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Adam Gopnik on the 'central sustaining metaphor of the nation'

A snowy scene viewed by many motorists stuck in traffic on Garth Street when minor traffic accidents snarled traffic in Hamilton, Ont., Tuesday, Feb.13, 2007.

Cathie Coward/CP

Bestselling author, New Yorker writer and native Montrealer Adam Gopnik revisits the frozen north in Winter: Five Windows on the Season, a collection of informal, illustrated essays commissioned as the 2012 Massey Lectures, which the author is scheduled to deliver in five different Canadian cities this fall prior to their broadcast on CBC Radio next month.

Ranging effortlessly from the doom-laden art of the German Romantics to the clannish origins of hockey, from the rituals of the modern underground city to the myths of polar exploration, Gopnik creates a highly personal, original vision of the definitive Canadian season.

What drew you to winter as a subject for the Massey Lectures?

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I looked for a subject that's entirely Canadian but that also has a certain universality, and I immediately struck on winter. I love winter. In almost every book I've written, there's a central winter scene or winter idea. A love of winter and the imagery of winter has always been an obsessive subject for me.

Also, no one had ever written a cultural history of the idea of winter in the modern imagination. That was one reason I wanted to do it. The other reason is that the minute I started thinking about it, I saw all the things I liked a lot that I could write about: polar exploration – I love to read about polar exploration – and Schubert – I love Schubert. And I write about Christmas, which has a very deep significance for me. So right away I saw all these things that I already cared a great deal about, and that were all absolutely necessary for any cultural history of winter. So at that moment it became irresistible.

What is it about winter, the bleakest season, that inspires us?

Winter has always challenged people's capacity for appreciation. Before modern times, when you look at the poetry, music and prose about the seasons, it is mostly singing the praises of summer and spring. Winter is the wilderness at the end of the year that you get though. One of the things that distinguishes modern times is what Wallace Stevens calls "a mind of winter" – the desire to confront the seemingly bitter season, the dark season, the cold season, and give it form, to find something to appreciate. I hope I show in the book that that doesn't really begin to happen until about 1800. That's a genuine modern phenomenon.

I use a quote from Coleridge from 1799 where he talks about seeing a frozen lake in winter in Germany. "Oh, what sublime scenery I've seen," he says. "It's like watching the Israelites crossing the Red Sea." That's the kind of language that you never would have found anywhere in Europe or America before the end of the 18th century. So in that sense it's a very modern event.

You described winter in your book as "the pet season of the counter-Enlightenment." What significance does it have for us today?

That's what the last chapter, Remembering Winter, is all about. What's winter now? Obviously it was the season that all the northern Romantics seized on: "This is our time, this is our season." And obviously we don't live in that period any more. So what meaning does it have now? That's what the last two lectures are about.

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One aspect of the legacy of contemporary winter is winter sports. I really mean hockey. I like skating and I really love hockey. But we almost all engage in some winter sports. Another aspect is our withdrawal from winter – our attempt to withdraw into the underground city, into cars, into ways in which many people living in winter cities don't have to deal with winter on a daily basis. And then there's the sense in which we withdraw from winter because of global warming, which is a larger question.

The question the last chapter asks is: What's gained and lost in that way? After all, it's hardly a tragedy that instead of having to trudge across Portage and Main the way my mother-in-law did during her girlhood, we walk underground from Place Ville Marie to Place des Arts. You'd hardly call that a huge cultural loss, and yet there are losses associated with it. That's what I'm trying to say in that last chapter. The idea of winter as a reservoir of meaning of all kinds is a very rich modern idea, and as that reservoir gets drained down, we lose something.

In discussing Christmas, you don't make the usual argument about a sacred tradition destroyed by the potlatch mentality. Instead you offer some sense of new sacred tradition. What is it?

What is it? Hard to define in a phrase. But I think the reason Dickens and A Christmas Carol plays such a central role in that chapter is that he comes as close to defining it as anyone can. For Dickens, Christmas is a completely secularized festival. Jesus plays essentially no role in Scrooge's transformation. What Dickens is really saying is: We live in a society of abundance and injustice, and those of us who are lucky enough to partake in the abundance have to use our good fortune to help the unjustly treated. And that's what Scrooge learns to do. But Dickens also says we have to enjoy it. He says it's not enough that we do it as a form of duty in a puritanical way. He's participating in a festival, and that I think is at the heart of what the best side of modern Christmas asks us to do. It demands from us generosity and charity, but it asks us to do it not as a duty but as a pleasure. That is a straightforward idea, but it's a very rich one.

Thomas Carlyle first loved A Christmas Carol because he thought it was revolutionary. Then he realized Dickens really just wanted to give people more turkeys. That, for Dickens, was an adequate idea of social reform. If people had turkeys and butter they'd lead richer lives, they'd be better people. For an apocalyptic preacher like Carlyle, that was a very disturbing idea. But for those of us who are liberal humanists, it's a pleasing one.

Also, Christmas is the winter festival, and always has been. It's the time that marks the disappearance of the sun, and from its pagan origins it's always about lighting a candle in the midst of winter. Our deepest appetite is to believe we can participate as the cycles of nature renew themselves, but we don't. So any time we imaginatively join in with the renewal cycles of nature, we feel uplifted.

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Can Christmas in that sense really exist outside northern regions?

People celebrate Christmas in Australia, they celebrate it in Mexico and elsewhere. But they celebrate it in different ways. The meanings are different, the music is different, it's a different feeling. Northern Christmas is a very funny combination of joy and melancholy. It's what you hear in Handel's Messiah, the greatest of all Christmas music. I think it's very significant, as I say in the book, that Christmas has winterized the world. If you have the ill fortune to be in Los Angeles at Christmas, the imagery around you isn't of palm trees, even if that would be more authentic to the original Christian Christmas imagery. It's all pine trees and painted-on snow and tinsel. It's a winter imagery, exactly because that's the background against which you get the emotion of light and darkness.

In addition to defending Christmas, you also stick up for polar explorers, whom many people today are more likely to see as misguided or even absurd.

I think there's a lot of truth in that. There is something Monty Python about Scott, certainly about Franklin, even about Shackleton. They're ill-prepared and they're incredibly arrogant. That's certainly true. But ask yourself: Why do people still care about them? Why do those stories stick with us long after the values they reflect seem to have evaporated? That's a good question. I think the simple answer is that for all of their absurdity, for all of their foolishness, they were courageous. They were genuinely brave in a society that gives us very little scope for physical courage. Seeing anyone who exercises that kind of courage is stirring, even if it strikes us as courage in the pursuit of absurdity.

The real point I wanted to make in that chapter is that courage and comedy are always linked in some ways – that the courage of the polar explorers instantly tips over into the comedy of Chaplin in The Gold Rush. Franklin ate his shoe, by repute, and Chaplin eats his shoe, too. He makes it funny instead of making it heroic.

You sketch an equally shaded view of hockey, loving it and hating it.

I love hockey and my life has been very much entwined around it. I watch 50 or 60 Habs games every year and I still think, at its best, hockey is by far the most entertaining of all spectator sports. But hockey has always danced this line between beauty and brutality, and I think it's tipped over toward brutality in a potentially fatal way in the last few years. You see that in a practical way, with the best player in the world out of hockey because of repeated concussions. Also, three guys dead over the summer, a result of repeated concussions. Those things aren't accidental, they're a consequence of an entrenched culture of brutality in the sport that's visible every time you see Don Cherry and Mike Milbury chortling and snickering about some act of ostentatious cruelty on the ice. That's going to destroy the game.

My editor at The New Yorker, David Remnick, cannot understand why anybody with an aesthetic sensitivity can also be a crazy hockey fan. He's a basketball lover, he sees that as a game of skill and grace, initiative and creativity – and hockey as just a bunch of white guys banging each other over the head with sticks. Unfortunately, that false stereotype is prevalent and the game doesn't do enough to protect itself from it. It doesn't do enough to demonstrate that it is in fact wonderfully creative, ingenious and far more dramatic than every other game that I know of.

What do you see as the special character of winter sports in general?

One of the joys of cross-country skiing, which is something else I love, is that in one way it's very communal – most often you go off with a group of friends or family – and then it quickly becomes beautifully solitary. You end up in a corner of the rink by yourself if you're out skating, you end up in your own space psychologically and physically if you're skiing. I think that's a particular beauty of winter sport, and it comes from the environment, from the snow and the silence and all those things. When I think about serene moments in my own life, they're almost always tied to that experience.

One of the romantic dreams about winter is that if you could escape the bonds of your city culture and escape into the real wilderness you become an authentic person. But what you find every time you look at that kind of escape is simply traces of the old self, traces of the indoor self found outside. We like to imagine hockey as this pond-bred sport that came from the Canadian countryside into the city, where it got prostituted like a country girl. In truth, it grew up in cities. It's a city game that bears the imprint of all the cosmopolitan virtues and all the cosmopolitan flaws.

One of the consistent points of the lectures is that we can flee our culture on skis and snowshoes but she'll always grab us at the end and see us as we are. The same thing is true about the polar explorers: The farther they go from England or Norway or Italy, the more English or Norwegian or Italian they reveal themselves to be.

Do you fear that we are going to lose some vital Nordic heritage as winter is obliterated by global warming and technology like central heating?

Who can argue with comfort? One of the reasons I wanted to write about central heating in the book is that we can't appreciate winter unless we feel safe inside. The whole romantic allure of winter depends on the improbability we'll ever actually freeze to death. If we actually thought that was a possibility, winter would retreat back to its old condition of being a scary time, not a sweet time. So I hardly think, Oh, what we need to survive as a tough Nordic people is winter. One of the things I wanted to say in the book is that the idea of Nordic man, pure and austere, took a very sinister turn in the 20th century, becoming part of the ideology of Nazism.

But the point I want to make is about the idea of winter. We Canadians live on the fringe. We hug the border. Yet the idea of the North remains very powerful, even though we don't live in it. There's that wonderful Glenn Gould radio piece called The Idea of the North, which I think is a very powerful Canadian work of art. His point is that the idea of the North is more powerful than the North. If you lose the idea of the North, you lose a central sustaining metaphor of the nation.

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