The Canadian permafrost is melting. But don’t panic. Or rather don’t panic any more than necessary. Unfortunately it was always going to melt, and we, like the Great Barrier Reef, were always going to die. But of course in narrative, timing is everything.
The permafrost wasn’t supposed to thaw out and release apocalyptic mega tonnages of frozen greenhouse gases and excitingly biblical swarms of primeval bacteria, viruses and unknowable deadly contagions for at least another seventy years.
Oh well. At least we got to finish Game of Thrones, even if poor George Double R Martin probably won’t.
Our real world, and its certainties, like Martin’s late stage Westeros, are in violent derangement and collapse. And not just the world of real things – of melting tundra and bleaching coral – but the imagined world and the life of the mind as well. Newspapers and magazines close every day. The venerable and ancient trade of book publishing is beset on all sides by the tyranny of the new. We live within the Chinese curse of interesting times. Times that will test our humanity. And it is a righteous certainty that at times our humanity will fail us, and we will fail it. Nuance, balance, consideration seem daily to fall before a crude ugliness of thought and deed. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Especially on Twitter. But who are these worst? Them or us? I am afraid a revelation is at hand. We are all of us the worst when we do not listen to each other. Human beings seek meaning in the world. It is what makes us human. It is our glory and our curse. And we find that meaning most often in the stories we tell about the world. Storytellers, the curators of meaning, have held a special place in all cultures through all time. Not always to their own advantage. There is a reason the dictator, his arse freshly planted upon the golden presidential throne, sends his secret policeman after the writers and artists and journalists first.
If he’s a smart dictator he knows that in the long run they are likely to give him a hell of a lot more trouble than any disaffected colonels or generals. The latter can be bought off, co-opted into the regime. The writer and the artist, the grubbing and persistent reporter with her little notepad and her difficult, uncomfortable questions. Well … they’re difficult.
Better then to denounce them as enemies of the people. Or to set the dogs onto them, under the power and provisions of, say, the Crimes Act of 1914, particularly as it relates to allegations of publishing classified and quite frankly embarrassing material.
This year the festival will ask whether these are narratives we need to change, but that is not such a simple question, because narratives are resistant to change. Narratives, which is just a fancy writer word for stories, contend with each other to define the meaning of the world. It’s why people will fight for their particular stories. Power grows from them. And that’s why it seems at times today that we lack not simply common and accepted meanings, but even a language with which to seek them. Without that common language, there can be no shared meaning, and without that common understanding of reality we will remain alien to each other.
We need to find it again and soon. Time grows short.
We just lost another seventy years of wiggle room.
And so events like this festival are important, because they constitute a rare moment when we stop in our headlong rush and think. What is the nature of this thing? What does it mean? What happens next? The reason people come to festivals like this, and they do, all over the world, is because the writers and artists and story tellers here see the world differently to the way the world sees itself, or at least the way it would prefer to be seen. It is almost a form of clarifying madness because to see reality like that is turn your back on the security of an ordered life.
I’m speaking now directly to the writers and artists and curators of meaning here. If you have this madness you will see your friends and contemporaries surpass you in all the banal but essential measures of everyday life. To them go the rewards of accommodation with the way things are. To you, the thin consolations of the road less traveled and the things unseen. But remember it is not about you. It is not about the medium, it is not even about the audience. It is always, always about the story and the meaning. You serve both and through them, humanity. You serve the truth as you discover it. And you should be most skeptical of that truth you most want to hear. But seek it, find it, and take it to the world anyway. People will listen. That’s what they do.
And when they come in September, there will be much to listen to.
I sat on the board of this Festival for a number of years. I know what is involved in putting it together. I commend the efforts of those involved this year to you now. Take up a copy of the program and read it at your leisure, but with one eye on the future.
That’s where we are headed with accelerating urgency.
The known future of the near term, when we’ll meet again in this place, come September. And the unknown future in the years beyond, which perhaps we’ll meet with some hope and certainty if we can just talk with each other in September, and beyond.