Radical Democracy Under the Stars - Sean Kane

Radical Democracy Under the Stars - Sean Kane

I believe the role of the critic is to ensure falsity doesn’t take the place of truth, ugliness doesn’t take the place of beauty, the bad doesn’t take the place of the good. In earlier Guernica blogs, Canadian poet George Elliot Clarke and Belarusian poet Hanna Komar described the intellectual as a critic who gives voice to groups that aren’t so articulate. The mission that distinguishes Guernica Editions as a publisher is its support for writers who stick their necks out into the public discourse, and these are two such writer-critics. But I want to affirm two other Guernica authors who go further and redefine what a meaningful public discourse can be about.


On that point, I’d like to complement Professor Clarke’s definition of the intellectual as a “being set apart … on the margins and sidelines” who speaks on behalf of the “less-well-endowed-with-vocabulary types.” Clarke is referencing Edward Said. I direct him to Jacques Rancière. An activist during the Paris 1968 demonstrations, Rancière disavowed its intellectual leaders who believed that the students who had rallied had no voice of their own and had to be taught how to liberate themselves. The self-appointed pedagogues installed themselves as the new elite whose voices mattered, turning the students into followers whose voices didn’t. Rancière left the failed revolution of 1968 in search of examples of spontaneous liberation where those whose voices are deemed not to count establish a democratic equality of intelligences with those that disregard them. He found it in the historical account of 19th-century factory workers who stayed up all night writing lyric poetry under the stars instead of using their allotted rest time to sleep. Refusing sleep wasn’t a political statement by the workers that they needed to be granted freedom from labour—it was a self-granting of the democratic community that realised this freedom for themselves (see Proletarian Nights 2012). Their communal equality draws me closer to Ms. Komar’s description of her poetry bringing tears to the eyes of her Belarusian listeners who “first met each other through political activities [and] realised they wanted more from their organizing. They wanted to gather and celebrate being communities of like-minded people.”


I don’t think for a moment that writers like George Elliot Clarke and Hanna Komar inhabit the sidelines. I also think that intellectuals should go beyond their immediate audiences and place themselves in relation to the most meaningful public discourse—one that takes into account the understanding that we are all in this mess together because we share a common quality which is our humanity. Take Don LePan, author of Lucy and Bonbon (Guernica 2022). LePan can write a novel of character as well as any author of the classical period of Canadian literature, say, Margaret Laurence or Mordecai Richler. The character in this case is a working-class single mom with a kick-ass independence and a fairness of insight that sticks out like a challenge in a world full of destructive good intentions. The second main character in the book is a mixed-species bonobo ape/human whom Lucy gives birth to after visiting her sister in the Congo. The child’s thought-stream shows a preternatural moral beauty. LePan reveals the hypocrisy of their adversaries: an older sister claiming to be watching out for Lucy while really protecting her own reputation; a zoologist thinking he’s outwitted an entrapment interviewer while exposing a fearless mediocrity. This novelist can capture the smug self-satisfaction of the elitist. The account of Lucy escaping downriver with her child by night under the Alberta stars goes to my heart as a member of the human species under stress. I am a member because I too am diminished by a misdistribution of wealth that sustains elite hierarchies.


The other author who demonstrates Guernica’s readiness to support a culture of thoughtful debate is Julian Samuel. He is the author of Radius Islamicus (2018), which presents a community of burnt-out international terrorists balefully recalling their exploits in a Montreal retirement home. But it is Julian’s forthcoming novel Muskoka that I want to commend. A  Pakistani-Canadian painter and social critic named Mohammed takes a high-school evening course in algebra in between hospital visits to treat his recurring cancer. Mortality has released in him a yearning for the eternal, which he finds confirmed in the order of the clear night sky. A posh young lady is taking the same course to advance her astronomy. And she's just back from art school in Rome. So this is a rom-com. Love under the Muskoka stars, but haunted by the shadow of death which threatens to turn the romance into an elegy on the transience of life. That is, if it weren’t so hilarious. The subdued laughter of this absurd book breaks to the surface when the princess takes the klutz-like Mohammed to Lake Rosseau to meet Daddy, lovably crazy with his glass sweat-lodge sauna, Group of Seven cannabis, backfiring wilderness healing cures, sexually ambiguous wife, and half-forgotten racial origins deep in North American pre-history. But all this is irrelevant because what he is especially is human.


Both Julian Samuel and Don LePan write fiction that helps to re-establish the great Enlightenment principle of universalism that Foucault, by his excavations in the subsoil of early modern idealism, condemned in the last century as oppressive. The eminent scholar Susan Nieman critiques the viewpoint of Foucault and a generation of theorists in her 2023 book Left is Not Woke, demonstrating philosophically how universalism can still contribute to progressive thought and action. Samuel extends the principle of Left Universalism to whimsically imagine a new Canadianness that invites people of the most diverse economic backgrounds to meet and love as equals in something like a radical democracy. LePan extends universalism to the animal kingdom, recognizing the rights of animals. Humans and animals resemble each other because both are like something else in the cosmos which I call humanus (Green Letters 13: Winter 2010). Its Indo-European root, *dhghem, means “earth”—it gives us the word “humus.” We are, especially in this time of extinctions and migrations, all of us Earthlings.


Sean Kane writes about weather myths and crisis ecology in oral histories and wondertales of the Pacific and Atlantic Northwest. His upcoming novel, Raccoon: A Wondertale is coming out on Guernica Editions May 1st. The novel, which features an afterword by Margaret Atwood, revolves around well-known Canadian authors disguised as animals leading an ecological revolution under the stars against a Trump-Putin-style autocracy.


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