Navigations of Ethics and Heaviness in Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight

by Hannah Story-Brown // Columbia College ’19


Schwer—the German word for heavy, difficult—is known to be scrawled in the margins of certain musical scores, composed by Mahler and Beethoven among others. It is both instruction and description: play this heavily, it emerges out of heaviness. One of those crumbs of culture with enough affect to be memorable, it is the type of tidbit to worm its way into conversation. Or so it becomes in Michael Ondaatje’s 2018 novel Warlight, in which schwer enters the characters’ common language, after being imparted as though a moral lesson to the narrator Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel. Nathaniel and Rachel are teenagers in London in 1945. They come of age amidst the immediate aftermath of World War II, in a city still glazed with the residue of fear. In this stunned postwar interregnum, Nathaniel and Rachel’s parents disappear, leaving them in the care of an enigmatic man they call The Moth. A great music lover, The Moth spends the nights listening to Schumann’s Mein Herz ist Schwer (My Heart is Heavy) on their parents’ gramophone, and tells Nathaniel and Rachel of Mahler’s schwer as a kind of warning: they need to prepare for the sudden emergence of the schwer in their lives, for “those times exist for all of us,” and they must “accept that nothing was safe anymore” (32). Schwer is The Moth’s language for the postwar condition of instability, and his lesson inculcates in Nathaniel a constant awareness of possible danger. Throughout his life, the schwer becomes a sort of lodestone around which Nathaniel’s personal credo develops. Out of the schwer comes what I will call an ethics of heaviness; a practiced ethics which emerges out of Nathaniel’s reckoning with the intercessions of the schwer in his life. For the upset of the schwer jeopardizes sense and meaning, and so demands rewitnessing, in order to be assimilated into the narrative of one’s life. 

The Motif of Return

Warlight noticeably deviates from the postcolonial themes of many of Michael Ondaatje’s novels. Anil’s Ghost (2000) and The Cat’s Table (2011) tell stories of emigration and displacement, their main characters traversing the Atlantic between Sri Lanka and Britain. Of all of Ondaatje’s novels, Warlight’s European, postwar contextmost immediately resembles that of The English Patient (1992). The four main characters of The English Patient cross paths in an abandoned villa following the Italian Campaign between 1943 and 1945. The subtle and then shattering postcolonial politics of The English Patient have for a stage the intimacy of white Canadian nurse Hana and Kirpal Singh, a Sikh sapper. An irreparable act on a transnational scale—the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—intrudes irremediably on their love. “They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation,” Kip tells Hana, and feels a chasm open between them (The English Patient 287). He directly chooses to return to India. A number of motifs particular to The English Patient are also present in Warlight, but it is this last act of Kip’s—the act of return—which unites both novels with the majority of Ondaatje’s works. Christopher McVey has observed this continuity among Ondaatje’s earlier novels, arguing that “Ondaatje’s work frequently incorporates a countervailing desire to return, to reclaim, and to bear witness to the historical and national worlds from which his characters emerge” (142). Postcolonial literature, it hardly needs said, has an intrinsic investment in (re)turning eyes to the past, and this orientation takes many shapes: to archives, to memories, in politics of redress, in acts of recovery. The prefix “re-” aptly enfolds both “backwards” and “again,” so conveying the hope that backwards motion might facilitate even partially a do-over, a restitution to something fuller. While Ondaatje’s novels vary in socio-political context, they predominately share this preoccupation with return. In Warlight, Nathaniel’s preoccupation has the schwer as its seed. 

We might take the ubiquity of this theme across Ondaatje’s novels as an invitation to investigate its power to illuminate. Metaphors of light and sight seem apt, for Nathaniel calls his project of return—investigating the events of his past—one of “rewitnessing” (114). Warlight is temporally split between Nathaniel’s teenage years and a period, over a decade later, when he returns to reflect on and investigate the seminal events of his youth. The possibility of the schwer haunts his adolescence, and its aftermath haunts his adulthood. In his obsessive efforts to make sense of his past, Nathaniel grapples head-on with the schwer, and with his culpability in events that unfolded after the war and altered numerous lives. Addressing a “you” which implicates the reader in a hypothetically universal position, Nathaniel articulates his project: 

You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing. (114)

Considering this “you” to whom Nathaniel speaks, we glean insight into one way in which Nathaniel’s practice of rewitnessing differs from those of Ondaatje’s postcolonial subjects. He considers his fixation one with universal rather than particular, historical origins; whether or not this supposition is accurate, it is of personal import to Nathaniel that his presumed audience be broad, even anonymous. This is well in line with the social world which enculturates Nathaniel, where people are anonymous, incognito (16); go by code-names and nom-de-plumes (131, 73); and disappear with little warning (6). As narrator, if he is to feel connection with an imagined community of readers, it must be one as nameless and transitory as the community with which he seeks reconnection. Addressing a “you” he imagines empathizing with his project, Nathaniel conjures an audience capable of sustaining emotional ties. In this imagining there is implicit his hope of recovering ties to his lost community. 

If we are to take the intimacy cultivated between a reader and a character as, in its ideal form, approaching that of interpersonal intimacy, then the reader-character relation too has stakes in the ground of ethics. Intimacy is furthered on mutual ground, and falters in inconsistency. The reader is necessarily invested in their relation to a character, particularly when placed within the private world of another’s mind—and when but in literature are we given such entry? So this effort to uncover the scaffolding of Nathaniel’s ethical framework, implicated as we are within his story, unveils the terms of our relation to him even as it exposes a separate truth of his own. We instinctively imbue narratives with life, imagining them as we do each other to be whole and have integrity. What then emerges from a relation with Nathaniel? This query does not imply that a novel has one, stable, instructive message—the relation between reader and text is not so unilateral. Rather, Nathaniel’s subtly dialogic first-person account entrusts him to the reader, and this sets us up to glean from him, among other things, an ethics arising from his interpersonal relations, with implication for our own.

Interpersonal Ethics 

Nathaniel’s social sphere is not without ethics, though his guardians all operate to some degree outside the law. Alongside The Moth, Nathaniel and Rachel’s other main guardian is The Darter, who smuggles greyhounds into London on his river barge. The criminality of the circle of adults who surround Nathaniel and Rachel varies: while The Moth’s wartime espionage was sanctioned by the government, The Darter’s smuggling is an individual venture. Yet it is clear that the war brought them all together through the exercising of their marginal agency. Nathaniel describes them as “busy, argumentative souls who, having at one time legally crossed some boundary during the war, were now suddenly told they could no longer cross it during peace” (35). If criminal desire might be divided between the desire for power over others, and the desire for autonomy of self, then the criminals of Warlight undoubtedly fall into the latter camp. The war had allowed for a lifting of certain barriers of access and activity, which could not so easily be re-erected. For the citizens it mobilized in covert action, it enculturated a lasting secrecy: “all of them abid[ed] by the secrecy of their roles, even when the war was over” (267). In the war’s spent aftermath, Nathaniel observes that while “the city still felt wounded, uncertain of itself…it allowed one to be rule-less” (34). As a teenager, he is elated by this temporary freedom and elasticity of order: “the illegal world felt more magical than dangerous to me” (99). Yet The Moth warns him that this liminal space is bounded always by the prospect of the schwer: “The Moth kept reminding us still of schwer and to prepare for serious times. But I skated over and ignored what might be heavy” (99). In the course of his rewitnessing, Nathaniel belatedly returns to the unseen heaviness in his youth, his narrative punctuated by questions he poses to himself in self-examination. “In retrospect,” he observes, “Rachel and I were not too different in our anonymity from the dogs with their fictional papers,” recalling how he aided in smuggling The Darter’s anonymous greyhounds. “Like them we had broken free, adapting to fewer rules, less order. But who had we become?” (97-8; emphasis mine). Posing himself such a question, he is compelled to recall the seminal influences on his becoming. The cast of characters is small, but includes beside his family and guardians two important women: Agnes and Olive Lawrence. 

To tell the story of Nathaniel and Agnes is to gesture vaguely towards the ways it may surprise. From the initial ingredients of their love story—secrecy, law-breaking, first sexual experiences—one might catch the scent of danger. It would be unsurprising if a young woman stumbled away, hurt. They deviate from this mold, in ways fascinating to parse. His accountability in this early relationship is like an encrusted gem that takes him decades to excavate and polish. They meet at work, Agnes a waitress, Nathaniel in the kitchens; she sneaks keys to emptied houses from her brother working in real estate, and they rendezvous in these anonymous homes. Like The Darter’s unpedigreed greyhounds, like reeling postwar London, these homes are a blank slate, where anything could happen. But Nathaniel does not take advantage of this license as a chance to act without consequence. He senses the traumatic possibilities of their burgeoning romance: “What I knew of passion was still an abstract thing, layered with hurdles and rules I did not yet know. What was just and what was unjustified?” (65) But he affirms, carefully, that “there was no submission” (65). Power does not dictate their exchange. In nakedness, in bare rooms, Nathaniel and Agnes discover themselves stripped of illusions, among them any illusion of power over one another. “We lie defenceless, without furniture,” he explains, “without even an alibi for what we are doing there” (71). The paradox of a rule-less state is how easily it can be taken advantage of; and yet how it can allow for openness, reinvention. For Nathaniel and Agnes, at least for a while, the coin falls on the generative rather than the dangerous side.

There is an apex to the magic: a night of intimacy which surpasses the romantic, and whatever bounds even their freewheeling romance had circumscribed. Nathaniel brings the smuggled greyhounds along when meeting Agnes, and the dogs introduce an unknown dimension of love. Nathaniel remembers it as “a sacred moment in my life”: when “car lights filled a window and I saw Agnes naked to the waist with a hound hanging off her hip as she lifted it down to a lower landing, the one we had discovered was nervous of stairs” (92). He holds on to this memory, labels it “Agnes, with dog” (92). The dogs catalyze an enervating experience of intimacy: “these animals were our longed-for life, our wished-for company, a wild unnecessary essential unforgotten human moment” (92). Agnes and Nathaniel spend the night holding each other and the dogs, and when he wakes, he feels the dog’s paw on his forehead as “either as a gesture of careful compassion or superiority. It felt like wisdom” (93). For the first time, he wonders where the dogs are from. “Where are you from?” He asks. “Will you tell me?” (93) His night of intimate proximity to the dogs awakens in him a sudden, urgent interest in their lives. Whether it is right that compassion should emerge so smoothly out of proximity, when it falters in remove—so it does. Years later, detached from the people who once made up his world, Nathaniel scrabbles to regain that proximity, and the compassionate understanding that comes with it. These relationships have accruing impact on Nathaniel, through the practices of attentiveness and deliberate remembering that he cultivated in their stead. Their horizontality, all sleeping soundly on the bare floor of a borrowed house, enacts the equality as well as the precarity of his and Agnes’ relationship, feelings which come to inform too the emergent empathy he feels towards the greyhounds. 

The wordless wisdom Nathaniel received from the greyhound has its spoken counterpart in a lesson bestowed by Olive Lawrence. She is an ethnographer whom Nathaniel meets while she briefly dates The Darter, and in his mother’s absence, she makes a particularly deep impression. Indeed, his later effort of rewitnessing seems to stem directly out of words she imparted to him. One night, Olive Lawrence takes Rachel and Nathaniel on a walk through the forest, and instructs them to listen for the “high C’s and D’s” of the singing crickets: from their fervent pitch and volume, she gathers that “it feels like an important night for them” (57). She turns this into a lesson: “Remember that. Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing” (57). This striking lesson in empathy, straining to perceive the notes of the crickets’ songs, teaches Nathaniel that his story is but one; walking among the crickets, it is clear how in that moment their stories intersect. Awakened by Olive Lawrence to how his story is “just one” of many, as an adult Nathaniel makes it his mission to retrace his steps, and uncover the stories in which he played an unknowing part. Her lesson prompts him to recognize that his own schwer, the heaviness of what he suffers, intersects with what weighs down other lives.  

Olive Lawrence’s lesson in empathy may well exemplify a successful “education of emotion” of the kind that Martha Nussbaum explicates in her essay “Compassion and Terror”. After examining the differing strengths and pitfalls of natural compassion and notions of human dignity to each compel ethical action, Nussbaum turns to argue for “not the extirpation of compassion, then, but its extension and education” (24). While a flaw in the mechanism of compassion is its partiality, Nussbaum perceives that the idea of intrinsic human dignity at times licenses quietism, and fails to agitate for material justice (20). She argues then for a practice of compassion that incorporates self-reflection to avoid myopia: “the education of emotion, to succeed at all, needs to take place in a culture of ethical criticism, and especially self-criticism” (25). The axis of this education of emotion, to Nussbaum, should be “an education in common human weakness and vulnerability” (24). The Moth’s warning of the prospect of the schwer—reminding Nathaniel that suffering comes for all of us—is such an education in vulnerability, though it is an education that Nathaniel resists in his youth. Olive Lawrence’s lesson about empathy is more immediately resonant to young Nathaniel, who vows in regards to his memories of her: “I will not forget” (59). Indeed, years later he recalls: “In the brief time I knew her, I believed Olive Lawrence was on my side. I stood there and was perceived” (264). Nussbaum would appreciate Olive Lawrence’s lesson of perception emerging from attunement to the lives of crickets. She thinks it imperative that animal lives are included in one’s breadth of compassion. Asserting that children should be given tools to “decode the suffering of others,” Nussbaum imagines that “decoding should deliberately lead them into lives both near and far, including the lives of distant humans and the lives of animals” (24). Olive Lawrence is one of the first to push Nathaniel towards the effort of decoding others. Holding to this scrap of wisdom, “the self is not the principal thing,” Nathaniel wonders: “Will all of them who have remained incomplete and lost to me become clear and evident when I look back? Otherwise how do we survive that forty miles of bad terrain during adolescence that we crossed without any truthful awareness of ourselves?” (114) He is interested in what sort of relational knowledge is accessible through retrospection. He wonders about its redemptive capacity. Yet whatever traces may be found, they do not mitigate his culpability in what he first stumbled blindly through. 

Still—how much can he be held accountable for that of which he was ignorant? It is fitting that this postwar novel, however small its social sphere, engages with a question central to the politics of reparation. Who bears what burdens of consequence? Whose consciences should be heavy, and what is that weight for? Mahler’s schwer was a weight that demanded its expression, and an audience’s witnessing. The Moth warned Nathaniel of the schwer to educate him in human precarity, inadvertently making him a tragic spectator suitable for Mahler’s audience. Yet as he couldn’t properly bear the truth of the schwer in mind before it occurred, Nathaniel is forced into rewitnessing. This is less a character flaw than an insight into inexperience, for no one can properly anticipate the unseen. Determining the ethical choice, and then taking action upon it, are always interrupted by unknown variables; perhaps it is tempting to throw in the towel, for those who feel threatened by such an opaque equation. It is remarkable that Nathaniel is not. Sifting through the past for his buried responsibility is Nathaniel’s way of finding his future place among people. Yet while he puts such a premium on the emancipatory power of knowledge, the novel reminds time and time again of the partiality of knowledge and agency. 

In Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler articulates the difficulty of ethical action “neither fully determined nor radically free,” and bound to “struggle with the unchosen conditions of one’s life” (19). She points to our condition of inextricable relation as the reason we are not fully knowable to ourselves, and yet notes that our points of unawareness do not excuse us from responsibility for them. “Indeed,” she writes, “if it is precisely by virtue of one’s relations to others that one is opaque to oneself, and if those relations to others are the venue for one’s ethical responsibility, then it may well follow that it is precisely by virtue of the subject’s opacity to itself that it incurs and sustains some of its most important ethical bonds” (20). Like Nussbaum’s compassion, Butler’s ethics strain towards knowledge while recognizing its inevitable incompleteness. This is the conclusion at which Nathaniel also arrives: “We order our lives with barely held stories,” he observes at the novel’s close, “in order to survive, incomplete” (284-5). Still, there is work to be done, gathering those fragments, for one’s relations demand it. Even in a world temporarily unbounded by law, Nathaniel feels the pull of his empathic and ethical bonds. It is these which compel him years later to return. 

Return to the Schwer 

When the schwer arrives, it comes in the form of chloroform: Nathaniel and his sister are kidnapped by Fascist sympathizers. “The schwer, I’d have thought if I had been conscious,” Nathaniel narrates (115). Now the kidnapping is quickly foiled by English intelligence operatives, among them their reappeared mother, The Darter, and The Moth. It becomes clear that their mother was a government spy who remained embroiled in covert action abroad after the war (152), and they were targeted by her enemies. While this revelation brings a new level of truth to his relationship with his mother, the attack wrenches him out of his previous life. So this new knowledge obscures the rest, as his contact with The Moth, The Darter, Agnes and others is severed. The years following feel like “wilderness” to Nathaniel (123), and the second half of the novel opens on him emerging out of this wilderness to take up the unfinished business of the past. He is offered a job, like his mother, in British Intelligence; he thinks they value “the possibly inherited quality of secrecy” (130). His work is to review the secret records of wartime and postwar activities, “assessing what had been successfully achieved against what had perhaps gone wrong, in order to make recommendations as to what might need to be re-archived or now eradicated. This was referred to as The Silent Correction” (132). Nathaniel takes this job “as a way of discovering what my mother had been up to during the period she left us,” (131) but inadvertently contributes to the destruction of evidence by his government, “so revisionist histories could begin” (133). Akin to how his mother’s reemergence had cut off his previous connections, this new knowledge comes at the price of its own destruction. In this novel, when knowledge is actively pursued, its inevitable partiality rises up as an active force in turn, thwarting his efforts. Yet there is still room for partial agency: while “a minor anarchy was still in me,” (146) Nathaniel begins to sneak away with top-secret files, to follow his mother’s trace in history without having then to erase it.

His work in the archives, and the scant information he pries from his recalcitrant mother, lead to a number of personal realizations: that The Moth “had cared for us more than I realized” (155); that a fellow spy, Arthur McCash, “had kept our mother informed about us” (ibid); that “I was unaware of the protection I was being given” (162). He begins to see the toll of that protection only years later when his mother reveals that The Moth died saving Nathaniel and Rachel from their attackers (258). Nathaniel grows frantic to uncover his mother’s past, and along with it his own, for “it was not just my mother’s past that had become buried and anonymous. I felt I too had disappeared” (145). He eventually realizes that he would “have to love my mother in order to understand who she now was and what she had really been” (170). “This was difficult,” he admits, for she refuses to share her stories, hoping to shield Nathaniel from her past (170). Arthur McCash too refuses to share in what he calls Nathaniel’s “repast” (154). Even so, Nathaniel watches his mother closely, trying to ascertain what makes her happy; how other people see her; what she loves. After her death, he asks himself question after question about her, trying to recover any new truth of her, but realizes “I’d lost her living voice” (188). Her death seems to foreclose further recovery until he is given the task of translating an interrogation from Italian. The Englishman under interrogation talks circuitously of a woman he knew and loved to distract his interrogator; that woman, Nathaniel realizes, is his mother. 

What follows in the novel is a striking imaginative endeavor, as Nathaniel dreams into narrative form his mother’s relationship with this man, Marsh Felon. “Facts, dates, my official and unofficial research fell away and were replaced by the gradual story, half dreamed, of my mother and Marsh Felon” (229). The chapters that follow are half-dream, half-history, as Nathaniel breathes new life into his mother’s story. It is a remarkable project in empathy, for a son who had once struggled to love his mother in her hardened privacy. It is clear that his early lessons in compassion remain, and shape him, though the schwer had knocked him into a prolonged sense of unreality and “wilderness.” In the silent years between the two halves of this narrative, Nathaniel “avoided the schwer,” feared confrontation, and “retreated from arguments” (164). When he finally chooses to confront the schwer, it takes the shape of this return. He realizes that destiny is not something to be taken passively as though immutable, and seeks to reconnect with The Darter, The Moth, and Agnes, “who might fade from my life unless I acted, insisted. Because that was what fate was” (178). His rewitnessing of his mother’s story bore real fruit: he was able to love and know her better, to give new life to her buried history. This partial success buoys him to seek out what he’s called “that remarkable table full of strangers” (144), a table at which he was first placed without a choice. 

There remains something deeply equivocal about the operations of knowledge and agency in this final chapter of Warlight. Even the effort of return, retracing one’s footprints, is a kind of covering up insofar as new footprints obscure the old. So the love story revealed between Marshal Felon and his mother casts his parent’s relationship further into shadow. And what Nathaniel comes to discover about The Darter and Agnes forever alters their memory. When he tracks down The Darter, to sit again after so many years at the same table, Nathaniel is disconcerted by his coldness: he “kept placing obstacles on the road back to our past, that wouldn’t allow me to reach it, though he could see that was why I had come” (270). Nathaniel is deeply dismayed by how The Darter “did not wish me in any way to understand what I had done, with my quick and unwarned disappearance those years ago” (273). At first he doesn’t understand why The Darter would inhibit his project of recovery, particularly as Nathaniel is interested in recovering his own culpability: “above all, most of all,” he wants to know: “how much damage did I do?” (274). Though The Darter won’t tell him, the truth begins to unravel before him nonetheless. 

Nathaniel discovers in The Darter’s bathroom a framed piece of cloth embroidered by The Darter’s wife, and knows the embroidered sentence from something Agnes used to say (274). Along with the embroidered date of her child’s birth, that sentence allows Nathaniel to piece together her story; after all his practice filling in the gaps of his personal history, “I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth” (276). Nathaniel had unknowingly gotten Agnes pregnant shortly before he disappeared, and The Darter and Agnes married in order to take care her child. This glimpse into the extent of his culpability of which he had not been aware is staggering: one life created, and two lives irreparably changed. “A landslide, from a simple stitched sentence” (275). The intimacy of Nathaniel and Agnes was one of remarkable equality, and yet he inadvertently caused the staggering foreclosure of her possibilities. The novel’s refusal to make their relationship one of deliberate violence sheds light on violence’s many forms, and the many degrees of remove at which consequence plays out. If “what I am now was formed,” as Nathaniel reflects, “by how I got here” (274), then the question becomes—how do I know how I got here? And “who did I hurt to get here?” (274). This is the burden of rewitnessing: any return to the past alters the future. As Nathaniel writes himself backwards, he writes himself forwards, and stitching together the past opens up “a wound [so] great you cannot turn it into something that is spoken, it can barely be written” (275). Warlight, Nathaniel’s narrative, is this wound barely written, the amassed and yet partial evidence of a life and its consequence. It is all he can muster, but reaching the limits of his effort does not pacify or excuse: it only testifies, in the senses of offering both evidence and credo. Bearing witness and facing the schwer is Nathaniel’s guiding principle, and what I call his “ethics of heaviness”. For fidelity to his relations means accepting their necessary weight. 

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham Press, 2005.

McVey, Christopher. “Reclaiming the Past: Michael Ondaatje and the Body of History.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 141-160.

Nussbaum, Martha. “Compassion and Terror.” Daedalus, vol. 132, no. 1, pp. 10-26.

Ondaatje, Michael. Warlight. Alfred. A Knopf, 2018.