Configuration: Essays in the Canadian Literatures
Bruce Whiteman is Head of Rare Books at the McGill University Libraries
and author of The Invisible World Is in Decline, Books II to IV.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when Canadian literature went largely uncriticized, if one can use that word to mean that it attracted little in the way of scholarly interpretive attention. This is not at all the same as saying that the literature went unread, though the critics have sometimes given us to understand that this was the case. No doubt some critic has elaborated more systematically the theory that a text in and of itself is neutral or nonexistent until it elicits a parallel and paradigmatic verbal response, much as an ovum or spermatozoon on its own has little meaning. At any rate, Canadian literary criticism is now a full-fledged industry, having passed in a quick and telescoped fashion through most of the historically popular “isms” over the course of the last two decades. Thematicism is currently infra dig; structuralism, semioticism, and Marxism each have their adherents at the moment; no doubt in time they shall seem as quaint as Edmund Gosse and some other theoretical orientation will hold sway.
As the postscript to Configuration shows, E.D. Blodgett is not unaware of the relative value of criticism, however self-conscious: “No matter how obvious it may seem, literature is not its criticism, and the trap of every critic is to believe that literature is a function of the critical method employed” (p. 220). This admission, I suspect, is as disingenuous as it is unexpected. After more than 200 pages of critical writing that is unremittingly anfractuous, highly allusive and polyglot, and sometimes insightful — i.e., criticism that takes itself in deadly earnest — one is almost insulted to find the critic himself rather modestly suggesting that the critical enterprise operates within very narrow limits of validity indeed. But then Blodgett is nothing if not honest. For example, after spending eight pages exploring the theory that Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night is decisively marked with the influence of a poem by Rilke called “Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes,” he then brazenly quotes MacLennan himself to the effect that he had never heard of the poem. “Clearly,” remarks Blodgett with remarkable self-assurance, “there are rapports de fait which operate symbolically as well as positivistically” (p. 49); and earlier: “Perhaps, in some ineluctable Borgesian manner, MacLennan was not acquainted with this poem, but, nevertheless, its configurations were present as its theme unfolded its archetypal and mythical sense in the novel.” One would wonder whether such a man has any sense of shame at all, were it not that equally impudent imputations are only too common in critical writing.
If in Blodgett’s book the tail too often wags the dog, it is only fair to say that the essays are certainly not without value. The style sometimes descends to gobbledygook (“Another consequence, and this appears an inevitable result of diglossia, is the hierarchical distribution of linguistic codes, which issues in ethical inversion”), but Blodgett does nevertheless offer a fresh perspective on the work of Anne Hébert, Alice Munro and F.P. Grove, as well as on the nature of prairie writing. He does not wear his scholarship lightly, but there is no question of his competence, as one would expect, Blodgett being also a poet in his own right.