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  • A Political Aesthetic:Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion as "Covert Pastoral"
  • Robert David Stacey (bio)

How I hate the builder who seeks to raise his houseas high as the peak of Mount Oromedon there,and the Muses' cuckoos, with their eye on the bard of Chios!In vain they labour . . . ! But let us begin the singing,Simichidas.

Theocritus, "Idyll VII"

The Argument

In "Art over History," his scathing critique of Michael Ondaatje's 1987 novel In the Skin of a Lion, Frank Davey poses the following question: "How can one use a widely published novelist's powerful position to 'represent' both artistically and politically those who are excluded from power, without appearing both to be in a custodial or paternal relation to these and to be making 'use' of the unempowered to create bourgeois art?" (146). The question, Davey insists, must be foremost in our minds as we come to terms with "a novel that claims to call into question the large numbers of people—women, workers, immigrants—who are silenced by the 'official histories' of Canadian culture" (144–45). Indeed, Davey's contention that In the Skin of a Lion, which is largely concerned with the lives of immigrant and working-class Torontonians in the first half of the twentieth century, exploits rather than empowers its working-class subjects has emerged as perhaps the most frequent complaint about the novel. [End Page 439]

What interests me here is that this is also the dominant criticism of the pastoral, a literary mode whose politics have been decried more often than they have been properly understood. In what follows, I treat In the Skin of a Lion as a pastoral novel and read it in the context of some of the key debates that have defined the modern history of the mode. This is not the first time an Ondaatje text has been approached in these terms: in a passing comment near the conclusion of his brilliant and comprehensive What Is Pastoral?, Paul Alpers cites Ondaatje's 1992 novel The English Patient as exemplary of contemporary fiction "in which theme or subject matter . . . is given literary form that derives from or is made intelligible by the usages of traditional pastoral" (418). Similarly, Ondaatje's 1982 fictional memoir Running in the Family has been read as an instance of "postmodern pastoral" by Janet Giltrow and David Stouck. No critic has as yet approached In the Skin of a Lion, the novel that lies between them, as a work of pastoral, even though it is by far the most self-consciously and genuinely pastoral of the three. In the context of attacks on the novel's politics by Davey and others, the pastoralism of In the Skin of a Lion demands recognition precisely because the mode enables and conditions Ondaatje's attempt to frame the novel's depiction of the political and economic disempowerment of the working class.

This claim for a politically aware, possibly even oppositional pastoral may strike some as surprising. In the popular imagination, pastoral is usually associated with an idyllic natural landscape and the decorous relations of highly stylized, bucolic figures. Renato Poggioli expresses the dominant view in his highly influential The Oaten Flute. For Poggioli, pastoral writing reacts against "labour," "social obligations," and "ethical bonds" (31) and presents "a double longing after innocence and happiness, to be recovered not through conversion or regeneration but merely through a retreat" (1). Such a view, however, belies a long tradition of pastoral writing about complex social situations in which different social types come to terms with various forms of constraint that limit and condition their relations to one another. At the head of this more dialectical tradition is Virgil's "Eclogue I," a poem that depicts an encounter between Meliboeus, a farmer whose land has been seized by the government and handed over to a veteran of the Roman civil wars, and Tityrus, a [End Page 440] farmer who has been spared a similar fate only by the propitious intervention of a patron in the city.1 So while pastoral can certainly be idealizing and escapist, it is equally capable of exploring situations of loss and...


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