Is the proposed west-east pipeline in New Brunswick’s best interest? It seems to me that Greek mythology, local history, William Shakespeare, and literary theory provide much insight into this question. Allow me to explain.
Once upon a time, many years ago, part of Greece’s wooded hinterland evoked in Greeks a sense of the supernatural. For this reason, they called the region “Arcadia,” which means “paradise,” and incorporated it into their mythology. In 1524, while Greek mythology was enjoying a bit of a comeback in Europe, Florence’s Giovanni da Verrazzano explored the north-eastern coast of present-day North America. He named the coastline Arcadia because its thick forests reminded him of a poem on the subject. The term and the area that it covered eventually morphed into “Acadia.”
If this titbit of local history piques your interest, consider this: Shakespeare had the same region in mind when he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
According to Shakespearean scholar Michel Poirier, the play’s immediate influence is likely Sir Sydney Phillip’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, which draws on Greek mythology. It appears, then, that Shakespeare had the Greek Arcadia in mind, not the coastal forests of what now includes New Brunswick. Although it is possible that he knew of Verrazzano’s Arcadia, he certainly did not know of the French colony of Acadia at the time of writing. The colony started to form in1603, a decade or so after the play’s debut. The fact remains, however, that the landscape through which Albertan oil is proposed to be piped is similar to that which once reminded a Florentine explorer of paradise. The same idea of paradise connects the province’s woods to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
According to literary scholar Northrop Frye, “Certain stories” – namely, myths – “seem to have a peculiar significance: they are the stories that tell a society what is important for it to know, whether about its gods, its history, its laws, or its class structure.” Margaret Atwood, one of Frye’s former students, similarly claims that “an imaginative construct . . . mirrors and magnifies both voracious human desire and ferocious human fear.”
Given that A Midsummer Night’s Dream and New Brunswick are connected to the same imaginative construct of paradise, might the play say something important about the province’s desires and fears? In particular, can it help us understand the desires and fears that the pipeline proposal reflects?
The comedy’s plot revolves around the desire of Hermia and Lysander to wed against the wishes of Hermia’s father, Egeus. He prefers the suitor Demetrius, even though Demetrius has recently loved and left another woman, Helena, who remains madly in love with him. In brief, the lovers flee into the nearby woods, wherein they become entangled in a sub-plot involving Greek gods, other mythical creatures, and a magical love potion. By the end of the play, all problems are conveniently resolved, but only if the audience accepts the problematic idea that there is no clear distinction between dreams and reality.
In his review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as performed by Fredericton’s “Bard in the Barracks” in 2009, Russ Hunt opines, “there is no better play for such a context.” That year, he explains, the production moved to Odell Park because the barracks were under construction. Anyone familiar with the park will agree with Dr. Hunt that the play suits it. In his words, they form a setting that “from the opening scene . . . lures us imperceptibly, step by step, further into a dreamlike, surreal isolation: who are all these people, we think, here in the woods with us, and what are we to make of these fairies flitting around the edges of our vision, and where are we, anyway?”
Given the abundance of woods in New Brunswick and its connection to Greek mythology, one might add that there is no better play for the whole province. One could ask: who are we as New Brunswickers and what are we to make of federal policy and the global economy (or other forces flitting around, influencing all of our experiences)?
People across New Brunswick have long desired a measure of prosperity, especially economic. But we have for too long feared to address this desire on our own terms, as a whole province. Hence not everyone in the province has prospered economically, despite recurring efforts to develop the economy according to the terms and conditions of external powers, of which the pipeline proposal is the latest manifestation.
Fifty years ago, for example, the Byrne Commission proposed that the province should centralize its taxation structures and take control of most public services. Dubbed “Equal Opportunity,” the idea was to make more efficient and equitable use of federal funds, access to which was contingent on both the province’s commitment to industrializing rural municipalities and its ability to finance a share of the costs. (Taxation structures had previously disadvantaged cash-strapped municipalities, many of which could not afford competitive rates or even basic services such as public schooling and healthcare).
In retrospect, industrialization during the 1960s was analogous to Shakespeare’s comedy. It resolved certain problems, but remained subject to the seemingly all-powerful order of things: federal policy and market forces.
During the 1970s, the people behind these forces collaborated to free the global market from what they viewed as a general impediment to economic prosperity: public control over the private sector. To get a good idea of globalization’s impact on New Brunswick, I recommend Dr. Thom Workman’s Social Torment: Globalization in Atlantic Canada. In sum, the shift to free-market capitalism has severely hampered the province’s ability to fund public services (a central goal of Equal Opportunity) and has opened the public sector to privatization.
High public debt and unemployment, out-migration, and a besieged public sector are current obstacles to prosperity that have recurred throughout New Brunswick’s history. The pipeline, if it goes through, will unquestionably resolve some of our problems, but at what cost? What good will a pipeline be if a future parliament shuts it off? What will we do if oil companies in Alberta find a cheaper way to get their product to market? What will future generations think of us, especially when there’s no oil left?
Much of the talk about the pipeline assumes that it is in New Brunswick’s best interest. But whose dream does this reflect? If the pipeline becomes a reality, I fear that future visitors to our forests will not be reminded of paradise, with the exception, perhaps, of Paradise Lost.
Hugh Leonard is a PhD student in Educational Studies at UNB. He lives in Fredericton.
This commentary first appeared in the Telegraph-Journal.