CANADIANS, in our view, worry too much about the state of their culture. Canada has, in demonstrable fact, a large and vigorous complement of poets, musicians and whatnot. But Canada in general tends to regard them with the twitching anxiety of a mother with a frail child. The country keeps tormenting itself with speculation on the possible reasons why J.S. Bach was not born in Moosonee.
A celebration of Canadian art and literature has now opened here with an exhibition of paintings at the Phillips Collection. As our critic Paul Richard has already admonished you, these pictures are interesting and well worth seeing. Next come two months of panels, films, concerts and lectures, mostly at the Hirschhorn Museum. It's an attractive program, but it reflects the itchy Canadian preoccupation with the idea of separateness. They are not part of the United States, they insist; in respect to the arts as in all other things, they differ. But how, specifically?
Scandinavia sometimes lends itself to comparison with the Canadian situation. But there's no difficulty in distinguishing, say, Norwegian literature. It's anything written in Norwegian, whether it was produced in Oslo or the Australian outback, and regardless of the author's current passport. For Canadians, who write in two of the world's most common languages, it's harder.
Does the definition require Canadian themes - birches in the snow, frozen lakes and tat sort of thing? One of last year's notable new novels was Marian Engel's "Bear"; it concerns a woman who falls in love with one. Bears are certifiably an authentic Canadian theme, although perhaps the author would object to that way of looking at the book. On the other hand, where do we place Mordecai Richler when he writes about life on the fringes of the film industry in London? At the thought of the incandescent and mobile Mr. Richler, the national purist's face clouds.
Nobody ever thinks of Saul Bellow as a Canadian, although he was born in rural Quebec and now roosts just across the border in Chicago. But even if you exclude the expatriates, you can come up with a remarkable inventory of first-rate artists. For example, our own list of Canadian novelists - limited only to those writing in English - begins with Richler, Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies. Consider that the United States has 10 times as many people as Canada, and then see whether you can come up with the names of 30 American novelists of a quality equal to those three. Not likely.
It's a Canadian conundrum: such a wealth of culture, and such everlasting difficulty identifying its special, separate and national quality. A succession of eminent Canadian writers and scholars has been enlisted to come here and take a run at providing an answer. It is the cultural equivalent of Evel Knievel at the Snake River Canyon, and will doubtless attract large crowds. As for ourselves, we plan to be on hand.