Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Great Conversation

I read the other day a piece in Nunatsiaq News about a new made-in-Nunavut social studies curriculum where my name was mentioned in one of the modules called, The Great Conversation. As a believer in liberal arts curriculum and education based on the "classical education" approach I was flattered to have had an influence (however small that may be) in some of the material being a basis for high school education in Nunavut.

But sometimes I wonder how much of what I say is actually understood by people (both Inuit and non-Inuit). Now, don't get me wrong: I have every confidence in the people who developed the material, and have actually been greatly influenced and inspired by my conversations with those thoughtful people and greatly appreciate the "new" writers and thinkers that were introduced to me in the curriculum development office. But what I mean here is that much of my thinking has so much back-story to it that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to follow. It's a hodge-podge, a synthesis, to say the least.

One of my heroes is the great Canadian literary critic, Northrop Frye, who makes numerous references and often to the liberal arts (and the notion of the Great Conversation, if not directly):

"I am preoccupied at the moment with a very large and complicated book on the Bible and the way in which the Bible set up the mythological framework within which Western culture operated for many centuries",

Frye wrote in an essay entitled, "The Emphasis is on the Individual, the Handful of Shepherds, the Pairs of Lovers..." in writing about the role and importance of myths and legends in social development and discourse:

"It's a matter of social function. Myth and fable are the same structurally; they can tell the same kind of story. However, in social function and in authority, myth is higher in social acceptance, as a rule. Thus, myth is what defines culture; it takes root in a specific culture. It's the Bible that makes Hebrew culture; it's Homer that makes Greek culture; and so on. Then, as culture develops, the folk tales and fables that have been circulating around the world nomadically also begin to take root and contribute to the heritage of allusion, so that you get Dante and Milton writing in the Biblical area and Shakespeare and Chaucer in the romantic area."

I would say that the American popular culture (at least, the blues and jazz and literary tradition, Steinbeck et al.) is likewise structured, and, therefore, seem more, is more, substantive than its Canadian counterpart - which is but a play of pale shadows thereof, being lost in the wilderness of "polite" and "politically corrected" orientation (cultural fascism, I'd say, that feigns to represent everyone and everything while rotting culture to the core). As Frye later writes in another essay, "if we hitch a political development on a cultural one, as in separatism, we get a kind of neo-fascism; if we hitch a cultural development to a political one, we get a pompous bureaucratic pseudo-culture" as Marxist phenomenology (and Canadian "literature" sans Timothy Findley) has proved time and again.

The role of literature (or collective myth-making), then, is a fine balance that straddles spirit, politics and cultural/individual aspirations without leaning overly much to any single one aspect of society; being, at once, beholden to and free from any of the shackles of religion, ideology and hegemony. The sense of the ridiculous, irony and telling stories in parable form are the tools of the trade; not religion, not ideology, not the will to hegemony. Inuit myths, like all great myths of the world, have those three qualities and sensibilities of seriousness and humour, that space of magic and wonder that allows one to see self outside of self.

In the blues mythology, Robert Johnson's story of meeting the Devil at the crossroads is really a kernel onto which to build a new structure while claiming faithfulness to tradition. It isn't revisionism but a re-visioning of the story of humanity and its relationship with the cosmos. Those five notes of the pentatonic scale become, then, more than just musical notes, but a multifarious story of great power and infinite creativity (a culture) around a tragic figure spared from slavery if not prejudice by sheer dint of history; a transcendence of the first order.

This is how the Great Conversation unfolds.


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