Archive for the ‘Massinahican’ Tag

from The Massinahican by Louis Riel

Today, Antoine Malette and I are happy to share with you the first English-language translations from Louis Riel’s Système philosophico-théologique, part of a larger, incomplete work, the Massinahican.

In May 2018 I was lucky enough to be in Regina for the launch of Tim Lilburn’s The House of Charlemagne. He shared with me his enthusiasm for this obscure work, parts of which he had worked into his latest book. As Jerome Rothenberg had just recently put out a call for contributions to his latest project, an assemblage of poetry and poetics from the Americas, pre-contact to the present, Lilburn and I heartily agreed Riel’s Système should be represented.

You can read some of what we translated, selected by Jerome Rothenberg as part of his project, with a very brief commentary, at Jacket2.

What follows are some reflections on the task of the translators, then our original draft of a commentary, lengthier than is practicable for the forthcoming anthology, with a short selection from Tim Lilburn’s The House of Charlemagne.

This particular text poses challenges both general to Riel and particular to the Système. LouisRielPortrait2Apart from those we remark (below), Riel’s French is, first, that of Nineteenth century Manitoba and Québec. It is, as well, formed by Riel’s education in Montreal:  he studied, for example, no French literature past Racine, and his vocabulary and thought rest, in part, on the technicalities of the philosophy (e.g., Leibniz) and theology he read, as well as his understanding of the natural sciences (including electromagnetism) and arguably even the Theosophy of his day. Clearly, a ready acquaintance with this discursive field (which we admittedly lack) would go a long way to both comprehending Riel’s meaning and then attempting to render it in English (which, would, in turn, demand an acquaintance with the parallel literary, philosophical, theological, scientific, and Theosophical vocabulary in English). Finally, Riel’s was an idiosyncratic mind, both because of his universally-acknowledged intelligence and his equally acknowledged religious mania. Thus, the discourses named above were submitted to a stylistic pressure that resulted in the provisional, often highly-elliptical and truncated fragments (however original) that make up the Système. No less importantly, the Métis dimension in his thinking and expression remains extremely obscure, even for scholars of the man and his work.

We outline these philological challenges to highlight the radical provisionality of our own efforts here. Just as the sheets collated by Riel’s editor are “a draft of a draft of a draft” (Melville)(a characteristic this text shares with, among others, Leaves of Grass, Moby Dick, the writings of Marx, and many Twentieth-century poets and philosophers), so, too, our versions lay no claim to finality, but, rather, are offered as an invitation to readers, writers, and scholars and translators more informed and talented than us to engage with Riel’s Système so that it might begin to take its rightful place in the cultural inheritance and life of Turtle Island.

 

 

Notes toward a Commentary…

 

Source:  The Collected Writings of Louis Riel, Vol. II, ed. Gilles Martel, University of Alberta Press, 1985, pp. 387-99. Translated by Antoine Malette and Bryan Sentes.

Poet, politician, rebel, prophet, Louis Riel is as much an inspiration for anti-colonial struggle on Turtle Island, politically and artistically, as a real man, the facts of whose life are easily summarized. Born of Métis parents in present-day Manitoba, Canada, the precocious Louis was sent to study for the priesthood in Montreal from 1858-1865, where he received a rigorous education in Greek, Latin, theology, philosophy, and literature. Choosing a secular life, however, he abandoned his studies and returned home, where he participated in the Red River Resistance (1869-70), as the head of the provisional government and overseeing the short-lived regime’s one execution. Following the insurrection, he was thrice elected to a seat in the Canadian Parliament but denied entry because of his revolutionary activities. Undergoing a profound religious experience that inaugurated his prophetic vision and project, his subsequent erratic behavior (reminiscent of “Kit” Smart’s) caused him to be institutionalized between March 1876 and January 1878. He eventually settled in Montana, where he became an American citizen. In 1885, however, the Métis enticed him across the border to lead them again in what became known as “the Northwest Rebellion”, which was summarily crushed, and Riel captured, tried, and hanged.

Riel’s editor writes concerning the Système philosophico-théologique:

There is good reason to think that this philosophico-theological synthesis was destined to be part of the Massinahican [Cree for ‘book’ or ‘bible’]. Regrettably, a number of pages are lost, and it is impossible to reconstruct with certainty the plan of this synthesis, which is why we have opted to present the few pages of this document thematically. The order of the texts that follows is intended to facilitate reading and does not pretend to reconstruct Riel’s intended order.

These pages were likely composed in Montana between 1881 and 1884. On many pages of the manuscript the paragraphs are numbered, but regrettably numbers 1 to 30 are lost; moreover, when there are several versions of the same paragraph, they do not have the same number; finally, there exist different paragraphs with the same number. There are therefore several series of numbers and one cannot trust that these numbers reconstruct with certainty the general order of the text.

In these pages, Riel uses above all the term ‘essence’ and more rarely the term ‘monad’ to designate the elements that constitute all reality. In God, the essences are all active; it is only in humankind that a mixture of active and passive essences is found. During his time in prison in 1885, Riel returned to his reflections on essences and monads…

The Massinahican, for all its truncated and fragmented brevity, is a startlingly syncretic, synthetic, and original work. Unlike Riel’s more identifiably prophetic, millenarian revision of (Roman Catholic) Christianity (as reminiscent of William Miller’s or Joseph Smith’s as that of the Ghost Dance religion), the Massinahican draws on Roman Catholicism and Leibniz’s Monadology, as well as coeval psychology, physics (electromagnetism), and, arguably, even Theosophy, sketching a broad, philosophical vision with affinities to Neoplatonism and Taoism, at least. Formally, arguably modelled in the first instance on Allan Kardec’s Le Livre des esprits (1857), the writing prefigures Wittgenstein’s argument-by-remark as much as it resembles the German Romantic Fragment (and, perhaps, even its ironies). As Tim Lilburn puts it in his own poetic explorations of Riel’s unfinished work: “Riel’s book Massinahican was an attempt to render old Rupert’s Land…into philosophy, interiority, and politics” and “We could be in a text by Proclus or Damascius”.

[A note on the translation. Riel’s notes were composed under various pressures, of inspiration and material conditions. They are, therefore, often orthographically and grammatically compressed to the point of obscurity, an obscurity further complicated by Riel’s own idiosyncratic inspiration and expression. We have often attempted to reproduce these ambiguities and difficulties in the English rather than present an artificially smooth and clear version of Riel’s thoughts.]

 

Addendum.

 

Tim Lilburn, from The House of Charlemagne (University of Regina Press, 2018)

 

SECOND FIGURE (Honoré Jaxon)

And, as you’ve said: “The prodigious concentration of the infinite essences in the loving man would have created for him the gift of subtle spirit. Cette concentration prodigeuse des essences infinies dans l’homme eût constitué pour lui don de le subtilité.” It’s all there in that single sentence. The human individual in the world’s birth canal.

Jaxon moves with great speed.

                HONORÉ JAXON

Thus, swamped with the explosive throw, soaked with battling light, we, pneuma packets, breath bearded, harden (concress, vanish, anneal, zig but do not zag) into ever-fleet dots (he makes a gesture indicating the monadic shape), which Canadian grapeshot does not recognize and so misses.

Yes.

He shifts quickly fours steps, then stops.

Their instruments lack this precision.

I have heard you on this, this spirito-physics. What you scratched with care on pieces of elk hide and paper scraps deep in Montana, far in winters, 1881 to 1884. Many pages of this philosophical-théologique synthesis now lost, blown away in snow or raised in random fires. Your voice sways in me. Canadian bullets do not recognize me. We swim in a band below their apparatus’s range. Nor can the prime minister’s lit cigars cruise forward, drop as arrow-fall to press red circles on the skin of our arms when we are in this clenched, robed state of the active essences.

                LOUIS RIEL

Snider Enfield rifles snuff and break twigs near.