A winter's tale: Adam Gopnik and the plight of meaning

The Massey Lectures are aired all this week on CBC Radio One's Ideas. Writer Adam Gopnik's topic is "Winter: Five Windows on the Season." And the lectures are a personal, well-researched and rhapsodic celebration of the season, Richard Handler says.

The Montreal-born New Yorker writer begins the first of five Massey Lectures Monday

It's an anniversary mad season here at the CBC and that's how we like it. Right now we are celebrating the 75th year of public broadcasting in Canada as well as the 50th year of the Massey Lectures, the current edition being broadcast all this week on CBC Radio's Ideas.

But anniversaries aren't just celebratory, they can be instructive, an opportunity to see how the culture has changed.

I recently had the occasion to listen to some popular talk programs from the CBC archives, dating from the mid-1960s And although the '60s is hardly an eternity ago, it can seem like it when you listen closely to what was said.

Back then, the tone was often more on the highbrow side of the spectrum. There was no disguising the educational posture of the CBC mandate. If that made many of our hosts and anchors appear a little snooty, so be it.

At the same time, it should be noted that much of the middlebrow media, both broadcast and print, were also heavily invested in the task of cultural uplift.

Henry Luce's Time Magazine, The Book of the Month Club and Edward R. Murrow were similarly in the business of betterment.

Sure, there was a concerted attempt to be accessible. But when I listen to these old recordings, I get the feeling that no one was much bothered by the fear that they would be perceived as uppity.

A real (and a frightened) egalitarianism had yet to be the cultural force it is today.

Noted and angry scholars

So when the Massey Lectures, named after former governor general Vincent Massey, began in the winter of 1961, the head of English Networks announced that "the CBC will invite a noted scholar to undertake a study or original research in his field."

Notice the male pronoun, even though the first Massey Lectures were given by an Englishwoman, Barbara Ward, for her "The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations" series.

Over the years, Massey lecturers have brought us many weighty topics to worry about.

Paul Goodman was angry at his native country in "The Moral Ambiguity of America" (1966). Noam Chomsky told us our institutions were all servants of American power, even if we didn't acknowledge the fact, in "Necessary Illusions" (1988).

Closer to home, Stephen Lewis was angry with just about everyone (except African women) in his "Race Against Time" (2005).


Wagging fingers has always been a specialty of the Masseys (and if we can wag them at the U.S., all the better).

But these lectures often strike a plaintive, even mournful note. We are accustomed to hear from social critics who tell us something should be better; or that something has been lost.

So, George Grant in "Time As History" (1969) bemoans the assimilation of a more temperate Canada into "the American Empire," his stalking horse for rough-shod modernity.

Doris Lessing bemoans the acceptance of our loss of freedom, "Prisons we Choose to Live Inside" (1985). Ursula Franklin bemoans "The Real World of Technology" (1989). Wade Davis bemoans the destruction of aboriginal peoples and habitats in "The Wayfinders" (2009).

And Canada's master philosopher Charles Taylor bemoans "The Malaise of Modernity" (1991) — it's all there in title.

There's so much bemoaning by so many astute, masterly people that I've got to stop writing this and take a break.

A winter's tale

Still, when you go through the list, the main thing you notice is that the Masseys have changed over time, like the culture.

Author and journalist Adam Gopnik.

For one, the lecturers are now resolutely Canadian. (No more Americans or Brits, unless they have some real connection with Canada.) The lecturers are trumpeted around the country, giving their talks in five cities, and the lectures themselves are now often written by popular writers (Ronald Wright, Margaret Atwood) and not solely by academics.

In this way, the lectures become books that are often bestsellers and so participate in the culture of celebrity and branding.

This year's lectures, which begin tonight and run all week, are written and delivered by Adam Gopnik, an author and writer with the New Yorker magazine, who grew up in Montreal and attended McGill.   They are good examples of a Massey, old and new.

Gopnik's topic is "Winter: Five Windows on the Season." And the lectures are a personal, well-researched and rhapsodic celebration of the season.

Gopnik has made a reputation for his polished, elegant essays on culture. As a lover of beauty, he is in the business of appreciating, smartly. His instincts are aesthetic rather than political.

He's is also a cosmopolitan — he considers New York and Paris his "adopted" cities, Montreal being his "home town." He's mad about hockey, the Montreal Canadiens and walking in that city's underground world.

The plight of meaning

He also fondly remembers gazing out at the snow falling while warmly tucked inside his family home.

However, these lectures are not merely nostalgia for his boyhood, for his childhood games and pleasures, they are also a kind of elegy for a season that's changing, slipping away because of central heating and, now, global warming.

As well, you can find a larger note of cultural loss in the last lecture, when he ruminates about the very enterprise he's engaged in, the making of meaning, all ingeniously wrapped and packaged in Gopnik's eloquent prose.

In that talk, Gopnik wonders whether such fanciful musings as his are being encouraged by a culture without a spiritual core, without religion.

Because the warm and fuzzy associations he wants to invoke only disguise the fact that winter, at its starkest, is a reminder of our existential fate in a cold, meaningless universe. Making up stuff is the way we humans redress that blight.

For his part, Gopnik doesn't begrudge the demise of religion (unlike some previous lecturers). That's just our modern fate. But rather than bemoaning winter, or even our spiritual void, he wants to embrace it and take pleasure in frozen temperatures, icy streets and all.

So  "we give the coldness names, we write it poetry, we play it music," he says, "and this remains the act of humanism."

So welcome then to the new Massey Lectures where nostalgia and regret merge into an opportunity for celebration. With Gopnik, we don't have to feel so guilty we live in an imperfect society.