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Otherness, Subjectivity and Incommunicability

by William Shannon

In this essay I will analyze the stories "The Broken Globe" and "Two Sisters in Geneva" by Henry Kreisel from a largely psychosocial point of view in terms of the problems of otherness, subjectivity, and incommunicability. For the purposes of this essay, I will define those terms as follows, both with respect to the internal experiences of the characters in the stories, and also with respect to the narrator’s point of view. Otherness is a sense of apartness, distinctiveness and/or strangeness experienced as largely insurmountable. Subjectivity, as I use the term, relates both to "the subjectivity of experience" – "the same event can have different meanings for different people" (Lye 2002), and to a character’s belief that she or he has the power to be the autonomous "subject" of her or his actions. The term incommunicability will also be used in two senses. The first sense relates to the limitation on the level of true communication that two characters from different backgrounds can meaningfully achieve; the second sense is more philosophical and relates to the notion that some "things" (including individuals) cannot change what they truly are, although they may change some of their attributes. In the context of these stories, incommunicability in the second sense refers to the impossibility of a character’s truly leaving behind her or his origins and background. That is, the "new world" can only be so "new" insofar as one is forced to bring the "old" into it, whether one wants to or not. One always brings into the "new world" individual and cultural elements, both inherited and acquired, from the "old" and in that way it can be said that one is only able to change one’s "attributes" but not one’s "essence."

I will focus on "The Broken Globe" because it brings these issues to the surface in a very compelling and emotional way through the fractured relationship of Nick Solchuk and his father. After analyzing "The Broken Globe," I will contrast it with the more straightforward depiction of difference between the title characters in "Two Sisters in Geneva."

Kreisel’s "The Broken Globe" is told retrospectively in the past tense in the voice of an internal narrator, whose name we never learn and about whom the author tells us virtually nothing. Because we know so little about the narrator himself, his role as a protagonist trying to bridge the gap between the other two characters takes on a kind of otherness, and serves to emphasize the distance between the other two characters and the distances between each of the characters and the narrator. The narrator is like a blank slate on which Nick Solchuk and his father can write their own versions of the past.

The ostensible premise of the story is simple enough. The narrator’s colleague, Nick Solchuck, asks the narrator to visit his father after he is settled in Alberta. Nick prepares the narrator for his father by advising him that "[w]hen once my father believed something, it was very hard to shake him" (129) . From a perspective afforded by distance in space and time, Nick seems to have come to terms, on at least a superficial level, with what he considers his father’s "mistaken" worldview. Nick tells the narrator that "I suddenly realized that [my father] wasn't mad, but that he lived in the universe of the medieval church" (129). Thus, Nick imputes a theology to his father: "The earth for him was the center of the universe ... My father never said all that in so many words, mind you, but that is what he believed. Everything else was heresy" (129-130). While this attitude permits Nick to explain his father to himself on some level, at the same time it permits Nick to discount the importance of his father’s worldview both to his father and to himself. As a man of science, Nick’s perception of his father as "medieval" is not so much a way for Nick to understand his father, as it is a way to further distance himself from his father. By characterizing his father’s attitude as "medieval," Nick is not making an effort to truly understand his father’s attitude from his father’s point of view, and he refuses to acknowledge that his father’s worldview has had a significant influence on Nick. This appears to be the modus operandi for all the historical interactions between Nick and his father described in the story.

The relationship between Nick and his father illustrates all three problems of otherness, subjectivity and incommunicability. Each character feels far apart from the other in attitude and purpose. Nick, as a scientist, feels he is the subjective author of his own destiny and does not acknowledge explicitly the influences of his background on his current life, except insofar as Nick acknowledges to the narrator his desire for "a sense of distance and of space" (127). Nick and his father have not truly communicated with each other since Nick’s childhood, and neither character tries to meet the other halfway. Nevertheless, Nick wants the narrator to visit his father and tell him that Nick has not "gone to the devil" (131). It is not clear why Nick thinks that his father’s hearing this news from someone from Nick’s world (as opposed to someone from the father’s world) will make a difference in their relationship. This makes one wonder what Nick really wants. Does he want to assure his father that he is doing fine, or does he want to continue the dispute that began in his childhood?

The fact that the narrator is impressed with the "grandeur" and the "monumental monotony" of the journey west from Montréal (131) sets him up to at least be sensitive to Nick’s father’s point of view. It is not clear where or how Nick and the narrator met, but it seems that the narrator is new to the Canadian West. The narrator contrasts the expansive Canadian landscape to the "tidy, highly cultivated countryside of England and of France" where "the consciousness of nature [is] humanized" (131). The narrator comments that "all motion seemed suspended, and only the sun moved steadily" (131). This description foreshadows Nick’s father’s attitudes, and opens up the possibility that the narrator may come to understand Nick’s father better than Nick does, reminding us of his role as a bridge-builder.

Nick’s father’s lack of response to the narrator’s letter asking for permission to visit implies that Nick’s father did not want the visit (132). Upon arriving in town, the narrator learns that the whole town knows about the "differences" between Nick and his father (133). They think Nick is involved in making atomic bombs – perhaps symbolic for the destructiveness of the modern worldview on "medieval" attitudes like those of Nick’s father. But at the same time, the storekeeper seems proud that someone from the prairie made a name for himself (134). Paradoxically, the storekeeper seems both attracted to and repelled by Nick’s apparent success, reminding us that the unknown can be simultaneously attractive and repellent. The narrator’s presence in town leads the storekeeper to conclude that Nick has not forgotten his roots. Indeed, the narrator tells the storekeeper that "[s]ome day [Nick] plans to return" (134), although the truthfulness of that statement is doubtful. Perhaps it is simply the narrator’s way of making the storekeeper feel comfortable with an outsider’s presence.

Nick’s father seems to have been expecting the narrator, even though he hadn't responded to the narrator’s letter. The scene is described with an aura of anticipation. The house seems to be a reflection of the father’s attitudes: "The door was low and I had to stoop a bit to get into the room" (135). If this is true of the narrator, it must also have been true of Nick’s father, a "tall, massively built old man" (134). Perhaps the cramped nature of the entrance to the house symbolizes what Nick and the narrator see as the father’s cramped attitudes and beliefs? Little light enters through a small window, keeping the house "perpetually dusk" (135), perhaps symbolizing the intellectual "darkness" in which Nick believes that his father lives because of his "medieval" beliefs.

The narrator notes the physical similarities between Nick and his father – "the same determined mouth, and the same high cheekbones and the same dark, penetrating eyes" (135), reminding us that Nick carries his father within him whether he likes it or not – a kind of incommunicability in the second sense described above. Nick’s father explains to the narrator that Nick is "tampering with the earth" (135). For Nick’s father, "tampering with the earth" is equivalent to sacrilege, something else reinforcing the separateness between Nick and his father, the incommensurability of their worldviews, and their inability (unwillingness?) to truly communicate. Nick’s father is puzzled by the narrator’s visit – as if an attempt to reach out to him from this "other" world is most unexpected: "[Nick] sent me to bring you greetings and to tell you he is well" (136). Nick’s father acknowledges Nick’s vicarious outreach and softens his demeanor a bit, setting the stage for the embedded internal narrative that follows.

The embedded internal narrative in which Nick’s father recounts the story of how Nick contradicted his father in front of the entire family and the hired help underlines the lack of communication (i.e., incommunicability in the first sense) between Nick and his father. We can see how the event must have sorely wounded the father’s pride, causing him to lash out at Nick in frustration. Perhaps the way the events unfolded made it difficult or impossible for the father to consider that Nick’s scientific ideas might be "correct"? It appears that Nick did not apologize for putting his father on the spot, and that the father did not apologize for hitting Nick. The memory of the event clearly still angers Nick’s father (137-138), and underpins the present separateness between Nick and his father. The father’s intended audience during the embedded narrative is not only the narrator, but himself – as if the father is trying to re-convince himself that he handled the situation correctly so many years ago. The father tried to lock up Nick in the house to keep him away from school (138). "His sense of impotence was palpable." Both Nick and his father are stubborn. Nick brought home the globe to try to convince his father that he was right (138), but the "toy" globe proved nothing to the father other than the fact that his son did not respect his worldview (139). By shattering the globe, the father was trying to shatter the threat to his world that the globe represented. Neither party tried to understand the other, but instead tried to convince the other of the error of his ways.

We must wonder if Nick’s father kept the eponymous broken globe around as a way of maintaining contact with his son, as a way of refusing to give up on him despite the "rubbish" (136) he learned in school and around which he built his life away from his father. We must be skeptical of the father’s statement that he found the globe in the attic and was going to throw it away but he "forgot" (137); the timing of the narrator’s visit and the presence of the globe must be more than coincidental. Maybe the father kept the globe in preparation for the narrator’s visit, or maybe it was there all along waiting for a visit from Nick? Regardless of why he keeps it around, Nick’s father says the globe belongs in the garbage because it is a "false thing." In his view, only that which is before him is real and worthy of attention.

In response to the father’s question, the narrator reluctantly tells him that he agrees with Nick’s view of the world. The father doesn’t seem to hold this against the narrator, but rather blames it on the fact that "Satan has taken over all the world" (140). Thus, the father is willing to grant the narrator a measure of flexibility he denies his own son. Perhaps this is because the narrator took the time to reach out, while Nick has not. But the narrator’s attempts to smooth things over –to bridge the two worlds represented by Nick and his father, is less than successful. Nick’s father is concerned that there will be no one to tend his land after he dies. To Nick’s father, tending the "beloved land" (141) in front of you is more important than tampering with "God’s earth" (140). Nick’s father believes what his senses show to be true – "she [the earth] is flat, and she stands still." Still, the father asks the narrator to send greetings to Nick, and thus the narrator has managed to at least partially bridge the gap between Nick and his father, if only as a messenger confirming their differences.

The sense of otherness experienced by the title characters in "Two Sisters in Geneva" is very apparent and less psychologically nuanced than that portrayed in "The Broken Globe." Once again, Kreisel uses a "disinterested" third party to attempt to bridge the gap between two family members who seem to inhabit different planets. But this time the story is told from the point of view of an external narrator standing outside the story. Thus, we know a bit more about Warren Douglas, our bridge-building character, in this story, and his role is more obviously drawn. And as a student of history he is sensitive to the cultural differences represented by the sisters’ pasts, and understands the implications of their present journey.

It is significant that the action takes place in Geneva — a meeting place of European cultures where several languages coexist and where the ill-fated League of Nations started. Like the train station in which the action takes place, Geneva is a way station between cultures, mirroring the state of transit in which the characters find themselves. The sisters’ present journey harkens back to their separate journeys 36 years ago when they set off in different directions from England – one to Canada and one to Italy. They are only now returning together for a visit to England for the first time in 36 years. The journey home is a tense one. It lacks the joy that one might expect such a journey to evoke. This lack of joy is only reinforced by the weather – "It has been raining all day" (115).

From the beginning, Mrs. Miller’s brusque "new world" demeanor is contrasted with Emily’s easygoing European style, as illustrated by their interactions with the porter (116). Even Emily’s name emphasizes the distance between the sisters – Mrs. Miller calls her "Emily" and she calls herself "Emilia"; her name evokes the internal sense of "otherness" that Emily/Emilia must carry around within herself. The sisters appear so different that Warren would not have thought they were sisters (118). From the beginning, we see that Emilia is more comfortable at the intersection of cultures than Mrs. Miller. Emilia must remind her sister that "[i]t’s not foreign money to the people who live here" (117).

Mrs. Miller tries to find common ground with Warren in their common country of Canada (117), although even that common ground reflects otherness, subjectivity and incommunicability – Warren is from Toronto and Mrs. Miller is from Edmonton, two very different regions with strikingly different qualities and different ways of life. Mrs. Miller is convinced of the superiority of Canada over Italy and nothing can persuade her otherwise. Mrs. Miller mentions several times that Mr. Miller left her "well provided for" (118-119), and she thinks it is awful that Emily lives in a furnished room (118). In contrast, Emilia is quite happy with her situation in Florence (124). As if to underline the differences between them, Mrs. Miller cannot understand why Emilia would rather live alone in a room in Italy instead of in a house with "her own flesh and blood" (119) in England or Canada.

In this story, Warren clearly sympathizes with Emily’s point of view in contrast to the narrator in "The Broken Globe" who appears ready to empathize with both sides. Mrs. Miller’s attitude toward Europe is summed up in this statement: "I'll be glad when I get back to a place where you can understand what people are saying, though. It’s a weird feeling hearing people jabbering away and you not understanding a word they’re saying" (120). For Warren and Emilia, Europe represents art and culture and a vibrancy of life that Mrs. Miller cannot see. For Mrs. Miller, there is no benefit to exposure to other cultures, and being in Europe is nothing but a nuisance.

The story is structured to give us each sister’s point of view through their comments to Warren as he sits with them individually and hears them out. In contrast to Mrs. Miller’s husband, who left her "well-provided for," Emily tells Warren that her husband was a very interesting man and to live with him was "a great privilege" (122), emphasizing the beauty of the experience over any economic considerations. Emilia’s coughing spells suggest that Italy as a more healthy environment for her (122), as if the wet and the rain reinforce the fact that she is out of her element on this journey to the grayness of England, and possibly to the winters of Canada.

Emilia seems able to analyze the otherness, subjectivity and incommunicability between her and her sister with a measure of dispassion when she notes that "[w]e have been living in different worlds. Much too different" (123). Emilia does not appear to hold Mrs. Miller’s differences against her like Mrs. Miller does with respect to Emilia; rather, Emilia seems to accept them as the natural result of their different paths over the years. They are simply from different worlds with nothing to talk about (122-123). But Emilia can at least see that Mrs. Miller is "kind" and "well-meaning" – a sharp contrast with "The Broken Globe," in which the father and son clearly do not accept their differences and see nothing positive in them, and also in contrast with Mrs. Miller who sees nothing positive in Emilia’s way of life.

For Emilia, home is where you make it, not where you come from. She longs to go "back home to Italy" (123) and has no intention of ultimately going to Canada (124): "To live in a strange land in a strange city with my sister would be – well, not exactly like the Inferno, but like Purgatorio" (124). Warren clearly understands and sympathizes with this attitude. Emilia accepts the otherness, subjectivity and incommunicability separating her from her sister. In contrast to the family members in "The Broken Globe," it is the journey that is tense, not the family members’ feelings for each other.

In both stories, the characters are trying to reconcile their origins with their present situation and their desires for the future. Each story in its own way poses the questions of whether one can totally do away with one’s past (an issue of incommunicability), and whether there is a limit to the common ground achievable by those with seemingly incommensurable attitudes (issues of otherness and subjectivity). Neither of the stories answers these questions definitively, leaving it to the reader to see pieces of her or himself in the stories and learn from the characters some of the ways in which these issues are forced upon us in spite of ourselves. Indeed, E.D. Blodgett (1982) points out that "Kreisel makes no distinction [in his works] between ‘immigrant’ and ‘ethnic.’" I think this fact makes Kreisel’s depictions of otherness, subjectivity and incommunicability in stories like these all the more compelling for the reader, since one can readily identify with the experiences portrayed in his stories, regardless of ethnic background or immigrant experience.

© Copyright 2005 William Shannon

Note: All page references are to The Almost Meeting and Other Stories by Henry Kreisel, unless otherwise noted.

Works Cited

Blodgett, E. D. "Fictions of Ethnicity in Prairie Writing." Configuration: Essays on the Canadian Literatures. Ed. E.D. Blodgett. Toronto: ECW Press, 1982. 85-111.

Kreisel, Henry. The Almost Meeting and Other Stories. 1981. Edmonton: NeWest Press. 2004.

Lye, John. "Narrative Point of View: Some Considerations". (7/9/2002). 9/9/2005.

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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