Melancholy of the Coast

by Terence MacNamee

Further Canadian observations on a visit to the West Coast: Vancouver is not B.C. Once you get away from the metropolitan area, where a lot of the city’s buzz and energy comes from its Asian population, you find yourself in a different world. I could never quite put my finger on it before, when I lived here, but the B.C. coast is a melancholy place. A beautiful place, but a melancholy place. There is little energy there. You get a sense of the futility of human activity. You catch yourself thinking: what’s the use? Just watch the bald eagles soaring in the mist, and listen to the Pacific waves lapping on the beach…

It’s a funny thing about finding places melancholy. You don’t find your own home place melancholy. Other places are melancholy, and foreign nations are melancholy. Not me, not us. I must admit that the people of B.C. don’t find their coast melancholy, and are somewhat surprised to hear me say it.

When the English come to Ireland they think it is melancholy. At least they did in the old days. The Irish do not think so themselves. Perhaps it is or was projection on the part of the English. For centuries, they did their best to make Irish history melancholy. Maybe they felt guilty as a result.

Or they might have been twigging on something unconscious. Sometimes landscapes make us aware of something hidden or unexpressed within ourselves, let us say an inner landscape of feeling. The English have a repressed Celtic side. This expresses itself in their melancholy, and God knows there are enough melancholy English poems, from “Il Penseroso” to Keats’ “Nightingale”.

The English do not think of themselves as melancholy, but the French do. The French see melancholy and depression as being something of an English specialty, along with “la morgue anglaise”, that haughty detachment that seems to attach to the English in all the French stereotypes. The French took over the word “spleen” from English for melancholy feelings and moods. They think it is no accident that they should need to borrow an English word for this.

Now I look out on the Pacific from a deserted beach on Vancouver Island, and the sighing of the sea and mournful call of the gulls means that all I can do is sigh in response and forget the outside world. I feel if I sit for long enough on this beach, I will never leave it. I have heard the siren call of the B.C. coast.

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