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New Literary History 32.1 (2001) 133-156

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Canadian Ressentiment

Glenn Willmott

Dedicated to the memory of Arnold E. "Ted" Davidson

you seem to be dying
moving across the forty-ninth parallel each day a stronger more death-laden stench; wafting inshore from off the Great Lakes the same unmistakable stink, so unlike the usual putrefaction of these waters
the cracks are beginning to show
I knew you were marching to doom the night a young American told me: "There at Buffalo I saw our flag flying, then fifty yards further on your Maple Leaf, and I thought: thank God I'll never have to cross that line going back again." 1

So begins the "Death Chant for Mr. Johnson's America," one of the darkest of the "candid Canadian opinions of the U.S." collected in 1968 (hence the exemplary figure of the draft-dodger) by the poet Al Purdy in a book entitled The New Romans. The title suggests its recurrent theme: a United States of America as strong and extensive as the Roman Empire, but as decadent and as doomed. These verses also reveal something about Canada--not only in such explicit content as the sanctuary Maple Leaf, but generally, in the ironic style which assumes Whitman's idealistic voice not only with Ginsbergian disaffection, but as if in northern exile. This is a supplementary theme which figures Canada as a morally distinct and superior Tiresias upon whose weaker frame the terrible American vision has descended. Another contributor to The New Romans draws on the same gruesome olfactory paradigm and figures this Canadian critical perspective more explicitly, with an uncomfortable self-consciousness: "Geographical statistics apart, America is huge and Canada is small. In a very real way, Canada represents the attitudes of many other less developed countries towards her vast southern neighbor. Canada, like most other countries, [End Page 133] recognizes both the possible goods of capitalism and, at the same time, the rottenness, propaganda, and double standards which actually emanate from it, insidious and omnipresent as the sweat that American sprays, creams, and roll-ons were invented to eradicate. Double standards are as natural as perspiration. But our small, well-to-do country manages to reject--idealistically if not practically--most of the smell." 2

There is some embarrassed self-vilification here, but at least, perhaps, it is embarrassed. Though "practically" impuissant, even regarding its own degradation, it is "idealistically" self-critical--able to "recognize" what others wish to "eradicate." Thus, through the stink, one may scent the higher consciousness of the victim. These two "candid Canadian opinions" illuminate two facets of a deep structure in the rhetoric of a certain Canadianicity to be investigated in what follows, a discursive strategy of national identity remarkably, and with profoundly imperfect pride, based upon ressentiment.

The concept of ressentiment is a good deal more specific than its normal French usage or that of its English cognate would suggest, though it includes these meanings as well. I refer to the special meaning Friedrich Nietzsche gives to ressentiment in his On the Genealogy of Morals, in which he offers a theory of the historical origins of morals as a result of power contests between weaker and stronger social groups. Originally, says Nietzsche, whoever are the strong, who master others in the perpetual conflicts of will through history, have no need for concepts of good and evil which differ from concepts of strength and weakness. For the strong, the interests and capacities of the strong define the good, while those of the weak define--not evil, but merely the bad, the pragmatically undesirable. Good and evil as transcending moral regulations of power itself are entirely the product of the weak. Since the weak cannot bear to uphold the value of interests and capacities which humiliate them, they must imagine to themselves instead that the interests and capacities of their very weakness define the good, and those of the strong, a metaphysical evil. According to Nietzsche, this simple inversion is complicated in modern culture, by the paradoxical contamination of the strong by the ideology of...


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