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The Romance of Canada 1: Chateaubriand Pays Us a Visit


François-René de Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb (1850)

Canada has an interesting presence in French literature. Based on my (admittedly limited) reading (further study is needed, as they say) our country seems to be much more in the minds of earlier writers (i.e. in the 17th and 18th centuries) than in the minds of 19th-century authors. I suppose this makes sense in that references to Canada dwindle in French literature after France loses its colonial interest in our country; still, it feels counterintuitive, somehow, that when, in the 19th century, we would expect Canada’s profile in Europe to be growing, in France, at least, it seems to be shrinking.

Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb enacts this process in miniature: there are a number of references to Canada in the early parts of the book, which deal with the last couple of decades of the 18th century; as the book proceeds into the 19th century, however, Canada vanishes from the narrative and European matters take up Chateaubriand’s attention. (I should also mention that the Penguin edition I read (pictured above) contains  only selections from the book, so there may be later references to Canada that weren’t included.)

The “Father of French Romanticism” Considers a Career as a Lumberjack

This passage relates a discussion between Chateaubriand and his parents about what career path he should choose (it’s basically down to the army or the church):

I hit on an absurd idea: I declared that I would go to Canada to clear forests or to India to join the army of one of the princes of that country.

By one of those contrasts which are to be found in all men, my father, normally so reasonable, was never greatly shocked by an adventurous project. He grumbled to my mother about my changes of mind, but decided to despatch me to India. I was sent off to Saint-Malo, where a ship was being fitted out for Pondicherry.  (71)

It’s hard to know how seriously to take this suggestion of going to Canada “to clear forests”; the author himself calls it “absurd,” and it may be no more meaningful than a modern teenager’s threat to run away from home if they don’t get their way. Still, the idea of Canada as a wilderness of trees needing to be cut down is apparently already firmly established, and while Chateaubriand doesn’t use the word “lumberjack,” we can see the outline of that quintessentially Canadian figure hovering in the background.

This perceived lack of civilization is in marked contrast to the impression we get of India, where apparently there are princes with armies on the move — something much more aligned with the activities of European men in the late 18th century. It’s perhaps not surprising that Chateaubriand’s father in the end chooses the aristocratic pursuit of war-making for his son rather than the more laborious job of tree-cutting.

A Country that Keeps Getting In the Way

But Chateaubriand didn’t just fantasize about running away to Canada; after the French Revolution, he actually came here. (You can get a sense of his overall impression from two quick facts: the chapter of his book that includes the trip to Canada is called “Among the Savages,” and the phrase “the Canadian forests” comes up repeatedly.) His reasons for the trip were, first, to see the United States (not Canada), and second, to discover the Northwest Passage, which he seems to have thought would be a fairly simple matter.

Before he reaches North America, however, his ship encounters some difficulties due to wind and weather. Instead of arriving in the U.S., he finds himself off the coast of Canada, as if our country were somehow preventing him from reaching his destination. This is part of a description of the journey after a stop-off on the island of Graciosa:

The wind forced us to bear north, and we arrived at the Banks of Newfoundland. Some floating icebergs were drifting around in the midst of a pale, cold mist.  (123)

It’s pretty clear that Newfoundland is not where he wants to be, and the description has a compressed quality that shows a distinct lack of interest. This vision of Canada is probably more or less what a European of the period would imagine: a few icebergs and a cold mist — which isn’t so bad since there’s nothing to see anyway. What do these French sailors do now that they have arrived on the shores of Canada? They beat a hasty retreat to the nearest French possessions:

We steered for the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, looking for a new port of call.  (124)

In fairness, Canada isn’t really his object, so perhaps we shouldn’t judge him too harshly.

What’s The Opposite of “Civilizing”?

They make it to Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, and Chateaubriand strikes up a bit of an acquaintance with the Governor there:

I dined two or three times with the Governor, an extremely polite and obliging officer. He grew a few European vegetables on a slope outside. After dinner she showed me what he called his garden. A sweet, delicate smell of heliotrope came from a small patch of flowering beans; it was not wafted to us by a gentle breeze from home, but by a wild Newfoundland wind which had no connexion with the exiled plant, no attractive element of reminiscence or delight. In this perfume which was no longer breathed in by beauty, purified in its breast, or diffused in its wake, in this perfume of a changed dawn, a different culture, another world, there lingered all the melancholy of nostalgia, absence, and youth.  (125)

And in the next paragraph, still referring to the Governor:

My host inquired after the Revolution; I asked him for news of the North-West Passage. He was in the van of the wilderness, but he knew nothing of the Eskimos and received nothing from Canada but partridges.  (125)

The opposition between the “wild Newfoundland wind” and the flowering bean plants sets up the contrast one would expect between the wilderness of Canada and the civilization of Europe. We get the impression that Canada is a desolate country where fragile beauties are beaten down rather than cherished and enjoyed.

The statement that the Governor is “in the van” (i.e. the vanguard) of the wilderness is an interesting one. We should perhaps expect the opposite statement: that as the governor of these French islands right next to the wilds of Newfoundland, he is in the van of civilization, standing at the tip of the civilizing influence which Europe has pushed out towards the wilds of Canada. And yet Chateaubriand sees it the opposite way; if Saint-Pierre and Miquelon are the van of the wilderness, then that suggests that the process is moving in the other direction, and that the wilds of the New World are stretching their influence back towards the supposed colonizers, and perhaps will somehow uncivilize the civilizers, so to speak.

(I don’t want to place too much emphasis on the use of a specific word in a book I have only read in translation, but just for comparison, here is a passage where Chateaubriand uses “vanguard” in the more expected way:

It has been observed that the settlers are often preceded in the woods by bees: these are the vanguard of the farmers, the symbols of the industry and civilization whose coming they herald.  (143)

There we can see “vanguard” used in its more standard sense, which suggests that perhaps Chateaubriand was intentionally playing with its meaning in the earlier passage, suggesting that Canada had a kind of de-civilizing power that Europeans had not yet recognized, as it does in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Two Campers in Cloud Country.” Or perhaps it’s just an instance of carelessness, by either Chateaubriand or his translator.)

Melancholy Reflections on Past Defeats

Chateaubriand has some interesting observations on the failure of the French colonial project in Canada:

In the shameful years of Louis XV’s reign, the episode of the Canadian War consoles us as if it were a page of our ancient history discovered in the Tower of London.
Montcalm, given the task of defending Canada unaided, against forces which are regularly replenished and four times his own in number, fights successfully for two years, defeating Lord Loudon and General Abercromby. At last his luck deserts him; he falls wounded beneath the walls of Quebec, and two days later breathes his last: his grenadiers bury him in a hole made by a bombshell, a grave worthy of the honour of our arms! His noble enemy Wolfe dies facing him; he pays with his own life for Montcalm’s life and for the glory of expiring on a few French flags.  (142-43)

It seems odd, at first, that Chateaubriand would go to the trouble of describing a defeat, and yet it’s in character with the overall tone of much of the book, which could perhaps best be characterized by the world “melancholy”. His vision of life is one in which anything good is always in the past; the present is always slipping away; and the future holds only the promise of worse things to come. It is fitting, then, that he sees a tragic glory in Montcalm’s defeat, and awards him what would now be called a “moral victory” simply for having held out so long against such terrible odds. This kind of ringing, elegiac tone is the essence of Chateaubriand’s style and one of the key elements of his romanticism.

A Visit to the Falls

While in America Chateaubriand naturally wants to see for himself one of its greatest natural wonders, Niagara Falls. He makes his way there, travelling with “a troop of settlers and Indians”:

It was there that I first made the acquaintance of the rattlesnake, which allows itself to be bewitched by the sound of a flute. The Greeks would have turned my Canadian into Orpheus, the flute into a lyre, and the snake into Cerberus or perhaps Eurydice.  (144)

It’s hard to be certain what to make of this; the “Canadian” is presumably one of the natives, not one of the settlers. At first Chateaubriand seems to be saying that Canada does not lend itself to mythologizing, in the way the world of the ancient Greeks did; and yet, with his tales of rattlesnakes charmed by flutes, is he not himself actually mythologizing in much the same way?

In any case, he goes on to visit Niagara Falls:

The Niagara Falls savages in the English dependency were entrusted with the task of policing that side of the frontier. This weird constabulary, armed with bows and arrows, prevented us from passing. I had to send the Dutchman to the fort at Niagara for a permit in order to enter the territory of the British government. This saddened me a little, for I remembered that France had once ruled over both Upper and Lower Canada. My guide returned with the permit: I still have it; it is signed: Captain Gordon.  (145-46)

The phrase “English dependency” means Canada, as opposed to the United States, and makes clear that the Falls Chateaubriand went on to visit were what we now think of as the Canadian side. This passage offers a very different take on the French colonial experience than the earlier one: there, Montcalm’s loss was portrayed as being somehow honourable, even glorious; here, the loss of France’s possessions in Canada brings only sadness. (Sadness — at least in its literary form, “melancholy” — is, as I alluded to above, the keynote emotion of this book.)

It seems worthwhile, since we’ve come across references to Niagara Falls several times before, to quote at least a bit of Chateaubriand’s impressions:

Already, six miles away, a column of mist indicated the position of the waterfall to me. My heart beat with joy mingled with terror as I entered the wood which concealed from my view one of the most awe-inspiring sights that Nature has offered to mankind.
We dismounted, and leading our horses by the bridle, we made our way across heaths and copses until we reached the bank of the Niagara River, seven or eight hundred paces above the Falls. As I was moving forward, the guide caught me by the arm; he stopped me at the very edge of the water, which was going past with the swiftness of an arrow. It did not froth or foam, but glided in a solid mass over the sloping rock; its silence before its fall contrasted with the roar of the fall itself….
The guide continued to hold me back, for I felt so to speak drawn towards the river, and I had an involuntary longing to throw myself in….
Today, great highroads lead to the cataract; there are inns on both the American and English banks, and mills and factories beneath the chasm.
I have seen the cascades of the Alps with their chamois and those of the Pyrenees with their lizards; I have not been far enough up the Nile to see its cataracts, which are mere rapids; I make no mention of the waters of Terni and Tivoli, graceful adornments for ruins or subjects for the poet’s song: “Et praeceps Anio ac Tiburni lucus.”
Niagara eclipses everything.   (146-47)

That passage pretty much has it all, doesn’t it? What a concentration of romantic ideas: the joy mingled with terror as he is about to come face to face with Nature’s sublime; the strange, bewitching appeal of death as he yearns to throw himself into the current; the reference to the shallow consumerism that has now taken over and degraded the site, so different from its unspoiled state when he visited; and finally the implication of a wild and savage beauty in the Falls, utterly unlike the refined waters of Terni and Tivoli.

That last is, of course, a typical association with Canada, but in the view of the romantic mind, the idea of a wilderness ceases to be something menacing, or something that needs to be tamed or civilized, and becomes instead something that must be appreciated for its natural beauty. We are seeing here the idea, which would ultimately become a cliché, that the unspoiled wonders of nature are more beautiful than all the works of man, and that God is, in a sense, the first and ultimate artist.


Chateaubriand inaugurates several strands of what we might think of as a “romantic” view of Canada. First, in his plan to run away here to become a lumberjack, we glimpse the petulant teenager strain of romanticism, always trying to shock or upset his parents. In his desire to find the Northwest Passage, we see the romantic image of the discoverer-hero, setting out to map the uncharted wilderness for the benefit of all mankind. His references to First Nations people seem to partake of the “noble savage” idea, while his discussion of Montcalm’s loss on the Plains of Abraham is replete with the melancholy sense of vanished glory and noble failure.

And finally, there is the discussion of Niagara Falls. Chateaubriand may not have had a huge impact on Canadian history — he never got around to locating that pesky Northwest Passage, after all — but he certainly had a major, if unwitting, impact on the Canadian tourist industry. His account of visiting Niagara Falls is the earliest one by a major European writer that I have come across, and in his visit he essentially set the pattern of Canadian tourism that still prevails today: when people come to Canada, if there’s one thing they know they want to see, that one thing will be Niagara Falls. In places around the world where Canada is known for absolutely nothing else, we are known for Niagara Falls.

And the reason Chateaubriand wanted to see the Falls — the desire to be confronted with what we might call “the natural sublime” — is the same reason people come today, and his description of the feelings aroused by the sight will be meaningful to anyone who has been there. Beyond that, in his description of the “great highroads” and the “inns” that have sprung up around the Falls since his visit, he took note of the beginnings of the tourist industry that dominates Niagara Falls today, and he probably wouldn’t be surprised by the hotels, gift shops, and casinos that have appeared since. Ripley’s Museum might shock him a little.

Further Ambiguity


Wendy Cope, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986)

As with Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, one of the poems in Wendy Cope’s collection confronts us with an ambiguously Canadian reference.

The Poem

The Lavatory Attendant

I counted two and seventy stenches
All well defined and several stinks!

Slumped on a chair, his body is an S
That wants to be a minus sign.

His face is overripe Wensleydale
Going blue at the edges.

In overalls of sacerdotal white
He guards a row of fonts

With lids like eye-patches. Snapped shut
They are castanets. All day he hears

Short-lived Niagaras, the clank
And gurgle of canescent cisterns.

When evening comes he sluices a thin tide
Across sand-coloured lino,

Turns Medusa on her head
And wipes the floor with her.   (49)

The Commentary

The flushing toilets make “short-lived Niagaras,” which to a Canadian will immediately raise thoughts of Niagara Falls (Canadian side). But of course there are also falls on the American side, and it is impossible to say whether Cope is thinking of Canada or the U.S. (a problem that has arisen before). Most likely she is just thinking of the humour inherent in comparing a toilet flush to one of the largest waterfalls in the world, and isn’t thinking about Canadian versus American sides at all — such things concern us, not her.

Since the Canadian falls are the larger and more impressive, however, the comparison is inherently funnier if the Canadian falls are meant, because the contrast is greater. And since Cope herself is a British poet, I feel we can draw on our history as a British colony and claim the reference as a Canadian one.

And while it’s an honour for Canada to be home to (the most impressive part of) a waterfall that is so famous poets from other countries draw on it for comparisons, we might note that Canada is, yet again, known for a natural feature that happens to be within our borders rather than for anything that could really be considered a Canadian accomplishment.

The Commentary on The Commentary

The thought process in the second paragraph above reveals a peculiarly Canadian form of insecurity: we’re convinced that the world in general takes no notice of us, and so when we come across a reference that might be about us, but might not, we’re very keen to convince ourselves that it is about us, because it makes us feel important to be referred to by non-Canadians. Being noticed forms a sort of bulwark against our own feelings of national insignificance.

As for the third paragraph, how typical: go to great lengths to claim a reference is Canadian, and then complain that it’s not complimentary enough.

A Perfect Destination for Honeymooners (Munchausen Part II)


Rudolf Erich Raspe, The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1785)

The Second Volume

As I noted at the beginning of the post on the first volume, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is actually the product of several hands, and while the differences are not quite so noticeable in the first volume, the second volume marks a significant turn in the work. In the Preface to the second volume, the author writes:

I do not say that the Baron, in the following stories, means a satire on any political matters whatever. No; but if the reader understands them so, I cannot help it.  (117)

It’s hard to imagine a more direct way of informing the reader that the ensuing chapters are meant to be read as a satire on political matters. And a few lines later, referring ahead to the chapter where the Baron comes upon a ship of Africans transporting a cargo of white slaves:

If we were to think this a reflection on any present commercial or political matter, we should be tempted to imagine, perhaps, some political ideas conveyed in every page, in every sentence of the whole. Whether such things are or are not the intentions of the Baron the reader must judge.  (118)

This is a fascinating comment on literary interpretation, seeming to suggest that once you see an allegory in one place, you’re likely to start seeing them everywhere (“in every page, in every sentence”) until you finally lose yourself in a forest of multiple meanings. In the case of the reversed slave ship, the idea is fairly obvious; in many other parts of the book, however, one has a feeling that some point is being made, but without knowing the specific historical context (this edition provides no notes to elucidate such points), it’s difficult to figure out exactly what is being satirized. The writing style is also somewhat garbled in places, and weird details are piled on without in any way clarifying what is being described, which makes the second volume notably more difficult and bizarre reading than the first.

Before I journey too far down the path of criticism, however, I should recall the wise words of Lady Fragrantia, a character introduced in the second volume:

The fact is this, there is a right and wrong handle to everything, and there is more pleasure in thinking with pure nobility of heart, than with the illiberal enmities and sarcasm of a blackguard.  (181)

In any case, the following passage is clear; it recounts a conversation between the Baron and the Lady Fragrantia at a concert. She is talking about the benefits of the waters at a spa:

“…There is a certain something in the waters that gives vigour to the whole frame, and expands every heart with rapture and benevolence. They drink! good gods! how they do drink! and then, how they sleep! Pray, my dear Baron, were you ever at the falls of Niagara?” “Yes, my lady,” replied I, surprised at such a strange association of ideas; “I have been, many years ago, at the Falls of Niagara, and found no more difficulty in swimming up and down the cataracts than I should to move a minuet.” At that moment she dropped her nosegay. “Ah,” said she, as I presented it to her, “there is no great variety in these polyanthuses. I do assure you, my dear Baron, that there is taste in the selection of flowers as well as everything else, and were I a girl of sixteen I should wear some rosebuds in my bosom, but at five-and-twenty I think it would be more apropos to wear a full-blown rose, quite ripe, and ready to drop off the stalk for want of being pulled – heigh-ho!” ‘But pray, my lady,” said I, “how do you like the concert?”  (179-180)

Now admittedly Niagara Falls has both Canadian and American parts, but since the Horseshoe falls, located mainly in Canada, are higher, and therefore swimming up the Canadian falls would be a more impressive feat than swimming up the American, I think we can safely assume that he is referring to the Canadian falls here. He would never brag about a lesser accomplishment when the option of bragging about a greater one was available.

More interesting, however, is the surrounding context. The Baron admits himself puzzled by why Lady Fragrantia suddenly brings up Niagara Falls; however, as the immediately following passage about the nosegay makes clear, the lady is obviously making a (somehwat clumsy) pass at the (oblivious? or just uninterested?) Baron. (He has, after all, turned down marriage proposals from queens and empresses and been thrown out of a volcano by Vulcan for seducing Venus herself.) So Lady Fragrantia wants the Baron to marry her; reading backwards, then, we must ask ourselves: could the apparently unmotivated question about Niagara Falls have also been a hint at marriage? And if so, is this the earliest ever reference to one of the great cliches of Canadian culture, the honeymoon at Niagara Falls?

I think we have to assume it is.

A Land Without a Name

Finally, it’s interesting to note that all the references in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are to places in Canada (the St. “Laurence” river, Hudson’s Bay and Niagara Falls), but none of them actually uses the name “Canada”. To the author, the St. Lawrence, Niagara Falls and Hudson’s Bay are known as places of importance (major river, high waterfall, fur trade) but the country that surrounds them is not named. Canada contains certain specific features that Europeans know about, but as a whole it has no national identity, and so no real existence.

Our Lake Ontario … or Theirs?

We the Animals cover

Justin Torres, We the Animals

Justin Torres, We The Animals (2011)

Manny and Joel were flunking, so when a man paid my father to drive a package up to Niagara Falls, it was me Paps took out of school fro two days; it was me he brought along for company. We drove for four hours; Paps didn’t say much, just that we were headed east, around Lake Ontario, hugging the shore. We stayed in a dusty motel room, and in the morning Paps took me to see the falls….  (98)

If you’re curious to know what sort of writing is coming out of the big U.S. writing workshop programs (and, really, why would you be?), then this novel will give you a sense of it – both the good and the bad – and all in only 120 pages! (The Acknowledgements section – which is as long as some of the chapters – mentions the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Bread Loaf conference, among others, and thanks a number of well-known, and doubtless well-connected, authors.)

Even over such a short distance, the self-consciously “poetic” and “writerly” style goes from intriguing to grating as the plot, such as it is, meanders – I was going to say in circles, but that would suggest some sort of patterning; more like in a series of shaky spirals that eventually make their uneven way off the page and into the mist of the reader’s disinterest.

And does it even contain a reference to Canada? I have to admit that it’s impossible to be sure from the book itself. The narrator’s family lives in upstate New York, and the Niagara Falls referred to could easily be on the American side; there’s no specific reference to crossing the border. But my instinctive nationalism is such that when I read the words “Lake Ontario” I immediately thought “Canada!” Only after a few seconds of more sober reflection did I recall that, like most lakes, Lake Ontario has two sides, and in this case the other side is in another country entirely.

In this chapter, after showing the narrator the falls, the father leaves him and disappears for most of the day, presumably to deliver the mysterious “package” referred to in the quoted passage. The set-up suggests there is something shady or illegal about the delivery,  and I like to imagine it involves crossing and re-crossing the Canadian border, and so is a reference to Canada, which represents unknown, mysterious, and probably criminal errands – all the things we see but don’t understand about our parents.

But I could easily be mistaken.

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