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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “November, 2012”

Politeness Run Rampant

Canadian Standoff cartoon from The New Yorker

Roz Chast in The New Yorker (November 26, 2012)

Do you get it? They’re Canadians, so they’re so polite that neither one of them can bear to get on the elevator before the other one. They’re just going to stand there insisting that the other go first until finally the elevator doors close and it departs, leaving them behind, trapped in the vicious cycle of you-first-ism. Hilarious!

The cartoon itself is based on one of the most tired cliches about Canadians – that we’re excessively polite, to the point that if you step on a Canadian’s foot, the Canadian will apologize. The word “standoff” adds point to the joke: presumably we are meant to understand that an American standoff would be considerably more bloody than this. And so, in addition to politeness, the cartoon refers to broader stereotypes, which we’ve already canvassed, about Canadians being pacifists, as opposed to our more martial neighbours to the south.

Is it funny? Is there a subgenre of humour about Canadians in the U.S., like Newfie jokes up here? Would the average reader of The New Yorker pause, read this cartoon, and then burst out laughing?

It’s hard to imagine, partly because I think the idea of Canadians being excessively polite is something Canadians are more aware of than Americans.

Of course, the debate about whether New Yorker cartoons are even intended to be funny is so common it has even made its way into pop culture. Perhaps a New Yorker reader would look this one over, shrug, and mentally consign it to the dustbin of impenetrable obscurity.

Which raises another interesting possibility – but dare I even suggest it? Yes, I dare. Perhaps the cartoon isn’t aimed at Americas at all. Perhaps it’s aimed at … Canadians.

After all, I read it. The editors of The New Yorker must be aware that a certain percentage of their readership is Canadian. Perhaps, every once in a while, they slip in a Canadian-themed cartoon, just as a sly wink in our direction, a way of letting us know that they know we’re here, and they appreciate our taking the time to read their magazine. I didn’t exactly burst out laughing when I read it, but I did feel that uniquely provincial frisson that comes with seeing Canada mentioned in an American publication.

This, perhaps, is the essence of Canadian insecurity: we’re flattered to think that a magazine like The New Yorker would bother to publish a cartoon about us, even if it is a cartoon based on cliches.


Political Philosophy of a Libertine

History of My Life by Giacomo Casanova

Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life (1794?)

If you really want to immerse yourself in the world of Casanova, then this is the edition to get (not the Penguin selection discussed earlier). Translated by Willard Trask, it has the full text of Casanova’s memoirs in a brisk, readable English translation (don’t I sound like the worst kind of newspaper book reviewer?). The notes are useful, and there are even illustrations, some of which are quite intriguing, in an Aretino sort of way. (I’ll leave the rest to your capable imaginations.)

You can check it out here.

It runs to twelve volumes, but if you have them all and line them up in order on your bookcase, the spines make the image of the reclining nude on the cover. It will lend your bookcase just the right touch of louche yet sophisiticated libertinism.

I own only this one volume, which, alas, merely features the curve of her knee:

Spine of History of My Life by Casanova ed. Trask

Any zone can be erogenous, I’m told, but still, not quite the same effect.

I bought it so that I could read about the threesome with the two nuns, which was referred to in an alluring yet unsatisfying way in the Penguin edition. Worth every penny. Alas, they never mention Canada in the course of their exhilarating and exhausting amours.

There is, however, this:

At the Duchess of Fulvy’s I made the acquaintance of Mademoiselle Gaussin, known as Lolotte, who was the mistress of Lord Albemarle, the English Ambassador, a man of brilliant and most noble parts and very generous, who, one night when he was out walking with Lolotte, chided her for praising the beauty of the stars she saw in the sky, since he could not give them to her. If His Lordhsip had been the English envoy to France at the time of the break between his nation and the French he would have patched things up, and the unhappy war which casued France to lose the whole of Canada would not have occurred. There is no doubt that the harmony between two nations most often depends upon the respective envoys whom they have at the courts which are on the verge or in danger of falling out. (pp. 171-72; Vol. III, Ch. 9)

This seems to be Casanova’s take on the “great man” theory of history, which holds that the force of a few significant individuals changes the course of life for all the rest of us who are simply dragged along by the mighty currents created by the passing of powerful personalities. If only Lord Albemarle had been ambassador at the right time, we’d all be speaking French. Perhaps, perhaps not.

Canada appears here not as a nation in its own right, but merely as a plaything of great empires, passing from one to the other as the spoils of war. Still, it’s touching that Casanova chooses Canada in paying this compliment to Lord Albemarle; this puts us on the grand stage of world affairs (if only as a possession) and shows how valuable the natural resources Canada offered were considered.

But how odd that Casanova thinks it would have been a great victory of statecraft if the English ambassador had preserved Canada as a colony of the French, when in fact it was the English who benefited from the war by gaining all of Canada’s natural resources for themselves. (Though of course the fortunes of war are uncertain and can’t be predicted in advance. Casanova’s memoir is written in French, so perhaps he sympathized more with the French point of view. Or perhaps he simply hated conflict.)

And how typical of Casanova to think that just because a man can charm his mistress under the stars, he could also change the course of world history – if only as it pertains to a minor nation like our own.

A Refuge for Les Refusés


John Ortved, “At a Loss? There’s Always Canada,” New York Times, Sunday November 4, 2012

I wouldn’t ordinarily consider including a newspaper article here, but it’s topical, it features a common trope, and the opportunity may not come again. And I like the way Kate Moss seems to be transfixed by the article herself, as if thinking, “Canada? Hmmm….” (That looks to be as far as the thought goes.)

I doubt Americans spend much time thinking about Canada, but there is one particular moment when we’re in their thoughts: every four years, whenever it looks like a right-wing Republican (is there another kind any more?) has a chance to win the presidential election, centre-left Americans start talking about packing up and heading to Canada if the Republican becomes president. (I have my doubts that any of them ever follow through.) Apparently they see us as a refuge from everything they hate about America, and they’re convinced that everything is so much better up here. Or maybe it’s just a way to get away without really getting away; we’re all following their election, watching the NFL and so on. Nevertheless:

Cher recently declared on Twitter (and later deleted) that she could not “breathe the same air” as Mitt Romney. Susan Sarandon and George Lopez have both cited Canada as a potential escape.

George Lopez? Really?

As for Cher (and Susan Sarandon), what’s the point? Do they think Americans planning to vote for Romney would change their minds if they thought there was a chance their vote might drive Cher and Sarandon out of the country and into the frozen expanses to the North?  I would tend to think the opposite: most people who are going to vote for Romney would probably see getting left-leaning movie stars out of the country not as a reason to change their minds and vote for Obama, but rather as a fringe benefit of voting Republican.

And why did Cher remove her remark from Twitter? Because she realized it might have the opposite effect to what she intended? Did someone point out to her that she and Mitt Romney had been “breathing the same air” for decades now and she had managed reasonably well? Or was it the realization that air moves freely across the border anyway, and so Canada provides no real refuge?

(This reminds me of the old line about how every time we inhale, we breathe in at least one molecule from Caesar’s last breath. If that’s true, we must all be gulping Romney’s used oxygen all the time. And he’s been using a lot lately.)

The article also quotes Canadian Douglas Coupland:

“And if anyone trips while crossing the border, we’re happy to set their broken bones for free.”

Ah, there it is – the obligatory reference to our government-run health care system, one of the key building blocks of our reputation in the American mind as a liberal paradise/socialist nightmare, depending on your politics.

For all the details you can check out the full article.



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