Ray Robertson’s David: Race, Class and the Environment

 

A class from the Elgin Settlement, the basis for the setting of Robertson's novel.

A class from the Elgin Settlement, the basis for the setting of Robertson’s novel.

Ray Robertson‘s David details a freed slave whose freedom was bought in his infancy by a Reverend King who brought David King, along with his mother and a host of other freed slaves, to a settlement in Ontario based on the Elgin Settlement where a community of freed slaves create a self-sufficient town.  David is a prodigious child and groomed by Reverend King to be a man of God, but his life eventually takes him on a different path that includes grave robbing, a relationship with a former prostitute, and work at an illegal saloon.  It’s a great premise, no doubt, but it is more than just an interesting set up.  Though some might assume such a narrative would be heavily seasoned with conversations on race, Robertson does an exceptional job of giving the novel depth, drawing not only on issues of race, but ecocriticism, class, and religions.

 

RayRobertsonDavidWhat appealed to me most were the ecocritical elements of the narrative.  One passage seems to feed in to the ‘Garden Model’ outlined by Luc Ferry where the protagonist David notes: “I was a confirmed city person and the natural world had become an inconvenience to be overcome.  But a well-manicured park is different, is civilized nature.”  In comparing animals to humans David says: “Dogs do what they’re told, will defend you to the death, and will never ask you for money.  Why would anyone have a baby when they could have a dog instead?”  A later passage, where David speaks to evolution, he observes: “if one accepted the evolutionary kinship of all animals, one not only lost a heavenly father but gained an extended orphaned family.”  This suggests that the animal world and the human world are not separate, but members of the same family with a shared origin. Being members of the same family, as David says, “comes with responsibilities—most importantly, that you don’t eat your relations.”  David defends this assessment saying: “if one doesn’t acknowledge certain rights that must be granted to all members of the family, there remains the risk that these same sacrosanct rights might be arbitrarily and illogically denied to certain other members.”  David sees a choice: “either might was right or everyone had the same… rights.”  He then concludes, based on this choice, that his “last day as a cannibal was November 7th, 1881.”  It is not so simple though.  His girlfriend, Loretta, challenges him, pointing out that David’s dog, “‘if he was starving… would eat ’” David.  David concedes this and replies: ‘And if I was starving I‘d eat him, too…  We’re both hoping it never comes to that.’”  This speaks to an admission of necessity but an agreement between the two beings that so long as necessity doesn’t require it, both their rights should be respected.  Loretta notes inconsistencies in David’s daily practices to which David concedes: “whose hands are ever really clean?”  It is not about being perfect for David, it is about being better.  The most interesting part of the argument is the scriptural precedence that seems to support David’s observations.  Ecclesiastics 3:19 reads: “For that which befalleth… men befalleth beasts… they all have one breath; so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast; for all is vanity.”  The irony is of course that much of humanity has used scripture to defend its usurpation of nature where here it suggests that vanity is the only thing that separates humanity from the animals.

 

An original house from the Elgin Settlement.

An original house from the Elgin Settlement.

This is not the only piece of scripture David touches on.  Being a freed slave, he struggles with Christianity, noting that Leviticus 25:44-46 supports slavery.  David’s moral code is challenged at this point and as he develops his own code he is eventually confronted by his mentor Reverend King who ironically says: “I can forgive you your ignorance, but not your arrogance.”  The irony is of course that the Reverend King himself is both ignorant and arrogant.  As the narrative progresses, David says: “To each his own delusion” after coming to the realization that people are “most loyal to our first fairy tales.”  Conflicts in morality become clear when David hears of a man named Brown who killed white slave owners: “Brown was called a freedom fighter by some and a terrorist by others.”  This speaks to how context defines morality.  One man’s hero is another man’s terrorist.  David had learned that ‘man shalt not kill man’, but notes, upon hearing that Brown had killed five slave owners, that “five fewer breathing slaveholders didn’t feel much like a broken commandment”.  Even Reverend King validates this action in a way, saying that Brown “is dangerous because he is angry.  And anyone who would deny his right to be angry would be an even greater fool.”  King admits to Brown’s right to be angry, though he does not go as far as to condone murder.

 

Dr. Anderson Abbott, the basis for one of the characters in the novel 'David'.

Dr. Anderson Abbott, the basis for one of the characters in the novel ‘David’.

There is also some interesting working-class perspectives.  After observing that history is the story “of how one country robbed another”, David says: “I didn’t need to read books to learn about exploitation, self-interested rationalization and inevitable resentment; all I had to do was show up for work at the factory.”  Such “Servitude is habit forming” and spiritually draining.  This is summed up efficiently in the line: “The working class are history’s niggers”, but is perhaps articulated best in the passage where David details the imperialist nature of countries like Britain: “The warriors’ spears were little match for the British army’s guns and the Matabele people were stripped of their land and the majority conscripted to work in the British gold mines.  Many shiny pocket watches and gold candlestick holders were purchased by many respectable, patriotic British citizens in the years that followed.”  This speaks not only the exploitative nature of imperialism and capitalism, but also speaks to the Complacent Consumption of countries like Britain, Canada and America.  An analogy with Rome is also articulated where David notes that the fall of the Roman Empire was a lack of industry.  Everything went into Rome, and all that came out was literally shit.   Another interesting scenario which David speaks of regards the local pharmacist.  Though a brilliant man and respected in the community, David notes that “it’s difficult to… masquerade as a dignified man of medicine when… a… fraction of your… day is given… to exhibiting your vast knowledge of artificial flavours and carbonated water to every snotty six-year-old armed with a nickel.”  This speaks to the illusions of freedom.  We each serve a master, even when we own our own business.  The nature of capitalism is that everybody is exploited.  And money, is portrayed appropriately, as a weapon as the child is ‘armed’ with a nickel.

 

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

David is a student of philosophy, and so there is much philosophizing going on in the novel.  Loretta is the source of much of this.  At one point she says: “what you need is not to buy things, what you need is to look at the things you already have with new eyes.”  This challenges the capitalistic notion of consumption.  She also accuses David of being like the “person who says, ‘I know what I like,’ but what they are really saying is, ‘I like what I know.’”  This speaks to our limited perspectives and how we often times remain in our comfort zones rather than expand our horizons.  We engage in willful ignorance.   She also argues that: “First one must live, then one may philosophize.” This seems to be reminiscent of female philosopher Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz who suggested that “Aristotle might have philosophized more had he done so while cooking”, articulating the sentiment that one needs experience to gain understanding.  This goes part and parcel with a comment David makes.  He says: “Knives can do things that the alphabet can’t.”  This too speaks about action over words.  Whereas a reasoned argument, for example, may not convince a slave owner to release a slave, a knife to his heart will certainly end the slave owner’s tyranny.  Coupled with action, David suggest that time and familiarity may outperform reason, saying: “Time and familiarity eventually accomplish what logic and reasoned argument rarely can.”  Prejudices learned can be hard to unlearn, but through time, such prejudices can lose their value when a reason argument would fail to accomplish this.  A white man, for example, who has never met Black, man be taught to hate and judge Black men, but if immersed in an environment where he has the opportunity to see Black men and interact with them, he may find his prejudices torn down over time.

 

 

William Blake serves as a source of inspiration for the protagonist in Robertson's novel.

William Blake serves as a source of inspiration for the protagonist in Robertson’s novel.

David seems ultimately to be a misanthropist of sorts who makes some exceptions.  When working he notes that he “preferred a book as a lunchtime companion.”  He is disgusted by most of humanity’s ignorance.  When speaking of a popular song, he says the “song was the usual sentimental sap that passes for art among people who, if they put in their stomachs what they put in their minds, would all be dead of malnutrition.”  David, though, does admit that “sometimes philistines make good neighbours” (in this instance it is because he has no need to worry that his copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence will be stolen as the ‘philistines’ about him are to ignorant to realize the value in the book.

 

Robertson’s work is well worth reading.  It is a great work that touches on several themes and articulates them well with sympathetic, interesting and relatable characters.  David is perhaps a bit forced, and there are a couple instances where Robertson is perhaps too overt in his efforts, but others demand an attentive reader.  For example: one of David’s friends, Thompson, is suicidal.  David doesn’t understand why, but the Thompson has an affinity for the poetry of Walt Whitman.  It can perhaps be fairly concluded that Thompson’s orientation can be identified with Whitman’s and that his troubles stem from the social stigma attached to this, though David never suggests that he has an understanding of this.  The reader though should be able to piece together this part of the narrative.  Other instances Robertson perhaps tells too much, but ultimately the novel still works well.  It entertains and encourages an active reader to engage with the work and there isn’t much more you can ask for in a book.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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