Haijo Westra sailing on the Strait of Juan de Fuca
Here is an amazingly perceptive essay about dg’s novel Elle, written by a University of Calgary classics professor, Haijo Westra, and his son, Adam, who is currently living in Berlin while pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at the Université de Montreal (NC readers will remember Adam’s earlier contribution to the magazine here). Haijo sent dg an earlier version of this essay cold three or four years ago, just to try it out on the author. Subsequently it was published in French (“Elle de Douglas Glover: Une satire ménippéene,” by Haijo Westra and Adam Westra, Littoral, Numéro 5, autumne 2010). What is really impressive, if not to say brilliant, about this essay is the intuition that Elle follows the ancient model of the Menippean satire, which, in fact, it does—hard to credit, yes, in this day and age, but dg was thinking of Menippean satire, mixed form, and so on when he wrote the novel. No one has ever noticed this before (while dg’s apparent post-modernism is often remarked upon). Actually, these formal ideas lurk behind much of his fiction after the first two novels. It took a classics professor and a Kant philosopher to notice this (thus the currents of literary criticism can always do with a bit of refreshment from the ancient past). It’s a great pleasure to give the English version of this essay a home at Numéro Cinq.
Haijo Westra teaches Latin and Greek at the University of Calgary. Adam Westra is now working on his Ph.D. in Philosophy in Montreal and Berlin on the role of analogy in philosophical thinking, with a particular emphasis on Kant. (Coincidentally, or not, dg wrote a chapter on Kant’s use of analogy in his thesis at the University of Edinburgh.)
The report of a French woman, identified as Marguerite de la Roque, abandoned on an uninhabited island of the Harrington Harbour Archipelago in 1542, has only the slightest basis in fact. Yet the story of how she was caught in flagrante delicto with her lover and how she was subsequently marooned by her Calvinist uncle, Sieur de Roberval, the leader of the first expedition to bring permanent settlers to Canada, and how she (barely) survived for three summers and two winters, spoke to the European imagination from the sixteenth century on. It is a story of passion, involving transgression of social boundaries, punishment, expulsion, and exile. It is a story of colonization, turning into a trial of survival and a threatening loss of identity through colonization in reverse by a dystopia of screeching birds and polar bears. It is also a story of gender about a young woman both victim and hero, and of gender role inversion, as she outlives her lover and takes over the traditional role of the (male) hunter. In Douglas Glover’s prize-winning novel Elle, translated under the title Le pas de l’ourse, the situation of the protagonist in between Europe and Canada becomes the locus for the exploration of the contemporary crisis of identity.
Arthur Stabler has surveyed the various literary treatments of the legend of Marguerite in literature from the sixteenth to the twentiethcenturies. Since Glover has woven many of the motifs of earlier versions into his novel and uses the tradition to link his nameless main character Elle intertextually with Marguerite as well as to redefine her in opposition to her legend, I will review them briefly with an eye to the role of the female protagonist in other genres, before analysing the novel Elle as a Menippean satire and positing the suitability of this Centaur-like genre of inversion for Glover’s novel and the appropriateness of the North Shore as a site for examining the contemporary crisis of identity.
The first version of the story is by Queen Marguerite de Navarre in her Heptameron (1558), a woman’s answer to Boccaccio’s Decameron. In Stabler’s summary, the Queen of Navarre, a Protestant sympathizer and an early feminist, has the abandoned woman survive through God’s mercy as well as her greater ability to survive the rigors of an uncouth diet. She even takes over and uses her dead husband’s gun (arquebus) to defend his grave against the wild animals, so his body will not become carrion meat. At the same time, in spirit, she lives an angelic life of prayer and meditation while reading the New Testament, all of which makes a great impression on her rescuers and on the ladies of La Rochelle, who send their daughters to her upon her return to France to teach them to read and write, in which honourable profession Marguerite spends the rest of her life. The Queen of Navarre turns the story into an exemplary tale of fidelity, Protestant devotion, and hardiness, as well as a triumph of a literate identity over the dispiriting nature of the wilds, turning the main character into a self-employed professional woman who was clearly strengthened by her experiences and acquired an identity and fame along with a profession. (In Elle she conducts a letter-writing business for illiterate merchants: 196). This first elaboration is an exemplary tale in which Marguerite is not a wanton delivering herself to sexual passion, but instead a faithful married wife, who saves her craftsman-husband’s life by a plea to have his death sentence commuted to being marooned, voluntarily joining him in his exile. This treatment of the story inscribes itself in the narrative tradition of examples of virtuous women, the ancient, medieval, and early modern answer to the denigration of womanhood. As such, it is quite different qua genre and social milieu and outcome from subsequent elaborations of the story. Glover actually has Elle comment on this version in a self-conscious protest against her own legend: “I became the parable of the pious wife … who shoots bears with an arquebus”.
In 1570/72, a second version appeared, written by Nicholas de Belleforest in the form of an histoire tragique, an extremely popular genre at the time, with its own requirements for character and action. Marguerite is cast as a beautiful, spirited, and passionate young noblewoman, curious to see foreign lands, who falls in love during the journey with a young gentleman, lusty and hale, who wins her affection by writing verses and playing the lute (Elle observes that Canada is a place inimical to literature and books: 42-43). After appropriate resistance and agonized reflection the young lady finally consents to an informal wedding ceremony and is persuaded by her lover that they are man and wife in the eyes of God. De Roberval finds out and tricks both of them by marooning them on the “Isle of Spirits” off the East Coast, thickly wooded and inhabited only by wild beasts. Marguerite’s tears and laments fail to sway her cruel relative’s heart and she is left lamenting her loss not unlike Ariadne abandoned by Theseus on Naxos, the model of the woman abandoned by her lover in classical literature, most famously in the Roman poet Catullus, poem 64. Glover actually uses a different story from classical antiquity, namely that of Iphigenia (32-33) sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon, for the greater ‘good’ of the expedition to retrieve Helen from Troy, to point to the epic theme of revenge: De Roberval, like Agamemnon, “must have known that this would come back to haunt him” (33; 198-201). In Belleforest’s version, the lovers’ initial stay on the island is idyllic but the child that is born, as well as her lover, die within a year. She is reduced to inhuman appearance and worries about being eaten by wild animals when she expires, a recurring motif of atavistic horror in the tradition. Finally rescued after two years, she is told by her rescuers that her cruel relative has perished.
The differences with the Queen of Navarre’s version set the tone for subsequent treatments. From this point on, Marguerite is a noblewoman, a requirement of the genre of the histoire tragique, as is the courtship, seduction, and transgressive sexuality, and the generally operatic character of the tale. Yet Marguerite is not a mere victim. She is characterized by Belleforest as unusually brave, begging her relative to take her on the expedition. Her passionate nature makes her yield to her lover’s seduction, yet in the end she is more vigorous than him. (It is Elle who pursues her tennis-playing lover Richard in France: 20). After his death, hunting is her only pleasure; hunting, then, is related to aristocratic leisure as well as survival. The motif of Marguerite killing bears with a large gun in this version became very influential. The image of the armed female hunter inscribes itself in the traditional topos of the upside-down world, combining an exotic setting with a temporary inversion of European norms, rules, and gender roles. Canada has this effect on European culture and cosmology (58, 67).
The third version, by André Thevet, dates from 1575, expanded in 1586. Thevet was a cosmographer and reports the story as fact, explicitly naming Marguerite for the first time and claiming as his sources both Marguerite and her uncle, the Sieur de Roberval. In Thevet the love interest takes on an even more trangressive character with the introduction of a Norman maid, Damienne, a cunning bawd who holds watch while the lovers disport themselves onboard ship, turning Belleforest’s genteel operatic tale into a fabliau or a bawdy farce. She is clearly the model of Glover’s Bastienne (39), a name that also occurs in the legend. There is a woodcut in Thevet’s Cosmographie depicting Marguerite as holding an arquebus over two dead bears. She is said to have killed three of them in the Cosmographie, four in the Grand Insulaire after the death of her husband, child, and maid. She is rescued after two years and five months by Breton fishermen, but at this point she is seized by a desire not to leave the place where her dear ones had died; back in France, she wishes she were still in Canada. Glover explicitly borrows this detail (115) suggestive of a first, problematic Canadian identity expressed as nostalgia for the place of exile and loss, a recurring motif (157, 164, 176, 190) used to define a strange and equivocal attraction to Canada as the “Land of the Dead”(167), or as “a place that teaches us yearning and grief” (164), or as a version of the myth of the “Fortunate Isles” where St. Brendan’s companion asks to be left behind alone (157), or as an incomprehensible attraction to a savage place, or as a form of melancholy affecting old Canada hands (176). Glover also invokes the explorer Jacques Cartier’s characterization of the North Shore of the St Lawrence as the accursed, infertile land of exile God gave to Cain (159), east of Eden (Gen. 4.1-16). As a character in the novel, Cartier is unable to textualize his memoirs of Canada on account of a similar melancholy.
Subsequent literary treatments come in a variety of genres: as an exemplary tale by the seventeenth-century Dutch Calvinist Jacob Cats who presents Marguerite’s plight as the just rewards of premarital sex; as an eighteenth-century French novella by Feutry; and as part of a nineteenth-century collection of tales about shipwreck and adaptation under the title Les vrais Robinsons, adding the detail that Marguerite returned mad to France. Feutry writes about a young woman with a charming face, a sensitive soul, and a firm spirit by the name of Elise who is adaptable and hardy and who learns to hunt and whose daughter is raised in Rousseau-esque fashion. Together mother and daughter develop a “superior philosophy of life” due to their unconventional experience outside the artificial constraints of society.
The first Canadian version is in the form of a dramatic monologue delivered by Marguerite who has retired to a convent, written by an Irishman, George Martin (1887). Initially, the lovers are depicted sentimentally as living in an earthly paradise, where the wild beasts do not attack them, “…as if they felt/Love’s universal breathing melt / Their savage instincts”. Out of necessity, Marguerite learns to hunt; the theme of gender inversion is intensified through her disguise as a male naval officer designed by her uncle -unsuccessfully- to keep her out of trouble, as she was “volatile and gay”. The association of the female with a weapon almost seems to call for transvestism to reify the gender inversion.
The first dramatic treatment in Canadian literature by John Hunter-Duvar (1888) has Marguerite rescued by a Native woman, the first time a Native person enters the story, clearly as a cultural intermediary and saviour, since she also averts a massacre of Sieur de Roberval’s men because of her love for the unlovable Roberval, a construction suggestive of Elle’s rescue by Itslk, the Inuit hunter. However, the native man’s encounter with Elle and their cohabitation is presented by Glover as a manifestation of the destructiveness of European contact for native culture.
Finally, in 1899, the first, full-length treatment appears in a Canadian historical novel by Thomas G. Marquis. During the winter, a she-bear and her cub arrive on the island riding on an ice berg. The mother bear is shot by Marguerite and her male companion but the cub is tamed. When madness threatens the lonely Marguerite, she finds comfort in her pet bear, François, who is abandoned and returns to his natural ways instantly by killing a seal when Marguerite is rescued.
Glover, Atwood, Engel: Of bears in novels
As Glover indicates in his Author’s Note (8), these earlier versions brutally summarized here were known to him from Stabler’s book. Taken together, they present the encounter with the New World as a complete inability to come to terms with the natural environment other than through the ultimate imposition of European firearms. Nature is a place to die in and the essential task of the European in this savage land is to survive until rescued and returned to Europe, a quintessentially Canadian motif identified by Margaret Atwood in her guide to the Canadian literary imagination, Survival. Emblematic is the relationship with wild animals, either as mortal threat or as superficially domesticated pet in the story of Marguerite. In the literature of the second half of the twentieth century this opposition of culture versus nature changes, most notably in Atwood’s Surfacing and in Marian Engel’s Bear. There are several obvious reasons: the return to nature and the prominence of the Great Mother myth in the sixties and seventies; the importance of Jungian ideas in Canadian literature, in particular the role of animus and anima manifesting as animals, as in Robertson Davies’ Deptford trilogy; and the inclusion of Native mythology where the boundary between human and animal, nature and culture, is more fluid, with myths of women disappearing into the forest to have children with a bear or other (totemic) animals. Atwood’s protagonist, rejecting a failing marriage and the return to city life, is imagined as taking on some of the physical characteristics of a she-bear at the end of the cottage season; Engel’s main character even tries to initiate sexual contact with a captive bear, only to be sharply reminded of species boundaries and her place outside nature. In Elle one finds the most far-reaching identification of the female protagonist with the bear, but with a very different emphasis and outcome, introducing a new, post-colonial phase in the reception of the story. Glover uses the motif of theriomorphism to thematize the problem of identity and loss of the self (165, 167) through an imagined process of colonization in reverse, of a European woman, the anonymous Elle, by Canada.
Initially, Elle is saved from starvation by a starving old she-bear that collapses on top of her (94), like a deus ex natura. In clear opposition to the tradition, she never kills a bear (181), and her lover’s arquebus remains “rusty and useless” (69). From the first encounter Elle identifies with this old mother bear that is skin and bones like herself. She talks to it like a companion, an alter ego. Behind Elle’s identification lie the humanoid appearance and habits of bears, which make them actors in Native mythology, where bears and humans take on each other’s shape. In Glover’s novel this identification is profoundly ambivalent. At its best, the mythical co-existence of human and bear encompasses a spiritual world of wisdom (93) and a vision of the ultimate oneness of humans and nature; eventually it becomes a nightmarish obsession for Elle, a loss of self. Yet, initially the bear is a saviour. Elle even takes shelter from the cold inside the gutted stomach of the bear and is so reborn as it were to the Native hunter who has been following the bear on a vision quest (93). To him, the white woman has acquired the polar bear’s power. She now dresses in the bear’s skin and dreams of a bear lover (95). By contrast, her uncle, de Roberval, has grown terrified of bears (140). Yet her bear-ness becomes a dangerous obsession of which she has to be ‘cured’ (120, 145) by an old Native shaman, whose own identity switches back and forth from human to she-bear, both self and other, both cure and disease. Elle becomes a changeling herself with physical symptoms of bear-ness: barely recognizable, she is ‘rescued’ by a European ship of fools who relate her appearance to the character dressed as a bear in a charivari, an inversion ritual of medieval Europe (161: hence the Lords of Misrule, 107). She is returned to France and builds a camp outdoors together with a Native Canadian girl, Comes Winter, brought to Brittany by the explorer Jacques Cartier. Elle dreams and pines for Canada while walking the captive bear brought back from Canada as a cub, equated with her lost child (167), on a leash, dog-like. Leon, the dog that went to Canada with her, has shed his domesticity and refused to leave Canada, but the wild bear, brought to France, is pathetic in its domestication, bondage and decay, an image of the colonized self. Elle is said to have returned “infected with savagery” (183); physically and mentally she is in an in-between place, “in a state of being neither one nor the other” (167). Conversely, the Native girl, Comes Winter, has become “infected with Christianity” (183) and is thoroughly alienated from her own culture, a condition reified by the mortal European disease she has contracted. All three of them are exiles, alienated from their homelands, Elle doubly so. Comparing colonization with lovemaking (119), Glover suggests the intensity of the relationship between Old and New Worlds as well as the inevitability of human isolation and alienation (108). Glover refuses, however, a possible reading of the novel as an allegory of the (failed) ascent of the soul to mystic union (116). The locus for the discovery of this permanent alienation is Canada, the “Land of the Dead”, but also the land that signifies but itself (134), that is pure otherness, since both nature and culture connote. The status of the bear, from salvation to obsession to captivity, marks Elle’s passages as she moves from Canada back to France. The gothic ending of the novel suggests an ultimate redressing of the balance between captive nature and savage culture in a final, violent act of revenge against de Roberval in which Elle becomes indistinguishable from the captive bear.
The introduction of a thinly disguised Rabelais as Elle’s partner in the second half of the novel invites reflection on its generic structure and how this relates to its content. In Bakhtin’s analysis, the work of Rabelais is associated in particular with the carnivalesque impulse in ritual and literature and with Menippean satire as a basis for the novel as a literary mode. Little remains of the work of Menippus (second half of the third century C.E.) who received a unanimously bad press in antiquity as a philosopher who went over the top by mocking philosophy and its claim to truth – too much of a mad dog, even for his fellow Cynics, who aimed at shocking their audience by questioning conventional moral assumptions in their diatribes. Menippus drove this critique to its ultimate conclusion by making it nihilistic and self-parodic. In the second century C.E., the Greek satirist Lucian actually casts Menippus as a character in his dialogue Bis Accusatus (The Double Indictment) in order to define the genre as a biting satire and as a comic mixture of literary elements, “like a Centaur”. The ambiguous state of the Centaurs in between humans and animals is emblematic of Elle’s situation. In classical mythology the wise Chiron is a teacher of natural medicine and a helper of heroes, but the other Centaurs run wild. At the same time, Glover’s novel is strongly reminiscent of the genre as analyzed by Bakhtin, presented below in its reformulation by Anne Payne. As the genre and Glover’s novel are fond of catalogues (86, 105, 196) or ‘anatomies’ as Frye would call them, I shall use this device to try and ‘capture’ some of the elements of the novel. Ultimately, the generic form has significant bearing on the interpretation of the novel.
Generally, Menippean satire is characterised as a mixed bag, a potpourri or farrago. The Latin satura (not to be confused with Greek satyr) actually refers to stuffed sausage. These terms all connote an unconventional mixture of genre, style and tone, and an absolute absence of inhibition on freedom of speech, the Cynic ideal of parrhesia. Classical and neo-classical theory of genre was highly hierarchical, so the combination of comedy and philosophy, high and low style and serious and burlesque was a shocker.
Paraphrasing Bakhtin, Payne notes the following specifics of Menippean satire:
There is often an investigation of unusual psychic states: insanity, split personalities, unrestrained daydreaming, strange dreams, suicidal thoughts. These phenomena destroy the epic-tragic integrity of man and his fate; in him the possibilities of another man and another life are revealed; he loses his “finalizedness” and singleness of meaning. He ceases to coincide with himself …. [T]hese traits … afford a new vision of man. The dialogical attitude of man to himself also destroys his “finalizedness.”
With a change of gender, we have the precise situation of Elle. The state of mind invoked on almost every second page is that of the dream, along with nightmare, vision, obsession/possession and madness. Occasionally Elle contemplates death as an escape from the Canadian condition. There is no return to her unreformed French-ness after her return to France: she has become permanently split between Old and New, both bear and woman, permanently double. The narrative takes the form of a dialogue of the main character with herself, constantly examining alternative or opposite positions, echoing the split personality and the double point of view. This affords a “new”, essentially tragic view of “man” as permanently alienated, inauthentic selfhood. Not mentioned by Payne is the characteristic of the fumbling, bumbling author/main character of Menippean satire, who learns basic things about existence the hard way, allowing for survival lessons in the wild and making the Canadian setting an existential one, both physically and symbolically. Dream visions are typical in which the main character is transported from everyday reality to an exotic location (heaven or hell) and so obtains a glimpse of other worlds and ultimate realities. Elle becomes a dreamer as she acquires her second, Canadian self; for her, as for Native people, dreams are real (139)
2. Subject Matter and Plot
[Menippean satire] is characterized by extraordinary freedom of invention in philosophy and plot …. The purpose of the fantastic is “to create extraordinary situations in which to provoke and test a philosophical idea”.
The extraordinary setting of Elle allows for an almost continuous series of reflections on her existential situation, i.e. alienation through colonization in reverse. This condition is explored through the drastic motif of theriomorphism as well as through a continuous, obsessive dialogue of the self with the self. Her ironic wit (131) and self-mockery, recurring features of Menippean satire, are symptoms of that divided self. The philosophical problem of the self is approached semiotically. Canada is said to signify only itself (134): it does not connote, i.e. it is empty of any association whatever and therefore constitutes utter emptiness/otherness. Similarly, Elle in the end has no home, no self, no soul (167). Her existence has lost all meaning. In literary terms, hers is an anti-quest, her return is that of the anti-hero (167). In fact, “instead of returning you find yourself frozen on the periphery, the place between places, in a state of being neither one nor the other” (167). Her counterpart is the Native hunter on the ever smaller ice floe drifting across the Atlantic towards Europe, never to reach it. She is said to be “infected with otherness” (157), reified by the physical symptoms that correspond with bearishness: hirsuteness, polythelia or supernumerary nipples, and claw-like hands (117). There is slippage from the mythical to the medical and vice-versa in Elle’s metamorphosis. Conversely, the New World has been infected by the Old (166). Linguistically, she is a “garbled translation” (147), culturally an exile (159), outsider (151) and intruder (162) in not one but two cultures. Menippean satire likes to confront two irreconcilable points of view, here an interminable dialectic of Old and New Worlds (141-2, 167, 178, 193-4), and is in effect aporetic: there is no comforting, mediatory solution, no compromise.
3. Genre, Style and Tone
“Menippean satire is frequently an organic combination of free fantasy, symbolism, and mystical religious elements with … extreme, crude underworld naturalism.”
The combination of theology with the sensual and the bawdy is evident from the first episode of the novel. Philosophical reflection is combined with elements of fantasy, fabliau and farce: the ridiculous and the sublime meet and clash. Elle’s dream journey into Native myth, magic and religion has its own bearish symbols and feverish mystic visions. Her bear-ness is an equivocal symbol of divinity, difference, and even the inauthentic self (144, 147). Learned reflections and references alternate with low life observations. Characteristically, there is display of learning and a ridicule of it in the same breath. Rabelais is a fountain of encyclopaedic knowledge (a favourite butt of Menippean satire) but he treats knowledge as a game and a joke: he is the rhetorician of ironic reversal (173, 179).
European literacy is confronted with Native orality as an expression of knowledge. Books are valued intellectually and erotically (30, 31, 33, 59, 65) but eaten for physical sustenance in Canada (42). Generically, Glover’s Elle has elements of the writer’s diary, travelogue, exploration narrative, philosophical tract, religious broadsheet, satire, encyclopaedia, allegory and myth. The novel presents a version of a myth, and at the same time, provides a self-conscious commentary on that myth: therefore, it combines, in Frye’s terms, both first and second-phase writing. The procédé is to break all formal conventions of literary expression as well as the entire aesthetic canon of classicism, and to deny grand narratives and unequivocal solutions. There is no idealisation of nature in Elle. The story of Elle, her extreme dislocation correlated with utter alienation of the self, finds an appropriate and convincing expression in Menippean satire, a genre that mocks conventional answers to fundamental questions. It is also essentially rebellious, as is Elle (and Rabelais), “a headstrong girl” and a heretic, and characterized by a total freedom of speech, the parrhesia of the Cynics who deliberately affected a savage life style, living on the margins of society, in a barrel and dressed in rags or animal skins, in order to point out their fellow citizens’ hypocrisies, biting the bourgeois like the dogs after which they were named. The broad humour and burlesque serve to turn the world upside-down in carnivalesque fashion, to shock the public out of its comfortable assumptions through inversion (62, 66, 67, 77, 115), a process that characterizes the New World. The Old World is based on a dream of order which is undone in the New (107). The setting of the novel, Quebec’s North Shore, is the crucial site where the crisis of contemporary identity is examined through the imagined experience of the first European woman settler in a landscape where the problems of human existence manifest themselves as starkly as the features of the natural environment. The North Shore represents Canada metonymously as well as the archetypal experience of Canada as a place that signifies only itself. , the scene of confrontation of a human being with total Otherness, where the drama (and the comedy) of the search for identity is enacted to this day. In Glover’s words: “The Côte-Nord is part of the country of my imagination.”
—Haijo Westra & Adam Westra