Saturday, May 12, 2007

survival of the bleakest

by Margaret Atwood

Certainly, Canadian authors spend a disproportionate amount of time making sure that their heroes die or fail. [... Even] when Canadian writers are writing clumsy or manipulated endings, they are much less likely to manipulate in a positive than 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?

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.

Throughout my undergraduate education, I sat through class after class after class of depressing Canadian literature. I think it was second or third year where my schedule was such that, in one day, I had a class on The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence in Canadian Literature, followed by Earle Birney's David in The Canadian Long Poem, and then I wrapped up the day with an evening class on immigrant novels, that day featuring Obasan by Joy Kogawa. By the time I got home that night all I could wonder was, "Why does studying three works of CanLit in one day result in the need for a bottle or two of Prozac? Why are we so depressing?"

It was exciting, then, for me to pick up Margaret Atwood's 1972 sensation and discover that other people were thinking it, too. The interesting thing about academic study of CanLit is that in the second year of an undergraduate degree, everyone is willing to say that our literature has a depressive streak running through it, but by the upper levels people stop talking about it. Mention that a book is kind of on the dark side in a graduate class and you might as well have said, "I like it!" Reader response, you know, is the lowest form of criticism. It's enough to give a girl a complex -- I know this bleak world view was here yesterday -- so it was great to find out that the Smartest Woman in Canada (TM), Maggie Atwood, had the same questions for the CanLit canon in 1972 that I was mulling over in a windowless classroom in 2002.

The theory of why that Atwood offers us in Survival is really quite a simple one: Canadians are victims, in various stages of victimitude, and as a result our literature is equally about victims. "Let us suppose," she starts, "for he 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." Not what you'd call a shocking revelation -- in all my readings so far, and in all my commentaries, I've talked about the ways in which Canada has been colonized: literally (by England) and figuratively (by America). Atwood suggests that if you "stick a pin in Canadian literature at random, nine times out of ten you'll hit a victim." And she's right. Sometimes they are victims of abstract concepts, like poverty or isolation. Sometimes they are literally victims of physical attack. Often, they are victims of domineering family members (especially grandparents, who populate the CanLit landscape as angry, cruel, beaten people). I've been sitting here since early this morning, combing my CanLit shelves, search for victimless books and I can't think of one. Life of Pi? Victim of a shipwreck. Fall On Your Knees? Rape victim, incest victim, victim of wartime atrocities, victim of a horrific marriage, and more. David Adams Richards has never written a character in his life who isn't a victim of Ontario, either a victim of its oppression of the maritimes or a victim of its way of life. Even my favourite character in all of CanLit, Michael Winter's Gabriel English, is a victim of himself, caught up in his own neuroses and lack of self worth in comparing himself to the rest of Canada, and Canada to the US.

If you can think of a relatively major work of Canadian literature that doesn't centre on victimhood and victimization, I would love to know it.

Atwood is clear as to why this sense exists -- we Canadians have been locked in a Victor/Victim cycle for a very long time. Settlers were victimized by the land upon arrival here, so they in turn victimized the native inhabitants. As society grew, we became victims of England's will, only ever gaining as much power as she saw fit. In return, English Canada victimized French Canada, and French Canada victimized women (right to vote in 1940, for Christ's sake [literally!]). In the modern day, we are victims of cultural colonialism, absorbed as we are in American news and entertainment. (Now, on Entertainment Tonight: Canada! 2 1/2 minutes on Sarah Polley followed by 19 1/2 minutes on Paris Hilton's jail cell -- how will she decorate?) It's no accident that survival has emerged as the central theme across the Canadian canon. We survived the wilderness, we survived enough to become an autonomous nation, and now we are struggling to survive as America's Attic. Our literature is rooted in that reality.

Atwood points out that even our heroes are heroes because they were first victims. Louis Riel, Adam Dollard, the Newfoundland Regiment in WWI -- our heroes fall. Even things that are successes, Atwood points out, eventually devolve into failure: we held back the Americans in 1812 and they took over culturally and financial anyway; Sir John A. MacDonald stitched the country together with a railroad and it fell apart regardless.

What is interesting is the way that, as a victim culture, we have come to revere the institutions of law and order on a cultural level. Atwood asks us to think of any other country that uses a policeman as its national symbol, and where Americans seek Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, we are guaranteed the right to Life, Liberty and Security of the Person -- the latter certain to be enacted through the guiding principles of Peace, Order, and Good Government. Rebellions in Canada have never become Revolutions not necessarily because Canadians didn't support the ideas the rebels stood for, but because Canadians in general -- on a social level -- do not support the act of rebellion, full stop.

I would love to use Survival to teach a CanLit course some day. Atwood breaks the text into twelve chapters, each with an accompanying reading list. I think a great full year CanLit survey could see semester one (CanLit: Survival to 1970) following Atwood's ideas, reading some of the novels she suggests, and then semester two (1970-present) uses those ideas as a jumping off point to see what has changed and what has stayed the same in the years that have passed -- years that have been an important flourishing for Canadian Literature. On the whole, I freaking love this book -- if you have even a passing interest in Canadian literature, it's an easy and enlightening look at our own history and culture.

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