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Archive for the tag “Exploitation”

The Fur-Rich Forests of Canada

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William Doyle, The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (2001)

I sometimes feel that a reference to Canada in a book like this doesn’t really “count,” in the sense that it’s not surprising that a book about the history and circumstances of the French Revolution would mention Canada. In this case, however, there is a certain, possibly suggestive, oddity to the way Doyle’s book treats Canada, and so I’m going to quote it.

This paragraph is about France’s struggle to maintain its prestige in the generations following the death of Louis XIV in 1715:

Rivalry with the British was fought out on the oceans of the world. At stake was dominance of the sources and supply of the tropical and oriental luxuries for which Europe was developing an insatiable appetite. Footholds in India, staging posts to China, fur-rich Canadian forests, tropical islands where sugar and coffee could be produced, access to supplies of slaves to work them: these were the prizes for which the British and French fought almost uninterruptedly throughout the 1740s and 1750s.  (19-20)

We have come across a passing reference to the fur trade before, and the fact that fur was a luxury item that Canada supplied to Europe isn’t really news. And the word “forests” is attached, seemingly automatically, to Canada, reminding us that at the time under discussion Canada was mainly wilderness.

There is an oddity about the passage as well, however, that comes out if you linger over it a bit. What Doyle is really talking about, it seems – or at least his own words when he generalizes the subject matter before listing the specifics – is “tropical and oriental luxuries.” Coffee and sugar are grown in the tropics; the “staging posts” to India and China presumably supply the “oriental” luxuries. But how does Canada fit into this? The “fur-rich Canadian forests” are, obviously, neither “oriental” nor “tropical,” and yet Doyle drops them into the middle of his list without appearing to notice the incongruity.

Now, granted, the book is subtitled “A Very Short Introduction,” and so it’s a bit mean-spirited to criticize the author for not explaining details more fully – particularly in regard to Canada, which, it must be admitted, is extremely tangential to the topic in hand. Still, it’s hard not to feel a bit slighted, as if Doyle’s very carelessness in referring to Canada suggests that he doesn’t think our country is important enough to warrant a category of its own, and so he has simply lumped it into a list of colonial possessions and products even though it doesn’t really fit. (This is in contrast to the French administrations he is writing about, incidentally, which clearly did think their colonial possessions in Canada (among other places) were important and valuable, and struggled to keep them.)

Doyle’s attitude here is consistent with that of other non-Canadian authors, who simply don’t seem to think Canada is worth much conscious attention.

Happy Canada Day.

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More Annoying French-Canadian Tourists

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Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994)

I read this novel because, years ago, I saw a woman reading it on the subway and I was intrigued by the title. It’s probably the second-best book I’ve discovered that way (after I Am A Cat), though that’s not a great compliment since the others I can recall are The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman (great title, mediocre book) and Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree (an aesthetic disaster, but weirdly fascinating from a “people actually read this” perspective).

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? begins with the narrator, Berie (short for Benoite-Marie, of course) and her husband in Paris, and returns to this framing device from time to time. Most of the novel, however, is told in extended flashbacks and concerns the relationship between  Berie and her best friend, Sils, as they go through adolescence.  The set-up feels rather familiar in that the narrator is more withdrawn and observant (the “writer type”), whereas Sils is wilder and more adventurous; the style is given to the kind of metaphors and imagery that earn praise in writing workshops.

There are actually numerous references to Canada in this book – too many for me to catalogue them all – but they fall neatly into two general categories, some dealing with French-Canadians, and some with the role Canada played for draft dodgers in the Vietnam era.

1.1 Exotic Canadian French

One thing I like about Lorrie Moore: she didn’t make me wait long for a reference to Canada. This passage comes in the book’s opening pages:

Although no voice was ever plain in our house – not really. Even if it took practically my whole life, until the summer I was fifteen, for me to see that. There were fancinesses: Years of my mother’s Canadian French slipping out only in the direst of lullabies.  (6)

The word “fancinesses” suggests that, as a young girl, Berie was fascinated by a certain exotic sophistication in her mother’s Canadian French. And what are these dire lullabies, we are left to wonder? Traditional French-Canadian songs, perhaps, detailing folk tales of murder and revenge? Or has the word “direst” been chosen not to convey any actual meaning, but simply to provide a striking contrast with “lullabies”?

1.2 French-Canadian Tourists

Berie and Sils both have summer jobs at Storyland, a fairy-tale-themed amusement park in the upstate New York town where they live:

I was an entrance cashier. Six thousand dollars came through a single register every day. Customers complained about the prices, lied about their children’s ages, counted out the change to double-check. “Gardez les billets pour les maneges, s’il vous plait,” I would say to the Canadians.  (10)

On the next page:

In summer the whole county was full of Canadian tourists from over the border in Quebec. Sils loved to tell stories of them from her old waitress job at HoJo’s: “I vould like zome eggs,” a man said once, slowly looking up words in a little pocket dictionary.
“How would you like them?” she’d asked.
The man consulted his dictionary, finding each word. “I would like zem … ehm … on zee plate.”
That we were partly French Canadian ourselves didn’t seem to occur to us. Sur le plat. Fried. We liked to tell raucous, ignorant tales of these tourists, who were so crucial to the area’s economy, but who were cheap tippers or flirts or wore their shirts open or bellies out, who complained and smoked pencil-thin cigars and laughed smuttily or whatever – it didn’t matter. We were taught to speak derisively of the tourists, the way everyone in a tourist town is.  (11)

For reasons of geography, the Canadians Berie speaks to are all actually from Quebec, so perhaps we should cut Moore some slack on the way she seems to conflate “Canadians” and “French-Canadians.”  Still, it’s hard not to feel that she must consider Canada a fairly insignificant country if she so blithely elides the difference between Francophones and Anglophones and speaks of us as if we all spoke French.

The general attitude to French-Canadians is one of contempt – though it’s a fairly benign contempt compared to, say, Michel Houellebecq’s attitude to Quebec tourists. But it’s difficult not to notice a slight whiff of stereotype coming off the page, as if Moore were playing to her (largely American) readership’s preconceived notions of what French-Canadians are like: the use of “z” for “”th”, the open shirts and bellies – by the time we reach the pencil-thin cigars and smutty laughs, these tourists have begun to sound like moustache-twirling cartoon villains.

The fact that Berie and Sils mock the tourists despite being partly French-Canadian themselves adds a level of irony to these passages, but it also points to a certain truth: making fun of people who share their background is a way for the girls to distance themselves from their own French-Canadian heritage and confirm their identity as (proudly unhyphenated) Americans.

1.3 Blood, The Inescapable

Yet Berie continues to refer to her French-Canadian background, as in this description of herself and her brother:

The thick pelts of our eyebrows shrieked across our faces, some legacy of the Quebec fur trade.  (29)

The reference to the fur trade harks back to a classic (and familiar) idea of Canada as a wilderness nation to be exploited for its natural resources, but the meaning of the sentence is a little opaque. The use of the verb “shrieked” is an excellent example of “writing workshop style,” where so much focus is placed on the search for “colourful” or “expressive” verbs that regard for sense becomes secondary. It’s also not clear how thick eyebrows are a legacy of the fur trade; did the voyageurs develop extra-thick eyebrows to protect themselves against the cold? Is there some suggestion that they interbred with beavers or other fur-bearing animals, leading to thicker eyebrow hair in their descendants? The sentence sounds nice if you read it once, but the more you try to parse it, the less sense it seems to make.

There is also this intriguing passage, about Berie and her husband Daniel when they’re in Paris:

At night, Daniel is tired from the medical conference he is here at the Institut de Genetique to attend. As a researcher he is mostly, recently, interested in the Tay-Sachs gene we both carry – what Jews and French-Canadians have in common.  (70)

This is a reference to Tay-Sachs disease, caused by a genetic mutation that occurs in both both Ashkenazi Jews and French-Canadians. Curiously, early studies of the diesease led to the fascinatingly named (though now discredited) “Jewish Fur Trader Hypothesis,” which, in a weird way, seems to gather together several of the threads of Moore’s ideas about Canada.

Over all, Berie’s relationship to Quebec is one of forcefully trying to impose distance on something that remains inescapably close; the girls affirm their identity as Americans by mocking the Canadian toursits, but at the same time, from her eyebrows right down to her genes, her French-Canadian heritage is something that Berie cannot evade.

2 The Perfect Place to Dodge the Draft

Much of the flashback portion of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? occurs in the summer of 1972, in the era of Nixon and Vietnam, and in that context Canada plays another important role for the characters in the novel. The following passage is a description of Sils’ mother:

She was a sweet and guilt-ridden mother, exhausted from her older sons (their loud band practices in the basement; their overnight girlfriends; their strange, impermanent, and semiannual treks across the border to Canada to avoid the draft, though their numbers were high….  (14)

Canada is mentioned several more times in the same context, as Berie refers to Sils’s brothers being “in Canada again” (20) or “just back from Canada” (89). It is, of course, a fact that many Americans came to Canada to avoid the draft. This particular form of escape is also connected to a larger idea of Canada as a more pacifist country where Americans opposed to the war in Vietnam could go to avoid being forced to serve. So Canada is tied up, by virtue of its proximity, not only in the U.S. economy (as Berie notes above), but also in American politics and its ramifications.

There are also a couple of references to the music of the period that we might take note of:

…the country was in upheaval, there was Vietnam and draft dodging and rock music and people setting themselves on fire. Laws seemed to be the enemy. So we dispensed and dispatched, ceased and desisted: we made up our own rules, and they were loose. We were inventing things, starting over, nothing was wrong. Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.  (34)

And this description of Sils just after she has had an abortion:

Joni Mitchell was keening “Little Green” on Sils’s record player. Sils listened to that song all the time now, like some woeful soundtrack. The soprano slides and oos of the song always made us both sing along, when I was there. “Little green, be a gypsy dancer.” Twenty years later at a cocktail party, I would watch an entire roomful of women, one by one and in bunches, begin to sing this song when it came on over the sound system. They quit conversations, touched people’s arms, turned toward the corner stereo speakers and sang in a show of memory and surprise. All the women knew the words, every last one of them, and it shocked the men.  (91)

It’s noteworthy that in two separate passages where popular music is connected with the idea of the ferment of the times and with the personal struggles of the characters, the music that speaks to them is by Canadians: Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green.” Despite Canada’s apparent insignificance as a country, individual Canadians have played a role in writing the soundtrack to the American experience of the twentieth century.

The Music

When content permits, I like to wrap up with music. Here is Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green”:

And here is “Ohio” as performed by CSNY:

Lumberjacks Again

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Herman Melville, Pierre or The Ambiguities (1852)

William C. Spengemann begins his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of this novel by stating, “If Pierre were not written by the author of Moby-Dick, it would probably not be in print today”. I can’t say I disagree. Ezra Pound once described later Henry James as “cobwebby,” and it’s a term that might apply here as well; Melville seems, at times, more interested in spinning out metaphors than in telling a story.

Now, if you love that sort of thing – if you read Moby-Dick and thought, “The writing was great, but I could have done without the whole chasing the whale storyline” – then this could be the book for you. It’s even been made into a film: POLA X (the trailer really doesn’t do it justice), directed by Leos Carax, who also made the exuberantly bizarre Holy Motors.

When I watched POLA X, just as I started reading the book, I was really put off by Guillaume Depardieu’s performance, particularly in the latter half of the film, when he starts limping and staring madly around for no apparent reason; having read the book, I now understand what he was trying to convey. But the first third of the film is exquisite; the buildings and scenery make it look like a period piece set in the late 1700s, and then Depardieu comes roaring through on his morotocycle – marvellous.

But to return to the novel.

I feel like I need to set up the quote with some sort of summary of the plot, but it’s difficult to know exactly where to begin. I’ll give it a go: Pierre is a youth living a charmed life in the idyllic surroundings of Saddle Meadows, his family estate. His father is dead, he lives with his mother, and he is engaged to marry the beautiful and perfect Lucy.

But then … a mysterious young woman named Isabel appears, and tells Pierre that she is his half-sister, conceived when their father had an affair with a Frenchwoman, who is now dead. For various reasons, Pierre accepts this information as true, and as the novel progresses, what he thought to be his life essentially falls to pieces around him. The following passage comes after he has learned (from a letter) that Isabel is his sister but before he has met with her and heard her full story; I’ll quote it at length to give a bit of the flavour of the prose:

It was long after midnight when Pierre returned to the house. He had rushed forth in that complete abandonment of soul, which, in so ardent a temperament, attends the first stages of any sudden and tremendous affliction, but now he returned in pallid composure, for the calm spirit of the night, and the then risen moon, and the late revealed stars, had all at last become as a strange subduing melody to him, which, though at first trampled and scorned, yet by degrees had stolen into the windings of his heart, and so shed abroad its own quietude in him. Now, from his height of composure, he firmly gazed abroad upon the charred landscape within him; as the timber man of Canada, forced to fly from the conflagration of his forests, comes back again when the fires have waned, and unblinkingly eyes the immeasurable fields of fire-brands that here and there glow beneath the wide canopy of smoke.  (86)

The metaphor here is fairly straightforward in its essence, if somewhat lengthily elaborated and filigreed, in accordance with Melville’s style at this point in his career: Isabel’s revelation has destroyed the things Pierre thought he knew about himself and his life as completely as fire destroys a forest. Naturally a lumberjack (“timber man”) would look on the ruined forest the way Pierre looks on his overthrown preconceptions; and when Melville thinks of lumberjacks, apparently, he thinks of Canada.

This is a little odd; the United States must have had its fair share of lumberjacks in the 1850s. But Melville seems to be imagining a land that is nothing but forests; not a country with some urban areas and some forests, as he no doubt thought of the U.S., but a country that contains nothing but trees and has no reason to exist other than to employ lumberjacks.

A country, in other words, like Canada. As the phrase “the immeasurable fields of fire-brands” clearly indicates, Melville thinks of Canada as little more than an endless, empty wilderness of trees, punctuated by the occasional lumberjack.

A Wounding Omission

Regardless of the precise nature of the reference – and yes, even if it includes lumberjacks – it’s always exciting to see Canada mentioned in a book by a non-Canadian. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a certain pain that comes from a moment in a book when one expects a reference to Canada, and then it doesn’t come. I’ll memorialize one such moment here, where Melville refers to the death of one of Pierre’s ancestors, also named Pierre:

Grand old Pierre is dead, and like a hero of old battles, he dies on the eve of another war; ere wheeling to fire on the foe, his platoons fire over their old commander’s grave; in A.D. 1812, died grand old Pierre. The drum that beat in brass his funeral march, was a British kettle-drum, that had once helped beat the vain-glorious march, for the thirty thousand predestined prisoners, led into sure captivity by that bragging boy, Burgoyne.  (31)

The year is 1812, a new war is beginning; as a Canadian, one naturally expects a reference to Canada here, as we think of the War of 1812 as a conflict between Canada and the U.S. But Melville sees it as another conflict – or a fresh eruption of an ongoing conflict – between the U.S. and Britain. And no doubt he’s right – the vast majority of the military assets deployed on “our” side must have been British.

Still, it comes as a bit of a shock, particularly given the extensive commemorative efforts (check out those costumes!) made by the Canadian government for the bicentenary of the war last year.

Poor Herman, he can’t win. When he talks about Canadian lumberjacks, we’re offended that he thinks we’re all lumberjacks; when he fails to mention us, we’re offended at the omission. This is why they say literature is a thankless profession.

A Plaything for Aristocrats

Madame de Sevigne, Selected Letters

Madame de Sevigne, Selected Letters

Madame de Sévigné, Selected Letters (1648-1696)

My interest in Madame de Sévigné grew out of my interest in Proust; those familiar with In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past/A la recherche du temps perdu (whatever title you prefer) will recall that the narrator’s grandmother is one of the most affecting characters in the first couple of books; Madame de Sévigné is her favourite author, and she carries a book of her letters around with her and continuously re-reads it. The Penguin edition (pictured above) is a useful introduction, though I would have appreciated a few more explanatory notes.

This passage is from a letter, dealing with issues of household economy, from Madame de Sévigné to her daughter (the majority of her letters are to her daughter):

M. de Grignan [Mme de Sévigné’s son-in-law] is asking for a very good jerkin. This is a matter of seven or eight hundred francs. What has become of a very fine one he had? Do let me remind you, my love, that one doesn’t exactly give away rags of this kind and that even the pieces are good. For God’s sake do save at least some of the excessive expense. Without knowing exactly what effect it will have, do keep a general eye so as not to let anything be lost and not to relax your efforts about anything. Don’t, as they say, throw away the handle after the axe. Look at Canada as a good thing no longer available. M. de Frontenac possesses it, and others don’t always have the same resources. (134; letter dated April 6, 1672)

The basic meaning of the letter is clear: Madame de Sévigné is instructing her daughter not to be wasteful or careless with money, and reminding her that once something is gone, you can’t always recover it. First she quotes a cliché (marked by “as they say”) about not throwing away the handle with the axe; this leads directly into Canada as an example of a “good thing no longer available.”

But in what sense is Canada “no longer available”? Unlike the reference to Canada in Casanova, which occurs after France lost Canada to England in 1759, this mention of Canada occurs when it was still solidly in French possession. In fact Frontenac had just been made Governor General of New France at the time of the letter – Madame de Sévigné observes that he now “possesses” its “resources.”

This is a classically colonialist view of Canada as a treasure trove of natural resources to be exploited by a European country. But Madame de Sévigné seems to see it in very personal terms, as though it is not really France that possesses Canada, but only Frontenac. Why?

I found the answer here:

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Francis Parkman’s 1877 book Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis XIV, which includes the following:

The Comte de Grignan, son-in-law of Madame de Sévigné, was an unsuccessful competitor with Frontenac for the government of Canada. (20; footnote in Chapter 1)

So there it is: Madame de Sévigné seems to take Frontenac’s possession of Canada personally because, for her, it was personal. She is essentially telling her daughter, “If your husband had been made governor of Canada, he could have all the new jerkins he wanted. But since he wasn’t, you have to be more frugal.”

This reveals another way Canada was viewed by Europeans: as a career opportunity which would, no doubt, offer plenty of chances for self-enrichment; and also as a kind of bauble that could be passed by the King to a favourite courtier as a reward for some service or as a sign of favour – or to get him out of the way so that the King could court his mistress, as Parkman suggests may have been the case with Frontenac.

It’s fascinating to see how large-scale political decisions about who would govern our country could be made on the basis of nothing more than royal whim, and then reverberate all the way down to such a personal level that they would become part of a domestic discussion about spending money on a jerkin.

And would our history be different if Grignan, rather than Frontenac, had been made Governor? Who knows; certainly some details would have changed. Quebec City’s most famous hotel, for example, might be called the Chateau Grignan.

Donne the Discoverer

John Donne, Elegy XIX – To His Mistress Going to Bed (pub. 1669)

License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America, my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!”

Ah, how many an undergraduate has sat semi-aroused in a drowsy fantasy while some desiccated professor droned on about this poem ….

The poem (full text here) is dated 1669 in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, which is the year it was added to Donne’s Poems — those who are curious about such things can consult Grierson’s edition for details on the publication history and manuscript tradition. It must have been written much earlier, perhaps in the late 1590s or early 1600s, which could well make it the first reference to Canada in literature. (Of course I’m aware Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada in at the time Donne wrote, as Canada as we know it didn’t yet exist. This blog, however, will embrace a philosophy of inclusiveness: if it’s part of present-day Canada, then it counts.)

Already we can see certain themes that all Canadians will recognize coming into focus.

The first and most obvious is the idea of Canada as a just-discovered wilderness waiting to be plundered. This is implicit in the comparison of “new-found-land” to the body of the woman – as the poet wants to reveal and exploit her body for his pleasure, so Europeans wanted to map and exploit the New World for their profit (note “mine of precious stones”). And note the possessive: “my new-found-land”. She is his own personal New World, just as the “new-found-land” unquestionably belongs to England’s empire (note “empery”).

And then we notice “America” (with a capital A, unlike the lower-case “n” on “new-found-land,” as though the United States were already marked out for greatness and we for obscurity) and the questions begin. Is “new-found-land” a proper name equivalent to the modern “Newfoundland”? Or is it a generic term in apposition to “America,” essentially repeating the same idea? Perhaps Donne includes all of the New World under the term “America,” and “new-found-land” is just another way of saying the same thing – and introducing a rhyme for the punning “manned” in the next line.

How Canadian – even when confronted with a reference to Canada, we can’t quite believe it.

And yet Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed Newfoundland for England in 1583, and the Newfoundland Colony was established in 1610; the name could certainly have reached Donne’s ears. And considering that his poems originally circulated in manuscript, and that copy-editing was hardly standardized at that time, we shouldn’t read too much into (or out of) the vagaries of capitalization and punctuation.

In a way, it seems fitting that this early reference to Canada should be wreathed in a mist of uncertainty – did he really mean us? Or was he just aware of a New World in an unspecified way, and brought in the terms that suited the purposes of his own poem with little (or no?) thought for the concerns of future Canadians? Impossible, finally, to say.

But it remains – the name of our easternmost province, caught in the dense network of Donne’s verse, immortal there if nowhere else.

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