Winter, by Adam Gopnik — the Massey Lectures, 2011

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

I don’t review a lot of non-fiction on this site, but the 50th anniversary of the Massey Lectures seems a good excuse to break from the usual fiction routine. Since 1961, the Lectures have been a Canadian literary fixture — Barbara Ward (The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations) delivered the inaugural series, followed by the icon of Canadian literary criticism, Northrop Frye (The Educated Imagination). Since then, the roster includes a Who’s Who of international thinkers — John Kenneth Galbraith (1965), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967), Claude Levi-Strauss (1977), Jane Jacobs (1979) and Alberto Manguel (2007) are just a handful of the names who have delivered the five-lecture series. Last year, for the first time, they took a fictional form with Douglas Coupland’s five-part novel Player One.

I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that the choice of this year’s lecturer, Adam Gopnik, wasn’t an influence on my decision. I was a journalist and editor in my working life and, in my opinion, there is no better journalistic essayist writing today than Gopnik. This is not just the 50th anniversary of the Massey Lectures; it is also the 25th anniversary of Gopnik’s writing in the New Yorker. His first 1986 contribution to the magazine — “a consideration of connections between childhood, baseball and Renaissance art” — provided ample indication of both the range of his interests and his ability to pull them together in thoughtful essays, a trait that is put to very good use in these lectures. Gopnik is probably best known for the five years he spent in Paris as the New Yorker’s correspondent there, an experience that resulted in the best-selling Paris to the Moon (2000). His tremendous range of interests (and ability to capture them in prose) was illustrated again just this week — he rushed back to New York from Canada for the launch of another new book, The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, a celebration of the haute cuisine that has fallen from favor in recent decades. (Here’s a link to the New York Times story on that launch if food, not cold, sparks your interest.)

And let’s also admit that his chosen subject (the full title of the book is Winter: Five Windows on the Season) has timely appeal. We have had a warm fall in Calgary, Alberta but four, five or six months of winter will begin any day now. The leaves have fallen, the first snow flurries fell (and melted) on Hallowe’en and there is a chunk of ice floating in the backyard pond (which will be drained for winter this afternoon). Sub-zero days and snow that stays around will be on hand at any time — like Gopnik, winter, rough as it may be, might be my favorite season.

The author summarizes his goals for the first four lectures in the series as he opens the fourth (don’t worry, I’ll get to the final one eventually) and it seems only right to quote his own words here:

When I was working on these chapters, knowing they would necessarily be stuffed tight with names and allusions, I made a little note for myself on each one, stating its central thematic premise, so that even if I went a bit off-centre I would never go too far off theme. The first note, about Romantic winter, reminded me that the subject is the growth of resonances that winter began to evoke in the nineteenth century, how something went from being seen as bleak and bitter to sweet and sublime. The second one, on radical winter, was about how words get woven around Arctic explorations. The third thematic note, about recuperative winter, was that its subject is the secularization of Christmas and how that act of seculatization invented a new kind of sacred. For this fourth chapter [recreational winter], my thematic note to myself read in full: Chance to talk at length about ice hockey.

I told you Gopnik had incredible range — those 50,000-foot level themes, all centred on winter, provide ample illustration of that and rest assured he delivers on each one. He is also quite right that every lecture/chapter is “stuffed tight with names and allusions”; I am not going to try to capture anything more than a brief sampling of them. Rather, I’ll give you from memory what impressed me about each one.

Romantic Winter — The Season in Sight: Gopnik opens the chapter with his memory of his first real snow storm in Montreal, where he was raised, on November 12, 1968 (I warned you winter could arrive here any day). He had seen snow in Philadelphia but:

that snow was an event, a once-a-year wonder. This introduced itself — by its soft persistence and blanketing intensity, its too-soon appearance in the calendar (mid-November!) and the complacency with which everyone seem to accept that too-soonness — as something that would go on for months and envelop a world.

Music, art and literature feature in all these chapters and Gopnik uses all three to illustrate how the intellectual struggle between the Enlightenment and northern Romanticism played out in developing a different view of “winter” — Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s poem “The Winter’s Walk” and paintings from Bruegel to Lawren Harris are all cited (as are many more) to support his thesis. The rationale for this change, however, is very prosaic: the arrival of central heating marked the point when we could sit inside and look out the window at winter as something beautiful, rather than experience it as a deadly threat.

Radical Winter — The Season in Space: The author/lecturer heads into an entirely different world of winter, literally, in this chapter which explores the story of the Polar explorers (both North and South) of the nineteenth century. Those expeditions were, as he establishes, pointless from almost any way you look at them. There was no “there” there, be it resources, people to subjigate or whatever, if they ever did get there — rather each was an “absurd existential quest, touched and humanized by the sheer endurance of the questers”.

Why, then, do we admire them? Why do they continue to haunt our imagination? Part of the answer, as I said, is that, even in their extremity, we recognize them as like ourselves. They are our civilization, or as it was: greedy, wordy, racist, sentimental. But a deeper answer, I think, is a simpler one, and we can sum it up in three blunt monosyllables: they were brave.

Recuperative Winter — The Season in Spirit: This is Gopnik’s take on Christmas, the history of the festival itself and the music, literature and art that are part of it. All cultures have “winter” celebrations (Saturnalia, Hanukkah, and others) which are both “reversal” and “renewal” festivals. “Reversal” in the sense that the established order is turned upside down, at least for a day — children get presents, Scrooge delivers a turkey to the Cratchits. “Renewal” in the sense that they “reassure everyone that the social basis of the community is secure” through family and community celebration. Christmas carols, art (the origin of our image of Santa Claus from New York cartoonist Thomas Nast) and literature (not just Dickens) are all considered — the season approaches and I assure you this chapter will provide you with enough thoughts to make it a different experience this year.

Recreational Winter — The Season at Speed: Hate hockey and can’t stand the thought of reading 44 pages about it? Fear not, because this just isn’t about hockey after all. Did you know that both Wordsworth and Goethe were accomplished skaters who reveled in showing off their expertise? Ice (and skates), in Gopnik’s view, provide the opportunity to “speed up” our experience, again literally as any child who has ever skated can tell you. The author loves the Montreal Canadiens (surprise, surpise) and does an excellent job of developing their historic story. And he hates modern hockey (the professional version) too — but still loves (as I do) the fact that every four years the Olympics shows us how good the sport can be.

Remembering Winter — The Season in Silence: Gopnik uses his final lecture to pull some of these diverse thoughts together, but he also addresses the elephant in the room that has been ignored in the series so far: Climate change and what it might mean for winter as we know it. He introduces this last chapter with some musings on northern artists living in the South and their expressions of their yearning for winter: Joni Mitchell’s song “River” and Francois Villon’s fifteenth-century poem “Ballad of Yesterday’s Beauties” with its refrain “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan” (“Where are the snows we knew” or “Well, where are yesterday’s snows” are his preferred translations). He spends some time describing the heated underground “cities” that are a feature of northern urban areas like Montreal and Toronto (in Calgary, ours is a plus-fifteen network, a storey above the street rather than below). And while he claims no expertise on climate change and the possible loss of winter as we have known it, his brother-in-law is Edward Struzik, author of The Big Thaw, one of the better volumes on the subject, so he is hardly ignorant on the subject. I’ll close this review with another excerpt that captures some of his thoughts on the issue:

The human response to this threat, to this sense of the loss of winter, is already taking place. In 2005 Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the Canadian Inuit activist, coined a startling phrase and presented it before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: what was being violated, she said, by the (American) polluters who were causing the world to warm, was “the right to be cold”. This phrase, strange-sounding or even comical to southerners, does point out an ethical imperative. It insists that one of the fundamental human rights for all people who live in northern climates is the right to be cold, exactly because their culture cannot go on in its absence. As we warm the world, entire peoples are being deprived of their weather, a right as fundamental as a seafaring nation’s right to access the ocean, or a Venetian’s right to be wet.

If you live in a climate where winter is a real season, you’ll find much to contemplate in this remarkable series of lectures. Even if you don’t, they are worth reading to help understand that what seems a hostile season really is a very special time for those of us who do live through it.

(The CBC has sponsored the Massey Lectures since the start and Gopnik’s five will be broadcast on the Ideas program Nov. 7-11 — here’s a link for more details and a schedule, including how to get iTunes podcasts if you don’t have access to CBC. Clicking on the cover will take you to the House of Anansi Press page about the book version.)

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25 Responses to “Winter, by Adam Gopnik — the Massey Lectures, 2011”

  1. Debbie Rodgers Says:

    No, I’m not big on the cold, causing some to wonder why I brave winters in Nova Scotia, and I’m not sure I would have picked this book up at first glance. The introspection on the facets of the season will no doubt benefit me though, so I’ve added it to my TBR list. Thanks for the tip.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      When I was reading the lectures, I was checking off some great Canadian winter fiction by region — The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, The Underpainter, Touch and a host of Prairie works just for a start — and I could not remember any set in Nova Scotia. I’m sure at least one exists (and I am too lazy to go to the basement and scan my shelves) — does any one stand out for you?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Debbie: Okay, not everything about winter is great, particularly when the snow drifts get taller than you are. Still, Gopnik gives you reason to look at it from a different point of view and (this is still to be tested, for me, in the upcoming months) find some things to like. It is definitely worth the read, or listen.

  3. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin, can I make a plea for more non-fiction reviews?? I love the themes and the scope of this book and will hunt down a copy, it sounds right up my alley…well any mention of Joni Mitchell’s River is bound to have the desired effect:-) Whilst you brace for a definitive winter we never quite know what to expect here, but still that mood prevails once the clocks go back as they did last weekend.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: I have been thinking that I should read a few more non-fiction titles, so I will take your request under advisement — actually, Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet has been on my “next to read” shelf for entirely too long, so it will probably be next.

    As for this book, I think you’ll find some interesting thoughts in it — Devon doesn’t get the winter of the Poles, or even Alberta, but it still gets a version and Gopnik does have some excellent UK references. Amazon.com does have a Kindle version, which I suspect is your best bet — my guess is that a UK hard copy may be some time in coming.

    Our clocks don’t go back until this weekend — so here in Calgary it is still dark until about 8:30 a.m. which is definitely a reminder that winter may be just hours away.

  5. leroyhunter Says:

    Top stuff. Where I am the winters are feeble, anaemic affairs composed of wet and wind. We had 2 severe cold snaps last December, which of course caused most things to slip and skid to a halt, but I couldn’t help thinking all the way through them of the wry, superior smile a Scandanavian or northern North American would wear while contemplating our failure to deal with the elements.

    This sounds like great stuff, even if hockey (unlike baseball or even the NFL) leaves me totally *ahem* cold.

  6. leroyhunter Says:

    PS: The Memory Chalet is on my shelf as well, so if you’re thinking of reviewing it Kevin I’d gladly try to read along.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I just pulled The Memory Chalet off the shelf — 25 “essays” in 226 pages. I have been trying to discipline my reading to include having a couple of short story collections on the go. With the prize reading all now done, I’ll slide The Memory Chalet into one of those slots and look at reading one or two a day, with a view towards posting a review towards month end or early December. Anyone else who has a copy or is interested (Judt is to understandable history as Gopnik is to journalistic essays) is more than welcome to join in.

      • leroyhunter Says:

        I’ll get it down as well Kevin – I’ve been looking forward to it.

        • dovegreyreader Says:

          For all that Kindle/Amazon aversion may stalk KFC there are real advantages this end:-) I downloaded a sample of The Memory Chalet late last night, read it, loved it, bought it and was reading into the wee small hours and again early this morning. Immediacy rather than procrastination often the name of the game when a book is mentioned in that way! Tony Judt lived in the little corner of S London that I grew up in so his memories chime very firmly with mine. What a remarkable man and this book an amazing feat given his illness. He gives real meaning to his observation that ‘nostalgia makes a very satisfactory second home’ as he makes his way tortuously through each night. I’m in for the read-along too Kevin & thanks for the heads up in this one.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: One of the things that we say here in Alberta is that we have a “dry cold” — that’s shorthand for saying that a “wet cold” like Ireland or Scotland is far worse at +10 C than a “dry cold” is at -20 C. That’s crap, of course, but we still say it. And the coldest I have ever been (and I am coming up to my 50th Alberta winter) was in Aberdeen in August. As Gopnik points out, when cold is a regular feature you can dress for it (unlike heat, he notes) — it is when you aren’t prepared, and my Aberdeen bed-and-breakfast certainly wasn’t, that it is a disaster.

    One of the interesting aspects of Gopnik’s look at hockey is the way that he argues it was developed as an amalgam of a whole bunch of other sports — rugby, association football (what we call soccer in North America), elements of American football, baseball and, most important, lacrosse — with the crucial element, of course, that all of the action happens at much higher speed because it takes place on ice and the players are on skates. His idea of hockey is “idealistic”, I admit, but those of us who are old enough to have seen it at its best (I did see Gretzky numerous times) understand what he is talking about. And the last hockey game that I watched was the Olympic gold medal game in 2010 and I doubt that I will watch another one until the 2014 Olympics.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy (and Lee Marks, whose email address is “fergieout” in reference to the Manchester manager, so he obviously cares about what I call soccer): Here’s Gopnik, perceptively I would argue, on hockey versus soccer:

    “Hockey is the one game in which, as a hockey-playing savant of my acquaintance says, a good mind can turn a game upside down. Yes, no doubt soccer rewards similar skills. A Johann Cruyff or an Eric Cantona has similar situational awareness and spatial intelligence, while we grow disgusted with superior players — like the shoulda-been-great Brazilian Renaldo — who lack it; but there are eleven men on a soccer pitch and maybe two goals in a game, and the whole thing, despite the sporadic show of “pace”, proceeds at a walk, sometimes accelerating to a jog. In no other sport can a quality of mind so dominate as in the supposedly brutal game of ice hockey. Hockey is the one game where an intelligence can completely overthrow expectations.”

    He might idealize the game, but he has a point. If you ever had the chance to stand beside Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby, you would be astounded at how “ordinary” they are as physical specimens. Their quality of mind is what impresses Gopnik.

    See? There is reason to read the hockey chapter even if you hate the current version of the sport.

    • leroyhunter Says:

      Isn’t Lee a Red Devil? Fergie leaving Old Trafford is one of my fondest wishes as well….

      We crossed posts Kevin but I’m even more sold now. I’d never seen or thought about baseball before reading The Natural so I’m not going to let assumed-hockey-antipathy get in the way of this.

  9. leroyhunter Says:

    Yes, I’d trade the epic snowdrifts of your winters for the miserable encroaching drench of Britain and Ireland in a flash. Like your Aberdeen experience Kevin I’m pretty sure the coldest I’ve ever felt was a January in Edinburgh (at least that was winter though – not August!).

    I know Gopnik’s name but I haven’t read him. The hockey angle you describe sounds fascinating, now you elaborate. I listen to a radio show here that regularly has a chap from San Francisco on to talk about US sports: a few weeks ago he dedicated his slot to Gretzky, and the awe and admiration in his voice was quite compelling.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Here’s another angle on the hockey aspect (and I am trusting other commenters to get me off just commenting on the sporting parts of Gopnik’s book).

    Only hockey and lacrosse (and to a much lesser extent, cricket) extend the playing field beyond the “goal”. Can you imagine what soccer would be like if the pitch extended 5-20 yards behind the goal, so that teams could send the ball back there to a play designer (it was where Gretzky was his best) who could send it back into play, on either side or over the goal itself, or simply whip round himself. And the goaltender had to pay attention to a 360 degreee world, not a 180 degree one.

  11. leroyhunter Says:

    OK, enough with the hockey.

    Have you read any accounts of polar exploration? They are extraordinarily popular. The death-hero-worship of Scott and similar figures makes a link in my mind with what Geoff Dyer describes in his book The Missing of the Somme: that Victorian-Edwardian solemnity and fascination with the futile sacrifice.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I have not read a lot, and precious few of the legion of historical accounts. I have read Wayne Johnson’s The Navigator of New York which I thought did a good job of capturing both the courage and the absurdity — not to mention the politics — of the enterprise.

  12. Blithe Spirit Says:

    Great review as always Kevin. I had marked the CBC lectures on my calendar and plan to listen to them next week, but I think I’ll need to buy the book as well. It will be a good companion to Wade Davis’ Into the Silence, about (among many other things), Mallory and Irvine’s expedition up Everest, which I’m in the middle of. I’m always fascinated with the polar expeditions so I’m very much looking forward to Gopnik’s lecture on that subject. Over the summer I was reading Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane which also looked at the Romantic re-envisioning – in this case of dark, scary mountains – into something more sublime and beautiful and challenging, and I imagine there are similarities with a rethinking of winter. Which is all quite wonderful when you think about it.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Blithe Spirit: I think you are going to find the first lecture an interesting compare-and-contrast with Macfarlane from your description. And I was thinking about the Wade Davis Everest book (which I have heard about but not read) during Gopnik’s Polar chapter. (I am sure you know it but for the benefit of others Davis was the 2009 Massey Lecturer).

    My impression would be that you do want the book as well as listening — Gopnik makes so many useful references and quotes fromm works (often a number in the same sentence) that even if you were note-taking it would be a challenge to keep up.

  14. kimbofo Says:

    This sounds fascinating — although I’m not much of a fan of winter and absolutely hate snow. I have nothing but admiration for you Canadians having to put up with so much of the stuff for so long… my limit is about two days and then I want someone to sweep it all away!

    Am showing my antipodean upbringing here, but I’m not sure that “All cultures have ‘winter’ celebrations”, as you state above. In Oz, winter runs from June through to end of August, a time which drags and drags because there are absolutely no festivities (such as Christmas in the northern hemisphere) to break up the monotonous weather conditions. I grew up in the southern-most tip of the mainland, where winter is wet and windy and wet and wet (it can rain for three months solid), which gets quite boring after awhile. Ironic, then, that I moved to a part of the world (London) where the weather’s a bit like that for the entire year! LOL.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kimbofo: Good point about Australian winter — I’d have to go back to the book but I think I misrepresented Gopnik in making my generalization. I think his examples only involved North Hemisphere cultures. Sorry about that.

  16. Kathleen Says:

    Afraid the lectures themselves are awful. However much I admire winter, this doesn’t do it justice.
    Perhaps the book is sublime.
    But Gopnik’s too perky for a Massey lecture.
    It’s awful.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kathleen: I didn’t attend any of the lectures and haven’t been listening to the CBC series, so I can’t agree or disagree with you. I did wonder while I was reading the book how they would “sound” — the best parts for me were when he got into involved comparisons that I felt needed the “contemplative” time that reading allows. And if his delivery is “perky, that would be another barrier.

    Despite that, I still think the book is an excellent collection of thoughts, well-articulated.

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