjoyable, interesting and worth seeing. It is nonetheless selective in its choices. It focuses on the boxer’s relationship to Islam without noting that his cornerman Bundini Brown was Jewish, his trainer Angelo Dundee was Roman Catholic, and the entourage that he travelled with — more than 50 people by the time of his 1975 fight against Joe Frazier — included people of every colour. Ali transcends the boundaries of every image imposed on him. In his autobiography Soul of a Butterfly — of which there is a touching audio version read by the late Ossie Davis — Ali notes that he now sees his boxing career as simply a prelude to his real work of bringing peace to the world. Ali has contributed to numerous charitable organizations such as the Special Olympics, UNICEF, and Project A.L.S. and has worked as a United Nations Messenger for Peace. He has received numerous awards for his boxing skills and his humanitarian work outside of boxing: in 1999 he won the Sports Illustrated award “Sportsman of the Century.” In 2000 the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act was passed by the U.S. government to reform unfair practices in professional boxing. In 2005 president George W. Bush — of all people — acknowledged Ali’s contribution to the country, awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ali, despite the Parkinson’s disease which has crippled his ability to speak, of course had the last word. Bush whispered something to Ali and the fighter looked back at him, placed finger to head, and did the “are you crazy?” twirl.

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Mariano Rivera: Baseball’s Jedi Knight leaves the stage

Photo: Samuel Globus/flickr

Photo: Samuel Globus/flickr

Mariano Rivera understood what Steve Jobs, Lao Tzu and Bruce Lee understood: that simplicity is an art and a strength, a source of joy and beauty and power.

– Michiko Kakutani

Sports are fascinating because of what they reveal in terms of a person’s capacity for concentration under pressure, under the threat of defeat — what the sports commentators, without irony, often refer to as “character”. As a teenager I trained as an amateur athlete in track and field and I remember a coach telling me, “in the latter part of a race pressure is preventing adequate oxygen from entering your brain, therefore you are becoming stupider and will make mistakes.” The same dynamic operates not only in sports but in every occupation — most act less intelligently as the threat of loss increases. Sports reveal fortitude under stress, a quality that humanity has always prized because it is the key talent of the warrior, and war is one of the few constants in human history, hence society’s endless fascination with athletes: they offer us a ritual re-enactment of one of the traits that have helped societies, groups and individuals withstand and even overcome monstrous circumstances.

Perhaps no position in sport is more demanding than that of the relief pitcher. Closers of our generation are called into the game in the final inning: the relief pitcher’s job is to preserve the victory, or maintain the possibility of triumph, thus there is no space or sentiment for error. Early in the game any athlete in any sport can make a mistake but still recover and ultimately win; the reliever does not have this freedom: they must deliver without lapse in application because any blunder would be fatal. There have not been many athletes who are as focused under pressure than the New York Yankees’ reliever Mariano Rivera, and this assessment comes not only because of his record-breaking regular season statistics (652 career saves) but his superhuman performance in the playoffs. From 1996 to 2009 the New York Yankees won five World Series championships; on four of those occasions it was Rivera who closed the game. For 19 years it has been almost impossible for opponents to inflict a wound in the final inning as long as the Yankees possessed this magic shield.

Rivera, widely acclaimed as the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history, is retiring at the end of this season. Interestingly, he is one of the few athletes who appears to have no enemies: every stadium that the Yankees have played in this year has organized a celebration in honour of him. For example, the Minnesota Twins gave him a rocking chair comprised of broken bats called the “Chair of Broken Dreams” in recognition of the bats that he shattered with his relentlessly precise-cut fastball. As well, teams have contributed to his charitable institute, the Mariano Rivera Foundation, which provides more than $500,000 — one of the largest sums by any athlete — in the U.S. and his native Panama to build elementary schools, provide computers and mentors to marginalized young people.

Rivera retires as an enigma — someone that only a goddess with a magnifying glass could fathom. He always exhibited the same temperate presence whether on the field or off of it, or whether he won or lost. He viewed his talent as a spiritual gift: he came into baseball throwing the ball at 90 mph but for some reason — he himself said it was because of divine intervention — his pitches suddenly started clocking in at 95 mph. Along with the velocity was his remarkable capacity to contain, organize and channel his passion; what hidden experience, mechanism and interpretation produced such an unprecedented capacity for concentration? His qualities are striking because they are lacking in contemporary society: our age of consumption, continuous self-advertisement and technical innovation promotes an indulgent, fluid, externally oriented persona rather than a character defined by internal composure, trust and generosity.

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