National Myth and Transnational Memory in the Works of Michael Ondaatje
The chimera of form featured in my fourth chapter is the archival legend, which I use to classify Billy the Kid and Sailor from Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970; extended reissue, 2008) and Anil’s Ghost (2000) respectively. Combining theories of the archive as a space of material collection and artifactual remains and theories of the legend as a genre of storytelling that cultivates the unreal and the unknowable, I argue that Ondaatje uses archival legends to broach the tensions between isolationism and internationalism, cultural particularity and the universal norms of justice associated with human rights. While some critics have argued that Ondaatje’s collage aesthetics are irresponsible and compound injustice because they obscure the cause and effect of historicist narratives (a criticism that will recall for many Georg Lukács’ famous disregard for modernism), this chapter shows that Ondaatje’s work subjects the norms of both international justice and historicist causality to criticism for being inadequately sensitive to cultural memory. Rejecting both the disembodying abstractions of human rights dicta and the embodying practices of historical identification, he uses archival legends as figure of semi-embodiment brought into being by formal strategies of artifact collection, fragment accretion, and loose assembly. These legends situate universal norms and historical facts within the foggier, but actually-existing realms of national myth and transnational memory. Without attending to these dominant and emergent domains of cultural memory, Ondaatje suggests that internationalism forsakes the domain of sentiment and risks becoming tone deaf to the cosmological gaps that persist in how members of “strong” versus “weak” nations view colonialism’s impact on the global present.
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