Thursday, June 28, 2007

i'm officially not surprised by anything canlit has to offer me

I think it's not a good sign that really, reading Beautiful Losers, nothing even remotely surprises or shocks me anymore. Not the sex, not the drugs, not the iv-holy-water usage, not the pedophiles, not the bestiality, not the wife-swapping, not the racism, not the sexuality-switching, not the violence, nothing. Thanks, Canadian Literature, I am now officially broken inside. Awesome. Seriously, though, this book smacks of the 1960s. Quebec Separatists, needle drugs, wild sex, and poets as 'cool.' Man, imagine how the 2000s will be remembered in Canada... Moderate politics, pharmaceutical abuse, condoms in classrooms, and poets as 'poor.' I kind of feel like we got ripped off, fellow 20-somethings. That said, I probably could have comfortably lived without readings Cohen's treatise on the hotness factor of thirteen year old Aboriginal rape victims. When you find out your wife was gang raped at 13, your first thought should probably never be, "Oh, man, yeah, if I met her when she was 13 I totally would have raped her." Because that's not creepy at all.

Beautiful Losers
by Leonard Cohen

What is most original in a man's nature is often that which is most desperate. Thus new systems are forced on the world by men who simply cannot bear the pain of living with what is. Creators care nothing for their systems except that they be unique. If Hitler had been born in Nazi Germany, he wouldn't have been content to enjoy the atmosphere. If an unpublished poet discovers one of his own images in the work of another writer it gives him no comfort, for his allegiance is not to the image or its progress in the public domain, his allegiance is to the notion that he is not bound to the world as given, that he can escape from the painful arrangement of things as they are. Jesus probably designed his system so that it would fail in the hands of other men, that is the way with the greatest creators: they guarantee the desperate power of their own originality by projecting their systems into an abrasive future.


Never stare too long at an empty glass of milk. I don't like what's happening to Montreal architecture. What happened to the tents? I would like to accuse the Church. I accuse the Roman Catholic Church of Quebec of ruining my sex life and of shoving my member up a relic box meant for a finger. I accuse the R. C. C. of Q. of making me commit queer horrible acts with F., another victim of the system, I accuse the Church of killing Indians, I accuse the Church of refusing to let Edith go down on me properly, I accuse the Church of covering Edith with red grease and of depriving Catherine Tekakwitha of red grease, I accuse the Church of haunting automobiles and of causing pimples, I accuse the Church of building green masturbation toilets, I accuse the Church of squashing Mohawk dances and of not collecting folk songs, I accuse the Church of stealing my sun tan and promoting dandruff, I accuse the Church of sending people with dirty toenails into streetcars where they work against Science, I accuse the Church of female circumcision in French Canada.

First things first, this book deals with a fictionalized account of a real person, so for interest's sake I've included her wikipedia page here. She's a blessed and venerated, but not a saint (I think)! And a virgin! And an Aboriginal Canadian! The more you know...

So, if you can't tell well enough from the excerpts above, Beautiful Losers is a deeply weird novel. One of the best-known experimental novels in Canada, it is perhaps best remembered as an exemplification of what the sixties was supposedly all about -- this book quite literally is sex, drugs, and free love. If you read this novel through to the end, however, you may also think something else -- like, did Fight Club just completely rip off the entire concept of itself from this book, or what? Chuckie P., I would love to sit down and talk to you about this one day.

Anyway, be that as it may, Beautiful Losers is essentially a novel about a love triangle. We have our primary narrator, who is a nameless professor of history. He is focused on a life long study of a dying-out tribe of Aboriginal people, whom he refers to only as A----- (all through the book, I was wondering if this tribe is borrowed a little from the Beothuks... though Cohen's tribe here is largely wiped out earlier than an Beothuks and located in a different geographical place, myths like the red body paint and the conflict with neighbouring tribes, as well as the extinction, seems borrowed from the history of the Beothuk people). Our narrator is married to Edith, one of the last living members of the A----- tribe. He married her at 16 and at 24 she was crushed to death in an elevator shaft in an apparent suicide. Finally, the Edith and our narrator are both involved sexually with F. F. grew up in an orphanage with our narrator and claims to have made Edith beautiful and cured her acne. He engages sexually with both members of the couple apparently in an attempt to liberate them from their genitalia. It's all very weird. Anyway, those are basically the only three characters. The book is structured in three parts. The nameless professor narrates the first book, which describes his relationships with Edith and with F., as well as documenting his research on the A-----, particularly Catherine Tekakwitha, with whom he is obsessed. The second book is a letter written to the nameless professor by F. from inside a mental institution where he ends up after he attempts to blow up a statue of Victoria in a bid to rally separatist support. Finally, the third book is an epilogue told in the third person, and this is where things get especially odd, because here all there main characters seems to morph and blend into one another leaving the novel almost completely unresolved by the end.

Beautiful Losers is, I think, at its core a novel about selfhood and identity. The nameless professor is shaped by external forces. He studies the A----- people so that he can be the foremost expert on something, and he studies history so that he has a past to cling to (because, being an orphan raised in an orphanage, he lacks knowledge of his own history). His marriage to Edith is really an elaborate way of getting close to Catherine Tekakwitha, whose life trajectory exactly mirrors Edith's from a rape at 13 to death at 24 -- in this way, he further embraces the history he wants to call his identity, and further slips into the role he has chose for himself. He allows F. to shape him and teach him, and even molds his sexuality to match and suit F.'s whim. He even allows F. to take his wife for his own sexual partner, and when his involves himself sexually with F. the act is referred to often as masturbation -- the line between the nameless professor and F. is intentionally blurred so that, when we finish the novel we can't really distinguish which character was essentially which , or even if there were ever two separate men there at all. F., too, can accept and wear any given identity, which is symbolized by his photographic memory which absorbs and assimilates everything with the nameless professor requires years of education to properly retain. F. becomes the professor as much as the professor becomes F. Though F. is dominant in the relationship, the transformation that occurs by the end of the third book is by no means unilateral.

The identity issue is further developed through the backdrop of Quebecois nationalism and separatism. When the nameless professor asks F. what all the fuss is about, F. proclaims that the Quebecois in favour of Separatism believe that they are being treated like black people in America. This is a reference of course to the sentiment behind the book by Pierre Vallieres titles Nègres blancs d'Amérique, or White Niggers of America, which was being penned while Cohen was writing Beautiful Losers. The sentiment behind this idea is that les maudits anglais spent their lives degrading and denying the good things in life to French Canadians, who required a civil rights movement like that undertaken by African Americans in the United States. Beautiful Losers takes place at the start of the events that would lead up to the October Crisis of 1970, and the backdrop is important because it, like the events of the text, hinges upon identity. As separatists kick against Canada and seek their identities in a new world order, so the nameless professor is left to deal with the deaths of F. and Edith and establish his own identity in the meantime. His inability to do so -- indicated by the final book which contains a confusing melding of the three main characters which is ultimately and inevitably doomed -- is perhaps a commentary on the future of the separatist movement.

Interesting to note that of Cohen, Klein, and Richler, all writing during the lead up to the FLQ actions or separatist fervour in some capacity or another, only Cohen tackles the issue head-on and uses it as a backdrop for his novel (though Richler does make passing references to the political situation). Just a little thing I wanted to point out.

God is alive. Magic is afoot.


Andrea said...

This post explains so much about the one that follows it.

Maylin said...

Hi Brena - thanks for stopping by my blog which led me to yours. It's a great idea to blog your comps reading and I'm sure it will be helpful in the final study/cramming period. I'm also doing my PhD, although part-time, so it's a multi-year project. I've written one comps (drama - which was fairly traumatic) and am about to start a year of reading for the next one (Moderns). Good luck with your continuing Canlit reading.

L. Eliot said...