Louis Armstrong’s crooning voice quietly drifts from behind philosopher, author, and professor Mark Kingwell’s paper-laden desk, echoing across a meticulously organized and half-empty corner office, like the ghostly strains of a party that’s happening down the street. The hushed quiet of the clean-cut space seems almost incomplete in Kingwell’s absence. A pair of tortoise shell Elwood wayfarers perches atop a pile of notes and next to an uncapped pen, static in the silence.Kingwell enters the office with the confidence of a graduating high school senior. Sombre, but self-assured, he manages to wear an ironic philosophical T-shirt and jeans—without looking like a douche-bag. He picks up his pen and fiddles with his computer,“So, what can I do for you?” he asks quietly.In the introduction to Kingwell’s latest book, a meditation and interpretation of the life of Glenn Gould, John Ralston Saul calls Kingwell “a philosopher of our times and of our attempts to reinvent our existence.” And indeed, Kingwell explains with a sheepish smile, the presence and thought of Gould is evident on every page of the book, though Gould certainly isn’t mentioned on every page.“A reader said something about the book that I really liked,” Kingwell says. “Gould is less the subject of the book, than the muse behind it.”Saul approached Kingwell to contribute to the “Extraordinary Canadians” series two years ago. The series pairs an interesting and prominent living Canadian with the works and life of an interesting and prominent dead Canadian.“Unlike some other cases, he didn’t actually have someone in mind for me,” Kingwell explains, “I was prepared to do Robertson Davies, but it seemed less interesting than one of these pairings might be. I just had a flash one morning that maybe nobody had taken Gould.”He continues to explain that in his opinion, the importance of the series isn’t the facts of a narrative life, but the interaction between the author and their chosen subject.“I had a sense that Gould was an interesting thinker about music,” he says, “I didn’t realize just how interesting he would be until I started doing my research. […] I didn’t have the intellectual wherewithal to convince them fully at the beginning that the combination of a philosopher and a musician was a good idea. I’m not a musician. But the whole point of the series is to take a famous dead Canadian and a live one, slam them together, and see what happens. The most productive combinations are going to be the ones that are a little bit off. There was just no point in writing a shorter version of a comprehensive biography.”Instead of a comprehensive biography, the book is structured as an almost kaleidoscopic series of 21 “takes” on Gould’s life. Each chapter presents a reinterpretation and altogether different version of the life and the driving purposes behind it. Approached with Kingwell’s signature second-person style, the book seeks to understand the persona behind Gould’s actions and recordings, and appeals to the reader to understand the torrid mindset and almost frantic search for reinvention and identity that drove the prolific, neurotic, enigmatic figure. Somewhat rambling, and tip-toeing around the edge of being altogether random, Kingwell presents a meditation on the thoughts and ideas of a musician the way he perceived them, placing the book’s emphasis on the fruits of pairing a more disciplined and philosophical thinker with a talented and tortured musician.“Gould’s’ music is the audible tip of the iceberg,” he says, “It’s the part you hear, hiding the part you don’t hear. You can appreciate it for its clarity and its beauty, but it’s only one-eighth of what’s going on. The rest of it is only partly revealed in his written work, and that’s a part of the enduring fascination with Gould.”Kingwell took an abstract approach to getting inside Gould’s head. In a period of four months, he spent every day with Gould’s music and his written work. He listened to a comprehensive set of Gould recordings on repeat, and tortured his close friends with stories of the musician’s life and accounts of abstract issues of consciousness and identity.“In that fairly short period, you’re dominated by your subject’s concerns, and you’re trying to grapple with them from your own perspective. It does drive you a little bit crazy,” he says, “If you spend a lot of time in his company, in a sense, you get a real vibe of that lack of resolution of identity. It’s almost like the picture of himself couldn’t come into focus. […] And that, in my opinion, is his single most contribution to 20th-century culture.”In Glenn Gould, Kingwell approaches the tragedy and pain of his subject with an intrigued sensitivity, using peculiarities and eccentricities to explain a larger philosophical schema. In person, Kingwell communicates the extent of pain and passion, which were a part of getting inside of Gould’s head with an almost fervent tone breaking into his steadily calm articulation. He describes Gould as a fractured thinker, someone for whom the tension of day-to-day life was peppered with the burden of extraordinary talent. He speaks of Gould almost as an acquaintance, rather than a subject; a brother rather than a case study. But, after all, they did spend four months together.“It’s funny, because intellectual life is supposed to be programmatic—you’re supposed to arrive at conclusions through rational reflections,” Kingwell explains about his approach to the book, “But these strokes of imagination are much more important. […] You have to start the performance, and see if you can pull it off.”Mark Kingwell is participating in the IFOA’s Extraordinary Canadians panel at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 31 at the Harbourfront Centre’s Brigantine Room. Tickets are free for students.
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