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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The search for objectivity and impartiality in French Canadian literary criticism Stewart, Elford Brinsley Alister


In French Canadian literary criticism there exist two distinct schools, namely the traditional (pre - 1944-45 criticism) and the contemporary (post World War II criticism). Both schools have been engaged in a search for objectivity and impartiality in an attempt to diminish and negate the influence of excessive blame and excessive praise. These shortcomings characterized criticism from its beginnings in La Gazette Litter aire de Montreal. The realness of the search just mentioned is best reflected in the beliefs expressed by traditional and contemporary critics alike, to the effect that they could and would surpass the efforts of their predecessors and colleagues. Amongst traditional critics, Adolphe-Basile Routhier intimated that he would improve on the appreciations of Henri Raymond Casgrain. Casgrain's work, Routhier complained, was motivated by friendship and jealousy. In like manner, William Chapman vowed that he would be just and impartial in commenting upon Frechette's work. Camille Roy suggested that his own work as a critic would be more complete than Casgrain's. The latter, Roy claimed, had neither the time nor the means to be a Critic in the "strict sense" of the word. With regard to contemporary critics, Jean Ethier-Blais interpreted Casgrain's and Roy's "silence" on French authors as a sign of critical inadequacy and fear of being ridiculed. Likewise Gilles Marcotte and Gerard Bessette have spoken of the insufficiency of history and biography as instruments of appreciation. Although the efforts made by both schools are comparable, traditional critics proved to be less objective and impartial than their successors. The former were greatly influenced by criteria unrelated to Literature. Desire for literary glory, friendship, jealousy, politics, religion and patriotism played a more important role in their work than did purely-artistic criteria. Criticism therefore did not exist as a "healthy" genre. On the contrary, it oscillated between savage attack and adulation. In fact Robert Charbonneau's works, published in the period 1944-47, provide the first instance of criticism breaking overtly and successfully with praise and blame in excess as well as with the conservatism of most traditional critics. Thereafter criticism is characterized by greater humanism of content, universalism in appeal, diversity of method. This new orientation has had the positive effect of relegating blame and praise in excess to the lower echelons of the critical ladder, of instilling more serenity, objectivity, impartiality and liberalism into indigenous criticism. Roger Duhamel, Ethier-Blais, Marcotte and Bessette, representatives of contemporary criticism, believe that a man of letters ought to serve Art while remaining true to himself. Accordingly Ethier-Blais and Duhamel, amongst others, have turned to more universally accepted aesthetic criteria, and have commented with regularity on non-indigenous literature. In like manner Marcotte and Bessette employ disciplines such as phenomenology and psychoanalysis as yardsticks of appreciation. Because Marcotte and Bessette are pioneers in a field of endeavour new to French Canada, they risk losing themselves in conjecture, but assuredly not in excessive blame and praise, for these critics are masters at the art of being politely rude. There is therefore an immense distance between traditional and contemporary critics. It is bridged, though not firmly, by certain factors. Biography and history played a primordial role in the commentaries of Casgrain and Roy. To a lesser extent these criteria also influence Duhamel and Ethier -Blais. The interpretations of Marcotte and Bessette are also wrapped up in references to cultural history and mental biography. Moreover, theories and practices of pure, classical style are found in the works of Valentin Jautard, Roy and Dantin as well as in those of Ethier-Blais and Marcotte. In addition, in Marcel Dugas' literary dilettantism and in Dantin's eclectism one notices certain aspects of Ethier-Blais1 belief in Art as a self-sufficient discipline. While it is true that contemporary critics are more impartial and objective than their predecessors, it is also undeniable that the latter were handicapped in their attempt to be "just, " "impartial, " "constructive," and "independent." In traditional French Canada intellectual ignorance was rampant. The educational system was ineffective as a means of forming "future writers." In short the healthy climate of intellectualism, evident in contemporary society, was non-existent in traditional French Canada, engaged as it was in a struggle for survival. In the 19th Century and. even in the early 20th the creation of literature was considered a worthless task. Contemporary critics have more time and opportunity to round themselves intellectually: the progress realized by the march of civilization has contributed to the diminution of the material inconveniences which plagued traditional critics. In view of these historical factors, in view of the non-literary criteria mentioned above, the reader can appreciate why traditional critics frequently belied their theories of objectivity and impartiality. He can also understand why traditional French Canada was, from the point of view of criticism, a literary arena, as well as a haven for all authors wishing to "repudiate all notions of colonialism," literary and national inexistence. The search for objectivity and impartiality in indigenous criticism is not over. Blame and praise in excess still make their presence felt. Nevertheless, contemporary critics do form a tribunal which, more often than not, dispenses "independent, sober, moderate and impartial" interpretations. Contemporary critics do not see fit to theorize on the benefits of such qualities, for they believe that these latter are inherent in their attitude and methods. Such a statement is perhaps the best comment on the high level of objectivity and impartiality present in contemporary criticism. French Canadian literary criticism has often borrowed from its more well established metropolitan counterpart. Without renouncing the positive role to be played by France, indigenous critics must seek their techniques wherever they may be found. By so doing, criticism in French Canada will avoid a certain form of dogmatism. In all probability, it will thereby hasten the arrival of its own Northrop Frye and without doubt contribute to the realization of its ultimate maturity.

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