Oh Canada! Part 1 – Capital is the Window to the Soul


As my followers on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram know, I was just in Ottawa. It was an absolutely delightful city and I had a terrific time. But I also learned something about Canada, a magnificent and interesting country. It just so happens to be Canada Day, so as good a time as any to kick off a series of posts.

There are three facts about Ottawa that are useful to know (particularly for an American):

  1. This friendly, modern, low-key city, when it was established was a rough town of lumberjacks, slowing hewing a life out of a vast difficult wilderness.
  2. The city’s development took off with the building of the Rideau Canal which linked the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers. This impressive feat of engineering was undertaken to create a secure line of communication between Upper and Lower Canada that couldn’t be cut by the Americans.
  3. The dominant official architecture is effectively neo-medieval.
I’ll take on one and two in later posts. But the third item fascinates me. Readers of this blog know my interest in Canada stems from several sources, including Canadian bravery on the world stage and the fact that it is a liberal democracy that doesn’t systematically abuse its citizens. I also really like Canadian literature and my favorite novelist, Robertson Davies, is Canadian and – heavily influenced by Jung – was fascinated by the middle ages.
I live in the Washington, DC area and Washington DC is the greatest accumulation of neo-classical architecture in the world. I love all the white marble and pillars. Every other building looks like a Greek temple. Rooted in symmetry, the buildings reflect the Enlightenment values the Founding Fathers revered. The core of these values is reason.
Canada went another way. Here’s a picture of the Ottawa skyline from the river. My phone doesn’t do it justice, but there is a line of neo-medieval buildings. The neo-Gothic parliament and its buildings and then the French chateau inspired Supreme Court. With this line of stone (granite and sandstone mostly) buildings sitting on a high bluff, it really made me think of Edinburgh, Scotland. (Beyond it of course are the glass and steel offices of any big city.) If you want more pics, they are on my twitter feed (from some angles, Canada’s gorgeous Parliament Hill looks like Hogwarts.)

Sorry I didn’t do justice to this magnificent view!
There are two obvious explanations for these architectural decisions. The first is simply fashion, neo-Gothic is what they were building in England when Ottawa was growing into its role as Canada’s capital in the late 1800s. Or Canada specifically chose neo-Gothic to contrast with the U.S. neoclassical style (but I don’t think so – everything doesn’t have to be about us!)

Entrance into Canada’s House of Commons
Davies, a good Jungian, recognized the limits of reason. It has its place of course, but it is not the only way of understanding the world. He felt that in an era that revered reason, feeling was lost. One of his main characters, Dunstan Ramsey – a sort of personification of Canada – is a flinty Scottish schoolmaster. On the side he writes about Saints and believes he has witnessed miracles.
This is perhaps the central theme of his work, that all things (people, institutions, eras) contain their opposite. That opposite or shadow or devil needs to be met. Not fought, not defeated, but understood. We cannot exist without it and are the better when we know it.
Chateau Laurier, a renown hotel, next to Parliament looks like a fairy-tale!

The neo-Gothic revival was part of the broader Romantic movement which arose as a response to neo-classicism. The steady rationalisation of society (including the industrial revolution) brought progress, but also pain. Conservatives worried about a loss in human spirit as well as the suffering. In contrast to the Enlightenment’s reason, there was a need for feeling. As the scripture reminds us, “Man cannot live by bread alone.”

Parliament Hill really looks like a castle

In the Middle Ages, a great Empire had just collapsed and Europe was only just recovering. There was still an echo of the Dark Ages, the vast frightening disorder that dominated after Rome fell. For all the soaring architecture, there was a humility to the Middle Ages and that too needed a re-awakening after Enlightenment confidence. For a nation carved from an incomparably vast land, that caution and humility – with a hint of spirituality seems just right.

I don’t want to overdo it with this mysticism and talk of the Middle Ages. Ottawa is a pleasant lovely city, dominated by civil servants, with an air of earnestness and particularly Canadian politeness. When the weather was nice, EVERYONE, was on their bike. They were not the wizened sages of Robertson Davies, just people going through their lives. But perhaps that is part of the point. In Washington, much seems portentous (even if it doesn’t) as technocrats and legislative aides imagine they are shaping the world to come – the American extraversion Davies criticized. Strip that away, that is all surface – politics is not what really feeds the soul – this according to a top political scientist.

And that is the point, getting the stuff we need – material and spiritual – to get through and make something of our lives. Everyone faces that same quest.

With all the Jung and Davies rattling around in my head, I thought I was encountering my shadow when I saw this piece of public art on the Alexandra Bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau. Entitled Zoom! V2 by Randall Anderson, who is interested in the impact when a body collides with the unknown. So, maybe…

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