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Gay Oral Thumbs

Peter Thomas, in Robert Kroetsch, calls What the Crow Said a "comedy of silence."5 Bydoing so, he acknowledges both the novel's comic elements and its attempt to explore GeorgeSteiner's "shores of silence." He also reflects the interest Kroetsch has displayed in silence, insuch articles as "Effing the Ineffable" and "The Canadian Writer and the American LiteraryTradition."6 But Thomas reaches two conclusions about the work that seem only partly correct. First, he states that "silence is what the crow said" (103); second, he writes that "Liebhaber'shumiliation and the abundance of shit in the novel are reductive in a way that is new inKroetsch's fiction; . . . to bring the quest for love down to . . . a matter of shit and silence makesenormous demands upon the [novel's] aesthetic virtues" (115). Silence is partially what the crow says - indeed what the crow ends with - but he says a great deal else. Inparticular, he says "asshole," his favourite denunciation of most of the main characters. Thisspoken word, "asshole," represents humour that links humiliation, shit, and, because the crowlater shuts up, silence. In a similar manner, the use of dysphemisms for "penis" in The StudhorseMan results in an oral humour about procreation. Kroetsch uses dysphemisms for theprocreative and excretive parts of the body, I argue, to produce a humour that forces us toattempt to unravel the intertext of each novel. Where that unravelling seems to lead, if weexamine the novels against the theories of both Bakhtin and Barthes, is towards a Kroetschianlanguage that firmly links Barthesian intertext with Bakhtinian carnivalesque.

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In The Studhorse Man, we see a similar process at work. Here, too, the oral humour withinthe characters' speeches provides an understanding of the novel's directions. The main source ofhumour here, though, is the wealth of dysphemisms in the English language for "penis," the bodypart that dominates The Studhorse Man. In one scene, Hazard Lepage and a truck driver arehaving a shouting match on a bridge:

This passage, like much of The Studhorse Man, is humorous because of its emphasis on thepenis. Unlike the verbal battle between Hazard and the truck driver, however, the humour inthis passage is the result of euphemism rather than dysphemism. The penis becomes "Old Blue,"a "mystery," even "that sturdy pillar of the night." It becomes "so regal and so tall and so brave,"and the erection becomes a "standing-to." After this scene, when Demeter takes the quest forhimself, the oral humour of the carnival is essentially gone. It cannot be sustained, it seems, because Demeter has no sense of the dual role - simultaneous affirmation and denial - ofdegrading, indecent humour.

In these two novels, the main subjects of humour - anus and penis - are important not onlyin a thematic or symbolic sense, but also because they force intertextual readings. Specifically,we must relate Kroetsch's use of "asshole" and the many forms of "penis" to all literary and oraluses of the words. Kroetsch uses the terms as elements in what Barthes calls the "sociality" oflanguage: "the whole of language, anterior or contemporary, comes to the text, not followingthe path of a discoverable filiation or a willed imitation, but that of a dissemination" (Barthes39). For Kroetsch, the most social language is oral language. "What I was tuning in on in . . .What the Crow Said," he says in Labyrinths of Voice, "was the kind of self-creation that goes onorally," a point he also makes in "The Moment of the Discovery of America Continues."10 Hegoes on in the Neuman interview to discuss anecdote, the oral form that, for him, has gainednew significance. The anecdote is very frequently funny, as, in fact, is much oral language:people converse not only with stories but with jokes, and anecdotes often take the form of bothjokes and denunciations. The anecdote and the denunciation, expressed orally and humorously,dominate both novels and recall again Bakhtin's carnivalesque.

At this point, the game's purpose shifts to reflect an important element of Bakhtin's notionof carnival: the simultaneous affirmation and denial of life itself. Even though What the CrowSaid seems reductive in its disrespect for its characters (hence for life itself), the schmier game,because it becomes a struggle for the preservation of a man's life, finally affirms life. Like theresurrection scene in The Studhorse Man, the schmier game insists that love, and hence life, canindeed conquer death, or at least can coexist with death. And this, as Bakhtin insists, is theessence of carnival, that two such seemingly contradictory notions can, indeed must, be part ofcelebration. Furthermore, and again congruent with Bakhtin, the saving of Hazard's life in The Studhorse Man and of Jerry Lapanne's in What the Crow Said are both treated humorously, andin both cases the humour is not the sarcastic wit of either Demeter Proudfoot or the black crow,but rather a humour that links the ludicrousness of the situation to the morality of the action, ahumour that affirms life in the presence of death.

According to Bakhtin, carnival humour links degradation with affirmation. It does this byemploying an oral humour, one that emphasizes defecation, procreation, and the sequences ofbirth and death. What the Crow Said and The Studhorse Man link us intertextually to Bakhtiniancarnival, since Kroetsch's humour, in its degradatory use of anus and penis, hence defecation andprocreation, is essentially carnivalesque. Furthermore, according to Barthes, intertext points theway to the "sociality" of language - surely a primary function of language - just as Bakhtinshows us the "sociality" of the oral humour of the carnival. Thus, since unravelling an intertext isat least partly an attempt to find the cultural and authorial origins of that text, and sinceKroetsch's use of and interest in Bakhtinian humour demand of us an intertextual reading of thetwo novels, the humour of What the Crow Said and The Studhorse Man leads us on a search,through intertext, for the origins of text itself. Whether or not it is possible to locate suchorigins, which even by Barthes' reckoning do not exist, Kroetschian humour suggests that thesearch itself is an essential critical activity. 041b061a72


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