By Adam Gopnik

It’s fitting that popular 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 mythos of winter, that most archetypal Canadian season.

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

The big picture – which tracks winter as it has evolved from a wild outer force of nature to an inner, personal, cultural phenomenon – doesn’t completely come together, and at times seems overly schematic, but there are plenty of interesting observations along the way made in Gopnik’s familiar, engaging voice (here deliberately given a more conversational tone, with the sentences designed “to sound vocal” for their public performance). Typical is a discussion of the chastity of polar explorers. It comes as a surprise to Gopnik when reading accounts of northern voyages 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 observes how 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 that “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 discusses, with their heroes carried about by the pack ice while on an imaginary quest, Gopnik’s essays are most enlightening and full of discovery when they drift off course like this, mapping a love of the season’s difference in insightful new ways.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, November 2011.

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