Courage Exhibit
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He was perhaps the most famous Canadian who ever lived. His convictions took him to the front lines of the Spanish civil war and made him a central figure in Mao’s revolution. His pioneering method of performing blood transfusions in the field saved thousands of lives, and to this day, his selflessness is idolized in the world’s largest nation. The same man who once taught art classes for children in his Montreal home, was mythologized by Chairman Mao as “noble minded and pure,” possessing a spirit that “inspires everyone.” A chronicle of his life was required reading for one billion Chinese.  

First exposed to grave poverty in 1924, during the days of his initial medical practice in Detroit’s inner-city, Dr. Norman Bethune set about supporting any and all infantrymen and intellectuals who were willing to challenge the capitalist status quo. He lectured locally, acted globally and was known to share his food, clothes and blood with wounded soldiers in need. During May of 1938, while Mao’s forces waged a particularly grueling and ferocious battle in the Chinese North, Bethune operated on 115 patients over sixty-four uninterrupted hours.   

Before Spain, long before Yenan and shortly after Detroit, Bethune found himself practicing medicine at Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital. There, in Canada’s cultural Mecca, he met Hugh MacLennan, an emerging author who shared his political leanings. 

MacLennan was an informed, widely educated and tolerant man.[1] It was said that MacLennan’s good nature and decency were perceptible in his work. “The Watch That Ends The Night,” the work that inspired Courage, came from a much darker place. Created amidst MacLennan’s own depression, anxiety and reawakening, “The Watch” drew on the legend of Dr. Bethune while exploring modernity, existentialism and the unknown, unfair and unforgiving aspects of everyday life.   

By 1957, any happiness MacLennan had earned after the enormous success of his first two novels, 1941’s “Barometer Rising” and 1945’s “Two Solitudes,” was quickly disappearing. Bethune was long dead, a tragic victim of blood poisoning while serving in China. The author’s wife, Dorothy, was slowly slipping from him after a long illness. As she died, MacLennan became deeply paranoid, clinically depressed, and began to question both his earthly abilities and the spiritual realities of life and death.  

MacLennan would go on to write a book that rejects the idea of a greater plan or a human destiny that is plotted out like an itinerary from beyond. MacLennan based a central character on Dr. Bethune’s seemingly endless and unrewarded sacrifice. Courage takes it’s theme from “The Watch” and embraces its idea that life is a series of serendipitous events, opportunities gained or lost via examples of pure chance that appear before us each day. As we make our own path, we have to possess the fortitude to accept the twists and turns that result from our choices while adapting when the choices of others affect us. The theme of both book and song is that no matter what, no matter how disheartening or difficult the road, we must carry on at all costs.

Worn down by his writing and the demands brought about by his success, Hugh MacLennan’s personal plight arrived at the worse possible time. By 1957, MacLennan was often accused of selling-out to nationalists, of writing parochial Canadian stories for their commercial value at the expense of his own authenticity as a writer.[2] This same criticism would eventually find The Hip, allowing Gord Downie to rightly dismiss it as the ironic tendency of insecure nationalists to “piss on” their local talent and history. [3] 

This ill conceived analysis stung MacLennan; he wrote to a friend that he felt exiled while at the same time expressing a gnawing human desire to belong. He added in his letter that “the trouble with writers is usually loneliness,”[4] and lamented the public’s appetite for the familiar over the unique. He remarked that at this difficult moment in his life, he felt homesick even at home.[5]  

The opening verses of Courage sketch a link between MacLennan’s conflicting disappointment and desires with a band who can relate. The repetitive nature of daily concerts, hostile crowds awaiting the familiar headliner and demanding to hear more familiar songs, and the all too recognizable motel rooms can become as tiresome as the road itself. The fact that modern musical talent is often obscured by the shallow nature of its own industry may have also begun to weigh on The Hip. They themselves were initially caressed by fame and all it’s extra weight during 1991’s Road Apples tour. To escape, or more likely to kill traveling time, Downie read “The Watch That Ends The Night.”[6]  

In his seminal work, MacLennan took great care to question modernity. He criticized modern man for being untrue to himself by keeping his “distance in fear of the excessively unfamiliar.”[7] George Stewart, the protagonist of “The Watch,” –who bares many similarities to the author himself– explains that musicians were among the few artists who still spoke with conviction. “Go to the musicians,” Stewart says, “in the work of a few musicians you can hear every aspect of this conflict between light and dark within the soul.”      

In fact, MacLennan considered “The Watch” a statement against modernity and all its trappings.[8] He explored how modern man would justify his existence given the fact that previous generations had suffered and survived through two World Wars and a Great Depression. The novel was a post-modern attempt at explaining the mystery of life for those who had no clear path. Downie would succinctly sum up MacLennan’s critique on stage, ranting in 1996 that he “never fought for anything,” “was raised on TV” and had “nothing to live or die for, no religion too.”  

A more in-depth study of “The Watch” concluded that MacLennan’s George Stewart character finds that modern man “has abandoned the masterworks celebrating the human spirit,” and “gone whoring after false Gods.”[9] Stewart displays the same anxiety and self doubt that MacLennan suffered through and found common in modern man. When asked why he didn’t propose to his lost love while he had the chance, Stewart replies: “No prospects, too much pride. The depression. But mostly, not enough courage.” (49)    

Eventually, MacLennan would credit the emotional support of his protégé Marian Engle for his recovery. His newfound confidence and perspective allowed him to lay bare all that had been infecting him during the most troublesome point in his life. He would shed the nihilistic feelings that brought him to the brink, and embrace the mystery and uncertainty of life as an adventure worth living. Writing “The Watch” was a therapeutic experience, one that may have spared him of an all too common fate afflicting spent and lonely writers. 

The chorus from Courage evokes praise for a dejected figure, probably MacLennan himself, who stared down and defeated the ultimate option. Courage exposes suicide as a selfish and impractical urge and expresses relief that our protagonist rejected it.  

“Courage, my word, it didn’t come it doesn’t matter/Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.” These lyrics read like a personal nod of thanks from all those influenced and inspired by MacLennan’s greatest work, which in 1957, was still yet to come. It represents genuine appreciation for a life, sometimes in painful progress, that was allowed to continue, overcome, and produce lasting art.    

Throughout “The Watch,” MacLennan’s characters retrace his personal steps into emotional bleakness. George Stewart remarks, “everything we have done, achieved, endured and been proud and ashamed of is nothing.” The author himself wrote that at first, the book was a “shedding of intellectual skin,” as he mourned both his wife and those like Bethune. It was “for one who I loved who had died,” he wrote, “but also for more: requiem for the idealists of the Thirties who had meant so well, tried so hard and went so wrong. Requiem also for their courage.”[10] 

As the book nears a climax, the characters reach their respective spiritual awakenings and come to accept the uncertainties of their existence. MacLennan’s message becomes clear: have the courage to embrace the unknown, accept change, leap at opportunities, and move undeterred through the happenstance of life. This post modern “Carpe Diem” begins to jump from the page: 

“…the last possible harmony, the only one there can be, is a will to live, love, grow and be grateful, the determination to endure all things, hope all things, believe all things necessary for what our ancestors called the will of God. To struggle and work for that, at the end, is all there is left. In music, you can hear this kind of struggle… wash like the light of the world over the little external truths of science.” (344)

“It came to me that to be able to love the mystery surrounding us is the final and only sanction of human life.” (372)  

Barbara Pell, an academic who studied MacLennan, felt that each character in “The Watch” came to represent a different example of daring and ordinary valour. She referenced Paul Tillich’s categories of courage and wrote that the Bethune character had “the courage to be as a part,” while the MacLennan protagonist had the “courage to be as ones self.” All characters in the book, like the author himself, were said to have turned towards Tillich’s post-modern theory of “the courage to be.”[11] A theory best and briefly described as “the striving for union with ultimate reality.”[12] 

Beyond all the literary critiques and examinations, free from all the post-modern theory, remains an elegant, romantic and moving novel. Nearly a half century after it was published, “The Watch That Ends The Night” is still enjoyed by readers around the globe. Hugh MacLennan won five Governor General's awards and became a professor emeritus at McGill University. In 1987, he led an advocacy group that successfully stopped the demolition of the downtown apartment complex where he lived.  

In November of 1990, MacLennan passed away at his Montreal home. Peter C. Newman said he mapped the country’s psyche. The Los Angeles Times said he was one of Canada’s finest writers. The Globe and Mail called him an institution, a dreamer of impossible dreams.        

But perhaps the most unique tribute came in the spring of 1992 when The Tragically Hip released Fully Completely. The lead single and opening track, Courage, was dedicated to MacLennan. The songs most poignant and earnest lyrics come straight from “The Watch That Ends The Night.” Every Hip fan knows the lyrics by heart. When the song is played live, the band falls silent, and Gord Downie draws from the genius of Hugh MacLennan:

“But that night as I drove back from Montreal, I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.” (274) 

The stereotypes that surround rock musicians and their fans fall away during that affecting moment in Courage. It’s a collective, for some unknowing, moment of recognition for a man whose words ring true for a generation that can only know the anxieties and questions of the post modern world. While Courage can only reflect the contemplative, provocative and elevating concern of “The Watch,” the song reveres a man who is often underappreciated. Courage may have earned MacLennan some small measure of additional fame, but more than likely: it brought new eyes to a national treasure.

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[1] Douglas Gibson, Editing and publishing Hugh MacLennan in Hugh MacLennan, Tierney ed. Pg.18

[2] Douglas Gibson, Editing and publishing Hugh MacLennan in Hugh MacLennan, Tierney ed. Pg.18

[3] Charles Foran, Straight From The Hip in Saturday Night, June, 1996. 

[4] Christl Verduyn, The MacLennan-Engel correspondence in Hugh MacLennan, Tierney ed. Pg. 38

[5] Elspeth Cameron, Will the real Hugh MacLennan please stand up in Hugh MacLennan, Tierney ed. Pg. 29

[6] Barclay et al. Have Not Been The Same: The Can-Rock Revolution. Pg. 631

[7] Francis Zichy, MacLennan and modernism in Hugh MacLennan, Tierney ed. Pg.158

[8] Francis Zichy, MacLennan and modernism in Hugh MacLennan, Tierney ed. Pg.171

[9] Robert D Chambers, Adam Blore’s broken phonograph in Hugh MacLennan, Tierney ed. Pg.141

[10] Barbara Pell, MacLennan’s new theology in Hugh MacLennan, Tierney ed. Pg. 89

[11] Barbara Pell, MacLennan’s new theology in Hugh MacLennan, Tierney ed. Pg. 104

[12] Ibid. Pg. 104





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