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The George Grant Reader

495 pages,
ISBN: 0802079342


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Grant Map
by Dennis Duffy

"The thesis of great writing cannot be encapsulated into a few smooth phrases.. the purpose of reviewing is not to show that the reviewer is cleverer than the author. . The point of this review is to persuade others to read this wonderful book, not to summarize it."-George Grant in "The Civilization of Technique"

Anthologies can change the way we read a writer. For example, Malcolm Cowley's 1954 Portable Faulkner accomplished more than introducing its subject to a new and eager audience. It also reconfigured his oeuvre into the chronicles of Yoknapatawpha, foregrounding this single aspect of his enterprise into its principal concern.

While no-one unequipped with a luggage cart implant could ever call this volume "portable", it does seek to create a new audience for Grant. Why else define itself as "an ideal starting point for those who have never read Grant as well as an indispensable reference for Grant specialists"? With the first part of this statement, I would disagree, while generally endorsing the second. I can best begin, however, by describing its contents and their arrangement.

Arranged (mostly) thematically under six large headings, the Reader categorizes Grant's writings under such classifications as "Politics & Morality", "Technology & Modernity", "Philosophy & Education", and so forth. These various pigeonholings are not necessarily misleading or inadequate. Like any arrangement, however, they chart an editors' course through Grant's writings that readers may want to reshuffle. Each individual piece is preceded by a helpful editorial comment, plus a very illuminating excerpt from Grant's letters on the subject of the piece. Yet the selections themselves are heterogeneously presented, with no rationale for the form in which they occur. For example, Lament for a Nation appears only as a series of excerpts selected according to unstated principles, while a brief essay, "A Platitude", which first appeared in Technology & Empire, is printed in its entirety. Presumably, considerations of length lie behind this, but it would be helpful to have this explained to a reader. Similarly, a section of authorial commentary upon his own essay is omitted from "Tyranny & Wisdom" (from the same collection), without a hint of this omission to the reader. A section of the introduction offers a comment on the texts, but it concerns itself with matters of spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. Something is missing here.

At the same time, various uncollected pieces of some length appear in their entirety, as for example the lengthy Queen's Quarterly appreciation of the French fascist writer L.-F. CÚline. Perhaps the editors assume that easily available and already collected pieces can endure abridgement, since the specialist reader will likely possess those volumes. But if that is the case (we are never told), what then happens to "those who have never read Grant"? They find themselves introduced to the works that made him famous in abridged form, while his minor writings (or in the case of the CÚline piece, writings requiring considerable prior understanding of Grant's position on a number of cultural and political issues) appear intact. This may not encourage them to read further.

What will those new readers find to be the message of the writings that they encounter? Who would they have come out into the desert to see? They will find an non-systematic philosopher of compelling style and concern, who offers a nuanced critique of modernity without denying its accomplishments. They will also discover in Grant an unwillingness to yield to despair balanced by a recognition that the absences of the present era are there to be experienced and contemplated rather than actively remedied. That is to say, the collection will hearten those who in some way already agree with Grant, who do not find themselves energized at the prospect of effecting radical change in the universal homogenizing state that seems increasingly the global norm. Readers examining him here for the first time, and not of a religious or contemplative disposition, will possibly find his message quietistic, unless they absorb Grant's conviction that thinking one's losses is itself a form of gain.

A perceptive critic (Louis Greenspan) has pointed out that Grant has been appropriated by writers on both the right and the left, who have taken Grant in the Ó-la-carte fashion in which we now nibble at religion. That is often the way with compelling and individual thinkers. In my reading of this volume, any first-time reader coming to it without an a priori political or philosophical position will not be likely to finish it. The Reader is a selection for someone looking to find in Grant support for a position already taken, or one who has already sampled his most accessible and compelling work and wishes to explore his thought further.

If this selection is not really about creating a new audience for Grant (such an anthology, a brief and thoroughly annotated one, may well be needed), then it remains a treat for the converted. The selections from letters that precede each piece, the inclusion of brief pieces that one may have missed, the appearance of familiar pieces within new contexts: all these delight anyone familiar with Grant's life and thought. But if you want to preach to the untaught, then begin with that devastating duo from Technology & Empire: "In Defence of North America" and "A Platitude". The Reader reminds me of a French road map: engaging and useful, but only if you already know the way. 

Dennis Duffy's most recent book is A World under Sentence: John Richardson & the Interior.

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