I went to see Louis de Bernieres read once in Calgary: it was the first reading I ever attended.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin had created a rift between my father and me. A few months earlier, in a bonding exercise, my dad asked me to recommend him a book. Something I’d really liked. Get to know me better, give us something to talk about. I thought about it a good long while. I had a ton of books in mind and on hand, but it wasn’t simple as all that. My dad walked out of movies at the first F-bomb. Show him tit, and he’d moral outrage towards the nearest exit. Seriously, if you even said the word “Madonna” around him, he would actually quiver with rage. After wrestling with his conscience, he finally submitted to God and gave away all his Julio Iglesias records. To all the girls I’ve loved before? May god have mercy on your Enrique-producing soul.
After a few months in hospital, the doctors figured my dad’s pancreas had stabilized enough that he may as well go home to wait out the final week before surgery. It was a big deal. My dad wanted to celebrate with a special movie. He chose Das Boot, a well-regarded war drama set on a U-boat. It was the last film he saw: his pancreas was not stable. He was back in the hospital before sun-up, and, very shortly, that was that. I wasn’t surprised to learn my dad chose Das Boot. World War Two, you know? It claimed his dad, it wrecked his family, and it wasn’t ever a topic very far from his mind. I was thinking along those same lines when I selected Captain Corelli’s Mandolin for my dad to read. Sure thing the way I had it figured: classy war novel, bad (yet good) Germans, the human spirit, things blow up. Except that: Too gay. Because he loved God so much, my dad told me when he returned the book, he couldn’t continue. God didn’t hate the sinner, but he sure did hate the sin, and homosexuality was a biggie.
I’ve thought about this Louis de Bernieres anecdote now and then, whenever I try to figure out what caused the decline of the North American evangelical movement, which occurred between, say, 1970 and 2000. Their descent into irrelevance was spectacular: it’s actually a sweet trick to pull off in a mere 30 years. The Jesus Freaks, countercultural renegades plugged into the zeitgeist of a culture fatigued of war, drugs and polemics, had somehow managed to transform themselves into loud-mouthed, judgemental prudes without the slightest clue about anything. What can you gain by refusing to engage with the world around you, by abstaining from the cultural contributions of your contemporaries?
Michel Houellebecq’s Submission sits on the table beside me. If I was still employed as a professor, I would not admit this. That dude is so fucking cancelled. It’s now a virtue not to read Margaret Atwood. I once lurked a twitter thread where several progressive activists denounced Woody “Allan,” explained why it was obligatory to cancel him, and tore into anyone who didn’t do so—and with sufficient glee. A former colleague scolded me for showing clips of Mr. Robot in my class. Its damsel-in-distress trope was problematic. I protested that the trope is employed intentionally-- to subvert and ridicule. The damsel dies because the hero is inept. None of this matters. The show, the show that exists as a visionary critique of the ascendance of communications technologies? So cancelled. The new mark of virtue among the academic left, and all of us educated by them, is gained by shaming your social and cultural inferiors into no longer liking the things they like. Keep this shit up for another twenty years and the university will be the next institution to descend into irrelevance; it’s already circling the drain. Most everything orthodox, conformist and mediocre started its life seeming revolutionary and radical. Stasis is not the natural order of things.
Anyway, so, like I was saying, when I went to see Louis de Bernieres give a reading in Calgary, it probably wasn’t even all that much to do with Louis. It was just another way of showing my dad that I wasn’t on board. Not only was I not yet a professor, I wasn’t even a university student back then. Readings were definitely not my thing. I attended as John Q Reader, member of the general public, and, together with my friend, Todd, who came with me, that made two of us. First reading and all, hadn’t really known what to expect, but, yeah-super awkward. The front, centre rows were occupied by MFA students. Louis directed himself towards them. He knew several of them by name. I’d never before attended a public event so proudly exclusionary. Like stumbling into the wrong party.
The last reading I attended (a few years ago)—the last one I aim to ever attend— two charismatic professors went around the room forcing each member of the seated audience to shake their hands, and introduce themselves, as though they’d never met. They kept saying their names over and over again. It was performative. It was uncomfortable. I tried to think when I last felt such acute social anxiety, and it wasn’t the Louis de Bernieres reading. Louis wasn’t fun, but at least those kids left us alone. No, it went way back before then. To a thousand Sundays when, maybe a hymn or two in, maybe just after some sort of benediction, the inevitable wide-smiling pastor tells everyone to turn around and introduce themselves to at least two people in the row behind them. Forced institutional participation: if you’re an introvert, this is somewhat unpleasant. If you’re also afraid of men in polyester suits with wide lapels, this is macabre derangement. I’d travelled so far to get away from all of that. And yet here I was, and here we are. Youth pastors and Arts professors—you can hardly tell them apart anymore.