The Canadian Art Database

Terrence Heath

The Alibis of Kroetsch and Butler
Sheila Butler

BorderCrossings, Vol.13 No.4, Nov. 1994
[ 1,280 words ]

If the union of two lovers comes about through love, it involves the idea of death, murder or suicide. This aura of death is what denotes passion. On a lower level  than this implied violence — a violence matched by the separate individual's sense of continuous violation — the world of habit and shared egotism begins, another mode of discontinuity, in fact. Only in the violation, through death if need be, of the individual's solitariness can there appear that image of the beloved object which in the lover's eyes invests all being with significance. For the lover, the beloved makes the world transparent.
George Bataille, Erotism.

It is the nature of energy to break bounds: and it is the function of aesthetics to construct them.
John Berger, The Moment of Cubism.

Alibi, coming from the Latin for 'another place', is for novelist Robert Kroetsch, I am sure, a multi-leveled pun. Dorf, his protagonist, literally seeks another place, or rather a number of other places: another spa for his collector, the physical place of another woman, the ultimate place where love and dying finally are resolved. He also seeks an excuse for continuing to live in mental constructs of what he is supposed to be doing. 'We all live by our alibis, don't we, Dorf?' We find towards the end that the novel itself is an alibi for a daily journal, that literary / non-literary record that seems the only link between Kroetsch's emotional and intellectual lives, between the sentient day and the abstract era. I wonder if he does not see the symbol itself as an alibi, another place; Deadman Spring is the source of rejuvenation, the elusive elixir, the resurrection.

And, what is Sheila Butler's alibi? Perhaps she doesn't need one, but her drawings are 'another place' for the novel alias daily journal. The only reason for calling them an alibi is that the term allows discussion outside the traditional categorizing of drawings which are directly related to literary themes and works.

In a recent exhibition of Sequential Drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario, an introductory panel suggested three ways in which drawings relate to text. First, drawings may in themselves narrate. This presentation of drawings is often called visual narrative, and is most commonly found in comic strips which do not, in fact, have a literary text. The images, arranged in strict sequence, are the wordless text. A frame is related to the preceding and succeeding ones in a chronology of events.

Second, drawings may illustrate a text. Ernest H. Shepard focuses on scenes in A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh and shows us the characters frozen in that moment of time in that setting. There are no narrative connections between drawings; the connections are all between drawing and words. Illustrations may become prized as separate from the text (think of Doré's illustrations of Dante) but they carry their literary origins with them. The most universally common illustrations are those based on myths and legends and, although they also may be narrative, these can become elaborate visual traditions in their own right.

And, third, drawings can relate to text as a symbol or a riddle. In effect, the visual presentation subsumes the text and represents it in another form. The presentation may reinterpret a story as being 'really' about something else. The highly sexual overtones of religious ecstasy are viewed by George Bataille in Erotism as this sort of depiction. Jungian archetypes are seen in drawings which literally allude to a simple narrative. A visual presentation could be narrative, illustrative and symbolic simultaneously.

Sheila Butler's drawing sequence is most closely related to illustration. The drawings each spring from a specific piece of text. Many references can be taken directly back to text, such as the lifeguard in Dorf claims to have got laid, the dwarf doctor in The little Doctor..., and the journal on the bedside table in We were, the three of us, constant companions. Others cannot: The WW2 bomber in the sky in The little Doctor . . . ; the Datsun sports car in I'd been brought back from the dead . . . ; and the car scene in Deadman Spring which seems to come from an early 60s Ivan Eyre painting.

The more closely I looked at the drawings, the less I felt they were illustrations of the novel. Each of them has a mysterious concern with fragment and shadow, the interpenetration of persons and things. I think they are alibis. They tell the viewer that, although appearances would suggest otherwise, the artist was somewhere else. The drawings are another place which does not depend on text for its location. And yet, they are about the novel; they arise from the allusions of the words rather than from the illusion of narration.

One of the novel's allusions is the non-sequential nature of events. There is a plot line which could be adumbrated, but the majority of the events are either transferable or are empty, or full of, significance, depending on how you interpret them. The last scene with the baby osprey is either an event of no particular significance every day baby birds learn to fly whether they are watched or not or a great symbolic moment: youth plummets, recovers and soars. It may be simply a foil for measuring the relative significance of the death of the little doctor. Is there a particular order to the spas which Dorf seeks out in Canada, England, Wales and Portugal? The novel could have begun in Portugal as easily as in Canada and, since characters come and go because of motivation external to the novel, much the same characters could act much the same way with only the slightest changes in dialogue. No character develops in any traditional way, unless Julie flees because she cannot kill.

Butler's drawings also have no sequence. You can imagine them in any order and, further, you could tell a story, separate from the new ordering, which would take that new ordering into account. The drawings, therefore, are not only separate from the text; they centre on the novel's discontinuity. Their relationship to the literary text is not at an illustrative level, but at a structural level. The drawings do not narrate, illustrate or reveal meaning; they recreate the original act of creating.

If this assertion is true, the results of the recreation are startlingly different. The discontinuity is, for Kroetsch as it is for Bataille in the quotation above, a separateness that is the original tragedy of birth as a person. It is the horror of self, the loneliness of individuality and the ultimate meaninglessness of our being separate. Dorf desperately runs after those things which he senses will give continuity: union with another, death, violence, oblivion and even collecting, that is, bringing like and like together. The spa itself is a single continuous body of water (or mud) with many heads. These continuities are similar or, perhaps, the same.

The discontinuity for Butler is a function of the aesthetic act, as it is for Berger in the quotation above. Each drawing has a completeness and self-referential element which makes it independent. It creates its own continuity. Butler's sequence of drawings is not about collecting, sex or death. It is about the figure and its shadow; ultimately, it is about art. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in We were, the three of us, constant companions, where the woman is drawn with pen and ink and the man shaded in with pencil. Their separateness is an act of art; their continuity is in the shadow of the body over them. Kroetsch does not pursue aesthetic continuity; arbitrary as it is, it may be the only one we have.

BorderCrossings, Vol.13 No.4, Nov. 1994

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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