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Margaret Laurence : Critical Reflections

 | 
David Staines

Listening : Laurence’s Women

Kristjana Gunnars

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1 During a conversation with Nick in A Jest of God, when Nick is talking about immigrants, Rachel thinks: “as though things had been easy for the people I came from, easy back into prehistory and forward for ever. What does he know about it?” (106)

2Suddenly I feel stultified by this conversation. It is a Canadian conversation. Everything Margaret Laurence touches becomes/is so Canadian. So Canadian that, as Antonin Artaud says, “nerves tensed the whole length of my legs” (80). I wanted to run.

3Before I ever knew Canada, I saw the Prairies through the eyes of Margaret Laurence. I saw through the eyes of A Jest of God, to be exact, sometime back in the sixties. The Prairies were a place where women stopped talking. There was “nothing left but the voluminous abysses, the immobility, the cold—,” to use Artaud’s words. Where women said, like Rachel, “I don’t know.”

4I don’t know. I believe Artaud was sober when he warned: “One mustn’t let in too much literature” (80). One’s ability to interpret reality becomes confused. How unlike the fiction of history is the fiction of Laurence. In Laurence’s fictional world, the prairie is where a strange stasis occurs. A hiatus in the move toward the west. Into the west, in fact, where you continually go back in time until you get to the day before.

5How unlike the drive we have been told about by historians. “Go West, Young Man,” toward Enterprise, Saskatchewan. I think of the way in which Edward Said characterizes America: “the pioneering spirit, errand into the wilderness, the obliteration of another society, and the continual sense of enterprise, that enterprise is good for its own sake, especially because a Book says so. It doesn’t matter that enterprise means killing people... it’s enterprise of a particular kind, the kind associated with a new settler society. And with it goes a tremendous hostility to traditional societies” (99).

6If I compare such commentary on pioneer societies and their descendants with the treatment of these in Laurence’s novels, I cannot help thinking Said has no idea what he is talking about. In any case, he is not talking about the women.

7“The sun needles me,” says Hagar in the opening of chapter 7 of The Stone Angel, “and I’m awake. Why am I so stiff and sore? What’s the matter with me? Then I see where I am, and that I’ve slept with my clothes on, and even my shoes, and only my cardigan to keep me warm. I feel compelled to get out of this stuffy place and find fresh air, and yet I’m disinclined to move” (185).

8What do I mean by Canadian? By a Canadian conversation? By trying to characterize Laurence’s fictional universe? What is it? Above all, I sense now and sensed almost immediately when I first encountered Laurence, it is unhappy. I have discovered that Canada is an unhappy country. No, better still, the Prairies are unhappy. Canadian women are especially unhappy. Artists, Canadian writers, Canadian books are unhappy. Is this acknowledged? The unhappy West?

9Let me quote a great Canadian, Hubert Aquin. Perhaps my favourite Canadian? Aquin writes in “Form and (Dis-) content”: “What can artists possibly teach me if they take it into their heads to be happy? How can they go on surprising me? I have no need of works born in the debilitating climate of acceptance. Whether they be novelists, poets or painters, artists are professionals of unhappiness. And I mean professionals, not amateurs!” (5)

10How many of us have thought, on the side, without mentioning it, just as a private reflection, that Laurence’s career consisted of exploring the mineshafts of unhappiness: those cold, dark caverns, walls dripping with coal-black sweat?

11To quote Aquin again: “My point is this: the greatness of a work of art is not necessarily proportional to its creator’s unhappiness. That would really be too easy. Unhappiness, too, is an art. The unhappiness I am talking about, the only kind that is productive, is the sign of a deep commitment; it is a vocation and not just a matter of chance” (5). Just so, I think. A matter of commitment.

12Let me go further. “The sun needles me... Yet I am disinclined to move,” Hagar says. What is this commitment? The unhappy commitment not to move. Not to move in spite of the pain of being still: perhaps because it is painful not to move. The commitment to observe pain, such as it is. Like Baudelaire, like Balzac, like Pascal, like Aquin: their “difficulty of being” seen “to the full” (Aquin 5).

13This commitment concerns what Julia Kristeva calls “An Aesthetics of Awkwardness.” Here is how Kristeva wishes to distinguish unhappy speech from ordinary narrative: “The affected rhetoric of literature and even the common rhetoric of everyday speech always seem somewhat festive. How can one speak the truth of pain, if not by holding in check the rhetorical celebration, warping it, making it grate, strain, and limp?” (225). For this reason, Rachel says “I don’t know” and Hagar says “What’s the matter with me?”

14Laurence’s women are somewhat awkward, but because they choose to be so. In The Fire-Dwellers, Stacey Cameron is standing by the sink with a potato peeler in her right hand, thinking: “I recall one of my mother’s bridge cronies in Manawaka, and every time she came over, she’d ask my mother to put on a record, and Mother would play the old-time one with a polka on one side and a schottische on the other, and the old dame would sit there as though under heavy sedation. Maybe she was dancing in her head” (303). Where else in the world does a woman sit “as though under heavy sedation” when she might be up dancing?

15I don’t know. Like Rachel. What are they waiting for, these women of Laurence? While the sun needles, the music plays, the man talks: why do they just sit there, still? Is it because, as Hélène Cixous says in The Newly Born Woman, one of her Sorties, that “In body/Still more: woman is body more than man is. Because he is invited to social success, to sublimation. More body hence more writing. For a long time, still, bodily, within her body she has answered the harassment, the familial conjugal venture of domestication, the repeated attempts to castrate her. Woman, who has run her tongue ten thousand times seven around her mouth before not speaking, either dies of it or knows her tongue and her mouth better than anyone” (95).

16Cixous and Clément can be much more plain spoken than this. The waiting, the being still, the not speaking are part of a revolutionary stance. Someday, all will out: “When ‘The Repressed of their culture and their society come back, it is an explosive return, which is absolutely shattering, staggering, overturning, with a force never let loose before... for at the end of the Age of the Phallus, women will have been either wiped out or heated to the highest, most violent, white-hot fire. Throughout their deafening dumb history, they have lived in dreams, embodied but still deadly silent, in silences, in voiceless rebellions” (95).

17Exactly the way I see the Prairies. So much about Laurence’s women explains the Canadian Prairie: an earthquake waiting to happen, perhaps. A dam waiting to break. The stillness before the storm. That magical moment that takes the appearance of eternity and emanates out of itself as if endlessly. Laurence’s women are so Canadian.

18Aquin, in his essay “The Mystic Body,” quotes Wilhelm Stekel’s Frigidity in Woman in Relation to Her Love Life in order to comment on Quebec as the frigid woman. But this is Stekel’s characterization: “Sexual feeling may be entirely absent. The woman may miss both the forepleasure and the orgasm... The women admit that they are glowing with yearnings, that they crave the orgasm, but complain that they are unable to attain it” (60). Aquin means to say that separatism acts as a stimulant. What is it that is so stimulating? Aquin’s answer: it is the “attitude of expectation” (60).

19That is all. Just an attitude. May I say this about all of Canada, then, a nation that nourishes an “attitude of expectation”? Looking back at Hagar in The Stone Angel, there is that moment when Mr. Troy sings the psalm: “All people that on earth do dwell, /Sing to the Lord with joyful voice.” (291). Suddenly she bursts out: “I would have wished it. This knowing comes upon me so forcefully, so shatteringly, and with such a bitterness as I have never felt before. I must always, always, have wanted that—simply to rejoice. How is it I never could?” (292).

20That is the answer to the repetitious “I don’t know”: “I know, I know. How long have I known?” Hagar exclaims. “Or have I always known, in some far crevice of my heart, some cave too deeply buried, too concealed?” (292). That is, to quote myself, at last, Laurence’s career of exploring the mineshafts of unhappiness, those “cold, dark caverns.” Only to discover that it is possible to “rejoice,” or affirm, in jouissance, without moving from your spot. The obvious metaphor here is of the flower that blooms, the egg that hatches. It doesn’t matter which.

21What we have here is not at all the drive that characterizes Said’s understanding of “settler societies” (nice term, in this context), of North Americans as forging into the wilderness—any wilderness—with a purpose. And it is possible to understand, more particularly, what Rachel means when she wonders whether Nick is unaware that it was not easy for her people either. The people not, in fact, characterized as immigrants. Do you think it is easy to sit here and wait? To wait for you? Do you think it ever was?

22Oh, I don’t know. I just think it is wonderful to know, as Susan Howe says in speaking of Emily Dickinson, that “A tear is an intellectual think” (28). Let me, therefore, add to the imagery of the flower about to bloom and the egg about to hatch, this line from Emily Dickinson: “My life had stood—a loaded Gun—.” We know there is something in this concerning the American Civil War, but for my particular purposes, I like the notion of Laurence’s women, their stillness in time, their pregnant attitude, becoming so overtly political. A gun about to go off. As Cixous and Clément pointed out, those who come out of repression, do so in an “absolute,” “staggering” way, with a force never before let loose.

23Did we not think Margaret Laurence was a political novelist? Did we not think politics had any place in art? In an interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy, Roland Barthes commented that “Politics is not only speaking, it can also be listening. And maybe we’re in need of a practice of political listening” (432). When asked about his politics, Barthes answered, further, that “politics is founded existentially. For example, power. It is not only that which oppresses or what is oppressive, it is also that which is stifling. Whenever I am stifled it means that power is operating somewhere” (433).

24In this context, all of Laurence’s fictional worlds are politically imbued. Her women protagonists are enmeshed in politics, and their attempt to speak, in fact to rejoice, is in and of itself a political act. Seen in these terms, it is easier to acknowledge that finding a voice is not easy, nor is finding a voice innocent. This is an intellectual activity, not to be underestimated. To not-speak is an act of refusal.

25Perhaps, as Aquin might contend, happiness is reactionary after all? Happiness makes you talk so much, so festively, makes you so arrogant and smooth. Perhaps it is even stupid to talk too much? Is it not anti-climactic to celebrate a literature of those who refuse to speak, refuse to move? Of those who are, in a word, frigid? So why do you stay? I don’t know. I suppose you know better. In Aquin’s words, who ends his essay “The Text or the Surrounding Silence”: “God alone is before us and around us... There is no getting out, which is why I stay. I stay and wait for the end of an endless flight” (120).

26And perhaps it is appropriate to look back at the psalm Rachel is quoting at the end of A Jest of God, because those words bring together what I have been attempting to describe in Laurence: the one who listens in order to acquire joy, listens because of the consciousness of pain. Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice (201).

Bibliographie

WORKS CITED

Aquin, Hubert. Writing Quebec: Selected Essays by Hubert Aquin. Ed. Anthony Purdy; trans. Paul Gibson, Reva Joshee, Anthony Purdy, and Larry Shouldice. Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 1988.

Artaud, Antonin. Selected Writings. Ed. Susan Sontag; transl. Helen Weaver. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Barthes, Roland. “Roland Barthes.” Interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy. In Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Art and Culture, ed. Russel Ferguson, et al. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.

Cixous, Hélène, and Catherine Clément. The Newly Born Woman. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 1988.

Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1985.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

Said, Edward. “In the Shadow of the West: Edward Said.” Interview with Phil Mariani and Jonathan Crary. In Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Art and Culture, ed. Russel Ferguson et al. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.

Auteur

Department of English
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2001

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