|Here is Us: The Topocentrism of Canadian
In his "Conclusion to A Literary History of Canada" Northrop Frye observes:
These three curiously disconnected sentences admirably adumbrate Canadian literary criticism as it has been practised by the English speaking community of Canada. In the first place, a disproportionate amount of commentary on Canadian writing has been cultural history (or prophecy) rather than truly literary commentary. From Lionel Stevenson's Appraisals of Canadian Literature (1926) through E.K. Brown's On Canadian Poetry (1943) to Tom Marshall's Harsh and Lovely Land (1979), we find scholars struggling with the problem of identifying the specifica Canadiana that will permit an adequate response to Matthew Arnold's scornful question: "Imagine the face of Philip or Alexander at hearing of a Primer of Macedonian Literature: Are we to have a Primer of Canadian Literature too, and a primer of Australian?"2Margaret Atwood's Survival (1972) answered this question in a way that seemed to touch the essence of the Canadian soul, but would not have discomfited Arnold. This propensity of Canadian literary criticism is so manifest that it hardly needs demonstration; however, a reading of Carl Ballstadt's The Search for English-Canadian Literature will readily demonstrate both the antiquity and the ubiquity of the tendency to write cultural history when observing the Canadian literary scene.
The very title of Ballstadt's book participates in the enterprise of cultural history, for it assumes quite correctly that a central preoccupation of Canadian literary criticism has been the discovery and identification of its subject of study. The reasons that this should be so are obvious enough. Canadian literature must be literature that is proper to Canada; that is to say, distinct from the literature of Britain, the United States of America, Australia, or any other element of the broadly dispersed and richly variegated English-speaking community. Thus the search for Canadian literature is not an enterprise in scholarship the discovery and editing of literary texts written or published in Canada but in cultural history. The scholarly enterprise has, indeed, been carried forward notably by Carl Klinck but the greatest amount of writing on Canadian literature has been cultural history rather than scholarship or criticism.
By "cultural history" I mean the study of the artifacts of a community its imaginative literature, music, painting, architecture, philosophy, science, religion with a view to discovering the peculiar or identifying characteristics of that community's collective expression or discourse. As a model of study it would seem to descend from the work of the eighteenth-century art historian, J.J. Winckelmann, and has been applied to general history by Hegel, Marx, Spengler, and Toynbee. Obviously the differences between the methods and conclusions of particular cultural historians are as important as the similarities, but even though "we still know relatively little of the principles of cultural history," certain axioms of the approach can be identified.
The first, and most important, axiom is that human communities possess certain intellectual and imaginative propensities which are proper to the collectivity of that community rather than to the individuals who constitute it. Proceeding from this axiom, the cultural historian seeks to identify those propensities which characterize a particular community whether it be ancient Greece, Renaissance England, or the Kwakiutl Indians. Once the propensities have been identified, it remains to account for their character, and to draw conclusions about the particular virtues or inadequacies of those propensities. Thus, Shakespeare can be seen to embody most perfectly in his drama and poetry the particular "genius" of Elizabethan England. The great power and penetration of Shakespeare's compositions are seen to be the consequence of the cultural environment in which he happened to be placed plus, of course, his native intelligence and capabilities. The robust and relatively straightforward character of E.J. Pratt's poetry can be ascribed to an imagination which has been "so concrete, so devoted to realizing the Canadian environment directly in front of him."3
In the case of Shakespeare, the cultural historian tends to concentrate his attention on contemporaneous political, religious, and theatrical circumstances, with due attention paid to the explosion of information consequent upon the invention of the printing press. In other words, he relies on the types of information routinely supplied by the standard historian. In the case of the Kwakiutl Indians, on the other hand, the cultural historian concentrates on the design of artifacts, the technologies of food production, shelter, tools, etc., social organization, rituals, and religious beliefs. His goal is description more than explanation or elucidation. And if he refers to individual Kwakiutl Indians, it would be only as witnesses to or instances of the common pattern of Kwakiutl culture. The whole point of the exercise is to identify the peculiar characteristics of that human community as it formulated itself in a particular time and place. The proposition that the particular form which the culture has taken is the result of myriads of individual decisions and actions may be conceded, but it is not and could not be the subject of study.
As an historical phenomenon itself, cultural history may be traced back at least as far as Winckelmann and Vico. But as an important intellectual tendency and model, it is very much a nineteenth-century phenomenon, contemporaneous with the tremendous energy of nationalism in Europe. It is hardly surprising that in the Nineteenth Century the scholars of all European nations in which nationalism was a powerful sentiment, set out to discover and celebrate the particular character of the German, English, or French "genius." There were, to be sure, those like Matthew Arnold, who argued for a pan-European rather than a narrowly national definition of culture. But everyone agreed that some such supra-personal entity as culture existed, and that it somehow expressed the genius of a people or race. Scholars quarrelled only about the boundaries of the hypostatized culture. Were there German and Austrian cultures? English and French cultures? Germanic and Latin cultures? or only European, African, and Chinese cultures?
It was in this intellectual climate that men first began to write about Canadian literature. The assumption that a culture must somehow express the collective genius of the nation out of which it arises was easily transposed into the proposition that a literature ought to formulate that genius. It appears in one of the earliest statements collected by Ballstadt, David Chisholme's "Essay on the Advantages that Might be Derived from the Establishment of a Literary Association in Montreal" (1826):
The assumption of cultural history, that a "culture" is an entity whose boundaries are determined by place and by race, are here an axiom on which a programme for nation building is based.
Exactly these same sentiments animate Lorne Pierce's Outline of Canadian Literature (1927) written a century later:
The expression and doubtless the thought of both Chisholme and Pierce has taken on a little of the colouring appropriate to commercial relations. Literature is, in effect, a native industry to be protected from foreign competition. The Canadian literary community, like the business community, has always been protectionist.
Pelharn Edgar's 1912 assessment of Canadian literature is free of the commercial analogy, but expresses the full blown organic conception of cultural specificity, given its most renowned expression just six years later by Spengler in the first volume of The Decline of the West:
Edgar goes on to argue that the problem is insoluble, and concludes that we should "Let others write our books." Edgar's argument is very strange because he applies the principles of cultural history to a situation where they do not obviously apply. It is difficult to see, for example, in what sense Canadians of British descent are in any sense a race" distinct from the British, and therefore younger. It is equally difficult to understand how residents of Canada are any more remote from "the ballad and epic stage of unselfconscious literary production" than are their cousins in Britain. If there is any sense in this at all, it must reside in some kind of topographical mysticism.
It would, of course, be egregiously unkind to take Edgar to task for the irrationality of his argument if it were not for the fact that the argument has become a commonplace of Canadian literary commentary. The same argument is made in an even more extreme form by Northrop Frye in his 1943 review of A.J.M. Smith's The Book of Canadian Poetry:
Although he does not quite say so, Frye implies here that Homer and the Bible are part of the English poet's "country and language." He clearly states that the Canadian poet is ''broken off from this linear sequence." Obviously the resident of High Wycombe ignorant of Greek and Hebrew is much more cut off from the hypostatized "linear sequence" than the resident of White Horse who is conversant in both languages. But even if we substitute Chaucer and Shakespeare for Homer and the prophets, the Canadian is in no sense "cut off" from them more radically than the Englishman. And this would be true whether the Canadian's ancestors were English, Irish, Italian, French, Icelandic, or Chinese so long as his native tongue was English.
It is strange that Frye should participate in the topographical mysticism of Edgar because the first axiom of his own poetics is that literature is an autonomous universe of discourse only accidentally connected to time, place, or person. Yet he is consistent in maintaining the topographical and political fiction that European and even British culture is alien to Canadians. He can even maintain these contradictory views in the same paragraph:
Here Frye disowns the hypothesis that a new topography will produce a new culture, but tacitly assumes that the old, accustomed topography will continue to nurture the articulation of a culture. He would not say that the English immigrants of 1830 would have been original rather than imitative had they stayed in England, but somehow it is apparent that Byron and Scott, Lawrence and Auden did make original contributions to the articulation of British culture, while Canadians did not.9
All varities of cultural history are to some degree topocentric if I may be permitted this neologism. They are topocentric because it is the cultural historian's task to account for the particularities of a specific culture. Since all cultures are the product of human invention, the cultural historian has only two variables available to him to account for variations. They are race and the physical environment climate, soil, and topography. One form of topocentrism is endorsed by Chisholme in the essay already cited:
Chisholme assumes that the new topography, and the new society which it creates, will automatically produce a new literature. Just exactly one hundred years later, Lionel Stevenson is repeating Chisholme's topocen trism in an even more mystical form:
Chisholme's view animates D.G. Jones's Butterfly on Rock, a book profoundly influenced by the criticism of Northrop Frye:
Unlike Chisholme, Jones does not assume that the new land will automatically produce a new literature. Rather, he sees a disharmony between the new topography and the old culture creating a psychic tension that accounts for the character of Canadian literature specifically its thematic preoccupations. Jones also takes into account extra-literary elements of European culture specifically religion, philosophy, and the physical sciences. But his assumption throughout is that these "old" cultural formulations are somehow discordant with North American topography, and thus produce an anxiety ridden and disharmonious literature symbolized by his title,Butterfly on Rock. Oddly enough, despite his rather pessimistic assessment of the Canadian cultural predicament, Jones concludes with a remark entirely consonant with Chisholme's optimism:
Another, more recent, study this one not of Canadian literature, but of a region within Canada is also firmly founded upon the topocentric assumption:
R.T. Harrison in this study of Canadian prairie fiction documents the encounter of the European imagination with the intractable prairie topography and climate from the earliest explorers to the most recent fiction. He finds both a continuity of struggle, and an advancing self-consciousness about the nature of that struggle:
Harrison's book demonstrates, more clearly, I think, than Jones's, that the topocentric axiom has been internalized in Canadian literature. Instead of the "climate, soil, productions, scenery and inhabitants" of Canada producing a new literature as Chisholme confidently expected, they have produced a literary preoccupation with the individual struggle to accommodate one's imagination and discourse with the new topography and climate. But the arguments of Jones and Harrison do not depend upon any mystical separation of the Canadian imagination from its European roots. On the contrary, they assume an indissoluble continuity between the Canadian-born European and the European cultural heritage. In other words, their topocentrism is exactly the opposite of that espoused by Pelham Edgar and Northrop Frye. For them, Canadian literature is characterized by its embodiment or awareness of a disharmony between its inherited European culture and its North American environment. For Frye, as for Edgar, Canadian literature is characterized by its incapacity to generate new aesthetic forms because of its severance from European culture. These two views are clearly contradictory. If we are, indeed, broken off from Europe, then the arguments of Jones and Harrison are nonsense. If, on the other hand, we remain in the thrall of European culture as Jones and Harrison argue then the supposition of a severance, endorsed by Edgar and Frye, is false.
It is a curiosity that the contradictory character of these two interpretive postures is never remarked upon. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that all four men indeed all six, if we bring Chisholme and Pierce into the company begin from the topocentric axiom of cultural history that culture is a product of physical environment. On that axiom European culture is proper to the European topography and climate. Similarly, Canadian culture ought to be proper to the Canadian environment. However, Canadians are Europeans by race and by culture.16Therefore our European culture is discordant with our North American environment. Or, alternatively, since we have left the soil which nurtures European culture, we are isolated from the fructifying principle of that culture. We are condemned to borrow forever from Europe because we cannot divorce ourselves from the cultural heritage we brought over the sea, and that culture must remain forever barren in an alien soil.
Stated thus baldly, I do not suppose that anyone would endorse the topographical mysticism of the second proposition. Nonetheless, Canadian criticism is replete with remarks that assume some similar basis. The notion, for example, that British and American authors are somehow alien to Canada tacitly accepts the notion of some severence between the culture of English-speaking residents of Canada and the culture of English speaking residents of other nations. When British writers such as Robert Service, Malcolm Lowry, or Brian Moore reside for a time in Canada, strident voices are raised either to claim them for Canadian literature or to exclude them as alien imports perhaps "dumped" on Canada in contravention of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. On the other hand, native born Canadians who live or publish abroad such as Bliss Carman and Mordecai Richler are sometimes suspected of not being truly Canadian perhaps because they or their texts have been severed from the informing spirit of Canadian soil.
Topocentrism dominates the critical perspective on Canadian literature, because no other means of establishing its boundaries are available. One might suppose as Pierce does that the Canadian political entity might provide some literary borders as it does geographical ones. However, critics and imaginative writers of the anglophone community are unanimous in their conviction that the Canadian political entity is too vague in outline and pale in hue to enter into the literary imagination. They complain that we have had no revolution, no civil war, no Indian massacres, in short, no spilling of blood to stir the imagination and create a Canadian story or myth.
Of course, it is not true that Canada is devoid of history, or even of blood. It is true that, given the small population of our Northern fastness, we cannot match the Americans quart for quart and limb for limb. But the history of European Canada has been punctuated by collective acts of violence from the burning of Port Royal by the English through the massacre of Dollard des Ormeaux, the fall of Quebec, the expulsion of the Acadians, two American invasions, the 1837 rebellions, the Riel rebellions, and the two great wars. Indeed the entire 250 years of the French regime was one of constant war with Indians, Americans, and British. The first century of British rule saw two American invasions and the bloody suppression of rebellions in Toronto and Montreal. It is true that no war has been fought on Canadian soil for nearly a century. The same is true for the Americans.
The true reason that Canadian blood is unsuitable for the definition of Canadian culture is not that the quantity is inadequate for the purpose, but that it will not serve the purpose. Our violent history serves to amplify our ethnic and sectional differences rather than to create a self-defining cohesion. Moreover, with the exception of the 1837 rebellions and the Riel rebellions, the wars were not our wars. They were someone else's wars fought on our soil or with our sons and daughters on foreign soil. Thus Canadian cultural history falls back on topocentrism faute de mieux. For my part, I am not sorry that we have been unable to found a national identity on violence.
Of course, the other defining factor of the cultural entity what the Nineteenth Century called "race" is unavailable to the Canadian cultural historian for two reasons. In the first place Canada is neither racially nor ethnically homogeneous. It is not even linguistically homogeneous. In the second place with the exceptions of the Amerindians and the Inuit whose cultures are their own and not "Canadian" the "races" of Canada could only define foreign cultures. No Canadian cultural historian has ever suggested that Frederick Philip Grove can no longer be a Canadian writer now that we know he was German, or that Mordecai Richler cannot be Canadian because he is Jewish, or that Morley Callaghan cannot be Canadian because he is Irish. Grove and Callaghan are interesting cases in point. Callaghan is sometimes thought to be less Canadian than, say, Hugh MacLennan, because his early novels did not have Canadian settings and were published in the United States. Grove, on the other hand, although he was born and educated abroad, is unquestionably Canadian because his fiction is set in Canada and has "Canadian" themes.
This last remark brings us to the most hotly disputed question of Canadian literary criticism. Topocentrism is an essentially invisible intellectual environment in which Canadian criticism moves and breathes and has its being. It is not a matter of debate or dispute, but is the ground upon which most disputes are fought. The "search" for Canadian literature is not longer a search for its boundaries, but a rummaging about in the agreed-upon corpus of Canadian literature in search of its defining characteristics. In this search Northrop Frye has been, if not the most indefatigable, certainly the most resourceful quester. He first identifies the defining characteristics of Canadian poetry in his 1943 review of A.J.M. Smith's poetry anthology:
It turns out that the defining characteristic of Canadian poetry is the reflex of the topocentric definition of its boundaries. The Canadian poet responds differently to his topography and climate than do American or European poets. He is more frightened, more intimidated, more hostile a stance that permits him to transcend nature and enter into that autonomous universe of discourse which is literature. Of course, his physical environment is more hostile and more intimidating at least, on the average than the American's or the European's.
This view of the Canadian literary theme has been consistent throughout all of Frye's writing on Canadian literature and has influenced profoundly not only Canadian criticism, but Canadian imaginative writing as well. He has elaborated it with such figures as that expressed by the phrase "garrison mentality." More recently, he has embroidered the topocentric theme with an engaging anecdote of an Englishman and an Eskimo snow-bound on an Arctic trail. The Englishman bewails that they are lost. The Eskimo replies, "We are not lost. We are here." Frye comments:
Pick ing up the metaphor of the Canadian landscape as a leviathan swallowing the immigrant Jonah, from his conclusion to The Literary History of Canada, later in the same article he reformulates his 1943 statement of the Canadian theme in terms more consonant with his own general poetics:
In other words, Canadian literature will come of age when it can internalize the theme of topographical alienation.
There is no doubt that topocentrism has proved a powerful aid in the task of defining the shape and form of Canadian literature. In the hands of Northrop Frye and those who have followed in his footsteps it has been honed into a far more incisive tool than Chisholme or even Edgar could ever have imagined possible. It has in large part answered the vexing question: "What is Canadian literature?" Canadian literature is that literature informed by a concern with the accommodation of a European imagination to a harsh and hostile physical environment. Out of this effort at accommodation may arise some day new formulations, genuine contributions to the literary discourse of the European tradition.
It is worth noting that this topocentric formulation of the Canadian literary tradition can be found already in Lionel Stevenson's 1926 Appraisals of Canadian Literature:
Anticipating Harrison, Stevenson looks for an original contribution to world culture from Canadians, if only they can sluff off the dross of European cultural predispositions:
And elsewhere, Stevenson seems convinced that the Canadian is a child of nature who will quite naturally reproduce the mythopoetic revelations of the childhood of man: "Since his [the Canadian's] sympathy with nature is practically an inbred trait he instinctively responds to those features of religion, myth or philosophy that retain some meaning as interpretations of Ancient Earth and man's relationship to her."22
Of course, the weaknesses of such an approach to literary criticism should not be ignored. On the one hand, it pushes such dissimilar authors as Morley Callaghan and Bliss Carman to the periphery of the Canadian literary imagination because they do not appear to be concerned with its central theme or locus. But an even more damaging weakness for literary criticism is that the focus of attention of the literary scholar is removed from the particular character and quality of individual works or groups of works of individual authors. As with the Kwakiutl Indians, individual Canadian authors and their works are studied as witnesses to or instances of general cultural patterns of the collectivity. In other words, much of what is presented as literary criticism of Canadian literature could be more accurately described as cultural anthropology. That this should be so is a natural consequence of the questions which Canadian literary critics have asked themselves. That which is Canadian as opposed to American or British cannot be other than a collective property. By elimination we have discovered over the last century and a half that our only collective property is our climate and topography.
The fact that even here Canada is very far from being homogeneous has struck a number of critics notably R.T. Harrison, who sees an imagination nurtured by the Ontario landscape as a dead hand on the prairie imagination almost as heavy as the European hand; hence the word "struggle" in his subtitle. No doubt we shall see a number of revisionist studies of Canadian literature pointing out that the "garrison mentality" or the irremediably hostile environment do not fully apply to, say, the Okanagan Valley or the Niagara peninsula. Such studies would not be silly, for they would be testing the very seriously held topocentric axiom of Canadian literary criticism. If a sufficient number of such studies do materialize, we will have to, once again, mount our steeds and set out in search of Canadian literature defined perhaps in terms of an emerging Canadian idiom as with joual in Quebec or Acadianese with Antonine Maillet.
Of course, as I hope is clear from my opening remarks, the cultural historical approach to literary studies is not peculiar to Canada. It is very popular in the United States where topocentrism is also the favoured interpretive axiom. Marxist literary criticism wherever practiced is also cultural history, but focusses on class and technology rather than topography or "race." Marshall McLuhan is another Canadian practitioner of cultural history, but he concentrates on a culture's techniques of information handling and the invisible epistemic consequences of those techniques. Canadian literary criticism is distinct only for its single minded concentration on the topocentric axiom. In this respect we are singularly old fashioned in our approach to cultural history. As we have seen, this is because it is only the topocentric axiom which will provide the exclusivity for Canadian studies that is the initial requirement of the discipline.
The very exclusivity of Canadian studies is, however, another weakness of the cultural historical approach as practised in Canada. Canadian literary studies are singularly perfunctory in the attention paid to the relationship between Canadian literature and the contemporary literature of other nations even of other English speaking nations. Frye himself draws attention to this feature of Canadian criticism:
Of course, the tradition of which Frye is speaking is the Canadian literary tradition, not that larger one which includes Homer and the Bible from which he believes us to have been severed. Frye is clearly uncomfortable both with the exclusivity and the hypostatized nature of this tradition. However, he is helpless to do anything about this unease without sinking from the composition of cultural history to the composition of literary criticism. If one were to argue that Flaubert's Madame Bovary or Sinclair Lewis's Main Street were as or more relevant to a study of Sinclair Ross's As For Me and My House as The History of Emily Montague or the prairie landscape, one would inevitably run the risk of denying the integrity of Canadian literary culture. One would be tacitly questioning the postulate of a continuum running back from Ross to Francis Brooke, and replacing it with a dizzying "kaleidoscopic whirl" of cultural relationships incapable of being hammered even into so indistinct a shape as that of the beaver.
Quoted by E.K. Brown, On Canadian Poetry (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1943), p. 2.[back]
Northrop Frye, Introduction to The Collected Poems of E.J. Pratt (Toronto: Macmillan, 1958), p. xxvi.[back]
Carl Ballstadt, The Search for English Canadian Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975), pp. 7-8.[back]
Lome Pierce, An Outline of Canadian Literature (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1927), p. 237.[back]
Ballstadt, p. 111.[back]
Frye, The Bush Garden, p. 136.[back]
Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination (The Massey Lectures, Second Series, The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1963), pp. 15-16.[back]
These four writers, it is curious to note, include three rather itinerant gentlemen who did not, in fact, stay in Britain. Would Byron have written Childe Harold, The Giaour, Mazeppa, Beppo, and Don Juan if he had never left England? Would Lawrence have written Women in Love if he had not eloped to Switzerland with Frieda von Richthofen?[back]
Ballstadt, p. 8.[back]
Lionel Stevenson, Appraisals of Canadian Literature (Toronto: Macmillan, 1926), p. 6.[back]
D.G. Jones, Butterfly on Rock (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970), p. 5.[back]
Jones, p. 184.[back]
R.T. Harrison, Unnamed Country: The Struggle for a Canadian Prairie Fiction (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1977), p. xiii.[back]
Harrison, p. 212.[back]
At this point one must insert the saving clause necessary to any discussion of Canadian cultural history. Not only do not all Canadians speak English, not all are European. However, if we are to write cultural history, we must give the culture a manageable horizon. Therefore, one must exclude from the preceding and following remarks the native Amerindians of Canada as well as those Canadians of Asian, African, or other descent. The Amerindians and Inuit, of course, have their own cultural identity. All other groups tend to adopt the dominant European culture of Canada.[back]
The Bush Garden, pp. 141-2.[back]
Northrop Frye, "Haunted by Lack of Ghosts," in The Canadian Literary Imagination, ed. David Staines (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 27.[back]
"Haunted by Lack of Ghosts" in Staines, p. 41.[back]
Lionel Stevenson, p. 39.[back]
Ibid., p. 9.[back]
Ibid., p. 41.[back]
"Conclusion to A Literary History of Canada," in Bush Garden, p. 250.[back]