Wednesday, May 9, 2007

day two through three of contexts of canadian criticism

Contexts of Canadian Criticism
edited by Eli Mandel

We were born saying "No" to the Enlightenment and "No" to the American Revolution, and for a century and a half we have regularly indulged in outbursts of anti-American feeling and rejected the best that American thought and society has had to offer us.

Ouch. Feel damned, much? That's from William Kilbourn's article in this collection, "The Writing of Canadian Literature," but it echoes the ideas I talked about in my last posting and the ideas that dominate this book. Half the articles want to define Canada in terms of the US, half want to stop defining Canada in terms of the US, and the rest are pretty sure we're all just the retarded cousin of the US anyway so what's the point?

It's a little depressing.

I'm not afraid to say that I'm patriotic, and while I'm in no way unwilling to admit that America has some incredible accomplishments and beautiful history (Boston, I'm looking at you), I'm very proud of the literature that has emerged in Canada -- certainly no other country has experienced the express maturity that Canadian lit has in the last hundred years. Milton Wilson claims a certain parochialness for Canadian readers, arguing that we demand from our writers (especially our poets) "tamaracks and totempoles" -- that is, we judge our poets by how much Canadiana they can cram into a lyric poem. I don't think this observation is bad, but I'm also hard-pressed to see it as in some way "wrong." Canada is a young country, and as sick as we all are of CBC specials determining our identity, we are too young and of a history too peaceful to have forged a concrete identity (if such a thing can ever exist) as yet. It's normal and natural to look to our writers to, as many critics in this collection state, myth-make for us.

We don't have a Revolution to bind us together, and we don't have a shared goal of the pursuit of happiness. We instead have an act of Parliament and the promise of peace, order, and good government; of life, liberty, and security of the person. Our past is not romantic unless we turn to the personal and the experiential to make it so. This is the role of literature in a young country.

That's not to say it's the only function of national literature, especially not in contemporary, cosmopolitan (!) Canada, but at the time this collection was put together (1971), Canada had just turned 100 and culturally we still didn't know where to hang our hats. The literature since 1967 in this country has taken remarkable strides to be less self-consciously Canadian (a book can be set on the prairies without the very existance of the characters on the land being a struggle, now, and with out constantly evoking images of conquest and rape, for example -- this wasn't possible in Margaret Lawrence's day, and we have come a long way in a very short space of time). Writers no longer feel compelled to write of the wilderness that none of us experience or to explain their desire to set a text in St. Andrews when Cape Cod could do just as well. There is an acceptance, finally, that literature happens here -- that stories worth telling happen here -- and they don't necessarily have to be cloaked in mythic symbols of the epic struggle against wilderness. They can just be stories.

Northrop Frye has often noted that the literature of a country is only as mature as its society. In the 1960s, as Canada was just starting to come into itself as an independent nation (remember we didn't have our own patriated constitution until 1982, for god's sake), Frye remarked, "The Canadian poet, though he might be youger than Eliot or Yeats, writes in an environment for which it would be difficult to find a counterpart in England without going back to a period prior to the age of Chaucer." And he didn't mean my cat, Chaucer, he meant circa 1300 Chaucer. Frye refers here to the fact that pre-Chaucerian society was similar to Canada in that England, from 1066 on, was forging an identity for itself. Chaucer was such a huge literary figure for England because he was part of that nation's myth-making -- an act still in progress over two hundred years after 1066.

So, like, timeline wise, everyone needs to cut Canada some freaking slack.

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