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Edited by W.H. New. Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, c1984. 375pp, cloth, $29.95, ISBN 0-7748-0205-7.

Reviewed by Robert E. Wheeler

Volume 13 Number 1
1985 January

This handsome volume reflects the astonishing diversity and creative energy of Canada's contemporary literary scene. Wide-ranging in scope, it shows the extent to which Canadian Literature, a leading critical quarterly, has transcended the insular limitations of the past. The writers included have not been hamstrung by constricting traditions, nor have the majority succumbed to mere stylistic whimsicalities. Twenty-nine essayists are represented, including Matt Cohen, Timothy Findley, Irving Layton, Margaret Laurence, Eric Nicol and George Woodcock. Thematic contrasts abound, challenging outworn assumptions and stimulating the imagination. David Helwig, unconvinced by a comforting teleological interpretation of the universe, raises cogent questions concerning the existence of God, while Audrey Thomas contributes a sprightly article about words. Another thought provoking essay by Matt Cohen provides perceptive insights on realism in modern English-Canadian fiction.

In addition to the essayists, there is a liberal selection of established Canadian poets, embracing Margaret Atwood, bill bissett, Barry Dempster, Al Purdy, Robin Skelton and Tom Wayman. It is assumed, apparently, that the reader will be familiar with the cultural shifts in twentieth-century art. For some, no doubt, the violent disjunctions that mark the last few decades of modern life provoke an uncomfortable sense of disorientation. In music, literature, and the visual arts, one encounters evidence of an aesthetic revolution, hard for a beginner to accept and understand without some historical perspective. Modern verse, with its calculated obscurity, is far removed from the plush rhetoric of nineteenth-century escapism. T.S. Eliot in his seminal "Waste Land" (1922) replaces the standard flow of "poetic" language by fragmented utterances, substituting for the traditional coherence of poetic structure a bold rupture of syntax, combined with a cynical rejection of venerated norms. With each act of nose-thumbing demolition, the way is opened for a bewildering variety of innovative styles and tantalizing labels, a cavorting parade of slogans and fashionable isms: symbolism, naturalism, expressionism, imagism, futurism, ultraism, dadaism, vorticism, surrealism and a multitude of others. Few have escaped the ubiquitous shock-tactics of the avant-garde.

The poets included in Canadian Writers are naturally more attuned to the cosmos of Baudelaire, Eliot,Pound, Lautréamont, Wallace Stevens, Robinson Jeffers and James Joyce than to the soaring fantasies of romanticism. They are preoccupied, in the main, with what Yeats called "the desolation of reality," the essential loneliness of the human spirit. Sometimes, however, as in the work of bill bissett and Michael Ondaatje, sheer iconoclasm appears to lapse into adolescent eccentricity, as it does in the debunking obsessions of Mauricio Kagel, Morton Feldman, John Cage and their numerous followers.

Aesthetic capers may have their appeal, comparable to a day at the circus, but ultimately it is intelligence and spiritual vision that matter. In a period of mindless extremism, there is a need for sanity. One of the finest essays in this collection is the piece by Margaret Laurence entitled "My Final Hour." It is written with an unpretentious warmth and earnestness that touches the heart. Certain things abide, despite the prevailing cult of transitoriness and pop hedonism. Our age has spawned a major cultural shift from a time-honoured aesthetics of permanence, based on a belief in an unchanging and transcendent ideal of beauty. Modernity, as defined by Matei Calinescu, represents the self-consciousness of the present in rebellion against the past. It is a widespread modernist belief that what is happening now is necessarily superior to what has gone before. But as Laurence implies, true progress depends on moral evolution, not on the questionable developments of capitalist technology. Canadian Writers in 1984, for all its significant contributions, offers little tangible assurance that the alleged cultural explosion will result in a more humane and enlightened society. As Mavor Moore, past chairman of the Canada Council, rightly observed, education and the arts are expensive, but ignorance and barbarism are lethal. A myopic materialism has precluded mental maturity, and Canada, no less than the rest of the world, cannot escape the consequences. When creativity languishes for want of a receptive audience, together with stupid austerity measures, art is easily seduced into ludicrous posturing and begins to play a purely sycophantic role.

However, the fact that Canadian Literature has survived so many harrowing years merits enthusiastic applause. May Ganesha, the elephant-headed Vedic god of literature and wisdom, confer his special blessing.

Robert E. Wheeler, Gananoque, Ont.
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