Lives and Myths

Reviewed by Scott Duchesne

Scholars of graphic narrative, especially in Canada, have been waiting for Tom Smart’s Palookaville for some time. Smart, a gallery director and curator, has turned his well-calibrated critical lens onto the work of Seth’s multi-volume work Palookaville, and in so doing has articulated what so many already know, and hopefully others will soon realize: that Seth and his contemporaries, including Chester Brown, are artists whose work is equal to that of artists in other mediums who have rendered, and continue to render, Canadian life in exquisite detail.

Smart’s thesis, that Seth can be described “as a sophisticated performance artist” who carries out a mutable, “holistic” practice, enables him to investigate Seth’s abiding interests, his own thesis on “the nature of life, on the elasticity of time, on the qualities of memory and on one’s relationship to the past.” From Seth’s anachronistic glasses and coat to the “electric frisson” of his restless play with style in Palookaville—his shifting between “comic, episodic story, fictional narratives, ironic commentary on form and function and a self-reflexive compendium of [his] artistic sources and influences”—Smart deftly guides the reader through the narrative and aesthetic topography of the fictional city of Dominion, its key residents, and the forms in which Seth brings them to life. Smart’s book is hopefully the first of many studies that will engage in deeper, interdisciplinary research into the art of graphic narrative in Canada and abroad. His Palookaville will be long regarded as the gold standard for such scholarship.

In the conclusion to Social Myths and Collective Imaginaries, Gérard Bouchard writes: “The mythical lies at [the] heart of the cultural and the social. There are no societies without myths; there are only societies that ignore them.” And, if he is to be believed, more often than not, they ignore them at their peril. This dense and exhaustive study constitutes the inaugural text in what Bouchard calls a “vast research project” that seeks nothing less than to “advance our understanding of social myths and the process of mythification” in cultures. While primarily attuned to scholars in his discipline and somewhat problematic in terms of a lack of definitions and unquestioned assumptions, Social Myths is an intriguing and potentially valuable analysis of cultural development.

For Bouchard, social myths are a “blend of imagination, emotion, reason, and sacredness that is sustained through narratives, rooted in the psyche, and used as leverage in political life”; they are types “of collective representation . . . a vehicle of what I would call a message—that is, of values, beliefs, aspirations, goals, ideals, predispositions, or attitudes.” Collective imaginaries, based primarily on myths, are fluid cultural structures that “shap[e] a particular appropriation of reality that combines emotion and reason.” He embraces “emotion” as a key aspect of his research and acknowledges that his position emphasizes the mutability of his model, in contrast to a stable and coherent system.

Bouchard sets the scope of this project clearly in terms of establishing foundational definitions and clarifications, positioning his work as original and eschewing established modes of approach, and avoiding details in terms of speculating where this project might lead him and his discipline. As a result, keywords, such as “sacredness” and “emotion,” are left ill-defined, and in many cases are simply assumed to be “natural,” therefore intuitively and universally understood and not requiring definition. There are also facets of culture, particularly ideology, which Bouchard gives short shrift in terms of their influence as powerful structural appropriations of reality.

For Canadian readers, a remarkable subtext is Bouchard’s designation of Quebec as a separate nation in his analysis of social myths, set apart from anglophone, or the “Rest of,” Canada. Such a position is not surprising from the brother of Bloc Québécois founder Lucien Bouchard, as it is unsurprising that his barely implicit advocacy for the myth of Quebec sovereignty or separation and the collective imaginary of “reconquest,” spread out over the entirety of the study, is the strongest and most comprehensive aspect of this book. English Canadian society, he seems to suggest, would be wise not to ignore these emotions. At this stage of his research project, Bouchard offers in Social Myths a nebulous, sweeping hypothesis of the convergence of the mythical, the imaginary that at the moment appears to have little to no application beyond the academic. However, I look forward to future publications that might point a way to praxis, a way to apply this work to encourage social critique, engagement, and change.

This review “Lives and Myths” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 121-123.

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