Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

1: Introduction: The Ethics of Knowing

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

1: Introduction: The Ethics of Knowing

Article excerpt

IN HIS FIRST NOVEL, PEACE SHALL DESTROY MANY (1962), the Canadian Mennonite author Rudy Wiebe seeks to engage with alterity from outside any specific ethnic or cultural framework. His focus on a Prairie Mennonite community in 1944 rural Saskatchewan may qualify Peace Shall Destroy Many as a 'Mennonite' novel, but the novel is not exclusively concerned with representing Mennonites: it also considers the problem of representing the relationship between Mennonites and their indigenous neighbours. Wiebe is best known for his engagement with Mennonites and Canada's First Nations, and the protagonist in his first novel is Thom Wiens, a young Mennonite living the rural community of Wapiti in Saskatchewan in 1944. The novel offers pertinent examples of the complexity inherent in representing the seifs encounter with the other1 or, rather, perhaps the seifs exposure to the other - particularly within the Mennonite community, where the tradition of social conformity remains strong. Peace Shall Destroy Many was the first English-language novel to be written by a Mennonite on Mennonites, and it caused considerable controversy among readers in the Mennonite community for conveying images of Mennonites that were incommensurable with the community's own image of itself. The novel thus exposed images of alterity in that community, an issue that I will discuss in more detail in Chapter 2.

Ethically, the most evocative cases of exposure to alterity in Peace Shall Destroy Many, however, concern the protagonist's exposure to the past and present signs of Aboriginal presence on the Prairie landscape. The Wapiti Mennonites live close to First Nations and Métis communities, but do not readily engage with these communities except for attempts to evangelize them. As a result, people in Wapiti remain largely ignorant about what the Prairie was really like little more than half a century before the novel was set. Mennonites began to settle on the Prairie around the turn of the twentieth century, and, only some decades before that, the Prairie that they know as a space for farming had been marked by the presence of the First Nations and the immense buffalo herds on which the Aboriginal peoples depended; not the fields, railroads, or the cities and small towns that mark the presence of the colonizer and the settler.

While the Wapiti Mennonites do not seek to engage with the past of their Prairie world, traces of that past still emerge decades after the buffalo were hunted to near extinction and the First Nations were forced to settle on reserves. Traces of that past appear to Thom Wiens in ways that cannot be easily anticipated, and they leave little room for pre-emptive answers to their alterity, as he discovers while working in a field:

Thom stumbled suddenly, feeling something abrupt against his boot. He bent to see. Pete, peering with interest, said,

"Shouldn't be any rocks here in the swamp," as Thom felt the broad turn of the horn. He tugged hard and it came up with moss and roots dangling.

The lower nose had rotted away; the roll of bone at the skull-top and the thick jutting horns were all that remained.

"Must have been a wood-buffalo. Man, look at that, eh!" [...]

"How long has it been lying here, you think, Pete?"

"Don't know. Not too long here - the water would have rotted it quick."2

Elsewhere, the narrative reveals that Thom has heard stories about the First Nations and is intrigued by glimpses into a Prairie he does not know they offer. The stories Thom hears turn on a past that has been organized into narratives, many of which explain the past in terms that reduce the alterity of the First Nations to severely restrictive, formulaic images. As a result, Thom has no access to any means by which he might narrate his own position in relation to those stories without imposing the tradition of Anglo-Canadian dominance on the Prairie, or of Mennonite presence on them. Thom's narrative is marked throughout by discourses of power that seek to deny Bakhtinian polyphony,3 thus hindering his chances of responding ethically to the presence of the other. …

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