Third World Places Like … Quebec?
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.
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?
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.