by Margaret Atwood
your love is a
sour taste in the mouth,
become a matter for
apologies, survive. ...
When your face goes flat in
the silvered mirror, endure;
endure, if you can, and survive.
- John Newlove,"If You Can"
It is the
time of death and
the fear of never
having lived at all
crazes the young
when pigs that escaped slaughter
eat dozens of fermented
apples and charge drunken thru
and huntsmen somewhere else
are learning the trade
- Al Purdy, "Autumn"
Lionel was lonely. the months passed. They were too close to one another. Secretly
Lionel wanted to climb a tree and watch his own funeral. He did not know this.
... - Russell Marois, The Telephone Pole
to feel sentimental only when at home in my sixty-dollar-a-month slum or to
feel like a Canadian only when kissing someone else's bum. - John Newlove, '"Like
a Canadian' To find words for what we suffer, To enjoy what we must suffer -
Not to be dumb beasts. ... ... ... We shall survive And we shall walk Somehow
... - D. G. Jones, "Beating the Bushes: Christmas 1963"
I started reading Canadian literature when I was young, though I didn't know it was that; in fact I wasn't aware that 1 lived in a country with any distinct existence of its own. At school we were being taught to sing "Rule, Britannia" and to draw the Union Jack; after hours we read stacks of Captain Marvel. Plastic Man and Batman comic books, an activity delightfully enhanced by the disapproval of our elders. However, someone had given us Charles C. D. Roberts' Kings in Exile for Christmas, and I snivelled my way quickly through these heart wrenching stories of animals caged, trapped and tormented. That was followed by Ernest Thompson Seton's Wild Animals I have known, if anything more upsetting because the animals were more actual - they lived in forests, not circuses- and their deaths more mundane: the deaths, not of tigers, but of rabbits.
No one called these stories Canadian literature, and I wouldn't have paid any attention if they had; as far as I was concerned they were just something else to read. along with Waiter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe and Donald Duck. I wasn't discriminating in my reading, and I'm still not. I read then primarily to be entertained, as I do now. And I'm not saying that apologetically: I feel that if you remove the initial gut response from reading -- the delight or excitement or simply the enjoyment of being told a story -- and try to concentrate on the meaning or the shape or the "message" first, you might as well give up, it's too much like all work and no play.
But then as now there were different levels of entertainment. I read the backs of Shredded Wheat boxes as an idle pastime, Captain Marvel and Waiter Scott as fantasy escape - I knew, even then, that wherever I lived it wasn't there, since I'd never seen a castle and the Popsicle Pete prizes advertised on the comic book covers either weren't available in Canada. or cost more -- and Seton and Roberts as, believe it or not, something closer to real life. I had seen animals, quite a few of them; a dying porcupine was more real to me then a knight in armour or Clark Kent's Metropolis. Old mossy dungeons and Kryptonite were hard to come by where I lived, though I was quite willing to believe they existed somewhere else; but the materials for Seton's stick-and-stone artefacts and live-off-the-land recipes in Wildwood Wisdom were readily available, and we could make them quite easily which we did. Most of the recipes were somewhat inedible, as you'll see if you try Cat-tail Root Stew or Pollen Pancakes, but the raw ingredients can be collected around any Canadian summer cottage.
However, it wasn't just the content of these books that felt more real to me: it was their shapes, their patterns. The animal stories were about the struggle to survive, and Seton's practical handbook was in fact a survival manual: it laid much stress on the dangers of getting lost, eating the wrong root or berry, or angering a moose in season. Though it was full of helpful hints, the world it depicted was one riddled with pitfalls, just as the animal stories were thickly strewn with traps and snares. In this world, no Superman would come swooping out of the sky at the last minute to rescue you from the catastrophe; no rider would arrive post-haste with a pardon from the King. The main thing was to avoid dying, and only by a mixture of cunning, experience and narrow escapes could the animal - or the human relying on his own resources - manage that. And, in the animal stories at any rate, there were no final happy endings or ultimate solutions; if the animal happened to escape from the particular crisis in the story, you knew there would be another one later on from which it wouldn't escape.
I wasn't making these analytical judgments at the time, of course. I was just learning what to expect: in comic books and things like Alice in Wonderland or Conan Doyle's The Lost World, you got rescued or you returned from the world of dangers to a cozy safe domestic one; in Seton and Roberts, because the world of dangers was the same as the real world, you didn't. But when in high school I encountered - again as a Christmas present - something labelled more explicitly as Canadian Literature, the Robert Weaver and Helen James anthology, Canadian Short Stories, I wasn't surprised. There they were again, those animals on the run, most of them in human clothing this time, and those humans up against it; here was the slight mistake that led to disaster, here was the fatal accident; this was a world of frozen corpses, dead gophers, snow, dead children, and the ever-present feeling of menace, not from an enemy set over against you but from everything surrounding you. The familiar peril lurked behind every bush, and I knew the names of the bushes. Again, I wasn't reading this as Canlit, I was just reading it: I remember being elated by some stories (notably James Reaney's "The Bully") and not very interested in others. But these stories felt real to me in a way that Charles Dickens, much as I enjoyed him, did not.
I've talked about these early experiences not because I think that they were typical but because I think that significantly -- they weren't: I doubt that many people my age had even this much contact, minimal and accidental though it was, with their own literature. (Talking about this now makes me feel about 102, because quite a lot has changed since then. But though new curricula are being invented here and there across the country, I'm not convinced that the average Canadian child or high school student is likely to run across much more Canadian literature than I did. Why this is true is of course one of our problems.)
Still, although I didn't read much Canadian writing, what I did read had a shape of its own that felt different from the shapes of the other things 1 was reading. What that shape turned out to be, and what I felt it meant in terms of this country. became clearer to me the more I read; it is, of course, the subject of this book.
I'd like to begin with a sweeping generalization and argue that every country or culture has a single unifying and informing symbol at its core. (Please don't take any of my oversimplifications as articles of dogma which allow of no exceptions; they are proposed simply to create vantage points from which the literature may be viewed.) The symbol, then -- be it word, phrase, idea, image, or all of these -- functions like a system of beliefs (it is a system of beliefs, though not always a formal one) which holds the country together and helps the people in it to co-operate for common ends. Possibly the symbol for America is The Frontier, a flexible idea that contains many elements dear to the American heart: it suggests a place that is new, where the old order can be discarded (as it was when America was instituted by a crop of disaffected Protestants. and later at the time of the Revolution); a line that is always expanding. taking in or "conquering" ever-fresh virgin territory (be it The West, the rest of the world, outer space, Poverty or The Regions of the Mind); it holds out a hope, never fulfilled but always promised, of Utopia, the perfect human society. Most twentieth century American literature is about the gap between the promise and the actuality, between the imagined ideal (Golden West or City Upon a Hill, the model for all the world postulated by the Puritans. and the actual squalid materialism, dotty small town, nasty city, or redneck-filled outback. Some Americans have even confused the actuality with the promise: in that case Heaven is a Hilton hotel with a coke machine in it.
The corresponding symbol for England is perhaps The Island, convenient for obvious reasons. In the seventeenth century a poet called Phineas Fletcher wrote a long poem called The Purple Island, which is based on an extended body-as-island metaphor, and, dreadful though the poem is, that's the kind of island I mean: island-as-body, self contained, a Body Politic. evolving organically. with a hierarchical structure in which the King is the Head, the statesmen the hands, the peasants or farmers or workers the feet, and so on. The Englishman's home as his castle is the popular form of this symbol, the feudal castle being not only an insular structure but a self-contained microcosm of the entire Body Politic.
The central symbol for Canada -- and this is based on numerous instances of its occurrence in both English and French Canadian literature - is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance. Like the Frontier and The Island, it is a multi-faceted and adaptable idea. For early explorers and settlers, it meant bare survival in the face of "hostile" elements and/or natives: carving out a place and a way of keeping alive. But the word can also suggest survival of a crisis or disaster, like a hurricane or a wreck, and many Canadian poems have this kind of survival as a theme; what you might call 'grim' survival as opposed to 'bare' survival. For French Canada after the English took over it became cultural survival, hanging on as a people, retaining a religion and a language under an alien government. And in English Canada now while the Americans are taking over it is acquiring a similar meaning. There is another use of the word as well: a survival can be a vestige of a vanished order which has managed to persist after its time is past, like a primitive reptile This version crops up in Canadian thinking too, usually among those who believe that Canada is obsolete.
But the main idea is the first one: hanging on,staying alive. Canadians are forever taking the national pulse like doctors at a sickbed: the aim is not to see whether the patient will live well but simply whether he will live at all. Our central idea is one which generates, not the excitement and sense of adventure or danger which the Frontier holds out, not the smugness and/or sense of security, of everything in its place, which The Island can offer, but an almost intolerable anxiety. Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back, from the awful experience -- the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship -- that killed everyone else. The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before, except gratitude for having escaped with his life.
A preoccupation.with one's survival is necessarily also a preoccupation with the obstacles to that survival. In earlier writers these obstacles are external -- the land, the climate, and so forth. In later writers the obstacles tend to become both harder to identify and more internal; they are no longer obstacles to physical survival but obstacles to what we may call spiritual survival, to life as anything more than a minimally human being. Sometimes fear of these obstacles becomes itself the obstacle, and a character is paralyzed by terror (either of what he thinks is threatening him from the outside, or of elements in his own nature that threaten him from within). It may even be life itself that he fears; and when life becomes a threat to life, you have a moderately vicious circle. If a man feels he can survive only by amputating himself, turning himself into a cripple or a eunuch, what price survival?
Just to give you a quick sample of what I'm talking about, here are a few capsule Canadian plots. Some contain attempts to survive which fail. Some contain bare survivals. Some contain crippled successes (the character does more than survive, but is mutilated in the process).
Pratt: The Titanic: Ship crashes into iceberg. Most passengers drown.
Pratt: Brébeuf and His Brethren: After crushing ordeals, priests survive briefly and are massacred by Indians.
Laurence: The Stone Angel: Old woman hangs on grimly to life and dies at the end.
Carrier: Is It The Sun, Philbert? Hero escapes incredible rural poverty and horrid urban conditions, almost makes it financially, dies where he wrecks his car.
Marlyn: Under The Ribs of Death. Hero amputates himself spiritually in order to make it financially, fails anyway.
Ross: As For Me and My House: Prairie minister who hates his job and has crippled himself artistically by sticking with it is offered a dubious chance of escape at the end.
Buckler: The Mountain and the Valley: Writer who has been unable to write has vision of possibility at the end but dies before he can implement it.
Gibson: Communion. Man who can no longer make human contact tries to save sick dog, fails, and is burned up at the end.
And just to round things out, we might add that the two English Canadian feature films (apart from Allan King's documentaries) to have had much success so far, Goin' Down the Road and The Rowdyman, are both dramatizations of failure. The heroes survive, but just barely; they are born losers, and their failure to do anything but keep alive has nothing to do with the Maritime Provinces or 'regionalism' it's pure Canadian, from sea to sea.
My sample plots are taken from both prose and poetry, and from regions all across Canada, they span four decades, from the thirties to the early seventies. And they hint at another facet of Survivalism: at some point the failure to survive, or the failure to achieve anything beyond survival, becomes not a necessity imposed by a hostile outside world but a choice made from within. Pushed far enough, the obsession with surviving can become the will not to survive.
Certainly Canadian authors spend a disproportionate amount of time making sure that their heroes die or fail. Much Canadian writing suggests that failure is required because it is felt --. consciously or unconsciously -- to be the only 'right' ending, the only thing that will support the characters' (or their authors') view of the universe. When such endings are well handled and consistent with the whole book, one can't quarrel with them on aesthetic grounds. But when Canadian writers are writing clumsy or manipulated endings, they are much less likely to manipulate in a positive than they are in a negative direction: that is, the author is less likely to produce a sudden inheritance from a rich old uncle or the surprising news that his hero is really the son of a Count than he is to conjure up an unexpected natural disaster or an out.of-control car, tree or minor character so that the protagonist may achieve a satisfactory failure. Why should this be so? Could it be that Canadians have a will to lose which is as strong and pervasive as the Americans. will to win?
It might be argued that, since most Canlit has been written in the twentieth century and since the twentieth century has produced a generally pessimistic or "ironic" literature. Canada has simply been reflecting a trend. Also, though it's possible to write a short lyric poem about joy and glee. no novel of any length can exclude all but these elements. A novel about unalloyed happiness would have to be either very short or very boring. "Once upon a time John and Mary lived happily ever after, The End." Both of these arguments have some validity. but surely the Canadian gloom is more unrelieved than most and the death and failure toll out of proportion. Given a choice of the negative or positive aspects of any symbol -- sea as life-giving Mother, sea as what your ship goes down in; tree as symbol of growth, tree as what falls on your head - Canadians show a marked preference for the negative.
You might decide at this point that most Canadian authors with any pretensions to seriousness are neurotic or morbid, and settle down instead for a good read with Anne of Green Gables (though it's about an orphan...) But if the coincidence intrigues you -- so many writers in such a small country, and all with the same neurosis -- then I will offer you a theory. Like any theory it won't explain everything, but it may give you some points of departure.
Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Canada as a whole is a victim, or an "oppressed minority " or "exploited... Let us suppose in short that Canada is a colony. A partial definition of a colony is that it is a place from which a profit is made, but not by the people who live there: the major profit from a colony is made in the centre of the empire. That is what colonies are for,to make money for the "mother country," nd that's what -- since the days of Rome, and more recently the Thirteen Colonies -- they have always been for. Of course, there are cultural side-effects which are often identified as "the colonial mentality," and it is these which are examined here; but the root cause for them is not economic.
If Canada is a collective victim, it should pay some attention to the Basic Victim Positions. These are like the basic positions in ballet or the scales on the piano: They are primary, though all kinds of song-and-dance variations on them are possible.