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Reviewed by:
  • Scatology and Civility in the English-Canadian Novel
  • Glenn Willmott
Reinhold Kramer. Scatology and Civility in the English-Canadian Novel. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997. 257 pp.

It would be a mistake to overlook this as a simply thematic study of one of the darker corners of Canadian literature, for it offers much more. Kramer persuasively shows how closely the language of “scatology” is related to the construction of ideas of “civility” in a wide range of English-Canadian novels. His book is primarily rewarding for those readers already familiar with the novelists discussed.

The two key terms are not intended to be parallel concepts or objects of study. “Civility” is taken to be an ideology, constructed in significant part by a rhetoric of “scatology.” The latter is broadly but justifiably defined to include references to everything from excrement in particular, through varieties of filth, waste, and ejecta, to the physical body more generally. In a series of chapters organized formally or thematically, and moving through a variety of examples, Kramer focuses on the use of scatological language and imagery either simply to promote, corrosively to parody, or more subtly to reconstruct alternative ideas of an assumed-to-be-normative civility (these possibilities are laid out clearly in the four chapters of the introductory section). His aim is to reveal the range of conceptual uses, whether straightforward or ironic, that this scatological rhetoric can serve. In a substantial middle section, a series of chapters look at such uses thematically, regarding immigrants, race, political economy, science, sex, and religion.

How civility itself is represented on a more general basis, how this is defined, and how this changes or varies, whether it is normative or not in Canadian literature is not directly the object of his study, but rather the field of knowledge to which Kramer wishes his study to [End Page 417] contribute. If we consider “civility” to be the personal and linguistic expression of a “civilization,” then we may regard scatology as an intimate language of the self and self-construction in the whole, tortured history of discourses of imperialism and nationalism and other social identifications in English Canada. Unfortunately, the historical dimension either of ideas of civility or of uses of scatology is not clearly or substantially developed by Kramer beyond a notion of ambiguous liberalization, and it is uncertain whether the study is intended as a period study of contemporary writing or is intended to open as easily, if less emphatically, upon a larger range which reaches as far back as the substantially cited Susanna Moodie. Nevertheless the ideas of civility and civilization which form the horizon of the study give it a suggestiveness beyond its specific rhetorical focus, important to our understanding of Canadian literature and culture.

The general strength of the study is that it convincingly demonstrates the significance of scatology with respect to important themes and genres in Canadian writing. The particular strength of the study is the way in which Kramer is able to encompass, as elements of the scatology-civility interaction, both conceptual and formal aspects of the novel. For the interaction produces not only ideas about civility and the self, but plot forms and narrative perspectives about the formation of the civilized self and its modes of self-recognition and authentication. The significant plot forms are therefore versions of life-writing, including the bildungsroman and the fictional autobiography (the latter is the focus of one of two chapters on form), while the significant narrative perspective is tendentially self-referential and achieves its apogee in a postmodernism (the focus of the other chapter on form) that is limited by a transcending notion of existential contingency of the body. These are easily the best chapters in the book, since they apply the fruits of earlier sections to deeper readings of individual texts, and produce compelling results.

The primary weakness of the study is the often glancing, fragmentary, or at best scattered representation of the source novels themselves in the introductory and middle sections. This is the result of Kramer’s inclusive thematic method, which draws examples of scatology from a range of novels without developing either the immediate contexts from which...