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  • The Wacousta Syndrome: Explorations in the Canadian Langscape
  • Arnold E. Davidson
Gaile McGregor . The Wacousta Syndrome: Explorations in the Canadian Langscape. Buffalo: U of Toronto P, 1985. 473 pp. $45.00 cloth; pb. $18.95.

Canada, according to Gaile McGregor, has long suffered from a severe case of what she terms the Wacousta Syndrome. The name comes from Major John Richardson's nineteenth-century novel, Wacousta, and the etiology largely from Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood. But much more than Frye in The Bush Garden or Atwood in Survival, McGregor provides a full family history of the "garrison mentality" and delineates the different implications—psychic, literary, social, political—of the Canadian propensity to cast oneself and one's heroes as victims of nature.

Starting in her first chapter, "A View from the Fort," with Richardson's commitment to just that view in contradistinction to the possibilities for mediation between civilization and wilderness allowed in Cooper's Leatherstocking novels, McGregor traces the causes and consequences of an angle of vision that she finds increasingly inscribed in Canadian literature, art, architecture, politics, and other personal and public realms of experience. Noting, for example, the nineteenthcentury Canadian artist's propensity to portray the waterfall from below as obstacle rather than from above as tableau, or to eschew the mastering view of nature as panorama for different pictures of nature as inimical enclosure, and conjoining a national fondness for mystic or misfit heroes such as Louis Riel or the Donnellys with a fondness for political leaders such as William Lyon Mackenzie King or Pierre Elliott Trudeau, McGregor postulates a uniquely Canadian "langscape"—an early coding of the landscape that in turn encodes how the land-scape and much more is subsequently written and read.

Her argument for this code is intriguing, and her argument from it—a massive assessment of Canadian literature—is even more so. Not at all an introduction nor an outline summary, the book is a sustained and complex double reading of both the texts of a national literature and the natural/cultural context that shapes those texts and is shaped by them. In short, McGregor has written a book that anyone interested in Canadian literature or in problems of defining national literatures will want to read. Furthermore, her study is especially valuable not just for its perceptive mapping of a Canadian "langscape" but also for the ways [End Page 296] in which one particular "langscape" illuminates another. Difference defines in both directions, and when McGregor at one point observes that without a belief in "the individual's power, at least potentially, to dominate nature (which the Canadian apparently has great difficulty with), one can achieve only the merest illusion of control" (emphasis in the original), she necessarily suggests alternative greater illusions. In other words, now that the American dream of domination in action has brought us to the brink of extinction, it begins to look as if the dark Canadian mythos of man's place in nature is, after all, both the more valid and the more promising reading of the human condition.

Arnold E. Davidson
Michigan State University


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pp. 296-297
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