Cankultur at the End of an Age
by Michael D. O’Brien
I have often reread a paragraph in Solzhenitsyn’s 1970 Nobel Prize speech, in which he says:
Woe to that nation whose literature is interrupted by the interference of force. This is not simply a violation of “freedom of the press”: it is the locking up of the national heart, the excision of the national memory. Such a nation does not remember itself, it is deprived of spiritual unity, and though its population supposedly have a common language, fellow countrymen suddenly stop understanding each other. Mute generations live out their lives and die without telling their story either to their own or to a future generation.
The difficulty a serious Christian writer faces in this country, when speaking of the cultural revolution (or coup d’état?) that displaces the spontaneous flowering of authentic culture, is that there are no gulags or torture chambers we can point to as evidence that anything remotely like suppression afflicts us. The tragedy, the high drama of the writer’s struggle under overt totalitarianism, is in such stark contrast to the minor trials of the Western writer, that most people consider our situation benign, and our complaints grossly exaggerated. In my opinion, it is precisely our situation that may in the long run prove more deadly to the preservation of “the national heart, the national memory.” Under tyrants, the evil is unmasked and provokes resistance. Here it is masked and neutralizes resistance, pleasantly, quietly, which is the Canadian way.
How often is the empirical evidence considered? Specifically, how honestly does the revolutionary establishment examine its own conscience, weighing the actual fruits of our culture? It can hardly do so if it has denied the exigencies of conscience based in an external measure that transcends human subjectivity and compulsion. Thus, when the moral order of the universe has been dismissed as irrelevant, what remains is ideology and impulse—and the derivative power struggles that become alternately subtle and aggressive yet always relentless. What lies beneath the veneer of democratic pluralism? Surely we can admit that there is no genuine pluralism here. Clearly, some of us are “more equal than others”, to borrow Orwell’s term, for the classless society in which we are now all immersed has created a new hierarchy. It rules by money and influence, indoctrination and propaganda, and a curious mixture of malice and idealism. It is about power. It is social warfare. It is about the reshaping of both human consciousness and conscience. Its most effective instrument of rule is culture—most importantly the arts, education, and all forms of media.
Is this hyperbole? Is this the envy of the displaced? Viewed from the outside, it can hardly appear to be anything else. But the reality hits home as soon as you become one of the silenced—silenced not by overt violence but rather by a covert force. It hits home again and again the more you meet silenced Christian artists (or Jewish or Muslim, or even just basically humane people), who posit a view of reality based on the moral order of the universe, and who are, as a result, politely banned or dropped from the central currents of culture. Forced ghettoization is a symptom of totalitarianism. If ours is a soft form of the beast, if it has permitted us a little elbow room (for cosmetic purposes only), a cogent assessment of the situation becomes more difficult—and all that much more needed.
Walker Percy once wrote about the Western writer’s tendency to what he called “Solzhenitsyn-envy.” Percy’s witticim is tongue in cheek, and insightful, but it begs a deeper look: Why is the envy there in the first place? Why would one envy a suffering, persecuted man? I’ve lately been rereading Solzhenitsyn’s memoir of his conflicts with the Soviet state, The Oak and the Calf, and was fascinated to find three or four pages in which he examines his version of Solzhenitsyn-envy. He calls it Pasternak-envy. Doubtless, we in the post-Soviet era wrestle with our own version of this—let us call it Percy-envy or Flannery O’Connor-envy.
What is the root of this phenomenon that cuts across all political lines? Is it just raw, ugly, human envy, or is it telling us something about our world, something that we ignore at our own risk? To my mind, this specific kind of envy points to “silencing” in one form or another—the blocking of the emergence of the true voices of a people by the state or by an engineered social revolution or by a ruling cultural oligarchy. The net result is a forgetting of our own story, our identity, and a failure to pass this on to the coming generations, ending in the revolution becoming the establishment.
In the case of the writer who is rooted in the moral cosmos, this kind of envy is a symptom not so much of his personal moral failure as it is his moral dilemma. The creative person sincerely seeking truth can no longer find his bearings with the aid of his social environment. His native culture is no longer his own. He is, in a sense, a kind of exile, but without the fugitive consolations of the exile’s heroism. He is not a sign of contradiction against an oppressive regime; rather he is too often a disoriented wanderer, a stranger in a strange land, and, worse, it is his native land. Thus, he senses that the heroic figure far away in the mysterious East, in facing the dragon of overt totalitarianism, had a cleaner task, a defined task. More threatening to life and general well-being, to be sure, but not nearly so confusing or demoralizing. It might kill his body but it could not so easily kill his soul.
Which is why we must ask ourselves, at this late date, if the overtly malevolent dragon is as dangerous in the long run as the friendly dragon. Our benevolent monster blurs all categories and achieves the same “silencing” of spiritual and moral insight by maintaining a death-grip on our cultural life without displaying the more frightening aspects of its real character. Moreover, by disarming its opponents without a struggle, this dragon may eventually go on to bring about a more comprehensive destruction than the one that roars and breathes fire. Which is the worse condition? Perhaps the “envy” suggests an answer to that question.
Personally I have not suffered from envy of the successful writer who does make it through the blockades, by one method or another. Moreover, I did not feel it before I was published, during the twenty long years of labour between the writing of my first novel and the publication of my first book. Even now I detect no taste of sour grapes on my tongue whenever I ponder the fact that none of my novels have ever been published in my own country. Sadness, yes; resentment, no.
For two decades I collected a stack of rejection letters from mainline Canadian publishers, most of whom said something like the following: “We like your writing very much, and it’s a great story. However, the reading public is no longer interested in this worldview. If you would resubmit your manuscript with the appropriate revisions, expressing a more contemporary vision of life, we would be happy to publish you.” By my worldview they meant the orthodox Catholicism, the inheritance of two millennia of civilization, integrally woven into the tale. In other words, if you wish to fulfill your artistic calling in this land, we invite you to tear out your heart and soul, forget your true story, and contribute to the emerging brave new world. You will be richly rewarded if you do so.
Needless to say, I did not comply. Thus, those ever-hopeful, ever-futile, years of trying to interest Canadian publishers in my fiction came to nothing, and eventually pointed me in the direction of a U.S. Catholic publisher, which readily accepted my first novel, followed by eight others and subsequent translations into ten languages. More copies of Father Elijah, for example, have been sold in the Czech Republic in Czech language translation, than have copies of the English language edition in my native land. The artificially inflated genre of writing commonly known as “Canlit” is all too much like the politically safe art produced by the Soviet Writer’s Union. One had to be a member of the union if one wished to be published. One had to conform to Party doctrines in order to become or to remain a member of the union. Of course, there is no party and no union here at this late stage of the free West—at least no official institutions of that nature—for none are needed. Yet the same dynamics are fully operative, though exercised with better manners.
In the interests of fairness, and seeking to avoid paranoia, I have tried to read a cross section of Canadian fiction during the past 20 years. Sadly, I have found that it is dominated by a tragically stunted anthropology and a very limited sociology. On the whole, it represents post-modern man articulating impressively as he sinks into the total subjectivity of narcissism. Generally, the themes are endless repetitions rearticulated by new voices modeled on the old, tired voices—sometimes talented voices: life, religion, and Self according to Margaret Atwood; love according to Michael Ondaatje, et cetera. The reigning vision is a mile wide and an inch deep.
No doubt I am missing some admirable things in contemporary Canadian fiction. Occasionally a good novel will surface in the mainstream, as long as it doesn’t disturb the sacred dogmas of secular humanism. In addition, there are those aberrant “throwbacks” published by very small presses or self-published, with few books sales and nary a review in the mainstream media. And sometimes a great novel appears among them, such as Robert Eady’s The Octave of All Souls. But these are the very rare exceptions that prove the rule.
Much has been written about the freedoms offered by post-modernity. It has been said that the cultural slate is now wiped clean and that anyone can write anything without external restraints or personal inhibitions. We have emerged, we are told, from the oppressive moralistic restrictions of a once-Christian civilization. But let me at least raise a dissenting question, dear reader, in the midst of this euphoric brave new world: Why do we feel such boredom or even nausea when perusing the Canadian Literature or New Canadian Writing sections in bookstores and libraries? Is something wrong here? Is something missing? Moreover, have we lost the ability to recognize that anything is missing?
Who has done this to us? Who has excised our national memory?
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