Photo by John Sekutowski on Unsplash

Division by ‘ism’

  • October 14, 2022

As a child, I was fishing off a wooden dock at the small lake near the town in B.C. where I grew up when a farmer from Saskatchewan and his son appeared  as if out of a dream I didn’t know I was having.

In memory, the son wore boots despite the semi-desert summer heat and the father’s heavy long-sleeved shirt was buttoned tightly at the wrists from the habit of keeping out harvest chaff. Embedded in my mind firmly as fact are the man’s words when he peered down at a school of long, fat sucker fish swishing fanned tails around my baited hook with the collective disdain of a cat in a doorway ignoring entreaties to come in or stay out.

“So that’s, what they look like in water. I’ve always wondered.”

Where they lived, he said, ponds were either fishless or too murky for anything sub-surface to be seen. The son, I remember clearly, affirmed this by silently staring into the lake like someone for whom word has become flesh.

The moment has always been a reminder of the mysterious joy present when someone unexpectedly experiences as epiphany what we find commonplace. In recent years it has also brought a harking back to time when life was filled by what you were living. You saw the multitudinous world clearly because it was not yet occluded by the murk of omnipresent politicization.

That’s not to say the times were simply simpler. They weren’t. Not so long before, atomic bombs had ended the most appalling mechanized slaughter in human existence. The Second World War Golgotha was itself spawned  by an earlier war that left 12 million dead across Europe. Millions more were displaced into a global survivors’ diaspora by the century’s depraved upheavals.

That said, it was also a time when politics kept primarily to their proper sphere. Ideology was either an uncommon, or an across-the-sea, obsession. Fish swimming in lakes were not the touch point for instant polarized debate about who and what bore political responsibility for their doom.

By bleak contrast, our era leaves existence itself blocked into ideological forms. From air and art to economics and education, faith and fortune, sex and sobriety, we live blinded by politicized and ideological incursions of understanding. All is “ism.” Nothing is free of “ism-ism.” As George Weigel says in his new book To Sanctify the World: the Vital Legacy of Vatican II, even Catholicism has fallen prey to bitter “ism” division. Ideology obscures Incarnation. Holy Mass risks becoming a mess of political positioning pitting identity-seeking traditionalism against Pecksnifian novo ordo-ism.

No wonder Armgard zu Putlitz, one of the residents writer Marit Kapla interviewed for her best-selling oral history Osebol: Voices from a Swedish Village, says bluntly: “I can’t be angry with individuals/but I hate communism/I hate Nazism/I hate Islamism/all-isms.”

Armgard’s father, we learn, died in a Stasi prison known as the Yellow Misery. He had been imprisoned by both Russian and German forces during the Second World War. Yet even his horrifying death contributes to Armgard regarding the world as a place of living rather than ephemeral politicized abstraction:

“After being locked up under Hitler he
came back.
I’ll never forget that.
He came walking down the road from
the railway station
with his rucksack.

I can see him as though it were yesterday.
Afterwards, when he never came back…
One thought
He must surely be on the way home by now
and went to try to meet him.”

Kapla’s life-affirming poetic visual presentation of her subjects’ words is no mere authorial flight of fancy. During a 2021 conversation on the BBC “Sounds” podcast, she told listeners it derived from what she heard with her own ears as she interviewed all 40 remaining residents of the dying village where she lived as a child.

“After every interview, I was kind of cheering and celebrating. They were speaking first person, they spoke in poems, and because I found so much poetry, I had to show it somehow,” Kapla said.

What she shows in Osebol  detonates across its 800 pages a series of epiphanies as beautiful in their revelatory specificity as fish seen in water for the first time. That will be my next column.

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