Friday, May 11, 2007

how to embrace the wilderness and influence people

I'm sitting in my study carrel at Harriet Irving Library wishing the thunderstorm would start already because the air is so thick right now. It's fitting, then, that I've just finished a book about embracing the wilderness in Canadian literature -- Jones is certain that wilderness must enter the garrison to allow the garrison to breathe new life; I think a thunderstorm could do the same thing for Fredericton today.

Butterfly on Rock
by D. G. Jones

The evidence of our literature, and also of our history, would indicate that we are a people who have tried to live primarily on the basis of faith rather than belief. We have persistently placed our confidence in principles, doctrines, rules, rather than in ourselves or in the spontaneous processes of nature. And only too often we carry this faith, or these faiths, as a burden; we do not altogether believe in the doctrine or tradition we live by.

This text, I have to say, is immensely readable -- it was a nice change from Contexts in Canadian Criticism, which was a little bit dry. Jones' primary argument is that literature in Canada has moved from a garrisoned, insular mentality that feared the world of the outside, to a literature that seeks out the wilderness outside the garrison in order to give the garrison a new life. Furthermore, in that stepping out of the garrison and into the wilderness, literature in Canada has sought to accept nature on nature's own terms -- death, violence, and all -- in order to find peace. For the literature of a people consumed by their identity with the land, this is crucial; peace must necessarily be found in nature's death grasp, because only when we cease to fear the wilderness can we embrace its wonders.

In the above quote, Jones argues that this path taken by our literature has at times stood in opposition to the developing social order in Canada. To embrace the chaotic natural world and to place your fate solely in her hands is necessarily to turn your back on the established order -- the church, the town hall, the military all oppose the freedom and randomness of the natural order. As society tried to stay stagnant, literature opened the garrison up to the wilderness and allowed the one force to challenge the other. In the end, a kind of balance has been reached between the two forces that embraces the good in both opportunities. In an established society that ignores the natural, there are basically two gods: the Church, and technology. As Jones argues:

Within society they could choose between the conventional Christian idealism and the newer secular idealism inspired by technology. One was increasingly moribund,* the other increasingly dynamic, but each tended to do violence to human nature and to eliminate all spontaneous joy in life.

Part of the problem with idealism is that it assumes a potential perfection. If we have an idealized idea of something, anything, then we are saying that that item is or can be perfect. Jones argues that life in a colony is hard, it is exhausting, but it is never perfect. A Canadian settler loses much in striving for any ideal, especially one constructed out and way in Rome or London or New York. The spontaneous joy that is missing can re-enter the experience by allowing the natural world back in. Nature is only spontaneous; she acts, reacts, and responds not based on deliberative thought, order from Rome, or developed invention. Nature acts on instinct which is by nature spontaneous. Within the garrison ruled by Church and technology there can be no spontaneity -- but our literature can allow the wilderness entry into the garrison, thereby allowing for the experience of spontaneity. This is the time of the Confederation Poets, who emerged from a garrison culture that oppressed them, and were the first to step into the wilderness to uncover the alternatives to the status quo.

In the end, Jones argues, the key to surviving Canada is making peace with nature. To live in fear of the wilderness in a country like Canada is to only life a partial life. He suggests, "Our love of the world, and our communion with the world, issues from our recognition that it is both our victim and our executioner. He who would have it otherwise remains consciously or unconsciously the alienated man." To be one with Canada, then, requires making the choice to accept nature on her terms -- she can be our victim, and give us the food we eat, the skins we wear, and the materials we construct our homes with. But in one unfortunate winter storm or unexpected spring thaw or unadulterated summer heat wave, she can be our executioner. Indeed, for the early settlers, she was more executioner than victim; today, perhaps, the tide has turned. But to live with nature is to respect her; it is to accept her gifts and fear her wrath in equal measure.

We need to understand the wilderness, Jones argues, by ceasing to love broad universals ("I love the freedom of this country, I love the vastness of it"), to instead embrace "the evanescent and mortal particulars" of Canadian life. Don't love the abstract, Jones warns, because the abstract eventually falls away. We have to love the particular and the concrete, the things that create the idea of the abstract.

But where does all this discussion of the wilderness leave contemporary writers? Can we really say that Douglas Coupland goes out in search of a wilderness to allow into the garrison? Jones tackles the idea of contemporary (for him, so post-1960s) English-Canadian writing as follows:

They have set out to take an inventory of the world by scarcely uttered, the world of the excluded or ignored. It would comprehend whatever is crude, whatever is lonely, whatever has failed, whatever inhabits the silence of the deserted streets, the open highways, the abandoned farms. It is the wilderness of experience that does not conform to the cultural maps of the history books, sermons, political speeches, slick magazines and ads. And it is the wilderness of language in with the official voices of the culture fail to articulate the meaning or the actual sensation of living and tend to become gibberish.

So in that sense, Coupland is a writer of the wilderness. It could be said that the crude, the lonely, the failed, and the silent have always made up the characters whose stories he seeks to tell. This is an idea I'm interested to hear any one's thoughts on -- to what extent can we still talk about the wilderness as a touchstone of contemporary Canadian literature? To me, it all boils down to one question: are we colonial, or are we post-colonial? Because as long as we remain a colonial society, we will be forever locked within our garrisons, desperate for our literature to grant us access to the wilderness that will breathe new life into our experiences.

* Totally had to look this up. It means at the point of death, or losing vitality.

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