Ideas of North
- Sherrill Grace (Author)
Canada and the Idea of North. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Renée Hulan (Author)
Northern Experience and the Myths of Canadian Culture. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by John Moss
Sherrill Grace’s Canada and Idea of North is a postmodern wunderkammern, filled with the strange and marvelous souvenirs of an astonishing journey. The author has travelled through innumerable dimensions of North and returned to share a taxonomy of her discoveries and insights that will delight the most naive spectator but intrigue and educate the scholarly enthusiast, even the ones who have preceded her among the contours and planes of northern experience. Like Rudy Wiebe’s Playing Dead or my own Enduring Dreams, her particular cabinet of wonders is a postmodern text: the discursively constructed personality of the author within her work provides the main rhetorical and aesthetic device to give it coherence, meaning, impact and significance. Yet where Wiebe was informed by moral outrage and I by a personal quest, Sherrill Grace adapts the paraphernalia of scholarly discourse to illuminate a political vision. She writes to bring Canada together.
The subject and the object of Grace’s book is "the discursive formation of North," a phrase she repeats as often as five times on successive pages, a sort of mantra to remind both herself and her reader of what she is writing about, and why. Ranging through a voluminous selection of materials, she collapses boundaries among disciplines, genres, cultural and geographic territories. She moves easily from discussions of Glenn Gould’s celebrated radio broadcast, "The Idea of North," to Tomson Highway’s seminal novel, The Kiss of the Fur Queen, from considerations of national origins in writing by Harold Innis and by Robert Kroetsch to critiques of cultural theory by everyone from Michel Foucault to Alootook Ipellie. She offers brief accounts of a staggering variety of texts, images, and personalities which speak to the North, about the North, for the North, and from the North, and with these to provide the rhetorical links, she provides indepth analyses of singular moments in the formation of what she takes to be our distinguishing national characteristic, our northern sensibility, our northerliness.
While music and mapmaking, racial stereotypes and racist erasure, gender distortions and historical blunders, are all given due attention in articulating the diversity of what has been constructed as North (neither place nor direction but condition of mind), Grace falls back on her primary area of expertise for her most persuasive and insightful commentaries. The literary text is, for her, familiar territory. She is an established critic with a strong background in cultural theory. Her assessment of paintings, films, and musical compositions concerned with the North is primarily from a poststructural perspective, informed by semiotics but concerned more with the discourses of power than the power of discourse. When she addresses individual texts, she is a maverick Leavisite and postcolonial scourge, succinctly cutting to the heart of a work while demanding its evaluation in a context of social function— that is, where it fits within the discursive formation of North. The combination of close readings, expansive vision, and cultural mission makes Grace’s book a formidable complement to the vast array of northern materials it so artfully subsumes.
Renée Huían has published quite a different book of North. Northern Experience and the Myths of Canadian Culture is a luminous scholarly deconstruction of the very North that Grace posits as the source of our collective identity. While not so autobiographical— time and again Grace’s book declares its rhetorical intent in terms of a personal agenda—it is vitally concerned with experiential features of literary representation. With critical intensity, Hulan argues that the historical formation of north (lower case ’n’) has provided us with myths that transcend, constrain, or even erase the essential differences among us. Implicitly, her work is as political, if not so visionary, as Grace’s epic discursive adventure.
Hulan explicates the north as a primal aspect of the evolving Canadian Zeitgeist, but in radical opposition to Grace’s revisionist critique, she argues that it has little to do with the "specious notion of a national consciousness." Northern Experience and the Myths of Canadian Culture is a highly original, dynamic study, meticulously executed, exhaustively researched, and elegantly stated. While it isolates myths of the north for analytic discussion in a cultural context, the principal thrust of the book is to interrogate assumptions in a postcolonial context about the relationships between place and culture, history and presence, sovereignty and belonging, imagination and collective experience, to show how the formation of north has distended and distorted the polyphonic, multicultural, pluralistic, discursive Canadian identity. For Hulan, the imagined north has been wishful thinking, neither map nor mirror but mythic enterprise of a cultural minority.
Her emphasis on ethnography, both as a discipline and as an entry point into a broad range of writing from early travel literature to postmodern metafiction, gives Hulan’s book comprehensive and yet concentrated authority. Her observations about racist and sexist misprision and misapprehension are reinforced by the work of others. Commentaries on the north from historians such as Shelagh Grant and Bruce Hodgins, critics like Sherrill Grace, and literary populists like Farley Mowat have exposed the imagined north as the product of white male imperialist desire. But where others write to clarify the record, or to modify it, Hulan subverts it. "This study," she ingenuously writes in her epilogue, "has sought to unsettle the idea of north . . . " And so it does.
At the same time, Hulan cannot escape the profound intertextuality of the discursive formation of North. Her work participates in the worlds being deconstructed. Her close readings of texts, her acute sense of historical imperatives, her unflinching judgements of ethnocentric bias, her celebration of indigenous voices and disdain for the so-called authenticity of personal experience make this book ironically, if not paradoxically, a significant addition to Northern literature. I did not find comparable errors to those in Grace’s book (Grace uses the word Inuuk as a feminine form, when in fact it is limited plural; that is, one Inuk, two Inuuk, many Inuit), but then its reach, while more radical, is not so daring. Sherrill Grace draws attention to the postcolonial differentiation between English and english. In reading these two books concurrently, the reader is struck by the conflict between Grace’s North and Hulan’s north. For a discussion of either, however, both are necessary.
Hulan’s is a work with a profoundly disquieting thesis, yet it is argued with quiet authority. Where Grace strides through the project of building a national identity, immersed in the muck with a lovely confusion of blueprints in hand, Hulan observes from the catwalk. Grace could not have written her book without travelling North; Hulan might never have left academe. Inevitably, the latter articulates a disciplined, coherent, and convincing argument for questioning Canada as a northern nation, Canadians as a northern people, while the former provides affirmation that it is, and we are. For the reader, the difference is between participating in an exhilarating process of discovery and sharing in the beautifully articulated product of thought.
- More Northern Indices by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: Gamblers and Dreamers: Women, Men, and Community in the Klondike by Charlene Porsild, True North: The Yukon and the Northwest Territories by William R. Morrison, Un/Covering the North: News, Media, and Aboriginal People by Valerie Alia, and Across the Top of the World: The Quest for the Northwest Passage by James P. Delgado
- Moving the Margins by Maria Noëlle Ng
Books reviewed: Other Chinas: The Yao and the Politics of National Belonging by Ralph A. Litzinger and Postmodernism and China by Arif Dirlik and Xudong Zhang
- Les tribulations de la critique québecoise by André Lamontagne
Books reviewed: Les tribulations du livre québécois en France (1959-1985) by Josée Vincent and Lectures du postmodernisme dans le roman québécois by Lucie-Marie Magnan and Christopher Morin
- Transforming Literature by Norman Cheadle
Books reviewed: Canadian Cultural Exchange / Échanges culturels au Canada: Translation and Transculturation / traduction et transculturation by Norman Cheadle and Lucien Pelletier
- Mythologizing History by Coral Ann Howells
Books reviewed: New World Myth: Postmodernism and Postcolonialism in Canadian Fiction by Marie Vautier
MLA: Moss, John. Ideas of North. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #181 (Summer 2004), (Wiseman, Livesay, Sime, Connelly, Robinson). (pg. 132 - 134)
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