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Ghost-National Arguments
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Ghost-National Arguments

In his introduction to Worrying the Nation: Imagining a National Literature in English Canada Jonathan Kertzer writes: 'My worries arose partly in response to the October 1995 referendum, which loomed and passed as I wrote most of the book, and partly in recognition that worrying characterizes much English-Canadian writing' (35).1 At no point does he see a connection between these two; his own worries over the future of Canada as its fate is decided in Quebec bear no causal relation to the worrying that he sees as symptomatic of English-Canadian literature – and its criticism, I would add. Even though he feels obliged to admit that 'the absence of Québécois and French-Canadian writing from this volume is another worry' (36) – and the cultural and linguistic limitations of his project are honestly announced in his title – he does not reflect on whether his book might have taken a different turn if the referendum had not loomed and passed but lingered and changed the map of Canada. Or, for that matter, if it could have been written at all; even if the book does not include Quebec, the nation about which it worries surely does.

Kertzer's book is predicated on his persuasive argument that 'the nation is inescapable and continues to haunt us' (26). The particular nature of his own worrying corroborates the argument I will be presenting here, that the difficulty English-Canadian critics have had in their hunt for a definition of Canada stems from their blindness to the fact that the 'inescapable nation' is figured specifically by Quebec. English-Canadian writing – particularly critical writing – about nation isin a way doubly haunted: on the one hand by the particular role played by Quebec in the country's history, and, on the other – perhaps as a result – by its own inability to acknowledge its indebtedness to Quebec for its self-definition as a nation. As multiculturalism increasingly supersedes the overt preoccupation with nation in critical discourse, hiding 'nation' from view, as it were, this inability is becoming ever more deeply entrenched.

I am not arguing that one cannot write a literary history of English Canada without writing about Quebec; one certainly can, and many, [End Page 673] including Kertzer, have done so very well indeed. What I am arguing is that there is something fundamentally missing when – in an age when the concept of nation is more than ever at issue – one writes a history in which 'nation' is the structuring principle without mentioning the role Quebec has played in English-Canadian thinking about nation. In this respect Kertzer's book is symptomatic of an emerging version of Canada that displaces Quebec in ways that I find puzzling.

Kertzer's persuasive argument that English-Canadian worrying about nation has never ceased is a salutary corrective to Frank Davey's Post-National Arguments, which claims that the obsession with the nation that characterized cultural debate in Canada from the 1950s through the 1970s has been abandoned in favour of a focus on the relationship between the local and the global, balancing a renewed regionalism with an acceptance of emerging globalization. Davey's identification of Canada as first past the post of the outdated notion of nation is only one of several recent twists I will deal with in this paper that have turned the lamentations over Canada's belatedness that characterized the nationalist 1970s into a millennial celebration of Canada's – belatedly discovered – firstness. It is this preposterous turn – in the literal sense of the word, putting first what ought to come last – and its relation to the ghost of 'nation' that I want to examine in this essay.2 Kertzer attributes many of the moves I see as preposterous to a 'fin-de-siècle sentiment of perpetual belatedness'; thus, for instance, he sees being postmodern as being 'resolutely after the fact, where the "fact" is any principle defining period or place' (162).3 The way in which the idea – and the prefix – of 'post' is used by the critics I will be citing, however, including, as we shall see, Kertzer himself, seems in fact to emphasize the flip...