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.)