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Essay: Timothy Findley believed that in times of crisis, imagination has the power to save

Many writers have described plague situations, from Daniel Defoe and Albert Camus to Margaret Atwood, but few writers have addressed what can be done to prepare for the plague as eloquently as Timothy Findley. His 1993 novel Headhunter portrays a terrifying scenario of Toronto trapped by a mysterious disease called sturnesemia; worse than the disease, however, is the human evil that rises to the surface of society as some of those in power prey upon the weak and vulnerable. The entire social contract on which a civilized, functioning social order depends begins to crumble. The picture Findley paints in Headhunter is horrifying. And yet, he does not leave readers without hope. Two characters in the novel expose the evil and show us what it takes to resist utter collapse: empathy, imagination, creativity, and moral courage.

At this time, as we struggle to cope with COVID-19, it is not Headhunter that comes first to my mind. Yesterday I pulled from my files a short story Findley published in 2000 in the Globe and Mail called “We Must Prepare for a New Plague.” He sets this story in 1918–19 as the so-called Spanish flu hits Canada and takes the life of a returned soldier in Toronto. The young man has survived the war only to succumb to this plague, and his desperate family must listen and watch in shock and despair as the primitive iron lung keeping him alive falls silent. Their son and brother dies. This family is among the privileged few who can afford such rare survival equipment and who have a family doctor able to access the machine. As Kevin Kerr shows us in his play Unity (1918), most communities across Canada had no such resources.

I have no doubt that Findley had the HIV/AIDS epidemic in mind when writing this story, but he was also drawing on a family experience at the end of the Great War. His mother’s only brother was too young to enlist but contracted the flu in high school. He was brought home where, like the young soldier in the story, he was placed in an iron lung and died with his family listening, appalled, as the machine fell silent. This tragedy became part of family history and Findley’s legacy. Moreover, Findley had long pondered the risks to our social contract in the face of catastrophes – the First World War, the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the steady assault on the environment caused by pesticides, industrial exploitation, and plastics. He constantly warned against threats posed by human greed, violence, ignorance, and indifference. He predicted that worse would follow in this century and that we must prepare. But how?

Throughout his professional life as a writer and public intellectual, Findley urged readers to have “hope against despair.” He prescribed imagination: “Imagination can save us,” he insisted. By this he did not only mean the creative imagination of the artist, although that capacity is one of our most precious resources, as our current desire and need for music, literature, films, and visual arts online demonstrates. He meant each individual’s capacity to imagine how others feel in times of isolation and distress, to imagine how each one of us can reach out to help, to contribute a note of comfort via a phone call or a practical offer of food left at a door. He constantly urged us to use our imaginations to connect with our best selves and with all those around us, and in this he was prescient.

Findley died in 2002 – before SARS, H1N1, and COVID-19. Today, immunologists and neurologists have evidence that social and emotional nutrition can be achieved through singing, dancing, painting, reading poetry, and playing an instrument because these creative activities stimulate our immune systems at the same time as they feed our souls. Many of us know this intuitively, hence our satisfaction when Angela Hewitt plays a Bach Prelude for us online or when members of a student orchestra play from their separate homes and sing that what the world needs now is love or when Italian planes paint the sky with the colours of their flag while Luciano Pavarotti sings “Nessun dorma.”

At the end of his story about preparing for a new plague, Findley describes the final scene around the young man: “All at once there was silence. Total. The iron lung [. . .] gave a final sigh and was gone.” Later that afternoon, his sister goes to the piano where she plays and sings in her “sweet untutored voice.” As we wait for the future to begin, Findley asks us to imagine a safer, better future, in which we will need strong immune systems and secure social contracts. Preparation begins with song.

Sherrill Grace is an officer of the Order of Canada and a UBC University Killam professor emerita. She has published extensively on Canadian literature and the arts, and her biography of Timothy Findley, Tiff: A Life of Timothy Findley, will appear this fall from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.