Forgetful of Former Care: Notes on the Past and Present State of Canadian Memory


In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history—a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.
     Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with [Vladimír] Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitous Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.
     The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.
     Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.

—Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978; trans. 1980) (3)

The struggle of remembering against forgetting which in Kundera’s Czechoslovakia was the "struggle of man against power" is a struggle that is discernible, albeit less dramatically, throughout the history of Canadian culture. The provincial motto of Quebec, "Je me souviens," is enough to remind us of the importance of memory in securing the survival of cultural and individual identity. Without the memories of the past that are constitutive of cultural and intellectual continuity, there can be no fully comprehended present either for a collectivity or for an individual, and with no remembered past to define and direct the present there can be no planned or idealized future. As the Archmage Ged tells Arren in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (1968-1990), "‘‘To deny the past is to deny the future…. If the rowan’s roots are shallow, it bears no crown’" (32). Or as Cicero put it in the Orator (46 BC): "[n]escire autem quid ante quam natus sis accidrit, id est semper esse puerum": "[t]o be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child" (394-95). A key element for the realization of our individual destiny, memory is also a means by which relatively powerless clusters of cultural and personal identity such as Czechoslovakia and Canada are able to resist the coercions of larger powers whose economic or ideological futurism can convince them that even their own history, let alone the history of other places and peoples, can be treated either selectively or as "bunk" (Henry Ford, qtd. in Gelderman 177).1 In view of the possibly enormous stakes involved, a concerned look at the state of Canadian memory, at what is remembered and forgotten in this country and its culture, could prove as intriguing and telling in its own way as Kundera’s chilling account of those wintry photographs of Clementis and his cap.

That the same man who proclaimed history "bunk" also invented the assembly line and the monochrome car will surprise no one who has recognized that a hostility to history and a dehumanizing drive towards uniformity are by no means unrelated aspects of consumer capitalism, a system which has every economic reason for coercing people to live a present-participle existence (drinking, eating, sailing, having fun…) in a perpetual present that, even as it happens, is obsolete by design. Some people may be immune to such coercion but, if so, it will not be by grace of today’s educational system which, under the pressure of the liberal ethos that governs consumer capitalism, has allowed itself at nearly every level to be predicated on a belief in process, on the notion that thinking and writing about issues and problems is more important than what is thought or written about.2 The idea of memorizing something—a great poem, an historically important speech, a piece of purple prose from a novel (the Bible, of course, cannot be mentioned, even for its style)—seems to modern educators and students to be as pointless as studying Latin or some other "dead language" (though some of these languages are, of course, essential to the apprehension of the memories implicit in English words such as "puerile").3 It has become for too many people sufficient to know a few sentences and slogans and, not surprisingly (since, after school, the greatest influence on most children are the media) most of the sentences and slogans that people find in their minds are from advertisements: "Harvey’s makes a hamburger a beautiful thing," "Just for the taste of it—Diet Coke," "Come to where the flavor is"….4 Neither is it surprising that most people can remember the punch-lines of television commercials but not the plots and events of the programs that they ostensibly interrupt. ("Readers who have watched a number of episodes of, say, Three’s Company or Hangin’ In might try to recollect them," wrote Patrick O’Flaherty in the January 19, 1988 issue of The Globe and Mail; "Bet you can’t.") The plots and events of such programs as Hang Time and Clueless have to be as forgettable as the commercials that support them are memorable or— much to the detriment of consumer capitalism—the North American media networks would not survive.

Perhaps the most devastating consequence of our perpetual bombardment by the messages of consumer capitalism is that, as Mikhail Bakhtin long ago theorized and as Martin Amis has more recently shown in Money (1984), we are all of us being to a considerable extent thought by the consumerism that surrounds us: many of our ideas and memories are not in any meaningful way our own. By no means fortuitously, a principal characteristic of Amis’s protagonist as he wanders soporifically between and around London and New York is amnesia, a forgetfulness of the events of his own life that is an evident consequence of his absorption by the voices of consumer culture (Pornography, the weather, the cult of youth…). In 1981, the Nobel-Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz observed that a "refusal to remember" is a primary characteristic of the latter part of the twentieth century (qtd. in American Memory 5).5 Could it be that an inability to remember is gradually becoming a characteristic of our age, alienating us as it does so from ourselves and from our traditional culture? Could it even be that Alzheimer’s is as much a social as a biological disease? A glance at some early Canadian literary texts, at a few works of poetry and fiction that can shed so much light on both our past and our present, will place the movement from remembering to forgetting in Canadian culture in literary and historical perspective, while also preparing the way for a discussion of the roles of Modernism (and to an extent postmodernism) in the manipulation of Canadian memory.


In Romantic and post-Romantic English and Canadian poetry the most obvious catalysts for memory (Memory: Mnemosyne: the Mother of the Muses) are places—familiar places that, when revisited, call forth from the poet a flood of valuable reminiscences. In William Wordsworth’s "Tintern Abbey" (1798) and Matthew Arnold’s "The Terrace at Berne" (1852), for example, the poet’s return to a familiar place engenders memories of times past that are not pursued as a nostalgic end in themselves but as an illumination of the present and a guide to the future. This pattern is followed towards the end of the century by Charles G.D. Roberts in "Tantramar Revisited" (1886), the poem that he wrote after returning from Goldwin Smith’s Toronto to the New Brunswick landscape of his childhood. (In Canada’s metaphysical geography, it may be noted, the direction of remembering is from West to East and that of forgetting from East to West or North.) "Well I remember it all," Roberts says twice in "Tantramar Revisited," and he concludes the poem by rejecting a possibly disillusioning descent into his cherished landscape and choosing instead to remember it in his mind’s eye and in his elegiac poem:

Muse and recall far off, rather remember than see,—
Lest on too close sight I miss the darling illusion,
Spy at their task even here the hands of chance and change.
                                                       (Collected Poems 79)

Recognizing the illusory nature of stability (and, eventually, opting for life in the fast lanes of New York), Roberts nevertheless resolves in this instance to accept the traditional role of the Canadian poet as the chronicler and celebrator less of "chance and change" than of peace, order and good government, particularly as manifested in the life of the Euro-Canadian farm or village.6 Roberts’s interest in memory makes him as sensitive as Marcel Proust to the particular power of the senses of smell and taste in the calling-up of remembrances: "Oh…the nose," he has a character exclaim in A Sister to Evangeline (1898), "[h]ow subtle and undestructible are its memories! They know the swiftest way to the sources of joy and tears" (67).

An awareness of both the personal pleasures and the social benefits of memory is not confined to Canadian poetry of the Romantic tradition. Almost a century earlier than Roberts, Thomas Cary in Abram’s Plains (1789) had held "blest converse with the learned dead" (the great writers and philosophers of the classical and neo-classical traditions) on the "green sod" outside Quebec City (11) and, in true Tory form, affirmed in the very year of the French Revolution the importance of remembering forward the achievements of the past. As Edmund Burke would say a year later in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), "[s]ociety is…a contract…, a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born" (93). In The Rising Village (1825, 1834), the Canadian Oliver Goldsmith links "forgetful[ness]" with the onset of social malaise and, concomitantly, sees virtue and health in the shared memory of the hardships and dangers encountered in the settlement of the land:

When…in peace are met a happy few,
Sweet are the social pleasures that ensue.
What lively joy each honest bosom feels,
As o’er…past events his memory steals….
                                        ([1834] 157-60)

Not until the present century, with the Modernist myth of discontinuity with the past and the postmodernist determination to ignore large portions of the nation’s literature and history, does there appear in Canada the programmatic forgetfulness of roots that, in conjunction with the educational and social phenomena briefly outlined earlier, leaves any culture open to a betrayal from within or without of its essential character.


Natural locales made special or resonant by personal experiences or historical events are not the only catalysts or repositories of memory in Canada. In The Stones of Venice (1876), John Ruskin ascribes to old buildings the power to sustain memory in an urban environment: "[w]e may live without [ancient architecture], and worship without her," he writes, "but we cannot remember without her" (147). If it is granted that this is true, then it follows that the converse is also true: new buildings and new architecture (the correlative, for the second-generation British Modernist, W.H. Auden, of a desirable "change of heart" [Selected Poems, 7]) may provide spaces in which people can live and worship but they will also obliterate personal and collective memories. As if to confirm the truth of Ruskin’s argument and its correlative, Stephen Leacock gives us the following description in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) (the little town being, of course, Mariposa, Leacock’s synthesis of "seventy or eighty" little towns between Lake Superior and the Atlantic Ocean [xvii-xviii], primarily Orillia):

First of all they…demolished the little stone church to make way for the newer Evidence. It seemed almost a sacrilege, as the Dean himself said, to lay hands on it. Indeed it was at first proposed to take the stone of it and build it into a Sunday School…. Then, when that proved impracticable, it was suggested that the stone be reverently fashioned into a wall that should stand as a token. And when even that could not be managed, the stone of the little church was laid reverently into a stone pile; afterwards it was devoutly sold to a building contractor, and, like so much else in life, was forgotten.                                                                                               (58)

"[L]ike so much else in life, was forgotten": the elegiac association of the absent church with other unmentioned (because unrecallable?) absences indicates that more is at stake here than a mere building, that the destruction of a familiar and historied edifice amounts to the creation of a memory hole into which psychic energies and entities are irretrievably drawn, to the considerable impoverishment of what remains behind.

Where old buildings remain intact in Canadian towns and cities they function very much in the manner predicted by Ruskin. A vivid illustration of this is "Autobiographical" (1951) where A.M. Klein, a Modern poet whose Jewish background lent him an unusually acute awareness of tradition, chronicles the way in which the architectural forms and human presences in the "streets" and "slums" of the "jargoning city" of Montreal give rise to "memories" that are at once nostalgic and sustaining (2: 564). Literary memories in the form of allusions to Wordsworth’s "emotion recollected in tranquility" (the source of poetry [2: 400]) and T.S. Eliot’s "Gerontion" (an "old man" who envisages "History" as a deceitful whore [Collected Poems 39-40]) help "Autobiographical" to chart its course among less visionary uses of memory than that which Klein claims for himself:

I am no old man fatuously intent
On memoirs, but in memory I seek
The strength and vividness of nonage days,
Not tranquil recollection of event.
It is a fabled city that I seek….
                                                   (2: 566)

Almost paradoxically, the "fabled" cities of the imagination are contingent upon the presence (and, therefore, preservation) of the real cities and buildings of the past. In memory and old architecture lie the foundations of dreams and imaginary cities. That town planners in many parts of Canada have failed to understand this will be evident to anyone who, to their psychic impoverishment, has attempted to visit a childhood home in, say, Calgary or Edmonton, cities where most of the old houses have been destroyed, taking with them the memories of countless individuals and a large part of the provincial culture. No Heritage Fund, however huge, can compensate now or ever for the destruction of real heritage and tangible history that has been carried out in Alberta in the name of progress and prosperity. Nor is it necessary to go to Alberta to witness the destruction of architectural memory. In London a temporary memory hole was created in 1988 on Richmond Street where the Adam Beck house had stood for nearly a century and in 1990 a permanent one was opened on Talbot Street with the destruction of the City’s "last, unbroken nineteenth-century streetscape" (Goodden).7

The first Canadian poet to recognize the devastating effect on memory and identity of the new architecture of modern materialism was Archibald Lampman. In "The City of the End of Things," first published in 1894 amid heated discussion in the United States and Canada about the plight and future of modern industrial cities (see Bentley, The Gay] Grey Moose 195-200), Lampman envisages a city in the international factory-town style whose "roofs and iron towers have grown / None knoweth how high within the night…"—an infernal realm in which robotic creatures with "clanking hands" move to "unheard commands" and obey a "hideous routine" (179-80). As its very title suggests, "The City of the End of Things" depicts the horrible and dehumanized outcome of the material emphases of industrial civilization. To glimpse the "City of the End of Things" is to glimpse death; to be caught in its "terrific spell" is to suffer the spiritual obliteration that is contingent upon the destruction of memory:

And whoso of our mortal race
Should find that city unaware,
Lean Death would smite him face to face,
And blanch him with its venomed air:
Or caught by the terrific spell,
Each thread of memory snapt and cut,
His soul would shrivel and its shell
Go rattling like an empty nut.
                                   (Poems, 180-81)

Sensing the connection between materialism, memory loss, and spiritual vacuity, Lampman goes on to envisage the ruler of his deadly city (in part, the Ottawa of then and now) as an "idiot" who "[s]its looking toward the lightless north, / Beyond the reach of memories"(181).8 Built in "days that no man thinks on," the "City of the End of Things" has "no rounded name," no identifying word to conjure up in its inhabitants such feelings of nostalgia, affection and pride as they are still capable of experiencing. With the destruction of memory comes the destruction of thought, feeling, tradition, identity, spirit—in short, the destruction of humanity.

Worth remarking is the fact that two of the most memorable poetic treatments of memory that are associated with Canada and Canadians have also come into close association with backward-looking architectural forms. The first and earlier of these is the famous "Lone Shieling" stanza of the "Canadian Boat-Song" (1829). It is engraved on a plaque near a re-creation of a Scottish crofter’s hut on Cape Breton Island:

From the lone shieling of the misty island
    Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas—
Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland
    And we in dreams behold the Hebrides….
(qtd. in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine September 1829)

The second and later of the two poems is, as may already have been guessed, "In Flanders Fields" (McCrae 3), a work almost ineluctably associated in most people’s minds either with a high-school reader (it used to be, in British Columbia at least, that students had to memorize it), or with the Remembrance Day ceremonies centred on the National War Monument in Ottawa (one of the few genuinely national repositories of Canada’s collective memory). Whereas memory in the "Lone Shieling" stanza promises sustaining dreams for the living, remembrance in Colonel MacRae’s poem promises peaceful sleep for the dead: "If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields" (13-15). Here, indeed, is a social contract between "those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." Both the "Lone Shieling" and "In Flanders Fields" urge in different ways that if the struggle of remembering against forgetting is won the result will be an achievement of the continuity in which individual and cultural identity is founded.


It is not fortuitous that all but one of the works so far placed on view were written before or during the First World War or—to put the matter another way—that almost none of them was written after the arrival in Canada of Anglo-American Modernism. At least a partial explanation of this resides in the fact that Modernism, a movement energized by the big cities of Western Europe and North America (Paris, London, and, in Canada, Montreal), has at its heart a myth of discontinuity with the immediate past that denies a part of history (in Canada an especially important part since all our easily accessible history is relatively recent) and, in so doing, threatens personal and cultural identity. Also at the heart of Modernism is another threat to distinct identities, whether personal or cultural: a structuralist belief in the existence of a monomyth that is merely elaborated in local and idiosyncratic ways that are of vastly less importance than the pattern that underlies them. How better to escape from what one of James Joyce’s characters calls the "Nightmare" of history (Ulysses 42) while at the same time making art, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, "a new thing" (Selected Prose 43) than by recoursing to the ancient and transcendant myths of the wandering Ulysses, the questing knight, the fated Oedipus?As a result of these and other tendencies, Canadian Modernism has been as programmatically hostile to early (pre-First World War) Canadian literature and culture as it has been receptive in all areas to the reductive (international, mythopoeic) assumptions and styles of the "great" European and American Modernists. A.J.M. Smith championed "cosmopolitan" (high Modern) over "native" poetry (Introduction 5-31), and followed Eliot in espousing the notion of the impersonal poet. F.R. Scott rejected "Memory-haunted thoroughfares" in favour of "new paths" (Collected Poems 37) and forgot on principle that his father, Canon F.G. Scott, had been one of the poets of the Confederation. Both looked in the direction of "forgetfulness"— towards what Lampman calls the "lightless north"—for the stuff of a poetry that would be uncontaminatedly fresh in its newness. As Scott would candidly recall later: in 1923, "I in my innocence was feeling that we could start afresh in Canada…and deeply impressed by the northland…and its sense of something waiting to be made. I forgot that we had already imported from Europe our language, our laws, our religion, and most of the factors that make up a social community" ("Three Documents" 92). That the very nature of language as a vehicle of cultural memory doomed from the start the attempt of these Modern poets to articulate the pristine quality of the "northland" is less interesting to the present discussion than the consequences for historical continuity, social community and individual identity of the Modernist denial of the existing, "native" culture.

The classical statement of the Modern Canadian poet’s rejection of that culture is Scott’s "The Canadian Authors Meet," first published in 1927. Trendily incorporating into its texture snatches of an English nursery rhyme ("Shall we go round the mulberry bush?"), an American gospel song ("Shall / We gather at the river?"), and the then unofficial national anthem ("O Canada, O Canada"), Scott’s poem employs irony and sarcasm to put distance between Modernism and Canadian Romanticism, "cosmopolitan" and "native," Canada present and Canada past (Collected Poems 248). Attendant upon this rupture of continuity is, as Lampman and others predict, the loss of the self that is constituted by the memory of one’s past, both individual and collective. When "The Canadian Authors Meet" was first published it contained a stanza in which the poet identifies and defines himself:

Far in the corner sits (though none would know it)
The very picture of disconsolation
A rather lewd and most ungodly poet
Writing these verses, for his soul’s salvation.
            (qtd. in Pacey Ten Canadian Poets 249)

In subsequent printings of "The Canadian Authors Meet," this stanza was deleted, and with it the poet’s and the reader’s sense of the identity of the poem’s creator—an identity that is tellingly Modern in its marked privileging of the male (female poets are lewdly caricatured earlier as "Miss Crotchet") and its concern with the "soul’s salvation." (In a central text for Canadian Modernism, Modern Man in Search of a Soul [1933], Carl Jung describes the "modern man" as "the man of the immediate present," the man who "break[s] with tradition" and "renounce[s]…history" in order to be "fully conscious of the present" [197-98].) No doubt, Scott moved away in time from the scathing rejection of the pre-Modern and the personal that is evident in the final version of "The Canadian Authors Meet." But his hostility to tradition is evident in his own poems (to their cost) in the arbitrary and poetically uninteresting use of such traditional forms as the sonnet (which, willy-nilly, carry the signature of Petrarch’s Italy and Shakespeare’s England) and, more generally, in the failure of even his best-known poems to take sufficient account of the resonances and associations of their linguistic and formal mediums.


The truncated view of the Canadian poetic continuity that results from the rejection by the early Modernists of preceding and competing literary voices has unfortunately become institutionalized in the classrooms of Canada and commonplace in the country’s literary histories, academic journals, and newspaper reviews, thus contributing to the assaults on Canadian memory outlined earlier. The major reason for this institutionalization of a form of amnesia is that, even today, the teaching and criticism of Canadian literature is dominated by people whose assumptions are essentially Modernist, people like the late George Woodcock, the founder of Canadian Literature, who was tireless in his assertion that Canadian poetry "really" began with the arrival in Canada of early or classic Modernism. Little wonder that, under Woodcock’s editorship, Canadian Literature largely forgot the Confederation poets but lavished very considerable attention on two writers who, though impeccably Modern, were only tangentially Canadian: Malcolm Lowry and Wyndham Lewis. A therapeutic (psychoanalytical) interest in memory as a means to self-awareness (individuation) has been a major concern of several Canadian novelists in the Modern tradition (think, for example, of Hagar "rampant with memory" [5] in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel [1964]), and, in the years since Expo 67 especially, the past has been put at the service of attempts to define the Canadian identity (think here of Margaret Atwood’s Journals of Susanna Moodie [1970] with its conception of Canada as a nation of "paranoid schizophren[ics]"[62]). But in the same time period Canadian criticism has all-too-often failed to institute the sort of meaningful dialogue with the pre-Modern past and post-Modern present that could sustain (perhaps even create) a sense of the depth and diversity of Canadian culture. Repeatedly, Canadian critics of the Modernist line treat the distant past (if they treat it at all) as a mere anticipation of Modernism and the recent past (which, being men of the present, they must treat) as either a happy extension or unfortunate betrayal of the movement that they admire above all others. The effect of what amounts to a critical inability to appreciate and accept the wide spectrum of Canadian culture is twofold: a fixation on selective aspects of Canadian literature and— to elaborate a metaphor from Kundera—an intellectual "airbrushing" of certain components of the Canadian tradition. Three examples will suffice to illustrate these effects.


In the first of his enormously influential conclusions to the Literary History of Canada (1965), Northrop Frye offers a number of notions such as the "garrison mentality" (830) which have served to fix the attention of numerous Canadian critics on a small and not necessarily typical range of Canadian works, from John Richardson’s Wacousta (1832) to Earle Birney’s "Bushed" (1952). While this unfortunate consequence of Frye’s thinking on Canadian literature has become widely recognized, little cogniscence has been taken of the fact that in his "Conclusion" Frye (who did not, significantly, research one of the historical portions of the Literary History) frequently uses verbal wit to dismiss a topic about which he quite evidently knows very little. A case in point is his comment that the "writings…of many of the early explorers are as innocent of literary intention as a mating loon" (822), where the amusing figure of the "mating loon" serves to direct attention away from the vagueness of the pronouncement that precedes it. What exactly is meant by "many?" As a category, whom does it exclude and whom does it include? Samuel Hearne spent years revising and editing his journals for publication; Alexander Mackenzie employed a ghost writer to help him with his; and David Thompson never did succeed in subduing his diaries to a narrative. Were these people "innocent of intention"? More important for present purposes than the answers to these questions is the recognition that, in wittily burying the writings of the explorers under the figure of the "mating loon," Frye employs a typical liberal or progressivist formula: he characterizes his distant predecessors in the Canadian continuity as comical in their artlessness and, in so doing, asserts his own intellectual and artistic power over them. By combining the dismissive force of ridicule with a simile’s ability to obliterate what it purports to illuminate, Frye’s "mating loon" is dismayingly effective in encouraging the reader of the Literary History of Canada to ignore a portion of Canada’s past. One is left, as it were, with Clementis’s cap—the "mating loon"—but Clementis himself—the explorers and their writings—have been airbrushed out of the picture.

A more recent example of airbrushing by a Modernist critic can be found in W.J. Keith’s contribution to the Longman Literature in English series: Canadian Literature in English (1985). Here the formula used to dismiss selected writers is not ridicule and concealment but complete omission—the absolute silence that negates absolutely. Arguing from the typically Modern conviction that the best writing combines an avoidance of verbal ornateness with a fidelity to real experience, Keith also asserts that the "quintessentially Canadian" artistic stance is one that exhibits a poised "balance between British and American models"—a "poised balance," that is, between "the sanctioned methods of the Old World and the fresh approaches of the New" (34). To these two criteria for separating the central from the peripheral in Canadian literature, Keith adds a third: only writers who seem to possess "a strong sense of cultural continuity" can be considered truly a part of that "cultural continuity" (112). Although this looks promising from an historical perspective, its narrowly Modernist and nationalist biases combine (strange bedfellows indeed) to produce some unhappy skewings and disturbing omissions in Canadian Literature in English. In the light of Keith’s assumptions, Lampman, for example, is at his best when he catches "the engaging sharpness of the Canadian landscape that will later impress poets like A.J.M. Smith and F.R. Scott" (38-39), and Lampman’s fellow Confederation poet, Duncan Campbell Scott, though "less admired in his time" establishes by virtue of his realism "the most effective lines of poetic continuity between nineteenth-and twentieth-century Canadian verse" (40). (The slippery phrases in these two comments are, of course, "engaging sharpness" and "most effective".) The real victims of Keith’s book, however, are writers who fall afoul of his valorization of "balance" and an explicit awareness of cultural "continuity." Among the poets from the recent past, several—Frank Davey, Daphne Marlatt, and Gwendolyn MacEwen, for example—are mentioned only once in passing in Canadian Literature in English. The list of those consigned entirely to oblivion without so much as a mention in the volume’s text, chronology or bibliography could go on for many lines; it includes Christopher Dewdney, bill bissett, Joe Rosenblatt, Andrew Suknaski, Robert Bringhurst, Steve McCaffery and bp Nichol. In Keith’s case, the Clementis’s hats are the recent Canadian writers who are mentioned only in passing in Canadian Literature in English and the Clementises are those whose experimental bias and eccentric failure to make evident their engagement with Canadian culture have marked them as fit subjects for the airbrush.

A third and final example of airbrushing in Canadian literature of the Modernist line is drawn from a more journalistic source. In an appreciation of F.R. Scott in the Summer 1985 issue of Poetry Canada Review, David O’Rourke reveals the extent to which popular and semi-academic reviewing accepts even in the mid-to-late eighties the Modernist myth that little or nothing of value precedes the arrival of Modernism in Canada. The opening paragraph of O’Rourke’s appreciation of Scott is an entirely gratuitous swipe at late-nineteenth-century Canadian poetry. Its first (and repeated) piece of sleight-of-hand is a fatuous—some would say colonial— appeal to an hypothetical authority outside Canada:

Let’s face it. Although nineteenth-century Canadian poetry is a growth industry, there’s not a hell of a lot that an outsider would call good. Despite all the Canada Council make-work projects, the steady stream of archeological finds being heaped on our cultural heritage, how many nineteenth-century Canadian poets would you read if you didn’t have to? One? Two? Say you’re going on an ocean cruise, or intend to lie for a week in the sun. Would you take: Charles G.D. Roberts or Bliss Carman? Even Lampman and Crawford. The point is not that this poetry is so old, but that it just cannot—nor could it ever—compete internationally because so much of it is so bad.                                                                                                                      (8)

This is a particularly hortatory, but not in its assumptions untypical, example of recent journalistic criticism of Canadian writing. In addition to an appeal to "international" (read Modernist) standards that are never defined, it contains two manoeuvres that place rhetoric over fact:

(1) "Say you were going on an ocean cruise….Who would you take: Charles G.D. Roberts or Bliss Carman? Even Lampman and Crawford." This is Cruisoism (neologism intended)—the use of the "if-you-were-on-a-desert-island-or-ocean-cruise-and-had-only-one- book" formula to force a choice which, in this instance, is limited by the exclusion of all other possibilities. Why not ask: "[w]ho would you take: Bliss Carman or F.R. Scott?" Probably because the answer might conceivably be Bliss Carman, and this—albeit only from a very narrow perspective on literary periods—would go against O’Rourke’s Modernist assumption that nearly all nineteenth-century Canadian poetry is bad.

(2) O’Rourke’s second manoeuver is to assert without demonstration, and, as it happens, contrary to fact, that Confederation poetry "cannot—nor could…ever—compete internationally"—the implication being, needless to say, that Modern Canadian poetry can and has competed in this way. In fact, the precise contrary is true: Bliss Carman was a significant Canadian and American poet in his day who exerted a palpable influence on Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Carl Sandberg and possibly Robert Frost, and D.C. Scott was responsible for inspiring John Masefield to take up the writing of poetry (see Bentley, Preface: Minor Poets of a Superior Order). That Carman and Scott were more competitive in the manner and forum admired by O’Rourke than any Modern Canadian poet (with the possible exception of Klein) makes especially ironical O’Rourke’s subsequent and essential assertion that "Canadian poetry properly begins with A.J.M. Smith and F.R. Scott, but we often forget how important they were." ("[P]roperly"?) In addition to Canada’s "old" poets it is the "cultural heritage" that O’Rourke professes to champion that is the casualty of his bias towards the Montreal Modernism of the McGill Movement writers.


Up until about twenty years ago, the history that was valued by those with an interest in Canada’s past was primarily that of European settlement. The two most obvious consequences of this were a nostalgic emphasis on the history, however brief, of the small town (The Rising Village and Sunshine Sketches are examples already encountered; Laurence’s Manawaka, Robertson Davies’ Deptford and Alice Munro’s Jubilee are others) and a less palatable amnesia regarding what, from the perspective of dominant Euro-Canadian culture, becomes the negligible pre-history of the Native peoples and the land itself. For Goldsmith, "savage beasts" and "savage tribes" are aspects of a "wilderness" that, to all intents and purposes, is a "desert" (that is, uninhibited and uncultivated) until the arrival of European settlers (The Rising Village [1834], 81, 95, 60, 55). Leacock speaks eloquently but unintentionally of the memory hole into which his European orientation consigns the pre-settlement past of the Native peoples and the land when in Sunshine Sketches he has "old Dr. Gallagher" bring "his latest Indian relics" to show to Rural Dean Drone:

As soon as the doctor laid his tomahawk on the table, the Dean would reach for his Theocritus. I remember that on the day when Dr. Gallagher brought over the Indian skull that they had dug out of the railway embankment, and placed it on the rustic table, the Dean read to him so long from Theocritus that the doctor, I truly believe, dozed off in his chair.                                                                                           (54)

In efforts aimed partly at countering an amnesiac attitude to any past that lies outside the history of Canada’s settlement by Europeans, many recent writers of the late- and post-Modern persuasion— the John Newlove of "The Pride" (1968), for example, and the Christopher Dewdney of A Palaeozoic Geology of London, Ontario (1973)— have effectively drawn into consciousness the submerged history of the Natives peoples and the land. In the Author’s Preface to his Palaeozoic Geology Dewdney offers one of his alternatives to the official record (the history constituted by great men and events and its literary equivalent: the psychological and historical novel and long poem): "[a] man’s entire experiential memory exists only unto himself, is fractionally communicable and chronologically ephemeral…. There do exist however, certain three-dimensional, universally perceptible memories….THE FOSSIL IS PURE MEMORY" [xv]. Using the resources of imaginative memory and deconstructive logic, Dewdney and others (particularly in the West) have attempted to liberate and articulate themselves and their culture by uncreating what is generally remembered of the Canadian past and recreating what is generally forgotten. These expansive efforts are attractive and welcome but, as Robert Kroetsch points out in Seed Catalogue (1977), "forgetfulness" in any guise is a "strange muse" (49) whose gift may be mindlessness and silence:

                no memory then
                no meditation
                no song (shit
                we’re up against it)
                (Completed Field Notes 56)

Being "up against it," making of unmaking and absence the stuff of fresh writing, has, almost paradoxically, permitted Kroetsch to avoid the mindlessness (and, by extension, silence) which, it was argued at the beginning of this essay, are ever-present possibilities for the inhabitants of our almost all-encompassing consumer culture. But in fleeing to the margins both geographically and in their writing, Kroetsch and others of the postmodern orientation run the risk of promoting the advance of a system that has everything to gain and nothing to lose by fostering any and all forms of forgetfulness, any and all regressions from a comprehensive memory of the past into an infantile being in the present. Could it be that in the postmodern insistence on process, on writing as activity rather than artefact, there is a willingness to exist in the present tense that bodes as ill for the realization of our full human potential and the maintenance of our independence, both as individuals and as a culture, as the curiously parallel emphasis on process in our educational system?

The revelation that one of the foremost practitioners of deconstructive criticism, Paul de Man, was during the Second World War the author of numerous anti-semetic and pro-Nazi articles has called into question the Yale Professor’s motives for insisting on the "pastness of the past," for wanting "to paralyse the move to history" (Frank Lentricchia, qtd. in Wiener 24).9 De Man died in 1983, leaving a brilliant and complex contribution to a theory of literary criticism that is certainly ahistorical and arguably totalitarian in its insistence that everywhere and at all times words obey the same rules, that the meaning of any individual utterance (parole) depends on its place in a total system (langue) that is independent of reality.10 In the post-Saussurean realm of deconstruction, you can have any colour you like as long as it is black (or/and white). By one of those coincidences that Jung might have ascribed to the workings of synchronicity (made famous in the ‘eighties by The Police), de Man was given a memorial service at Yale in January 1984, a year recalling inevitably (?) George Orwell’s warning that an erasure of the past is one of the conditions that allows a totalitarian régime to manipulate the future. First to begin this essay with a quotation from Kundera and then to end it with a reference to Orwell would be to frame its comments on Canadian memory in surely too apocalyptic a light. Yet the passage from Kundera and the glance towards Orwell are useful, it seems to me, if only to throw into relief the very real differences between the situation in Canada today and the situations in Kundera’s Czechoslovakia and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.11 The point is not that the events lying behind that photograph on the balcony in Prague or leading up to the totalitarian state in Nineteen Eighty-Four could never happen in Canada. It is that with their freedom and ability to remember still largely intact, Canadians—particularly those fortunate enough to be working or studying in one of the major custodians of the country’s memory such as a school or a university—have the ability and the responsibility to exercise one of the most formidable defenses against the many forces that encourage amnesia and threaten the basis of our personal and cultural awareness and identity.



  1. Ford’s passionate individualism and social Darwinism made him a compulsive collector of objects that represented the achievements of American enterprise. In about 1913 "[h]e bought and restored the old Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and the land surrounding it, plowing it with wooden plows, sowing it with grain, grinding the grain in a pre-Revolutionary mill, even getting permission from the state of Massachusetts to allow him to detour the Boston Post Road which, with its thousands of Model T’s, corrupted the purity of the colonial atmosphere he was endeavouring to recreate…. [Later] [h]e would build a village and a museum [at Dearborn, Michigan] to teach by example the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pioneer virtues of self-reliance and hard work to stimulate their resurgence in the collectivist twentieth century. He brought to his village the house he was born in (even though Edsel discouraged it, saying this was like building a monument to himself)…. The ridicule heaped upon him…for knowing little of American history rankled…. I’m going to start a museum and give people a true picture of the development of this country…. We’re going to build a museum that’s going to show industrial history, and it won’t be bunk’" (Gelderman 275-76). [back]

  2. In its monograph on American Memory (circa 1988), the National Endowment for the Humanities writes of public schools in the United States that "[i]nstead of preserving the past, they more often disregard it, sometimes in the name of ‘process’—the belief that we can teach our children how to think without troubling them to learn anything worth thinking about, the belief that we can teach them how to understand the world in which they live without conveying to them the events and ideas that have brought it into existence" (5). [back]

  3. "It’s probably no coincidence that when we speak of memorizing something, we refer to it as learning by heart," observes Anne Michaels in the March 1994 issue of Poetry Canada. As if remembering the passage from Kundera that serves as an epigraph to the present essay, Michaels also observes that "[h]istorical revision purposely erases and omits facts, airbrushing figures from photos; but memory endures: invisible, underground, in samizdat publishing, in secret religious observance, a black market, stories a parent tells a child…. Language is [also] a repository of cultural and personal memory; language remembers…. [I]t is…a repository of history" ("Cleopatra‘s Love" 15). [back]

  4. An anonymous article entitled "The Price of Emersonism" in the May 1, 1891 issue of The Week (Toronto) suggests that the habit of thinking aphoristically— that is, in brief units (like advertisements and the segments on Sesame Street?)— may cause "impairment of memory." [back]

  5. The fact that the same remark is quoted by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness (1985) (137) indicates the indebtedness of American Memory to Postman’s book. Certainly, both exhibit a similar distrust of popular culture and a tendency to regard history as a given, as a known roster of "[d]ates and names" or "facts" (American Memory [6]), rather than as a complex of operations that is amenable to countless interpretations. [back]

  6. Eugenio Donato’s remarks regarding "Tintern Abbey" in The Script of Decadence: Essays on the Fictions of Flaubert and the Poetics of Romanticism (1993) apply as well to "Tantramar Revisited": [m]emory…creates a semblance of continuity…. [I]t is through memory that perception maintains [a semblance of the absent external world] in a suspended temporal state" (173). [back]

  7. In March 1988, when this essay was first published in Western Today (London, Ontario) the late Victorian mansion know as the Adam Beck house had recently been demolished to make way for a modern condominium complex. It was subsequently "rebuilt" using new materials (see Essay 10: Stained with Time: the Politics and Poetics of Old Houses). The fight to save the Talbot block from demolition by the Toronto-based Cambridge Leaseholds was joined in the summer of 1986 and lost in the fall of 1990, when all but a small fraction of the block was reduced to a parking lot. In her Fugitive Pieces (1996), Michaels registers the creation of another memory hole with the destruction of Chorley Park (1913-15), the Loire-château style lieutenant governor’s residence in Toronto: "[o]ne of the last walks Athos and I took together was along the floodplain of the Don River…. We intended to sit for a while in the terraced gardens of Chorley Park, the Government House, built spectacularly on the edge of the escarpment…. We emerged from the scrub of the ravine into the garden and lifted our heads to emptiness. Chorley Park, built to outlast generations, was gone, as though an eraser had rubbed out its place against the sky." To Athos’s question ‘"are you sure we’re in the right place?’" the narrator, Jakob, replies, "[w]e‘re in the right place…. How do I know? Because it’s gone’" (106-08). [back]

  8. Lampman’s poem participates in the "massive disruption of traditional forms of memory" that, as Richard Terdiman argues in "Deconstructing Memory: on Representing the Past and Theorizing Culture in France since the Revolution" (1985), Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis (1993), and elsewhere, caused not only "the functioning of memory" but also "the institution of memory and thereby of history" to become obsessive preoccupations in the nineteenth century ("Deconstructing Memory" 14-15). Among the components of modernity that Terdiman sees as adversely affecting memory are "routinization, habituation, automization, [the] instrumentalization of consciousness, of the individual, of labor, and of the entire social process" and "the coming of the machine" (24, 19). Following Walter Benjamin, Terdiman also argues that "the alternations in space produced by the experience of the modern city…led to a particularly acute experience of disconnection and abstraction" (21). "On visiting a city…you enter the residence of man, and if you are forced into isolation there…it is worse than a desert," observes Mr. Hopewell in Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s The Attaché; or, Sam Slick in England (1843, 1844); "I know of nothing so depressing as this feeling of unconnected individuality, amidst a dense population" (58). See also Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982) and Ian Hacking, Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory (1995). [back]

  9. De Man’s "mature work is not just ahistorical," continues Lentricchia; "it is a principled, intentional, passionate ahistoricism" (qtd. in Wiener 24). While de Man’s work relies heavily on texts from the past, it also contains numerous passages such as the following from Blindness and Insight: Essays on the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (1971) that express opposition to memory and history: "[r]emembrance is not a temporal act but an act that enables consciousness ‘to find access to the temporal’ and to transcend time altogether. Such transcendence leads to the rejection of all that precedes the moment of remembrance as misleading and sterile in its deceptive relationship to the present…. Moments of genuine humanity…are moments at which all anteriority vanishes, annihilated by the power of an absolute forgetting" (92, 147). [back]

  10. As de Man puts it in The Resistance to Theory (1986), a work of literature or history is "purely a linguistic complication" that pertains "strictly to the order of language; it is not natural…; it is not phenomenal, in the sense that no cognition, no knowledge about man, can be derived from [it]" (92). [back]

  11. Kenneth Sherman sees things more darkly in an article in the March 4, 1993 issue of The Globe and Mail: "[i]t seems to me that, as a society, we are officially encouraging forgetfulness. It is now fashionable to worry about the loss of trees, clean air and uncontaminated fish; but who worries about the loss of memory that afflicts each generation to a greater and greater and extent? And who wonders at the probable link between the loss of memory and these other losses? I sometimes speculate about whether those who administer our educational institutions are working intentionally to promote forgetfulness. It may well be in the interests of those in power in a society such as ours not to have people aware of their heritage and history, since this lack of awareness makes them less cognizant of who they are and why they think the way they do. Submissiveness, passivity, dependence—these are the characteristics that make people easier to manipulate. We fool ourselves into believing they arise only in populations under totalitarian rule. In fact, in an oppressive political regime, the enemy is blatant and visible; in ours he is hidden, subtle…. Trivialization is less dramatic than totalitarianism, yet it just as effectively destroys the human spirit." [back]