Bear witness

In literature as in life relationships are often complicated. Particularly intimate relationships, such as that of fathers and sons.

He needed me to do what sons do for their fathers: bear witness that they’re substantial, that they’re not hollow, not ringing absences. That they count for something when little else seems to.

Here the narrator of Richard Ford’s novel Canada looks back on his fifteen-year-old self. Earlier in the story young Dell Parsons had learned, rather suddenly, that his father Bev was not quite who he thought he was. Now, after a traumatic event that sent his parents to jail and forced him to move from Montana to Saskatchewan, Dell learns that his new father-figure, Arthur Remlinger, isn’t all he seems to be either. A lingering question, posed several times in the novel, is whether or not people have the events which define them somehow written on their face, as it were. Does a murderer always look like a murderer?

Canada is a novel of innocence lost, a coming-of-age story. And the retrospective reflection I’ve cited is one of the many elements in the protagonist’s journey towards maturity—to what he later calls “adaptation” and “development.” At the age of fifteen Dell lives through two periods of intense trauma, episodes which make up the bulk of the novel. Eventually, he becomes a high school teacher of English in Windsor, Ontario, and describes his aim in the classroom as “crossing a border.” That is, he encourages his students to see the novels of great writers such as Josef Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Hardy, as stories of movement not unlike his own, from lives which don’t have figure and order to lives that do.

The passage cited above struck me as I read it, reminding me of my own father. I put an asterisk in the book’s margin. There were times when my dad would talk as the father figures do in Canada, not so much in their particular ways of speaking, but with the understanding that they are being seen and heard. They search out the company of those for whom they can be significant, substantial. While this can and does apply to fathers, it is simultaneously true of everyone. We all need others to bear witness to us. Certainly we all look for some form of recognition from others, most often others to whom we are dearest. But the forms of recognition that each of us solicit are as various as the structure of the societies in which we dwell. As the philosopher Paul Ricœur writes in Parcours de la reconaissance and elsewhere, to be human is to be recognized on a range of levels, from existential and familial to legal and political.

In E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View the narrator justly observes that “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.” Written with disarmingly direct prose, Canada comes to a similar conclusion. Having taught English for over thirty years, Dell suggests to his students and to the reader that our lives are (purely?) what we make of them. That is, while the weight of the significance of events may be pressing, our lives are like blank pages, given to us “empty.” Coincidentally, both A Room with a View and Canada invoke an adage from John Ruskin to the effect that beauty and order is found in a holistic sense of proportion between unequal things. The point is more or less classical, Aristotle having said something similar in his Poetics. Looking to Aristotle is quite appropriate, in fact. For one of his major inquiries concerned what a well-lived life looks like. It certainly cannot be said of the Lyceum’s great lecturer that he characterized each human life as a blank page.

Contrary to what Dell concludes as an older man, I do not think it’s accurate to say that our lives are given to us “empty.” For each of us comes to life in a time and place where the weight of significance does not merely impinge on us, as if it were something entirely external. Rather, historical significance provides the very horizons of our life’s journey. But then literature is not life, is it? It can explore the possibilities of human imagination in ways that flout what is true, and one of its many virtues is that rather than lead us astray, this can enrich our self-understanding. That doesn’t always happen, of course. So the fact that Dell wonders why certain novels aren’t taught more often to Canadian students may give an astute reader pause. He mentions The Great Gatsby. That novel is a classic piece of Americana because it encapsulates the story of the self-made man, riding the waves of change in a society less constrained by old-world conventions. It testifies to America’s promise as well as its pitfalls. If Dell lauds such stories of self-fashioning, and wonders why Canadians aren’t taught them, perhaps that’s because his literary favourites have elicited false consolation. Careful reflection on the historical differences between Canada and the United States should have informed him that our lives aren’t given to us empty at all.

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