- Avant-Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations by Gregory Betts
To Robert Kroetsch’s suggestion that Canadian literature evolved directly from the Victorian to the postmodern, Gregory Betts offers Avant-Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations, an important contribution to modernist studies in Canada that reveals a national tradition of aesthetic experimentation and socio-political subversion that nevertheless follows Continental patterns. Betts seeks to uncover and track the distinct phases of avant-garde theory and praxis in Canada from roughly 1918, with the publication of the modernist little magazine Le Nigog. He likewise attempts to defend the Canadian avant-garde from charges of lagging behind the Continent by identifying traces of it as early as the radical rhetoric of Louis Riel, finding in his desire to refashion post-revolutionary Canada as a new Rome an emerging articulation of the Canadian avant-garde.
Betts’s investigation initially takes him to the avant-garde’s European antecedents to establish what he calls a “functional vocabulary” for reading a notoriously hermetic but energetic literature. The ambitious first chapter does not offer a unifying theory of the avant-gardes in Canada so much as it positions the Canadian variants vis-à-vis the amorphous transhistorical movement’s most distinctive clusters. Avant-garde literature, Betts proposes, can be subdivided according to the degree to which a faction values aesthetic autonomy, political commitment, or a decadent refusal of politics and the material world, and the same is true for avant-garde literature in Canada. This chapter is an essential primer to a rather [End Page 318] disparate tradition, though its emphasis on the fine points of distinction between the ideological and aesthetic programs of various avant-garde nodes lacks the clarity of later chapters. Betts’s efforts to separate the avant-garde project from what we take to be modernism proper, for instance, cannot help but be complicated by the ensuing debate over whether the autotelic impulse in the latter is comparable to or separate from the avant-garde’s penchant for anti-institutionalism. The author makes light of this quixotic work, admitting that, at times, “the distinction between modernism and avant-gardism seems almost outrageously pedantic.” Though his own scholarship is free from such pedantry, one wonders whether this project of illuminating the avant-garde does not risk shading proximal developments.
From there, Betts explores avant-gardism’s progress in Canada via three successive nodes of activity. The second and most resonant chapter takes up the Ontario-based Cosmic Canadians, whose work was derived from the writings of psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke. Betts smartly considers how the Cosmic Canadians’ mysticism and evolutionary science fused in an esoteric context in which Victorian Canada yearned for a bridge between the emerging Darwinism and a new spiritualism centred on inner sight. Bucke, Betts argues, was no “cosmic flake settled in the back snows of Ontario” but an internationally respected thinker whose ideas seeded the modernist upheaval in Canada. Chapter three turns to the more well-trodden grounds of Montreal’s Automatists, with Betts arguing that much of the extant work on Canadian automatism and surrealism has emphasized its regionalist politics and their utility to the Quiet Revolution at the expense of its more trenchant allegiances with liberational English-Canadian and international avant-gardes. In the final chapter, Betts turns to what he deems the “smallest, least developed, most internationally recognized” school of Canadian avant-gardists, the Vorticists, a close-knit circle including Marshall McLuhan and Sheila Watson. Betts’s close readings in these chapters are consistently persuasive, though his account of the vorticist tendencies of Watson’s The Double Hook is overly weighted (like much of the established criticism of the novel, with which the author also takes issue) toward questions of influence and tradition, assigning the novel’s masculinist aesthetic and clipped prose to Watson’s mentor, Wyndham Lewis.
An indispensable, comprehensively researched study of an unsung paratradition in Canadian letters, the book is not without limitations. Despite the aforementioned gesture to Riel and the earnest overtures to the post-modern roots of radical feminist literature and...