L'Avarice de la Terre

The New Land: Studies in a Literary Theme, eds. Richard Chadbourne and Hallvard Dahlie, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1978. $4.50.

     In 1948, Hugh Kenner criticized Canadian culture for its immature devotion to natural rather than human subjects. "The surest way to the hearts of a Canadian audience," he mocked, "is to inform them that their souls are to be identified with rocks, rapids, wilderness, and virgin (but exploitable) forest." The typical Canadian painting, for example, was a landscape with nobody in it, and he concluded, if our arts were to come of age, they must "cut the umbilical cord to the wilderness" by depicting human figures and human complexity. Kenner must have been disappointed with subsequent Canadian literature and criticism--including the present volume--which continue to be delighted, provoked and tormented by landscape and continue to find in it a challenge to the senses and imagination. Coming of age has involved not a rejection but a reaffirmation of our violent commitment to the land. Recent literature especially, even when dominated by the city, repeats and amplifies the discovery of the country recorded by explorers and settlers centuries earlier. Malcolm Lowry realized when he settled in British Columbia that even today "We only live here by the grace of being pioneers," because for a Canadian the "conquering of the wilderness, whether in fact or in his mind [is] part of his own process of self-determination."

     In part, Kenner helped to explain our artistic preoccupation with nature when he spoke of "our pathological craving for identification with the sub-human." The encounter with the subhuman or inhuman, as embodied in the natural world, has been an essential aspect of Canadian experience. To this must be added, however, the corresponding encounter with the superhuman, again embodied in the natural world and expressed variously as romantic pantheism, as a Rousseau-esque "state of nature," or as Christian or Indian myth. The land provides a source for those immanent and transcendent powers in conflict with which man determines his own life (as Lowry suggests) and the life of the nation. It offers them a name, a personality and a history. According to Rudy Wiebe, the importance of the writer lies in his ability to identify and name these powers, and to dramatize their influence; because he has "clothed the places of this land with words," he permits us to inhabit, comprehend, share and draw strength from it. The poet Gatien Lapointe expressed the same need to converse with, and through speech to grow from, the land:

J'interroge la terre sous mes pieds
Je suis dinstinct l'augure du nuage
Je soui:fle dans mes doigts obscurs
Je nais de tout ce que je nomme.

     "I am born from all that I name." The simplest names applied to superand subhuman powers figured in the new land were heaven and hell. In this familiar view, Canada is seen as an earthly paradise or as "the land that God allotted to Cain"; the life it sustains is seen as either garden or garrison; the literature it prompts as either romance or tragedy. To Lowry, the inlet of Eridanus represents "the marvellous region of wilderness known to the Indians as Paradise"; but to Susanna Moodie, "The farther in the bush, say I, the farther from God, and the nearer to h--l." In practice, however, the names used by Canadian writers are not so simple, and more often, as Jack Warwick demonstrates, the two myths join in "dialogues." They work together and in opposition to produce the conflicts of nature and culture, order and chaos, liberty and anarchy, stability and adventure--the stories that characterize both English and French Canadian literature. Often the dialogues become disputes in the sense that each domain paradoxically shares yet attacks the values of the other. The wilderness is simultaneously a vicious, destructive chaos and a source of peace and vitality. The rural community is simultaneously a precarious, civilized order and a source of discord and constraint. The city offers a third way of life at once energetic and corrupting. Consequently, the land both promotes and subverts human values. It encourages yet challenges the heroism of the people who invade it, demanding a single-minded purity of effort from them, yet rewarding them with complexity and bewilderment. In "L'Exigence du pays," a poem by Jean-Guy Pilon (translated by Louis Dudek):

There are countries for children, and others for
men, some
few only for giants.

The Canadian landscape seems to elicit all that is heroic in its settlers, yet it subtly undermines that very heroism. Pioneers assert themselves through adventure, settlers proclaim themselves through labour, only to find the land still stretching west and north "to the end of everything--it was a kind of erasure of personality" (Willa Cather). Or they find that their ennobling efforts tame and thereby destroy the very wilderness whose wild vitality originally attracted them. The land teaches "manly" virtues--for some women writers, a "benign naturalism"--that succeed only in confusing the relation between men and women. Or, in Naim Kattan's words, "1'avarice de la terre, l'avarice du nord, l'avarice de la nature" provoke a corresponding human avarice, a small viciousness that contrasts the grandeur of their adventures.

     The paradoxical dialogues and disputes are temporal as well as geographical. As the phrase "the new land" reveals, the land is new only to the newcomer; it has a past of its own. Rudy Wiebe observes that "The newness or antiquity of anything has less to do with the thing itself than with a particular person's relationship to that thing." Canadian literature, therefore, in dealing with the "thing itself"--the land--has had to consider the various temporal relationships--rooted in history or psychology, preconception or tradition--we have had with the country. The newcomer must come to terms with the past he has inherited from the "old land" as well as the past of a continent that is strange to him. Somehow he must reconcile the two by establishing a new "ancestral space" (Andrew Suknaski). This temporal confusion explains the prevalence of nostalgia in a new world, and the sense of novelty in the face of what proves to be ancient. It explains how Canada can be both "the Land of the Second Chance" (Nellie McClung) and the land of first discovery. It accounts too for the dramas of memory and promise, history and timelessness, betrayal and redemption.

     The above observations and most of the quotations are drawn from The New Land: Studies in a Literary Theme, a collection of paper given at a workshop held at the University of Calgary in August, 1977. The collection is commendable for its scope. It treats some of the earliest and some of the most recent authors; both prose and poetry; men and women; natives, immigrants and visitors. French-Canadian literature is well represented. Generally, the French studies tend to survey the whole literary field, glancing at selected authors to trace the development of various themes: "l'agriculturalisme", "l'appel du nord," "le theme de ltespace," prairie nostalgia. In addition, Richard Switzer describes the legacy of observations and fantasies left by Chateaubriand after his visit to America in 1791. The English studies, on the other hand, tend to avoid the broad view in favour of closer attention to few authors: Lowry; women writers such as McClung, Laurence, Salverson, and Wiseman; contemporary poets such as Florence McNeil, Andrew Suknaski and Dale Zieroth. Rudy Wiebe draws from his own fiction to remark on the antiquity of the new land. Finally, two studies treat both French and English literature: Richard Chadbourne compares the visions of the prairies of Willa Cather and Gabrielle Roy; Ronald Sutherland recapitulates his arguments fromSecond Image and The New Hero about the Jansenist-Calvinist tradition and how it has given way to the new concept of "extra-territoriality." As a result of such treatment, the book gives the illusion of offering a firmer grasp of French-Canadian literature: contributors are willing to make broader generalizations about it, to reduce its development to fewer themes and categories. The English studies are more cautious. There is almost no attention given to the nineteenth century, to the Maritimes, or to Frederick Philip Grove (to take one figure who is surely central to a discussion of the land). But the collection does not purport to be exhaustive, and what the English essays lose in breadth they often gain in depth or in attention to the styles of individual authors. This last point is welcome because the studies are mainly thematic, historical and biographical, rather than stylistic.

     As in any collection of this sort, there is great variety in subject and approach, and the reader must decide which of the ten essays he prefers. Some may seem familiar and some too descriptive. My introductory comments reflect my own preference since they are indebted to four essays: Jack Warwick's "Continuity in New Land Themes from New France to the Present," Hallvard Dahlie's "The New Land and Malcolm Lowry," Naim Kattan's "Le Theme de l'espace dans la litterature canadienne-francaise," and Peter Stevens' "A Place of Absolute Unformed Beginning." These four best illustrate the approaches adopted in the book. Warwick's is a perceptive survey of new land themes that remains flexible because it does not apply its categories too strictly, but admits and finds virtues in the exceptions to its rules. Dahlie devotes most of his attention to only one work, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, but uses it to show the subtlety with which the Edenic myth informs all of Lowry's writing, especially when it deals with Canada; he shows too how one of Canada's oldest myths has persisted and found new forms in recent writing. Naim Kattan's article (the only one in French) is the most abstract discussion of themes of time and space, and does little more than mention a series of authors, but it is interesting for its very abstractness which gives it scope and daring. Stevens deals with contemporary poets, and in his examination of their failures to make a fresh start in the new world, he confirms Lowry's comment about the continuing importance of the pioneer experience in Canada. These four essays especially testify to the vitality and, despite Hugh Kenner's warning, the complexity of the theme of the land in Canadian literature.

J. M. Kertzer