Thursday, September 17, 2009

The ebb and flow of appropriations

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Several years ago, a debate flared up among promoters of CanLit here in Canada over the issue of cultural appropriation. It was one framed as a question: Was it right for an author, like Ruby Wiebe, say, with German Mennonite roots, to appropriate the voice of an Aboriginal woman?

Some critics of the Say No to Cultural Appropriation camp drove home their dissent by sub-dividing communities into an infinitesimal number of sub-groups, and then re-framed the issue with a question like: “Can a straight, able-bodied, male, Aborginal author write a novel in which the hero is an infirm, Aboriginal Lesbian?”

In any event, it got me brooding during my commute to and from my job on the whole issue of appropriations, which my Concise Oxford Dictionary defined as to “take possession of” -- but more especially “without authority.”

I thought back to an early struggle that I had with appropriation as I wrestled with puberty and my compulsion to indulge my favourite sexual fantasies every night after lights out. In those mental porn movies I projected up on a screen in my imagination, my “co-star” was often a friend’s sister or a pretty class-mate or other, older women whom I happened to catch a glimpse of during the day. It was their enticing image I lasciviously co-opted.

In those younger days -- during the early 1960s -- a remnant of Victorian prudery still prevailed in matters of sexuality, and because of this I felt the practice of masturbation to be intrinsically bad, but made much worse by a habit of appropriating the images of women I knew, young and old, and including them in my X-rated mental movies. Was it right to do this (I asked rhetorically) and, more importantly, since grievously wrong, how might the God overseeing the Catholic Church punish me for it in the hereafter? I carried on despite dread of divine wrath, of final judgement, and eternal hellfire.

Of course, appropriation can take many forms. I recall a chum of mine in university describing the week he’d spent in Quebec City during the summer of 1967. Mike was Jewish only on his father’s side, and his old man was room temperature as regards his devotion to both Judaism and Zionism, but Mike was exhilarated by the Israeli victory in the Six Day War and introduced himself to girls he met as an IDF veteran. The image of the Israeli soldier promoted by the Western media was a heroic one then, and posing as such, Mike averred, definitely helped him to score.

The funny thing is, Mike did “make aliyah,” as they say, five years later. He moved to Israel; was assigned work on a kibbutz; and slept in a barracks-like dorm, along with other, wannabe Zionist pioneers. A disenchantment with the campfire life of a kibbutznik soon set in. Certainly, the task Mike had been given in the egg hatchery -- collecting and disposing of the rotten eggs -- was very off-putting, to say the least. He suddenly up and quit the kibbutz, and left Israel after just a couple months; he hightailed it back to Montreal.

It was around this time, living in Montreal’s north end, that I made friends with a student at Sir George Williams University. Jerry was the first child of Holocaust survivors that I got to know. Because of this, his was, he said, a family home that was deeply troubled and dysfunctional. His mother had attempted suicide; his father was an incurable hysteric. Jerry himself was receiving psychiatric counseling at the Jewish General.

One day he told me his father’s story. How, as a Red Army captain, he paid a visit to his home town in Ukraine, and stood before a common grave that contained the bodies of his father and mother, of three bothers and three sisters, his first wife and their twin children -- all victims of the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union.

His telling me this story came on the heels of our discussion of a made-for-TV series, QBVII. Based on the Leon Uris novel, it starred Anthony Hopkins as Sir Adam Kelno, a good Polish doctor, who was knighted for his charitable work, but now forced to defend his otherwise sterling reputation in a libel suit after allegations surfaced that formerly, as a prisoner of the Nazi regime, Kelno performed ghoulish experiments on Jewish inmates in a German concentration camp.

Jerry flushed as he recounted his father’s rants during the TV commercials as they watched one of the QBVII episodes together.

“If we learn anything from all this,” he declaimed, “It is that gentiles absolutely cannot be trusted.”

As he quoted his father, forked veins inflated on his temples, pulsed and throbbed; for a moment he seemed to channel his father’s boiling outrage. The penetrating expression in Jerry’s darkening eyes left me in no doubt that, then and there, he also included me among the general run of treacherous gentiles.

Jerry was appropriating the tragic and bitter legacy of his father’s wartime experience. It was as if a sudden gust of wind had blown open the front door to the house, rattled everyone momentarily, until somebody promptly shut it again, and calm was restored. For after a while the tension between us eased and dissipated, and we resumed our casual banter.

After graduation from university, we went our separate ways. On a snowy afternoon several years later I shared a subway ride with his sister, Rosalind. She explained that her brother had become an orthodox Jew, dressed like a Hasid, and was constantly hectoring their parents for their lack of strict kosher observance in matters pertaining to diet, subscribing as they did to Judaism’s slightly more lenient conservative branch. “Jerry’s turned the tables on them, after all the years they were nagging him about his lacklustre display of observance.”

Another captive eddy in the ebb and flow of appropriations.

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