Monday, October 03, 2005

Who's our Henry?

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

My favourite professor ever, Arthur Haberman at York (no, that's not a picture of him), was fond of saying that someone someday needs to write a magical history of Canada.

Not the typical boring high school textbook history, or a shocked and dismayed postcolonial revisitation of our national sins (which is, granted, at least somewhat more interesting than my Grade Nine textbook), nor even a CBC-friendly celebration of our multicultural nation (we're back in boring platitudes again), but a history that will focus on some of the truly bizarre events and characters that constitute our nation's damatis personae.

Like PM Mackenzie King, who made some of the most crucial decisions in Canada's history during WWII ... after conducting seances to consult the spirits of his dead mother, Louis Pasteur, Leonardo Da Vinci, or his dog Sparky.

Or our offensive in the War of 1812 that took us all the way to the White House, where Dolly Madison had, hearing of the coming soldiers, evacuated her forty guests just before they could sit and eat. Upon finding the table groaning with food, our soldiers had dinner before burning down the White House.

Or Sir John A. himself, who was a bigger drunkard than Winston Churchill and Shane McGowan combined.

Or Sam Hughes, the bombastic egoist who commanded our armed forces at the outset of WWI ... whose bizarre, nepotistic, and self-indulgent excesses were comparable to a spoiled Roman emperor.

And on and on. We're such a self-effacing nation, we rarely take note of the eccentricities we produce.

And yet, we have no mythic figures. This is on my mind because this week we start Henry V in my survey course, a play I am inordinately excited to teach again. I was trying to convey to my students the iconic quality Henry would have had in the minds of Shakespeare's audiences -- the kind of historical hero-worship that would have had the groundlings ready to cheer at the key moments before the player came out on the stage. I said, "Henry had the same qualities for Shakespeare's time as ...", thinking to mention someone who would be comparable for us. But came up with a blank.

Who is our Henry? It's not like we lack iconic figures, but they're just as likely to elicit boos as cheers -- Trudeau, for example. I started to say, "OK then, Joey Smallwood ..." but saw half my class wince instinctively. Believe me when I say that Newfoundland seperatism is experiencing a renaissance at the moment ... the man responsible for bringing the Rock into confederation is no unproblematic hero.

So who's our Henry? I don't think we have one ... certainly not in the way that Henry V worked and works for England, or Washington and Jefferson work for the States. And truth be told, I'm not too chuffed about that. We suffer on some fronts for not having enduring legends and myths as a nation, for not having figures that effectively elicit the same emotional response as "Go Leafs Go" does in the ACC ... but at the same time there's a certain freedom that emerges from that lack. I like the fact that our truly iconic figures, i.e. the ones that elicit genuine emotions (I mean, the mention of Sir John A. doesn't tend to piss people off, but it also doesn't inspire hope or joy beyond realizing that you have a ten dollar bill in your pocket) are pretty universally contoversial. As a nation, we're ambivalent. While this tends to lead to a lot of waffling and apologizing, I do think it's one of our strengths.

And the fact is, we have had our Henrys ... but being Canadian, they've been understated. Any nation that manages to produce generals like Lewis Mackenzie or Romeo Dallaire has to be doing something right ...


Kiss said...


And you call yourself a Canadian???!!! Or were you just thinking of a man as a hero?

I can think of a few pretty spectacular people in Canadian history who would/should make many teary with pride.

Doris Anderson, to name one, was a hugely important figure in Canadian history. I know that many women would not be nearly as free as we are today without such a strong, important, and influential woman as this one. Hell! She was years ahead of the Americans when introducing challenging discourse that would begin to change the social norms!!

While I understand the logic behind the whole Trudeau as a hero to many, he still did quite amazing things for Canada. He was one of the many influential Canadian representatives who moved for our independence - and wow!! no bloodshed!! There's got to be some kind of honour in that!!! How many other countries have succeeded in separating themselves from colonists without spilling blood?

You notice that there's a "u" in honour? Without strong independent Canadians to insist on continued independence, our political leaders would have ended the need for the "u" in many of our words. I think that Canada is filled with heroes, especially in light of our continued refusal to back Bush in his "fuck it or kill it" actions.

Sorry - hope that wasn't too harsh.

So, come on, Chris!! Just because we don't have some drunk, drugged royal figure to 'lead us into battle' doesn't mean that we don't have heroes here at home!

Kiss said...

I've read the above message again - sorry, that sounds tres harsh. Sorry! It's not meant to be! Sorry!

Chris in NF said...

ummmm ....

OK, I think you misread the main point of my post ... I wasn't saying that we haven't had heroes or spectacular people (and I certainly didn't mean to say that this was a strictly male category, or that it required military action to effect) ...

Doris Anderson is an extraordinary woman, and I had the pleasure of having her as a commencement speaker at my graduation last June. But prior to that day, I would have said "Doris who?"

And that is part of the point -- that when I tried to conjure up a Canadian icon who (a) everyone would have heard of, and (b) no one would reflexively castigate, I couldn't think of one.

This is not a bad thing.

I have dozens of personal Canadian heroes (male and female), many of whom a large number of people wouldn't be familiar with. There's a difference between icons and heroes, and a difference between people and myths. Henry V is a mythic figure, both for good and for ill -- my argument here (such as it is) is that we both suffer and benefit from a lack of such national myths -- one of the benefits being, as you yourself said, that "we don't have some drunk, drugged royal figure to 'lead us into battle'," but that we do in fact have a more measured and rational consideration of such issues when they're before us and we do not, for example, jump on an American juggernaught to join the war in Iraq.

I agree entirely with you that Canada is fillwed with heroes. But in the end, that wasn't what I was talking about.

Kiss said...

Ah.. point taken.

Have you thought of looking toward the Native history? I'd be willing to bet the farm that you'd find several mythical Canadians there. However, would they be widely known of? No. But, is it really a surprise? Canada isn't exactly one of the older countries and therefore, does not likely have the long list of loonies.. ehm.. mythical heroes as do Spain, Britian, etc. (Basing that on society entirely, not geographical age.) Nor do we find many of our written works as widely publicised as say, the US - so, our own history (including your mythical heroes or famous heroes) is not as widely read. And your point about the yawning boredom that's found in our history texts is well noted.

Again, I'm failing to address the "known" aspect of your argument. As stated, point taken. Are we just a people who look to ideas/events (like Banting and insulin) rather than people/myths?

Kiss said...

I've responded in greater depth to your assertion that Canada is lacking in famous heroes on my blog. I think it's fairly comprehensive, but it is only 6ish in the morning and I'm pretty tuckered out.
Have a good (alert) day.

Lesley said...

Man, I'm all for it if it means that kids won't be subjected to the weeks of Louis Riel history that I was privy to all those years ago. Canadians are boring. Which is why we need a good story to make it seem like we really aren't.

Mark P said...

Sadly, the closest we've come to a national icon in recent years is that Joe dude in the "I Am Canadian" beer commercials.