‘CHOW MEIN’ AND CHARLEMAGNE
RIEL’S VISIONARY NATION
Please join us at the MacKenzie Art Gallery on Thursday, May 31, 5:30 to 6.45 pm, to hear Tim Lilburn read from The House of Charlemagne! This event will be followed by a dance performance from New Dance Horizons's Rouge-gorge at 7 pm.
An Interview with Tim Lilburn
Louis Riel envisioned the western Prairies not just as Métis territory, but as the site of an ideal imagined nation, the House of Charlemagne, which, as he prophesied, would rise five hundred years after his death. The hallmarks of this ideal nation would be justice, ontological accord, and the blurring of separations dividing women and men, the earth and human beings. Yet today few know of the House of Charlemagne, as much of the Massinihican—the book in which Riel outlined his vast philosophical vision—has been lost.
In his latest work of poetry, The House of Charlemagne, Governor General’s Award-winner Tim Lilburn tracks the birth of Riel's nation in the burning imagination of his secretary and devotee, Honoré Jaxon. Commissioned by artist Edward Poitras as a text for dancers, Lilburn’s poem gives voice and body to a metaphysics of land and identity.
Below Lilburn speaks with Morgan Tunzelmann from U of R Press on how the book came to be.
MT: Tell us a bit about your latest work, The House of Charlemagne.
TL: It all started for me in September of 2014. At that time, I was in Regina doing some work with New Dance Horizons on another project, and Edward Poitras contacted me and asked me to write essentially a performable poem on Honoré Jaxon. This poem would be the basis of a longer three-act dance performance that was going to take place a year from that time, in September 2015.
There were a number of things Edward wanted in the piece: he wanted it to be in three acts, the first act having to do with the initial encounter between Honoré Jaxon and Louis Riel, and then there was to be a scene where they were incarcerated together, and then a final act where Jaxon was in New York. There were other events Edward Poitras wanted mentioned – the burning of the library at Alexandria and the Pope Alexander decree in 1493, essentially giving North America to visiting Spaniards. I set to work sometime that fall, and by November I had a draft to show to Robin and Edward and we took it from there. Now it stands as a book, but really, it began life as one element of this major dance project, eventually called The House of Chow Mein.
MT: What made writing this type of piece—a text for dancers--different from your previous works? Or did you find it different?
TL: Completely different—because when I started, I had a task that came from someone else’s vision. I’d worked with Edward and Robin at New Dance Horizons before on one project—I admired their genius frankly, so I simply went with their sense of how things should be. Edward had particular questions he wanted me to address. What caused Jaxon – whose name was Henry William Jackson when he met Riel in the spring of 1885—what made him become so tied to Riel and his vision? That sent me into the Collected Works of Louis Riel, where I encountered for the first time the scraps of his major political, philosophical system—in a document he called the Massinihican.
With the performance in Performing Turtle Island, in 2015, everything was collaborative—Edward’s idea of the work was central, and then there was Robin’s choreography, and then there were these outer rings. In a normal book the author’s concept is central; everything comes from that, and there’s a burden that comes with authorship, really, but with this long poem that was not so much there: there was a degree of anonymity to what I wrote. I was part of a team -- Jeff Bird from the Cowboy Junkies provided the music and Charlie Fox did the soundscape. The production, for me, was magical, and the text as it appeared in the dance was not the text that appears in the book. I stripped out lines and chunks of poems that I thought the dance was calling for and did an ad hoc assemblage on stage. It was a bit of improv, in the performance, but drawing from a previously existing text.
MT: Did your understanding of Riel and Honoré Jaxon change during your writing process--and if so, how?
TL: I had heard before about the Massinihican—it’s very difficult to get information on it, and if you Google the work there’s pretty well nothing. There are pieces of that book in Archives Canada, but the whole front of the book—it’s in numbered paragraphs or sections—the sections 1 to 32 are gone. And no one really knows how they disappeared. Were they left behind when Louis Riel came back to Canada in 1885; did Jaxon have them and lose them when he was evicted from his apartment in New York? Nobody really knows, and there are different theories. There are chunks of the Massinihican that are still with us; you can see from these remnant sections that the book was very philosophically rich. The sections give a metaphysical account of the nature of being that Louis Riel pulls into a utopian politics. So as soon as I saw that I thought, that’s what swept Jaxon away, because he himself had something of a utopian political spirit and he was a scholar, one of the first people in the Northwest to be educated at the post-secondary level. Jaxon would have been deeply impressed by the extent, newness and audacity of Riel’s account of the building blocks of the cosmos, and to rest a utopian politics on this physics would have had the hairs on the back of his neck standing up.
MT: The great tragedy of Jaxon is that moment when he is evicted from his apartment and sits on the streets of New York City, surrounded by a block's worth of Riel's papers, which he'd hoped to make into a library. Can you comment on how the loss of Riel's papers may have informed the poem?
TL: There was nothing you could say really about the loss—I was just working with the fragments that still exist. I think at one time in the early 1880s Riel wanted to take the book back to Manitoba and show it to the Bishop of St. Boniface. But, yes, the loss, the loss of all of that, the loss of that amount of priceless intellectual culture, it’s just shattering, and tragic. As you say, Jaxon’s ambition was to establish a library in Saskatchewan and his archive would have been the basis of it. But who knows what was in those towers of papers? Jaxon had worked as a labour organizer in Chicago after being in the psychiatric institution following his trial and was connected to Coxey’s army, which was a march of unemployed people in the 1890s on Washington, and he was involved with the Bahai’i, so it’s possible there were all sort of things in those stacks of papers. But he was very likely carrying something from his Batoche days, something of Riel’s ontological and political writings, some of it may have fallen into his care and then it vanished. Even in Donald Smith’s book (Honoré Jaxon: Prairie Visionary), little mention is made of the Massinihican; Smith writes about their relationship, the fact that Jaxon had accepted Riel as his spiritual director, in March of 1885. And in Maggie Siggins’ book on Riel (Riel: A Life of Revolution), there is again scant mention of the Massihinican. But it seems Louis Riel had spent a lot of the early 1880s—his Montana time—working on it. A big, major, intoxicating, political vision.
MT: What was it that was so striking about Riel’s philosophical and political vision?
TL: Riel’s vision involved a union of genders and of the human and the animal with the inanimate world. He starts with the basic elements of the universe—he calls them monads, a more refined form of this is active essences, and in this he sounds like Leibniz—but Leibniz is dry, dry! And these granular, atomic things in Leibniz have none of the animation they have in Riel, no tenderness, no sexuality, none of the other qualities that are there. Riel starts with that basic atomic view, which is breathtaking, and he pulls it towards politics and religion. It’s like in Daoism—the beginning of the ethical life is the careful examination of the natural world.
MT: Sounds like [Riel] was writing partially in the tradition of Romanticism as well.
TL: It could be – he’s drawing insights from a variety of places, really–but in the end I think what he saw is a unique and absolutely original philosophical and political system. It’s, as I say, breathtaking, and original. If he is using Leibniz, he’s completely transforming Leibniz’s monadology, so this is absolutely new.
The book, judging from what remains, is a massive synthesis of everything Riel had ever been exposed to—First Nations thought, Catholic theology, aspects of Platonism, but with this big, imagined add-on. I can see how Jaxon would have been gobsmacked by this—he would have wondered how he could lead a life that didn’t have this at the centre. Jaxon’s family disowned him; they were convinced he was crazy, but he’d caught sight of something beyond anything that his Western European culture could have told him and it would have struck him as deeply beautiful and impossible not to follow.
MT: Thank you very much, Tim!