Book Review: A Report on the Afterlife of Culture by Stephen Henighan


Dr. Johnson defined the essay as “an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly performance.”

By this count there is no doubt that what Stephen Henighan presents in A Report on the Afterlife of Culture are indeed essays; what is missing however, in both Johnson’s descriptive and Henighan’s book, is necessary, cogent argument. Without it, you have nothing but ‘a loose sally of the mind,’ one that leaves boredom and irritation in its wake.

As Professor George Dillon puts it, the essay “attempts to convince the reader that its model of experience of the world is valid.” Tension, and through it, engagement, resides then in that part of the arena where this model is rejected. A contradictory afterlife, at turns animated by interest, boredom and annoyance is what this book, judging at least by the number of times I wrote ‘B.S.’ in the margins, bequeaths. Henighan’s writing exhibits all of the listed qualities of an essay. And I agree with virtually none of the ideas contained in them.

Specifically, starting with the big picture: the first essay opens with the camera of a Japanese tourist being smashed by a group of male Mams, members of one of Guatemala’s ancient communities “trying to wrest their children from an alien grip, to claim their offspring as their own, not as creatures of the image.” “We are all Mam now,” says Henighan dramatically, “longing to free the captured souls from Satan’s box in order to resituate our owns lives, actions and experiences within a meaningful, coherent social order that will lend our existences a resonance capable of being transmitted to succeeding generations.”

In the face of technology, superficial commercial imagery, consumerism, globalization, in short, modernity, Henighan, in proscribing a ‘buy local’ solution, asserts that “attention to local detail and literary innovation are inseparable from one another; that [if Canadian writers would only return to]…observing Canadian reality in meticulous detail, circumstances would oblige at least some of them to generate inventive, avant-garde narrative because the contorted particularities of Canadian life, colliding with the leveling assumptions of an English-language literary tradition institutionalized by the two greatest empires in the history of the world, would leave them no alternative.”

Bemoaning the fact that critics didn’t get this in his previous essay collection, blinded as they were by a false but dominant art versus social commentary/multi-cultural cosmopolitan versus rural whiteness dichotomy, Henighan concludes this volume with the notion that Canada’s salvation lies in a cosmopolitanism nourished by national history and local detail – the localism of The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude or Midnight’s Children.

What I think he fails to understand in this, the essential message of his work, is that because Canada is a nation of immigrants who are not asked to melt in a pot, who bring a multitude of histories with them, who view local details with distinctively varied eyes, such notions of salvation are neither feasible nor desirable.

Canada lives as much in the imagination as in reality, perhaps more so than with most other countries. A place where the destructive forces of nationalism have, for the most part, been neutered; where citizens can be patriotic with or without fanfare. Of course attention to detail is essential to literary greatness, but just because Canadian novels don’t mirror contemporary urban existence, doesn’t mean we are doomed to live meaningless lives filled with mediocre art.

Of course economics determines in large part what gets published. But though this may not be entirely desirable, there’s a compelling argument to be made for the marketplace determining quality. When William Shakespeare wrote his plays, he wasn’t anal about reflecting local experience, he went with whatever he could find that would appeal to audiences, push bottoms through turn styles; whatever would best stage the timeless, sublimely beautiful truths and observations he had to convey about the human condition. This, I’d say, is the best advice any young Canadian writer can take, rather than listening to some gadfly spouting imagination-limiting prescriptives. In response to Mr. Henighan’s condemnation of Canadian fiction as devoid of the local present, one is tempted to say, with Yann Martel, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

Most of Mr. Henighan’s essays are hybrids, countries forced together to form new unhappy continents. The unhappiest is the first in which the people of Todos Santos Cuchumatan are jammed uncomfortably up against Polish cathedrals and rambling accusations that Ian McEwan manipulates history to align with the present day outlook of his ‘surreptitiously superior’ readers. Though his argument: that democratic attempts to reinstate the past are disconnected from those cultures that initially gave birth to the forms reproduced – resulting in a dumbed down simulacrum – may have merit, its presentation is slap dash. A rushed amalgam of Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, Susan Sontag On Photography, Adbusters and whatever Naomi Klein is currently writing.

The most lucid pieces, contained in a series of author profiles grouped together in the middle of the book, are those left closest to their original published form. The most ‘provocative,’ despite their rather tired and personal attacks on The Giller, big publishing, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje et al, are those on Canada’s literary woes.

It has oft been said that ideas are conceived, born and polished in the act of essay writing itself. While there are some well turned phrases: Vargas Llosa “combined avant-garde narrative techniques with a wide-screened 19th-century realism,” “attention to detail as meticulous as that with which the dictator rules his nation,” there are also many ill conceived over generalizations: contrary to Henighan’s pronouncements: U.S. literary intellectuals are scrutinizing Latin American literature today as closely as they ever have; it wasn’t Australians or Brits who were responsible for a surge of interest in Roberto Bolano, but an American, Barbara Epler. Pride in Englishness is not the equivalent of racism; Blackwell’s inventory is not ‘thin and ephemeral;’ good fiction is not produced with foreign rights sales in mind I could go on for the length of Mr. Henighan’s book, but space, which is a whole other topic, does not here permit.

Much of what he writes deserves discussion. There are problems with Canadian literature, not the least being the undue praise of mediocrity. Mr. Henighan does us a service by raising this and other contentious issues. I hope I am doing him a service with this review, because as Dr. Johnson again informs us “A man who tells me my play is very bad, is less my enemy than he who lets it die in silence. A man, whose business it is to be talked of, is much helped by being attacked.” Boswell: Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>