George Grant & the Subversion of Modernity:
Art, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, & Education

346 pages,
ISBN: 080207622X

Post Your Opinion
George Grant, Subversive
by George Elliott Clarke

Debuting his elegant examination of biblical imagery, The Great Code, Frye deems the Bible "a huge, sprawling, tactless book" sitting "inscrutably in the middle of our cultural heritage.frustrating all our efforts to walk around it." The writings of George Parkin Grant (1918-1988) stake out a like position in English-Canadian political philosophy. They are sprawling, frequently tactless, often inscrutable, yet inevitable. Grant was-like Frye, like Marshall McLuhan-a major Canadian public intellectual of the 1960s and 1970s. Though nearly a decade has elapsed since his death (on the eve-dramatically-of Mulroney's Free Trade treason), his thought still dominates Canadian intellectual debates. In fact, a veritable Grant industry has gelled. Witness an essay collection edited by Peter Emberley, By Loving Our Own: George Grant & the Legacy of Lament for a Nation (1990), William Christian's George Grant: A Biography (1993) and Selected Letters (1996), and the Carleton University Press reissues of Lament for a Nation (1995 and 1997). Grant's Collected Works, edited by Arthur Davis and Peter Emberley, is forthcoming. And now George Grant & the Subversion of Modernity, edited by Davis, has been released. It is a text to embrace-though bracingly. The volume debuts Grant's previously unpublished essay "Céline's Trilogy", chased by eleven scholars' ruminations on his philosophy. Their considerations of Grant are forensic-and eulogistic-mirroring the polarities of his thought. Davis, a York University social science professor, notes, in his prefatory remarks, that current scholarship eyes two Grants:
"His work is, so the argument goes, an unresolved composite of [Leo] Strauss and Heidegger, or perhaps of Plato (as interpreted by [Simone] Weil) and Nietzsche. Others, meanwhile, have insisted that he was kept on a consistent and unified philosophic path by his commitment to justice."
Davis must be classed as one of these "others", for he holds that "Grant's thought was essentially a response to [the] catastrophic loss of the rational grounds for affirming justice." Even so, the volume, using a cinquefoil division treating art, philosophy, politics, religion, and education, accents the tension between classical conceptions of virtue and the modern will to power (or technological mastery) that complicates Grant's thought.
Complications flower in "Céline's Trilogy", an essay in which Grant offers a discursive defence of the French author Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, or Céline (1894-1962), and his trilogical novel/memoirs. The essay is, as Sheila Grant explains in her preface, an "imperfect whole", cribbed from Grant's scattered notes and drafts. Certes, his widow's act of bricolage cannot paper over Grant's tone of abandon. She admits that "never did he produce such relaxed writing, certainly not on philosophy, which always required a painful degree of discipline." But Grant's lack of rigour hinders his project to salvage Céline as an apostle of anti-modernism; worse, it harms his own reputation. His widow thinks that Grant jettisoned this essay because "he had not made up his mind about some important matters, such as Plato's account of poetry." But perhaps he simply recognized its infelicities. Lovely utterances like "Mozart felt the ice around his soul, but he still had the consolation of loveliness" abound, but so do junky vulgarities like "Aeneas is certainly more than a bit of a shit.." Several sentences affect a jocular populism: "Who can always do without drugs?" Others are atrocious: "The whole trilogy is just Céline telling you." Grant's technique is that of Céline himself: ragged, repetitive, enragé. But it is Grant's discourse that will disturb readers.
To move us to read Céline's accounts of aerial bombardment and of his flight, from the advancing Allies, across a dying Third Reich, Grant argues that Céline's anti-semitism-a vicious toxin in his polemics-is "spent" in the trilogy, thus allowing a pristine verisimilitude to flourish. Gerald Owen (the managing editor of Books in Canada) emphasizes this position in his submission, deciding that Grant loved the Céline "who says he was foolish to have put forward any political opinions," who merely narrates the "after-effects of his political acts.." Owen notes that Céline's racist, pre-war " `pamphlets' are a strange thing: pacifist hatred.not utterly unlike the anti-nuclear anger of Lament for a Nation." However, Grant "did not leap into a lie, let alone into a wilfully lying fantasy as Céline did." Clean of political ranting, the value of Céline's trilogy is, then, that "he presents horrors without exclaiming over them, he does not ask for compassion, does not apostrophize, does not tear-jerk, does not weep."
But the University of Toronto political scientist Edward Andrew offers a less sanguine reading in his "George Grant's Céline". He agrees with Owen that "a psychological interpretation of Grant's view on Céline might suggest a parallel between the collapse of Grant's Canada and Tory party and the collapse of Céline's world and partisan commitment." But Andrew employs a Platonic suspicion of poetry to question Grant's "intoxication with Céline". Declaring that "Plato deprecated poetry because it appealed not to rational judgement [but] to the irrational.part of the soul," Andrew judges Céline's writing "a clear example of Plato's position. Céline's metaphorics of race, forged in ovens of molten hatred, highlights the tension between ecstatic delirium and sober restraint." For example, "Céline begins Rigadoon [the trilogy's third volume] with a reiteration of the theology of the racist pamphlets. The Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religions are all the same: `their only real job.perfect agreement.is to besot and destroy the white race.' " Grant's attempt to redeem Céline's trilogy fails, then, for his ultimate vindication of the author is to state, as Andrew notes, "[Céline] feeds my prejudices."
Arguably, Grant's 1983 Queen's Quarterly essay, "Céline: Art & Politics", provides a finer defence of Céline than that available in "Céline's Trilogy". Still, it arouses terrific objection. Grant's attempt to explicate Céline's anti-semitism sounds-too much-like a rationale for his own. Read his analysis of the catalysts of modern European anti-semitism: "The economically weak in the mass cities saw their pasts taken away by finance capitalism. They came to see the Jews as the masters and creators of a world in which they could not function. Just read Hitler's account of his agony of loneliness in the gaudy decay of pre-World War I Vienna, and his identification of the Jews with that society, to understand an immediate cause of the immense calamity."
The conflation of "finance capitalism" and "Jews" is unfortunate, to say the least, as is the plea that we respect Hitler's corrupt social analyses. Andrew cites yet another injudicious passage: "Even if Céline's plea for peace at all costs between Germany and France was sensible, even if he was correct that the Jews were in favour of war between the two nations.." In reaction, Andrew complains, "I would have preferred Grant to express these views in the subjunctive mood., rather than using language that acknowledges the possibility that Céline may have got his facts right." Later in this essay, Grant refers to "the mystery of the Jews", but admits that "mystery" is merely a politic substitution for "problem". Owen cautions that "if not handled with care, [Grant's "Céline: Art & Politics"] can be misleading." But Grant's diction suggests that he is writing not philosophy, but rather propaganda, and this charge can also be laid against "Céline's Trilogy". Indubitably, both works imply that Grant's thought exalts a treacherous rhetoric of "races".
Grant's defence of Céline is-in essence-invidious. In "Céline's Trilogy", he asserts that "the collapse of Germany" in 1944-45 represents "the story of a great civilization being brought to its knees by the most intense technological attack up to that point." Recklessly, he equates the destruction of fascism with the demise of European civilization. As well, the aerial violence wreaked upon Adolf Hitler's Germany was revenge for the sophisticated Blitzkriegs, the V-1 and V-2 rocket campaigns, and the studied atrocities of the SS. It was Hitler who brought high-tech war to Europe; his regime invented the jet fighter and strove to develop an atomic bomb. (In his 1983 essay, Grant recognizes the German development of "relativity and quantum mechanics", but this awareness is missing from "Céline's Trilogy".)
Perhaps Grant is right to argue that Céline is a great artist and that one can honour him without approving his foul opinions. But artists enjoy no special dispensation from the vicissitudes of politics. No matter what the virtues-if any-of Hitler's watercolours, Josef Stalin's romantic poems, or Benito Mussolini's fiction, we can hardly expect to shore up their art against their political crimes. Nor should we expect Ezra Pound's Cantos to be as widely admired as Pablo Neruda's love poems. Though Owen insists that Grant loved Céline for affirming his own vision that "History means Woe to the Vanquished," one can object that some losses are morally superior to others. The electoral defeat of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1963 deserves lament, as Grant saw, but the military defeat of Nazi Germany does not.
To return to Andrew, while he demolishes Grant's arguments on the facts, his explicit assault on poiesis perpetuates a false duality. Philosophers may be called upon to explain their meaning and metaphors in a certain manner, from which poets are excused, but poetry can be a vehicle for philosophy (see Robert Bridges' The Testament of Beauty), just as philosophy can veer toward poetry (see Frantz Fanon's Peau noir, masques blanches).
The second section of George Grant attends to philosophical issues. Ronald Beiner, a second U of T political scientist, wonders, "Why would a quasi-Christian quasi-Platonist like George Grant want to have any truck with militant anti-Platonists like Nietzsche and Heidegger?" Beiner goes on to wager that Nietzsche is less "unambiguously modern" than Grant seemed to think: "For Nietzsche., one cannot separate modernity from the political legacy of liberalism, egalitarianism, democracy, humanism, and so on. Furthermore, all these political fruits of the Enlightenment are inseparable from the legacy of Christianity. In that sense, being radically anti-Christian entails being radically anti-modern."
If Grant views modernity "as a frenzied engine of willing," Beiner adds that Nietzsche thinks it "defined by a woeful incapacity to will something grand, or at least significant." Nietzsche's hatred for modernity is what allows him to argue, Beiner claims, "that theism is superior to atheism, that Catholicism is superior to Protestantism, that Judaism and Islam are superior to Christianity, and that theocracy is superior to Enlightenment."
Arthur Davis's essay delineates Grant's struggle to harmonize Christian Platonism with Heidegger's belief that technology has eliminated scripture and tradition as a basis for adjudicating morality. To Davis, Grant "was arguing that a defence of justice.requires both Heidegger's understanding of our historical fate-that we are living inside and shaped by the empire of capital and technology-and also Plato's understanding-that we are enfolded and claimed by an order that transcends time: meaning that, as human beings, we are fitted for being just." Although Davis finds that Grant failed to conjoin these two philosophers, he praises Grant for his pioneering effort. However, Davis blunders when he writes, laxly, that "Heidegger learned after 1933 that National Socialism was.not the answer." Actually, Heidegger remained a card-carrying Nazi until the dictatorship's bitter end. Intriguingly, Davis observes that Grant "remarked in his notes that `a case could be made' for National Socialism in Germany in the thirties.." The statement illuminates Grant's adoration of Céline: to defend the memoirist is to defend Heidegger.
H. D. Forbes's entry, "George Grant & Leo Strauss", dovetails with that of Davis. For Forbes-a third U of T poli sci prof-Grant's oft-cited "pessimism" stems from his encounter with "Strauss's argument about the superiority of ancient to modern philosophy.." Forbes attests that Grant replicates Strauss's critique of the consumerist modernism of the philosopher Alexandre Kojève. For Strauss and Grant, the fulfilment of Kojève's dream of a "worldwide democratic state that will do away with the scourge of war and guarantee the equality and rights of all individuals" would end in a fantastic tyranny. Grant's defence of Canadian nationalism seems indebted to a Straussian reading of Kojève's liberal universalism. Though Forbes's scope is expansive, he refers but briefly to Francis Fukuyama's controversial 1989 essay "The End of History?". Given Kojève's strong influence on Fukuyama's millenarian ponderings, it would have been apt for Forbes to speculate on a Grantian reply.
One of the pleasures of this volume is its discussion-in the third section-of Grant's politics, especially in Louis Greenspan's satisfying essay, "The Unravelling of Liberalism". Greenspan, a McMaster University religious studies professor, writes beautifully, with a breathtaking clarity that can easily pass for grace. His text elucidates the reasons for Grant's easy-but partial-appropriations by both the Right and the Left, "those admirers [who] think of him as a man for some seasons but not for all." Greenspan has won a subtle understanding of Grant, discovering that he was "ambivalent toward liberalism"-as though there were "a liberalism of Cain and a liberalism of Abel." A neat metaphor consummates the point: "[Grant's] liberalism is.like a prodigal son who has strayed from his Christian parents, entered into alliances with bad company-contractualism, science, technology-and discovers that he has become so bankrupt that he is at the mercy of his violent companions." For Grant, Greenspan says, this impious liberalism motivated the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to legalize abortion in 1973-"an unprecedented invasion of the realm of the sacred". Greenspan posits his views convincingly, but his analysis of "liberalism" and "conservatism" needs firmer definition. He insists that we live "in the political world of a conservative Zeitgeist," but the laws that have freed corporations to gouge larger profits at the expense of the social good are neo-liberal, not conservative. Though Greenspan adduces a succinct reading of Grant's enmity for abortion, his statement that "Grant's questions are well within the canon of liberalism" is challengeable. Indeed, Grant sees technology as the often inadvertently impious (if not demonic) spawn of liberalism. For instance, Grant asserts in "Céline: Art & Politics" that "the [liberal] thought of Locke.helped to loose technological frenzy." From his perspective, it is modern, liberal-validated technology that makes it possible to cancel religious prohibitions against abortion. Though he seems to disagree with Grant, Greenspan rightly understands him to be saying that "to be Christian or Jewish in [the liberal-technological] world, one is forced into a new Gnosticism in which there is a strict separation between the world in which the Kingdom of God is conceivable and the lower world, that of science and technology, in which it is not." Awfully, too, a society grounded in liberal virtues may still behave tyrannously-as the U.S. government's 1993 attack on the Branch Davidians demonstrated. For sure, Grant's critique of liberalism implies that, as Greenspan permits, "the Third Reich and the gulags were not, as some have argued, survivals of the medieval world or `tribalism', but were consequences of modernity." That is to say, they were the results of a technologically exercised will to power. For Grant, then, "the crucial sin of modernity" is, as Greenspan declares, "the manipulation of the human essence.." Hence, Grant's visceral hatred of abortion.
Leah Bradshaw, a Brock University professor of politics, is righteously exercised by Grant's anti-abortionism. She believes that his antipathy for the procedure was, in the 1970s, grounded in a concern that "with the erosion of the divine sanction of rights, the weakest members of the human community will now suffer"; in the 1980s, however, his loathing was grounded in opposition to the "will to power", that is to say, to the main tenet of atomistic individualism (i.e., selfishness). If Grant had once been angered by "the obfuscation of the status of the fetus", he later came to hate "the blatant public defence of what he clearly regarded as the killing of people." Bradshaw feels "the burden of responsibility [Grant] places on women is untenable." She counters his absolutism by noting that "given his own analysis of modernity, the fact that children are still being born and nurtured is more surprising than the fact of widespread abortion." Bradshaw feels that "Western liberal society" has expended more energy than any other regime to protect "the infirm, the aged, and the deviant." Impressively, in these societies, "the weak have a public face," while, in contrast (and here Bradshaw nods to Hannah Arendt), totalitarian regimes destroy "the civic space in which people are visible to one another." The problem for fetuses, she states, is that they are "hidden within the bodies of women., they are not yet part of the human community." In addition, they "have no status as citizens.." Invisible and voteless, fetuses are ripe candidates for termination. But, Bradshaw wonders, "does the fact that the fetus has no political status mean that its extermination is something other than killing?" She dodges the question, but "extermination" carries ugly, Third Reich associations. Furthermore, if citizens alone merit state protection, should refugees, just-landed immigrants, and foreign tourists feel safe in Canada? One may even question Bradshaw's thesis that the "mere fact of visibility leads to empathy among human beings." Does she remember the West's response to the Rwandan genocide?
Theological questions dominate the fourth part of the book. Sheila Grant and Lawrence Schmidt grapple with Grant's views of Martin Luther and Simone Weil respectively. Grant explores her late husband's fascination for the twenty-first of Luther's twenty-eight theses from the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. Apparently, George Grant prized its emphasis on the need to recognize that "the thing is as it is", its insistence on confronting reality. (This analysis underscores Grant's infatuation with Céline: he felt that Céline presents the human condition as it is.) Sheila Grant's citation of Weil's comment that "to desire contact with a piece of reality is to love" reveals Grant's delight in realism. Vitally, too, she finds that "Grant's affirmation of necessary agnosticism" went far beyond Luther. Even so, "he never doubted that good is good, and evil its absence, and we need to know which is which.."
Schmidt, a U of T religious studies professor, reasons that Grant struggled with Weil's thought from the 1950s until his death. He alleges that "Grant did not read her books, her essays, or her notebooks to avoid the desiccation of technological modernity.." Au contraire, "he did so precisely so he could understand modernity in all of its dry horror." It seems that Grant was attracted to Céline for the same reason: he must have appreciated their mutual emphases on the need to know reality. (In his essay, Owen finds that Céline and Weil were both philosophical extremists, thus sparking Grant's interest "in the starkness of the choice they presented." If Céline is Grant's "great artist", Weil is his "great saint".) In the end, Schmidt deems Grant important because "he analysed the consequences of the abandonment of a concern for transcendent justice in liberal regimes."
In the final section of George Grant, Nita Graham addresses Grant's attitudes towards pedagogy and William Christian gathers letters by Grant that critique modern university education. A Grant family friend, Graham fears that, in our "museum culture" (the phrase is Grant's), his "work is likely to be taken up from an antiquarian interest, with a subsequent loss of its particular meaning." Worrisomely for Graham, some "professional" philosophers dismiss Grant as a cranky pessimist. Worse, humanities departments are no longer temples of contemplation, but, rather, research-oriented warrens. Yet, if it is true that "Grant's enmity toward our society's dominant opinions makes him unwelcome in the research institutions that serve our society," it is also true that Grant's thought is more widely diffused in the academy than ever before. George Grant is itself proof that political scientists, theologians, philosophers, and literary critics of all stripes must tussle with Grant, for his thought is protean. Furthermore, Grant's writings are being employed by new constituencies. For instance, the vital African-Canadian writer and poet M. Nourbese Philip has acknowledged the import of Lament for a Nation in her own cultural criticism. (So long as Canadians continue to value a Canadian culture, Grant's work will live.) Grant's posthumous future in the academy is not as bleak as Graham fears.
Christian's letter selections clarify Grant's pedagogical sensibility. A University of Guelph political philosopher, Christian provides informative prefaces for several of the thirteen letters, as for a Globe and Mail op-ed piece of Grant's. The epistles establish Grant as an elitist who believed that "an advanced education must be for the few," as a classicist who thought that "business is farthest from contemplation," and as a man of principle who was willing to abandon a proffered teaching post at the then fledgeling York University rather than agree to use a textbook "which misrepresents the religion of my allegiance." Yet, Grant makes statements which, however well intended, veer towards prejudice. In a 1960 letter, he observes that "some of my best graduate students have been practising Jews and I have had no difficulties with them on this score." The sentence echoes that rank disclaimer of racism, "Some of my best friends are.." Equally problematic are his vast generalizations such as the claim that "Ontario naturally followed the continental pattern and established a great network of universities." Maybe. But Ontario had its own Baby Boom (and immigration boom) to accommodate.
George Grant & the Subversion of Modernity proves that Grant is very much alive and well, thank you, for a host of Canadian intellectuals. The problem, though, is that he seems to mainly alive for white males, U of T types, and a few Nova Scotians. This book could have benefited from a greater catholicity. For instance, the discussion of Céline should have been balanced by a treatment of Grant's relationship with the poet Dennis Lee. The section on politics should have been expanded to allow for visible minority group, feminist, and francophone considerations of Grant. More regional diversity amongst the contributors should also have been attained. The most urgent problem raised by this volume-i.e., Grant's relationship to Heidegger-demands greater scrutiny. For one thing, to preserve Heidegger as the supreme thinker of modernity, Grant seems to make race-haunted statements, especially in "Céline: Art & Politics", where Céline is a palimpsest for Heidegger. Grant makes this relationship explicit: "[Céline's] account of the European situation was very close to Heidegger's.of 1935." In his writings on Céline, Grant's seemingly prejudiced comments are, as Terrence Craig writes of Hugh MacLennan's race-tainted narration in Voices in Time (1980), "just sufficiently indistinct in context that various interpretations and excuses could be found for them-and such vagueness must be considered a fault."
Though Grant's thought invites critique, it is, for all its lacunae, the clearest discussion of conservatism versus liberalism, nationalism versus continentalism, and faith versus technology to be found in our literature. Crucially too, it addresses the fundamental tensions of our time. Thus, George Grant is an irreplaceable text. But why is the cover design so poor? Dominating the black-and-white cover photo, the red-letter title seems to squash Grant's head into the lower left-hand corner, where his dwarfed face almost blends into the adjacent boulders. Was this the best way to identify the philosopher with his country?

George Elliott Clarke is a Nova Scotian poet, the author of three books of poetry and the editor of two anthologies, one of them published this year: Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-Canadian Literature (McClelland & Stewart). He teaches at Duke University in North Carolina.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us