Elmer's English 304 Magazine
by Elmer G. Wiens
Existential philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sarte, view man's existence as absurd. Life on an inexplicable, unsympathetic world can be grotesque, terrifying, and brutal: one disappointment after another (Distante). Even statistical patterns, such as gender, social, cultural, and racial norms, are a source of comic misfortune and tragedy. People who deviate too far from these averages may lead nightmare lives. Norms are just averages. Why do these norms exert such a powerful influence on people? What keeps people going, if their gender identity or racial characteristics fall outside an acceptable interval around their society's average?
While human beings cannot understand why they exist the way they do in an alien universe, Heidegger believes each person "must choose a goal and follow it with passionate conviction" (Distante). This idea fits in with the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan. He claims humans are defined at birth when separated from the mother — by lack. Human beings always want "something that is out of reach or unattainable" (Sturken and Cartwright). Lack is equivalent to desire. Desire cannot be satisfied by objects or by love. By definition, desire represents aspiring to be one with the Other — "the place everyone is trying to get to, to merge with, in order to get rid of the separation between 'self' and 'other'" (Klages).
In Caroline Adderson's short story, "Gold Mountain," Henry Merritt, an English remittance man, relates his existential quest. Rejected by his widowed mother, the ineffectual, effeminate Henry, "two inches and five feet in stacked heels" (22), immigrates to colonial Canada during the middle of the 19th century. After peddling shoes proves unprofitable, Henry and Bernard Coop form a partnership to join the Cariboo gold rush. But first, Henry develops an ardor for Miss Evaline, a giantess rancher and cartographer, who devises a map to the Cariboo while sleeping with Henry. Rather than remaining with his bounteous Evaline, Henry embarks for the Cariboo with Coop and his dog Bruin, journeying in a virtual space conditioned on Evaline's map.
Along the way, Henry pines for Evaline, "her ropy hands and plenteous thighs, the whorl of whiskers round her paps" (16), until the partners link up with some gender bending miners. One night, these "hoary fellows" party around the campfire, wearing ladies dresses, swigging, jigging, and reeling in each other's arms, with Henry dancing with the cross-dressing Coop. The macabre revelry turns into a fiasco, another nightmare (17).
Matters get worse when Henry and Coop bail out of the troop — going off Evaline's map — to pan for gold in Fraser's River next to a party of Celestials, indentured miners from China. Henry discovers that the Chinese are more human than white men, despite the Celestials' hopeless plight in an alien country, giving him tea to cure his constipation and sharing their "heathen alchemists" secret for rendering gold from the river's silt (33). When one Celestial kills Bruin for marauding their chickens, the civilized Coop, a new partner, Samuel Goodfellow, and a passing Gold Commissioner stage a kangaroo court to rob the Celestials. In the ensuing fight, the white men murder the Celestials and divvy up the gold. The next morning, Henry finds Coop and Goodfellow burned to death in their tent, their gold melted into bloody nuggets.
Eventually, Henry finds his way back to Evaline. Sleeping together again, they dream, treading along a sylvan path, reaching the Celestial route — a vista of glittering stars. But, the anguished, absurd lives of Evaline and Henry are not over. Evaline marrying Henry would be too comic: Evaline too much the man, and Henry too much the lady (42). They cannot satisfy each other's lack. Rather than selecting their own way and making their own decisions, they cannot elude the anguish and dread conforming to society's norms inflicts on them.
Adderson, Caroline. "Gold Mountain." Bad Imaginings. Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill P. 1993. 21-43.
Distante, Patrick. History of Western Philosophy: Existential Philosophy. 1 Mar 2003 http://home.earthlink.net/~pdistan/howp_11.html.
Klages, Mary. English 2012: Jacques Lacan. University of Colorado. 1 Mar 2003 http://www.colorado.edu/English/courses/ENGL2012Klages/lacan.htmll.
Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. "Glosssary." Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford UP. 1 Mar 2003 http://www.oup.co.uk/best.textbooks/media/sturken/.