Choosing to live and work in Montreal might have something to do with Fairmount bagels or PGtisserie de Gascogne or the Montreal Symphony Orchestra or any number of other peculiar and personal preferences but what really holds many of us here on this island in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River through its Siberian winters and Karachi summers has a great deal more to do with the sheer human diversity of this city's population. Writing of the immense promise he finds in such new Canadian writers as Dennis Bock, Catherine Bush, Madeleine Thien, and Montreal's Yann Martel in the June 2002 issue of Harper's Magazine, the novelist and essayist Pico Iyer (Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, and Tropical Classical among others) says that "Canada is grappling with Act III of a global drama that is elsewhere only in its prologue" and that Canadians were "thinking about globalism and pluralism, the possibilities of multiculturalism, long before the rest of us knew the terms existed. Tricultural at birth and bilingual to this day, Canada has had to imagine identities protean enough to stretch across five and a half time zones and to accommodate a province constantly agitating for secession. In that context, it seems only apt that Canada is (through Marshall McLuhan) the literal birthplace of the global village." That's certainly true of the side of Montreal I know best: the college at which I teach draws its seven thousand and something students from over one hundred distinct ethnic groups. Collectively, they speak more than sixty languages. And we're talking native and naturalized Montrealers here¨not foreign visitors on temporary visas.
Like Pico Iyer who was born in England to Indian parents, immigrated to California as a boy, was later educated at Eton and Oxford, and now spends much of his time in Japan, a significant number of the students I teach are on the road to becoming what Iyer himself has been called¨"a global village on two legs." So it's not at all surprising that Yann Martel is only one of a number of Montreal writers who spend their time imagining better kinds of ways for people to live, learn, love, and propagate within communities that no longer have shared roots. The Montreal Gazette journalist Henry Aubin and the McGill philosopher Charles Taylor are two such writers and their new books enter these discussions from odd angles that have more to do with one another and with our current situation than a browser might suspect.
Henry Aubin admits up front that he "undertook this research not as a historian but as a parent. My adopted son happens to be of African descent. In reading him the stories of Hercules, King Arthur, Charlemagne and Daniel Boone that I had loved as a child, and that his older brother had also greatly enjoyed, I saw that these did not resonate with him in the same way." Finding little written about African history that would appeal to a nine-year-old's imagination, Aubin started looking for adult material that could be adapted. That's how he came across the story of the ancient Kushites or Nubians (who lived in what is now northern Sudan and southern Egypt), of their kings who ruled all of Egypt and formed its 25th Dynasty, and the intriguing tale of how a Kushite pharaoh despatched a military expedition to the Near East to prevent the Assyrian conquest of Jerusalem in the 8th century before our era. The Rescue of Jerusalem: The Alliance Between Hebrews and Africans in 701 BC is the story not only of that expedition and its importance ("Had Jerusalem perished, so too would Hebrew society itself. Judaism would never have evolved several centuries later, and its two offshoots¨ Christianity and Islam¨could never have arisen."), but also why this pivotal event isn't any longer the common knowledge it was until only a century ago. "In doing this research," Aubin notes, "I was stunned by the extent to which Western scholarship, consciously or not, has unjustly ignored a momentous African contribution to history. Setting the record straight requires confronting deeply entrenched skepticism. Like me, many people have been brought up with the idea that sub-Saharan Africa was incapable or disinclined to do the sort of things that in this case it plainly did. Only by discussing and supporting every point can I convince them¨scholars and general public alike."
Aubin makes his living as a political journalist but he's also a distinguished investigative reporter (his previous book was City for Sale, an exposT of urban developers) and he knows the importance of getting all the details right when making his each and every point. His argument is often intricate but it's never less than convincing and eminently readable¨he writes tight sentences that make it unambiguously clear that the Hebrew Bible did not delete the Kushite role even though the writers of the Bible introduced an angel as the agent of salvation in their final version to accommodate religious experiences that flowed out of their captivity by the Babylonians and release by the Persians in the 6th century. Along the road to showing the ways in which historical events are moulded to religious insights in the ancient Bible, Aubin demonstrates in any number of ways how the hearts and heads of even the most learned of our contemporary writers can remain resistant to de-colonization long after the physical collapse of the European empires to which the majority of our ancestors once belonged.
William James, the author of the classic The Varieties of Religious Experience published in 1902, held the view that people who are against "religion" are often mistaken in their target. He wrote, "The baseness so commonly charged to religion's account are thus, almost all of them, not chargeable to religion proper, but rather to religion's wicked practical partner, the spirit of corporate dominion. And the bigotries are most of them in their turn chargeable to religion's wicked intellectual partner, the spirit of dogmatic dominion." To mark the hundredth birthday of James's masterpiece, Charles Taylor engages in "a conversation/confrontation" with James in Varieties of Religion Today. Taylor's book consists of three reflections of about thirty pages each¨"Varieties", "The ŠTwice-Born'", "Religion Today" and a briefer conclusion¨"So Was James Right?". All three are subtle and allusive and demand full concentration as Taylor approaches James with a very specific agenda "to disengage the way in which he captures something essential to our present predicament, while doing justice to the ways in which his take on religion could perhaps be considered too narrow and restrictive." Taylor is less interested in the things that tend to draw most readers to James's writing¨the perceptive and incisive observations "about a host of issues, including the psychology of religious belief, conversion, saintliness, mysticism, and the unconscious"¨than in "asking what it can tell us about the place of religion today."
Pico Iyer clumps Charles Taylor together with Mark Kingwell and Michael Ignatieff as "Canadian philosophers . . . thinking about what it really means to live in a world without borders and devising new forms of citizenship for a society in which everyone seems to come from everywhere." While it may be true, as Michael Novak (pace George Grant) noted a decade ago in a First Things review of Taylor's The Ethics of Authenticity (aka The Malaise of Modernity), that "a Canadian can more easily remain detached from capitalism, the spirit of commerce, and the fury of markets, sheltered as he somewhat is by the residual corporatism of medieval Europe and modern socialism," Taylor's personal stature has continued to grow and grow. Nine years ago, Novak placed him as "the world's premier philosopher of modernity, the most judicious, the one who makes the most apt and discerning distinctions, the one who best sees both modernity's grandeur and its misery." These days, Taylor is more often ranked simply as one of the world's greatest living philosophers and possibly its most subversive. Taylor is neither a booster nor a knocker of contemporary culture nor in any conventional middle position: what he offers readers who are interested in "living an examined life" is always something more than the rules and standards of reasoned judgement because he insists that self-examination must always be dialogic. It's through conversations¨through being perceived, understood, and judged and learning how to perceive, understand, and judge in reply¨that we learn how to understand ourselves and discover the inadequacies of our current visions and ideals. It's in conversation (and books are heightened conversation) that we find ourselves morally challenged by multiple visions and ideals. When we choose to follow our own particular visions, we are not so much choosing good over evil as we are choosing among an abundance of goods. We embrace what is objectively right but it's not absolutely right because we remain open to the discovery of the limitations in our prevailing visions. For William James, the real locus of religion is "in experience, as against the formulations by which people define, justify, rationalize their feelings." This places James very close to the spirit of contemporary society and Taylor undertakes an evaluation of the ways in which James is and is not prescient. But that's the smaller part of what he does. What he does in a way unmatched by any except the very greatest writers is to cause readers to have intimations and intuitions that they feel bound to follow wherever they may lead. In the present instance, the direction he turns readers toward is a critical sense and honest admission of the struggle we face between doubt and resolve when we consider the extent to which our deepest personal experiences are always mediated by public vocabularies and shared solidarity with others.
Both Aubin's and Taylor's books are gems. They are equally unpretentious and both run against the grain of what most of us assume about the social climate in which questions of religion present themselves. To read these books is to gain something more than knowledge of their specific subjects. Aubin reminds readers that we can never be too careful about how we read what we read and Taylor shows us through his own reading of James that we must read as if our lives depended on it because, ultimately, they do. ˛