Frank Davey: The Curious Night-Time Incident of a Famous Brunette Female Writer in Jackboots

By John Harris | July 3, 2006

Frank Davey is among Canada’s foremost academic critics of Canadian literature, the author of a dozen books of criticism and a contributor to another dozen. These books are controversial and much used by professors: the encyclopedic From There to Here is in the arsenal (Davey wouldn’t like that metaphor) of anyone who teaches and writes about Canlit. He’s a good critic, one of the best, clear in his definitions and prose, unafraid to get into the old inductive-deductive scrum — to sort categories of themes, stylistic devices, characters and plots, and to test the categories on further themes, etc. He is perceptive as to an author’s consistency in these matters, and the accuracy of her references/imitations (Davey would prefer the word “enactments”).

Davey is “academic” in the original denotative sense: “of the school of Plato; skeptical” (Oxford). He claims to analyze and appraise literature using a theoretical framework rooted in a modern version of philosophical idealism. The operative word, and he uses it all the time, is “phenomenological.” In his 1999 autobiographical blurb in Contemporary Authors 173 — the source of much of the information used in this article — Davey sums it up: “Over the next decade [1961-1971] I would get a reputation for being something of a phenomenologist of poetry and skeptic about what passed for Canadian literary criticism.”

I think Davey’s use of theory in his criticism is questionable. I think it’s a distraction and pushes him into being “academic” in the connotative sense: “abstract, irrelevant.” What does he mean by claiming to be a phenomenologist of poetry? One thing that he doesn’t mean, I hope, is that he is a phenomenologist. No one has reasoned their way back and forth from philosophy to specific aesthetic judgments, from Truth to Beauty, just as no one has ever written philosophical poetry or reasoned their way from Truth to Virtue.

When Davey “bridge[d] Tish poetics and French structuralism” and discovered “a phenomenological text-based poetics,” he never said how he did the “bridging” and the “poetics” he ended up with was nothing new. Olson’s dictum, “art does not seek to describe but to re-enact,” a version of Archibald MacLeish’s “A poem should not mean/But be,” became “a poem does not represent something prior to itself but enacts the moment of its own construction,” and “criticism cannot represent a poem or novel but is merely a new text that enacts the reading of those texts.” There’s little difference between these propositions and what Wordsworth said even earlier about the purpose of his poems: “namely, to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement.” Olson, MacLeish and Wordsworth wanted to valorize (Davey likes this word) style over content.

Tish poetics, like Wordsworth’s, was a call to arms, and these will always be needed until we’re in paradise. Calls to arms find mantric utterance from wherever — their content suits their circumstances but no others. Later, to be understood, they have to be put into context, which is history, not philosophy. When the revolution succeeds, as Davey’s did, the mantra means little in the new situation. Those who try to prolong its legitimacy by rationalizing it are ignored or snuffed (see what Stalin did to Trotsky et al in any encyclopedia).

When Coleridge ran Wordsworth’s poetics by German idealistic philosophy, he came up with nothing anyone has since been able to understand. He got a mantra, the best parts of it plagiarized from Schlegel. He continued to use and explore it because it gave him comfort. But it didn’t get him back to poetry or provide a measure and vocabulary for criticism, and it made Wordsworth angry when he was informed that he was not really, for example, a man speaking to men. In fact, Coleridge had the balls (Davey would prefer “gonads”) to admit that he sought recourse in theory to avoid the pain of trying to write poetry. When we read Coleridge’s criticism, we have to shuck his theory. The same goes for Davey, after he ran Olson past Husserl.

All criticism is faith-based, but the evangelical, puritanical stuff (Christian, Marxist, Freudian, Post-structuralist) wants around Kant’s dictum that aesthetic judgment never achieves absolute certainty. Since there is no way around, Davey, no matter how loud and long he works his mantra, will be read as a New or Rhetorical Critic who connects rhetorical sophistication to the expression of libertarian or New Left themes (rather than Arnoldian “great ideas” — the conservative alternative). He makes this connection in the usual way, through the cunning sophistry of the personal essay fortified by scholarly bean-counting and jargon — in his case, philosophical jargon. This is the critical tradition he was trained in through advanced studies (and many protest marches and sit-ins) in the English departments of UBC and UCLA during the 1960’s, and the tradition he evolved with through the faith-based, poststructuralist or new New Left “victim’s revolution” of the 1980’s and ‘90’s — a revolution he participated in assiduously over his long career as a professor.

In criticism, the idea is to make the sophistry as unobtrusive as possible. Forget absolutes. Forget conscience, except as a subconscious canon of moral judgments. Use rhetoric (what else is there?) but keep it subtle. By all means demonstrate your all-round humanity, your sensitivity, your conscience, by reciting anecdotes about your spouse or Great Dane, but don’t overdo it. By all means scan Harper’s and listen to CBC “Ideas” for those echoes of why you think Heart of Darkness or whatever is great. Above all, make your criticism pleasurable, like a good poem or novel. Supplementary rules for academic critics: summarize the bean counting, avoid authoritative (lecturing) arrangements, don’t talk down to readers, and keep the jargon to a minimum.

Davey has more trouble with this than Coleridge did, and Coleridge, that “sad ghost” as T. S. Eliot called him, had trouble enough. Davey seems to suffer from a kind of intellectual autism that seeks comfort in the mantra of theory and in constant assertions of its logical and empirical validity. This autism is further indicated by his compulsive bean-counting, his hair-trigger defensiveness, his loyalty to those who “understand” and his anger at those who don’t, his concern for definition, correctness and scholarly propriety, his urge to polarize and politicize, his formulaic, jargonistic prose (he sometimes sounds like “software man” in Barthelme’s “Report”), his humorlessness, his confidence and his inability to process irony, especially Margaret Atwood’s. That’s autism.

These symptoms are aggravated by his context: the university. Davey is an academic critic in the other and more usual denotation of “academic”: “a member of a university.” He has worked in organizations like York University where he was professor for a couple of decades and Chair of English for five years. He was president of the Association of Canadian University Teachers of English for two years. He is right up there at the top of the ivory tower. This world — a traditional home for functional autistics, an autistic world in fact in its emphasis on rationalized methods of study, teaching and management — is Davey’s natural habitat.

Davey says about his Tish days, “I began imagining myself as a poet who would need secure university employment to continue writing.” Note: not secure employment, but secure university employment. It would seem he made an accurate assessment of his personality and of the nature of the university. Probably too he watched Earle Birney sashay around, easily getting anything he wanted — sabbaticals, grants, a separate creative writing department, Rona Murray.

For over thirty years now, Davey’s situation has been not just secure, but posh. He is forever on sabbaticals to write books. Also, he shows his Great Dane, and listens to his daughter play violin with orchestras in Antibes, Menton, Cannes, and Nice-Acropolis. He lives at conferences, where he and his colleagues do great things — like driving stakes through the hearts of Northrop Frye, Atwood, D. G. Jones, and other “thematic” critics at the 1974 Learneds. Also, while at various conferences, he shows his Great Dane. His journal, Open Letter (supported by the Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council) is an album of these conferences, publishing the papers and grainy photos of the writer-professor family looking like friendly aunts and uncles at a picnic. There’s Frank with Stephen Scobie in Paris. They’ve been talking about Alice Munro (no picture of her — she must have missed the plane, or they didn’t have the funds to fly her in, too). There’s Frank hugging — what? The Great Dane? No! George Bowering.

All the other derivative bureaucracies of liberal democracy — like the corporation — have drawn Davey’s fire, but not the university, especially when you consider that actions speak louder than words. Davey has argued, in the Preface to Canadian Literary Power, that “the independence of individual universities [some, evidently, aren’t independent]” is a major factor, with “the democratization of arts council grant procedures” and “the strength of regional publishing,” in limiting the coercive power exercised by giant multinational publishers and media companies.

Where has Davey been? Not to the 2001 Writers’ Union of Canada meeting, where his Tish buddy, Fred Wah, a prof at Calgary and president of TWUC, fielded a complaint from Myrna Kostash: “I’m what Myrna Kostash has rightly noted, an academically supported writer who is eligible for Canada Council readings but who gets to go on lots of international junkets as a Canadian writer because he’s also an academic and in on the Canadian Studies scene . . . . The majority of Canadian writers who get in on these affairs are also university professors [and] the same relatively small group of people keep “representing” Can Lit in foreign Canadian Studies programs.” The universities do open up opportunities, but for professors only, and the kinds of easily-processed writing that professors do.

Davey has worked hard to ensure that the university does not change, that it will remain an oligarchy of the highly accredited (not necessarily the highly educated, talented or intelligent) and continue as the favored child of the Euro-American Enlightenment, and that he himself and his buddies George and Fred will forever to find comfort and support within it. As a new member of the English Department at York, back in 1970, he found York’s libertarian mandate “amusing.” That word, in Davey, usually means “stupid.” York faculty actually believed that everyone should teach first and second year, that it was irresponsible to take time away from teaching to write books, that you could vote in departmental assembly that all department members were equally meritorious and accordingly that all merit money will be given back to administration. After awhile, this stopped being amusing and became threatening. Everything he proposed in his first years at York was voted down: “I took this personally because I considered myself a democrat.” Probably he took it personally because York’s philosophy was based in New Left libertarianism, which Davey supports in most of its manifestations.

But not this one, where it threatened his security. At York, Davey was forced to take control, as he was in his high-school club when he voted for himself as president and won (embarrassingly) unanimous support, as he was at Tish, as he always is. He got permission from the union to break the rules in order to hire well-known poets and novelists to teach creative writing, instead of having it taught by degreed faculty who might write the odd poem and want a break from large classes. He supported the purging from the graduate program of faculty who did not publish three articles or more over five years. And, when he became Department Head, he realized that “the undergraduate department was left with numerous members unlikely ever to be considered qualified to teach a graduate course. . . . I told the department that it needed to hire new members with research records that would enable them to teach almost immediately in the graduate program.”

This was the conventional Enlightenment reasoning. It’s called “specialism:” creative writing is taught by published writers, undergraduate programs are taught by people who focus on teaching or haven’t done enough scholarly publishing, graduate programs are taught by published scholars. The idea is that teaching ability doesn’t matter or isn’t quantifiable. This is the original format in the first modern (German) universities, and it is that of Davey’s alma mater, UBC. It was established in the English Department there by Earle Birney and department head Roy Daniells (in conflict with one another), and solidified in the early seventies by department head Robert Jordan (in conflict with students and a majority of faculty) and his “publish or perish” hiring and tenure policies. Jordan was, presumably, with Warren Tallman, one of the Americans who had left America (“the best Americans are the ones who leave”) to “enrich” UBC academically.

The trouble with Davey’s academic life is that, by his own theory, his support of the objectifying, hierarchical, patriarchal rules of the academic oligarchy, as well as his resultant affluence and leisure, disqualifies him from making statements on racism, sexism, globalism, free trade, etc and thus (since theory is meant to prove direct connections between judgments of aesthetic and moral value) with any literature that deals with these issues. So far as theory goes, Davey can’t make statements on these matters because he has no part of them. He is “Nowhere Man,” and this must be explained and atoned for in his criticism. Just as the format of Atwood’s novels — big-press, with fixed conventions of characterization and narration — tags her, for Davey, as a compromised feminist, so Davey’s status as a professor, with his academic connections and expository books riddled with quotations and jargon, blocked in by prefaces and bibliographies, and published by research/arts councils and university presses, puts Davey firmly in the patriarchy.

Compromised as a poet and critic, he has by his own rules to submit to those who can talk about these things. Theory is not the university, though it lives there. When the English Department continued to vote Davey down, when his status there was threatened, he took over, but in the context of theory he can’t quite do that. In the context of theory, no matter how fucked up those who have earned the right to speak are, and often the evidence that they have earned the right to speak is that they are so obviously fucked up, Davey is forced to participate in the orgiastic self-purification and denunciation sessions that theory demands. In 1988, with Reading Canadian Reading, he subjected all of his previous books to such a review. In 1999 in CA, he repeated the process and included his poetry books.

So it is evidently essential to us in our reading of his phenomenological criticism to know that Davey, while he was raised in a comfortable Abbotsford home with a loving family, was traumatized by the war, especially the letters from family in England which his parents and grandmother thoughtlessly read out loud, and by arguments that his father and grandmother thoughtlessly conducted over the kitchen table. This left Frank conflicted, as evidenced by the fact that he loved racist and sexist comics like Johnny Hazard, Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, and “thought the geometric rows of rivets on a DC-3 or P-51 were the pinnacle of modernist aesthetics.” He still thinks “the Dragon lady much more dangerously attractive than . . . Margaret Atwood.”

Davey was also abused by his father in the sense that his father established a male ethos in the home by playing a dominant role, and leaving pornographic stories like “Irma: Queen of the Nazi Death Camps” all over the place. Frank, masturbating over these, ended up “conflicted” about women and maybe even Nazis, which caused him to mistreat his grandmother and which forms the context in which his books about Kim Campbell (1993) and Karla Homolka (1995) must be read. Also he was comparatively poor — poorer than friends whose parents had cars and could take their kids to New Mexico and California and whose fathers had time to discuss baseball with them. This poverty was also indicated by his “class problems with books” — nothing to read at home but old stuff from England, since his parents couldn’t afford to buy Reader’s Digest. “Later I would realize that mine was a problem in ethnicity as well as class.” In other words, Brits were disadvantaged compared to Yanks, no matter how superior both were to bohunks. Also, Abbotsford wasn’t Vancouver back then, but more like the Interior, so Davey was alienated in that way too, cut off from the cultural and economic advantages of city life, forced to associate with Yokums. And of course he was a westerner with ambitions to write, and all the action in regards to writing was hogged by Toronto, especially after Margaret Atwood, Queen of Canadian Literature, came along. He has indicated that his marginalization, along with that of his Tish partners, was behind Tish and the formation of Tish poetics: “I think we felt marginalized in a number of ways, having come from a small town . . . . Marginalized by being Canadian in North America, marginalized by being west coast . . . . marginalized by . . . becoming more and more interested in language rather than in content, which was the dominant esthetic . . . . That sense of being marginalized, and the anger that that aroused in us, was I think a very important source of the abrasive energy [behind Tish]”

But all of Davey’s proffered victim credentials were subsequently denied by a theory purification committee led by Pauline Butling (Fred Wah’s wife) who pointed out that, “as young, white, able-bodied males . . . . they [the Tish group] were in fact quite close to “the dominant pole. In the case of young, white, males, gender trumps class, location, and economic position; their lack of money and power is only temporary.” Poor Frank. He turned his father in for nothing. Poor us, because this means that we need to join Frank in “revisiting” Tish poetics and Olson.

To get full benefit from this revisit, we need to know what other Tish groupies (they wouldn’t like that word) said. Angela Bowering, in her parts of the fictionalized memoir Piccolo Mondo, says, “What’s upsetting is that she’s beginning not to like them much — all that bafflegab . . . comparisoning off each others’ personae. All that trumpeting, disappearing into their own stories. . . .” And, according to Butling, Daphne Marlatt was traumatized by the male ethos of Tish, especially its physical and emotional violence. Creeley punched Bowering and continually prodded Davey about not taking enough risks with his writing — like “breaking open his beloved’s [Marlatt’s — see below] skull and putting a candle behind her eyes.” Wah threatened Purdy and Robert Sward punched Robin Skelton. Because of this, Marlatt “took years to unravel her own self-censoring and articulate a lesbian/feminist possibility.” Even Fred Wah, beginning as his wife, Butling, says “to explore his personal/social history as a racialized subject [he’s ¼ Chinese],” was pussy-whipped into nagging Davey on the matter of Tish’s racism which he, Wah, must (subconsciously) have deeply felt, and which kept him from realizing and getting excited about his cultural identity until long after, when Butling kindly drew his attention to it.

Davey responded weakly by pointing out that it was he, not Wah, who campaigned for the first Chinese city council candidate in Vancouver in 1960, so Tish poetics did incorporate some awareness of racism (if not sexism). Generally, though, Davey broke under pressure and recanted. He came up with a new opinion (more “bafflegab”) on what drove Tish in its seminal work in poetry and poetics: “In my first year in Tish I was still remembering wanting, and wanting, to spend my hours talking with Daphne Buckle, and she was elsewhere making plans to marry Alan Marlatt. This is difficult to sum up. A lot of the energy I put into getting my Tish buddies to publish nineteen issues in nineteen months was more than likely displacement of the energy and anticipation I had felt talking with Daphne about art and writing . . . . Davey was “marginalized” alright, but by a woman , not society.

Davey’s unrequited affair with Marlatt drove him to other accomplishments: “Warren Tallman called the context of my book D-Day and After, ‘the haunted house of the lost object.’ He was thinking of Daphne. . . . Most of the poems in Bridge Force were written in the aftermath of my (self-induced?) crisis over Daphne Buckle.” In fact, Davey says, other works of his were inspired by other “lost objects,” and found ones too: “Creeley . . . in a Montreal bar in 1970 . . . said I wasn’t willing to take enough risks for my writing. I was both pissed off by his presumption and amused because of how chaotic and chancy my life had been over the last six months, during which I had secretly written much of the prose-poem book Weeds, broken up with [first wife] Helen, eloped on five-day’s notice from Victoria to Montreal with Linda, who then was still married to my ex-Royal roads-colleague Roger but was now pregnant with our son Michael . . . I published eight books between 1970 and 1973.”

So we need to revisit the denouncing, in Tish poetics, of writing that was occasioned mostly by emotional crisis and urgency,” that was “emotion recollected,” as opposed to “writing that was occasioned mostly by the satisfaction of having created textual meaning.” Davey, with his talk about the subconscious and sublimation of emotion into poetry seems to be adjusting his view. This means revisiting Olson’s “a poem does not represent something prior to itself but enacts the moment of its own construction.” Unless Davey was multi-tasking through his relationship with Marlatt, writing poems with one hand while his other was being shoved off her knee, a poem represents something prior to itself, and a good poet avoids a “tranquility” so cerebral that it can’t recollect “emotion.”

Davey would of course encourage this exploration of his “rhetoric.” It’s part of the phenomenological approach. Study my biography, read my autobiography. Every criticism is an act of self-criticism. In Reading Canadian Reading, he told us to read our favorite book, From There to Here, as not encyclopedic, authoritative: “The brevity of the essays . . . despite their undeniable subjectivity, invites summary judgments, sharply focused arguments, decisive conclusions. Here the crucial limitation is conceptual. The author had neither worked out a theory of criticism suitable to the task which the book posed nor structured the book to accommodate the theory of criticism the book explicitly endorsed.” He then goes on to tell us what he would now say of, for example, F. R. Scott: “[his] humanism [Davey hates humanism]is signaled in part by the high incidence in his poems of clausal syntax, closed rhyme schemes and verbal irony . . . .” Using this as an example, we can easily go on to revise the other 59 entries.

As if. All of these stylistic features are evident in T. S. Eliot, too, who hated humanism even more than Davey does.

Some revisits we have to handle ourselves. They are too painful for Davey to do himself. Here’s how, in 1999, he revisited his attack on thematic criticism, which happened at a 1974 conference event and led to the book Surviving the Paraphrase (1982): I took advantage of my invitation to speak at the Learned Societies’ meetings of May 1974 to take apart the assumptions of thematic criticism, using not Atwood, whom I had already critiqued elsewhere, but Jones as my example of it. Some scholars called the moment of my lecture a turning point in Canadian criticism. I remember the seats of the amphitheatre were filled and that there were people standing in the aisles and doorways. I remember Miriam Waddington grabbing me as I left the podium and saying “That’s good, you’re not a structuralist, are you?” Perhaps, like many others, she had mistaken Jones’s and Atwood’s criticism as structuralism. Then I noticed Doug Jones, and his wife Monique, sitting quietly near the centre. I wished they’d been somewhere else. I wish I hadn’t taken advantage. I wished I’d been somewhere else. I wished I hadn’t made so many things up.

Since he doesn’t list the things he made up, presumably not wanting to fall into permanent depression about humiliating Jones in front of his wife and confusing Waddington, we have to do it for him if we wish to understand what he now sees as the limitations of his arguments against thematic criticism. One of these limitations might have been the derivation of Jones and Atwood from Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism Davey specifies as the source of thematic criticism. The conventional wisdom is that it is anything but, but never mind that.. It is, like Barthes’s criticism, which Davey admires, structuralist criticism. Davey later calls it “superficial structuralism,” to distinguish it from Barthes’, I suppose, but this still makes it structuralism. Waddington’s “mistake” was really Davey’s problem with definition. Another thing he might have made up is the idea that Jones (and Atwood) derived their thematic analysis entirely from considerations (mostly summaries) of plot and character. They don’t, but are inclined to. In other words, Davey simplified the approaches of all three writers.

It is Davey’s criticism of Margaret Atwood, though, extending from Tish through to the present, that best shows the difficulties of the endlessly self-reflective criticism of the New New Left, the Poststructuralists or, as Harold Bloom describes them, the New Puritans. About the Tish approach to Atwood, Davey says that he and George Bowering were inclined to make friends with her: She was to become our companion in Canadian writing, whether or not we wanted an eastern-Canadian companion. This was not true of John Colombo or Daryll Hine or Alden Nowlan or Roo Borson, whom if we ignored would not become companions. Davey adds that he and Bowering were subconsciously glad to have her detached and ironic companionship.

But why “subconsciously?” Because consciously Davey (he probably shouldn’t be speaking for Bowering here, who has acknowledged his own fantasies about Atwood) didn’t know why they wanted the bitch in the club in the first place. Hadn’t she pulled the “field” right out from under their feet? Admittedly this had made more room for women, “among whom we had not enough companions in writing,” but at what cost! The field had shifted back to Toronto, “to Frygian thematics and away from language as the ground of culture and politics, even though her own words were precise and complexly political. We could not forgive this superficial structuralism in Frye and its glib generalizations about Canada and we could not forgive them at all when Atwood wrote Survival and defined out much of the Canadian culture and writing we valued.”

William Carlos Williams, Olson’s guru, made similar comments about T. S. Eliot: “The Dial brought out The Waste Land and all our hilarity ended. It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned into dust.” What Williams wanted from Eliot, and what Tish wanted from Atwood, was their intimate and productive relationship with language. Atwood was doing what they wanted to do, and didn’t seem to need theory as a guide and encouragement.

Atwood’s language-power was insightfully analyzed in Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics (1984), which examines first the image patterns that define what Davey calls Atwood’s theme of “male and female space,” and her enumeration “of the methods by which mankind affirms male over female space.” Here, Davey affirms, Atwood explores what she seems to see as the central dilemma of feminism, that language (naming, definition, categorizing) is male space, but women must appropriate it “to have any voice at all.” But, as Davey is always saying, language is a force unto itself. It permits women to have a voice. So why do women want the male voice if not to speak to men, to alter them? Otherwise they would develop their own voice. Davey questions this initial move of Atwood’s into male linguistic space, and is still unsure about it. Why does she seek reconciliation of the eternal opposites rather than what Blake sought, “the continued joyful struggle of opposites?”

Maybe because, as Atwood graphically points out, a lot of women are hurting and dying in “male space.” This is “joyful?” Davey, in his tower, immersed in “the pleasures of the text,” promoting rhetoric over reality, fighting positivistic thinking, doesn’t want to acknowledge that Atwood is describing something that she and others would call “reality.” You’re not supposed to be able to so obviously valorize content and still write well. Davey’s problems with Atwood’s ability with language lead to the suspicion that his analysis is a tactic to drive Atwood out of male space, so she isn’t continually writing poetry that makes his look like shit.

But Davey’s description of Atwood’s dilemma is perceptive, even if he suggests a stupid reconciliation of the opposites — opposites that he himself, due to his categorizing, has portrayed as extreme and immutable. Davey continues his analysis, with equal incisiveness, into Atwood’s novels, wherein he sees Atwood moving more and more into male space and thus, possibly, locking herself into the feminist dilemma (the one novel that confuses him is Life Before Man, where the men are in female space and the women control male space).

A decade later, Davey revisited the Atwoodian version of the feminist dilemma in Canadian Literary Power, focusing on a crucial feminist poem, “Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written.” Here he applies a full-blown phenomenological analysis in all its jargonistic, nit-picking tediousness, but he arrives at the interesting insight that Atwood could now be appalled at her occupation of “male space,” and envious of other women who can speak with more authority on feminist themes because they are still in “female space.” Davey is careful to avoid solipsism, to actually say that the only poetry that can be convincingly written about rape, mutilation, enslavement etc can be written by women who are being raped, mutilated, enslaved. He does not mean this, although he implies it. He seems to determine (his prose here is unusually convoluted) that Atwood’s title is ironic, and her poem is a good poem, and not just “notes towards a poem.” He only worries that many women — especially in relatively safe and peaceful Canada — will not understand the irony and decide that Atwood is seeking to silence them. It is kind (if of course condescending) of him to explain Atwood’s real intentions to these women.

Finally, in Post-National Arguments (1993), Davey revisits Atwood’s novels, focusing on his perception, again very insightful, that Atwood portrays the politically active characters in Cat’s Eye (and in all her novels) as clowns. He points out that the situation and history of Elaine, the heroine, closely resembles those of Atwood herself, and that Elaine, like Atwood, achieves artistic prominence of the sort that is likely to be appropriated by feminists. She becomes a feminist icon by avoiding and making fun of feminists and their politics. And what does Elaine’s art portray as the source of her creative individuality, if that source is not solidarity with feminists? It portrays the primeval Canada of [Atwood’s] childhood . . an impossible Canada , but an enormously powerful one [that] resonates through the nation’s culture in the canonical paintings of the Group of Seven . . . .”

Davey is disappointed, as he is in all the great Canadian novels that he studies in this book, including Ana Historic by his “lost object.” All seek resolution to the racist, sexist, rationalist, soul-destroying, globalizing trans-national obsessions of Western Civilization in the vision of Canada as individual-friendly and bucolic (female space). By opting for what Davey calls “sentimentality,” all signal “a decided lack of faith that human cooperation can address injustice and accommodate difference.”

Davey’s unhappiness is endearing. He has perceived the thematic inclinations of the novels he studies, and he has done it through perceptive analysis of style, character, and plot, especially plot (which is character), especially the endings of plots. He is close to writing the plot-summary thematic criticism that he once hated. He does not pretend that he is not upset by the fact that all of these really bright novelists, some of them good friends of his, don’t see the point.

Atwood has the right attitude to Davey — she responds ironically. Irony and autism don’t mix, but irony can force autism into stuttering withdrawal, which is good for Davey when he tends to belligerence, which is when he tends to hurt himself. How did Atwood respond to Davey’s totally justified concerns about “how lightly she was taking Canadians’ various struggles for cultural power,” an attitude that would have to change before he and George would accept her into the club? “She commented to my wife Linda that I must have “female-Hitler, evil-stepmother” fantasies about her.” Ha! says Davey. Takes one to know one! Admittedly he does have dominatrix fantasies, but his involve only blondes like Kim, Karla, and Irma, and they are not his fault, because his father exposed him to men’s magazines, with “the predictable drawings of a leggy blonde with black whip and jackboots,” and anyway Davey prefers the Dragon Lady to Atwood. And these fantasies make him ANGRY because they indicate women marrying male power, offering to lead it, enacting its fantasies (nay, seeming to enjoy them!) overcoming it by conquering it and not eliminating it. This is WRONG and Atwood should not be making a JOKE out of it.

I admire Frank Davey, but I wish he’d give up on theory and just do his critic’s job of work. Maybe then I wouldn’t have to read Husserl and listen to Davey’s life story which could only be interesting (1) if Elspeth Cameron wrote it or (2) something really bad or extremely exciting happens to Davey and he has to write about that thing instead of write about writing about it.

Mind you, I’m conflicted here as you can obviously see. I love gossip. But it has to be good gossip. Look at it this way. Davey’s poststructuralist fellow-traveler, Robert Lecker, another prof but a kind of Sancho Panza to Davey’s Quixote, always blowing off great nationalistic (Davey hates nationalism) farts in Davey’s vicinity, over a decade ago proposed a new genre — criticism as narrative. His sample of it was Making It Real, the Canonization of English-Canadian literature. In it he narrates, through previously-published essays that in this book are strung together and “revisited,” his life in Canlit. “Each chapter is part of the process of re-writing myself.” And he has recently published Dr. Delicious: Memoirs of a Life in CanLit.

What if hundreds of other retired English profs followed Lecker’s example and began their own Biographiae Academiae? Millions of university sabbatical and professional development dollars, millions more in Canada Council writing and block grants, could even now be in jeopardy, about to fed into the maw of professorial ego. Haven’t these people had enough of the podium?

Imagine reading such books, or Davey’s if he decides that he needs to expand the moronic 23 pages that he wrote for CA? It would be like having an English prof who did nothing but tell anecdotes about his wife and Great Dane. You’d have to walk out of class, or put your hand up and say, “Mind just telling us what this poem on your reading list means, Sir?”

July 2, 2006 5989 w.


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