A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature Essay
A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
In Rabelais and His World, the formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin makes the one reference to Canada that appears in the body of his work. Discussing the French humanist’s comic rendering of Pantagruel’s northwesterly journey to the icy underworld, he points to the various levels of correspondence between Rabelais’s text (itself a parodic reworking of Dante’s Divine Comedy) and Jacques Cartier’s journal account of his 1540 voyage to Canada.
It was Cartier’s colonial venture, Bakhtin suggests, that had a particularly complex and important effect on the European imagining of otro mundo: the new world (397-400). For Bakhtin, this effect was felt most tellingly on what might be best described as the implications of the Word in the Old World imagination, for it was Cartier’s discovery of the New World that prompted an essential reconsideration of the intellectual and imaginative structures that had until this point guaranteed the Old World a confidence in its linguistic centrality and a certainty in its imaginative enterprise.
So radical were the restructurings necessitated by this new information that throughout the earliest explorations of the New World whole editions of journals and maps were destroyed or bought up and hidden “because they were thought to disseminate the wrong kind of information” (Huggan, 7) or, in the more abstract sense, to speak the wrong language, spread the wrong Word.
But as journeys and journals accumulated, so, too, did the notions of Canada as a problematic new land and new language, as a site at which Old World and traditionally worded certainties were confronted by an openness of place that refused to be fixed, refused to accommodate its particularities and paradoxes to the tropes or metaphors privileged by familiar verbal codes.
Every journey across this new land became another imaginative “mapping” of what were at once the knowable and the radically unknowable realities of the place a number of the earliest cartographers had labeled, somewhat ominously, terra incognita: the unknown land. Such mappings were “not a luxury,” as Margaret Atwood has observed, “but a necessity,” for without the sense of certainty they provided, these early Canadians would “not survive” (Atwood, 18-9).
Atwood’s observations were not in themselves particularly revolutionary but were building on echoes of such notable antecedents as Northrop Frye, who saw in this confrontation both the source of our deep terror regarding the imminence of Canadian geography and of our national myths and mythic patterns (626), and Desmond Pacey, who defined “the Canadian imagination” as “mainly a function of” a collision between an imagination grounded fixedly in Old World language and a geography “so various” and “inescapably impressive … that in itself it offers an inexhaustible challenge” (437-44).
More recently, W. H. New has invited a full rethinking of the most basic terms of this challenge, suggesting that from Cartier’s earliest contact the word “land” has to be seen as a particularly complex discursive terrain, “a ground of contestation” upon which “an ongoing history of [our] relations with place and space” plays out. As New suggests, Canada in this sense becomes a semiotic site at which “Fixity vies recurrently with fluidity, position with positionality, the place of social residence with the condition of being there.
” For Sheila Watson, the condition of “being” in the her The Double Hook (1959) is very much a process of doubling back on the assumptions and Words that have traditionally been part of the foundation of Old World thought and action. Faced with an “inexhuastible challenge” to survive, Waton’s characters open the novel trapped in silence, the doubling back of the “spoken” into the lethal pits-and-snares of the “unspoken” or, worse still, into the morass of the “never said.
” And is it is in this doubling back of language that Watson’s characters find themselves hooked not once (on the self-glorifications of protective silence) but twice, by the fear in which silence finds its most solid footing. The Double Hook opens with an act of matricide, an act that is itself a doubling back to (re)collect both classic (the story of Orestes, for instance) and biblical (1 Timothy) allusions for use in this new land. It is the most profoundly un-natural doubling, as son erases his own origin, his own naming, his own source.
At the same time, it is an act that resonates deeply through a family that lives “suspended in silence” and that includes among its various acts of violence the suicide of Greta, who remains dumb despite her impulse to use “her voice to shatter all memory of the girl who had stayed too long” (32) and the blinding of Kip, a young boy who attempts to speak of and against the repressiveness shaping his valley home. But as Watson reveals, this Canadian place is a one in which any move to double away from the exhaustive struggle to find language is often a fatal slide.
As the character known only as the Widow’s boy shouts in response to the violence erupting in the silences around him: Can a man speak to no one because he’s a man? Who says so?… I’ve held my tongue… when I should have used my voice like an axe to cut down the wall between us” (116). The boy’s emphasis here is crucial, for what Watson demands to here in her Canadian place is not the language of another or the displacing silence of the fearful but a radical and potent questioning of the potentialities of a language that can articulate the freedoms that Cartier and others had (en)visioned for this place.
As Barbara Godard explains, Watson remains “[s]ensitive always to the thinness and inarticulateness of modern language” (153) and is always in search of ways “to disturb the reader’s conventional consciousness of words and their so-called corresponding realities” (153). Watson’s warning, and her practice in The Double Hook, is for the need to interrogate language in the modern world, to bring language back doubled onto itself as a act of demythologizing and dismantling; Watson’s novel proposes in its own writing an understanding of language and reality that finds its most profound articulation in the doubling onto itself of language itself.
In this doubling back of language upon itself, another act of murdering one’s origins, “Watson signals her departure from realistic verisimilitude” (154) and from the strictures that bound, not freed, Cartier and subsequent explorers, to the language of their realities and their worlds. “In the fold of the hills / under Coyote’s eye” (11) language begins to redouble its energies, unfold its potentials to mean beyond the literal into the circular encounterings of allusion and echo and irony.
When James flees his ranch on horseback following the murder of his own mother, he becomes, briefly, a perverted image of the classic Western hero riding off into the sunset and silence of the horizon. But as he soon recognizes, his is not a semiotic site located in that system; in his place, in his language, “a person only escapes in circles no matter how far the rope spins. ” In other words (in new words), he must double back and begin to fill the silence, to dismantle the double back language (silence) that has reified around the edges of his folded valley.
In his doubling back, he must meet again with Felix, a character whose own languages — the vernacular of the valley, the ritualized formality of religion, the silken transcendence of music — has itself been emptied of meaning, reduced to cliche: He wondered: If a bitch crept in by my stove would I let her fall on the hot iron of it? I’ve got no words to clear a woman off my bench. No words except: Keep moving, scatter, get-the-hell-out. His mind sifted ritual phrases. Some half forgotten. You’re welcome. Put your horse in. Pull up. Ave Maria.
Benedictus fructus ventris. Introibo. Introibo. The beginning. The whole thing to live again. Words said over and over here by the stove. His father knowing them by heart. God’s servants. The priest’s servants. The cup lifting. The bread breaking. Domine non sum dignus. Words coming. The last words. (41) Doubling back into his own languages through words “ritualized” and words “said over and over,” Felix lives, in this moment, trapped like James, forever in the ellipses of the “half forgotten” and in the promise, always frustrated, of “[w]ords coming.
” In the end, though, it is Felix, with the assistance of Kip, who brings the novel back from the creases of its own doubling, back to the glory of language made meaningful with its own resonant doubleness, allowing it to be both glory and fear, articulation and reflection, the said and the unsaid. It is Felix, who steps to the side of Angel in the moment of her deliverance to assist in the miracle, and who, even the new mother admits, “didn’t do bad for a man… Especially for a man who never raised a hand to help one of his own mares in foal” (116).
Fishing with Kip in the now meaningful silence that follows the birth, there is a conversation between the two generations of valley men during which the older man’s sense of responsibility and wonder serves as a corrective to the younger one’s suspicion and fear: When a house of full of women, Kip said, and one of them Angel, it’s best for a man to take his rest among the willows. When a house is full of women and children, Felix said, a man has to get something for their mouths. (117)
Caught again in a silence, Kip pauses to reflect on Felix’s refocusing of the valley, his doubling of the “reality” of the presence in the house (“and children”) that effectively reinscribes community over isolation, family over individual. When Kip speaks again, it is to accept his role in the “branding” that had scarred his face: “I keep thinking about James, Kip said. I kept at him like a dog till he beat around the way a porcupine beats with his tail” (117). Pausing momentarily before he answers, Felix slips past the ritual responses, the formulaic platitudes that have defined him in the past.
Rather than parable or vulgar dismissal, he engages the younger man with a reflection upon James’s burden and, more importantly, a question that at once engages Kip but also looks to his future in the valley: “Jame’s got more than a porcupine has to answer for, he said. How’re you going to pick up a living now? ” To pick up living in the valley is, as Angel makes clear when she names her new baby Felix, is through the model of the older man, who passes on the will to speak and the will to be heard to a valley.
Moving beyond language into love, and through love back to harmony and rebirth, Felix reimagines the silence of the valley, shaping its contours with words and allowing the connecting moments of quiet to reverberate with meaning, to double back into the words of the father-figure in order to find a path to the future. Works Cited Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1972. Frye, Northrop. Literary History of Canada. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1965. Godard, Barbara.
“’Between One Cliche and Another’: Language in The Double Hook. ” Studies in Canadian Literature 3 (1978): 149-65. Huggan, Graham. Territorial Disputes: Maps and Mapping Strategies in Contemporary Canadian and Australian Fiction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1994. New, W. H. Land Sliding: Imagining Space, Presence, and Power in Canadian Writing. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997. Pacey, Desmond. “The Canadian Imagination. ” The Literary Review 8 (1965): 437-44. Watson, Sheila. The Double Hook. 1959. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989.