Courage references


"...Courage (For Hugh MacLennan)"

Hugh MacLennan was among the first authors in Canada to embrace his surroundings and tell the stories of his homeland. Previously, as is detailed in the Courage exhibit, this sort of storytelling was thought too parochial to be profitable. After all, the publishers figured, how many people would want to read about this little colony anyway? Judging by MacLennan's sales and the cultural impact of books like Barometer Rising and Two Solitudes, the answer was; a whole bunch. Gord Downie told Jack, Barclay and Schneider, the authors of "Have Not Been The Same," that he began reading "The Watch That Ends The Night" during 1991’s Road Apples tour.

"...Courage, my word. It didn't come, it doesn't matter
Courage, it couldn't come at a worse time"

Before MacLennan wrote The Watch That Ends The Night, the book that inspired "Courage," he had suffered through a period of self-doubt and depression brought about by the death of his wife. He began to suspect everything, including modern life and all its trappings.

In fact, MacLennan considered “The Watch” a statement against modernity. 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.” 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 personal 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 great work, some of which 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. Thank God Hugh didn't have the "courage" to follow through with his suicidal thoughts.

"...Watch the band
Through a bunch of dancers
Quickly follow the unknown
With something more familiar"

"...Sleepwalk, so fast asleep
in a motel that has the lay of home
And piss on all of your background
And piss on all your surroundings."

In his seminal work, MacLennan criticized modern man for being untrue to himself by keeping his “distance in fear of the excessively unfamiliar.” 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.”

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 unsophisticated Canadian stories for their commercial value at the expense of his own authenticity as a writer. 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.

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,” 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.

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 headliner and the all too recognizable motel rooms can become as tiresome as the road itself.

MacLennan, who was very critical of the modern appetite for pop culture, felt literary critics were too narrow in their view of his work. Much like a rock and roll crowd that only wants to hear the familiar hits by the familiar band, the critics wanted more of the same. He wanted to change it up. MacLennan was upset with the creative limits imposed on him by depression, and the expectations imposed on him by success.

"...So there's no simple explanation
For anything important any of us do
And yea the human tragedy
consists in the necessity
of living with the consequences
Under pressure, under pressure"

Paraphrased directly from the below passage in "The Watch That Ends The Night," this verse is a modern "Carpe Diem" for MacLennan and embodies the message in "Courage:"

“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)

Rather than fear his existential awakening, the main character in "The Watch" comes to embrace the fact that life is a series of serendipitous events caused by free will and personal choice. It is a path unchained from some ancient idea of an itinerary set-out from above:

“…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)

The courage inherit in all of us is the will to carry on undeterred. To accept our choices, and adapt accordingly when the choices of others affect us. Move forward into the great unknown.

Play Song

Read the full Courage exhibit here.