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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “September, 2013”

Noble Savages?

Candide and Other Stories by Voltaire

Candide and Other Stories by Voltaire

Voltaire, The Ingenu (Candide and Other Stories) (1767)

The Ingenu, at least in the edition I read, is not a book on its own, but rather one of several novellas (or contes philosophiques, if you prefer) in Candide and Other Stories. This perhaps says something about Canada right off: Candide is one of the most famous books in the world, the kind of thing you can refer to at a party with a wave of your hand (“As Voltaire says in Candide….” Oh, you don’t go to those kinds of parties?) and have heads nodding all around, while The Ingenu is much less well known. Is it fitting, perhaps, that Canada plays a significant role in one of Voltaire’s lesser-known works? If we were mentioned in Candide, think how many more people would have come across the name of our humble nation. As it is, it’s hard to imagine that The Ingenu has done much for us.

But to move things along. The story of The Ingenu revolves around a “Huron” (the “Ingenu” of the title) who in fact turns out to be a Frenchman who was captured as a baby and raised by the Huron in Canada, and who comes to France; the satire grows out of the encounters of this “natural man” with the sophisticates he meets in Europe. There are numerous references to Canada in the first few chapters, not all of them deserving of great attention; we’ll focus on a couple of the more suggestive ones.

The Ingenu had an excellent memory. The soundness of Lower Breton organs, further fortified by the Canadian climate, had given him a head so strong that when it got banged, he hardly felt it, and when something registered within it, not a trace would fade. (213)

The “Canadian climate” referred to here is clearly intended to be understood as extremely harsh, and therefore partly responsible for the Ingenu’s strong head. Note, however, that it’s only partly responsible: “Lower Breton organs,” a European phenomenon, have been “fortified” by Canada, but this appears to depend on the original strength of the European material. So Canada is not the source of the strength, it has merely helped to further develop what Europe originally provided. Canada doesn’t create strong characters, it merely helps bring out the best in strong European natures.

The magistrate found all this far too poetical, not knowing how common allegory is in Canada.  (219)

I find this funny, though I can’t really say why. Is the joke that allegory is a product of sophisticated European society, and would be unknown to Canada? Or is it that the mind of man in its “natural state” tends towards allegory in the sense of imagining that gods must be controlling the forces of nature and so on? I tend to think the former, but I’m not sure I could absolutely defend my view.

From a conversation, in prison, between the Ingenu and a Jansenist:

“God must have great things in store for you,” said the Jansenist to the Huron, “to have brought you from Lake Ontario to England and France, to have had you baptized in Lower Brittany, and to have placed you here that you might be saved.”

“To tell you the truth,” replied the Ingenu, “I think the devil alone has had a hand in my destiny. My fellow Americans would never have treated me in the barbarous way I’ve been treated here. They simply wouldn’t know how. People call them “savages.” They are rough men of principle, whereas the people here are smooth villains.” (235)

“Fellow Americans”? No doubt he means North Americans, or is speaking generally of Canada as part of North America, but that strikes the modern Canadian ear as a bit odd. This passage lays out the classic idea of the “noble savage” i.e. the natural people of North America are far more honest and direct than the cunning, sophisticated men of Europe, who are the real savages, though finely clothed and well-spoken.

“I traveled five or six hundred leagues across Canada, and I never once saw a single monument. No one there has the faintest idea what their great-grandfather did. Is not man in his natural state like that? The human species of this continent seems to me superior to that of the other. It has added to the sum total of its being through the arts and through the pursuit of knowledge.” (239)

Here the opinion has switched from the previous quote (“this continent” means Europe), and we see the satire aimed at Rousseau’s idea of the “Noble Savage”: man’s natural state, as the Ingenu suggests, is nothing that grand; the European addition of art and culture actually represents a higher and finer state of mankind than the untutored natural state to be found in Canada. (One feels a desire to point out that our nation has changed a little in the intervening years: we do have a few monuments now, and a bit of what at least passes for culture among ourselves.)

What’s the reason for this reversal? In the intervening pages the Ingenu has been locked up with a Jansenist, who has been instructing him in metaphysics, mathematics and history. Just before the passage quoted he proclaims that he has “been changed from a brute into a man” (239), and the education he has received is apparently responsible for his now believing that the culture of Europe is superior to the natural state of Canada. So we had our moment there, when we were preferable to Europe; then education intervened, and it was gone.

We can but sigh.

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Toronto: City of Grandmas

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Willy Staley, “Talk,” The New York Times Magazine (September 15, 2013)

The following is from an interview with the rapper Earl Sweatshirt in The New York Times Magazine:

You were just in Toronto. How was that? It was crazy. Canadians are weirdos, though. They are so nice – overbearing nice, like grandmother nice. Toronto is like a city of grandmas.

The rapper Drake is from Toronto. Is he grandma nice? Due, Drake is grandma nice. He was at Frank Ocean’s show in L.A. and got into an argument with Tyler, the Creator’s mom. I left and came back in the room, and she was apologizing to him for how she came at him, and he was saying: “It’s all love. I love you, Mom. I love moms.” Drake loves moms.  (12)

The idea that Canadians are “nice” is not in itself particularly noteworthy, especially coming from an American; this  perceived “niceness” is a close cousin to the “politeness” which we already know we’re famed for south of the border. But then comes the twist: “overbearing nice.”

That’s a new one. Canadians aren’t just nice; we’re overbearingly nice. Here our niceness takes on a bit of an edge, as if its purpose isn’t to make other people feel comfortable, but rather to get our own way, like a grandmother who uses a sugary, wheedling tone to compel you to do what she wants. From this point of view, niceness becomes a type of power play.

This may illuminate the anecdote about Drake which follows, and which on the surface seems to make no sense. If Drake is from Toronto, and Torontonians are nice, then we would expect the story to lead to Drake apologizing to Tyler, the Creator’s mother – or to focus on his being so nice that he never gets in an argument with her to begin with. In fact the opposite happens: the story ends with Tyler’s mother apologizing to Drake. What does it mean?

Arguably, the anecdote simply comes out of the question about Drake, which comes out of the question about Toronto, and isn’t meant to suggest the more self-serving corners of our national niceness.

But if we accept the general notion that everything means something, then we might be inclined to suggest that this story reveals how Canadian niceness becomes overbearing. Drake doesn’t directly win his argument with Tyler’s mother; instead, through a sort of conversational jiu-jitsu, he is so nice to her that at the end of the argument she apparently feels so bad about having argued with such a nice guy that she is compelled to apologize to him, thus giving him a form of victory – at which point he continues to overwhelm her with niceness.

Perhaps Canadians are like the Greeks in Horace’s famous line:

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (Epistles II.i.156)

We accept being conquered so nicely that we make our conquerors feel bad about it, and thus ultimately win a stealth victory over them. Some idea along those lines seems to lie behind Earl Sweatshirt’s description of us as “overbearing nice” and gives us an interesting new perspective on Canadians: nice on the surface, but underneath that, consciously using our niceness as a way to get what we want. This is, at least, a little more interesting and nuanced than the more usual image of us as overly polite pushovers.

A Final Question

One final issue arises: why is the question about Toronto even asked?

As a professional musician, Earl Sweatshirt must travel all over the world. Why is the fact that he was just in Toronto of interest? Why does Staley ask specifically what he thought of it? He sounds like a typically insecure Canadian journalist, forever asking foreign celebrities, in a tone of desperate hope, “What do you think of Canada?”

Still, he makes a point of discussing Canada – and if you go to the online version of the article (linked above), you’ll see the headline is “Earl Sweatshirt: ‘Canadians Are Weirdos'”, as though Earl Sweatshirt’s opinion of Canadians were the main point of the interview, and the one most likely to catch people’s attention and make them stop and read.

Could it be our neighbours to the south are beginning to find us as fascinating as we always dreamed they would? We can fantasize.

The CFL Doesn’t Count, Right?

Hey, did you know Peter King now has his own shiny new website where he can talk about the NFL all he wants? Well, he does. It’s called The MMQB (not to be confused with the website devoted to office furnishings), and this is from his Tuesday, September 3 “Mailbag” column:

BRIAN BROHM LIVES! “On the Bonus Baby QBs part of MMQB, you listed Brian Brohm as “On The Street”. While, yes, he’s out of the NFL, he’s actually with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL, plying his trade and continuing his dream, and who knows, like Jeff Garcia, Doug Flutie and Dave Dickinson, maybe makes it back to the NFL. I can see how someone might say “that’s just semantics”, but it’s not like he’s given up the dream and is selling insurance, or, like JaMarcus Russell after getting released by the Raiders, holed up in his mansion and feeding his face.”

—Kevin

Important point, Kevin. Thanks for making it.

Unlike the writers of many similar “letters” columns, King doesn’t tell us where his correspondents hail from, but my first thought was, Kevin must be from Canada. Followed immediately by, In fact, he must be from Hamilton. Who but a Hamiltonian would know the name of the Tiger-Cats starting quarterback? (I certainly didn’t – and the quarterback is the most visible position. It’s not like we’re talking about the backup right guard or something.)

Is it just me, or does King’s seven-word reply seem a little dismissive? It’s not exactly a heartfelt mea culpa. A reader has proven that King – again – has no idea what he’s talking about, and he brushes it off with a “thanks for pointing that out”.

Here we see a major American sports journalist’s total ignorance when it comes to Canada – and more than that, the fact that his ignorance has no ramifications whatsoever. King doesn’t even seem to feel bad that he equated being a starting quarterback in the CFL (which some might say is (almost) success) with being “on the street.” Why not? Because he knows no one (other than “Kevin”) will really care. CFL, on the street – same difference, right? It’s not like it’s a real league.

I can’t take too much offence at this, since I don’t actually follow the CFL myself, but I have to admit I expect a slightly higher standard from major sports journalists. At the very least, doesn’t King have minions to check his facts for him before he goes to print?

While we’re at it, we might as well close the circle on Brian Brohm and the CFL; in one of those coincidences that proves the universe is not random after all, but in fact governed by a supreme being with a perverse sense of humour, Brohm also came up this week in Bill Barnwell’s “NFL Contenders” column at Grantland. This is from the section on the Green Bay Packers:

Worst-Case Scenario: Rodgers is attacked by his stalker in the Cheesehead from the insurance commercials and misses two-thirds of the season, forcing the Packers to start Seneca Wallace. And then, when B.J. Raji accidentally drops his boom box on Wallace, the Packers have no quarterbacks on the roster and are forced to turn to Br … Brian Brohm, their former second-round pick who was last seen in the CFL. What, who did you think I was talking about?

We’ll ignore the Brett Favre joke. Barnwell is exhibiting a fairly typical attitude of smirking superiority toward the CFL – the phrase “last seen in the CFL” suggests our northern league is a career black hole into which unsuccessful NFL players disappear, never to be seen again – but at least he’s aware that it exists and knows Brohm is playing there. I’d say that puts him a few rungs higher up the journalism ladder than King, anyway.

Incidentally, that’s a lot of big-time American press coverage for the Tiger-Cats starter; probably more than he gets in The Spectator. I hope he can handle it.

Two (or Three) Solitudes

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Emily Nussbaum, “Clue” (The New Yorker, August 12 & 19, 2013)

This is from the “On Television” column, discussing a TV series called “The Bridge”:

Created by Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid, the show is a reworking of the popular Swedish-Danish mystery show “Broen.” Like the original, it begins with a body, split in two and dumped on a bridge that separates two countries – the bottom half from one corpse, the top half from another. In the original, the half-bodies are from Sweden and Denmark; their discovery forces two police departments to work together. The FX production has taken this setup and plunked it down at the border of Texas and Mexico, a concept with tremendous potential. (Hard to imagine Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, the producers’ initial idea, working nearly so well.)  (79-80)

That sentence, in context, is almost unutterably hilarious. I don’t mean to put down my country by indulging in a typically Canadian bout of insecurity, but … how could anyone possibly think that a story about police having to cooperate across the Canada-U.S. border could be even remotely interesting? Particularly given the ongoing fascination of American culture with their lawless yet strangely magnetic neighbour to the South (see films like The Wild BunchTrafficJulia and countless others), as well as the obvious topical interest of the unsolved crimes in Juarez, which we’ve touched on briefly before.

Certainly Nussbaum’s reference to the (discarded) Canadian concept for the show makes it clear that she sees Canada as far too uninteresting, at least compared with Mexico, to make for compelling TV. (I can’t say I totally disagree.)

In the producers’ defence, I suppose if you’re asking yourself what country has a relationship with the U.S. that’s most like the relationship between Sweden and Denmark, Canada might spring to mind before Mexico. Like Sweden and Denmark, we have more similarities than differences – or is that just a North American assumption, along the lines of “Scandinavians – they’re all the same”? Canadians, after all, tend to bristle if someone suggests we’re just like Americans; do people from Sweden and Denmark bristle at the identical suggestion about them?

Fortunately, our vast and multicultural (very Canadian word, that) staff here at Wow – Canada! includes someone from Sweden, who assures me that Swedish and Danish people see themselves as very similar – more Windsor-Detroit than Texas-Mexico.

As a side note, here in Canada we have, of course, our own “two solitudes” with Quebec separated by language and culture from (most of) the rest of the country. One might almost say the Toronto-Montreal chasm is wider than the Detroit-Windsor separation. (And don’t people from Windsor cheer for the Red Wings? That alone marks them as brethren.)

While it’s hurtful that we didn’t end up being on the other side of “The Bridge,” we can take consolation from the fact that we already have a Canadian-made movie that tells essentially the same story, and we didn’t even have to look outside our own country to find cross-cultural tensions – the film Bon Cop Bad Cop:

So who needs you, FX producers?

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