Comic Heroes and Green Tories: Stephen Leacock and Thomas King Creating Ethical Space on Uncommon Ground.
JON GORDON died in 2016 as this article was in process; Esc proceeded with its publication with the support of Jon's wife, Dr Elizabeth Willson Gordon. As this article and the review of his book Unsustainable Oil: Facts, Counterfacts, and Fictions (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2015) that also appears in this issue will affirm, the work this young scholar had begun to develop since defending his thesis and graduating from the University of Alberta in 2007 represents a vital consideration of cultural rhetoric across competing registers: his work importantly traces the destabilizing challenges and alternatives in literature to institutional and industrial logic of certainty; he characterizes this cultural work of unsettlement as "counterfacts." Jon's serious attention to imaginative texts as sites of crucial cultural engagement is well known to colleagues at the University of Alberta, where he completed his undergraduate degree as well as his PhD, in which he focused on questions of "belonging and homelessness" in postmodern Alberta fiction. His understanding of the work of literature as crucial to the understanding of the relationships of humans to each other, to the spaces and histories they inhabit, and to the social and political structures they construct and maintain is also well known to his students over the decade and more of his teaching at the University of Alberta and other institutions. In 2012, Jon was the recipient of the Faculty of Arts Contract Academic Staff Teaching Award and the prestigious university-wide William Hardy Alexander Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Alberta. At that time, Dr Elizabeth Sargent suggested that "U of A students are perceptive ... in valuing an educator who does not seek the limelight, who doesn't win them over with charismatic showmanship but instead by unrelenting, shrewd attention to their work." Jon Gordon, a father and husband, an educator and scholar, a student and colleague, was thirty-six.
The essential requirement for change is that we change our minds about what we are here for, what we are fitted for as human beings and therefore what our stance or comportment should be inside modern technology and the empire where we find ourselves.
"Did George Grant Change His Politics?"
LAURIE RICOU HAS CALLED Green Grass, Running Water "Canada's finest dam novel" (276), and although it is about much more than a dam, the dam serves as a potent symbol for the target of its satire. I would like to put alongside it Stephen Leacock's Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich as both Canada's finest dam short story cycle and a noteworthy intertext in King's novel. Like King's novel, Leacock's collection is about much more than a dam, but the building of a dam in "The Wizard of Finance" similarly symbolizes the target of Leacock's satire. The satire in both texts can help readers change our minds about what our stance should be within a world dominated by dams and other technologies of control. My title, meanwhile, plays on John Stackhouse's title "Comic Heroes or 'Red Niggers'?" that King takes up in The Truth About Stories. King argues that Stackhouse's article "was as much about the different categories of Indians--authentic and inauthentic--as it was about the show [The Dead Dog Cafe] itself" (88) and asks "is it possible for us to move past this limiting dichotomy?" (89). I take the phrase "uncommon ground" from Daniel Coleman, which he uses to "back away from coercive assertions of common ground" and "read away from the self" ("Reading Beyond the Book").
One reference to Leacock's collection in King's novel provides a hint of the potential dialogue between these two texts: "Eli found a copy of Stephen Leacock's Arcadian Adventures of [sic] the Idle Rich at a used-book store. 'You ought to read it,' he told Karen. 'It's funny as hell'" (162). This dialogue is worth exploring because reading them together shows parallel lines of thought in different traditions, traditions that can help guide a critique of liberal capitalism. Further, both texts share the strategy of grounding the critique in humour. This article, then, proposes to eavesdrop on the conversation between King and Leacock, a conversation occurring on uncommon ground, and to work to contextualize it in terms of what C.A. Bowers calls cultural and bio-conservatism. As Rolf Jucker writes, in a review of Bowers's Educating for Eco-Justice and Community, "We need to assess whether [traditions and cultural practices] 'lead to living within the sustaining capacity of local ecosystems or result in degrading the local environment as well as that of other cultural groups'" (np). Such assessment is complicated, certainly more difficult than either dismissing traditions or blindly adhering to them.
Stephen Leacock--supporter of the British Empire, critic of women's suffrage--may seem like a strange figure for Eli to evoke. Is his recommendation of Arcadian Adventures an attempt to "pass" Karen's test of his literariness? Is it proof of his ongoing efforts to be "white" (as his sister Norma claims)? If one has read Stephen Leacock's The Dawn of Canadian History: A Chronicle of Aboriginal Canada, one may tend toward reading Eli's reference in that direction, as evidence of a kind of self-hatred. In that volume, Leacock refers to First Nations as "primitive" and "savages" (26), claiming that despite their "one great advance" of "the bark canoe," "In nearly all other respects the Indians of Canada had not emerged even from savagery to that stage half way to civilization which is called barbarism" (27). He goes on to describe how "All Indian tribes kept women in a condition which we should think degrading" (39). This claim acquires some ironic humour given Leacock's own debates with Canadian suffragists over women's role in the society of his day (see Sugars and Moss 491). However, there is more to Leacock than that. As Eli rightly notes, Arcadian Adventures is "funny"; more precisely, it is "funny as hell." While we certainly can read that phrase as a colloquial expression suggesting that something is simply "very funny," a more literal reading draws attention to similarities between King's and Leacock's senses of humour. In a conventional Christian understanding, Hell is not a funny place. Therefore, saying that something is "funny as hell" might suggest that it is not funny at all. However, the fact remains that Leacock's collection is funny even though we might read his depiction of the petty lives of Arcadian plutocrats as a kind of hell on Earth (and, as we will see, the conclusion to the collection has been read as a triumph of darkness over light). Similarly, King's novel, and his sense of humour more broadly, can be read as finding the humour in not-very-funny situations. His characters struggle with racism, domestic violence, and lack of opportunity; yet, the book is funny. We might say that one way to survive hell is to make jokes about it, but, again, is it more complicated than this? King and Leacock are not proverbial class clowns making jokes behind the teacher's back; rather, as we will see, the targets of the satire are made to laugh and thereby to recognize the foolishness of their actions.
Following Jucker and Bowers, I believe we can assess Leacock today, after the past century of liberal-technological dominance, alongside aspects of First Nations' thought, as a way of suggesting an alternative to that dominance that need not repeat his racism and sexism. His satire points to things in his tradition that can help people live within the sustaining capacity of local ecosystems, things that can be remembered and adapted in ways similar to how First Nations are remembering and adapting their traditions. While I do not advocate the unthinking adherence to tradition for its own sake, I do question the unthinking rejection of tradition that liberalism often requires: reading First Nations' authors can help non-Natives see the value in people engaging with, recovering, remembering, and adapting their traditions. However, as this article argues, ethical engagement between Natives and non-Natives also requires that non-Natives engage with their own traditions. Kristina Fagan writes of the "trickster moment":
Like all other peoples, Native people have adapted their traditions, dropping some, adapting others, and encouraging still others. Thus, while the focus on the trickster in Indigenous writing was indeed based in part on tribal history, it was just as much a contemporary artistic and political trend. The invocation of this "traditional" figure was strategic. (11)
Fagan's point highlights both the dynamism of culture and the power of tradition. (1) Aboriginal writers have been able to recover particular aspects of various trickster figures from their traditions for particular political and artistic purposes. Non-Aboriginal people who oppose neo-liberal policies should also look to their own traditions for tools that can be adapted to present circumstances. (2)
My intention, in bringing these two texts together, is to suggest that part of the appeal of King's novel, at least for the mostly non-Native academic audience of which I am a part, is in its critique of the modern, liberal state in terms that resonate with a Red Tory tradition--without being founded in or reducible to that tradition--and a vision of Canadian Left Nationalism that seems increasingly unspeakable in the era of neo-liberal globalization in mainstream discourse.
At the same time, in recognizing that reading Green Grass through Western theory can be assimilationist, I maintain that it is possible to engage with the novel in an ethical way. In reading Green Grass alongside Arcadian Adventures I am seeking out another context in which to make common cause with King in opposition to the homogenizing forces of global capital. King and Leacock both reveal the play in structures, but the results are not an abandonment of the reader to chaos. Rather, the ideal of kinship is presented.
Uncommon ground and kinship ethics
Despite how destructive, one-sided, and paternalistic the relationship between Natives and non-Natives has been, and is, in Canada, by reading King and Leacock on uncommon ground we can find ways to reorganize our engagements. As Cree legal scholar Willie Ermine contends in "The Ethical Space of Engagement,"
In its finest form, the notion of an agreement to interact must always be preceded by the affirmation of human diversity created by philosophical and cultural differences. Since there is no God's eye view to be claimed by any society of people, the idea of the ethical space, produced by contrasting perspectives of the world, entertains the notion of a meeting place, or initial thinking about a neutral zone between entities or cultures.. The ethical space offers itself as the theatre for cross-cultural conversation in pursuit of ethically engaging diversity and disperses claims to the human order. (202)
As a site engaged through the solitary activity of reading, literature, perhaps paradoxically, can create such a meeting place. (3) Ermine notes the need for "a venue [where we can] step out of our allegiances" (202) in order for "human-to-human dialogue" (202) to happen in the juridical realm. However, stepping out of our allegiances and into such a venue is difficult. Satire can help to lay the groundwork for such a move by making us laugh at what we normally accept or ignore.
In Green Grass King makes us laugh at and think about the problems of inhabiting modern technology and exposes limits to that inhabitation. Despite being written one hundred years ago, Arcadian Adventures still generates similarly productive laughter. The collection dissects the selfish and small-minded concerns of the 1 percent, the members of Leacock's Mausoleum Club, who "manufacture things, or cause them to be manufactured, or--what is the same thing--merge them when they are manufactured" (11). We see in this sentence claims to equivalence that actually reveal increasing abstraction and distancing--"manufacture" or "cause ... to be manufactured" or "merge when they are manufactured." The members of the Mausoleum Club may not be personally involved with the manufacture of things but may, through their actions, cause things to be manufactured or may, after they have been manufactured by others, combine them together so that they can be sold for more money. This distance from the labour from which they profit leads the clubmen, in their idleness, to spend their time scheming to increase their wealth and their control over human and non-human others.
While Leacock's stories do not engage with Aboriginal concerns explicitly, when read with those concerns in mind, they can help us trace a history of inequality that is mutually informative for Native and non-Natives alike. Ermine quotes Peggy McIntosh's contention that "to redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions" and then adds that "For Indigenous peoples, the thought world of Western society represents this undercurrent, the colossal unseen dimension that influences Indigenous-Western relations" (198). Satire can help us acknowledge this unseen dimension. As indirect satires, both King's and Leacock's texts create "characters who make themselves and their opinions ridiculous or obnoxious by what they think, say, and do" (Abrams 277). Further, as Aloys Fleischmann writes of Green Grass, "the very assurance that this is all a joke (though an exceedingly well-researched one) coopts denial itself to make space for readers to bisociate ['the simultaneous correlation of an experience to two otherwise independent operative fields' (Kenneth Lincoln, quoted in Fleischmann 168)] possibilities that would otherwise be antithetical to their subjectivity" (172). Both texts allow readers to see the ridiculousness of the characters and to see that the ridiculousness is their own.
In his afterword to Leacock's collection, Gerald Lynch writes of the earlier and, today, more widely read Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town as a companion text for Arcadian Adventures. He argues that "L'Envoi. The Train to Mariposa," the final story of Sunshine Sketches, contains an
implied warning ... that if the "you" who is addressed throughout Sunshine Sketches does not find a way to recover the values that Leacock associated with the small Canadian community of Mariposa, "you" will remain entombed in a Mausoleum Club, with all the associations of cultural and spiritual death that the club's name carries. Arcadian Adventures shows us what sort of modern world ensues upon the loss of those anti-materialistic values--the values of community, charity, romance, and family. (206)
One may go further and argue that the language of values is insufficient: both Leacock and King point to a truth about the world that we ignore at our peril. Rather than autonomous beings who choose among "values," we are creatures dependent on a web of relationships. As the conservative philosopher, and inheritor of Leacock's Tory-humanism, George Grant writes, "Most of us have forgotten our true status. We do not have complete control of ourselves, we are not independent of others, at birth and death we are helpless, and never at any time are we autonomous (the maker of our own laws)" (Justice 113). We have been created by forces beyond our control and are subject to forces beyond our control throughout our lives.
Lynch notes that Leacock's humour focuses on "kinship, of shared humanity" ("Afterword" 207). This resonates with King's concept of "all my relations" (4) and can help us expand Leacock's view of kinship beyond the human. Jenny Kerber notes that Cree artist and poet Neal McLeod's articulation of wahkohtowin is the "kinship ... that grounds collective memory and keeps it embedded within an individual's life stories. Kinship not only includes human relations but also relations with the rest of creation, including animals" (218). For Kerber, McLeod's articulation of kinship "enables a fluid understanding of the relationships between humans and other living beings that moves beyond some of the human-centred discourses that have long dominated the West" (219). While I agree, non-Aboriginal peoples also need a positive conception of kinship to claim as their own in order to enter the ethical space of engagement with others. Without that foundation, if one attempts to "read away from the self," as Coleman advocates, the temptation to appropriate Aboriginal ideas of kinship and/or to turn back to the powerful analytic tools of human-centred discourses is too great. Indeed, one might read George Morningstar in Green Grass as a warning in this regard. Further, engagement with Aboriginal, and other, views of kinship and tradition can help those of us outside of those traditions remember and rethink our own traditions. Bowers writes, "Conserving living tradition does not mean maintaining the status quo, nor does it involve supporting reactionary interests. But it may involve helping regenerate traditions of noncommodified relationships and skills that have been largely marginalized by the modern forces of production and consumption" (25). Both King and Leacock can be read as advocating sustainable local communities through satirizing the homogenizing effects of global capital. (5) Further, both texts show how literature can offer one means of helping readers find their way to a more just stance in the world
In the various timelines of King's novel, we see each of the major male, realist, Blackfoot characters--Eli, Charlie, and Lionel--tempted by the pull of liberal society. Eli does not know how to connect his life with Karen in Toronto and the world of his family and friends on the reserve. Charlie--the Blackfoot lawyer representing Duplessis International Associates against Eli--is questioned about his support for a project that will not benefit his tribal community and states, "then some of us should [benefit], don't you think?" (117). Such a competitive, individualistic, attitude is a product of the belief in individual autonomy, just as the dam is a product of the belief in human dominance over nature. Lionel, the forty-year-old electronics salesman who idolizes John Wayne, is jealous of his cousin Charlie and is seen as a "white" sellout by his aunt Norma. Each character is threatened with being cut off from the essential connections to all of their relations, connections renewed through the Sun Dance.
In King's novel, the non-Native characters do not seem to have an alternative tradition to recover, which is one reason why reading Green Grass alongside Arcadian Adventures is worthwhile. The temptations of liberal modernity operate on, and can be opposed by, non-Aboriginal peoples as well. Jenny Kerber states that "Neal McLeod aptly sums up the value of stories and storytelling to ecological and cultural resilience in the Canadian West, observing from a Cree perspective that '[w]hen you remember, you know your place in creation'" (218). While non-Aboriginal people will remember different things than Aboriginal people, such a process of remembering is just as necessary to finding one's place in creation. Indeed, one of the things non-Aboriginal people need to remember is the history of their failures in relation to Aboriginal people. However, the dominant hegemonic thrust of liberalism works against such remembering, works to keep the unseen continue unseen.
Following Grant, I understand liberalism to mean "a set of beliefs which proceed from the central assumption that man's [sic] essence is his freedom and therefore that what chiefly concerns man in this life is to shape the world as we want it" (Empire, 114). Grant describes the dominant view this way:
The liberation of human desiring from any supposed excluding claim, so that it is believed we freely create values, is a face of the same liberation in which men overcame chance by technology--the liberty to make happen what we want to make happen.... The whole of nature becomes more and more at our disposal as if it were nothing in itself but only our "raw material." (Justice 31)
This view of the world can be seen in many characters in Green Grass and seems to be universally accepted by the members of the Mausoleum Club in Arcadian Adventures, but it is perhaps best expressed by Clifford Sifton, Duplessis International Associates engineer on the Grand Baleen Dam.
When Eli first meets Clifford Sifton, he "couldn't put a name to it, but he didn't like Sifton" (114). While Sifton claims that his construction plans are "[n]othing personal" (114), this is precisely the problem: landscape, as abstract potential for electricity generation, with no personal connection, ignores the need to consider what will be lost through this "advancement." To be explicit where Eli is not, Sifton behaves as though he "has no relations." As King explains in the introduction to All My Relations, that title phrase "is an encouragement for us to accept the responsibilities we have within this universal family by living our lives in a harmonious and moral manner (a common admonishment is to say of someone that they act as if they have no relations)" (ix). It is, importantly, an admonishment leveled in Green Grass at God by First Woman (69) and at Young Man Walking on Water by Thought Woman (351), and it is part of the lesson Lionel needs to learn, particularly from his uncle Eli. Despite its rhetoric of kinship, Christianity is revealed as nothing more than a mask for the operation of power.
One could certainly write an essay on the hypocrisy of organized religion that is dissected in Arcadian Adventures--primarily in the stories "The Rival Churches of St Asaph and St Osoph" and "The Ministrations of the Rev Uttermust Dumfarthing," which recount events leading to the merger of the two churches according to business principles in which the new church will have the "advantages of removing all questions of religion, which ... are practically the only remaining obstacle to a union of all the churches" (173). However, in terms of kinship, it is most significant to point to the relationships between the Reverend Edward Fareforth Furlong of St Asaph's and his elder sister Juliana, on the one hand, and between the Reverend Uttermust Dumfarthing of St Osoph's and his daughter Catherine, on the other. While the pious Juliana disapproves of her brother's equivocating theology, the fashionable Catherine ignores her father's dogmatic views. In the end, the union of the churches is reflected in a kind of parody of a comic double marriage--Juliana marries Reverend Dumfarthing and Catherine marries Reverend Furlong. But, as the union of the churches is based on the need to rationalize an economic problem, Reverend Dumfarthing's "proposal" takes the form of drawing Juliana's attention "in very severe terms" to the fact that "as his daughter was now leaving him, he must either have someone else to look after his manse or else be compelled to incur the expense of a paid housekeeper. This latter alternative, he said, was not one that he cared to contemplate" and, given that "she was now at a time of life when she could hardly expect to pick and choose and that her spiritual condition was one of at least great uncertainty," we are told, "These combined statements are held, under the law of Scotland at any rate, to be equivalent to an offer of marriage" (179). Coupling this view of marriage with Reverend Dumfarthing's decision to leave St Osoph's when another parish offers him more money although we are told that "with such a man as Dumfarthing the money made no difference" (176), we can clearly see that religious principles are, as in the mythical sections of Green Grass, distorted to serve selfish ends Dams vs. homes
We are told that Eli, when reflecting on his decision to stay in his mother's cabin, "could see that he had never made a conscious decision to stay. And looking back, he knew it was the only decision he could have made" (263). Although the reason why this is the case is never made apparent, Eli's decision suggests a conception of responsibility beyond individual desires, a conception that is, in Grant's terms, "beyond all bargains and without an alternative" (Justice 30). In King's terms we might say that honouring one's relations requires certain actions. Eli's presence in the cabin exposes the continuation of an outside to the conditional view of relationships, a view in which, according to Sifton, dams "don't have personalities, and they don't have politics. They store water, and they create electricity. That's it" (111). In contrast, Eli states that "It's the idea of a dam that's dangerous" (260). The dam is a technology that literally captures water, attempting to force it to yield a singular meaning: profit. As such, it works to further the dominance of human control over nature, attempting to limit our infinitely complex relationships with it. Cheryl Lousley explains, "As a technology for colonizing free running rivers, the hydroelectric dam is an icon of twentieth-century mastery over nature in the name of progress" (17). It is this idea of mastery that both texts work to ridicule In Arcadian Adventures we find Tomlinson, a farmer, improbably and temporarily elevated to the station of "Wizard of Finance" after gold is supposedly discovered on his farm and rumours begin to circulate of his pecuniary acumen. However, even at the height of his wealth, his untold millions do not compensate for his "infinite regret" over his "vanished farm" (37). The farm has "vanished" as a result of flooding caused by a dam built across Tomlinson's Creek in order to facilitate the extraction of the gold. That this is not a hydroelectric dam does change its symbolic impact somewhat; however, like a hydroelectric dam, it still serves as a tool for generating a form of power--in this case wealth rather than electricity.
Jenny Kerber points out that the Old Man River Dam, which is fictionalized in Green Grass as the Grand Baleen Dam, was
challenged by members of the Peigan (Piikani) Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy, who claimed that archaeological sites and artifacts to be flooded by the dam and reservoir area were an irreplaceable part of their cultural heritage and that the resources of the river used in the conduct of many Peigan ceremonies (including the Sun Dance, which requires the cottonwood tree to build the medicine lodge where purification rites take place) would be irreparably harmed by the impact of the dam on riparian ecosystems. (169)
While this is a more involved argument than Tomlinson's refusal to have the dam built farther up on his farm "for any consideration" because "his father was buried on it beside the creek" (46), the reader understands that his respect for his father requires this action. It is important to note the differences between a First Nation with treaty rights opposing the building of a dam for cultural reasons (and losing the argument) with a white settler opposing the location of a dam for personal reasons (and winning the argument)--we should, furthermore, keep in mind the lack of a genealogy of Tomlinson's farm: what Indigenous peoples were removed from that place so that Tomlinson's ancestors could homestead there? At the same time, however, both texts suggest the persistence of alternatives, however marginalized, to the dominant view of place. In The Inconvenient Indian, King states, "For non-Natives, land is primarily a commodity, something that has value for what you can take from it or what you can get for it," and although he acknowledges, in response to an objection from Helen Hoy that "this is a gross generalization," that "Individuals can fool you, and they can surprise you," he maintains that land as commodity is "North America's societal attitude" (218). Indeed, it is hard to argue with the examples King compiles; however, I want to suggest that the contrast to the "general truth" is not just to be found in scattered individuals who have somehow come to an alternate view of land but that there are countertraditions that have survived and that can be recovered. In these countertraditions, there is uncommon ground for Natives and non-Natives to engage each other and forge new alliances.
By contrast, we may well imagine someone like Clifford Sifton or Bill Bursum responding to Tomlinson's claim the same way that Leacock's plutocrats do: " ' Devilish smart idea!' they said; and forthwith half the financial men of the city buried their fathers, or professed to have done so, in likely places--along the prospective right-of-way of a suburban railway, for example; in fact, in any place that marked them out for the joyous resurrection of an expropriation purchase" (46). In short, for moderns, attachment to place can only be understood as a ploy to drive the price up. Indeed, Buffalo Bill Bursum, owner of the Home Entertainment Barn where Lionel works, is an exemplary representative of a dominant logic that can only understand Eli's opposition as a tactic for personal gain. He asserts that Eli's mother's cabin cannot remain in place forever. Eli replies that it can remain "As long as the grass is green and the waters run" (267). The irony in Eli's comment creates a crack in Bill's rationalization; it creates a space for an alternative understanding of what follows. We read:
As long as the grass is green and the waters run. It was a nice phrase, all right. But it didn't mean anything. It was a metaphor. Eli knew that. Every Indian on the reserve knew that. Treaties were hardly sacred documents. They were contracts, and no one signed a contract for eternity. No one. Even the E-Z Pay contracts Bursum offered ... never ran much past five or ten years. (267)
The narration of this passage is crucial but has been misread by some. For Patricia Linton, "In contemporary usage, the meaning of the phrase has been inverted: it is understood to mean 'not forever.' But the slippage has occurred not so much in the text as the context--not the 'forever' of sacred documents, but the 'forever' of contracts, which Eli figures is at best five or ten years" (218 emphasis added). Similarly, Brian Johnson reads the same passage as suggesting "Eli's distrust of metaphor" (31 emphasis added). This passage, however, is narrated as free indirect discourse of Bursum's thoughts. Bursum is speaking for Eli and "every Indian." The conversation is remembered in-between Bill's reflections on his fantasy cabin and his generalizations about Indians. Finally, the section ends with Bill noticing what time it is and wondering why Lionel is late. The equation of the phrase with metaphor is the narrator's depiction of Bill's thoughts, which show Bill shifting the context from Eli's sacred to his own pragmatic discourse. This is a crucial distinction, because Bill's reading of treaties as contracts reflects the dominant logic of conditional relativism. If the line were Eli's, it would suggest that his resistance was governed by modern liberal pragmatism rather than adherence to a sacred truth for which he is willing to die.
This truth, though, is almost unrecognizable within the current paradigm. As Ermine writes,
One of the festering irritants for Indigenous peoples, in their encounter with the West, is the brick wall of a deeply embedded belief and practice of Western universality.... This monocultural existence suggests one public sphere and one conception of justice that triumphs over all others. It is to be supposed that a society built and predicated on these narcissistic beliefs would lack the frameworks by which the experiences and reality of other cultures can be justly named, described and understood because the same terms of reference for understanding Euro-centric life are not applicable to the great majority of people, including Indigenous peoples. This is the realization that diverse human communities do not share a common moral vocabulary, nor do they share a common vision of the nature of human beings as actors within the universe. (198)
I agree with Ermine on this point but would add that the Western universality he describes is only one strand, if the dominant one, within a variety of "Western" traditions that are themselves diverse and relate differently to "the universal." Indeed, both King's and Leacock's views might be understood in the context of Grant's assertion that
In human life there must always be place for love of the good and love of one's own. Love of the good is man's [sic] highest end, but it is of the nature of things that we come to know and to love what is good by first meeting it in that which is our own--this particular body, this family, these friends, this woman, this part of the world, this set of traditions, this country, this civilization. (Empire 73)
That is, there is a universal, but each person accesses it through his or her particularities. Ian Angus explains such relationships as requiring "that other belongings be seen from the outside and justified in a moral discourse of equal worth"; this culminates "in a respect for the Otherness of the other, a recognition of difference, not an alter ego, a letting go of the desire to be completely in charge of human universality" (161). The danger that Ermine identifies and that King and Leacock satirize is the tendency for people to equate their particulars with the universal and to impose them on others. Indeed, as noted above, making readers laugh at this tendency and to recognize it as their own is necessary for change to occur; however, laughing at ourselves is only the first step--we also need an alternative tradition, through which we can access the universal, to claim as our own.
The irony of Eli's assertion--"as long as the grass is green and the waters run"--allows the reader to see a crack in Bill's universalist discourse, which enables the consciousness of an alternative paradigm, alternative particulars through which to glimpse the universal. Bill attempts to mystify this crack by shifting the context of "forever" to the common sense realm of contracts and denying the possibility that anyone could understand the phrase otherwise. But Eli's intervention has already made this other meaning perceptible. The fact that sympathetic critics seem to have missed this, though, suggests the dominance of Bill's logic and the almost unspeakable nature of its alternatives. It is worth noting that Eli's and Tomlinson's oppositions to the hegemonic forces at work in their lives and their refusal to compromise or negotiate with them are nearly wordless: explanations need to be generated by readers.
Treaties vs. cabins
In "The Love Story of Mr Peter Spillikins" Leacock shows the "belief and practice of Western universality" embedded literally on the landscape. He describes the summer home of the Newberrys, "people whose one aim in the summer is to lead the simple life" (111). So they built Castel Casteggio, which
Except for fifteen or twenty residences like it ... was entirely isolated. The only way to reach it was by the motor road ... from the railway station fifteen miles away. Every foot of the road was private property, as all nature ought to be. The whole country about Castel Casteggio was absolutely primeval, or at any rate as primeval as Scotch gardeners and French landscape artists could make it. The lake itself lay like a sparkling gem from nature's workshop--except that they had raised the level of it ten feet, stone-banked the sides, cleared out the bush, and put a motor road round it. Beyond that it was pure nature. (112)
Leacock's satire here suggests the misapprehension of the modern view. We know that the speaker believes the opposite of the Newberrys: the house is not isolated, nature should not be private property, the land is not primeval, and the lake is not purely natural. We know that the things the Newberrys claim to value are not the things they really value, or, at least, despite their assertions, they value convenience over isolation, comfort over difficulty, and control over wilderness. Like Bursum's cabin--whose lot is "Secluded. Exclusive. Valuable" (266), and only needs "a modest cabin, a boat landing, a low stone wall to discourage hikers and rubber-neckers, and a satellite dish" (267)--Castel Casteggio is the product of the belief that nature is our raw material. Or, more accurately, it is the raw material of the plutocracy: "For it had not always been [the Newberrys'] to command dynamite and control the forces of nature" but now that they had "risen to wealth" they are "perpetually busy . blowing up things with dynamite, throwing steel bridges over gullies, and hoisting heavy timber with derricks" (124). (6) The nearsighted Mr Peter Spillikins is so overawed by the achievement of Castel Casteggio, and the beauty of its inhabitants, that he "practically didn't see at all the little girl in green that stood unobtrusively on the further side of Mrs Newberry" (119). As Lynch notes, in this story, "Plutoria asserts its dominion over romantic love itself.... The myopic Spillikins mistakes the gold-digging Mrs Everleigh for the motherlode of love; the potential for true love and a natural family that the 'Green Girl' promises remains unfulfilled. Thus Plutoria defeats a potentially redemptive love" ("Afterword" 210). The story, however, still contains that potential. In its satirizing of Spillikins, it holds out to the reader the potential for natural love and love of the natural.
Eli's actions more explicitly reveal the possibility of another story, one in which what is due to others is more than conditional, in which "forever" can still be understood in a sacred sense. It is here that non-Natives who inhabit Western thought can find ethical space to engage with King's project, by looking to pre-modern traditions as the basis on which to reorient relationships. Grant argues that, in modernity,
the limitations put upon creating by the claims of others . are understood as contractual: that is, provisional. This exclusion of non-provisory owing from our interpretation of desire means that what is summoned up by the word "should" is no longer what was summoned up among our ancestors. What moderns hear always includes an "if": it is never "beyond all bargains and without an alternative." (Justice 30)
Eli's understanding of the world maintains the possibility, although marginalized, of the non-provisional. Thus, the understanding of treaties as metaphor reflects not Eli's acceptance that his claim can only last "at best five or ten years" but Bill's. The story that Bill tells himself reduces the sacred, through metaphor, to the status of contracts, thereby justifying his selfish position that seeks to dispossess Eli and the Blackfoot in general. As Dee Horne suggests, "Whenever there is a discrepancy between reality and the constructed view of First Nations, settler society manipulates reality to suit its construction" (264). Bill's reading of the novel's title phrase is an act of appropriation through discourse, an attempt to close a gap in the discourse that Eli has managed to inhabit, to make the world conform to his construction of it. Similarly, the dam, in preventing the water from running, works to create a world in which an understanding of the sacred has no place.
Craig Womack states that "People who have worked or lived in treaty-based tribal communities know that treaties, in fact, are part of a sacred discourse in which spiritually based beliefs cannot be separated from a complicated legal history" (368). He goes on to claim that "There is a whole body of oral storytelling that never gets recorded in the hundreds of so-called Indian oral tradition collections that continue to be published ... Evidently, the Indian experts who publish anthologies do not perceive stories about treaties to be Indian enough" (368). In Green Grass, treaties are central to maintaining a particular Native perspective in contrast to Sifton and Bursum's liberal, provisional, worldview. (7)
In The True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty 7 some of the oral tradition surrounding the signing of Treaty 7 is recorded. The authors conclude from these stories that, in the view of the First Nations who signed Treaty 7, including the Blackfoot with whom King's novel is concerned, it was fundamentally a peace treaty (111): "the nations were asked to give Whites access to the land for settlement but ... there was virtually no discussion of surrendering the land" (120). When Sifton complains that Canada "doesn't have an Indian policy," Eli responds with "Got the treaties" (141). Sifton's subsequent statement--"those treaties aren't worth a damn. Government only made them for convenience. Who'd of guessed that there would still be Indians kicking around in the twentieth century" (141)--is indicative of the challenge of finding common, let alone uncommon, ground between these two. Thus, if the treaties are contracts, they should be voided, or at least renegotiated, based on the value of hydroelectricity. Indeed, this is precisely what Sifton tries to do when he encourages Eli to return to Toronto, and what Bursum does when he suggests Eli could get the government to move the cabin and that he "Might even be able to get a lot on the lake in exchange" (267). However, as Ermine has it, "The treaties still stand as agreements to co-exist and they set forth certain conditions of engagement between Indigenous and European nations" (200). In the words of Louise Crop Eared Wolf, "We believed and understood [that we would] share this territory amongst each other and we also believed that the land could not be given away because of its sacredness" (Treaty 7, Elders 114). The land's value is not convertible to a dollar equivalent.
Here, though, we should pause to consider intentions. Bursum's and Sifton's actions (even George's and Hovaugh's) do not seem to be undertaken with evil intent. Indeed, they are, as Ermine points out, the product of unconsciously reproducing a worldview. Like the Arcadian plutocrats who read Tomlinson's claim about his father as a money-making strategy, Bursum reads the title phrase as a contract because that's the only way he knows how to read. Similarly, the Newberrys really think that Castel Casteggio is isolated in nature. However, the re-presentation of these gaps prevents readers from any longer accepting the story that King's moderns and Leacock's plutocrats inhabit as "natural." In so doing, they remind the reader that there are other ways to read, other ways to be in the world. Eli's refusal to leave his mother's cabin and the Tomlinsons' return to their farm prevent the dam story, the story of converting natural productivity into capital, from functioning transparently: they create cracks in that story that make it apparent as story and enable calls to tell it differently, correctly.
Going home again
In Arcadian Adventures Leacock writes, "And when you have grown used to them [the mineral waters available at the Mausoleum Club] it is as impossible to go back to plain water as it is to live again in the forgotten house in a side street that you inhabited long before you became a member" (9). Lynch notes that in "L'Envoi" we have "two men, after a failed attempt to return imaginatively to Mariposa, [who] find themselves sitting again in the posh chairs of the Mausoleum Club" ("Afterword" 206). These two men could, potentially, be Charlie and Lionel after the conclusion of Green Grass. In one imagining of their futures, they wish to return to their community but can't give up the pleasures, the freedoms, of the plutocratic world. (8) Although it is a cliche to say you can't go home again, King's novel suggests that, like Eli, you can, and should. For Leacock, similarly, while his narrator asserts in the opening story that one can't go back, we do see the Tomlinsons return home. And, like the dam in Green Grass, although not by an earthquake or supernatural intervention, we also see the dam built on Tomlinson's Creek disappear: "Tomlinson and his son had long since broken a hole in the dam with pickaxe and crowbar, and day by day the angry water carried down the vestiges of the embankment till all were gone.. Nature reached out its hand and drew its coverlet of green over the grave of the vanished Eldorado" (75), so that "the Wizard and his son ... saw nothing but the land sloping to the lake and the creek murmuring again to the willows, while the off-shore wind rippled the rushes of the shallow water" (75). After the earthquake in Green Grass, "the water rolled on as it had for eternity" (415), and when Charlie says "Not much left," Norma replies "Everything's still here" (421). Thus, although the destruction of one dam in each book does not spell the end of Plutoria, of liberal modernity, there is hope for recovery and renewal. As Bud Hirsch argues, "Coyote's earthquake exposes not only the fragility of the dam, which it helps destroy, but of 'the idea of a dam,' the belief, endemic in Western culture, that human beings can impose their will on nature through technological legerdemain" (156). Coyote's laughter during the earthquake (411)--the idea that an earthquake, a cataclysmic event normally seen as a disaster, can be funny--allows us to step out of the allegiance we may have to liberal modernity. Similarly, while we may desire wealth as much as the Arcadian plutocrats, if we sympathize with Tomlinson's refusal to sully his father's grave, distance is opened between us and them (or, perhaps more accurately, between us and ourselves, between who we are in our everyday lives dominated by habit and hegemony and who we are when we attain critical distance from ourselves, when we step out of our allegiances). We can see that Tomlinson's refusal is more than a ploy: he knows that he should defend his father's grave no matter how much money might be made by doing otherwise. We can see that Eli's refusal is more than a ploy: he knows that he should defend his mother's cabin regardless of that for which it might be exchanged.
While the conclusion to Green Grass offers hope and renewal--with the symbol of eco-colonial dominance destroyed and the rebuilding of the cabin underway--Arcadian Adventures is more ambiguous, with the dam on Tomlinson's Creek destroyed in the middle of Leacock's collection. For Lynch, "Those in Arcadian Adventures who are close to the values at the centre of Leacock's tory-humanist norm ... are subsumed by the ascendant plutocracy in a final triumph of darkness" ("Afterword" 211). Leacock's concluding story, "The Great Fight for Clean Government," sees the plutocrats distort the democratic process for their own ends--to use the government to further enrich themselves--but the conclusion might not be quite so bleak as Lynch suggests. We read, "So the night waxed and waned till the slow day broke, dimming with its cheap prosaic glare the shaded beauty of the artificial light, and the people of the city--the best of them,--drove home to their well-earned sleep, and the others,--in the lower parts of the city,--rose to their daily toil" (203). On the one hand, we might read this as a depressing inversion of traditional and natural associations--sunrise suggesting darkness, the idle plutocratic thieves retiring to a "well-earned" sleep while the working poor "rose" to nothing but the toil that sustains the plutocrats' idleness. However, on the other hand, we might also read these associations "straight"--the plutocrats are going down as the workers are getting up, the sun overwhelming "the artificial light." While "toil" has negative connotations, Leacock also recognizes the virtue in labour. In "The Arrested Philanthropy of Mr Tomlinson," the titular character, on his way out of the Grand Palaver hotel after losing his fortune, pauses to consider how much to tip the "tall official . called by the authorities a chasseur or commissionaire, or some foreign name to mean that he did nothing" (73). Tomlinson murmurs "I wonder ... how much I ought--" but his son, Fred, interjects to say, "Not a damn cent, father ... let him work" (74). Further, in a passage quoted above, it is through the labour of Tomlinson and his son that the dam on their creek is removed: human labour can operate in co-operation with nature. So, while the collection's concluding sentence may suggest that the working poor are trapped by the plutocrats' selfishness, there are also hints toward the value of redemptive work, the plenitude of nature (cheap natural light), and incipient ascent, a counternarrative to plutocratic dominance. Leacock, like King, calls on readers to change their minds about what they are here for, what their stance within modern society should be, how they should respond to the hegemonic story of liberal capitalism. While we may laugh at the simplemindedness of Tomlinson and his wife, our sympathy is with them and the unseen slum-dwellers and working poor rather than the plutocrats.
Changing our minds
Despite the satire directed at the residents of Mariposa in Sunshine Sketches and the critique of the characters' small-mindedness, it "remains the ideal community for the Canadian humanist and tory.. What is worthwhile in Mariposa must be remembered, recovered, and brought into the present, if the extremes of mechanistic capitalism--Plutoria--are to be, if not defeated or avoided, at least opposed or countered" (Lynch, "Afterword" 206). Might one not say the same about Blossom, Alberta, and the nearby reservation? Despite the problems its inhabitants face, those who leave are drawn back by something essential to their well-being. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike have a responsibility to take up these stories of kinship, to tell and retell them in an effort to recognize the diversity of wonder that persists and remains accessible through various traditions despite residing in the cracks of modern society. If readers change their minds as a result of these stories, they will not only change their relations with other humans but also with the non-human world. When we change our minds about the story we live in, we change the world.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms: Seventh Edition. Toronto: Harcourt Brace, 1999.
Angus, Ian. A Border Within: National Identity, Cultural Plurality, and Wilderness. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's up, 1997.
Bowers, C. A. Educating for Eco-Justice and Community. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
Coleman, Daniel. In Bed with the Word: Reading, Spirituality, and Cultural Politics. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2009.
--. "Reading Beyond the Book: Reading as Public Intellectual Activity." University of Alberta, 21 January 2011. Lecture.
Davis, Arthur. "Did George Grant Change His Politics?" Athens and Jerusalem: George Grant's Theology, Philosophy, and Politics. Eds. Ian Angus, Ron Dart, and Randy Peg Peters. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.
Epp, Roger. We Are All Treaty People: Prairie Essays. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2008.
Ermine, Willie. "The Ethical Space of Engagement." Indigenous Law Journal 6:1 (2007): 193-203.
Fagan, Kristina. "What's the Trouble with the Trickster: An Introduction." Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations. Eds. Deanna Reder and Linda Morra. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier up, 2010.
Fleischmann, Aloys. "Thomas King's Humorous Traps." Thomas King: Works and Impact. Ed. Eva Gruber. Rochester: Camden House, 2012. 167-83.
Grant, George. Technology and Empire: Perspectives on North America. Toronto: Anansi, 1969.
--. Technology and Justice. Toronto: Anansi, 1986.
Hirsch, Bud. "'Stay Calm, Be Brave, Wait for the Signs': Sign-Offs and Send-Ups in the Fiction of Thomas King." Western American Literature (Summer 2004): 145-75.
Horne, Dee. "To Know the Difference: Mimicry, Satire, and Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water." Essays on Canadian Writing 56 (Fall 1995): 255-73.
Innes, Robert Alexander. Elder Brother and the Law of the People. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013.
Johnson, Brian. "Plastic Shaman in the Global Village: Understanding Media in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water." Studies in Canadian Literature 25 (2000): 24-49.
Jucker, Rolf. "Book Review: Educating for Eco-Justice and Community." The Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy 18:1 (2002): np.
Kerber, Jenny. Writing in Dust: Reading the Prairie Environmentally. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier UP, 2010.
King, Thomas. All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990.
--. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: Harper, 1993.
--. Truth and Bright Water. Toronto: Harper, 1999.
--. "Border Trickery and Dog Bones: A Conversation with Thomas King." By Jennifer Andrews. Studies in Canadian Literature 24.2 (1999): 161-85.
--. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: Anansi, 2003.
--. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2013.
Leacock, Stephen. Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich. 1914. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1989.
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University of Alberta
(1) Bowers points out that "the word culture ... has a long history of distorted reifications" (viii). However, I follow him in reclaiming the word's dynamism, because culture "provides a basis for challenging the modern myth of the autonomous individual. ... the use of the word culture is essential to challenging the proclivity of modern elites to universalize their categories of thinking ... It is also essential to the argument that the language of different cultural groups may encode the inter-generational knowledge of the sustainable characteristics of their bioregion" (ix).
(2) The formulation "Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal" is, of course, too blunt, ignoring the long and complex history of metissage and multiculturalism (see Robert Alexander Innes's Elder Brother and the Law of the People 7 and chapters 3 and 4). I do not have space here to do more than gesture toward this complexity and suggest that I intend with the term "Aboriginal" breadth and inclusivity for those, like King, who identify with and live their Aboriginal identity; conversely, by "non-Aboriginal" I mean to suggest those who do not have, or do not live as though they have, Indigenous ancestry (in the novel, Norma's accusation that her nephew Lionel wants to become "white" (36) suggests one of many complications to this division). I use the terms "Native," "Indigenous," and "Aboriginal" interchangeably.
(3) Coleman looks at the importance of reading that "occurs in private but ... doesn't stay there" (In Bed 13).
(4) Lynch has also made this connection, comparing King's Medicine River to Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town:
other than King I cannot think of a Canadian comic writer since Leacock whose tone and authorial attitude are so "kind"--Leacock's term for the humour of communal identification, of kinship, which is similar to what King means by his title All My Relations ... Here are two Canadian writers ... who are eager to clarify that they cherish the communities they document and anatomize with humorous satire. ("Mariposa Medicine" 221)
(5) While enumerating the differences in the machinations of capital between 1914 and 1993 when Leacock's and King's texts were, respectively, published would be a worthwhile exercise, it is beyond the scope of this investigation. For my purposes, the similarity of each text's critique of a foundational modern assumption about the way the world works--that it is within human control to create the world as we want it to be--is more important.
(6) It is also worth considering in this regard both Karen's family's cottage in the Laurentians--"The cottage was not a cottage at all. It was a four-bedroom house set on a lake" (165), which is part of the appeal for Eli of the different sort of life that Karen represents--and King's own musings about his dream cottage on Rosie Bay ("Border Trickery" 178 and The Truth About Stories 163). King's description of his own desires in the same terms as those of one of his least sympathetic characters helps to break down the us/them binary that may tempt us as readers of Green Grass or Arcadian Adventures. "We" recognize the failings of "them," those others like Bursum and Sifton who imagine they can have everything they want or the Newberrys and the Fyshes who think they can remake the world in their own image, when, in fact, "we" are, like King, ourselves the Siftons and the Fyshes and when we laugh at them we are laughing at ourselves. We want the "modest cedar-plank house with nine-foot coffered ceilings" (Truth 163) or "a beautiful house of white brick ... standing among great trees with rolling lawns broken with flower beds" (Leacock, Arcadian 112).
(7) Indeed, the tradition of the treaties is one that all Canadians living in territory covered by treaties should recover and offers an important source for changing our ecological relationship with the places we live. As Roger Epp has it in his title, for those of us living in the prairie provinces, We Are All Treaty People. Kerber follows Epp's lead:
if residents of the prairies can embrace the idea that "we are all treaty people," then the burden of accommodation, memory, and reconciliation shifts from one solely borne by First Nations people to a challenge that must also be shared by settlers. To remember all that settler culture has gained from the treaties--including access to wind, water, timber, land, and the unseen petroleum and minerals beneath the ground that now drive large sectors of the prairie economy--provides a corrective to ideas of the region as a wasteland. It also challenges the idea that settlers are exempted from treaty obligations. (218)
(8) While we learn in Truth and Bright Water that Lionel becomes the owner of the Home Entertainment Barn, King leaves it to the reader to decide if this means he has moved closer to Bill's worldview or further from it. Similarly, Charlie, in leaving for Los Angeles to find his father, hints at the possibility of reconciliation, but it is left to the reader to decide what form his future will take. Can we imagine him without the Porsche and vanity plates?
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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