Disciplinary Capitalism and Artistic Emancipation in In the Skin of a Lion

While Ondaatje was writing In the Skin of a Lion, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act[1] was being passed through parliament. This was the legal telos of a historical process of struggle and identity building, positing Canada as a patchwork of nationalities. It became Canada’s official mandate to adopt a multicultural policy that would respect Canada’s immigrants and make up for its checkered history in this regard. From this vantage point, In the Skin of a Lion looks back to the situation of the immigrant at the beginning of the twentieth century where new Canadians were denied their languages, their customs and their religions. According to Linda Hutcheon, historiographic metafiction problematizes[3] the notion of a linear and totalizing account of historic events by “pointing insistently to their simultaneity, and to the reductive nature of confining narrative to a storyline."[4] The past can never be truly recovered, says Hutcheon, because it will always be coloured by the lens of the present. Ondaatje tries to break free form the norms of historical fiction by focusing on the untold story of the immigrants who had to give up their languages and their ethnicities, and whose identities and histories were eroded by industrial capitalism. Ondaatje looks at how industrial capitalism stripped new Canadians of their identities by dissolving the physical and psychological boundaries between them and the mode of production they had become a part of, both knowingly and unknowingly. Ondaatje offers his readers the same historical life raft he does certain subversive characters in his novel by deconstructing modes of power, demarcating the past and present, the fictive from the historical and the body from the system that controls it.

In the Skin of a Lion is rife with injured bodies: amputated arms, lacerated necks, exploded abdomens, dislocated shoulders, broken bones, tar burns, infected lungs, men sliced vertically in two, and so on. Immigrants who come to North America, with no verbal skills, have only their bodies and their labour to offer up in exchange for employment. They cannot offer language, because they do not yet speak it. Daniel Stoyanoff, who has lost his arm during an accident in a meat factory, returns to the small village of Oschima armless, but with enough capital to buy his own farm. He tempts his fellow villagers with the North American dream as he laughs about losing his arm, “calling [the Canadians] all fools, sheep! As if his arm had been a dry cow he had fooled the Canadians with.”[5] Daniel Stoyanoff, upon his return to Oschima, is inscribed both mentally and physically by industrial capitalist power. He expresses no sense of loss at losing his arm on the killing floors in Canada. I would argue that his indifference towards his arm stems from an inability to locate boarders between the self and the object of manipulation. His own body had blended with the cows that he killed, and as such he laughs about his arm as if it had been  “a dry cow he had fooled the Canadians with”.[6] The financial compensation has warped Stoyanoff's cognizance, altering his perceptions of the world. His body becomes a piece of meat no different from that which is sold to butcher shops or tanneries.

In order to open his own bakery, Nicholas Temelcoff must give not just his labour, but also his body to the industrial expansion of Toronto.  He is subjugated and rendered into what Foucault describes as a “docile body.” In Discipline and Punish, Foucault explores how eighteenth-century bodies were rendered docile by being “subjected, used, transformed and improved.”[7] Once the body was located as a target of power its activity had to be controlled by being spatially enclosed, partitioned, and ranked.  Reflecting on an eighteenth-century set of instructions for handling a rifle, Foucault states that: “Over the whole surface of contact between the body and the object it handles, power [emphasis mine] is introduced, fastening one to the other,” in this way, Foucault argues, that the body is reconstituted as a “body-weapon, body-tool, body-machine complex,”[8] wherein the body and the rifle are amalgamated into a single entity.

            After five years of working as a labourer, the cadence and rhythm of Temelcoff's movements are perfectly timed. Like a spider, Temelcoff glides through the air with ease as he jumps from beam to beam, “ferrying tools from pier down to trestle”.[9] The ease of his interactions with the bridge is not the product of an innate, symbiotic relationship, but a relationship that was learned through corporal punishment. Nicholas's body is marked with 20 scars, each gash a lesson in proper technique, a symbol of power inscribed on the body, marking its subjugation and docility. The stakes are high for “the correct use of the body”[10]; one wrong gesture can result in death, like Nicholas's predecessor whose body was severed in half by a whipping wire that fell from above. Industrial capitalism has inscribed Nicholas's body, fastening it to the Prince Edward Viaduct:

He does not really need to see things, he has charted all that space, knows the pier footings, the width of the crosswalks in terms of seconds of movement 281 feet and 6 inches make up the central span of the bridge. [...] He knows the precise height he is over the river, how long his ropes are, how many seconds he can free-fall to the pulley. It does not matter if it is day or night, he could be blindfolded. Black space is time.

Nicholas Temelcoff is arguably the model of the body-machine complex; he has been manipulated, shaped and trained into the ultimate bridge builder. His gestures are perfectly controlled down to the second, his work is described as being “exceptional and time-saving,”[11] which is why he rewarded with a salary more than twice that of the other bridge workers.

Industrial capitalism is also inscribed upon the bodies of the workers at Wickett and Craig's tannery.  Like Nicholas, who is inscribed with scars, the tannery workers too are inscribed visually. As the men dye the freshly slaughtered cow skins, so too does their skin absorb the pigments of the dye vats in which they work. They become green men who cannot be separated from the freshly dyed green leather. Ondaatje describes the leather workers as “stepp[ing] out in colours up to their necks, pulling wet hides out after hem so it appeared they had removed the skin from their own bodies”.[12] Like Nicholas, who is “fastened” to the bridge, and Daniel Stoyanoff who cannot separate his body from meat, the dyers too are “fastened” to their work: there is nothing that demarcates the end of their bodies and the beginning of their tools, they have been fused through labour. The inscription of power on the dyers extends beyond the superficial scarring of the epidermal layer.  What Ondaatje describes as “the most evil smell in history,” the odour of the dying vats, will cling to these men's cores, so that “even if they never stepped into this pit again a year from now they would burp up that odour”.[13] This foul odour will seep into their lungs, and without their knowledge, it will be this smell, years later that will ultimately infect them with consumption and kill them.

            The novel is replete with broken and bruised bodies that have been inscribed by capitalism, but many of the characters also suffer physiological inscription; they cannot tell where they end and the object of their manipulation begins. The new language of English also inscribes their minds. Nicholas Temelcoff's obsessive studying of English infects him, changing his perceptions of the world. This change first manifests in his translation dreams. In these dreams “trees changed not just their names but their looks and character. Men started answering in falsettos. Dogs spoke out fast to him as they passed him on the street”.[14] Learning new languages changes the way we think. In a study done by Lera Boroditsky et al. subjects were asked to describe a key and a bridge. In English, a language without grammatical gender, this may seem banal, but in gendered languages such as German and Spanish the simple tasked of describing a key elucidated two very disparate sets of adjectives, which revealed how a grammar shapes perception. In German the word key is masculine, which correlated to adjectives such as “hard,” “jagged,” “serrated,” “useful” and “metal.” In Spanish, conversely, the word key is feminine. Spanish speakers were thus more likely to describe a key as “intricate,” “little,” “shiny,” “lovely,” “golden” and “tiny” To describe a bridge, which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said “slender” “peaceful,” “elegant,” “pretty” “fragile,” while the Spanish speakers opted for adjectives such as “dangerous,” “sturdy,” “towering” and “strong.” This was true even though all testing was done in English, a grammatically neuter language.[15] With this in mind, it becomes evident that aspects of language shape how people think. Learning a new language such as English, therefore, influences mental representations of objects.

            After the proto-union gathering at the waterworks Alice Gull explains to Patrick that the first step towards destroying the fetters of industrial capitalism is to “name the enemy”.[16]  She isolates the linguistic process of naming as a locus of power that endows the namer with the ability to “destroy […] power”[17]. With language's capacity for psychological inscription, I would like to return to the tannery scene where industrial capitalism[18], using the tannery foreman as its human-machine conduit, strips the workers of their given names, and baptizes them with English epithets such as Charlie Johnson and Nick Parker that “[t]hey remembered [like] the strange foreign syllables of a number”. By renaming the workers their national histories are denied and their agency is destroyed. The tannery workers are not choosing to be renamed, for they are not the agents of their metamorphosis, but the subjects of a forced metamorphosis; reduced to docile bodies, these men have become cogs in the capitalist machine who cannot recognize the boundaries between themselves and the objects they manipulate. It is also important to note that not only were these new Canadians denied their names, but also their voices. Police Chief Draper had imposed laws against public meetings by foreigners. If new Canadians were to speak in public, in any language other than English, they would be jailed.

The blurring of boundaries is only negative when the individual is coerced by industrial capitalist power, and becomes a subject, rather than an agent, of the blurring process. If an individual becomes aware of how the boundaries are demarcated and established by power then that person, in turn, can manipulate the boundaries to their own advantage. This is best exemplified in the scene where Patrick, Buck and Caravaggio paint of the Kingston Penitentiary roof. The three prisoners are forced to paint the roof blue, so that they cannot see the seam that separates the roof from the sky. This lack of visual demarcation is at first terrifying because “after a while the three men [...] became uncertain of clear boundaries. [...] They could not move without thinking twice where a surface stopped”.[19] If the men remain oblivious to the newly visually fused boundary that demarcates the sky from the roof “[t]aking a seemingly innocent step”[20] could result in death. But because Caravaggio is aware of the process of demarcation, and names the process, he is able to escape the prison.

            Caravaggio is one of the few protagonists in the novel who does not directly work within the capitalist structure; he is a thief, who works outside of the capitalist mechanism. The novel’s readers are not privy to the origins of Caravaggio's name—is that his true name or a self-bestowed moniker— but the name does bond the figure of the thief to the renowned Baroque Italian artist. Interestingly, it is while the thief Caravaggio is engaged in painting, the act that his namesake is famous for, that he is able to name and locate the demarcatative fetters of industrial capitalism. And it is through the medium of paint that his escape is made possible.  Aware of the newly blurred boundaries between roof and sky, freedom and confinement, Caravaggio exploits demarcation. He literally inscribes himself into the scene by painting his body blue. Visually fused to the roof Caravaggio is able to deceive the guards’ gaze and escape the prison. I posit that throughout the novel it is artistic production and the consumption of art that endows those who make art, and those who experience art, with the ability to see the how power functions allowing them to resist the mechanisms of power.

            At the proto-union gathering, which takes place in the Waterworks, Patrick cannot tell the difference between the dancing Alice Gull and the mob of wooden puppets. Even when Alice begins to “twirl in gestures impossible for wood”[21] Patrick cannot accept the idea that she is human. From his distance he resolves that the male puppet must simply be made of cloth. It is not until Patrick engages with the performance by coming to the stage, in an effort to rescue the puppet as it pleads for help by pounding relentlessly against the wooden stage, that he realizes that the figure is a human female.  Alice's performance demands audience participation. Until an audience member is jolted into action by the absurd, manic beating of her hand against the stage, the performance will continue indefinitely. In Alice's dance she outlines how power has rendered new Canadians docile by denying them their language. The strength of her performance is not simply that she locates power, but that she imbues her audience members with that same ability to see how power functions. And by imbuing her audience the ability to locate power they become able resist its mechanisms. 


Works Cited


Boroditsky, Lera, Schmidt, Lauren and Phillips, Webb, “Sex, Syntax, and Semantics.”  In Language in Mind: Advances in the study of Language and Cognition, edited by Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow, 61-79. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

“Canadian Multiculturalism Act,” Department of Justice of Canada, accessed October 30, 2011.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Re-presenting the Past” in The Politics of Postmoderism,”(London: Routledge, 1989), 62-92.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage, 1979. 

Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel. New York: Vintage International, 1997.

Spearey, Susan. “Mapping and Masking: The Migrant Experience in Michael Ondaatje's in the Skin of a Lion.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29 (1994): 45-60.

Tierney, Stephen. Multiculturalism and the Canadian Constitution. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007.




{C}{C}{C}[1]{C}{C}{C}{C} Canadian Multiculturalism Act 1988 <http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-18.7/> (October 30, 2011)

{C}{C}{C}[2]{C}{C}{C}{C} Stephen Tierney, Multiculturalism and the Canadian Constitution. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007): 196

{C}{C}{C}[3]{C}{C}{C}{C} Linda Hutcheon,  “Re-presenting the Past,” 62

{C}{C}{C}[4]{C}{C}{C}{C} Susan Spearey, “Mapping and Masking: The Migrant Experience in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion,” 50

{C}{C}{C}[5]{C}{C}{C}{C} Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel. (New York: Vintage International, 1997): 44

{C}{C}{C}[6]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 44

{C}{C}{C}[7]{C}{C}{C}{C} Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish, (New York: Vintage, 1979): 136

{C}{C}{C}[8]{C}{C}{C}{C} Foucault, Discipline & Punish, 153

{C}{C}{C}[9]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 34

{C}{C}{C}[10]{C}{C}{C}{C} Foucault, Discipline & Punish, 152

{C}{C}{C}[11]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 35

{C}{C}{C}[12]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 130

{C}{C}{C}[13]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 130

{C}{C}{C}[14]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 47

{C}{C}{C}[15]{C}{C}{C}{C} Lera Boroditsky “Can quirks of grammar affect the way you think? Spanish and German speakers’ ideas about the gender of objects,” 930

{C}{C}{C}[16]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 124

{C}{C}{C}[17]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 128

{C}{C}{C}[18]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 132

{C}{C}{C}[19]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 177

{C}{C}{C}[20]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 177

{C}{C}{C}[21]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 118