Winter’s window on our souls

Tara Bradbury
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Adam Gopnik

What topic is more loved and hated, more bleak and beautiful, and more deeply Canadian than winter? When it came to choosing a topic for the 2011 CBC Massey Lectures, for Adam Gopnik, it was a no-brainer.

Gopnik, writer for The New Yorker, author of collections of essays and children’s novels, is currently on a cross-country tour, delivering the 50th anniversary Massey Lectures, exploring the coldest season of the year.

“If it’s not universal, it’s hemispheric and touches on culture, poetry, art, science, Europe, England, Germany, France, Russia, the United States. It has a core of a Canadian feeling, but beyond that, it has an umbra of universality,” Gopnik said, explaining his choice. “The more personal reason is I love winter. There’s an important winter scene of winter theme in every book I’ve ever written, and I thought this is a chance to explore it and to figure out why I have this obsessive relationship with snowy scenes.”

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Montreal, Gopnik said his love of the season goes way back to his childhood, watching first snowfalls, playing hockey and cross-country skiing. The more fascinated he became with winter, the more he became interested in the way people imagine it in modern life.

He has divided “Winter,” as his lecture series is titled, into five parts, the first one, which he delivered Wednesday evening in Montreal, called “Romantic Winter.” In it, Gopnik examined why and how people romanticize the season, and why it’s only recently they started doing it.

“I think there are a couple of reasons,” he explained. “For the first time, people weren’t under the direct threat of winter. Once you begin to have central heating and coal and so on, people don’t feel frightened by winter at every moment. Once you’re secure indoors, you can appreciate outdoors more fully. The other reason is that it’s one of the traits, if I can say, of the modern mind, the way people like to choose subjects that seem strange or forbidden or just bleak and find beauty in them. Winter is one of those.”

Gopnik will present “Radical Winter” in Halifax tonight, giving a history of Arctic and Antarctic exploration; “Recuperative Winter” in Edmonton Oct. 21, including a cultural history of Christmas; “Recreational Winter” in Vancouver Oct. 23 — speaking about hockey just months after the hockey riot in that city — and “Remembering Winter,” touching on climate change, in Toronto Oct. 26.

Once the seasons change permanently, so do we, Gopnik said.

“We’re beginning to remember winter in a time of global warming,” Gopnik explained. “In one way, already the transformation of the Arctic is radical, enormous. It’s unlikely that Montreal, for example, is going to become a tropical city and that the weather will be like Rio de Janeiro in our lifetime, but the very fact that you lose the north, lose the Arctic and all its characteristics means that you’re losing a kind of common repository of myth and memory of ideas.

“When you take away the things that haunt the backs of our mind, our minds change. One of the ghosts in the Canadian mind is the Arctic and the idea of eternal winter.”

Named after Vincent Massey, the country’s first Canadian-born Governor General, the annual Massey Lectures sees a scholar give a series of talks on a subject of cultural or philosophical importance. Past lectures have included Martin Luther King, Jr., Noam Chomsky, John Ralston-Saul and Margaret Atwood.

Sponsored by CBC Radio, House of Anansi Press and University of Toronto’s Massey College — representatives from which are on a committee which chooses the lecturers at least two years in advance — the lectures are broadcast on CBC Radio and published in book form by Anansi. Gopnik’s book, “Winter: Five Windows on the Season” is available in bookstores now, and will be aired on CBC Radio One’s “Ideas” Nov. 7-11.

Gopnik said he was honoured to be chosen as a Massey lecturer.

“Honour is one of those words that’s kind of been debased by overuse, but the only word I can think of to be asked to do the 50th anniversary lectures,” he said. “I grew up listening to the Masseys and I have enormous regard for what it contributes to Canada. It was unexpected and terrifying and wonderful.”

Though he’s not giving a lecture in St. John’s, Gopnik, at a public event hosted by writer Michael Crummey, will read from and discuss his book at MUN’s Petro Canada Hall Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and are available at The Travel Bug.

Organizations: Massey College, New Yorker, CBC Radio House of Anansi Press and University of Toronto

Geographic location: Montreal, Arctic, Europe England Germany France Russia United States Philadelphia Halifax Edmonton Vancouver Toronto Rio de Janeiro Canada

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