Finding Identity Between the Picturesque and the Sublime20 min read

Di seguito presentiamo con piacere il saggio Finding Identity Between the Picturesque and the Sublime scritto da Anna Partyka. Il saggio è stato presentato durante la Prima Edizione del Best Essay Award indetto da CanadaUsa.net a Marzo del 2017 ed è stato premiato come vincitore di questa edizione tra tutti gli elaborati presentati.

Canada’s two main facets: the sublime and the picturesque
Another side to the Canadian soul
New connections with the landscape
A different approach towards Canada
Painting words: depicting Canada through visual art and literature
Conclusions
Works Cited

Canada’s two main facets: the sublime and the picturesque

In spite of the established theory that “to the average man, who has seen a dozen oil paintings, a hundred photographs, a thousand pictures in the illustrated journals, and a couple of Niagara, the word-painting of a waterfall is tedious” (Jerome, ch. 5), Susan Glickman states that “engagement with the land is a subject of intense interest and depictions of its grandeur, immensity and variety a primary source of aesthetic pleasure” (3).

The use of the word “engagement” is essential here; writing about nature makes sense only if the descriptions are marked with an emotional attitude and their creator has lived in the given scenery long enough to claim that he knows it. In their books Susanna Moodie, Catherine Parr Traill and Emily Carr undertook a challenge of portraying the Canadian landscape. What connects them is their quest of discovering not only of the land but also of what Emily Dickinson would call “the undiscovered continent” – their mind and identity.

Both Moodie and Traill came to Canada with presumptions as to what they will find there. Their expectations could be contained in the word “sublime” which came to signify “that which awes and terrifies” (Glickman, 10). And yet, when confronted with the roughness and wilderness of the Canadian bush, both sisters longed for the “picturesque” sights which would remind them of home they left in England. According to Coleridge “nothing that has a shape can be sublime” (qtd. in Glickman, 11) so it would seem a mere feasibility to try and capture what by definition is “indefinable and immeasurable” (Glickman, 10).

However, both Strickland sisters and Emily Carr, who had the privilege of being born Canadian and thus not seeing it in terms of imaginings or expectations, ventured to depict what they saw around them in terms of literature or, like in case of Emily Carr, also through painting. They did it with distinct levels of success, sometimes settling for the picturesque only, “that which was paintable” (Glickman, 10), finding a comfortable zone between simple beauty and almost unimaginable awe mixed with reverence; a zone that nevertheless accommodates and may even suppress the truth of the nature.

Glickman states that “language attempts to name and contain sublime, to make sense of it” (40) and even though these words consider poetry, there seems to be no obstacle to relate them also to prose where the greatest metaphor are feelings and experiences of the writer who, referring to the landscape, conveys the make-up of his encounter with sublimity. Glickman compares Burke’s theory of the sublime with Aristotle’s theory of catharsis and claims that the close encounter with sublimity has a homeopathic effect (41). But I would go even one step further: a writer willing to give himself up to the overwhelming sense of sublimity can through this experience gain an insight into his own self and undergo substantial changes.

Another side to the Canadian soul

However, Canada is not simply “the picturesque” or “the sublime”, she is something in between; she is the sublimity that can be expressed through the budding new identities of people who give themselves in to her, and the picturesqueness which does not comply with the human ways of perception.

Once the writers reached this place where the soul of Canada lies, the grey zone of undefined “sublicturesque”, and acknowledged her true spirit, this experience opened up their minds and allowed them to discover new grey areas also in themselves.

Susanna Moodie comes to Canada decided to feel homesick: “Home! The world had ceased to belong to my present – it was doomed to live forever in the past; for what emigrant ever regarded the country of his exile as his home?” (Moodie, 24). She is not blind to the grandeur of the landscape yet does not feel connected with it:

The shadow of His glory rested visibly on the stupendous objects that composed that magnificent scene; words are perfectly inadequate to describe the impression it made upon my mind–the emotions it produced. The only homage I was capable of offering at such a shrine was tears(…) I never before felt so overpoweringly my own insignificance, and the boundless might and majesty of the Eternal. (19)

Although she experiences the sublime, it does not have the power of “catharsis” over her; she lacks what Wordsworth called “self-consideration” (qtd. in Glickman, 43) without which she will feel only awe without the slightest trace of being peacefully connected and influenced by the surroundings. Glickman maintains that “(…)fear of the unknown may be transitional, and the first stage in an imaginative ascent. In such cases fear contributes greatly to one’s spiritual and emotional development(…)” (45) yet in case of Susanna Moodie the aforementioned development does not come for a long time. She cannot open herself to the novelty of Canada because the warm feelings towards England ironically freeze her heart and she looks at the new land as on a dead one, where she alone dies back.

The moment in which Susanna starts to notice the picturesque qualities of the Canadian landscape brings her closer to the personal development. England represents everything that is picturesque and homey and when something in Canada starts to resemble it, part of the warm feelings is transferred on the new home.

Half the solitude of my forest home vanished when the lake unveiled its bright face to the blue heavens, and I saw sun, and moon, and stars, and waving trees reflected there. I would sit for hours at the window as the shades of evening deepened round me, watching the massy foliage of the forests pictured in the waters, till fancy transported me back to England, and the songs of birds and the lowing of cattle were sounding in my ears. (Moodie, 154)

Susanna, much like Tennysonian Lady of Shallot, looks at the reflections rather than reality. It gives her the sense of safety but puts her in the realm of dreams and memories which is one of the reasons why the Old World builds up to be an idyllic place in her head.

She desperately needs to belong somewhere, and out of two options Canada presents the less attractive one. But once Susanna decides to take up activities not befitting an English lady like canoeing, fishing or watching with laughter the act of skinning of a hunted buck, the grip of the Old World on her heart starts to loosen up. A dawn of new freedom is upon her as she embraces the otherness of Canada.

Intrigued by the words of a friendly hunter she begins to understand that the most beautiful elements of Canada and hidden from her eyes, meant only for wild creatures to see. To perceive them, she needs to carry some of the wilderness and freedom of these creatures inside of her. The New World is all about freedom and if she remains tied to the Old World, she shall never comprehend Canada.

“Man of strange race! Dweller of the wild! Nature’s free-born, untamed, and daring child!” (139) she writes down in excitement when she realizes that she needs to be reborn in full freedom, without any unnatural social or behavioral constrains in order to bind with Canada and appreciate her wilderness; that the landscape of the New World is closer to human nature with its unpredictability and primality.

In accordance with that, Susanna begins to take control over her life: on regular bases helps out in more manly chores and most importantly – starts writing for a living which would be impossible without her deeper appreciation of Canada visible in many subsequent passages of “Roughing it in the Bush”.

New connections with the landscape

Buss insists that this kind of “merging” of a new identity can be achieved in two ways: “through a relationship with significant others and through some creative activity that discovers each woman’s unique relation to the land” (126). I cannot agree with that statement though; it seems that as much as Susanna wants not to disappoint her husband nor leave him alone with the responsibility for the well-being of the whole family, it is not the act of writing about Canada that causes her to understand this land and is the stimulus for her change, but the other way around.

The way in which she starts to subordinate her family’s life to changing seasons, appreciates Canadian woods and nature not solely for their rugged beauty but more importantly because they supply her household with meat, fish, vegetables and fruits necessary to live, begins to care for the land and cultivate it with her own hands is not the result of writing but a reason for writing. Her new ways in the New World give her topics suitable for publication, a “new sense of self and purpose which was and still is of more consequence than what she would have done had she remained in England” (Bentley, 118).

After the New World “broke her” through various struggles and hardships, Susanna Moodie becomes aware and appreciative of Canada’s otherness. She is also a changed woman who has found new values and discovered unbelievable amounts of strength, self-sufficiency and perseverance in herself. It is observing Canada and her ways that taught her the lesson of survival and will to fight:

Stern Disappointment, in thy iron grasp
The soul lies stricken. So the timid deer,
Who feels the foul fangs of the felon wolf
Clench’d in his throat, grown desperate for life,
Turns on his foes, and battles with the fate
That hems him in–and only yields in death. (Moodie, 178)

When bidding goodbye to her house in the bush, which she loved “in spite of all the hardships” (241) Susanna focuses most on the places in which she worked: the lake where she used to fish, field where she milked the cows, the garden she tended, the fence she built herself. Being taught a lesson about surviving through hard times and taking them calmly, she became a different race of people, a wilder creature, who learned to love her solitude and freedom.

In the final lines about “revealing the secrets of the prison-house” (247) Susanna Moodie may not be talking about the imprisonment in the bush; I believe that she writes about being a prisoner inside her own head and heart and not being able to commit for a long time to the freedom offered by Canada when everything around her shouted about liberty.

A different approach towards Canada

Even if in “the moments of departure from Britain and arrival in Canada(…) the emotions evoked by leaving a familiar place and arriving at a strange one were at their most acute and plangent” (Bentley, 94) for most of the female pioneers, it is certainly not the case of Catherine Parr Traill.

The elder Strickland sister, brimming with optimism so unlike Susanna Moodie, cannot wait to reach the new land and is wholeheartedly determined to be happy in her new dwelling. She passes the long, boring sea voyage intensely reading the maps of the New World: “half our time is spent poring over the great chart in the cabin, which is constantly being rolled and unrolled by my husband to gratify my desire of learning the names of the distant shores and islands which we pass (Traill, 12).

Even while still not on the shore, Catherine wants to understand and know this new country in order not to be a “stranger” when she reaches it. All approaches of the travelers encountering the New World for the very first time as listed by Susan Joan Wood seem to be a description of Catherine’s attitude:

(…)an insistence on the uplifting, inspiring effect of “sublime” rugged scenery… a desire for the cultivated, garden-like nature of the old world … acknowledgment of physical hardships and labour involved in the settlement;… an undercurrent of unease, even fear, of a nature not like “home”. (qtd. in Glickman, 46)

As much as it seems almost impossible to reconcile these stances, her optimistic yet rational personality makes it happen. When encountering sublimity, she does not fear nor feel intimidated: “though I cannot but dwell with feelings of wonder and admiration on the majesty and power of this mighty river, I begin to grow weary of its immensity, and long for a nearer view of the shore” (Traill, 14) and then “we were exceedingly gratified by the magnificent appearance of the rapids of the St. Laurence, at the cascades of which the road commanded a fine view from the elevation of the banks” (Traill, 49).

She feels marvel at the sight of sublimity yet in the long run it is connected with a sense of boredom. Being disappointed at seeing Canadian woods as she imagined them as „hoary giants almost primeval with the country itself” (Traill, 112), Catherine begins to think of the New World as actually new, full of hope and possibilities. Not infiniteness but welcoming openness is the quality she senses most of all.

In view of that, her catharsis is not so powerful as the one experienced by Susanna. Traill feels welcomed in Canada as if by a powerful yet good-natured mother who wants her child to grow and prosper. What lacks in awe, Catherine makes up in “a holy and tranquil peace” (Traill, 118) which she feels at the thought of her new situation. Process of opening oneself to Canada which took years for Susanna to succeed, in case of her sister seems to have happened in a matter of months.

Traill searches for elements of picturesque in the landscape around her, tirelessly looking for something she could be enthusiastic about and eventually finding it in botany, what McGregor called taking “refuge in the cheerful, short-range, domesticated view of the wilderness” (qtd. in Buss, 125). As it may seem true, it is my belief that Catherine found her own “Little Way” of getting closer to the true spirit of Canada; childish as it may seem, it strangely suits this Polyanna-like grown up woman whose main concern was to stay positive and look on the bright side:

It is fortunate for me that my love of natural history enables me to draw amusement from objects that are deemed by many unworthy of attention. To me they present an inexhaustible fund of interest. The simplest weed that grows in my path, or the lily that flutters about me, are subjects for reflection, admiration, and delight. (Traill, 17)

Her extremely long and detailed descriptions of fauna and flora go “beyond a genteel taste for floral beauty” (Paterman, 173). “In personal terms, the study of nature and particularly of flowers helped sustain Traill through the prolonged difficulties, deprivations, ‘home-longings’, and deculturation of her backwoods experience. One cannot gainsay the psychological worth of flowers to her” (Paterson, 178).

Influence of Canada on Catherine Parr Traill may seem insignificant when looked on from above: she used to want more awakened mode of life yet with happiness she settles for sustained quietness of the woods. Development of Canada which was to become second England, so important to her at the beginning of her journey, does not matter anymore in face of the fact that undisturbed family life becomes her priority.

But what is more important, along with the country she calls “new”, Catherine goes back to the beginnings of human values where simple, uncomplicated life is focused on family and where her optimism may bloom as she touches, examines and delights in the very soul of the New World – its nature. “How infinite is that Wisdom that rules the natural world! How often do we see great events brought about by seemingly insignificant agents!” (Traill, 306).

Painting words: depicting Canada through visual art and literature

In Growing Pains Emily Carr writes: “I did not know book rules. I made two for myself. They were about the same as the principles I use in painting – get to the point as directly as you can; never use a big word if a little one will do” (460). Writing from the perspective of years Emily does not employ herself in lengthy descriptions; she rather amazes the reader with a single unexpected word which like a sudden gush of color brightens the whole passage.

Being Canadian, she takes Canada’s nature for granted in the best way possible – not trying to express admiration, she focuses on understanding and getting under the skin of the New World which is extremely important for her work. Only when seeing the truth can she portray the image through her paints or words; this process of understanding takes years and consists of innumerable moments of communion with sublimity.

Kant noticed that “the sublime moment, in revealing the inadequacy of our knowledge of the world inspires us to make new meanings and thereby recover our sense of self” (qtd. in Glickman, 42); Carr understands this inadequacy in herself and devotes her life to study painting through which she wants to represent the true, “unpaintable” spirit of Canada what sometimes takes her to sit in the woods “dumb as a plate, staring, absorbing tremendously(…)” (Carr, Growing Pains 422).

Truth needs the human factor to reveal itself; that is why Carr does not believe that a camera can do justice to Canada; “it has to be sensed, passed through live minds, sensed and loved” (Carr, Growing Pains 437). Letting the spirit of the land into your bloodstream, letting it pierce you and know you is like allowing a wild animal to get accustomed to your presence, get to know your smell, just to be able after many years to touch it if only for a single moment.

The process is by no means easy and quick but only in this way can she “live places deep” (Carr, Growing Pains 467), live and breathe with Canada. In the Art School Emily discovers that her genuine identity visible through the canvas sees the light of day only when she faces difficulties and feels “the whip” above her head. And thus she travels, spending her nights in tents and not paying attention to her own comfort. Yet it is necessary in order to paint the Canadian landscape in its real spirit. Carr searches for her own identity for many years and finally discovers it in the woods of Canada. Only when she learns how to paint them can she understand herself.

From her youngest days silence and vastness of the Canadian woods have not frightened her. Unlike Moodie and Traill, Emily does not see this silence as morbid. “The room was deathly still. Outside, the black forest was still too, but with a vibrant stillness tense with life” (Carr, Klee Wyck 26) – the silence is pulsing, waiting in a suspense like a child who playing hide-and-seek, stays still hidden behind the curtain but inside simmers with excitement.

Thanks to her stays among Indians, who in her own eyes were much closer to understanding Canada than herself, Carr begins to perceive not only forests but also sea, animals and humans as equal elements which constitute the cycle of life. Each element is alive and has distinct characteristics: “down deep we all hug something. The great forest hugs its silence. The sea and the air hug the spilled cries of seabirds. The forest hugs only silence; its birds and even its beasts are mute” (Carr, Klee Wyck 37).

Humans are not favored by nature, they are the element with the same rights, certainly not entitled to take advantage of other elements. This kind of sensitivity, professed by Indians and opposed by the biblical perception of the world, is one of the truths Emily learns thanks to her close association with the Natives.

When she grows older and is not supposed to strain herself artistically, Emily still goes to the woods as “the longing is too terrific to subdue” (Carr, Growing Pains 470). Like Cathy from Wuthering Heights or Vincent van Gogh who goes to the field of Arles to paint in the brightest sun, Carr cannot live without her life. Painting Canada, writing about Canada becomes her life and her identity and it is something that someone may try to “polish off her” but certainly will not manage to “polish out” (Carr, Growing Pains 359), just as well as her soul cannot be taken away from her.

Conclusions

Margaret Atwood once said “we are all immigrants to this place even if we were born here” (qtd. in Glickman, 75) and I could not disagree more. It does not have to take the knowledge of the whole land and its customs to be a true Canadian. Catherine Parr Traill focused only on Canadian flowers and she found herself in this little element that creates the Canadian puzzle. Emily Carr undertook the tremendous challenge of facing and converting Canada’s spirit onto her paintings and discovered herself in the process. And as to “Roughing it in the Bush” it can be called a “record of growth of Susanna Moodie’s mind” (Glickman, 80) for whom nature was the“chief solace in the midst of hunger, isolation and uncertainty” (Glickman, 60).

All three of these women immersed themselves in nature and thanks to that were able to become a new, wilder race; after many struggles they were finally able to touch the even wilder sublicturesque and win their newly forged identities, which triumphantly break through their words and paintings. And if that does not convince the Jerome’s character who claims that “just as canvas and colour were the wrong mediums for story-telling, so word-painting was, at its best, but a clumsy method of conveying impressions that could much better be received through the eye” (Jerome, ch. 5), that descriptions of nature can be valuable and effective, then I do not know what will.

Works Cited

  • Bentley, D.M.R. “Breaking the ‘Cake of Custom’: The Atlantic Crossing as a Rubicon for Female Emigrants to Canada?” Re(di)scovering Our Foremothers: Nineteenth-century Canadian Women Writers, edited by Lorraine McMullen, University of Ottawa Press, 1990, pp. 91-122.
  • Buss, Helen. “Women and the Garrison Mentality: Pioneer Women Autobiographers and their Relation to the Land.” Re(di)scovering Our Foremothers: Nineteenth-century Canadian Women Writers, edited by Lorraine McMullen, University of Ottawa Press, 1990, pp. 123-136.
  • Carr, Emily. “Growing Pains.” The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, edited by Don Mills, University of Washington Press, 1997, pp. 293-471.
  • Carr, Emily. “Klee Wyck.” The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, edited by Don Mills, University of Washington Press, 1997, pp. 15-86.
  • Glickman, Susan. The Picturesque & the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998.
  • Jerome, K.J. Three Men on the Bummel. E-book, edited by David Price, 2011. Guttenberg Project, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2183/2183-h/2183-h.htm.
  • Moodie, Susanna. Roughing It in the Bush. Richard Bentley, 1852. Digital Library, http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/moodie/roughing/roughing.html.
  • Paterman, Michael. “’Splendid Anachronism’: The Record of Catherine Parr Traill’s Struggles as an Amateur Botanist in Nineteenth-Century Canada.” Re(di)scovering Our Foremothers: Nineteenth-century Canadian Women Writers, edited by Lorraine McMullen, University of Ottawa Press, 1990, pp. 173-186.
  • Traill, Catherine Parr. The Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters From the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America. C. Knight, 1836. Hathi Trust, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=aeu.ark:/13960/t3514tc97;view= 1up;seq =8.
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