Tag Archives: Keith Henderson

Sasquatch at Montreal Rampage

MONTREAL NOW: The Art of Conversation

Posted on April 4, 2019. Written by Zsolt Alapi

Mark Jenkins Remix. Arsenal Gallery. Photo Marlene Wilson.

 http://montrealrampage.com/montreal-now-the-art-of-conversation/

So, I’m sitting in a café with my friend, Keith Henderson, conversing about matters of the spirit. Yes, that’s right. Keith is a writer of exceptional talent, a former professor of English at Vanier College, a political pundit, and managing editor of DC Books Canada, one of the oldest and most revered of Montreal’s small literary publishing houses.

We are speaking about Keith latest book, Sasquatch and the Green Sash, his contemporary retelling of the medieval romantic epic, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Keith has reset the story in Canada’s Far North and has incorporated elements of the original poem, cleverly blended with myths of the Dene Nation. The story is an allegory of virtue, nobility, and a coming of age tale of sexuality and romance, and I ask Keith the obvious question:  How can such a story play to an audience so far removed from symbols and the use of the imagination, an audience so hooked on social media and the communication resources so readily at their fingertips? Keith pauses before answering. This is one of the things I love about good conversation, for he is an artist of discourse as well—the ability to reflect, to ruminate, to respond to complex ideas and to lead his listener on a journey into his literary imagination. Ours is a dialogue of give and take: he listens to my insights, and I relish his. If he weren’t so conscious of equally sharing thoughts, I would be completely content to sit back and listen to him for hours.

As if in quiet mockery of our discussion, a young lady at the table next to ours looks at her laptop, annoyed. Perhaps it is her irritation at listening to two older men discussing ideas, so animated by this very act — two men who are perhaps disrupting her attention so clearly focused on her open Facebook page or Instagram offerings. But no matter. We are democratic, perhaps more open minded than she is, caught up in our own space, time, and moment, leaving her to hers.

And what a moment it is! Keith speaks of the allegory of the original medieval poem and how it is a fitting symbol of our own troubled age, which he sees as devoid of spirituality, morality, and honor (not just in the chivalric sense, but in the greater context of personal virtue). He tells me how his former students, themselves striving to come to terms with their own sexual desire, found an affirmation in this old poem with a surprisingly contemporary message, an affirmation that seemed to give a direction to their lives.  He tells me of the “message” of the poem, based on the precepts of our Judeo-Christian tradition, and how the truth of that vision still resonates to this date. Keith has written his own allegory that is founded upon a natural archetype, something that he and I believe are in danger of being lost in our not only secular but also anti-intellectual world.

Keith is a man of intellect, a man of great moral honesty and persuasion, and I can only be thankful for my encounter with him, for being in this place and time, for sharing things of the heart and the mind. Ours is a discourse that is all too quickly disappearing in our world where we speak in sound-bytes and abridged phrases that can fit on a cell phone screen or a Twitter feed.

So on Monday, April 15th at 6:30, Keith Henderson will be launching his book, preceded by a conversation at the Thomas More Institute.

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The TMI, as it is known, is a secret jewel in the intellectual life of Montreal. It was founded many decades ago for the purpose of sharing ideas and dialogue with like minded individuals. They offer courses in music appreciation, art history, sociology, and literature (among others), and their modus operandi is based on the premise of Socratic discourse where the animator is less of a lecturer and more of someone who poses questions that provoke a thoughtful response.  As the Director of TMI told me recently, they seek to ask questions that will demonstrate how the process of complex thinking works and to track that exceptional moment of intellectual discovery.

Anne Fitzpatrick, former English professor, long-time Dean at Marianopolis College, and one of the original founders of the Institute will be animating the discussion with Keith Henderson. She has taught a multitude of courses over the years at TMI, and she is currently animating a discussion of Milton’s Paradise Lost, one of her many interests. Anne, a good friend and former colleague, is also a great conversationalist. I recently had the pleasure of her company where we spoke at length about education, literature, writing, and (again) matters of the spirit.  She has also graced my life over the years.

If you wish to experience the magic of profound discourse, the excitement of ideas, and the connection we can still make to a grander heritage, to a time when ideas and beliefs mattered, treat yourself to an evening that is so rare and precious in this day and age. 

Buy a copy of Keith Henderson’s book; afterwards, share a drink with people who have the commonality of loving ideas and good writing, and be welcomed into the company of like-minded souls.

Check out the launch on April 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Thomas More Institute (3405 Atwater Ave).

The Pagan Nuptials of Julia on Montreal Rampage

MONTREAL NOW: Why Good Writing Matters

The Pagan Nuptials of Julia

I am a voracious reader, one who often reads books simultaneously.  So it was that last week I was working on a book recommended by several people, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and a book I had picked up at the QWF Book Fair at Concordia this past weekend, Keith Henderson’s marvellous collection of short stories, The Pagan Nuptials of Julia.

First off, Palahniuk’s “novel” (and I use the term loosely) is crap. Sure, it takes on the theme of how men have innate violence within, but so what? Critics say this is “edgy” writing with a voice and tone that is purportedly slick, “hip” and “original,” but to me the book reads like a poorly written Trump Tweet.  I stopped reading after 75 pages and flung it into my recycling bin to take to Renaissance.  Life is too short.

And then I opened Henderson’s collection and was immediately captivated. Here was an original voice and sensibility that stopped me in my tracks.  Henderson is an intellectual in the truest sense: he makes no apologies for presenting complex ideas, occasionally erudite references, and multi-lingual commentary.  His is writing that demands work and engagement on the part of the reader—engagement that is richly rewarded.  The stories in The Pagan Nuptials of Julia are multi-layered and present characters as complex individuals, enacting their lives in confusion, yet always accessible through their passions and longings.

In the title story, he relates the tale of a woman who has returned to her birthplace in Italy to attend a family wedding with her Canadian lover. Ian, the lover, marvels at the beauty of the countryside, at the warmth of the Italian relatives, at how they can discourse learnedly about angels and how Julia, the woman in his life, can so easily emote within this context. At the wedding they attend, Ian realizes that Julia’s “homecoming” is a return of the heart, and his “pagan” imagined marriage to her is the acceptance of this communion. The story ends with a wonderful scene in a cemetery where Julia, Ian and a relative gather with the dead, and suddenly the story swings into an allegory about love, loss, and mortality, all rendered with an effortless and deft touch by the author.

“Less and Less Human” presents two divergent points of view:  a husband who presents a classical view of the world, loving music and art that conveys the profoundest and most enduring of human emotions, juxtaposed with that of his ex-wife, a modern composer, whose vision embraces the seemingly absurd through her empirical scepticism.  At the conclusion, Henderson presents a poignant story of Holocaust survivors hearing the “healing” music of Bach, while his wife denigrates his interpretation, suggesting that modern art is predicated on chaos, not human feelings that could possibly endure.  Here, Henderson’s vision becomes apparent to the reader: someone who bemoans the loss of a humanistic connection that has served as the basis of our culture.  A most powerful warning for our age where we have abdicated spiritual values.

It is hard to pick a favorite story from this excellent collection, but two especially stand out.  “Heaven for Pyromaniacs” (such a wonderful title!) and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. In the former, the main character, Alison, is travelling from Montreal to the funeral of her mother, who has died in Ontario.  The journey, while physical, is really more a passage through her memories, her past, and her feelings about family and loss.  Henderson has the ability to move from the mundane recounting of an event to its core meaning.  For instance, he talks about the reality of people who have fled Quebec after the election of the PQ down the 401 forOntario (the “uni-directional migrants”), yet manages to turn this amusing insight into a metaphor for profound loss as in the following passage: “Bodies moved away from each other in this expanding universe of intimate life.  That is what time and death did.”  Despite the seriousness of the theme, this story is replete with subtle humor and wonderful irony.  At the end, as she and her siblings are removing her mother’s belongings from the nursing home where she had died, Henderson has a startlingly laugh-out-loud moment depicting the elderly residents of the home watching in “delight” and amazement since “unless they were dead or very blessed, they did not move out.” Great writing indeed.

The story though that sticks with me the most is “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” perhaps because this is also my favorite painting by Hieronymus Bosch. How Henderson manages to fashion an allegory about the protagonist’s tainted raspberry patch leading to his subsequent illness and the interpretation of the Bosch painting is a marvel to behold.  He writes about a scene in the  painting of a man surrounded by the “permutation of human evil” and another figure glancing at the world “with wistful despair at the pleasure of the tavern he has just forsworn:  a drunken lout pissing against a wall, a tattered roof, a Dutch whore beckoning from a shutter-buckled window…. Perhaps it was the sense of plague that gave so skeletal a quality to the life of those times just as the sense of holocaust has to our own.”  Juxtaposed with this is his own disease from eating the tainted berries that he states is of a “far less spiritual nature.” Again, an encapsulated summary of what has happened to our notion of suffering humanity.

It is at this point that I wan tto conclude with why such writing matters. Henderson’s vision in these stories reflects the loss of value in our post-modern world, a world of quotidian, material concerns and empty longings.  Gone are the grand themes of art from our lives, he suggests, and we are much the poorer for this.

Besides Henderson being a master of style, it is because of such insights and affirmation that this is good writing—one that makes no apologies and is unremitting in its endorsement of the human spirit.

Keith Henderson’s collection The Pagan Nuptials of Julia is a welcome reminder of what good books once were and hopefully may once again become.

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