Category Archives: Canadian Œvirsagas

Ravensaga II: The Art of Ramification

Rose and Stanley came to think of their quest as a search for the Great Canadian Story or, employing the kind of terminology they preferred, the Ultimate Canadian Œvirsaga, the pluralistic story, the story that includes the myriad stories, small and large, the “trees” and other creatures that together make up the Canadian “forest”. “One may not be able to see the Forest for the Trees,” they would intone to one another and to their children when the time came, “but you can find the Forest through the Trees.” And so they set off on precisely that kind of mission.

They decided they would have to be careful about how they entered the forest, in order to prevent their route from influencing their interpretation. A rigorously random entry would solve that problem, which is difficult to do with a real forest, but much easier with a book, even one in four volumes with 2,736 pages, like The Canadian Encyclopedia (1988). They wanted to be able to locate a particular entry on a particular page, to start their exploration randomly on any particular day. For complicated reasons having to do with William Blake (and others), they needed it to be built of fours, or multiples of four. Explanation of that peculiarity will have to wait. The method worked like this:

The easiest and most portable random number generator is a coin. The number of times it is flipped yields a binary number; the one they needed had to be larger in maximum value than 2,736, the number of pages in the book. After some exploration they settled on eight flips of the coin, to which they would add four zeros, yielding a binary number whose maximum value is 4,080. They then, in their first actual trial, flipped their coin eight times (the coin was a 2019 Canada 5-cent piece with an aging queen on one side and a beaver on the other), added their four zeros, and came up with 110011000000, which is 3,264 in decimal notation. They then divided that by 4,080 and multiplied the resulting fraction by 2,736, yielding 2,188.8. Their entry into the forest would therefore be the first one after 80% of the way through page 2188 of The Canadian Encyclopedia, a spot both as precise and as random as anyone could wish, and wonderful in its result.

The entry revealed itself to be “Transportation in the North”, written by one Robert Bothwell. Now if you were looking for an omen, as Rose and Stanley certainly were, it would be hard to beat that one, Stanley and Rose being experienced northern voyagers of both the actual and the armchair variety, and much entranced by the romanticism of the experiences in all their variety. Not only that, but Stanley remembered Robert Bothwell from their mutual days as undergraduates. Their first essay into the forest yielded most pleasing connections, or, as they liked to call them: Ramifications.

They then set out to ramify “Transportation in the North”, using the links in the entry and the resources of the internet and their own minds. This of course led them straight into the Fur Trade, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Canoes, which they immediately ramified into exploration, trade, and transport by water; canoes, york boats, and voyageurs; and the heavily symbolic reality that modern transportation in the North began because men, for whatever reason, were prepared to sail or paddle up-stream, against the current, into the unknown, and to accept the inherent risks and difficulties, including the probability that they would have to get out and walk, hauling their boats after them, along with the risk that they might not survive to coast back home downstream later. Transportation in the North, regardless of its mode, was not for the faint of heart until modern airlines began to fly there. As for the strength of heart needed for some transportation in the North even nowadays, ask the truck drivers who venture the ice roads to the diamond mines in winter, or even anyone who drives the highway to Fort McMurray, although now twinned, and with proper shoulders, and no longer what it was.

“Now there’s a piece of the Ultimate Canadian Œvirsaga!” exclaimed Stanley. “Or at least one of its mighty branches.”

“It would have to be the exploring-developing one,” replied Rose. “The money-seeking one, the conquering-Nature one, the populating the country with immigrants one, the rolling over and pushing aside the indigenous one.”

“It’s a mighty saga, and a great blessing for many, but it does look different from the other side,” agreed Stanley.

“Somehow the Ultimate Canadian Œvirsaga has to find room for both,” said Rose. “We must find a way to teach the children both. There’s the Conquering Saga, and the Being Conquered Saga, whether it’s Nature or people,—the Exploiting Saga and the Being Exploited Saga, and they’re all inside the borders, and the history, and the present.”

“The voyageurs are a good metaphor,” said Stanley, “both exploiters and exploited, newcomers and indigenous, noble and foolhardy, adventurous and routine, wild and tame, free and enslaved, men and pack animals, eternal and short-lived. They sang songs. An old English professor of mine sang a song about them.”

The Voyageur
by Philip Child (1898-1978)

A voyager of lakes and windblown spruce
He breaks the misty morning, spans the noon
And dreams the midnight chuckling of the loon,
The day the night he holds in midway truce
The morning ashes are the evening gleam
His journey’s dawn and journey’s night are one.
Life is his paddle flashing in the sun
And time its swirl that eddies down the stream,
That eddies down the stream and is no more;
The swirl has vanished like the fire’s heat,
Cold, cold the fire, still the paddle beat
As still as needles on the forest floor;
Strong was the paddle thrust and quick as birth
But deep and dark and silent lies the earth.

So you see where random ramifying can take you.

Ravensaga I.—Opening

(Note: This posting is a draft from a work in progress.)

Nothing happened, nothing out of the ordinary, that is, when Raven’s mother extruded him onto the blanket held by the midwife. Now it’s all very well for Koheleth to assert that “all are from dust, and all turn to dust again”, the second half of which may eventually turn out to be factual. Raven, however, came not from dust, except perhaps metaphorically, but from the bonding within his mother, whose name was Rose, of two half-cells, one contributed by her and the other by his father, whose name was Stanley. There was nothing visibly exceptional about either of these microscopic demi-plasms at the time, nor about the circumstances of their conjunction. Rose and Stanley had by then been married for quite some time, and had been “trying”, as the saying goes. No meteors flashed across the night sky, no Aurora Borealis, no stars appeared in the east, no cosmic sign blazoned that this birth differed in any way from the 360,000 other births taking place on Earth the same day. The result, however, was stupendous, at least for Canadians.

Rose and Stanley named the boy Raven because they wanted to imbue him with All-Embracing Canadian Spirit. After consulting range maps for everything from birch trees to chickadees, they decided that ravens had about as much Canadian Spirit as any living creature found in the country. “When we have a girl,” said Rose, now confident of her fertility, fondly watching him nurse, “we will call her Chickadee.” And when they did, they did. Her too they inducted into their quest for the All-Embracing Canadian Spirit, and their siblings thereafter. To list the whole clutch, however, even to mention them again except in passing would unduly complicate the narrative. This Saga does not really need them. It needs Raven and Chickadee, Rose and Stanley, and the four grandparents: Frank, Belle, Oscar, and Gloria. As to which grandparent belonged to which parent, the question is completely irrelevant. What is important, is that Frank’s antecedents were British, Belle’s French, Oscar’s Scandinavian-American, and Gloria’s Cree. For it was this ancestral diversity that inspired the quest for a generation with the All-Embracing Canadian Spirit.

Diversity flourished also in professions: Frank started out as a miner and logger, and became a politician; Belle had dreamed of a life on the concert stage, stayed home, and taught children to play piano; Oscar crafted fine furniture from the hard and soft woods around his farm; Gloria wove the tales and pain of her people into blankets and garments for those with money enough to purchase. Rose and Stanley ran the web sites and produced the handsomely illustrated the books that kept the family endeavours in the public eye. Business was good, all around.

“I have been thinking about the phrase: ‘can’t see the forest for the trees,” said Stanley, who was prone to pontificate with some considerable verbosity, to Rose as they sat in bed one morning after a pleasant interlude of early trying. “It doesn’t make any sense. The forest is the trees, and the shrubs, and the flowers and ferns, and the grasses, and the mosses and lichens, and the myriad cellulars all the way down to the smallest infusorium in the moisture of the soil, and the creatures who feed on them, and the creatures who feed on them, and the creatures who feed on them, and so on all the way back up the food chain.”

Rose was with him all the way, and together they plotted the scheme that would dominate their life as parents. They would have as many children as Nature and their affection for each other would provide,—a minimum of two, they hoped,—and they would raise them to appreciate their country as a whole, by immersing them in the knowledge of its details, of all kinds, and letting their imaginations do the rest. The knew that each child would be born with an imagination, but they also believed in hearty doses of cultivation. They would teach them to feel with its people and places, through all the stories of their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and failures, the things done, undone, and yet to be done or undone. And they would teach them to see what was admirable, what was human, what was funny in the antics of their compatriots, as they went about their serious national project, whatever it was. For a long face never warmed anyone’s spirit.

Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, Humour: words to live by, and to grow children by, thought Rose and Stanley, and so did Frank, Belle, Oscar, and Gloria when they found out.

And so it came to pass that Rose and Stanley’s first gift to their new-born son was a copy of the four-volume 1988 red (and to be read) edition of The Canadian Encyclopedia. For there, they reasoned, along with such supplements as technology might provide in the future, would be found on each and every page (all 2,736 of them) some trace of the All-Embracing Canadian Spirit. They knew, from reading Stephen Leacock, that these traces could be rightly interpreted using Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour. They knew already that the Forest of the All-Embracing Canadian Spirit is diverse almost to the point of chaos, as much or more so as the countryside itself. What is Canada, anyway? Does it have an all-embracing story? Is it a “forest” or simply an expanse of “trees” with nothing much in common except their conflicting ideas and interests, their sense of their own particularity? In the fresh new dawn of their lives as parents they would set out to find out, bringing their children with them.

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.