Emigrant Remembering and Forgetting
In their Introduction to The Blasted Pine (1957), F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith point perceptively towards the ambivalence at the heart of much emigrant experience. Because "the emigrant discards an old life in favour of another to be established in a new land," write the two poets, "the act of emigration itself [is] a kind of satire—a romantic, indeed a revolutionary rejection of an established order" (xviii).1 "Yet the English and Scottish emigrants from the Old Country," they continue, did not entirely abandon or reject their original society but, on the contrary, made considerable "efforts…in their new home to imitate and re-establish the attitudes and habits of the old." The consequences for memory of this ambivalence towards the "Old Country" and the "new land" is a tension between remembering and forgetting: especially at moments of heightened emotion, emigrants to Canada may be visited by one or other—or both— an outpouring of affection for the new that resembles the motivating impulse of their emigration or an influx of nostalgia for the old that compels them back mentally (and, eventually, perhaps, physically) to their place of origin. In the literature of emigration, such moments frequently occur during the emigrant’s departure from the "Old Country" and their arrival in the New for the obvious reason that these are sites where, to borrow and adapt a term from Martin Heidegger, the familiar begins to absent itself from presence and the unfamiliar "begins its presencing" (Poetry 154).2 Typically, the border points of departure and arrival are sites of eager anticipation for (young) forward-looking emigrants and sites of acute sadness for (elderly) backward-looking ones. The Reverend William Bell’s observations in Hints to Emigrants (1824) of the behaviour of his fellow passengers as their ship drew away from the coast of Scotland gives a sense of the extremes of emotion displayed by emigrants on arrival as well as departure: "some appeared lively and cheerful—some thoughtful and serious—while a few, by the tears which they shed, showed that they were not leaving their country and their friends without a struggle" (2). Especially (but not only) for reluctant emigrants, the past is likely to remain a beckoning presence in the memory that causes them to return psychologically and even physically to an idealized "Old Country" that, as time goes on, bears less and less resemblance to the place that they left.
If there is a seminal literary treatment of the departure of emigrants from the "Old Country" for the "new land" of North America, it is Oliver Goldsmith’s moving description in The Deserted Village (1770) of the victims of the enclosures who must leave Auburn for "distant climes…half the convex world" away (341-42):
Good Heaven! what sorrows gloomed
that parting day,
These lines are followed by vignettes of emigrants of different ages and sexes ("The good old sire," "His lovely daughter," the "mother," her "thoughtless babes" and "her fond husband" [371-84]), all of whom, with the exception of the unknowing babies, feel more-or-less of the profound "melancholy" that Goldsmith ascribes to the scene as a whole (401). By looking repeatedly and prolongedly at their "native walks," "bowers," and homes, Goldsmith’s adult emigrants can be assumed to have traced and re-traced these sites in their memory, to have charged their mental image of home with emotional energy over the period of time culminating in the day of departure.4 Thus cathected, the image of the (abandoned) home becomes a basis not only for nostalgia in emigrants so disposed, but also for the home that the emigrant may seek either "to imitate and re-establish" in the "new land" or fully and finally to discard or transcend. Whatever the case, at the time of the emigrant’s departure the "old" home and "native walks" are physically absented but psychologically retained like a dead parent or friend, to be perpetually grieved for or rebelliously rejected but never quite forgotten.
That the feelings of many adult emigrants, however rebellious or forward-looking, for their abandoned home are closely related to those experienced during bereavement and mourning is borne out by Frances Brooke’s fictional account of the emigration of Edward Rivers to Lower Canada in the opening letter of The History of Emily Montague (1769). "I go with all the eager hopes of a warm imagination," Rivers enthuses to his friend John Temple just before boarding his ship for Quebec; "yet friendship casts a lingering look behind" (4). Since he is eager to "see order and beauty gradually rise from chaos" by "settling the lands to which [he] ha[s] a right as a lieutenant-colonel on half pay" (3-4), Rivers does not take a "long farewell" like Goldsmith’s emigrants, but he does signal an awareness of the gravity of his departure from "country and…friends" with his "lingering look behind," a phrase that alludes to Thomas Gray’s rhetorical assertion in the "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751) that even the most otherwordly of people do not relinquish their earthly existence without regret:
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a
As Roger Lonsdale observes, the final line of this stanza alludes to a passage in Robert Blair’s The Grave (1743): "How wishfully [the soul] looks / On all she’s leaving, now no longer her’s! / A little longer, yet a little longer, / Oh! might she stay" (qtd. in Thomas Gray 133n.). In proposing a homology between an emigrant leaving home and the soul departing the body, the sequence of allusions from Brooke through Gray to Blair suggests that the abandoned home is, as it were, encrypted,5 in the mind of the departing emigrant and, like a dead body, becomes all but unrecoverable as a person or even as a thing while nevertheless remaining available as a mental image for such purposes as nostalgic (or rebellious) reminiscence, physical imitation, and verbal representation.
Like Rivers, early emigrants of an optimistic outlook such as Catharine Parr Trail and Mary (Gapper) O’Brien did not portray themselves as indulging in "long farewell[s]" or "lingering look[s] behind" but, on the contrary, tended to present emigration as an exciting adventure involving discovery, rejuvenation, re-birth, and even birth (see Bentley, "Breaking the ‘Cake of Custom’" 98-99, 102-103, 107-113). In stark contrast, more-or-less reluctant emigrants such as Ann Langton and Susanna Moodie evidently departed the "Old Country" with feelings of sadness so intense as to suggest bereavement, mourning, and even imminent death. For Langton, the distress of "embarking on [her] awful voyage to North America in 1837 was compounded by the middle-class necessity of keeping up the appearance of being unmoved: "I wish[ed]…to banish what is past from my thoughts, and, if I could, the feelings of my last sight and touch of my first-born," she wrote later in her journal, "but the stunning sensation can never be forgotten, and my feeling when the ship cleared the pier-head must ever remain as long as memory lasts. It was a call on all my energy and resolution to support an appearance of composure. What a relief would tears have been!" (Gentlewoman 12). The parallel between Langton’s departure and a bereavement is so evident that her refusal to give vent to her sorrow almost demands to be read as a refusal to mourn, as a failure to detach herself from the lost objects of her affection that ensured the indefinite extension of her sadness as a component of the melancholia that appears at several points in her letters from Upper Canada,6 and, very likely, limited her ability to embrace life fully in the new land. If Langton had gone through the process of mourning her losses, perhaps she would have "be[en] left with, at most, a nostalgic memory" of England and her "first-born" (Donato 202) rather than the "stunning sensation" that she sought "to banish" but found could "never be forgotten."
A more imaginative as well as more reluctant emigrant than Langton, Moodie repeatedly argues in Roughing It in the Bush (1852) that emigration is an unmitigated disaster for "educated persons" of "respectable connections" like herself because it alienates them from "the refinements and luxuries of European society, …the wise and revered institutions of their native land, …[and] those local attachments which stamp the scenes amid which our childhood grew, in imperishable characters upon the heart" ( xxi). Likening herself to "Lot’s wife," she writes of the prospect of being deprived of the company of "congenial minds" by emigration that she "turned and looked back, and clung with all [her] strength to the land that [she] was leaving" ( 142). As an exile from Sodom and Gemorrah who "became a pillar of salt" for looking back at the doomed cities (Genesis 19.26), Lot’s wife provides at best a partial analogue for Moodie as she presents herself in Roughing It in the Bush, but the biblical figure does at least indicate the extent to which she viewed emigration as enduringly numbing (not to say, "stunning") and dehumanizing—as a psychological death brought about by the severance of connection with England. More than Moodie perhaps realized, her comparison of herself with Lot’s wife also indicates the extent to which retrospective stasis—a backward-looking desire to resist change by remaining the same—characterizes the narrator of Roughing It in the Bush.
Unable "to forget the past and live in the future" like emigrants bent on making a "new name"7 for themselves and a brighter future for their children in Canada ( xxi), Moodie lards her sketches with emotional meditations, often in the affective medium of poetry, on the sources and potency of emigrant nostalgia: "No fond remembrance" is awakened by "The strains we hear in foreign lands," but "The music of our native shore…calls before our mental sight / Dear forms" and "bids the spirit joy and weep…And melt in tears" ( 22-23);8 by a process of association, "The murmur of [Canada’s] mighty floods" causes "tears to start / From those whose fondest wishes rest / Beyond the distant main" ( 73-74); and in dreams, the "Loved scenes" of the "island home" "rise in beauty…And long-lost friends…smiling, grasp [a] willing hand" ( 191). In Roughing It in the Bush, as in Langton’s journals, recollections of "home" can sometimes be bitter as well as sweet: dreams may summon up "lovely England[’s]…waving woodlands…[and] green, daisied vales" but memories of the last sight of its "shore" with "The chill mists of night around th[e] white cliffs" can cause tears and palpitations ( 53). At times Moodie expresses affection for Canada’s natural environment and enthusiasm for the country’s future prospects, but, for the most part, she struggles with the disjunction between its alien otherness and the idealized Britain that forms a basis for her emigrant identity. Not surprisingly, her "halcyon days" are those in which the beauty of the natural world either allows her temporarily to "forg[e]t…the love of home" or to construct "imaginary houses and bridges" (no doubt of English design) in the Canadian wilderness ( 259, 208).
Published in Toronto seven years after the first edition of Roughing It in the Bush, the most extended and accomplished treatment of emigrant experience in early Canadian poetry, Alexander McLachlan’s The Emigrant (1861), probably owes debts both to The Backwoods of Canada (see Bentley, Introduction, The Emigrant xii-xiv, xxxviii-xxxix) and to the poems that intersperse Moodie’s sketches, particularly the ones expressive of emigrant nostalgia. Focusing primarily on emigrants from Scotland rather than England, McLachlan’s poem purports to be the reminiscence of an old Scottish pioneer on the fiftieth anniversary of his emigration, an event that he recalls in precise detail for, as he says, "There are things in memory set, / Things we never can forget" (1:87-88). As in earlier fictional and autobiographical accounts of the departure of emigrants from their native land, the Old Pioneer dwells especially on the sadness involved in leaving a beloved landscape, dear friends, and close family. The time of his departure—a "lovely morn in spring" (1:43)—is well chosen both for its historical veracity (most emigrant vessels left Britain for North America in the spring) and for its symbolic appropriateness as a time of new light and new life. Soaring above the Old Pioneer as he prepares to leave the Cart valley in McLachlan’s native Renfrewshire is a "lark" (1:44), a bird that might simply be an emblem of the emigrant’s high hopes if it were not also —to quote William Wordsworth—a "Type of the wise who soar, but never roam, / True to the kindred points of heaven and home" (2:141-42) and, thus, a comment on the dubious wisdom of his departure for the New World. All around the Old Pioneer as he leaves are flowers—the blue bell, the gowan, the cowslip, and the primrose—whose names are almost synonymous with the British Isles, and whose rootedness in their native soil provides another reminder of the sources of vitality from which the emigrant will soon be separated. In point of fact, many emigrants from Britain took seeds, roots, and cuttings of such flowers with them to the New World to remind them of the land they had left behind and to modify the alien landscape to which they were going. Among the plants that surround the "little log cabin" later in The Emigrant is the "eglantine" (5:24), and not merely for figurative purposes does one of McLachlan’s more eloquent emigrants describe the "God-commissioned" task of the "Invaders of the ancient woods" as "That howling wilderness to clear / Till…it… / Blooms and blossoms like the rose!" (4:89-96; the allusion, of course, is to Isaiah 35.1). In nostalgic emigrants, the desire was strong to recreate the natural as well as the built environment of the "Old Country" in the "new land."9
As the emigrants make their way across the Atlantic on the Edward Thorn—the ship that probably brought McLachlan himself to Canada in the spring or summer of 1840—the tension between satirical rejection and nostalgic celebration becomes especially acute, not only in the narrative of the Old Pioneer, but also in two of the songs embedded in it. Relying heavily here as elsewhere on John Galt’s two settler novels, Lawrie Todd (1830) and Bogle Corbet (1831), McLachlan ascribes mixed motives and feelings to the passengers on the Edward Thorn:
As the Edward Thorn makes its way across the Atlantic, the thoughts and activities of the emigrants turn on two main axes: the "deep distress" that has caused many of them "To seek a home beyond the wave" (the echo is of The Deserted Village) and the abiding affection that they feel for their native Britain.
These different feelings find expression in two songs, the first a satirical ballad from an English emigrant named "Tom, the politician" (2:16) and the second a farewell song to Scotland from a McLachlan surrogate named "Little Mac, the jocund singer" (2:18). Tom’s song, "Old England is eaten by knaves" (2:47-70), is framed by expressions of affection for its author’s "country and race" and suggests overpopulation ("too many spoons for the broth") as the primary reason for emigration. To this Malthusian point, the song adds as further causes of England’s woes the heartless and self-interested activities of the "squire," the "Justice," and the "Bishop," a catalogue of establishment types that smacks of Thomas Carlyle’s social criticism, particularly in its characterization in Sartor Resartus (1833-34), Past and Present (1843), and elsewhere of the country land owner as a figure committed more to "preserving his game" (2:55) than to considering the needs of the poor. Later in the poem, during the cutting of the first tree for their settlement in Canada, two of the emigrants—"Orator John" and "John the teacher"—offer utopian visions of a new, egalitarian society based on hard work and generous mutuality. Indeed, they offer a vision of a social democracy based on libertarian and socialistic principles that is not at all inconsistent with the political culture that would develop in Canada in the twentieth century.
Meanwhile, back on the Edward Thorn the emigrants are treated to Little Mac’s "Farewell Caledonia" (2:88-160), a song reminiscent of such famous Scottish farewell songs as "Lochaber No More" and "MacCrimmon’s Lament," a "piece…but too well known," according to Sir Walter Scott, "from its being the strain with which the emigrants from the West Highlands and Isles usually take leave of their native shore" (Poetical Works 490). "Farewell Caledonia" is less morose than these classics of Scottish plangency, however, partly because its brisk rhythms and strong rhymes have a buoying effect reminiscent of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s "Go not, happy day…," one of the cheerier songs in Maud (and, as it happens, one of the few poems by Tennyson with North-American content). "[A] great admirer of Tennyson" (Begg 27), McLachlan may have thought the alternating trimeter and dimeter lines of "Go not, happy day…" appropriate to the bitter-sweet mood of Little Mac’s song and the emigrant experience as a whole. In any event, the third stanza of "Farewell Caledonia" achieves a nice balance between happy reminiscence and sorrowful acceptance:
How bright were my mornings
"[L]averock" (skylark), "lintie" (linnet), and "goudspink" (goldfinch)—all of these British birds appear in poems and songs by Burns, and all of them, like the Scottish place-names elsewhere in "Farewell Caledonia" (and in The Emigrant as a whole), were obviously calculated by McLachlan to evoke the Scotland of the heart, an earthly paradise of identity that has been lost by the emigrating Little Mac and many like him, and has already become what it perhaps always was—more literary and imaginary than actual or real. For Little Mac, as for the Old Pioneer and, very likely, McLachlan himself, the land of the heart’s desire exists both in a remembered past and an imagined future. This is the tension and dialectic of emigrant experience, and probably its best resolution lies in a balanced use of memory—in drawing upon the past to enrich but not occlude the present and the future.
— Ethel Wilson, The Innocent Traveller (1949) (96-97, 110)
Partly because during the ocean crossing the ships that brought emigrants to Canada were microcosms of the "Old Country" and partly because the sight of the "new land" was the emigrants’ preliminary contact with the "alien" other (Frye, "Conclusion" 824), the moment of arrival in the literature of emigration is, if anything, more complex and fraught than the time of departure. For a great many emigrants, the first sight of North America occasioned an attempt to discover resemblances between what they were now seeing and either what they had been led to expect or what they remembered of home. Thus, on her arrival in the United States en route for Canada in 1828, O’Brien likened New York to a "children’s plaything city" in which "everything and everybody" looks "perfectly English" (9-11) and Langton, following a similar itinerary nine years later, judges the same city according to her expectations: "[t]he bay I had, unluckily, been told several times was equal to the Bay of Naples, and my first impressions were therefore those of disappointment. But it is very beautiful in its own way, and so totally different from the one it was compared with that the comparison was absurd" (Langton Records 26-27). "I observed several grandfathers and grandmothers, who…had accompanied their offspring…thus far in their voyage to the terra incognita of Upper Canada," wrote John Howison of "British emigrants" arriving at Montreal in 1818; "[t]hey looked round with disconsolate and inquiring eyes, and if any feature in the appearance of the town chanced to resemble some part of their native village or city, it caused a joyful exclamation, and was eagerly pointed out" (4). At the time of arrival as at the time of departure, elderly emigrants were and are more prone than younger ones to regret the absence of the familiar and register the shock of the new.
Because both Traill and Moodie were bent on encouraging only suitable people to emigrate to Canada, both of them used the process of discovering resemblances and disresemblances between the "Old Country" and the "new land" as a means of supplanting emigrant illusions with observed reality. At Grosse Isle in the St. Lawrence, records Traill, her husband was informed by an officer from the fort that, though the scene at the quarantine station has a "picturesque appearance" when viewed from a distance, at close quarters the groups of people that he considers "picturesque" will be seen to resemble the subjects of William Hogarth’s satirical pictures and George Crabbe’s harshly realistic poems (27). To Traill herself, the heights of Point Levis opposite Quebec were "highly picturesque," but they did not quite fit the expectations generated by her previous experiences of landscapes: "[h]ow lovely would such a spot be rendered in England or Scotland. Nature here has done all, and man but little, excepting sticking up some ugly wooden cottages, as mean as they are tasteless" (29). Similarly, the log-houses along the banks of the St. Lawrence between Quebec and Montreal did not fit Traill’s preconceptions of rural cottages: "[i]n Britain even the peasant has taste enough to plant a few roses or honeysuckles about his door or his casement, and there is the little bit of garden enclosed and neatly kept; but here no such attempt is made to ornament the cottages" (33). And, although the houses in Montreal corresponded in their architectural structure to the houses of their childhood dreams, Traill found that they, too, suffered from a lack of picturesque adornment and that the city as a whole failed dismally to meet expectations built up by the accounts of such travellers as Howison and Isaac Weld (38-39). From these and other comments, it is easy to deduce that when Traill herself has the opportunity to build and adorn a house, she will do so in accordance with her picturesque preconceptions, thus attempting to create in Canada a living environment that will fulfil the expectations frustrated on arrival. As the example of Traill suggests, accommodation in both its senses of housing and adaptation has been a nodal point at which, for female emigrants especially, aesthetic and domestic concerns coincide as part of the work of reconciling imprinted assumptions with new realities, and vice versa. It is hardly surprising, then, that accommodation, both as an entity (cottages, log cabins, urban houses) and as a process (fitting, adaptation), figure prominently in accounts by female emigrants to Canada of their early impressions and subsequent activities in the "new land."
Whereas Traill wrote The Backwoods of Canada to make "the wives and daughters of emigrants of the higher class" better informed and therefore more suitable candidates for emigration (9), Moodie wrote Roughing It in the Bush to expound her thesis that, while settler life in Canada could provide prosperity, independence, and contentment to "the industrious ever-to-be-honoured sons of poverty," it is an unmitigated disaster for "persons of respectable connections" ( xxi, xxiv). In a manner reminiscent of Hogarth’s use of the classical theme of "The Choice of Hercules" in the Industry and Idleness series (1747) and elsewhere (see Paulson 30), Moodie presents these alternatives allegorically in the figures of the two health officers sent aboard [her] vessel [at Grosse Isle] to check for the presence of disease:
One of these gentlemen—a little, shrivelled-up Frenchman—from his solemn aspect and attenuated figure, would have made no bad representative of him who sat upon the pale horse….His companion—a fine-looking fair-haired Scotchman—…looked like one who in his own person could combat and vanquish all the evils which flesh is heir to. Such was the contrast between these doctors, that they would have formed very good emblems—one, of vigourous health; the other, of hopeless decay.10 ( 1)
Also functioning as an allegorical or emblematic figure during Moodie’s arrival at Grosse Isle is the ship’s captain, a "rude blunt north-country sailor" whom she likens to a "bear, "a creature of proverbial gruffness and roughness that is subsequently and punningly identified in an interspersed poem by her husband with Canada itself ("this savage land of bears" that is "unbearable" in its "bearishness" because of its "want of social bliss"  313-14). After receiving the French and Scottish doctors "with very little courtesy," the captain "abruptly b[ids] them follow him into the cabin," where he teasingly introduces them to three "‘babies’" born during the Atlantic crossing: a litter of "fat, chuckle-headed bull-terriers" ( 1-2).11 When the French doctor, enraged by the captain’s joke, "bestow[s] a savage kick on one of the unoffending pups" and narrowly escapes being bitten by its furious "slut" of a mother ( 2), the point is clear: Canada is a place hostile to all but people of a brutish and brutal disposition.
A more subtle reflection of Moodie’s view of Canada as anathema to "respectable and educated" English men and (especially) women is her rendition of the speech of the captain and the French doctor. In the "peculiar language" of the former are "commonly expunged all the connecting links" ( 1)—that is, such words as "‘and,’" which can indicate the connection and addition of words in the same class or type, and "‘the,’" which can make crucial distinctions of the sort valued by people of "station or position in the world" ( xxi), the distinction, for example, between "a house" and "the house." In the broken English of the latter—"You tink us dog…. Joke! me no understand such joke. Bête" ( 2)—violence is done not only to articles, but also to words and phrases such as "I" and "we are" that are indicative of individual and collective identity. The very speech of the men whom Moodie associates with her arrival in Canada thus reflects her fearful sense of a social and personal disintegration as a consequence of the transition from the refined and hierarchical society that she cherishes to the rude and republican culture that she knows to exist in North America. Later in the opening sketch of Roughing It in the Bush, Moodie’s apprehensions are again expressed linguistically as she describes the speech of emigrants newly arrived at Grosse Isle: "[t]he confusion of Babel was among them. All talkers and no hearers—each shouting and yelling in his or her uncouth dialect, and all accompanying their vociferations with violent and extraordinary gestures, quite incomprehensible to the uninitiated. We were literally stunned by the strife of tongues" ( 7). Both men and women are included in this comment, and no more than the former do the latter give Moodie grounds for believing that Canada is anything other than hostile to the femininity that she regarded as central to refined society. "I shrank, with feelings almost akin to fear," she writes, "from the hard-featured, sun-burnt harpies, as they elbowed rudely past me."
Nowhere are Moodie’s apprehensions about the shattering effect of North American culture on British civilization more poignantly evident than in her account of the behaviour at Grosse Isle of the normally reliable Scots, both two- and four-legged, who have crossed the Atlantic with her. On the arrival of the ship off the island, everyone but Moodie goes ashore to "reconnoitre," leaving her "alone with [her] baby…. Even Oscar, the Captain’s Scotch terrier, who had formed a devoted attachment to me during the voyage, forgot his allegiance, became possessed of the land mania, and was away with the rest" ( 4).12 When Moodie later has the opportunity to go ashore at Grosse Isle, she notices that even Oscar’s countrymen are not immune to the republican spirit of North America: "our passengers, who were chiefly honest Scotch labourers and mechanics, …and who while on board ship had conducted themselves with the greatest propriety, and appeared the most quiet, orderly set of people in the world, no sooner set foot upon the island than they became infected by the same spirit of insubordination and misrule, and were just as insolent and noisy as the rest" ( 8). When Howison witnessed "the disembarkation" of emigrants from Scotland in 1818, he felt that the Atlantic crossing had not "divested them of a single national peculiarity" (4) and Traill records that on entering the St. Lawrence a "thoughtful young Scotchman" on her ship "became positively an entertaining person" (19-20). In Moodie’s eyes, however, the responses of Scottish emigrants to the "new land" provided neither evidence of continuity nor cause for entertainment, but yet another reminder of the evanescence of the past and the pathos of the present.
Moodie may not have had the detachment of Howison or the optimism of Traill, but she was enchanted by the "sublimity" of the St. Lawrence estuary and delighted by the "tranquil beauties of…[a] retired and lovely spot" on Grosse Isle to which she was finally able to escape with her husband ( 13, 8). Very likely it was the existence near the "contaminating sights and sounds" of the quarantine station of this "lovely spot"—a "small cove" where she "remarked many of [her] favourite [English] garden shrubs among the…wildings of nature" ( 8)—that enabled Moodie to accomplish the most intriguing move in the opening sketches of Roughing It in the Bush: the transference of nostalgic longing and Edenic imagery from the British Isles to Grosse Isle. In the poem that concludes her first sketch, a prospective emigrant warns his future bride that "Amid the shades of forest dark, / Our loved isle will appear / An Eden, whose delicious bloom / Will make the wild more drear" ( 11), but at the beginning of the second sketch, as the Moodie’s ship sets sail for Quebec City, it is Grosse Isle and its "sister group" of islands that are "like a second Eden just emerged from the waters of chaos" ( 12). It is as if the absence of England has allowed the creation of a fantasy—"Our loved isle" as Eden—which can then be transferred to any "lovely spot" that evokes memories of England. This would explain why Moodie’s departure from Grosse Isle has all the hallmarks of an emigrant’s departure from England, including allusions to The Deserted Village and the "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard": "the anchor was weighed, and we bade a long farewell to Grosse Isle. As our vessel struck into mid-channel, I cast a last lingering look at the beautiful shores we were leaving…. With what joy could I have spent the rest of the fall in exploring the romantic features of that enchanting scene! But our bark spread her white sails to the favouring breeze, and the fairy vision gradually receded from my sight, to remain for ever on the tablets of memory" ( 12-13; emphasis added).
The next stage of Moodie’s journey up the St. Lawrence relies again on the process of transference from the "Old Country" to the "new land." Introduced as the incarnation of Britannia in Canada— as the "Queen of the West! upon [a] rocky throne" where "Britain’s flag… / Spreads its rich folds and wantons in the wind" ( 12)—Quebec City is another "lovely spot" that simultaneously evokes and naturalizes memories of Britain: "[w]hat a scene!—Can the world produce such another? Edinburgh had been the beau idéal to me of all that was beautiful in Nature—a vision of the northern Highlands had haunted my dreams across the Atlantic; but all these past recollections faded before the present of Quebec" ( 13). What makes Quebec capable of causing Moodie "to lean…upon the side of the vessel and cr[y]…not tears of sorrow" but tears of "unalloyed delight" in the "boundless might and majesty of the Eternal" is a combination of factors that include her receptivity to a sublime "spectacle" that simultaneously recalls and transcends its British equivalents and her perception of the city as a node of British "beauty, strength, and matchless power" in North America ( 12-14). "Look at the situation of Quebec!" she exclaims with one eye on either (or both) the figure of Britannia or (and) Queen Victoria, "the city founded on the rock that proudly holds the height of the hill. The queen sitting enthroned above the waters, that curb their swiftness and their strength to kiss and fawn about her lovely feet" ( 14). It is Moodie’s vision of Quebec City as both a place in Canada and a manifestation of Britain that permits her to exhort "Canadians" to "remain true to [them]selves and her" and to encourage "British mothers of Canadian sons" to teach their children to love Canada as they themselves love England: "disparaging contrasts between the colony and its industrious parent…are cruel and unjust," but a recognition of the parent’s presence in the child provides a sense of continuity between the past and the future, the "Old Country" and the "new land." "[W]ait patiently, loyally, lovingly, upon the illustrious parent from whom you sprang, and by whom you have been fostered into life and political importance," Moodie tells Canadians, and "in the fulness of time she will proclaim your childhood past, and bid you stand up in your own strength, a free Canadian people!" ( 14-15). "United in friendship, loyalty, and love, what wonders may you not achieve?"
In The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Margaret Atwood elaborates the sense of personal and social disintegration that Moodie experiences on arrival in Canada into a sequence of poems in which the popular psychology of the nineteen sixties is united with the strident anti-Americanism of the Centennial years. "[W]hat struck me most about [Moodie’s] personality was the way in which it reflects many of the obsessions still with us," writes Atwood in the Afterword to the sequence. "[W]e are all immigrants to this place even if we were born here…. This country is something that must be chosen—it is so easy to leave13—and if we do choose it we are still choosing a violent duality" (62). "[D]ivided down the middle" in her responses to Canada, Moodie typifies a nation whose "national mental illness...is paranoid schizophrenia" (62). Precipitated by emigration into the schizophrenic experience that psychologist such as R.D. Laing regarded as the matrix of mystical enlightenment, she exemplifies the process of "breakdown [as] breakthrough" (Laing 110; Brown 161). "[F]inally turned…inside out," she become[s] the spirit of the land she once hated’ (Atwood, Journals 64)—a fully integrated and naturalized Canadian. As bizarre as such logic appears now that the appalling, organic disease of "paranoid schizophrenia" has been divested of its mystical aura, Atwood’s recognition of the political implications of the experiences of disintegration and (re-)integration that can accompany any act of emigration accords closely with prominent features of the accounts of Moodie and other emigrants. Nor is the reason for this far to seek. Particularly when viewed by a naturalized Canadian in distant retrospect, the moment of arrival almost inevitably gives rise to thoughts about Canada’s present and future condition—its unity, its economic prospects, its relation to the United States, and, for nostalgic emigrants especially, its ties with the "Old Country": in short, its viability as a "new land."
It is not fortuitous, then, that when Stephen Leacock recalled his family’s emigration to Canada in 1876 in The Boy I Left Behind Me (1946), he used his first sight of "the Gaspé coast…on entering the St. Lawrence" as the occasion for a meditation on the future of the country:
At the conclusion of "Tantramar Revisited" (1886), Charles G.D. Roberts elects not to descend from his vantage point above the "marshlands" near his childhood home near Sackville, New Brunswick but to "Muse and recall far off, rather remember than see, / Lest on too close sight I miss the darling illusion, / Spy at their task even here the hands of chance and change" (Collected Poems 73). Anyone wishing to preserve unchanged their mental image of their childhood home and haunts would do well to follow Roberts’s example, for as Leacock discovered when he returned in 1921 to his family house in Portchester, England, it did not conform to his illusions:
Only for the most reluctant and unsuccessful emigrants does a return "home" serve to increase their sense of exile and alienation by strengthening their ties with the "Old Country" and accentuating their abhorrence of the new. For most, the experiment is painful but positive—a confrontation with the past that modifies or replaces "darling illusion[s]" with reality and confirms or establishes the many merits of their new life. As the narrator of C. Dino Minni’s short story "Roots" (1985) puts it after returning from Canada to visit his childhood home in Italy, "Not bad at all, but it is not me" (Other Selves 30).15
But what of those who do not return to the "Old Country" but, in Leacock’s phrase, "[l]eave…memory as it is"? As several of the poems in Roughing It in the Bush have already indicated, when a physical journey "home" is impossible for nostalgic emigrants, they can experience at least a semblance of it through memory itself, either in dreams or as the result of an external stimulus such as music. Perhaps the most complex analysis of the power of music to return emigrants to the "Old Country" occurs in Joseph Howe’s Acadia, the topographical poem that he wrote in the early eighteen thirties with the principle aim of expressing and inspiring patriotic feelings for Nova Scotia. Addressing the Halifax Mechanics’ Institute on November 5, 1834, Howe defined patriotism as a God-given "local knowledge and…local love [that] bind[s] his creatures to particular spots of earth, and interest[s] them peculiarly for the prosperity, improvement and happiness of those places," and he asks: "[i]s that feeling alive in our breasts? Is it abroad in the country? Has Nova-Scotia received the power to attach her children to her bosom, and make them prouder and fonder of her bleak hills and sylvan vallies, than even of the fairer and more cultivated lands from which their parents came?" (Address 4-5). Among the positive answers to these questions in Acadia is a vignette of a settler family in which the parents, both emigrants from "Albion’s polish’d isle," react nostalgically to a "stirring ballad" that they first heard before emigrating, but their son, born after their arrival in Nova Scotia, "understands not how the shadowy past / O’er present bliss a sombre cloud may cast" and succeeds in refocusing their attention on the present and the future (475-88). The entire family is subsequently murdered by vengeful Micmacs, but the moral of this musical interlude is clear: homesickness for Britain lies outside the emotional range of native-born Nova-Scotians, and even emigrants to the Province may be persuaded to mitigate their nostalgia by focusing on the present and future rather than the past.
As presented by Howe, music works through three distinct stages to bring about a mnemonic return of and to the past. First, the "simple notes melodious" of the ballad bring "tears, uncall’d," to the emigrants’ eyes by reminding them of "scenes, now far away, / Where first their ears drank in th[e] simple lay" (435-38). Second, the creative nature of "Mem’ry" works in a manner akin to a realistic artist to "paint" their "‘absent [but encrypted] friends’ like spirits…[but] with a tint as strong / As though but yesterday the joyous smile / Beam’d from those eyes" (439-44). And, third, the sights, feelings, and thoughts of their early life "that ne’er can be forgot…that ne’er from memory fade" generate a reverie in which, "half forgetful of their present lot," "their spirits" are "Transport[ed]…o’er the Atlantic’s foam" to re-experience the most emotional events of their early life—sitting on their parents’ knee, attending their parents’ burial, exchanging vows of love, and, finally, departing "Albion’s…shore" for Nova Scotia" (445-73). Since Howe was himself Nova Scotia born, it is scarcely surprising that many of the details that flesh out his analysis of the effect of evocative music on emigrant memory are taken from a secondary source—namely, The Emigrant’s Informant (1834), a pseudonymous guide to Upper Canada that contains some strikingly aesthetic and morbid descriptions of emigrant departure and emigrant nostalgia that may also have had an impact on Moodie and McLachlan.16
More interested in popular verse and song by virtue of his socialist leanings than either Howe or Moodie, McLachlan embodied his thinking on the mnemonic effects of music in the figure of Donald Ban, the Scottish minstrel whose death constitutes the climax of The Emigrant. Driven from the Highlands during the so-called Highland Clearances of 1782-1820—the depopulation of the Highlands by aristocratic landowners to make room for hunting and sheep— Donald Ban lost his wife and the last of his three sons soon after arriving in Lower Canada. "Heartless [and] homeless," he eventually found "at least a kind of home" in the settlement built by the emigrants from the Edward Thorn and thereafter became a familiar figure in the backwoods of Upper Canada as, bardically blind, dressed in full Highland regalia, and accompanied by his "faithful hound" Fleetwood, "he wandered far and wide" playing the pipes for dances and telling stories of his "strange" adventures (7: 113-90, 231). A master of "balladical lore," he is himself the subject of songs by "Highland bards" (7: 20, 7)—a figure who so closely identified with Highland experience and tradition that he is what he plays.
Despite the composite elements of his portrait17 and the bathetic potential of his death in the company of Fleetwood and the Old Pioneer, Donald Ban is a sympathetic character of some depth and complexity. At the heart of his characterization are two overwhelming, understandable, and, by this point in the poem, predictable emotions: nostalgia for his native Highlands and regret at having been forced to leave them for Canada. As well as giving vent to his feelings of nostalgia and regret, Donald Ban’s songs (and there are two of them) allow him temporarily to transcend the Canada that he cannot, in any case, see in a sort of ecstasy brought on by an apostrophic evocation of the Highland landscape and the hypnotic repetition of Scottish place names. Here, for example, are the opening lines of his first song (and notice the contribution of their incantatory anapestic and alliterative rhythms to their overall, spell-like effect):
Both the Old Pioneer and Donald Ban himself comment on the transcendental power of his nostalgic and regretful music and songs: "he’d…play, / ’Till his heart was far away…Wafted to the hills again" (7:85-88), says the former; and the latter "‘often I croon o’er some auld Scottish strain, / ’Till I’m roving in the hills of my country again’" (7:107-08). As in his "auld Scottish strain[s]," so in his sleep, Donald Ban overcomes his alienation from Scotland, for as he says in his second song, "in my dreams / I see the blue peaks of the lone cliffs of Jura, / And wander again by her wild dashing streams" (7:196-98).
In his death, as in his life, Donald Ban illustrates the conservative truth of the epigraph to The Emigrant, and Other Poems, a line from one of Horace’s Epistles—"Coelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt"— that translates as "they change their surroundings, not their mind, who rush across the sea." Though "old, and blind, and maim, /…[Donald Ban’s] heart is still the same" (7:219-220) and, as he approaches death, his brain wanders home to Scotland. "‘Hush! the hills are calling on me, / Their great spirit is upon me,’" he exclaims, "‘Listen! that is old Ben More…; See! a gleam of light is shed, / Afar from Bennevis’ head" (7:255-60). At the moment of his death, he speaks as if returning to Scotland with his lost wife and children, "Never, never more to roam, / From our ‘native Highland home’" (7:281-82). From a Christian perspective, this can only be a delusion, but it has a logic born of Donald Ban’s character and perhaps should be taken quite seriously if at the time of writing The Emigrant McLachlan had already become the spiritualist that he certainly was in the 1870s. Could there also be a hint of spiritualism in the Old Pioneer’s assertion that there were discernible in Donald Ban "Gleams of a divinity, / Longings, aspirations high, / After the things that cannot die" (7:292-94)? Whatever the answer, the Old Pioneer’s final assessment of Donald Ban’s "soul" confirms the truth of McLachlan’s epigraph: the man may be removed from Scotland, but not Scotland from the man:
O! thy soul was like thy land,
The effect of this passage is one of identity between Donald Ban and his beloved Highlands. Its implication is that the essence of the Highlands is moveable but not changeable: "they change their surroundings, not their mind, who rush across the sea."
Much more inclined than McLachlan to emphasize the effects of long-term exposure to a new environment on an emigrant’s mind is M.G. Vassanji, a Kenya-born novelist and short-story writer who now lives in Toronto. Classified by Rosemary Marangoly George as a work of fiction in the "immigrant genre" (278), Vassanji’s first novel, The Gunny Sack (1989), uses the jute bag of its title as a metaphor for "the collective memory—"th[e] spongy, disconnected, often incoherent accretion of stories over generations" of a family of Tanganyikan (Tanzanian) Asians (66)—as recounted by Salim Juma, the great-grandson of Dhanji Govindji, who emigrated to Tanganyika from India in 1885, and a discarded African slave, Bibi Taratibu. "Memory…is their old sack here, this poor dear that nobody has any use for anymore," Juma recalls his thoroughly Africanized great-aunt, Ji Bai, saying when he was a child in Tanganyika, and "[i]n would plunge her hand through the gaping hole of a mouth, and she would rummage inside. Now you feel this thing here, you fondle that one, you bring out this naughty little nut and everything else in it rearranges itself. Out would come from the dusty depths some knickknack of yesteryear" (3). After Ji Bai’s death in Canada, Juma inherits the sack and its contents in "a large blue vinyl suitcase" and with the knowledge that his family "‘want [him] to burn it, once and for all to bury the past’" (5), not least because it contains evidence of their descent from Bibi Taratibu, whose "African spirit," according to Vassanji, constitutes "the driving force in the novel" (Interview 129). This Juma (whose nickname, Kala, means black) does not do, of course, and the body of the novel consists of his use of the "gaping hole" of the gunny sack as a mnemonic device to recall his family’s history in India, Africa, England, and, finally, North America. As exotic as its subject-matter may be to readers who do not share Vassanji’s background, The Gunny Sack approaches memory very much through the modern European tradition: the "gaping hole" of Ji Bai’s sack reverses the function of the "memory holes" in Nineteen Eighty-four, and one of the novel’s chapters carries the Proustian and, indeed, Dickensian title of "The spirits of times past" (38).18 Indeed, there is a strong flavour of À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927) in the induction to Juma’s first reverie: "[i]mages like confetti, like cotton lint in Ji Bai’s mattress shop, drift through my mind haphazardly, each one a clue to a story, a person. A world" (6).
To assist him in assimilating "the broken world, the debris of life lived" (135), for which the gunny sack is a metaphor into a narrative of the fortunes of his family of Tanganyikan Asians from 1885 to 1989, Vassanji draws intermittently on the historical scholarship of G.C.K. Gwassa and John Iliffe, particularly on their collaborative edition of Records of the Maji-Maji Rising (1967) of 1905-1906 and on Iliffe’s Modern History of Tanganyika (1979). Most of Vassanji’s sources for the "fiction" to which "historical events and characters [serve] as background" (Gunny Sack vi) are personal and oral, however, with the result that the novel successfully envelops the reader in the "world" of the family whose fortunes it chronicles with a sophisticated awareness of the limitations and dangers of memory. Neither omniscient (23) nor incapable of distortion (104), memory "reconstruct[s]" the past in ways that are, by turns, disturbing ("[t]here once was an incident, or non-incident, that we would all like to forget" ) and idealizing ("[my father] became part of a glorious, idyllic past" ). But, for the most part, memory provides Juma with a knowledge of his family history that is "[s]weet" because it reinforces his sense of identity and continuity. As Ji Bai puts it in words that, appropriately become Juma’s own: "[t]here are those who go to their graves not knowing where they came from…who hurtled into the future even as the present was not yet over…for whom history was a contemptible record of a shameful past. In short, those who closed their ears when the old men and women spoke. But the future will demand a reckoning. We will not forgive those who forgot, the new generation of the Sabrinas and the Fairazes and the Farahs will say" (134-35).
Because Juma did not "close…[his] ears" when Ji Bai spoke, he is the inheritor of her gunny sack and, like her, a living link in a chain that passes through the present from the past to the future and through Tanganyika from India to Canada. In the final chapter of the novel, Juma recounts Ji Bai’s literal movement through the three temporal and geographical stages that she connects: "stunn[ing]" her family with a sudden desire to return to her childhood home in India, she revisits "the stone house in which she had frolicked as a little girl":
there were marks on the walls made by children just as she had imagined (remembered?) them to be all these years. Who owned it now? Unsteady and weak on her feet…she…went forward and touched a wall. A rough surface; she ran her old, bony hand over it, the veins showing like little ridges. Then…she put both hands against that beloved wall, went closer to it, and softly beat her head against it, once, twice, thrice and she wept. (266-67)
After thus making contact with her past, Ji Bai comes to Canada "to see" Juma, bringing the gunny sack with her (267). Since her "adopted grandnephew Aziz" (266) accompanies her to India and then to Canada, the implication is that the details of her return to her childhood home come from him, but, of course, their actual source is an historical imagination—Vassanji’s—that is rich in the textures of the past and the present, the remembered and imagined "marks on…walls" and "veins…like little ridges" that speak of endurance and mutability.
The fact that The Gunny Sack itself, the novel, is from the beginning the expression of the collective memory for which the gunny sack is a metaphor, means that its final paragraphs almost inevitably concern the redundancy and dispersal of Ji Bai’s legacy to Juma. Now that they have served their mnemonic purposes, the two most important items in the gunny sack—a blood-caked "muslin shirt" that Ji Bai kept as a "reminder of [a] tragic sin" in the family’s history and "three fragile books" belonging to Dhanji Govindji that Juma’s brother Jamal has been attempting to decipher—can be consigned to appropriate places, the shirt to the flames and the books to "some locked cupboard…for the peckings of academia" (268). Rightly or wrongly, the prospect of a new life in a new land engenders a rejection of aspects of the past that are shameful and a preservation of those that posterity may value. As for the other items handed on by Ji Bai, these are "to be discarded or preserved individually" and, like Dhanji Govindji’s books, "remembered and acknowledged, if only partly understood, without the…paraphernalia" of the gunny sack that provided them with a context and meaning (268). Thus, in The Gunny Sack, as in so much emigrant writing, there is a "disposition of the past" to prepare the way for a new and final beginning. "The running must stop now," Juma writes in a concluding address to his daughter in Tanzania, "[t]he cycle of escape and rebirth, uprooting and regeneration, must cease in me. Let this be the last runaway, returned, with one last, quixotic dream. Yes, perhaps here lies redemption, a faith in the future, even if it means for now to embrace the banal present, to pick up the pieces of our wounded selves, our wounded dreams, and pretend they’re still there intact, with our splints, because from our wounded selves flowers still grow…. And so, dream, Little Flower" (268-69). Nevertheless, since moving to Canada in 1978 Vassanji himself "has gone back [to Tanzania] at least three times. ‘If I don’t return to those places, I’d lose my soul,’" he has said in one interview (Val Ross, "The Push and Pull of Human Energy Fields"), and in another:
I am not an immigrant who believes that you leave everything behind…. [T]hat notion of immigration is simply weird. Yet it seems to be promoted by certain sections of the host culture, especially in Canada, in their national insecurity and search for a real Canadian essence…. I see myself as everything that’s gone into me—Africa, India, Britain, America, Canada, Hinduism, Islam. (Interview 130)
It is a sign of the strength of multiculturalism in Canada that Vassanji’s second novelistic exploration of the immigrant past, The Book of Secrets, won the Giller Prize in 1994.
Past-present-future: to resign consciousness of any part of the temporal continuity permanently is to lose consciousness of humanity. In "The Mother of the Muses" (1991), a poem dedicated to the memory of his wife’s father, Emmanuel Stratas, who was born in Crete in 1903 and died of Alzheimer’s disease in Toronto in 1987, the British poet Tony Harrison uses a visit to the Home for the Aged near Toronto where his father-in-law lived out his final days as the occasion for a meditation on various aspects of memory in the post-modern world. At the structural and emotional heart of the poem are vignettes of Emmanuel Stratas and eight other victims of Alzheimer’s disease—nine in all, in ironic reference, perhaps, to the nine daughters of Memory. In varying degrees, all nine patients live "frozen" lives in a "world of blur" that Harrison envisages as the "inner" equivalent of the ubiquitous ice and "obliterating snow" outside the "Home" (Gaze of the Gorgon 39): Anne, for example, regales her "roommates" every day with the same "‘news’" of "a lovely cruise" but cannot remember the name of the island that she visited, and Lilian, remembering the recent funeral of her husband, "tries to find / alternatives…/ for words like coffin that have slipped her mind" until "forgetting [itself], not the funeral, makes her cry" (40) On the four patients, including Emmanuel Stratas, who are immigrants to Canada, the disease apparently has the effect of "obliterating" their new identities and returning them to the "Old Country": "Gene…in a wheelchair wails for the Ukraine, / sobbing in soiled pants for what was home"; "nobody quite knows what [Jock’s] words mean [when] / they hear Scots diphthongs in the New World twang"; "the Lancashire [that Joan] once had in her speech / seeps into Canadian" as, with urine running down her legs, she "retells" the tale of how she "was once the pick of bathing belles" on Blackpool Beach; and Stratas himself, "his speech" now returned, "a stowaway, to Crete" "sees…a thorn-thick crag… / with oregano and goat smells in the air" (40-41). Mainly because of Alzheimer’s disease but also because of their "[d]ispersal and displacement, willed or not, / from homeland to [a] room" in a Rest Home all four "grow less Canadian as death draws near" (41).
Where, then (or now), is "home" to these victims of double displacement? Harrison’s twofold answer to this—that their Canadian homes have disappeared from memory ("the much-snapped [that is, photographed] duplex in Etobicoke /…swept away beyond recall" ) and that their childhood homes may actually have ceased to exist ("The small house…bulldozed in the island’s tourist boom / to make way for Big Macs and discothèques" )—places Alzheimer’s disease in the context of the poem’s wider concern with the condition of memory and, hence, creativity in the late twentieth century.19 "It’s not only our lateness in history but the dark catastrophes of our century that undermine creativity at its very roots," Harrison writes in "Facing up to the Muses" (1988),
[the] weariness of the nine, th[e] erosion of the affirmative spirit of out times…has been made darker by two World Wars, the terrors of Nazism, and the fearful conflagrations unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945….I prefer to think of…[the Muses as an indissoluble chorus]: Tragedy and History holding hands with Lyric and Music, because…the work I do, which I regard as all poetry, seems to me to be critically unclassifiable and resistant to being placed under the care of any specific Muse….But if there were to be only one Muse left of all the ‘weary Nine’…I would have to choose…the Muse of Tragedy…. This is the Muse…who deals with the most monstrous and appalling that life can offer, when it turns upon us its Medusa-like countenance of frenzy and despair…. This frenzy and despair…is that terror that [as Nietzsche said] tragedy allows us to gaze into…‘yet’…[as] Nietzsche added, ‘yet without being turned to stone by the vision’. In an age when the spirit of affirmation has almost been burned out of us, more than ever we need what Nietzsche also called tragedy…‘the highest art to say yes to life’. The mother of the Muses, or of the one…daughter still surviving, is Memory, so…we can’t celebrate our existence…simply by forgetting the terrors of the recent past or by ignoring the frightening future. (11-12, 16)
This is Harrison’s answer to Theodor Adorno’s famous statement that "‘[t]here can be no poetry after Auschwitz’" (qtd. in "Facing up to the Muses"), his passionate defense of poetry as the medium through which the Muse of Tragedy must confront the terrors and yet celebrate the joys of life in the closing years of the twentieth century. It is the reason why "The Mother of Muses" is published over the byline "Toronto, / St. Valentine’s Day" (45) in a volume entitled The Gaze of the Gorgon that also includes pieces about the Gulf War and a "film poem" for BBC television that uses two monuments, an ancient "pediment…featur[ing] a giant Gorgon" and a "marble statue of [the] dissident German Jewish poet" Heinrich Heine to confront Kaiser William II’s legacy to the twentieth century (58).
In "The Mother of the Muses" the terrors and joys of life in the shadows of "two World Wars…Nazism, and…Hiroshima and Nagasaki" are explored as manifestations of the "two forms of fire" bequeathed to "Mankind" by Prometheus: the "gentle fire" that provides the warmth and light necessary for the creativity of a poet or a "baker" and the "baleful" fire that serves the destructive purposes of a "Führer" and a "bombardier" (Gaze of the Gorgon 38-39). At the Home for the Aged, Harrison recalls, "We have the choice of watching on TV / Dresden destroyed, then watching its rebirth"— a dilemma not shared by Emmanuel Stratas and the other Alzheimer’s patients whose loss of memory means that they have the capacity to experience neither the terrors of the city’s destruction nor the joys of its re-creation. As Harrison puts it between accounts of the effects of the "firestorm" on the Dresden Zoo (the Tiergarten) and the painstaking reconstruction of the Opera House (the Semper):
I was glad as on and on the keeper
Less pitiable, but pitiable just the same, are those who consciously try to "forget…the terrors of the recent past [and]…ignor[e] the frightening future" that inheres in "Mankind[’s]" capacity for destruction and creation:
Next more TV, devoted to the trial
Well-intentioned though they may be (and Harrison is probably too generous on this point), those who deny the horrors of the recent past not only create false "pride" and specious "hope" but also foster the forces of destruction by helping to maintain the cover of darkness under which they grow from invisible sparks to monstrous conflagrations. To deny history is to encourage its repetition.
At the conclusion of "The Mother of the Muses," Harrison and his wife (Teresa Stratas) decide to return to Toronto rather than to stay in the "Rest Home" and avoid the snowstorm:
…you kissed your dad, who, as we
To "weep" and to "laugh," to confront "despair" and "yet" (Nietzsche’s word) to "weigh in the balance all that we’re heartened by": this is the art to "say[ing] yes to life" in all its horror and joy. In the final lines of the poem, as at the beginning, Harrison tries and fails to remember a speech from Aeschulus’ Prometheus Bound that "a boy from [ancient] Greece / [had] scratched, to help him learn it, on a shard" (38). Instead, on the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, he resolves to make known his love for his wife and achieves the tragic equipoise that allows affirmation without forgetfulness:
"": "mother of the Muses, Memory": the phrase that Harrison finally remembers from Prometheus’ famous account of his benefactions to mankind in Prometheus Bound (461) refers to writing, a system of "sign[s]" that are arbitrary, open to misinterpretation, and as capable of obliteration as memory or humanity, but which will endure as long as there are those who are fired with the need to find, to record, to share, to recall life’s joys and terrors.
To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.
—Theodor Adorno, Prisms: Cultural Criticism and Society (1955; trans. 1967) (34)
—Paul Celan, "Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen (1958) Collected Prose (1986) (34).
[P]art of…[Auschwitz was] known by the inmates as Kanada, because it was the store for the precious belongings brought with them on the transports by Jews who believed that they were to be settled in new lands, in new communities.
—Gillian Rose, Mourning
Becomes the Law: Philosophy and
For a variety of momentous reasons—the fear of a resurgence of anti-semitism, the ageing and death of survivors of the Holocaust, and the "veritable obsession with the past" that has increasingly characterized the years preceding the millenium (Huyssen 253)— there has recently been a redoubling of efforts to memorialize the Holocaust in Europe, the United States, and, less spectacularly, Canada. In Poland, Auschwitz and Birkenau are "maintained as museums open to the public" and the latter is augmented by a massive International Monument to the Victims of Fascism that was "ceremonially unveiled in April 1967" (Smolen 4, 24). In Germany, similar sites and installations have been supplemented by "counter-monuments" (Gegen-Denkmäler) by such artists as Jochen Gerz and Ester Shalev-Gerz as a means of reinforcing their society’s ethical duty to remember without aligning their works with the "monumental forms" that were systematically exploited by the Nazis (James E. Young 27). In the United States, a Holocaust Memorial Council was "established in 1980 by an unanimous Act of Congress" and charged with "the creation of a living memorial to the six million Jews and millions of other victims of Nazi fanaticism who perished in the Holocaust," a mandate fulfilled in April 1993 with the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (Fact Sheet). In Canada, the activities of Ernst Zundel and others have served as a chilling reminder of the fragility of historical memory and helped to ensure the creation of several modest Holocaust memorials in Toronto, Montreal, and other cities.20 As Ellen Brownstone, a survivor of the Holocaust, observed of the Holocaust Literature Research Institute that was established by Alain Goldschläger at the University of Western Ontario in 1986, "[i]t’s very important as a resource both for those who have not experienced the Holocaust and to those survivors who have stories to tell. It is crucial that those stories be preserved for future generations" (qtd. in Jim Anderson).
One of the most powerful fictional tellings of the stories of the Holocaust to have emerged from contemporary Canada is Fugitive Pieces (1996) by the Toronto-born poet Anne Michaels. A novel that, in the words of John Steffler, "constructs a delicate bridge between the present and the haunting past and leads [its] characters to solid ground and a permanent place in our memories," Fugitive Pieces is divided into two parts, the first narrated by Jakob Beer, a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Canada and subsequently published several volumes of poetry based on his experiences, and the second by a young Jewish professor known only as Ben whose "own connection with the wounding legacies of the war kindle a fascination with Jakob and his writing" (Cover). Both thematically and stylistically, Fugitive Pieces is an exercise in "poetic knowing," an epistemological mode that Michaels carefully distinguishes from mere knowledge in "Cleopatra’s Love," her meditation on love, poetry, and memory in the March 1994 number of Poetry Canada Review:
The distinction between knowledge and
"poetic knowing" resembles the distinction between history and
Or as Jakob puts it in the novel:
History is amoral: events occurred. But memory is moral; what we consciously remember is what our conscience remembers. History is the Totenbuch, The Book of the Dead, kept by the administrators of the camps. Memory is the Memorbucher, the names of those to be mourned, read aloud in the synagogue. (Fugitive Pieces 138)
Acutely aware though she doubtless is of the problems of historical imagination and literary representation,21 Michaels nevertheless attempts in Fugitive Pieces "to speak of events…that one has not witnessed, that one has not lived through personally but has absorbed through the culture, through the family, through the home" for, as she told Douglas Fetherling in an interview published shortly after the appearance of the novel, she felt "an obligation to establish some relationship" with "the largest and most devastating reality" of the twentieth century "in order to try to understand how one emerges" from such an event with a capacity for "faith" and the capability to "move towards a place of love in the world" ("Narrative Moves" 16, 18).
As a work of "poetic knowing" whose principal character, Jakob Beer, "move[s] towards a place of love in the world" partly through his discovery of the redemptive power of memory and poetry, Fugitive Pieces not only defies Adorno’s 1955 pronouncement that "[t]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" (Prisms 34), but also provides an affirmative answer to his subsequent "cultural question [of] whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living" (Negative Dialectics 363).22 While Jakob Beer is named for the nineteenth-century German composer who renamed himself Giacomo Meyerbeer after receiving a legacy from a relative called Meyer and achieving critical success with a series of operas in Italy ("Giacomo Meyerbeer"), he may well be modelled, at least in part, on such poets as Paul Celan (see the epigraph to the present supplement) and H.G. Adler, the Holocaust survivor who apparently incurred Adorno’s scorn by "writing poetry…within a month of being transported from Auschwitz" and publishing in Eine Reise (1962) a fictional account of the journey of the only member of a family to survive the camps from a confrontation with annihilation to an affirmation of "human goodness," "meaning," "faith" and "‘hope’" (Adler 19). "‘[W]ar can turn even an ordinary man into a poet,’" the young Jakob is told by a friend of the Greek archaeologist, Athos Roussos, who rescues him from German-occupied Poland, and years later in Toronto he finds that he is no longer "afraid when harvesting [the] darkness" in which his most terrifying experiences occurred, first in reality and then in dreams (Fugitive Pieces 68, 193). As his portion of the novel draws to a close, Jakob utters two prayers that testify to his faith in humanity—a prayer that his wife, Michaela, will conceive a child and a prayer that "one day in a room lit only by night snow" that child "will suddenly know how miraculous is [its] parents’ love for each other" (194-95). Of similar affirmations, Terrence Des Pres writes in The Survivor: an Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (1976), a book that Michaels mentions as an inspiration in her Acknowledgments: "[l]ife’s fundamental goodness is now clear…. That is the survivor’s special grace [:] [h]e or she is glad to be alive…. [S]uch words reach the simplest of all knowledge—that life is what counts, life whose internal destiny has had the peace and time to unfold" (168-69).23
No more than for the men and women whom Des Pres celebrates in The Survivor does "special grace" come to Jakob through forgetfulness of the past. By analogy with "limestone—that crushed reef of memory…that develops slowly under pressure into marble" (Fugitive Pieces 32)—Jakob’s story is "[a] narrative of catastrophe and slow accumulation" (48): first in Greece, then in Canada, and, finally, in Greece again when he returns with Michaela, Jakob’s psyche undergoes a process of accretion whereby strata of pleasurable memories gradually overlay and transform "the crushed reef" of his wartime experiences and their effects. Briefly, these consist of two components, trauma and guilt: trauma from witnessing the murder of his parents by German soldiers and guilt from escaping the scene of the slaughter without knowing what happened to his fifteen-year-old sister Bella. "I couldn’t keep out the sounds," Jakob recalls of the days immediately after his escape: "the door breaking open [as the Germans burst into the house], the spit of buttons [from the saucer in which the buttons were kept by his mother]. My mother, my father. But worse than those sounds was that I couldn’t remember hearing Bella at all. Filled with her silence, I had no choice but to imagine her face" (10). As predicted by the psychoanalytical theory of mourning and melancholia that probably lies behind this and related passages, the loss of his sister has more enduring emotional consequences for Jakob than the loss of his parents: traumatic as it is, their death is known and, therefore, conducive to introjection and successful mourning, but her loss is attended by a sense of uncertainty and a feeling of profound "shame" (9) that lead to her incorporation in Jakob’s ego as an idealized spectre and a source of prolonged melancholy.24 Looking back on his escape from Poland to Greece, Jakob recalls that "[t]hrough days and nights [he] sped from [his] father and…mother…. They were yanked right through his scalp. But Bella clung. We were Russian dolls. I inside Athos, Bella inside me" (13-14). In Greece, he has the habit if "hesitating in…doorway[s]…to let…Bella enter ahead of [him]" and of taking "an extra bite [of his food] for Bella" (31). On the ship leaving Greece, Bella "whisper[s]" to him (86) and, after his arrival in Canada, he has a series of increasingly lurid flashbacks and nightmares about Bella that continue to testify to his melancholy and, of subsequent significance for Ben’s narrative, also establish her "black hair" as the focal point of his memories (see 106, 109, 125, 167-68). Not least in the company of his first wife Alex, a left-leaning intellectual who wants him "to begin again" by forgetting (or repressing) the past, Jakob is continually reminded of his sister:
The spectre of Bella is finally laid to rest for Jakob, not by Alex’s attempts to "mak[e] [him] forget" (144), but by the sympathetic understanding of Michaela. In a pivotal passage for Jakob’s release from melancholy, Michaela’s physical presence and imaginative empathy awaken him from his Holocaust-haunted nightmares to a first morning of human connectedness:
Michaela’s hands above my head; I
stroke the fragile place on the back of her smooth, soft upper arms. She
is sobbing. She has heard everything—her heart an ear, her skin an
ear. Michaela is crying for Bella.
• • •
Once freed by Michaela’s love and empathy from the melancholy engendered by his spectral incorporation of Bella, Jakob is able to remember his sister with "serenity" (207): "[l]istening to Michaela read, I remember how Bella read poetry: how the yearning in her voice reached me as a child, though I didn’t understand the feeling…. I watch Michaela bake a pie…. Unknowingly, her hands carry my memories. I remember my mother teaching Bella in the kitchen" (191-92). "Every moment is [still] two moments" but now, thanks to Michaela, Jakob’s present is irradiated by a faith in humanity that allows him to "feel, for the first time, a future" inhabited by a child named Bela or Bella (267)25 and by a knowledge of himself that enables him to understand, at last, his fixation on his sister:
My son, my daughter: May you never be
deaf to love.
By the grace of human love and sympathy, "limestone [has] become marble" (140).
Since Fugitive Pieces is imbued with analogies between physical and mental processes and, moreover, studded with debts and allusions to the work of phenomenologists such as Gaston Bachelard (see 236),26 it is to be expected that the elements and structures of Jakob’s world are charged with meanings and values derived from his subjective consciousness in its various stages of development. As a consequence of the sound of "[w]ood ripped from hinges" as the Germans entered his parents’ house and his subsequent days and nights in the "forest" (7-12), Jakob is particularly concerned with the properties and significance of wood(s): in Greece, he readily absorbs Athos’s talk of "‘[t]he great mystery of wood’" (29, 86) and imagines the archaeologist "traipsing through vanished, impossibly tall Carboniferous forests…in a prehistoric autumn" (49); while married to Alex, he dreams of losing Bella in an autumnal "birch forest [that] gathers itself in her expression" and recalls his "childhood encounter with the tree" (125); and after his awakening by Michaela, he "feel[s] for the first time safe above ground" in "one of the meccas of her childhood, a birch forest growing out of white sand" (189, 188). So effectively does Anne Michaels assimilate wood(s) and forests to Jakob’s evolving consciousness, that after reading Fugitive Pieces it is at least temporarily difficult, if not impossible, to see or imagine a "birch forest" without thinking of the novel, the journey of its protagonist, and the historical horrors in which they have their roots. Towards the beginning of A Question of Upbringing (1951), the first novel in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), Nicholas Jenkins observes that "[f]or some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes [him] think of the ancient world" (1). After the conclusion of the first part of Fugitive Pieces, the sight of "a birch forest growing out of white sand" may well make the reader think of Michaels’ poetic rendition of one man’s journey from the "devastating reality" of the Holocaust to "a place of love in the world."
With the change of narrators from Jakob to Ben in the second part of the novel, the focus shifts from a survivor’s struggle with his own memories of the Holocaust to the attempt of a man born four years after his parents’ liberation from a death camp both to understand the "profound" and "sensual" "serenity that he perceives in the elderly Jakob (207) and to come to terms with his parents’ horrendous experiences and consequent attitudes. Uniting these two facets of what is ultimately a second "quest" (222) for self-understanding is Ben’s gradual realization that, like Jakob, both of his parents have won through their darkness to sunlight. Despite the fact that contemporary events frequently remind her of the Holocaust (see 224-25), Ben’s mother has achieved a "painful love of the world" by celebrating every new experience with the sheer gratitude of being alive, an attitude that is one of her "gift[s]" to her son (223, and see 229-30). Less resilient and more reticent, Ben’s father appears to achieve a semblance of happiness only after his wife’s death, when "perhaps, for the first time in a long life, …[he] experienc[es] pleasure at looking back on a happier time" (251). From his mother’s "stor[ies]," from his father’s "disjointed references," from a process of absorption that he envisages as genetic and "molecular" (280), and, finally, from a photograph of his parents with the two children that, unbeknownst to him, they had lost in a concentration camp, Ben comes close to fulfilling what he regards as "a lover’s quest"—"[t]he quest to discover another’s psyche, to absorb another’s motives as deeply as your own" (216, 217, 251-52, 222).
Combining an interest in the history of meteorology with a passion for biography and the instincts of a detective-cum-archaeologist, Ben turns time and again in the narrative of his relationships with Jakob, his parents, and his wife Naomi to ponder the mechanisms by which the past can be accurately or inaccurately, morally or immorally, preserved and reconstructed. While at university, he reads the second edition of Bearing False Witness, Jakob’s compilation of Athos Roussos’s "impassioned" notes on "how the Nazis abused archaeology to fabricate the past" at Biskupin, the village in Poland that the Greek archaeologist was excavating when he rescued Jakob (209, 104). After meeting Jakob, he learns from Naomi to think of the lullabies that came out of the ghettos as "‘all that’s left to tell us of th[e] child[ren]’" for whom they were composed (241). When both of his parents are dead, he discovers that his mother has confided to his wife the existence of his dead brother and sister to ensure that "the truth would eventually be passed on" (252). And on arriving at Jakob’s house in Greece to "excavate gently" for the "journals" that constitute the first part of the novel, he takes special note of Michaela’s "masters thesis on ethics in museology, which focuse[s] on the tragedy of Minik, the Greenland Inuit who was turned into a living exhibit at the American Natural History Museum…[and] discovered that his own father’s skeleton was part of the display" (262). No less than the authors of the essays on archaeology that are collected in another book acknowledged by Michaels—The Politics of the Past (1990), edited by Peter Gathercole and David Lowenthal—Ben recognizes that his gentle excavation of Jakob’s house is an act with "acutely moral" implications (Ucko xx).27
This is brought fully home to him through the agency of Petra, the twenty-two year old American woman with whom he has an affair while in Greece. "[S]ensing that [Jakob’s house] has become a shrine" to Ben and initially treating it as if it were a "museum," she encourages him to make love to her on the floor of the bedroom and then "pillage[s] every room," "desecrat[ing] what had been for years so lovingly preserved" (278, 283, 281). Consistent with the novel’s overall emphasis on historical and psychological recuperation, this spiteful act has a positive outcome in that, while Ben is "[s]lowly…restor[ing] the house," he finds the two journals in which, less than a year before his death in a freak car accident in Athens, Jakob "had begun to write his memoirs" (283-84, [vii]). Moreover, Petra’s vandalism uncovers another "secret" in the form of a "scarf" that Ben half-believes belongs to his wife and, in so doing, reawakens his suspicion that Jakob "stole Naomi’s heart" when first they met (284-85).28 As well as confirming the reader’s sense that a sexually-based ambivalence towards Jakob motivates Ben’s tryst with Petra on the bedroom floor, the scarf causes Ben to refocus his attention, first on his relationship with his wife, and then, as he envisages his return to her in Toronto, his memories of his parents. "[N]ow, from thousands of feet in the air [as the plane descends, I see something else," Ben concludes:
By desecrating a site of memory and love, Petra has confirmed the importance of memory and love. "Science," observes Ben, "is full of [such] stories of discoveries made when one error corrects another" (284).
If anything, Petra’s effect on the reader is even more complex than her effect on Ben, for central to Michaels’ sketchy depiction of her is one attribute—"her black hair" (275)—that raises huge questions about the structure of the novel, the nature of memory, and the presence—or absence—of order in human life. Since Ben’s narrative was written after Jakob’s and contains several echoes of it,29 should the repetition of Bella’s "black hair" in Petra’s be interpreted as a sign that he believes in some form of recurrence? Certainly, he feels that "[e]very room in [Jakob and Michaela’s house is]…drenched with [their] presence" and comes to think that they are "still alive" either physically or spiritually (265, 269, 282). Or is Ben’s insistence on Petra’s black hair evidence of a pathological dimension to his attitude to Jakob? In terms of memory, does the radical disjunction between the associations of black hair for Jakob (Bella: loss: shame…) and Ben (Petra: sexuality: vandalism…) speak to the chasms that exist between the minds of people of different generations and, indeed, among all minds? While compiling Bearing False Witness, Jakob inhabits his godfather’s thoughts and even senses his "presence" (119), but immediately after Athos’s death he recognizes his ignorance of the dead man’s personal life and intimate memories, and concludes that "[w]hen a man dies, his secrets bond like crystals, like frost on a window. His last breath obscures the glass" (114). Does Ben call attention to the collections of "stones," "buttons," pieces of "wood," and hand-shaped "[d]oor-knockers" (264-65) in Jakob’s study merely to illustrate the diversity of his interests or because he shares the reader’s sense of the connections between these objects and the formative trauma of their owner’s life? How much of the experiences of others, however traumatic, can or should be remembered? And, finally, there are the questions prompted by the novel’s numerous references to chaos theory, quantum mechanics, The Zohar, Darwin’s Origin of Species and other scientific and theological texts and concepts: are the events and phenomena of human life a matter of chance or choice? is the universe a realm of chaos or order or both? are there, in Michaels’ phrase, "unseen forces" at work in the world and, if so, are they merely "cultural or historical" ("Narrative Moves" 18) or should they be constructed as vital, motivated, or spiritual? Perhaps the last word should go to Jakob in a passage to which the cover of Fugitive Pieces calls attention:
The present, like a landscape, is only a small part of a mysterious narrative. A narrative of catastrophe and slow accumulation. Each life saved: genetic features to rise again in another generation. "Remote causes." (48)
• • •
One of the most enigmatic moments in Fugitive Pieces occurs when Ben’s father goes to a Canadian government office "to apply for his seniors’ pension" (232). Some weeks later Ben is told what happened by his mother:
"He went to the right place. He had all the right papers with him. Hehanded his birth certificate to the man at the desk. The man said, ‘I know very well the place you were born.’ Your father thought the man must have been from there too. But then the man lowered his voice, ‘Yes, I was stationed there in 1941 and ’42.’ The man stared at your father, and then your father understood. The man leaned over his desk and said so quietly your father could barely hear, ‘You don’t have the right papers.’ Your father left as fast as he could. But he didn’t come home for hours." (293)
The implication that "[t]he man" is a German who was involved with the persecution of the Jews is later confirmed when Ben reminisces about his family during the Petra episode. Prompted by a lullaby that his mother perhaps sang to his brother or sister, he recalls that "[s]hortly before the war" his "father was offered his first conducting job in the town where he was born" and that his "parents moved there from Warsaw."
Nearby was a peaceful old forest…. In 1941, the Nazis
removed the name of the forest from the map. Then, over three years, they
killed in that little grove. Afterwards, the remaining Jews and Soviet
prisoners were forced to reopen the seeping pits and cremate the eighty
The "mysterious narrative" whose characters converge in a death camp in Poland and reconverge in a government office in Canada is a horror story that would be unbelievable if it were not known to be true. Fifty years and more after the war, it is still, for many, a continuing nightmare whose reality must always be remembered and, for others, a part of history that is best forgotten in the interests of the present and the future. And for a few—a very few—it is merely a "narrative."
Given the chequered history of government policy on immigration to Canada, especially the reluctance of Liberal governments during and around the Second World War to accept Jewish immigrants30 and the same governments’ apparent willingness to overlook the wartime activities of German immigrants, there can be no wonder that the tension between remembering and forgetting that characterizes immigrant experience in Canada continues to be exacerbated by the Holocaust. Under the title "Nazis in Canada," the December 2, 1996 issue of Maclean’s reported that "[a]ccording to articles published in The Jerusalem Post, about 150 alleged Nazi war criminals are living in Canada" and quoted the American private investigator responsible for this information to the effect that Canada is a ‘near-blissful refuge’ for war criminals." A week later, on December 9, the same magazine carried a lengthy article by John Bemrose entitled "Young Survivors" that discusses Martin Gilbert’s The Boys: Triumph over Adversity (1996), a study of 732 children who survived the Nazi camps, and focuses on Edward Saks, a Toronto businessman who narrowly escaped death in Buchenwald in 1945 at the age of 13. Bracketing these items in Maclean’s are "Paying for the Past," an analysis by Anthony Wilson-Smith of Jean-Louis Roux’s resignation as lieutenant-governor of Quebec after the disclosure of his wartime anti-semitism,31 and "Biblical Divisions," a response to Wilson-Smith’s article by R.B. Pinkey, who calls for a recognition of the corrosive effects of dwelling on "the horrors of the Holocaust." Two of the best reasons for doing exactly that with as much empathy and imagination as humanly possible are contained in Edward Saks’s response to the "victims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Yugoslavia and central Africa": "‘I know what they are going through…. I can’t believe it’s all happening again’" (qtd. in Bemrose 58). "Every moment is two moments." Or more.