As I’ve mentioned twice now in my reviews of Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle and Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, the definition of art and the role of the artist are notions that have been discussed and debated for centuries. In Two Solitudes, Hugh MacLennan concentrates on the artist’s contribution to his country. For my money, the novel is a bit on the nose, following the life and times of Paul Tallard, a young Canadian artist who carries both his country’s French and English heritage. However, there’s no denying the scope of its thesis.
The Canada MacLennan depicts suffers from a severe identity crisis: it has no identity, or, rather, it struggles between two that are not its own. Canadians have yet to let go of their European roots. This is reflected in their art: “Does our western prairie look like anything in England, for God’s sake? Then why try to cover it with English architecture?” At the same time, the country feels cultural pressure from the U.S.A.: “they’ll start to imitate ideas from down there. But is there anything in the States like the Saint Lawrence valley?”
Also, the French Canadians and the English Canadians are in constant conflict. The French view the English as oppressors: “This attitude you have, blaming everything you don’t like on the English, is senseless.” The English view the French as petulant agitators: “It makes me furious, all this pampering of them [French Canadians]. It’s time they were brought to heel.”
Our protagonist is an artist sprung from both people , a unique product of the Canadian culture. His father Athanase made him so: “Next year you will go to a fine English school. You’ll still be a [French] Canadian, mind you. Don’t forget that.” Paul is perfectly bilingual and feels pressure from both sides: “‘But you’re not French!’ she said. ‘You haven’t the slightest trace of a French accent.’ ‘I haven’t the slightest trace of an English accent when I speak French either,’ he said with irony.”
Despite this, Paul only becomes a successful artist near the end of the novel, when he realizes his true purpose: “Must he write out of his own background even if that background were Canada? Canada was imitative in everything. Yes, but perhaps only on the surface. What about underneath? No one had dug underneath so far, that was the trouble.” It cannot be expressed more clearly: Paul, the Canadian artist and an embodiment of his own objectives, must strive to depict and define his own environment, his own culture, his own identity.
I’m being reductive. Two Solitudes is, after all, the celebrated book that coined the term, well, “two solitudes” in reference to the divide between the French and the English in our home and native land. The tense dynamics that kept the two cultures at odds throughout the first half of the twentieth century are beautifully represented by the conflict between Father Beaubien and Athanase in rural Québec and then by Paul’s adult life in Montreal. Still, I find some irony in Canadian artists inviting us to chant, “Rah, rah, rah, Canada!’ when self-effacement makes up such a large part of either side of our national identity.