Essence

Margaret Atwood and Mike Myers make almost identical understanding of how Canadians consider their national character, its identity and essential traits. They see character formed out of landscape and climate, chiefly the winter, which can be deadly. The social bond required to endure the harsh winters is something that individuals shared and through that annual experience, the national character was created. It is, they say, this collective experience which is transmitted and manifested in the culture.

This internal sense and understanding of geography and climate is something which non-aboriginal Australians have expressed as the core of its distinctive character, although, in the southern hemisphere, it is the heat and drought, and with it much disappointment, which tends to shape attitudes and character.

The quest for identity is not one that old countries and old cultures struggle with aloud, not often anyway. As Myers says, a French a person knows who they are. It is perhaps more complicated than that facile absorption of historical tales, now with the forces of globalization, immigration and nationalism causing upheaval to beliefs and the current status quo.

Even so the idea that high annual rainfall, or a largely arid interior, is the catalyst for the creation of cultural essence is knotty: as soon it seems convincing, another perspective makes it appears less than conclusive.

Beethoven’s 6th symphony is a prime example of programmatic music which depicts or evokes or guides the listener to an object with its structured titles. The first movement: Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside is cheerful, but the label is not necessary in order to understand it.  The title is a cultural artifact of the era. Inferring action and objects, as this aristocratic woman does while hearing the first movement of the Eroica is largely a leap of the imagination. Any such correlation is stretched to incomprehension in the late string quartets; the Viennese woods are inaudible in opus 131.

We create meaning and explanations and will invent them if needs be. The English are noted for conversations about the weather and their refined semantic gradations for various types of rain. Yet Englishness is more than precipitation just as being Canadian is not simply living through sub-zero winters; or Australian endurance through droughts that persist for a decade and more. Perhaps that other former British dominion, New Zealand, has a different outlook on the question.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

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