Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “May, 2015”

A Refuge to the North … or an Enemy?

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Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004)

Although it’s at a notably higher literary level, this novel, like Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, is an “alternate history.” The Plot Against America imagines what would have happened in the U.S. had Charles Lindbergh run against and beaten Roosevelt in the 1940 election and not only held the U.S. out of the Second World War, but tacitly supported Hitler and begun to introduce anti-Semitic measures in the U.S. The story centres on “Philip Roth,” a boy growing up in Newark, New Jersey during the Second World War, and his parents, his brother Sandy (who briefly becomes a Lindbergh supporter) and his cousin Alvin.

There are countless references to Canada throughout the novel – far too many for me to catalogue them all – but they divide neatly into three larger categories.

1. A Centre of Resistance

In the novel, Lindbergh’s election platform essentially boils down to “A vote for Roosevelt is a vote for war”; Lindbergh himself is portrayed as an enigmatic figure who campaigns by flying across the country in his plane and repeating this one essential campaign idea in three-minute “speeches” wherever he lands (it’s perhaps not a coincidence that the novel was published in the middle of the George W. Bush era). This conversation is between Philip and his brother Sandy:

“He’s going to be president,” Sandy told me. “Alvin says Lindbergh’s going to win.”
He so confused and frightened me that I pretended he was making a joke and laughed.
“Alvin’s going to go to Canada and join the Canadian army,” he said. “He’s going to fight for the British against Hitler.”
“But nobody can beat Roosevelt,” I said.
“Lindbergh’s going to. America’s going to go fascist.”  (25-26)

When Lindbergh wins the election and keeps the U.S. out of the “European war,” Alvin goes to Canada, joins the army, loses a leg fighting, spends months in a Canadian army hospital in Montreal, and eventually returns to Newark to live with Philip’s family.

There is an interesting commentary on the idea of America as the “land of the free” in this part of the novel, given that Americans who want to fight against Hitler have to go to Canada to do so. Since Canada never rebelled, it is still tied to Great Britain in a way the U.S. no longer is, meaning there is no question whether Canada will enter the war on the British side. The U.S., being “free,” has more autonomy to stay out of European conflicts, and yet in the novel this apparent freedom is inverted, with the U.S. supporting a dictator and ultimately moving towards dictatorship itself, while Canada, though technically under the colonial yoke, so to speak, is fighting for freedom.

This leads to a further inversion of expected tropes about Canada: in general, we are portrayed as a less war-like nation than the U.S. In this case, it is Canada that is going to war and the U.S. that is remaining out of it, and yet because the war is seen as a just one, and the reason for U.S. neutrality is not principled pacifism but rather support for fascism, Canada’s willingness to fight appears like a virtue within the context of the novel.

There are a number of other references to Canada when Alvin comes up in the story, but none really expand on the essential idea in this passage; they simply reiterate it. There is one other moment about Alvin that might be worthy of note, however:

As a handicapped veteran he was eligible for further benefits should he choose to remain in Canada, where foreign volunteers into the Canadian armed forces, if they wished, were granted citizenship immediately upon discharge. And why didn’t he become a Canuck? asked Uncle Monty. Since he couldn’t stand America anyway, why didn’t he just stay up there and cash in?  (122)

I believe this is the first time we’ve come across the term “Canuck” to refer to Canadians. It seems, in this instance, to have an edge of disdain to it, as if it were almost a slur. A couple of other conventional ideas of Canada are also present in this brief passage: the words “up there” convey again the obvious fact that Canada is to the north of the U.S., and in the mention of “further benefits” we might see a hint at Canada’s vastly superior health care system.

2. A Place of Refuge

By far the most common representation of Canada in the novel is as a “haven” for American Jews to escape to as the situation in the U.S. under Lindbergh becomes increasingly intolerable. The theme is sounded very early in the novel, and recurs pretty well all the way through; I will only focus on a few characteristic examples.

This passage relates to the Roth family taking a vacation in Washington D.C.:

The trip had been planned back when FDR was a second-term president and the Democrats controlled both Houses, but now with the Republicans in power and the new man in the White House considered a treacherous enemy, there was a brief discussion about our driving north instead to see Niagara Falls and to take a boat cruise in rain slickers through the St. Lawrence River’s Thousand Islands and then to cross over in our car into Canada to visit Ottawa. Some among our friends and neighbors had already begun talking about leaving the country and migrating to Canada should the Lindbergh administration openly turn against the Jews, and so a trip to Canada would also familiarize us with a potential haven from persecution.  (44)

That encapsulates the essential idea; there is an interesting moment that somewhat complicates this image of Canada as a safe haven, however. In the course of their vacation in Washington (in which the Roth family is turned out of a hotel and suffers various other forms of discrimination), Philip’s father gets into an argument by loudly praising Roosevelt in front of some Lindbergh supporters, one of whom calls him “a loudmouth Jew.” This is the father’s attempt to calm down Philip’s mother after the incident:

“Honey,” my father told her, “we ran into a screwball. Two screwballs. We might have gone up to Canada and run into somebody just as bad.”  (66)

This is, I believe, the only moment in the novel that hints at Canadian anti-Semitism; the rest of the time, an uncomplicated image of Canada as a “haven from persecution” is maintained, though at this time anti-Semitism would likely have been as prevalent here as in the U.S.; without the Lindbergh administration’s tacit approval, however, it might not have been expressed as readily, and that seems to be the key idea in Roth’s conception of our country.

As the novel proceeds, escaping to Canada recurs as an increasingly likely possibility:

[My mother] explained to Sandy and me that her paycheck would contribute toward meeting the larger household bills occasioned by Alvin’s return while her real intention (known to no one other than her husband) was to deposit her paychecks by mail into a Montreal bank account in case we had to flee and start from scratch in Canada.  (112)

So there we see flight to Canada as a prospect the Roths are seriously considering, and even beginning to prepare for. Things go a step further when some friends of the Roths’, the Tirschwells, actually make the move:

It was then that [my father] learned from Shepsie Tirschwell, whom he visited up in his booth after the show, that on the first of June his old boyhood friend was leaving for Winnipeg with his wife, his three children, his mother, and his wife’s elderly parents. Representatives of Winnipeg’s small Jewish community had helped Mr. Tirschwell find work as a projectionist at a neighborhood movie house there and had located apartments for the entire family in a modest Jewish neighborhood much like our own. The Canadians had also arranged a low-interest loan to pay for the Tirschwells’ move from America….  (194)

What strikes us here is the generosity of the Jewish community in Winnipeg, which is willing to do so much to help an American family move there. This suggests a strong community spirit, which indicates that Canada is a more communal, less individualistic nation than the U.S. It also reveals that Canadian Jews are aware of how dire things are becoming for Jews in America under Lindbergh. And in the passing mention that the Jewish community in Winnipeg is “small,” there is a suggestion that Canada is a less cosmopolitan and diverse nation than the U.S., but at the same time, almost counterintuitively, a more tolerant and welcoming one.

Tension over the question of moving to Canada eventually erupts in the Roth marriage:

“You don’t see Shepsie sitting around writing letters and waiting for the worst to happen,” [my mother] said. “No,” he replied, “not Canada again!” as though Canada were the name of the disease insidiously debilitating us all. “I don’t want to hear it. Canada,” he told her firmly, “is not a solution.” “It’s the only solution,” she pleaded. “I am not running away!” he shouted, startling everyone. “This is our country!” “No,” my mother said sadly, “not anymore. It’s Lindbergh’s. It’s the goyim’s. It’s their country….”  (226)

The linking of Canada, which has always been presented as a haven, to a type of disease, is meant to demonstrate the anger in the father’s tone, I think, rather than to be a reflection on the nature of the country itself. But the question of whether to flee the U.S. or to remain and struggle to “save” it is central to the book, and we might draw parallels between that question and the idea of moving to Canada that was sometimes raised, albeit jokingly, by some Americans after George W. Bush won a second term, and again when Mitt Romney was running against Obama.

In Roth’s vision of the U.S. under Lindbergh, things become increasingly dire, ultimately leading to the outbreak of racially motivated riots in American cities. In a passage about riots in Detroit we come across the final reference to Canada as a safe haven:

By nightfall, several hundred of the city’s thirty thousand Jews had fled and taken refuge across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, and American history had recorded its first large-scale pogrom, one clearly modeled on the “spontaneous demonstrations” against Germany’s Jews known as Kristallnacht….  (266)

This shows how ugly the situation has become in the U.S., but doesn’t in any way change or advance the impression of Canada, which is still seen as an escape from the American anti-Semitism that is now running rampant. And so, with the exception of the one mention of possible anti-Semitism in Canada by Philip’s father (which is purely speculative), these parts of Roth’s novel actually present a very sustained and consistent view of Canada as an open, tolerant nation which is eager to welcome Jewish families fleeing persecution in the U.S.

3. A Stealthy Enemy (Contains Spoilers)

I generally think “spoiler alerts” are a bit absurd – Romeo and Juliet gives away the ending in the first 14 lines, after all – but since they seem to be part of online writing protocol, I will warn you that in this section, it’s not possible for me to discuss the references to Canada without “giving away” parts of the book’s ending, which, if you read exclusively to be surprised by plot twists, may spoil the novel for you. If a book doesn’t lose all interest for you as soon as you know what happens towards the end, you can safely read on.

The plot takes a major turn late in the novel when President Lindbergh, flying across the country on one of his speaking tours, simply disappears. No trace of him or of his plane is ever found. The Vice President, Burton Wheeler, becomes Acting President; Roth portrays him as even more of an anti-Semitic fascist than Lindbergh – or perhaps I should say as a more open anti-Semitic fascist. In any case, the situation becomes significantly worse for Jews in America.

For our purposes, the most interesting point is that Wheeler and his confederates in the American government immediately begin to hint that Canada is somehow involved in Lindbergh’s disappearance. The implication seems to be that the U.S., by opening hostilities with Canada, will create headaches for the British (we have already been told that “Canada had become virtually [Britain’s] only source of arms, food, medicine and machinery” (88)) and make it easier for the Nazis to win the war in Europe.

There are a number of passages in the closing chapters that link Canada to Lindbergh’s disappearance and cause escalating tensions between the U.S. and its northern neighbour. The following is a news item about a “German intelligence report” (I should note that this part of the novel is written in the form of archived news reports and not Philip’s first-person narration):

No sooner had the president taken off for Washington than he was unable to make contact with the ground or with other aircraft and had no choice but to capitulate when the Spirit of St. Louis was corralled by high-flying British fighter planes, which forced him to deviate from his course and to land, some hours later, at an airstrip secretly maintained by international Jewish interests across the Canadian border….  (309-10)

And in the next paragraph:

…Secretary of the Interior Ford is demanding that Mackenzie King, prime minister of Canada, conduct an intensive search on Canadian soil for President Lindbergh and his captors.  (310)

Things quickly escalate:

Second, House Republicans introduce a bill calling for a declaration of war against the Dominion of Canada should Prime Minister King fail to reveal the whereabouts of America’s missing president within forty-eight hours.  (315)

And then:

In Buffalo the mayor announces his intention to distribute gas masks to the city’s citizens, and the mayor of nearby Rochester initiates a bomb shelter program “to protect our residents in the event of a surprise Canadian attack.” An exchange of small-arms fire is reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the border between Maine and New Brunswick, not far from Roosevelt’s summer home on Campobello Island in the Bay of Fundy.  (317)

Canada’s continuing association with Great Britain (note “Dominion of Canada”) is here turned against it by the U.S. administration, which uses it to claim that Canada is, at best, being used by the British to stealthily attack the United States or, at worst, is actively working against U.S. interests. The quick escalation in these passages, and the way anti-Canadian sentiment catches fire, stirred up by American political leaders, seems to suggest that the U.S. is in the grip of some sort of mass hysteria. As well, it might again remind us of events during the George W. Bush administration when, shortly after 9/11, American politicians began to suggest (absent any apparent evidence) that terrorists were streaming across the undefended Canadian border into the U.S. to stage attacks against American targets.

The reference to Roosevelt’s summer home on Campobello Island (a Canadian island, part of New Brunswick) is a fascinating one: though nothing is stated explicitly, the fact that he “summers” (love that verb) in what is technically part of Canada seems to be a way for the Wheeler administration to further link Roosevelt to the British and “Jewish interests” that are supposedly responsible for Lindbergh’s abduction.

All of this leads to the following exchange between Philip and his mother when she tells Philip he won’t be going to school because “the situation has further deteriorated”:

“I want to know why there’s no school, Ma.” “Must you know tonight?” “Yes. Why can’t I go to school?” “Well … it’s because there may be a war with Canada.” “With Canada? When?” “No one knows. But it’s best if you all stay home until we see what’s going on.” “But why are we going to war with Canada?”  (353)

This passage, when contrasted with the ones above, sets up the central dichotomy of Canada in this novel: the Jewish characters view it as a safe haven, while the pro-Nazi Americans see it as a threatening British puppet state looming immediately to the north.

Philip’s response to his mother seems designed to point up the absurdity of the view of Canada held by the Wheeler administration and its allies. When Philip says, “With Canada?” it’s important to note that the word “Canada” (bolded for emphasis above) appears in italics in the text. The italics convey Philip’s incredulity at the idea that the U.S. could possibly be going to war with Canada, their quiet, peaceful, polite neighbour to the north. (Similar markers of incredulity were used in Howard Jacobson’s treatment of Canadian anti-Semitism). The closeness of the Canada-U.S. relationship, and the tendency of Americans to view Canadians as essentially milder versions of themselves, may be part of the reason Roth chooses this particular development for the final phase of his novel. It’s as if he’s saying that Americans must truly be in the grip of some kind of collective insanity if they are willing to go to war with an inoffensive little nation like Canada.

The final line above, “Why are we going to war with Canada?” seems to beg the obvious question: why would anyone? And the idea that lies behind it – that it is impossible to imagine anyone going to war with Canada – offers a neat summary of the general idea of Canada that comes across in Roth’s novel: as a safe, orderly, tolerant nation, in sharp contrast with the U.S., which progressively descends into insanity over the course of the book.

4. Bonus: Canada’s Nazi Figure Skater

There is one other interesting reference to Canada, which doesn’t really fit in with the others but seems worthy of note simply for its oddity. Though most of the Jewish characters in the book are portrayed as strongly anti-Lindbergh, Philip’s Aunt Evelyn and her husband, Rabbi Bengelsdorf, support Lindbergh and essentially become collaborators once he is in power. The following quote comes from Aunt Evelyn’s description of a party she attended at the White House where von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, was the honoured guest:

[von Ribbentrop’s] known to be an excellent dancer, and he is, it’s true – a perfectly magical ballroom dancer. And his English is faultless. He studied at the University of London and then lived for four years as a young man in Canada. His great youthful adventure, he calls it.  (213)

Ribbentrop did, in fact, live in Canada; here are the details, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Fluent in both French and English, young Ribbentrop lived at various times in Grenoble, France and London, before travelling to Canada in 1910.

He worked for the Molsons Bank on Stanley Street in Montreal, and then for the engineering firm M. P. and J. T. Davis on the Quebec Bridge reconstruction. He was also employed by the National Transcontinental Railway, which constructed a line from Moncton to Winnipeg. He worked as a journalist in New York City and Boston, but returned to Germany to heal from tuberculosis. He returned to Canada and set up a small business in Ottawa importing German wine and champagne. In 1914, he competed for Ottawa’s famous Minto ice-skating team, participating in the Ellis Memorial Trophy tournament in Boston in February.

It sounds like he actually had a significant life in Canada, even participating in a quintessentially Canadian sport, ice skating. In terms of the reference in Roth’s novel, it’s worth at least noting the use of the word “adventure,” as the idea that Europeans think of Canada as a romantic land of adventure is one that has come up before.

As for a high-ranking Nazi having lived in Canada (before he became a high-ranking Nazi, of course), I have to admit I had no idea. I suppose Ottawa and Montreal (understandably) don’t do anything to publicize the connection in their tourism materials.

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Third World Places Like … Quebec?

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Chris Kraus, torpor (2006)

Having lived through early to mid-90s academia, I have to admit I could relate to much of torpor – not that I was one of these people, but I certainly encountered some of them. This novel takes place in 1991 and follows Sylvie Green, a filmmaker and sometime teacher, and Jerome Shafir, an academic and editor – both classic 90s academic types and presumably based on Kraus herself and her former husband – as they travel through Europe to Romania, purportedly to adopt a child. That, at least, is the bare bones of the narrative, but the story makes such extensive use of flashbacks and flash forwards that it encompasses all of Sylvie and Jerome’s personal histories and their relationship.

I suppose you could classify it as a black comedy, or perhaps a satire of the way a vapid culture of celebrity, akin to the one that governs Hollywood, took over universities in the 80s and 90s, putting the focus on “superstar” academics and leading to the “cultural studies” movement, which revealed much less about popular culture than it did about the desire of certain academics to appear “hip” and “relevant.” And yet beneath the sharply observed satire, this is a powerful and profoundly sad book, charting in minute detail the gradual break-up of a couple whose interests and desires were never really aligned to begin with, and conveying in particular the pain and emptiness Sylvie feels at her own childlessness.

I’m afraid this post will turn into a bit of a grab bag; there are a number of references to Canada, but they’re not connected by any overarching idea, so it’s difficult to organize them.

1. Canadian Intellectuals

a) Despite Predictions to the Contrary, The Revolution Is, In Fact, Televised

The first reference to Canada comes in a flashback, as Jerome and Sylvie watch TV coverage of the Romanian Revolution in the Paris loft of Jerome’s friend Félix:

As the Romanian Revolution unfolded on TV, Sylvie practiced her invisibility. She didn’t speak a word of French, and Jerome was too impatient with the conversation in the loft to translate. Francois Cusset, an anarchist from the École Normale, was taking a hard line about the myth of Eastern Europe’s “struggle for democracy.” Didn’t the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc just reinforce the triumph of American Empire? Félix responded with an approving nod. Because, of course, McLuhan’s pulsating rhapsody of images could never be entirely divorced from power.  (97)

This is not a reference to Canada itself, of course, but to a famous Canadian. We have picked up on references like this before, but you’ll notice a shift in register here. These 90s academics aren’t talking about Leonard Cohen or Keanu Reeves (not even with self-conscious irony) or Neil Young; we’ve moved up several intellectual levels and reached Marshall McLuhan, Canada’s revolutionary media theorist. So even though Kraus probably wasn’t thinking in these terms when she wrote the book, we could say that the specific Canadian these people refer to is a characterizing detail: the fact that they’re talking about McLuhan tells us something about them. And thus McLuhan is, to put it in terms these characters would understand, a “cultural signifier.”

The “Félix” in whose loft this scene takes place, by the way, is Félix Guattari. Now there is a name that conjures up 90s academia.

b) The Krokers

This passage relates an encounter with an academic named Peichl who wants Jerome’s help putting a book together:

Peichl … [is] just back from Tokyo, where he organized a conference on Romania – The World’s First Media Revolution. Arthur, the America-Japan guy, gave a great analysis and the Krokers came from Canada.  (178)

Like many of the academic/intellectual figures mentioned in the novel, the Krokers are not fictional; Arthur and Marilouise Kroker are Canadian media theorists. The fact that they are Canadian doesn’t seem to have any significance in the book; the point is simply that the conference was such a big deal that the Krokers travelled all the way to Tokyo from Canada to be part of it.

For the curious, here is an (unintentionally hilarious) 1998 article by the Krokers about Kathy Acker – another name to conjure the 90s, and one who crops up in Kraus’ book as the one woman male academics think of whenever they’re told they need to invite a woman to speak at a conference.

2. Ideas of Escape

a) The Underground Railroad

This passage is part of a description of Enos and Sybil Putnam, who are celebrated in the small town of Thurman, in upstate New York, where Sylvie and Jerome have a house:

Passionately opposed to slavery, Enos and Sybil Putnam transformed their humble parsonage into an important station on the Underground Railroad that relayed fugitives from Georgia – or was it Mississippi? – to freedom, into Canada.  (125)

Nothing new there, but it’s nice to see Canada get some props as a refuge from slavery.

b) Getting Out of New York City

This passage is about Sylvie’s momentary desire to escape New York:

Once, after staying up all night in New York City, she’d felt an urge to go to Canada. A truck-driver she’d met at Munson’s Diner near the West Side Highway took her all the way up to Lake George. It was early November, she tried to hitch a ride but no one stopped, so she’d walked across the village to the beach. There, she’d seen a black man in a cowboy hat and a white woman in a fringed suede jacket locked in an embrace. Everything combined into this image, and it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. At that moment it seemed possible to both be them, and to be outside them, all the loneliness in the world, the mountains and the lake. It was around that time that she’d decided to make movies.  (127-8)

I assume this is the Lake George in upstate New York (why not vacation there?) and that Sylvie never made it to Canada, and so none of what follows can be taken as related to our country. But we see again the idea of Canada as an escape from whatever problems are pressing upon you in your homeland, whether the need for a fresh start, the loss of your farm, or a troubled marriage. The fact that Sylvie has been “up all night” seems to imply that Canada offers peace and serenity compared to the rush of life in New York City, as if Canada is a place where no one would ever stay up all night because there would be nothing going on (we might compare the idea of the Canadian cottage).

We could also draw a comparison between the two forms of escape in these two passages: in the second, Sylvie’s desire to escape to Canada is the product of ennui and a temporary desire for change (made possible by what would now be called her “privilege”); she has no need to go to Canada, she just decides on a whim that she wants to. In the end she doesn’t get there, and it doesn’t matter, as she has her filmmaking epiphany in upstate New York instead.

By contrast, those using the Underground Railroad have a genuine need to reach Canada; it’s not a matter of indifference to them whether they make it or not. I don’t know if Kraus is intentionally setting up this parallel (though the two passages are only a few pages apart), but when you look at the book through the lens of references to Canada, it comes out.

3. Wildlife

This reference is pretty self-explanatory:

The first summer they’d moved up to Thurman, there was an infestation of yellow butterflies along the road to Lake Minerva. It was like a butterfly’s Spring Break: as if every butterfly from Albany to Canada had agreed to meet and mate on one long stretch of gravel road.  (155)

Note, as so often, the shift in specificity from references to the U.S. (Albany, a city) to a very generalized idea when it comes to Canada (it’s just Canada – not even Ontario, which would probably be the most relevant part of our country to upstate New York, at least where butterfly migration is concerned). Canada’s placement (“from Albany to Canada”) seems to suggest our nation is an end-point of the known world, a wilderness teeming with butterflies and other wildlife waiting to swoop down and blanket the U.S.

4. Language Games

This reference comes in a passage about “Who’s Peaked?”, a game Jerome and his intellectual friends play in which they rank the fame of other academics:

Just as the Inuit had 33 words to describe different qualities of snow, Jerome and his friends enjoyed infinitely parsing different categories of fame.  (166)

The game is a good example of the way Kraus satirizes the shallowness of the academics in the book: it’s telling, for example, that they never discuss the quality of anyone’s ideas, but only their relative “star power” (within the academic community, of course, which is essentially a black hole as far as the wider world’s conception of celebrity goes).

As for the idea that the Inuit have multiple words for snow, it’s a very common cliché, and may even be true. And perhaps this is also characterizing as regards the academics in the book, in the sense that Kraus uses a linguistic metaphor to describe people working in a university system that, at the time she is writing about, was very influenced by structuralism and post-structuralism, both of which had roots in linguistics.

5. Quebec as Part of the Third World

This passage is about Sylvie’s taste in interior decorating:

She’s learned over years of traveling with Jerome and setting up their houses that it’s only in the hardware stores you still find truly local merchandise. Candy pink mosquito nets in Guatemala; plywood rat traps in Oaxaca; terracotta bean pots in the eastern villages of Quebec. It occurs to Sylvie that this kind of foraging for Third World decor accessories – for many years the sole domain of vacationing academics and their wives – has recently been professionalized by buyers from Pier Nine and Ikea. Vaguely, this thought depresses her.  (236)

Wait – Third World? Quebec is part of the Third World? Where did that come from? Guatemala and Oaxaca, okay, but Quebec?

And the strangest thing about this passage is that Quebec is the last place mentioned in the list. If the list started with Quebec, and then continued on to Guatemala and Oaxaca, you could almost say, well, by the time she gets through the list she’s thinking about Third World places, and she sort of forgets that she started with Quebec. But Quebec is actually the last place named before the generalizing term “Third World” is brought in.

Is Kraus just not really thinking about what she’s saying? Or is she aware of what she’s doing, and this is a very conscious dig at Quebec, suggesting that the province – or at least its eastern part – more properly belongs in the Third World?

6. Conclusions?

What fascinates me most about the references to Canada in torpor is that there are so many of them, and that they are so varied. Canada is not associated with any single idea here, like, for example, lumberjacks, or cleanliness, or wilderness. Rather it is a multi-faceted place associated with a number of things: freedom and escape (the Underground Railroad and Sylvie’s momentary desire to get away from New York City), wildlife (the butterflies), and cold and snow (the Inuit words), which are fairly common tropes; but also intellectuals and media theorists (McLuhan and the Krokers) and, most bizarrely of all, Third World handicrafts from Quebec. This variety gives Canada a realness or solidity and makes it seem not like a strange or mysterious land, but rather as simply another country, distinct from the U.S., but nevertheless on a level with it as a place in its own right.

Satirized Before We Even Existed

This last one has nothing to do with Canada, but is still pretty special to me; Florina is a Romanian academic Sylvie gets to know when she meets Jerome at a summer residency in Germany before they go to Romania:

Florina’s place was identical to Jerome’s, except that her books and papers had strayed considerably from the birch and laminate white Workbench desk, her clothes were not confined to the white closet, and her coffee cups had strayed from the white kitchen cupboards. She was working on a project that would be an encyclopedic compendium of references to her nation in “the German literature” from Teutonic fables to the present.  (164)

Wow – do you see what happened there? Substitute “Canada” for “her nation” and “world literature” for “German literature” and you have the idea of Wow – Canada! So Chris Kraus actually predicted the existence of this website, and (by my reading) was mildly satirizing it, before I had even thought of it.

Sigh. Perhaps it’s time to fold my tent and move on.

Music – Why Not?

Since I referred to the famous Gil Scott-Heron song, above, I might as well post it here. (This is the original version, as recorded on the “spoken word” album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, not the more “musical” version from Pieces of a Man.)

And here is Woody Allen’s classic Marshall McLuhan sight gag, which, if nothing else, demonstrates that 70s academics could be just as irritating as the 90s variety:

That is still so funny to me.

Bob Dylan in the Land of Obscurity

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Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (aka The Old Weird America) (1997)

This is one of the those books I heard about years ago and had been half-planning to read while at the same time half-dreading the experience; when I saw a paperback for $5 I decided the time was finally right. As it turned out, the “dreading to read” side of my feelings was more prescient than the “wanting to read” side – the book is a tedious slog, occasionally broken by an over-reading of a song conducted with such dead-serious reverence that it becomes laughable.

Obscurity, Of Course

The first reference to Canada comes in a description of the band that accompanied Dylan on his 1966 tour (documented on the famous “Royal Albert Hall” bootleg):

In a combination completed by various temporary drummers, most notably Mickey Jones of Trini Lopez fame, the musicians Dylan played with on his tour were bassist Rick Danko, organist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel, and guitarist Robbie Robertson. They were four-fifths of an obscure Toronto honky-tonk outfit called the Hawks, once the backing band for Arkansas-born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins….  (xiii)

Toronto is nothing more than a point of origin here, or a location that is simply mentioned; for our purposes, the key point is to note the attachment of the word “obscure” to Toronto, which seems to be placed there almost automatically, as if anything to do with Toronto is invariably also obscure.

The other reference comes in the lead-in to the discussion of one of the Johnny Cash songs covered on The Basement Tapes:

You begin to sense people digging deeper, bored with the obvious. Someone excavates an obscure Johnny Cash number – lifelong Cash fan Dylan, or perhaps Hudson, who with Paul London and the Capers, his Ontario-based teenage rock ‘n’ roll band, backed Cash in Detroit bars in the early 1960s.  (73)

Marcus is certainly a fount of obscure knowledge. It’s remarkable that a group of Ontario teenagers would have been chosen to back Johnny Cash – but perhaps his star was still in the early stages of its ascent at the time.

How Insecure Canadians Impress Americans

Since we’re on the subject of this book, we might as well note a couple of other references to Canada, for the sake of completeness if nothing else. The following is a description of one of the basement performances:

After this the evening went off the rails. Professor Hudson returns: ‘Too many of us are ignorant of the vast, untamed wilderness to the north, and the odd graces of Canadians that have contributed to the scene, if you’ll pardon the expression, in their own, inimitable fashion. Here, is a flower song, a veritable prayer dance for mushroom sauce, invented by the Sasquatches, a great and beautiful tribe of more than a dozen happy’ – and Hudson sticks on the word like a nick in vinyl – ‘happy – happy souls, completely covered with hair, if you can imagine.’ The Bigfoot aria that follows – and sustains itself – features a chorus of preverbal grunts and squawks and a lead that sounds as much like a vocal recorded underwater as a tape played backward. As the creatures strain toward words, you realize they don’t need them.  (80-81)

Note Hudson, a Canadian himself, begins by saying “too many of us” are ignorant of Canadians. What we have here is a Canadian impersonating an American in order to laugh about Canada with other Americans, clowning and making a joke of his national identity for the benefit of his American audience – though who exactly he thinks that audience is is difficult to say. This is obviously not a reference to Canada by a non-Canadian, but making fun of Canada in order to ingratiate oneself with Americans represents a characteristic type of Canadian insecurity, and that seems to be what is expressed here, albeit obliquely.

Slightly Mystical

And then there’s this, during Marcus’ lengthy discussion of the song “I’m Not There”:

As Dylan sings, as the shimmering northern lights in the sound Hudson, Manuel and Danko are making rise to meet him, a phantom town gathers around the woman in the song, and like the phantom text of the song it disappears as soon as it is apprehended.  (201-202)

I suppose there are places in the U.S. where you can see the Northern Lights, but it still seems noteworthy that Marcus chooses this particular metaphor to describe the music made by a group of Canadians. As for the rest of it, if you feel that sentence deepens your understanding of the song “I’m Not There,” then maybe you should check out the book. I’ve listened to the song many times, and I have to admit I can’t hear the Northern Lights in the sound; maybe you can pick them out.

I don’t mean to sneer at Marcus: while I don’t go in for his style of reverent Bobolatry, and I don’t consider the Basement Tapes a watershed moment in human cultural history, there is some pretty good music on them, and “I’m Not There” is certainly worthy of praise as one of Dylan’s most mysterious and hauntingly beautiful songs. But….

It’s Not There

Ordinarily, at this point I would provide a link to “I’m Not There” on YouTube, so you could listen for the “northern lights” yourself. Bob and his lawyers, however, seem to have done a fairly thorough job of removing his songs. There are some cover versions you can listen to, a couple of which are bearable, but since none of them have the band Marcus is referring to, you won’t hear any northern lights.

For lack of anything better, here is what strikes my ear as the least offensive cover of “I’m Not There”:

I like the way some of the lyrics are supplied seemingly at random; the Basement version of the song is notoriously incomprehensible (even by Bob Dylan standards), so perhaps these were the only ones the singer felt confident typing up. (An added benefit of the video is that, if you’re a guitar player, you can pretty much learn to play the song from watching it. The capo’s at the 4th fret, and then just standard chords.)

On Weirdness

One thing Marcus does capture well in his book (as suggested by its alternate title) is the sheer weirdness of the Basement Tapes, and the way that weirdness grows out of, and pays homage to, the weirdness to be heard on something like the Anthology of American Folk Music. This idea of weirdness can be overdone: to me it remains an open question, at least in some cases, whether the apparent “weirdness” of a song’s lyrics is intentional, or merely the result of the singer recombining remembered lines and verses from other songs more or less at random (I’m talking about songs from the Anthology, not the Basement Tapes songs, which I think are consciously constructed to try to create that effect). Viewed in this way, weirdness would be a natural result of what is sometimes called the “folk process”; the seeming discontinuities and contradictions in the Homeric epics, and the attitude of the “analytical” critics to them, might be a useful comparison.

Having said that, I feel this post would be incomplete without at least a taste of the Anthology, which certainly lies behind the Basement Tapes in some sense; here’s a favourite of mine:

And here’s a song that strikes me as a possible example of the “folk process” in action:

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