Trade and Power, Money and War: Rethinking Masculinity in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient

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Author: Susan Ellis
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,834 words

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[(essay date 1996) In the following essay, Ellis discusses Ondaatje's representation of masculinity in The English Patient, demonstrating how the novel constructs a masculine identity through personal relationships instead of traditional cultural assumptions about masculine autonomy, isolation, and individuation.]

As Almásy, the English patient, slowly reveals his story in the pages of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, he describes leaving his mortally injured lover hidden in a cave and walking out into the Libyan Desert to find help. In the course of his three-day trek he realizes that "There is God only in the desert. ... Outside of this there was just trade and power, money and war. Financial and military despots shaped the world" (250). The novel depicts a world and four individual lives that are "in near ruins" from the effects of fire, war, torture, and colonialism. Within a landscape of destroyed chapels, burned libraries, drowned art, booby-trapped gardens, and literature that is a weapon of war, Ondaatje turns his focus as a writer away from the personal, internal struggles of the masculine artists of his earlier novels and poems toward an examination of the sociopolitical implications of colonialism, history, literature, and, to some extent, gender relationships. Ondaatje has further developed a trend that begins tentatively as an ambivalence in Running in the Family, and is already apparent in his earlier novel In the Skin of a Lion. Christian Bök refers to it as aphasia--manifested as either the silence of death or the silence of madness (112)--a refusal of individualism itself and the artistic retreat to privacy, in favour of an embracing of relationship. This trend arguably demonstrates a self-conscious rethinking of the volatile, individualistic masculinity so apparent in Ondaatje's earlier works.

As Bök notes, in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming through Slaughter especially, but also in much of his poetry, Ondaatje valorizes the socially irresponsible hero and romanticizes the isolated male artist caught in the drama of the chaotic intensity of his art (114). Billy the Kid as the outlaw artist-killer, Buddy Bolden as the extremist riding the cusp of the ultimate spontaneous creativity and self-annihilation, as well as numerous poet-narrators of Ondaatje's poems display these characteristics. All of them, in varying degrees, embody a form of masculinity described by Michael Kaufman as "a reaction against passivity and powerlessness" (11). Through these characters, Ondaatje's earlier writing tends to reproduce, in an unexamined manner, more general cultural notions, particularly the cultural bias noted by Nancy Chodorow in which the masculinist qualities of separateness, individualism, and distance from others are seen as both desirable and admirable (16). His work tends to support a masculinist insistence that separateness is essential to autonomy and human fulfilment. Not only does Ondaatje refuse to make explicit judgements about the underlying cultural values inherent in the individualism or the violence of these protagonists, but his work also avoids any implicit critique of it. In Running in the Family, Ondaatje's portrait of Mervyn Ondaatje as the tortured drunk sitting naked...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053093