Stephen Leacock’s satire of the idle rich resonates today
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – One hundred years ago, Stephen Leacock figured out how to unlock the disparity between the rich and the rest.
Feb 18 2014. By: Carol Goar, Star Columnist
He could have marshalled reams of statistics to show the widening gap between Canada’s rich and poor. He was one of the most accomplished economists of his day. But he didn’t use a single number.
He could have written a trenchant political analysis. He headed McGill University’s political science department for 28 years. But he had little use for polemics.
He could have delivered earnest speeches, churned out newspaper articles or stirred up like-minded intellectuals. But he didn’t.
Stephen Leacock knew none of those tactics would jolt Canadians out of their complacency. Nor would they get under the skin of the self-righteous plutocrats who had commandeered a vastly disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth. So he penned a caustic — but very funny — satire: Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich.
What prompted me to reread the book was an unusual essay in the current edition of the Literary Review of Canada. It is written in the form of a book review pegged to the 100th anniversary of Leacock’s comic masterpiece, but it is meant to juxtapose the top-heavy society of the early 20th century against the Canada of today.
The article’s author, Don Nerbas of Cape Breton University, concludes with a thought-provoking observation. “The critique of plutocracy offered up these days by public figures who purport to represent popular causes rarely comes close to matching the imagination and force — and fun — of Arcadian Adventures.”
This dearth of wit, Nerbas suggests, “should cause us to reflect upon the Canadian intellectual tradition and its unexpected resources for thinking about our society today.”
It pains me, as one of the people who has tried to draw attention to deepening inequities in Canada, to admit that Nerbas is right. The pundits, altruists, academics, anti-poverty activists, faith leaders and citizens who care deeply about this issue are, by and large, a humourless lot. We are seldom irreverent, virtually never subversive.
What can we learn from the master of parody, mischief, social commentary and fine storytelling? (Leacock was the best-known humorist in the English-speaking world from 1915 to 1925.)
Lesson one: Look beyond Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, the author’s best-known book, a gently affectionate portrayal of the foibles of life in his hometown of Orillia. Leacock could use humour to expose and sting, lampoon self-important magnates and shred the values they propagated.
Lesson two: The plutocrats who populate the pages of Arcadian Adventures have a lot to say to 21st-century readers. Their habits and preoccupations may be quaint, but their attitudes — that wealth is synonymous with personal merit; that affluence entitles an individual to shape society’s rules; and that all public institutions should produce healthy surpluses — are familiar.
Lesson three: The world in which the economically privileged live — Leacock calls his enclave Plutoria Avenue — is so insular that its inhabitants are disconnected from the city around them, the country in which they live and the very idea of the common good. They assume — to the extent that they think about it at all — that their values are universal and their superiority is recognized. Their obliviousness to the needs of others is captured in one offhand sentence at the end of an anecdote about an all-night celebration at the exclusive Mausoleum Club. “The people of the city — the best of them — drove home to their well-earned sleep and the others — in the lower parts of the city — rose to their daily toil.”
The denizens of Plutoria Avenue — widely believed to be in Montreal’s “Golden Square Mile” when the city reined as Canada’s commercial powerhouse — are caricatures, their adventures slightly absurd. But there is enough verisimilitude in their behaviour that everybody knows or knows of people like them. By making these tycoons and their wives laughable, Leacock strips them of the esteem they have conferred on themselves and severs the link between wealth and wisdom.
It would take enormous skill to skewer today’s moneyed elite as deftly as Leacock did. But 21st-century Canada — Toronto in particular — is ripe for a sequel to Arcadian Adventures. It could be set on the Bridle Path, Rosedale Road, Yorkville Avenue or the Kingsway. It could be a book, a film or a TV series. It could be farcical or scathing.
Humour, as Leacock understood, gets into the crevices of an unequal society.
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