All this week at SteynOnline, we're marking the twentieth birthday of Canada's National Post this Saturday. And don't forget, over at the Steyn store there's ten dollars off the combined price of two books that feature many of my favourite Post pieces - or, for members of The Mark Steyn Club, twenty dollars off when you enter the special member-pricing code at checkout.
We started on Monday with the tie that binds me to Tony Blair; Tuesday found me inside Buckingham Palace and outside Bar Erotica; and on Wednesday we choked up at the heartwarming friendship between John McCain and George W Bush. Today's rerun is from 2001, and it's one we still get requests for. It's about John Ralston Saul, the acclaimed leftie intellectual and husband of Canada's then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson - which may sound a bit boring to non-Canadians. On the other hand, it's also about his penchant for French nude beaches, which may persuade a few of you wrinkly old Euroswingers out there to plough through the first few paragraphs.
Incidentally, the last time I saw His Excellency was a few weeks after he left his viceregal accommodations to return to private life. It was on a busy Friday afternoon and he was a couple of places ahead of me in the sloooooooow-moving security line at Reagan National in Washington. He'd evidently been a bit surly and recalcitrant about taking off his shoes, and the obstreperous Homeland Security gal was threatening to put him through the wringer. I had a plane to catch, so I didn't stick around to see if he got the full cavity probe, but, if so, I hope he had the opportunity to deploy some of his St Tropez nude-beach tension-easing social chit-chat on her:
Many years ago, when I was a callow youth of seventeen, twelve, whatever, I sat in my garret and typed up a trenchant piece on something or other, which I then mailed to The Spectator in London. To my amazement, they accepted it.
Alas, at the last moment my dreams of fame and fortune were shattered by a last-minute phone message saying they were short of space and they had a piece by "a chap called John Ralston Saul" they wanted to squeeze in. "You know the rule, Mark. Only one Canadian per issue," chuckled Charles Moore, the then editor, when I reminded him recently of this ancient humiliation.
Anyway, Mr Saul's piece was filed from St. Tropez and concerned the social behaviour of nude beaches. Judging from the geographically diverse examples cited, he'd evidently been sashaying the length of the Mediterranean from Marbella to the Greek Islands, and had been struck by the "tortured acrobatics" of the naked embrace:
Backsides were arched to the rear to avoid any contact of pubic hair. If both embraces were integrally nude, this arch risked throwing out the spine. The shoulders were then squared and stretched back to avoid loose and uncontrollable breasts from touching male pectorals, firm or slack.
The great man felt that this was unnecessarily stand-offish and proposed a formal code of nude etiquette: "Here," he wrote, "is an opportunity to use the distance between facing toes as a measure of friendship. For example, the touching of nipples to pectorals might mean friendship; the pressing of breasts against chest, good friends." Mr Saul did not go so far as to demand a regulatory body to regulate our bodies, but he was, by his own standards, unusually specific:
Why not comment on what you see? In town you are expected to say, 'I love that dress,' or 'You look a bit tired.' Why not say, 'What nice nipples' or 'You're about ready for a lift.'
Well, I put down the magazine and never gave John Ralston Saul another thought until two years ago, when the Prime Minister prevailed upon the Queen to make him co-viceroy - and it turned out, unbeknownst to me, that the tit'n'bum man was also one of the intellectual colossi of the age. I'd completely forgotten about his nude beach romp until just before the inauguration ceremony, when it was announced that the scheduled appearance by the "controversial" Montreal terpsichoreans la Compagnie Marie Chouinard - whose members have been known to "simulate masturbation" and perform naked with their breasts painted red and white - had been cancelled for "technical reasons."
For some reason, the mention of "breast" and "simulated masturbation" in the same paragraph as "John Ralston Saul" acted as what I believe the memory-recovery docs call a "trigger": the years fell away, and so, metaphorically, did his clothes. Ever since, when the viceregal armpiece turns up on the news, he appears to me to be entirely naked. It's like a pair of X-ray specs from the back of the old comic books, but you can never turn 'em off. There he'll be accompanying Madam Clarkson on some walkabout in Iqaluit, and all I see is the same old bronzed nudist sauntering along the beach at St Trop. It doesn't help that he's developed that loping, hip-waggling viceregal gait: Tall and tan and young and lovely the boy from Rideau Hall goes walking and when he passes each one he passes goes "Aiiieeeeee!" When he walks he's like a samba that swings so cool and sways so gentle that when he passes each one he passes goes "Oohhhhhh ..."
Watching him press the flesh, I wonder whether he's finally been given the opportunity to put his social code into practice. What's he saying to the brother of the guy getting the Caring Canadian award? "You're about ready for a lift"? What's that he's murmuring to Sheila Copps? "What nice nipples"? I don't believe His Excellency has had the acquaintance of Osama bin Laden, who, according to The National Enquirer, is notably deficient in the trouser department, but I expect Mr Saul's code of greetings would have something consoling to say on the subject. No doubt that, too, like everything else, is all the fault of "European and North American aggressivity."
As you'll have gathered, I prefer His Excellency's small talk to his big talk. His new book, On Equilibrium, is the first thing I've read of his since the nude beach stuff, and sadly it's not in the same class: Unlike the naked viceroy, this is not something you'll want to take to the beach this summer. If I understand his promoters correctly, His Excellency sees himself as a Prince Albert - I hasten to add that, by "Prince Albert," I'm referring to the husband of her late Majesty Queen Victoria and not the popular term for a penile piercing. But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that, in this case, the Prince Consort has no clothes. I leave aside his contempt for Bush, a disdain notably absent from his St Tropez piece. I leave aside, too, the apparent coincidence of Mr Saul bumping up his speaking fee by sixty per cent just before being appointed to Rideau Hall; and, to be honest, arguing about the ethical question of whether it's unethical to write a book on ethics gives me a bit of a headache.
But there ought surely to be unanimous agreement that On Equilibrium is as flabby and saggy as the bodies he scorns on the Côte d'Azur. Curiously, although there is nothing to match the memorable moment in his Spectator piece when he ponders the risks of short women meeting tall men and accidentally shaking their members, his book is in many ways on the same theme as his earlier essay. It is concerned with "the other central relationship - our sense of friendship - which is deeply anchored in our ability to imagine the other. And from there it is but a small step to our sense of society as a gathering place beyond self-interest."
When he was dangling his participle on the beach all those summers ago, the great thinker was also interested in friendship:
The implication of friendship, after all, is that had circumstances been different, you might have gone to bed together. You may already have done so and you certainly wouldn't be averse to the idea.
Which definition do you prefer? The one that says friendship's a one-night stand you haven't yet had? Or the one that says friendship's deeply anchored in an abstract noun loosely tied to a generalized statement that is but a fuzzy leap to a vague sense that it's a gathering place for a nebulous concept you might be able to stretch out for another 300 pages? The deterioration in His Naked Excellency's writing since he put his clothes on is tragic to behold.
His other big idea is "balance" between our various human qualities. To be or not to be, that's not the question, that's the answer. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or by opposing end them? Both, up to a point, says the great philosopher. Again, one can't but regret the decline since the beach-bum era. Back then, writing of the problems of balance, Mr Saul observed:
The chances of actually falling over are high and when this happens the result is a tangle of naked, horizontal bodies writhing with a confusion which can be mistaken for the groping of nascent sex.
This, alas, is the fate that befalls His Excellency early on in his new book: he falls over and spends the rest of the opus writhing on the vast empty floor groping with himself. By my reckoning, this happens on page 36, when Mr. Saul hails 'tween-wars fascism as the pioneer of Thatcher-Reagan conservatism, but others may place the tipping point even earlier.
All that connects the viceregal eminence of On Equilibrium with the déshabillé bon vivant of Porto Ercole is the exhibitionism. The man who so gaily cast off his socks is not above the literary stocking filler, and he solemnly observes the conventions of the pop-philosophy genre. For example, take a humdrum daily manoeuvre and freight it with meaning. Mr Saul's opening section is headed "The Door-Handle":
"Most mornings we turn a door-handle and walk out into a larger world," he writes. "Turning that door-handle can be a moment of adventure or joy. Of anticipation. Of purpose. Or a reminder of failure. Of emptiness. Of angry frustration. Of terrible anxiety ..."
Yes, yes, we get the cut of your jib. But what's your point? Is the door-handle a metaphor for something? Not at all:
What is helpful is to be able to turn that door-handle with some sense as to what inner forces motivate us.
What inner forces motivate us to turn the door-handle? To get out of the room because we're twenty minutes into the John Ralston Saul book-signing and he's still yakking about the door-handle? To get down to the beach on the off-chance there's a midget shaking a viceregal penis?
No matter. Having got a handle on the door and on his manuscript, the Nude Consort discards the image. As even Freud must have known, sometimes a knob is just a knob.
~from The National Post, December 20th 2001.
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For our Massachusetts readers, on Sunday afternoon - 3pm October 28th - Steyn will be at the Boston Marriott in Newton to accept the Genesis Award from CJUI (Christians and Jews United for Israel). Aside from speaking, he'll also be signing copies of Lights Out, so if you're in the vicinity of Greater Boston we hope to see you there.