Among the minor pleasures of late night television is the occasional offering of a forgotten wartime propaganda film. The attraction here lies not in the cinematography, or the predictable plot, but in the depiction of the enemy, whoever he may be, ripened by time to a full-blown caricature of evil and madness. War is a potent moral imperative for the demonization of the aggressor.
In The Antagonist, Lawrence Martin tells us that he considers his subject "the greatest threat to unity Canada has ever known." It is not surprising, then, that the portrait he offers of the current Quebec premier bears some resemblance to the maniacal villains of old propaganda films. Lucien Bouchard's "emotional volatility", we are told, "is unparalleled among modern Canadian political leaders." So extreme is his case that "several people" advised the author to seek professional expertise in elucidating "the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome" afflicting Bouchard.
Dr. Vivian Rakoff, the psychiatrist Martin consulted, concluded that Premier Bouchard suffers from a little-known condition (it is not to be found in the current psychiatric diagnostic manual, DSM-4)-"aesthetic character disorder"-whose implications were "alarming": the premier is a man of deep insecurity and great vanity, with an unfortunate tendency to base judgements on "emotion-charged ephemeral imagery". His adoration of French literature and his noted lack of interest in Canadian literature are signs of his unhealthy attachment to a "lost patrimony", an attachment motivated by a deep-seated need to rehabilitate his poor, uneducated father, who nevertheless proudly instilled in his children respect for the language of Molière.
It is heartening to see the importance Martin and Dr. Rakoff ascribe to Bouchard's literary passions, albeit as damning evidence. For example, the books Bouchard chose to take with him on a religious retreat, the Confessions of St. Augustine and the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, demonstrate, we are told, a fatal character flaw: a split between the ethical (Augustine) and the self-involved and self-indulgent (Rousseau). Equating the admirers of Rousseau with devotees of Oprah-like talk shows is quite a leap, but not atypical of the strange way literature is made to serve Martin's arguments. Bouchard's devotion to Marcel Proust's masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, becomes evidence of his excessive sensitivity and his unhealthy fixation on the past. Proust and Bouchard, we are told, were both high-strung, voracious readers, devoted to the example of their grandmothers. The two men even share a notable physical likeness "around the eyes". Is it any wonder that Proust's great novel encouraged in its young admirer a tendency towards "hyper-selective recall" and the belief that all human bonds are ephemeral, thus laying the ground for Bouchard's subsequent political and personal turnabouts. (Fifty of "his major about-faces" are reprised in an appendix at the back of the book for the convenience of the reader.) In describing Bouchard's defection in 1971 from federalism to the fledgeling Parti Québécois, his biographer explains that "there was the pressure from his [nationalist] brothers, there was Greece (a recent trip had revived his admiration for the small city state which became the model of all future civilizations) and there was Proust." The power of literature should never be underestimated.
Martin is best when he is describing the young Lucien Bouchard, a boy of precocious intelligence with a romantic passion for reading, growing up in a backward, remote corner of the world dominated by poverty, religion, and duty. This tale of energy and passion, reminiscent of the rise of that other ambitious young provincial Julien Sorel, provides useful information about the boy who became premier. For all of Bouchard's prominence in Quebec, he has been treated with discretion and allowed to remain an enigmatic figure. His very public, near-fatal illness, two years earlier, only reinforced the respectful tone the local media has accorded him.
Once Bouchard enters the political arena, however, Martin's analysis of his subject falters and we are left without any useful explanation of Bouchard's spectacular success with Quebec voters. Martin's difficulty lies not only in his over-reliance on the mental instability theory, but in his evident distance from the intricacies of Quebec culture.
There are minor irritations, such as confusing Louis Plamondon, the Bloc Québécois MP, with Luc Plamondon, his superstar brother and the author of the rock opera Starmania; or the repeated preference for incendiary phrases like "cocooned collectivity", or "ethnically pure" where the more neutral adjective "homogeneous" would suffice. More importantly, Martin consistently interprets Bouchard's behaviour outside of its cultural context. Thus, when Bouchard's early admiration for Trudeau turns to accusations of betrayal by 1971, Martin sees only the beginning of a cynical pattern of opportunism. What Martin fails to consider is that in this instance, as in so many others, Bouchard's thinking reflected the feelings of many of his French-speaking compatriots for whom the Trudeau government's imposition of the War Measures Act was a traumatic event, never to be forgotten or forgiven.
To accuse Bouchard of constantly dredging up the past, as Martin does, is to demonstrate extraordinary cultural obtuseness: he does not place Bouchard in the context of a province that puts on its licence plates the motto "Je me souviens" and sees its survival as dependent on obeying this injunction to remember the past. Martin fails to understand Quebec's deep-rooted anxiety about the survival of French in an increasingly English-speaking world; this permits him to equate Canadian nationalism with the Quebec struggle and to scold Quebec nationalists for not behaving as consistently as their Canadian counterparts, Mel Hurtig, for example. Bouchard's pattern of "alternating allegiances" may be indicative of personal pathology, as Martin claims, but it also exemplifies the comedian Yvon Deschamps' celebrated adage that Quebeckers dream of "an independent Quebec in a united Canada." Both René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard have been left twisting in the wind, trying to satisfy this ambivalent longing.
Martin's attempt to prove that the premier of Quebec is unbalanced is unconvincing. Worse, it tells us nothing useful about why his leadership nearly wrested a victory for the sovereignists in 1995. To imply as Martin does that the Quebec electorate swooned before a vitriolic leader whose mind was "locked in a decades-old time warp where all the old grievances sat like the great blueberries of Lac Saint-Jean, ready for the plucking," is to miss the point about the messenger and his message. Bouchard's success during the referendum campaign was the result of a variety of factors working in his favour: his personal popularity, heightened by his resignation from federal politics and his dramatic recovery from a nearly fatal illness, his lack of contamination in 1995 by the day-to-day exercise of provincial power, his relative moderation in comparison to the hard-line politics of Jacques Parizeau, his repeated promise of a partnership with Canada, and the absence of effective leadership among his opponents. These factors converged to capture the mood of many Quebeckers at a certain moment in time. Recent polls indicate the momentum of that moment has already passed into history. The careful analysis it deserves will have to await more judicious treatment.
Ann Charney is the author of Dobryd and Defiance in Their Eyes.