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.
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).