What makes a book radical? This is the question I had humming at the back of my mind when reading Combat Journal for Place d’Armes, a whirlwind of a novel that I scrambled to understand both politically and stylistically.
I try my best to keep up with queer literature of the Now, and I always enjoy the occasional dip into gay classics, even as their importance (and their humour) ages. However, Symons’ Combat Journal for Place D’Armes revealed a blindspot in my knowledge—a gay Canadian novel from the sixties, but far from pulp; one that grapples openly and flailingly with Canadian culture’s Anglo-Franco divide. Formally, it takes on some of the key theoretical questions of post-modernist literature. Purpose-driven, its experimentalism uses a rocky, rant-and-ramble approach to attack questions of national identity, masculinity, power, sexuality, and religion. Combat Journal for Place d’Armes is fractured meta-fiction written as a feverish and multi-layered journal-novel. Above all, it doesn’t attempt to hide the fact that its protagonist’s anxieties and anger are clearly the author’s own. Though Symons might not be a household name, his writing remains compelling, if challenging, in the landscape of gay fiction, and perhaps Canadian literature at large. Still, I struggle to pinpoint exactly why.
Scott Symons was born into upper-class, Ontario loyalist stock. He attended a whack of fancy schools like Trinity College School, University of Toronto’s Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne. For the first part of his career, he worked variously as a journalist at Montreal’s La Presse, as an art history professor at U of T, and as a curator at the ROM.
Then suddenly, in February 1965, Symons abandoned social respectability: he left all his illustrious positions, walked out on his wife, moved to Montreal, and lived unabashedly with his much younger lover, John McConnell. Two years after this so-called démission, McClelland & Stewart released Combat Journal for Place d’Armes.
This book thus marks the occasion, and, in fact, the public declaration of Symons’ rebellion against Ontario’s wan institutional elites. He abandoned a society where “Something went dead in us… Oh no, it is worse than that, we killed something in ourselves, stifled it… denied it deliberately, and in doing so cut ourselves off from all self-expression, all flowering. We took out some weird hidebound life insurance policy against living.” Combat Journal teems with rage and insult towards his countrymen, those near-dead, submissive Anglos whom he gleefully emasculates in a spectacular literary ritual combining self-flagellation and divorce.
Symons (or his protagonist, Hugh, or even the protagonist of Hugh’s own novel-within-the-novel, Andrew, or… it goes on) hungrily romanticizes French Canadian culture, and constantly validates his idealized visions of a truly passionate and virile counterpart to his mediocre heritage. The novel tells the story of a three-week trip to Montreal, where he finds himself a perpetual outsider, handicapped by his own history. Each day, Symons/Hugh/Andrew visits the iconic Place d’Armes as an ecstatic suitor—not only of men, but of the space itself. He longs desperately to achieve what he dubs “Eyesite,” a sacred, ecstatic state in which he can properly see, understand, and love the Place in its totality.
Hugh’s obsession with seeing, feeling, and understanding “my Place” is telling, if bald wordplay. Aren’t we all looking to figure out how we fit into the capital-P “Place” in which we find ourselves? But the question for Symons is not just how to attune himself to the Place d’Armes, an iconic and historic square in Old Montreal. Rather, he seeks to experience that climactic space of French Canadianism in such a way that it washes away, even transforms the sinful mediocrity of his Anglo-ness. Symons, his subject Hugh, and Hugh’s subject Andrew, all protagonists of their own intertwined fever dream, pace the streets of Old Montreal anthropomorphizing buildings, attending Catholic mass in Protestant wonderment, and picking up the occasional male prostitute, though hilariously, much of the book’s “action” takes place over fancy lunches with other displaced Ontarians and upper-society Montrealers, where Hugh’s self-imposed exile is discussed in bizarre, cerebral, and often sexually charged tones.
In each of these lunches, and repeatedly to himself, the high-octane emotional drama coursing through Symons’ characters’ heads is framed as social suicide (i.e., abandoning upper-crust Ontario and insulting all of his colleagues for not having “balls”) over spiritual suicide (staying in that milieu, and thus losing his “balls” himself). “I had to choose,” Hugh explains to a lunch partner, “Slow death in conformity—or sudden, vehement, brutal life.”
Fifty years later, my responses to Symons’ rhapsodies often fell in the spectrum of, “Really, you privileged phoney?” As high stakes and dramatic as this so-called social suicide is made out to be, the book, essentially, is this: a bourgeois gay academic has a mid-life crisis, flees to Montreal, sucks a decent amount of cock, brunches, and angstily tries to write a novel. Unremarkable, right?
That said, I think any patient reader, especially a twenty-first century one, should allow himself to occupy the neuroses of the time, to willingly inhabit the exaggeration and enthusiasm of the text. If you can do that, you’ll find some really interesting things at play—tensions that tell you as much about the time and context in which Symons wrote as they do about the actual issues he was trying to unpack.
At the core of the whirling paranoia and self-aggrandized quest narrative, Symons develops a subversive and fascinating politic. His obsession with emasculating the Anglo-Canadian, that public which “has never stated our case!” or, put rather less delicately, a people who have “never had the courage to live up to [their]hard-ons,” belies an intense need to connect nation and masculinity. Symons’ escape from English Canada is not only meant to save his soul, but to preserve his virility. Throughout his lunch dates and late nights in Montreal, he encounters French Canadians who effortlessly embody his sought-after hypersexuality and confidence not in spite of, but indeed because of the guilt and intensity of their Catholic culture. But he also continuously encounters other Anglos who might, like him, “live up to their hard-ons”—that is, free themselves of mediocrity and truly submit to love and passion.
In either case, genuine masculinity is equated with the patriotism he admires in French Canada. Further, both seem to require homosexuality; or, as he repeatedly calls it, “homosentience.” When his married dinner partner fondles him under the table over a glass of Beaujolais, Hugh gushes internally at the political and affective echoes of this intimacy: “Now, with Bill, I am a complete man again—there is no doubt of it. I believe again—in everything. My country, my people, my love… I can love again. I love again.” Revisiting this segment, I see that I’ve written in the margins, confused but intrigued: “Queerness = Manhood = Nation = French Canada? = Love.”
This pseudo-equation recurs in various forms throughout the book. It is certainly a bold, and yes, perhaps radical position for Symons to take in the midst of the deeply engrained heteronormativity of mid-twentieth century North America (be it Franco or Anglo). During Symons’ lifetime, homosexuality was regularly conflated not only with effeminacy, but with terrorism. Queerness was seen as a threat to society. Symons, in contrast, places it at society’s heart.
Of course, Symons’ veneration of queerness as a political project is also in some ways consonant with what so many queer rebels and gender outlaws would champion in the decades to follow—that to be queer, deviant, or visibly different in any number of ways was a show of strength, not weakness.…Symons’ rebelliousness remains paradoxically and painfully trapped within a certain upper-class sensibility. Though it may read as controversial and radical within that vacuum, it also feels pretty darn overwrought and short-sighted compared to today’s more inclusive aspirations for queer liberation—liberation that addresses race, colonialism, gender, and class. His obsession with balls and the phallus as a symbol of nationhood and cultural power reveals a barely concealed misogyny; again and again, wives and shopkeepers meet with his dismay and dismissal. Echoes of this bone-headed, garbage patriarchal attitude remain amongst today’s moneyed white gay curators and literature professors; here, it does a disservice to Symons’ truly compelling political and literary interventions.
Likewise, for a book absolutely transfixed by the question of how to negotiate two competing Canadian cultures, Combat Journal fails to even acknowledge Indigenous culture, much less genuinely consider the violence of settler colonialism. Symons even goes so far as to mock the self-satisfied entitlement of “the British North American civilization, the one continuous culture in North America! The senior cultures… by right of presence.” Excuse me? By right of presence? Fifty years later, we can’t give you a pass on that one, Scott.
Yet if Symons’ is somehow blind to the irony of his fixation on the right to cultural dominance of one settler force over another, his writing style evokes a quite different but related political-historical trope in literature: James Joyce’s Ireland, its land and psyche colonized by the English. That might strike you as presumptuous—Joyce’s experimentations in form, wordplay, and Extremely Big Ideas are, after all, unmatched—yet there are nevertheless interesting parallels, and tensions, between Joyce and Symons.
Symons’ collapsing and combining wordplay certainly echoes some of Joyce’s moves, as does his blending, taunting use of English and French. He loves to misplace prefixes and suffixes or invent portmanteau words like “respectabilitarian,” “insensorium,” and “circumambience” only to abandon them by the next page. Other, more subtle terms—his concepts of “Eyesite,” “assoul,” or of “Cubes” (stuffy Anglo people—like a “square,” but with a bit more dimension), reappear and take on new meanings. He even reimagines religious concepts: transubstantiation, “Body & Blood,” here represents the disembodiment of Anglo Canadians from their heritage and life force. Later, he ceremonializes something he calls the “Rebirth of the Object”—when a person, by God’s grace, goes from mere object to subject.
This stream-of-consciousness narrative, reflecting the political relationship between church, state, sexuality, and self-actualization, strongly evokes that of Joyce’s protagonist Stephen Dedalus. Stylistically speaking, Symons is at his Joycean best in the moment of climactic communion that appears toward the book’s end:
André moans Magnificat as assoul clutches steep on rood
(more freight shunts alongside Lachine Canal, beyond Wedding Cake, where Van Horne still seats)
whole world reborn in our Host that quivers me André sensing withdraws me out to the rim of his world, plies my quaver, secures my Holyrood at arsedge and as I bore back steep raises our nave off our bed to capture my Man thrusting homage into our sunburst monstrance as I reach out reach out in
to the Host in the Nave on the Altar in the Church in our Place d’Armes, reach in for that Body and Blood now reborn in the flesh, made sheer flesh… Man reborn, made whole in me… donnant donnant, for my Land given back to André gave me the Host
bloodworthy, gave that back to me as key to our kingdom gave it back to me as I reach out to the bloodspurt of the
Object resurrected in me, Manned once again
and as André cups the blood of my new life I kiss the Mona Lisa smile of his Quiet face
trainshunt farewell of Marc along our Greyway
Bugger buggered and damned: what more can a man want? …
This coming together of all of Symons’ anxieties and passions and imaginings in a whirlwind of sensation, a frenzied climax, suddenly makes this fractured puzzle of a book feel complete.
And yet fifty years on, the text’s political implications seem more vital than its literary ones. Scott Symons dropped out and damned Anglo-Canadian society in a complex, post-modern, somewhat queer and somewhat bourgeois maelstrom of affect, sex, and crises of nationalist identity—why should we, or how can we care about such self-righteous defiance? His rebellion, his questions, feel infinitely more complex today.
This novel, if you can call it that, is undeniably unique in the context of its own time and ours. In 2017, the questions it elicits refract and reconfigure. It requires us to think about how this rebellion, as irrelevant as it may be to a contemporary analysis of class, race, and gender, still reads, still feels, and perhaps still is monumental. It attacks institutions like the state, the museum, the university, and undermines the smug confidence of the people who guard them. But it also disrupts and topples particular understandings of masculinity, of faith, of the public, and of space in totally unexpected, even uncomfortable ways.
So while I’m no closer to knowing what characteristics make a book really radical, I feel compelled to submit that Combat Journal for Place d’Armes somehow, sometimes, is exactly that.
—From CNQ 100 (Fall 2017)