Building Jerusalem Here

The Arts in Canada: The Last Fifty Years, ed. W. J. Keith and B. -Z Shell. University of Toronto Press, 1980,157 pp.

Nothing better reveals the ingrained regionalism of Canada than the Parliamentary determination not to permit the Prime Minister to bring the Constitution home. Canada, the implied argument goes, will not be forced unilaterally into nationhood. Viewed in the perspective of the recent political debate, Arthur Lower's 1946 account of Canada's growth from colony to nation assumes a mythical shape and George Grant's 1965 lament for its collapse becomes a pastoral elegy. The fictions they unintentionally constructed helped to constellate a reality that is not otherwise there.

     The social function of the arts is to give sufficient credence to illusion to allow it to function as real. The humanly inhabitable Canada that is only now beginning to emerge is largely the product of the regional imagination affirm ing its creative acts through a critical recognition of what it has produced. What now holds Canada together is far less a Constitution that has yet to find a home than a growing realization that works of the imagination are united by the creativity they share in common. The Biblical name for that creativity is Jerusalem, which is both a city and a bride. The recent Parliamentary debate reminds us that the bride has been left politically stranded at the altar. The bridegroom has refused to repeat the over-rehearsed marriage vows.

     In the long run, this stubborn provincial refusal may accelerate the maturing of the arts. Canada today is, as Northrop Frye points out, "a far more exciting place to live in, culturally speaking, than its demoralized economy and demented political leadership would suggest." As its economy becomes even more demoralized and its political leadership even more demented (nationalism may attend to that) it is not altogether unlikely that the cultural excitement may increase. A true Canadian identity, one suspects, may yet emerge from the acceptance of an imaginative life that transcends immediate economic or political ends. The lasting Canadian achievement may finally outstrip its American neighbor by forging in the furnace of the imagination a Canadian identity free of a pernicious nationalism.

     Reviewing Canadian poetry for the decade of the 'fifties, Northrop Frye in the University of Toronto Quarterly recognized "the emergence of a curiously interconsistent language of symbolism and imagery among the poets who most obviously knew what they were doing." This language he Contrasts with the "subliterary rhetoric" of the Confederation poetry which was, he writes, "really inspired by a map and not by a country or a people." The real poetry inspired by a map was, of course, the engineering genius that produced the CPR. What may be evident in "the emergence of a curiously interconsistent language of symbolism" is a rebellion against the binding of Canadian life to the engineering feats of the nineteenth century. A culture grounded in the victory of engineering over geography (Matthew Arnold's "machinery") is not only unacceptable but inhuman and degrading. It assumes that its real priorities are material ones and that literature and the other arts are essentially frivolous activities to be turned to only when economic condition permit.

     The reverse, however, may in fact be the case: economic conditions advancing to meet the requirements of the creative imagination. The victories of capitalism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America are, according to one school of thought, grounded in the Puritan vision of its poets. In Canada, that Puritan vision found one of its finest spokesmen in A. S. P. Woodhouse who took full charge of the University of Toronto Quarterly with the publication of volume five. Woodhouse's edition of the Puritan debates, Puritanism and Liberty, brought to this country, as no poet or artist thus far had, a vision of Jerusalem in its historical struggle to descend. Under Woodhouse, Milton studies at Toronto assumed an eminence shared by no other University. At the centre of those studies was Milton's doctrine of liberty which was essentially unlike the populist doctrine shaping American democracy in a manner that never took root in Canada. The Puritan distinction between liberty and licence lies close to the heart of an English-Canadian culture, one of whose unacknowledged centres was the Honours English programme largely shaped by Woodhouse at the University of Toronto. When in 1936 the annual "Letters in Canada" section first appeared (largely as a result of the joint influence of E. K. Brown and Woodhouse who, beginning with the third volume, became co-editors) the spirit informing the English programme began to make itself felt in an annual review of the Arts with, one suspects, in calculable results. Canada is probably unique in the degree to which the arts have operated within the shaping surveillance of the academic mind committed in the UTQ to demonstrating (as Woodhouse described it) "the vitality of the great tradition to the general humane reader."

     That "great tradition," at least in Woodhouse's formulation, goes back to fit. Paul's assertion of "the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free" of the "bondage" of the law. In its secular form, this view of liberty grants to the intellect a freedom of movement that affirms the integrity of its own disinterested endeavour. Applied to the arts, it averts the autonomy of the imagination. Perhaps the most thorough-going examination of that autonomy ever undertaken by an academic mind is Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, a work that, via Milton and Blake, attests a description of the verbal universe of the liberated, which is to say educated, imagination. Frye's monumental work (now under considerable "populist" attack as a closed elitist system) is un thinkable outside of the Puritan vision of the liberated mind which at the University of Toronto was pursued with all the intellectual energy of a subliminal religious passion. That the pursuit still continues is perhaps evident in what George Woodcock describes as "the University of Toronto Press's two daunting ventures, the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, under the editorship first of F. E. L. Priestley (who also did the definitive edition of Godwin's Political Justice for Canadian publication) and now of J. M. Robson, and the Collected Works of Erasmus."

     It would, of course, be grossly inaccurate to suggest that the enlightened criticism of Woodhouse and Frye produced at the University of Toronto or in the annual review of "Letters in Canada" in the Quarterly anything as formulated or doctrinaire as the present Yale school of criticism. The difference between the Canadian mosaic and the American melting pot makes the phenomenon at Yale an impossibility at Toronto. Like America itself, Yale is sometimes overcome by its own powerful identity. Like Canada itself, Toronto stops shorts of rash commitments that would impose an identity that by its very nature evades some final recognition. The original goal of Puritan liberty was a life in the risen Christ where, in Paul's words, "there is neither Jew nor Greek . . . bond nor free . . . male nor female." If the Reformation path to this Kingdom is now irreparably damaged, it nevertheless may yet remain open to the disinterested intellect and the autonomous imagination. The impressive interplay between them as witnessed in the Quarterly's annual review of "Letters in Canada" suggests that the arts in this country are being granted, despite political and economic pressures, every encouragement to pursue their own disinterested ends, one offspring of which may yet be a Canadian identity the spiritual form of which rejects a national container, as perhaps now any truly human identity must. Needless to say, the editors of the Quarterly responsible for the fiftieth anniversary issue, W. J. Keith and B. -Z Shek, make no such elaborate claims. Nevertheless, I suggest that a certain amount of circumstantial evidence is there. Enough, perhaps, to stake this claim.

Ross Woodman