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«Résumé Au Canada, la tradition gothique est, depuis toujours, fourchue et conflictuelle. L’invocation explicite de la tradition gothique ...»

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Phantom Nation: English-Canadian Literature

and the Desire for Ghosts



In Auseinandersetzung mit der britischen „Gothic tradition“ lässt sich in Kanada eine

zweigeteilte und in sich widersprüchliche kanadische Ausprägung der Gattung beobachten. Unter expliziter Berufung auf die britischen Ursprünge des Genres nutzen

anglokanadische Autoren und Autorinnen die literarische Tradition vom neunzehnten Jahrhundert bis in die Gegenwart, um sich eine eigene kulturelle Tradition zu erschreiben, während vor allem in jüngerer Zeit diese Funktionalisierung der Tradition – die Erfindung einer kollektiven kulturellen Identität – zunehmend kritisch hinterfragt wird.

Insbesondere in der postkolonialen Ausprägung der Gattung lässt sich ein spannungsvolles Nebeneinander von postkolonialer Kritik (die Präsenz des ‚Unheimlichen’) und der Affirmation einer kulturellen nationalen Identität beobachten. Als Reaktion auf solch nationale Identitätskonstruktionen formiert sich ein von „aboriginal“ und „diasporic authors“ initiierter Gegendiskurs.

Résumé Au Canada, la tradition gothique est, depuis toujours, fourchue et conflictuelle.

L’invocation explicite de la tradition gothique britannique a provoqué la réinvention d’un roman noir typiquement canadien ayant pour but de créer une forme qui assurerait la survivance culturelle et, plus récemment, une forme de contestation. Cette tradition est marquée par une espèce de « désir gothique » prenant la forme d’une invocation du gothique qui non seulement serait désirable mais permettrait aussi d’affirmer une ancienneté culturelle et une légitimité nationale. Cette approche est évidente dans de nombreux textes canadiens postcoloniaux qui associent la possibilité d’appartenance à une étrange simplicité. Malgré leur interrogation postcoloniale, le tournant historique dont témoignent beaucoup de ces textes s’exprime par l’invocation du gothique comme forme d’héritage historique et d’auto-engendrement culturel. Ainsi, de nombreux textes d’auteurs canadiens diasporiques ou amérindiens se veulent des réponses « contrediscursives » aux discours gothiques nationalistes.


Zeitschrift für Kanada-Studien 31.2 (2011) 58-77 English-Canadian Literature and the Desire for Ghosts 59 This essay emerges out of the research for my chapter on “Canadian Gothic” for David Punter’s A New Companion to the Gothic (2011) and for my forthcoming book in the “Gothic Literary Studies Series” with the University of Wales Press entitled Canadian Gothic: Literature, History, and the Spectre of Self-Invention (2013).1 This book will offer a significant reassessment of the Gothic tradition in Canadian literature by tracing a distinctive reworking of the British Gothic tradition in Canada that is characterized by a summoning of the Gothic for its vitalizing rather than unsettling potential. My argument is that the Gothic tradition in Canada has been a bifurcated and conflicted one, in which authors’ self-conscious invocations of a British Gothic tradition led to a reimagining of a specifically Canadian Gothic that utilizes the genre as a form of cultural sustenance and, in more recent years, contestation.

This tradition is marked by what I term ‘Gothic desire’, which manifests itself as an invocation of the Gothic as not only desirable, but also comforting and culturally sustaining.

An appropriate beginning to this discussion is J. Edward Chamberlin’s account of a meeting between an Aboriginal elder and the government officials who were laying claim to his people’s land. In response to the official’s demands, the Elder inquired: “If this is your land, where are your stories?” (2004, 1). This is an emblematic exchange in the history that I am considering because I am arguing that Canadian settler literature has from its beginnings been haunted by its struggle to ‘story’ itself.

Furthermore, Chamberlin argues that it is the strangeness of stories that lures the listener, as if to say that the ‘strange’ contributes to the constitution of a psychic space that resonates as ‘home’. From early on, one of the prominent discourses that was used to approach the problem of ‘storying’ and ‘historying’ Canada was the discourse of the Gothic. Pressed to supply their ‘storied’ rendition of the place, Canadian writers sought to create homemade legends that could provide an illusion of antiquity, origin, and memory. A sensation of haunting would thus bolster a sense of belonging in terms of what I call a desire for ‘settled unsettlement’. Canadian culture, I am arguing, has for a long time wanted to be haunted.

My book will explore the transformations the Gothic genre underwent in its transplantation to Canada, from the early 19th century when debates about Canadian national identity and Canadian literature were raging, on through the century into our contemporary moment. It is important to note that the Gothic Revival in 18th and early 19th century Europe coincided with the first attempts, in Canada, to articulate and define a Canadian literature. Canadian authors, from very early on in discussions about Canadian literary and national identity, and well into the present, have invoked elements of the Gothic to articulate a sense of Canada’s precariousI would like to acknowledge David Punter and Blackwell publishers for their earlier support of this work, and the editors of the “Gothic Literary Studies Series” for the University of Wales Press, Andrew Smith and Ben Fisher. I would also like to acknowledge the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for a Standard Research Grant in support of this project. See also Sugars/Turcotte, Unsettled Remains: Canadian Literature and the Postcolonial Gothic (2009).

60 Cynthia Sugars ness within history. Yet I would argue that these early writers’ relation to the Gothic was an uneasy one, which manifested itself in a tug-of-war with Gothic motifs and ideology as a way of asserting Canada’s contradictory claim to history as lineage (an ‘old’ country) and to history as modernity/progress (a ‘new’ country). The Gothic is invoked by these authors as a way of getting at anxieties about historicity (where one belongs within history) and historicization (how one writes one’s self into history), as these bear on the constitution of an emergent national consciousness.

I want to clarify that I am not interested in the Gothic as a form of supernaturalism or horror or even in ghost stories per se, but rather in what the Gothic is being used for by these authors. In other words, I am interested in the cultural work that these invocations of the Gothic are doing, especially in terms of its association with questions of historicity, inheritance, political power, and perceptions of the uncanny. The one constant in traditional Gothic literature, which is central to my interest in the ways that it circulates in Canada, is that there is always an anxiety about history.

In their critical introduction to the Gothic, David Punter and Glennis Byron argue that Gothic writings became a forum for working out concerns about ancestral inheritance and historical continuity, which in late 18th century Britain emerged from post-revolutionary anxieties about social legitimacy. According to this configuration, the Gothic was considered to be “prior to […] the establishment of civilised values and a well-regulated society” (Punter 2004, 8). Yet it was also perceived as somehow necessary as a ground for a properly cultured civilization. What interests me is the way these Gothic concerns were self-consciously transposed onto colonial contexts (such as Canada) where assumptions of social privilege and historical continuity were even less viable. Projecting Gothic absence onto Canada provided an illusory control over historical self-inscription, a process that expressed a superceding of the Gothic and a lament for its absence, which would inevitably be followed by a reinscription of cultural depth. Canada, I am arguing, learned to read itself through a refracting Gothic lens (though not necessarily through the lens of the savage or haunted wilderness, as I will discuss).

1. Wilderness gothic and psychic projection

There is a long history of Gothic expression in Canadian literature, reaching back to the colonial foundations of the nation. One can argue that from the beginning the ‘idea’ of Canada was integrally caught up with discourses of the Gothic (which sometimes take the form of rejections of the Gothic). The maps of early explorers to North America, with illustrations representing grotesque beasts, cannibals, and sections labelled “here there be monsters,” evoke the Gothic nature of peoples’ early encounters with the unknown elements of the ‘new world’. This tradition of Gothic presence embodied in the landscape contributed to the sense that Europeans were ‘lost’ inside the New World – hence Frye’s suggestion that the archetypal question English-Canadian Literature and the Desire for Ghosts 61 for Canadians is not “Who am I?” but “Where is here?” (1965, 826) – a dilemma that marks the experience of a non-Indigenous intruder who is aware, yet typically in denial, of him/herself as a ‘foreign’ element. Processes of entrapment (including literal kidnappings), by which many Europeans sought to ‘civilize’ Aboriginal peoples, became projected onto the people and landscape themselves, whereby the European felt himself to be vulnerable to Aboriginal treachery. This paranoia is evident in numerous exploration accounts, from Jacques Cartier’s suspicions, in 1535, that the Iroquois people are planning to ambush him; to Samuel Hearne’s famous portrait of the Coppermine Massacre in 1771 during which he feels in danger for his life; to John Franklin’s fear that the Métis translators and voyageurs on his 1820-22 journey are plotting mutiny. Indeed, it is widely suggested that Hearne’s famous account of the massacre of the “Esquimaux” might have been substantially altered to make it more horrific and dramatic (see MacLaren 1991), which would have been in keeping with the Gothic literary style that had become popular in his day. Travel writing, by its nature, is a journey into the unknown; travel to North America in the 16th and 17th centuries was, for many, depicted as a journey into psychic disarray.

The Gothic threat of an encroaching wilderness is the primary thrust of much eastern and central Canadian writing that tells of pioneering in the Canadian backwoods. Tales of struggle and hardship in keeping the bush out in effect empower the external monstrosity to invade the settler from within. Such constructions led Frye to identify what he termed the “garrison mentality” in early Canadian literature, a defensive measure in which “isolated communities surrounded with a physical or psychological ‘frontier’” cling to one another when “confronted with a huge, unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting” (1965, 830). One of the paradigmatic texts in this tradition is John Richardson’s 1832 Gothic romance Wacousta;

or, The Prophecy, set during the Pontiac War of 1763, yet even this text exhibits an ambivalence about the wilderness Gothic ideology through its unravelling of the Gothic dichotomies it creates. In this tale, the British garrison of Fort Detroit is attacked by a band of Aboriginal people, led by Pontiac and his advisor, the ‘demonic’ Wacousta. As a figure of satanic menace, Wacousta appears to be a kind of ‘ubersavage,’ the prototypical stuff of Canadian settlement nightmare: “His face was painted black as death; and as he stood under the arch of the gateway, […] this formidable and mysterious enemy might have been likened to the spirit of darkness presiding over his terrible legions” (Richardson 1832, 180). The Gothic unravelling, however, hinges on the relocation of the source of Gothic threat, since Wacousta, it turns out, is in fact Sir Reginald Morton, a British officer who has ‘gone native’ in order to wreak revenge on Charles de Haldimar, the commander of the fort. By showing how the British garrison has in fact been ‘infected’ from within, the novel plays on dualities between civilization and savagery, self and other, revealing the barbaric foundations of the British imperial enterprise. The novel has elicited multiple interpretations for its psychological study of the projective mechanisms involved in colonization, by which the colonizers projected their fears onto Aboriginal 62 Cynthia Sugars peoples, thus rendering them an apparent source of Gothic terror. The novel charts a return of the repressed in more ways than one: the British general’s own duplicity comes back to haunt him in the form of an externalized Other, while the British garrison as a whole is haunted by the ambivalent desires it tries to subdue.

This experience of psychic dissolution, catalyzed by a sensation of engulfment by the Canadian wilderness, is evident in Susanna Moodie’s famous account of pioneering in the backwoods of Ontario, Roughing It in the Bush (1852). Beginning with her arrival in Canada in 1832, the book shows the influence of the British Gothic tradition in its accounting of a lone woman at the mercy of deceitful Americans and grinning hucksters, lost amidst the sublime cathedral of the Ontario forest. “[M]y love for Canada,” she writes, “was a feeling very nearly allied to that which the condemned criminal entertains for his cell – his only hope of escape being through the portals of the grave” (1852, 135). This growing paranoia reaches a peak when

Moodie finds herself inside a Gothic nightmare of her own creation:

The night had closed in cold and foggy, and I could no longer distinguish any object at more than a few yards from the door. Bringing in as much wood as I thought would last me for several hours, I closed the door; and for the first time in my life I found myself at night in a house entirely alone […] The little brook lifted up its voice in loud, hoarse wailing, or mocked, in its babbling to the stones, the sound of human voices.

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