THERE is a special place in hell for blurb writers. The cover copy hyping Maggie Helwig's collected prose on apocalyptic themes is particularly naughty in that it claims a measurable shelf life for her essays, some of which are as ephemeral as their subjects.
Helwig's major topics in Apocalypse Jazz are Ultimate Things (death, enlightenment, eternal life) and what various species of artists and thinkers Prince, Shakespeare, Frye, Weil, Dylan, herself - make of them. I think Helwig really does admire those artists who "desired whatever sort of God so greatly they would trade off their lives if they thought it would work" (and often did), even though she claims not to. Too many of her pages glow in praise of the destroyed-Gwendolyn MacEwen, Nijinsky - or those who spend years wrestling in the spirit, "making the world over in the shape of the dream."
Helwig's takes on heightened consciousness are a bit easier to countenance. The pieces on Frye and on The Tempest, done in haute undergraduate term-paper style, are worth wading through for the author's willingness to practice magpie scholarship, to drag the Jacobean lectionary into line with Shakespeare's last work, or to hear alchemical arcana echoing in Frygian "magical" or riddling constructs. Prospero and Frye, Helwig notes, each employ the sorcery of charms and riddles to propel their subjects or audiences beyond the spell of convention into "a wider world."
So far, so credible - positive apocalypses for the uncommon reader. But Helwig impresses as a bookish downtown writer with no observable sympathy for the humbler creation. She cites without disparagement Dylan's distaste for nature. Helwig claims that "the comic vision, where we all live in the world and come home alive, we never settled for... and it seems to satisfy us less and less." But if the Last judgement doesn't happen while we're sniffing the weeds, vacuuming the dust bunnies, or rustling up dinner, it doesn't happen at all.
Like Maggie Helwig's politics, B. W Powe's are ostensibly on the side of the angels. His essay about the national character begins with a solemn, denunciatory open letter to Brian Mulroney, that joiner who recently gave up trying to rush the whole country into the big frat to the south.
Powe's subject in A Tremendous Canada of Light, the national question (constitution, identity, et al.), is something he hasn't made up his mind about. He doesn't think anyone else should be too certain about it either. But his style becomes what it beholds. Though frequently and gratifyingly lyrical, it often descends into a noisy hell of jargon and debased coinages, as when he proposes new uses for audio/video communications technics:
Replay, freeze-frame, slow-motion, fast-forward ... could galvanize us into achieving insight and clairaudience about those who appear on screens and speak on radio tubes [sic] -attempting to lead us.
(To where? A tremendous Canada of lite?)
Powe usually displays a kindly unwillingness to be too censorious, to see things in another light (that word again!). He's not telling fibs when he says we're a reticent, hesitant bunch, given to irony and diffidence about our collective achievements (like hobbits, as a Quebecois friend of mine once remarked). He wants to show this up as a sort of advantage in the contemporary telemedia-dominated whirlwind, however, proposing negative capability as a keystone of the national identity.
It's a lovely notion, so bourgeois. Powe doesn't seem to have spent much time standing in tine at Tim Horton's. His examples of civic pride are taken from bosky north Toronto, from boaters on the Rideau Canal. Despite his realistic claim that he considers "greed, humiliation, arrogance and egotism to be facts in our lives," Powe accentuates the positive.
This flip side, what he calls "the alternative current," is a proposed collective agreement somehow to "comprehend that we are pioneering a society whose communication stories express the myths of receptivity and constant negotiation ... the pluralistic country without a single identity."
George Grant's vision of just about the same situation gets a passing paragraph; Powe is certainly no friend to that tragic outlook. His faith in our ability to sustain our spiritual commonwealth in the face of the legerdemain of market forces is awe-inspiring. "When a government or transnational turns its citizens and workers into ... digits ... then people may begin to feel acutely human in their estrangement."
Although we have to grant Powe his subject (it's not the taking of conventional power), this sounds like an unsavoury way of achieving individual or national authenticity. If Canada becomes a Third World country, we may realize that all we got is rhythm, along with the secret thrill of knowing that we're richly ambiguous creatures inhabiting the exemplary, evolving "state without walls."