Intertextuality in Timothy Findley's Headhunter

By Brydon, Diana | Journal of Canadian Studies, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Intertextuality in Timothy Findley's Headhunter


Brydon, Diana, Journal of Canadian Studies


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This paper uses Timothy Findley's Headhunter to bring into focus literary theoretical questions about how intertextuality and influence may need to be reconceived within a post-colonial reading context. Concentrating on Headhunter's venture-capitalist revision of the racist imperialism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and on Lilah Kemp as intertextual medium, the paper argues that Headhunter's intertextuality marks its ambivalent complicity in what it seeks to oppose without abandoning a role for human agency in effecting change.

Timothy Findley's Headhunter provides an instructive test case for thinking about the multiple functions of allusion, citation, intertextuality, parody and other roles of cultural referents made in texts in a Canadian post-colonial context. Not only does Findley's novel create its meaning through a heavily overdetermined range of intertexts, but it can also be read as a troubled meditation on reading such references and making meaning at a time when the imperial distinctions between civilization and barbarism and the elitist distinctions between high art and the popular can no longer be maintained. When Kurtz emerges from the book called Heart of Darkness into the book called Headhunter, he breaches the boundaries between book and book, and within the text, between book and world, past and present, colonial and post-colonial, jungle and library. Instead of Yeats's vision of a world where "things fall apart" and "the centre cannot hold," Findley shows a world where everything converges. Past and present, sanity and madness, are no longer to be distinguished as opposites; instead, they are revisioned so that each is contaminated by the other.

If we take the dilemma of Joseph Conrad's Marlow to be that of a man who must learn his own complicity with the forces he opposes, then Findley's Marlow faces a similar dilemma. "Propaganda works, even as you repel it" (366), he thinks, as he searches for an effective oppositional strategy to the lies and hypocrisies of his society. What is it about fictions and the recalling of fictions that can make them antidotes to lies rather than partners in deception? Headhunter seems committed to proving the redemptive qualities of the imagination, as embodied in books, while acknowledging that the imagination also has a capacity for perversion, which in Headhunter is revealed most troublingly through the visual arts of painting and photography. If counter-discourse and parody are inevitably implicated in what they contest, as Linda Hutcheon argues, then how can a text effectively employ these strategies to critique what it invokes (26)? Should texts opposed to propaganda and pornography invoke them and give them fictional life in order to innoculate against their power? Or will the attempted innoculation find itself overpowered by the sickness it has conjured? Findley's Headhunter raises these questions through narrating the invasion of Toronto, Canada's financial capital, by the characters from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and from a host of other texts.

Headhunter's engagement in the field of intertextuality prompts further questions. How can intertextuality be distinguished from influence and source studies (the dominant mode for reading intertextual references until the late 1960s)? How adequate are the terms available to describe the ways in which other texts inhabit Findley's novel for explaining the experience of reading this text? How does Headhunter make the language and literary tradition "new," when the reader is reminded that almost every utterance and event it constructs are marked as already written? Where is there room for change when repetition is advanced so aggressively as the norm? How are readers included in the meaning-making process when so many of the novel's allusions, citations, parodies and interdiscursive references assume prior knowledge for their recognition and application? Are some designed to include readers, others to exclude and still others to alienate? …

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