Wednesday, January 22, 2014


One of the challenges of teaching my "Britain in the Sixties" class is to find a clear connection between some of the new forces making themselves felt in the country and lasting social change.  We can say without much hedging that when the post-war economy was up and running there was an element of celebration and joy--though not everyone shared in that boom.  We can also say that young people, for the first time in their lives, had enough disposable income--to buy records and fan magazines and miniskirts--to become a force to be reckoned with and to create a youth(ful) culture that continues to this day.  We can say that the pill influenced not only women's reproductive decisions but cut an inextricable tie between a woman and the destiny implied by her body.  Yet today when I talk to some of my younger students or listen to young women while they shop, I'm not sure we can register the effects of the pill as a lasting social change.  Feminist principles are taken for granted in some contexts; in others, I see gender stereotypes nervously yet cursorily reinforced rather than challenged.

Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, published in 2000 and thus the first novel in my CanLit class, challenges any individual's ability to turn aside the juggernauts of governments and revolutions in Sri Lanka.  Anil has found a single skeleton of a man clearly tortured in a burial site controlled by government forces.  She thinks that with the help of a local archeologist and an artisan she can identify the man, find out when he disappeared, blame the guilty, and establish that there are human rights violations occurring in Sri Lanka.  Her persistence and ingenuity end up paying off:  she gives him a name and can tell the authorities when he disappeared.  All through this process she has been reminding herself of one of the principles of a favourite teacher:  "One victim can speak for many victims.  One village can speak for many villages." 

Anil's principles are hopeful and laudable.  Through the silence of one of the minor characters, a young woman named Lakma who saw her parents murdered, we understand the importance of the individual and collective voice.  From all my years of teaching young people to write, I have observed that while the first and primal human desire is to be loved, the second is often to have a voice.  Our voices are our most basic way of being agents in our social worlds and of creating and articulating our connections with other people.  It is the manifestation of ourselves in the world, beyond our bodies.  But Lakma's voice has been stolen by the trauma attendant on her parents' murder.  We would hope, then, that someone would or could speak for her.  

While it is true that to prove human rights abuses, one must find the first victim and to give that victim a voice, it is also true that a single victim will not take one's case very far.  This is particularly true in Sri Lanka during their civil war: by the time Anil has gotten out of the country, lucky to still be alive, most of her carefully collected evidence has been confiscated.  Anil's danger-filled, earnest time there, despite her cleverness and expertise, will change nothing about the conduct of this war, for, as two characters observe in slightly different wording "the reason for war was war." 

I have been watching change on a micro level in my household:  Sheba has been sick.  About a week and a half ago, she began hiding out under things and was even more easily spooked than usual.  She was also scratching herself furiously and had taken out a chunk of fur and skin near her right ear.  Taking her to the vet is no joke, even when she's not unusually tense; in order to look at her closely and get blood tests, the vet had to anaesthetize her.  It turns out that she has a urinary tract infection and perhaps a skin infection too.  Much to my surprise, she's an easy cat to pill.  I fold the pill into one of her favourite treats and put it with five others in my hand.  If one tastes suspicious, the others are fine--which of course keeps her guessing.  Mostly she just scarfs it all down. 

The interesting change is that she has reverted to some of her kitten habits, and I think she's about 7 years old now.  She sleeps on my pillow as she did her first month with us, stretching her paws onto my shoulder and putting her face next to my cheek.  Or she comes under the covers, something she also hasn't done in years.  She continues to hide a lot, but when she comes out of whatever secret place she has, she wants LOVE and lots of it.  In fact, she's been in my lap while I've been writing this, often stretching up to touch my face.

She and Twig and pretty good friends, yet Twig, always an undemanding cat (unless food is involved) has been reacting to her times in her secret hiding places by in effect saying "Me. Want.  Attention."  So Sheba's body is prompting her to behave strangely and affecting the subtle feline power politics in the household.  Meanwhile, I'm covered in cat fur.

The segue from Ondaatje's remarkable novel to my sick cat was not entirely a swift passage from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Rather, watching Sheba has made me attentive to how often change happens for seemingly arbitrary reasons like an infection.  I've been watching this process as a writer, I guess, thinking about the subtle ways in which we change the behaviour of the people around us.  It's a truism of the counselling trade that while, to paraphrase Heidegger, mood is our primary interface with the world, our partner's moods are a similarly powerful filter.  That mood or change might have nothing to do with intentions and everything to do with something arbitrary like an infection or six cloudy days in a row.

At the same time I've been considering how difficult it can be to effect change in ourselves or others.  Change is always happening; we consider it one of life's constants.  Yet changing your diet or your smoking habits can be extremely difficult.  Some people embrace change; others are terrified by it.  Both groups would probably be challenged to explain their attitudes convincingly. 

I'm often told that one effective way of constructing a narrative is to consider the power balance between characters to be in continual flux as they jockey for control and establish their dominance.  I'm sorry, but that model of the universe is entirely foreign to me and I think it creates characters who are one-dimensional power-hungry little shits.  But change
--how to create it or avoid it or bring it to one's own life or bring some of its sweetness into the world--that I think I could get behind.

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