Friday, September 24, 2004

I AM NOT WHO I WAS, THEREFORE I AM

My friend Abdulla the Shrink tells me that identity is no big deal."You just do what you do over and over again. That's your identity. That's the whole thing in a nutshell."

Nutshell was his choice of words.

I began to fear for my sanity.

I almost began to see the letters MD emblazoned on his lapel, like a wildly humorous character out of an old David Steinberg routine.

I went to other sources.

Big Ideas, TVO: Terry Forsyth, an academic apparently high on Rene Descartes, is saying "I am not who I was, therefore I am." We keep evolving, Prof. Forsyth seems to say.

The satirist in me begins to raise his pointed little head.

Years ago, to graduate from Ryerson, I had to produce a 35 page thesis on some aspect of journalism. I chose MAD magazine because it seemed the path less traveled. Now my "research" began to bear fruit.

There is a caricature of Popeye the Sailor Man somewhere in MAD, and he is saying "I yam what I yam, what I yam."

Popeye, of course, is illegitimate, and like an existentialist, he makes himself up as he goes along.
Then, of course, is the nickelodeon mascot of MAD magazine, Alfred E. Neuman, who offers, "What, me worry?"

Of such comic book talk-ballooning stuff is many an "intellectual" made.

I am a transplanted Ukrainian whose rather good school has taught him American English. Especially media argot.

This makes me something of a rare bird in Ukrainian academic and artistic circles since good handwriting, careful cribbing of senior academics leads to good, clear essays and advanced degrees which lead to good university and government jobs, but advances Ukrainian art and literature not a whit.

In a world of ten-page historical footnotes, we have yet to produce a John Updike.

In a world of guitar and bandura hackers, we have yet to produce even a Britney Spears.

There are exceptions, of course, the late Hryhori Chubai, whose modernism easily rivals the best of the last century, but the critics over here have missed it, especially after the fall of the late USSR.

Why have we not made a better account of ourselves?

Why, assimilation, of course.

This was the case of Gogol, this was partially the case of Conrad--though there was still the somewhat stuffy Polish aristocrat within--and is certainly the case of some of our best Ukrainian-Canadian writers and artists. There is a dictum: Seek a larger audience or wilt.

In the United States, where Jewish intellectuals seemed to have had no place to go toward the end of the last century, there was a movement, almost bitter, toward anti-assimilation. There was a story in the modern urban Jew--as there certainly is a story in the modern urban Ukrainian over here--and that story was well told in novels such as HERZOG, PICTURES OF FIDELMAN and many, many others. There were even playful and prurient entries. The whole thing was capped off by GOOD AS GOLD, a celebration of the Jewish-American literary experience.

And then it all fizzled out as the century rounded.

Where have they gone?

Assimilated all.

Hardly a peep out of the Jewish-American novelists. The durable "Mayflower" novelist John Updike holds the field at the turn of the century, not at all upset over the loss ot the "Protestant soul" ("loosely speaking", as one critic put it). Updike is concerned with quality of letters alone, that good old New Yorker quality of letters, and he consistently produces it.

There is an untold story in American letters. "Don't trust anybody not yet third-generation."

Here in Canada, it's a slightly different story. Multiculturalism is encouraged, and even fostered.
It has produced some first-rate talent from people of our tribe.

Myrna Kostash, George Ryga, the famous Toronto area broadcasters and lots of first-rate rock'n'rollers.

And yet we have no Joseph Conrad, no Nicholas Gogol.

Is it because our range is too narrow, as may have been the case with the Jewish-American novelists?

There is such a thing as Ukrainian literary genius. It is written all over Gogol and written all over Hryhory Chubai. But Gogol sought a wider medium, while Chubai, necessarily, was restricted to his own anti-Communist stance while somehow remaining in the writers unions. Shevhenko has stayed "home" all this time.

"I pity the poor immigrant," the great American genius, Bob Dylan is rasping it out in "Bringing it all back home". Bob Dylan has given up any Jewishness he may have had, and his subject matter consists of purely American themes. He had in fact turned Christian at one point until the unceasing financial request by the churches nearly drove him crazy.

Well, what is to be done?

Maybe a shift away from a culture of small villages that no longer exists as the"starry immigrants" remember it?

Maybe a recommitment to the general values and its attendant shorthand in the writing of this country?

Make no mistake. We have produced an Edmund Carpenter, a Marshall Mcluhan, a Frederic Banting and the Avro Arrow.

We have produced a Robertson Davies in literature.

For a while, until somebody scotched the Blue Jays, we were at the top of sports--and with mostly all-black players. The thing can be done.

But we must not be like some students in a creative writing class, so many worms feeding off each others sustenance if the analogy is not too distasteful.

We must find earth, a new earth in which to thrive creatively.

We must take our portable roots and settle somewhere--why not over here?

The path is fairly clear.

Start your writing, your song writing early, and in English, the mass medium of the world.

Stay away from narrowly parochial schools if possible.

Do not change your name, for this is the source of your identity.

Then, maybe, just maybe, "I am what my name is, therefore I am."