F U N 3 D I S P L A C E M E N T S P R I N G
Printed at Coach House Press
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A Note on FUN III Victoria McKenzie
Fun saw itself: Fun saw itself in a prophetic haze of three years time and whispered lowly “Time flies when you are having F.U.N.” Beneath such a susurration is ensured, tits to the wind and time flown between. There is a cruising through when winds are blowing and the question of accommodation is raised - what sort of “having” does F.U.N. intend? To “have” F.U.N. is to embrace the dichotomies where F.U.N. decides that the dichotomy best be represented as the dialectical. In this way, F.U.N. will pull you aside and show you that the IChing was calling inherent within it - that the symbol incorporates a portion of each in the other. F.U.N. is a complex character in a favourable way - F.U.N. is an agreeable Thing - the duo to which a chord sits between, acclamatory pisces figurine. Creative and Critical: F.U.N. is the attempt at the embodiment of this relationship in which we hope for an experience of motion, constitutive within a commotion yet still filled with emotion. The critical structure conducive to the skeleton upholsters smoothly within the “content”, artistic fabric, creative skins of F.U.N.’s Body and the essays orchestrate themselves as the organs in which the reader will feel so close as a breath. Reading and Being: For F.U.N. to be “had” the keen eyes of our editors and the gleaming hearts of the writers must make for great memory and praise. Through them we ensure that the Body of F.U.N. be Read and that the experience of F.U.N. be one in which the reckless and the rigid, the emotional and the analytical, the creative and the critical, align for the “having”.
Notes on the Theme Tova Benjamin
As this page is written, as we stitch together all the frenzied little pieces of this journal in your hands, it is the second-to-last day of March, with April only a cruel extra day away. At a time like this we can’t help but think of the cracks and fissures emerging around us, our bodies eager for spring while the city wakes up and shakes off the ice yet another morning. But even if we put aside easy openings like the weather, we’ve been sensing a general feeling of restlessness, one that interacts with the space it is in even as it pushes you outside it. DIS(PLACE)MENT was a large grab at both containing and evading a lot of things: an appeal to our poetic sensibilities, some hopeless desire to be the master of paradoxes, an attempt to create a space where feelings don’t belong but force their way in anyways, with some stubborn parentheses and a clutter of letters. As the months pass and more and more people become displaced (in various ways, countries, political parties, and it goes on), we have been trying to grapple with what it means to be students and activists, people of theory and praxis; what it means to be straddling different languages and subjects inside a university and a city that prides itself for being “multi”– fill in the various blanks here. Interdisciplinary is a sexy word in the university these days. Here at Literature & Critical Theory we perhaps feel a little possessive over the word, and have been questioning what it means as it spreads from Queen’s Park to St. George, from Bloor Street to College. As we question “interdisciplinary” and all the ways it has been spreading thin, we are beginning to question other things as well: what seems to have a (place) in the university and what does not, whose voices can (place) themselves in classrooms and journals & whose lie outside it. DIS(PLACE)MENT was a way for us to address this, but as two words in one, it challenges the very restlessness it prescribes. We are very proud of the essays that found their way into this small booklet (into this small shout of ii
protest), and hope they continue to push some of the questions we started when beginning this project. We must thank those who swept in and used their strength to help us raise these questions, both within the university walls and outside them. To the entire Literature and Critical Theory Department, with special thanks to Professor Ann Komaromi. Without her advice, support, and help year-round, none of this could have been done. To all of our editors, with extra applause to Ella Wilhelm for being a guide of shining light, and Matthew Larocque Coulas for doing the things that seem small but take the most work. To finding a place; to always questioning that place once you find it.
Let us compare ideologies1 You take a class, read a book, surf the net, or learn from your mother (who is an excellent litigator) how to use language effectively and persuasively. You learn how to convince. You come to see the architecture of argument, the techniques of debate-craft, how language can be designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience. You get good at manipulation and soon you get what you want. You become a rhetorician, of sorts. And you are pleased with yourself. Then, you abandon this. You see the coercion within your language. Effective language need not manipulate, you now say. You discard rhetoric, disgusted with its misuse. The art of persuasiveness is the art of intimidation; you see it as a lie; manipulations no longer get you what you want. You try to speak truth, only truth, pure and straight to the point. You speak nothing but what actually is. You fail at this. I. Where ideology and language are found to be the same Look out over the Olympic sized swimming pool of English language intellectualism. See Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle surface from the literature lane and splash you—fellow swimmer— with urgent thoughts worthy of consideration: much more than tenuous concomitance joins ideology and language, they say, hair and bodies dripping with chlorinated water. I’ll quote them so you can see for yourself: “ideology is language”.2 See them lean in and whisper that we need only stifle our laughter whilst listening to the linguistic manoeuvring of those politicians shaking hands with everybody in the bleachers to find an obvious but particularly salient example of this. Turn to chapter twenty-two of Nick and Andy’s book: see several famous enunciations, famous in part because of the frequency with which they have been repeated (“I have a dream”, “ask
Or, “Follow the Scrivener” Bennet & Royle, “An Introduction to Literature,” p. 199, emphasis original
not what your country can do for you…” etc.) and try to mask your amazement at how the use of language both functions as a vehicle of dissemination—enabling the broadcasting of ideas meant to strengthen a particular political resolve—and also how such language functions as a tool of indoctrination, influential in perpetuating the ideology of the speaker.3 Humour, a well-known example: B-film and television advertisement actor Ronald Reagan promised to restore prosperity by getting “the government off the backs of the American people.” This is presented as a positive. Tax cuts are a good thing, spending reduction is a good thing; both are meant to benefit the nation’s economy. Here, the ostensible implication is black vs. white political banter: the communication of fundamental small-gov GOP ideology deployed to push back against the so-called liberal minded, big-gov, big-taxes of the Democrats. As we’re well aware, however, the actual intentions driving these words represent neither party but speak to the deregulation of the financial sector that served to enable the corporatism we are today so familiar with. This, of course, worked to hybridized laissez-faire capitalism and effectively buttresses the ramparts of neoliberalism. The current (2016) ballyhoo is full of similar as well as different ideological echoes, if one cares to listen, if one has a pretention for the perversity of such things. The point is that—in language—implied meaning can differ from actual or intended meaning. You might ask, as Nick and Andy do, what any of this has to do with literature.4 So, here is Paul de Man: “What we call ideology is precisely the confusion of linguistic with natural reality, of reference with phenomenalism”.5 Take Nick and Andy’s image, well known in our media sphere: an armed, hooded man representing the terrorist: an image that serves to illustrate the “dominant discourse” an ideology imparts.6 Society perceives the so-called terrorist in only one way, the way in which he is labeled; it aligns his actual actions—whatever they may be—with actions associated with “terror,” (however that is defined and whomever defines it). In accepting both literature as the art of language and language itself as what is undeniably used to communicate and manipulate for ideological purposes, de Man’s definition situates literary criticism and theory in the best possible position for unveiling the various slants of ideological discourse. “Those who
3 4 5 6
Ibid., p. 202 Ibid., p. 200 de Man, “The Resistance to Theory,” p. 11 Bennet & Royle, “An Introduction to Literature,” p. 200
reproach literary theory”, he says, “are merely stating their fear at having their own ideological mystifications exposed”.7 Well then, the study of literature and the theories mobilized therein are essential when seeking to reveal the undercurrents of ideology. Don’t mind if I do. II. Where a kisby ring is thrown to Bartleby before he drowns in other people’s politics We might say that Bartleby is as displaced a body as a white man can get. Estranged for some, deranged for others, any way you read Melville’s novella you come to see Bartleby as particularly out of place. Many readers/critics have pointed this out. Politicized literary folk love to talk of Bartleby. Beverungen and Dunne’s essay subtitle, “Bartleby and the Excesses of Interpretation” suggests the kind of thing I’m getting at here. Nevertheless, let’s gloss a reading of “Bartleby the Scrivener”, as it compliments Nick and Andy’s thoughts. They call attention to Louis Althusser and Terry Eagleton’s definitions of ideology, namely, that ideology is not some sort of gospel universally adhered to, but is more like a fictitious affiliation with the dominant positions, standards, and representations which in turn thwart an individual’s understanding of their true-to-self, personal ideology.8 Follow me: Through the focalization of Melville’s text the reader comes to know the interior thoughts of the narrator which thus reveals how capitalist ideology overrides the narrator’s more basic or ostensibly more humane characteristics. The representation of his interiority illustrates how the erosion of his empathetic and kind-spirited qualities comes from the corrosive practices of his Wall Street profession. The narrator is repeatedly baffled by Bartleby’s notorious reply. Yet each time the narrator exudes compassion towards Bartleby, he seemingly accepts the scrivener’s behaviour as a mere eccentricity. Specifically, if he were to fire Bartleby, the narrator feels the copyist would be “rudely treated” elsewhere; he convinces himself that the scrivener’s “eccentricities are involuntary” and he surely “means no mischief ”.9 After Bartleby stops copying completely and only occupies the chambers, the narrator’s ruminations on the concept of charity justify him in letting Bartleby exist in the
7 8 9
de Man, “The Resistance to Theory,” p. 11 Bennet & Royle, “An Introduction to Literature,” pp. 201-202 Melville, “Bartleby,” p. 23
office unimpeded.10 He even finances Bartleby’s meals when the scrivener is incarcerated.11 It becomes clear that because capitalist ideology is the dominant discourse, the narrator’s commitment to it dismantles his personal one and leads him to what one might call an amoral stance of profit over people. It is not the narrator himself but the “necessities connected” with his business that “tyrannized over all other considerations”.12 Even after having become used to Bartleby’s lethargy, allowing him to simply occupy one corner of the office, it is not his own conclusion but the “illiberal minds” of his “professional friends” that push the speaker to sever ties with the scrivener.13 Here, the literary text allows us to expose and better understand a dominant ideology (in this case capitalist ideology) as a force that can override that which is ostensibly innate to one’s sensibilities. Or rather, how a dominant ideology can override one’s personal ideology. As Nick and Andy correctly point out (with a little help from Althusser): people are ideological by nature: “ideology goes to the heart of personal identity”.14 A study of Melville’s text might expose the oppression of ideological hegemony but so too does it reveal the concept of human subjectivity. And the ordinary, “natural,” genuineness of being human is in itself ideological.15 Like subjectivity—and less limited intersubjectivities— ideology is complex, if not paradoxical. It is no wonder that Terry Eagleton begins his study of the concept by stating: “Nobody has yet come up with a single adequate definition of ideology”.16 Yet this is not something we can escape. We each seek to make sense of (or sense-make within) the implications portrayed by literature and other forms of representation. If we find joy in experiencing— and grappling with—those cultural manifestations that represent, depict, critique, or respond to our world, it is—strangely—our personal ideology through which that joy is filtered and from which it is maintained, supported, or altered. In so doing, we find that we each represent our allegiances, even if no one else shares them. We let our flags fly. This may change, our flags painted
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Ibid., p. 47 Ibid., p. 60 Ibid., p. 40 Ibid., p. 49 Bennet & Royle, “An Introduction to Literature,” p. 202 Ibid., 201-202 Eagleton, Ideologies, p. 1
over, but failing this, or not being committed in any way at all is itself an ideology; most often it is the uncritical and unwitting compliance with that ideology that dominates and governs society (like Melville’s narrator). Ideology is bound within our ontology. We each have our own. Bartleby has his own. He might inspire us, repulse us, or serve as a good place from which one might establish or maintain an intersubjective relation to ideological solidarity. Even as I write this I’m wearing my I Would Prefer Not To t-shirt.17 But Bartleby, like you and like me, must make his own way, and each time we read the book, each time we follow the scrivener, we see that this is exactly what he does. So, let us compare ideologies. Many have read into Bartleby’s preference of negation and found a Bartlebian pushback; it is one that is often celebrated. For Hardt and Negri, Bartleby is part of a “long tradition of the refusal to work”.18 This tradition might include “Rip Van Winkle” (arguably the first short story in English as we have come to see the genre today) and the eponymous protagonist’s “insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labour”.19 Yet this type of “pure passivity”, the characteristic behaviour that Hardt and Negri see in Bartleby’s refusal, needs to incite a “project that goes well beyond refusal”.20 For these critics, Bartleby’s non-action is only the inauguration of a liberatory politics, one that must motivate the construction of a “new mode of life and…community”.21 By comparison, Žižek reads Bartleby as engaged in a “passive aggression” which he thinks we might mobilize and “assert…as a proper radical political gesture”.22 The bright but dirtied faces that gathered in the lobby of the New York Deutsche Bank building in late 2011—who read Bartleby aloud to each other—recognized, perhaps, the power of the scrivener’s passive declaration and sought to make active its politicized expression viz-à-viz occupation: “Like the scrivener who refuses the narrator’s charity because its ultimate goal
17 18 19 20 21 22
Black, tight fitting, it helps to accentuate my long, scrawny frame.
Hardt and Negri, Empire, p. 203 Ibid., p. 30 Ibid., p. 203-204 Ibid., p. 204 Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 342
is to justify the system for accruing wealth that the lawyer represents, the occupiers of Zuccotti Park and other public spaces proved uninterested in reforms that seemed intended merely to ensure that the financial system could go on functioning as before”.23 Reading Bartleby like Occupy does, like one potential tactic that could commence the creation of Hardt and Negri’s community, is to see the scrivener’s occupation of the chambers—and his persistence to remain—as the driving force behind the narrator leaving, uprooting his whole legal practice, and abandoning the building.24 Bartleby does this by stating no demands or even taking a formal stance against capitalism. Impressive stuff. The logic of civil disobedience prevails. Alternatively, Žižek encourages a firm passivity. The preference not to engage: “This is how we pass from the politics of ‘resistance’ or ‘protestation’, which parasitizes upon what it negates, to a politics which opens up a new space outside the hegemonic position and its negation”.25 Don’t support the cause. Don’t sign the petition. Don’t occupy the plaza. Live within this “gesture of subtraction”.26 Here, Žižek articulates the perfect radical politics, (the answer!) telling us there is only one way to be political agents of resistance. It bares noting that these readings are also extremely convenient for Occupy’s project, for Žižek’s position on protestation and direct action as functioning within the constellation of power, and for the proposed community that Hardt and Negri see Bartleby as inspiring. Their ideologies—as similar and disparate as they might be to each other, as similar and disparate as they are to my own—seep in. Bartleby makes sense in part because they sensemake Bartleby. In many ways, this is unavoidable. Our personal ideologies will always reveal themselves. But to read into texts is to limit them; it is to love your own opinions more than you love literature; it is to constrain art by virtue of your subjectivity, to guard against change—something that happens to all of us and is—the very thing we seek to manifest. We cannot say what
23 24 25 26
Castronovo, “Occupy Bartleby,” p. 253 Ibid., p. 52 Žižek, “Notes Towards,” p. 393 Ibid., p. 393
Bartleby means. Bartleby, like the lived lives of human paradox and contradiction, exceeds a single meaning. Try as one might, “when Bartleby is cast within a particular political role,” as Beverungen and Dunne remind us, “he will show himself to exceed that role”.27 To see Bartleby as politically committed narrows our reading of him. Read “Bartleby the Scrivener” and tell me it is a work of committed art. Do you see Bartleby fighting in what Adorno might point to as the “battle of real interests”?28 Or does Bartleby destabilize the reader without the affirmation of a message and therefore (solemnly) rests himself on the autonomous side of the artistic fence? Bartleby doesn’t caution us about the existential crisis that capitalism imposes. Instead, he takes “such considerations” and also the “conception of art which underlies them” and in itself shows us “the spiritual catastrophe” that committed art only draws our attention to.29 III. Where the author offers a reading of Bartleby Let us compare ideological criticisms, whereby a critical theory of “Bartleby the Scrivener” does not simply expose the exploiting “status quo of bourgeois capitalism” or helps us fashion a politics of resistance or non-resistance but refers instead to how the very act of reading works to preform “an intervention in and transformation of ” the text itself.30 The ideological critical reading, Nick and Andy tell us, contains “a number of paradoxes”.31 And as we read Melville’s text, a paradox becomes central to our understanding. An ideological critical reading cannot conclude, as many have, that Bartleby’s actions are simply a political statement, one whose position is informed by the ideology of civil disobedience or nonparticipation. Through the narrator we learn something about Bartleby after his death, on the final page of the text: we come to know that the scrivener was formerly employed at the Dead Letter Office.32 The narrator laments Bartleby’s existence as one of “pallid hopelessness” because the life Bartleby has led is identical to a dead letter, a message that goes undelivered, a piece of failed
27 28 29 30 31 32
Beverungen & Dunne, “I’d Prefer Not To,” p. 176 Ibid., 76 Adorno, “Commitment,” p. 76 Bennet & Royle, “An Introduction to Literature,” p. 203 Ibid., 204 Melville, “Bartleby,” p. 64
communication, a note that is destined “for the flames”.33 This is the metaphor of Bartleby’s life. His reasons for refusal, what supports his aversion to labour cannot be communicated. No ears can hear Bartleby’s critique because for the narrator, for the status quo, how could there ever be anything to critique? It is an ideological impasse, the dominant one disallowing Bartleby’s position to even be voiced. Bartleby’s ideology is incommunicable. Yet, incommunicability still clashes with the dominant discourse, as Bartleby does, as do many of us. It bears noting that literature starts with (as Nick and Andy point to the words of Balibar and Macherey) an “imaginary solution of implacable ideological contradictions”.34 These critics remind us that literature exists because “such a solution is impossible”.35 Reading as opposed to reading into “Bartleby the Scrivener” reveals the impossibility of such a solution. There is such a thing as committed politics and autonomous art. Marcuse might chime in and say that the revolution may well be absent from the oeuvre even while the artist himself is engaged, is a revolutionary. “Bartleby the Scrivener” cannot be a vessel into which we may pour our particular colour of Kool-Aid and serve it up to those thirsty for change. Bartleby overturns the cup, it spills out diluted and pale, and he lurks on the stoop until his tattered clothing dries. Bartleby cannot be pinned down, or told what he means or what he is meant to do. Thankfully, he defies our attempts to do so.
33 34 35
Ibid., 64 Balibar & Macherey, “On Literature,” p. 88 Ibid., p. 88
Works Cited & Consulted: Adorno, Theodore. “Commitment.” New Left Review 87 (1974): 75-89. Web. Balibar, Etienne, and Pierre Macherey. “On Literature as an Ideological Form.” Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. London: Routledge, 1981. Print. Bennett, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. 4th ed. Edinburgh Gate: Pearson Longman, 2009. Print. Beverungen, Armin, and Stephen Dunne. ‘“I’d Prefer Not To’: Bartleby and the Excesses of Interpretation.” Culture and Organization 13.2 (2007): 171-183. Web. Castronovo, Russ. “Occupy Bartleby.” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists. 2.2 (2014): 253-272. Web. de Man, Paul. The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. Print. Eagleton, Terry. Ideology. New York: Verso, 2000. Print. Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” Ed. and trans. Donald F. Bouchard. Trans. Sherry Simon. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980. Print. Hardt, Michael. Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard UP: 2000. Print. Irving, Washington. “Rip Van Winkle.” The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories. New York: Penguin Classics, 1999. Print. 28-42. Melville, Herman. Bartleby, the Scrivener. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2010. Print. Žižek, Slavo. The Parallax View. Cambridge: MIT Press. 2006. Print. ---. “Notes Towards a Politics of Bartleby: The Ignorance of Chicken.” Comparative American Studies 4.4 (2006): 374-94. Print.
Language and Personal Experience in “Meditation at Lagunitas” Robert Hass’s poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas,” begins by identifying two strands of Western thought: the Platonic distinction between particulars and forms, which consequently becomes the model for Christian metaphysics, and the contemporary problem of signification. Both of these premises, the speaker contends, share in common an assertion of loss. In the Platonic conception, the particular, which represents the corruptible world of things, is subordinate to the Idea, which exists in the immutable and incorruptible realm of forms. Analogously, the fall of man in the story of Genesis relates the forfeiture of the Garden of Eden through the first man and woman’s disobedience to God. As such, the nominal world becomes “a falling off” from God’s “world/of undivided light”1. In the latter premise, which comes in the wake of the collapse of Christian metaphysics, the same problematic is arranged around the gap between sign and meaning, signifier and signified. What remains continuous is a disassociation: the contemporary disjunction between language and meaning, sense and reference, is rooted in the former gulf between particulars and universals. However, by shifting the poem’s mode of discourse from the abstract to the personal, and his language from the analytic to the lyrical, Robert Hass complicates these theoretical schisms and reinstitutes a different kind of kinship between language and experience, one rooted in personal loss. The recollections evoked by the words “blackberry”2 and “woman”3 show that the meanings of words are fundamentally enmeshed with personal experience.
1 2 3
Hass, “Meditation,” lines 7-8. Ibid., line 10. Ibid., line 16.
The poem’s speaker swathes reference to each of the modes of thought introduced in the opening of the poem in figurative language. The “clown-/faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk/of that black birch”4 becomes a metaphor for the earthly realm of particulars: the “clown-faced woodpecker” metonymically substitutes humans, and the “dead sculpted trunk of…black birch” is made to stand for the earth. The subsequent clause compares the woodpecker’s futile “probing” of this dead trunk to “some falling off from a first world/of undivided light.”5 The noun phrases “first world” and “undivided light” commonly describe the Christian heaven. Heaven is a “first world” that precedes the earth in the order of creation, its “undivided light” indicating the pure substance of this realm, and the transparent intelligibility of revealed universals. However, it appears that these opening statements are not taken at face value in “Meditation at Lagunitas.” The adjective “some” conveys the status of the “falling off” it describes as something unspecified and consequently uncertain. The “falling off” is removed in time and space, divorced from the speaker’s personal experience. The value of the metonymic opposition established is also undercut by Hass’s overstatement of its case via inflated, circumlocutory phrases. By over-qualifying the nouns by adjectives such as “clown-faced” and “dead sculpted” Hass allows their rhetorical, figurative value to eclipse the denotative value of the sentence. This opposition between rhetorical and denotative meaning is especially pronounced in the succeeding lines: “because there is in this world no one thing/to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,/a word is elegy to what it signifies.”6 Here, the dissolution of the theory of meaning as correspondence between a sign and a thing is articulated through the figure of the elegy. Elegy represents the symbolic structure of language as a lament for some kind of death: the death of the ever-elusive signified. By signifying analogically, this proposition propounds conceptual rather than material correspondence as the vehicle of meaning. In contradiction to the claim that language is itself elegaic, Hass’s choice of “the bramble of blackberry”7 as an example of what is lost and untranslatable is strikingly sensual and evocative. The fleshy imagery of the berry and the alliterative 4 5 6 7
Ibid., lines 4-6. Ibid., lines 7-8. Ibid., lines 9-10. Ibid., line 10.
character of the phrase present a stark contrast to the conceptual meaning conveyed by the notion of the elegy. By creating a palpable phonetic consonance, the alliterative quality of the phrase animates an aspect of meaning that lies outside the issue of correspondence between signifier and signified. Moreover, the formal qualities of the phrase “the bramble of blackberry” become more important and expressive in light of their lack of a concrete reference; they draw attention to themselves rather than their referent. The sensual meaning that emanates formally from these lines thus undercuts the dictum that failure of knowable correspondence definitively signals a loss of meaning. In the twelfth line, Hass’s poem shifts its mode of discourse from the abstract to the specific through its adoption of a more familiar tone. Hass’s use of “we”8 introduces an interlocutor into the poem, which reorients the tone from the monological to the dialogical. This reorientation situates the preceding abstract musings in human dialogue. The speaker’s attestation to the “querulous”9 tone of his friend moves us from from the formality of the declarative opening sentences to a more particular act of personal interaction. Subsequently, the speaker’s string of recollections draws the poem into the realm of lived experience: “there was a woman/I made love to and I remember how.”10 That the speaker remembers “how” he made love, not just “that” he made love, indicates that meaning is foremost experiential, grounded in personal history rather than semantic content. That is to say, the lexical definitions of words do not account for the personal relationship speakers have to words – and yet poetic language is nonetheless able to call forth these personal resonances. Our attention is thus drawn to a dimension of meaning situated in the cleavage between words and sensual experience, one which becomes evident in the speaker’s depiction of the tactile aspect of his memory: “holding her small shoulders.”11 The participle in “holding” summons an extended temporal moment rather than a static image, a moment that is re-constituted through the figurative language of the poem, extended in the process of remembering. In his recollections, the speaker articulates loss as an absence that 8 9 10 11
Ibid., line 12. Ibid., line 14. Ibid., lines 16-17. Ibid., line 18.
cannot be regained. The “presence”12 of the woman summons the “endless distances” of the speaker’s self, which is temporally extended by the process of conjuring up his childhood, of bridging the gap between past and present. The passage of time compromises the integrity of the self by scattering its locality, while memory collects the pieces as traces. The speaker condenses the unfettering of images by his use of the adverb “how,” which, by encompassing the process of lovemaking concomitantly articulates the absences implicit in the lover’s presence as “a violent wonder,”13 an expression that despite its location in memory is strikingly visceral, its immediacy figuratively assaulting the speaker. By contrast, the simile “like a thirst for salt”14 unpacks the process of remembering as a need, a type of longing. There is also something defamiliarizing and potentially even pathological to this thirsty longing. Since in common usage thirst functions as an antidote to salt, the preposition “for” binds two nouns that are in tension with one another. The consumption of salt itself produces thirst, and thus the speaker’s thirst becomes directed toward the object that produces it; this paradoxically frames the object of the speaker’s longing as a longing for absence itself. The speaker’s thirst for absence neutralizes the pull of the “violent wonder” that seeks to gather his recollections. The phrase “violent wonder” can thus be understood to reconstitute thirst as something violent in terms of both its strong effect on the senses and its self-destructive tendencies. However, language also steps in as the agent that closes the “endless distances”15 through its capacity to summon the speaker’s past and imbue words with personal significance. The shift from the memory of the woman to the speaker’s details of childhood conjures up images that, while disclosing a lack, also enact its fulfilment. The parallelism between the clauses in lines twenty to twenty-three performs the unfolding of memory by threading together images from the speaker’s childhood. The preposition “for” implicitly governs over the successive noun phrases: “childhood river,” “silly music from the pleasure boat,” and “muddy places,”16 syntactically uniting the images as contiguously 12 13 14 15 16
Ibid., line 19. Ibid., line 19. Ibid., line 20. Ibid., line 25. Ibid., lines 20-22.
present in the space of memory. Moreover, the ensuing syntactical rhythm conveys the speaker’s act of remembrance as one of constant ascent and recall, a repetitive process that characterizes the act of remembering. Language brings memory into the present through its capacity for metaphor. Just as “thirst” and “salt” are joined to form a meaningful syntactical unit, the fleeting images of the “silly pleasure boat” and the “muddy places” where the speaker “caught the…orange-silver fish/ pumpkinseed”17 respond to the speaker’s longing. The cascade of memories evident in the shift from the “orange-silver fish” to “pumpkinseed” defers the promise of fulfillment. The disagreement between the colours orange and silver, moreover, suggests an inherent dissonance made possible by the ability of poetic language to entertain and sustain contradictions. Memory’s capacity to inscribe meaning upon language offers an antidote to the speaker’s earlier admission that under abstract discourse “everything dissolves.” The meanings of such words as “justice, pine, woman, you, and I”18 depend, on the one hand, on a lexical system of differences. They are also bound to identity conditions through a process of learning, an ontogenesis that unites the uniqueness of the learner’s experience to the apprehension of universal rules of usage. The seeming public neutrality of these words fails to acknowledge their intimacy with the personal. The speaker however resolves such this lacking connection when he moves from his lexical invocation of “woman” as a member of a set of things to the specific woman of his memory. Likewise, the meaning of “blackberry” cannot be extricated from “those afternoons and evenings”19 in the speaker’s memory. The repetition “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry”20 summons the speaker’s yearning while also developing the “tenderness” inherent in his memories. The speaker’s repetition of these nouns, moreover casts poetic language in particular as the agent that animates memory. Robert Hass’s affirmation of language’s inextricable relationship with lived experience undermines the authority of the philosophical distinctions identified in the first half of “Meditation at Lagunitas.” The speaker’s elaboration of these 17 18 19 20
Ibid., lines 20-22. Ibid., line 16. Ibid., line 30. Ibid., line 31.
initial premises through the figure of loss renders their abstract theses subservient to a more personal, subjective lack. It becomes apparent that the respective dissociations of thought from substance and language from meaning derive from an insatiable longing rooted in personal loss. By shifting from an abstract mode of discourse to personal recollection the speaker thus locates loss in lived experience. As the agent that articulates this loss, language assuages the speaker’s longing, conjuring up images from his childhood and performing moments “when the body is as numinous/as words.”21 The metaphors through which the speaker conveys the old and new philosophical premises rhetorically weaken their denotative content by demonstrating that language signifies figuratively. While the noun phrase “bramble of blackberry”22 may not fully communicate the thing to which it directly refers, the word “blackberry” carries personal meaning for the speaker by virtue of its attachment to “those afternoons” of “tenderness.” The repetition, “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” at the end of Hass’s poem reaffirms the status of poetic speech itself as the performance of memory, and casts the word, contextualized within memory, as the site at which meaning is generated even while it is lost.
Works Cited Hass, Robert. “Meditation at Lagunitas” Praise. New York: Ecco Press, 1979.
Ibid., lines 28-29. Ibid., line 10.
Friendship (In Fragments) How is it possible to speak of friendship? A question which is a mutation of Blanchot’s question in l’Amitie, his eulogy to his great friend Georges Bataille: How is it possible to speak of the friend? Twinned questions which will introduce for us the recurring problem of the general and the particular, between the part and the whole. But we will work our way back to Blanchot’s fundamental question, which is a founding ethical question—one which concerns the violence done to friendship in speaking of it, and whether our speech has any recourse to nonviolent representations of friendship. We have to pose the question such that it presupposes that it is possible to speak about friendship, both in the register of a cluster of singularities, constellations of friendship-events; and also in the register of some generality that would allow us to speak about friendship as a concept with totalizing coherence. To that end, I have attempted to honour both friendship through close readings of theory and poetry; and the friends themselves through depictions of the scenes of friendship in an intercut piece entitled Friendship Fugue. To speak of friendship, or to give it strict ethical delimitations, is to erase the friend in that speech. It is tentatively that I approach friendship through the form of the fragmentary. Couched within this form are scenes of friendship: not theories but tentative queries into the nature of friendship, woven out of descriptions of encounters with the friend. Friendship, or the mode of friendship of which we will speak, is irruptive; it breaks the continuity of a relation without recuperating the discontinuity under a new continuity, which would smooth the relationship out again. The project, as it stands, is restless and incomplete, spreading outward in several directions—toward love, ethics, responsibility—and not committing to any one view upon friendship. If this is telling, it is telling of my own inconsistencies where friendship-relations are concerned: always chasing novelty and difference, unable to reach a
deep focus either with one aspect of friendship, or with one friend. Friendship Fugue “Friendship Fugue” is my first groping toward finding a way of writing about both the particularity of friends and friendship as a general concept. The fugue is a compositional technique, etymologically linked to the Latin fugere ("to flee") and fugare ("to chase"). It’s a polyphonic procedure in which a subject is exposed by the pulling a connecting line through dissimilar places. I sought a style neither essayistic nor aphoristic, neither a continuous, self-sustained whole nor a collection of pieces. Instead: variations on a theme. Friendship is the certitude of intimacy in the midst of the vague hostility of the social. Friendship is love which is susceptible to trespass. Friendship is the extraction of meaning from the bleary boredom of the everyday. Friendship is the matrix of memories which sustain our tenuous continuity in times of delighted stability, and resist our self-afflicting tendencies to become the destroyed wreckage of bodies at sea. Then, in moments of crisis or stasis, those same memories of friendship dismantle us, leave us stranded. What follows are fictions of memory of friendships within a city: nights retraced, daytimes scripted in shaky memoir. This piece, friendship fugue, is diary and desire of the movements of friendship, as we retreat from it and chase after it again. Kensington Market, late summer night Friendship is the messy curation of mutual self-destruction. Kensington is a compact place, collapsed star at the heart of the city. Seems as though every day were garbage day in the Market and raccoon and human eye alike glint with their desire to get trashed. Its shanty streets are crossed by debauch and what grows in its slit alleys are the shadow gestures of slow guilt yet to be lived through, devoted drunkards and occasional vagrants shadowboxing with the shame of another night erased. A tentative definition advanced as I enter the room: friendship is the notion of coolness not in social, but in private circulation. Techno party in Double Double Land, a low loft hot as hell. Rhythms of the dancers to their repeating beats: to and fro, neon flesh made
animate by electric currents, limbs like backwater swans diving for slime. A lyric from the song scythes through the sweat hanging in air to snag your thought: Am I so truthful / Or in truth / Is the youth just getting old? The darkness contradicts your curiosity; the bodies around you hoard their cool youthfulness; anonymous skin and muscle enclose themselves against the persistent enumerations of time. Friendship is a matter of space, or the mattering of space, a geometric function running lines of intimacy through a foreign setting. Beside me, Judy weaves through the congealing crowd. Mistress of gesture, her face carries eruptive paragraphs of meaning, lucid reflections of the scene it receives. To be by her side is to experience a place twice over, the second time through an irony which pierces the ephemera of the place’s pleasures while partaking in them all the same. Across the room, the Wild Boys slaver into each other, their eyes wide spirals, their sexuality a straightness so perfect it bends into a new homoeroticism. Greek love, but among equals; American lust, but unconfined to the genital. Live rockets to the sky, they know what it is to be released into a place where boundaries flicker and burst. The room is traversed by lines of friendship, determining my orbit, threading me between the exasperated satires of Judy and the polyamorous perversity of the Wild Boys. Perhaps friendship is the distance sufficient for touching bodies without terror. Ever since I could remember I have been shocked by the materiality of flesh. To touch another’s body was to reaffirm my own: no easy thing for a boy host to an undimming parade of fantasies which depended on abstracting meat into thought. At 2am, drugs in blood and sour room spinning in our veins, we enter a collective fugue state, ecstasy for its own sake become a blunt trauma to take us to bed, where we wake the next afternoon to the sound of Dionysus’s echoing chuckle. Friendship: The Particular & The General In this passage, I will take two moments of friendship’s theorization—one from a lecture by Kant, and the other from an essay by Emerson—to examine two ways of figuring friendship’s relation to the Whole.
“Is every man a possible friend for us? No. I can be a friend of mankind in general in the sense that I can bear good-will in my heart towards everyone, but to be the friend of everybody is impossible, for friendship is a particular relationship… And yet there are men of the world whose capacity to form friendships with anyone might well earn them the title of everybody’s friends. Such citizens are very rare. They are men of a kindly disposition, who are always prepared to look on the best side of things… But as a rule, men are inclined to form relationships because this is a natural impulse and also because we all start with the particular and then proceed to the general”1. In this passage, Kant first posits an ideal, “impossible” friend whose impossibility is then softened into “rarity,” only to circle back to the supposed “rule” of the particularity of friendship, friendship as a preference which necessarily excludes. Here, he leaves undecidable the problem of quantity (the friend as necessarily enumerable) against limitlessness (the friend as friend to all). This undecidability is not a contradiction; rather, it speaks of the desire of friendship for totality, tense against the impossibility of that totality for the temporally-bound mortal man who actualizes friendships, never Friendship. “A man without a friend is isolated. Friendship develops the minor virtues of life”2. Kant shows us, in one example, the turn from speaking of the friend in the singular to moving into the register of the general. But the motion of logic that would serve as the transition between these two thoughts is unclear; much of the lecture reads as a series of assertive non-sequiturs. Highlighted in Kant’s Lecture is the impossibility of a systematic approach to friendship. Terms like “kindness” and “disposition” shift the question from that which is rationally determinable onto that which is mooded, affective, an issue of a person’s character. While the status of the good and the virtuous remains in question, it is less a philosophical than an emotive problem; “isolation,” an existential state wherein one is bereft of friends, is cast in a negative light as something to be avoided. “Even to our best friend we must not reveal ourselves, in our natural state as we know it ourselves… Friendship is an aid in overcoming the constraint and the distrust man feels in his intercourse with others”3. A final tension comes through in Kant: the individual 1 2 3
Pakaluk, Other Selves, 217 Ibid., pg 217 Ibid., p. 215
guards an utmost privacy in themselves, yet needs friendship to be the special relationship that secures some good in sociality. The “overcoming of constraint” is again an asymptotic process, because for Kant there will always be an aspect of the self that is best left constrained to the private sphere. Yet there is no rule whereby one might determine what constitutes “our natural state;” that is, how one circumscribes the private that that friendship should not access. One suspects that the distinction would be fluid, mutable, changing depending on each friendship and situation. “There must be very two, before there can be very one. Let it be an alliance of two large, formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep identity which, beneath these disparities, unites them”4. The logic of the “very one”—the totality of friendship—is the unity of multiplicity. Instead of Kant’s individual, who stands alone and holds within himself a private core, the twoness of friendship for Emerson precedes the one. In this mystical unity there is no lingering distrust, as there was in Kant—the friend is ultimately trusted more than the self, for they make you more than a lone self. “The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust. It must not surmise or provide for infirmity. It treats its object as a god, that it may deify both”5… “There can never be deep peace between two spirits, never mutual respect, until in their dialogue each stands for the whole world”6. Against Kant’s guarded subject of friendship, Emerson’s mystical subject reveals a concern for a different kind of wholeness: that of the world as encapsulated by a friendship. In dialogue with a friend, each word and phrase uttered by the friend brings you to experience their entire world, and all the associative power that terms would have for them rather than for you. It is “magnanimity and trust” that motivates this drive to imagine the friend in their totality, a totality in which one is committed for the duration of the dialogue. “So I will owe to my friends this evanescent intercourse. I will receive from them not what they have but what they are. They shall give me that which properly they cannot give, but which emanates from them. But they shall not hold me by any relations less subtile and pure. We will meet as though we met not, and part as though 4 5 6
Ibid., p. 229 Ibid., p. 232 Ibid., pg. 230
we parted not”7. This is the gift of the friend—a gift of love (cf. Lacan on love as giving what one does not have to someone who doesn’t want it). In order to bring the gift to the friend, there are a pair of missed experiences: the encounter is never complete (“we met not”) because parts of the friends do not reveal themselves to you; yet it is as though the friends “parted not” because the friend’s influences inform you after their departure, whether consciously or not. Friendship is an experience of the Whole of another beloved self, which breaks away and rejoins on disparate occasions. Christie Pits Park, in a chameleon autumn There is an idiom for friendship in Mandarin that goes like this: 两肋插刀. Let me translate this a few ways: knives stuck in the ribs, two machetes in one’s sides, or, to mirror the word order of the Chinese, both ribs sheathed with swords. Friendship is not mentioned, but it hisses out from the dual wounds of sacrifice: the first knife is the mortal blow to your body, the loss of your life; the second knife is a passionate exaggeration, an ornament for a corpse, the hope that your death would have protected your friend from their death. Extremity of friendship: a voice from elsewhere that says, you would give your life for those you call your close friends. Total seal of unrealistic devotion, a sentiment from the Feudal Ages transposed as the stakes of friendship: if it came down to it, I would die for you. A final and lasting battle cry: let my gift of life prove my loyalty for you. Yet friendship is as much a matter of the banal, the everyday, as it is about imagined melodramas. Vivian sits beside me, a better angel of my nature, speaking of the Bible, chain-smoking menthols. She swallows her impatience at my stupid jokes, my trivial remarks, a gesture I love her for, because it tells me when I have gone too deep into my own world, but which nonetheless grants me some measure of benevolence. To call what she gives me insight would be to reduce it: her advice has redrawn the contours of my life, and newly seeing it reshaped so by her speech—its tenor of care shaded by tough love—has before turned my errant heels onto better paths. A little boy plays with a soccer ball on the Christie Pits hill overlooking the baseball diamond,, trips and tumbles, all the while unhurt. A woman pretends the slope is a nude beach and for a 7
Ibid., pg. 232
while the players catch sidelong glances instead of baseballs. Your attention wanders away from you, and friendship is the resting place in the field of distraction that calls you to responsiveness. It narrows the overwhelming world to a fine point, to the bounded infinitude of the friend’s complexity. In loving friendships, sudden moments of felt extremity geyser upward, 两肋插刀 roused out of a fierce gratitude: in this moment I would give my life up for you. A flare of this all-consuming love from the uneven terrain of the ordinary. A burst of rain arrives. Vivian and I run to the nearest shelter. In the Café: On the Distinction Between Romance and Friendship Outside the function-relationship of exchange, the economics of encounters with strangers is always lined with the possibility of friendship as a desired or as-yet-unknown horizon. On the other side beyond friendship, Louise Gluck asks the question: What is the status of a distinction between romantic love and the love involved in friendship? Her poem “In the Café” (reproduced above) draws this distinction in one way. But we can conceive of endless ways to name this distinction: along lines of corporeal desire and eroticism; along lines of marriage and commitment. Yet we must acknowledge that such categories, traditionally applied to amourous relation, also work themselves into friendship; for in friendships the erotic remains in play. It may be most generative, finally, to think of friendship as the blurring of any lines of distinction between it and the amorous relation. No division can be rigorously maintained; friendship remains in the amorphous realm of the possible. In the Café Louise Gluck It's natural to be tired of earth. When you've been dead this long, you'll probably be tired of heaven. You do what you can do in a place but after awhile you exhaust that place, so you long for rescue. My friend falls in love a little too easily.
Every year or so a new girl— If they have children he doesn't mind— he can fall in love with children also. So the rest of us get sour and he stays the same, full of adventure, always making new discoveries. But he hates moving, so the women have to come from here, or near here. Every month or so, we meet for coffee. In summer, we'll walk around the meadow, sometimes as far as the mountain. Even when he suffers, he's thriving, happy in his body. It's partly the women, of course, but not that only. He moves into their houses, learns to like the movies they like. It's not an act—he really does learn, the way someone goes to cooking school and learns to cook. He sees everything with their eyes. He becomes not what they are but what they could be if they weren't trapped in their characters. For him, this new self of his is liberating because it's invented— he absorbs the fundamental needs in which their souls are rooted, he experiences as his own the rituals and preferences these give rise to— but as he lives with each woman, he inhabits each version of himself fully, because it isn't compromised by the normal shame and anxiety. When he leaves, the women are devastated. Finally they met a man who answered all their needs— there was nothing they couldn't tell him. When they meet him now, he's a cipher— the person they knew didn't exist anymore. He came into existence when they met, he vanished when it ended, when he walked away. After a few years, they get over him. They tell their new boyfriends how amazing it was, like living with another woman, but without the spite, the envy, and with a man's strength, a man's clarity of mind.
And the men tolerate this, they even smile. They stroke the woman's hair— they know this man doesn't exist; it's hard for them to feel competitive. You couldn't ask, though, for a better friend, a more subtle observer. When we talk, he's candid and open, he's kept the intensity we all had when we were young. He talks openly of fear, of the qualities he detests in himself. And he's generous—he knows how I am just by looking. If I'm frustrated or angry, he'll listen for hours, not because he's forcing himself, because he's interested. I guess that's how he is with the women. But the friends he never leaves— With them, he's trying to stand outside his life, to see it clearly— Today he wants to sit; there's a lot to say, too much for the meadow. He wants to be face to face, talking to someone he's known forever. He's on the verge of a new life. His eyes glow, he isn't interested in the coffee. Even though it's sunset, for him the sun is rising again, and the fields are flushed with dawn light, rose colored and tentative. He's himself in these moments, not pieces of the women he's slept with. He enters their lives as you enter a dream, without volition, and he lives there as you live in a dream, however long it lasts. And in the morning, you remember nothing of the dream at all, nothing at all. (“In the Café,” A Village Life, 13) “When they meet him now, he's a cipher— / the person they knew didn't exist anymore. / He came into existence when they met, / he vanished when it ended, when he walked away.” The man, in romantic love, forgets himself as the fragment does; between one relationship and the next, there is an absolute discontinuity. However, within the confines of each relationship, the man forms an amorous totality with his love: not only have the women “finally met a man who meets all their needs,” the man also inhabits himself “fully.” Two versions of the whole: the woman finds a completeness
through the relationship, while the man needs the relationship to catalyze a completeness in and of himself. “But the friends he never leaves— / With them, he’s trying to see outside his life, to see it clearly—” Friendship, on the other hand, is temporally unlimited; the narrator and the man have known each other “forever” (or so the narrator claims). Friendship is a continuity guaranteed by the other; if the man sheds his selfhood from one relation to the next, it is the narrator who bears the burden and blessing of remembering. The friend thus ensures their preservation through time. Friendship is distinct from amorous relation insofar as it manifests a permanence, one which is latticed by the fragments of friendshipencounters (here, each encounter is set in the café). But upon multiple readings of the poem, the uncanny possibility arises that the speaker is caught by the man’s charms, as bewitched as any of his lovers. She speaks of him in an idealizing way: “You couldn’t ask for a better friend, / a more subtle observer.” We might say that while amorous totality is durational and all-consuming, the nature of the friendship-enchantment that appears throughout the poem is temporary and yet temporally unbound (the “every month or so” in the fourth verse stretches until either party’s death death). Between Toronto and Vancouver, between spring and summer Loving is more of the essence of friendship than being loved, Aristotle states, simply and definitively, under the harsh light of Greek reason. “Now since friendship depends more on loving, and it is those who love their friends that are praised, loving seems to be the characteristic virtue of friends, so that it is only those in whom this is found in due measure that are lasting friends, and only their friendship that endures.” The cold of the propositional motion in The Nicomachean Ethics leaves me gray and aching; love becomes insensate in the iron bars of logic. A flurry of conditions. Only the virtuous friendship can last. Yet also implicit in Aristotle’s ethics is an impossible ideal, the line of what friendship ought to be that taunts the asymptote of desire which always misses the mark, and swings back to the unvirtuous: discomfort, rage, despair. Road trip to Vancouver. Westward to the as-yet-unknown mild of the coast. My traveling companion is my friend Salim, with whom
I am, simply and definitively, in love. I told him this once and the silence like the death of a pet that fell over him made me foreswear that I would not repeat myself. Eventually a reply: ‘… can we stay friends?’ At every pit stop we made, I crawled to the backseat to meditate as he changed the gas, his arcing back neatly slick with sun. In my head spun variations on a phrase, deliberate re-tunings of its meaning: I do not need love to be returned; we can be ‘just friends;’ is there such thing as ‘just friends;’ is there justice in this friendship if it all goes one way, who do I have to be for him to love me, what do I have to change—you can probably surmise that I was not very good at meditation. I veered off the straight course of Aristotle’s virtuous and onto the twisted backroads of demanding to be loved. Friendship is ruptured by the obsessions which exceed it. In Edmonton, he flirts with a farmer visiting town. My senses splinter to discrete pieces. Sheaves of wheat roll by, bundled in a truck. Sky crossed by a lone nimbus. The stranger speaks: “Yer a sweet-talkin’, mealy-mouthed modern man, aren’t ya?” The soft & heavy exhaling sound Salim makes before he does something reckless out of love. A green sheet of jealousy falls over my vision and I turn to walk away, toward the stupid highway jutting into the ugly horizon. How often have I fallen away from Aristotle’s dictate, yet still I cannot shake it. How remote is its permanence from my provisional moods; but it nags at me, it gnaws at the root of my wanting. Two years later I sit alone at Futures Bakery wondering how long it takes before the bitter backwash taste leaves my mouth. A line from a Xie Lingyun poem runs through my head: in dreams I await your white ship’s return / coming to me free from cruelty and care. Only here, the dreams were my waking hours, the white ship would be a black Toyota, and the return was never to come. Friendship is the promise that, one day, it will be that love is measured by itself, not by the weight of the petty jealousies, the anticipations of reciprocity, nor the economies of possession that surround it. Blanchot Satellite: Death of the Friend “Those who were closest say only what was close to them, not the
distance that affirmed itself in this proximity, and distance ceases as soon as presence ceases. Vainly do we try to maintain, with our words, with our writings, what is absent; vainly do we offer it the appeal of our memories and a sort of figure, the joy of remaining with the day, life prolonged by a truthful appearance”8. Writing in the wake of his friend Bataille’s passing, for Blanchot “Distance ceases as soon as presence ceases” because, without presence, distance becomes measureless, it stretches out to infinity; and, without a measure, the concept of distance is annulled. After a friend’s death, the duality of presence/absence collapses. What we have left is vanity because “the appeal of our memories” no longer has any bearing on the friend; those appeals are caught in the echo chamber which returns memory to the function of selfconsolation, of letting the living mourner grieve. Yet Blanchot does not scorn our will to throw up “truthful appearances”; these are our last desperate resorts, cast asymptotically toward death’s door. “We must give up trying to know those to whom we are linked by something essential; by this I mean we must greet them in the relation with the unknown in which they greet us as well, in our estrangement”9. Blanchot opens his ethical injunction beyond the event of a friend’s death to found all friendship—the relationship he names wherein “we are linked by something essential”—on the unknown. This relation without relation—the paradoxical relationship that estrangement forges between two—is the founding ethical relationship, intensely brought to the fore of relationality by friendship. This is not, however, a hopeless situation; rather, Blanchot asks us to rein in the arrogance of our knowledge when we feel we have ‘grasped’ something of the friend, which always risks effacing the friend in favour of our own understanding. Du Fu: The Poem of Friendship The poems of master poets—and exiled friends—Li Bai and Du Fu, in 7th century China, exemplify for us the work of friendship; their poems are the work that friendship alone could produce, and they express to us a multivalent lens upon friendship. Here I want to undertake a slow reading of six lines of Du Fu’s Dreaming of Li Bai (2) through my own translation to trace how the form of the poem develops an ethics of friendship of a kin with Blanchot’s, comprehensively brings forth the concerns of friendship theorists 8 9
Blanchot, Friendship, 289 Ibid., p. 291
from before, and performs the work of acknowledging the vital importance of the friendship while preserving the distance between the friends. 梦李白 杜甫 【其二】 浮云终日行，游子久不至。 三夜频梦君，情亲见君意。 告归常局促，苦道来不易。 江湖多风波，舟楫恐失坠。 出门搔白首，若负平生志。 冠盖满京华，斯人独憔悴。 孰云网恢恢，将老身反累。 千秋万岁名，寂寞身后事。 “浮云终日行，游子久不至,” “Drifting clouds pass through the day / the traveler travels long without arriving.” The poem begins with adjacency; it does not link the clouds of the first line to the traveler of the second. Rather, it describes a parallel motion: the world and the friend move not as one thing, but inflect each other with their co-existence. Adjacency, unlike metaphor or simile (rarely used in poetry of this period), is the technique wherein two things can be presented without one overlapping upon or overshadowing the other. “三夜频梦君，情亲见君意,” “Three nights you have appeared in dreams / in our intimacy, I could see your every thought.” The character “意” here is difficult to translate: it can be given as “idea,” “thought,” or “intention.” But the gist of the line is that the poem’s speaker has merged with the friend’s subjectivity, in an Emersonian move where there is “very two before there is very one.” The character “见” is important here: it means “glimpse” or “look upon,” but not to know. The speaker claims no knowledge over his friend; he only knows that there are dream-encounters in which the friend passes through as a feversleep intensity. “告归常局促，苦道来不易,” “You said your return could only be harrowing / your coming back, a bitter coming.” This line reveals to us implicitly that the friend is in exile, banished from his home and his friendships. “不易,” “not easy,” is commonly used in Chinese as an understatement; to translate the full affective weight of the phrase would render it “impossibly difficult.”
“江湖多风波，舟楫恐失坠,” “Rivers and lakes upon which the wind roils tides: / in your dinghy you fear shipwreck.” The dream continues for the speaker, images appearing in his dreamscape conjured out of worry and an utmost concern for the friend. The natural landscape and the friend—once separate entities in the first line—now begin to physically interact. The stakes are heightened by the injustice of the exile, made manifest by the tumult of nature. “冠盖满京华，斯人独憔悴,” “Those rich and mighty bureaucrats fill the Capital / while you, alone, lie thin and dejected.” The poem switches to a political register to criticize the ones who exiled his friend, casting its scorn upon the powerful. This couplet has the additional effect of reinforcing the bond between the two against the massed and wrongheaded bureaucracy; friendship here is the maintenance of a bond despite all attempts by the social sphere to loosen it. “千秋万岁名，寂寞身后事,” “A thousand autumns and ten thousand of fame / amount to nothing after death.” The last couplet leaves the situation ambiguous: is the friend in exile now dead? For the speaker, it is an unanswerable question. But the tone of the poem—caught between acceptance of the friend’s absence, and a mode of waiting of an indeterminate duration—suggests that losing the friend to life complicates the shifting terms of presence and absence more losing him to death. The poem explores these complications, shifting registers and concerns from the personal to the political, alternating between mad worry and hopeless resignation. Little Portugal, dead of winter Reading Blanchot I get the feeling of swallowing whole a void without chewing. I quote: “Everything we say tends to veil the one affirmation: that everything must fade and that we can remain loyal to our friend only so long as we watch over this fading movement, to which something in us that rejects all memory already belongs” . But we must leave Blanchot for the moment to his vigil over the deathbed of Bataille. For it is not only in death that everything must fade. Friendship is learning how to mourn for the living. In centipede apartment on the west end of town, sunless rooms and a head full of dust, I watch the image of X dying in his refusal not to always be in
exile. Relentless melancholic, he drove himself into abject corners to sever himself from himself. We lived together without knowing each other, performing phantasmatic roles in each other’s lives. He became his father, neglectful to those he loved, rabid in his selfdestruction, desperate for shelter, hating himself in his desperation. I became my mother, hinging the whole of my self-worth on giving care, offering what I did not have, desperate to become his shelter, finding myself pathetic in my desperation. Like thus we were each other’s triggers. How could we have known each other, in the immaculate pose of two parallel lines intersecting, thrown forward by the force of unburied psychic detritus. Two one-way streets where the illusory collides with the real, and you inhabit the space of the explosion. Mourning for the living is a delicate process, for it takes so long to arrive outside of your fantasies of the other, the length of what feels like a lifetime passed over. For the living friend resurrects the images of him we try to shed, bound as he is to what we recall of him. Mourning for the living is a letting go of images, undoing the desire which affixes them to a fragile projection. There is something in us that rejects all memory, Blanchot writes, for memory is but a liar’s crutch to lean upon, it summons the friend back to us in false presence. Memory forgets the distance between us and the friend, a distance that affirms itself even on the most intimate terms of proximity. The window of my basement apartment faces the underside of the porch; less a window and more of a cruel joke in a pane of glass, it receives no light. Some prior tenant slapped a sticker of a luminescent skeleton to face the interior of the room, a lovely memento mori but in a “you’re going to die here” way. Friendship is loyalty to the fading movement which, elusive, leaves you loyal to an iteration of the friend who is no longer there. After many months of depending hard upon the undependable, I come to this moment in darkness, choosing to refuse all further melancholic identifications which transformed X in our every meeting. What remains of the friend, what remained of X, was a vivid singularity: not a collection of his qualities, but only what he is, only that he is. Love is realized as an undoing of categories and predicates. By rejecting all memory, we can move on at last, and encounter the friend in the moving fluidity of improvisation.
Works Cited Blanchot, Maurice. Friendship. Trans. Elizabeth Rottenbeg. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 1997. Print. Fu, Du. “Dreaming of Li Bai.” << http://baike.baidu.com/ view/155722.htm>>. Web. Accessed 15 Sept. 2015. Gluck, Louise. A Village Life. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009. Print. Other Selves: Philosophers on Friendship. Ed. Michael Pakaluk. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1991. Print.
Mariam J. Sheikh
Bridging the Parallax Gap in Asian-Canadian Literature: Thought and Being in Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill Asian-Canadian studies are emerging as both a critical and social guide to understanding the evolution of the immigrant narrative. Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill exemplifies this through its streamof-consciousness narration, which is shown to evolve as the text progresses. Introduced as a “biotext”1 and later called a “biofiction,”2 this book exemplifies a second-generation immigrant’s identity crisis in the face of racism in a “multicultural” society. While Wah demonstrates an appreciation for the multitude of ethnicities trying to inhabit the same Canadian space, he also proposes a kind of leaping into new, hybrid identity by rediscovering the old. Through the shifting of perspective between the consciousness of Wah and that of his father, the reader is presented with the threads of an interwoven textual reality that undermines the normative stereotypes of Asian-Canadian identity. However, it is precisely this seemingly constructive act of leaping into new identity that presents the problem of the ‘parallax gap.’ The word parallax, as a metaphor, is employed to illustrate an apparent displacement in the position of an object caused by a shift in the observational position of the subject.3 An exploration of the Žižekian notion of the ‘parallax gap,’ in conjunction with Beauregard’s critique of the function of Asian-Canadian literature in both academic and social spaces, will shed light on the disjunction between being and thought in Asian-Canadian communities. There needs to be a bridge to close the short circuit between the ideological reading of Asian-Canadian literature and the reality of individuals in the community. This is a call for the silent hyphen in the hybrid 1 2 3
Wah, Diamond Grill, acknowledgement Ibid., p. 177 Oxford English Dictionary
Asian-Canadian identity to become “noisy”4 as proposed by Wah in Diamond Grill. Wah illustrates the evolution of multigenerational immigrant identity by presenting minute changes in his use of language. Through the use of terms such as “high mucka(muck),”5 “mucka high,”6 and “mucka hi,”7 Wah presents the fluidity of culture and the clashing of languages between Japanese, Aboriginal, and Canadian speakers as various ethnicities try to occupy the same space. Spoken primarily by Wah’s grandfather, this constantly shifting expression plays on the semiotic formula of signifier, signified, and signification: the signifier belongs to the language of First Nations,8 its signified relates to the white-hegemonic notions of class,9 and its signification is heavily entrenched in the “vocabulary of colonial interaction, the code-switching talkeetalkee of the contact zone.”10 Wah notes that when he hears, “[G]rampa talk like that, high muckamuck […] he’s sliding Chinese words into English words just to have a little fun. He has fun alright but now I realize he also enjoys the dissonance of encounter, the resonance of clashing tongues, his own membership in the diasporic and nomadic intersections.”11 Wah here employs a very self-aware meta-language while discussing the implications of his grandfather’s use of a term as simple as “high muckamuck.” In contemplating the phrase, young Wah sees the expression as a combination of Chinese and English, the two cultures that are referenced by the expression but have nothing to do with its roots. By employing it, however, Wah suggests that this “code switching […] of the contact zone”12 between Japanese and Canadian identity is what permits Grandpa Wah his membership 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Wah, Diamond Grill, p. 180 Ibid., pg 168. Ibid., pg 120. Ibid., pg 164. Ibid., pg. 68. Ibid., pg 69. Ibid., pg. 68. Ibid., pg. 68 Ibid., 68-69.
into the “diasporic intersection.”13 The text suggests that the only way to validate and legitimize one’s space as an immigrant in Canada is by creating a harmonious experience within the historical context of this contact zone. Wah demonstrates an appreciation for the various iterations of the same Chinook terminology; simultaneously, however, the reader recognizes how language leaps to generate new ways of speaking. This exemplifies the ways in which new, hybrid identities emerge as a result of rediscovering the past. Wah situates himself in two different spaces of consciousness: his own individual one, and that of his multilayered, multicultural heritage. This is done in order to expound upon the racialized individual’s experience of identity exploration. Fred Jr. feels an impulse to jump into his father’s consciousness, beginning when he sees the bear eating cherries, “one of the first times” the narrator “become[s]” his father.14 Some of the most significant lines of the book occur in this dynamic scene of shifting identities: I feel decanting through my body his ocean […] this is, in me, part of some same helical sentence we both occupy, the asynchronous grains of sand along a double-helix dream time track, the déjà vu of body, skin and fur and eyes, a brief intersection of animal coordinates. Synapse and syntax.15 In describing the physicality of the DNA helix, Wah paints the multigenerational Asian-Canadian identity by presenting his experience in Canada as being inextricably linked to that of his father. While each individual experiences life in a different time period—through “asynchronous grains of sand”—each is affected by “the déjà vu of body, skin and fur and eyes.”16 The pinnacle of the interwoven textual reality described in the pages of Diamond Grill is best expressed as “[s]ynapse and syntax.” The synapses in the text are the places where the father and son’s lives overlap, while the syntaxes are what fill and differentiate the space between the double-helical arrangements of their lives. The moments of overlap between Wah and his father’s lives illustrate a cultural stagnation, 13 14 15 16
Ibid., 68. Ibid., 12. Ibid., pg 12 Ibid., pg 12
brought about by their shared biology (“body, skin, and fur and eyes”), forcing one generation to occupy the same space as the one before it due to their racial classification. The space of syntax represents divergence between their lives; it denotes Wah’s leeway to play with and explore his identity in a way that differentiates him from his father. The power of Wah’s book lies in its flexibility and willingness to be applied to the greater context of Asian-Canadian literature as a whole. His perception of moving in and out of consciousness with another person can be extrapolated into the wider academic discourse of Asian-Canadian literature, in which the author and reader must learn to situate themselves in various times and places in order to fully engage with diasporic experiences. The book’s pliability is tested by Guy Beauregard’s criticism: [A] “coming to voice” argument fails to investigate the terms on which and through which certain texts are admitted into the circuits of Canadian publishing, reviewing, teaching, and so on. In short, the “coming to voice” argument, despite (or perhaps even because of ) its celebratory tone, fails to consider the potential containment of cultural difference in a Canadian “multiculturalism.”17 Beauregard here argues that the “coming to voice” narrative is not to be commended for advancing the social identity of Asian-Canadians; rather, it is another tile in the mosaic of white multiculturalism. It is a discourse whose post-colonial language uses racialized or ethnic narratives as an “obscene supplement”18 to its multicultural ideology. Beauregard also notes that the rise of “coming to voice” narratives does not address the exclusion of these same voices from academic teaching. He expounds the term “Asian-Canadian [as an] analytic category and not an identity,”19 and differentiates the literary analysis and social experience of post-colonial narratives, ultimately presenting a gap between the ideology and reality of Asian-Canadian literature. The significant and delicate gap between thought and being within 17
Beauregard, “Asian Canadian Studies: Unfinished Projects” p. 12 Ibid., p. 12 Ibid., pp. 6-27
the Asian-Canadian community is most accurately understood within the context of Žižek’s theory of the parallax gap. The parallax gap deals with the ontological and epistemological disjunction between subject and object, which in this case are the author and literature, respectively. It arises as a result of the flawed dialectical approach, which naturally assumes that the combination of a thesis and antithesis will result in their synthesis. In his critique of the Hegelian triad, Žižek argues that rather than resulting in synthesis, this dialectical approach merely results in an “epistemological shift”: “subject and object are inherently ‘mediated,’ so that the ‘epistemological’ shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an ‘ontological’ shift on the object itself.”20 For Kant, these two positions—the thesis and antithesis— are entirely irreconcilable,21 and so Žižek posits this irreconcilable “ontological difference [as] itself the ultimate parallax which conditions our very access to reality.”22 Access to one’s material reality is conditioned due to the nature of the subject’s inclusion in the object whose reality is at stake. Thus, “[t]he frame is always-already redoubled: the frame within ‘reality’ is always linked to another frame enframing ‘reality’ itself.”23 The occurrence of this doubled reality results in an “impossible short circuit”24 in the place where synthesis was previously assumed to occur. Applying this Žižekian paradigm to Asian-Canadian literature, the author or reader, who sits and observes the diasporic experience from the periphery of the novel, is not merely an observer of the events taking place, but an active subject within the plot itself. Thus, any shift in perspective from the narrator, author, or reader will indubitably cause a shift in the apparent position of the object of the text. This creates a framework that is impossible to navigate: on the one hand, the author-narrator function is the only lens through which an honest account of diasporic experience and identity crisis is to be perceived; on the other hand, if this lens is no longer positioned outside the text, but exists within it, the truth being presented will always be tainted by the experience of the narrator. This results in the “short circuit” of the epistemological shift. To help ease the tension of this paradoxical disjunction between the subject and object of Asian-Canadian literature, Beauregard
20 21 22 23 24
Žižek, Parallax View, p. 17 Johnston, Žižek’s Ontology, 121 Žižek, Parallax View, p. 10 Ibid., p. 29. Ibid. p. 29
theorizes that this gap is not merely a void impossible to fill. Instead, he suggests that this gap is already inhabited: it is the site of institutionalized control over the expression of multiculturalism, defining constraints on ethnic and racial difference.25 This, he proposes, is the barrier between literary analysis and social experience of post-colonial narratives, between the ideology and reality of Asian-Canadian literature. The reason why the subject’s gaze is so heavily implicated in the object itself is because it prevents the subject from discoursing itself outside the realm of its own interpellated existence. The space for “multicultural” literature is designated within a particular department in academia, and is not presented in a more inclusive setting, where all voices are represented. The current threat to Asian-Canadian literature is that the reading of the literary narrative will far surpass the actual sociopolitical circumstances of most current Asian-Canadian people. Beauregard is calling for a genuine redress of the AsianCanadian community, to employ “intellectual strategies” to create a broader reading. This involves a deconstruction of the hegemonic discourse on Asian-Canadian literature, which in the process will grant agency26 or as Roy Miki would call it, “Asiancy”27 to its writers, bringing them out of the marginalized space they currently occupy in the “post”-colonial study of Asian-Canadian literature. Beauregard sees in Diamond Grill the perfect tools to redefine the gap and transform the power plays of races in our increasingly hybrid society.28 In “Rattling a Noisy Hyphen,” Beauregard identifies the symbolic hyphen in Wah’s book as the site of “cultural negotiation,”29 which is a metaphor made literal by the swinging doors of Diamond Grill’s kitchen. To put this interpretation into perspective, it helps to return to the opening scene of Wah’s book, in which he indulges the reader in a preview of the text’s main issues, the largest of them being the dislocation of Asian-Canadian heritage: “Maps don’t have beginnings, just edges. Some frayed and hazy margin of possibility, absence, gap, shouts in the kitchen.”30 This excerpt is essentially the thesis of Wah’s book, which proposes the role of the hyphen as the mediator that will connect the disconnected Occident and Orient. Frequently portrayed with
25 26 27 28 29 30
Beauregard, “The Emergence,” p. 12 Beauregard, “Rattling a Noisy Hyphen,” p. 171 Ibid., “The Emergence,” p. 12 Ibid. p. 172 Ibid., p. 172 Wah, Diamond Grill, p. 1
North America on the far left and East Asia on the far right, the world map literally embodies the disjunction between these two components of Asian-Canadian identity. Wah’s hyphen therefore seeks to bridge the gap between the “frayed and hazy margins” in order to bring to the foreground any possibility of reconciliation between these disjointed identities. The reader first finds Wah crossing this threshold in his opening of the café on early mornings for his father: “ready Freddy, open up with a good swift toe to the wooden slab that swings between the Occident and the Orient to break the […] silence that is a hyphen and the hyphen is the door.”31 Wah then illustrates the implications of permitting himself to make noise while crossing the doors noisily: Those doors take quite a beating […]. It’s so nifty when I discover how they work […]. When I first start working in the café I love to wallop that brass as hard as I can. But my dad warns me early not to make such a noise because that disturbs the customers […]. But when we get real busy, all [of us] will let loose in the shape and cacophony[,] the kicker of desire hidden in the isochronous torso, […] a vital percussion, a critical persuasion, a playful permission fast and loud, WhapBamBoom!—feels so good.32 Here, the reader understands the hybrid individual’s natural tendency to skilfully cross back and forth over the threshold of the door-hyphen. The noisiness of this movement represents the unleashing of the repressed, marginalized individual, who—prior to travelling through the hyphen—was only able to inhabit that “hazy margin.” In the final scene of this book, Wah’s father, like Fred Jr., opens the café. When Fred Sr. “jars it open[,] the door clangs and rattles a noisy hyphen between the muffled winter outside and the silence of the warm and waiting kitchen inside.”33 It is made clear that their unleashing of “[s]houts in the kitchen” has permitted the interpellated individuals to have voices, while simultaneously “muffling” the critical gaze of the hegemonic perspective, “the winter outside.” Wah’s hyphen not only serves to bridge the gap between Occident and Orient, but also rescues the
31 32 33
Ibid., 16 Ibid., 21 Ibid., 176
disjunction between thought and being suggested by the Žižekian parallax gap by undermining the constructed site of the white multicultural mosaic. Wah presents the hyphen as the site that will initiate the bridging of the parallax gap, the gap between the ontological and epistemological spheres that span the Asian-Canadian identity. Asian-Canadian literature is itself situated in the domain of the broader category of Canadian literature, and it is this fact that shapes the subject-object relationship between the writers and critics who engage with Asian-Canadian literature. Because the subject is always-already involved, is always-already at stake in the reading of the object of criticism, Asian-Canadian literature is heavily shaped by the parallax view, the double reality illustrated by Žižek. The relationship between reality and literature in the diasporic narratives of the Asian-Canadian experience can be characterized by Wah’s image of synapse and syntax. Wah’s description of sharing consciousness with his father presents both the necessity and the dangers of convergence and divergence between multigenerational perspectives in racialized families. Beauregard suggests that one must use the hyphen as a tool to simultaneously silence the critical hegemonic gaze and unleash the repressed diasporic voices that lie in the marginalized spaces of the text. Only through this deconstruction of the current whitemulticulturalist mosaic will Asian-Canadian literature become relieved of its struggle to honestly represent the voices of the sociopolitical reality of individuals in the Asian-Canadian community. In its pursuit for truth and honest re-presentation, the hyphen can eliminate the parallax gap by releasing the author-critic from his/ her current subjective position. This act of retooling the hyphen will re-produce the space of the novel, creating a fertile soil on which new identities can be nurtured and nourished in the safety of its pages. This form of representation will prevent the dangers and susceptibility of falling into false representation, and will ultimately subvert the emergence of new stereotypes into which the Asian-Canadian individual is coerced.
Works Cited and Consulted Beauregard, Guy. Asian Canadian Studies: Unfinished Projects. Canadian Literature.199 (2008): 6-27. ProQuest. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. < http://canlit.ca/pdfs/articles/canlit199Full_Issue.pdf>. Beauregard, Guy. “The Emergence of ‘Asian Canadian Literature’: Can Lit's Obscene Supplement?” Essays on Canadian Writing. (1999): ProQuest. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <http:// www.ucalgary.ca/uofc/eduweb/engl392/492a/articles/ beauregard.html>. Beauregard, Guy. “Rattling a Noisy Hyphen.” Canadian Literature.156 (1998): 171-172. ProQuest. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. < http://canlit.ca/reviews/rattling_a_noisy_ hyphen>. Johnston, Adrian. Žižek’s ontology: A Transcendental materialist Theory of Subjectivity. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern UP, 2008. Print. Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. Landmark ed. Edmonton, Alta.: NeWest, 2006. Print. Žižek, Slavoj. Parallax View. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 25 October 2014. Lai, Larissa. “Strategizing the Body of History.” Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography. Ed. Eleanor Ty and Christl Verduyn. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier U, 2008. 87-114. Print.
Lived Space vs. Abstract Space: Storytelling in the City he will:
In “Walking in the City,” Michel de Certeau vows that
[T]ry to locate the practices that are foreign to the “geometrical” or “geographical” space of visual, panoptic, or theoretical constructions. These practices of space refer to a specific form of operations (“ways of operating”), to “another spatiality” (an “anthropological,” poetic and mythic experience of space), and to an opaque and blind mobility characteristic of the bustling city. A migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city.1 This indicates two aspects of urban space: the geometrical, geographical space that can be seen or imagined, and the poetic, metaphorical, anthropological space that must be experienced through praxis. This second type of space is deliberately not visual – it requires movement, attaches importance to gesture. Without explicitly placing these two approaches to urban space in opposition, de Certeau designates the relationship, the distance between them to be “foreign”. The lived space seems illicit, at odds with the “clear text of the planned and readable city”. Michael Ondaatje follows de Certeau’s example in his novel In the Skin of a Lion. Ondaatje emphasizes the importance of the body in creating and living in urban spaces, focusing on the aspects of space that cannot be perceived visually. The most apparent instances are the great public works projects that frame the narrative – the Prince Edward Viaduct and the R. C. Harris 1
de Certeau, Michel. “Walking in the City.” Trans. Steven Rendall. The Practice of Everyday Life. (Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1983), 91-114. p.93.
Water Treatment Plant. The architects and city planners represent the “visual, panoptic, theoretical” approach to the city’s spaces, which limits their understanding. The immigrant workers who make the projects possible create the alternative urban space by living it, with senses besides the visual. Their bodies construct new spaces by inhabiting them. Ondaatje’s stylistic choices in describing the projects show a clear preference for the lived space of the city rather than the planned space. The construction crews are given rare viewpoints above and below the plane of the rest of the city, but Ondaatje examines the workers themselves rather than looking through their eyes. He often sets scenes in obscurity, in nighttime or darkness or fog, in order to further reduce the role of vision and to shift the focus to the other senses, to his characters’ interior lives. The purely visual perception of the architects and urban planners is showed as commanding and abstract, but less authentic. The most salient example is Rowland Harris, the Commissioner of Public Works, who represents privilege, domination, and an incomplete understanding of the urban spaces he no doubt believes that he creates. Unlike the workers, Harris does not experience these spaces with his whole body, and therefore does not create these new spaces. Nor is Harris’ body affected by the urban spaces in turn. The workers’ bodies, on the other hand, are affected by their practice – the act of creating spaces changes their bodies and appearances. This multi-modal experience of space, this reciprocal relationship, is what makes construction of new spaces possible. Ultimately, Ondaatje shows lived space triumphant over impersonal, designed space through the appropriation of official, monumental structures by workers and citizens alike. The implicit fear in this work, however, is that the architects’ impersonal, abstract view of the city will be the view adopted by history, and that the lived spaces created by the workers will be overlooked by future generations. Ondaatje’s emphasis on living space rather than simply viewing it begins with his depiction of building the Bloor Street Viaduct. As Tiwari paraphrases Lefebvre, [T]he body both constructs and creates space. This is the “lived” space – the space of experience that can be understood by using the body…Instead of being confined to the use of visual perspective in understanding space, there is a need to bring in the
perspective of the body along with all its physical, mental and social constructs.2 This “construction” becomes literal, as bridge workers use their bodies not only to understand space, but also to modify it. The bridge that they are creating will facilitate transportation of people, electricity, and water as the city expands.3 Among the workers is Nicholas Temelcoff, who is “famous on the bridge, a daredevil […] He descends into the air with no fear”.4 Though all of the bridge workers must be harnessed, Nicholas works in mid-air, hanging by a pulley system from the half-finished bridge. This gives him a unique vantage point – after all, very few people descend into the sky. However, Ondaatje is notably reticent about Nicholas’ view: [Nicholas] lies supine on the end of his tether looking up towards the struts of the bridge, pivoting slowly. He knows the panorama of the valley better than any engineer. Like a bird. Better than Edmund Burke, the bridge’s architect, or Harris, better than the surveyors of 1912 when they worked blind through the bush. The panorama revolves with him.5 Ondaatje chooses to give the readers a view of Nicholas rather than the “panorama” that he looks at. This inversion – the viewer being viewed, unbeknownst to him – will be repeated throughout the novel. Rather than exploring what is no doubt an amazing aerial view, Ondaatje’s focus is on the humans, the people living and creating the urban space. To call Nicholas’ a god’s eye view would imply authority and mastery of the space, and Ondaatje avoids making that parallel. The only creature Nicholas can be compared to is a bird, another being that could only experience or know the space by living it, by moving through it in flight. Ondaatje further works against a purely visual or abstract view by emphasizing darkness and obscurity – he mainly describes the bridge construction during night shifts or on a foggy day, forcing 2 3 4 5
Lefebvre 1991b, paraphrased in Tiwari, Reena. SpaceBody-Ritual: Performativity in the City. Plymouth: Lexington, 2010. Print. p.25. Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Print. p.27. Ibid., p.34. Ibid., p.49.
the workers – and the readers – to focus on senses besides sight. Though the novel is written in the third person, Ondaatje gives detailed descriptions of his characters’ interiority and physical reality. Readers accompany Nicholas to the private space he has created: He does not really need to see things, he has charted all that space, knows the pier footings, the width of the cross-walks in terms of seconds of movement – 281 feet and 6 inches make up the central span of the bridge…He knows the precise height he is over the river, how long his ropes are, how many seconds he can free-fall to the pulley. It does not matter if it is day or night, he could be blindfolded. Black space is time…He knows his position in the air as if he is mercury slipping across a map.6 Nicholas therefore knows his space through his practices in it and can orient himself by using time instead of vision. When Nicholas’ view is finally described in daylight, it is in terms that imply lived space rather than visual space: “Below him is the Don River, the Grand Trunk, the CN and CP railway tracks, and Rosedale Valley Road. He can see the houses and work shacks, the beautiful wooden sheeting of the abutment which looks like a revival tent”.7 There is no doubt far more that is visible, but through Nicholas, the narrator notes great veins of transportation, in order of historical importance – Canada was discovered by river, unified by rail, and now mostly relies on cars for transport and travel. In the space of just one sentence, the Don Valley has been “civilized.” As before, when the technology of bridge-building afforded Nicholas a view that the “blind surveyors” of the valley did not have, the description of geography implies history. Before Nicholas or any human saw the space, there was a river; the Grand Trunk Railway was absorbed by the Canadian National Railway in 1923; and the Rosedale Valley Road is still in use today. This description is the history of the valley being settled, and Nicholas is working on the next chapter. By having Nicholas notice the valley in terms of the changes that have occurred there, because of – and on behalf of – the humans that have passed through, Ondaatje keeps the focus on the lived spaces of the city. 6 7
Ondaatje, p.35. Ibid., p.41.
Michel de Certeau would no doubt applaud these stylistic choices, since de Certeau shares Ondaatje’s disdain for experiencing spaces with vision alone: Is the immense texturology spread out before one’s eyes anything more than a representation, an optical artifact? It is the analogue of the facsimile produced, through a projection that is a way of keeping aloof, by the space planner urbanist, city planner or cartographer. The panorama-city is a ‘theoretical’ (that is, visual) simulacrum, in short a picture, whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices.8 The city planner in Ondaatje’s novel is Rowland Harris, Commissioner of Public Works, often accompanied by “Pomphrey, an architect, the strange one from England”.9 Harris visits the bridge frequently: The last thing [he] would do in the evenings during its construction was have himself driven to the edge of the viaduct, to sit for a while. At midnight the half-built bridge over the valley seemed deserted – just lanterns tracing its outlines. But there was always a night shift of thirty or forty men. After a while Harris removed himself from the car, lit a cigar, and walked out onto the bridge.10 Though he refrains from describing Harris’ view directly, Ondaatje gives readers a pointed view of Harris. The Commissioner is first seen as the object of a sentence, while subjects work on his behalf – on the grammatical, and diegetic levels. The subject of the sentence, Harris’ chauffeur, is not mentioned directly, making the menial’s agency abstract and giving the sense that Harris is controlling his environment. The idea is reinforced when “Harris removed himself from the car,” this time making himself an object. Ondaatje over-complicates grammatically in order to emphasize Harris’ control. Harris’ first action as a subject is lighting his cigar, a gesture synonymous with luxury. When he gazes from the bridge, he is surveying his kingdom; it is an authoritative, abstract vision 8 9 10
de Certeau, p.92-93. Ondaatje, p.29. Ibid.
rather than a subjective, sensory experience of the space. Unfortunately for the Commissioner, living and working in a space are necessary to completely understand it: “Knowledge of space and practices in space are not distinct, but shape each other”.11 Harris does not “practice” much on the bridge besides visiting it for the view, and to watch the crews at work. This is not his project specifically; his role has mostly been “bullying” 12in order to make the bridge a reality. However, in the vertical language of power, Harris’ position on the surface of the bridge still places him above Nicholas, albeit among the other workers. After all, “Since that tower in Babel, height has been seen both as a way to provide more space on a fixed amount of land and as a symbol of power”.13 Like Ondaatje, Harris takes special note of Nicholas: Commissioner Harris never speaks to Nicholas Temelcoff but watches often as he hooks up and walks at the viaduct edge…Nicholas strides the parapet looking sideways at the loops of rope and then, without pausing, steps into the clear air. Now there is for Harris nothing to see but the fizzing rope.14 The use of Harris’ formal title is a reminder of the difference in status between the city planner and the immigrant worker. Unlike the reader, Harris is specifically prevented from joining Nicholas in the latter’s private space – privilege allows him on the bridge, but also imprisons him there. Having never spoken to Nicholas, he has no perception of the other man beyond the visual. Nicholas, in turn, does not look at Harris, but “he knows Harris by the time it takes him to walk the sixty-four feet six inches from sidewalk to sidewalk on the bridge and by his expensive tweed coat that cost more than the combined weeks’ salaries of five bridge workers”.15 This is the fundamental difference between the two men: Harris sees and is therefore limited by sight. Nicholas “knows” in auditory, tactile, and economic terms. Tempting as it is to view Harris solely as a callous capitalist, 11 12 13 14 15
Foucault, as paraphrased in Tiwari, p.14. Ondaatje, p.29. Gleaser, Edward. The Triumph of the City. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. Print. p.137. Ondaatje, p.42. Ibid., p.43.
Ondaatje prevents a two-dimensional reading. Specific states like darkness stand out to Harris as well as Nicholas, though the Commissioner’s interpretation is very different: “For Harris the night allowed scope. Night removed the limitations of detail and concentrated on form”.16 Rather than expanding his perception of the bridge to include his other senses, Harris’ experience remains visual, the night allowing further abstraction. In this case, focus on form may indicate a lack of concern for content, which, in the context of the city, is the people who live in it and truly create the urban space. The same tension between living space and seeing space resurfaces later in the novel. Ondaatje plays with temporality, following different individuals over the decades, repeating themes and in new contexts. This repetition emphasizes surprising similarities between characters, situations, or time periods, and draws attention to the differences between them. Aspects of Nicholas’ experience working on the bridge are echoed in the life of Patrick Lewis. Twelve years after the Bloor Street Viaduct was completed and approximately 115m below it, Patrick works in a tunnel as part of another public works project: the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant.17 This episode of Ondaatje’s novel, titled “The Palace of Purification,” has similar concerns to that of “The Bridge.” Space is still created through living it; working in spaces allows a better understanding of them than simply viewing them in an abstract manner. There is still a public works project involving both construction crews and the Commissioner. While the core scenario remains the same, certain details of the situation have escalated. Harris has more control over the water treatment plant; this is his passion. The working conditions are arguably even worse, the risk higher – if the tunnel under the lake caves in, all of the workers will be killed. The Bloor Street Viaduct was primarily functional, used by all classes of people on a daily basis. It did not require – or receive – much embellishment beyond elegant design. The water treatment 16 17
Ibid., p.29. Wikipedia contributors. "Prince Edward Viaduct." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.; Sharpe, D. R. 1980: Quaternary Geology of Toronto and Surrounding Area; Ontario Geological Survey Preliminary Map P. 2204, Geological Series. Scale 1:100 000. Compiled 1980.
plant would also serve the people of Toronto, but Harris’ plans are much more ostentatious: He wanted the best ornamental iron. He wanted a brass elevator to lead from the service building to the filter building where you could step out across rosecoloured marble. The neo-Byzantine style allowed him to blend in all the technical elements. The friezes depicted stylized impellers. He wanted herringbone tiles imported from Siena, art deco clocks and pump signals, unfloored high windows which would look over filter pools four feet deep, languid, reflective as medieval water gardens.18 Ondaatje goes to great lengths to describe the many flourishes that will be added to Harris’ “palace for water”.19 There are several long descriptive passages concerning the details of Harris’ dream, including an enumeration of all the different contractors and companies required to make it a reality. In both length and style, that enumeration is reminiscent of the Biblical “begats”.20 The Great Depression is just beginning, but Harris holds out for the quality that, as the above passage shows, he “wants” rather than “needs.” Even more damning is the admission that all of this grandeur is not necessary: “Harris was building it for himself ”.21 Ondaatje is careful not to criticize the Commissioner, but the many lists may seem excessive to the reader, as unnecessary to the narrative as the objects listed are superfluous for the structure. The function of the plant is forgotten under the onslaught of ornamentation; the palace for water seems a perfect example of “‘the space of accumulation (the accumulation of all wealth and resources: knowledge, technology, money, precious objects, works of art and symbols)’”.22 This “space of accumulation” is just a decorated version of abstract and impersonal space. In fact, Harris has become yet more divorced from lived space: He was a man who understood the continuity of the city, the daily consumptions of water, the speed of 18 19 20 21 22
Ondaatje, p.110. Ibid. Ibid., p.109. Ibid., p.110. Lefebvre 1991b p.49, as in Tiwari, p.34.
raw water through a filter bed, the journeys of chlorine and sulphur-dioxide to the island filtration plant, the 119 inspections by tugboats each year of the various sewer outfalls, and the approximate number of valves and caissons of the East Toronto pumping stations, and the two miles a year of watermain construction – from the St. Clair Reservoir to the high/level pumping station – and the construction of the John Street surge tank.23 With this passage, it is clear that Harris falls into the trap outlined by Barthes: “It is important to multiply the readings of the city to develop an in-depth understanding rather than ‘multiplying the surveys or the functional studies of the city’”.24 The Commissioner’s thorough “functional studies” do not give him insight into the lived space of the city, the ebb and flow of people as well as water. Through Harris, Ondaatje calls the plant’s interior “the image of the ideal city”; what is troubling is that this ideal city is an unpopulated one.25 The long lists of facts, figures, and desires replace sensory impressions of the space. In fact, Ondaatje never physically situates Harris at any point in this section. The Commissioner’s preoccupation with the impersonal and purely visual aspects of space has extended to negate even his own body. Harris has become an abstract consciousness, his role in the narrative defined only by his conceptions – his conceit. During the construction of the bridge, he at least visited the work site, but with the plant, “He had sent…his photographers down but he had not entered the tunnels himself ”.26 It is not just the danger that prevents Harris from visiting – there is no mention of the Commissioner visiting the upper portion of the construction site either. Ondaatje’s use of repetition intensifies the horror of the working conditions as well. The bridge workers moved through the air, but the tunnellers move through the earth. They must fight for each shovelful of mud, the very medium of construction resisting their efforts to literally create space. Unlike the open air of the bridge, the tunnel is described as cramped, dark, wet, and dangerous: 23 24 25 26
Ondaatje, p.110. Barthes 1997 p.172, as in Tiwari, p.26. Ondaatje, p.129. Ibid., p.110.
During the eight-hour shifts no one speaks. Patrick is as silent as the Italians and Greeks towards the bronco foremen. For eight hours a day the air around them rolls in its dirty light. From somewhere else in the tunnel there is the permanent drone of pumps attempting to suck out the water, which is constantly at their heels. All morning they slip in the wet clay unable to stand properly, pissing where they work, eating where someone else left shit.27 The obscured vision once again causes other senses to be heightened. Class barriers, language barriers, and personal choices stifle speech. Since there is so little to be seen, the tunnel must be sensed in other ways, and therefore is described in terms of how the body moves in it. Bodies, once again, are creating new spaces for themselves, for the city, and for the readers, rendering the dark world, if not visible, at least perceptible. Like Nicholas, Patrick plays a role that sets him apart, dynamiting through rock formations beneath the lake when they cannot be breached with shovels. But, where Nicholas got an unobstructed view of the city from above, Patrick has an extremely limited view in the tunnel. Their differing working conditions affect their leisure time as well: “If [Nicholas] finishes early he cycles down Parliament Street to the Ohrida Lake Restaurant and sits in the darkness of the room as if he has had enough of light. Enough of space” whereas “Patrick embraces the last of the light on the walk home”.28 Ondaatje allows the reader into the private, lived spaces of these two men whose experiences are unique even among the groups they work with; despite their uncommon situations, neither of their working experiences is described in literal, visual terms. The way Ondaatje focuses on the body’s senses agrees with de Certeau and Tiwari: the body is the unit of space creation. Space can be perceived through vision, but more importantly, through audition, olfaction, and tactility. This multi-sensorial experience can only be achieved by moving and practicing in space, and is necessary for truly understanding it. Multiple bodies working together can cause tangible changes in space, as seen in the construction of the bridge and water filtration plant. The body 27 28
Ibid., p.107. Ibid., p.35, 107.
acts on urban spaces, but does not escape the practice unscathed: throughout the novel, the city is portrayed as a location where the physical body can be exchanged for money. Bodies, of course, have “social, physical, and mental dimensions” and simultaneously inhabit, construct, and represent urban space.29 When bodies represent urban space, they represent the social struggles that occur there; “social experience is reflected on the body by means of symbols”.30 The social experience of the construction workers in In the Skin of a Lion is “reflected” on them in the form of scars. Before Nicholas even comes to Canada, he hears stories about it from an old man in his village, Daniel Stoyanoff: In North America everything was rich and dangerous. You went in as a sojourner and came back wealthy – Daniel buying a farm with the compensation he had received for losing an arm during an accident in a meat factory. Laughing about it! Banging his other hand down hard onto the table and wheezing with laughter, calling them all fools, sheep! As if his arm had been a dry cow he had fooled the Canadians with. Nicholas had been stunned by the simplicity of the contract.31 In Nicholas’ generation, working conditions are not much better. There are several deaths among the bridge workers throughout the construction process, including Nicholas’ predecessor, who dies when part of the equipment collapses, and is found “cut, the upper half of his body [...] still hanging in the halter”.32 This is a risk that is specific to Nicholas’ role, roped to the bridge and working beneath it. Nicholas’ unique position causes him to softly echo Daniel Stoyanoff – during a night shift, several nuns mistakenly walk onto the half-built bridge. Most of them are stopped by the harnessed workers, but the wind flings one over the edge. Nicholas is introduced to the reader when he catches and saves her: “The new weight ripped the arm that held the pipe out of its socket and he screamed”.33 Though Nicholas does not lose his arm like Daniel did, the city takes its toll on him nonetheless, in a pointedly similar way to the stories he had heard as a child. Dislocating his shoulder 29 30 31 32 33
Tiwari, p.3. Douglas 1973, as paraphrased in Tiwari, p.19. Ondaatje, p.44. Ibid., p.41. Ibid., p.31.
is only one of many injuries Nicholas. As he confides to the nun later: ‘I got about twenty scars,’ he said, ‘all over me. One on my ear here.’ He turned and leaned forward so the wall-light fell onto the side of his head. ‘See? Also this under my chin, that also broke my jaw. A coiling wire did that. Nearly kill me, broke my jaw. Lots more. My knees…’ he talked on. Hot tar burns on his arm. Nails in his calves.34 His list of injuries will starkly contrast Harris’ lists of flourishes some chapters later. What Nicholas details is the true cost of living in the city; as an immigrant worker, this may literally mean life and limb. The tunnel also leaves its mark on the appearance of those who work in it. Like the bridge, the danger is inherent in the nature of the work: “They have all imagined the water heaving in, shouldering them aside in a fast death”.35 The shoveling is brutal and exhausting, but not necessarily harmful. However, the work is still evident in the workers’ appearance: As the day progresses heat rises in the tunnel. The men remove their shirts and hammer them into the hard walls with spikes. Patrick can recognize other tunnellers on the way home by the ragged hole in the back of their shirts. It is a code among them, like the path of a familiar thick bullet in the left shoulder blade.36 The description of the damaged clothing is deliberately physical, the holes imagined as bullet wounds in a location that would kill. Though it is their clothing that bears the tunnellers’ scars, Ondaatje makes certain to emphasize the danger of their daily work. The work is linked to the workers’ mortality through mud: “…the clay hardens on clothing, whitens [Patrick’s] arms and hair”.37 This indication of aging is a subtle way of showing the price of the physical labour of building the tunnel. 34 35 36 37
Ibid., p.37. Ibid., p.107. Ibid. Ibid., p.108.
In fact, almost every profession in the novel shows itself in the appearance of those who practice it. The bridge workers have scars, the tunnellers have holes in their muddy clothing, and actresses are covered in make-up (there are significant scenes in which Patrick helps remove the make-up of the actress he loves).38 Ondaatje describes clothing in bodily terms with regard to the tarrers on the bridge: “The smell of tar seeps through the porous body of their clothes. The black of it is permanent under the nails”.39 When a raid is planned on the finished filtration plant, “[the raiders] wear dark trousers. Patrick is invisible except by touch, grease covering all unclothed skin, his face, his hands, his bare feet”.40 Patrick’s body reflects his purpose: he will swim to the plant through the intake pipe whose tunnel he helped dig, and he does not want to be seen. Using many characters and many practices and trades, In the Skin Of A Lion shows the reciprocal relationship of bodies to space: bodies build spaces by living them, allowing greater understanding, but urban space can be an agent too, affecting workers’ appearances and actions. The only characters whose jobs cannot be inferred from their appearances are those from the upper class. Harris’ title is all that distinguishes him from “the architect Pomphrey” who must likewise be introduced. The Commissioner has an expensive coat, but it is not distinctive besides its price, like “the expensive leather on the shoes of the architects”.41 Designers and viewers of spaces, who remain at a privileged distance, also remain homogenous. Engaging physically with spaces, smelling, touching, hearing them, makes spaces real and bodies distinct. When Patrick enters the plant during the raid, he unexpectedly finds Commissioner Harris, who was so paranoid about the plant being attacked that he slept in his office at night.42 Though it has been almost ten years since the plant was completed, the working conditions of the tunnel are echoed quietly in Patrick’s appearance: “[Harris] notices the shirt ripped open at the back when the intruder turns to close the door”.43 The workers do not allow the spaces that they have created to 38 39 40 41 42 43
Ibid., p.121. Ibid., p.27. Ibid., p.228. Ibid., p.42. Ibid., p.221. Ibid., p.235.
become mere spectacle, however. As Tiwari puts it, “People express themselves in the city through their ritualized bodies. Ritualized bodies appropriate and write the socio-cultural aspects on the built environment. The city is thus written by the inhabitants’ actions”.44 For the workers, these actions include appropriation of the urban spaces and structures that they have built. Ondaatje shows the people most in touch with the non-visual aspects of the city, often those of the lower classes, subvert the city-spectacle of the architects and politicians. The bridge, for instance, is “Christened ‘Prince Edward.’ The Bloor Street Viaduct”.45 Though “christened” to ceremoniously pay homage to a far-off royal, the more descriptive name is used in every other reference to the structure. This already shows the discrepancy between the abstract ideal of the bridge and its reality as lived space. This discrepancy is played out like a drama when, [D]uring the political ceremonies a figure escaped by bicycle through the police barriers. The first member of the public. Not the expected show car containing officials, but this one anonymous and cycling like hell to the east end of the city… Thunderous applause greeted him at the far end.46 The people are not affronted when one of their own, his groceries on his shoulder, takes possession of the space; the only people upset are the dignitaries when their spectacle is disrupted. However, even, [the bicyclist] was not the first. The previous midnight the workers had arrived and brushed away officials who guarded the bridge in preparation for the ceremonies the next day, moved with their own flickering lights – their candles for the bridge dead – like a wave of civilization, a net of summer insects over the valley.47 The workers have a special relationship to the viaduct because of their experiences there. The officials’ half-hearted attempts to stop them show that this special relationship is recognized, albeit at a 44 45 46 47
Tiwari, p.26. Ondaatje, p.27. Ibid., p.27. Ibid.
minor level. The night before, however, it was likely that the workers were allowed onto the bridge, in order to perform the tasks that made its existence possible; most officials only taking interest in the completed product, not the common people who worked on it. The memorial service is a structured and formal act, a type of ritual that allows the workers to reclaim the space they created: Ritual strengthens the relationship between the body and the space, where the body does not view the space from afar, but plays a role in constructing it. Bodily performance becomes an essential part of experience and, in a way, many types of cultural performances (including ritual, ceremony, carnival, theater, poetry) become a means to understand life itself.48 For the construction crew, the bridge does not commemorate Prince Edward but their comrades. Living the space in a selfconscious way – through ritual – helps them to make sense of the sacrifice required to create new urban spaces. The water filtration plant is equally appropriated during its construction when the workers and their families use it to hold weekly variety shows. The performances allow the working community to make the space a cultural one, in addition to a space of work. When they gather for such “cultural performances” every Sunday (a day historically associated with ritual), they are living the space very differently than intended, inscribing it with an alternative history and memory. Not only do the workers build the space through their actions, they assert themselves over the abstract view of the Public Works Commissioner, his associated architects, and city planners. The workers’ actions in the space create a history separate from its intended symbolism, subverting the plant’s spectacle, if not overcoming the ideals that caused its creation. These lived ritual actions triumph over the abstract, impersonal, symbolic vision of the spaces, but only momentarily. The memorial on the bridge lasts for a night, the cabarets last only during the plant’s construction – the workers’ self-expression and self-assertion is ultimately untenable. Eventually, living this space artistically is not enough. As part of a larger struggle between classes, Patrick decides on the ultimate appropriation: destruction. With the help 48
Turner 1982, as paraphrased in Tiwari, p.31.
of friends, Patrick plans to dynamite the plant. Once the charges have been laid, however, he runs into Harris, sleeping in his office for fear of just such an occurrence. The exchange between Patrick and the Public Works Commissioner is a showdown between living space and abstraction: – You forgot us. – I hired you. – Your goddamn herringbone tiles in the toilets cost more than half our salaries put together. – Yes, that’s true. – Aren’t you ashamed of that? – You watch, in fifty years they’re going to come here and gape at the herringbone and the copper roofs. We need excess, something to live up to. I fought tooth and nail for that herringbone. – You fought. You fought. Think about those who built the intake tunnels. Do you know how many of us died in there? – There was no record kept.49 Patrick sees specters rather than Harris’ spectacle. Harris’ presence, however, is enough to prevent the plant from being destroyed, as he talks to Patrick until the latter falls asleep. For a final time, Ondaatje shows lived experiences of space in opposition to abstract visions of space, but he has complicated readers’ understanding by reversing the characters’ roles. Patrick has lived the plant’s space by constructing it and attending shows in it, but now he perceives it in an abstract way, seeing it as a manifestation of excess and inequality. Harris, on the other hand, is literally living in the space, not building it, still primarily admiring it visually, but living in it nonetheless, making it his own private space (much better furnished than those of Nicholas and Patrick). Patrick’s vision of the plant, like all visions, is not complete knowledge; he has not lived the space as Harris has and has not seen it the way Harris does. Destroying the herringbone tiles in a symbolic gesture would have left huge swaths of the city without water, causing disruption that could not be targeted by income. The plant is unnecessarily ostentatious, but it still serves a purpose. In this scene, the novel’s priorities remain the same, but they are personified differently. Characters fall into the same fallible readings of space condemned on earlier. Nothing is so simple as to signify one thing only – this 49
is one reason why Ondaatje’s novel is so rich. The Commissioner’s abstract and dispassionate view of workers’ lives is still troubling – ignorance and innocence cannot be conflated. There is still an enormous difference between the type of work required to build the plant and the way Harris lives the space, as exemplified by urban spaces’ effects on those who inhabit and construct them. Frighteningly, however, Harris has a point – the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant is an effective spectacle. Approaching its 80th birthday, the monu-mentality of this space is still alive and strong. The plant has been used in myriad films and TV series, including SCTV, Strange Brew, Robocop: The Series, Flashpoint, In the Mouth of Madness, The Pretender, and others. Interestingly, in many of these cases, it has been a prison, asylum, or the seat of the production’s villain. It has appeared on stamps.50 It is protected under the Ontario Heritage Act as a building of cultural importance.51 Modern authorities share Harris’ concerns about attacks on the plant in the wake of 9/11, yet the building has stayed open to the public.52 When the public enter the space, however, are they seeing it or living it? How deep is their engagement with the building that supplies almost half of Toronto’s water?53 “Official” history seems to subscribe to the abstract view of these structures, and in a way, they must do so. The monuments and spectacles in urban spaces are not mortal, like the people who live them. Boyer, paraphrased in Tiwari, outlines this problem: [C]ontemporary spatialization of memories has been limited to the insertion of architectural fragments and traces from the past into the present context. Instead of enhancing the collective memory, these historicist re-constructions serve to dilute and sanitize it. Piecemeal and partial, visionary constructs do not address the linkages between past and present.54 So how can lived space form a legacy beyond individuals’ lifetimes? 50 51 52 53 54
Wikipedia contributors. "R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Feb. 2015. Web. 4 Mar. 2015. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Boyer 1994, as paraphrased in Tiwari, p.74.
Boyer suggests that the answer may lie in storytelling, and In the Skin of a Lion is a perfect example of this.55 Ondaatje encourages his readers to adopt a four-dimensional view of urban spaces: the structures they live in, on, and around have length, width, height, and history. Seeing urban spaces as spectacles is easy enough; selfconsciously engaging with them as parts of ongoing stories is more challenging. The work is well worth the reward: seeking out the stories of the people who had created and lived in these urban spaces enriches our experience of the modern metropolis. Works Cited or Consulted: De Certeau, Michel. â&#x20AC;&#x153;Walking in the City.â&#x20AC;? Trans. Steven Rendall. In The Practice of Everyday Life. (Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1983), 91-114. Gleaser, Edward. The Triumph of the City. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. Print. Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Print. Sharpe, D. R. 1980: Quaternary Geology of Toronto and Surrounding Area; Ontario Geological Survey Preliminary Map P. 2204, Geological Series. Scale 1:100 000. Compiled 1980. Tiwari, Reena. Space-Body-Ritual: Performativity in the City. Plymouth: Lexington, 2010. Print. Wikipedia contributors. "R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Feb. 2015. Web. 4 Mar. 2015. Wikipedia contributors. "Prince Edward Viaduct." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
A Note on FUN III
Notes on the Theme
Let us Compare Ideologies
Language and Personal Experience in “Meditation at Lagunitas”
Mariam J. Sheikh
Bridging the Parallax Gap in Asian-Canadian Lit: Thought and Being in Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill
Lived Space vs. Abstract Space: Storytelling in the City
Ella Wilhelm, Amina Mohamed, Julian Butterfield, Nicholas Birmingham, Matthew Larocque Coulas
Front Cover Illustration:
Matthew Larocque Coulas
Victoria McKenzie, Tova Benjamin
3 We would like to thank everyone who submitted to our 3rd volume, and the Arts & Science Student Union for funding this publication. © 2016 Literature and Critical Theory Student Union. Each work is property of its credited author. The authors retain copyright to their contributions to this journal.