Ethics, Aesthetics, Modernism, and the Primitive in P.K. Page's Brazilian Journal

By Bailey, Suzanne | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 2013 | Go to article overview

Ethics, Aesthetics, Modernism, and the Primitive in P.K. Page's Brazilian Journal


Bailey, Suzanne, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


P.K. Page's writing on Brazil both as place and as travel experience suggests that she is drawn by some of the responses that have been seen as problematic in the study of travel writing, including the lure of the exotic and the aestheticization of spaces. Brazilian Journal has been criticized for what Denise Heaps calls "Page's persistently aesthetic reactions to disturbing social realities" and its "dearth of engaged political commentary" (357). (1) Both political and artistic interpretations of the aesthetic in Brazilian Journal point to a central tension in this work between the ethics of cross-cultural contact and representation, which would acknowledge the alterity of other cultures, and the language of aesthetics, a cultivating of qualities perceived to be appropriate to artistic representation. (2) In what follows, I align Page's own modernist representations of Brazil with modernist responses to ostensibly primitive cultures, arguing that Page participates in a version of ethnographic salvage: the recuperation of exotic cultures within an idealized, timeless state, made accessible through the work of the artist/ethnographer. At the same time, I want to make a claim for the validity of Page's registering of the primacy of the visual as part of her bodily engagement with the spaces through which she moves and a particular rhetoric of visuality that becomes central to her writing.

Brazilian Journal is a substantially edited version of a series of journals Page kept from 1957 to 1959, during the time she lived in Brazil with her husband, Canadian ambassador Arthur Irwin. The original source documents have only recently been deposited at Library and Archives Canada. The unpublished journals reveal the manner in which Page later suppressed passages she felt were too personal, removing critical comments on Brazilian and Australian culture (Page and Irwin had just ended a diplomatic posting in Australia), and omitting the type of surgery she underwent in late 1957, as well as descriptions of her body post-surgery. (3) The personal in the published Brazilian Journal is subsumed by the writer's trajectory as poet and visual artist: the story of Page's poetic "silence," as critics have termed it, and her turn from poetry to the visual arts. In the autobiographical Hand Luggage: A Memoir in Verse, Page glosses the same events she treats in Brazilian Journal. In this account of a life identified in the poet's mind with travel and displacement, the sensory impact of her Brazilian experiences is clear:

   My vision was right for this rush of design,
   Correct for this colour--a visual thirst
   quenched now by that column, this tree [...]
   Some deep correlation, unknown until then, responded.... (54)

Page's identification of Brazil with intense visual experiences and with beauty has something important to teach us about the interpretive paradoxes inherent in studying visuality and travel writing, through which issues of ethics and aesthetics almost inevitably arise. From John Urry's The Tourist Gaze to the work of John Berger and Norman Bryson, we are reminded of the power dynamics of the gaze and its distorting effects. But visuality is also an embodied sense, involving physiological and cognitive processes that vary with each person. Cultures shape the way we see but so too do individual bodies, with their involuntary emotional and sensory sensitivities and differences. Critical work on embodiment in anthropology and geography points to such differences in the ways individuals interact with environments, implicitly suggesting that there is no monolithic traveller or tourist's response to environments, but rather a range of orientations. James Carrier, for instance, frames his interviews with environmentalists in Jamaica through anthropologist Tim Ingold's notion of the continuum of responses to environments. These range from individuals "who see themselves as enmeshed in [their] surroundings, or as part of a sphere, to those who see themselves as being distinct from those surroundings," seeing the world as a globe (6). …

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