Shadow Play

  • Jason Potts (Editor) and Daniel Stout (Author)
    Theory Aside. Duke University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Judith Cowan (Author)
    The Permanent Nature of Everything: A Memoir. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Cynthia Sugars (Author)
    Canadian Gothic: Literature, History, and the Spectre of Self-Invention. University of Wales Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Coral Ann Howells

These three books all engage with the relation between the present and the past—how we recall it or reinvent it or reassess it through various forms of private and collective memory. But there the similarities end, for one is a family memoir, one a literary history, and one a collection of essays about critical theory.

Judith Cowan’s memoir is a haunted narrative written after her parents’ deaths, a “salvage operation” where she attempts to “unearth both the treasure and the hard truths from the unconscious past.” This is not a conventional elegy; instead it is constructed out of the scar tissue of childhood memories of growing up in a dislocated middle class family in 1940s and 50s English Canada. Cowan now lives in Quebec where she is an award-winning translator of French poetry, though “Nothing goes away” as Margaret Atwood reminds us, Cowan too is aware in one of her rare lyrical moments of “the permanent nature of everything.” The book charts a sensitive girl’s responses to “the shifting waters of family strife,” the result of her well-educated parents’ disastrous wartime marriage in 1942. The emotional damage inflicted on a child by unloving parents locked in mutual battle forms the substance of this memoir, giving the lie to the family portraits included here. Yet there are buried treasures also, like the memory of the glistening summer of 1948, “the happiest year I’ve ever known,” when her family moved to an old farmhouse in what is now Mississauga and the five-year-old child was free to discover her own secret world. That house was demolished in the postwar building boom as suburbia spread into Toronto’s outskirts. This private record of lost things and vanishings is paralleled in the wider sociological perspective of Canada’s transition to modernity. Cowan’s memoir ends with her first day at high school in Toronto: “There might be a future after all,” but her book reads like a series of unfinished conversations with the shades of her past.

By contrast, the ghosts in Cynthia Sugars’s Canadian Gothic: Literature, History and the Spectre of Self-Invention are the products of collective memory and literary imagination. The “spectral turn” in postcolonial studies has been fashionable for over a decade as a way of addressing anxieties over national identity and heritage, though most of that research has focused on contemporary writing, as did the essay collection Unsettled Remains: Canadian Literature and the Postcolonial Gothic (2009) co-edited by Sugars and Gerry Turcotte. This new book, which traces English-Canadian Gothic from its colonial beginnings to the postcolonial present, engages quite specifically with historical perspectives signalled but not explored earlier. The Gothic is always characterised by anxiety and fear, but what Sugars has discovered in sifting through the cultural complexities of an emergent nation’s literature is a peculiarly unstable Canadian attitude towards Gothic discourse, which she describes as “a dynamic interplay of Gothic presence and absence in the way texts utilize and refute their own relation to the Gothic.” Her intriguing analysis of this ambivalence shifts the emphasis from Wilderness Gothic and Frye’s “deep terror in regard to Nature” towards “Gothic domestication,” arguing that English-Canadian settlers’ feelings of unease generated an awareness of absence in the lack of hauntings in their New World place. This could only be compensated by “a conscious act of forging or Gothic self-invention.” Her excellent chapter “Local Familiars: Gothic Infusion and Settler Indigenization” traces that deliberate fashioning of settler ghosts and local legends through a host of major and minor works from the 1830s to the 1940s, a tradition continued in settler postcolonial historical fictions, where ghosts are creatively resuscitated as a political and cultural response to white Canadians’ anxieties. However, the inherently unstable nature of the national narrative is amplified in the final chapters on diasporic and Indigenous Gothic where non-mainstream voices tell different stories of ghosts and hauntings. Sugars offers a superbly comprehensive revisioning of Canadian Gothic with its ever-increasing complexity; indeed, as she argues, the appeal of Gothic might be seen as “a way of reaching towards the larger spectre of national self-invention.”

Even a book of critical theory may be haunted, not by Specters of Marx but by earlier scholars whose works, sidelined in the era of High Theory, are now reassessed in the fourteen essays in Theory Aside. Addressed to fellow academics, this interdisciplinary collection offers some lateral thinking about theory, arguing that “the devotion of our collective attentions to one current line of theoretical thought obscures our ability to recognize other valuable modes of inquiry.” Ian Balfour’s Afterword superbly summarizes the editors’ aims while recognizing that “There is no discourse in the humanities and social sciences that is not in some measure theoretical . . . it is only a question of how one does it.” The collection is divided into three sections: “Chronologies Aside,” “Approaches Aside,” and “Figures Aside,” covering an eclectic variety of approaches, of which I mention only a few. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Writing the History of Homophobia” highlights the difficulty of reconstructing alternative histories of sexuality, a problem shared with writing about women’s history or about any marginalised group. That topic is explored from a different angle by Natalie Melas in “Comparative Noncontemporaneities: C. L. R. James and Ernst Bloch,” an essay on postcolonial theory and historiography. The importance of history is again emphasised in Simon Jarvis’ “What Is Historical Poetics?” with its evocation of the Russian formalists in his exemplary analysis of Alexander Pope’s versification, while Irene Tucker’s “Before Racial Construction” returns to Kant’s writings on race and skin colour to draw attention to discontinuities between Enlightenment ideas of human equality and the invention of racialized bodies. George Ainslie, A. N. Whitehead and Erving Goffman are reassessed, though my favourite is Frances Ferguson’s wonderfully aleatory essay on I.A. Richards that investigates the psychology of reading in its analysis of Richards’s principles of iterary criticism. One sentence here sums up this volume’s openness of approach: “texts, being made up of words, were never going to be more stable than the words they were made up of.”



This review “Shadow Play” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 135-37.

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