The art of avoidance
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 9 February 2008)

When Pierre Berton defined a Canadian as someone who can make love in a canoe, he opened a painful subject. It wasn't his implied suggestion that patriotic lovers emulate the moves of Olympic gymnasts, though of course his fantasy did result in an epidemic of tendonitis and probably a drowning or two. The real trouble lay in the question that his definition raised but failed to answer: Can Canadians make love anywhere else?

The answer must be Yes. Babies are often born in Canada, so sex must be widespread. But those who regard traditional Canadian culture as a mirror of reality have their doubts.

You can learn a great deal about a country and its character by studying the way it publicly treats sex and love. We say something about ourselves if we exult in the gift of sexuality, and something quite different if we try to ignore sexuality or wrap it in prohibitions. What is at stake is our ability to accept the riches of life for what they are.

Ideally, we should be able to treat sex seriously but not solemnly. Canada, in my experience, finds that difficult, sometimes impossible.

We're talking here about cultural images and stories that are popular enough to burrow into the national subconscious, the kind of art familiar to people who seldom go to art galleries and only occasionally read the books they hear about. It's art that accumulates at the edge of memory, often over a lifetime, whether we welcome it or not. OK, I'll break a rule and say the word: iconic.

Consider the Group of Seven. Eighty-eight years after their first exhibition, the only painters who have ever caught the national imagination still look like passionate enemies of sensuality. In the world beyond Canada, everyone assumes that painters enjoy sex with their models.

Canadians, on the other hand, grow up believing that painters yearn above all for a curvy rock to sit on while sketching.

Of course, the Group never denounced sex. They didn't say they were against people, either, but how often do you see humans in their pictures? Lawren Harris allowed a few people to wander through downtown Toronto in his early paintings, but later replaced them with mountains and coldly spiritual abstractions.

The title of a recent book, Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art, edited by John O'Brian and Peter White, will make us ask what does lie beyond wilderness?

Astonishingly varied art, it turns out, but precious little that refers to romance, sex, etc. One writer in the book, Robert Linsley, cites the "clearly vaginal or phallic imagery" he sees in certain Emily Carr paintings but decides those aren't typical. He says she more often expressed eroticism through "the sensuous plasticity" of paint. That's how far a desperate critic can be driven when trying to find the pulse of eroticism in Canadian art.

It could be worse. Mr. Linsley could be trying to uncover the sexy bits in the work of Marilyn Creates, the photo-based artist, whose two-page spread in the same book, Entering and Leaving St. John's, Newfoundland, comprises 12 photographs of a highway, dominated by poles, signs ("City Limits") and pines. There's also a car, empty. (Who knows what people do in cars? They could be up to something.)

The renowned painters of Atlantic Canada at least present a mixed image of sexuality. Alex Colville conveys the satisfactions of long-simmering married love. Mary Pratt sees everything from baked apples to raw fish through eroticized eyes. Christopher Pratt doesn't ignore sexuality, but his most powerful images involve boats, horizons and uninhabited houses.

Canadian literature has seldom done more for sexuality than visual art. The classics of old English-speaking Canada (Susanna Moodie to Sinclair Ross to Hugh MacLennan) keep sex at a distance, as if it might explode. Margaret Laurence, in dealing with sex, took her responsibility so seriously that physical love in her work comes across as overly healthy, crammed with natural goodness.

In the 1950s, a critic noted that Hugh MacLennan, five-time winner of the Governor General's Award, made sex happen offstage, like "the distant shunting of CNR trains, just over the horizon." Mr. MacLennan yearned for an American audience and sometimes made The New York Times' best-seller list. Wondering why greater success eluded him, he consulted Richard Mealand, who wrote American TV drama. Mr. Mealand concluded his advice with: "And one more thing -- sex. Let yourself go on that."

Mr. MacLennan felt he was in no position to let himself go. His biographer, Elspeth Cameron, wrote in Hugh Mac- Lennan: A Writer's Life that on sex, "he was caught in a double bind. On the one hand, American readers like Mealand thought there was too little; on the other hand, many Canadian readers protested that there was too much."

The generation following Mr. MacLennan's turned out to be franker but rarely sexier. Leonard Cohen, whether singing or writing for print, comes across as the poet of erotic frustration. His work, summed up, is about being turned down. Mordecai Richler's St. Urbain Street characters marry, have children, divorce, etc., but sex remains marginal.

Carellin Brooks and Brett Josef Grubisic tried to violate the Canadian tradition with a collection of new fiction bearing a rashly optimistic title, Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fictions (Arsenal, 2000).

Mr. Grubisic's introduction quotes a friend's remark that when sex appears in Canadian fiction, destructive consequences follow: "God forbid anyone has a decent orgasm without losing an eye."

But Carnal Nation suffers from a Laurence-like good-heartedness, typified by a Michael Holmes story that examines "the fetishization of women" by intercutting a lap dancer's thoughts with those of her client. Alice Munro, the exception to many Canadian rules, stands almost alone in this field. Sex appears somewhere in just about every Munro story, thrumming along beneath the surface. She lets her characters embrace their sexuality for the very reason that other writers avoid it. Michael Cunningham, the author of The Hours, writing in the Virginia Quarterly Review, nailed that point by bringing in an author Ms. Munro loved in her youth: "What Munro can do with sex is a little like what Flannery O'Connor did with divine intervention."

In Ms. Munro, sex overturns a protagonist's life, like Christian revelation in O'Connor. "You're going along and things seem to be fine," Mr. Cunningham says, "and then kapow! Along comes a sexual connection you'd never imagined, and your life is changed."

That's OK. Usually the protagonist is secretly yearning for an earthquake anyway. Ms. Munro knows her duty, as a writer, to complicate the world. Sex does that nicely.

The protagonist of The Children Stay, a story that appears in The Love of a Good Woman, abandons a solid but boring marriage for a man whose main quality is excitement. Ms. Munro explains: "So her life was falling forwards.... She was becoming one of those people who ran away. A woman who shockingly and incomprehensibly gave everything up. For love, observers would say wryly. Meaning, for sex."

Ms. Munro is among the great writers of the world today, and Canadians naturally are proud of her. But she's not by any means a traditional Canadian, thank God.

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