"Watch the words, watch how it happens," advises F. in a koan from Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers. What, however, are we doing when we watch words? Are we watching the ordering and patterning of meaning? Are we watching a sheer verbal performance in which voice, rhythm, and texture are the principal focus? Are we watching a textual illusion? Can we really speak of an "it" happening, if a text has gaps or holes that a deconstructionist critic seeks to fill, if an author's presence is turned into an absence, if there is really no centre because there is no philosophical privilege for that concept? Should we be watching the words, or worrying about where they are coming from?
Some answers to these questions are suggested in the NeWest Press series, edited by Smaro Kamboureli under the generic title The Writer as Critic, but many are contaminated by deconstructionist jargon and an irritating tone springing out of an ideology developed by academics for their own elite. Two of the five writers in this series have almighty voices, complete with mantras. They write on themes but deny thematics; they are doctrinaire but argue for open-mindedness; they murder to dissect but use masks of pious liberalism; and they turn criticism into a sophisticated but often mean-spirited game of aesthetic valorizations, cultural politics, and the aggregation and aggrandizement of clever intellectual contortions. But are they interested in the fictive present or only in the power of criticism to advance a political or philosophical agenda in order to centralize their own theory while brazenly denying that the centre exists? Or am I burlesquing them too much, in the mistaken belief that they care about theory more than literature?
In any event, where do their voices come from? In most instances, they come from university English departments where, from the evidence at hand, there is a new syndrome that replaces the old Canadian anxiety-neurosis. It goes by the name of canon-anxiety, and it is an antic disposition that seeks to decolonize Canadian literature and criticism by ridding these fields of Brit-haunted history, fiction, and critical theory. In Canadian Literary Power, Frank Davey sneers at a fellow-critic and editor, John Hulcoop, for being "overly influenced by his British training in the work of canonical authors (he has emigrated from England in 1956, after writing a dissertation on Browning)", and for invoking for his "colonial readers" the names of Shakespeare, Keats, Arnold, and Eliot in order to elevate the Canadian poet Phyllis Webb to the rank of "major poet". George Bowering, more wittily playful than Davey, and more interested in the "imaginary" hand of writing, also exercises an animus against the Brits, complaining that in Canada we remained too young for Modernism for too long. "Instead of the Imagists our poets copied the Georgians until the middle of the twentieth century." This is true, but is it all the fault of Colonial Headquarters?
Both Davey and Bowering prefer American writers and critical theorists; Bowering allows his animosity toward "the principles of the well-constructed novel admired in London and Toronto and most university departments of English" to lead him by his pinched nose to any writers and popular cultural myths that are the "negatives of the British European self-regard". For his part, Davey, in a self-admitted "too lengthy survey" of the opposing discourses practised on Phyllis Webb, plumps (apart from his own didacticism) for John Bentley Mays, who, despite his having written a deeply wounding piece on Webb (deeply wounding to Webb, that is), is embraced because he "comes not from British historical criticism but from a progressive United States school of cultural studies. At the University of Rochester, he has studied with Norman O. Brown, been influenced by Brown's and Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological writing strategies, taken part in protests against the Viet Nam war, and read widely in the influential texts of the 1960s American counterculture-the Kabbalah, Blake, Marx, Sade, Céline, Artaud, Jung, Marcuse, Ginsberg, Genet, and Burroughs." The name-dropping is breathtaking, but in forsaking one colonial tradition, Bowering and Davey appear to genuflect before a second, or even, when in a deconstructionist mode, a third imported tradition.
Davey is generally tendentious, assiduously statistical in surveys of academic journals and print runs and sales for fiction and poetry, miserly in his respect for opponents, and frequently rebarbative in his superciliousness. His book is really less about literature or literary power than it is about literary politics, economics, and modes of cultural production. It has interesting essays on As For Me & My House, Margaret Atwood's "Notes towards a Poem", and Daphne Marlatt's How Hug a Stone, but these are variously compromised by herniated academic contortions or tedious minutiae. Davey indulges in "family" quarrels with numerous fellow-critics (particularly Robert Lecker, W. J. Keith, and Jean Mallinson) about the so-called Canadian canon (a fact that is not worth a bucket of warm spit to anyone outside a university), the collapse of the Canadian poetry canon, English-Canadian literary periodicals, and postmodernism. But readers who are not of the same family and who do not have to apply for council grants or tenure can keep safely away, unless they care about some of the questionable tenets and attitudes.
Take this sentence, for instance: "As individuals and as communities, we read and re-read a text because of the `utility'-in the most general sense of the word-of its signs and constructions to satisfy our (socially-constructed) desires." If I want utility in literature, I'll send for a guidebook or manual. My interest in reading and re-reading has little, if anything, to do with a socially-constructed desire. I read for the dance of words, for unexpected contours of language, for rare textures, and for mastery of technique. So, already, I have trouble with Davey, and my problem is quickly compounded when he writes: "The struggle for literary power in Canada has always been a struggle for social and political power, but in many periods disguised as `aesthetic' or `moral.'" I do not recognize myself in this sentence. The only "power" I wish for is the power of a complicit readership, for an audience that is willing to acknowledge my literary identity as being different from anyone else's inside or outside the Canadian literary establishment, principally because I was not made wholly in England or India or Canada or Armenia, and because I am not wholly in the margin or within the socially approved main cultural frame.
One of the biggest problems I have with Davey is not his intemperate rudeness or risky critical gambits, but his half-truths and exaggerations, as in his misrepresentation of John Metcalf as an expatriate Brit who proposes that "the Canadian short story begins with his arrival in Canada." (Look at Davey's own grand claim in the concluding essay, "Contesting `Post(-)modernism": "I, Frank Davey...helped begin the history of the word `postmodern' in Canadian literature....") I have read Metcalf closely and what I have found in his book What is a Canadian Literature? (the work cited by Davey) are claims that "`modernism' in fiction did not really arrive in Canada until, roughly speaking, the publication of Hugh Hood's collection Flying a Red Kite in 1962"; that Canadian fiction, having no native tradition on which to draw, inevitably drew on "the tradition of international modernism-a tradition which was by then some forty years old"; and that "most of the best writing in Canada since the early 1960s has been in the story form", where the emphasis "has shifted from `story-as-thing-to-be-understood' to `story-as-thing-to-be-experienced,' `story-as-performance'." Apart from Metcalf's refusal to acknowledge Sheila Watson's the double hook (which he finds "insufferably contrived", a not unreasonable opinion), there is nothing alarmingly egotistical, idiosyncratic, or decidedly colonial about these claims.
While the principal problem with Frank Davey is his fundamentally adversarial tone against anyone who is not a lover of his theories or concepts, the fundamental problem with Stephen Scobie in Signature Event Cantext is his metamorphosis into a Derridean clone. Like Davey, he can be a sharp critic, but unlike Bowering, he does not wear his erudition lightly. Citing Derrida as an intertext for Canadian literature, Scobie uses a series of terms ("writing", "desire", "supplement", "parergon", "signature") as probes. His opening line, "Always already, writing has begun," is heralded as "aphoristic and paradoxical", but it becomes a mantra throughout the book: "the logic of the supplement is to...relate any given text to what is always already there in the field of intertextuality"; "Derrida's deconstruction argues that there is always already a supplement present `at the source'"; and "the name is always already a dead man's name.."
Aware that deconstructionism is sometimes confused with destruction, Scobie points out that "one does not so much deconstruct a text but rather the system of ideas which informs and determines that text. Most often, the system of ideas subject to deconstruction will be systems of hierarchically opposed binaries." So it would appear that Scobie's critical approach will resist promoting one term at the expense of another, but a closer reading of his working method undercuts this notion. His modus operandi is to "begin with a few key words [from the Derridean repertoire] and use them as loose threads with which to unravel the texture of the dominant discourse within the text." However, terms such as "begin", "key", "unravel", and "dominant" seem to contradict the claim of relativity. If there is no real origin of a text, can there be a beginning? If there is no true centre and only margins, can there be "key" words or a "dominant" discourse other than those of the critic's making?
Deconstructionist critics are nothing if not self-assured. They deliberately read against an author's intention, characterizing the author as unreliable, and they frequently make a convincing case against closure, all while implying that they the critics, unlike the author, are present not absent, and that their own system is reliable. When caught in a misinterpretation, they indulge in special pleading, as when Scobie continues building an argument about bp Nichol's The Martyrology even after discovering that the poet was not really mourning for a dead lady but for a beloved dog! This error is more serious than his mistaken belief (in a separate essay) that Akbar, not Shah Jehan, built the Taj Mahal. Decidedly opposed to authority, deconstructionists zealously quote Derrida as an authority, especially when they wish to sanctify their intricate tautologies in pompous jargon. For example, in his reading of binary terms (nature versus culture, speech versus writing) in Sara Jeannette Duncan's "A Mother in India", Scobie actually launches into an exemplary process of thematic criticism, which could be easily linked, though he does not acknowledge this, to Empson and the unfortunately named New Critics: "What is presented as a justification of `the real experience' in fact implies that the experience isn't real, but learned.... Cecily is also taught, but the results of her teaching lead to further speculations on what is or is not natural.... Again, culture and nature seem to infiltrate each other in ways which deny the absoluteness of the opposition between them, and which makes their relationship quite indeterminate...The language of `the natural' (dimples, curls) is completely shot through with the cultural, in the form of colonial capitalism."
Scobie covers many writers (including Sheila Watson, Marian Engel, Phyllis Webb, Leonard Cohen, Erin Mouré, Lola Lemire Tostevin, John Glassco, F. P. Grove, Fred Wah, and Howard O'Hagan) and writes with sharp insights on doubled texts and the paradoxes of historicity, veracity, and alterity in Memoirs of Montparnasse, but he mimics Derrida's tortuous style: "I, Stephen Scobie: the doubled structure, pronoun plus name, Shifter plus unique instance.... `I,' who in a shift of syntax could be `you'; and `Stephen,' who is certainly not me, as soon as I (who?) writes it."
The foregoing criticism should not be construed as an outright condemnation of deconstructionism. Such an attack would be foolish in a post-colonial world where there is a massive skepticism about history and authority. Moreover, the literary trend today is to defer meaning, ignore generic boundaries, and invoke a recursive myth of origin without necessarily denying that origin is desirable. The issue I raise about much of the NeWest series does not concern the motive for interrogating linguistic and formal conventions, or their validity, but speaks to ideological arrogance and impenetrable jargon.
It is possible, as George Bowering shows in his collection Imaginary Hand, to use deconstructionist criticism without draining pleasure away from either readable text or reader. Bowering is a wild card in Canadian literary criticism, who (according to the series editor, Smaro Kamboureli) "fictionalizes and historicizes his critical endeavours." He is a man of many masks and voices, equally adept at producing personal and anecdotal manifestos, political pieces, parodies, and meandering diversions that show not only an awareness of social structure but also a sensitivity to the rhythms and intonations of speech and writing. Although not averse to deconstructionism, he cannot be pegged in a single category: his curiosity and dynamic intelligence are far-ranging. If others can invoke Derrida, Lacan, Bakhtin, Cixous, et al., he demands the liberty to call up William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov, and William Eastlake. He is eclectic, casting his focus over a substantial range of subjects and using a variety of critical modes. He moves from a thematic study of some B.C. novels to a rumination on baseball. He listens carefully to Allen Ginsberg's Howl and approves of Nicole Brossard's interest in referents that float away. Like Denise Levertov, he enters darkness and mystery, but his moments of illumination are not rendered as systems of abstract inquiry. I don't always agree with him, but I usually find him interesting, particularly when he sheds light on the linguistic and formal experiments of Cohen, Ondaatje, Kroetsch, Audrey Thomas, and bp Nichol, though at times he does wander into the trivial or merely eccentric. He dares to be loony, as in this sentence about Kroetsch's Stone Hammer Poems: "The prairie, we're told in so many narratives, is a `where' of loss. But now (parenthetically) the hammer was lost too. It was found lost. It turned up missing. It was included out." This could be read as parody of deconstructionism or as a risible intertext with Hollywood's Samuel L. Goldwyn's classic howler, "Include me out."
Aritha Van Herk is also playful, and her In Visible Ink composes para-texts, crypto-frictions that rub criticism and literature together to see what results. At first she appears to be resisting a "languaging" or inscribing, but she is not against visible ink or an invisible hand. She merely refuses the "comfort of category" because "the limitations of genre definition negate the creative possibilities incited by the friction of the text within its category." She understands the perversity of some critics who waste time and words trying to disprove a writer's named genre. Her articulation of the paradox of books (where the writing and reading are palimpsestic) is clear and generous, and she does not permit scholarly apparatus to get the better of her writing even while she creates a second persona, an alter ego, Hannike Buch, the buccaneer to the Van Herk fictioneer. The two usurp each other's roles, producing texts (sometimes in Dutch and English), sometimes parallel texts that are "ficto-commentary on the fiction" for elucidation. Van Herk's impulse is to avoid plot, position, and rigid form, though, of course, she admits, "there's no avoiding rhetoric or sex."
Van Herk offers an interesting reading of Christa Wolf's Cassandra, a doubled story in which the author enters the narrative much the way Van Herk enters her own crypto-frictions, and she executes clever riffs on Carol Shields and (especially) Paulette Jiles, both splendid exercises in contouring fellow-writers and reaching an inscape of language, gesture, and texture. In a bet against Dennis Cooley, she argues that Sinclair Ross must have read (though without acknowledgement) Nellie McClung's daring, feminist re-appropriation of the prairie in the short story, "Black Creek Stopping-House". Van Herk uses Ross's "The Painted Door" and McClung's story to pinpoint how the two stories (which are about husbands oblivious to wives' innermost desires) converge and then radically diverge: "The manipulation of time in McClung's story subverts the absolutism of the physical setting of prairie, and ultimately forges an idyllic and open ending, pleasured and pleasurable (in a bedroom), as compared to the absolute and puritan closure of freezing to death in the Ross story."
Like Van Herk, Phyllis Webb shuttles the reader back and forth between criticism and literature, giving us the purest brushstrokes in prose pieces generated by a diversity of occasions over a period of over twenty years. The shifts of time and mood reflect the states of her mind; her essays range over such matters as a Russell Drysdale painting, Proust's imagination, Gabrielle Roy, Sharon Thesen, Robin Blaser, photo collages (her own, which approach "pure vision"), the inspiration and physics of poetry, "the dance of the intellect in the syllables", and, most intriguing of all, psychobiography. Some pieces are too brief, some too neatly compressed, and there are longueurs in a collage of correspondence between Lilo Berliner and the anthropologist Wilson Duff. But Webb is an artist who is continually in dialogue with the reader, whom she treats with respectful courtesy. She does not seek to score debating points or pulverize her detractors. Following the Muse's advice to Sir Philip Sidney (I can hear the cries of dismay from anti-Brits), she looks into her heart to write. Of course, she recognizes the high skepticism of our century, where, as she notes, we don't have muses, merely computers, psychiatrists, drugs, astral travel, and Carl Sagan.
Yet she herself hears a muse, who turns out to be a little disconcerting: "Why do I so often feel that something or someone else is writing the poem? Why do I sometimes hear a voice calling `Phyllis,' calling me to my senses, to myself?" Clearly, her muse is not a literary convention, or quite spectacular enough to be a close encounter of the third kind. There is a continuing mystery in creation, quite beyond epistemology, physics, or psychology, and in a couple of wonderfully revealing instances, Webb discloses how unexpectedly and spontaneously a poem can unfold without thoroughly disclosing itself. She declares that obsessiveness is vital to the creative process, pointing out how a single mysterious line, "The light is mauve," was an insistent signalling, yielding eventually to a poem about death and her father's own particular obsession. In a second piece, "Painting the Old House", she shows how psychological disclosures broke through layers and strokes of actual house painting and were "transformed surprisingly to reveal a poem partly about sibling rivalry, partly about the perverse, sadistic, gamelike, and revelatory nature of the artist (and poet)." While some of her beliefs about erasure (read "drafts") and boundaries suggest a deconstructionist conviction about the problems of interpretation, she counters any anxiety about source and any skepticism about the author's presence by maintaining that, despite the interconnections of intertextuality, "the poet is, finally, responsible for the actual made poem." She complains that "the work of art is in danger of being de-aestheticized, domesticated, drained of pleasure." Her context is an essay on psychobiography and its breach of confidentiality, but her criticisms can be levelled with accuracy at critics with "territorial ambition in the field of culture", who (like Davey et al.) have attempted to define her by their own prejudices.
Finally, then, it is her unpretentious book that is the most radiant one in the series, carrying us back into the soul of creativity rather than into a critic's fertile mind. Nothing But Brush Strokes is deceptively simple, its approach quiet and civilized, its purpose not some academic discourse to validate the critic's real and imagined power but a genuine disclosure of some of the creative writer's pressing burdens. Her voice comes from experience and mystery and craft, not from theory and cultural politics.
Keith Garebian is the author of ten books. He is working on a memoir.