From Mariposa to the Canadian Œvirsagas: An Epic Transition

This blog began in order to explore the real nature of Stephen Leacock’s fictional “little town”, called Mariposa. I was under the belief, and still am, that the place has been routinely misunderstood by scholars, teachers, and readers, and is in fact much more interesting than what people have taken it to be. I exempt Professor Ed Jewinski from this conclusion. He called Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town “a supreme achievement of fragmentation, incompleteness, and inconclusiveness.” And so it is, with a purpose. I believe that Stephen Leacock intended to issue a prophetic warning, using all the resources of knowledge, imagination, compassion, and humour he could summon as he, at the age of forty-two, entered the prime of his observing, writing and speaking life. Desiring something simpler, however, people enjoyed the humour and assumed it must be satiric, because they liked the idea that he was putting somebody down, translated the compassion into an easy sentimentalism, reduced the imagination to its caricature by assuming that Mariposa must be a real place (Orillia, Ontario), and paid no attention to the knowledge, thereby missing the prophetic message. It is fair to say, however, that Leacock set this trap for himself, and could have set the record straight had he so chosen. But the money and fame rolled in, and he saw no reason to contradict them. He tried again two years later, just as tentatively and much more narrowly, with Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich, absorbed the experience of the War To End All Wars and its immediate aftermath, put a match to the prophetic fire on the title page of The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice and then blew it out right away. He had the right stuff in him, but he kept it bottled up, for entirely human reasons, becoming a successful literary man although a prophet without honour in his own mind. Right at the end of his life, in the midst of another war, he tried to re-light the fire, but it was too late, and nobody cared.

A good, happy life for him, on the whole; a sad outcome for the rest of us because people with his gifts do not often come along. We need prophets who are less distracted.

Stephen Leacock’s prophesy ran along the following lines, I believe: If we Canadians, people of a liberal democracy which is what we are constituted to be and for very good reason, disregard the corruption, duplicity, incompetence, and triviality that surround us,—not to think for a moment that these are all that surrounds us,—then we will end up with the kind of farcical politics represented by John Henry Bagshaw and Josh Smith and with the governments that such politics produce. The people of Plutoria Street carry the same message for our business and economics.

That this message remains of concern to us today comes across clearly in a story on the website of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation,—routinely calling it the CBC hides what this public company is supposed to be,—written by Éric Blais, a Toronto marketing fellow they say, under the headline “6 ways the Conservatives could shake things up to widen their political appeal”.  He says the Conservatives are at a “strategic inflection point”. The six ideas for their strategic inflection are: to “pick a spokesperson with impeccable communications skills who is fluent in Canada’s two official languages”; to “think outside your box”, to “adapt the Conservative brand’s promise to a changing Canada, while remaining true to the principles of conservatism; to “find something inspirational about the kind of change [they will] bring to people’s lives” and tell us about it without calling us taxpayers, or “being so negative”; employ “micro-targeting to reach specific groups of voters with a specific, tailored message”, especially one for what he calls “the Québécois nation”, terminology to which I do not myself object. I make that four things, not six, although maybe some of them are doubles. I wish I were Stephen Leacock so that I could comment on this string of banal political marketing clichés as it deserves, but I am not. As a devoted liberal-conservative progressive myself, I can only fret and protest against such a paucity of substantial and creative ideas. Stephen Leacock began his The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice with the minatory words: “These are troubled times.” So they are, and I earnestly desire that our great political parties, all of them, should stimulate their thinking accordingly, to present me and all my fellow voters with a range of interesting, constructive, exciting alternatives. Are we not entitled to that? Must we be forever presented with a bunch of Bagshaws and Smiths clothed in twenty-first century fashions of speech?

Perhaps Stephen Leacock is right, however, to depict the political débacle of the Great Election in Mariposa as being fed by the voters themselves. After all, those voters did have an alternative in Edward Drone, and are portrayed as having no interest in what he had to say. We vote what we are, says this tale, not what we would like to think we are. The banner for this blog intones that “We are the stories we tell about ourselves”. What stories are they? Many, and various, no doubt, but what are the narrations that run through their intense pluralism, the great national epic or epics that colour them all, that I am calling, nordistically, the “Œvirsagas”?

I believe that if we can chase those stories out into the open and hear what they really have to say, not what self-interested people are telling us they should say, we would find that they express the best we can be, the journey we have taken together in what is after all a brief history trying to become the best we can be, all fragmented, incomplete, and internally contradicted as it is, but not necessarily inconclusive beyond the short term.

I have been thinking about these stories for several months now, arriving for the time being at a belief that the proper image for the ultimate Canadian œvirsaga is a musical one that would imagine an uniquely discordant harmonization of four themes, each with an œvirsaga of its own, which I have labelled the Aboriginal, the National, the Political, and the Urbanismal. I am going to use this blog to work out the telling of those four stories separately. Then I am going to work out possibilities for their harmonization, all discordant as they may prove to be. And if it turns out that we are, deep in the heart of us, the People of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, as I suspect we may be, then so be it. We will bless the name of Stephen Leacock for giving us the term, even if he was himself able only to warble a few transitory passages of notes, hardly amounting to much.

 

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