I have a decades-old dream that I hope to realize now that I’m living in the GTA: to attend a high-profile public event that has loomed large in my imagination for years. I’m not talking about a U2 concert, a popular musical or a production of the Canadian Opera Company. I want to go to a Massey Lecture. Yeah, I’m kind of a nerd.
The CBC Massey Lectures are an annual series of lectures produced by the CBC, House of Anansi Press and Massey College at the University of Toronto. Each year one engaging speaker—a philosopher, writer, artist, politician, etc.—is commissioned to give five lectures on a single, broad topic. The lectures are delivered in the month of October, one at time in different Canadian cities, then replayed on the CBC radio program, Ideas, and reprinted in a book. I get excited by the thought that such an enterprise, going strong since 1961, exists. Few others I know share my enthusiasm. I don’t get that. Who wouldn’t want to explore a vital topic in great depth and detail under the leadership of someone with immense knowledge, creative expression and infectious passion?
My first exposure to the Massey Lectures was in book form, discovered while researching an essay in university. It was Carlos Fuentes’s series on Latin America. I was really lucky to stumble upon the lectures this way. Fuentes was one of the best Latin American writers of the twentieth century, and I already knew his fiction from my university courses. So, of course, his Massey lectures were well written and passionately presented. And I was surprised to find a Canadian forum for a series on Latin American issues. I was young and came from a small city with little diversity. Studying Spanish was a venture into an unknown world for me at the time. I sometimes felt alone in that particular wilderness, so discovering a Canadian connection to a Latin American topic made my choice seem more valid. I was proud of the fact that somewhere in my vast country, a voice was being given to a culture that was trying to be heard.
A few years later, I chanced upon the Massey Lectures on CBC Radio’s Ideas program. I remember that I was working at my sewing machine with the radio on in the background, and I think the lecturer was Charles Taylor whose series was called “The Malaise of Modernity.” I heard the second or third lecture of the series, and I don’t remember many specifics other than that I was so interested that I didn’t finish whatever it was I was trying to sew, and I made sure that I had the radio on the next few evenings so I could hear the rest of the lectures. I have since bought the book of Taylor’s Massey Lectures and they are incredibly relevant now, even though they were written in 1991. Taylor foresaw many aspects of western society that other philosophers and writers have only recently been examining, and lamenting.
Like anyone who follows a certain kind of entertainment, I have my favourite Massey Lectures. The one I reread every year, a cultural ritual for me like watching It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas, is Adam Gopnik’s Winter series. I’m a Gopnik groupie anyway (he writes for The New Yorker and has also written wonderful travel essays about his time in Paris and New York City). His Winter series explores the cultural significance of this cold season to a Northern people. He writes about how winter has shaped us and we have claimed it as our own. And reading his words, wonderfully expressed as they are, make me consider my own relationship to this time of dark and cold, a season I at times resent (especially when I have to scrape the ice off my windshield), but mostly love. Gopnik writes of that particular lavender-grey colour of the winter twilight, and how winter wasn’t fully appreciated until we could look out at it from inside our warmly heated homes. What Canadian doesn’t respond emotionally to those images of winter sky and a cup of hot something in front of a fire (or TV)? And I haven’t even mentioned his chapter on hockey—well, he writes about other winter sports too, but do they really matter? That chapter should be required reading in schools, along with Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater (which I bet Gopnik knows well, having spent some of his childhood in Montreal).
I have a collection of Massey lectures on my bookshelves, that I want to expand. The names of the presenters/authors represent some of the greatest philosophers, artists and writers of our current age: Martin Luther King Jr., Northrop Frye, George Grant, Doris Lessing, Jean Vanier, Stephen Lewis, Margaret Somerville, Alberto Manguel, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, Lawrence Hill, Margaret MacMillan. What incredible scholarship is represented here, and how lucky we are to have these provocative and insightful ideas available to us in so many formats. We often hear complaints about the lack of thought and reflection in our society today. The Massey Lectures are a long-standing rebuttal of that false impression.
The 2018 CBC Massey Lectures are being given by Tanya Talaga, and her title is “All Our Relations,” a reflection on “the legacy of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples—in Canada and elsewhere.” She will deliver them in October (this month!) across the country, the book is currently available, and CBC Ideas will broadcast them the week of November 12. You can find more information on the website at https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-2018-cbc-massey-lectures-all-our-relations-1.4763007. Consider making some time to listen, either in person or during an evening on the radio, and explore the books. I won’t be attending in person (this year), but a week of November evenings by my radio are already planned.