Whirling Blindfolded in the House of Woman: Gender Politics in the Poetry and Fiction of Michael Ondaatje

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Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,072 words

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[(essay date summer 1994) In the following essay, York investigates the thematic importance of gender issues--particularly as they relate to questions of ownership--in Ondaatje's poetry and fiction, observing a heightened sensitivity toward gender relations in Ondaatje's later work.]

In his introduction to Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje, Sam Solecki lists a few "approaches to Ondaatje's work not included [in the volume] because not yet written": Ondaatje as dramatist, Ondaatje's humour, stylistic analyses, Ondaatje as film-maker (9). He gives the final pride of place, however, to psycho-analytical criticism, mainly because of what he calls "the centrality of the father" in Ondaatje's writing: "I suspect it's only from that direction that someone will deal adequately with the radical darkness at the heart of Ondaatje's vision ..." (10). Is anyone missing here? Yes--the "not yet written" feminist criticism of Michael Ondaatje.

By the middle of the 1980s, when Spider Blues was published, feminist theory and criticism was a burgeoning academic field, but she is absent from the criticism of this important poet and novelist as well as from Solecki's list. Of course, psychoanalysis, in the hands of a Mary Jacobus or a Jane Gallop, has taught us much about the law of the father from a feminist perspective, but the psychoanalysis that Solecki alludes to in Spider Blues is of a distinctly masculine cast; psychoanalysis would be effective, he suggests, because of the presence and textual domination of the father. That paternal domination is no less felt in the critical writing inspired by the poems, novels, and films of Michael Ondaatje.

There are, to begin, not very many women critics writing on Ondaatje. The essay collection Spider Blues, for example, has five women contributors (four essayists, one bibliographer) and fourteen male ones. And though women critics have written on Ondaatje--most notably Linda Hutcheon, Manina Jones, Constance Rooke, Smaro Kamboureli, and Anne Blott--they have focused on issues other than gender, even though gender has been a prominent feature of the other critical writings of most of them. This is also true, I must add in a shamefaced postscript, of my own limited work on Ondaatje. So why don't we have a gender criticism of Ondaatje in the nineties?

My hypothesis is as follows: feminist critics shied away from Ondaatje because they assumed that there wasn't much to write about, or that, if they did write, they would end up compiling a survey of "images of women" in Ondaatje--in essence, a catalogue of Atwoodian victim positions--which would be theoretically sparse and of limited use. And standing before them was this body of criticism--for example, the work of critics such as Sam Solecki, Dennis Cooley, and Stephen Scobie--much of it very good, but, taken as a whole, belonging to a male milieu. Take the critical commentary on the cover of Ondaatje's selected poems, There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do, if you think that I'm overstating the case. Stephen Scobie opens his review of the volume, reprinted in Spider Blues, with...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053091