||The future of our past
by Rick Salutin
Canada's peculiarly placid history has been difficult for writers, who wish it had all been more exciting. But now, after the free-trade deal, everything looks different - we may be living the last moments of that history
I wish I had written this before the Tories signed their free-trade deal with the U.S. It would have been easier, far more . . . straightforward. I'd have started:
Let us begin with a trenchant formulation, written almost a century ago, of the problem that Canadian history poses for Canadian literature: "Could Count Tolstoi write War and Peace, or Ivan Turgenieff hold you as firmly as the Ancient Mariner did the wedding guest if they lived in Canada? How could they? They could not learn war here, they could not be fired by the daily, hourly human agonies, worse than those pictured in Dante's Inferno, which a Russian sees. The follies and cruelties of the great, the meannesses and sufferings of the poor; violent love, equally violent hate; jealousy, cruel as the grave, treachery - are on all sides of the 'unspeakable Run'. The Slavonic race is
scattering tragedies broadcast. We sit in the broad sunlight by day, in the glare of electric light by night; we are nice and warm in summer, and thanks to self-feeders, and hot air, and steam, equally nice and warm in winter; we love conveniently and properly, we have mild dislikes during which we riddle the character of our pet aversion with a pea shooter. We are even equal to triolets. We must have something strong and great within us before we can produce anything strong and great. Canada must be born again."
I'd have gone on, commenting on the above passage:
Those lucky Russians. Their blood has flowed. They've endured mass slaughter and catastrophic natural disasters. They can write novels! This is the view of the essayist and critic, L. O'Loane, writing in the Toronto magazine, The Week, "An Independent Journal of Literature, Politics, and Criticism," in 1890.
It's true the statements seem dated: the quest for Great Literature of our own, for instance. We may feel that, since 1890, Canadian literature has arrived; or alternately that the discussion about why it hasn't is fruitless, self-indulgent, and/or neurotic. The formulations are certainly quaint (a triolet is a verse form); yet the issue remains with us. In fact its current versions arc, I'd say, far less incisive than O'Loane's.
Today we"re more likely to hear the flat complaint, "Canadian history is boring." Probable answer: "Canadian history is not bong." Followed by "''Tis." "'Tisn't." And so on. And we may well wonder, "So what?"
What is interesting for us about O'Loane is that he pins many of the problems - or, to be non judgemental, many of the characteristics - of Canadian literature (and, let us extrapolate a hundred years later, other cultural forms like film and television drama) on our history. It stems to me the passion of his argument, and at least to some extent its pertinence, abides.
How might one deal with O'Loane's contention? There are a number of routes.
The first is by way of what we might call the colorization of Canadian history. It seems to me that Pierre Becton has pushed this approach as far as it can go - qualitatively if not quantitatively. One does up the fact that there was a pirate who operated on the Great Lakes, or that one of our prime ministers communicated with his dead mother through medium, or that, as an NFB film about Norman Bethune shows us, the man drunk and womanized. Compare the current CBC-Radio drama series, A Different Drummer: a new Canadian eccentric from our past every week. It seems to me this route concentrates on the charge that our history is dull; it sets out to refute the claim by discovering colour in our past; and, at least for me, it doesn't work. Colourful people can be awfully boring - once you get used to them. It protests too much: desperate to reclaim the bored Canadian reader (or viewer), it assumes the dullness it strives so earnestly to negate. It thereby confirms what it aims to deny. Besides, the strength of O'Loane's formulation is that he does not trivialize the issue by making boredom the problem of our history. What he says, in effect, is that our history is not historic. Not momentous, not significant. Those dedicated to the colorization of Canadian history do not deal with this critique. They more or less accept the outline of our history as given, and colour it in; they do not question its basic themes, or lack thereof; they seek to present what is there in a better way, but our history's importance to us surely resides in more than its entertainment value.
Another approach is to attack the assumption that other peoples have more historic histories than our own. How many actual Russian peasants, for example, participated in the grand battles of Russian history? Didn't the majority of them, like most human beings through all time and space, live and die according to the normal rhythms of birth, work, love, and death? How many of us are really touched by the grand and historic? Are Canadians really much different from others in this respect? Perhaps not, but that doesn't alter the fact that history however few or many it touches - does differ in its character from nation to nation; and ours, such as it is, does seem peculiarly, maybe even uniquely, placid.
Or one could argue that it is not a grand and gory history that makes for memorable literature but the reverse: welI-executed literature creates a momentous history. What was the outbreak: of the America Revolution, for example? A skirmish near a colonial town until it became, in Longfellow's hands, the place "where once th' embattled farmer stood, ! And fired the shot heard round the world." What could be more provincial and uninteresting to later generations in other lands than Britain's Wars of the Roses -- except that Shakespeare took them on? For that matter, what would we know about Napoleon's Russian campaign (just another disastrous military miscalculation) without War and Peace? In this light, it is not Canada's history that has failed our writers, but our writers who have failed to create for us a worthy history. In this view it is the responsibility of writers to take whatever raw historical material is at hand, and shape it into something that stirs their compatriots. I think there is a lot to be said for this argument; it takes the role of culture very seriously, but it makes a rather large claim for the power of the writer to create out of virtually anything at hand; and it ignores the question: what is it in the history of a society that predisposes its writers to play this role in creating a sense of history?
There is one final way in which one might respond to O'Loane's challenge. One might, with qualifications, agree with him. I rind myself in that position. I don't endorse the formulation, but I think we do have a problem between our history and our literature, and I lean toward O'Loane when he says the problem lies in our history.
Now (I would have continued, had there been no CanadaU.S. free-trade agreement), let us turn the question somewhat, and ask not how our history affects our literature, but how our literature treats our history. I write here not with detachment, but as someone who has tried to make the connection, primarily in theatre, but also in film and television drama: for example, In 1973 with the play 1837, created collectively with Theatre Passe-Muraille, and in 1977 with another play, Lei Canadiens, which covered all of Quebec's history in act one and the momentous provincial election of 1976 in act two. I worked on two collective plays in Newfoundland, one based on the woodworkers' strike of 1959, and the other on the life of Joey Smallwood, which is exactly coincident with the history of Newfoundland in this century. At a certain point I became suspicious of the effects of history on drama and began trying to avoid it, but I return to it compulsively. My last television script for example, Grierson and Gouzenko, dealt with the end of World War II and the rise of the Cold fear; and a recent radio play, The Reluctant Patriot, returned, like a dog to its vomit, to 1837.
I think it is interesting that many of my colleagues feel a similar attraction to historical material - even those who seemed very far from it early in their careers. Take, for instance, Montreal playwright David Fennario, whose earlier plays all dealt with contemporary working-class anglophone Mentrealers. His most recent play, Joe Beef, is a recapitulation of the entire history of Canada from Fennarlo's own political standpoint. The play's engine is the fury of bartender Joe Beef that his patrons have failed to learn the lessons of their own history, that they're hopelessly uninformed about their past; he flings this anger desperately in their faces in an attempt to liberate them from their ignorance.
Or take Martin Kinch, one of the outstanding directors and playwrights of the theatre renaissance of the early 1970s. Kinch's field then was almost exclusively contemporary; his 1973 play Me? was a superb delineation of the urban bourgeois Canadian sensibility, After the usual horrors of a Canadian theatre career, Kinch found himself spending five years in CBC-TV drama - doing a series of dramas covering Canadian history since Confederation. If you don't go through an obligatory attempt to deal with history early in your career, then it seems you must do it late.
What are we all looking for when we turn to history? It seems to me we are not wondering about our Canadian identity; we are not asking who we are. On the contrary, we have arrived at an answer, or a partial answer to that question. What we want to know is, How did we get this way? Martin Kincb must have wondered whataccounted for the peculiarly earnest and moral (or artistic) quality of the middle-class Canadians he'd brought alive in his plays. Fennario, on the other hand, wondered why his workers, so noble and justified in their needs, were so ineffective in pressing their demands. Speaking for myself, I wondered what accounted for the apparent placidity of Canadian society, the absence of any serious strife social, national, or political.
I should add that one is unlikely to ask the question "How did I (we) get this way?" unless one is dissatisfied to some degree with how one is, and desirous of changing.
Is there any trait that characterizes and unifies these literary interrogations of the Canadian past? I'd like to point to one element; something somewhere on the scale between humour and irony. The number of Canadian literary treatments of history that fall within these categories is striking. Kirsch's series of TV dramas took an eccentric and ironic, if also serious tack. Fennario's play is a goodhearted series of songs and vignettes. 1837 wanted to be a history in the Shakespearean sense, more than a docudrama, but the elements of humour and irony emerged very strongly. I'm thinking also of poetry tike Dennis Lee's 1838 or Margaret Atwood's Ten Little Fathers of Confederation. I don't mean there aren't humourless treatments of history in our literature; there are. Nor do other nations lack a humorous approach to their own pasts. But 1066 And All That is a spoof on the vast body of solemn and momentous treatments of English history. In the Canadian case, a large number of the treatments are humorous already.
Why do we laugh, or smile wryly, when we travel back? For the usual reasons: the unexpected. We don't find what we had expected would be there; and what we find was unanticipated.
Let us take a basic starting point. We know we exist as a nation. How did we come to exist as a nation? Confederation. So we backtrack and interrogate Confederation. We expect some yearning for national expression, some need skin to, say, Italy's or Mozambique's. What do we find? A business deal. We laugh in surprise. What of our founding father, John A.? We anticipate: a statesman with a vision; stirring words from the first Canadian, such as, "When in the course of human events. . ." What do we hear? "A British subject I was born; a British subject I will die." We smile our wry Canadian smiles.
We find answers, but not the kind of answers we had expected. What do we not fund? In a word, a national project. What does a project mean for a nation?
The project of the United States is independence. Or perhaps even revolution. Everything that happens in the United States must answer in the light of such a national project or projects. It doesn't matter a damn that the United States does not fulfil such projects, that it may even contradict and abhor them in practice. They are still the standards by which national behaviour is judged; they are distorted but never denied.
The project of France is liberty, or equality, or fraternity. It doesn't really matter. But there is a sense that the nation is embarked in the name of some project, and will hold itself to account in terms of that project. Without a project a nation might exist, but only in the sense a tree, or a species, exists; it wouldn't quite exist historically.
What is the Canadian project? Are them any contenders? To build a nation on this vast northern half of the continent? Tautological: you are a nation in order to be a nation. What about survival? Survival is not a project. The point about a project is not to succeed in it, but to provide a worthy standard against which to measure the degree of one's failures. A project too readily achieved might well be an unworthy project. But survival is no project at all.
At this point we rejoin O'Loane's critique of 1890. Canadian history is lacking, but not bloody battles or Weitschmerz. Canadian history lacks a project, or projects. What is it all for, this nation Canada?
Because our history seems to lack a project, much of our literature, rooted in our history, also feels lacking. We often tell tales that seem to have subjects but no point. Such-and-such from our past would make a great play/ novel/epic poem/film/mini-series, say our writers. Why? Because it's full of colour/ heroes/ episodic detail. So they write the story. Their works may well contain colourful and even heroic content, and end in some notable achievement like the building of the CPR. But they are feeble as literature because they enunciate no project, they represent no historically inspiring commitment.
It seems to me the existence of a historical project may be even more important for the literature of a country than for its actual history. After all. there is something mythic in this notion: a national project. If not mythic, at least Hegelian. Life is complex, and so is history as it actually exists and moves. Our discovery of national projects may be mere (pardon) projections; or at best bits embedded in a generally incoherent mass. But the discovery of such projects, of at least partial believability, does seem essential to construct a literature based in one's history. We need them; if they didn't exist, authors would have to invent them.
Canada, it seems, lacks a believable project. Without a project we don't quite have a history, as O'Loane suggests. Now this need not be quite fatal for our literature. There is a way out. We could explore the many ways we do not quite exist as a nation, the ways we don't, or don't yet, make it as a real nation. This could be fascinating; it could be unique; it could be of great interest to readers and writers from other nations. What a remarkable perspective to hold on what it is to exist as a nation in the world today.
We are, we might say, echoing Marx's phrase about humanity, shill in our prehistory as a nation. Might there even be a historical project for a nation still in its prehistory? Yes: the project is - to find a project. This is not as vacuous as it sounds. What it means in plain terms is conducting a conscious rational discourse among all our fellow citizens about what kind of a society we choose to attempt to become. It means bypassing the irrational and mythic stage, which is irrational and mythic anyway; there is something invigorating and even pathbreaking about this route...
That, and more, is what I would have written before the freetrade deal. Now though; things seem different, and those thoughts too . . . harsh?
Suddenly, Canadian history has lost its distance. We are in the middle of it, it is too much with us. It is not "back there somewhere," behind us in space; something we cart glance back towards and contemplate with dispassion in its relation to our fiction and drama. History never really has this distance, but most of the time we feet it does. History isn't really anywhere, it's in no place, except as it exists in us, in the present. In truth, there is only the present, and whatever history "exists," does so embedded in us.
But we only very rarely feel this is the case, and never in my lifetime as we do at this very moment. I fed as though we Canadians have discovered a kind of genetic or archetypal memory - and its token is Free Trade. The issue has been with us before, and always in crucial moments: in 1854, when reciprocity was negotiated; in 1865, when it was abolished by the Americans; then in 1911, when Laurier fought a bitter election on the deal he had negotiated, and lost. Now it is with us again, as if it never left, as if it's one of those matters, like one's relationship to one's parents or to death, that is never fully resolved, that lingers, and requires continual attention and adjustment. The free-trade deal has pulled Canadian history into the prosent, has made the past itself present. The distance between our Now and our History .has simply vanished.
But there is more than a kind of racial memory evoked by the deal. What we face is not just a moment of the Canadian past made suddenly present; instead, we fate what is potentially the final moment in Canadian history, or at least the moment that makes the final wind-up inevitable, and just a matter of time. I don't want to argue about this, I am simply stating it; I accept Ronald Reagan's straightforward interpretation that the natural effect of the free-trade deal will be similar to the economic union among the thirteen independent American colonies, which paved the way to full union. I am not insisting that this will happen, but it is the most likely outcome. That prospect makes a detached examination of the relations between Canadian history and Canadian literature less plausible than it would have been before the deal. The whole cargo - our history, our literature appears differently in the light of the fact that vie may be living the last moments of that history.
What has changed? Well, the achievements of that history seem less paltry, and the lack of a project less persuasive. The theme of Survival - mere survival - I want to think about again. As a friend of mine, a non-writer, said, "What it means is that the little character Canadians had will disappear." It is an awfully sad thought, put that way. And that little character we have attained suddenly appears quite an achievement.
Perhaps a national project has been these after all, and only now, in the light of our potential disappearance. can we see it: the illogical, unlikely project of existing on this continent in the face of and separate from the United States. A nonimperialistic, non-mighty, non-ideological nation. As a country we were always improbable: why didn't the Americans just take us over? Now that they might, and we can imagine it happening in our lifetime, the fact that they were prevented before now starts to loom as a considerable feat. Once Canada is gone, won't we look back and feel, It's rather impressive that they kepr it from happening for as long as they did.
And what of the specific question with which we started the relation between our history and our literature - now that vie may be living the final moments of that history? Does something change in that relation? I think it does.
It becomes clearer than ever that a people's literature, art, and culture have almost nothing to do with literature, art, or culture. That a people's literature is about nothing but its history, as included in its lived present. The government claims to have kept our culture "off the table." This is a devious statement and does not stand up to scrutiny, but let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that it is true. So what? What have we saved our culture for, when we have given up everything that makes us a country: our ability to control our destiny economically, socially, politically, and in the councils of nations? What will we write our books about and sing our songs about and play our plays about, when there is no substantially distinct Canadian society? Literature is not about literature; it is about human life, which takes place in socially and nationally organized groups. When you give up your right to a history of your own, what does it mean to have a culture? This seems to have suddenly become dear to the writers I know; they feel deep despair in the aftermath of the deal; pointing to vague "protections" for culture does not comfort them at all. It seems so obvious - now. The fight should never have been to protect Canadian culture; it could only have been to protect Canada,
So what happens to our literature? Does it simply disappear? Paradoxically, maybe not. The prospect of national obliteration concentrates the literary mind marvellously. We appreciate those we love most as they die. We seek as writers to enshrine them in words at their funerals and in biographies after their deaths. It works for countries too. National catastrophe can do wonders for literature. Think of Ireland. Think of Scotland. Think of Poland. If that's the kind of literature we want for Canada-laments for a nation that might have been - Canadian history may do a great deal for Canadian literature by, as it were, committing suicide. This however is a misleading metaphor. Canadian history is not about to do itself in; it is the victim of attempted murder.
I am speculating in all this. I do not mean to say the freetrade deal is an inevitable fait accompli. I believe our national fate still hangs in the balance. If all of us - writers, readers and everyone else - strive as best we can, perhaps we can force an election. Then the future is open, then the Canadian people will decide.
Alternatively, if a deal is forced through, or even, for the sake of argument, if it triumphed in an election, I still do not mean to say Canada would inevitably disappear. I think this is the logic of economic union of the sort contemplated by the deal-makers on both sides. But history itself is often wilier than those who try to control it. It is possible that Canada could survive despite the worst efforts of the United States and Mulroney's Tories, along with their business masters and their sycophants (with rare exceptions) in the press and media. In part, the outcome would depend on vagaries of global history, such as the evident decline of the United States. There is no doubt our Tories have hitched their wagon to a falling star; but mostly it will depend on the grit, vision, and need of the Canadian people for this nation to survive, or even, as I speculated in the part of this piece that would have been written had there been no deal, for this nation to become.