There is an excellent exchange on Canada Reads between Wab Kinew and Stephen Lewis about violence in Joseph Boyden’s novel The Orenda, which Kinew nominated for the book that he thinks all Canadians should read (video here).
While Lewis criticizes the level of violence in the book, calling it “torture as pornography” (the depictions are extreme and pervasive), Kinew defends it as essential to what the book is trying to do. The problem, he asserts, is looking at it “strictly from a Western perspective,” which leads to the conclusion that the Indigenous characters are “savages.” Following the book’s “clues,” however, allows us to see a different “relationship” between torturer and tortured, that is alien to the Western mindset. Where Western (secularized, materialist, anti-metaphysical) eyes see torture as domination and objectification, Indigenous eyes see “caresses” (a term Boyden uses repeatedly) and the “chance to prove your honour and your dignity one last time” (Kinew).
At issue is the book’s preservation and transmission of the radical foreignness of Indigenous culture, affording the (settler) reader a glimpse into a radically different world. The preservation of difference is important, as Kinew powerfully puts it, because “reconciliation [between settlers and Indigenous peoples] must not become a second chance at assimilation.”
As a settler, reading The Orenda, and hearing Kinew’s reading of it, that opening to difference provides more than just an invitation to recognize and tolerate difference, however. If great novels allow you to experience the world from the perspective of another, what is perhaps the most politically charged moment in that process is when you see yourself, and your own taken-for-granted world, from the perspective of another. It provides the opportunity to assimilate (in this case in the reverse direction) some of that difference, or in other words to learn and grow from that experience of otherness.
So what have I learned in starting to think with Boyden and Kinew?
In my “environmental political theory” course this semester, one of the themes that has emerged through readings and class discussions, has been the question of sacrifice, and whether the demand for sacrifice (e.g. “consume less”) is an effective strategy for environmentalists. The premise of The Breakthrough Institute is that such a strategy has been environmentalism’s downfall (we read “The Death of Environmentalism” earlier in the semester), and that environmentalists need to focus on more “positive” messages. And just this week we read an article by Kate Soper on the promise of “alternative hedonism.” For Soper, “alternative hedonism” (pleasurable but environmentally sustainable forms of consumption) emerges through the contradictions that make traditional (Western, consumerist) conceptions of the good life “site[s] of problematic pleasure.” Having your own car seems great, until you are stuck in traffic, or working overtime to pay for gas, parking, insurance, repairs, etc. Then alternative forms of “the good life” (still framed in terms of “pleasure”) might seem more attractive.
While the strategic benefits of appealing to things that people already (think they) know that they want are obvious, it is important to register what is lost in not challenging the authenticity or depth or truth of felt needs and desires. We live in an era in which the planet is being profoundly reshaped by human activity, in which genetic engineering technologies and ideas of “neuroplasticity” are emptying “human nature” of any concrete content. And yet we seem to be unwilling to ask the now-urgent questions about whether the kinds of desires that we have – particularly for more and more stuff – are really the ones that we should want.
Is it possible to desire different desires? Thanks to Joseph Boyden and Wab Kinew, our eyes are opened to a world in which “honour” and “dignity” are more important than the satisfaction of bodily desires or even bodily integrity. A world where “suffering is key to achieving something meaningful” (Kinew). A world in which three-dimensional, human characters live lives that are meaningful yet utterly devoid of the trappings that many of us think give our lives meaning.
Asking if our desires are the right ones ultimately means asking ourselves: what kinds of beings do we want to be? More than just how should I live, the reach of our technologies means that it is a question that has to be answered collectively, across cultures, across space, and over time – a world in which (to cite the closing words of the novel) “the past and the future are present.”