Unsettled Empathies

Reviewed by Lorraine York

In a recent conversation, a colleague at another university reported being told by a teaching assistant that, when she referred to the Second World War in one of her lectures, a student in her class leaned over to their neighbour and joked, “I didn’t know there was a first one!” Sherrill Grace’s Landscapes of War is a passionate call for general readers to know these two devastating wars and to know them deeply, and for educators to give them greater prominence when we teach twentieth-century Canadian literary and cultural history.

This voluminous study is noteworthy for its generic sweep; Grace, a literary scholar, also traces visual artists’ and filmmakers’ responses to the wars, from the widely recognized wartime paintings of Alex Colville and Frederick Varley to more recent pieces by Gertrude Kearns, Jeff Wall and multimedia artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, to Paul Gross’s film Passchendaele and the McKenna brothers’ controversial documentary The Valour and the Horror. Grace is exemplary in giving Canadian drama the sustained attention that Canadian literary scholars do not as often as we might, and that attention is richly repaid by an intensive survey of Canadian plays about both world wars, from the expected Billy Bishop Goes to War to actor R.H. Thomson’s The Lost Boys, Marie Clements’s Burning Vision, Jason Sherman’s None is Too Many, and Judith Thompson’s Such Creatures.

This is a hybrid text in other ways; its implied audience is wider than its academic publishing venue—the University of Alberta Press—might suggest. Much of the text is devoted to plot/content summary of the many works that Grace considers, and while one might wish for a greater critical analysis-to-summary ratio, I think that this decision to describe the works in generous detail is directly related to the more public position that Grace has taken up.

For Grace, the arts offer the possibility of what Dominick LaCapra calls “empathetic unsettlement”—a term that Grace enthusiastically adopts: a receptivity to victims’ narratives that avoids appropriation. Cynthia Sugars’s and Gerry Turcott’s term “unsettled remains,” which they deploy in reference to Canada’s painful legacy of postcolonial trauma, is even more appropriate to the kinds of dynamics that Grace describes. And like the national narratives that implicate Canadians in our postcolonial pasts and present, Grace’s wartime narratives betray possibilities for both registering critique of those wars and shoring up national mythologies (for example, the national maturation narrative that tells us that Canada “grew up” on the Vimy battlefield). Grace more often sees the arts as offering critique, though, sussing out the lies and hypocrisies that go into the making of celebratory narratives. In the case of the controversy over the McKenna brothers’ The Valour and the Horror, Grace readily sees how its presentation of Canada’s military past as less than glorious unsettled patriotic narratives. But in reading Paul Gross’s recuperative filmic narrative Passchendaele, she struggles to sort out its ideological investments. Recounting the melodramatic scene in which Gross’s character, Michael Dunne, drags David, the crucified German-Canadian brother of his fiancée out of No Man’s Land, Grace rightly calls it “exaggerated and overwrought,” particularly in its adoption of the infamous Allied atrocity propaganda narrative of the crucified soldier. But to what end? “The simple answer is that I do not know,” admits Grace, with an admirable critical humility. But Dunne is recuperating David and his German ethnicity into a narrative of Anglo-Canadian heroism, no matter how the film otherwise subscribes to the more critical war-is-hell narrative. Considering the role of production in such narratives can help to clarify these ideological investments. In making Passchendaele, the most expensive Canadian film to date, Gross received funding from Ralph Klein’s Alberta government and also from the Dominion (now the Historica) Institute, whose uber-celebratory “Heritage Minutes” have been critiqued by, among others, the Comedy Network, in their satirical “Canadian Sacrilege Moments.” Grace allows that films are more open to controversy over their representations of Canada’s wars and “held to a higher standard of accountability than a novel or a play because they are funded by the public purse.” True, media coverage of Passchendaele routinely mentioned its large (for a Canadian film) budget and its backers. But novels and plays receive public funding too, though not to the tune of the 5.5 million that Ralph Klein kicked in to support Passchendaele. “Following the money,” though it can admittedly lead to overly deterministic linkages between funding source and the ideological bearing of the funded product, allows us to read these texts in their full ideological richness as cultural products circulating within a market.

In a fascinating passage from Landscapes of War, Grace confronts these conflicts between celebration and critique. She initially describes her response to the CBC coverage of the 2007 dedication of the Vimy monument that figures so prominently in Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers in an emotional, celebratory vein that resists political critique: “No doubt skeptics dismissed the rhetoric about a creation story and the making of a nation” (narratives that Grace herself has critiqued earlier in this very text) “and Canadians opposed to war and the glorification of the military must have deplored the emphasis on military protocol, the bearing of arms, the salutes.” In this passage, Grace clearly does not count herself among those “skeptics,” but in the very next paragraph, which reads as though it was composed later in the process of writing this book, she reflects that “In retrospect, I am more critical than I was during the broadcast because now I can reflect on what the event forgot rather than on what it remembered.” And herein lies a key value of Landscapes of War and Memory: modelling for national subjects how to navigate through the “Heritage-Minute” haze of emotional militarism to find what—and who—these accounts have forgotten.

This review “Unsettled Empathies” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 137-39.

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