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While Distancing: The Belonging of the Worker in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion

  • In the spring of 2020, all classes at OCADu were suspended for face-to-face class times. Efforts were made to provide class experience online. This series, While Distancing, is an exploration of the work accomplished while learning from afar. In this installation, a Presentation for Studies in Canadian Literature which originally would have been given in front of class, with an interactive VR piece, instead in transcript, with embedded video. For those with Google Glass or other VR enabled device, the video can be viewed in 360 degree VR on YouTube.

The Worker in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion:  Identity Traded for Belonging

My choice of approach is a creative presentation, using the medium of virtual reality 3D graphics. While it’s unfortunate that due to recent events the experience can’t be viewed in class, one benefit is that it can still be experienced by anyone who wants to see it while they’re at home. I had a headset for viewing the scene in VR, but if anyone has Google Cardboard or a similar VR headset setup, it can be viewed in the same manner. As well, if the video is viewed on a smart phone, you can explore the environment in 360 degrees, a facsimile of the VR view.

This artistic approach to presenting my thoughts came at an intersection of my current work and my perspective on the book as I delved deeper into the story. I began to be drawn in by Ondaatje’s descriptions of spaces and places. Initially, I was going to render the café The Ohrida Lake, which appears near the beginning of the book instead of this tunnel, but as I read and considered the story, this space operated as a more important narrative center and reflection of my argument, which I’ll explore below. I wanted to render this environment in VR, primarily because it is a place which we can no longer experience in real life—and even couldn’t have in its time, apart from during its construction. Even Patrick, when greased up and swimming through the intake channel, was taking his own life into his hands in his exploration of the tunnel, years after he’d helped clear the rock and dig the earth.

The cities we live in are made up of these types of places, spaces which are so pivotal to the functioning of our day to day lives but which we can’t or shouldn’t explore. The Bloor Viaduct, for all its use and value in transportation, is no longer a spot where people careen off the side, landing in mid air to rivet, or assist a road builder to navigate along. These built spaces, which many have died in the making of, are so important to our existence as a city, even as we only interface with them through their intended public use. These landmarks assist our ability, psychically, to find belonging within a city. The CN tower, the Bloor Viaduct, that restaurant you’ve been visiting since you were a child—the spaces we experience in a city allow us to dream what that city is, and in that dream we find our belonging and ability to identify with it. I would argue that, in his depiction of workers and their lives in In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje is portraying a sense of that belonging being gained through hard work and creation, but also the loss of identity that comes with sacrificing yourself to create the big things of life.

In this work, Ondaatje shows workers in their personal lives, buying food, going to a café that is dressed up to look like their old country, dancing and cavorting in the ribs of the water treatment plant. At the level of the viewer, most often through the eyes of Patrick but also others, we see the lives of workers as they are in the flesh, aspects not captured in archival photos of the spaces they built. It is apparent that Ondaatje was inspired foremost by such photographs. You can imagine him, as our professor mentioned, as the narrator was, looking at archival photos, imagining the stories behind the lives of the characters. What was that man, there in the back, doing on his days off? That woman walking by, was she on the way to the store to buy vetch for her lizard, or was she an unwitting anarchist collaborator? These people in the archive can have assumptions of their lives mapped onto things we know about the time—the activities of political dissidents, records of workers’ ethnic demographics—but without their words we can never really know who they were or what they did. As the ones who created the built environment of the Toronto of their time, and the Toronto we experience today, they gain a belonging in the system of the city. Many of the workers mentioned, like Temelcoff, were peasant farmers in their country of origin, coming to ‘Upper America’ to find new lives. Some were lucky enough to find a legacy, as he did through his bakery business, but most were resigned to mingle in the background noise of archival photos, their stories known only to their relatives if recorded at all. But by being the ones who built, and by finding residence and belonging in the city they did build, they also became part of the population of Toronto past and future. It is them in a sense, not the R.C. Harris’s of the world, who are the giants on whose shoulders we stand, or at least whose rails we roll upon in TTC subway cars.

In this process of creation and belonging, however, the workers are alienated from a sense of identity and transformed into ‘the worker’ as an archetype. They are in fact almost rendered only an archetype. Powerful paintings of industry from the time of the book’s setting and soon after display the worker, however valuable, as a generic, strong-jawed man, glistening with sweat as he wrenches the gear of some large machine, his cap shadowing his eyes, further anonymizing him. Even the heavy gendering of that last sentiment is sign enough that when they are displayed even in abstract, it was predominantly men who were displayed, even less known of the lives and value of women of the time. These new immigrants, building what would become foci of the cities powerful magics of identity, gained belonging into the city they constructed at the expense of identity. It’s notable that of the ethnic makeup of the workers mentioned in the story—Finnish, Macedonian, Italian mostly, with others—few are groups we’d associate with the Toronto of today. I certainly haven’t thought of Toronto as having a particularly robust Finnish community. Much of that is intermingled with realities of race, marriage, belonging and who belongs, and the alienating cultural force of ‘whiteness’, which most certainly poses more danger to those out-grouped by it, but at the same time offers a dangerous form of forgetting that both benefits and obliviates those inside it from their cultural memories. These workers, much like the horses brought down into the tunnel to haul and to die in the shadows, live their whole lives in service to the building of monuments which their children’s children may experience devoid of the knowledge of their having built them.

It’s in this spirit that I wanted to create a representation of the spaces inhabited by workers. The tunnels of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, the ‘Palace of Purification,’ as we know from reading, are now filled with water. It is now a space rendered inhospitable to humans, made instead to benefit them on the whole. So, I wanted to render it a space of habitation again. In a sense, it is an altar to those who built the environment we live in, a place inside the place where only they were. I eschewed any audio because I thought I’d be presenting orally while the viewer was passed around and I didn’t want disruption. Still, you can imagine the low roar of earth, that rumble heard while underground of great things vibrating all around, sloshing water as footfalls fill the worked space, the echo of effort, stories of earth and water above while deep under the lake. Here, we may not know the workers’ names, but we know their work. If you have the viewer up to your eyes, looking to the sides almost entire blackness fills the scene, the claustrophobia of the tight space deep underground. Little light illuminates the wet walls and wetter floor. Perhaps it’s in telling or imagining the stories behind those archival photographs Ondaatje undoubtedly peered into for inspiration that we reclaim those who found belonging but were lost to their work. While the worker may be lost in the building of big things, having read what their story might look like, we can try to reclaim them as a part of our identity in the city that surrounds us.

Questions for consideration: 

How do you feel connected to the built spaces that make up our Toronto? Is there any space, like The Ohrida Lake café, that acts as an important part of your memory of the city? Or if you’re not from Toronto, is there any part of the city that you find belonging in? 

 Do you have any connection to the workers of this story? Or, if you feel you have connection to the city through work or presence that isn’t examined in this work, what is that connection?

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