Fearful spaces: Thomas De Quincey's sino-anginophobia.
Not surprisingly, the scholarly emphasis on a psychoanalytic or what one might call a clinical reading of De Quincean fear has led to a comparative disregard for the astonishment that accompanies horror. Yet according to De Quincey, these emotional poles are not merely counterbalanced but interconnected: horror, as he notes, is absorbed in astonishment. To put it another way, De Quincey's oriental fears have an unmistakable aesthetic component. They recall in their "sense of eternity and infinity" (Confessions 321) that ennobling terror, that expansion of the imaginative faculty, which, according to eighteenth-century theorists like John Baillie and Edmund Burke, is distinctive of the sublime. For De Quincey, the Orient in its specific manifestation as China and as opium--unknowably other and intimately familiar--is "productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling" (Burke 36). The Orient accommodates horror and astonishment; it inflames hatred in De Quincey and induces fascination, indeed, even a prostration of the self. This latter reflux is indivisible from the De Quincean experience of horror and it signals, more importantly, what Homi Bhabha characterizes as the "productive ambivalence of ... colonial discourse" (67). In De Quincey's case, ambivalence yields a multivalent construct of oriental otherness, one that comprehends both "desire and derision" (Bhabha 67), entrancement and repudiation. De Quincey's orientalism is neither clear in its objectives nor confident in its power to bring the Orient under control; it vilifies but also cowers before the "felt reality" (Fanon 95) of oriental culture; in the binary of self and other, it occupies both positions, seeking to be possessed even as it endeavours to rule. For De Quincey as for Bhabha, "colonial power is anxious" (Huddart 6).
Yet this anxiety, culminating in De Quincey's ruminations on sublime terror, is also potentially productive. Indeed, by the very nature of its fluxes and refluxes, its unsettledness and irresolution, De Quincey's work invites a non-clinical reading of fear, one that attends to the links between fear and what G. Stanley Hall in his 1897 "A Study of Fear" designates as our "strongest intellectual interests" (242). Hall's pioneering work in this area, centred as it is on the idea that "[f]ear is ... the chief spur of psychic evolution" ("Synthetic Genetic Study" 149), offers a counterpoint to the later Freudian emphasis on trauma and also accommodates a discussion of the sublime--"the most refined form of fear" (Hall 242)--so essential to De Quincey's own reflections on his oriental dreams. "[F]ear," as Hall observes, "has its fascinations" ("Synthetic Genetic Study" 153), and his work, accordingly, dwells on the objects of fear as well as on the responses they elicit in order to chart "the evolution of the affective life" ("Synthetic Genetic Study" 153, 170). In De Quincey's case, that "evolution," at least as it concerns his oriental rhetoric, is not reducible simply to a ratcheting up of imperialist xenophobia until it reaches, in Barrell's words, a "dangerously apoplectic level" (156) with his 1857 writings on China. The political essays and, in particular, the expanded Confessions of 1856 offer refluxes of astonishment to their own expressions of horror, and they do so by foregrounding a paradoxical manifestation of oriental power as space. This is not the unfathomable and impenetrable space that stretches out in infinite dimensions and is associated with sublime terror; rather, this space is what Burke, in an often-overlooked addendum to his discussion of vastness, relates to "the infinite divisibility of matter" (66). This is space that we can contain, encompass in the mighty hand of imperialist expansion, but never in fact penetrate. To use the language of Gaston Bachelard, this is the space of "intimate immensity" (183). (2)
Let me offer an example of the rhetoric of intimate immensity from De Quincey's 1840 essay "The Opium and China Question," his response to the opening salvos of the first Opium War between China and Britain, a dispute fought ostensibly over a trade embargo in Canton where the Qing administration had prohibited the sale of British opium but escalating quickly into a conflict of Eastern and Western geopolitical ideologies. The first of several reflections by De Quincey on Sino-British relations, this essay betrays a number of recurring fears about the prospect of engaging such a distant and reclusive opponent. Indeed, even though De Quincey ultimately advocates a resolution by shotgun diplomacy--an ambassador leading a column of fourteen thousand armed men to Peking--his proposal is less a hawkish thrust at the heart of the Chinese empire than a calculated alternative to the improbability of winning on any other terms. A direct military invasion of China, he concedes, is unlikely to succeed "with an empire ... so compact, so continental, so remote--and, beyond all other disqualifying circumstances, so inorganic" (179). Of particular note here is the juxtaposition of "compact" and "inorganic," the latter term implying a lack of organized structure. China for De Quincey is something of a spatial paradox: it is concentrated by virtue of population (his estimate is 350 million) yet its extent is also "immeasurable" (177); it is densely constituted yet without apparent structure or recognizable organization. The lingering worry here is that there may well be "organization" but not such as Western systems of thought can readily identify, understand, or bring under control. When subjected to anthropomorphic metaphors, the Chinese empire is still more elusive and impenetrable. Despite having "no vital parts, no organs, no heart, no lungs," China somehow manages to exist and even to defend itself "by its essential non-irritability" (176). What De Quincey signals by this phrase is a mode of national defense that operates not by overt aggression or retaliation but by a capacity (most frustrating for China's opponents) to absorb blows without feeling or showing their effects. As De Quincey concedes, China has "no local concentrations of the national power in which a mortal wound can be planted" (177). England is thus left to spar with a "vast callous hulk" (176) whose body is everywhere open to assault but nowhere weakened by it.
In the posture of one who is himself engaged with this redoubtable foe--himself searching for weaknesses in a body that would need first to become "organized [before it can feel] ... a power like Britain" (176)--De Quincey returns a few lines later to the problem of physical and national space by comparing the geographical reach of the British and Chinese empires. Seizing on Britain's great vulnerability to attack in foreign lands given its expansive colonial agenda, he acknowledges that China's relatively isolated position ensures its imperviousness to direct military assault:
Of all the nations that ever have been heard of, we are the most scattered and exposed. We are to be reached by a thousand wounds in thousands of outlying extremities; the very outposts of civilization are held by Englishmen, everywhere maintaining a reserve of reliance upon the mighty mother in Europe.... Such are we English people--such is the English condition. Now, what we are in the supreme degree, that is China in the lowest. We are the least defended by massy concentration; she the most so. We have the colonial instinct in the strongest degree; China in the lowest. With us the impulses of expatriation are almost morbid in their activity; in China they are undoubtedly morbid in their torpor. (180)
This passage leaves one hard-pressed to align the English "condition"--its colonial aspirations and "indomitable energy" (180)--with anything but infirmity. Driven to all corners of the world by nothing more noble or rational than "impulses" and, once there, stretched utterly beyond the capacity for self-preservation and self-reliance, the English are isolated guardians of uncertain outposts, no match for the "massy concentration" of oriental otherness that lurks just beyond the borders of so-called "civilization." This key phrase, "massy concentration," although here associated with apparent torpor, also betrays a sense of mounting energy. For where the impulse of expatriation is inactive in a given population, there is not only mass but amassment, a principle that Thomas Malthus had years earlier articulated to account for the "extraordinary" (205) population of China, especially as it differed from Japan, its more "warlike ... and ambitious" (219)--in a nineteenth-century context, one might say English--neighbour. While De Quincey concedes that it is "vain to expect much energy in a direction which is habitually frowned upon by the Chinese [namely, colonization]" (180), the energy of amassment is nevertheless a source of concern for him. Indeed, he signals this threat when he counterbalances the image of China as "a lazy, torpid body" (181) with assurances (designed to diffuse his own fears among his readers) that China, if left unchecked, will use its power to impose itself on those Western merchants who happen, by accident or ignorance, to enter its waters and infringe its "monstrous laws" (191).
One of those historical infringements, the accidental killing in 1785 of a Chinese citizen by a cannonball fired from an English ship in a salute of honour, is cited by De Quincey as an example of how Chinese jurisprudence both masks and enables "brutal stupidity" (188). Unmoved by pleas for clemency and finally unhindered in their determination to punish the offender with death by hanging, the Chinese, according to De Quincey, operate by laws that render "inevitable misfortune and malice aforethought ... equally criminal" (189). The case, he argues, "is the very expression of [China's] improgressive state" and the very antithesis of Britain's "enlightened liberty" (189). Yet if this conclusion, the entrenchment of ideological divisions between empires, is De Quincey's rhetorical aim in recounting the episode of 1785, what he manages to achieve (arguably despite himself) is a stark revision of the earlier image of China as a "lazy, torpid body." A threatened or wounded China, governed by "laws that do not change" and uninclined to pity or sympathy, is an agent of dreadful intent that consigns its foes, even the "humble and submissive," to "ignominious death" (188-89). Here as elsewhere in De Quincey's Opium War essays, the sudden transformation of China from an object of disdain and revulsion to one of "terror" (189) also has the effect of shifting one's view of Britain. Indeed, if one recalls Burke's notion that "pain is always inflicted by a power in some way superior, because we never submit to pain willingly" (60), then the hanging of a single British sailor becomes for De Quincey (as well as his English readers) a harbinger of woe. As he suggests, "since the year 1785, again and again [we have been] brought ... into terrific embarrassments; and it is idle to suppose that in a seaport, the resort of sailors from the highest-spirited nation upon the earth, and liable to perpetual insults from Chinese vagabonds, any vigilance can ever close or seal up this opening to occasional manslaughters" (189). China's threat to England, its power over England, although limited to isolated seaports, cannot be nullified; the "opening" that leads to fear and death cannot be closed. Tellingly, De Quincey ends the account in the thrall of sublime terror. "The same scenes," he writes, "are eternally impending" (189)--a phrase that extends the spectre of oriental terror into unending futurity.
According to G. Stanley Hall, who was in Freud's estimation the first scholar to bring some "orientation [to the] chaos" (General Introduction 344-45) that prevailed in nineteenth-century studies of human fear, futurity lies indeed at the heart of what we dread. As he suggests in his opening remarks to "A Synthetic Genetic Study of Fear," "[f]ear is the anticipation of pain, ... a highly generalized fore-feeling, itself unpleasant, that a yet more painful state impends" (149). More specifically, he argues that "[t]his protensive or futuristic attitude or orientation toward a pejoristic state is the specific quale [that is, characteristic] of the psychic condition of fear" (149). What makes this statement so relevant to a study of De Quincey's essays on Sino-English relations is not only the emphasis on futurity--on a fear that grows rather out of the pain of foreseen wounds than those already felt--but also the rhetorical gesture to the West's lingering anxiety about what lies to the east. The notion that our "orientation"--literally, "the action of turning or facing eastward" (OED)--should bring us into contact with a "pejoristic state" and that this turn is the very essence of fear, speaks to the deep entrenchment as well as the hegemonic "durability and ... strength" (7), to use Edward Said's words, of orientalist ideology. There is, however, an important distinction in Hall's understanding of this turn to the east: it appears to imply an act of will. As he suggests, our "Einstellung" (a German word meaning position or attitude),
to the "what next" and the "about to be" may become, second only to present pain, the most intense of all psychic experiences.... The soul is perhaps never so vital, awake, so penetrated with the sense of its own existence as well as its own worth, so desirous of conserving itself, and at the same time it is never more filled with a sense of the reality of [its] environment. (149, 151)
The object of fear as well as fear itself become sources of intense fascination, sources that summon the will even as they repel, sources that vitalize and awaken the subject to its powers of self-preservation and to the power of the physical world in all of its prepossessing reality. While there is nothing to suggest that Hall paid any particular attention to eighteenth-century treatises on sublime terror in formulating his ideas, his emphasis on "a sense of ontological wonder" (204), as Donald H. Meyer points out, clearly aligns him with the Romantic tradition. (3) Indeed, the contiguities between his position on the fascination of fearful objects and Burke's delineation of "delightful horror" (123) are striking. The soul's experience, as Hall describes it, of being "so vital, awake, so penetrated with the sense of its own worth" is a poignant echo of what Burke renders as that "swelling" of the self which "is never more perceived, nor operates with more force, than when without danger we are conversant with terrible objects; the mind always claiming to itself some part of the dignity and importance of the things which it contemplates" (74-75). And just as Burke dwells on the benefits, both moral and spiritual, of such experiences, so Hall emphasizes the potential of fear to bring the individual to a new level of personal enlightenment and growth. Fear, as he suggests, is both "essential to every soul" and "universal":
There is no one without fear, and those few who so emphatically disclaim all fear, and the psychologists who tabulate the percentages of fearless people, are thinking of shock or panic or acute fright, or special physical dread, etc., but not of the subtler forms, like fear of God, of dishonor, failure of their highest purposes, for themselves or others. Not only does everyone fear, but all should fear. The pedagogic problem is not to eliminate fear, but to gauge it to the power of proper reaction. Fears that paralyze some brains are a good tonic for others.... A true curriculum of fears would by no means omit all lower and more drastic forms, but be always intent on substituting its higher and wider ranged spurs for its more degraded and primary ones up to reverence and worship of the sublime and awe-inspiring. ("Study of Fears" 242)
What for Hall distinguishes "higher" fears from "degraded and primary" terrors is their capacity to enlighten the mind by "focaliz[ing] attention and educating] in concentration" (243). A focused and concentrated mind will not only conquer fear but provoke what Hall, in an unmistakably Wordsworthian gesture, renders as "the love of natural objects" (243). As he suggests, "we may conceive the soul as self-limited by object fears, which it transcends in knowledge and turns to again in interest and love, when both self, object, knowledge and love owe part of their actuality to the old radical fear" (243). Hall's emphasis on the entwinement of fear and love--the soul turning from the former to the latter, with both emotions redounding upon the same object--is arguably his greatest contribution to the psychology of fear, and it leads one invariably back to De Quincey and the fluxes of his oriental obsessions. For Hall as for De Quincey, the line between revulsion and attraction, fear of and fealty to, is exceedingly fine.
Nowhere is this line more frequently crossed and recrossed than in De Quincey's 1856 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, a vastly expanded version of the 1821 text that, as Malcolm Elwin notes, "enlarges on the pains to correct the impression conveyed in the original of an overbalance on the side of the pleasures of opium" (xviii). While many readers, by Elwin's own admission, prefer "the dramatic speed of the narrative in the original Confessions" (xviii), what the 1856 version offers from its more expansive historical perspective--and what is so central to an analysis of the welter of De Quincey's oriental fears--is an unflinching engagement with the cycles of addiction and abstinence that mark the author's life. Having claimed in his "Introductory Narration" that, despite falling into "miserable excesses in the use of opium, I did nevertheless, four several times, contend successfully against the dominion of this drug; did four several times renounce it; [and] renounced it for long intervals" (113), De Quincey later concedes in "The Pains of Opium" that "[a]t this day, after a half-century of oscillating experience, and after no efforts or trying acts of self-denial beyond those severe ones attached to the several processes (five or six in all) of re-conquering my freedom from the yoke of opium, I find myself pretty nearly at the same station which I occupied at that vast distance of time" (299). The narrative of addiction, like that of oriental fear, proceeds by oscillations, by fluxes and refluxes, the self alternately conquering and being conquered, making progress and undoing it. Yet, remarkably, what De Quincey emphasizes in this narrative is not the despair of moving in circles and arriving again "at the same station"; instead, he appears to derive strength from the process itself--"the enormous revolutions passed through" (299) and somehow endured. Indeed, as he notes, the recurring cycle of abstinence and relapse has effected a reduction in his daily dose "from a varying quantity of eight, ten, or twelve thousand drops ... to about three hundred" and thereby kept him from "following] out the seductions of opium to their final extremity" (298). It is ironically through the persistence of addiction that De Quincey derives the consolation of at least some measure of self-control.
The episodic narrative of oriental fear in De Quincey's Confessions likewise foregrounds consolations or "productive ambivalences" that derive from a recurring pattern of losing and regaining self-control. These consolations are all the more remarkable when one considers the intimate nature of the terror that De Quincey describes. The Orient in the Confessions is after all not a reclusive empire that exercises its power over distant seaports and sailors; instead, its theatre of war is the dreaming mind itself and its terrors are the product of addiction. The phrase "massy concentration" has particular resonance in a text whose "all-conquering" (276) hero is opium. Like the "piece" (285) that De Quincey gives the itinerant Malay who knocks one day at the door of Dove Cottage, the Orient of the Confessions is made to fit into one's hand, to be given as a gift or kept for oneself, to be ingested and thus literally incorporated. While its powers as a gift are in themselves profoundly unsettling, arousing in De Quincey not merely dread for the "poor creature" (285) almost killed by his hospitality but amazement at the stoutness of the Malay's constitution, the effects of incorporation--what Nigel Leask glosses as "consuming] the East" (208)--are nothing less than transformative. Not unlike the proposition of military diplomacy in the Opium War essays, incorporation aims to bring the Orient under some measure of control, to render its massy concentration manageable, even productive (hence "the pleasures of opium"), but, as De Quincey makes clear, incorporation also has the effect of releasing the power of massy concentration within himself and thus, in effect, enforcing his subjection to its ambivalent spectacles--its celestial dreams and reveries as well as its nightmarish "chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths" (313). The opium-as-Orient that De Quincey boasts of having taken "in a solid and liquid shape, both boiled and unboiled, both East Indian and Turkish" (286) retains even in this more manageable form, this limited space, the same powers of inscrutability and impenetrability that make China as a military opponent so redoubtable. Indeed, one might even say that when massy concentration is further distilled and compacted so as to fit into one's hand, its potency as a source of delightful horror is only intensified.
This intensification of both fear and fascination manifests itself most explicitly in De Quincey's oriental dreams, largely inspired, as he claims, by the visit of the Malay. In describing these dreams, De Quincey vacillates between horror and delight, between revulsion for the Orient as source of fear and identification with its very otherness. He occupies the roles of self and other, and his opium dreams, as Barry Milligan points out, are consequently "so torturous ... because they erode the desired division between self and other even in the otherwise presumably inviolate sanctum of individual consciousness" (47). The obfuscation of the boundaries of these identities coincides, notably, with a reversal of the spatial dynamic that characterizes the ingestion of opium. Whereas the opium-eater takes the drug internally, incorporating, containing, and amassing its powers within himself, the oriental dreams find De Quincey himself ingested by and embodied in the spaces of oriental sublimity. "Thousands of years I lived and was buried," he writes, "in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids" (321). Recalling the massy concentration of the Chinese Empire, this "Asiatic scenery" (320) of entombment preys upon the opium-eater's fear of narrow spaces and intimate immensity--what one may, in De Quincey's case, designate as sino-anginophobia. The spatial inversion represented by the movement from ingestion to entombment accompanies a still more radical change in subject positions, with De Quincey shifting from orientalist subject to oriental object as he positions himself at "the heart" (or centre) of "eternal pyramids," a place typically reserved for pharaohs or emperors. De Quincey's direct assumption of the other as self occurs in a maelstrom of images and motions that echoes rhetorically his physical possession by massy concentration:
Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical sunlights, I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions, and assembled them together in China or Hindostan. From kindred feelings, I soon brought Egypt and her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas, and was fixed for centuries at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. (320-21)
From occidental spectacle and sacrificial victim, he becomes, in a moment, the oriental "priest," in effect the undoer of himself. The rapid vacillation between subject positions suggests that for De Quincey opium-as-Orient is profoundly disorienting; it readily shifts perspectives and power balances.
De Quincey himself anticipates this inner power struggle when he characterizes the ingestion of laudanum in an earlier passage as inoculation--undertaken, as he claims, "for the general benefit of the world" (286). Most commonly, the term inoculation implies the intake of a foreign body for the purpose of acquiring an immunity to it and, hence, a power over it. Yet as Barrell notes, such inoculation is successful neither for De Quincey nor for other orientalists: "at best it enables the patient to shake [Eastern infections] off for a time, or gives him the illusion of having done so, but always with the fear that they will return in more virulent form, as super-germs now immune from the attacks of antibodies" (16). However, in a horticultural context, which is also clearly relevant here, inoculation has rather a different meaning; it describes "the insertion of an eye or bud of one plant under the bark of another for the purpose of raising flowers or fruit different from those of the stock" (OED). Such inoculation in effect diversifies or enhances the stock by making it "different" or other. Where De Quincey is concerned, his life certainly attests to the fact that he never acquired an immunity to opium or a power over it, but we may be able to read his inoculation with oriental otherness in a more positive or productive light, one that indeed communicates some benefit, particularly where the articulation of different subject positions and a multiplicity of perspectives is concerned.
To be idol and priest, worshipped and sacrificed, is to arrive at a transformation of perspective that alters both self and other. For De Quincey, this transformation again expresses itself spatially, in a shift from seeing the other as merely bound up in "massy concentration"--opaque, indistinct, fearfully impenetrable--to a form of expansive and also more particularized vision. Describing the effects of opium on his perceptions, De Quincey writes, "[t]he sense of space [was] ... powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes, &c., were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to receive. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable and self-repeating infinity" (314). Although still charged with a terrifying sublimity, the spaces created by inoculation are at least penetrable and organic: they reveal parts (buildings) and systems (landscapes) of an organized whole. In the famous Easter Sunday dream vision where De Quincey meets Ann the Oxford Street prostitute, he notes in the backdrop of an oriental city further distinctions and variegations of space:
I turned, as if to open my garden gate, and immediately I saw upon the left a scene far different; but which yet the power of dreams had reconciled into harmony. The scene was an oriental one; and there it was also Easter Sunday, and very early in the morning. And at a vast distance were visible, as a stain upon the horizon, the domes and cupolas of a great city--an image or faint abstraction, caught perhaps in childhood from some picture of Jerusalem. (323)
What begins aptly with the impulse to forget "old griefs" (323) culminates after a shift in perspective, a literal re-orientation, in the dreamer's harmonious reconciliation of East and West. De Quincey's turn to the "left" is once again a turn to the East or, rather, a turn Easter if we recall the Bedean etymology that roots the Christian celebration in the Anglo-Saxon festival commemorating Eostre, the goddess of the dawn who appears in the east (oed "Easter"). What unites this remarkable scene, in other words, is not religious but spatial orientation. The turn east(er) also, notably, precedes his recognition of Ann who appears, as he writes, "not a bow-shot from me" (323). Only after the harmonization of East and West--a reconciliation of otherness and exoticism with self and home--is De Quincey able to see what is before him ("I looked, and it was--Ann!" ) and thus initiate a longed-for reunion. Although the vision is quickly obscured by the rolling in of vapours, for a moment the inoculated subject has succeeded in bringing East and West into a single frame and setting them geographically on a level, Cumbrian "hedges [...] rich with white roses" (323) in the foreground, domes and cupolas in the distance. For a moment, the divisions between East and West and all the terrors spawned by them are as improbable as the central figure of Ann, seated on a stone and "shaded by Judean palms" (323).
Wilfrid Laurier University
Markus Poetzsch is Associate Professor of English at Wilfrid Laurier University, specializing in British Romantic literature. He has written extensively on aesthetics in the Romantic period and published "Visionary Dreariness": Readings in Romanticism's Quotidian Sublime (Routledge 2006; reprint 2014). His current research pursues various threads in ecocriticism, including animal studies, the politics of eighteenth-century landscape gardening, and the role of Romantic pedestrianism in shaping environmental consciousness. He is interested in how the Romantics moved through nature and how the nature of those movements affected their relation to the world and to one another.
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(1) The term complexio oppositorum, coined by Nicholas of Cusa, literally means the logic or, in some translations, the tension of opposites. Robert C. Greer defines the idea in Mapping Postmodernism as "a reality that cannot be rationally conceptualized or articulated but can nevertheless be evidenced in the unending interaction of opposites" (235).
(2) An engagement with Bachelard's work in this context also allows one to move beyond his exclusive focus on "felicitous space," which he defines as "the sorts of space that may be grasped, that may be defended against adverse forces, the space we love" (xxxv). The intimate immensity of De Quincey's oriental spaces necessarily includes "adverse forces."
(3) In The Educational Legacy of Romanticism, Clarence Karier argues that Hall's "neo-Romantic perspective" (103) also emerges in his theories of childhood, a state that he described as "the paradise of the [human] race from which adult life is a fall" (quoted in Karier 104). Like Wordsworth, Hall advocated a return to nature in order to discover "the authentic spirit ... of [one's] childhood" (105).
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2015|
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