Maps of Misreading: Literary Theory and "The New Canadian Criticism Series"

Leslie Mundwiler. Michael Ondaatje: Word, Image, Imagination. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984. 160 pp.

Frank Davey. Margaret Atwood: a Feminist Poetics. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984. 178 pp.

Stephen Scobie, bp Nichol: What History Teaches. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984. 153 pp.

I use this word [deconstruction] for the sake of rapid convenience, though it is a word I have never liked and one whose fortune has disagreeably surprised me.

Jacques Derrida, "The time of a thesis: punctuations"

To a certain extent literary criticism secured its methodological indepen dence by affecting an innocence from "philosophical" issues and strategies. In the past, Canadian criticism in particular has been characterized by this evasion, naively evoking transcendental notions of "themes" and "archetypes" without much interest in questioning their ontological status, and relying to an unusual degree on analyses which grant to literary texts an organic self-sufficiency, thus absolving them of any significant interaction with texts lying outside of the discipline's scope. But many new voices are in the air, some attempting to cross literary studies with philosophy, as Coleridge had once hoped would be the case. So when Leslie Mundwiler promises to bring criticism "into a nearer relationship with historical and philosophical concerns" and to develop "a phenomenological criticism of the imagination," and to do all of this in the context of a discussion of Michael Ondaatje's work, we might have reason to be encouraged. But the volume is a great disappointment, an inauspicious augury of what may come of Talonbooks' "New Canadian Criticism Series", and, perhaps, something of an embarrassment to an academic community that deserves exemplary not dilettantish encounters with Continental thinking.

     Much is said in Mundwiler's book but little is said clearly. Infelicities in expression both small and large cripple the argument at every turn. Jargon is mixed freely with clichés to produce a style that is both defensive and artless. Difficult problems are called "chesnut[s]" (p. 25) while a program note appended to Ondaatje's The Man with Seven Toes is explained as a device "to tie up certain loose ends" (p. 38).1 Friedrich Schiller's aesthetic is answerable to something called "the systematicity of morality" (p. 67), even as poems must look to "the reality frames of the everyday" (p. 46). Syntactical muddles dissipate the argument in dozens of places. What are we to make of this assertion? — "[N]ovelty is a somewhat misleading term for what cuts closest to the bone in literature since discovery within our own experiences does not so much reveal something new as insist on the truth of something which everyday responses cover up" (p. 28). Too often Mundwiler's philosophical discussions assume a loose and baggy life of their own, perhaps most sadly in the concluding chapter. Mundwiler begins by criticizing the notion that "modernism" may be meaningfully defined but goes on to offer his own definition in nothing less than numbered one-sentence declarations. He refers to this definition as the "modernist episteme" (p. 124), but the unacknowledged reference to Michel Foucault and his archeologies of knowledge in no way distinguishes Mundwiler's work from any other undergraduate attempt to sum up a literary period in nine points. Discussion of Ondaattje's writing is mentioned and deferred so that a more pressing issue may be explored, namely the hypothetical disagreements Mundwiler assumes his new definition will provoke. These disagreements are addressed in the rhetorical equivalent of a pre-emptive strike. The whole discussion is accompanied by both endnotes and footnotes, the latter apologizing for the definition that was not supposed to happen and growing to a length several times that of the remarks they annotate. I have described the disposition of Mundwiler's last chapter because it repeats on a small scale many of the problems found throughout the book: the contemptuous dismissal of academics "trying out the standard litcrit labels" (p. 50) even though Mundwiler uses more than a few of his own; the unconvincing handling of contemporary theoretical terminology; the unfulfilled promises that important reassessments will be made; and the pre-occupation with the significance of his own rather than Ondaatje's work. Difficult reading is not unusual fare for theoretically-oriented writing, as anyone who has struggled with the unrelentingly impolite style of critics like Paul de Man and Jacques Lacan will attest. But in these, and in so many other excellent examples, there is an underlying sense that something is being said in the way that it is said. Mundwiler offers no such reassurance.

     The precise shape of Mundwiler's position is consequently extremely difficult to determine. Central to his argument is undoubtedly the imagination, seen not as a self-contained faculty but as the experience of reality organized and understood by the individual subject. Coleridge for one had said as much in Biographia Literaria, but Mundwiler treats his definition as if it were strictly the invention of twentieth-century phenomenology. In its largest expression, Mundwiler contends, imagination is a complex life process, encompassing the things we normally tag consciousness, thinking, reason, intuition, and feeling as well as dream states" (p. 91). Set against this process are the various modes of thinking, from Cartesian dualism to certain forms of existentialism, which insist on a separation of consciousness and things. If the "subject is subsumed in situation and situation is subsumed in subject" (p. 92), however, then these kinds of static conceptions falsify what it is to be, or, more precisely, what it is to experience being. The qualification is an important one for phenomenological thought, because it represents the "correction" Heidegger performed on Husserl, seeking as he did to demystify his teacher's notion of a transcendentally constitutive subject by strictly limiting existence to the experience of being-in-the-world. Mundwiler attempts to overgo Heidegger, in part through citations of the Marxist intellectual Merleau-Ponty, by insisting not only on the intimacy of being and time but on being and the specifically "historical and political situation" (p. 93) in which it is immersed and by which it is produced. All other conceptions and representations of being are condemned as "Romantic" fictions, "aestheticist" nonsense bent on "dissociat[ing]" us "from the organic necessity of imagination and experience" (p. 30).

     But Mundwiler's hurried paraphrase of previous phenomenological positions is piecemeal and directionless as well as oddly weighted. Why is R. G. Collingwood, not ordinarily considered a phenomenologist, used to buttress so much of the argument while less arcane work that speaks to the whole enterprise of a phenomeno logical literary criticism — like Derrida's deconstructions of Husserl and Heidegger and J. Hillis Miller's reappraisal of the Geneva School2 — goes ignored? By choosing Friedrich Schiller as the exemplary philosopher of a dehistoricizing and anti-phenomenological aesthetic Mundwiler similarly ignores the numerous other Romantic writers, from Wordsworth to Schopenhauer, who treat the imagination as something more than a source of "solipsistic expression" (p. 96) or autoerotic "amusement". Schiller himself of course never provides this kind of argument, not least because his position, in texts like On the Aesthetic Education of Man, is revealingly divided on whether art is a denial or an idealization of the world's facticity.3 Moreover, it is Schiller who interrogates hopes for a timeless representation that is unfractured by the "sign", characterizing them as "sentimental" or inauthentic.4

     Perhaps Mundwiler's strangely vitriolic distaste for a "state of grace which is sealed off from or independent of society" (p. 96) emerges from an uneasy nostalgia for this state in his own argument. In his "Introduction" he claims not to "appeal . . . to absolute terms of reference" (p. 22) or to terms lying outside of the temporal complex of subject and situation. But this is where from a theoretical perspective his version of an existentialist phenomenology breaks down. For all his evident impatience with "abstraction from time and place" (p. 33) in literature or with portrayals of the self as "a monadic subject" which "could opt out of social being" (p. 13), Mundwiler repeatedly grounds his position in transhistorical idealities. Phrases like the "unity of vision" (p. 22) and the "full satisfactory reading" (p. 40), or the "phenomenological meta message" (p. 50; emphasis mine), all covertly evoke a plenitude of meaning beyond the exigencies of history and discourse. When Mundwiler characterizes poetry for its ability to "be grasped in one sweep of the imagination" (p. 112) his language betrays the spatializing rhetoric of totalization, the root need in a logocentric metaphysic to annul the temporality of being-in-the-world by staging the mind's relationship to knowledge as the grasping, the sweeping up of a truth conceived as in-itself and out there. As he says on the same page that he dismisses the "encapsulated artwork" (p. 22), "there must be a movement toward the essence of the work itself." Once again the appeal is to a subtler language within language, an interiority identified with the apprehension of a self-contained ideal.

     But what has all this to do with Michael Ondaatje? In fact, very little, because Michael Ondaatje: Word, Image, Imagination is about Leslie Mundwiler and only occasionally about its titular subject. When Ondaatje is treated it is done with condescension and indifference. Swathes of assertions about the nature of the imagination are punctuated by short discussions of isolated passages in Ondaatje's work, sometimes with no more an attempt to mesh theory and practice than a bridging phrase like: "Coming back to The Man with Seven Toes . . ." (p. 45). Grandiose conceptual models — from Tibor Scitovsky's speculations on the physiolog ical basis of aesthetic pleasure to R. D. Laing's "anti-psychiatry" (p. 112) — are quickly evoked and as quickly dropped with no consistent effort to place them in the context of Ondaatje's writings and films. Extraordinary theories are linked with utterly ordinary explication. The "technical functions" of "classical, medieval and renaissance memory systems" are discussed, for example, to explain "the schematic, often archetectonic place-references which 'frame' or ground the central images of the poetry" (p. 57). "Setting" is in fact the subject of Mundwiler's remarks. For some phenomenological literary critics, the meaning of a text lies strictly in the representation of being-in-the-world, but Mundwiler's inexplicably self-delimiting twist on this already narrow definition is that only a text's imagery provides what he calls the "phenomenological metamessage." If the images are "plausible," for instance, then the text is acceptable; if not, the text is portrayed as a cowardly avoidance of the "painful encounter" (p. 35) between the self and world. Under these bizarre conditions "the unreality of Ondaatje's . . . treatment of Bolden" (p. 112) in Coming Through Slaughter is handled as a sign of the author's phenomenological naiveté. That Ondaatje may simply be uninterested in a full-scale characterization of his mad musician does not occur to Mundwiler, no more than the need to define exactly what constitutes the real and unreal or plausible and implausible image in literature. Finally, there is a distinct moral colouration to Mundwiler's book, a feeling that texts which do not embody "the essential struggle, the expression of the reality of the artist's experience" (p. 96) are not just unsuitable for phenomenological criticism but perversely wrong. "Irrelevant" and "trivial" are favoured adjectives. Since almost none of the texts mentioned in the book meet the standards Mundwiler arbitrarily sets for them, Ondaatje comes off as a bit of an other-worldly fool whose only consolation is that he is in "mid-career" and shows evidence "of vitality and promise" (p. 146) — by which we might imagine Mundwiler means the promise of becoming a philosopher manqué. Quite apart from Mundwiler's uncritical assumptions about the whole notion of authenticity and inauthenticity in literary texts, we might regard the barely disguised move behind all this talk about reading the "phenomenological metamessage:" the move, perhaps unavoidable at the intersection of theory and literature, to subjugate the text to the reserve of the concept. Thus Mundwiler's desire to set literature to the task of re-presenting the self in its temporal predicament is more properly understood as the expression of a concealed need, profoundly transcenden talizing in its aims, to relegate the literarity of literary texts to the merely "aesthetic:" as the voice and simulacrum of the existential project, literature is at its best valuable only insofar as it effaces itself before that project's priority. In other words, by discriminating between aesthetic and responsible texts, Mundwiler simply re-inscribes a more ancient, asym metrical structure, one opposing the self-presence of the philosophical message to the contingency of its literary vehicle. Of course, all literary criticism is in some way determined by the demands of this structure, but the ferocity with which it is maintained in the volume at hand should raise questions about a methodology which is more aggressively exclusive than the aestheticism it condemns. How useful is a reading which castigates literature for occupying a "state of grace . . . sealed off from . . . society," when the same reading, not without its own stake in a certain grace, is constituted by sealing itself off from the play of language?

     Frank Davey's study atempts to unify the motives and language of Margaret Atwood's work through what he calls a "feminist poetics." The poems and prose consistently represent, he argues, the confrontation of two sexual solitudes, or, as he says in a nice phrase, the plight of a "Flesh-and-blood girl in the timeless ceremonial garden of patriarchal mythology."5 "Male and female space" meet each other throughout Atwood's writing in myriad "binary oppositions:" technology and natural process, spatial design and temporality, reason and intuition, superego and id, predator and prey, order and chaos. A steady and encouraging focus in this structuralist account is the specifically linguistic theme of Atwood's feminism, which Davey sums up as the struggle between the "real poetry" (p. 50) of gesture, symbol, and silence and the "male" language of convention, discursiveness, and the written word. Not surprisingly these contrarieties become most problematical in the novels. "I[n] view of the argument of Atwood's poetry that pattern is a humanistic 'male' second-order imposition on experience," he points out, "it is curious that four of Atwood's five novels appear to be written in a traditional narrative pattern" (p. 57). In what is possibly the most interesting argument of the book, and, coincidentally, the only point at which he significantly engages the large body of Atwood criticism, Davey suggests that the novels treat their own "comic or romance patterns" with some irony, recognizing them to be "male" "circle games which trap characters into fruitlessly repetitive action" (p. 76). That this kind of ironic detachment does not actually signal an escape from these games, but a repetition of their obsession with order and mediation, is one of many unauthorized hints in the book that there may be nothing outside of the "circle", notwithstanding Davey's or Atwood's desire, and that the whole notion of "a female world prior to literary pattern. . . [and] to language itself" (p. 70) may be a fantasy not unlike any other of an origin or ground.

     A useful chapter on key images in Atwood's work follows the discussion of the novels and provides a language with which to discuss the shorter fiction, whose "oblique and enigmatic" qualities lead Davey to claim that it "has the iconic potential of poetry" (p. 128). The volume concludes with a reexamination of Survival, perhaps discussed last because Davey is reluctant to study a text whose maddeningly reductionist principles and clumsy structure so contradict "all the injunctions against naming and categorization declared by Atwood's poetry and fiction" (p. 161). But Davey's examination of Atwood's bluntest instrument is keen and clear, reminding us that attempts to assess the complex impact on Canadian letters of what Harold Bloom once called the "barren moralizing" of archetypal criticism are still welcome and no doubt needed.

     Other aspects of his book are not nearly so successful. Davey's excursions into semiotics and post-structuralism, for example, are extremely unconvincing. The term "deconstruction" is variously used to characterize a host of unlikely things: the ironic manipulation of a classical myth (p. 46) and an archetypal pattern (p. 67); psychological catharsis (p. 67) and self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head (p. 97); and the sociolinguistic effects of thermonuclear war (p. 108). As a textual event or reading strategy deconstruction of course resembles none of those things in the slightest. Where Stephen Scobie's use of post-structuralist vocabulary in bp Nichol: What History Teaches reflects an attentive if difficult engagement with a philosophical position, Davey's interest in invoking the "underground, Derridian [sic] mystery" (p. 166) strikes me as superficial. Surely too much is known and taught about deconstruction now for it to be used so carelessly. Problematical also is Davey's management of Roland Barthes' semiotic theories, theories whose concern with the hidden articulations of language and ideology would seem to make them ideally suited for a sociologically-slanted writer like Atwood. But mistakes and ambiguities occur too often, as when "female" or "'first-order language' "is said to rest "on a direct connotative relationship between the word and its signified" (p. 52). I take Davey to mean a direct denotative relationship, "connotative" being reserved to describe the operation of myth or ideology that he associates with the "male" in Atwood's work.6 In addition Davey repeatedly treats "first-" and "second- order" signifying systems as respectively innocent and culpable in their ideological nature, apparently unaware that Barthes all but dismantled the notion of an authentic or apolitical "first-order language" in S/Z and other texts published after its initial explication in Mythologies.

     This latter problem points to much more than an unsteady grasp of French semiotics. It also raises the question of how useful the whole thesis of strictly defined binary oppositions can be for Atwood. That Davey is himself unsure is evident in different kinds of contradictions which mar his book. The most troubling of these occurs in the "Epilogue," where he outlines examples of "female" languages inhabiting Atwood's texts, among them "super hero stories, Shakespearean comedy, quest romance, [and] descents to the underworld" (p. 162). The problem is quite simply that these "female" "subtexts" are explicitly identified as examples of "male" discourse earlier in the volume (pp. 21, 61). By definition poetics deals with the local realities of literary language as well as its large structures, but on these Davey's argument can prove equally troublesome. For example, "male" and "female" discourses are alternately denounced or praised for their figural displacement "[T]he male analytic and technological approach to reality" (p. 49) is characterized by its abstracting force, Davey contends, citing Atwood's lament, in "Notes towards a Poem which Can Never Be Written," that politically motivated atrocities are bleached away by representation: "we turn them into statistics and litanies/and into poems like this one" (p. 49), she writes. But when in other parts of the discussion Davey associates the "femaleness of words" (p. 52) with metaphorical substitutions we might well ask how this turning differs from the "bad" tropes of statistics and litanies. At the linguistic level they do not differ at all, but Davey's pre-occupation with Atwood's own stated ideology keeps him from seeing that literature from the perspective of language can contest the dispositions of its thematic or political concerns.

     Davey is of course no stranger to Atwood's work, and we might wonder whether it is possible that such familiarity breeds a certain contempt, for the male/female thesis he asserts often brutalizes the subject, transform ing it into the fated victim of its own formalism. The problem is not that Atwood's work is without the kinds of sharp dichotomies that Davey discusses. It is, and the future of Atwood criticism may lie in part with the explorations of the limitations as well as the successes of these dichotomies in her writing. Arguably some of the most significant points in Atwood's work occur, however, when a binary opposition which accords an authenticity or privilege to the "female" ends up throwing into question the hierarchical arrangement of its terms. Davey's thesis cannot accommodate this kind of textual disruption. Take, for example, Atwood's "Marrying the Hangman,"7 a poem that Davey reads as exclusively about "all women whose lives have required some compromise with men" (p. 29). But the poem ends somewhat more inconclusively, with each character, male and female, simply listing metonyms for their respective ideologies. Is there not a hint of exhaustion in these lines, as if by forfeiting even the attempt at syntax Atwood expresses a certain impatience not only with the "male" ideology but, as it were, with the ideology of ideology, the monotonous tendency for any position to be held at the exclusion of all others? This does not mean that our sympathies for the plight of the girl who must marry the hangman are misdirected, but it does complicate matters by suggesting a certain reluctance on Atwood's part simply to replace one hierarchy with another, a feminist order for a phallocentric one.

     A more subtle disruption occurs amid the sense in many of Atwood's poems that human discourse is substanceless and arbitrary, whereas natural languages somehow coincide with the things to which they refer. The absolute separation of these terms as derivation and origin could easily be described as the founding principle of Davey's book. In "Progressive insanities of a pioneer" the hapless settler makes an unsuccessful bid to master the "aphorisms" of "tree-spout" and "weed[s]," but they are "words/he couldn't understand."8 In another poem Atwood imagines the corpse of an overdose victim as a text, "her body, silent/and fingerless, writing this poem."9 Are these examples of a "non-linguistic" language, as Davey argues? The insistence of inscriptive metaphors — "aphorism," "writing" — seems a tacit admission that we remain in the realm of signification and therefore difference. But crucial to Davey's binary argument is that this "alternate language" (p. 52) must also embrace temporality rather than deny its touch, as is reputed to be the case in the spatializing predilections of "male" discourse. How "real poetry" (p. 50) is at once self-coincident and enmeshed in time remains unexplained. This contradiction is compounded by the fact that the identification of the en-soi of language with the pour-soi of things represents the poetic strategy par excellence of repressing the difference and consecutiveness of being-in-the-world.10 In other words, at precisely those points Atwood posits a language of things rather than signs her discourse is mystified in the same manner as the detemporalizing "male" language that it seeks to supercede.

     Atwood seems willing at some points to acknowledge that the seductiveness of a poetry which "incorporates the biological" (p. 52) is at root a defensive reaction to rather than a celebration of the inherent temporality of discourse. The sequence entitled "Mushrooms," for instance, concludes,

Here is the handful
of shadow I have brought back to you:
this decay, this hope, this mouth-
ful of dirt, this poetry."11

Davey reads these lines for their "clear implication" that "the act of poetry is a giving birth, that the 'mouth' of poetry is . . . the vagina and its wordless speakings" (p. 51). Much of the preceding poem does seem to idealize a language as natural as living organisms, "wordless" for being spoken not as signs for things but as the things themselves. But these lines point in other directions. On the one hand "this poetry" refers to the words on the page, in which case Atwood hints at the nothingness of written language, including her own. And yet the images of decay and vacuity, the grim echo of The Waste Land, and the strangely moribund trope of "this mouth-/ful of dirt," suggest also that the alternate language, in which sign merges with thing, is equally problematical, for it is attained at the cost of human life. The muteness of a silenced language elides uneasily into suffocation and death. Perhaps the lines recall the poet in Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" who longs to merge with the bird in its song but recoils at the thought of dying into the insensate world in which he would be a mere "sod.''

     A more recent example of Atwood's willingness to be equivocal about her own notions of a natural or "female" discourse can be found in the concluding story of Bluebeard's Egg. "Unearthing Suite" ends, as Davey says, emphasizing "the different 'languages'" its characters speak" (p. 151). Contemplating, of all things, "a fisher's droppings on the roof of their cabin," the story's father, mother, and narrator-daughter see quite different things: "an interesting biological phenomenon," "a miraculous token, a sign of divine grace," "this deposit of animal shit."12 True to his binary model, Davey argues that the mother's reading is the authentic one even though it is almost laughably at odds with her less than miraculous text. Divining droppings seems uncannily like a scene in "Circe/Mud Poems" in which Odysseus asks Circe to read the future in a bird's entrails. She complies, but makes fun of his desire to make so much of so little:

As you can see
the future is a mess,
snarled guts all over the yard[.] 13

In "Unearthing Suite" none of the characters is without limitations, just as none of their readings is wholly inappropriate. In this less stridently "feminist" text, Atwood rather uses each reading to interrogate the single-mindedness of the others and so places them all in a context. No one interpretation may emerge as self-sufficient because, in effect, each is constituted on the trace of its difference from the others.

     Considering the difficulties that Atwood's work presents in preserving the metaphysical innocence of a "female" language we might well ask if her other "first-order" categories are as prior or originative as Davey contends. For example, is Nature untainted by ideology, unsupplemented by human concerns? There are numerous instances in Atwood's work where a primitive and organic world lies "beneath" or "before" the mechanistic and artificial realm of civilization, as indeed it must for Davey to assert that the "male" appropriation of this world constitutes its contamination. Elsewhere Atwood is not so unequivocal. In Surfacing, for instance, we are left wondering whether the "green world" into which the narrator has slipped really is a place of essence or whether some of her experience is delusory, a projection of desire as much as an encounter with the spiritus mundi. The Quebec bush is undoubtedly regenerative but, revealingly, unable to support human life as she originally thinks. When she takes Joe into the woods to have intercourse with him she does so "not with a specific man," as Davey correctly points out, "but with someone 'thick, undefined, outline but no features, hair and beard a mane, moon behind him' — with one of the 'nameless weeds' of nature" (p. 80). But isn't this precisely a mythologizing of Nature into the figure of Pan, and thus a co-opting of "life" and "biology" into the "artifice" of "patriarchal mythology" (p. 17)? At other points Davey rationalizes Atwood's unabashed use of "male" paradigms, specifically the "generalizing 'second-order' language which empties the signified of its history and particularity" (p. 52), as an ironic strategy. "It is . . . the language of someone in but not of the male formal garden, of someone physically within the arena of 'power politics' but refusing to seriously participate" (p. 43). "Paradoxical" is another word Davey uses to describe texts characterized by this refusal. But we should be suspicious of the new critical declensions of the term, wary of its use to smooth over disjunctions in favour of maintaining the "unified and aesthetic whole" that Atwood herself dismisses in Murder in the Dark.14 Perhaps in the case of the passage from Surfacing Atwood simply contradicts herself. In the present critical climate such fissures need not be feared as the sign of an artistic failure, and may indeed provide significant openings into the life of the text. Whatever Davey's binary opposition requires of the work, the text suggests that every attempt to reclaim a prior "living protean world of biological process" (p. 43) will disclose this world's derivative nature, its cultural precedence rather than its metaphysical privilege.

     In bp Nichol: What History Teaches Stephen Scobie provides a lucidly written and carefully paced account of one of Canada's most unusual and challenging writers. It is as if the outrageousness of the subject had elicited from Scobie an equal and opposite patience, as he sifts through the myriad forms and media which Nichol has taken up and manipulated. Scobie is an apologist and perhaps must be because Nichol is an artist whose difficulty will require a strong effort to create a taste by which he will be enjoyed. Enthusiasm might be said to be the occupational hazard of the burgeoning world of Canadian post-modernists if it were not also their profession, but Scobie is refreshingly judicious and disengaged enough to be capable of dismissing some of Nichol's less convincing productions as, for example, "little more than expressionist gimmicks".15 Although he attends to the radical nature of Nichol's work, Scobie begins, significantly, by placing Nichol in a historical context. In doing so he reminds us that the nervousness and blindness of the avantgarde is its calculated indifference to anything but the new and, more importantly, that criticism is in no way obliged to repeat that indifference. One of the things history teaches is that the avantgarde has a history, and for Nichol that begins, Scobie argues, in the aesthetics of Gertrude Stein. The debt is two-fold and troublesome, possibly more troublesome than Scobie indicates. On the one hand, Nichol absorbs from Stein an intense self-consciousness about the vicissitudes and arbitrariness of language. On the other, Stein seems to have bequeathed Nichol a "fundamentally humanistic concern" p. (14), a persistent interest in how an audience engaging difficult art forges a kind of community out of that engagement.

     Other contexts, such as the theory and practice of European concrete poetry, enable Scobie to elucidate some crazily difficult pieces, from the "typewriter concrete" of Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer to the obscure "letter drawings" that constitute the "allegories" sequence in love: a book of remembrances. A consistent principle governing these assessments of Nichol's fiction and of his visual and sound poetry is the sense that the artist is neither a part of nor apart from what Scobie calls "a deconstructionist mode of writing" (p. 26). He is, as Scobie says, "aware of Derrida, Barthes, Lacan, and Kristeva, and is prepared on occasions. . . to use their vocabulary; but his attitude towards them is. . . sceptical" (p. 27). Nichol may of course productively indulge in such ambivalence but it is more difficult to accord the same latitude to criticism, like Scobie's, which presumably adopts a post-structuralist idiom to obtain a post-structuralist leverage on a text. In Scobie's case the adoption is subject to some vagaries, varying from the idiosyncratic use of terminology to partial misunderstandings. The inconsistent use of quotation marks around the term "deconstruction" may be seen as a sign of these problems: is the term embarrassing, familiar, or occult? Some uses of the concept are not correct enough. For example, prose pieces which parody highly conventionalized genres, like Nichol's "Three Western Tales" and "Georg: a detective story," do not "delight in the deconstruction of cliché" (p. 82): they simply (and complexly) parody highly conventionalized genres. A similar indefinition characterizes statements like one made about Book 5 of The Martyrology, "in which the poem," Scobie asserts, "turns back on itself and deconstructs its own earlier versions" (p. 110). Metacommentary, that moment when a text refers to its own procedures and issues, does constitute a form of deconstruction, because it disrupts to the point of irresolution the notion of a textual interior and exterior. This is not what Scobie means by deconstruction, at least not here. He means, or seems to mean, something like unsettles or contests or contradicts. For a deconstruction to occur we need to be shown much more clearly what hierarchical arrangements are being disinterred from the text and what relational economies have always been in place.

     Deconstruction is elsewhere treated as a "tactic", "mode", or "gesture" adopted by Nichol or, finally, as the new subject of the text's reference, the meaning that is left when we deny the possibility of meaning. But in both cases significant recuperative energies are covertly imported into Scobie's argument which begin to complicate the deconstruction in interesting ways. For example, to treat deconstruction as something done to something else assumes an anterior and extra-textual entity which has the presence of mind to do. But about this presence critic and author seem revealingly unsure. Scobie grounds at least one moment in The Martyrology in something he calls "the quality of [Nichol's] being" (p. 124) and yet goes on to dash any phenomenological hopes for the text's transparency to its authorial spirit as soon as the next page, where Nichol is also said to be aware that "all writing, by the very act of being writing, transforms the 'I' into an Other" (p. 125). If Nichol's text evokes both a discursive and a transcendental self the ensuing contradiction produced by this doubleness deserves attention rather than elision and perhaps no more so than at those moments when this metonym for coherence called "Nichol" is conjured up as the agency of deconstruction.

     Nichol's obvious fascination with what is difficult about language makes his texts fiercely self-referential. Signifying themselves, these texts foster the appearance of being peculiarly transparent to their own "written-ness" and thus of discovering a moment of stability amid the flux of dissemination. The unspoken assumption is that insofar as the text brings to the foreground the complication and inter-relation of its letters, phonemes, words, and phrases its meaning is identical with its procedures. But self-reference has more recently been shown to be proliferative and complicating rather than closural in nature.16 Although Scobie indicates that he is fully aware of these developments in critical theory — he describes self-referential moves in The Martyrology in terms of "Derrida's concept of 'invagination'" (p. 132) — his argument remains tacitly conservative. For example, he identifies the saints that play so large a part in the poem "as emblems of language itself" and sees their ambivalent treatment by Nichol as "the drama of the poet's relationship with language" (p. 120). These are more interesting phrases than might first appear because metaphorical terms such as "drama" and "emblem" lend considerable weight to the presupposition that a clarity and self-possession characterizes the way in which the text handles its linguistic theme, holding its subject away from itself, as it were, so not to contaminate meaning with the expression of the meaning. But are things this tidy? The "drama" of which Scobie speaks happens to be in large part about the impossibility of straight-forward referentiality and of disentangling the poet from the language which perhaps more accurately entangles him. This strange signified — we might call it the post-modernist signified — as such presumes the existence of a text stable enough to dramatize or emblematize or to make the reference that has been declared impossible. What kind of blindness, then, is required for a text to mean what it cannot mean? To write about what Paul de Man calls the "unreadibility" of writing,17 its failure to signify coupled with the inevitability of signification, the text must hide to the precise extent that it discloses, and I would suggest that it is in this deeper fold that the real "drama of the poet's relationship with language" lies. Nichol may in fact be a "'deconstructionist' writer" but if we are to use this kind of terminology to the maximum effect we might also sense the oxymoronic quality of the phrase, the subtle and unending way in which the adjective disrupts the noun upon which it nevertheless relies. "Life's a sign," Nichol says (in what may be the earliest example of Lacanian humour), "beneath which signifieds slide" (p. 22).

     Any significant work on bp Nichol must in some way account for The Martyrology. In his final chapter Scobie does an admirable job, discussing this formidably complicated and self-complicated text in both its large and small details. Calling The Martyrology "self-generating" and "self perpetuating", Scobie argues that "its fundamental structural principle is sheer duration — extent, in time and space, for its own sake" (p. 107). But the extensiveness of the text, its "cumulous accumulation" (p. 106), includes the gathering up of its own literary past in the form of the "various stages in the history of the long poem" (p. 110). The text may fray itself into open-endedness, but not without the absorption of various structures of coherence which have informed its literary predecessors. The stories of the saints provide Nichol with a mythological background, albeit one which must be invented; this in turn is supplemented by the "image of the constantly repeated journey" which "is specific enough for its recurrence to act as a unifying factor, and yet general enough to allow for multiple variations" (p. 110). Other "'established' world mythologies, especially The Epic of Gilgamesh" (p. 120) are evoked as a means of shaping both the text and the world whose miscellaneity the text must engage in its openness.

     And yet in Scobie's hands The Martyrology is made to seem somewhat less problematical than its contending pressures might indicate. The levelling out of the text is reflected in the shape of his chapter, punctuated as it is by declarations of The Martyrology's affiliation with post-modernist instability while paying a great deal of attention to its stabilizing gestures. Scobie's argument is thus revealingly bifurcated because too little attention is paid to the origins of that split in Nichol's text or to the manner in which the text negotiates or fails to negotiate its dissevering force. In a text as disjunctive as The Martyrology, redemptive gestures will themselves be subject to divisiveness if for no other reason than the fact that an unending poem will unendingly throw into question that which seeks closure.

     I may outline only a few of the problems The Martyrology sets out for itself. After astutely disentangling several strands which seem to organize the text — the saint's legends, an allegory about the poet's relationship with language, the drama of father and son — Scobie assumes their compatability; "[A]ll levels of The Martyrology work together", he says (p. 120). The text asks us to consider such compatability, but its stake in less constructive energies suggests that such fabrics are always provisional and perhaps made only to be unwound by the disseminative force they contain. The various myths of origins are said to "counterpoint" each other and yet their relationship may not be as delicate as Scobie's new critical vocabulary might imply. The movement from myth to myth and the inconclusiveness that characterizes each myth as it is occupied compels the text to review the instability of its attempts at coherence, to face the degree to which those attempts are simply the projections of desire upon the intractable backdrop of the given. The redemption of "language through sound" (p. 124) is perhaps the most dearly held example of these desires, but in a text so obviously born in the shadow of Derrida's Of Grammatology the valuation of voice over writing cannot be one that is made without the severest sort of questioning. Finally, Scobie points out that "a central assertion of the poem right from the start" (p. 175) is the significance of the "larger human community". Exactly how this community is exempt from the text's otherwise piercing interrogation of the other transcendental signifieds which it so obviously resembles is not outlined by Scobie or Nichol and reminds us that a text's refusals should be as much the subject of discussion as its assertions.

     In its denial of closure The Martyrology must also deliver itself up to the rebellious and independent force of its most unarrayed parts. But on this point Scobie seems curiously wary, both attributing disjunctiveness to the text but shielding it from the most radical implications of those disturbances. "Nichol's humanism", Scobie notes, "remains the basis for his entire work, even admitting the vast uncertainties introduced into it by the post-structuralist critique of language" (p. 29). 'Admission' seems too neutral a term to describe the entry of uncertainty into The Martyrology and the spectacle of word-play which takes up most of Books 4 and 5 puts this problem to us most forcefully. Here Nichol's language tactics "invite the dismissive response that this is all whimsy, self-indulgent silliness, and pointless mystification" (p. 127). Scobie declines the invitation, preferring instead to rationalize matters by reading these books as a celebration of the "linguistic free play and dissemination which is central to a post-structuralist theory of language" (p. 127). Other, less felicitous, possibilities suggest themselves. As verses, words, and phonemes are sundered in the name ofjouissance we are also asked when deconstruction becomes destruction and when "such minimal movements to seek truth in" (to use Nichol's own admission) become so cramped as to close themselves off even to their author. If The Martyrology is "forbiddingly difficult and almost defiantly quirky" (p. 128), and if we are brave enough to seek coherence amid this difficulty and defiance, even if it is the minimal coherence of celebrating incoherence, we might also consider simply conceding to the text's otherness and calling it a critical loss. Perhaps a large portion of Books 4 and 5 is just nonsense, a nonsense unrecuperable even by the desire to see it as a sign of the text's allegiance to its post-modernity.

     Nor is the text's openness to miscellaneity the only threat it brings upon itself. Scobie is particularly sensitive to the force of destitution which complicates The Martyrology, the moments of "desolation caused equally by the death of the saints, the failure of language, and the abandonment by the father" (p. 118). And yet, Scobie claims, "redemption is always possible; isolation can be transcended" (p. 116). He is not wrong, for The Martyrology advises us of these possibilities. But it does so in spite of rather than through its encounters with what Keats called "the core/Of an eternal fierce destruction," thus placing the text's disjunctiveness not only in the errancy of its signifiers but in its unwillingness to integrate the claim to redemption with the means by which the claim is made. A radically open-ended poem will need to test its commitment to its chosen status by being fully open, finally, to the frivolousness or desolation which would assert its right to strangle the poem into silence. These rights are claimed in The Martyrology, as are those happier ones that Scobie settles on, but co-existence of both makes the text more severely and more interestingly divided against itself than apologists for post-modernist open-endedness may be in a position to admit.

     Scobie's book is an exemplary study both for its insights into Nichol's work and for its decisive handling of critical theory. "I[n] a field where so few people really know what they are talking about", as Northrop Frye put it recently,18 Scobie shows that carefully asked theoretical questions have powerful implications for authors and academics alike. More will need to be asked. One assumption behind all three books under consideration here is that a text's meaning more or less converges with the devices that produce meaning, even though many of the passages examined illustrate ambiguities and slippages which unsettle or even contradict what is being said. Theoretical considerations which would question this assumption will be difficult in a country that is still in the process of establishing canons and culling "significant" from "insignificant" work — a process whose selection criteria rest in large part with the valuation of integrated over disunified texts. The "next" move in the consideration of literature and theory involves a much more complex kind of scrutiny. Rather than accepting as a given the self-presence of philosophical concepts like Ondaatje's "phenomenological metamessage" or Atwood's "femaleness," we will need to ask how literature, in its literarity, not only displaces the meaning that it is reputed to transmit, but how it interrogates and scandalizes the distinction between the rhetorical and the conceptual, the very distinction within which the philosophical elaboration of literary criticism takes place. Another and much less fruitful difficulty emerges from the confrontation of literary theory with those critics who pretend that they are innocent of its impact, as was the case recently in these pages when a reviewer dismissed the questions raised by a post-structuralist reader of Sir Charles G. D. Roberts as "perversely imaginary". No attempt was made to define what was "normally rational" about his own reading because of course that would involve asking theoretical questions. Perhaps the danger and the strength of literary theory will lie ultimately not in the conversion of "conventional" criticism to the nouvelle critique — a converson, in any case, which will itself be overturned — but in the promise of unendingly throwing into relief the presuppositions and philosophemes which govern critical positions. We still hear that tiresome promise, spoken like an aged parent in a Shakespearean comedy, that all these new-fangled ideas are an unpleasant but short-lived irritation. "It will date quickly" is a beloved response.19 To which might be answered: "It Must Change."


  1. Michael Ondaatje: Word, image, imagination (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984), p. 23. All other references to this volume are cited parenthetically in the text.[back]

  2. See, for example, Derrida's Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays On Husseri's Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973), and "The Ends of Man" in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 109-136; and Miller's "George Poulet's 'Criticism of Identification,' " in The Quest for Imagination, ed. GB. Hardison, Jr. (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1971), pp. 191-224.[back]

  3. See Letters XXV and XIV in On the Aesthetic Education of Man, in a Series of Letters (1801), trans. Reginald Snell (New York: Ungar, 1965).[back]

  4. See Naive and Sentimental Poetry and On the Sublime, trans. Julius Elias (New York: Ungar, 1966), p. 98.[back]

  5. Margaret Atwood: a Feminist Poetics (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984), p. 17. All other references to this volume are cited parenthetically in the text.[back]

  6. Curiously Davey does not actually cite Barthes, though the language he uses goes back to essays like "Myth Today" in Mythologies, trans. A Lavers (London: Granada, 1973), pp. 109-159 and to Barthes' predecessor, Louis Hjelmslev Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, trans. Francis J. Whitfield (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).[back]

  7. Two-Headed Poems (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 48-51.[back]

  8. The Animals in that Country (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 36.[back]

  9. "Notes towards a Poem which Can Never Be Written," in True Stories (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 67.[back]

  10. See Paul de Man, "Intentional Structure of the Romantic Image," collected in The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), pp. 1-17.[back]

  11. True Stories, p. 93.[back]

  12. Bluebeard's Egg (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1983), p. 285.[back]

  13. You Are Happy (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 66.[back]

  14. "Iconography," Murder in the Dark (Toronto: The Coach House Press, 1983), p. 52.[back]

  15. bp Nichol: What History Teaches (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984), p. 63 and p. 35. All other references to this volume are cited parenthetically in the text.[back]

  16. See, for example, Jacques Derrida, "The Law of Genre," Glyph, 7 (1980), 202-229, and "The Parergon," October, 9 (1979), 3-4; and Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 200-214.[back]

  17. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), especially Chapter 9, "Allegory (Julie)," pp. 188-

  18. "In the earth, or in the air?" rev. of The Rhetoric of Romanticism, by Paul de Man, Times Literary Supplement, 17 January, 1986, p. 51.[back]

  19. W.J. Keith, "The Sir Charles G.D. Roberts Symposium: Reappraising a Reappraisal," rev. of The Sir Charles GD. Roberts Symposium, ed., Glenn Clever, Canadian Poetry, 16 (1985), p. 90.[back]

David Clark