Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Mad Translation in Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers and Douglas Glover's Elle

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Mad Translation in Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers and Douglas Glover's Elle

Article excerpt

The lunatic, the lover and the poet. Are of imagination all compact.

William Shakespeare

This essay discusses Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers and Douglas Glover's Elle, two postmodern Canadian novels whose subversions and parodies of conventional realism, still the dominant mode of historical fiction in Canada and elsewhere, are intimately connected with their exploration of the foundations and limits of modern historical consciousness. More specifically, my argument arises out of what I perceive to be some crucial similarities between the two texts. Both address the early stages of the European colonization of North America and the concomitant mutual exposure to the other of radically alien cosmologies: one oral, polytheistic, and tribal; the other literate, monotheistic, and nationalist. Both feature protagonists whose attempts to understand this otherness in its own terms--or to inhabit the reality of the other--leads to a radical destabilization of personal and cultural identity, resulting in a state akin to divine madness, an ecstatic breakthrough that is nevertheless profoundly isolating and destructive for the individual subject.

Crucially, both novels approach this paradox of breakdown and breakthrough in terms of translation, which functions as a master trope for any manner of inter-experiential relations that have a transformative effect on the subject and his or her way of being-in-the-world. Indeed, it is precisely at the point where translation in the ordinary sense, derived from the Latin "to carry across" meets translation in the more archaic and specialized usages of both "transport" (as in enraptured flight) and "metamorphosis" (as in transmogrification) that these novels situate themselves, featuring, as they do, characters who engage in acts of linguistic translation, get carried away, and undergo extreme transformations as a consequence. (1) In the pyrotechnical conclusion to Beautiful Losers, the folklorist narrator of the novel's first section and F., the signatory of the novel's epistolary second section, meld and famously turn into a movie of Ray Charles projected against the Montreal skyline. In Elle, the eponymous heroine, based on the historical personage of Marguerite de Roberval, who was abandoned on an island in the Gulf of St Lawrence by her punitive uncle, "the General," le Sieur de Roberval for acts of insubordination and sexual depravity, absorbs and is absorbed by the shamanistic rituals of her Aboriginal hosts and finds that she has turned into a bear.

My goal, first, is to try to make sense of the apparent connection between magic, madness, otherness, and translation posited by these novels. Secondly, I want to consider how translation, in turn, operates as a trope in the novels' assault on the psycho-social logic of modernity, the emergence of which they locate historically in the period of colonial contact. To this end I have been greatly assisted by the writings of R. D. Laing, whom Glover has cited as an important influence (Notes Home 165-66; Dorsel 111; "Interview" np). Laing's work on schizophrenia in the 1960s led him to explore the social and familial contexts of mental illness, resulting in the development, in works like The Self and Others (1961) and The Politics of Experience (1967), of a constructivist theory of ideology as a shared "social phantasy" Laing is perhaps best known today as an early advocate of the anti-psychiatry movement. I am well aware that Laing's radical politics and unorthodox treatments of mental illness, including the experimental use of psychotropic drugs on both patient and doctor, have earned him his current reputation as a bit of a crackpot. While this has discouraged the use of his work in more serious academic contexts, he, nevertheless, was serious and was tirelessly committed to exploring the connections between madness and society, and without question his writings helped transform the popular imagination with respect to the meaningfulness and, indeed, oppositionality, of mad speech. …

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