Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Supplementing the Supplement: Looking at the Function of Afterwords and Acknowledgements in Some Canadian Historical Novels

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Supplementing the Supplement: Looking at the Function of Afterwords and Acknowledgements in Some Canadian Historical Novels

Article excerpt

But the supplement supplements. It adds only to replace.

Jacques Derrida Of Grammatology

IN perhaps the most well-known chapter in Of Grammatology,"... That Dangerous Supplement ..." Jacques Derrida examines the concept of the supplement. Here, he uses Jean Jacques Rousseau's work to show how writing complements/stands in for the speech act and tries to recapture the presence of the speech and the speaker: "It is the addition of a technique, a sort of artificial and artful ruse to make speech present when it is actually absent" (144). Rousseau, Derrida goes on to argue, perceives writing as a dangerous means for capturing presence, but a necessary one:

Writing is dangerous from the moment that representation there claims to be presence and the sign of the thing itself. And there is a fatal necessity, inscribed in the very functioning of the sign, that the substitute makes one forget the vicariousness of its own function and makes itself pass for the plenitude of a speech whose deficiency and infirmity it nevertheless only supplements. (144)

The supplement is dangerous because it fools the reader into perceiving a completeness when, in fact, the supplement only ever points to a lack not only in the absence it is ostensibly rectifying but in itself as well. Derrida's notion of supplement, then, is one that plays with the space between presence and absence. Its very presence highlights its own absence; what is there highlights what is missing.

Supplementarity is perhaps a particularly useful lens through which to consider the end notes so often included in historical fiction. These afterwords or acknowledgements, as they are typically titled, potentially occupy the infinite regression of the supplement in that they are themselves supplements to novels which are themselves supplements to previous narratives about capital-H history. Moreover, these paratextual devices simultaneously point to the presence of historical authority and archive as well as its absence in both the novel they proceed and in themselves as ostensible complement to that novel. At the heart of these afterword/ acknowledgements there is an anxiety about the ways in which not just history and not just historical fiction but the paratextual apparatus itself falls short.

Using Derrida's discussion of supplementarity as a means of illuminating how the material of the afterword/acknowledgements functions within historical fiction, this paper will examine the ways in which these paratextual devices expand on, conflict with, and further complicate the issues of absence and presence with which a novelistic narrative of history engages. Through a close analysis of the afterword/acknowledgements sections of five contemporary Canadian novels--John Steffler's The Afterlife of George Cartwright, Rudy Wiebe's A Discovery of Strangers, Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, Daphne Marlatt's Ana Historic, Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road--I will explore how each engages with the problems of representation (problems also explored within the novels themselves) to varying degrees and in different ways. However, before unpacking the novels, let me first draw a more in depth connection between history, afterwords, and supplementarity.

Although Derrida discusses the supplement within the context of language, it is a concept that is also applicable to representations of history. That is, when a historian presents a new account of the past, it is a supplement to those accounts that already exist--it both adds to and completes the existing records. However, there is a further complication with the supplement, for in its paradoxical function there also exists a latent sense of continuity. We expect, in other words, that the supplement will be added to or further completed by other supplements. The supplement, therefore, is never enough. The supplement will always already require another supplement. This problem with the historical supplement is particularly apparent within contemporary historical fiction, a genre that exists to supplement history, while bearing within it an awareness of its own supplementarity. …

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