- David Lucking (Author)
Ancestors and Gods: Margaret Laurence and the Dialectics of Identity. Peter Lang Publishing Group (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Nathalie Cooke
The titular phrase "ancestors and gods" betrays much and, at the same time, very little about this book’s real subject: Margaret Laurence’s dialectics. Other sets of Laurentian binaries might have served just as well for a title"order and disarray," for example, or "then and now." These phrases also appear frequently in Laurence’s work, and the precise meaning of each term, and therefore the relationship between the terms in each pair, are con¬stantly shifting. That these binaries are so interchangeable is precisely Lucking’s point: the phrase "ancestors and gods" serves as a representative paradigm for "an ambivalence pervading the whole of Laurence’s work," often expressed in terms of tension between two apparent opposites.
Laurence’s dialectical method, as Lucking envisions it, consists of an articulation of two principles as seeming contraries ancestors and gods, motion and stasis, repression and liberation, order and disarray, then and now and a narrative that sets into play a process of symbolic mediation. His answer to the question posed by his opening chapter "What is Canadian about Canadian Literature?" is precisely its negotiation of the seemingly contradictory imperatives: from its ancestors (France, England and America to a nation situated, and I’m quoting from Lucking’s introduction here, "betwixt and between," which feels its "authentic cultural roots lie elsewhere") and from its gods (still to be discovered by this nation in a world "dominated by the counterfeit cults of money and power, material success and eternal youth" and ever sought in the form of an authentic myth, a kind of "intellectual Grail quest").
Lucking’s approach to the subject of Laurence’s dialectics in Ancestors and Gods is itself dialectical. Without exception, Lucking opens each chapter length discussion by exposing a central contradiction at the heart of the work in question. In The Stone Angel chapter, which looks to the tension between what he calls the "world of civilization" and the "world of nature," the dialectic is signaled even in the title: "The Double Named Stone, Negotiating Contraries." Most effective is the one chapter that compares two books, the sister novels of the Manawaka cycle. Ironically, this is the one chapter in which Lucking’s dialectic resolves rather than exposes contraries. Lucking argues that the two novels are complementary in their treatment of similar themes, though from a "radically different" point of view. By tracing the parallel timelines of these two novels, thereby linking the epiphanic statements of Rachel (from A Jest of God) and her niece (in The Fire Dwellers) both chronologically and symbolically, and emphasizing the trajectory towards communion in both novels, Lucking effectively counters critical resistance to reading these two novels as closely paired.
Dialectical method motivates the book as well as its individual chapters. Ancestors and Gods is organized around two seemingly incompatible principles. On the one hand, it is structured as a chronological examination of all of Laurence’s full length fictional works. On the other hand, the argument is developed around the motivating principles of Laurence’s work: its method (vacillation, ambivalence, contrariety); symbols of mediation (journey, river, bridge, and language itself); and central themes ("nature and foundation of identity, the constraints upon human communication, the true essence of freedom, the complex interplay between tradition and change"). Synthesis of these two organizational principles emerges more easily in the chapters devoted to the Manawaka series than in those devoted to Laurence’s travel writing, perhaps because their self-conscious protagonists find themselves negotiating a similar dialectic, as their points of view shift and develop over time. I couldn’t help but wonder whether mention of the censorship controversy surrounding The Diviners, as well as scrutiny of her unpublished subsequent novel, might have given Lucking additional perspectives on the deadening as well as enlivening effect of oppositional thinking.
Lucking’s dialectical method gives his book the upper hand on a number of other commentaries of Laurence’s work. Most obviously, it enables his close scrutiny of Laurence’s two seemingly different bodies of work her travel writing and the Manawaka fiction and provides an analytical model through which to discuss both. (Earlier studies have tended to focus on one or the other, Laurence’s African work only coming into the critical spotlight since Fiona Sparrow’s 1992 book.) However, the imperative of a dialectical method of analysis in expository prose is ultimately to expose the processes of mediation. Consequently, although Ancestors and Gods acknowledges its own critical ancestry (the bibliography of secondary material is comprehensive, despite the rather glaring omission of reference to two published volumes of Laurence’s correspondence with Al Purdy and Adele Wiseman), it is not particularly interested in its points of divergence from current critical reception. (By contrast, we are very interested in those points of divergence and, as Canadian readers, we are especially interested in hearing more about Lucking’s own perceptions of them.) While this book participates actively in the critical dialogue surrounding Laurence’s work in Canada, it does not signal the ways in which it extends that discussion. One obvious way, of course, is that with this publication (which contains material published in earlier versions in Italy and Canada, as well as in Lucking’s 1995 book Myth and Identity), Lucking, who is a professor of English at the University of Lecce in Italy, continues to participate in the conversation about Canadian literature on both sides of the Atlantic itself a dialectical activity of sorts.
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MLA: Cooke, Nathalie. Dialectical Laurence. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #181 (Summer 2004), (Wiseman, Livesay, Sime, Connelly, Robinson). (pg. 157 - 159)
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