Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Insecurity”

The Cold War Begins… In Canada


Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2014)

John Le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which also mentions Canada) made me curious enough to read this book, which does a good job of tracing Philby’s betrayal and also situating him in his time and social milieu (“I was asked about him, and I said I knew his people”).

There are a couple of references to Canada; the first describes the defection of Igor Gouzenko:

In September 1945 Igor Gouzenko, a twenty-six-year-old cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, turned up at a Canadian newspaper office with more than one hundred secret documents stuffed inside his shirt. Gouzenko’s defection would be seen, in hindsight, as the opening shot of the cold war. This trove was the very news Philby had been dreading, for it seemed entirely possible that Gouzenko knew his identity…. For the first time, as he waited anxiously for the results of Gouzenko’s debriefing, Philby may have contemplated defection to the Soviet Union. The defector exposed a major spy network in Canada and revealed that the Soviets had obtained information about the atomic bomb project from a spy working at the Anglo-Canadian nuclear research laboratory in Montreal. But Gouzenko worked for the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, not the NKVD; he knew little about Soviet espionage in Britain and almost nothing of the Cambridge spies. Philby began to relax. This defector, it seemed, did not know his name.  (96-97)

How exciting is that — the “opening shot” of the cold war, and it happened right here in Canada. Macintyre focuses on the threat Gouzenko poses to Philby rather than on anything related to Canada, which makes sense given the subject of his book, and Canada doesn’t appear as a major player in the intelligence game he describes. On the other hand, we were considered important enough to be the home of a “major spy network,” though it’s hard not to wonder if our British and U.S. allies might not have been the real targets. At the least, our country comes across as a place where significant things occasionally happen.

(The “Anglo-Canadian nuclear research laboratory” might also suggest that Britain was the real target of the Soviet network in Canada, assuming it means the lab was a cooperative effort between the British and Canada and not an Anglophone Canadian lab located in Montreal. If it was a British-Canadian lab, one can’t help but wonder whether the British were furious with the Canadians — who, given our colonial past, must have been the junior partner in the relationship — for allowing a security breach to occur. Which would be ironic, considering how deeply Philby was embedded in British intelligence and how utterly he betrayed his country — but Macintyre doesn’t say anything about the British reaction to Gouzenko.)

This next passage describes Philby’s arrival in the United States, where he became MI6 chief in Washington, DC:

At Union Station he was met by Peter Dwyer of MI6, the outgoing station chief, and immediately plunged into a whirlwind of introductions and meetings with officials of the CIA, FBI, the State Department, and the Canadian secret service. All were delighted to shake hands with this urbane Englishman whose impressive reputation preceded him….  (128-9)

The Canadians are mixed in with the Americans and British, which makes sense as we were allies. Canada is mentioned last, and must surely have been a minor contributor when it came to intelligence work, but nevertheless, there we are, shaking hands with Philby and delighted to meet him like everyone else. And this reveals a characteristically Canadian tendency when it comes to our place in world affairs: we like to feel we’re at the big table, even if we aren’t necessarily contributing enough to earn our place there.

The larger point, I suppose, is not how much this book has to say about Canada, but how little — which leads us to the unsurprising conclusion that while Canada worked with the U.S. and Britain, it was not exactly a powerhouse nation when it came to espionage during the Cold War.

The Video Evidence

Nothing to do with Canada, but here’s Philby’s 1955 press interview, in which he denies being the so-called “third man” in the Cambridge spy ring, plummy accent and all:

Nothing about our proud tradition of lumberjack poetry?


Jared Bland, “Griffin Prize Judge Alice Oswald on Canadian poetry’s humour, modesty,” The Globe and Mail, May 31, 2016

I prefer to focus on books, but this brief article/interview contains a stunning concentration of ideas about Canada held by people from other countries, and also illustrates a key aspect of how we Canadians feel about ourselves — I just couldn’t resist it.

You can read the full article here; the essentials are that British poet Alice Oswald is one of the judges of this year’s Griffin Prize, and Jared Bland (the Globe’s Arts editor) is interviewing her, mainly about her impressions of Canadian poetry. What’s striking about the article is how closely her ideas about Canadian poetry track more general ideas about Canada and Canadians that we have noticed repeatedly here at Wow — Canada!

Before we even begin to consider the content, the fact that this article exists at all speaks to the Canadian character. I hate to get into the ugly habit of quoting myself, but in the interests of economy I will reproduce the first paragraph of the “About” section of this website:

We Canadians judge our country by the opinions of outsiders. Every time a celebrity of any wattage touches down in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, some breathless local journalist can be counted on to ask them, “What do you think of Canada?” They say something politely anodyne and we all sigh with relief and go back to admiring their glorious foreignness.

This article perfectly expresses that impulse; confronted with a British poet, come (literally) to judge us, we can’t help but ask that almost pleading question, “What do you think of us?” (It is phrased as “What do you think of Canadian poetry,” but the larger implication is clear.) In fact, Bland’s first three questions are basically three different re-wordings of this same question.

And what does she think of us?

Oswald first mentions Anne Carson and Robert Bringhurst, but seems to set them apart from her idea of Canadian poetry, which is based more on Moosewood Sandhills — a book I haven’t read, but the title strikes me as a two-word compendium of ideas non-Canadians associate with Canada. Based on this book, Oswald describes Canadian poetry as “a quiet discipline — watchful and outdoor”. We’ve noticed the word “quiet” before, and it carries the standard suggestion that we are a humble, unassuming people quite happy not to attract any notice.

“Watchful and outdoor” is interesting, and Oswald restates it when she talks about “a bashful attentiveness to the natural world” in her answer to Bland’s third question. Both “outdoor” and “natural world” express the common view of Canada as a wilderness nation, but Oswald extends this idea, implying that when you live in a country like Canada, where the natural world is so dominant, the work of poetry will naturally (sorry!) focus on observing the elements of nature that surround the poet. (Just by the way, here is my favourite example of this idea of Canada as an untamed wilderness: a gorgeous Sylvia Plath poem that enacts this process of poet observing nature, and then questions how nature might affect the poet in return.)

Oswald also says, with apparent surprise, “Poetry is hard at work out there!” — “out there” meaning, of course, here in Canada. This politely patronizing phrase is typical of a British person speaking of a (former) colonial possession, and suggests Canada is a distant, rugged outpost — the sort of place our colonizers have heard of but never actually been, and certainly not the sort of place where poetry is written (she was “astonished at the quantity and variety” — she doesn’t mention the quality). She goes on to say that it was “particularly good” for her “to come across so much urban Canadian poetry.” Why particularly good? Oswald doesn’t say, but it’s hard not to feel that urban Canadian poetry was unexpected for her because she thinks of Canada as a wilderness rather than an urban nation, and she was happy to have that preconception shattered. (There may be a little self-interest involved here too: if her tasks as a Griffin Prize judge require her actually to come to Canada, I’m sure she’s relieved that we have hotels, and she won’t have to stay in a tent à la Plath and Hughes.)

Finally, we come to the word “modesty,” which echoes “bashful” and seems to be the keynote word in Oswald’s impression of our poetry: it is picked up in the headline, and Oswald herself repeats it several times. Like “quiet,” “modesty” seems a close cousin to “politeness” and repeats a generally accepted idea about the diffidence of Canadians. Regarding the books she read for the Griffin Prize, Oswald noticed “a certain modesty to the Canadian submissions” — “Modesty is a good quality,” she hastens to add, “although….”

Yes, there it is, the “although,” and as soon as we reach that word, the questions begin. Is “modesty” code for “not very ambitious”? Is “not very ambitious” code for “not very good”? And suddenly, looking back over the whole article, we become aware of an undercurrent of ambiguity in all Oswald’s comments on Canadian poetry, as though she is trying to say enough to make us feel like she thinks it’s good, without actually coming right out and saying it’s good.

Am I over-reading? Am I such a typically insecure Canadian that I’m searching for hidden criticism where perhaps there is none? Oswald also identifies “anxiety” as a Canadian characteristic, and the whole article is expressive of that Canadian anxiety about what others think of us — and this entire post is, by extension, a form of meta-anxiety, as it were, an enactment of anxiety about Canadian anxiety.

But I’m tying myself in knots. I think I need to get outdoors and pay some bashful, modest attention to the natural world, all leavened with a soupçon of self-deprecating humour. That will soothe me.


Further Ambiguity


Wendy Cope, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986)

As with Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, one of the poems in Wendy Cope’s collection confronts us with an ambiguously Canadian reference.

The Poem

The Lavatory Attendant

I counted two and seventy stenches
All well defined and several stinks!

Slumped on a chair, his body is an S
That wants to be a minus sign.

His face is overripe Wensleydale
Going blue at the edges.

In overalls of sacerdotal white
He guards a row of fonts

With lids like eye-patches. Snapped shut
They are castanets. All day he hears

Short-lived Niagaras, the clank
And gurgle of canescent cisterns.

When evening comes he sluices a thin tide
Across sand-coloured lino,

Turns Medusa on her head
And wipes the floor with her.   (49)

The Commentary

The flushing toilets make “short-lived Niagaras,” which to a Canadian will immediately raise thoughts of Niagara Falls (Canadian side). But of course there are also falls on the American side, and it is impossible to say whether Cope is thinking of Canada or the U.S. (a problem that has arisen before). Most likely she is just thinking of the humour inherent in comparing a toilet flush to one of the largest waterfalls in the world, and isn’t thinking about Canadian versus American sides at all — such things concern us, not her.

Since the Canadian falls are the larger and more impressive, however, the comparison is inherently funnier if the Canadian falls are meant, because the contrast is greater. And since Cope herself is a British poet, I feel we can draw on our history as a British colony and claim the reference as a Canadian one.

And while it’s an honour for Canada to be home to (the most impressive part of) a waterfall that is so famous poets from other countries draw on it for comparisons, we might note that Canada is, yet again, known for a natural feature that happens to be within our borders rather than for anything that could really be considered a Canadian accomplishment.

The Commentary on The Commentary

The thought process in the second paragraph above reveals a peculiarly Canadian form of insecurity: we’re convinced that the world in general takes no notice of us, and so when we come across a reference that might be about us, but might not, we’re very keen to convince ourselves that it is about us, because it makes us feel important to be referred to by non-Canadians. Being noticed forms a sort of bulwark against our own feelings of national insignificance.

As for the third paragraph, how typical: go to great lengths to claim a reference is Canadian, and then complain that it’s not complimentary enough.

Bob Dylan in the Land of Obscurity


Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (aka The Old Weird America) (1997)

This is one of the those books I heard about years ago and had been half-planning to read while at the same time half-dreading the experience; when I saw a paperback for $5 I decided the time was finally right. As it turned out, the “dreading to read” side of my feelings was more prescient than the “wanting to read” side – the book is a tedious slog, occasionally broken by an over-reading of a song conducted with such dead-serious reverence that it becomes laughable.

Obscurity, Of Course

The first reference to Canada comes in a description of the band that accompanied Dylan on his 1966 tour (documented on the famous “Royal Albert Hall” bootleg):

In a combination completed by various temporary drummers, most notably Mickey Jones of Trini Lopez fame, the musicians Dylan played with on his tour were bassist Rick Danko, organist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel, and guitarist Robbie Robertson. They were four-fifths of an obscure Toronto honky-tonk outfit called the Hawks, once the backing band for Arkansas-born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins….  (xiii)

Toronto is nothing more than a point of origin here, or a location that is simply mentioned; for our purposes, the key point is to note the attachment of the word “obscure” to Toronto, which seems to be placed there almost automatically, as if anything to do with Toronto is invariably also obscure.

The other reference comes in the lead-in to the discussion of one of the Johnny Cash songs covered on The Basement Tapes:

You begin to sense people digging deeper, bored with the obvious. Someone excavates an obscure Johnny Cash number – lifelong Cash fan Dylan, or perhaps Hudson, who with Paul London and the Capers, his Ontario-based teenage rock ‘n’ roll band, backed Cash in Detroit bars in the early 1960s.  (73)

Marcus is certainly a fount of obscure knowledge. It’s remarkable that a group of Ontario teenagers would have been chosen to back Johnny Cash – but perhaps his star was still in the early stages of its ascent at the time.

How Insecure Canadians Impress Americans

Since we’re on the subject of this book, we might as well note a couple of other references to Canada, for the sake of completeness if nothing else. The following is a description of one of the basement performances:

After this the evening went off the rails. Professor Hudson returns: ‘Too many of us are ignorant of the vast, untamed wilderness to the north, and the odd graces of Canadians that have contributed to the scene, if you’ll pardon the expression, in their own, inimitable fashion. Here, is a flower song, a veritable prayer dance for mushroom sauce, invented by the Sasquatches, a great and beautiful tribe of more than a dozen happy’ – and Hudson sticks on the word like a nick in vinyl – ‘happy – happy souls, completely covered with hair, if you can imagine.’ The Bigfoot aria that follows – and sustains itself – features a chorus of preverbal grunts and squawks and a lead that sounds as much like a vocal recorded underwater as a tape played backward. As the creatures strain toward words, you realize they don’t need them.  (80-81)

Note Hudson, a Canadian himself, begins by saying “too many of us” are ignorant of Canadians. What we have here is a Canadian impersonating an American in order to laugh about Canada with other Americans, clowning and making a joke of his national identity for the benefit of his American audience – though who exactly he thinks that audience is is difficult to say. This is obviously not a reference to Canada by a non-Canadian, but making fun of Canada in order to ingratiate oneself with Americans represents a characteristic type of Canadian insecurity, and that seems to be what is expressed here, albeit obliquely.

Slightly Mystical

And then there’s this, during Marcus’ lengthy discussion of the song “I’m Not There”:

As Dylan sings, as the shimmering northern lights in the sound Hudson, Manuel and Danko are making rise to meet him, a phantom town gathers around the woman in the song, and like the phantom text of the song it disappears as soon as it is apprehended.  (201-202)

I suppose there are places in the U.S. where you can see the Northern Lights, but it still seems noteworthy that Marcus chooses this particular metaphor to describe the music made by a group of Canadians. As for the rest of it, if you feel that sentence deepens your understanding of the song “I’m Not There,” then maybe you should check out the book. I’ve listened to the song many times, and I have to admit I can’t hear the Northern Lights in the sound; maybe you can pick them out.

I don’t mean to sneer at Marcus: while I don’t go in for his style of reverent Bobolatry, and I don’t consider the Basement Tapes a watershed moment in human cultural history, there is some pretty good music on them, and “I’m Not There” is certainly worthy of praise as one of Dylan’s most mysterious and hauntingly beautiful songs. But….

It’s Not There

Ordinarily, at this point I would provide a link to “I’m Not There” on YouTube, so you could listen for the “northern lights” yourself. Bob and his lawyers, however, seem to have done a fairly thorough job of removing his songs. There are some cover versions you can listen to, a couple of which are bearable, but since none of them have the band Marcus is referring to, you won’t hear any northern lights.

For lack of anything better, here is what strikes my ear as the least offensive cover of “I’m Not There”:

I like the way some of the lyrics are supplied seemingly at random; the Basement version of the song is notoriously incomprehensible (even by Bob Dylan standards), so perhaps these were the only ones the singer felt confident typing up. (An added benefit of the video is that, if you’re a guitar player, you can pretty much learn to play the song from watching it. The capo’s at the 4th fret, and then just standard chords.)

On Weirdness

One thing Marcus does capture well in his book (as suggested by its alternate title) is the sheer weirdness of the Basement Tapes, and the way that weirdness grows out of, and pays homage to, the weirdness to be heard on something like the Anthology of American Folk Music. This idea of weirdness can be overdone: to me it remains an open question, at least in some cases, whether the apparent “weirdness” of a song’s lyrics is intentional, or merely the result of the singer recombining remembered lines and verses from other songs more or less at random (I’m talking about songs from the Anthology, not the Basement Tapes songs, which I think are consciously constructed to try to create that effect). Viewed in this way, weirdness would be a natural result of what is sometimes called the “folk process”; the seeming discontinuities and contradictions in the Homeric epics, and the attitude of the “analytical” critics to them, might be a useful comparison.

Having said that, I feel this post would be incomplete without at least a taste of the Anthology, which certainly lies behind the Basement Tapes in some sense; here’s a favourite of mine:

And here’s a song that strikes me as a possible example of the “folk process” in action:

Canadians: Dinner Party Boredom Bombs


Renata Adler, Pitch Dark (1983)

I tend to think of Renata Adler as a journalist rather than a novelist; she is perhaps best known for her legendary takedown of Pauline Kael in the NYRB, and used to write for The New Yorker. She also wrote novels, however, and this one is apparently a sequel of sorts to Speedboat, which I haven’t read. Pitch Dark doesn’t exactly have a plot; it’s a fragmented narrative which isn’t as interested in recording a sequence of events as it is in capturing the shifting thoughts of a woman after the break-up of a long-running affair with a married man.There is a lot of repetition, a lot of going back and cycling through things, each time in a little more detail – the overall effect, for the reader, is of watching as events and emotions are gradually illuminated and the pieces of the story fall into place.

For the first reference, I’ll quote a little more than the mention of Canada, just to give a sense of the book’s style:

The truth was, there was something in the ice cube.
The turning point at the paper was the introduction of the byline.
Here’s who I knew in those days: everyone.
Well, not everyone in the world, of course. But a surprising number and variety, considering the lonely soul I was when I was young, and the sort of recluse I have since become.
“It’s really too much. I can’t tell you who they’ll seat next to you,” Claire said, after dinner, at the guarded island villa. “Wives, Canadians. They sit you next to anyone.” Also, “The daughter married an octoroon. A baboon. I don’t know.”  (49)

When I first read this I thought it was a reference to seating on an airplane. (For some reason, the use of “seat” as a verb makes me think of airplanes.) But I think it’s really about who you’re seated next to at a dinner party. The speaker seems to be a wealthy woman of leisure (“guarded island villa”), accustomed to eating out and with nothing much to think about other than who sits beside her.

As for the reference to Canadians, even my generally sunny outlook on life can’t convince me that it’s a compliment. The statement that “[i]t’s really too much” makes it clear that the people being discussed have offended her with their seating plan; the example of “Canadians” (coupled with “wives”) seems to suggest that these two categories of people are composed of utterly uninteresting and undistinguished individuals who have either nothing, or too much of no interest, to say, and that enduring a meal beside them is pure torture. This fits neatly into a pre-existing stereotype of our country: that it is – and we are – boring.

There seems to be an issue of, if not class, precisely, then of status, tied up in this as well; behind Claire’s statement lies the unspoken assumption that being seated next to interesting or important people is an indication that you are also considered important; being seated next to “wives” or “Canadians”, on the other hand, shows that you are an afterthought rather than a significant guest. And so sitting next to a Canadian doesn’t involve only the torture of a boring evening; it’s also a form of social insult. Life in high society is tantamount to warfare, and dull Canadians are its skillfully deployed ordnance.

Later in the novel, there is a cluster of references to Canada in a section in which the narrator is looking for a place to rent – the implication is that she wants a secluded place where she can escape after her affair has ended.

To begin with, I almost went, instead, to Graham Island…. I mentioned wanting to go somewhere, somewhere beautiful and quiet, on the sea. Gavin said he had friends who had a place on an island off Vancouver. Maybe I would like to rent it.  (105)

Here, Vancouver is merely a place marker, giving a sense of the location of the island they are talking about. A description of the island follows:

The island had a rain forest. One flew to Vancouver, from there to another island, then took the ferry; two islands later, there one was. No worry about hospitals, there was a military installation there of sorts, the nearest observation post for Siberia. Siberia, I said. Well, yes, the island was six hundred miles, in fact, from Vancouver. There was a car there, I should pick it up from their friend the Danish baron.  (106)

One of the characteristics of Adler’s narrator is that she is persistently worrying at things, mentally going back over experiences, questioning, trying to read into events and comments. This is the process that is beginning here, as she finds out more about this island retreat, and it begins to seem a little less appealing than it did at first. Suddenly, it is a long way from Vancouver – and Vancouver itself has become richer in meaning than it was when it was first mentioned: no longer simply a place marker, it has now come to represent the last outpost of civilization, and we sense that proximity to Vancouver has suddenly become desirable.

Then the presentation of Graham Island begins to take on a darker cast:

Well, I called the Dutch baron, and his accent seemed instantly recognizable to me. I thought, What was this German pretending to be a Dane doing on an American island, six hundred miles from Vancouver, which is the nearest outpost to Siberia. I thought, a war criminal. My state of mind. I still resolved to go. It was somewhere else, somewhere beautiful and quiet, on the sea. Two nights before I left, however, I had a thought. I had begun to worry a bit about the isolation. I called the owners of the house. I reached the wife. How far, I asked, how far from their house was the nearest neighbouring house. Oh, she said, not far. You can see it from the window. It’s just up the hill actually. A very interesting house. Built and owned by a Haida. Of course, he leases it now. The first trace of a hesitation in her voice. To the government of Canada. She distinctly paused. As a retreat. I said, A retreat. She said, Yes. But there are never more than six. I did not ask six what. She said, Alcoholic. Indians. Well, I couldn’t do it. Maybe I should have done it, but I couldn’t.  (106-7)

There are several difficulties – or at least oddities – in this passage. First, the transformation of this “baron” from Dutch to German to Danish is very rapid and somewhat difficult to understand; he could certainly be a German pretending to be Dutch, but then how does the idea that he’s (pretending to be) a Dane arise? Is this an intentional error meant to convey the narrator’s confused state of mind?

And then there is the reference to Graham Island as “an American island”. In fact, Graham Island is a Canadian island, off the coast of British Columbia and part of the Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte Islands (now a popular tourist destination). Although close to Alaska, it is definitely part of Canada – is this, again, some sort of misunderstanding on the part of the narrator?

Regardless of these issues, a couple of distinct ideas about Canada emerge. First, we have the common idea of a remote wilderness – it contains a rain forest, it is “beautiful, and quiet,” which no doubt means sparesely populated, the sort of place where one can escape from the pressures of modern life and retreat into peaceful solitude. And yet as the narrator seeks further details, a more menacing element emerges, first in the form of the possible war criminal – admittedly we can’t say that he is a war criminal, as the narrator herself admits that her “state of mind” has suggested this inference – and then the Haida house, being leased to the Canadian government as a retreat.

This, finally, is the breaking point for the narrator; when she learns the nature of this house she states, “I couldn’t do it.” Yet this seemingly unequivocal statement is followed immediately, and characteristically, by one that adds a layer of ambiguity: “Maybe I should have done it, but I couldn’t.” What, precisely, does this mean? Our country’s treatment of first nations people is certainly one of the greatest stains on our collective conscience; does the narrator feel that, in living on the island, she would be implicitly condoning a history that she finds morally repugnant? Or is it that she feels the occupants of this retreat would be unpleasant neighbours who would compromise the peaceful solitude she is seeking? It’s hard to say, though the phrase “Maybe I should have done it” – if we read it to mean, Maybe I should have been more open-minded and not pre-judged the situation – seems to suggest the latter. But her attitude is difficult to interpret.

Without question, however, there has been a development in the idea of Canada: as the passage begins, Adler’s narrator sees it as nothing more than a quiet wilderness where she can escape her problems; within a couple of pages, however, Graham Island has changed from a fantasy getaway into a real part of the real world, complete with its own real-world problems that grow out of the difficult history and politics of Canada itself. (One could say, in fact, that the isolation and solitude that originally attracted Adler’s narrator to Canada are the same factors that attracted the other residents, and it is the presence of those other residents that ultimately convinces her not to go. Further proof of Marvell’s dictum, “Two Paradises ’twere in one / To live in Paradise alone.”) The passage questions and complicates obvious notions about Canada, and ends up providing a more nuanced and complex portrait of our country than we often see.

But before I go on too long, I will recall the following sentence from Pitch Dark:

So there is this pressure now, on every sentence, not just to say what it has to say, but to justify its claim upon our time. (43)


Back In Those Old Folky Days


Dave Van Ronk (with Elijah Wald), The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005)

Although it was published quite recently, Dave Van Ronk’s memoir deals mainly with the subject matter you want it to deal with: his time on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 50s and early 60s. The book is the basis for the recent Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, though having read the book, I have to say they started with pretty good source material and made a sorry hash of it. (If you’ve seen the film, you may be forgiven for wondering how much of the narrative came straight from the cover photo, with the cat nervously poking its head out of the doorway behind Van Ronk. The same image appears on the Inside Dave Van Ronk album cover.)

Based on the book, and also his appearance in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, I suppose you would call Van Ronk a “raconteur.” Given that the book is written “with” Elijah Wald, it’s hard to know how much of the shaping of the anecdotes – and the book is really just a string of anecdotes – has been done by Van Ronk himself and how much by his amanuensis, though in the Afterword Wald makes it sound as though he essentially wrote the book in Van Ronk’s “voice”. Whatever the details behind its creation, it makes amusing reading, rolling along from one story to the next with a pleasant rhythm.

There are numerous references to Canada, and to famous Canadians like Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Leonard Cohen, some of which are just passing mentions that don’t reveal too much. I’m going to try to pick out a few that I think illustrate some larger idea about our country, or that are just interesting for one reason or another. This one is part of a series of stories about Van Ronk’s friendship with Reverend Gary Davis:

Like most geniuses, Gary had his eccentricities, and one that sometimes drove me crazy was that he had his own sense of pitch. We were playing once at a concert in Canada, and he did his whole first set with the low E string about a quarter tone flat. It was driving me crazy, because every time he hit that note it was booming off-key, so on the break I borrowed his guitar on some excuse and surreptitiously tuned that string. He came back for the second set, started into a song, and just stopped dead, looked a little perplexed, and tuned that string right back down to where it had been.  (137)

I don’t know that we can conclude a whole lot about Canada from this, but it’s an entertaining story, and a decent example of the sort of thing you’ll encounter if you decide to read the book. Van Ronk makes no mention of whether the Canadian audience was as bothered by this out-of-tune string as he was; perhaps it was some sort of joke Davis liked to play on the philistines north of the border? But, at least in Van Ronk’s telling, it sounds habitual.

Those Competitive Canadians

This next passage is about a sort of “changing of the guard” on the Village folk scene as it became more popular:

…musicians began streaming in from all points of the compass: [Tom] Paxton from Oklahoma, Len Chandler and Phil Ochs from Ohio … Ian and Sylvia from Canada, Dylan from Minnesota … but with very few exceptions, my old friends who had been huffing and puffing all of those years to become professionals were nowhere to be seen. Basically, what I think happened was that the New York singers simply were not as competitive as the newcomers. You do not stick it out in this line of work unless you are fiercely driven, and most of the New Yorkers, while they might have had the talent, did not have that competitive drive.  (150)

Well, that’s a first: I don’t think I’ve ever come across a reference to Canadians being more competitive and driven than New Yorkers, but there it is – Ian and Sylvia, those fiercely competitive Canadians, driving the meek New Yorkers out of the Gaslight and taking their jobs (and dreams of folky stardom) away. This is certainly an unusual view of Canadians, contrasting with our more customary polite, almost meek image.

Of course, the Canadians are lumped in with singers from several locations in the U.S., as well, so they are only a part of a wave that washed the New Yorkers away – but still. And that’s another thing….

Canada – Just Another Place in the U.S.

It’s also noteworthy that in that list, Canada is mentioned alongside Oklahoma, Minnesota and Ohio, as if it were just another American state, rather than a separate country. The same thing occurs a bit later:

I was hosting the Tuesday night hoots at the Gaslight, as well as sometimes doing a week as a headliner there or at Folk City, and for variety I was making occasional forays into the hinterlands. I got to Tulsa and Oklahoma City for a couple of weeks, and I was going to the West Coast, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Canada.  (171)

There it is again, Canada lumped in with a list of U.S. place names as if we were just another American location – and the equal of a mere city this time, not even a state, as we were in the earlier list. (We saw something similar, incidentally, in Ted Hughes’ description of his camping trip with Sylvia Plath.) And Canada comes last in the list, as if to suggest that we are the most obscure of the “hinterlands” Van Ronk visited.

I really do think Americans sometimes forget we’re a whole separate country: we’re so close, and so similar, that they just lump us in as the “fifty-first state,” so to speak.

The Joni Mitchell Saga (In Three Parts)

Joni Mitchell is a significant presence in the book, and overall Van Ronk is very complimentary about her – there’s even a photo of him with his arm around her(!), so apparently they were friends. I’m not going to quote every drop of her name, but I will pick out three references that seem to illuminate something larger about Canada.

1. Typical Insecure Canadian

The major references to Mitchell kick off with this fascinating portrait of Canadian insecurity and our tendency to evaluate ourselves based on the opinions others have of us:

My favourite Patrick Sky story happened right around the time he recorded that album [A Harvest of Gentle Clang]. It was 1965, and we had been invited to appear on a Canadian television show called Let’s Sing Out, which was their version of Hootenanny. They were filming at a college in Winnipeg, and Patrick and I happened to be on the same plane out of Buffalo…. All the tech people were running around, setting up lights and patting us down with powder puffs and that sort of thing, and over in a corner, sitting by herself on a folding chair, was this lovely blonde lady. She was playing a guitar and singing to herself, just warming up, and I don’t know how it happened, but after a few minutes everything was completely quiet and everybody had just formed a semicircle around her. It was Joni Mitchell, and she was singing “Urge for Going,” and that was the first time I ever heard it or her. It was simply magical, and by the middle of the second verse, you could hear a pin drop. She finished, and there was just this silence, utter silence.
Then Patrick turns to me, and loudly says, “That sucks!”
As it happened, that was the highest compliment Patrick was capable of bestowing, but of course Joni had no way of knowing that. She later told me that she went back to Detroit in tears and told Chuck, her partner and husband, that the great folksingers from New York didn’t like her music, and she briefly considered quitting the business.  (174-75)

First, notice how the Canadian TV show is described as “their version of” an American TV show. This is a very common way of thinking about us among our neighbours to the south: they don’t consider us distinct, but rather as a slightly altered version of themselves, so anything Canadian is described as being “the Canadian version of” something American.

But more important, obviously, is the effect the opinions of these two New Yorkers had on Joni Mitchell. This is an absolutely classic expression of Canadian insecurity: it makes no difference how famous you are or how much success you have in Canada, you don’t mean anything until you succeed in the U.S. And this isn’t just an opinion held by Americans (though no doubt they would feel that way too, if they ever gave a thought to Canadians who weren’t famous in America); what is so telling about this passage is how completely Mitchell has internalized the idea that it’s the opinions of Americans that matter. She is there, after all, to appear on a Canadian television show – a show that these Americans have taken the trouble to fly north to appear on, so it clearly isn’t nothing, and the fact that she’s appearing alongside them suggests that she is more or less their equal.  But the high opinion of the people who run Let’s Sing Out means nothing when put up against criticism from those two giants of the New York folk scene, Patrick Sky and Dave Van Ronk.

And yet, show of hands: Who’s heard of Patrick Sky? Who’s heard one of his songs? And what about Joni Mitchell – who’s heard of her or heard one of her songs? I can’t see your hands out there, but I think I can guess the results of that little survey. So even a very talented Canadian who went on to incredible popular and commercial success could be led to question her own value by two Americans who (not to be rude) didn’t ultimately add up to that much on the music scene.

Just to give you a sense of what they were laughing at, here’s a remarkable version of “Urge for Going” recorded for a Let’s Sing Out program in Sudbury (not Winnipeg) – it even features the “Let’s Sing Out” theme song before Mitchell’s performance, which reminds us that “there’s room for all in the hootenanny hall” – a typically inclusive Canadian sentiment:

2. The Three Titans of Folk

Joni Mitchell’s name crops up again in a discussion of how musicians learn their craft:

There are some very good young musicians on the folk scene [today], but they will get to be fifty years old without having as much stage experience as I had by the time I was twenty-five. As a result, they will naturally mature much more slowly than the Dylans and Joni Mitchells and I did.  (121)

I just love the way he casually lumps himself in with Dylan and Joni Mitchell, as though when people talk about the folk music boom of the 60s, the first three names on their lips are Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and … Dave Van Ronk. Somehow, I just don’t think Van Ronk has quite that level of popular recognition. On the other hand, it is a great compliment to Canada to see Mitchell mentioned alongside Dylan.

3. Hinterland Songstress

Later on, Van Ronk mentions Joni Mitchell in reference to the fact that, unlike Mitchell and Dylan and so many others, he rarely wrote or sang his own songs:

There were unknown songwriters like Joni Mitchell out in the hinterlands, and there was a grapevine that reached all around the country, so as far as new songs went, I was surrounded by an embarrassment de richesse.  (207)

Now, to be fair, there are probably parts of New York City that Van Ronk would consider “hinterlands,” but still, there’s that word again: Joni Mitchell, a Canadian, is off in the hinterlands. I think it’s just coincidence that Van Ronk’s idiosyncratic French (he was quite the autodidact, apparently) comes up in the same sentence as a reference to Canada, though perhaps there’s something going on subconsciously.

And Now, Some Music

Having talked so much about music, we might as well wrap up with some actual music: “Hesitation Blues,” which is one of Dave Van Ronk’s better-known (maybe?) songs. To start us off, here is Jelly Roll Morton’s version; I think at the beginning you can hear him say that he didn’t write the song:

Next, here is Reverend Gary Davis’ version – it’s fascinating to hear how he works the audience:

Here is Van Ronk doing his version:

And finally, if you’ve hesitated here this long, you might as well check out this relatively recent Jorma Kaukonen/Hot Tuna version, just to see that the tradition goes on:


Auden, Spinoza, Salmon and Snow (Paul Muldoon Part II)


Paul Muldoon, Meeting the British (1987)

All page references are to the Poems 1968-1998 edition pictured above, and not to the individual volume.

The Opening Poem

The first poem in this book is actually titled “Ontario,” which makes this sort of thing fairly easy – although the first line of the poem is “I spent last night in the nursery of a house in Pennsylvania.” That gave me pause – did Muldoon mean our Ontario, or some other Ontario? He gets to Ontario (and Guelph, and Toronto, just so there’s no doubt) eventually, but there’s a curious distancing of himself from his Canadian subject matter in the way he titles the poem “Ontario” and then immediately makes clear that he’s not actually in Ontario – he’s in Pennsylvania (much more cosmopolitan) and only thinking of Canada.

I ordinarily like to present poems in their entirety, but this is a long prose poem and I really don’t feel like typing that much, so I’m only going to quote the relevant portion.

…I remembered how I was meant to fly to Toronto this morning, to visit my younger brother. He used to be a research assistant at the University of Guelph, where he wrote a thesis on nitrogen-fixing in soya beans, or symbiosis, or some such mystery. He now works for the Corn Producers’ Association of Ontario. On my last trip we went to a disco in the Park Plaza, where I helped a girl in a bin-liner dress to find her contact lens.
-Did you know that Spinoza was a lens-grinder?
-Are you for real?
Joe was somewhere in the background, sniggering, flicking cosmic dandruff from his shoulders.
-A lens, I went on, is really a lentil. A pulse.
Her back was an imponderable green furrow in the ultraviolet strobe.
-Did you know that Yonge Street’s the longest street in the world?
-I can’t say that I did.
-Well, it starts a thousand miles to the north, and it ends right here.  (151)

I love this because I feel like everyone in Toronto knows this fact about Yonge Street – I can’t think how many times I’ve both heard and quoted it over the years – and yet the poet seems so taken aback by the question, as if stunned that there could be anything special about anything in Toronto. We expect he’s going to get a little lesson in Canadian geography – but no, the Torontonian girl (let’s assume she’s Torontonian) has no more interest in places north of the 401 than her foreign interlocutor. Her explanation is completely lacking in specificity: all she can say is that it starts somewhere a thousand miles to the north (and shouldn’t she be speaking in kilometres?), in some wilderness apparently unknown to her.

Beyond the (possibly failed) pick-up in the Park Plaza disco, we also catch a glimpse of two other sides of Canada, one familiar, one not: a land of new opportunity, and a centre of scientific research. The author’s brother has taken the trouble to travel from Ireland to Guelph to study – something, it’s not clear exactly what – and to write a thesis on it. We aren’t told why he chose Canada, but the possibility that it offered more opportunity than he could find in Ireland might be inferred, especially as this is an idea at least as old as Dickens.

Or could it be that Canada is more advanced in his field than any of the universities in Ireland? This presents a view of Canada that we haven’t really seen before: our country as a centre for advanced scientific research, which is certainly a departure from our more usual image as a frozen wilderness. The fact that he has ended up working for the Corn Producers’ Association of Ontario, combined with his thesis possibly being about soybeans, suggests a rural nation where science is used mainly as a way of improving farming – but still, science is science, and I think we can file this under “Progress”.

The Mystery of the Landlocked Chinook

The poem “The Wishbone” also refers to the author’s brother being in Guelph, but doesn’t go beyond that, so it doesn’t really seem worth the trouble of quoting. But another poem has a little more to it:


I was micro-tagging Chinook salmon
on the Qu’Appelle

I surged through the melt-water
in my crocus

I would give each brash,
face its number.

Melt-water? These were sultry
fish hang-gliding downstream.

Chinook. Their very name
a semantic

The autumn, then, of Solidarity,
your last in Cracow.
Your father

rising between borsch
and carp,
relinquishing the table to Pompeii.  (155-6)

There’s not a lot about the Qu’Appelle River, which is in Saskatchewan (and a tiny bit of Manitoba); what there is, however, is a little strange. Here, courtesy of the river’s Wikipedia entry, is a list of the fish species to be found in the river:

Fish species include: walleye, sauger, yellow perch, northern pike, lake whitefish, cisco, mooneye, white sucker, shorthead redhorse, bigmouth buffalo, common carp, channel catfish, black bullhead, brown bullhead, burbot and rock bass. Rock bass are Saskatchewan’s only native bass.

This doesn’t purport to be an exhaustive list, of course, and there are some great-sounding names there (bigmouth buffalo!), but still: Chinook salmon are one of the most prized sport fish to be found in Canada; if they lived in the Qu’Appelle River, they would certainly rate a mention ahead of white sucker and shorthead redhorse, to pick just two examples (no disrespect to those noble species intended). And, as a look at a map will show, the Qu’Appelle River is located right in the middle of the Canadian Prairies, with no connection to the ocean, or any body of water large enough to satisfy the needs of a migratory species like the chinook. (The same point is made by Dr. Ronald Marken in his article, “‘Micro-Tagging Chinook Salmon on the Qu’Appelle River’: Reflections on Canada in the Migrant Lines of Irish Poetry”*, which is about – of all things – references to Canada in Irish poetry. You can read at least some of it here.)

So … what’s going on? I recognize it’s a bit naive to assume that just because a poem is written in the first person, all the events it mentions actually happened in the author’s life – but what could be the reason for describing an event that can’t possibly be true? Is Muldoon confusing his Canadian river names? Has he tagged so many different kinds of fish on so many different rivers that they all blur together? Is this kind of counter-factuality an intentional strategy for constructing a mythic aura around Canada?

And then, as we hope for answers, the poem turns away from Canada entirely and towards Europe, the Qu’Appelle River and its fish species forgotten – or, more precisely perhaps, unknown – in Cracow.

Auden, Isherwood and the Picturesque Snows of Newfoundland

Meeting the British concludes with a long poem, in sections, called “7, Middagh Street.” For those who don’t immediately recognize the reference in the title (I’m afraid I didn’t), it’s the address of February House in Brooklyn, where Auden, Britten, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee and other bohemian artist types all briefly lived together – it’s so famous that not only is there a book about it, but it’s also the subject of a musical by Gabriel Kahane. The reference to Canada comes at the opening of the first section, which is in Auden’s voice (each section has a different speaker).


Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir;
a blizzard off the Newfoundland coast
had, as we slept, metamorphosed

the Champlain‘s decks
to a wedding cake,
on whose uppermost tier stood Christopher

and I like a diminutive bride and groom.
A heavy-skirted Liberty would lunge
with her ice-cream
at two small, anxious

boys, and Erika so grimly wave
from the quarantine-launch
she might as truly have been my wife
as, later that day, Barcelona was Franco’s.  (175)

Hey, guess what? Canada’s cold!

Alas, we don’t have much of a role here beyond providing some (admittedly picturesque) snow, and readers will recognize a familiar trope: people sailing on a (presumably) Canadian ship (the Champlain!), but going not to Canada, but rather to New York (as the reference to the Statue of Liberty makes clear – shades of Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly). Auden and Isherwood, apparently, are giving us a pass, though Newfoundland has taken the trouble to blow some snow at them on their way by, as a gentle Canadian hello.

And, echoing “Chinook,” we might also note the (characteristic?) turn away from North  America and towards the larger events of history, which seem to occur mainly in Europe.

Another Kindred Spirit

I want to take this opportunity to thank Professor Ronald Marken for providing me with a copy of his essay, “‘Micro-Tagging Chinook Salmon on the Qu’Appelle River’: Reflections on Canada in the Migrant Lines of Irish Poetry”. You can read at least some of it through the Google Books link provided above; unfortunately, the full text isn’t available online. As well as providing insights into Muldoon’s poem “Chinook,” Professor Marken’s essay also offered the comfort of knowing I’m not alone in my curiosity about how writers from other countries portray Canada in their work. His description of the Canadian mindset with regard to our position in the foreign imagination nicely summarizes some of the background to this project, which I attempted to explain in the “About” section:

Canadians have a considerable anxiety about their national singularity, about how others perceive them. Our quest for a “National Identity” so pervades our thinking and our own literature as to be almost a public diversion, even a national joke…. Canadians would not be surprised if you were to say, “No one in Irish poetry has a thing to say about Canada. There are plenty of references to Brazil, Berlin, and Bilbao, but none to British Columbia.” That kind of news would not startle Canadians.

We are used to being ignored. Despite our enormous size, we are a country accustomed to invisibility.*

Canadians are fascinated with the question of how people from other countries perceive us, and at the same time we have a fatalistic sense that they don’t perceive us at all. And sometimes the most interesting or revealing references to Canada are the throwaways, the careless, passing references that show what writers think about us when they’re not really thinking about what they think. Usually, it turns out to be lumberjacks.

*From The Internationalism of Irish Literature and Drama, ed. Joseph McMinn. Irish Literary Studies 41, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992, pp. 193-208. Originally presented as a Plenary at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literature, University of Ulster, Coleraine. 1988.


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.

Toronto: City of Grandmas


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.

Canadian Lemmings, New Yorker Cartoons and Plato


Robert Leighton, The New Yorker, August 5, 2013 (p. 26)

I don’t know if you can read the speech bubbles in the image above; it’s a crowd of lemmings on the edge of a cliff, and they’re all saying, “After you,” “After you.”

Of course, as you can see from the banner, they’re Canadian lemmings, which means they’re so polite they never get around to actually jumping off the cliff; they just stand there “after-you”ing each other until … who knows? Until a fox comes along and devours them? Until they all die of starvation? Until the melting of the polar ice caps renders jumping into the ocean to drown moot?

As far as American impressions of Canada go, there isn’t a whole lot to be drawn from this; we already know that excessive politeness is one of the main traits people from other countries attribute to Canadians. What’s really striking about this cartoon, to me,  is that it shows what a remarkably narrow view The New Yorker (or its Cartoons Editor, Robert Mankoff, at least) seems to take of Canadians. Why do I say that? Because in November 2012 – not even a year ago – they published this cartoon by Roz Chast:

Canadian Standoff cartoon from The New Yorker

We’ve already discussed it on its own, of course, but when you put them side by side, the similarities are striking. Both use a banner to alert the reader that the cartoon is depicting a Canadian form of something the reader already recognizes (readers will have pre-formed notions of what lemmings do and what a stand-off is); both involve a situation where one character has to make an initial move so that another (or others) can follow; both have the phrase “After you” in speech bubbles; and both are only funny in the context of the idea that Canadians are so polite as to be functionally paralyzed in situations where one person has to take the initiative.

In fact, the cartoons are essentially identical; the only difference is that the two humans in the Chast cartoon have been replaced by a group of lemmings in the one by Leighton.

Slightly Philosophical (feel free to skip)

Perhaps we should look at this from the point of view of Plato’s theory of forms: is it possible that there are only a certain number of New Yorker cartoon jokes, and they are just executed in different ways? The joke, in its essence, would be like a Platonic form, and the cartoon based on it would be its temporary expression in the material world. So for these two cartoons, the essential joke (the Platonic form) is, “Canadians are excessively polite.” Each cartoon illustrates the joke in a different way, but the joke itself remains the same (just as various carpenters can build good and bad beds, but the Platonic form of “bed” remains unchanged).

If I had more time and energy, I might be inclined to go through my copy of The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker to see if I could identify, say, 50 essential jokes that come up over and over in slightly different form. These jokes would be timeless and unchanging, but the different expressions of them (the individual cartoons) could include references to the culture at the time they were created.

The more I think about it, the more bewitching this idea seems. But alas, I have not world enough and time to undertake a massive thematic analysis of New Yorker cartoons.

Giving The New Yorker Its Due

As an aside, let me say that everyone on staff here at Wow – Canada! loves The New Yorker generally, and we are all particularly fond of the cartoons. More than that, we’re thrilled to see our humble little country getting mentioned at all. And yet, as Canadians, we wouldn’t mind seeing a slightly more nuanced portrayal of our nation. Is that so much to ask?

And in fairness, The New Yorker does print cartoons that relate to Canada where the joke is based on something other than Canadians being polite, as a quick Google search will show. Here’s one by Liam Walsh that I was going to write about but never got around to:


The caption reads, “What part of Canada that I know nothing about are you from?”

This one trades on the idea that Canada is an obscure place Americans know nothing about, but here the (Brooklyn hipster?) partygoer is mocked for his ignorance. I can’t help noticing the Canadian’s outfit, though; of course we all wear plaid shirts, all the time. (Or is the cliché Canadian clothing a part of the joke?) And here’s one by Donald Reilly:


The caption reads, “You seem familiar, yet somehow strange – are you by any chance Canadian?”

I like this one. It’s based on a fairly common idea – that Canadians and Americans are essentially the same – and yet the phrasing of the caption and the set-up suggest that we’re just different enough to have a vaguely defined romantic allure for Americans (though not for Eddie in Limitless). Certainly Canadians have the sense that Americans don’t see us as significantly different from them; whether we agree, and whether we feel whatever differences we do have make us more attractive, as suggested by the cartoon, is up for debate. (The idea that Quebec is sexy, as opposed to Canada in general, might be more widespread.)

And here’s one by Peter Steiner that manages a unique Canadian double: including both health care and Mounties:


The caption reads, “We’re borrowing the best features of the Canadian system” – which apparently means doctors dressing up as Mounties. Ha!

Still, it’s hard not to feel that all these cartoons are based on clichés about Canada and Canadians.

A Bit About Lemmings

When I read the headline, “Canadian Lemmings,” on the Leighton cartoon that we began with, I have to confess that my first thought was, “Canadian lemmings? No such thing.” Painful as it is for me to admit, I was wrong; and worse,  I was schooled by a New Yorker cartoon based on a tired cliché about Canadians. According to no less a source than Hinterland Who’s Who (pause while Canadians of a certain age smile wistfully), there are several species of lemmings that are native to Canada.

Disney Nefariousness

The most shocking part of the Wikipedia entry on lemmings (which, needless to say, I consulted while researching this post) was not the assertion that they don’t actually commit mass suicide (which has been their ticket into the public imagination and is obviously a key idea behind Leighton’s cartoon), but rather this:

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Cruel Camera, found the lemmings used for White Wilderness were flown from Hudson Bay to CalgaryAlberta, Canada, where they did not jump off the cliff, but were in fact launched off the cliff using a turntable.[13]

Yikes! So Disney captured Canadian lemmings and then fired them off a cliff with a turntable (remember those?) just to promote the idea that they commit mass suicide? Now that’s shocking. And to turn the turntable into an engine of death – thankfully we’ve all switched to mp3 now, a much less menacing technology. No one’s using their iPhone to launch rodents off cliffs.

Here’s a clip:

If you look closely at the part that shows the lemmings “jumping” off the cliff, you’ll notice that you never actually see one jump; what you see is a bunch of lemmings at the edge of a cliff, and then other lemmings flying off the cliff from out of the frame (no doubt launched from the turntable). I don’t know if I would have picked up on that if I hadn’t known the scene was staged; the brain tends to want to make connections, and I think most people would unconsciously assume the lemmings were jumping even though they never actually witnessed one jump.

Post Navigation