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Me the CanLit Wannabe

When I first read Nick Mount’s Arrival, I recognized a history of the various forms of academic, institutional and cultural gatekeeping that emerged from the 1970s CanLit boom his book maps out, and also imitates and re-contextualizes, roughly fifty years forward into a Canadian present. My recognition is thoroughly personal, and signals my immersion in and interpellation by an ingrained set of historical filters and blinders. I have to acknowledge my own privilege, even as an undergraduate at Western in the early 1980s, and the mobility that such privilege impalpably enabled, but it was a privilege that worked more as deficit than enabler: in a scenario somewhat akin to Kafka’s parable, I was shown the magical door into the creative and academic domain of Anglo-CanLit, but was never invited to cross the threshold.
I have remained relatively adjacent ever since, though I have never mistaken my own tenured position in an English Department for something to complain about; but, for me, that position remains asymptotic to the still inaccessible domain of what I now understand as a fiction of success in the intersecting parochial circles of the Canadian literary world. Professor Mount frames, as apologist, as enthusiast and critic, as a historically and aesthetically proximate participant-observer, the key players in a nascent cultural nationalism that shaped and informed how I was taught Anglo-Canadian literature and literary history thirty-odd years past: Atwood, Laurence, Richler, Davies, Cohen, Watson, Purdy, Munro, Layton. (Within this inherited framework, Francophone literature becomes one of many cultural sets subsumed within or adjunct to a larger English-speaking national mythos – despite Mount’s fairly robust descriptions of Marie-Claire Blais, for example, or Anne Hébert or Hubert Aquin.) When I opened Mount’s book a few months ago, I recognized a slice of that past where I know I came from (as Northrop Frye might have put things), and of the recalcitrant critical context into which I was not so much invited as trained, and then passed over.
         What follows isn’t really a late-to-the-game review of Arrival so much as a brief set of personal and critical riffs, set off by a few resonant moments in the book as I’d read it through. Mount has already been both lauded and excoriated, often for what amount to pretty much the same reasons. In Arrival, he accurately and attentively revisits the cultural nationalism of (roughly) post-centennial English Canada around the creation and promulgation, until the mid-1980s, of what was then called CanLit. His perspective is self-consciously sesquicentennial, though it only lightly confronts what feels to me like a contemporary recidivist nationalism that continues to be caught in and to resist the unsettling roils of decolonization, reconciliation, and gender trouble. Instead, Mount re-embraces what feels like the narrowly bracketed recovery of Anglo-Eurological prestige that drove polemics like Margaret Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), after which Mount’s book is named. Collectively around 1968 or so, CanLit very obviously wanted to legitimate itself as a capital-L Literature. “I wrote this book,” Mount claims at the outset of his 2017 preface, “because it didn’t exist,” re-imagining a kind of literary-historical terra nulliusonto which CanLit, now alongside his populist history of the CanLit boom, once sought to inscribe itself (Arrival 1). Mount has been criticized for mostly omitting the complex intersections of race, region, gender, class, orientation and ideology that wove themselves through and articulated themselves against CanLit in the early 1970s, and for re-asserting a literary emptiness that is clearly mistaken: even before confederation, the nascent literary domain of the Canadian was embroiled in its own aesthetic and cultural controversies.
Earle Birney’s oft-quoted lines—from the brief squib of a poem he titled with the first use of the clipped portmanteau “Can. Lit.,” and which he tellingly split-dated both 1947 and 1966—assert that “it’s only by our lack of ghosts / we’re haunted.” But Birney’s absolutism (“only”? really, Earle?) is tendentious and misguided: there was plenty going on, and none of it lacked for ghosts. What it did lack was any artifice of coherence, though not for lack of trying. (“No Whitman wanted,” is how Birney puts it, a claim about absent mythopoeia I once heard, when I was a graduate student, repeated back to me by the one and only Helen Vendler, on a train in Ireland from Sligo to Dublin, to meet Seamus Heaney. But that’s another story.) If you think about it, charging Mount with the same sins of omission and the same typological longing as his subjects and predecessors, with their attendant exclusions and implicit structural racisms, isn’t really much of a critique. What might be better to ask is why he or we might want to return to such formations CanLit now, at 150+, at a remove of at least half a century.
         The origin story that Mount offers is one that I was taught, too, although his rather Toronto-centric balancing act between two founding (father) figures for CanLit, Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, is both distorted and out of keeping with my own experience. What I received at lectures and in seminars was mostly Frye and more Frye; one of my professors at Western joked that many of his colleagues were “small Frye”—a terrible pun, but not far off the mark. Mount’s argument for the formation of CanLit centres on the intersection of granting bodies like the Canada Council with secondary and post-secondary schools and with the publishing industry, particularly the dissemination of the New Canadian Library. But, in terms of an aesthetic of cultural nationalism, the often conflicted counterpoint of the work of U of T professors Frye and McLuhan remains for Mount at the core of the CanLit’s conceptual apparatus:
Mostly, what Frye—and McLuhan—did for Canadian writers of all kinds and loyalties was to provide examples of international success, proof that you could be not just Canadian and a writer but Canadian and written about, argued over, read. (75)
It’s notable that McLuhan is second banana in Mount’s phrasing here, but the idea is still not far from what I experienced: that Frye and McLuhan offer forms of imitatio scriptor, modeling literary greatness on a cosmopolitan stage. It’s no accident that Atwood’s Survival begins with epigraphs from Margaret Avison and from Frye, her professor, that gesture at the collision of the parochial and the worldly. Birney’s poem doesn’t, in fact, lack for ghosts, and the spectres of Frye and Roy Daniells, it’s possible to remark now, loom posthumously through his lines; those spectres, it turns out, are the ones who lament a literary lack, and did so well in advance of what Mount presents as CanLit.
In Survival, Atwood echoes and re-purposes a “great man” ideology of literary value, transposing its key so that it might, in a gesture of gender-neutrality, include women’s writing too: “In Canada there are many authors and many books, but few obvious classics” (11). What constitutes a “classic,” for Atwood in 1972, remains relatively unchallenged, and still resolutely patriarchal, as she suggests when she quotes another U of T professor, E. K. Brown, with measured irony around an aesthetic of greatness that’s hardly at any remove from Thomas Carlyle: “A great art is fostered by artists and audience possessing in common a passionate and peculiar interest in the kind of life that exists in the country where they live” (qtd. on 181). Roy Daniells, who was chair of my own Department of English at UBC through the 1950s, is deeply and thoroughly influenced by Brown, who had in turn emerged from the tutelage of Pelham Edgar, when he reproduces this yearning for Anglo-Celtic greatness and for reconstructed autochthony in a 1955 chapter on Canada’s “Literature: Poetry and the Novel” (qtd. in Djwa 313). Noting that no great writer has yet emerged who might be “capable of producing a large number of stories which are united by a sensibility, a style, a locale, and a selection of material,” Daniells nonetheless asks for a literature keyed to geography and cultural amalgam, expressing a unifying sense of “first the land itself, the great terrain, and second the juxtapositions of race, nationality, and creed within the country and upon the continent.” Daniells, Djwa argues,
was particularly interested in the larger geographical features that had conditioned the history of the country – especially the experience of entering the country through the St Lawrence (a concept later developed metaphorically by Frye in his Conclusion to the Literary History of Canada) – and the importance of landscape on all forms of new writing. (309)
Greatness comes in response to addressing the pressing existential and fundamentally Anglo-Canadian, settler-culture question of where here is. CanLit, in Mount’s reading, aspires—and occasionally achieves—recognizable greatness. But it does so by stringent gatekeeping, by carefully policing its nascent boundaries.
         Mount suggests—and I think he’s wrong about this, given my own epigone encounters with some of these writers—that the universities (such as my own campus, where Daniells was a key player in the founding of the academic/public intellectual journal Canadian Literature, a juggernaut of canon formation in 1958) played a minor role in the making of CanLit, which he understands as more populist and distributed:
Universities did little to encourage Canadian literature, but they did create a record number of new spaces in which others could – all those new campuses and new classrooms and the theatres, galleries, bookstores, pubs, and cafes that followed them. More by accident than by design (which is pretty much how a university develops, because pretty much how knowledge develops), they greatly increased the opportunities for the kind of chance encounters that turn young people toward artistic lives. (75)
I’d like to pause here to tell one of two stories, this one involving me—who positioned himself, albeit about a decade late, as one of those “young people”—being turned not toward but away from CanLit.
As an undergraduate at Western, I was in close proximity to a number of first- and second-generation CanLiterati; I took courses from James Reaney and Don McKay, for example, and—because Toronto was only a two-hour drive up the 401—there was a robust slate of live readings and a strong writer-in-residence programme. In my fourth year, I took what I understood to be one of the English Department’s first versions of a creative writing seminar, led by a professor whose own output inclined toward creative non-fiction, his nearly sui generis mix of the critical and the confessional. (I won’t name him, but if you are so inclined you can find him out.) He, too, seemed to me at the time to be CanLit adjacent, an adherent more than a recognized member of the clique—award-winning writers were his friends and colleagues. I thought, like others in the class, that we were being offered slight but tangible access to the post-Survival literary establishment, that a university, as a key site of the management of what constituted a nascent contemporary canon of Canadian writing, was opening the gate a crack.
I ended up with a B+ in the course, a grade designed to signal, as the professor later explained to me, that I had lots of knowledge but no real talent. For him I didn’t write—especially poetry—the right way, or well. I had already had some inkling of this trouble when I had visited the current writer-in-residence, a Toronto-based poet in print through McClelland and Stewart, earlier in the term; “Hmm,” she had said as she flipped through the handful of pages I had submitted, “do you really want to publish these?” The poems were, she said, “kind of precious,” and she didn’t know what to tell me. “Do you want these published?” she repeated, at a loss for suggestions. “No,” I said. “No.” Which was a lie. What I had wanted from her was some recognition even of my writing’s modest value, some affirmation, some key to set me on the road to any sort of publication. But it wasn’t forthcoming, and I left her temporary office temporarily defeated. (Footnote: one of the texts she read, which I had been drafting and developing for the creative writing seminar, would eventually find publication as a long-form prose poem called “Pining” in West Coast Line.) What would have helped me, I think, was even a pittance of generosity. The creative writing professor, in a semblance of deference, invited me out after the term was done for a beer at a local pub, Chaucer’s. I came prepared with two books in my satchel: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cinnamon Peeler and George Bowering’s George, Vancouver. I admired both poets, and one of my favourite texts had been Ondaatje’s chapbook Tin Roof, a copy of which I had bought from Ondaatje himself at a reading at the Forest City Gallery. Look, I said to my prof as I set them on the table: “This is the kind of writing I don’t want to do.” I was, even then, more of a formalist, reacting against the looseness of TISH and the confessional and landscape regionalism. It’s that as-yet-unsettled formalism, I think, that had been read as “precious.” “Well,” he said over his beer, adopting the condescension of the trained academic, “these are two very different writers, you know.” They were both his friends. Yes, I knew. “I’ve never met anyone,” he told me, “who seemed to know so much about recent poetry but wasn’t able to do it.” His version of the CanLit gate was closing for me. He seemed to think he was trying to be gentle, but there was meanness there, a stiff inability even to want to foster my desire, as a tyro, to be a part of that small cultural world, a world he himself wasn’t quite in with.

         So here is my other undergraduate story triggered by Nick Mount’s book. In my first year at Western, Austin Clarke was the writer-in-residence. Among other things, he took it upon himself to hold weekly informal seminars for any students who wanted to talk about writing or to get a bit of feedback on their work: a workshop, but without the constraints of formal study. He modeled a kind of generosity and personal attentiveness, a practice of care, that was rigorous but also, I came to realize later, atypically open-hearted for the Canadian scene. He had a way of making space for others, not by deference, but by interested engagement. He is one of the very few non-white writers cited in Atwood’s Survival, and not so much as colleague but more an figural example, as stand-in. Her chapter seven describes “The Reluctant Immigrant” by summarizing two stories from Clarke’s When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks; they centre, for Atwood, on economic and social disenfranchisement, “failure masquerading as achievement,” devolving to debasing resentments about money (151-2)—they’re not about craft or voice, but reductively allegorize social marginalization through realist depictions of urban racism. Mount repurposes Atwood’s distancing tactics when he re-narrates an anecdote about one of publisher Jack McClelland’s notorious encounters with Clarke:
Austin Clarke was so abusive to M&S staff that Jack [McClelland] suggested he look for another publisher. “What you need more than anything else, “ writes Jack, “is a good swift kick in the ass.” (173).
Mount seems charmed by McClelland’s blustery machismo, but what I hear in this story is recalcitrant structural racism, an inability to empathize with Clarke, to address what it is he might have been angry about. The threat was that a version of that cultural gate, suffused with a version of white universalism, might snap shut.
In the first of our writing workshops with Clarke, he brought along two LPs and a portable record player. One was a boxed set of Beethoven symphonies, I think the von Karajan complete on Deutsche Grammophon. To get the ten or so of us present to reflect on the relationship between style and meaning, he wanted to play one of the pieces, one movement, but couldn’t get the records out of the cardboard sleeves. He pulled out a jackknife and, cursing under his breath, tried to cut the box open along the edge. “My daughter,” he said, “has scotch taped it for a joke.” He gave up, and tossed the set onto the table in front of him. The other record was Milestonesby Miles Davis. It hadn’t been taped up. He played us the title track, a famously galloping modal tune that begins side two. “What do you hear?” he asked us. Part of his point was no doubt to invite us to consider the challenges of blackness in Canada. Most people registered the up-tempo groove as ebullient, liquid, sanguine, joyful. No, said Austin Clarke, “what I hear is anger. Miles is angry. Think of the blade-like sound of his Harmon mute on other songs.” And then he laughed. And he didn’t tell us exactly what he knew Miles Davis was angry about.
When I turned in some of my nascent fiction to him later in the term, he didn’t put me off. I had what I thought was a concept—something like second-rate Lydia Davis, I’d later figure out—that I wouldn’t write more than a page per story, a story per page. The idea was to be clipped and suggestive. His unlit pipe clamped in his teeth, Clarke read it through silently, in front of me, looked up over the top of the page, and said, “Great. Now where’s the rest of it?” Two lessons, at least, emerge for me from that moment: first, don’t have so little humility as to believe your own aesthetic malarkey, and second, more importantly, try to ask for more, be kind, be generous, be open. Austin Clarke’s sense of anger came, I think, from having that generosity thwarted and unreturned. That negation, that thwarting, I think, is a large part of what still constitutes CanLit at all. Such gatekeeping needs not so much to be reanimated as to have its worn out scotch tape cut.
Books and Such I Quoted From
Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.
    Anansi, 1972.
Birney, Earle. Ghost in the Wheels: The Selected Poems of Earle Birney
    McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
Djwa, Sandra. Professing English: A Life of Roy Daniells. U of 
    Toronto P, 2002.
Mount, Nick. Arrival: The Story of CanLit. Anansi, 2017.

Our Alice Munro

Most Canadian readers must be over the moon about Alice Munro, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last week. There’s a reactive cultural nationalism, no doubt, around the immediate rediscovery of her work, which was never really lost from view, never really in need to being recovered: Munro remains one of a handful of Canadian writers with a huge international profile. (The most-quoted blurb on Munro’s book jackets has to be from the American Cynthia Ozick, who famously called her “our Chekov”: every time I’ve seen that phrase quoted I have bristled, as I suppose many of Munro’s readers might – quietly, of course, the Anglo-Canadian way: just who is this “our” Ozick was talking about? Despite her long catalogue of stories in The New Yorker, Munro could never be taken for American.  If anything, the global enters Munro’s work through the awkward, partial lens of the local, the marginalized mundaneness of small-time Ontario or British Columbia life. Out there remains not quite here; Chekov is somebody you might read at school, and who comes from someplace else, somewhere more sophisticated, smarter, better.) What we tend to recognize, reading Munro, what we take to be “ours,” reflected back at us, is a wry, homegrown acuity – a passing and contingent certainty that these our seemingly unheralded voices might still have something to say, and something worth hearing about.
I first encountered Alice Munro’s writing in 1982, during a first-year English Lit survey course at the University of Western Ontario – which turned out, although nobody mentioned this at the time I don’t think, to have been her alma mater, or almost to have been, since she left university to get married in 1951 before finishing her prospective degree either in journalism or (like mine was to be) in English, depending on which sources you read. The course was team-taught by Richard Stingle, Donald Hair and – for one guest lecture – by the poet James Reaney, all of whom were immersed, critically at least, in the work of Northrop Frye; our reading list included Jay MacPherson, slices of Spenser, both King Lear and Twelfth Night, Reaney’s invocation to the muse of satire, The Waste Land, something from John Hollander (“Swan and Shadow”: classic), and a spate of poems and essays. I can’t remember if there was a novel or not. But there was Alice Munro: her first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, published in 1968.  My professors taught her writing as an example of Southwestern Ontario Gothic – the term is James Reaney’s, I think, and wasn’t given to me in that freshman class, but came out of a graduate seminar I took with him some years later. The idea, as Reaney put it, drawing heavily on Munro’s characteristically small-town, domestic mise-en-scène, was that there was something dark and unpleasant creeping under the flowery kitchen linoleum, a version of what Munro herself might come to characterize as the “open secrets” – the bad things everybody knows and no one can admit to knowing – that circulate with muted insistence around WASPish, repressed Canadian communities like her Jubilee, putatively a displaced rendering of Wingham, Ontario.
The story to which I gravitated most in Dance of the Happy Shades– it’s a great collection: early work, but in so many ways fully formed, shaped by a spare virtuosity – was the generically named “Images.” It involves narrative set-pieces that will soon become familiar to Munro’s readers: the forbidding marshland physiography anticipates the swampy grave of “The Love of a Good Woman,” and the muskrat trapping – echoing the mink farm of “Boys and Girls” – also prefigures the paternal farm of Lives of Girls and Women. In “Images,” we encounter (through the eyes of a young girl, out with her father) the figure of Joe Phippen, who wields a vaguely-threatening hatchet and lives in the cellar of his burnt-out family home off in the bush outside town. The story is built – as my Frygian professors no doubt insisted it must be – on Jungian archetypes. Joe’s house pretty obviously refigures the chapel perilous,  a trope derived from Arthurian quest romance, which as students of T. S. Eliot we had presented to us through Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. Here’s how Munro describes the entrance to his underground burrow: “We came out in a field of dead grass, and took a track across it to another, wider, field where there was something sticking out of the ground” (39). Something: hardly the highfalutin grandiloquence of some latter-day Chanson de Roland.  But the resonances and uneasiness build. We had been reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, too. “Mind your head here,” says Joe Phippen, the hatchet man, as they descend into his dark space. He’s an Anglo-Ontario clone – the settler-culture, second-hand version – of an English green man, a latter-day Wodwo.
Here is how Ted Hughes renders the chapel perilous in his translation of the poem from Middle English (we used another, more scholarly version – not Tolkien, either):
Still he could see nothing. He thought it strange.
Only a little mound, a tump, in the clearing,
Between the slope and the edge of the river, a knoll,
Over the river’s edge, at a crossing place,
The burn bubbling under as if it boiled.
[. . .]
Shaggy and overgrown with clumps of grass,
It had a hole in the end, and on each side.
Hollow within, nothing but an old cave
Or old gappy rock-heap, it could be either, or neither.
                                    (Hughes 1187)
Munro’s tump relocates – and dislocates, too – her Anglo-Celtic image pool, her genetic word-hoard. ‘Images” read this way appears to offer an unresolved passage through a waste land, a katabasis from which we cannot quite extricate ourselves – an epigone modernity, maybe. “Surely,” Hughes’s Gawain muttered, “This is desolation.” But Munro finds something else in the recounted experience as well. She must. Because what I remember most about this story is peculiar and strangely familiar detail: the candies. “Let’s see,” says Joe Phippen, down in his basement home,
“what’ve we got for the little girl to eat?”  Nothing, I hoped. But he brought out a tin of Christmas candies, which seemed to have melted then hardened then melted again, so the coloured striped had run. They had a taste of nails. (41)
Joe Phippen is a kind of anti-Santa, a figure of decimation, of bad remainders, rather than of plenitude. Munro’s prose neatly reproduces the melted fusion of the candies when she lifts out commas and lets the girl’s words blur a little – a hallmark of writerly skill, of craft. But what sticks with me aren’t the descriptive tactics, but a palpability: the taste of nails. How does this girl know what nails taste like? And how do I? Is this the taste of blood? Of poison? Do the nails suggest violence? Crucifixion? Industrial detritus? What this phrase recalls, for me, isn’t necessarily a shared “deep” image-pool, but a kind of reactive resistance built into that sharing, an experiential dissonance. The story ends with the child-narrator’s out refusal to accept the archetypal terms of the katabatic narrative, a kind of deliberate un-likeness:
Like the children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who have discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back fresh from marvellous escapes and take up their knives and forks, with humility and good manners, prepared to live happily ever after – like them, dazed and powerful with secrets, I never said a word. (43)
We are both made by our stories, and by our refusal to tell them: for Munro, we don’t consist of our globally-shared typologies, or common fairy tales, but by what remains outside of telling, just beyond the dark reach of words. We are alike in our unlikeness. Munro’s sense of place, of belonging in and to a distinctively Anglo-Canadian experience, isn’t a case – as James Reaney might have put it, of re-making the global in the image of the local, but instead of resisting from within its deterministic narrative pressures, of working our way into and through its gappy cracks.
Ted Hughes. Collected Poems. Ed. Paul Keegan. New York: Farrar
Straus Giroux, 2003. Print.
Alice Munro. Dance of the Happy Shades. Toronto: McGraw-Hill
Ryerson, 1968. Print.

Short Take on Interviewing Anne Carson

For my academic work, I have been trying to clean up and organize my curriculum vitae, which can be a depressing enough task, sorting through the welter of what I have done and what I have failed to do, what’s still available and what’s slipped from view. I interviewed Anne Carson for Canadian Literature in 2003 (ten years ago!), as part of a special issue on her work I was editing for the journal (number 176). I had been googling myself (embarrassing enough to admit) to see if I could find some electronic, on-line and/or accessible versions of any of my publications I could link to, and I came across UNSAID, which bills itself as “The Journal of New and Lasting Writing.” There you go.
And, in its issue for September 11, 2012, they have reproduced my interview with Carson, “Gifts and Questions.” You can check out the original issue of the journal here, too. It’s gratifying to come across things like this again. I remember Carson as gracious and wry, a real pleasure to speak with. And smart.

Mixed Materials: Raymond Williams Meets Don McKay

Here is another review-essay that seems not to have made it into the pages of Canadian Literature during my time there as an associate editor, although it was written – the date-stamp on the document file puts it at January 2003 – about unsolicited review copies of books sent to the journal. I hope you can pardon the datedness of some of the references, but I thought it might be worth getting it out into the world, making it a little bit worldly, if only to mark one of my attempts to get Anglo-American intellectual work to resonate with some of its less-obvious Canadian counterparts – in this instance, trying to set up a reading of Don McKay through an overview of some reissued Raymond Williams (and some new-ish, at the time, Edward Said).
New Contexts of Canadian Criticism, a 1997 Broadview Press anthology of cultural analyses collaboratively edited by Ajay Heble, Donna Palmateer Pennee and J. R. (Tim) Struthers, offers more than an update of its namesake, Eli Mandel’s classic (and out-of-print) collection of cultural backgrounds; it also presents theoretically-informed forays, through a set of variously Canadian discursive lenses, into the concepts of context and worldliness: a spate of essays that gesture heterogeneously at the possibilities inherent in a distinctly Canadian materiality— which here suggests everything from historicism to autobiography, from socio-economics to bibliography. Still, the first name mentioned in the book – and a critic who, enmeshed in contradictions and pluralities of his own, appears to set the irresolute tone for the collection – is not a Canadian, but Raymond Williams, late professor of Modern Drama at Cambridge. In the last five years or so, Williams’s unstable and disputatious amalgam of Leavisiteformalism and Lukácsiansocial realism  — which he had come to call “cultural materialism,” and which arguably gave rise to Cultural Studies in the English-speaking world — has undergone a recuperation that, national provenance aside, has a tangible, even material, bearing on practices of Canadian criticism, in its several and conflicted guises.
Before I come to any overtly Canadian content, I want to touch on Williams’s worldliness, to suggest how his method might start to be dislodged from its British sinecure and beach itself on the other side of the Atlantic. Williams’s influence is audible (despite a paucity of direct reference) in Edward Said’s finely crafted Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (from Harvard UP). Williams’s impact registers more than in Said’s style, which has the transparent surety of a public intellectual at his peak; Said reads Williams as the voice of “an emergent or alternative consciousness allied to emergent and alternative subaltern groups within the dominant discursive society” (244), and — perhaps surprisingly, given Williams’s rather ardent Oxbridge traditionalism — as a figure of critical radicalism closely akin to Antonio Gramsci (from whom the vocabulary in the passage I have just quoted is drawn), Michel Foucault and Theodor Adorno. Williams probably wouldn’t endorse this reading, particularly the Frankfurt School associations, but it does speak closely to the recuperation of Williams in recent literary criticism, criticism that concerns itself with addressing, and moving non-regressively beyond, the impasses and stalemates of a postmodern condition. Williams, for Said, has been “responsive to the real material texture of socio-political change from the point of view not of what Adorno calls identitarian thought but of fractures and disjunctions,” of the “non-identitarian” thinking that Adorno’s own negative dialectics pursue; Williams writing is not, like Adorno’s, an especially philosophical or conceptual interrogation of these critical alternatives, but instead offers their verbal enactment:
To Williams, quite uniquely among major critics, there is this capacity for seeing literature not as a Whiggish advance in formal and aesthetic awareness, nor as a placid, detached, privileged record of what history wrought and which the institution of literature incorporates with sovereign, almost Olympian prowess, but rather as itself a site of contention within society, in which work, profit, poverty, dispossession, wealth, misery, and happiness are the very materials of the writer’s craft, in which the struggle to be clear or to be partisan or detached or committed is in the very nature of the text. (469)
Williams, as writer, reworks this struggle as he reads and responds; like Said’s, his criticism is suffused with a public, pedagogical imperative. Teaching, for Williams, whether in postwar night-schools or rarefied universities, is a matter of social justice and of the redistribution of cultural wealth, of access to empowerment and to the contingent, pressing formations of identity and self-worth that circulate in the world, and that find themselves embodied, better than anywhere, in the literature of a national tradition. Not that Williams is parochial: for Said, he is the best example of a worldly thinker, one who seeks to restore “works and interpretations of their place in the global setting” and to “engage with cultural works in [an] unprovincial, interested manner while maintaining a strong sense of the contest for forms and values which any decent cultural work embodies, realizes, and contains” (383). Williams’s essays, like Said’s, aspire not to dispense high-blown wisdom but to “teach the conflicts,” as Gerald Graff put it: to enable readers to enter crucial debates in cultural politics and to contest meanings and values, rather than to acquiesce to the false gods of scholarly and cultural authority.
Peterborough’s Broadview Press has also reissued, as “encore editions,” two of Williams’s important works from the 1960s: The Long Revolution and Modern Tragedy. In both, Williams takes up challenges facing the public intellectual, and takes those challenges seriously. He aspires not only to transparency in his prose — framing questions of cultural value in a style accessible to the common literate reader — but also to putting at issue the dynamics of societal transformation — through emergent literacy, through public education and through political heuristics — in writing itself.
He begins Modern Tragedy (1966) by describing a conflict built into the term tragedy, a tension between its literary and its common meanings; he notes how theoreticians and literary scholars have tried to narrow into a “particular kind of event, and kind of response” that is not merely “death and suffering,” or accident, or “simply any response to death and suffering,” the sense commonly called tragedies “in ordinary speech and in the newspapers,” a usage regarded as “loose and vulgar” by academics (14). As long-term readers of Williams will recognize, he never tosses off a word like “ordinary,” and it soon becomes clear that he stands apart from the academics he parodies, finding himself impelled ethically to discover what scholars and theoreticians tend to dismiss, the “actual relations” we “see and live by, between the tradition of tragedy and the kinds of experience, in our own time, that we ordinarily and perhaps mistakenly call tragic” (14-15). The so-called mistakes people make in everyday language, for Williams, are not so easily put aside, but point significantly to literature’s relevance: why it matters and how it materializes in the world. He doesn’t cast critical scholarship aside — the second half of the book is a survey, revised from his lectures on modern drama at Cambridge, of innovations in modern European theatre, a thoroughly academic enterprise — but pursues instead the historical, cultural and institutional conflicts built into both the genre and the concept of tragedy, and transforms what might on first glance seem like a dry piece of literary exegesis into a compelling profession of revolutionary dialectics.
In the book, we oscillate between literary and political problematics, as opposed to progressing from one to the other; it’s significant that Williams concludes with, rather beginning from, literary exempla. Literature, for him, is not as creative work separable from everyday life — as he puts it in The Long Revolution, art neither attains a transcendent priority nor dawdles as secondary, leisure-time activity, both of which, he asserts, are “formulations of the same error” of dividing the creative from the ordinary (54).  Literature is for Williams concerned instead with “communication,” by which he means not simply its “transmission” but the “social fact” of the aesthetic, its recognition and re-inscription of “reception and response,” of audience, into its own fabric: “Art is ratified, in the end, by the fact of creativity in all our living. Everything we see and do, the whole structure of our relationships and institutions, depends, finally, on an effort of learning, description and communication. We create our human world as we have thought of art being created” (46, 54). Material and last causes, poetic making and revolutionary disruption, interweave in Williams’s cogent syntax; his critical method is deceptively banal, but his argument, if we attend to it carefully, is as disturbing as it is affirmative — not to draw art down to some lower level of the everyday, but instead to perceive “creative interpretation and effort” in living, to attempt to abolish all such levels and stratifications, as embodiments of social and cultural imbalances. His methodology neither reduces art to sociology, nor detaches the aesthetic from the lived, but pursues the communicative processes that link text with social or historical context, to see “works and ideas in their immediate contexts, as well as in their historical continuity” (16), a social aesthetics. His historicism evinces a kinship to Foucauldian genealogies, as we trace, for example, the evolving conceptual shifts in the term “tragedy”:
The tragic meaning is always both culturally and historically conditioned [. . .]. The essence of tragedy has been looked for in the pre-existing beliefs and in the consequent order [of a society], but it is precisely these elements that are most narrowly limited, culturally. Any attempt to abstract these orders, as definitions of tragedy, either misleads or condemns us to a merely sterile attitude towards the tragic experience of our own culture. (52-53)
Despite a shared humanist vocabulary, Williams’s work on the genre is diametrically opposed to the archetypalism of his near-contemporary Northrop Frye, which pursues exactly those “abstract orders,” abstractions Williams understands as historical products, rather than as structural fixities of a verbal universe that is ultimately divorced from real human experience.
By historicizing even his own critical apparatus, Williams hopes to push through the aesthetic — here framed as tragic redemption — toward a broader ethics he names revolution. In Modern Tragedy he appears at crucial junctures to inhabit a moment of critical reflex, at which the generic structures of classical tragedy overlap with the social forms of their communication: tragedy provides the structural basis for its own interpretation and application. For example, he takes the Aristotelian apex of anagnoresis, or recognition, and overlays a Marxian rubric of emergent class consciousness as revolutionary flashpoint, to explain the gap between the ideal of revolution and its repeated ossification and failure in real human societies, as well as the epistemic break between the literary and the ordinary:
At the point of this recognition, [. . .] where the received ideology of revolution, its simple quality of liberation, seems most to fail, there is waiting the received ideology of tragedy, in either of its common forms: the old tragic lesson, that man cannot change his condition, but can only drown his world in blood in the failed attempt; or the contemporary reflex, that the taking of rational control over our social destiny is defeated or at best deeply stained by our inevitable irrationality, and by the violence and cruelty that are so quickly released when habitual forms break down. (74)
Williams attributes this impasse to a self-defeating liberalism, that he regards as “hemmed in on all sides” (73). His attitude is never defeatist, however, and by reading the modern European canon of tragedy, he projects — progressing from Ibsen through Ionesco to Brecht — a “new tragedy” that refuses to accept the contradictions of human injustice as inevitable, and moves through that “recognition” to break down the “fixed harshness” of any regime, revolutionary or not, with the ongoing “struggle [to] live in new ways and with new feelings,” and by “including the revolution” in “ordinary living,” to “answer death and suffering with a human voice” (103-4). Admittedly, this insistence on the potentially revolutionary character of the ordinary, as redemptive, remains something of a sticking point for Williams’s readers, because of his mystification of “experience” as resolutely unassimilated by abstract or literary forms, even as those forms seek either to contain or to unleash it. Williams’s theory of tragedy, for this reason, is largely anti-cathartic, not because it does not aim toward changing minds, but because he does not want the energy of that change to be dissipated in aesthetic experience: communication, instead, transmutes pathos into ethos, affect into responsibility.
         The resurgence of a human voice in literary forms even as arch as tragedy produces revolution, however “long,” subtle and attenuated, because it speaks to the fundamental emotive substructure of community (an argument closely akin to Herbert Marcuse’s aesthetics of liberation): “A society in which revolution is necessary is a society in which the incorporation of all its people, as whole human beings , is in practice impossible without a change in its fundamental form of relationships. [. . .] Revolution remains necessary [. . .] because there can be no acceptable human order while the full humanity of any class of men is in practice denied” ( 76, 77; original italics). That revolution should “remain” and endure, rather than find a sudden, violent social articulation, is for Williams a consequence of his New Left mistrust of revolutionary regimes and of revolution’s essentially cultural character; culture, as he defines it in The Long Revolution , names a “creative” process — the “long revolution” locates itself not a fractal shock, but in “the essential relation, the true interaction, between patterns learned and created in the mind and patterns learned and made active in relationships, conventions and institutions. Culture is our name for this process and its results, and then within this process we discover problems that have been the subject of traditional debate and that we may look at again in this new way” (89). This Leavisite insistence on the rediscovery of tradition and an Arnoldian vocabulary of true pedagogy, of what must be “learned,” hardly appears revolutionary at all. But Williams’s rhetoric is designed not to shock but to educate, to forge connections between his own ethical imperatives and a popular status quo enmeshed in histories — such as that of literacy, which Williams explores in this book — that have been misrecognized as stasis, as tradition. When Williams writes, with calculated banality, that he wants to look at culture in “this new way,” he is not falling back into the reactionary radicalism of Thomas Carlyle or Matthew Arnold, whom he often quotes approvingly, but trying to engage with what he calls “a necessary tension in language,” particularly in its popular manifestations in organs such as the press, “between powerful impulses to imitation and to change,” a tension that he understands as “part of our basic processes of growth and change,” and of the human movement toward fundamental betterment. Simply put, you need to speak in a language that can be understood, or you will get nowhere, and no change, revolutionary or otherwise, is possible; you need to discover, in the commonplace or the “traditional,” a revolutionary moment (a critical tactic that is closely reminiscent of Antonio Gramsci’s work on the “national-popular”).
The Long Revolution closes with an extended meditation on “Britain in the 1960s” — a period that was only just about to unfold — which Williams clearly intended as a gesture toward critical immediacy, an attempt to historicize his own present and to map its socio-cultural tendencies (as he does early in the book for the 1840s, the remoteness of which from his own time offers a more rigorous and clear-sighted approach to the selective and accumulative processes of history and historicizing; it is difficult to step back from your own present, even contingently). His critical project, however, is not so much utopian — a concept he associates with a liberal idealism content to proclaim the virtues of such things as education, participatory democracy and “common culture” while still “leaving our training institutions as they are” (176)  — as it is hopeful, that “unevenly, tentatively, we get a sense of movement, and the meanings and values extend,” that language, in other words, gets put into practice, “keeping the revolution going” (383). To this end, Williams precedes his social and historical reflections with a call for renovated literary form, what he calls a “new realism” that is “not the old static realism of the passive observer,” a writing inured in regressive objectivity that, though “nostalgia and imitation” merely reinforces oppression, but is instead “necessarily dynamic and active,” not so much the mere representation of social reality as one means of its continual establishment, by which Williams means that writing enacts “this living tension, achieved in communicable form,” the process he calls “culture,” a negotiation between pattern and practice, imagined ideal and lived reality: the “achievement of realism” in the contemporary novel, as praxis rather than telos , is for Williams both “a continual achievement of balance,” the temporary resolution of this tension, and “the ordinary absence of balance,” the dialectical resurgence of a lived asymmetry, an ethical call (316).
But Williams, sadly, does little better than gesture toward this form. The unavoidable conceptual haziness of “experience” in his work needs to be honed away, and the formal character of that realism more carefully articulated, if his hope is to be (no pun intended) realized. I think that Williams’s realism can be supplemented with a kind of late phenomenology to affect such a precising, specifically that of Emmanuel Levinas, and specifically its inflection in the work of a Canadian poet, Don McKay. There are certainly a number of significant caveats to such a claim: Williams had little sympathy for the privileged defamiliarizations of a phenomenological poetics, one that insists on personal consciousness-raising, poetic complexity or intellectual pretense; Levinas, at least in his work up to Totality and Infinity (1961, tr. 1969), expresses a fundamental distrust of the aesthetic, particularly poetry, and outright refuses any kind of socially or politically engaged writing; and McKay’s own poetics repeatedly discover their indebtedness to Martin Heidegger and, more recently, to Levinas himself, but leave Williams and other social realists largely unmentioned. Still, I think that a coalescence emerges from this conjunction, particularly when Williams is re-read in the way I have been suggesting, and on Canadian turf no less. McKay’s Vis-à-Vis (from Gaspereau Press) is a collection of essays and poems that ostensibly focuses on “nature poetry,” but in fact accomplishes this difficult conceptual mix, in discrete textual space.
McKay’s reflections gather around a set of recurrent concepts: wilderness, alterity, translation, apparatus, place. Poetry is not, for him, a form of apprehension — of consciousness as possession or appropriation — but a release, through language, into what cannot and ought not be completely grasped: a form of listening or attentiveness that honours, and pays homage to, what McKay calls wilderness, which he describes as “not just a set of endangered spaces, but the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations” (21). His work finds an imperative in the intersection of the ethical and the ecological, and seeks to revise our sense of home-making, as a collision of oikos with poiesis , to point to a fundamental form of human responsibility for the world, a revision and an extension of Heidegger’s shepherding of being. Where justice in Raymond Williams’s work adopts a human face, and seeks a better form of human society, for McKay justice must necessarily find a prehuman foundation, must at least gesture beyond its own narrow limits. While acknowledging the inevitable and obvious humanness of language and perspective — an echo of Heidegger’s insistence on the humanity of what the philosopher named Dasein — McKay rethinks this anthropocentrism in terms of response and responsibility, producing a version of what Levinas calls “l’humanisme de l’autre homme, ” the humanism of the other person: “nature poetry should not be taken to be avoiding anthropocentrism, but to be enacting it, thoughtfully. It performs the translation which is at the heart of being human, the simultaneous grasp and gift of home-making” (29). Writing nature, that which is outside or beyond the human, is an essentially human act for McKay, a practice he describes by taking up Levinas’s image from Totality and Infinity of the face — le visage , as in vis-à-vis — as wholly other ; McKay refuses the stalemated, dyadic archetypalism of Margaret Atwood’s “The Animals in that Country” (who have either human faces or “the faces of no-one,” a forbidding juxtaposition of mutual solitudes), and instead gestures toward an otherness that is both vital and responsive, as gift and grasp: “we can perform artistic acts in such a way that, in ‘giving things a face’ the emphasis falls on the gift, the way, for example, a linguistic community might honour a stranger by conferring upon her a name in their language. Homage is, perhaps, simply appropriation with the current reversed” (99). McKay doesn’t idealistically renounce human grasping —  in the capacity of language, for example, to name and overwrite what it cannot finally possess, to give a human aspect, catachrestically, to that which is beyond it, making the stranger a familiar — but suggests that such forms of naming and writing, while unavoidable, need to be enacted thoughtfully, responsibly.
Heidegger’s definition of the tool, as that which is to hand, provides McKay with a crucial instance of how to produce such thoughtfulness, as he revises — in ordinary language, through anecdote and reminiscence — a defining human moment, the utility in taking up a tool, as an encroachment of the non-human, of wilderness: “That tools retain a vestige of wilderness is especially evident when we think of their existence in time and eventual gradation from utility: breakdown” (21). He describes the stuff we find at yard sales and in garages — a disused hand-turned meat grinder, for example — as evidence of this inevitable slippage, of what sounds like a vestigial otherness, as its apparatus, its techincal human contrivance, is foregrounded in its collapse into uselessness. (He attaches a military terminology for waste ordinance to this collapse: Matériel , a word that for him marks not only human appropriation but also, as apparatus, resurgent wildness, and that he defines as “any instance of second-order appropriation, where the first appropriation is the making of tool, or the address to things in the mode of utility,” an infliction of the human “rage for immortality on things, marooning them on static islands” as pollutants, as discards [20].) But McKay is careful not to slip into naive appropriations, by idealizing an otherness in language itself, whether common speech or poetry: “poetic attention is based on a recognition and a valuing of the other’s wilderness; it leads to a work which is not a vestige of the other, but a translation of it” (28). This, again, is a Levinasian claim, that hinges on a distrust of the illusion, within the aesthetic, of an incorporation of its outside, to make meaning of the world, to represent; poetry, for McKay, is an example of the foregrounding in language, lovingly, of its inability to represent, of its artifice, its apparatus, even as it describes the human necessity of representation or of making sense: “Poetry comes in here, as a function of language in its apparatus-nature, and not its crowning glory. Poetry comes about because language is not able to represent raw experience, yet it must; it comes about because translation is only translation, apparatus is apparatus” (65).
This separating off of language from world does not, however, occasion a move into post-structuralism, which McKay repeatedly acknowledges as his own philosophical reflex; but his writing takes up the Levinasian il y a (again, a revision of Dasein , there-ness) as opposed to the Derridean il n’y a pas (a accession to the pervasive texuality of the human), and language, for him, is not so much a giving in to limits as a gift, a gesture toward its outside: “The first indicator of one’s status as a nature poet is that one does not invoke language right off when talking about poetry, but acknowledges some extra-linguistic condition as the poem’s input, output, or both” (26). “They’re out there, the unformed ones,” he opens “The Canoe People,” a reworking of a figure from Robert Bringhurst’s Haida translations (77), linking that sense of place, there, to displacement, a floating outside, as these mythical strangers maunder “their wayless way/ among the islands, and now even/ into English with its one-thing-then-/ another-traffic-signalled syntax” (77-78). The point of Bringhurst’s complex work, he implies, is not and cannot be appropriation, but rather, as translation, it manifests an honouring of what it is not, and an insistence on that alterity as the foundational stuff of poetry: an offering of gifts, as thanks, as listening. Poets, McKay claims — and by these he must mean poets such as himself, since he excludes by implication much of the work of those inured in post-structuralism, from the language poetry of Christian Bök to the ideology-critique of Steve McCaffery, even as he shares their vocabularies — “are supremely interested in what language can’t do; in order to gesture outside, they use language that flirts with its destruction” (32). McKay’s terminology is, again, Heideggerian, and he echoes the concept of Destruktion , which Derrida translates into deconstruction ; that flirtation, however, is neither playfully ironic nor dead-ended in itself, but hopeful, a saving grace.
The image of lichens, with which the book concludes, offers a metaphor, which is to say a translation, a mutuality of word and world, as the rock plants both embody and represent “that tiny, shocking, necessary invasion; that saving of language from itself” (106). Poetic language — and this, for me, is how McKay both supplements and refines the problematic posed in Williams — materializes the attempt at what Williams calls “communication” and McKay writes of as gift, the responsiveness and mutuality that clings, like lichen, in words. Both Williams and McKay can be, as I have already pointed out, deceptively colloquial and quotidian. They seek out, in the everyday and in common speech, a “new way” that was always present, an ordinary revolution.
The Books
McKay, Don. Vis-à-vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness.
Kentville, NS: Gaspereau P, 2001. Print.
Said, Edward. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.
Williams, Raymond. Modern Tragedy. Peterborough: Broadview
P, 2001. Print.
– – -. The Long Revolution. Peterborough: Broadview P, 2001.