Fly on the Wall—Enlightenment through Danger

The production of enlightened wisdom is not a matter of putting our names to a simple sign up sheet.  The methods we choose yield results proper to their context.  The devils we dance with, and classes we register in, make us who we are.  To face the unknown and the danger it entails is part of accomplishing our education goals.  Margaret and Pierre Trudeau each illustrate this in their life’s drama and philosophical ruminations.  Upon catching sight of Fidel Castro on the tarmac in Havana, Margaret Trudeau noted “I was immediately mesmerized by what I saw: a tall man, with incredibly beautiful eyes, and a wild, almost fanatical, look which made him physically very attractive” (Trudeau, 196).  The dark woods might signal danger, but Fidel appeared to her as the allure of unknown potential.

Like each person’s way of facing adversity and picking obstacles to demonstrate to themselves their prowess, each AU course has its own methods.  I’ll never forget the harrowing yet uncannily streamlined nature of the PSYCH 289 exam: a busload of multiple choice questions on a computer with the invigilator hanging out watchfully while taking notes of his own for a paper on Faust.   The means by which we seek understanding and knowledge, not to mention the ways we achieve success at that lovable bugaboo of book-learning, affects the outcomes we’ll derive.  Encounters with unknown knowledge contain treacherous dangers and maybe that helps explain why there was such a hullabaloo about Pierre and Margaret’s visits to Fidel Castro.  He represented the dark and dangerous Other that veered toward danger while also fanning hopes of a future possible utopia.  A romantic combination, to be sure, and not unlike going back to school to work for that long-desired degree.

Margaret Trudeau’s Adventure

In her 1979 autobiography Beyond Reason, which I serendipitously discovered next to a dumpster in the Spring of 2005 whilst living in the hippie haven of Nelson, BC, Margaret claims that Castro said told her the following:

“You know,” he said to me in his silken English, “my eyes are not very strong, so every day to make them stronger I force myself to look at the sun.  I find it very hard.  But do you know what I find harder?  That is to look into the blue of your eyes.”

Castro is a ridiculously romantic man and obviously worships women” she concludes (Trudeau, 1979, p. 200).

Upon their departure, Margaret states that “I was tearful.  Pierre teased me.  “I’m glad you’re still with me, I thought you would ask for asylum” (Trudeau, 201).  As at the end of a gruelling but captivating journey, her trip to Cuba had taken her to the brink of that gulf separating nations and people during the Cold War.  We at AU are perpetually exploring new cliffs of danger as we advance our learning objectives.  Yet it helps to have fun along the way and, even in a makeshift boat in the yard, philosophy may prevail.  Stopping for a proverbial paddle can provide new perspectives as can the minds of young children.

Taking Stock: Philosophical Conclusions, Cataracts, Waterfalls and Doldrums

Pierre and Margaret Trudeau had many adventures, and this led them to draw interesting philosophical conclusions about life.  For we AU students, Pierre’s interest in canoeing is redolent with metaphors for our own tricky journeys through distance education.  The terrain we pass through is metaphorical underbrush, but the outcome is the same: we become new people as we grow on our journey.  At root our education is virtual in a way that past iterations of our life in school never was.

It wasn’t always this way; once it was less than virtual.  Correspondence students once traversed an even darker and more difficult abyss.  Years ago, I was on a thrift store expedition in the beloved, Podunk town of Princeton, BC, and in my forays I discovered a treasure; an early 1970s cassette tape of an AU course in biology.  The tape covered a unit about forestry around the world.  Taking the back-road home, Highway 40, between Princeton and Summerland, I plopped the tape in my deck and was pleased to learn all about Finnish forestry taxonomy and how its based on the lichens, mosses, and lycopodium of Scandinavia.  Turns out, these teensy forest underlings are the key to understanding different forest types.  The conifer overstory is similar everywhere in that part of the world so the little organisms are what indicate difference. Often it is the little things that matter most.

In his soul-searching canoe trips Pierre relates that process of discovery.  By rekindling our taste for learning we, too, enter uncharted regions of opportunity.  As students our intellectual environment may be, well, lacking in traditional markers like other students or professorial contact, but that doesn’t mean the porridge we find makes the day we’ll have.  We have much in common with Trudeau’s ascetic, isolated, self: our academic realm seems superficially sparse but, while our dress shirts aren’t starched, our inner realms flourish in the natural growth of learning.

The Real World, that Ghostly Ether that Beckons Bonily

True wisdom knows the limits of truth; that is, wisdom allows for great, seemingly flat-earth plains of possibility rather than resonating a dull thud of right and wrong all across the gong show of societal discourse.  We can allow other views to exist if we are truly solid in our own; rarely do lives depend solely on ideas, as Pierre points out.  And, when we face real physical challenges, or real moral dangers rather than the type based on myopic misunderstanding, we emerge on the other side of the rapids in what might be termed a state of grace.  Deranged and over-studied grace, perhaps.  But grace nevertheless.

AU provides perspectives gleaned from being away form our ordinary life; each new course, each hour of studying, is an invitation to new philosophical breakthroughs.  Besides study breaks in an imaginary canoe, AU in some ways is the canoe that we ride past perils and epiphanies.  Pierre illustrates: “that principle of logic which states that valid conclusions do not generally follow from false premises.  Now, in a canoe, where these premises are based on nature in its original state (rather than on books, ideas and habits of uncertain value), the mind conforms to that higher wisdom which we call natural philosophy; later, that healthy methodology and acquired humility will be useful in confronting mystical and spiritual questions” (Trudeau, 1944)

Being an AU student is like taking ourselves out back to the wilderness to find new passion for learning; we cannot emerge unscathed, but we can arrive triumphant.  And, although wherever we go is still where we are, we are never quite the same once we’ve caught the glint of the eye of the rising sun of our eloquent future selves.

Callahan, M.  (2017).  ‘Margaret Trudeau’s Long, Strange, Canadian Trip’.  Vanity Fair.  Retrieved from
Trudeau, M.  (1979).  Beyond Reason.  London: Paddington Press.
Trudeau, P.  (1944).  ‘Exhaustion and Fulfillment: The Ascetic in a Canoe’ Jeunesse Etudiante Catholique.  Retrieved from
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