MacKenzie King's National Dreams
The Politician, The Political Leader and the Philosopher
The national leader who brought Canada to the world stage (especially during World War II), to play an international role greater than our numbers warranted is viewed today as little more than an eccentric curiousity. William Lyon MacKenzie King was our longest serving Prime Minister, yet visitors to Kingsmere attend more to the undeniable beauty of the Gatineau estate than to comprehend the dramatic insights King had into our national character. That we have forgotten King's legacy is not a historical tragedy, we have only mislaid an important Canadian voice of the Canadian imagination who helped create and shape the social framework of our national dream in the 20th century. King today remains a mostly forgotten (see CBC TV clip) antiquity of Canadian national and literary history.
In today's world, a man who talked to his dog, consulted the spirit of his dead mother and recorded dreams as decision making references, is an anachronism. We have no respect for the ‘spirit world' and justly so if the phrase is limited to mean ghostly apparitions that appear in the night to go bump in the dark or come to rearrange furniture. If, however, we view King's behaviors by which he gained insight into his own mind and the treasure of cultural, ancestral and intellectual heritage accumulated through his lifetime, we may understand how King's dreams played an important role in the nation building of Canada and provided a guiding image for our national character and identity. As a nation builder Mackenzie King's dreams provided the political architectural design for many of our modern Canadian institutions, such as laying the foundation for social security, unemployment insurance, old age pension, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and passports.
To discover the importance of dreams for each of us we should first see how the word is used. A dream is an individual experience, realized while sleeping. It is a series of images, feelings and impressions, clearly the product of our own mind but seldom arranged in a familiar pattern. The dreams we have at night are shaped by our experiences in the surrounding, real world. We also use the word dream to mean a positive vision of an idealized, hoped for utopian objective. Emil Durkheim pointed out in Division of Labour in Society that the collective value, conscience and ideas carried around in the mind's of its individual members gives a society its identity and provides the glue to hold it together. The interplay between individual and collective dreams occurs and circulates through the cultural heritage of generations, providing an historical or ancestral aspect to our dreams that can be uncovered in layers like an archeological dig. I call this mythological collective ancestral memory the transgenerational archetypal unconscious, which is shaped by the generational inheritance of the rememberance of things past. Though he is mostly forgotten, King remains a central spokesman for the Canadian literary imagination and the rememberance of things past.
Our dreams of the past can be heard in John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields" (1915) after he witnessed the death of a friend. Later, in 1922 the architect Walter Allward was entrusted with designing the Vimy Memorial to commemorate defended values and human sacrifices. The memorial was completed and dedicated in 1936 when King was Prime Minister. Allward had a dream that illuminated the nature of the Canadian spirit: "I dreamed I was in a great battlefield. I saw our men going in by the thousands and being mowed down by the sickles of death . . . Suddenly . . . I saw thousands marching to the aid of our armies. They were the dead. . . . Without the dead we were helpless. So I have tried to show this in this monument to Canada's fallen, what we owed them and we will forever owe them." On November 11 every year, Canadians ritually celebrate Remembrance Day, reminding us of those who sacrificed their dreams to fight for freedom.
Today we may dream, for instance, of winning the lottery. Our individual objectives contribute to the larger, collective dreams of our community. As such, the lottery we hope to win is run by the government, who provide lottery funds for agreed upon social objectives such as building and running community centres and arenas. The commercials (watch TV commercial) that persuade us to buy lottery tickets often depict ‘dream-come-true' visions of how individuals can spend their money.
MacKenzie King was a leader with a national dream. His legacy can be viewed as nothing short of creating for Canada, a Canadian Dream. We can find his nation building objectives and his dreams in his diaries which have been published. (Note: to research the diaries by keyword, key in the keyword dream). We can readily view in King's diaries as a distinctly Canadian story which provides insight into the social and political thinking of his mind. The allegory that King chose to philosophically guide his life was John Bunyan's A Pilgrims Progress which uses the root metaphor of "the similitude of a dream" as the basis for a spiritual journey. From his dreams written down in his diaries, we can see that King had a clear understanding of his role as the political leader of his party, but also his role as a leader of a nation that contributed to world order and the dramatic spectacle of history. King was also aware of his own prejudices and character flaws.
King was a classical political philosopher, many of his dreams were about the Canadian political landscape and his role in it. He believed in the perfectibility of humanity and that history is driven along a political path toward a utopian paradise. He believed that dystopian political forces needed to be fought. He believed in a democracy that encompasses both freedom of expression and freedom from harm. King knew that building a strong country required conciliation, arbitration, compromise and individual sacrifice. He was forward thinking, and saw that women should play a larger part in the then patriarchal society of the time. These qualities are reflected in King's dreams, and his evaluations of them.
King's Dreams and the World Stage
The dream paraphrased below occurred January 13, 1935, when King saw himself attending a play.
"There was a lady dressed in black, who was collecting tickets, she was a part of the performance, or one...of the performers. I gave her my ticket, but went beyond the supposed custom of not speaking to ask her about the play, finally she came along with me to where it was being enacted.... She gave me a sense of strength and power and vitality - When we came into the theatre, they were rehearsing. I recall that some new play was thought of, I was looking it over and listening to what was being said, finally saw a line which it would not take long to recite and I offered to take the part, the smallest of all - It was thought that this would show great sympathy with the whole theatrical movement as apparently at that moment I was again Prime Minister. It had to do with some ancient Greek play - something of ancient philosophy... it was at the end of the act, what I noticed was the throne which occupied the centre of the stage & which was of black oak, beautifully carved, not unlike ecclesiastical archetecture in part. I said to myself I have a fondness for old things, this seems to posses a particular attachment, I have been associated with or had an association with this in the past, I ought to secure it if possible. Then it seemed to me the head of King George appeared, most clearly, quite alive, tho' I could only see his head. I remarked the resemblance to father...then those around me...the actors & the others seeming to read my thoughts said, At the University your father was like the King, that they just said there was no doubt about the relationship, and everyone accepted it, some line of descent from Kings. Then there was a change of scene... where appeared one of the Edwards, wearing a crown, dressed as a sovereign of that period...and around were university students, who were making fun of his ignorance, of how little he really knew and amounted to."....
The play can be interpreted as the dramatic historical spectacle of role-playing and plot devices applied to the Canadian political stage, in this theatre King begins by recognizing that women might participate in it. He volunteers to modestly participate by playing a small part, but soon feels a sense of destiny and duty, drawn to a much larger political role. We can note his affinity for the throne (perhaps alluding to the Canadian throne speech in the House of Commons?), which he recognizes instinctively as the central perceptual focus of his political attention. King keenly perceives the dramatic workings of the political history of ancient Greece and England, the political framework of Parliament and the roles of past English Heads of State (King George and King Edward) and the Monarchy. The political metaphor the Crown is viewed as providing the philosophical embodiment of popular sovereignty and legal authority for the Canadian government over the Canadian stage drama.
From a literary perspective we can use the tools of literary criticism to understand King's dream. King's prophesy that women would play a dramatic role on the Canadian stage has come true, we have briefly had Kim Cambell as Prime Minister, we also find the figure of Margaret Atwood, who has been dubbed the Queen (CBC radio and TV clips) of CanLit. However, it is the works of one of Atwood's professors at the University of Toronto that can give us a sense of the literary depth of King's dreams. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination by Northrop Frye (Frye ‘pilfered' the image of Bush Garden from a Dream Vision found in Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie) enables us to understand the archetypal nature of King's dreams. If Dream Vision provides the archetypal foundation for the Canadian imagination, then it is King's diaries that stands at the centre of the Canadian literary canon and the Canadian Dream (read article about The Canadian Dream).
King's own interpretation of his dream began with a search of his household furnishings for items found in the dream. King then began to think of the Cromwellian period and Cromwell becoming a dictator and that it was King's duty to oppose dictatorship, just as it was his (Cromwell's) duty to oppose absolutism on royalty. In King's own words; "It seems to me the whole vision has to do with the political stage as it is being set for the ensuing battle - something being sent to me to give me confidence in my right to assume sovereignty in control of parliament, not to permit dictatorship - to claim power as of right, where it relates to the people and is on their behalf." King at the time of his dream had began anticipating war in Europe. He knew that dictatorship must be opposed to advance the cause and objectives of individual freedom. King knew the complexities of power on the domestic and international stage and he felt compelled to assume a role.
This sense of destiny and duty was more than an ego trip. This feeling of kismet, was evidently defined by King's Christian eschatological understanding of his own predestination. King grew up steeped in the political heritage of his grandfather, the journalist, publisher, first mayor of Toronto and Upper Canada reformer and rebel William Lyon Mackenzie, who had passed on his cultural inheritance to King's mother who in turn had passed it on to him. This heritage acquired through his lifetime was stored in his subconscious, eventually bubbling to the surface in nightly dreams which King used to address and evaluate recent events and concerns. His longevity as the Prime Minister of Canada can be traced to this fundamental recognition of Canadian heritage and his motivation to play a political role in serving the Crown to protect the people of Canada and their freedom against all threats of dictatorship. From the depths of economic depression King led Canada through the world's largest conflagration into a position of wealth, while at the same time guiding Canada in its political ascension to the world stage where it could wield international influence.
With the guiding phrase "all for all", King proposed a culture that balanced individual freedom of expression with the freedom from want and fear. His spiritual ruminations were not embarrassing eccentricities, instead they were his means by which access to his heritage was achieved, a transgenerational memory, through which he realized his own and Canada's destiny. In the new millennia we face the challenges of rapid technological, political and economic change, we can use King's dream to reconnoiter our own political bearings. In a 2004 CBC survey of the top 10 Greatest Canadians we do not find William Lyon Mackenzie King on the list. The fact that King ranks 49th in the top 100 is indeed sad and ironic, and proof that the public may be ill-informed or the present generation may not be as well educated as it thinks it is (read Northrop Frye's Educated Imagination) or have we just forgotten his role and his accomplishments. Irrespective of why, there evidently is little or no place for King in the modern Canadian conscious collective imagination and memory, his archetypal memory has been lost. We may have forgotten him, yet I believe King has not forgotten us (listen to the CBC radio clip of King's resignation from office in 1948), having left us the legacy of his work on the Canadian political stage, his diaries and his heritage. We can eulogize and pay tribute to this modest Canadian leader whose Everyman's "similitudes of a dream" laid the political foundation for our collective Everyperson freedoms, our own inalienable right to dream and our modern national dream.