Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Whither Canada?

How’s this for a piece of writing?

Rupert Brooke’s thoughts on the New World, from his Letters from America:

A godless place. And the dead do not return. That is why there is nothing lurking in the heart of the shadows, and no human mystery in the colours, and neither the same joy nor the kind of peace in dawn and sunset that older lands know. It is, indeed, a new world. How far away seem those grassy, moonlit places in England that have been Roman camps or roads, where there is always serenity, and the spirit of a purpose at rest, and the sunlight flashes upon more than flint! Here one is perpetually a first- comer. The land is virginal, the wind cleaner than elsewhere, and every lake new-born, and each day is the first day. The flowers are less conscious than English flowers, the breezes have nothing to remember, and everything to promise.

There walk, as yet, no ghosts of lovers in Canadian lanes. This is the essence of the grey freshness and brisk melancholy of this land. And for all the charm of those qualities, it is also the secret of a European's discontent. For it is possible, at a pinch, to do without gods. But one misses the dead.


Peter Burnet said...

Too little history vs. too much. Wonderful.

Not to be a philistine and wrench this sublime poetry into politics or anything, but why have North Americans become so much more moved and informed by their history than Europeans?

Brit said...

Are New Worldians more moved and informed than Europeans? Maybe they are, or, they take it much less for granted, anyway.

History is extremely popular in Britain though (and historical biography is uniquely popular in Britain, I’ve heard). Every few months there’s a new blockbusting TV series of the history of the Romans in Britain, or the Tudors and Stewarts etc.

I suppose that the trouble with an education in European history is that there’s so much of it, and you can approach it from so many angles. Britons view all history through the eyes of British military engagements and monarchs.

I studied US history at school – you can go into so much more detail, and it’s so tightly action-packed – from Declaration of Independence to Civil War to Carpetbaggers to Progressivism to Enola Gay to Cuban Missile Crisis seems but a hop, a skip and a jump. American history is divided up by Presidencies (a decade at most), whereas European history is divided up by monarchs in some cases, and whole dynasties of monarchs in others.

I don’t know how they teach history on the continent, but in Britain, my theory is that there is the Old Way and the New Way. The Old Way was hilariously skewered by the book 1066 and All That. There are two memorable dates: 55 BC (the Romans), and 1066 (the Normans). Otherwise it’s just a great big list of Kings and Queens, Pretenders, Battles and Bloody Marys.

The New Way is exactly the same, except there is masses and masses of detailed stuff about WWII and the Nazi Holocaust tagged on at the end.

But yes, maybe North Americans do cherish their history more than Europeans, for the same reason that Americans are so overtly and aggressively flag-waving when it comes to patriotism – the relative brittleness of their national identity. Whether they are more informed by their history seems highly debatable.

Peter Burnet said...

You forgot another key date in 1066 and All That---1917, when America became top dog and history therefore came to an end.

I should have said formed rather than informed and I was particularly talking about the cousins, who really do impress me the way they celebrate and cherish their history. The Civil War National Parks are marvels. Your suggestion that it all has to do with brittleness of national identity is a typical old country faux-snobbish dig that can only properly be answered with pistols at dawn. The Yanks do the same to us (Does "There is no Canada" sound familar?), but we just smile and bask in our well-honed sense of confident superiority.

I realize Britain is very different from Europe, thank goodness. Today's continentals seem to have nothing good to say about their histories and cultures until some dark-skinned immigrants come along, and then they celebrate all the wrong things. But there is a theme of modern popular historical or cultural study in Britain that seems to be too influenced by Monty Python, and I'm not talking about the doctrinaire left. The best example I can think of is Jeremy Paxton, who wrote a whole book celebrating his deep love for British social and cultural traditions while concluding each chapter with the obligatory admission of how silly or oppressive they all were. That approach seems to be quite common and we have our share of it here too. Don't get me wrong, I actually prefer the self-mocking "how droll" approach, but it has become a little too ingrained and keeps us from recognizing that there are times to look at our histories proudly and defiantly like a John Wayne without fearing what all the beautiful people would say.

Brit said...

Ah but I think it's the other way about. Paxman et al enjoy pointing out how silly and droll it all is, while slyly concluding how great we are.

Everybody knows that only the fundamentally self-assured can convincingly engage in self-mockery.

Maybe 'brittle' is too snobbish or harsh a word.

Perhaps it's like an American block of steel versus a European oak. Very strong, and maybe will even last a lot longer, without danger of dying, but no roots.

David said...

I would say "artificial" rather than "brittle."

Peter Burnet said...

Perhaps it's like an American block of steel versus a European oak.

Cool metaphor, Rupert. Got any room for a lovely Canadian maple? :-)

Brit said...

Maybe a moose. Or a mountie.

Or a mountie on a moose. That's pretty much Canada, isn't it? A mountie on a moose? Yes?

Peter Burnet said...

No, you twit. Not moose. Moosehead.

Brit said...

You'd have to prove that by sending me a couple of crates.

Peter Burnet said...

I really shouldn't be so smartalecky and mock your attempts to get an interesting and serious debate going. Sorry, let me focus here.

OK, I take it your argument is that your problems with all the yobs and chavs is that they are too weighed down by history?

Brit said...

No, I just thought it was a nice piece of writing.

There walk, as yet, no ghosts of lovers in Canadian lanes.