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The Cardus Daily

Retrograde Fantasies

Peter Stockland  |  July 6, 2012  |  Cities, Death, Fashion

There are fewer better complements to a Canadian summer evening than sitting on the front porch absorbing the mournful Catholicism of a Graham Greene novel.

Did I say complement? Perhaps I meant antidote. For if the embarrassing neediness of the Canadian need for summer evenings ever needed anything, it is Greene’s lugubrious fidelity to the torments of Christian joy.

How many fewer illusory expectations would we have as a country, after all, if we made a national habit of reminding ourselves of the character Scobie’s wise observation in The Heart of the Matter that Heaven must remain “rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death”? How much more maturely would we accept the inevitable failures of those expectations if we kept in mind Maurice Bendrix’s axioms in The End of the Affair that “happiness annihilates us; we lose our identity” and “as long as one suffers, one lives.”

As Canadians, our identity is as a winter people. Even as urbanites, we accept the painful limitations of our natural snow-bound state. To paraphrase William Faulkner’s triumphantly morose description of the black matriarch Dilsey: We endure. Or at least we do until we feel summer peeking over the roof top; or we move to Vancouver, in which case we become a giddy, happy-clappy, sun-burned simulacrum of our amusement-obsessed cousins to the south.

There is nothing entirely wrong with a touch of across-the-fence emulation once in a while. We are not condemned by geography and climate to be entirely serious. We need not all be Norwegians (as I am). But absent spiritual reminders of the sort that spill from the pages of Greene’s great novels, prolonged fantasy becomes desperate falsehood and, worse, bifurcation. We forget who we are without any hope of becoming the other. Outcomes range from the cartoonish to outright delusions disguised as charades.

An example of the latter, I am very sorry to have to report, is found in the subject matter of the blog my long-time colleague and good friend Peter Menzies’ posted yesterday. As a deeply rooted and proud Calgarian, Mr. Menzies feels an annual compulsion to promote the mythology that the Calgary Stampede is a wondrous, home grown occasion for good old summer fun.

Of course it is nothing of the sort. It is the epitome of what historian Eric Hobsbawm called invented tradition. It was transplanted into the northern soil of southern Alberta by an American huckster high on the fumes of pulp fiction portrayals of a Wild West that had died before he was born. Indeed, Guy Weadick was chased out of Calgary by horrified frontier aristocrats determined to save their budding metropolis from ignominious identification with the retrograde fantasy that the Stampede’s promoter was peddling.

Their instincts for self-preservation were sane. The truth of the Stampede that contemporary Calgarians will admit only among themselves is that it is the best time of year to be out of town, if only to avoid the totalitarian ethos of enforced hilarity that takes over the entire burgh for 10 long days in July. The civic mood arising from Stampede is a cross between an over eager cruise ship social director handing out hallucinogenic drugs to increase the giggle factor, and practical joking during the forced death march to Bataan.

It is not just that grown men willingly appear in public wearing abysmal cowboy drag, or that everyone from accountants to school secretaries temporarily adopts a gratingly affected and wholly inexplicable Texas inflection in their speech. Nor is it that the perpetuation of Stampede is a leading factor in preventing Calgary from ever achieving the urban sophistication of, well, Montreal. No. What makes it so appalling is its neediness to indulge to wretched excess because of the manic compulsion to have so-called summer fun.

Don’t misunderstand. I love Calgary. I spent many happy years living there, and it will always be a town remembered fondly. I cite the Stampede not because it is unique but because it makes the perfect general argument for the sobering benefits to be had spending a summer evening on the front porch with a novel’s worth of Graham Greene’s mater dolorosa dourness.

Imagine even thinking of going outside sporting a cock-a-doodle cowboy hat after reading this early passage from The End of the Affair:

I realized I had (taken) the wrong umbrella for it sprang a leak and the rain ran down my macintosh collar and then I saw it was Henry . . . he had no umbrella and in the light of the lamp I could see his eyes were blinded with the rain. The black, leafless trees gave no protection: they stood around like broken water pipes and the rain dripped off his stiff dark hat and ran in streams down his black civil servant’s overcoat.

As long as one suffers, one lives: the perfect antidote to the fantasies that ail us.

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