Make It Old

Reviewed by Paul Barrett

As readers of this journal will know, the premise of Ghostbusters 2 is that the negative affects of the city of New York have manifested in the sewer system as a river of slime that threatens to wash away the goodwill and good citizens of Manhattan. John Metcalf’s latest book, Temerity & Gall, engages in a similar kind of projection: a veritable curmudgeonomicon wherein all of Metcalf’s bad feelings threaten to ooze from the page.


The cover is a sketch of Don Quixote with Metcalf as white knight striking down critical fallacies, bad writing, and limp verse. Metcalf has been lashing out at illusory windmills and sounding the same note of complaint since his first critical forays in the 1970s. His thesis then remains his thesis now: Canadian literature is formally and aesthetically incompetent and is thin gruel when compared to the great works of Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, Ezra Pound. Given that Metcalf’s criticism has struck this single, droning note for upwards of forty years, need he play it again?


Temerity & Gall is nominally structured as a travelogue of the remaining Montreal Storytellers: Ray Smith, Clark Blaise, and Metcalf himself. Yet this structure is largely superficial as Metcalf’s dissociative narration quickly loses the plot. Compelling anecdotes give way to rambling excoriations, sneering dismissals of Canadian authors, generalizations about the foppishness of the Canadian culture industry, and praise of antiquarian booksellers. This would be more entertaining were so much of it not recycled from Metcalf’s previous works, including Kicking against the Pricks (1982), Freedom from Culture (1994), and An Aesthetic Underground (2003). Metcalf loves lengthy, nested quotations and takes great liberties to quote his own past work; there are so many quotations that one wonders about the need for this book at all.


In the original sections Metcalf is in his usual Palpitinian form, lashing out at Canadian authors and critics who fail to align with his vision of the literary. Michael Ondaatje’s “writing has ripened into arteriosclerosis, dangerously florid, possibly suffering from ischemic incidents manifesting themselves in overwrought, incomprehensible metaphors and similes” (21); this is Metcalf’s idea of comedy. Jane Urquhart is the “author of a string of potboilers, a Canadian Maeve Binchy, resolutely middle-brow” (21). Sam Solecki’s dismissal of the short story is an “ill-educated tantrum” (381) and Ronald Sutherland’s claims about Canadian literature are “straightjacket material” (382). Metcalf insists that “Literature is not . . . the ludicrous twaddle of . . . Bliss Bloody Carman” (145) and asks, “How ‘quick to the touch’ do we now find the writings of Sylvia Fraser, Matt Cohen, Marian Engel, Al Purdy . . . Margaret Laurence, Farley Mowat, Austin Clarke, Rudy Wiebe, Leonard Cohen” (9). He dismisses the “slop and morass” of Purdy, bpNichol, Dionne Brand, and others; their work is inconsequential in “comparison with writing that was contemporaneous in the USA or England” (10).


Metcalf also sets himself against the members “of academe with their isms and theories and arcane enthusiasms and rigorous inclusivity” who, “fed by egalitarian resentments and armoured in ideas,” confront “literature seeking to subvert it” (128). For Metcalf, modern criticism’s “egalitarian resentments” and “rigorous inclusivity” (his gloss of Harold Bloom) eschews taste in favour of diversity mandates. He is an avowed elitist who believes that refined taste and judgment can only emerge from the right sort of reading, education, and person. Metcalf praises, for instance, Maurice Bowra as his “private school education and his subsequent career at Oxford fitted the pattern of intellectual brilliance, wealth, and privilege common to all the members of the Brideshead Generation” (100). For Metcalf, these are the necessary ingredients of a literary culture: intellectual brilliance, wealth, and privilege.


Metcalf’s critical lodestar is Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise (1938) and his insistence that “An expert should be able to tell a carpet by one skein of it: a vintage by rinsing a glassful round his mouth” (98). For Metcalf, this is precisely what contemporary literary critics lack: a refined sense of taste capable of distinguishing prized vintages from the swill. In an exemplary passage, he writes:


With the retreat from judgement—“better is an elitist word”—and the embrace of “Theory,” our eager academics in departments of English, clear-cut loggers rather than cabinet makers, in a spirit of nihilistic glee “deconstruct” and “interrogate” the work of writers they are too crudely educated to understand. Our departments of English seem to have achieved a gross new fusion—brothels serviced and administered by the feeble-minded. (114)


Metcalf’s critical failing is that he offers a naive vision of the literary that cannot withstand scrutiny. Abstract notions of taste—those who know, know—stand in for reasoning and analysis. Were one to suggest, for instance, that all writing strikes readers in different ways, that one reader’s Fernet-Branca is another’s Schlitz, or that conceptions of aesthetics are bound up with notions of power, Metcalf would accuse the critic of being part of the “cult” of theory. When the argument gets tough or his harangues lose steam, Metcalf opts for exasperation over explication, retreating into the aphorism or lengthy quotation rather than grappling with the complexities and implications of his own conclusions.


What most critics understand, and what Metcalf does not, is the partiality and situatedness of every reader and interpretation. From Frye to Fish to Derrida to Perloff to Gates and onwards, critics have understood that texts and notions of taste are shaped by social circumstances, and that a sophisticated critical eye strives to be aware of how its own vision of the text shapes interpretation. As Joan W. Scott argues, “Seeing is the origin of knowing. Writing is reproduction, transmission—the communication of knowledge gained through . . . experience” (776); astute critics aim not merely to see the text but to understand how they see. Metcalf eschews such self-awareness, instead conceiving of his critical vision as a Wodehousian Eye of Sauron spreading a dark vision across the literary.


While there is some wisdom in Temerity & Gall, Metcalf finds difficulty in extricating his clearer observations from the morass of his ramblings. He is right that some excellent writers, Mavis Gallant and Clark Blaise, for instance, are neglected by our current generation of readers and critics. And yes, Canadian literature overpraises mediocre or emerging writers. How many of today’s “vital,” “brilliant,” and “generous” novels will we still read in twenty years? Are Reproduction and 419 merely today’s The Temptation of Big Bear or Jalna novels? A more subtle and sophisticated aesthetic criticism that takes seriously the formal achievements of our writers remains necessary in Canadian literature; this is not it.


The tone changes, thankfully, in the middle of the book, when Metcalf shifts from excoriation to an intimate retelling of his experience as a collector of rare books. We see another Metcalf, whose love of literature is born out of the enchantment of words and their tactile connection to the flickering shadows of the past. His adoration of the “Brideshead Generation,” their purchase on a particular vision of British gentility, and the networks of dealers and collectors who have placed their first editions in his hands shines through in this section. There is evidence in these passages of the insightful John Metcalf who nurtured the careers of so many of the best Canadian writers.


Metcalf concludes with excerpts from another literary touchstone, B. S. Johnson’s Aren’t You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs? Johnson writes, “It is not a question of influence, of writing like Joyce. It is a matter of realizing that the novel is an evolving form, not a static one.” This leads to a quotation from Beckett: “there will be new form, and . . . this form will be of such type that it admits the chaos.” For Metcalf, these critical insights demonstrate the import of literary form over content, of reading for formal innovation, what Dionne Brand calls “radiant moments of ordinariness made like art” (18-19). Yet, if “the novel is an evolving form,” then might Metcalf not try to understand how the very texts he dismisses might represent formal evolutions of the the novel or the short story? Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Noopiming, a book Metcalf would surely dismiss, begins with an epigraph from Édouard Glissant: “This is an aesthetics of turbulence whose corresponding ethics is not provided in advance.” Like Beckett, Glissant and Simpson seek to understand what it means for literature to “admit the chaos” of the world in new, unpredictable forms, and to give voice to what it means to live today. Metcalf agrees with them in principle but demands that the new forms remain echoes of the old British models. In this respect, Temerity & Gall evinces D. H. Lawrence’s observation that “It is hard to hear a new voice . . . Why?—Out of fear. The world fears a new experience” (2). One hopes that in his future work Metcalf will abandon his fear of the turbulent, the chaotic, and the new and instead marry his “lament for the dimming of magic” (121) with an attempt to read the new, again.


Works Cited

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Vintage, 2002.

Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. Heinemann, 1924.

Scott, Joan W. “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 17, no. 4, 1991, pp. 773-97.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. Noopiming: A Cure for White Ladies. Anansi, 2020.

This review “Make It Old” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 3 Oct. 2022. Web.

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