Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Canadian Epic

Since tomorrow is Canada Day, I'm going to muse a little about what sort of narrative art would best represent this country. I do this because I have a sense that there is no form of art which could thoroughly tackle the problem of Canada.

Last year, I wrote how I gave some thought to what a Canadian epic would look like, and that I hadn't gotten very far. You can see that in Take 5. I thought about the kinds of things one would want to include, somehow: maple leaves, maple syrup, fields of corn, mountains and other quintessential Canadian landscapes, beavers, moose, Tim Horton's coffee, hockey, polar bears... (I say this with my tongue partly in my cheek.) Since then I have learned a bit more about Canada and a bit more about epics and I see that there is a problem. There cannot be a Canadian epic.

A national epic, properly understood, has a unified sense of nation. That is, The Aenead offers a sense of Rome as a nation; The Faerie Queene offers what it means to be English. Not all epics are national; Paradise Lost is a Christian epic, giving a unified and complete sense of Milton's idea of Christendom. I suggest elsewhere that One River (Wade Davis) could be considered to be an ethnobotanical epic. Regardless, whatever it represents, an epic is supposed to embody and represent the ethic and sensibility of that group. It generates or at least displays a coherent identity. If that group has disparate parts, it unifies them. It ties them all in together. It exudes Englishness, Romanness, Christianness, ethnobotanistness. (There is more to an epic than this. Wikipedia gives an OK account of it. If you're interested, it's a very cool form. I'm sure there are articles you can get from an academic library which would discuss it in greater depth.)

Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian language theorist working in the 1920s, goes further. An epic (or anything written with an epic sensibility) has a single language. In his formulation, a language embodies the social position and worldview of that speaker. He doesn't hear mean the distinction between French, Russian, English, Latin, etc. "Language," rather, refers to smaller groupings. Think, for instance, of the language used by politicians in speeches as a language, or the language of legal documents, or the language of Catholic sermons, or of Evangelical sermons, or of atheist bloggers, or of daycare workers when speaking to children, or of "storytelling voice", or of flirtation, or of plumbers talking about their trade, or of nineteen-year-olds texting one another. Each of these has its own patterns; in each of these, the same word may have different meanings (think, for instance, of what "reasonable" might mean in each of these languages, or whether that word could even be said in all of them). Each also, therefore, represents a different set of relationships between words and ideas and people. That is, each represents a different wordview. The epic is written in a single language. If other languages appear, they appear as objects that the author is presenting, not positions the author is adopting.

Canada is too diverse for an epic to work. More than this, we are self-consciously diverse. The political vision of a unified Canada might suggest that we could rally under multiculturalism--in fact, that often is the political vision of Canada--but unfortunately we cannot easily do this. If we were to honestly and fairly incorporate different people into the Canadian epic, we'd have a problem. Many of the First Nations, Inuit, Asian immigrated, Eastern European immigrated, and African immigrated people would have a problem with the sort of Canadian narrative offered. They (rightly) have problems with the existing narrative offered. It would be all but impossible to find a story which could incorporate all of their voices. A story that could would lose it's unity; it would lose any sense that there is one way to be Canadian. That there is such a thing as Canadianness.

Further, Canadian regionalism gets in the way. How does one reconcile Vancouver, for instance, with Ontario? Many people in Vancouver rebel against the idea that Ottawa speaks for Canada; at least, if Ottawa speaks for Canada, it certainly doesn't speak for Vancouver. In many ways, Vancouver feels more aligned with Seattle and Hong Kong than with the rest of Canada. And what of Quebec? What of Newfoundland? What of Nunavut? Each has its own reason for feeling alienated from a sense of unified Canadian identity, either because they stick so fiercely to their own culture (Quebec), or because they feel that the federal government's policies are deliberately harmful to their economy (Newfoundland), or because their government, ethnic constitution, and basic living conditions are so fundamentally different from the rest of the country's (Nunavut). Each province and territory has a unique political climate, physical and vegetative landscape, occupational environment, music scene, colonial history, and (often) accent and vocabulary.

And, unlike the United States, we haven't mythologized the founding of our country. We don't speak of principles on which our Constitution is based, or of the intentions of Founding Fathers, or of some vague sense of democratic ethics synonymous with our country's name. We don't take ourselves to be representative of freedom or democracy or human rights (though we have as good a claim to be so as the United States does).

Maybe this is why things like maple syrup, polar bears, beavers, moose, the "Canadian landscape," and hockey are Canadian symbols: they're blank, they're less charged (though hockey is becoming a problem), they're unrelated to the actual things Canadians live with and face. But for the same reason, they can't represent us in any meaningful way. And, anyway, not even something like winter can be taken as universal. A friend from Vancouver has said to me that he's never experienced a so-called "Canadian" winter and he's lived here most of his life. And it's not as though Canada's the only place to get winter. Alaska has a winter, as do Russia and the Scandinavian countries.

So Bakhtin's sense of a novel might work better. The novel is structured around heteroglossia, the juxtaposition of voices. Good examples of heteroglossia in English are Sterne, Dickens, and Austen. Even the authoral language is seen from the viewpoint of secondary languages; language which is parodied nonetheless resists parody, exists in its own right and must be taken as a self-contained language. (Not all things we call novels today fit in this definition. Most are much more unitary, more like epics.) Perhaps, then, there can be a Canadian novel, but it would nonetheless not have the sense of unified identity. Rather, it would at best suggest multiple, contradicting ways of being Canadian. The Great Canadian Novel cannot really be Greatly Canadian because it can never be finished. That, in fact, would be the only essentially Canadian thing about it; the disagreeing voices would multiply beyond the possibility of representation.

And so over the course of the last year I have come to recognize that writing the Canadian would not be hard but rather impossible. Of course all groups have much internal dissent, and one wonders how many sixteenth century English readers rebelled against Spenser's sense of the English, or how many seventeenth century readers rebelled against Milton's sense of the Christian. (I'd say "a lot" for the latter.) But there was at least a sense that the authors could fool themselves into thinking they'd done it. Such self-delusion would be much more difficult for Canada at this time. Perhaps it would be possible in Ottawa or in an Ontario public school, where a sense of Canadian identity is much more fierce. But if, like me, you've travelled a bit more of the country, spoken to more of the people in it, studied more of its history, you'll start to see that it can't be done.

No. If I want to write an epic, it can't be a nationalist one. But I can still write a Canadian [genre], I suppose, so long as its incompleteness is highlighted.

(And maybe I can still write an epic, but one for a different kind of category. A literary analytical epic, for instance? A bookworm epic? An Anglican universalist epic?)

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