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Winter: Five Windows on the Season

by Adam Gopnik

It’s fitting that New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik’s series of Massey Lectures begins with a quotation from Northrop Frye, as Frye’s influence can be felt throughout this wide-ranging cultural examination of the most archetypically Canadian of seasons.

Gopnik’s five “windows,” or essays, on winter even sound like an arrangement of Frye’s mythic modes, analyzing themes ranging from the 19th-century sublime of “Romantic Winter” to the secularization of Christmas as part of a shift toward “Recuperative Winter.” Literature, music, and the visual arts are all examined, as are the history of polar exploration, the effects of global warming, and childhood memories of the Montreal metro. Gopnik, who was born in Philadelphia and raised in Montreal, wears his adopted Canadian identity on his sleeve a bit too much (hockey is naturally “the greatest of all games”), perhaps playing to the lectures’ audience of CBC Radio listeners.

The big picture – which tracks the evolution of winter in the Canadian consciousness from a wild, outer force of nature to an inner, personal, cultural phenomenon – at times seems overly schematic, but there are plenty of interesting observations along the way. These are cast in Gopnik’s familiar engaging voice (here deliberately given a more conversational tone, with sentences designed “to sound vocal” for their public performance).

A discussion of the chastity of polar explorers is typical. Reading accounts of northern voyages, Gopnik professes surprise that there are no tales of “buggery and sodomy.” Polar exploration is thus likened to a kind of “middle-class monasticism,” with these “Benedictines of the bourgeoisie” denying themselves release in order to lead a more purified existence. Gopnik sees such denial as “a very powerful urge in Western culture,” and suggests that a “low-calorie diet and extreme cold and exposure” may have assisted in the suppression of sexual appetite. It’s an interesting point, though one can only groan over the throwaway line, “it must have been a man who put the sex in sextant and the pole in polar.”

Much like the famous accounts of polar expeditions he references, Gopnik’s essays are most enlightening and full of discovery when they drift off course, mapping a love of the season’s meaning in insightful new ways.