Swans Commentary » swans.com April 7, 2014  



Cold Quebec's Boiling Point


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - April 7, 2014)   In 1962, Edmund Wilson, the foremost American literary critic of the twentieth century, went to Canada to take the measure of the cultural scene. His findings would go into several New Yorker articles. He admitted he hadn't been comprehensive and that the writers he read and discussed were his personal choice. In 1966 he brought the material together in a book, O Canada, An American's Notes on Canadian Culture. ("O Canada" is the Canadian national anthem.) The book isn't on the same level as the studies that made his reputation. He was almost seventy. However, his remarks on the books he did read were always pertinent and his cosmopolitan weighing up of the Canadian culture acute despite all he left out.

Wilson summed up the Canada of books in his usual forthright way:

The English writing of Canada is scattered all across the continent; it has no center, no organic development. In French Canada, on the other hand, the literature has kept pace with the nationalist cause, and it is evidently taken more seriously than its English speaking neighbors take theirs. The tone of an English Canadian writing on English Canadian literature is likely to be 'Well, perhaps we ought to take stock and find out what we've really got'; the tone of a French Canadian writing on his is one of almost anguished solicitude.

Now it was precisely his anxious and solicitous commitment to literary values impacted by social and political forces that always made Wilson relevant. It was inevitable that he found the drama and conflicts of Quebec more compelling than the somnolent disconnection of the rest of Canada. He had a long familiarity bordering on love with the culture of France, whose writers he had analyzed in his major works. English Canada could scarcely hold his attention. Toronto, not yet energized by mixed immigration, appeared to bore him. He submitted the writers Morely Callaghan and Hugh MacLennan to his New York reviewer's scrutiny, talked about the Scottish influence, which intrigued him, and turned his thoughts to Quebec.

Wilson's admirable curiosity went along with a sense of superiority that could be irritating. He issued not only from Ivy League patricians but from "the greatest generation" that returned from "the good war" to an America at the height of its domination. His tone was often patronizing, but French Canadians were used to that. It usually came from the European French, and Quebecers were gratified simply to be noticed by an eminent American litterateur. O Canada was marketed as the first critical study to survey both French and English language Canadian books. Wilson's lackadaisical enquiry combined the self-centeredness of both New York and Paris. (He had found London prickly.) Always susceptible to exoticism, he saw just enough in Quebec to be comfortable. He would not run into opposition as when he would try to interpret Pushkin to Vladimir Nabokov or the Dead Sea Scrolls to Hebrew scholars.

Quebec's so-called Révolution tranquille or Quiet Revolution, had got under way just before Wilson wrote. It started with the death of Maurice Duplessis, Provincial prime minister for all but five years from 1936 to his death in 1959. There were reasons why his era was called La Grande Noirceur, or The Great Darkness. Duplessis headed a powerful, patronage-based political machine that promoted social conservatism and free enterprise, especially for foreign corporations. He had the strong support of a benighted rural population and of a Catholic Church that was as authoritarian as that of Franco's Spain and of de Valera's Ireland. The black clouds over Quebec finally dispersed when a modern society began to take shape that could no longer be contained in the stalled political and social system. Wilson understood the importance of this turning point in Quebec. He would go on to outline the separatist and anti-separatist politics in French Canada and to note the birth of its amateurish political terrorism.

Wilson brought his own peculiar literary perspective to Canada. He was immersed in France from the Enlightenment through the nineteenth century. He would reveal early twentieth century modernism to America but it was a modernism that ended with Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and T.S. Eliot. Already in the 1920s Dadaists and Futurists caused him disquiet. He feared they would destroy European standards, which were the yardstick American writers could use to create their own great literature.

A jack of all literary trades, Wilson also wrote poetry. He liked traditional forms and metrics, and disliked what he called "half prose vers libre" as exemplified by William Carlos Williams. E.E. Cummings's innovations also annoyed him. He had a love affair with Edna St. Vincent Millay that extended to her dated poetry. He read Eliot with a shock of admiration and praised Yeats and Auden. But the contemporary French poets Paul Claudel and Paul Éluard "left him cold." His preferences were reflected in O Canada. He doesn't object to Saint-Denys Garneau's poetic form but to his pinched outlook, abstraction, and Jansenism. He quotes poets like Albert Lozeau and E.J. Pratt with tolerance. Of Émile Nelligan he says, "This poet is at once the Rimbaud and the Gérard de Nerval of French Canada, and he seems to me the only really first-rate Canadian poet, French or English, that I have yet read." Nelligan, a Symbolist, did all his significant work before 1899, the year he went insane.

Wilson was right, "French Canadian literature was long to remain at least fifty years behind Paris." But catching up wasn't a matter of repeating Paris epoch by epoch. It would be telescoped. When Wilson arrived in 1962, French Canadian poets had already absorbed Surrealism. (Claude Gavreau believed he had surpassed it.) Montreal's Les Éditions de l'Hexagone had been publishing post-Surrealist poetry since 1953. Wilson's taste or curiosity simply did not extend to it.

But it is Wilson's ignoring of pictorial art that especially turned O Canada away from the present. He praised a political cartoonist and paused for some humdrum remarks on the Canadian landscape school that had already been filed away as passé. The only painting amongst the several illustrations of O Canada was a portrait of the novelist Marie-Claire Blais, a Wilson protégée, by Mary Meigs. Meigs was described in Mary McCarthy's novel A Charmed Life as a painter whose work was "cramped with preciosity and mannerism." In Wilson's The American Earthquake, chronicling the 1920s and 1930s, only George Bellows and Georgia O'Keefe caught his eye.

For a New York critic who struck the pose of a Renaissance man, Wilson was particularly behind the times in painting. He feared the Futurists, who were prominent in Europe since before World War I. The New York Armory Show of 1913 affirmed modernism as strongly as Eliot's The Wasteland in 1922. Abstract Expressionism or Action Painting, which was to make New York the world's art center, developed there in the 1940s. Even the CIA had become interested in the new painting by the early 1950s.

Wilson's blind spot comes up in Lewis M. Dabney's Edmund Wilson, A Life in Literature, 2005.

In a postscript on [Malraux's] The Voices of Silence, written during the sixties, [Wilson] raises questions implicit in the development of postmodern painting. How could the practitioners of abstract art, for Wilson 'a void of floating color and line that has hardly been organized' clarify what Malraux called the human condition? How could 'pop art' and 'op art' resist the mass culture with which they represented a compromise?

Contrary to Wilson's understanding, color and line in abstract painting are highly organized, their organization being its very essence. His misunderstanding led him to miss the key cultural event of those years in Quebec. Had he done justice to it, he would also have grasped how Malraux's human condition could be clarified by abstract art.

The eminent New York literary man ignored or judged unworthy of mention the fact that on August 9, 1948, the abstract painter Paul-Émile Borduas issued a manifesto called Refus Global, or Global Refusal, signed by sixteen young Quebec artists and intellectuals. It was an anti-religious and anti-establishment statement that called for -- to put it in a word -- freedom. The right to paint as one pleased was only one of the liberties demanded, but it had lit the fuse for the explosive document that concerned every aspect of the "human condition." Paradoxically the manifesto was just the sort of thing that should have captured Wilson's attention, which from the 1930s onward was fixed on the point where art met society and politics. His lack of consideration for nonfigurative art had blinded him.

Commentators say that from the publication of Global Refusal, "modern French Canada began," while the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation calls it "one of the most important and controversial artistic and social documents in modern Quebec society." Historians see Global Refusal as one of the fundamental causes of the Quiet Revolution. Other causes put forward were the Asbestos miners' strike of 1949, the Maurice Richard riot of 1955, and the publication of Les insolences du Frère Untel in 1960, translated as The Impertinences of Brother Anonymous in 1962.

Wilson understandably left the Richard riot unmentioned; it was over a hockey player. He did speak about the Asbestos strike in connection with Archbishop Charbonneau who supported it. He gave considerable attention to The Impertinences, in which a teacher who was also a Catholic lay brother decried the backwardness of Quebec education and its failure to shape minds that questioned authority. It was a book Wilson could read just as the Charbonneau affair had been written up in a biography by Jeanne Lapointe. Wilson came to Quebec as a reader. Characteristically, he wished someone would write a play about the "tragic drama" of the silencing of Archbishop Charbonneau. The Archbishop, like Brother Anonymous, had made the mistake of taking seriously the reforms of Pope John XXIII who had been installed in 1958.

In a catalog of the Musée d'art contemporain of Montreal in 2005, the critic Sam Abramovitch pointed out how the position of the signers of Global Refusal differed from that of other groups of artists around the world.

But the difference between the Automatistes, as the Quebec group became known, and the others was the inclusion of the social in their aesthetics. However that is not to say that the Automatistes put slogans in their paintings or created social art to express their opposition to the dominant ideology which existed at that time. Rather, as artists they thought that the aesthetic would help liberate society.

It could be argued that the Futurist Manifesto of F.T. Marinetti (Paris, 1909) and the Surrealist Manifestoes of André Breton (Paris, 1924 and 1929) also combined aesthetic with political and social aims. Even the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism in New York spoke against capitalism and the market, though without a hope of reigning in either. It was only in Quebec, however, that the aims of a manifesto would coincide closely with rapid changes taking place in the social and political milieu. Edmund Wilson, for all his sensitivity, missed out on this example of how a desperate statement of aspirations could mark a difference in the way a whole small nation lived.

That Global Refusal had a raw, blunt and idealist flavor shouldn't surprise. Wilson identified Quebec's ailment as a "dichotomy between flesh and spirit that is a feature of Jansenist doctrine." Subservience to clergy and politicians was endemic. It would take a violent and clumsy wrenching to be free.

Refus Global can be read in English translation at
www.dantaylor.com/pages/refusglobal.html. There is a link to the original French. See also the article Total Refusal in Swans Commentary of October 9, 2006,


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Published April 7, 2014