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A Quarter Century of Decline
Just as the paranoid may have real persecutors, the conservative may be right when he says that life was better twenty-five years ago. Or rather, in this part of the Canadian woods, not better, but there was more hope. The loss of hopefulness is worse than the loss of almost anything one once hoped for.
Granted, the illusion of decline is easy, for when we remember the past we are remembering our own lost youth. Moreover, Canada one full generation ago was itself younger for the demographic reason everyone acknowledges: our baby-boom generation were in our teens and twenties, in the last stages of being spoiled rotten. That we have not since grown up does not trouble me, for with age we discover the little secret of the generation before. The truth is, nobody ever grows up: we merely adjust to the encroachment of the universal terminal disease. Our children haven't caught it yet, but for their elders, life not only seems but is getting less and less supportable. This is not a simple matter of physical decay. As the years pass, there is an accumulation of roads not taken.
Or more precisely, roads not dared. I was in England recently, where I once lived, and was moved by nostalgia to call on several friends I had not seen or been in touch with for almost as long as Books in Canada has been publishing. I am describing three particular persons each of whom showed in earlier life some spark of talent and sputter of will. Not blazing fires, but with luck and application these three might have become one classical scholar, one potter, and one botanical illustrator. None of the three is yet entirely dead, but all are now settled beneath the reach of temptation. Despite modest efforts to resist, each had succumbed to the general societal tendency to absently and indifferently snuff them out. Their day jobs had become their lives, in a glacial tragedy I could only appreciate by glimpsing them before and after, without having watched in between. Each had risen from clerk to middle-manager-to the level of his incompetence in the capitalist bureaucracy-and the two with children now encumber their little captives with sensible, realistic goals.
I'm sure the founding of Books in Canada was neither sensible nor realistic. Such papers are more likely to hinder the bourgeois careers of their collaborators than to advance them-especially in Canadian journalism, where a whiff of intelligence, candour, or even competence will put the nation's mainstream editors instinctively on their guard. A serious book review is a journal of ideas, and so a messenger of hope regardless of surroundings (I mean hope as opposed to a shoddy optimism or pessimism). Reading the Globe and Mail, for instance, I am weighed down by the pettiness and glibness of our public culture, by the journalists' immovable incuriosity, and therefore the grimness of their daily search for relevance. Conversely, the irrelevance of Books in Canada is uplifting.
I was not present for the paper's creation, having flit Canada the year before 1971 at a surprisingly tender age, with the provocative intention of never returning. Such as it was, my growing up was performed in Europe and Asia, as far as I could get from Georgetown District High School, and the rest of the Canadian intellectual establishment. I withdrew from the experimental destruction of the last props of discipline and learning in the Ontario school system-Latin and I went out the same door-and remain grateful that I was allowed to leave. To this day I think we have our policy backwards, that our schools should be trying to drive kids out as early as possible, and providing a stiff education to those who tenaciously stay. (Well, there is an irrelevant opinion.) Suffice to say, it is only by travelling that one may discover things are as bad almost everywhere else.
When, in the eighties, I returned to the scene, Books in Canada had become a fixture. The paper has been through several "repositionings", and was not always as faultless as it is today. At the time it was an informative puff-sheet or saddle-flyer, favourably reviewing more or less anything in English in Canada by persons with landed immigrant status or better-a coterie that had swelled to unimaginable size. It appeared that the pedagogical principle of "I'm okay, you're okay", of "Everyone is beautiful, in his own way", had fruited in a stupendous harvest. (Another slogan from those days, used by the federal Liberal Party: "We are proud, / we are free, / living together in / har- / mo- / ny.") I would leaf through the pages and marvel at the number of people who could be published, at the facility with which they pleased themselves, and at the cost of publicly funded graphomania. Yet no-one had anything to say.
Now, I am exaggerating. I'm sure no mound could be so big without containing at least one pearl. I am recalling a general impression, rather than a specific census. In little more than a decade, the Canadian literary medley had grown from a barbershop quartet to a Red Army choir. Books in Canada was itself followed by many literary periodicals, so that by the time I returned to the country the Canada Council was bankrolling nearly one hundred commercially unthinkable publications. Most are still alive.
The quartet I remember, from my snotty adolescence in the late sixties, consisted of the irregular quarterly Tamarack Review (whose old numbers are readable decades later), the Canadian Forum (consistently on the left and, until about 1970, consistently intelligent), Saturday Night (downhill since B. K. Sandwell quit in 1951), and Queen's Quarterly (usually a lively article or two-until about 1985). James Reaney was self-publishing his delightful Alphabet, apparently as a kind of poetical demonstration of Northrop Frye's debt to Edmund Spenser; some other verse samizdati flashed by; and there were several quarterlies beyond my ken (e.g., Fred Cogswell's stolid Fiddlehead from New Brunswick, or George Woodcock's Canadian Literature from Vancouver-the journal that pioneered Canlit as a subject both academically respectable and grindingly boring). One could have subscribed to all of them on a school-teacher's salary; the small range made it possible for any isolated Canadian intellectual to know what the others were talking about. Like the old, six-team NHL, one could name all the players.
Number is seldom an indication of merit, small numbers any more than large. I mention these papers because I know they were fairly good by any standard, and cosmic by today's. I know this because I am a magazine junkie who has been through the files-have dug tattered copies out of church sales and booksellers' basements, have collected and read them. No-one can tell me that the press has become more sophisticated: the proliferation of jargon creates that illusion.
Glancing through the old advertisements I am also reminded how good Toronto's publishing houses once were: Clarke Irwin (a terrible loss), McClelland & Stewart, Macmillan of Canada, the U of T Press (where Allan Fleming was incidentally designing books with an original Canadian look and flavour, elegant and distinguished in the handling to stand beside the traditional products of Oxford, Cambridge, Leiden, Leipzig), the Canadian OUP (where William Toye was accomplishing a similar miracle). Every season had its landmarks. It was not like now, when our publishers shamelessly release long fall lists with nothing but trash-trash both in subject and execution-remaindered by Christmas after a short, feverish sale. Publishers, authors, and readers have lost dignity.
The chief surprise, in looking back under the stones to the milieu from which Books in Canada emerged, is to find evidence of a rich crop of teachers. While many of these were academics, some were not, and I use the word broadly. It is my (unassailable) view that great teachers do not expound subjects that lie fixed outside of themselves (teaching well what another might teach poorly, as if teaching could be reduced to a technique). They are rather embodiments of what they profess. Every great teacher has something to say, to which the world must listen. Each comes with a doctrine to expound (even if the subject is botany or draughting), and each of these doctrines bears a motherlode of truth-not the whole truth, for no human can contain it, but a real insight into things as they are. In this sense, the truth is always personal.
In the space of this brief squib I can only name some of these giants, who lived and taught in the vicinity of Toronto a quarter-century ago. Professor Frye, whose range of comprehension and reading might almost challenge that of Coleridge (and Ontario's Kathleen Coburn was then busy showing that) I have already mentioned for his grand mythopoeic conception; but just down the highway in Kingston, George Whalley opposed him with an alternative conception of the nature of poetry and role of criticism, and with a reading of Aristotle's Poetics that has yet to be appreciated.
Francis Sparshott was (though he mumbled in class) our Canadian Schiller bridging poetry and philosophy. His Structure of Aesthetics has lost nothing in the interval of its magisterial tour d'horizon.
Barker Fairley was perhaps the leading authority on the works and mind of Goethe, and the vindicator of Heine, Raabe, and much other German literature. Fairley's portrait paintings of local characters were revelations in the psychology of soul; his protean interests made him a living conductor of the spirit of Goethe, communicated through his striking translation of both parts of Faust.
Étienne Gilson had made St. Michael's College a place of pilgrimage for students of mediaeval thought, while conducting his own significant inquiries into the intricacies of art and being. His own presence (diminishing in retirement as the sixties wore on) attracted some of the greatest minds of Europe as frequent guests in town.
Bernard Lonergan was another one-man institution associated with that campus, whose thinking on the nature of human reasoning has charged many diverse minds both inside and outside the Catholic Church: again, a figure that the world associates with Toronto, though Toronto hardly knew he was here.
Also at St. Mike's but in another dimension, Marshall McLuhan looked so deeply into the electronic media as to become what he beheld. In person he was a formidable reactionary, and an inspiration within many lives.
George Grant, who left McMaster University in disgust for the mush of its curriculum and its feckless orientation to "research", had by the late sixties raised the Canadian historical experience to the philosophical plane, and was demolishing our English-speaking liberal sanctimony, until his powerful message was co-opted by friends like Dennis Lee into a kind of petition-drive for the usual left-wing causes.
Even in the Globe there was one true philosopher, the remarkable columnist Richard J. Needham, playing Socrates playing the fool, and taunting his large audience for living the lives of slaves. On the same editorial page, George Bain was writing a political column of great urbanity. The painter Harold Town, and several other brilliant dilettantes, would shoot occasional flames across the Globe's book pages, where Grant and all above were also basically welcome.
Margaret Avison was a genuine Presbyterian mystic, in the medium of verse; Glenn Gould was another whispering paradox, in music; Ron Thom a tormented genius extending architectural space; Jane Jacobs the sanest exponent of city life and planning; J. M. Cameron an essayist in the meaning of history; there are more names left over. Each of these was a wonderful teacher, whose influence extends far away, and has been "woven into the stuff of other men's lives." How extraordinary to have had them all here in Toronto, about the same time, and known at least to one another.
I find it hard to locate people of their stature in my vicinity today-therefore hard to locate hope in my environment-perhaps they exist, but are all in hiding. The world outside looking in is vaguely aware of, say, Polanyi, Atwood, Saul. But to name them as teachers would be facetious.
Which is not to abandon hope. There is much more going on "upstairs" in other parts of Canada today than in central Ontario's welfare-drenched culture, especially at points west: Calgary and Vancouver are rising. And even here around Toronto, another generation comes, of kids who are impatient with us aging hippies. A civilization is always stronger than appears. The impulse to learn and to know, to make and to master, to love and to show, is not missing from our children. Hope springs eternal, and there are always more sparks.

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