Essays

Surrounded by Ducks

D.M. FRASER

This piece originally appeared in an undated issue of Alive magazine in the mid-’70s. D.M. Fraser was born in Nova Scotia and spent most of his adult life in Vancouver. He was the author of two books, Class Warfare and The Voice of Emma Sachs, and many other works.

Not long ago (May 13, 1974), a local academic personage named Sandra Djwa was quoted in the Vancouver Sun: “You see, when (A.J.M.) Smith starts talking about trees blowing in the wind and ducks crying in The Lonely Land, he can only have been talking about Canada.” The remark would be comic in its fatuity if it were not, in a peculiar and limited—and, lately, unavoidable—sense, true. Yes, Mr. Smith can only have been talking about Canada, because nowhere else in the world, in this age, could such talk be taken seriously; nowhere else would it be cited, straight-faced, by a purportedly responsible scholar and critic, as an admirable example, a touchstone, for a national literature. Ten years ago, or twenty, in some snowbound tenth-grade classroom in, say, northern New Brunswick, the sentiment might have been forgivable, or at least understandable: after all, wasn’t it precisely that species of self-delusion most of us were raised under, taught to believe, value, emulate? The Lonely Land (ad mare usque ad nauseam). Ducks (and related quackery). Trees (preferably maple) blowing in the wind. The dingy Group of Seven reproductions that seemed to hang, wearily, on the mud-brown walls of every public institution. “He (Smith) and his fellow poets,” Ms. Djwa tells us serenely, “did for poetry what the Group of Seven did for art.” Yes, yes indeed.

This is, we’re reminded continually, the age of the New Nationalism. Billboards exhort us to “Stand together—Understand together.” Everything from government agencies to a hockey team has the name “Canada” attached to its tail, as if the ritual incantation of the word alone could somehow make the phenomenon real. The airwaves wheeze with something called “Canadian Content,” imposed by quota. And virtually everyone, of whatever political persuasion, seems convinced that a latter-day Renaissance of Canadian culture is imminent, if it is not already in flower.

The presumption here—the one that recurs, relentlessly, in so much of the literary propaganda of our day—is that by now we’ve all grown up, reached “cultural maturity,” achieved an indigenous, independent Canadian identity, a culture peculiarly our own. (In Quebec, something of the sort may actually have happened, but here I am writing specifically of the Anglophone culture, which still largely informs the popular notion of what is “Canadian.”) Related historically to this presumption, and commonly thought to be inseparable from it, is the conviction that the achievement of the “uniquely Canadian” is de facto a good thing: the devoutly desired end of a process that began back in colonial times and has only now at least, triumphantly fulfilled itself. And, at a first glance, that would even appear to be the case: production of assorted cultural matter in this country is surely at an all-time high, the academic Canadian Studies industry is booming, and in general the national self-consciousness is asserting itself as never before in our modest history.

Not the least of the problems raised by these presumptions is that they are not, though they claim to be, an analysis of what is happening in, and to, our cultural life: they are merely articles of faith, bred out of chauvinism by way of national paranoia, and they define an aspiration which is, on the deepest level, simplistic and reactionary. It is simplistic because it presupposes the existence and cohesiveness of a single, identifiable “Canadian identity”; and it’s reactionary because it plays directly into the hands—and has already become the quasi-official policy—of a reactionary political order. One of the most pervasive ironies regularly encountered by publishers and other ostensibly “creative” workers in Canada is that, in producing and promoting “Canadian content” as such, they are in effect locking themselves into the repressive mechanism of exactly that state-dominated pseudo-culture which, more often than not, they profess to oppose.

The obvious result, then, is both aesthetic and political disaster. Work of a distinctly mediocre character is all too frequently tolerated, even glorified, solely because it is Canadian, because it is “ours.” Third-rate talent is encouraged, subsidized, emboldened by the proliferation of outlets for its product and by the blandly uncritical acceptance—or, more probably, indifference—with which Canadians have tended to respond to whatever is offered them. And those artists who ideally could be—and might well wish to be—in the vanguard of revolt are instead patronized, supported, co-opted and thus defused, by the very system against which they undertake to struggle. As a consequence, Canadian culture, in so far as it functions at all, becomes no more than a thin decorative coating, an obfuscation, on the surface of our collective experience.

This argument is not, of course, a new one, but it is one which, in the present nationalistic climate, is usually overlooked (or openly discounted) by apologists for things Canadian—even, perhaps especially, by those on the Left. “National pride” is clearly a higher priority, these days, than national self-criticism, which can always be interpreted as yet another symptom of that famous Canadian inferiority complex from which we’re traditionally supposed to suffer. Accordingly we are counselled (in, for example, the terms of Alive) “to build and maintain an independent and progressive Canadian literature and culture”; but we are given singularly little counsel on what the nature and criteria of that culture should be. On the broadest level, the goal itself is inclusive enough, vague enough, to be at worst harmless and at best possibly commendable. But what, concretely, does it signify? Specifically, what is this new culture to be independent of? What is it to be progressive toward? And when it is built, how shall we recognize it, how evaluate it?

Here, essentially, is the root of the confusion which afflicts most of our attempts, as cultural workers of one kind or another, to determine just what our real work is, or ought to be. The confusion emerges, I suspect, from two fundamental misapprehensions: (1) that the kind of independence proposed is necessarily desirable, or even attainable, in the context of an authentic internationalism; and (2) that a culture is something which can be “built,” manufactured, by a conscious effort of collective will. From these misconceptions, many of us automatically derive a third: that the independence sought is, immediately, from the powerful presence and influence of American culture—to which the genuinely Canadian product, if we ever manage to produce it, will magically provide an alternative, an antithesis, an antidote.

If we look closely at these propositions, it soon becomes apparent how insubstantially they are grounded in either historical or philosophical experience. The great indigenous cultures of Europe, for example, evolved through centuries in a continually shifting interplay of isolation and interaction; they were not willed arbitrarily into being, and when nationalism arose as a political force in Europe, the supportive cultures had long since developed naturally to shape and define it. The North American experience was, from the beginning, radically different, as it had to be: what was generated here—the native culture having been dismissed from the first, and in time effectively suppressed if not exterminated—was necessarily a colonial culture. That is, it was an amalgam, never very stable, of cultural influences imported from elsewhere, originally from Britain, then from the multiplicity of nations whose emigrants came to populate the “new world.” That amalgam was then fused together, acted upon, inevitably modified, by the new experiences and preoccupations of a developing continent, by the impingement of technology, by the workings of a new kind of history.

In Europe, then, the territorial and cultural aspects of nationalism were essentially coextensive, in aspiration if not always in political fact. A particular variety of cultural “identity” could in fact exist, because it had an actual place out of which it came and in which it functioned organically, and actual people whose shared perceptions provided its animating spirit. Even in the nineteenth century, it would have been absurd, because unnecessary, to crusade for an “independent” British or French or Italian culture; both language and geography ensured the relative autonomy of national cultures, and independence arose as an issue only in the political sphere. Not surprisingly, in such a context, influences could be transmitted from one culture to another and assimilated, without damage—or expectation of damage—to the integrity of either; that, after all, is how the whole complex of “western civilization,” so-called, was able to evolve and sustain itself.

North America was another matter. The liberation of what became the United States from the political domination of Britain was also a cultural liberation: it made possible the emergence of a culture that was recognizably, specifically “American,” capable of drawing its nourishment—and its content—from whatever was there to be drawn upon: from the history, the contingencies, the character of a nation in the process of creating itself. Independence, in the American context, was from the outset a meaningful concept because it was an active one; consciously and concretely, the country was engaging in self-determination, and that activity was as vigorously cultural as it was territorial and political. America was, quite literally, the New World, and its newness was the particular source of its strength. No wonder, then, that there the colonial culture was able so easily to transform itself, in a relatively short time, into an imperial one, and to assert its hegemony not only over the rest of this continent, but also—in the present century—over much of Europe as well.

In Canada, something else happened: to put it as simply as possible, one could say that Canada itself did not happen. Geographically part of the New World, and privy, in its years of expansion, to much of the same experience that shaped the United States, Canada nonetheless remained by choice colonial, remained attached, politically and culturally, to the Old World. The energy to break away was never there (nor is it now). Even when a semi-autonomous “Nation” was eventually legislated into being, it was in fact a pseudo-nation, a “country” only in the most purely formal sense: a territory arbitrarily established, arbitrarily defined, no less arbitrarily governed. And when, in time, the old colonial ties weakened, new ones were already being formed. Canada was a natural target for American cultural and economic imperialism, not merely because of proximity, but because there was no force here strong enough, or concerned enough, to counteract it. The American culture could prevail simply because it was there, supported by the developing technology (and, increasingly, transmitted by it) and camouflaged, at least for a time, by Canadian receptivity to its inroads. After all, what else of interest was even available?

So much for history. The deed is done, and it cannot—despite the protestations of newly awakened nationalists—be undone now. Canada is what it has become, for better or worse, and it is neither practical nor reasonable to deny the presence, in our midst, in our roots, of a deep and enduring American influence, as there is scarcely less a British influence, a French influence, an influence from all the nations we are. Our culture, such as it is, may indeed have arisen outside our territorial boundaries, but right now it is as much “ours” as “theirs.” We have no other. It could not have been otherwise, because no “authentic” Canadian culture—no different kind of culture—appeared, or was needed, within the country. The nationalist dream of “liberating” Canada from American input is, ultimately, a pipe-dream.

However it may seem, this is not a defeatist proposition. If we can relinquish, at whatever cost to our collective vanity, the old chimera of “Canadian identity,” we may discover in Canada, as elsewhere, a capacity we have been largely unaware of, and so far have failed to exercise. If we cannot and need not liberate ourselves from American culture, there is still a context in which liberation can occur, spontaneously, without invoking the spectre of national chauvinism: that is the context of truly continental revolt in which Canadians, for their part, would finally realize that the enemy is not “America,” as such, but the repressive and insatiable capitalist order to which we are, and have always been, as much in thrall as they.

It is not within the scope of this essay to formulate a program for the desired “cultural revolution”; such a program would be, in any event, self-predictive and self-defeating. The thing itself will either happen, or it will not. But it is imperative to begin somewhere: to begin, perhaps, by examining our old assumptions and anxieties, and discarding those that no longer work for us, no longer apply to our situation. That, to some extent, a beginning has already been made (if only tentatively) is demonstrated by the urgency with which Alive, for example, addresses itself to the problems of Canadian literature and criticism; it is demonstrated, too, by the proliferation of other publications which bring a more or less political analysis—or political consciousness—to bear on literary matters. And it has been demonstrated, in the experience of this writer, by the continuing activity of Pulp Press—which has never been, or tried to be, exclusively “Canadian,” which accepts and will go on accepting good writing from whatever source, and in which—at best of times—the editorial consciousness is as political as it is “literary.”

The very currency of the phrase cultural workers implies a new attitude toward the legitimacy, and the responsibility, of the cultural enterprise; it suggests, among other things, that there exists, should exist, a shared ground, a commonality of interest, between the individual artist and all other participants in the cultural process. We are all engaged, separately and multifariously, in cultural work, and it is by definition a collective activity, whether that collectivity is embarked upon deliberately (as in the case of Alive), or simply occurs by chance.

That is the beginning. We need not complain, now, of being dominated by the culture of the United States: have we not traditionally shared the same values, the same assumptions, the same economic and social orientation? Liberation from that could, not inconceivably, generate a literature and culture that would be neither American nor Canadian, but—at last—revolutionary: the culture not of a “new nation,” which we can very well do without, but of a new age.

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D.M. FRASER

D. M. Fraser is the author of Class Warfare, The Voice of Emma Sachs and Ignorant Armies. He died in 1985. This text first appeared in Geist No. 1.


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