James De Mille Criticism

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Camille R. La Bossiere (essay date winter1983-84)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: La Bossiere, Camille R. “The Mysterious End of James De Mille's Unfinished Strange Manuscript.Essays on Canadian Writing 27 (winter 1983-84): 41-54.

[In the following essay, La Bossiere contends that De Mille did not leave A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder unfinished, but that the text simply “played itself … out,” a direct result of De Mille's comedic use of repetition in the novel.]

                    As when we dwell upon a word we know
                    Repeating, till the word we know so well
                    Becomes a wonder, and we know not why.

—Tennyson, “Launcelot and Elaine”

                    I sholde er this han fallen down for sleep,
Althogh the slough had never been so deep. …

—Chaucer, Prologue to “The Nun's Priest's Tale”

An idea is something that grows, buds, blossoms and ripens from the beginning to the end of a speech. It never halts, never repeats itself.

—Bergson, Laughter

I nearly called out in my joy and amazement. He was speaking in his natural voice—a little weak, perhaps, but the very voice I knew.

—Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Dying Detective,” His Last Bow

Repetition, at times the mother of ennui, can be both funny and killing. Writers and comedians have long known this and have shown it to be so. Some have gone so far as to raise seemingly endless reiteration to a pleasure principle. Tom Stoppard's comic reanimation of Hamlet is a case in point. “‘Getting a bit of a bore, isn't it?’” Rosencrantz says to Guildenstern in the midst of a game of flipping coins that will show more than ninety “heads” in a row.1 Copies of Henri Bergson's “Dancing-jack” as described in his essay on laughter,2 these fated players fail to see the humour their game provokes among the living. But there are, of course, limits to how much repetition the quick can stand. Even that post-modernist farceur Alain Robbe-Grillet can eventually become so fatigued with duplication that he resorts to the shorthand of “etc. …, etc., etc. …”3 No merciful or prudent author wants to kill off his or her readers too: the ending of a work is preferable to this kind of fatality. In fact, a number of writers virtuous in this regard have deliberately stopped before conclusive articulation lest their readers (or they themselves) should come to experience the surcease that is boredom. Chaucer, the self-effacing parodist of the entrancing “Tale of Sir Thopas” and the erudite entertainer of the emphatically sententious “Monk's Tale” (to choose perhaps the most obvious exempla of this variety of cessation in English literature), knew that there can be great efficacy in unfinished work.4 The craft is long, life is short—and dozing off on horseback can be deadly. Graced is the writer of narrative who has the cunning to know when to stop. In Canadian literature, a salient representative of this broad category of virtue is provided in James De Mille's unfinished A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888). Though De Mille's Adam More on one occasion sleeps safely on the back of a beast from prehistory, his author seems, certainly in the end, to have sided with the common-sensical host Herry Bailly, who almost always kept the temper and good cheer of his fellow travellers in mind.

“‘That's enough for to-day. … I'm tired and can't read any more. It's time for supper’”—spoken by Lord Featherstone, owner of the yacht Falcon on a winter's cruise in the southern latitudes, these are the last words of A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder.5 Enthusiastic for eating, drinking, and sport, the effete Featherstone is one who quickly becomes restive in the absence of some form of pleasurable stimulation. It is ennui, in fact, that had sent him to these latitudes. “Being weary of life in England,” we read in the novel's first paragraph, Featherstone had invited three guests to join him on the cruise: Dr. Congreve, Oxenden, and Melick, for the purpose of mutual entertainment. It would seem,...

(The entire section is 50,525 words.)