The Three Stooges or Voltaire: Ray Robertson on culture, CanLit, and fifteen reasons to live

December 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Don’t try telling Ray Robertson that his latest book, the essay collection Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, is uplifting. “Hopefully you’re joking,” he says caustically.

To be fair, there is a certain irony in characterizing Why Not, which has recently been longlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize (it was also shortlisted for the inaugural Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction this past fall), as a kind of sunny, self-help guide in the vein of The Book of Awesome or the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Although each of its short chapters is devoted to a different aspect that makes life worth living – subjects include love, art, work, solitude, and intoxication – the book is informed by the clear-eyed assessments of an unrepentant devotee of philosophers from the stoics to the transcendentalists. Robertson is a student of philosophy, and has always been more comfortable in the company of Emerson and Seneca than with the New Age platitudes of Deepak Chopra or Robin Sharma.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the author’s work that his book on the meaning of life concludes with a meditation on death. What might be surprising, however, is to hear Robertson state that, for him, the final chapter is one of the most affirmative in the entire book. “With the other chapters,” he says, “there’s always the downside. So when I talk about intoxication, I talk about how you can go the other way [i.e. become an addict]. Or how you’ve got friends, yes, but they’ll let you down. Or love, but it doesn’t last. But with death, there is always the fact that you’re going to die and I thought that, across the ages, it’s the fragility or ephemerality [of life] that provides the intensity and the supposed longed-for purpose that we often lose track of.”

Robertson himself wondered about the inclusion of a chapter on death in what was putatively a life-affirming book, but ultimately decided the subject was unavoidable. “The whole book was based on the idea that you’re going to confront unsavoury truths and affirm life in spite of them,” he says. “It became apparent after a while that there was this spectre hanging over all the other reasons, no matter how affirmative you are or how you try to wring meaning out of this stuff, and I found that it was something that had to be confronted.”

The author of six novels and a collection of literary criticism, Robertson is no stranger to confronting unsavoury truths. In this case, the confrontation was initiated in response to emotional turmoil in his own life. After finishing the first draft of his most recent novel, 2009’s David, Robertson went through a period of malaise that culminated in thoughts of suicide. “It wasn’t despair or a kind of ‘woe is me,'” he says. “It was just a kind of nothingness. What I was frustrated with was this period where nothing could have gone better in a worldly sense. It wasn’t as if I had anything to be depressed about, but I was incapable of appreciating all the wonderful things life had to offer.”

Afflicted with chronic obsessive-compulsive disorder, Robertson found that simple but radical changes in diet helped him recover from his dis-ease. Deleterious products such as processed food, white sugar, and caffeine were out; healthy alternatives like bananas, almonds, turkey, and whole grain breads were in. “I got better essentially through detoxifying,” he says. “I thought that part of my personality was panic attacks and stuff, and that was part of my edgy, intense nature. After forty-three years of that your body kind of tenses for it. Then, after six or seven weeks or so there was a situation where they didn’t come. I thought, ‘Why?’ Then I was like, ‘Oh, it’s chemistry.'”

Although Robertson is adamant that the resulting collection is not intended as a memoir of his illness and recovery, he nonetheless admits to the personal nature of the project: “It’s the closest I’ll come to autobiography.” Consequently, the essays are replete with the author’s thoughts on the things that are closest to him, including abiding concerns such as music and the nature of good art.

And what constitutes good art? In Why Not, Robertson answers the question first by defining what art isn’t: it is not entertainment; it is not an obligation; and above all, it is not culture. The author quotes Simone Weil: “Culture is an instrument wielded by professors to manufacture professors, who when their turn comes will manufacture professors.” Or, as he suggests to me when I bring up the subject of CanLit and the institutional instruments – Canada Council grants, Canada Reads, the Scotiabank Giller Prize – that provide it with oxygen: “When something becomes so aligned with the culture that it becomes simultaneous with it, most likely it’s no longer art.”

For Robertson, culture is often equated with professionalism and competence, which he acknowledges are necessary to create art, but are not nearly sufficient to sustain it. When I suggest that competence is the curse of CanLit, his eyes light up. “Competence is the enemy of excellence,” he says. “Of course you aspire to make it. And you’ve got a pretty nice lifestyle where you get a grant, you’ve got this and you’ve got this, and you’re perfectly set now, but you’re forty-five and you’ve written seven books, you’ve written out your childhood, you don’t have to worry about being published, and there’s this retreat into competence as opposed to that blazing.”

It’s the blazing – or to use Robertson’s preferred term in Why Not, the danger – that separates merely competent work from great art. The writers he admires – he names Barry Hannah, Jack Kerouac, and Thomas McGuane – were all devoted to crafting sentences capable of making a reader sit up an take notice, a quality that often goes missing in a culture that prizes books that are good for you over books that are just plain good. “McGuane and Hannah much more than Kerouac,” says Robertson, “and one book by Carson McCullers, not her whole oeuvre, but The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: that book just blew my mind. That book felt dangerous. How is she able to talk about this sixty-year-old black doctor who’s disappointed in his children? How does she know this? It’s unnerving. As opposed to, here’s a book about how racism is wrong.”

Too often, our culture promotes the latter over the former, in Robertson’s view, leading to a kind of tyranny of mediocrity. “You should stay away from the mediocre. You should have good art or bad art. It should be the Three Stooges or Voltaire.”

And how to counteract the forces of mediocrity? For Robertson, the answer is simple: ignore them. “It’s like every year with the Grammys,” he says, “there are probably a couple of good things, but for the most part, people who care about good music don’t sit around saying, ‘Oh, geez, did Jay-Z win?’ And then, of course, when Steve Earle does win one, it’s twenty years after he was dangerous and making good art, so it’s irrelevant.” But if literary tastemakers were to refuse to pay attention, it might serve to change people’s ideas about what is good and bad. “If there’s this indifference from the intelligentsia, people with taste, I think it would be cathartic,” he suggests. “It’s like trying to change capitalism. To me, I think it’s best to stand outside it and just live your life.”

Living his life, these days, means coming to grips with the fact that many of the things he values – solitude, for example – are not things that the current zeitgeist tends to promote. But Robertson is sanguine about maintaining a somewhat adversarial relationship with the modern world. “Bertrand Russell lived so long that he actually saw some of the things he had argued for as a contrarian by nature come to pass, and he said it’s a very curious thing to see your enemies embracing your arguments. It’s oddly deflating.”

Instead of being deflated, the experience of writing and promoting Why Not seems to have rejuvenated Robertson and given him the drive to return to what he loves most: writing. “I feel like you have to have the right attitude,” he says, “where you get up in the morning and you think, ‘I want to write about that‘ as opposed to, ‘I want to write.'” And if he’s mellowed a bit in the process, he considers that, too, all for the best. “I think I’m fairly clear about what my agenda is, and that is to make good art as best I can and everything else is secondary. When I was younger, that included my health. And I was mean as a snake, especially when I was trying to get situated [as a writer]. But it doesn’t happen like that anymore and so I feel a bit more human and I think that’s enriched my art a bit.”

You could do worse, I say. “You could do worse,” Robertson laughs. “That’s what you should use as the title for your piece.”

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