Making Sense of Us
An Essay on Human Meaning
By John Deakins
Granville Island Publishing, 224 pages, $20
WHATEVER it is that John Deakins has written, it is not an essay. At least not in anything resembling a traditional sense.
To be fair, he does have a kind of thesis: "It is the way we make sense that both determines and defines who we are able to be." And he does have a kind of conclusion: that our particular "off-centred" (that is, forced-objective) way of making sense of ourselves, others and our world is "as important an event in the evolution of the universe as the emergence of life itself."
The Vancouver-based Deakins is a social worker, having trained and practised in both England and the United States. He taught at the University of British Columbia, predominantly in the 1970s and 1980s, "retiring" (the quotation marks are his own) from teaching in 1991.
His rich practical experience shines through clearly in the book, while his academic chops are either graciously much-suppressed for this non-academic book or simply not on display this time.
In Making Sense, Deakins offers 10 packed but short chapters that read as isolated, informal lectures or musings, in theory assembling an overall argument that points to that hilltop at the end. It is, however, difficult to discern that long-range argument's engineering and trajectory.
These chapters are characterized by at least three features. First are lengthy, elaborately explained lists of human behaviour and thinking patterns. These are typically at least a dozen items long and their point is to drive wedges between very fine teeth. In other words, they eagerly solicit re-reading.
Second is a cool attitude toward research. There are big names on occasion but they are not fresh names (Northrop Frye at point takes centre-stage, for example).
Far more troubling, though, is Deakins' lazy habit of tossing into his long endnotes tags such as "these are documented on the Internet" (end of note).
Third is a peppering of anecdotes personal, Canadian and historical. For example, a happened-on CBC Radio program at one point buttresses a component of his argument.
In other words, there is quite a cavalier charm to the way he writes this "essay." In the end, though, it does neither the weighty homework nor the heavy rhetorical lifting that is desperately requisite in a work that reaches into epistemology, sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology and even literary theory.
His structuring metaphor is the 1966 Michael Caine film Alfie. He is trying to press a button of comforting familiarity. But he forgets that he is writing this book in Canada, in 2011.
For whatever reason, he assumes his reader knows this film so well that it literally needs no introduction. His opening chapter even takes as its title a line from the film and yet the line isn't contextualized at all until the very final, even briefer chapter.
Seemingly distracted by his own meandering peerings, Deakins never gets to identifying, sizing up, seizing and converting his audience.
Making Sense reads much more as a steady but aimless story (journal? Memoir? Blog?), with bits of evidence and engaged philosophical argument here and there.
Laurence Broadhurst teaches in the departments of religion & culture, and classics at the University of Winnipeg.