The endless reversals or break boundaries passed in the interplay of the structures of bureaucracy and enterprise include the point at which individuals began to be held responsible and accountable for their "private actions." That was the moment of the collapse of tribal collective authority. Centuries later,when further explosion and expansion had exhausted the powers of private action, corporate enterprise invented the idea of Public Debt, making the individual accountable for group action.
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)
Like all great visionaries, Marshall McLuhan fingered the enemy of the people long before the people figured that the enemy existed.
Almost four decades ago, McLuhan foresaw a corporate stanglehold — facilitated by electric-electronic media — that would result in the death of literacy, morality, and sovereign individual rights. He predicted show-biz politics, besieged cities, ubiquitous surveillance systems, electronic highways, and cyberspatial pseudo-realities that would dominate the "discarnate" human being. The violated self would be cut adrift in a corporate cesspool of immoral fictions, splintered factions, party lines, quasi-agreements (GATT, FTA, NAFTA, etc.), and sophisticated advertisorial slogans intended to increase profits and decrease the responsibility of individuals entering an economically driven (and politically shifted) global village.
A handful of critics hailed his incisive analyses; a fistful of detractors railed against the McLuhanatic; and, curiously, a mittful of Canadian nationalists stuck their heads in a snowbank.
In 1972, ten years after the appearance of McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy, one of our most celebrated nationalists, Margaret Atwood, enriched our literature with Survival, an examination of thematic patterns and attitudes unique to twentieth-century Canadian authors designed to furnish us with a mirror, a map, "a manifesto, and a collection of personal and subversive remarks" destined to become, as the back-cover blurb reports, "the most provocative and distinguished guide in captivity."
That same year, Paul Henderson scored The Goal of his career (and our hockey history); Canadian nationalism was at one of its more memorable high points; the Signet edition of Understanding Media went into its eleventh printing; and, most curiously, Atwood's guide gave no clue that McLuhan existed at all.
Atwood had been at — and was still associated with — Victoria College in Toronto (where the academic celebrity was Northrop Frye, McLuhan's rival for stardom). McLuhan was at neighbouring St. Michael's College. Both were professors of English. By the mid-sixties, McLuhan had become a semi-popular international celebrity while Frye's fame was limited to educators. As a member of the Victoria camp, Atwood could not think about, read, nor acknowledge McLuhan in any way, shape, or format.
Survival? Of what?
The surest way to the hearts of a Canadian audience is to inform them that their souls are to be identified with rock, rapids, wilderness, and virgin (but exploitable) forest. This pathological craving for identification with the subhuman may be illustrated in every department of Canadian culture.
— Hugh Kenner, Our Sense of Identity (1954)
Survival was touted as the book "that has everything to make it a major critical landmark and a great popular success."
It achieved both these goals. It gave students, teachers, and interested readers a mirror, map, and guide to an exclusive sampling of Canadian writers whose works fit the preconceived patterns Atwood considered essential to understanding "where is here" and "survival in the face of a harsh climate and recalcitrant land":
"Whether [our hero] survives or not will depend partly on what 'here' really contains — whether it is too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry for him — and partly on his own desires and skills — whether he can utilise the resources available, adapt to what he can't change, and keep from going crazy. There may be other people 'here' already, natives who are co-operative, indifferent, or hostile. There may be animals, to be tamed, killed and eaten, or avoided. If, however, there is too large a gap between our hero's expectations and his environment he may develop culture shock or commit suicide."
Taking its "main idea" or basic supposition from the notion that "Canada is a collective victim" and "an unknown territory for the people who live in it," Atwood's exegesis swamped classrooms, campuses, and bookstores across the continent.
The critic to whom falls the enviable task of studying Canadian poetry in the sixties will, I trust, be dealing with a fully matured culture, no longer preoccupied with the empty unpoetics of Canadianism, but with the genuine tasks of creative power.
— Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden (1959)
Interested and qualified critics often quibble over the virtual exclusion of a raft of gifted novelists, poets, dramatists, and essayists from the good ship Survival; in the course of their quibbling, they maintain that the book guaranteed its author's survival at the expense of generations of Canadian writers.
To her credit, Atwood pointedly explains that her selections and citations issue from a given work's suitability to the victimology patterns she wishes to illuminate. Thus, Survival's 12 chapters deal with analyses of works appropriate to thematic concerns, from "Nature the Monster" and "Animal Victims" to "Failed Sacrifices" and "Quebec: Burning Mansions."
We are no more victims of circumstances than circumstance is the shadow of ourselves.
— Bliss Carman, The Kinship of Nature (1904)
"I grew up with Survival," Gwendolyn MacEwen once remarked over coffee in downtown Toronto, "it almost killed me." We laughed long and deliciously — with neither malice nor intended injury — and determined that we would one day write its companion volume, Dramatic Ironing in Canadian Literature, citing as our first victor the character in Surfacing who engages in that particular brand of domestic activity.
Re-reading Survival, I recall MacEwen's remarks. They resonate with a beautiful eerie poignancy, perhaps because she, like Hubert Aquin, another gifted artist cited in the book, died so unnecessarily (cf. the chapter on "The Paralysed Artist").
A poet might well be described as someone looking at the past through the rearview mirror on the future rushing against her. For almost a quarter-century, the exclusion of McLuhan's prophetic theories variously troubled, vexed, and perplexed yours truly. Then, at the turn of the decade, with the passage of the Free Trade Agreement, followed in 1993 by the appearance of Shannon Hengen's Margaret Atwood's Power, followed by NAFTA, Survival seemed more anomolous than ever.
While the recession's effects made it difficult to disentangle the pros and cons of the trade agreement, there was one clear consequence upon which both sides agreed. This was the rapid pace of Canada's integration and harmonisation with the United States. Beyond the basic provisions of the historic accord, what was tellingly registered was the psychological impact. The free-trade agreement triggered a turn in the public mind, a new consciousness among Canadians that [we] were now members of the American economic system.
— Lawrence Martin, Pledge of Allegiance: The Americanisation of Canada in the Mulroney Years (1993)
Margaret Atwood's Power proposes a theory of "regressive vs progressive narcissism" in its examination of characters populating the poet-novelist's writing (and, to her credit, Hengen makes sound critical sense); however, like Survival, her polemic raises questions beyond its scope and thrust.
She quotes the historian Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1978) as being pertinent to her study of the prototypical survivalist's novels and poetry contextualised within their dependence upon mirror imagery: "Notwithstanding his occasional delusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience . . . For the narcissist, the world is a mirror."
And in The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (1984), Lasch explains that "a disposition to see the world as a mirror, more particularly as a projection of one's own fears and desires" derives from "a pathological condition."
"A piece of art," wrote Atwood, "as well as being a creation to be enjoyed, can also be (as Germaine Warkentin suggests) a mirror. The reader looks at the mirror and sees not the writer but himself, and behind his own image in the foreground, a reflection of the world he lives in. If a country or a culture lacks such mirrors it has no way of knowing what it looks like; it must travel blind. If, as has long been the case in this country, the viewer is given a mirror that reflects not him but someone else, and told at the same time that the reflection he sees is himself, he will get a very distorted idea of what he is really like."
Narcissism is the dominant and recurring theme in Atwood's writing (reflected, says Hengen, in her mirror imagery). Can we not sensibly argue that narcissism plays equally well vis-à-vis an author's own central projection, particularly in the late twentieth century? This is a time that McLuhan called (in Understanding Media) "the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and nerves by the various media."
He goes on to explain that "every culture and every age has its favourite model of perception and knowledge that it is inclined to prescribe for everybody and everything. The mark of our time is its revulsion against imposed patterns." And, in criticising General David Sarnoff's suggestion that "products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad," he argues that Sarnoff "ignores the nature of the medium, of any and all media, in the true Narcissus style of one hpynotised by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form. ... The message, it seemed, was the 'content,' as people used to ask what a painting was about. Yet they never thought to ask what a melody was about, nor what a house or a dress was about. To such matters, people retained some sense of the whole pattern, of form and function as a unity. But in the electric age this integral idea of structure and configuration has become so prevalent that educational theory has taken up the matter."
Perhaps Atwood's refusal to investigate McLuhan's work bespeaks a refusal to examine at all realistically the fabric of Canadian society in situ in 1972; by more or less ignoring him and reverting to Frye's positions and impositions of hierarchical patterns upon our literature, she deftly managed to avoid our collective and corporate reality altogether. As the thematist herself avers, "For the members of a country or a culture, shared knowledge of their place, their here, is not a luxury but a necessity. Without that knowledge we will not survive."
All this aside, not only did the narrow attitude that made possible "a thematic guide to Canadian literature" not acknowledge McLuhan's immeasurable contributions to media, literature, communication studies, philosophical theory, and political exegesis, it also refused to consider the pronouncements and utterances of dozens of prominent Canadians in both scholarly and popular media.
America stresses the value of competition rather than co-operation, and thus contradicts most traditional moral, ethical, and religious philosophies. It is a society based on the idea of inequality, a society that accepts inequality not only as inevitable but as a moral end which ought to be preserved. It is a society based on maximising personal wealth which defies the pursut of self-interest.
— John Warnock, Canadian Dimension (1967)
For a social democrat of the Atwooden stripe, a social democrat intent on preserving our distinctive voice and culture, the decision to avoid altogether the writing on the popular and public walls makes litte sense. Instead, Survival exudes a rather patronising air while systematically pigeonholing a clutch of like-minded, white-bread-brained social democrats (and virtually excluding immigrants and natives).
Canadian identity will not be undermined by multiculturalism. Indeed, we believe that cultural pluralism is the very essence of Canadian identity. Every ethnic group has the right to preserve and develop its own culture and values within the Canadian context.
— Government of Canada (in response to the Report of The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1971).
According to its back cover, Survival poses the question, "What have been the central preoccupations of our poetry and fiction?" and answers, "Survival and victims" — supported by a concurrent preoccupation with animals, wilderness, and snow. All well and good except that most Canadians (including Canadian authors), live (and lived) in the beautiful downtown middle of Somewhere, Canada, not in the backwoods.
And if, as Beryl Donaldson Langer's "Class and Gender in Margaret Atwood's Fiction" (Australian-Canadian Studies, 1988) asserts, Atwood writes for the "salaried professionals and technical workers" of our late-capitalist era, why would such a backward-looking, backwood-leaning guide appear on our cultural and literary landscapes?
Perhaps instead of constantly deploring our lack of identity, we should attempt to understand and explain the regional, ethnic, and class identities that we do have. It might just be that it is in these limited identities that 'Canadianism' is found; and that except for our overheated nationalist intellectuals, Canadians find this situation very satisfactory.
— Ramsay Cook, The International Journal (1967)
Why create a systematic pattern and exclude a society? Why identify and integrate a slim sampling at the expense of whole groups and cultures who do not fit the cookie-cutter mold? Why provide this country with a descriptive closure rather than a prescriptive opener? But, in a rare venture into practical advice, Atwood exhorts the reader not to "become a victim" of, one assumes, rocks, rapids, ice, snow, bears, wolves, and trees.
By negative implication, Canadians need not trouble themselves with victimology vis-à-vis corporations, governments, dictators, despots, etc. because every country or culture possesses "a single unifying and informing symbol at its core" which functions "like a system of beliefs" and "holds the country together." With England, "the island" symbol serves this function; with the United States, "the frontier" proliferates; here, victims try to survive. Such a simplistic analysis begs the importance of the question and ranks with suggestions that England is rainy, America is sunny, and Canadians have bad teeth.
The entire country is a suburb.
— Alan Brown, The Canadian Forum (1955)
Jacques Maritain, writing in reference to Understanding Poetry (edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren), notes, "Experts in literature tell us that the theme, which must not be confused with the subject, is the 'basic idea' or 'general idea' which is presented in a poem, and which can even be translated (while losing its very nature and poetic quality by that very fact) into an intellectual 'statement.' Yet this is far from sufficient to enlighten us . . . A poet, thinking of a certain theme, can be incited thereby to write a poem . . . Yet here we have simply psychological motivation, not the poetic process itself . . . It is not enough to consider the mutual entanglement of Nature and man in relation to aesthetic feeling or the perception of beauty." (Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, 1955)
There is no simple correspondence between an objective record of political, social, and economic events, on the one hand and, on the other, a criticism of the arts, whose creation and appreciation are suffused with subjectivity.
— Roy Daniells (in The Literary History of Canada, C. F. Klink, 1965)
In "Modern Poetry" in 1930, Hart Crane explained that "poetry is an architectural art, based not on evolution or the idea of progress, but on the articulation of the contemporary human consciousness sub specie aeternitatis and inclusive of all readjustments incident to science and other shifting factors related to that consciousness."
Seven years later, in "General Aims and Theories," Crane clarifies his position: "But to fool one's self that definitions are being reached by merely referring frequently to skyscrapers, radio antennae, steam whistles, or other surface phenomena of our time is merely to paint a photograph . . . [T]he motivation of the poem must be derived from the implicit emotional dynamics of the materials used, and the terms of expression employed are often selected less for their logical (literal) significance than for their associational meanings."
Cancult is not hard to spot but it's impossible to kill. It is a Canadian cultural process by which literature and art are demoted to the status of a crutch for Canadian nationalism. It is a process which makes culture into an artificial historical event, a part of an unending quest for Canadian identity.
— Robert Fulford, The Toronto Star (1961)
Ultimately, however, the overwhelming question, which neither survivalists nor wilderness tipsters ever adequately answers, remains: Why did a Canadian writer, an avowed nationalist with a finger on the pulse of our nation, not alert the citizens of this country to the most important issue of survival?
Certainly, signs of the coming times proliferated. As early as 1934, the Royal Commission on Price Spreads announced in its report that "it has been difficult not to be impressed by the fact that the corporate form of business not only gives freedom from legal liability, but also facilitates the evasion of moral responsibility for inequitable and uneconomic practices."
Although Atwood chose several salient citations from George P. Grant to support her Survival thesis, she did not mention his pronouncement in Lament for a Nation that "corporations and not doctrinaire socialism are the wave of the future," which echoed William Kilbourn's 1960 summary of the situation in The Elements Combined:
The large corporation dominating its field, and aided by some sort of government regulation or support, runs straight through the heart of Canadian history.
What does Atwood offer in response? Cold comfort? Snow visions? Would more be too much to ask of one critic? I think not. Perhaps one critic asked too much of too little a sampling of Canadian writers.
James Winter and Amir Hassanpoor, in an extraordinary 1994 expose of governments, media, and corporate collusion (in The Canadian Forum) corroborate — to use the corporate vernacular — that "we have already had the fuck put on us."
To cut to the chase: "Corporate control of the media has meant they have overwhelmingly promoted the neo-conservative agenda over the past decade." Howard Pawley, the ex-premier of Manitoba (now a professor of political science at the University of Windsor) is quoted in the article, eloquently summing up the situation in which we find — or is that lose? — ourselves:
"[That control] is reflected across a broad range of interrelated issues: the 'need' for free trade and globalisation; a rationalisation of business which puts efficiency and profits above employment; blaming vague international forces for a Canadian recession; and, using an overblown deficit phobia to undermine social programmes, including our educational and medical systems."
Survival? Of what?
To be fair, Survival appeared in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some Canadian authors take issue with it on grounds that it reduces human beings to mere organisms, incapable of creative expression, even as it fails to read the writing on the corporate wall; however, as far as that goes, Atwood claims Canadians cannot bear to imagine success or "rich and resonant failure."
Cockroaches survive. Human beings thrive. The issues and responsibilities inherent in the task facing us involve moving beyond survival and insisting upon autonomy, rights, and freedoms in the global village (from the solid economic foundations of community and country).
"This, then," Atwood explains in defence of her book, "is a description of what I intended to write: something that would make Canadian literature, as Canadian literature — not just literature that happened to be written in Canada — accessible to people other than scholars or specialists, and that would do it with simplicity and practicability. But I find that what I've written is something more, a cross between a personal statement, which most books are, and a political manifesto, which most books also are, if only by default."
"Beyond Survival" was originally the cover-story feature
of Books in Canada's December 1995 edition.
© 1995-2013 Judith Fitzgerald. All Rights Reserved.
(Special thanks to Gerald Owen.)