The Absence of Neoconservatism and Ecocriticism in Canadian Literary Studies
At first glance, the title of this Preface may well seem metaphysical in the Johnsonian sense of a violent yoking together of contraries. What possible connection can there be between ecocriticism—the study of "the relation between literature and the environment…in a spirit of commitment to environmental praxis" (Buell 430)—and the bundle of economic and social policies that have come to be known as neoconservatism and, mutatis mutandis, neoliberalism and neosocialism. The answer is very little, for, as any reader of such doctrinaire neoconservatives as The Globe and Mail’s Terence Corcoran will readily attest, the philosophy that made the Iron Lady has nothing in common with the thinking behind the Green Movement. Then why the juxtaposition? The answer lies in a discussion that followed an address by Malcolm Ross at the 268th Convocation of the University of Western Ontario in June 1997. The address was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by those attending Convocation, and it is worth quoting in full:
remember vividly the day I graduated from the University of New
Brunswick in the Spring of 1933. We were in the very depths of the Great
Depression. At a graduation luncheon the speaker dwelt painfully on the
difficulties we would surely have to face in finding a job (in those
days no one ever dreamed of "jobs, jobs, jobs"—just a job).
Then, in dark funereal tone, our speaker went on to warn us of a
gathering storm, of a cloud on the horizon as yet no bigger than a man’s
hand. A comical little fellow with a square mustache had come to power
in Germany and was already rattling his sword. But, he cautioned, we
would be wrong to laugh at him. We should, we must prepare to stand on
At the dinner for honorary graduates that followed convocation, Malcolm Ross was seated at the head table beside the Chancellor of the University and the President of the Bank of Nova Scotia, Peter Godsoe. As the dinner progressed, the discussion focused almost inevitably on the role of the Bank of Nova Scotia in promoting or, it might be, damaging the social and ecological health of the countries in which it has economic interests and a physical presence. Are the Bank of Nova Scotia and other multinational corporations a cause of the "global crisis" described in Ross’s address or are at least some of them—those that have enlightened policies regarding local environments and cultures—providing a secular answer to Ross’s prayer? Polarized from the outset, the discussion became increasingly so: to the right, literally as well as philosophically, one dinner guest proposed that the key to social and environmental renovation lay in individual effort and the resulting prosperity; to the left, again both literally and philosophically, a group of guests proposed that, on the contrary, the solution to the "global crisis" lies in communal activism on an international scale of the sort undertaken by Greenpeace and other organizations. In many ways it was a typical confrontation between the New Right and the Old Left, an argument in which no genuine dialogue (let alone agreement) was possible because of the "contrasting certainties" or "plural rationality" (Schwarz and Thompson 3, 6) of the two positions.1 It came as no surprise that Aldo Leopold was as unfamiliar to one side as Friedrich A. Hayek was to the other. Given the influence of both of these thinkers on Western thought in the late twentieth century, this was dismaying enough. Even more dismaying was the subsequent discovery at a gathering of members of Western’s English Department that no one present had heard of The Road to Serfdom (1944) and only one person had read A Sand County Almanac (1949): the study of literature in Canada is being conducted, it would appear, without informed reference to two of the major streams of contemporary thought, neoconservatism and environmentalism. Thus the title of the present Preface.
The reasons for the absence of neoconservatism and the near absence of environmentalism in the Canadian literary academy are by turns simple and complex. Dominated to a large extent by men and women who came to maturity in the ’sixties and early ’seventies, English Departments in Canada exhibit a profound and paralysing ambivalence towards the values that surround them, both in the society at large and in such departments as Economics and Psychology—an ambivalence born of a concatenation of left and left-liberal ideology with a way of life predicated on job security, more-than-adequate income, and pension funds that have used such investment vehicles as mutual funds to reap the benefits of multi-national and neoconservative prosperity. As a consequence, of the "thought style" of their culture (Douglas), members of the Canadian literary academy find themselves in a deeply conflicted position: on the one hand, their socialist predispositions inclines them to despise neoconservatism and embrace communitarianism; on the other, their way of life implicates them in the system that they purport to detest and encourages them, as consumers, to participate in the degradation of the planet and the exploitation of "feeder" countries such as Chile and India. Four responses to this double bind are possible: hypocrisy (a conscious or unconscious concealment of the disjunction between the ideal and the practice); blindness (a refusal, again consciously or unconsciously, to acknowledge and confront the urgent issues raised by neoconservatism and environmentalism); akrasia (a weakness of will in face of the attractions of consumables and the inevitability of environmental disaster);2 and action—active involvement through personal commitment and scholarly engagement, with the origins, evolution, implications, and consequences of the movements and ideologies that are now shaping the human-and-natural world for better or worse.
The modest but significant and growing number of books and articles with an ecocritical component that have been published in Canada in recent years is tangible evidence of the increasing interest among Canadian scholars is situating literature in an environmental context. If precedents for this burgeoning interest were required, they could readily be found in the work of the Confederation poets, especially in the poetry and prose of Archibald Lampman and Bliss Carman. Some of Lampman’s essays, most notably "Poetic Interpretation" and "Two Canadian Poets[:] a Lecture," deal directly with the relationship between literature and the environment, as do several of his contributions to the "At the Mermaid Inn" column in the Toronto Globe. Indeed, Lampman’s first and final entries in "At the Mermaid Inn" address environmental issues, the former the effect of the seasons on human mental and physical activities and the latter "the awful destructiveness of the human race" as evidenced by the disappearance of Canada’s "magnificent forests" and the near extinction of "the buffalo…and the wild pigeon" (339). For his part, Carman was continually alert to the myriad affinities between human beings and their natural surroundings, affinities to which he attests nowhere more compellingly than in the essays gathered together in The Kinship of Nature. "[A] cherry-tree…waving in the sunlight…bears some thousands of leaves, no two of which are precisely alike," he observes in "The Ritual of Nature"; "[i]t would seem, then…that Nature is strictly a formalist in dealing with her tribes, that she permits them just so much liberty of action and freedom of thought as shall conserve the interest of the individual, and not enough to imperil the integrity of the sect" (203-04; and see Bentley, "In Summary" 186-88). Such passages are certainly open to the charge of anthropocentrism, but more than most people of his era and generation Carman succeeded in placing human beings and human productions in an environmental perspective. "[I]t is really the best portrait of all," he wrote in 1927 of a photograph of himself in the Rocky Mountains, because "it sub-ordinates the physiog[nomy] (which is immaterial) to the environment (which is vital in pictures of poets)" (Letters 36). Needless to say, the poetry of both Lampman and Carman is fertile ground for ecocritical study, as is the work of numerous other writers of the post-Confederation period such as Charles Mair, whose "Canadian Poems" express, in Norman Shrive’s words, his "personal bitterness" over "the corruption of…Canada’s previously unspoiled land by Europeans" (xxvii), and Isabella Valancy Crawford, whose Malcolm’s Katie has already been given a compelling ecocritical reading by Diana M.A. Relke.
Nor is pre-Confederation writing wanting in subject matter that would be amenable to ecocritical analysis3 or—though this is much rarer—congenial to the ecocritical spirit. In their very nature as records of assiduous searches for lands to appropriate and materials to extract, the writings of Canada’s explorers and fur-traders exist in the border of literature and the environment, and the numerous accounts of emigration and settlement in poetry, fiction, and non-fictional prose by writers such as Oliver Goldsmith, Susanna Moodie, and, of course, Catharine Parr Traill (see the Documents sections of the present issue of Canadian Poetry) are just as obviously fertile ground for ecocritical study. Here is Thomas Anburey in 1789 on the future of the Canadian fur-trade and the predicament of Canada’s animals:
the fur trade, which still is the greatest resource of wealth to England,…must in process of time be annihilated, from the very great destruction of the animals, which every year diminishes them so fast, and occasions their flying to remoter parts, that the trader has hundreds of leagues farther to go in search of them; the necessity, therefore of encouraging husbandry, will appear evident…. [The animals of Canada], as everything, sooner or later, in this terrestrial globe, [have]paid tribute to the sovereignty of man; that cruel power that has been so fatal to every living creature…. No sooner had our luxury led us to make use of their skins, than the natives waged perpetual war against them….4 (1: 225, 228)
And here, seventy years later, is Alexander McLachlan’s Old Pioneer on the shooting of a deer by one of his fellow emigrants:
The creature made
a desperate leap,
Both Anburey and McLachlan attest to the deadly consequences of European imperialism and consumption on wildlife in Canada and both refer to the processes of retreat—the "flying to remoter parts" and the seeking of "a deeper solitude"—that would eventually lead to the existence and need throughout North America and, indeed, the "terrestrial globe," of places where living creatures other than humans could be relatively safe from their most destructive enemy.
While the essays in this special issue of Canadian Poetry focus almost exclusively on twentieth-century Canadian texts, they all present ecocritical perspectives and approaches that shed light on writing in Canada from its beginnings to the present. They are offered collectively not in attempt to define or delineate the ecocritical study of Canadian writing but as a small contribution to the necessary and urgent project of revisioning the place of human beings and all their activities in the world that has in recent years been garnering increasing support in the Canadian academy. In the March 25, 1904 number of Science, Carman’s brother-in-law, W.F. Ganong, concluded an article on "The Cardinal Principles of Ecology" by conceding that "ecology is but in its beginning" (198). In the as yet unsilent spring of 1998, it must be conceded that ecocriticism, too, is "but in its beginning" particularly in Canada. Yet in the work of Andrea Lebowitz, Dorothy Nielsen, Susie O’Brien, Diana M.A. Relke, Elizabeth Thompson and David Wylynko, the ecocritical study of Canadian writing is well begun, and rich in potential both for the objects of its study and for the objectives of the environmental movement.
Anburey, Thomas. Travels through the Interior Parts of America. In a Series of Letters. 2 vols. London: William Lane, 1789.
Bentley, D.M.R. The Gay] Grey Moose: Essays on the Ecologies and Mythologies of Canadian Poetry, 1690-1990. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1992.
——. "In Summary." In Bliss Carman: a Reappraisal. Ed. Gerald Lynch. Reappraisals: Canadian Writers 16. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1990: 184-88.
Carman, Bliss. The Kinship of Nature. Boston: L.C. Page, 1903.
——. Letters to Margaret Lawrence, 1927-1929. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley, assist. Margaret Maciejewski. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1995.
Clark, William C., and R.E. Munn, ed. Sustainable Development of the Biosphere. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.
Cook, Ramsay. "Cabbages Not Kings: Towards an Ecological Interpretation of Early Canadian History," Journal of Canadian Studies 25 (Winter, 1990-91): 5-16.
Douglas, Mary. Thought Styles: Critical Essays on Good Taste. London: Sage, 1996.
Ganong, W.F. "The Cardinal Principles of Ecology," Science 19(1904): 493-98.
Hayek, Friedrich A. Individualism and Economic Order. 1948. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.
——. The Road to Serfdom. London: George Routledge, 1944.
Lampman, Archibald. At the Mermaid Inn: Wilfred Campbell, Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott in The Globe 1892-93. Ed. Barrie Davies. Literature of Canada: Poetry and Prose in Reprint. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1979.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. 1949. London: Oxford UP, 1970.
McLachlan, Alexander. The Emigrant. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1991.
Relke, Diana M.A. "The Ecological Vision of Isabella Valancy Crawford: a Reading of Malcolm’s Katie," Ariel 22 (July 1991): 51-71.
Schwarz, Michiel, and Michael Thompson. Divided We Stand: Redefining Politics, Technology and Social Choice. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.
Shrive, Norman. Introduction. In Dreamland and Other Poems; Tecumseh: a Drama. By Charles Mair. Literature of Canada: Poetry and Prose in Reprint. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1974. vii-lii.
Thompson, Michael, Richard Ellis and Aaron Wildavsky. Cultural Theory. Political Cultures. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1990.