One of the highlights of Norman Newton’s life was meeting Malcolm Lowry. “He was the only genius I had ever met,” he said, “and when he said some flattering things about my own immature work, my gratitude knew no bounds.” It was through the Vancouver poet Earle Birney, whose writing group he joined, that he was introduced to Lowry in Birney’s Deep Cove hut near Lowry’s cabin on Burrard Inlet. I described their friendship and Newton’s perceptive understanding of Lowry’s character and works in the essay, “Malcolm Lowry. The Creator who became his Creation.” Another major influence was Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth-century philosopher, whose many works Newton studied and wrote about.
When Newton graduated from high-school in Vancouver, he avoided university, preferring to study the subjects he was interested in on his own, for which he praised the early Canadian poet Heavysedge: “He escaped the conformity-inducing influences of formal education.” His daughter Elizabeth said, “Not doing more schooling is something that I think Dad did regret. Through his self-education, he wound up being enormously knowledgeable—most of my friends and their parents on meeting him assumed he was a professor.” He was “deeply creative, had a brilliant mind and a hunger to learn new things . . .an out of this world store of knowledge/memory across a ‘you name it’ list of topics (minus pop culture!). He was an instant encyclopedia. Dad never had any formal music lessons, but taught himself some piano, guitar, and an intriguing mix of unusual whistles and harmonica.”1
Norman was born in July 1929, the eldest of two sons, whose parents had met and married in London England after the first World War and immigrated to Canada in 1920 at government expense as part of repatriation. The Newton family came from Basingthorpe, Lincolnshire, England about five miles from Woolsthorpe where the home of Isaac Newton is kept as a museum.
His father worked as a Police and Court Clerk and his mother as a piano teacher in Vancouver. His mother died when he was very young. A housekeeper brought up the brothers. For a time the family lived in West Vancouver which Newton visited when writing his book, Fire in the Raven’s Nest, about the Haida culture, history, and present-day living on the Queen Charlotte’s Islands. His visit filled him with nostalgia for the time he lived in the area. “Along with other painters, poets and novelists, I lived in a pleasant clutter.” He sought out artists’ studios to discuss their art, which harkened back to the Haida great art of centuries past; it served as a precedent on which to base their paintings, otherwise the artist risked producing a “degenerate form, a sort of crude folk art.”
“In my late teens,” Newton wrote,2
I discovered that, no matter how I had to make a living in the world, what I wanted to be was a poet. I also realized that I wanted to write poetic drama. Shortly afterwards a small but real renaissance of verse drama took place, in British theatre (Eliot, Fry, Nicholson) and radio (Dylan Thomas, David Gascoyne). It was a false dawn caused by a sudden sense of freedom following the anti-fascist war and it was soon terminated by a dark resurgence of neo-positivist aesthetics and the crudest commercialism, but at the time it seemed a true rebirth of high theatrical art. It seemed to me then, and I have not changed my opinion, that the poetic drama was superior to other theatrical forms because it dealt, sequentially or simultaneously, with inner mental worlds and outer physical and social worlds. It dealt with the former in various ways, through soliloquy and chorus and through symbolic actions such as “dream-sequences” and other non-naturalistic representations of inner states Masque-like representations particularly appealed to me because they had been developed by late nineteenth and early twentieth-century poets whom I greatly admired such as Strindberg and Lorca. Yet I felt at the same time that the problem of combining inner and outer worlds had not been well solved. I was still working on this problem when the ‘new poetic drama’ had become a memory.
Newton continued to describe his plays and their shortcomings as he worked towards “a monist/dualist structure, like that of classical instrumental music.” He asserted that “I believe reason is a part of poetry. Even more, I believe that reason, except where it is banal, is intrinsically poetic.” A study of all aspects of Newton’s writings would be challenging and rewarding, but it would take years, whereas I hope to bring just the brilliance of his novels to the reader’s attention and refer to his other writings in their relationship to his prose.
Since he declared that his novels were in the nature of poetic narratives, his stance on poetry should be understood. Moreover his deep study of the works of Swedenborg which led him to medieval philosophers and an understanding of the “true poetry” gave him the sensitivity to criticize poets and their cultural backgrounds.
HIS EARLY YEARS
Newton loved the sea. As a boy he bicycled down to the beach from his house in Vancouver and as a man on most summer weekends he bicycled from his home to the Jericho Sailing Centre to take his sabot into the waters. One of his early jobs, working on a tugboat in the Vancouver Sound, led to his desire to experience Europe. At 19, he worked as a mess boy on a steamer traveling from Vancouver to Ireland. Ireland was known as welcoming to and supportive of writers. There he acted in and wrote plays to make enough money to go to London and freelance for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the early 1950s. His work was accepted in Canada as well. His radio play, “The Death of the Hawk” was produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1951; his drama “The Rehearsal” appeared in the Dominion Drama Festival in 1954. In 1955, a Canadian friend who directed plays in New York City notified Newton that the Royal Playhouse, an Off-Broadway group, thought his play, “The Abdication”, better than most and wanted to perform it. Norman sent a contract that frightened the amateur group; some negotiating was needed for a resolution. “As you can imagine.” wrote his director friend3, “I’ve been going crazy the last couple of days trying to search out all the angles of the thing. One thing I do know: never, never again will I be an agent for anyone or anything. I am an artist: I am temperamental; I want people to calm me and act reasonably with me. I want someone to pour oil on the waters that I stir up. Right now I feel like Horatio or Anthony Eden.” As the casting was taking place, he wrote about changing lines. “The line about the negro with the slinked down hair can’t very well stay in for a New York performance. In Canada there are few enough negroes that they can’t afford to feel offended over something like this. In New York there are a great many and there is always a certain amount of racial tension here. Considering that there is a “negro problem” here, I don’t think the line would be quite fair to them—and is bound to strike most people as very bad taste.” He asked, again politely, to cut a line “between Betty and George about Victor being a pansy. My reason is this, that there is just too much talk like that around here. This town is becoming the homosexual capital of the world—everybody talks about them; even I find myself talking about them. To make it worse, there have been three hit plays in the last year on Broadway with the theme of homosexuality, and it has become very much a fashion thing. Audiences now spot homosexual implications in anything, and there would always be some damn fool who would walk out convinced that those lines were the key to your play.”
Reviews were few and none by the big newspapers. The director, Pete Carnahan, faulted the production and the American actors who could not catch the English light comedy style. It seems to have had a short run. Pete tried to interest theatres in other Newton plays in vain and in July 1957 sent them back with the news that he was retreating to the wilds of Muskoka, north of Toronto, after an exhausting year in theatre work.
“From the time I began to write, my life has been dominated by the attempt to find new forms of narrative and dramatic poetry,” Newton wrote. “My plays have thus been written wholly or partly in verse.” In 1958 the University of Toronto Alumnae Dramatic Club played his “The Lion and the Unicorn.” It seems that his director friend located Canadian venues as otherwise, living in England, Newton may not have known of them. Norman had some success with his plays in England, at least as published for school productions if not performed.
In 1956 he joined the Swedenborg Church. In Emanuel Swedenborg he found a fellow polymath and explorer of ideas—although in the eighteenth-century. The remarkable intelligence of this philosopher and his followers spurred his own. Rev. Erik Sandstrom Sr, Dean of the Theological School of the General Church of the New Jerusalem received him into the church. Newton wrote in his The Listening Threads, The Formal Cosmology of Emanuel Swedenborg4 that his writings were astounding because he “discovered basic laws of science which are true for all time” and he came “to an intuitive sense of some of the basic formal ideas, mostly logical and mathematical ideas, which will govern the development of physics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” Swedenborg also strengthened Newton’s Christian faith by his argument of correspondences which I shall touch upon later. Newton, however, attended the Anglican Church when living in Vancouver. “As a Swedenborgian,” he once said, “I have always been able to give deep assent to the Athanasian Creed, ‘For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ,”’ an important point not contained in the Nicene Creed.”5
About this time his work in theatre and freelancing for the broadcast companies impressed the adjudicators at the Canada Council to award him $4000 to travel to Spain, notably to the island of Ibiza and then to Mexico to research the ancient cultures about which he hoped to write a novel.
How did his interest in Mexico come about? —no doubt in his discussions with Malcolm Lowry, in Dollarton, British Columbia and his reading of Under the Volcano. As for his interest in Spain, especially Ibiza, I recall meeting him at a small party given by John and Joan Parr, from Winnipeg, at their apartment in Earls Court, London in 1956. I believe I told him about my summer of 1954 in Ibiza but my memory is hazy. I had the impression that he was scholarly and, impressively, as was rumoured, knew the English literary critic Bateson, an intellectual light at the time.
His sojourn resulted in two novels set in Mexico, one dealing with the Toltecs and Aztecs in the early years of the fifteenth century; the second relates the conflict of settlers from the old world, the Phoenicians, with the Ulmeca Indians in Mexico after 427 B.C., After sending the first novel to several English publishers, from British Columbia (there were no Canadian publishers, except for the frugal McClelland and Stewart of Toronto; American publishers wouldn't have considered the subject), he found the London publisher Peter Owen, whose books were of a higher calibre, and who had an interest in Mexico.
He “rejoined” the CBC in 1960 as a staff member of CFFR Prince Rupert, a port city on Kalen Island at the mouth of the Skeena River near the Alaskan panhandle. It is the land, air, and water transportation hub of British Columbia's North Coast. In the 1960s it developed its lumber and fishing industries and with an influx of population its cultural life grew quickly. The town’s history went back thousands of years of Tmishian and Haida settlements, which captured Newton’s interest such that his next two novels plumbed the area’s mythical background and contemporary social character. Most importantly, he met his wife Beryl who worked as a nurse in Prince Rupert. She had migrated from Jamaica to Canada to study nursing. They married in 1962. Their daughter Elizabeth was born in 1964. It was a happy marriage, filled with laughter, parties and friends in the arts. Norman had a “hilariously dry sense of humour” and a knack for telling a story. When he was transferred to the BBC in Vancouver in 1964 he worked in radio drama and documentaries at first and later he was assigned to produce the broadcasts of the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra at the time radio producers were beginnings to specialize. Beryl was well-read and sang in musical venues, volunteered in arts organizations and continued working as a nurse. Their house became a meeting-place for musicians, playwrights, composers, and writers. Young musicians prized Norman for the help he gave their careers. As Vancouver’s population increased its cultural venues expanded to entertain immigrants coming from the world over.
Meeting the demands of his work at the CBC and the activities of his social circle, Norman spent hours late at night in his basement, after his wife and daughter went to bed, creating poetry, plays, librettos, novels and non-fiction while reading a wide range of subject matter, from philosophy to political-economics, geology, the literatures from across the world and so on.
Newton read poetry in English, French and Spanish from the early periods to the present. William Blake was a favourite.
When it came to classical Canadian poetry, which generally was thought mediocre, Newton understood it as reflecting a conservatism closer to that of pre-industrial society than to the capitalist conservatism of the United States. By pointing out the early Canadian poet Heavysege’s genius and lack of taste as inseparably related so that he could write correctly but only by writing dully, Newton suggested these poets could write only under the illusion that their society valued their contribution to the spiritual life of the nation.Their readers politely applauded their work only to encourage this self-deception. When poets became aware of being outsiders who were tolerated rather than loved and respected, they retreated into a defensive subjectivity. “The result was,” he wrote,6
an uncertainty of intonation in the poetic voice, which might manifest itself as bluster, over-insistence on the obvious, vulgar and fumbling attempts to capture the sentimental popular imagination, and other features of bad style. . . .
“In the United States the era between the Revolution and the Civil War had on its upper levels elements of a refinement of essentially European and aristocratic or pseudo-aristocratic type, and the farmers and frontiersmen were producing a folk culture of real vigour. It is from such societies, when they mature, that poetry springs. But this society was not allowed to develop; it was cut down in the Civil War, and was finally obliterated by the rise of big business in the latter half of the nineteenth century. One of the profound and tragic beauties of [Walt] Whitman’s work is that he was glorifying a world which was disappearing, though he thought it the world of the future—the world of the farmer, the pioneer, the sailor, and the free independent artisan. The America he heard singing was dying as it sang, and this gives his poems the heroic beauty of a great elegy, a beauty he could sense in the already half-mythical and archaic figure of Abraham Lincoln.
In Canada the social effect of the Age of Business was delayed. Through the Second World War it was portrayed as a nation of wheat farmers, fishermen, sailors, trappers and dwellers in small country towns. In Quebec the land-owning hereditary aristocracy kept control to 1854 and the inhabitants were not fully relieved of their obligations until 1940. Canada’s Governor-Generals were English noblemen up to the end of the Second World War. The country’s’ social ideals were aristocratic. Canadians thought it more important to be law-abiding than clever and its propaganda media idealized the homely virtues. The Mackenzie and Papineau rebellions “stifled a developing French and English aristocracy, nipped the Church Establishment in the bud and prevented it from establishing roots in the economic, political and social soil of the country.The aristocratic idea, deprived of its local roots, became more firmly attached to the metropolitan centre.
The elite and its aspirants cultivated modified English accents and entered their children in schools modelled after the English type. Beneath them, “there was developing an economic life very similar to that of the United States, though less sophisticated and less cruel.” The business mind had the power and saw the aristocratic mind as folly or obscurantism.Thus the effective rulers of the country had no use for odes, epics and verse dramas. The aristocratic elite, continuing to perform ceremonial functions, had to compromise. It favoured in literature a certain hollowness, pomposity and lack of reality which corresponded to its own nature. Although society demanded that it be reflected in poetry because it was the noblest of the arts, it had in reality a deep-seated contempt for it. Thus the relationship between the Canadian poet and society, Newton concluded, was a false and even poisonous one, which vitiated the poetic impulse at its source and resulted in a body of poetry notable for its vacillation between the truly poetic and the pseudo-poetic.
As for the modern poets, Newton’s conception of poetry was on a level higher than contemporary poets could meet. In a critical review of eleven books of poetry by Canadian poets, Newton wrote, “There is a disconcerting sameness about most of the poems, all the more disconcerting because each poet clearly believes his statement to be intensely personal.” Critics and poets think they are in a literary revolution but it is the same one begun in France at the end of the nineteenth century and “settled into respectability by the time T. S. Eliot came along . . . we are living in an era of permanent revolution . . . a peculiar kind of intellectual stasis characterized by a very rapid circular motion around the same point.”
The poems lacked form, by which he did not mean “the skilled use of fixed rhyme schemes, regular metres, and the traditional repertoire of tropes” which is indispensable to the craft. He meant “formal beauty” which was rare but “found in Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ but not in ‘The Waste Land’, in the last poems of Dylan Thomas but not in his earlier ones, in Yeats but very rarely in Auden, in Edwin Muir and Vernon Watkins, occasionally in MacLeish but almost never in Pound. Should we expect such a rare quality in English Canadian poets, always provincial, but now provincial to a decadent tradition? What can we expect from those whose masters are such minor figures as Olson, Creeley and Ginsberg? Among Canadian poets I make an exception of Layton and Cohen, who are interesting examples of split personality: half of their verse is minor but good post Symbolist work, dependent upon the European tradition: the other half, the ostentatiously North American half, is cheap, loud and shallow.”
Newton’s criticism was strong but explicit while tracing the problems historically which led him to claim that the experimental age was over. “‘Free verse’,” he wrote,7
has congealed into thick and modern prose; and perhaps it is becoming clear that there never was such a thing as ‘free verse’, but most verse which passed under that name, if it was not versified prose, was either written in variable metres, which are as old as the Greeks, or psalmic verse, as derived from Scripture by Whitman, Claudel and others. The use of the startling image has become a nervous tic; the desire to shock the bourgeois has become either a childish amorality or a dogged and habitual obscenity; the learned evocation of the past has become a superficial exoticism; and the poetic demotic, which was to sweep away all ‘rhetoric’ and ‘fine writing’, has become a grotesque dialect with no relation to the speech-habits of any North American class. The ‘modern’ techniques have been vulgarized; it is the characteristic of a vulgarized form that it becomes a universal template into whose shape the most incongruous materials are all too easily cut. Bizarre forms of imagery, specifically developed to embody states of anguish or visionary derangement are used to express perfectly normal, indeed rather mediocre emotions . . .
Newton concludes: “If the ‘modern movement’ really began with [Mallarmé’s] ‘Un Coup de Dés' in 1897, it probably ended with the 1929 crash. The poets of the thirties discovered little that was new; if anything, they settled territory which had already been explored. By the forties, perhaps, the land was exhausted. Since the Second World War, we in the English-speaking world have been living off our capital, and the account is now overdrawn.”
Apart from his poems appearing in periodicals such as the New York Times and The Canadian Forum, Newton published two volumes of poetry. I quote the last stanza of the last section from his “Lullian Categories”, a poem exploring aspects of poetry.8
Take due delight in skill: without such pleasure
You'll not infuse delight into your measure,
Yet, in Victorian style, recall your station:
Art is a blessing, not a revelation.
For poetry is neither man nor beast,
But something in between the most and least,
A kind of strange and spiritual animal —
A unicorn, perhaps; when it would fall,
A dragon; and in use or in abuse
Its mistress and its rider is the Muse —
A sort of moon which shines, though it's most bright,
Not with its own, but with another's light;
A sort of sea, for though it moves and sings,
It's not alive, but full of living things;
A sort of bird, because it flies, and yet
The nest it comes from it cannot forget,
But must come nightly to its parent tree,
That holy plant, that leafy mystery
Which grows from earth and from the human heart,
And whose fruit nurtures man and all his art.
Norman Newton begins his preface to his last finished novel, The Eye of the Goddess, with these explanatory words:
This book completes a tetralogy with the overall title, The Song of the Four Pilgrims, beginning with The House of Gods (1961) followed by The One True Man (1963) and the “satyr-play" The Big Stuffed Hand of Friendship (1969). They are related, formally and thematically, much as a cycle of poems would be.
The word "poem" simply describes their form, which is that of the oldest kind of narrative verse, the story told in prose metre. In non-literate societies, such as those of the T'simshian, or those in which writing is a form of pictographic or symbolic code, as it was in most AmerIndian urban civilizations, prose is an oral medium. Its creators are poets and story-tellers and the result is oral literature, not "myth", though indeed this literature refers to a mythological world, 'i'he best storytellers and orators make it a form in which the grammatical and rhythmic units exactly coincide. The result is actually a form of metre, in that each sentence, or subdivision of a sentence, may be scanned as a complex rhythmical unit, consisting of freely combined quantitative and accentual feet. (A Zuni version of the form is analyzed in Dennis Tedlock's Finding the Centre.)
THE HOUSE OF GODS9
The Birmingham Daily Post wrote an insightful review:
The virtues and vices of the nostalgic approach often affect the historical novelist. One way to overcome this is by choosing a period and a country with which it is difficult to identify yourself, and Norman Newton has accordingly chosen Ancient Mexico as the setting for The House if Gods. Although told in the first person, this is a novel almost as impersonal as Flaubert’s Salammbo; the narrator, Bluejay, is not the alter ego of Mr Newton, but an imaginative creation who, on the whole, fulfils the author’s purpose. An unusual jump for the historical imagination to take but one well worth the effort.10
Newton set the stage in a Foreword:
In the year 1116 a.d. the great Mexican city of Tula was sacked and destroyed by the invasion of barbarian tribes, and an uprising of the common people. From then until the formation of the Triple Alliance in 1431 a.d. there was no order in the valley of Anahuac. The cultural legacy of the Toltecs was divided among a number of small and large warring communities, all of which claimed to be their legitimate heirs.
The most successful of these claimants was the city of Azcapotzalco, which, led by Tezozomoc and later by his son, Maxtla, established its rule over much of the old Toltec empire.
But the city which had preserved the Toltec ways most faithfully was Texcuco, whose king, Nezahualcoyotl, eventually led a rebellion of the entire valley against Azcapotzalco, overthrew Maxtla, and established in the place of his empire, the alliance of Texcuco, Tlacopan and Tenochtitlan. Under the rule of this alliance, until Tenochtitlan itself became aggressively imperialist, Anahuac enjoyed a period of peace such as it had not known for three hundred years.
The House of Gods is about this period, Nezahualcoyotl’s attempt to revive the glories of Tula, and the frustration of this attempt by the same spiritual forces which destroyed Tula, and were eventually, embodied in Tenochca culture, to possess the valley until the arrival of the Spaniards.
The narrator as a boy was told by his father that he came from a long and distinguished lineage which was more important than riches. “If we met any common people,” Bluejay said, “they made low obeisances to my father. It was in the order of things that commoners should acknowledge and be humbled before the great.” But One More, “whose family were hardly better than slaves,” did not humble himself.
One More had found a sacred shell and smiled at the boy and his father. “I hope I never see such a smile again. It was the smile of a man who, despised by all men, is yet chief of his own obscene fancies, a self-deprecatory, vain, secret smile which somehow made me think of a dog panting on a hot day.” His father kicked One More down. When the boy looked back he saw foam on One More’s lips “and his eyes shot hate as stars shoot light.” His father had not noticed the shell by which One More “had discovered his sign, that from then on he would be a shaman, the possessor of and the possession of spirits who would use his body as their cave, and that who ever had the temerity to become his enemy was doomed.” In this way Newton establishes the dichotomy that lay at the core of the ancient societies where prestige was threatened by magic.
When his father’s pride is hurt when competing with another clan for the potlatch, an opulent ceremonial feast at which possessions are given away or destroyed to display wealth or enhance prestige, he led his clan into battle against the Nootka resulting in his clan’s destruction. “I had to revenge myself upon the man who had destroyed our clan by bringing madness upon my father,” the boy swore and went to the clearing where One More lived. He found to his dismay that the shaman had been killed by his slave. The boy killed him easily as he was in a stupor from eating too much meat. Wandering in the woods in a trance the boy was confronted by an apparition.
I remembered that I had heard it before; it imitates the call of the Bluejay; and it is not the song of our people, but comes from farther south, like our First Fruits ceremony. It is full of chirps and warbles and trills, and it imitates the bird’s laughing-song. It seemed to circle about me in the woods. then it came nearer. The Bluejay stood before me, but in his human form. On his head was some kind of helmet in the shape of the bluejay’s head, and from it, down his back, there swept a long plume of feathers. He was a man, but he was not like one of our people; his skin was pink and wrinkled, and his figure tall and spare. His face was pinched into a humorously aggressive expression, and his nose was long, thin and pointed. He was not a beautiful man, but his presence was reassuring. He seemed to be laughing at my fear.
‘You must give up your people,’ he said, and his voice seemed to twitter and chuckle all about me. ‘You must forsake your village, and your life here, and you must travel south, past a tribe which has many stories about me. You must take my name, and call yourself Bluejay. This must serve you instead of a potlatch name. You will go to a strange land of some villages, and there you will become a slave so that you may marry a Queen.’
When Bluejay reached Tenochtitlan in a trading caravan, the advanced civilization fascinated him. Tepanecs attacked them. Bluejay insisted the traders fight them on the water and after a furious slaughter they sent them fleeing. When they entered Texcuco, “the streets were walled with eyes, with open mouths bawling acclamations, with the many coloured mantles of the people. The roofs of the big houses were packed with watchers, who plucked flowers to throw them down upon our heads, the owner of the houses joining with men he had never seen before to despoil his carefully-tended roof-garden in Nezahualcoyotl’s honour . . . The beating of the temple drums, the hoarse base jubilation of conch-shell trumpets mingled with the shouts of the crowd in an indescribable cacophony of joy; and from their wooden cages before the pyramid Maxtla, closing a gap in the Texcucan pantheon, had built to the war-god Mixcatl, Tepanec prisoners stare impassively, waiting to be sacrificed.”
In a Note at the end of the novel, Newton wrote: “There was as much difference among the various city-states of Anahuac as there is among the countries of Europe, and most of the revolting barbarities which one thinks of as typically Aztec were in fact typical only of the Tenochcas. Even when human sacrifice had become universal in the valley, it remained, outside Tenochtitlan and its immediate sphere of influence, a rare and solemn thing, much as it had been in the classical world. Texcuco was always considered the intellectual capital of the valley, and even in later years, when the Tenochcas had become, through a policy of brutal conquest, the most powerful people in Anahuac, they still tacitly acknowledged their cultural inferiority to the Texcucans.”
Bluejay could not feel religious awe when he gazed at the four-sided wooden frame on one side of the city square in which each niche of its honeycombed walls sat a human skull, picked clean by flies, vultures, and the devouring sun. Becoming rich as a merchant, he sensed the sensual and intellectual refinements of court life changing his character. Nezahualcoyotl, desirous of restoring the ancient civilization of Teotihuacan and clearing away the detritus of barbarism which lay over the ruins of the old life, persuaded Bluejay to be the archivist in a new academy for secular subjects which requires him to live in the palace.
The King falls in love with a beautiful woman who was to marry an old man of the court, which leads to intrigue by a false priest, murder and the woman’s attraction for Bluejay, after she becomes queen. Newton portrays “Bluejay’s corruption, enhanced as it is by his sensuality, against a background of violence, cunning and the cultural emancipation of a fascinating civilization.”
THE ONE TRUE MAN11
Newton wrote in a preface to this novel:
This book is based on a motif common in Mayan and Aztec literature and legend, that of the city which, as the result of its moral decadence and impiety, is overwhelmed by barbarians. The historical theory behind it, that America was visited by Phoenicians, and influenced by their culture, has much to recommend it. . . . It is intended as the expression of a myth in a possible historical context. I have been influenced greatly by Amerindian story cycles, and the fiction of the Far East. The relationship of the inner and outer worlds, of 'characterisation' and 'setting', must have different treatment when one is dealing with persons who see their relationship to the non-human and superhuman worlds in a non-European way.
The action of the book takes place in the year 427 BC, and begins in the month of September (Phoenician Eloul). New Gades is set near the contemporary Mexican oil town of Coatzacoalcos. This town, about 215 kilometres south of Veracruz, has always been associated with the departure of Quetzalcoatl.
Newton quotes Empedocles in an epigraph to a Prologue to the novel:
There is a decree of necessity, an ancient ordinance of the gods, eternal and sealed fast by broad oaths, that whenever one of the daemons, whose portion is length of days, sinfully pollutes his hands with blood, he must wander thrice ten thousand seasons from the abodes of the blessed, being born throughout the time in all manners of mortal forms, changing one toilsome path of life for another. For the mighty air drives him into the sea, and the sea spews him forth on the dry earth; earth tosses him into the beams of the blazing sun, and he flings him back to the eddies of air. One takes him from the other, and all reject him. One of these I am now, an exile and a wanderer from the gods, the bondsman of insensate strife.
Told in the third person, the story begins on a ship sailing from the Mediterranean Sea to Mexico. As in his previous novel Newton catches the rhythm of narrative poetry
The bulk of the ship was of Ibizan pine. Her square sail of Egyptian linen bellied out from her mast, a great trunk of Lebanon cedar. This mast, rising into a sky which, bruised by night, had turned a blackish-purple, seemed to impale the moon
The protagonist, Suniaton, a young musician “with a quiet and unpretentious manner,” stood on the deck thinking of his home on Ibiza, “a garden in the sea with a cosmopolitan civilization: the first colony of Carthage, established some two hundred and twenty-seven years earlier, it was one of the great cities of the Punic world. . . . Suniaton’s voyage to the New Land was a kind of symbolic suicide, a whim of desolation. But it was only an extension of the wandering madness which had come upon him since his divorce, and which had taken him to Carthage, the obscure and savage parts of Spain, Southern Lusitania, the civilized and fertile territory whose capital had once been Tarshish, and finally to Gades,”
The ship’s captain, Acherbas, was like Suniaton, a Samothracian, one of the Mediterranean mystery cults which claimed to preserve the truths of the ancient religions and was closest to Punic belief. A storm suddenly engulfed the ship. Regaining consciousness in the sea, Suniaton swam for the distant shore. He and Acherbas were rescued by the natives, “in the Punic sphere of influence.” A girl who served them was revealed to be the daughter of the ruler of the territory, The Great Transformer, called by his subjects The One True Man. He is too sacred to do anything but regulate the calendar and watch the stars. Each village has a One True Man.
The shipwrecked survivors are guided to the settlement of New Gades, a fortified town with farms around it. This Phoenician culture dominated the Ulmeca natives militarily and commercially but let them continue their way of life. Acherbas explained to Suniaton:
'I would rather they became inferior Punics than remained Ulmeca. We have no real lower class in New Gades. The hewers of wood and drawers of water belong to an inferior race; I would rather they belonged to an inferior class. Now they have too much solidarity; there is a continual temptation to conspire. We're building on a foundation that will slip out from under us. But if we were to take them from the old ways, if we were to give them a version of Punic culture suited to their limited capacities, they would feel they were a part of New Gades. They would be divided, because the best among them would be ambitious to rise to the governing class. Now the best among them—such as they are—think in terms of revolt, not success.’
Discovering that arrogance, mutual fear, and lack of understanding have created tension and distrust between the Phoenicians and the Ulmeca, Suniaton attempts to challenge the brutality and obtuseness of his fellow Punics. His friendship with Acherbas is shattered and he arouses the hostility of the priests
As he approached the Ulmeca town, his men paddling slowly against the current, the sun shone above him like a great burning eye. He saw small groups of people gathering on the river bank. Their speech came to him over the water as an excited babble. Most of the noise came from the women. The men stood still, holding their weapons or digging-sticks, but some of the women had already started to throw stones. None of the stones reached him.
He now fully understood the absurdity of his position. He was a peacemaker between two peoples who did not want peace. Indeed, he was not even a peacemaker; he had only come to ask the Ulmeca if they wanted to talk peace. And the unwillingness of his own people to come to terms with their rivals was perfectly clear in the nature of the embassy they had sent, an apprentice merchant in a dugout with two paddlers. He was a provocation, an insult. Nevertheless, peace was in his hands; if he could succeed only in persuading the Ulmeca to carry on negotiations one day longer, two days, a week, the New Gadeirans might come to their senses. If they had gone past the stage where they could be convinced by reason, there was still a chance that they would sicken of their madness, and awaken from it as from a dream . . . .
Suniaton’s love affair with the Ulmeca Princess Hummingbird symbolizes “the melding of two races and the reconciliation between the old and new worlds.”
A perceptive critic (always in England) wrote a satisfying concluding assessment,12
Colonial powers who set out to change native peoples end by changing themselves, and rarely for the better. They may corrupt the natives with alcohol and beads, but they corrupt themselves with the wine of self-designated superiority and the prayer beads of self-worship. They offer an image of themselves to the natives as both worthy and strong, and in the end they must struggle desperately to live up to that image, having sold it to themselves as well as the natives. New Gades, the Phoenician colony to which Newton’s hero, Suniaton, comes in 327 B.C., grows so blindly self-adoring that finally it succumbs to the assault of the natives and dies in a blaze of imperial glory. In this framework Newton has set a novel which is both satisfying and promising: it has the onrushing readability of the best historical fiction, and it suggests that Newton will write even more pleasant novels in the future.
The Birmingham Daily Post gave it an encouraging review: 13
MR. NEWTON continues the imaginative native re-creation of prehistoric America which he began to such effect in his first novel The House of Gods. Mexico in the fifth century Before Christ and twentieth century before Coltanbus: the novel must stand or fall by the author's ability to make such a distant, undocumented age real to the modern reader. In general, Mr. Newton succeeds in his difficult task.
A Canadian reviewer pummelled the novel as if it were a punching bag—“badly written and overwritten,” “long, turgid sentences so syntactically gnarled that essences are frequently lost,” “islands of words swimming in a sea of commas,” “frequent detailed descriptions and expositions, instead of assisting comprehension and moving the novel forward, impede both understanding and progress.” Newton’s style was “designed more to impress the reader with the author’s ingenuity and perceptiveness than to do the novel a good turn.”14 One might question the critic’s writing from the same viewpoint.
The critic reviewed at the same time Charles Israel’s novel, Who Was Then the Gentleman, about the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, led by War Tyler against the English nobility. The critic praised, by contrast, its “subtlety” and “skilfulness”. The prose is straightforward with no digressions on scenery and complication of character. After referring to the sensitive portrayal of the King’s councillors, their lives and their loves, the critic admits that the peasants are “stock figures . . .well-integrated into the fabric of the book.”
This critic’s judgment exposes the great divide in the novel of “poetic narrative” with a depth of perception of an unknown world from one of plain prose relating an historical event of a known world. Israel’s novel, which lacked the intellectual wonder of Newton’s story, would be found on newsstands while Newton’s only in some bookstores.
I read Israel’s book out of curiosity because when about 1960 in Manhattan I and my wife met Israel in a French restaurant on East 34th street at the invitation of a lady friend who had worked with Israel in the United Nations and remained a friend. Our friend hoped that Israel, an established author, would be helpful to me, a poorly-paid private school teacher and would-be author whose manuscripts were being rejected. Israel was polite but not very friendly. A year or two later I learned that he wrote a detective novel with a schoolteacher protagonist named Beasley. I did not ask if Beasley was the villain but I was unnerved.
THE BIG STUFFED HAND OF FRIENDSHIP15
This third novel, set in a coastal town in British Columbia in the present day, dissects its inhabitants and social practices by a powerful satirical exposure of central characters such as Bertram Rawlins, a duplicitous high-school principal who sleeps with his secretary; McTavish, the indifferent seducer of women, especially of teen-age Shirley Chang; a young Indian teacher, Stanley Maxwell, victimized by the bullying Rawlins, the Reverend Mortimer Grubb, pop-pastor, who turns his church into a “beatnik cellar”; the young schoolteacher, Simon Greene, who exudes common-sense; and various unsavoury characters. The novel springs from Newton’s short story, “Grubbing Exile,” featuring an Anglican minister of modern values who has been transferred from Vancouver to a small town by his reactionary Bishop and is blackmailed by a prostitute’s pimp. His wife, meanwhile, has an affair with a “stuffed shirt.”16
A critic wrote that Newton’s previous novels “had the curious charm of the prose romance rather than the characteristic psychological complexities of contemporary fiction.“ In them “character was subordinated to the much richer mosaic of history and archeology.” The Big Stuffed Hand of Friendship was a radical departure in treatment but not in theme. Its relentless morality and total lack of sentimentality in dealing with the character of native Indians or the social-moral quagmires of small town life was bound “to vex as much as it diverts.”
A reviewer, Marya Fiamengo, summarizes the novel brilliantly.17 I would be unable to give the reader its sense so well. It was this novel, however, that awakened me to Newton’s importance as a Canadian novelist.
The novel opens with a Coast Indian version of the Great Flood. We move from this account of destruction by water, the elemental and tragic consequence of evil on a cosmic scale, to the grimy seduction of a young Chinese girl, evil on a petty human scale. Mount Simms, the Mt. Ararat of the Indian myth, broods over the sleeping town of Port Charles. Port Charles is obviously both a composite portrait of many small British Columbian towns and a microcosm of society. It should be pointed out that the scope of Mr. Newton's satire extends beyond the limitations of the purely social. The satirical sweep of his novel goes beyond a Main Street or a Babbitt. To fail to grasp this is to misunderstand the entire book. From the beginning to the final paragraph in the epilogue which describes the lesser and therefore symbolically meaner animals' attempt to overthrow the kingly Lion, the novel works with the themes and images of destructive corruption, damnation and precarious salvation. Thus the characters, while they might seem exaggerated fantastica, and therefore unbelievable, are so only if viewed from the perspective of a limited realism. They are in fact grotesques, images of a cumulative debris of petty vices which coalesce into moral monstrosities. The Reverend Mortimer Grubb, the with-it Anglican clergyman, a latent homosexual, hag-ridden by lust for both sexes, seems incredible and unconvincing when in fact he is but the logical extension of a spiritual and intellectual bankruptcy. Bertram Rawlins, more repugnant because more pivotal, and prestigious in his society, is an equally powerful grotesque. Rawlins is the completely secularized man, a complex snarl of conventional attitudes without any vestige of moral conviction, yet possessed of an ominous private megalomania and a ferocious bigotry that exudes, "from his very pores, the mindless and savage determination of a small, bad-tempered dog". Where the Reverend Grubb, ludicrous as he is, inspires some compassion because Grubb despite his bathos suffers, Rawlins inspires only repulsion. The lust for power animates Rawlins. A desperate need for spiritual revitalization, no matter how dangerously spurious and bizarre the means, drives Grubb. Nor does the satiric thrust stop here. A conference of Canadian poets held in Jefferson High School, of which Rawlins is principal, affords a sharp commentary on the cliche flabbiness of much that passes for contemporary verse. This is a series of burlesqued vignette portraits of poetic ego-maniacs. An amusing tour de force in itself, it is perhaps less impressive than those sections of the novel which describe the struggle and defeat of Stanley Maxwell and his sister Mercy in their attempt to find a way to live with dignity and honour among the citizens of Port Charles. Stanley and Mercy, along with Wounded Knee, the Indian slum district, form the impressive pivotal core of the novel. The native Indians are drawn with a scrupulosity that allows for neither easy sentiment nor palliative idealization. Thus Stanley in particular emerges as totally and believably human. We see the slow subtle warping of his character into bigotry and hate. He and his sister are native aristocrats and Stanley is not without aristocratic hauteur. In plain language he is sometimes a snob. What other salve does he have to soothe the wounds that either bare sufferance or outright indignity had inflicted? He and Mercy were, "destroyed in the gentler Canadian way which cripples but does not dispatch". Stanley is unjustly dismissed and humiliated by Rawlins. He gets drunk as a result and ends up in jail. Mercy is seduced by the town's salesman — Lothario Ben McTavish, who has already seduced and abandoned Shirley Chang, a young Chinese girl. The brother and sister retreat to their village. On the small cluttered gill netter that takes them there Stanley indulges in the bitter ruminations that form the moral norms for the novel, "the chiefs were men of taste and generosity — but the whites hated all this generosity, authority, legitimacy. They were devils eaten by avarice and hatred of nobility." Only Simon Green, the ineffectual best-intentioned character in the novel, is even dimly aware of these values. And Simon can do little but cultivate his garden, a thesis on the thirteenth century Majorcan theologian Felix Lull. Simon, the representative of a limited virtue, is besieged by the crude forces of Port Charles' moral shabbiness. A teacher in Rawlin's school, Simon is bullied by Rawlins, almost seduced by the pretentious and vulgar Jennifer Connell, and teased by the Chinese girl for whom he suffers a callow infatuation. But while incapable of active heroism, Simon is stubbornly upright. He cannot be bought, seduced or coerced. He is guilty of a sentimental mawkish lust for Shirley but he comes to recognize and resolve this. In the end he remains his own man. In the final holocaust of the Indian riot Simon sees Rawlins and Maud Grubb his mistress caught in a ludicrously compromising position that will destroy his power in the town, restore Stanley's job and vindicate his and Simon's opinions of Rawlins. The forces of decency appear to triumph momentarily in the genuinely hilarious apocalypse of the finale. The novel might strike an impatient reader as contrived and wooden. It has a certain inelasticity. But this is only because the various parts tend to juxtapose rather than flow into one another. The final effect is, therefore, that of a mosaic, of something architectural rather than fluidly organic in form.
THE EYE OF THE GODDESS
The fourth novel in the tetralogy of The Song of the Four Pilgrims is set in the years after the American Revolution in the lands of the Indian nations off northern British Columbia and the Queen Charlotte Islands. Isaac Ford, a young Englishman with his wife, Rachel, leave Majorca for the trading post of Nootka in 1787. The Griffin is his first command.
The narration is in the third person. The action follows Isaac while Isaac’s thoughts and reminiscences are caught in flashbacks which enlighten the reader about the background and those events which his narration has skipped for the sake of the story’s development. It is a masterful flow of suspense upheld by depth of purpose. For instance, the reason for Isaac’s voyage to British Columbia appears two-thirds of the way through the book.
The Griffin has come from Calcutta and Macao, where Isaac has had secret conversations with servants of the East India Company. They wish to set up a combination to trade in furs from the West Coast of America, despite the monopolies granted by the Crown to the East India and South Sea companies. The competition will be formidable. The Etches syndicate of London has obtained trading licenses from the two great companies and has combined with the Macao firms of John Henry Cox and Beale and Company to form the George's Sound Company. They have a grandiose scheme: they will establish a settlement of convicts on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and this will be the centre of a network of lesser forts spread along the land. They promise to conduct a complete coastal survey of the new land. They are working through Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society, and they hope to be granted a complete monopoly, "for a limited time", of all trade between the West Coast of America and the Orient, opening up Japan, Korea and North China. At the same time the Russians, Spaniards and Americans are moving in, the last with the encouragement of Thomas Jefferson, who has expansion of his country's trade in mind, and, ultimately, possession by the United States. But nobody from Britain has yet established himself there, and it would be agreat coup for Ford and Company, and their associates in Calcutta and Macao, if they were to be the first to set up a factory.
Rachel is not sure whether she likes what James Ford and Son is doing. Does she resent coming?Isaac thinks as they walk the streets of the Canton dock areas—have I lost her love by trying to keep it? They were ferried ashore in a small flat-bottomed boat, rowed by a Chinese waterman with long sweeps.
Isaac learns that England and Spain being on the verge of war, Nootka, under Mexican control, was too dangerous. He must head for Tsimeshian territory where he had a friend. Haida warriors approach his ship in canoes as if to trade but they attack and over-run it. He is knocked unconscious and awakens in Haida captivity.
He is enslaved but finds that his friend Great Rock, a Tsimshian, was captured and enslaved as well. Together they plan their escape and eventually arrive back in Tsimshian village of Great Rock’s family. But Great Rock must bear the shame of having been a slave. Through diligence in trade he and Isaac, called the King George Man, work their way back to positions of respect. Complications of love affairs with the daughters of the nobility strain their friendship. An insult from a relation to the Haida demands that the Tsimshian revenge their honour on the Haida. They are led by Great Rock and Isaac in a raid slaughtering the Haida. But now Isaac must escape to his own people. He is helped by Great Rock and flees to an islet to spy on a village where he learnt that his wife Rachel is a slave of another tribe. He sets about to rescue her before escaping with her to Nootka.
Newton’s first-hand knowledge of the Indian cultures and traditions give the story colour and verisimilitude. Newton traces Stone Cliff’s rise from insignificance to supreme power among the Tsimshian.
The gruesome initiation rites which he had brought with him from the Bella Bella were, by a kind of sophistry, which Isaac, with some discomfort, recognized as not unknown among the secret societies of Europe, justified as tending to confirm the established order rather than to subvert it. Anyway it was explained, the gruesomeness was merely a show to frighten the uninitiated. The supposed advantage of such rites was that they made nobles and chiefs figures of terror and reinforced an ancient authority which was beginning to break down. Soon every chief wanted to be initiated into the new rites. But Stone Cliff, who had agents in every village, was really the enemy of the old chiefs whose support he engaged. He favoured the ambitious, dispossessed and discontented of the noble class and he used the secret knowledge of certain guilds, such as carvers and shamans, to advance his cause. Improvements in canoe design, expanded trade areas, the interchange of art styles and the development of the clan system into a network linking peoples living many miles apart and speaking different languages -— all these offered channels for extending his power. Eventually his position became unassailable.
“There really was a Legaic ("Stone Cliff" or "Chief of Mountains") dynasty among the Tsimshian, “ Newton wrote in the Preface, “and I have used much of what is known about it, adding material of my own invention. My sources have been the village and clan histories of the Tsimshian, Haida and Tlingit, which are part of the incredibly rich traditional oral literature of British Columbia and Southern Alaska.”
Dating from his years with the CBC in Prince Albert, Newton, through his friendship with Bill Reid, “the most important figure in the late twentieth-century renaissance of Haida culture”, traveled to the Queen Charlotte Islands visiting the towns and villages to learn of the myths and stories through thousands of years of Indian lore and custom. Many villages were remnants of what they were once and others disappeared but some indigenous survivors remembered their history handed down through generations. Newman wrote articles such as “An Ancient Land”, and books such as “The Peoples of the Northwest Coast Of America” which remain unpublished.
It was my good fortune to have been born in one of the great myth-generating areas of the world. Like the cultures of pre-Christian Ireland and Scandinavia, that of coastal British Columbia and southern Alaska seem to have produced a multitude of legends, which have the complexity, the colour, and the richness of detail of poems and picaresque novels. Alone this monotonously grandiose coast-line almost every river-mouth, cove and notable mountain-peak has a story associated with it, and a number of the little native towns and villages—some of them still occupied by Indians, some metamorphosed into white settlements, many abandoned—have histories which claim to go back a thousand years or more.
Many of the stories recounted here I heard myself from those who knew them best. These are as a rule elderly persons of high or fairly high rank. Most of the elders and chiefs seem to fear that the stories will be forgotten, a fear which will probably be justified over the long run. A degeneration has certainly taken place. Since they were first recorded by Bess, Barbeau, and other anthropologists and folklorists, the stories have, in many cases, been reduced from myth to folk-tale: they have been simplified and shortened, and have lost their symbolic richness. Only in the noble families which retain their pride of position and ancestry are the old stories preserved in their traditional forms.
It is interesting (especially as a refutation of the theory which has guided so many well-meaning missionaries and civil servants involved in Indian affairs) that these are very often the families which are most devoutly Christian, most "progressive", and most able to cope with the demands of a white-dominated society.18
He interviewed the older residents of Indian and mixed racial heritage to learn of the myths and religious practices of the Haida to write a fascinating book, Fire in the Raven’s Nest, in the years he devoted to his last novel. It describes the Haida Indians of the Queen Charlotte Islands, whose culture influenced the advanced culture of many related tribes, and their beautiful but dangerous land in the several centuries before the white man came..
One passage refers to the Haida conflict with the Tsimishian so central to the story of The Eye of the Goddess:19
In the latter part of the eighteenth century there were many wars between the Tsimshian and the Haida, wars which, because of the rise of new head-chiefs (such as the Tsimshian Legaic dynasty) who had taken on some of the qualities of kings, and the growing centralization of power which was itself being furthered by the economic centralization brought about by the maritime fur trade, were on the verge of developing into truly national conflicts, rather than inter-village feuds. At this time, however, because of their long concentration on the shores of what is now Prince Rupert harbour, the coastal Tsimshian were much closer to achieving a national sense than the Haida. The history of these wars is very fully documented in Haida and Tsimshian oral traditions, most of which have been collected in anthropological works published, to our shame, in the United States.
Newton read the writings of the medieval philosophers, particularly Ramon Lull. He understood their thinking, which helped him create the background in his novels of the ancient world and the connection between the old and new worlds in the centuries before Christ and in fifteenth century Mexico. His book, Thomas Gage in Spanish America, (Great Travellers series), however, gave him a feel for ancient Mexico that must have influenced his writing. From it I learned a great deal about the difficulties an educated man faced in those days of religious oppression and antagonisms. A reviewer called the book “an absorbing and eminently readable retelling of Thomas Gage, a seventeenth century Dominican's travels throughout Spanish Mexico and central America.”20
Thomas Gage was an English Roman Catholic, whose family suffered during the Catholic persecutions in England and who sent their son, Thomas, aged about thirteen, to the Jesuit College for English boys at St. Omer near Calais. From St. Omer the young Gage went to Vallodolid where he became acquainted with the world of Spanish monasticism, a strange world that combined rigid discipline and self-sacrifice with the subtlest forms of intrigue. Gage found himself eventually disinherited by his father, and persuaded by Father Antonio Melendez, a fellow Dominican, to join a missionary expedition to the Philippines. The English American His Travel by Sea and Land, or a New Survey of the West Indies was the result of this mission. Gage, Mr. Newton writes, "was not a very good writer: his evangelical moralizing sits oddly in a literary style which tends toward a dusty Baroque floridity." Neither dust nor Baroque flourishes encumber. Mr.Newton’s style. His book simplifies and chastens the original with out losing any of its exotic vividness. A curious and little known fact emerges from Thomas Gage's account of Mexican life in seventeenth century New Spain. It appears that the Spanish Church, far from being the vehicle of oppression it is generally assumed to be, was, to the contrary, as enlightened as any church of its time. Nor was Spanish rule in Mexico particularly oppressive. It was considered a point of doctrine, "that Indians were, as much as the Spaniards rational men". Rather, it was the conquistadores, motivated by rapacity and greed, who set aside this doctrine. Later the Creoles broke the laws of the Spanish Crown, which fixed the wages and attempted to regulate the working conditions of the Indians. The Spanish Crown attempted enlightened feudalism, the Creoles enforced a system approaching slavery. The richness, diversity and Baroque opulence of life in New Spain is meticulously detailed in this little known work. Not only the brilliant landscape and luxuriant vegetation, but Gage's peculiar and extraordinary adventures are recorded, adventures that ended with his death during the English invasion of Jamaica. Before he died, Gage had escaped from Mexico, returned to England where he recanted, abjured his religion and turned spy and informer for the Puritan cause. Norman Newton has produced a careful and thoroughly well documented version of the travels, bringing the qualities of his own mind and style to help leaven the heavy prose of the original.
NEWTON’S PROFOUND KNOWLEDGE OF THE MYTHS THAT SUSTAIN THE NOVELS
In an article of three parts published in THE NEW PHILOSOPHY [Swedenborgian], “A study of the Northwest Coast Mythology in the Light of the Writings,”21 Newton describes the myths of the West Coast Indians and their connection to myths of Asia and Europe back to man’s beginnings. The “Writings” are the philosophy of Swedenborg ranging from mathematics and chemistry through a scientific cosmology of the physical world to the realm of the mind and the soul’s operation in the body. Published in many volumes in Latin between 1741 and 1771 and translated into several languages, there have been modern English editions.
“As old frames of reference collapse,” Newton wrote, “the facts which they ordered tumble into chaos. New frames of reference must be constructed, and they must be constructed according to a method. The truths revealed through Emanuel Swedenborg have made a new study of ancient mythologies imperative.”
Newton collates the speculative dates of the myths in tabular form:
|? to approximately 10,000 B.C.
||Period of Most Ancient Church.
|10,000 B.C. to approximately 8,000 B.C.
||Degeneration of Most Ancient Church. During this Period there are notable physical catastrophes including widespread flooding. Rise of animistic and magical cults.
|8,000 B.C. to approximately 3,500 B.C.
||Beginning of village life in New East. Beginnings of Ancient Church. Rise of concepts which later degenerated into shamanism and the Great Mother cult.
|3,500 B.C. to approximately 2,000 B.C.
||Degeneration of Ancient Church and rise of great Asian despotisms.
|Approximately 1900 B.C.
||Birth of Abraham
I make no attempt to give a comprehensive resumé of Newton’s article, which he admitted had to be condensed owing to available space. The reader will find it in three parts in the New Philosophy magazine archived on the Swedenborg Foundation’s website. I shall refer to certain passages which relate to incidents in The Eye of the Goddess to demonstrate how faithful Newton was in his novel to the meaning of the myth.
From “The Eye of the Goddess”:
Stone Cliff's private shaman sat in his own canoe, a solitary figure, dirty and wild- looking. Most Indians washed daily in the sea or the river, scouring themselves with aromatic evergreen branches, but shamans tended to be corrupt and dirty and evil-smelling. Shamans were supposed to be dirty outside but clean inside, both in the physical sense (they were continually torturing themselves with tests, purges and emetics) and in the moral sense. Expert in witchcraft, a master of deceit, Stone Cliff’s shaman had the gentleness of a saint.The shaman, like the spiritual world itself, was the embodiment of paradox. Isaac had come to sense the function of these contradictions and no longer regarded the shaman as a laughable oddity, who was as afraid of him as the others were.The fact that there was a very large element of trickery, lying and sleight-of-hand in his performances did not make him less impressive: they were, so to speak, the springboard from which he mounted or plunged into higher or lower realms of equivocation, pursuing the dangerous dualities of the spirit into hidden places where the strongest mind, untrained, would turn giddy and crack. Had their victory been due, at least in part, to his having performed in secret the rite known as ”whipping the souls of the enemy”? Two years ago, Isaac would have found the idea preposterous.
From Newton’s essay:
The religious cultures of the Pacific Northwest (that is, of the Tlingit of Coastal Southern Alaska, the Tsimshian, Haida, Nootka, Bella Coola and Kwakiutl of Northern and Central Coastal British Columbia, and the Salishan and Chinookan peoples of South Coastal B.C., and Washington and Oregon States) are usually described as "shamanistic." However, the word "shamanism" has been used to describe such a variety of religious cults that it has become almost meaningless. It should apply to a mystical system whose professional practitioners (often, but not always, they exist alongside the priests of the community when it has priests) are chosen by, or seek the aid of spirits who may or may not take animal form. These practitioners specialize in the reclamation of souls from the land of the dead, and exert direct influence on the spiritual world by entering it in a state of trance. Their rituals are primarily directed, not to worship of the divine, but to communication with and mastery of spirits. This mastery, however, is not like that of the sinister magician of European folk lore. The shaman is one who, by personality and training, is equipped to recapture a power which, the shamans say, all persons had in the far distant past, that is, the power to communicate with the spiritual world and to travel in it. We are all spirits among spirits, but he alone is fully aware of the fact. The witch-doctor may attempt to cure disease by magical means, but this does not make him a shaman, nor is the person who seeks to be possessed by a spirit, in order to increase his power over men, a true shaman. Thus shamanism is not a religion, but a complex of magical and spiritualistic practices, which are only religious in the sense that they depend upon a science or a philosophy of the supernatural. The idea of spiritual reality prevailing among the peoples we are describing may be expressed in ways that have nothing to do with the activities of the shaman. But the fact must be recognized that shamanism has been accepted as a term covering the entire religious philosophy of those peoples who have shamans, so I will use it, with some reluctance, in that sense. The belief-system of shamanism refers directly to the Golden Age, as the New Church understands it. No other religious tradition refers more specifically and agonizingly to the loss of spiritual communication. The connection between the shamanisms of North America and North Asia (part of "Great Tartary" in Swedenborg's day) is perfectly obvious, but the historical interpretation of this connection is a very difficult task. There is much in shamanism which is much older than any system known to us from the literate ancient Near East. However, several authorities have pointed out the derivation of many shamanistic ideas from that area.
Once man had the ability to enter the spiritual world freely, to talk with the dead, and even with God Himself, but now this ability has been lost, and only men specially chosen or trained (shamans) can do this.
Newton describes the Spiritual World or afterworld of the West Coast tribes as “complex and detailed.”
Details differed from tribe to tribe, clan to clan, and house to house; but many apparent discrepancies are not due so much to real differences of essential belief as to the fragmentary manner in which information on this subject has been collected, and the fact that it was collected long after the aboriginal world-view had fallen into decay.
The afterworld was, of course, the present spiritual world, the world behind or within the material one. The spiritual world was organized, in its own spiritual way, like ours. It had mountains, valleys, lakes and seas; it also had villages and houses. But since it was spiritual it had its own laws of time and space—a year was a day there, and the spirits did everything in reverse.
Generally speaking, the diagram of the spiritual world took two forms. There was a largely exoteric diagram, found in the myths and evident in popular belief, which used symbols drawn from the animal, vegetable and mineral worlds. There was also an esoteric diagram, whose symbolism was based on the social forms, the technology and the arts of man, and in which spiritual beings were placed in an order comparable to that of the people of earthly tribes, with their kings, chiefs, commoners, slaves and so on. This latter diagram, which expressed ideas of a more intellectual and arcane nature, was the ideological basis of many of the great tribal ceremonies.
Dualism, the sense of "above" and "below," was most important. . . .
Now the division of the spiritual world into "kingdoms" of light and darkness, ruled over by two chiefs or kings who are approached through subordinate deities, is purely shamanistic, and was found throughout Siberia. The presence, and importance, of deities of land, sea and air is also a characteristic of Siberian shamanism. However, this old Haida cosmology has congeners, not only among the Salish but among the Nootkans as well, which would seem to prove that this "shamanistic" cosmology of Northeast Asian type is not a recent arrival, but must be very old in the area.
All the tribes thought of our earth as existing between a heaven and an underworld. It was thus a middle world, "the land below," as the Bella Coola expressed it. Heaven existed on one or two layers; the underworld existed on at least two, and in some traditions there were as many as five underworld layers. Here again, the discrepancy is less than it appears. Often one tradition will telescope into a single layer the phenomena another tradition stretches over two to four. Nevertheless, the phenomena treated are related, the separation between layers reflecting a separation between inner and outer or higher and lower principles of these phenomena. In the same way, deities in polytheistic systems of the Mediterranean type may manifest themselves as one, three or nine gods.
In Heaven, or in the lower heaven if there are two, live the deities and spirits who control celestial bodies and phenomena— the sun, moon, stars, rainbow and so on. Generally speaking, the house they live in (under the kingship of the sun god) is in some way identified with or may in fact be the physical sun. They are related to one another in an ordered hierarchy. These spirits, in addition to being associated with celestial bodies, are usually associated with symbolic or spiritual birds. . . .
The underworld, which is beneath our own, is a gloomy, mountainous and swampy place, with dark melancholy villages on the banks of brackish rivers, and frightening phenomena such as animal monsters, moving mountains which crush one, and rivers of boiling oil. In most traditions there are, as we have seen, two underworlds—an upper one, which may be compared to a Hades, and a lower one, which may properly be called a Hell or Tartarus. As a rule all spirits go to the underworld on death, and arrive eventually at the village or villages of the dead. Here they go through a period of probation. Those who prove worthy ascend to heaven, whence, after another period of instruction, they are reincarnated into their own families (presumably their knowledge of the other world remains buried in what we call the subconscious). The Haida tradition adds that the best of them, including those who have suffered metaphorically sacrificial deaths through war, hunting or violent falls, remain in the heavenly abodes, while the souls of those being prepared for an ultimate fate in hell are taken up into the clouds by the sinister Cloud-lord. The Nootkan tradition assigns the heavenly abode to the souls of dead chiefs.
The land beneath the sea seems to be easier of access than the underworld, since many culture heroes descend to it, while only shamans (among mortals) descend to the underworld proper. It is not clear whether it is on the same "level" as the underworld, but it is certainly not a land of ghosts or the souls of the departed, though in the Haida tradition the souls of the drowned pass through it. It should probably be considered the spiritual correspondent of the sea, rather than an afterworld in the strict sense. Thus it is related to other spiritual habitats inhabited by the spirits of animal species.
Not only human beings are immortal. Everything is immortal, and is used or reborn again and again. Animals have souls like men and are reincarnated, new flesh being built around their bones. Hence the bones of any animal killed must be buried with reverence, so that new flesh may be built up around them. This idea, which appears to be naive natural science, is in fact literalized mysticism. Reduction to the skeleton is reduction to the essential element of life, thus a kind of preparation, by diminution, for re-entry into life. The skeleton is the seed from which life is reborn.
In the second part of his essay Newton deals with “The Age of Myth.”
Many of the most interesting and significant British Columbian legends are set in the age between the creation and the flood, that epoch in which an occult relationship existed between the human and non-human worlds. We might, to distinguish this period from that which followed it, call it “the age of myth.” During this epoch, “spirits, men and animals lived together like brothers.” This harmony was the universal norm, the cosmic standard; hence it is that stories set in this age provide the basic plots and situations of so many British Columbian legends, even some of those purporting to be entirely historical in our sense of the word. For this mythical past was also a kind of hidden and eternal present, and the old occult relationships might well erupt at any time through the brittle and flimsy surface of everyday appearances.. . .
The pre-Christian mythology of the Tsimshian reveals a state halfway between animism and polytheism, neither of which exclude the inner monotheism which seems to have been particularly strong among the chiefs and nobles. The figures of the Myth Age may be divided into three categories—spirits of god-like character, heroes or demigods, and animal spirits or nekh-nokh (the Tsimshian word), possessing the qualities of distinct animal species in human form. The godlike spirit grants secrets or prerogatives, and often appears as a deus ex machina. The hero is usually the protagonist of the myth, and the nekh-nokh are the beings from whom he wrests secrets or prerogatives, or who, more rarely, grant them. Except in the Raven cycle, animal spirits are not usually protagonists in Tsimshian myth, but they appear much more frequently in this role in the mythologies of other Northwest Coast peoples.
There is the Monster Slayer myth character, apparently weak and lazy, who defeats the sea-monster when the warriors cannot kill it. By defeating it he takes on its power. The Wise Man character loves his wife, who is stolen by the Killer-Whales or Undersea Lord. He descends to the undersea kingdom and rescues his wife by singing or charming them. This myth resembles the Orpheus and Perseus myth of the Greeks. The Ascending or Self-Transcending Myth ascends to heaven in search of a bride and overcomes hardships to win her from the tyrannical old Sky-Chief.
Newton relates the various myths associated with the flood and the punishment of man for his sins and concludes:
One typical aspect of the coastal flood myths should be noted. The flood becomes an explanation of the origin of tribes and peoples, and an explanation of how they arrived where they are now. Thus it tends to incorporate migration legends, when these migrations occurred so long ago that they can only be placed in that vague period known as “the beginning.” When a myth says that the people travelled from Point A to Point B on the waters of the flood, it is to be understood that the people believed they or their culture had come from Point A.
The age of the flood was followed by the age of the Transformer,
In Part three of the essay, The Great Transformer came after the flood to re-establish order in the world.The semi-divine Transformer was responsible for the origin of most human arts.
The Transformer also gave the physical world, which had been a dark and formless wasteland, the features it has today. For example, he stole the sun and moon from the selfish “gods” or departmental spirits and brought light to the world. But the Transformer is an ambivalent creature. On the one hand, he is a benefactor of man: he teaches him arts and crafts, he decrees that certain animals shall be subservient to him, and he creates the environment over which man may exert a limited but definite mastery.
But he is also a spirit of mischief and evil: he is adulterous, deceitful, malicious, and on occasion murderous. His adventures, after the magnificent opening in which he sets the cosmos to rights, diminish more and more into knockabout farce: even his crimes are seen as slapstick. The Transformer, beginning as a demigod, diminishes into a ridiculous victim of his own lusts.
Newton relates the myth of the Raven, the best-known Transformer-figure of the Northwest Coast.
The Raven story opens at the time when the entire world was in semi-darkness. The flood had ended, and the world was a waste of mud and water, almost an undifferentiated chaos. The sun and the moon had not yet reappeared in the sky and the people lived in perpetual twilight. Food was hard to find in this eternal dusk.
The various versions of the myth relate the drowning of an intelligent son. who returns to life, shoots and skins a raven. When the skin dries, the boy puts on the skin and become a raven and flies. Unlike other hero stories, this one is tragic as the boy-raven becomes voracious, eats all the food in the village and is sent away on an impossible mission. “A marvellously vivid image of the ravenous intellect of the man obsessed with his own proprium.” Newton places the Raven myth in a wider context:
As we have seen, the most important negative aspect of Raven’s character is his insatiable greed, which is responsible at once for his discoveries and his degeneration. A reflection of this may be found in a seventeenth-century Mongolian work, The Bejewelled Summary of the Origin of Khans. At the beginning of this book an early “sentient” (a kind of ancient demigod) who is “greedy for tasty things” finds and eats “a food called Woods or Greenery.” Up to this point men have lived on a pure food known as samadhi, but the sentient introduces them to this peculiar food (cf. the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and having eaten it they become sexual beings, and both lust and marriage come into the world. In this we find the motive applied to an earlier stage in the history of the Most Ancient Church—the Fall.
THE EYE OF THE GODDESS— UNPUBLISHED.
The publishers of Newton’s fiction, Peter Owen in England and McClelland and Stewart in Canada liked the novel on first reading. McClelland drew up a contract which was agreed to—$500 advance [in 1972 dollars], 10 % royalties on hardback and 75% on paperback was Newton’s standard requirement through his agent. Months later McClelland asked Newton for Peter Owen’s reaction to the manuscript and sent a following letter affirming that Owen was proceeding with publication. Months later McClelland and Owen misunderstood who was to foot the cost of publication and asked if Newton could suggest another English publisher.
Newton replied: “Because of truly phenomenal work load—over the past few months I have been directing radio plays and a stage play, working on music programs and transcriptions, finished my Haida book for OUP, and even preparing a musique concert tape for one of my plays—I have delayed answering your letter of February 3rd . . .”22 He could not think of another English publisher for his fiction.
After Newton revised the manuscript twice at Owen’s request, McClelland objected to Owen charging it with a higher price of printing than it would cost in Canada and claimed that Owen planned to make a profit on the copies sold to McClelland. Owen now backed out, saying that the book should be successful in Canada but not in England. Jack McClelland could publish only if Newton found another English publisher. Fiction was “not selling well” in 1974. Moreover, Owen wrote that “this book is not up to the standard of the earlier Newton novels.” Newton claimed it was his best—“demonstrably the most cunningly constructed.”
Jack McClelland replied23: “Publishing in the U. K. at the present time is very tough indeed. I note your reference to [Mordecai] Richler and his experience in the U.K.. The fact of the matter is, he never made any money out of the U.K. on his books. They were published there and he established a fine reputation there and in the future he will make money out of that market, but none of his books sold well there even in paperback and the actual earnings were not all that great. Funnily enough the same situation roughly has prevailed in the U.S.A. He gets great reviews there, but until very recently not much of a market. The release of the film of DUDDY KRAVITZ has helped a great deal in the case of that particular book however and it is now selling in very large quantities in the U.S.” He ended his letter, “I think this is your best book and I think it is a fine piece of work.” He intended to try Faber in England. In December 1975 the manuscript was returned to Newton who hoped to finish an opera libretto and a book he was working on with a U.S. composer after which he would revise the middle of the novel and “break up what now appears to me a tendency for the book to become too introspective in that part.” McClelland decided against publication owing to the cost.
I found a manuscript of the book in terrible shape—paragraphs cut up, strung out in separated sentences, words caught in rectangular boxes, unreadable words and so on —which I managed to put together with just a few words missing. Since I self-publish and care nought about making money on publications, I may publish “The Eye of the Goddess” to add a treasure to Canadian Literature.
SWEDENBORG, THE MASTER
Since the philosophy of Swedenborg was fundamental to Newton’s outlook on the world, we should touch upon certain aspects. Swedenborg’s major work, Principia (1734) argues that the source of all existence is the Infinite. He defines “matter” as arising from serial aggregations of components differing in complexity of arrangement but not as to substance. This conception of a connected series led to the theory that creation originated from a single, mathematical point, the simplest unit of nature. Therefore matter is a “binary formulation of two types of simple entities, one flowing and one static, reciprocally interrelated.” These dimensionless first natural points produce finites, “whirls of energy” that spiralling amongst themselves form the first series of finites. Creation proceeds in a cascade of energy-filled entities compounded in levels of increasing complexity, the units on each successive level being compounded formations of units on the previous level. The finite is connected to the infinite within the infinite itself. Finite human reason can never know the nature of this infinite nexus but one can accept that it is the Logos, “Son of God”, who is not another infinite but at one with the finite.
Series and Degrees—There is nothing in the visible world that is not a series and in a series. There are a successive series of entities in every degree or level of created things. Each degree and the series of entities that comprise it is formed of aggregations of units from the next higher degree. The human being is the lattermost end in the whole grand series of all created things, ranging from mineral to plant to animal. Thus the human being is the “microcosm of the macrocosm.”
His theory of correspondences was important to Newton in his study of myth. A knowledge of how all things are structured in series and degrees makes possible a rational psychology, a science of the psyche based on a knowledge of the ratios or relations between the various interconnected levels within the human soul, mind and body. He called these ratios correspondences. A particular facial expression corresponds to the higher level of electrochemical brain activity that caused it, and this specific brain activity corresponds in turn to yet higher level of thought-process that is within both the brain activity and facial expression. Everything corresponds to something on higher levels, thus as a relation of cause to effect.
THE LISTENING THREADS; THE FORMAL COSMOLOGY OF EMANUEL SWEDENBORG24
Newton’s erudite book compares the natural philosophy of Swedenborg to a stream of thought running from Saint Augustine and Ramon Lull to Hegel and his disciples and followers, including Karl Marx. “Marxist logic,” he wrote, “sometimes throws a greater light on the cosmology of Swedenborg than Western thought because of its dialectic method.” What brings Swedenborg into this stream is his “transformation of logical categories into dynamic cosmological ones, always in a completely Christian context.” Newton’s aim is to trace a link between Swedenborg’s Principia and his correspondences, which has a bearing on religions.
In a chapter entitled “Towards the Doctrine of Correspondences” Newton examines the philosophical background to the doctrines of poetic correspondence. First he decries the spiritualists’ claim that Swedenborg linked matter to spirit, which expresses itself in symbols: “He becomes part of an eruption of every kind of occultist and symbolic system, or rather of fragments of systems: cabalism, symbolic alchemy, seventeenth-century Rosicrucianism, Alexandrian gnosticism, magical or truly philosophical Neoplatonism and neo-Pythagoreanism and new versions of Alexandrian and Renaissance misconceptions of the ‘wisdom of the Egyptians and Chaldeans’. There are forms of symbolic mathematics but they owe more to the magical tradition than to Swedenborg.”
Surprisingly Newton rejects the claim of literary critics that Swedenborg influenced the poetic spirit. The theory of “poetic correspondences” is an underground movement, found in the letters and occasional journalism of the poets themselves:
For these poets, the major intellectual currents of the age were represented by the growth of a materialist, capitalist and scientific establishment appealing to hard logic, and by the increasing domination of intellectual life by the bureaucracies of universities and state school systems. They judged these trends to be anti-poetic in the extreme. Science, in particular, would have nothing to do with any theory of correspondences, whether Swedenborgian or not. It would be naturalistic prose, not poetry, which would claim to be scientific. Academic literary canons would move from dead classicism to a prettified naturalism with barely a nod to poetic correspondences. Worse yet, the establishment had swallowed German idealism in one great gulp, and Hegel had become the philosophical bulwark of the Prussian state.
What this meant was that there was no coherent world view, now that Hegel was gone, to which a theory of universal correspondences could be attached, unless it was the philosophy and theology of the real Emanuel Swedenborg (that is, not the absurd illumine and cabalist of the secret societies). Yet this virtually demanded complete religious conversion. It is naively thought that poets are more spiritual than scientists and philosophers, because they are not so cursed with intellectual pride. But there is also a pride of the imagination, which the new poetic theory, overturning the old psychology, elevated above the reason. Poets accept Christianity no more easily than rationalist intellectuals, because Christianity demands a recognition that the un-regenerated imagination is corrupt. The greatest and most ruthlessly honest recognized the corruption of the imagination; they could see it in themselves. Baudelaire certainly did, as did Rimbaud; but the first could only waver tentatively to and away from the Roman Catholicism of his mother, and the second gave up poetry entirely, to embrace the vigorously amoral life of a gunrunner in Africa. Furthermore, the rational aspect of poetry, always vitally present up to the eighteenth century, was scorned by the romantic avant-garde at least publicly (some were acutely rational in secret). Didacticism and philosophizing were certainly to be found in the popular poets of the time, but the advanced spirits, those whom our age thinks of as its poetic ancestors (Hugo and Tennyson need not apply), had little use for them. Poets were not supposed to think consecutively, except in their off-hours, when they wrote criticism. Shelley, who knew more about logic and classical poetic theory than he admitted, had said in his Defence of Poetry that "Reason respects the differences and the imagination the similitudes of things" and that "Reason is to the imagination as the instrument is to the agent." If this is so, and arguably it is so in poetry, then the two are still related. It does not matter which is superior to the other or which includes the other. For if a theory of correspondence is not also logical it cannot be universal.
There is a hidden factor in all this, for which some nineteenth-century Swedenborgians themselves must bear the blame. This was the peculiar notion, held by many of them, that the science of correspondences was something like an easy code which made the believer the master of all knowledge, that it was a key which fitted all locks, and which enabled any earnest student of the Writings to unfold the inner meanings of not only the Bible but ancient mythologies as well. Generally, they were misled by a failure to distinguish between logical categories and living forms; in extreme cases one found them manipulating "Love" and "Wisdom" as if they were mere counters on some abacus ordered on a binary principle. In this error they resembled, though less conspicuously, certain rash Lullists of earlier times and Hegelians of their own. To outsiders this appeared both presumptuous and silly—sometimes innocently blasphemous when Swedenborgians were expounding Scripture. Applied to the study of ancient mythologies, this pseudo-method could result in simplifications as grotesque as were to be found among those who tried to demonstrate that all myths were forms of astronomical code
Newton’s work as producer of musical programs and director of plays for the CBC brought him into contact with many musicians, some of whom became friends. Two composers in particular collaborated with him on outstanding works, Tibor Serly and Derek Healey.
Tibor Serly was a violist and violinist with several American orchestras. He befriended the composer Bartok who settled in the United States and orchestrated many of his works. He composed works for ballet, concerts, and chamber music. One of his treatises, The Rhetoric of Melody, he wrote with Newton.The correspondence between them is lengthy and continued with Serly’s widow after the composer’s death.
The Composer Derek Healey composed the music for the opera Seabird Island to which Newton contributed the libretto. It was inspired by Newton’s interest in the West Coast Indians. Sea Bird Island is in the Upper Fraser Valley region. The opera was given an award as the Best Broadcast of Canadian Music in 1978.
“I met Norman in the Autumn of 1969 when I went to Vancouver to record my “Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani” with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra, of which he was the producer.,” Derek Healey wrote.25
After the session, the conversation got round to the West Coast Native Peoples, the culture of whom obviously interested him intensely, the subject was infectious since for a while it also came to dominate my life. Later his wonderful book “Fire in the Raven’s Nest” (New Press 1973) affected me deeply. We planned to write an opera together which came to fruition as “Seabird Island” based on a Tsimshian story, which was produced at the Guelph Spring Festival in 1977. (I was appointed to the faculty of University of Guelph in 1973.) After the premiere we drifted apart, but still contacted each other at Christmas. We had both decided to pass onto other things, leaving the art of the Native Peoples of BC behind.
The next time I set his work was many years later in 2011, the piece was for mezzo-soprano and instrumental ensemble, “The Coast of Oregon”. A year or so before I started work, Norman had come down with a serious illness, and so it was decided that I should select the text from the extended poem of the name found in his “Selected Poems 1948-1989”, (self-published by Janus Press Victoria, British Columbia, 1993).
The work progressed swiftly, since I always found Norman’s verse a joy to set, and so managed to get the piece completed shortly before he passed-on, and was able to send him a MIDI CD and a score, which he could listen to and follow—he was happy to have his text used with music again. The work was premiered in Portland, Oregon on March 29th 2012 a few months later, fortunately both Beryl and Elizabeth were able to attend.
Healey remarked, “I found his texts exceedingly grateful to set—he obviously had the ear of a musician when writing poetry.” One project they planned together “came to naught.”—an opera on the life of the Canadian poet John McCrae, who wrote the World War One poem “In Flanders Fields.”
Of Newton’s many radio plays, some of which won awards, “Listen to What I Say” had the greatest impact on Derek Healey. He described it, a 10-page script, and the play accompanying it. They were based on the Orpheus legend and broadcast over the CBC in early 1971.
It was the first of these two plays which had such an impact on me at the time. “Listen to what I say” is in Haida/Kwakiutl style and must surely be an adaption of a West Coast legend, although it doesn’t mention it in the script. The play has 5 characters: The Traveller, Chorus I, Gunarh, the Head, and Chorus II. Norman produced the electronic background music for this play, which consists mainly of slowed-down (x4?) birdsong, the script also gives electronic filtering instructions for each individual character.
In the second play, “Orpheus in the Underworld – a brief Philosophical History”, Norman incorporates the harpsichord piece “Tic-Tac-Choc” by Couperin, together with the pop song “When my Baby Smiles” – this play is 29 pages long. The action takes place in the 1700’s. There are 4 characters in the play: Hades, Orpheus, Eurydice & the Reader. To me, the style of the dialogue at the play’s opening could perhaps be best described as witty and sophisticated, in fact what one might find at a mid-twentieth century cocktail party. I remember, I enjoyed listening to this second play at the time, but it was the first play that set my imagination on fire. . . .
Looking back, I think the thing that impressed me most was the nobility and excitement of Norman’s text, together with the dark, surreal, colours of the work as a whole. One needs to remember that I had only recently arrived in Canada from England and knew nothing whatsoever of the culture of the Coastal Native Peoples, but this short radio play, together with the later publication of Norman’s book “Fire in the Raven’s Nest“, cemented my love and admiration of the culture, and propelled me towards writing the opera “Seabird Island” with Norman, and which was later premiered at the Guelph Spring Festival, conducted by Nicholas Goldschmidt, on May 7th 1977.
Newton’s plays may be found in the CBC archives and should be the subject of an article by a musicologist or dramaturge.
THE LATER YEARS
IN 1986 the CBC suddenly laid off many of its staff, including Newton, who, having worked there for over 25 years, must have been shocked. He did freelance work:—“e.g. working on film productions with Claudia Ferris, a dear and longtime family friend.” He retired to Gabriola Island, a sylvan place, made famous by Malcolm Lowry’s novel of that name, and less expensive than Vancouver.
Elizabeth, his daughter, wrote: “In his early 80s, Dad had a cardiac event which, most likely, had cognitive ramifications. After he came to the painful realization that his words "weren't making sense”—you can imagine how painful, given his love of language—he spoke very little. He was still able to communicate his love for us non-verbally, and found enormous pleasure in listening to music. Ever so often, he could come out with a remarkably lucid paragraph then, when words started to fail, fall silent again.” He loved to conduct and whistle while listening to Bach which he had always done.
“While in the hospital for tests etc, Dad slipped and broke his hip, got pneumonia, and passed away at 82.”
She wrote in memory of him:
To a child with too much imagination, the dark is a place of great mystery and madness. A place where tedium and dishes are easily knocked aside by improbable adventures and glorious magic. A place, too, where ogres and doubts threaten to eat into your head the moment the others are sleeping.
When the child rushes in—babbling nonsense, fleeing monsters, scraping into hard-earned sleep—the body begs to please shut it out, shut it down. There's no such thing as ghosts. Go back to your room. Just come and sleep with us. We'll talk in the morning. But Dad understood. A man of great kindness and imagination, he knew about the dark. Even after long nights of typing in the basement, he'd shake himself awake, fumble for his glasses, then listen. Once it was safe to tuck me back in with the shredded blanket and the duck, he'd beckon sleep with a quickly improvised story or a gentle song. The ogres were snuffed, the castles were open.26
From On The Broken Mountain.
Norman Newton. 1979
Deep undersea the moon is dead.
Now let the sun revolving sing.
The bride, who would not raise her head,
For fear the hangman moon might wring
The neck of her delight, may cling
Tighter to her own love, and sing.
Deep undersea the moon is dead.
Deep under leaves the fox is dead.
Let the slim hare emerge, and dance.
No more that snake of cunning red,
As sly and terrible as chance,
Waits in a predatory trance
To steal the dancer from the dance.
Deep under leaves the fox is dead.
Deep hid in light all grief is dead.
Night’s well is empty; tears are done.
The excommunication’s read;
It killed the moon, but not the sun.
Sorrow, when it began to run,
Was singing when the race was done.
Deep hid in light all grief is dead.