Genetic Phantoms: Geography, History, and Ancestral Inheritance in Kenneth Harvey's the Town That Forgot How to Breathe and Michael Crummey's Galore

By Sugars, Cynthia | Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Genetic Phantoms: Geography, History, and Ancestral Inheritance in Kenneth Harvey's the Town That Forgot How to Breathe and Michael Crummey's Galore


Sugars, Cynthia, Newfoundland and Labrador Studies


The man of the past is alive in us today to a degree undreamt of before .... Carl Jung, "The Concept of the Collective Unconscious" (47)

We want to take some of this with us, wherever it is we're going. Michael Crummey, "The Living Haunt the Dead" (319)

ANCESTRAL DETERMINISM: WHERE GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY MEET

KEVIN MAJOR'S HISTORY of Newfoundland and Labrador, As Near to Heaven by Sea, opens with the author teaching canoeing in Mint Brook in central Newfoundland, one of the childhood homes of Joey Smallwood. Major, imagining himself as a young Smallwood, gazes up into the night sky and ponders "the inestimable vastness of the cosmos and its billions of years of history" (2). "Where," he asks, "does Newfoundland and Labrador fit into this bigger picture ...? How long after the 'big bang' did we take on the shape we have today?" (2). If this sounds a little like Ray Smith proposing that "Cape Breton is the thought-control centre of Canada," there is certainly something intentionally reorienting about the claim that renders Newfoundland and Labrador somehow central to the impetus of the Big Bang. Major's historical alignment also adds substantial fodder to the oft-cited claim that Newfoundland is Britain's oldest colony. Given its cosmological origins, this may be true in more ways than had been suspected. However, there is something else here that is worth investigating. What I find interesting in Major's cosmic cartography is the way he fuses a sense of spatiality (geography) and temporality (history) in his eventual pinpointing of Newfoundland centrality. The "vastness of the cosmos" points to the spatial dimension, establishing Newfoundland's natural place in the physical scheme of things. The "billions of years of history" establish a continuum over time, constructing an ancient inheritance for Newfoundland in the present. Major proceeds to outline the tectonic shifts that created present-day Newfoundland, thus rendering a version of geography--and history--in the making.

Yet there is another important element at issue here. What is central in Major's conceptualization of "historical time" is a notion of what I call an historical unconscious. Historian Jorn Rusen defines the temporal orientation of historical consciousness as being what roots one in the present: "historical consciousness ties the past to the present in a manner that bestows on present actuality a future perspective" (67). Because Major begins his story of Newfoundland origins with an "intransitive" beginning (the Big Bang), and because the temporal chain from that moment to the present position of the individual gazing up into the sky is not sutured by any consistent thread, the historical sense that Major evokes exists somewhere in the deeper realms of the Newfoundland psyche: something like a collective unconscious in which primordial and historical origins are intuited. Here, the "orientational element" (67) that Rusen claims is central to historical consciousness is founded, instead, in its geographical complement. Geography, in tandem with history, achieves a determining power that contributes to a distinct group consciousness in the present day. But this is not possible without some concept of a genetic transmission of experience whereby "the life-experiences of previous generations [are] passed on genetically to subsequent generations" (Csapo 122). This is often referred to as Lamarckism after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's theory that genetic inheritance could be influenced by the environment (also known as the inheritance of acquired characteristics), a scientifically outmoded concept which nevertheless finds expression in discussions of cultural origins and transmission. It was also claimed by such scientists as Lamarck and Ernst Mayr that the most significant genetic reorganization was evident in very small, isolated populations (as on islands). In this semi-mystical configuration, the suturing chain that threads history and geography along a determining continuum is the material presence of human genetics, a line of inheritance that enables a mediation of the mystical through the material. …

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