Unfinished conversations

John Bentley Mays (1941–2016) was last spoken with, around the corner here in Parkdale, a few weeks ago. He was on his way to a rather highbrow, Saturday-morning Bible-study group, that he could not persuade me to join. (I am a notorious non-joiner.) A distinctive large presence in dark clothing (see here), he was among Canada’s cultural heavies. As art critic for a generation in the establishment Globe & Mail, then guru of “architecture and urbanism,” I’d known and sometimes followed him since the days when he would sometimes drop into the Idler Pub (1986–2002). He did not write in my Idler magazine (upstairs from the pub) however, for we agreed in the most amicable way that he did not belong there. As a character in the pub he was extremely welcome: someone for me to disagree with about … pretty much everything.

A sincere Catholic (convert from mild Anglicanism), of the kind I’d call “liberal/liberal” (that is, a mixture of old and new liberalisms), he tried hard to reason soundly; as a journalist, to follow the leads and twirl them together; to be consistent and sane. This isn’t easy today, as gentle readers have been pointing out, and Mays’s case was made harder by the tendency to morbid depression on which he wrote a memoir, In the Jaws of the Black Dogs (1999). A loner as a child in America’s deep South, he lost his father to alcohol and perhaps murder at age seven, his mother to cancer when he was eleven, and nearly himself to suicide, early and often.

The book is a compelling, unpleasant read, valuable because it tells us three things. First, that such depressions do not yield to shrink fixes, and will not otherwise “go away.” Second, that there is no “template,” for each sufferer is his own constellation of symptoms which no outsider is privileged to explore. And thus, third, the depression can be controlled and mastered, only if one grasps these things. One must, as it were, leash one’s own black dogs, and it will be neither easy nor painless. While perhaps overwritten, the book is admirable for containing no victim’s plaint, no false appeal for applause, and absolutely no pop psychology.

As a young man in Ireland, South Africa, and Canada, he said he was a “fascist.” His personal circumstances contributed to his demand for “authority figures.” As an older man, I think he overcompensated, in his embrace of a self-consciously post-modern, aesthetic anarchy. In architecture, he was a champion of Gehry and Libeskind, and beyond them, he longed for the kind of urban development that would shriek, break neighbourhoods, and épater le bourgeois. He wanted new buildings in conflict, rivalry, “dialogue” with the old. Though he played into cultural fashions, which invariably promote the subversive — I accused him of being a handbag once — he was more genuinely subversive than might first appear. And also, quite possibly, more genuinely Christian, in ways I stubbornly under-appreciate.

Back in Idler days, we had an argument going about “beauty.” I was in favour, he was against. He did not think beauty should be an aspiration in art, and where he acknowledged it was present, he was displeased by it. It was a curmudgeonly argument, but it intrigued me, because I think he had found some ironical Platonic way to contribute to the understanding of beauty itself; that it has nothing to do with “search and find.”

That was thirty years ago. We never got back to it. I was hoping that we would; I still hope to understand his position. But now he has dropped dead — “literally,” on a sidewalk, a few blocks away. I will miss him, for he was kindly and charming, at least to me. As death often reminds, we must learn to wait more patiently, for we live in a world where the conversations are never finished. There are no “closures” here.

God buy him!