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Margaret Laurence: Critical Reflections

David Staines

Sitting Down to Write: A Discourse of Morning

Robert Kroetsch

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1 Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners continues to unfold itself as a major poetics of prose fiction. Certainly for her generation of Canadian writers (and I was a year her junior), possibly for generations to come, Laurence in 1974 offered a text that was at once explanatory and prophetic. What I propose to do here is to make a fairly close reading of one paragraph of that abundant text.

2Anyone who has taught The Diviners to undergraduates and read their term papers is excruciatingly aware of the implications of that novel’s famous first sentence and its first two paragraphs. Recklessly, I propose to leap over those two paragraphs in order to make a reading of the third:

Pique had gone away. She must have left during the night. She had left a note on the kitchen table, which also served as Morag’s desk, and had stuck the sheet of paper into the typewriter, where Morag was certain to find it.

3We persist in the conviction that the author begins from a blank sheet of paper. This assumption has held among writers and readers at least since the beginning of the Romantic period. Tabula rasa, Ab ovo. Sprung full-grown from the brow of Zeus. Making something out of nothing. The writer as creator. Virgin Mother or big bang. The very notion bestows upon the author a kind of godhead.

4Morag Gunn, sitting down to her typewriter—sitting down to begin—finds she has already begun. Uncannily, the sheet of paper in her typewriter is written upon. The first page of her narrative is written. Morag is presented with characters and an action. In structuralist terms, she is confronted by—and she confronts—a double violation: an unexpected disordering of the world, an unexpected disordering of authorial control.

5Morag Gunn, sitting down to begin, finds not only that she has begun. She has been begun. She has been positioned. Contrary to the assumption of authorial freedom, she has been left with almost nowhere to turn. She has been told that if Gord phones, “tell him I’ve drowned and gone floating down the river, crowned with algae and dead minnows, like Ophelia.”

6To begin with, that is not where Pique has gone at all. If Morag delivers the message, she lies. If she does not deliver the message, she fails.

7At first glance, then, Morag seems to be caught between lying and failing. She is in between a rock and a hard place. Life—or at least art—has got her, as Christie Logan might say, by the short hairs. Forced to act, she cannot avoid complicity. By that complicity she is empowered. By that same complicity, she is relegated.

8Morag Gunn, sitting down to write, finds she has been written to. Intending to send a message, she has received one instead. She is being told what to do by someone who has up and cleared out. If writing is a god-game, then the power appears to reside with the one who is absent, not with the one who is present. But that is the way with gods. Presence announces not the writer’s sacred, but rather her profane, condition. She is in the here and now of time present, place present; she is in the world of contingency, surprise, short-sightedness. Her assignment is not simply to begin; it is to begin from the impossibility of beginning.

9“Now please do not get all uptight, Ma,” Pique writes, constructing the person to whom she writes. Thanks to Pique, Morag is indeed all uptight. She’s wired. She’s a wreck. Consider, Pique says, what your writing has done to your Ma-ness. And before you take your Ma-ness too seriously, remember that you are one of Shakespeare’s myriad and perishing children.

10Morag, by way of response, first off reads Pique’s message as writing. She, as much as her daughter, confronts the question of agency. “Slightly derivative,” Morag thinks, feebly, bravely, lovingly, of Pique’s message.

11To announce one’s intention to write a novel is to announce one’s intention to write what is already written. We are, as writers, always in the predicament of Goldilocks: “Someone has been sitting in my chair.”

12The chances of being original are less than slim. They don’t exist. It is because they don’t exist that one can be original. But that is a Kroetschian argument, not a Laurentian argument.

13Morag Gunn sits down at her kitchen table to a typewriter. The kitchen table is one of the marks of her own self-construction—part of what we might call her signature—and the problem of writing what already exists is a problem in signing. Perhaps, then, the kitchen table is not only a mark of Morag Gunn’s signature; it is also a mark of Margaret Laurence’s signature. But let us avoid that question.

14The typewriter signals a technology of writing that offers grave resistance to signatures of any sort. Some of us are old enough to remember a time when one did not write personal letters on a typewriter. To do so would have contradicted one’s very intention.

15The typewriter signals the Foucauldian technology by which we construct the act of writing—and by which we construct literature. The writer is part of an apparatus that produces the texts that society and culture require in order to be society and culture.

16Morag Gunn counters that force—that power—with the kitchen table. With kitchen talk. The busy writer, avoiding work, works by gossiping. She gossips with herself. She brings to bear an alternate technology of production—a feminine technology, one might wish to say—that engages that typewriter in dialogue. She talks around the subject until the talking around becomes the subject.

17With her positioning herself at a kitchen table that serves as a desk, she enters into a dialogue with the positioned self created by Pique. By placing her typewriter on that table become desk, Morag at once accepts a technology, and asserts her own agency within the elaborate apparatus that is going to establish her and use her as a writer. She lays claims to gender, to class, to social relationships of her own. But let us avoid those questions.

18How does one begin if the page in the typewriter is already written? How does one read that page? How does one write with and against that page? Is it one’s own writing that constitutes the intertexuality?

19It is the very fullness of the page inserted by someone else in her typewriter that compels Morag Gunn. Tradition has created much of the fullness. But she too, by the writing of her novels, has done some of the filling. It is the fullness of that page, its overflow, not its emptiness, that enables Morag Gunn to write, even as she is threatened with a silencing.

20By sticking that page “into” Morag’s typewriter, Pique became the first enabler. In her own devious way, Pique is muse. “Am going west,” she writes, the “I” not yet invented for that sentence. “Am going west.” “Am” becomes a noun. Almost a proper name. To go west is to find “I” and to lose it in the finding. It is to turn “I” into a continuous exchange of resolving image and fading trace, of disappearance and innuendo and encompassing presence.

21Pique’s going forward in time carries Morag back into the genealogy of her own writing, and by that process forward too. Pique’s note on the first page of the novel becomes the first page of the novel.

22One is able to write one’s absence, and in a way that is what Pique does. She writes a one-paragraph novel, and in the process lays claim to all the huge explanatory footnote that her mother will write as a consequence.

23But there is another side to the story. The moment of loss invites silence, yes. But it also creates both the site for a speaking and a speaking out. When and where does the pained speaker erupt into words? More to the point—when does the pained body erupt into words? Perhaps it is in the pained body that both Morag and Margaret find signature. But let us avoid that question.

24Perhaps there is always another side to the story. The note that Pique sticks into the typewriter positions Morag between two discourses. Morag confronts the contingent and autobiographical moment. Yet Pique, shrewdly, to get to that moment, perhaps to control and shape it, invokes in her own writing the colonizing paradigm implicit in the notion of canonical writing. Perhaps Pique herself has internalized the paradigm. More probably, she reads her mother, that Ma from the west, as someone whose uprightness derives in part from a submission to the inhibiting paradigm that enables a daughter to conclude an abrupt message with the word “Ophelia.”

25Morag is caught up elaborately in pedagogy. Pedagogy becomes, obviously, an element in society’s technological project. Morag’s husband, as an agent of that technology, would diminish and even erase the autobiographical (at least for Morag if not for himself). He would have her embrace the discourses of truth we now associate with modernism and with empire.

26Morag, in her resistance to the idea of Artist with a capital A, tries out other discourses. She quickly tells us that she is doing work, hard work, and that she is a tradesperson (“Don’t knock the trade”). And yet from Royland’s talk she has learned to venture beyond mere work. From the talk and silence of Christie and Prin she has learned to listen so totally that she is able to risk erasure as well as realization.

27Sitting down to her kitchen table and to words, she sits down as an established and experienced writer—but also as a novice, as someone learning again and again, in a postmodern sense, not how to end, but rather how to begin.

28Morag Gunn begins her novel by reading. This time she reads a message left in her typewriter, not by past generations, but by the next generation. She positions herself between—among—conflicting discourses. By that positioning she becomes a spokesperson for a Canadian poetics. It is the strategy of a preemptive cultural or political or social or economic force to have one discourse dominate. In Canada, the writer refuses the resolution into dominancy. That resistance, that wariness of power, portrays itself in the various discourses at work, and at play, on the first page of Laurence’s The Diviners.

29We as readers, approaching the table, approaching the typewriter on the kitchen table become a desk, approaching the writer at work, discover that the writer at work is not writing at all but rather that she is reading. We as readers reading the text, first of the novel, then of the paragraph in the typewriter in the novel, discover that the first paragraph of the text could not have been the first paragraph of the text, because the first paragraph is already there on the sheet of paper in the typewriter in the text, and it was not written by the writer who is writing the novel. Or perhaps it was.

30Now we know we are Canadian readers reading a Canadian text about a Canadian poetics of fictional prose. It is, it turns out, necessary, after all, to refer to the description of morning in Margaret Laurence’s text. In that description we find the phrase so dear to our students, and now so reassuring to our critic—“apparently impossible contradiction.”

31And now we are prepared to leap again over the first and second paragraphs, and over the third and fourth paragraphs as well. I see I have said nothing about Pique’s having left at night. What is the discourse of night in The Diviners} How does that painful discourse engage in equal and balanced and Canadian dialogue the discourse of morning? But let me avoid those questions.

32Now we can begin to read the apparently impossible contradictions included in paragraph five: “Pique was eighteen. Only. Not dry behind the ears. Yes, she was, though. If only there hadn’t been that other time when Pique took off, that really bad time.”

33Yes, it is not a difficult text to read. But no, it is though.

34She is not here. We miss her. She is here.

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

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