A Thing of Beauty is a Joy For Ever: Keats 200

At the bicentenary of his death, John Keats remains an iconic figure in the literary world. Keats died believing himself a failure, but his work is more admired than he ever knew – and in the midst of a global pandemic, his life story is especially poignant.

By Serena Ypelaar

23rd of February, 1821 – Rome. The English poet John Keats dies, aged just 25 and convinced he had never amounted to anything.

Today, 200 years later, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

While he went largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Keats’ posthumous rise to distinction and his perception as a tragic hero have enshrined him in literary history, never to be removed. This week, the #Keats200 campaign commemorates the bicentenary of the famed Romantic poet’s death.

Portrait of John Keats (detail) c. 1822 by painter William Hilton, who had been acquainted with the poet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Clever, sensitive, thoughtful, eloquent – these words are often used to describe Keats, yet during his own time he was relatively unappreciated but for the loyalty of his friends and family. His talent has since immortalized him within the English literary canon as a key figure of the second generation of Romantic poets. Keats’ 1819 Odes, as well as “Bright Star”, “To Autumn”, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, “Lamia”, and “Endymion” are among the most studied and admired poems today. His personal letters have been lauded as literary gems in themselves, bringing us closer to Keats the man – and to that morbidly compelling picture of untimely suffering – to which Keats’ current renown is something of an antidote.

The Keats Foundation, Keats House (which I wrote about in 2018), and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association are leading the worldwide event which culminates today, on the 200th anniversary itself. To fully appreciate Keats’ journey from relative unknown to legendary poet, it’s best if we wind the clock back two centuries: back to 1818.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on …

John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), lines 11-12
Copy of Keats’ life mask at Keats House; one of many made for Keats’ friends to remember him by. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Believe it or not, Keats trained as a surgeon in London before quitting his studies to focus on his writing. In June of 1818 he and his close friend Charles Armitage Brown went on a tour of Scotland, Ireland, and the Lake District – and Keats returned with a bad cold. Nursing his younger brother Tom, who had consumption (now known as tuberculosis), Keats was thus exposed to infection.

Although Tom died that December, the following year (1819) was the most fruitful for Keats’ work. His most famous poems were written during that time, but their merits went mostly unrecognized – Keats was still in debt and unable to marry his sweetheart Fanny Brawne as a result.

One day, in early 1820, he coughed up blood.

He realized immediately that he must have consumption. After struggling with mounting symptoms over the following months, Keats agreed to relocate to Rome in the hope that its warmer climate would improve his condition. His friends paid for his passage, with painter Joseph Severn accompanying him. He would never return to England.

I know the colour of that blood! It is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant.

Keats to his friend Charles Brown, upon coughing up blood in early 1820

Keats was fairly well-connected, having met and formed friendships with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth (my thoughts on him here), Leigh Hunt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and others. Despite the pedigree of many of his peers, however, it was difficult for Keats to establish footholds beyond his circle – he was middle-class, a would-be surgeon without noble birth. His background was fodder for snobbish critics such as Blackwood’s Magazine, who wrote that he was not well-educated enough to be a proper poet or write about classical subject matter. These reviews vexed Keats, putting a pressure on his work (alongside the need to earn a living) that aristocratic poets simply didn’t face.

By the time Keats arrived in Rome in November 1820, it may have been too late. In his final days before succumbing to his illness the following February, he requested that his tombstone bear the following inscription in place of his name: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Keats thought he’d made no mark on the world. He didn’t know his poems would be considered among the best in the English language. He died at the same age as I am now – it’s humbling to think of all he accomplished in his short life.

Keats’ gravestone in the Cimitero Acattolico di Roma (the Protestant cemetery). Photo: Giovanni Dall’orto

And now we’re commemorating the bicentenary of his death. Not just a century later – two centuries later. I’ve always felt it’s important to mark these anniversaries. It makes us reflect on the lives of those before us. And this really is the perfect time to understand Keats’ circumstances. He contracted a widespread disease which ended his life far too soon, robbing him of the opportunity to write more, to enjoy critical acclaim, and to find happiness.

His tragedy resonates during our current pandemic. Lives are being lost in a similar fashion. Keats’ ship was even quarantined before he could disembark in Italy – his letters to Charles Brown during quarantine describe a restlessness that is all too relatable today.

I cannot answer anything in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any handwriting of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse, and at my worst even in quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of my life.

Excerpt from Keats’ final letter to Charles Brown (30th November 1820), in which he describes his restlessness in quarantine

We don’t necessarily need to relate to Keats to empathize with his hardships. But it certainly helps.

Portrait of Keats in Hampstead c. 1821-1823. Painted from memory by Joseph Severn, who was with him at his death in Rome. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A prolific Romantic poet, Keats captures the timelessness of nature, emotion, and beauty. His abstract explorations and emphasis on sensory stimulation transcend any one time or place. From exaltation to lamentation, Keats felt deeply. Those who knew him remarked on his distinctive intensity; and the sensitive among us can take solace in his musings. His writing exemplifies the great care and consideration with which he engaged with his surroundings, documenting his understanding of the world; validating the complexity of our own emotions.

Keats’ works were published and circulated during his lifetime, but he received as many negative reviews as he did positive ones, if not more. It was only posthumously, during the 19th century that his works gradually became more well-known and highly venerated by Victorians (Tennyson chief among them). Today, people love Keats’ poems – and they’re attracted to the story of the emotional young poet whose tragic end came too soon. It goes to show how we can form strong personal attachments to an artist – a collective appreciation that continues to grow over two centuries.

Keats may have thought his name was writ in water – easily washed away and forgotten – but the joy he brings, the sense of feeling he encapsulates in his works – outlive any concept of self-perceived failure. Loved in life by his friends and family, in death Keats has achieved mythical status. I wish I knew how Keats would feel if he learned how successful his work is now, but one thing is for sure – some things will always move us.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

John Keats, “Endymion” (1818), lines 1-5
You can read more about Keats and the significance of his life and death masks here.

What ‘The Dig’ Understands About Archaeology

Simon Stone’s historical drama steps away from casting its archaeologists as treasure hunters, mirroring the field’s own turn toward the ethical pursuit of information.

By Jenny Lee

Surprising no one who knows me, I buzzed with anticipation for The Dig, Simon Stone’s film about the Sutton Hoo excavations, for weeks beforehand. I am not really a person who needs to watch things the moment they come out, but I kept the evening of January 15th clear, hoping that it would delight me as much as the trailer promised – and remembering my own happy traipse around the site when we could still go places and do things.

Based on John Preston’s book of the same name, The Dig dramatizes the late-1930s excavations at Sutton Hoo, Sussex, which revealed an iconic Anglo-Saxon ship burial in a larger cemetery context. Against this backdrop, landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan, fabulous if unconvincing as a woman in her mid-fifties), her son Robert, archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), and the rest of the dig team, including a late-arriving Lily James as archaeologist Peggy Piggott, play out a slow, emotionally throbbing story about absence, legacy, and the inevitability of death – themes that are, I note, all the stuff of archaeology.

Absence, not miraculous appearances: Mulligan and Fiennes in ‘The Dig’. Photo: Larry Horricks / Netflix.

The Dig is surprisingly restrained on the subject of the Sutton Hoo finds themselves – we get a glimpse of a few objects emerging from the soil and laid in finds boxes, but there are no loving pans over the famous burial outfit, with its stately mask and glowing cloisonne ensemble. What looms large in the movie’s visual language instead is the absence of things: first a growing hole in the barrow, which at one point threatens to consume Brown entirely, then the imprint of a vast wooden ship in the soil, the boards long since rotted away. (Archaeology requires extrapolation, the exploration of what is no longer there using only what remains.)

This is the most interesting thing about the film for me. Virtually all mainstream archaeological media – your Mummy trilogy, your Indiana Jones – is about the stuff, generally what an archaeologist might call “small finds”. Our archaeologist-heroes pursue these things with fetishistic intensity; they must rescue these things and keep them from falling into the wrong hands. The things, after all, belong in a museum!

Small finds: a gold belt buckle from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo. Photo: British Museum.

For dramatic reasons, there is less concern about the meat and potatoes of archaeological excavation: what action hero could thrill to finds like ‘bit of wall’ or ‘patch of dirt that is a noticeably different colour from surrounding dirt’ or – more exciting yet – ‘midden’?

Early archaeology, too, was often interested in ‘the stuff’ (Howard Carter with his eye to the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, seeing – yes, wonderful things), often blasting through strata and losing precious data in its rush for finds, then spiriting goods out of their contexts to be displayed in European museums. The Dig looks back on this era with the perspective of nearly a century of archaeological thought and postcolonial theory, recognizing – as British archaeology was late to do – Basil Brown for his meticulous, thoughtful practice. It purposefully minimizes the small finds, as if to suggest that the dig was not about the things at all, and so sidesteps one problem with archaeological media: its tendency to condone, and so naturalize, the wholesale theft of cultural objects by Western archaeologists and cultural institutions – an entrenched, ongoing issue in the field.

Excavations at Sutton Hoo, 1939. Photo: British Museum

This reframes the story of Sutton Hoo, and maybe of archaeology in general, from the miraculous appearance of objects in a field to the culmination of dedicated work and thought by many minds and hands. It’s a slow pleasure, not an epiphanic one: the moment of truth is not the emergence of treasure from the ground (though this is always exciting) but the confirming of a hypothesis, the accumulation of knowledge.

The film ends on a long take of Brown and his team piling soil back onto the barrow site to cover the delicate ship burial. Much of Sutton Hoo is still unexcavated, reserved – as is common practice – for future archaeologists and their future technologies, in the pursuit of knowing more.

Recommended reading and listening:

Frankenstein: Returning to the Tale in 2021

Returning to a classic, we examine the titular character of Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic-horror novel Frankenstein and how his behaviours and actions have resonance today.

By Bretton Weir

A personal goal for 2021 is to read more. I figured I’d start this adventure with a classic, and personal favourite, Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein.

Why Frankenstein? It has been a decade since I first picked up the novel for an assignment in my first year university English class. I have such vivid memories of this enthralling and harrowing tale so I needed to see if my memory held up. It did.

If anything, 10 years of lived experience between readings has given me a more mature point of view on the events of the novel.

Illustration of Victor Frankenstein at work in his laboratory, from the 1922 publication of the novel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fellow TMR contributor Adriana Wiszniewska wrote back in 2018 that Frankenstein is a story with which we all have some familiarity, whether it be from reading Shelley’s novel or being subjected to the Hollywood adaptations and their associated images. Not only that, but Adriana writes that the story of Frankenstein is one we continue to come back to, so I feel it is appropriate to give the novel another look. This time, looking at the titular character and his motivations, his downfalls and his ultimate demise.

We are introduced to Victor Frankenstein, the child of an upper class Genevan family in the 18th century. His upbringing is one of privilege. He demonstrates intellect, compassion for his family and an eagerness to go to university to advance his studies and expand his mind. All good intentions.

Now, I have historically been critical of Victor. Upon rereading, these feelings toward him do not change. Victor is motivated by his own ego and self interest. He chooses to create a living creature to prove that he can. He chooses to make it at a behemoth proportion for his personal ease. He chooses to abandon the creature instead of accepting his parental responsibilities. He chooses to remain silent while his closest friends, family members and confidantes die at the hand of the creature. Not only all of that, but he’s so self-absorbed that when the creature remarks he will come after Victor on his wedding night, Victor naturally assumes it will be his death at the hand of the creature.

While we can rag on Victor as the true villain of this story, his actions (and inactions) are what lead to his ultimate demise. But what are the lessons here? I can’t help but feel if Victor was honest with his family and friends about the creature, the outcome would have been drastically different for everyone involved. And are we so harsh as to not sympathize with Victor and his personal fear of failure? His family’s expectations of him seem to allege that he is a golden child who cannot do wrong or misstep in any way. Is there not a societal and familial pressure that could drive one mad, independent of the external appearances he feels he must keep up?

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is recorded that Mary Shelley’s idea for this novel came out of a dream she had. While a looming creature given life by the hands of an ambitious and green young adult conjures up frightening imagery, the novel clearly explores fears around adulthood, responsibility and accountability – universal anxieties I feel many of us have experienced to some degree.

While I hope no one is attempting to be a modern Prometheus in this day and age, I do think we can stop, take a minute to breathe and sympathize with the fact that the future is uncertain. Change is constant. And while we might be frightened by the “creatures” in our shadows, perhaps being frank and honest about them will benefit everyone.

Travel in the Time of COVID (It’s Not What You Think)

The year was 2020. Heritage professionals and travel buddies Emily Welsh & Serena Ypelaar were excited for their annual weekend trip with friends. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic thwarted such plans, but the duo went ahead with a Christmastime trip to Quebec City – virtually. Their online “visitor experience” explored how sensory immersion can convincingly take us elsewhere. 

By Emily Welsh & Serena Ypelaar 

Serena Ypelaar: This is one of my top memories from 2020 – which I guess isn’t saying much, as everyone spent most of the year at home. Back in December, Emily and I travelled to Quebec City ~virtually~ since we couldn’t do so in person. It helped that we’d both been there before; we had sensory memory to work from. Moving our trip online actually shaped a unique experience that was almost as fun as the real thing – I was surprised how absorbing it was. 

We travelled to Quebec City at Christmas without leaving our homes. Photo: Shorttrips / ed. Serena Ypelaar

As part of our pseudo-trip, I planned a virtual stay at the Fairmont Château Frontenac, which has always been on my bucket list. Can’t afford to stay there irl, so why not pretend, with the help of PowerPoint and HQ images? But we couldn’t just appear in Quebec – a virtual train ride would bridge the gap between Ontario and Quebec nicely, so I hopped onto YouTube to find the goods. You’d be surprised how many Ontarians post videos of their train rides. As our Zoom call connected on Day 1 of the trip*, I for some reason decided Ozzy Osbourne’s “all aboard!” (from “Crazy Train“) was a mandatory soundtrack to our simulated journey via Zoom screensharing and someone’s train video. Sorry for subjecting you to it, Emily! 

In the virtual tourism world, money is no object – we could “choose” our rooms. Photos: Château Frontenac / ed. Serena Ypelaar

Emily Welsh: “All aboard! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” The perfect way to start a trip! Music plays such a large role in travel, especially for us. The first person POV helped me feel as if I was actually departing on a trip, rather than simply showing up at our virtual hotel stay, which likely would have been a jarring introduction. I was immersed in the experience from the very beginning, and it only got better from there. After exploring the public spaces and rooms of the Château Frontenac, we explored the Old City with a first person night time walk. Walking among others bundled up against the cold, hearing the snow crunching underfoot, seeing the Christmas lights and skaters, it was as if I was breathing in the cold air and exploring the city with friends. I was mentally choosing benches to sit on and Christmas booths to visit. 

The walk we “went on” in Quebec City. There are many others like it on YouTube, shot in 4K. Delightful when you’re stuck in lockdown! Video: NAC Design on YouTube

SVY: I couldn’t have described it better myself – the sights and sounds really got me! I can’t convey how much I enjoyed the night walk. Another boon from YouTube and shot in 4K, it was as if we were actually walking through the snowy night, through the streets of 17th and 18th century architecture I love. Perfect way to spend the simulated evening. 

It’s not a vacation without a food tour! Photo: Kerrmess

EKW: For Day 2 of our trip, I was excited to curate a walking food tour, or dessert hop, of Old Quebec City. Quebec City provided the opportunity to taste traditional French and French Canadian dishes, and explore the modern inspirations offered by restaurants and shops. For instance the piesicle, frozen pie on a stick, offered at Kerrmess seemed too cool to pass by (pun intended). 

However, I quickly realized this trip must also be realistic, and although we may wish, we cannot simply eat the day away! I decided to pair a tour of historic homes and architecture with the dessert hop, as food and architecture seemed to go hand in hand in my mind. By examining the architecture of the Old City, I was constantly surprised by stories of cultural influences, military campaigns, epidemics, natural disasters, building codes, and modern reconstructions. I was pleased to gain a fuller understanding of the city’s history, and excited to share what I had learned. 

Map of our food tour. Photo: Google Maps / ed. Emily Welsh

SVY: Your tour was engrossing, and can I just say I was glad I had tea and stroopwafel on my end, because taste-testing-without-actually-tasting was a killer! Your visuals of bakeries, restaurants, and of course, food sparked my imaginative powers, that’s for sure. And the way you interwove all the stops with local building history, the evolution of the city, and landmark features made the experience really organic, yet again fooling me into thinking I was there. It’s amazing how much you can engage with a faraway place if you tune your senses in. If we ever get back to QC, we’re re-enacting this food tour, s’il vous plait!

EKW: I’d be honoured to offer this tour dans la vraie vie!

SVY: We engaged with even more places as the trip went on. When organizing travel itineraries, the first place my mind goes to is “HISTORIC SITES” (yes, my brain yells it in all caps). So it was only fitting that we checked out the Fortifications du Quebec National Historic Site, Lévis Forts National Historic Site, and Le Monastère des Augustines. The Plains of Abraham and other sites were not on the list (despite my fascination with Wolfe and Montcalm) as we’d both been there, done that. Instead we watched a rather dramatic video about the Fortifications, followed by a few lads’ recent visit to the site thanks to YouTube (overlaid by my on-the-spot spiel about the colonial history of Quebec and New France). Visitors captured in that video were masked up, which struck me as particularly authentic – how it would be if we were really there in 2020.

Virtual heritage tour slide, with embedded videos (like this intense Parks Canada one) bringing the sites to life.
Within Le Monastère des Augustines. Photo: Facebook

Google Maps / Street View brought the Lévis Forts before our eyes, as if we were standing there. While it was interesting learning the history of the British-built forts, not much is left of them today to engage with. The virtual trip served us well in that sense. We didn’t have to make the long trek to the outskirts just to see… well, not much. We learned, we interacted, but we also decided we don’t need to see the forts in person, thanks to virtual tourism! On the other hand, Le Monastère is a place I’ve seen from outside and always wanted to enter, so it was fulfilling to traverse the halls in some form and I definitely want to explore further in person.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Major-General Sir Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone & Governor-General of Canada, at the First Quebec Conference, August 1943. Photo: Wikimedia

EKW: How else should one’s brain shout historic sites? The fortifications of the city are impossible to miss, so I was excited to learn we were going on top of the walls and inside the associated structures! Again, the immersion of the virtual trip was paramount and your curated tour made it as if I was actually exploring all of the exhibits in person. Plus, your personal re-telling of the city’s history, with fun historical photographs thrown in, made it an even more valuable and enjoyable experience.   

I was also excited to explore the museum and archives at Le Monastère Des Augustines. The site, its collection, and interpretation provided me with the opportunity to learn about early healthcare practices in the community, as well as the opportunity to investigate how tourism, accommodation, wellness, and heritage can be blended in a single site. I’m glad you were able to walk its halls, albeit in your digital presence.  

SVY: Thanks! I had the ideal company. So, the big question: would you do a trip like this again?

EKW: In a heartbeat! From researching our destination, to designing experiences, and finally executing the trip, this educational experience exceeded my expectations. I was pleasantly surprised by how immersive a virtual trip could feel. Even outside of a global pandemic, I would consider completing a virtual trip prior to a physical one, as it provided such a well-rounded introduction to a city and would help inform decisions for the real deal! I think it would be an interesting experiment to try a virtual trip for a city we had not visited before to examine whether the level of immersion is equally as deep without prior memories.   

SVY: I’m right there with you (ha). This trip was awesome and like you, I’m taken aback by how effective it ended up being. Agreed about using virtual tourism to plan in-person trips. A virtual first-time visit somewhere would be intriguing … Shoutout to the power of imagination and memory, and to you, Emily, for your partnership in this worthy endeavour. Before long it’ll be time to pack our virtual suitcases for a spring adventure! If this is all the travel we have in the time of COVID, well, I’m not that mad about it anymore.

If you’ve taken a virtual trip of your own over the course of the pandemic or otherwise, we’d love to hear about it! Let us know in the comments or via social media where you “travelled” and how it went.

*We did the trip over one afternoon, but pretended there were multiple days because why not? Gotta make the most out of our fake trip, ya know… 

Our Lady Peace: The Once and Future Age of Spiritual Machines

As 2020 winds down, one of Canada’s alternative rock mainstays looks back – but only for the purposes of moving forward. As Our Lady Peace prepares to release Spiritual Machines II, the follow-up to their seminal 2000 album, it’s worth examining how the original holds up after twenty years.

By Bennison Smith 

Age of spiritual machines
10 – 15 billion years ago,
the universe is born

– “R.K. Intro”

Ray Kurzweil’s tinny narration kicks off the Spiritual Machines album – and appropriately so.

Our Lady Peace’s fourth record is loosely based on Kurzweil’s non-fiction book: The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (1999). The popular futuristic work inspired the Canadian band to churn out this concept album a mere year after the release of their third record, Happiness… Is Not A Fish That You Can Catch (1999).

They did so with Kurzweil’s blessing, as well as his input. Kurzweil (credited as “R.K.”) recorded several passages from his book as brief spoken-word excerpts for use on the album. The excerpts serve as eerie connective tissue between the album’s ten musical tracks.

The panic of the future rears
You dig, you jerk
You find another way
– “Right Behind You”

Spiritual Machines is a lot of things.

Artistically, it takes Kurzweil’s vision of a digital future populated by machines that think, feel and pray – and then runs with it.

Considering its futuristic themes, the album’s release in the first year of a new millennium was a timely one.

As well, the album served symbolically as the end of an era for Our Lady Peace.

It is the last OLP album produced by Arnold Lanni, the producer who guided the band creatively beginning with their grunge origins on the Naveed (1995) album. Shortly after the release of Naveed, the band was catapulted into sustained commercial success.

Lanni produced all four of their early records and departed after Spiritual Machines. His replacement on the Gravity (2002) album was one Bob Rock (a name which never fails to provoke a reaction across the OLP fandom).

Album cover for Spiritual Machines (2000). Photo: Wikipedia

Save for a few tracks on Gravity, Spiritual Machines is also co-founder and lead guitarist Mike Turner’s last contribution to the band – for now, anyway.

Turner’s understated approach, along with his ear for melody and timing, helped to elevate the record to a creative high the band hadn’t realized up until then – and arguably hasn’t quite realized since. Listeners should pay attention especially to the penultimate track, “If You Believe”  for an excellent example of Turner’s technical wizardry on the guitar.

Spiritual Machines represents the “old” Our Lady Peace, before the band chose another direction. And for that old OLP, it’s hard to think of a better send off than this record.

It’s also very interesting that the band, featuring an almost completely different lineup save for Raine Maida and Duncan Coutts, has chosen to embark on a sequel record with the upcoming Spiritual Machines II.

Like a machine,
I’ll fix you from the start
– “In Repair”

It is impossible to have a conversation about OLP without mentioning lead singer Raine Maida. Inevitably, such a conversation will turn to the topic of his voice.

Bassist Duncan Coutts recently acknowledged on an episode of Canadian Music Podcast that Maida’s voice is simultaneously the group’s “gift and curse.”

It is a gift because his distinctive vocal register can be instantly recognized by a listener, regardless of the style or tempo of the song Maida is performing.

For the same reasons, his voice is also a curse when the band is attempting to branch out creatively and seek new audiences.

Over his career, Maida has famously sung up and down the vocal range. Depending on the song and the record, he will sometimes sing in a deep, resonant baritone. Sometimes he will also sing in a falsetto so pronounced that the lyrics will become virtually unintelligible.

For an effective blend of both ends of the Maida scale, listeners can simply listen to his baritone and falsetto layered on top of one another in the verses of “In Repair.”

And how many times has your faith slipped away?
Well is anybody safe?
Does anybody pray?
– “Life”

Despite being a record about robots, Spiritual Machines brims with life.

“Life” is, of course, also one of the album’s big singles and a classic OLP radio anthem.

The life of the album begins with an urgent declaration of solidarity on “Right Behind You” and reaches its apex with “The Wonderful Future,” a song featuring bass and percussion that are evocative of a slow, but persistent heartbeat.

“The Wonderful Future” is a track with interesting subtext, which will be discussed in a moment.

I’m drowning inside your head
– “Are You Sad?”

For all its futurism, Spiritual Machines is still very much a product of the 1990s (i.e., on “Everyone’s a Junkie,” the lyrics contain a slightly dated reference to “endless television”).

The themes of the record, however, remain universal.

In the face of a seismic change, the record’s central narrator struggles to maintain their grip on their relationships to those closest to them. They offer solidarity (“Right Behind You”), support (“In Repair”), comfort (“Are You Sad?”) and express regret for what they couldn’t do (“Middle of Yesterday”).

The themes on the record are effectively conveyed by some of Maida, Turner and Coutts’ most proficient musical work – not to mention the work of then-drummer, Jeremy Taggart, whose distinctive performances behind the kit underpinned much of the band’s early success.

She needs to know I’m alive,
but I’m flesh and I tear
– “The Wonderful Future”

The burden of caring for other people, when their problems become your own, permeates tracks early on the record.

Caring for other human beings is a worthy cause. But it also takes a toll.

Meanwhile, by the end of the record, the narrative presents a contrasting vision with “The Wonderful Future” and its aforementioned subtext.

The song’s narrator seems to have begun a relationship of some sort with a spiritual machine. The relationship described in the song seems ethereal, maybe even vapid.

Where there were human bonds holding the narrator back earlier in the record’s narrative, they instead seem elevated by the bond they have formed with this machine, whether it be one of simple friendship or something else.

On “Middle of Yesterday” the narrator was full of regret for doing wrong by another person they once cared for. At that midway point of the album, they seemed to be hopeful for a resolution of some kind. But on “The Wonderful Future” they don’t seem to care anymore now that an angelic machine of some sort is in their life instead.

How we, as listeners, are supposed to feel about this narrative development is naturally open to interpretation. But it’s a significant note to end the album on before the last Kurzweil spoken word track (“R.K. and Molly”) is slipped in for good measure.

Does the album’s narrative imply that society itself is headed on a parallel path to the narrator regarding its relationship with technology, digitization and artificial intelligence?

And does that path represent an ascension as a society?

Or perhaps a downward spiral?

We will have to see if the band is up for tackling these questions – and more – on Spiritual Machines II in 2021.


Bennison Smith is a budding Our Lady Peace superfan. One of the highlights of his fandom so far was being asked multiple times to “please sing a little quieter” by fellow audience members at an OLP concert. Bennison’s fandom for OLP began in earnest with the Burn Burn (2009) album and has only grown since. He was pleased, but not terribly surprised, to be recognized by the Spotify algorithm for placing in the top 0.5% of Our Lady Peace listeners on their platform.

Bennison’s conclusive rankings of all things Our Lady Peace:

Favourite OLP album: Spiritual Machines (2000), of course
Least favourite OLP album: Healthy in Paranoid Times (2005)
Favourite OLP song: “Blister”
Favourite Raine Maida look: the long-haired days of the “Fear of the Trailer Park” tour circa 2002/2003

The Secret Life of Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier’s photography was discovered after her death, raising questions about who the elusive artist was and what drove her work. Yet continued interest in her work and private life raise further questions about artistry and privacy.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

Who is Vivian Maier? That’s one of the main questions posed by the documentary Finding Vivian Maier. These days, Vivian Maier is recognized as one of the great American street photographers of the twentieth century. But prior to her death in 2009, she was completely unknown to the world at large and her life remains something of a mystery.

Self-portrait of Vivian Maier. Photo: Maloof Collection.

After discovering a cache of photo negatives at an auction in Chicago in 2007, amateur historian and collector John Maloof realized he had unwittingly purchased the unpublished work of a brilliant street photographer, with thousands of beautiful photos taken in the streets of Chicago and New York in the ’50s and ’60s. Maloof eventually published the negatives he’d acquired to Flickr and through the power of the Internet, Maier’s work went viral. It’s now shown in art galleries worldwide.

New York, NY. Photo: Maloof Collection.

Maier took over 150,000 photos in her lifetime but spent the majority of her life—about forty years, to be exact—working as a nanny in the Chicago area, her talent and artistry hidden away along with boxes and boxes of unprinted negatives.

The story of a nanny who secretly took thousands of breathtaking photos was so compelling that it drove Maloof to obsession in trying to pin down the woman behind the camera, which he documents in his film. What emerges through interviews with the now-grown children Maier once nannied is a portrait of an artist who was strange, elusive, cruel, secretive, difficult, cold, radical, caring, brilliant. In short, complicated. Like all human beings are.   

1959, Grenoble, France. Photo: Maloof Collection.

What also emerges are enduring questions about the nature of art and artistry, of discovery and privacy and consent. Maloof, of course, has profited greatly from his discovery and subsequent exhibition of Maier’s photographs—something Maier herself, who was practically destitute before her death, could obviously have benefitted from. But, as people who knew her are quick to point out, she was intensely private and likely would have hated the attention that comes with fame and recognition.

Then again, she’s no longer around to have a say in the matter, so is there really any harm in making her work and her life known?

The work is one thing. It’s as brilliant as everyone says. Maier was prolific and genuinely talented. A true artist with a keen eye, who was never without her camera and who had a knack for capturing humanity in all its beauty, absurdity, warmth, and ugliness.

September 1953. New York, NY. Photo: Maloof Collection.

Her life, and the speculation about it, is another. What right have we to know the ins and outs of this very private person’s life? It has little bearing on the mark of her work. Maloof wants to get to the bottom of the mystery of Vivian Maier. Why did she take so many photographs? Why did she never publish them? Why did she hoard newspapers and take particular interest in grisly stories of murder and depravity? Why did she remain “just” a nanny throughout her life? These are questions that can never be fully answered. And probably they shouldn’t be. A lot of them make assumptions about who and what a woman, and a woman artist in particular, should be.

The question that persists, which Maloof asks again and again in the film, is: why didn’t Maier put her work out there? It’s a good question, one that begs to be answered. Why wouldn’t an artist want the fame and fortune that we tend to think all artists are entitled to?

The answer is, we’ll never know. What Maier wanted and intended to do with her own art is something no one can answer. Why she chose to hoard her countless rolls of film will remain a mystery. But that’s as it should be. We’re not supposed to have all the answers.

April 7, 1960. Florida. Photo: Maloof Collection.

Diane Arbus once said that “a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” And the more we learn about Vivian Maier, the less we seem to know about her. But she was a person, not an object to be unraveled, poked and prodded, sensationalized.

While I’m grateful that Maier’s work was made public, because I wouldn’t have been exposed to her stunning photography otherwise, I also believe that art doesn’t have to be commercialized or publicized in order to be great art.

Think of all the kitchen sink poets and hobbyist painters and bedroom guitar heroes and secret photographers out there, quietly making art for themselves. Art isn’t a rarefied domain, closed off to those who can’t afford to make it—or at least, it shouldn’t be. Art is how we make sense of our own experience and the world around us. It’s for everyone and it’s being made by everyone, each in their own way, as we speak. Art is not a privilege. It’s a human necessity.

It’s a good thing that Vivian Maier is finally getting the recognition she rightly deserves, even in death. God knows strange, difficult women rarely get the same appreciation afforded to their male counterparts. Still, people will always love to speculate about the private lives of public figures. But ultimately it’s the work that matters most. Regardless of who she was and what she did, Vivian Maier’s photos will continue to speak for themselves.

January, 1953. New York, NY. Photo: Maloof Collection.

 

1917: Walking in a Soldier’s Boots

Cinematography and sound in the film 1917 take us through the trials of World War I soldiers on a visceral level. There’s no better way to empathize with those who fought in the trenches than seemingly embarking on their journey ourselves – thanks to sensory storytelling techniques.

By Serena Ypelaar

Another Remembrance Day has passed, albeit very differently this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic surging in parts of Canada and worldwide, we weren’t able to gather at town squares and city halls with veterans in the same way. We weren’t out as much; we didn’t see as many poppies on each other’s lapels. But all this aside, we can still pay tribute to those who made sacrifices for our freedom. Especially now, the theme of sacrifice is crucial as we try to protect each other by staying apart.

I’ve written about this before: no matter the politics of war, its toll on our fellow humans is something we can all recognize. We feel it through devastation, through loss, through grief, glory, and gratitude.

It’s often said that the best way to understand someone’s struggle is to walk a mile in their shoes. One film that does an excellent job of putting us in a soldier’s boots is Sam Mendes’ 2019 war film, 1917. The film is critically acclaimed for its immersive powers, having won Academy Awards for Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing, on top of seven other nominations, including for Best Picture. Having seen it at the start of this year, I was captivated by the cinematic techniques that told the story.

Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) lead us on a tense journey through no man’s land, illustrating both the horrors and the human aspect of war. Photo: Roger Ebert

1917 follows two young lance corporals in the British army during World War I. William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a do-or-die mission in northern France. The duo must trek across the treacherous no man’s land to prevent a different British battalion from launching a planned attack, which would play right into a German ambush if it were to go ahead. Schofield and Blake must get there within 24 hours, before the attack is scheduled to take place. They’re sent off with a terse warning: “If you fail, it will be a massacre”.

George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield in 1917 (2019). Photo: Vulture

The ensuing story is harrowing enough on its own, bluntly depicting the theatre of war and the horrors that come with it. Death, violence, poverty, destruction – we know what to expect from a war film, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing when it’s before our eyes, or ringing in our ears. Now imagine actually being there in person. We don’t need to work hard to do so, because the film’s cinematography (in the capable hands of Roger Deakins) situates us right alongside Schofield and Blake as if we were walking, running, climbing, and crawling with them. We’re made to feel like we’re right there thanks to incredibly long takes – the whole film looks as if it were filmed in one continuous shot. It wasn’t, but it might as well have been; it seems impossible to distinguish where takes end because they span minutes, each take cleverly shifting into the next.

Photo: Ourculture

As a result, 1917 comes across as a progression of events in real-time – much as you might walk through a field yourself, for instance. Even if you blink, your view doesn’t cut to various images in succession – you’re likely to take in your surroundings more gradually, organically. You might also get swept up in the sounds of your environment. Likewise, the film replicates empirical observation intuitively, thanks to the long takes and sound mixing. Perhaps my analogy makes assumptions about accessibility, but my point is that we’re made to follow Schofield and Blake through no man’s land directly: the film is linear, never using the same location twice. There are no omissions from the action unfolding in front of us, thereby absorbing us into a rawness that feels like the present. The result is an immersive experience (my favourite phrase). We desperately hope the soldiers will get there in time, and it’s that suspense that helps to pull us in.

Using clever transitions from one long take to another, 1917 creates the illusion of one continuous shot – and in so doing, makes us feel as though we are right in the middle of the battlefields.

“That was my battle every day; to marry something that technically had to be incredibly precise with performances that felt spontaneous and real and a little rough around the edges, and not in any way robotic or preplanned or over-rehearsed. And to make sure that the technical scale of it didn’t overwhelm the human story … to make sure those two things could coexist without one destroying the other.”

Sam Mendes, Director
Photo: Ourculture

1917 isn’t based on a particular battle, and all its characters are fictional. This could be any World War I battlefield, any soldiers – what matters is that they’re human, like us. The casting of relative newcomers MacKay and Chapman in the lead roles gives the film an air of anonymity and grim humility; the narrative doesn’t chase glory or pride. Like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), 1917 is sober in tone, illustrating war on an intimate, human level: the story of a few individuals. Notably, 1917 balances low-profile leads with the high-profile casting of the military officers: Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, and Richard Madden. Yet they have about five minutes’ screen time each, because it’s not the generals that carry this film; it’s the average soldier.

Likewise, when remembering war, we’re not just remembering conflicts between faraway countries, a long time ago (there are people living through war right now). We have to remember the enduring humanity, the selflessness and courage of veterans and civilians over a sustained period of time – even through the inhumanity of war. It’s something that 1917 illustrates very well through its cinematography, casting, and pacing. The heightened uncertainty of global situations (be it war or pandemic) underscores just how much each person’s contribution can mean in the greater scheme of things.

So by watching films like this, by simply paying attention for a while, we can honour their sacrifices.

Black Lives Matter in the Arts and Humanities too.

The Mindful Rambler blog shares BIPOC-focused arts content and commits to more inclusive discussions regarding the arts and humanities.

2020 continues to demonstrate that it’s a time of great change. Over the past weeks, we’ve witnessed and taken part in the Black Lives Matter movement as it’s unfolded – and we’ve been listening, learning, and reflecting with specific regard to our work as a blog that highlights history, literature, art, and biography.

The truth is, the majority of storytellers and creatives celebrated in the mainstream media are white. We must do more to include diverse perspectives in literature and art beyond just the western canon and “mainstream” history, and talk more about issues in society today – because the humanities don’t exist in a vacuum. Our studies are influenced by the world around us, including the world’s inequalities. In our previous blog posts, we’ve analyzed culture and race – albeit mainly focusing on Indigenous cultural heritage in Canada. We’ve also run posts featuring prominent LGBTQ2S+ individuals, and will continue to do so. However, we haven’t really touched upon anti-Blackness that is present across the disciplines we discuss. It is 2020 and yet the experiences of racialized communities continue to be dismissed and disregarded; queer identities continue to be questioned and invalidated. We cannot overlook the imbalances of power which allow racism, homophobia, sexism, and discrimination to thrive.

Mickalene Thomas, “Portrait of Mnonja” (2010) at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery). Photo: Adam Fagen

Together as a team, we’ve assembled some articles and social media amplifying the voices and stories of BIPOC creatives, sharing content which discusses race through the contemporary lens of today’s vantage point, as well as content reviewing historical sensibilities and their implications. This article is not intended as a one-time contribution to the ongoing discussion, but rather as a commitment to more inclusive storytelling on this blog moving forward – laying the groundwork of what we’re learning from this movement and applying it. We’d love to hear from you if you know of any resources we could add to this list – the learning process continues every day.

Some content about BIPOC cultural heritage & creative industries

Forgotten Black British Histories | “There is an oversimplification of Black British history”
Akinola Davies

Why I made the series “Black to Life” | “This is British history and not just Black British history”
Akinola Davies

12 Black Scholars on the Black Lives Matter Movement and Canada | “Black scholars in Canada have engaged with public audiences to help contextualize how racism is very much a Canadian problem”
Active History

British Rapper Dave performing “Black” at the BRIT Awards 2020 | “The least racist is still racist”
Dave

A guide to supporting Black trans artists in Philly and beyond | “Black Trans Lives Matter, too, and it’s important that we elevate and listen to those voices”
Kyle V. Hiller

Open Letter to Hollywood from WGAW Committee of Black Writers | “Black writers have been critically underrepresented … at the expense of consistently authentic and diverse storytelling”
Michelle Amor, Hilliard Guess, Bianca Sams, Writers’ Guild of America West

The Skin I’m In | “I’ve been interrogated by police more than 50 times—all because I’m black”
Desmond Cole

Watch Documentary: The Skin We’re In | “Do Black lives matter here [in Canada]?”
Desmond Cole

Why I Teach About Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World | “People are more comfortable with antiquity being racist (and sexist and classist) than they are with it being diverse”
Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Eidolon

Hell is for White People | “A painting from 1515 turns a mirror on its viewers
Alexander Nagel, Cabinet Magazine

Money Talks: About Racism in Canada | “These faces found in our wallets … had a direct hand in harming Canadian citizens who did not fit their ideal image”
Ryan Pilling

Powerful Photos of Black Women in White European Nobility Gowns | Interview
Fabiola Jean-Louis, interviewed by Jessica Stewart

Why It’s So Important that Juneteenth Become a National Holiday | “A national Juneteenth observance can affirm that Black Lives Matter”
Usher

Black authors are on all the bestseller lists right now. But publishing doesn’t pay them enough.
Constance Grady

Kehinde Wiley’s Trickster | Vivid portraits of artists – in pictures
Kehinde Wiley, featured by Guardian staff

Kendrick Sampson, Tessa Thompson and Over 300 Black Artists & Execs Call for Hollywood to Divest From Police | “Hollywood encourages the epidemic of police violence and culture of anti-Blackness”
Kendrick Sampson

Some BIPOC creatives to check out on Instagram

This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are a few BIPOC creatives whose accounts we follow. Please let us know in the comments about more creatives whose accounts we should follow!

reenactorsofcolor | “Acknowledging & celebrating people of color who participate in living history & their historical inspiration.”

dandywellington | “Bandleader #DandyWellingtonBand, producer, style activist. #VintageStyleNOTVintageValues

notyourmommashistory | “Public Historian, Performance Artist, Historical Interpreter, Activist and Abolitionist”

vintageblackcanada | “A Multidisciplinary Creative Initiative Documenting the Transnational Modern History of the African Diaspora in Canada. © Curator @mraaronfrancis

georgian_diaspora | Museum of historic images of multi-ethnic peoples. #history #arthistory #diaspora #fashionhistory #curator

youngsewphisticate | “Seamstress, Weaver & Living Historian”

fabiolajeanlouis | “Haitian Born | New York based | Photographer | Paper Artist | Designer | Interdisciplinary Maker”

jeremydutcher | Musician

blairimani | “Black & bisexual & Muslim. Cohost of @AmericaDidWhat w/ @katerobards | Historian & Author of #MakingourWayHome & @modernherstory. She/Her.”

time.travel.is.possible | “Living History Interpreter | Sharing my love and passion for living history one post at a time”

wearefempire | “Championing female CEOs of minority ethnicities. Helping #DIYentrepreneurs & creatives to scale | Workshops, PanelTalks & The Fempire Sisterhood.”

wu_tsang | Artist

magthehistorian | “Public Historian, Historical Interpreter, Activist, World traveler (He, Him, His) #worldtraveler #livinghistorian #blackhistorian”

shoesfirstthencorset | Glynnis

chippewar | “Jay Soule aka CHIPPEWAR
Chippewas Of The Thames First Nation | Art, Apparel, Indigenize

tiger.lilys.threads | Entrepreneur

mickalenethomas | Artist | Photographer | Filmmaker | Curator | Co-Founder @deuxfemmesnoires

kehindewiley | Artist

scificheergirl | “Hobby costumer, wife, and mom with a dancey-dance problem | Costume Prodigy | Orko #motu2020crew”

labelladonnahistory | “Sociologist. Biologist. Traveler. Thinker. Dreamer. SCA Laurel. #Rievocazione Storica (14th / 15th C living history of Italian city-states).”

thevintageguidebook | “Ayana | Writer & vintage/historical fashion enthusiast | Midcentury & pre-WWII | sewing | books | makeup #vintagestylenotvintagevalues”

broadwayblack | “A theatre enthusiast who fosters artistic diversity & excellence for the love of Black theatre artists. Folk call me Drew Shade! #broadwayblack

museummammy | “author, art lover, and fashion person | currently learning ASL | my book “this is what i know about art” is out now & my book “black futures” is out soon”

blkemilydickinson | “Cree Myles | She/her | I read and start shit”

tawnychatmon | “Photography based artist. Please see links in my profile to stay involved”

Canadian Music Picks 2020: Indigenous

Canada Day is a time to reflect on the creation of this country, including the colonial legacies that remain. We’ve picked songs by Indigenous musicians to celebrate Indigenous arts and facilitate a deeper awareness of the complexities of this holiday.

By Serena Ypelaar

This should have been the first Canadian Music Picks playlist.

Back in 2018 when we started this segment with the “Canadian Music Starter Pack”, we shared top picks from musicians across the country, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to mark Canada Day.

But despite the celebrations every July 1, Canada Day is a painful reminder to many – of the trauma of forced removals, residential schools, the outlawing of cultural practices, and the other instruments of colonialism that were used in an effort to control and assimilate Indigenous peoples who have been here on the land long before European colonists arrived. The fact is that cultural genocide took place in Canada to achieve the Confederation of 1867 that many still celebrate today.

Yes, Canada became a nation 153 years ago today. But at what cost to Indigenous peoples, the rightful occupants of this land? If you’re uncomfortable thinking about this today, imagine feeling uncomfortable or unsafe every day, or living in a place that has been hostile to your very existence here.

In this year’s Canada Day playlist, we honour Indigenous peoples who have lived on this land since time immemorial. We celebrate Indigenous musicians from diverse nations and cultures, each with their own stories to tell, whose talents weave tales of resilience, love, suffering, strength, retribution, compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

A Tribe Called Red at CBC Music Festival at Echo Beach in 2018. Photo: Mac Downey

On Canada Day, you may feel proud and grateful, you may feel uncomfortable or sad; you may feel any or all of these things and beyond. Take a listen to our playlist – and in so doing, take a moment to acknowledge the complexities of Canadian history and listen to the perspectives of these Indigenous artists. The Mindful Rambler is pleased to share the playlist here and on Spotify.

Canadian Music Picks: Indigenous

The Virus – A Tribe Called Red, Saul Williams, Chippewa Travellers
Toothsayer – Tanya Tagaq
I Can’t Remember My Name – Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Kimmortal
Healers – iskwē
Someone Call An Angel Down – Derek Miller
Takugiursugit – Beatrice Deer
Generation – Buffy Sainte-Marie
Big Crow – DJ Shub ft. Black Lodge Singers
Havava – The Jerry Cans
Evil Memory – Crystal Shawanda
Oqiton – Jeremy Dutcher
Mixed Blood Lullaby – Jani Lauzon
Arnaq – Elisapie
Warpath – Drezus
Tiny Hands – Quantum Tangle
Remembrance – Robbie Robertson
Stay Strong – Kelly Fraser
Pieces – Leonard Sumner
All Night – Digging Roots
Soul Angel – Tom Jackson
Tavva – Riit
Better Place – Winnipeg Boyz
Spirit Child – Willie Thrasher
Nutarâsuk – Deantha Edmunds
Suffer in Silence – Susan Aglukark
I Pity the Country – Willie Dunn
Hay in the Loft / Six Nations Reel – Métis Fiddler Quartet
Bring the Thunder – Northern Cree
copper – nêhiyawak
Modern Rock – Saddle Lake Drifting Cowboys
Proud Métis – Arlette Alcock
Halfbreed Blues – Andrea Menard
Jungle Night – Joey Stylez, Carsen Gray
Rolling Thunder – Leela Gilday
ALie Nation – A Tribe Called Red, John Trudell, Tanya Tagaq, Lido Pimienta, Northern Voice

Youth in Retreat: The Decameron in Quarantine

In which these most unprecedented times prove to have some precedent after all, and crisis invites us to re-imagine our conditions for living. 

By Jenny Lee 

So they gathered into groups and kept clear of everyone else, shutting themselves up in houses where no one was sick and where they could live comfortably … not speaking to anyone outside or hearing any news of the dead or sick, but enjoying music and what other pleasures they could muster. – Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (trans. J. G. Nichols)

1348: As the Black Death ravages Florence, ten wealthy young people flee the city for the countryside, where they spend ten days telling stories, singing songs, napping, and flirting. This is the set-up for Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a framing narrative surrounding one hundred short stories about love, sex, trickery, and the vicissitudes of fortune.

I opened my copy of the Decameron in mid-March, as public buildings in the city shut their doors indefinitely. Having flown home from Spain via the UK a few days earlier and subsequently developed a dry cough, I was instructed to stay home and monitor my temperature, and made a plague-themed reading list to work through during what I naively hoped would be two weeks of isolation. As two weeks stretched into four, it was this framing narrative, not the stories themselves, that I kept turning back to.

1024px-the_triumph_of_death_by_pieter_bruegel_the_elder
Breugel’s Triumph of Death, painted two centuries after the publication of the Decameron, underscores the cataclysmic effects of the recurrent plague outbreaks on the European psyche. In the corner, a couple grimly clings to love and music-making, stalked by death. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

Boccaccio opens with a harrowing description of the bubonic plague’s trail of destruction in Florence, including not only gruesome details of the dead and dying, but profound changes in the social fabric of the city: family members deserting each other, the breakdown of law and order, the disappearance of the labour force in the form of the servant class. Florence is a city without boundaries, where distinctions between sibling and stranger, sick and well, and rich and poor blur and then give way to abject chaos.

Even as the narrators of the Decameron try to avoid the pestilence – it’s rarely mentioned after this passage – they’re marked, or changed, by the collapse of the structures they’ve always known. (Half of the population of the city would die from the plague.) In and around their bawdy stories, we glimpse a new social order which this lost generation might dream into being; the microcosmic society they establish in exile is peaceful, leisurely, and gender-equitable.

1024px-john_william_waterhouse_-_the_decameron
In John William Waterhouse’s 1911 painting A Tale from the Decameron, the exiles pass self-isolation in dreamy, pastoral splendour. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

The Decameron reads like a long-form negotiation of social and sexual mores, the kind of examination that we perform during a crisis. Boccaccio, writing in the early 1350s, muses that women were noticeably less chaste after the plague year, having dispensed with the taboo against showing their bodies to men. He explicitly critiques the customs which confined well-off women in their homes without recreation or socialization. His storytellers prize wit, quick thinking, and sexual freedom over rank and noble birth. The hypocrisy of priests (a recurring theme) is a worse moral crime for them than sleeping with a married woman.

Between chapters, on Instagram, I scrolled through the words rent strike and mutual aid networks and capitalism is the virus. The luckiest among us, in isolation at home, had time to watch the structures sold to us as natural and inevitable faltering in the face of immense – but predictable – upheaval. Like Boccaccio’s youth in retreat, we thought: there must be a better way we could do this.

On the tenth day, the youths return to Florence without much fanfare, go to church, and return to their homes. It is left for the reader to decide what they bring back with them, and what they have left behind.