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The Mother Tongue in Cyberspace




In her essay, "The Mother Tongue in Cyberspace," Magdalene Redekop presents a wide-ranging discussion of orality, mother tongue and ethnicity, especially in relation to literary writings by Mennonites. Her mother tongue, of course, is one variant of the Plautdietsch dialect spoken by-or at least familiar to—many descendants of Russian Mennonite immigrants to Canada and the United States. Although some entire literary texts have been written in that dialect, notably the Koop enn Bua stories of Arnold Dyck, Plautdietsch more often appears as words, phrases or sayings in writings in English. The effect is almost always humorous. To her essay she adds a special treat: her own reading of a selection from the Koop enn Bua stories.

Listen to Magdalene Redekop read a selection from Koop enn Bua:

Listen to Magdalene Redekop reading from Koop enn Bua.

Plato Meets Menno: About Time and Place

The cover of Koop enn BuaThe time was October 2006. The place was Bluffton College, Ohio—the location of a conference on Mennonite writing. It was raining heavily when I arrived after the long drive from Toronto, and I remember going first to the bookstore to buy a purple Bluffton College umbrella. By the next morning it had cleared up, and the sun was shining through casement windows when I entered the room where my session was scheduled. The podium was positioned in front of a window that framed a spectacular background of golden-leaved trees. The paper I gave on that spot was designed to show what it was telling about orality and print and was entitled "Lost in Translation." When I accepted the invitation to adapt it for this on-line publication, I at once confronted the reality of what would be lost in transmission to cyberspace.

If you have ever written an e-mail while under the sway of strong emotions, you are familiar with the problems that come with the medium. Anger multiplies exponentially and irony is often completely lost. As a result, people who text message frequently resort to shorthand signals: :) for smile and LOL for "laugh out loud." As any stand-up comic knows, however, a laugh track (or laughter-on-the-dotted line, to use a print image) is a poor substitute for the real thing—the pleasure of hearing an audience laugh while you speak. A thrill of power comes with making people laugh, since true laughter is involuntary, and nothing is more certain to squelch it than an imperative: LOL.

It is easy to get audiences to laugh at a conference, there being such a big need for comic relief from the imperative to talk seriously. This is especially so when many of the authors being discussed are sitting in the audience, as was the case in Bluffton, where I was very aware of the presence of Rudy Wiebe, Di Brandt, David Waltner-Toews, Sarah Klassen, Jeff Gundy and other authors. The idea of laughter will remain central to my argument about ethnicity and orality, but the first step in that argument is to acknowledge the loss of the sound of laughter. It points to something that is no less important for being obvious. Walter Ong puts it clearly: "Spoken words," he notes, "are always modifications of a total, existential situation, which always engages the body" (67).

For me to insist on the importance of a particular time and place, then, is not a simple matter of short term nostalgia. It is no less, after all, than what Plato did in Phaedrus. Socrates leaves it up to Phaedrus to select the perfect spot for the reading of a speech by Lysias. The tall plane-tree, the soft grass, and the cicadas—all become central to a dialogue about rhetoric and love. Not for a moment does Plato allow us to forget the materiality of setting, text and (not least) the two participants in the dialogue. Phaedrus modestly claims that he has "not learnt all the words" of the speech but that he will try to present the "general thought of Lysias' speech…in the order he said them" (3). To which Socrates responds: "Only if first, my love, you show me what you have in your left hand under your cloak. I'll hazard it's the actual text" (4). Many contemporary readers will be reminded of the Mae West line to Cary Grant: "Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?" It is not the only double entendre in Phaedrus. Pederastic obsession comes with the territory, a fact that has not stopped many scholars from turning a blind eye to the sexual innuendo and leaping straight to a discussion of abstract ideas.

Ideas, to be sure, are what Plato was all about, but the reader who steps out of Plato's cave and into the sunny world of Phaedrus ends up experiencing both the pleasures of a text and the pleasures of breaking away from a text. Where any two or three are gathered together in dialogue, there is the beginning of community, and with that comes desire. Locating the idea of a text within dialogue exposes an imbalance of power that can be viewed and questioned when the desire is out in the open. The visible figures of that inequality in this text are the mentor, Socrates, and his darling boy, Phaedrus. In Phaedrus, time and place are in motion, like the walking philosophers, and it is desire that makes it so.

In the argument that follows I will be working with a similarly floating sense of time and place, and my approach will be existential. Michael Heim notes that "[b]ecause it accepts historical drift, existential criticism proceeds without possessing a total picture of the whither and wherefore, without accepting the picture promoted by either technological utopians or dystopians" (70). It is William Gibson who writes fictions about the erotics of cyberspace, a term that he coined, but it was Plato, as Heim notes, who helped us understand that Eros "springs from a feeling of insufficiency or inadequacy" (85). I propose to evoke the Bluffton conference within cyberspace as a stabilizing frame for my essay. I do this for the simple reason that it actually happened. Desire for community will be central to my argument, as will recognition of the barriers to community created by power imbalances.

Like Ruth Finnegan, I see orality and literacy (including web literacy) not as two distinctly separate historic stages but rather as being in constant interaction and taking "diverse forms in differing cultures and periods" (175). My efforts here are in part a response to Finnegan's plea for studies of a "modest and particularistic kind, rather than yet more generalized speculation on the basis (often) of imaginations about the future and romanticized projections into the past." Developments in communications technology have fuelled further generalizations of the sort Finnegan deplored in her 1988 study, even as they have underlined the continuing need for "the central importance of taking account of the particular: the specific developments and uses of oral, written and electronic forms in particular historical conditions and by specific individuals, groups and cultures (or sub-cultures)" (176). I will also attempt, however, to locate my particular experience within larger contexts and at least gesture towards comparative studies that could be done. Not to do so is to risk ethnocentricity.

Decades of work as a literary critic have not made it any easier to locate my own subject position within this larger context. In "Me and My Shadow" Jane Tompkins has written about her struggle to balance personal experience with the pseudo-objective pose that is part of any scholarly enterprise. Both ethnicity and gender have involved me in a similar struggle. Me and my Mennonite shadow do not speak the same language, and we do not have the same listeners when we speak. When I write, I remain always conscious of my divided audience. Because I know how paralyzing this can be, much of my writing comes out of specific occasions and the memory of specific audiences. With the help of Sue Morrison, a clown teacher who uses a method devised by Richard Pochinko, I have learned to work towards laughter through the development of masks. I will be putting forward here an aesthetic of conscious failure that is part of clowning experience.

Since I give a central place to comedy, I need to make clear at the outset that by comedy I do not mean those books that get shelved under "Humour" in many bookstores. Physical clowning and the literary clowns I will explore here are on the same playing field as Plato's tongue-in-cheek clowning in Phaedrus. Not all writers are drawn to embodied clowning (although Di Brandt, for one, has also taken a Pochinko clowning course), but I will argue that a movement towards clowning (whether on paper or on a stage) is a natural response to the experience of dislocation that has come with the dizzying rate of technological change.

Mother Tongue: The Case of Low German

When I wore the mask of an unstable woman in my Pochinko clowning course, I was not allowed to speak at all, but it was Low German that was in my head. The history of Low German is dauntingly complex on paper, but the language lingers in a comfortable, homely way on my tongue. The contrast is obvious but important to note here because so much that has been written about Low German confuses language with culture. Di Brandt claims that Low German sayings express a "radically communalist, embodied sensibility, lived flat, plaut, close to the ground" (105), and so they do, in the context of Mennonite culture. "In Plautdietsch," writes Brandt, "we were funny, irreverent, bawdy; it was an elemental dialect, filled with humorous trickster-like reversals and jokes. It was impossible to say anything abstract or even earnest in Plautdietsch" (112).

No dialect is elemental in itself, of course, but it may be used for primarily elemental purposes in the case of a particular culture. Humour, similarly, is not inherent in any language but results from the way that language is used in a particular culture. It follows, then, that those who stop using a language will have a different response to it from those for whom it remains a living language. Brandt writes that she decided, at about age twelve, to stop using Low German. She did not want to "exist in three languages," so she refused "the daily acts of translation required to negotiate the cross-cultural tensions" and opted to speak only English (111). This was not an option for me. My father (who was the age of Di Brandt's grandfather) ruled that only Low German, our Mutta Sproek, could be spoken in our home. It did not occur to me to disobey. For me, consequently, Low German was a language that I continued to use for a full range of emotions. When I left home to go to university, I embraced my father‘s commitment to Mennonite identity and also his love of the Low German language.

Over the years I have grown to love my endangered mother tongue more deeply, even as I lose more and more of the people with whom I can speak it. Often when other Mennonites are laughing at the sheer sound of Low German, I find myself weeping at this loss. I continue to speak Low German at every opportunity, although these are increasingly rare. On occasion, when I am flummoxed by some opaque literary theory, I test it by seeing if it can be translated into Low German in conversation with my sister. I learned this trick from Doreen Klassen, an ethno-musicologist friend who has written about Low German Mennonite songs. I keep my Low German dictionaries on a nearby shelf while writing. They are not much help, however, when it comes to abstractions.

I share Di Brandt's feeling that it is "impossible to say anything abstract" (112) in Low German. There are few equivalent words in Low German for abstract concepts such as justice, freedom and love. The ones provided in the dictionaries tend to be adaptations of High German words. Freedom, for example, becomes Frieheit—a word that I cannot remember ever hearing in conversation. By no means does the absence of such words eliminate the possibility of talking seriously about the concepts in Low German. Within a Mennonite culture, however, discussion of them tends to happen by means of anecdotes and examples. If abstractions are required, the conversation will likely switch to English or High German.

Verbal habits from my oral culture have stuck to me even when I am not using any Low German words, and these also favor the embodied over the abstract. Because of the repetition of Mennonite names, for example, it was the custom in my community to identify people by occupation or some peculiarity. The man who owned the hatchery was called Czhikel Dyck, and the man who owned the jewelry store was called Tikka Dyck. There were a lot of Hieberts, but the one who walked with the bouncy step was called Hups Hiebat. I adapted this habit as way of teaching my children to remember special visitors. Lots of writers came through our house, but the one (Di Brandt) who brought the gift of a tiny pink elephant with large floppy ears was called Pink Elephant Di. Armin Wiebe became Hockey Book Wiebe because he brought a hand-made book about hockey.

I do not offer these examples as local color but to show that this kind of playfulness is central to my approach to culture. My mother tongue has increased in importance for me as literary criticism has become a search for moral high ground from which to make judgements. I always thought we Mennonites had a special corner on self-righteousness, but literary theorists are giving us competition these days. Discomfort with this moralism is part of what led me to specialize in comedy. Irony can reside up there among the clouds, but comedy is a literary field that is plaut—close to the ground. Comedy in Low German, in particular, is a topic that is inseparable from geography. Speaking about my endangered language in cyberspace, as I do here, makes me all the more aware of the fact that I associate it with a very particular place: the prairies of southern Manitoba. My ancestors spoke it on the Russian steppes. Going even further back to the time of the Reformation, Low German was spoken by Mennonites in the lowlands of Europe.

In The Story of Low German & Plautdietsch, Reuben Epp provides an account of how the Low German spoken by Mennonites changed as they moved, first into the Vistula Delta and then to Russia. Netherlandic, Prussian and Russian words attached themselves to the original language as the people moved. The settlements in Russia were made up of people of Frisian, Flemish, Dutch and Lower Saxon backgrounds, but the common spoken language by that time had become Low German. The German that has become dominant as a result of Luther's translation of the Bible is what Mennonites call High German. Using High German in Russia and English in North America, Mennonites have developed a rich tradition in writing. At the center of these written cultures, however, Low German has remained for Russian Mennonites an alternative experience of orality that helped define them as a people apart. Yiddish works in much the same way for Jewish culture. The vertical definition (low in socio-economic status) and the horizontal definition (low in a geographic sense) are conveyed simultaneously by the term Low German, for reasons that have deep roots in Mennonite history.

Low German has a complex history that has produced a bewildering array of regional variations. In the Mennonite version, it is not a written language, despite the valiant efforts of scholars to make it so and to regularize spellings. Google "Low German" and you will get references to printed texts ranging from Reynard the Fox to a very rare seventeenth century translation of Luther's Bible. I remember my delight when I first discovered these texts and my disappointment when I learned that they are not at all like the Low German we spoke in Manitoba.

In my early years as a literary critic I had the idea that I would be able to shelve my mother tongue while working and take it off the shelf whenever I made visits to my parents or older relatives. The peculiarities of my ethnicity seemed to have nothing to do with my love for English literature. My career has consisted of a repeated discovery of how wrong I was to make that assumption. Most recently I learned from Sander Gilman that Low German was excluded and became a marker of difference during the time that nineteenth-century academics were constructing the idea of a German literature—what Gilman calls a "fantasy of a unified German culture." Low German literature such as Reynard the Fox was "grudgingly admitted to the emerging canon of German texts, but often for comic relief" (22). The more things change, I thought to myself, the more they stay the same.

I first became interested in writing about these issues when I was asked to contribute an article on The Blue Mountains of China for a collection of essays on Rudy Wiebe. I had a kind of epiphany when I realized my own assumptions: that God spoke High German, Jesus spoke Low German and only the scribes and the Pharisees spoke English. (I still sometimes have to resist this last assumption—especially when I am at a conference.) I was especially intrigued by Frieda Friesen's narrative—with the direct oversetting into English in which you can still hear the original Low German. From George Steiner I learned to see how language can mark a powerful ambivalence and that there is a constant battle between the centripetal forces that draw inwards into identification with the heart of a community and the centrifugal forces that draw outwards to escape. This is no academic question. It's about belonging or not belonging, and it's something that we all feel in our guts.

More recently, Rudy Wiebe has written, in Of This Earth, about these three languages. At the Bluffton conference he did a reading from that book. I found myself weeping at the sound of Wiebe's voice, in his familiar Mennonite accent, reading from his own published text a passage in which his mother speaks angry words to Stalin in Low German. Why did I weep? That is the question I asked myself afterwards. I wept, first of all, for the loss of my mother tongue. Wiebe sets the reader up for that loss by keeping his description of his childhood experience of language almost devoid of emotion. "Because different languages meant nothing to me," he writes, "words were sounds made with your mouth that meant whatever anyone said they did, and I swallowed them without thinking" (40). The child's experience of language is at first tactile and then becomes a pleasurable interplay of eye and ear, sound and sight. The English Moon, the Low German Mohn, and the High German Mond are three variations of sound that can change as quickly, he writes, as the moon itself changes its shape—a sight. Eye and ear work together as the child Rudy speaks out loud "the tiny black tracks on the perfect white paper" (41).

So much for the world of innocence. In the world of experience, these same three languages are not on a level playing field, and the materiality of the text brings that point home. Here is the passage Wiebe read on that day: "And since she had Stalin right there, smiling in her yard, face to face, she'd lay it on him: ‘Now you tell me, Joseph Vissarionovich, where is my brother? Johann Knelsen, the teacher in Orenburg, Number Eight Romanovka. Woa hast du dem omm'jebroght? Where did you murder him?'" (226).

Why did I weep when Wiebe read this passage? On the most immediate level, I was reminded of the power of the phrase "omm'jebroght," for which "murder" is an inadequate translation. A literal translation would be "brought over" or "turned over" and a loose translation perhaps "going belly up," but those are no help at all. I wept because there seemed to me no way at all of translating it, a fact that in this case made it possible to share just a little of the powerlessness and the grief of the woman who is protesting. I wept because for me Low German is out there with music as what can not be contained in the text. The social and political context here is made inescapable by the interpolated Low German phrase. The fact is that Wiebe's mother never did get a chance to talk back to Stalin, and that if she had done so in Low German, it would have been all Greek to Stalin. The fact is that these many languages and divisions set up an intense longing for harmony and for escape from the confusion of Babel but that living in the world of experience does not allow for such escape.

I wept, also, because the maternal anger that Wiebe remembered or imagined took my mind back to memories of conversations with my mother-in-law, who had died recently. It was she who made me most aware of the fault line in Mennonite history. As a Kanadier marrying a Russlaender, I was always conscious of having "married up." My late husband, Clarence Redekop, did everything within his power to ameliorate this situation, but he never pretended that the class distinction was not there. It was a simple fact of history, as we both knew.

I always think of his mother now as Oma, because my most uncomplicated memory of her is of how much she loved my children. Like Wiebe's mother, Oma was a refugee from Stalin. When she arrived in Canada, she added English to the three languages she already spoke: High German, Low German and Russian. At the heart of this quadra-lingual experience was her mother tongue, Low German. Unlike my mother, however, with whom I spoke only Low German (although she was more fluent in English than Oma), my mother-in-law spoke Low German with profound reluctance and obvious embarrassment. If I spoke it to her, she would almost invariably correct my pronunciation. I remember her expression of shock when I used the word "Mjal" for "girl." The proper word, she said, was "Maeche." I soon abandoned the effort. Our conversations took place in English mixed with High German, and what I remember is Oma's readiness to laugh with her grandchildren at the limitations of her own English and her tears when the trauma of the past left her without any words at all.

In the years before her death, Oma suffered a stroke that left her temporarily bereft of all languages except her mother tongue. Since her own children could not speak Low German, I had the brief honor of being the one who could carry on an easy conversation with her. The pleasure was fleeting. Her fierce determination to speak with her children, combined with her repugnance for her mother tongue, motivated her to regain, with great effort, the ability to converse in High German. English was gone for good, but so was Low German. Since I do not converse easily in High German, I once tried speaking to her in Low German in the time shortly before her death. She looked at me as if the very sound nauseated her and said one word: prust, meaning vulgar or common.

There is a plant with long, sharp leaves that goes by the name of "mother-in-law's tongue." I have always thought it a cruel name and one not fitting for my relationship with my mother-in-law, which was a relationship of mutual respect and love. The plant never fails, however, to remind me of the difference between the ways my mother and my mother-in-law spoke their mother tongue. Both were so-called Russian Mennonites, but my mother was a Kanadier (born in Canada) and my mother in law was a Russlaender. Thereby hangs a tale—the history of a split that runs deep and long in Mennonite history. Cornelius Krahn and Al Reimer tell this story and trace the division back to the shifts from Dutch to Low German and High German in eighteenth-century Prussia as they were interrupted by migration in different stages.

Some of these shifts were incomplete when the first Mennonites—those coming from the poorer classes—migrated to Russia and settled in Chortitza. For that group of Mennonites, Dutch was no longer used and High German was still a foreign tongue to them. They spoke primarily Low German. The more affluent and cultured Mennonites who stayed behind in Danzig gradually accepted High German for worship services and for written literature. The Low German they spoke in their homes had been "considerably altered by High German influences." To say "Maeche" instead of "Mjal," for example, brought them closer to the High German Maedchen. When these Mennonites migrated to Russia, settling in the Molotschna area, their higher socio-economic status led increasingly to the assumption that theirs was a "more cultured" form of Low German. By the time of the later immigration of Mennonites from Danzig to Nebraska and Kansas in 1850-1880, the shift from Low German to High German had been almost completed in Danzig. Those Mennonites spoke mostly High German but still knew Low German well enough to speak to their servants.

Mennonite migrations to Canada from Russia have followed the linguistic pattern set by these earlier migrations and deepened the fault line. Once again, the poorer classes left first, and once again the Mennonites left behind continued a process of assimilation - in this case to more use of Russian. Once again wars complicated the situation, most significantly resulting in the association of the German language with fascism. The geography of Manitoba made the old historic split visible, like a fault line running through the prairie soil. To this day, we joke about whether or not we come from Dit Sied or Jant Sied - from this side or that side of the river. The first large migration of Mennonites from Russia came in 1874 and were mostly from Chortitz. They settled on the west side of the Red River and became known as the Kanadier. These were my ancestors and were among the earliest settlers in southern Manitoba. Krahn and Reimer describe this group as having "preserved the original Low German in its purest form." It is important to note, however, that from a linguistic point of view there is no such thing as a pure language. As long as a language is alive, it is in a constant state of change as it is shaped by the needs of a particular culture.

The Low German spoken by the Kanadier in Manitoba absorbed English words to the point where we often referred to it jokingly as "die schoenste language." The second group of Mennonites came to Manitoba as refugees in the late 1920s and spoke a different version of Low German because they were descended from those Mennonites who had stayed behind in Prussia long enough to learn the High German. During the time they spent in Russia after the 1870 group left from Chortitz, these Molotschna Mennonites had grown wealthy and had developed a rich High German culture. Many of them lived on enormous estates and had numerous servants. High German was to Low German as upper class was to lower class. These Mennonites settled mostly on the east side of the Red River in Manitoba and became known as the Russlaender.

Once both groups had settled in Canada, status anxieties were bound to multiply all around, since the poorer Mennonites from the first migration in the 1870s had a head start in advancing economically and learning English, while the wealthier Mennonites who came as refugees in the late 1920s had suffered enormous losses. That the beginnings of Canadian Mennonite writing are in the Russlaender group goes back to the sophisticated High German culture that had developed in Russia after the Kanadier left. Al Reimer, in a chapter entitled "Where Did the Voices Come From?", traces the beginnings to a small group of Russlaender writers, led by Arnold Dyck. He observes that "the older Kanadier Mennonites" had not yet produced "a single literary writer of any merit." This new group "took a determinedly ethnic and secular direction" and their "concept of ethnic identity," according to Reimer, "was to a large extent modelled on the German concept of Volk and Kultur, and was tinged with the notion of racial purity and "Germanness" that prevailed in the Nazi Germany of the 1930s" (16-17).

Led by Arnold Dyck, however, they also championed Low German because, unlike High German, it was distanced from theological language (not to mention from Hitler) and associated with an unthreatening image that was the stuff of folklore. Although Dyck's passion for Low German can now be seen as a "lost cause," the distinction between the Russlaender and Kanadier remains an ubiquitous class marker, with Low German being both a sore point and a place of comic relief. In Sandra Birdsell's Children of the Day, for example, one of the daughters is "sent to work for Low-German-speaking Mennonites—Canadieres, as they referred to themselves—who had immigrated near the turn of the century and were stubbornly entrenched in their backward ways" (128). Birdsell, whose mother was Russlaender, is not the only writer who appears to assume that only people from that group could be producing literature.

The relation between class and language may be especially vexed for Mennonites, but it is of concern to all writers. Language snobbishness, moreover, is a frequent subject for literature. Popular culture often indicates where the painful issues lie, and this is so in the case of speech reform, a loaded political issue. In My Fair Lady, to the delight of mass audiences, Eliza Doolittle (at the behest of Professor Higgins) practices "the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain" until she manages to eliminate her Cockney accent and "get it" right. The musical takes the vexed issues in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and renders them palatable. T. S. Eliot's lines from Four Quartets have been often quoted: "Our concern was speech, and speech impelled us/ To purify the dialect of the tribe" (54). The troubling problems arising from such a desire for purity are, in short, not unique to Mennonites.

Mother Tongues and Communications Technology

What do such issues have to do with the problems faced by people writing today? This question cannot be addressed without a recognition that the sound of speech, like the sound of laughter, has not ceased to matter despite all the hype about virtual realities. On the contrary, new inventions tend to precipitate innovations that return to the embodied voice. This is demonstrated, for example, by the emergence of sound poetry groups, such as The Four Horsemen, who use no instruments other than the human voice. New developments in communications technology keep working to dispel the illusion of a purely visual print culture. Your speech, whether captured on a tape recorder or by the technology of MP3, whether Low German or Yiddish or some obscure Italian dialect, can still betray you as surely as it betrayed Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. For writers in Canada and in the United States, this is not an academic question. It has practical consequences. I can see this most clearly in my own ethnic group, but you could substitute other ethnic groups for Mennonite in the following sentences.

If you publish a novel in Canada, do you or do you not identify yourself as Mennonite? Do you or do you not use names that Mennonite readers will instantly recognize? If you use interpolated Low German words, the question becomes whether to gloss or not to gloss. Mennonite writers? Now you see them. Now you don't. Sandra Birdsell was not. Then suddenly she was. David Bergen? Is he or isn't he? Only his mother knows for sure. Now that Miriam Toews, after the huge success of A Complicated Kindness, is going back to writing comedies that make no reference to Mennos, will she or will she not be identified as a Mennonite writer? Some of our writers know Low German and often seem to wish they did not. Others don't know it and seem to wish they did.

Ethnicity is dangerous territory to negotiate, as every writer knows, and your decisions can have an impact on your economic life, not to mention your shelf life. Just because orality and ethnicity are hard to package does not mean that the voracious marketplace forces won't keep trying. It may have been safe enough for Toews to come out Menno in her fourth book, but what if she had done it in her first book? If Armin Wiebe had not first written The Salvation of Yasch Siemens, would more people now be reading his award winning Tatsea? Or would it be fewer? However grotesquely distorted, ethnicity is a product that is bought and sold in the marketplace, and the writer clearly defined as ethnic is at the mercy of the fickle tastes of consumers who may easily be repelled by the same product that attracted them the previous week. "What of ethnics who do not wish to be identified as ethnic?" asks Sander Gilman. "Are ethnics who claim they have transcended their ethnicity simply trying to pass?" (24). What happens if you are trying to "pass" but your speech betrays you as one of Them? My own response, I should make clear, is to champion the right of any writer to do what Miriam Toews and David Bergen are doing. A writer should be under no obligation to stay within an ethnic ghetto or to speak "for" any particular group. The reality of the market place, however, is another story.

Even for secular Mennonites, these often end up being theological questions in which two forces conflict. There is a historic preference for harmony that comes out of the pacifist tradition, but this goes contrary to a tendency to question that comes out of the tradition of dissent. The experience of language is the place where these tensions are concentrated. A strong desire for surface harmony is belied by the destabilizing impact of oral culture. The experience of orality, in short, goes against the logocentrism in Mennonite writing that was first articulated by John Ruth and that goes back to a view that all other texts are subordinate to scripture. At the extreme of that spectrum this becomes fundamentalism. "In the beginning was the Word," says the Bible. "In the beginning was the pun. And so on," wrote Samuel Beckett (65). The pun is a linguistic site which plays with the instabilities that arise because the sight and the sound of a word are never the same.

On the night after my arrival at Bluffton College, I was sitting down with a tray of food in the cafeteria. A woman came to join me and I heard her say: "I hear you are a Reverend." I asked her to repeat it a few times before I got it right. What she actually said was: "I hear you are irreverent." Logos is left in the dust when the puns go cross-linguistic and the fun really begins. This whole process, of course, is not free of anxiety and it is the job of laughter to release tension. When speaking to my Bluffton audience I was acutely aware of the presence in the room of many varieties of Mennonite, very few of them Russian Mennonites of the Kanadier variety. In an effort to defuse my anxiety, I teased my audience. I'm not sure, said I, if you would "get it" if I started to make cross linguistic puns with my mother tongue. I went so far as to issue a threat: Eck kunn juent noch aula vepluedre (I could spread gossip about you all.)

The fact is that there is no one single oral culture that can represent an idealized past for all Mennonites. It is true that the interpolation of Low German words in English texts has the potential, as Hildi Froese Tiessen has argued, to become a shibboleth separating Mennonites from the world. It is also true, however, that the use of Low German sets up divisions within the Mennonite community. The fact that Low German words keep bubbling up into the texts of even secular Mennonites like Miriam Toews has to do with the relation of Low German to class divisions that are denied by the theological rhetoric of community. The insertion of even one opaque Low German word can have the effect of making power imbalances visible.

The persistence of Low German acts as an antidote to willful amnesia about historic inequities. Sander L. Gilman has rightly noted "how complex the question of abjection becomes in the context of ethnicity" (PMLA 24). In the case of Russian Mennonite experience, Low German is the place where that question is unavoidable and potentially embarrassing. The recent appetite for memoirs and the proliferation of hoaxes indicate clearly, moreover, that this is part of a wider phenomenon. "The construction of a fictional ethnic identity seems to be a cultural commodity in societies searching for authenticity," writes Gilman. "Is ethnic the same as authentic? As Lionel Trilling noted, those who live in a world devoid of powerful beliefs, especially of belief in themselves, need authenticity most. Or is being a pseudo-ethnic sufficient today?" (23).

It is not surprising, in the circumstances, that writers often choose to keep their ethnic identity in the closet. Conferences devoted to the culture of a particular group are the place where ethnicities can come out of the closet. What come tumbling out as well, however, are the skeletons that show us how strange we are to each other and to ourselves. If you were there on that sunny day in October of 2006, you may suspect that, like Phaedrus, I have a script up my sleeve, if not in my pocket. Let me begin again by reading or quoting the first lines of my Bluffton paper:

"Brothers and Sisters [this in a nasal voice], my text for today is taken from Matthew, Chapter 26, Verse 73. They are words spoken to Peter just before he denies our Lord for the third time. ‘And after a while came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely, thou also art one of them; for thy speech betrayeth thee.' Peter begins to curse and to swear, saying ‘I know not the man.'" It was my husband, Dennis Duffy, who handed me this quotation. Brought up Irish Catholic in Kentucky, he shares my memory of the Bible. On the night before my Bluffton presentation, on the telephone from Toronto, he listened to my somewhat desperate struggle to get to the point, then said simply: "Surely thy speech doth betray thee."

I decided to begin by embedding this phrase within a mock sermon form, that being a rhetorical convention with which people at the conference would all be familiar. I also hoped that the sound of a preacher's voice would act as an antidote to the persistent notion that oral culture is somehow more natural than print culture. Though it is oral (sometimes tiresomely so), the sermon form often focuses clearly on one selected printed text, out of context, and this is what makes it so easy to mock. I was thinking of the Beyond the Fringe sermon on the text: "But Esau was a hairy man and Jacob was a smooth man." As I write now for a web audience, I take note of the fact that my assumption located the Bible as an "understood" text and that this assumption is not unproblematic. The place of scripture within the literary text varies from writer to writer, ranging from a child with a freakish memory for the Bible in Sandra Birdsell's The Missing Child, to Biblical phrases appearing like slogans on billboards in Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness.

I do not have space here to do justice to the number and diversity of writers in Canada who have Mennonite ancestry or to explore how and why the situation is different in the United States. In Canada, where Rudy Wiebe was once the only one, Mennonite writers now constitute an embarrassment of riches in numbers that are out of proportion to the percentage of Canadians that are Mennonite. David Bergen and Miriam Toews, for example, are not marginal writers but award-winning celebrities. The phenomenon of Mennonite literary writing is in part the result of Canadian policies on multiculturalism, but it also begs for an explanation within the context of Mennonite history. I mention it here because the phenomenon contradicts the frequent assumption that developments in communication technology have the effect of homogenizing and dissolving differences in identity. That assumption lies deep in Canadian political thought as a result of the work of George Grant, whose Lament for a Nation and Technology and Empire have been read as melancholy prophecy. American political thought has tended to go in the other direction, viewing technology as a force that may contribute to increased democratization. The debate is ongoing, but the example of the music industry certainly suggests that technology has a balkanizing effect on culture.

In the midst of this debate, one factor stands out and that is that technological developments have fuelled anxiety. An anxious longing for authentic identity results from a culture of simulations and reproductions that multiply at a frightening rate. In Specters of Marx, Derrida argues that the "new rhythms of information and communication" result in a "dis-location" and that the very nature of collective identity has changed because the subject is separated from a stable "locality, the topos of territory, native soil" (82). Reflecting "On the Irremovable Strangeness of Being Different," Homi Bhaba quotes Derrida and notes that the result is an "anxiety of displacement" that "troubles national rootedness" and "transforms ethnicity or cultural difference" (34). There is a lot of angst floating around the issues of identity and difference. Where angst is, laughter is not far behind. For Mennonites, anxiety about these issues has roots in a historical rejection of "the world," so it should be no surprise that changes in Mennonite comedy can be tracked alongside the history of developments in technology. Arnold Dyck's radio stories about Koop enn Bua, for example, happened after the invention of television but during the time lag while rural Mennonites were still resisting that invention.

Elsewhere on the continent, comic duos like Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello were making (or failing to make) the transition from radio to television. On "The Fred Allen Show," for example, radio audiences were entertained by a parade of ethnic stereotypes that would now be considered racist by politically correct listeners. Technological changes have not made us less racist, but what they have done is cause changes in the way ethnic identity is represented. Radio comedy mimicked the speech that betrays a particular ethnicity. Although this speech might suggest a body and a social context, the technology made it all too easy to switch from one speech to another. When Fred Allen was finished with Mrs. Nussbaum, his Jewish stereotype, all the producer had to do was create the sound of him knocking on the door of a different ethnic stereotype.

There are still plenty of comedians who "do" accents, working hard to teach their tongues to get around the sounds of other people's mother tongues. But the construction of ethnic stereotypes is being increasingly replaced by a movement towards the construction of self-parodic stereotypes. The performance of ethnicity now might involve a Jewish woman getting inside the stereotype and performing it from the inside out, taking it on as a kind of mask. In an article on Alice Munro, I have termed the figure that results an "ethnic nostalgic grotesque" (30). This literary trope is the figure of a certain kind of clown—constructed as a grotesque body that resists nostalgia by posturing it and that may resist racism by embracing it, somewhat in the way that other writers embrace the word queer. By no means is this figure unique to Mennonite writing. I see it, for example, in Mordecai Richler's The Incomparable Atuk, in the plays of Tomson Highway and in many other Canadian texts.

Two Mennonite Clowns

Let me turn now to a specific example, from the works of Arnold Dyck, of clown figures that can be seen at least in part as a Mennonite response to mounting anxieties caused by changes in technology. Although excellent scholarly editions of Dyck's work are now available, I treasure my copy of his self-published Koope enn Bua faore nao Toronto. I will use this ephemeral text here as a symbolic gesture to insist on the texture of the text even in virtual space. The illustrator is not identified, but you can see from the cover that he or she was thinking of other comic duos. Of course they are both men and of course one of them is fat and one is thin, one is smiling and one is grim. A look at the title offers a glimpse into the barriers that stand in the way of those who work to preserve Low German as a written language. What Mennonites do when forced to write in the mother tongue is to attempt to write it just like it sounds. My own phonetic spelling never seems to be the same as the spellings that I find in publications, and this cover is no exception. I would have written the word for drive as fohre. You may experiment with the pronunciation of Low German words by going to this website. It will be a struggle, of course, if the language is foreign to you. What may surprise you, however, is to know that reading any printed version of Low German is a laborious task for people who speak it fluently.

My own labor in this case contrasts with my memory of the lazy pleasure of listening to these stories on the radio. Or so I thought. I should have remembered that memory is notoriously unstable. Recently I was talking to my sister, Mary Neufeld, who is working on a biography of our father, Wilhelm Falk, who was a farmer and the Aeltester of the Rudnerweider church. I commented to Mary how I remembered that our mother had told me that our father listened to "Koop enn Bua" on CFAM and that he laughed uncontrollably and afterwards refused to ever listen to it again. He was a Reverend, but not irreverent. "Wish I could have seen that," said I to Mary. "But," said Mary, "when I interviewed you two years ago, you told me that in fact you did see it—that Papa was doubled over with laughter." Mary recorded the first conversation on tape, so it's true that I contradicted myself. But which of these versions actually happened? Which one should she put into print? The invention of print transformed the working of memory and the writing of history because events can be documented. But no document exists in this case to tell my sister which version is true. All I have left is a hazy memory of voices on a radio and this cherished but exasperating little book.

Listen to Magdalene Redekop reading from Koop enn Bua.

When I first agreed to the request that I record myself reading from this book, I was intoxicated at the thought of sounding out this old language of mine and putting it out there into the newfangled high tech world. My euphoria was short-lived, however, when I came up against the physical confrontation with the lowness of my mother tongue. I knew very well what the serenely objective linguists would say—that language itself is neutral. That knowledge did not stop it from lodging like a lump in my throat. Sounding out Dyck's spellings made me instantly aware of the fact that he was a Russlaender and I am a Kanadier. No Professor Higgins was available to reform my speech, had I wished for such reform, which I defiantly did not. At first I tried to convince myself that it was absurd to even mention this distinction, since so few in cyberspace would understand the dialect of my tribe, whatever the degree of purity. In the end, however, I have chosen to register my unease because it offers evidence to support my argument that unequal distribution of power is part of any speech act.

My quarrel was with myself. I protested to myself that I am not, after all, some victim devoid of power. Control of the technology was at least to some degree in my hands—with a little help from my son. I reminded myself that English is the language in which I am empowered to speak by my education and that I am freely putting an English "spin" on my Low German recording. Despite all these plain truths, I could not shake my irrational response. There was no telling what might happen to my mother tongue, once exposed out there in cyberspace. A Biblical passage came to mind: "Cast thy bread upon the water and thou shalt find it after many days" (Ecclesiastes 11:1). The assumption of "The Preacher" was that God controls this exchange. Not being that kind of believer, I find no easy answer to the question of who controls the technology of communication, and I confess I remain uneasy.

The practical barriers I confronted as I tried to record my mother tongue are places where the questions raised by Plato in Phaedrus are brought into new focus—questions about place and voice and text that are intimately bound up with ethnicity and the imbalance of power. What I want to do here is point towards a path that leads, not to some place trans-ethnic or beyond difference, but rather to a common ground where, as people of different ethnicities, we can clarify our shared questions. I chose to record a chapter entitled "Op'e Konferenz," in which Dyck's satire is directed at a danger in philosophy that is mocked by Plato—"the tendency to consider intellectual talk good just because it is intellectual talk" (Ferrari, 7).

The time of Dyck's conference is 1949 and the topic is pacifism. The fat Kanadier is called Bua, which is Low German for Buhr, a common Mennonite name which is High German for farmer. Although the obvious designated target of the satire is the self-absorbed high academic discourse that becomes an end in itself, slapstick humor steals the show and gets the laughs. The lowest butt of the humour is Bua, the fat Kanadier farmer who speaks Low German and is nearly illiterate in the other languages. Bua is a "grotesque body," a literary trope invented by Bakhtin in his study of Rabelais. With comic protuberances and a focus on the various orifices of the body, the "grotesque body" spills over the boundaries of the classical perfect body. For Bakhtin, this kind of "grotesque realism" can become the means to a carnival celebration of community because "the material bodily principle is contained not in the individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are constantly growing and renewed" (19). It is tempting to think of Arnold Dyck's Mennonite farmer as such a subversive carnivalesque character, but a reading that does not lose sight of the class issue also comes up against the limitations of Bakhtin's celebration of folk laughter.

The orifice mocked by Arnold Dyck is the farmer's Low German speaking mouth. Bua begins with the absurd assumption that the Russlaender Mennonites will be speaking Russian, and when he discovers that they are speaking in High German about pacifism, he insists on having his say. In preparation for this performance, he pushes apart the benches so that the front part of him and the back part of him can stand up at the same time. This bit of farcical humour is followed by an extended rant in a risibly mangled form of High German as the chairman makes futile efforts to silence the intruder. Al Reimer argues that Dyck's peasant characters have "an appealing innocence and a fundamental dignity and decency" (17). Maybe so, but it does not seem to me that High German really gets knocked off its pedestal, nor does the mouth that speaks Low German guide us to a Mennonite celebration of carnival that escapes the divisions satirized here. Unlike the biting satire of fifteenth-century peasants who wrote in Low German and punctured the illusions of the upper class and the clergy, the Low German speaking peasants in Arnold Dyck's tales are patronized and return to their Kanadier ghetto when the show is over.

That is not to say that I do not find Dyck's stories funny. Nor would I deny that I share Dyck's admiration for High German culture. Goethe's poem, "Ueber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh" still remains up there for me as the most beautiful poem I have ever read. What I am saying is that no response to a text can escape the complex issues surrounding what is high and what is low and that when you make the sounds with your tongue you cannot avoid confrontation with that fact. What I am saying is that even as I laugh at myself and at Koop enn Bua, my laughter is not an escape from the issue of power but rather a means of making it tangible. If you listen to the recording, you may hear me stammering and perhaps detect a tone of embarrassment mixed with glee. I could not read it without feeling conscious of my particular place on the language ladder, knowing that my speech surely betrays me as a Kanadier peasant even though I am also an English professor.

To insist on this division is bad form among Mennonites. In his introduction to the 1995 revised edition of Herman Rempel's Low German dictionary, Reuben Epp expresses appreciation for Rempel's diligence in recording speech variations but at the same time argues that it is "logical and seems desirable to stress similarities" and that "it is time for writers of Plautdietsch to strive towards greater harmony." (http://www.mennolink. org/doc/lg/intro.html) Lest my refusal of harmony seem churlish, let me explain that my point here is not to put myself forward as some kind of victim but simply to note that hierarchy and socio-economic status are inescapable when language is historicized and to note the Mennonite tendency to denial in this area. Historicizing and acknowledging difference within an ethnic group is a protection against the wrong kind of harmonizing—the kind that leads into the dangerous territory of ethnocentrism and racism. The best Mennonite artists work to develop strategies of resistance to the peace that can destroy many.

Different artists use different forms. Arnold Dyck opted for a gentle kind of satire. His clowns, Koop and Bua, embody an ambivalence in the author. He is drawn to identify with the nostalgic object, but at the same time his Russlaender status allows him to repudiate it. This ambivalence is illuminated in the context of a theory of satiric rhetoric recently put forward by Fredric V. Bogel. Bogel argues that there is a duplicity in the satirist's perspective. The satirist must have intimate knowledge of the satiric object in order to be effective and in fact identifies with that object. At the same time, the satirist is repelled and aims to achieve distance from that object. Satire is born out of a feeling that the repellent object is not alien enough. Satire is thus about identity and about how the satirist looks at himself (or herself) and it can be seen as a kind of ritual of purification.

It is not hard to see how helpful such a view of satire is when dealing with representations of ethnicity. Koop and Bua, seen in this context, are rather like scapegoats (to use a term from Rene Girard's Violence of the Sacred) or like polluting agents (to use a term from Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger). Expelled from the High German conference of the Russlaender in the city, Koop and Bua can be seen as safely distanced and therefore reassuringly laughable. Satires, in Bogel's words, "ask us to meditate on the problematic intricacies of identification and difference by which we define our own identities and our relation to others of whom we cannot fully approve or disapprove" (46). Because this process is never finally completed, ambiguity is a central feature of great satire. The scapegoat, being one of us, is never fully expelled and the group is never finally purified.

Sarah Binks and the Invisible Mennonite Trickster

The satiric figure of an ethnic nostalgic grotesque can be seen as a trickster—a literary trope that has become increasingly prominent in North America. Writers such as Thomas King have made crafty use of the trickster as a means of resistance to old ways of constructing aboriginal identity. In an article called "Escape from the Bloody Theatre," I have suggested that we should think of our creative writers as tricksters of a sort. Alongside the Mennonite obsession with martyrdom, our writers also offer a celebration of the tricks need to survive—Menno himself being the big fish that got away. It was Ervin Beck who first drew attention to a Mennonite "tradition of trickster narratives" (58). He recounts a legend about Menno Simons that is explicitly etiological. The story goes that Menno was preaching in a barn, standing on a molasses barrel. Somebody shouted that the authorities were coming to arrest him. In his haste to get down, Menno sank into the vat of molasses. He would have left an easily followed trail, had not the women each taken a long lick of molasses from his hosen. Thus Menno eluded his pursuers and the story was afterwards told to children in Holland as an explanation for the Mennonite sweet tooth. A Dutch playing card game, Doopsgezind Kwartetspel (Mennonite Quartet Game), contains a card entitled Menniste Zoet (Mennonite Sweetness) depicting a buffoonish Menno in the molasses barrel (71). There is a tension in Mennonite writing between the desire to celebrate this sweet tooth of escape and the desire to celebrate martyrdom, and responses to this dilemma are as various as the number of writers. Individual authors write with varying degrees of distance from nostalgia and from their own ethnicity.

Koop and Bua are ethnic grotesques who exist only in Low German, and so their trickster skills are not accessible to non-Mennonite readers. A more available trickster is contained in Paul Hiebert's Sarah Binks (1947). Hiebert was a chemistry professor at the University of Manitoba and a Kanadier Mennonite who dashed off parodic poems for the amusement of his friends in the university common room. In response to the immense popularity of these poems, he eventually constructed a biographer who, in turn, is constructing the life of a poet, Sarah Binks. This structure became a handy place to string together the assorted poems he had written. The book has been canonized as a Canadian "classic," and Sarah Binks is Canada's most beloved good bad poet. As the "sweet songstress of Saskatchewan," however, she constitutes a parodic challenge to the very idea of a national literature. She is a version of the familiar figure (coming out of the Romantic period) of a rural bard who is idealized as a natural poet but whose embarrassing vulgarity undermines that ideal. Sarah Binks is a walking, writing example of Bakhtin's "egotistic form," pretending to be universal. Hiebert's achievement is to lead us through this parody towards a temporary dissolution of the ego.

There is nothing visible in Sarah Binks to identify it as a work by a Mennonite author. Al Reimer calls it an "isolated literary phenomenon" that can be "regarded only peripherally as ‘Mennonite'" (20). I want to argue here that the very invisibility of Hiebert's ethnicity contributes to the resonance of the work and that this invisibility is consistent with an aspect of the Mennonite trickster tradition defined by Ervin Beck. Beck traces that tradition to the "historic refusal to swear oaths" and the "concomitant emphasis on truth-telling in everyday affairs" (58). The story that most clearly encapsulates it is again a story about Menno Simons, an oral version of which Beck transcribes: "Menno was riding on a stagecoach one time and instead of being in the coach he was riding up front, up high, with the driver. And the authorities dashed up on horses to arrest Menno if they could find him. And they said, ‘Is Menno Simons in that coach?' And Menno turned around and yelled into the coach, ‘Is Menno Simons in there?' And they said, ‘No, he's not in here.' So Menno told the authorities, ‘They say Menno's not in the coach.' So he lived to die in bed" (67-8). Beck points to an essay in the 1868 issue of Doopsgezinde Bijdragen, in which J. G. de Hoop Scheffer cites this and seven other stories to explain why Dutch Mennonites were seen as deceptive. "To say a truth and to withhold a truth," write Scheffer, "and then especially to say half the truth and appear that the truth has been told completely; to evade the answer on a question and yet give the person who asks the impression that nothing is lacking in the answer—that is what non-Mennonites label with the term ‘Mennonite tricks'" (28).

Like irony in More's Utopia, the duplicity of a shape-shifting Mennonite may do more than ensure survival. Paul Hiebert's irony is very slippery indeed and worthy, in my view, of being seen in the context of the Mennonite trickster tradition. Many of Hiebert's poems are parodic translations in which the high in High German is brought low. Homage is implicitly paid to the original poets, to be sure, but the cumulative impact of the laughter is diminishment. The high pretensions of English literary scholars (then under the sway of New Criticism) are deflated. Although the humour is based on mistranslation, Low German does not enter the picture. Although it exists in a gap, conspicuous only to Mennonites by its absence, I am arguing that it is "understood" as the stable ground that Hiebert stands on in order to keep his balance.

His technique is not like that used by Rudy Wiebe to construct Frieda Friesen or like that used by Armin Wiebe in The Salvation of Yasch Siemens, but the comparison is instructive. In a manner resembling the technique of Thomas King, Armin Wiebe has found a way of conveying orality by writing a form of English that is always visibly shaped by Low German. Yasch Siemens, a Mennonite ethnic grotesque if ever there was one, is an accessible clown because he exists in a hybrid space that is made available to readers from other ethnicities. Wiebe's achievement is to Hiebert's as postmodernism is to modernism, but the literary lineage is apparent. I will venture to say that The Salvation of Yasch Siemens would not have been written if Sarah Binks had not been written first. It is not for nothing that Hiebert earned a doctorate in philology before going on to chemistry. The flatness of Low German is everywhere present in this text. With consummate skill, Hiebert punctures the view of Art as an essence that exists apart from the material world.

The high art of High German texts that are translated and performed by Sarah Binks come out flattened, plaut. Like the farmer Bua, Sarah is blocked by her Low German mother tongue from doing justice to the beauty of High German. Hiebert's parodies pay homage to the original texts while, at the same time, becoming places for a subtle interrogation of class. Perhaps most famous is Hiebert's direct oversetting of Heinrich Heine's "Du bist wie eine Blume":

You are like one flower,
So swell, so good, and clean,
I look you on and longing,
Slinks me the heart between. (40)

Many a Mennonite reader will respond to these lines by protesting: "Surely thou also art one of them, for thy speech betrayeth thee." Apparently not. Like Menno Simons, Hiebert was a trickster who got away.

Sarah Binks is considered a Canadian classic but few people know it was written by a Mennonite. The poems in it have been recited and performed. Eric Donkin did it in drag. I myself have three times persuaded a woman called Sush Funk to appear in public to fill in the gap where Low German is missing in the text. Sush is the product of a secret love affair between Sarah Binks and Walter de la Mare but was adopted by Mennonites and now lives in Pluetznaut, Manitouba. The text of Sarah Binks, in short, is alive and well—in no danger of going stale on the shelf. Paul Hiebert survived by hiding out in the open—an invisible Mennonite trickster, both concealing and revealing his identity.

Arnold Dyck and Paul Hiebert—one Russlaender and one Kanadier—are literary ancestors for Mennonites writing today. Only Hiebert, however, has had an influence both inside and outside his own ethnic group. The long Canadian parade of literary clowns of varying ethnicities goes back to Paul Hiebert, who provided a model for the performance of a dynamic identity that is always in motion because the individual clown is always located within a community. Hiebert's achievement was to keep in balance the forces of attraction and repulsion that Bogel has identified as central to satire.

Schluss: Laughter and the Desire for Community

Other clowns are clamouring for attention even as this essay comes to a close. Confronted with this embarrassment of riches, I see no need to cave in to nostalgia as I come now to some conclusions regarding community. As long as the new technology raises such intriguing possibilities for renewing connections with older oral cultures, all is not lost. The persistent dilemma that must be confronted and is never resolved is the question of how to imagine community without excluding or shunning those who are not part of the community. The reality, of course, is that somebody is always left out. Even in Shakespeare's romantic comedies, there is always some Jacques who cannot be embraced.

Fortified by laughter, however, at the sheer absurdity of our efforts to intellectualize this human condition, it may still be possible to contemplate community within an electronic culture. It is laughter that helps us to resist the powerful undertow that is always pulling us backwards into an idealized past that never existed. The connection between primary orality and the secondary orality of our electronic culture was celebrated by Marshall McLuhan, but my experience with Koop and Bua tells me that the connection remains problematic in ways that speak to how we imagine community. Is it possible that within our electronic culture we could somehow recover the folk laughter that Bakhtin celebrates? Can cyberspace become a location for affirming an ethnic identity, or does it become a place for the construction of a new kind of community? These large questions are constantly debated.

In The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Howard Rheingold celebrates a "computerized counterculture" that is liberating because it makes possible "alternate identities." Others have cautioned that a virtual community is no community at all because the absence of a physical location eliminates ethical responsibility. In Community in the Digital Age, Andrew Feenberg and Darin Barney have collected essays that explore these issues, asking questions about whether networking contributes to or detracts from community. I hope that I have shown that these larger issues can be domesticated if we focus on our particular experience with our mother tongue.

In her exploration of the peasant roots of Anabaptism, Di Brandt notes that Martin Heidegger preceded her in looking to early Anabaptism "for inspiration in reconceptualizing our human place on earth in the throes of violent modernity" and that his call for revolution invokes an Anabaptist "celebration of orality and rhapsodic poetry." Brandt quotes a line from Anne Carson's "Canicula di Anna": "Heidegger, ja, liked farmers very much." The interpolation of the German word for yes is ironic in Carson's poem, which, in Brandt's words, is "a witty parody of a contemporary European philosopher's conference" (129).

The first thing that came to my mind in response to her ja was a memory of how my father, while preaching, used to repeat the phrase Jawohl, meine Lieben (Yes indeed, my beloved) and of how my sisters and I used to punctuate our laughing conversations with jawohls. The next thing that came to mind was to wonder, not whether Heidegger would have liked Koop and Bua, but whether they would have liked him. What would Bua have made of this conference if he had blundered in? Di Brandt's response to Carson's line is quite different. She concludes that Heidegger "would have liked us, I think, practising our version of immediacy and immanence on the Canadian prairies stubbornly, wild-mindedly, far from our ancestral lands in Europe" (128-129). Although I share an existentialist bias with Pink Elephant Di, the difference between her response and mine in this case is the result, I believe, of the fact that I continue to exist in three languages and continue to struggle with the resulting acts of translation.

I am one of those for whom Heidegger's unapologetic fascism and his prolonged silence about the Holocaust loom as something monstrous. It does not follow that I think his philosophy is inherently fascistic, but it does mean that I approach his views on community with great caution. It is increasingly impossible to avoid coming to terms with Heidegger on this subject, and this is especially so in Canada, where the idea of home is constantly problematized by writers coming from all over the world. Heidegger's thinking about "dwelling" strikes a chord similar to the one struck by Freud's notion of the unheimlich (uncanny). As a result of the influence of his disciple, Jacques Derrida, Heidegger's ideas resonate deep and wide in contemporary theory. The opacity of his prose is punctuated with German words that stick like velcro. I myself used the word mitsein in an article on Alice Munro (39) to suggest a being together that is not identification but rather a comfortable acceptance of recognizable difference. What may account for Heidegger's appeal is the fact that his erotic images of home and community were a response to fears about technology. Although he died in 1976, before the invention of the computer gave substance to Heidegger's idea of the "language machine," Heim calls him the "father of information anxiety" (86). According to Heim, Heidegger saw technology as "the root evil of the twentieth century…including the Nazi German catastrophe" (55).

Confronted with the centrality of Heidegger in Brandt's passionate essay on Mennonite identity, I assigned myself the task of reading Heidegger's essay, "The Question Concerning Technology." What I came away with was a strong sense of nostalgia that, when translated into ordinary English, sounds very familiar. Our "hearing and seeing," writes Heidegger, "are perishing through radio and film under the rule of technology" so that we do not hear and see (34). The language echoes the Bible. Matthew, Mark and Luke all report Jesus admonishing his listeners: "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear" (Mark 4:9). Matthew (13:14) identifies the speech as a fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy: "Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not" (Isaiah 6:9).

Far be it from Heidegger (despite his early training as a Catholic) to note that a phrase from the Bible has come unbidden to mind. Instead, he strains to define the essence of poetry as a place from which to judge technology. The "essence of technology," for Heidegger, comes down to an affirmation of a particular way of looking at art. "[T]he more questioningly we ponder the essence of technology, the more mysterious the essence of art becomes" (35). As against the dangers of technology, Heidegger posits poiesis. "Once there was a time, " he writes, "when the bringing forth of the beautiful was also called techne. And the poiesis of the fine arts was also called techne" (34). For Heidegger this nostalgia remained connected to his sense of lost opportunities in Germany. Once there was a time, indeed. Jawohl.

Brandt makes the qualifying point that what was wrong with "the Nazi vision" was not the "desire for more embodied ways of living on the earth" but "their attempt to impose a locally informed vision violently and absolutely on the rest of the world" (131). It is true, of course, that the most repugnant human beings can give voice to profound truths in philosophy. That said, I still cannot enter into the pleasure that Brandt takes from thinking that Heidegger, ja, would like Mennonite farmers.

In the conclusion to her essay, Brandt urges that "we need to relearn the practice of honouring local loyalties and specific ancestries more fiercely, and more dialogically, one alongside the other" (132 ). What I want to do here is to underline the word "dialogically" but to insist that we cannot achieve dialogue by romanticizing oral culture or by minimizing the dangers that come with a German-centered nostalgic understanding of community. Susan Stewart has termed nostalgia "the social disease of our time" (23). In my experience of literature I have found no better medicine for that disease than laughter. Brandt follows Heidegger in putting forward the poet as a heroic figure warding off the dangers of technology. If you dressed this poet up in the costume of a clown, maybe coloured her pink or red, then I would go along with that. The possibility of comedy and the appeal of the playful are situated for me at the heart of art, right alongside the earnest and the tragic.

Art, furthermore, is not a mysterious essence that we have to strain mightily to understand. It is right down there on the plaut level, part of the nitty-gritty of life itself in all its variety. To adapt the words of W.B. Yeats, art is down there "where all the ladders start, / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart" (392).

In her book on laughter, Diane D. Davis, like Brandt, invokes Heidegger's notion of community and relates it to his theories about technology. Using Heidegger's language, Davis paints a picture of human beings as tranquilized by technology. Community is the result of "humanist arrogance" if we think that we can produce it. Instead, she argues, community is something that happens randomly, something you cannot escape. This sounds like what Mennonites call Gelassenheit, a religious experience for Christians and not available by acquiescence to the forces of technological change. Davis struggles to find a way to achieve mitsein within a secular, technological environment, and her route to it is laughter. The "very basis of community is our finitude," she argues. We should not despair but rather "laugh with the laughter-in-technology" (205).

The tendency towards quietism here is itself disquieting. Laughter itself, to be sure, is involuntary. Not so the art that makes us laugh. I prefer to opt for a constructivist approach that acknowledges the importance of human agency. I see the figure of the ethnic nostalgic grotesque as something constructed to evoke laughter and thus resist nostalgia. Ethnocentric separateness and nostalgia are posed and exaggerated, the better to reject them. Although the Mennonite version of that figure tends to be rural, I hope that my examination of particular clowns has demonstrated that our literary history does not support the image of Mennonite peasants as set apart from technology in a romanticized past that we need to recreate or reclaim. There is no going back. What there remains, as Finnegan has argued, is a constantly changing interaction of orality and literacy. The ethnic grotesques that people our fiction are places where we can examine and interrogate the issue of power and the different ways of constructing community.

Had I time and space, I could introduce you to many another ethnic clown. But, as we used to say, Schluss mutt senne—an end there must be. Let me pick up the text of my Bluffton paper one last time to see how it ends. I began with a mock sermon, but I see that I ended by pointing to a parade of Mennonite clowns. There they go: Koop and Bua. Sarah Binks. Yasch Siemens. Sush Funk. Tante Tina.

You get the idea already, yes?

The cock is about to crow, so I'll stop there.

It was not only for lack of time that I chose to make light of Peter's betrayal. I think I was trying to say that wallowing in guilt may prevent us from seeing and recognizing ourselves in the distorted glass that good art puts before us. Not that we can escape guilt. As Mennonite people we are guilty, for example, of our part in the dispossession of aboriginal people. Rudy Wiebe, David Bergen and Armin Wiebe do well to write about those aboriginal cultures in a way that challenges the boundaries that keep us locked in our guilt. Seeing ourselves in the grotesque figures constructed by writers of all ethnicities and laughing at ourselves—that way lies community. Not that we can escape our own ethnicity. We are constantly betraying it, in both senses of that word. Guilt about our betrayals, however, can ironically become a self-indulgent and self-absorbing disease for which, once again, laughter is the best medicine.

The conclusion of my argument is not a recipe for salvation from the onslaught of technology. I am recommending, instead, an inversion of the traditional Mennonite stance of withdrawal from the world. Resistance and dissent can come only from within that world. If Donna Harraway was right to conceive of technology as the belly of a monster, it is not a monster from which we can be expelled, as Jonah was from the whale. We can no more escape it than Frankenstein could escape the creature he himself had constructed. If it is true that Heidegger thought technology caused Nazi Germany, he was quite wrong. It would make more sense to blame fear of technology—or, more specifically, anxiety about who controls the technology.

Unfortunately, in the light of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories after 911, it is all too easy to see where such anxiety can lead. Far better to accept that we are all, willy-nilly, surrounded by the electronic culture, hopelessly tangled up in it. There is no return back to some peasant Eden or forward to some digital city of the internet. What else is there to do but laugh at ourselves as we struggle in this entangling web? What more can we do than be grateful that we are all in this together?

I do not deny that I mourn for the loss of my mother tongue and that I share the sehnsucht of those who long for community. What I desire, however, is not a community of harmony but rather one where differences are acknowledged and where hostile egos are dissolved by laughter. I realize that I may seem to be making outrageous claims for a comic vision, but they are not really claims. They are more in the nature of a concession, at the outset, that we will fail in the end. This kind of failure, like the fall of a clown on a banana peel, restores us briefly to humility and humanity. Like a character in a novel by Milan Kundera, I happily envision a time when "Things will lose ninety percent of their meaning and will become light. In such a weight-less environment fanaticism will disappear. War will become impossible" (121).

I envision this time happily because I know it will never happen. The knowledge of inevitable failure brings me back down to earth, which is a good place for love and for speaking your mother tongue. That's a vision of pacifism that I can live with, and it goes back to Socratic wisdom. If we can gather in groups of two or three or more, whether in cyberspace or in Bluffton, and abandon ourselves to shared laughter at our own foolishness, that is community enough for me. Jawohl.

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About the Author

Magdalene Redekop

Magdalene Redekop retired in 2008 after teaching English at the University of Toronto for 35 years. She was born and raised in a rural Mennonite community in southern Manitoba, part of the 1870s immigration from Ukraine. Redekop's publications include Mothers and Other Clowns: The Stories of Alice Munro (1992) and a biography of Ernest Thompson Seton (1979). She has published articles on Mennonite culture and is at work on a book entitled Making Believe: Mennonites and the Crisis of Representation. Redekop sometimes performs comic monologues in the persona of "Sush Funk," a Plautdietsch-inflected Mennonite woman. See this video.