Impossible Nation:
The Longing for Homeland in Canada & Quebec

175 pages,
ISBN: 1551280337

Post Your Opinion
Impossible? Which? Or Both?
by Alexander Craig

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? A polyglot. Two languages? Un français. Who speaks just one language? Un anglais.
This rueful old Quebec joke comes to mind when one considers one of the main underlying themes of Conlogue's book: "To be at risk of losing your first language is one of the great human traumas, particularly in the modern world where language plays a larger role than before in the definition of human identity."
Not long before he died, Hugh MacLennan chatted with me over morning coffee. Where, I asked, did you get the title Two Solitudes? "I came across it in New York," he told me, "and then when I got back to McGill I asked all around, every department you can think of. I knew it was by Rilke, but no-one could find it. So then I found it myself, by looking up a dictionary of quotations."
Ray Conlogue, the Globe and Mail's arts correspondent in Montreal for the last four years, is the latest to make a solid, serious, earnest effort at explaining Canada's two solitudes. This is a rich, deep, intense book.
Rainer Maria Rilke's line ("love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other") is from Letters to a Young Poet. It's prose, then, not poetry. Yet it's about love. Conlogue leaves the love and marriage metaphors, happily and completely, to one side. The felicitous, one might almost say happy, title, is, he says, just one he made up. This is a cultural rather than a political book, but inevitably politics has to come into it, often and considerably.
The author confines himself to Canada, French- and English-speaking, so there are few comparisons. It's worth pointing out, however, that Quebec's ambiguous status, as an "impossible nation", is not exactly unique in the world. Last April, the Centre of Canadian Studies at the University of Edinburgh held a major conference, on Boundaries. The day before, each conference being totally unconnected and unbeknownst to the other-universities can have solitudes, too-the sociology department at the same university ran a workshop on "stateless nations", and invited speakers from Catalonia, Quebec, and other similarly situated "sub-nations".
Conlogue's approach relies at times just a little too much on a number of authorities, whom he extensively footnotes, especially Charles Taylor, one of his dedicatees ("who has thought it through"). In a sense, in horse-racing terms, this is the first outing of an impressive fledgeling, who, given proper experience and good luck on the track, should develop the confidence and assertiveness to reward the punters, or readers, with steadily more impressive performances.
The author gets to one of his main themes early on. "A central preoccupation of this essay is the problem of `recognition' of minorities within national polities. This is a larger problem than the question of whether or not anglophones care to learn French. It has to do with the seeming ability of constituted nations to recognize the essential reality of `peoples' who exist within other nations and have not acceded to their own nation states."
So politics can't help but re-emerge. He presents persuasive arguments against the "orthodoxy" of the whole range of individualist, liberal critics of nationalism, from Pierre Trudeau and Maggie Thatcher to Diane Francis. Canada's policy of bilingualism he finds totally naive and unsuccessful.
He draws on a very wide range of writing, past and present, in French and English, to make his case (although why the bibliography is listed alphabetically by book title, not by author, Mercury alone knows).
After the l980 referendum, for example, Jacques Godbout wrote his novel Les Têtes à Papineau, about Canada's bifurcation, in the shape of two heads, one English-speaking, the other French-speaking, on the same body. As Conlogue sums it up, "Humour is a frequent francophone response to the intolerable pressure of English-speaking culture-the `other head' which is always right there beside you, always talking, rarely listening. The notion that two cultures that don't speak each other's languages can fuse into something called `national unity' doesn't make much sense to anybody who stops to think about it. Francophones think about it a good deal, which seems to be the reason they, and not English Canadians, write novels like Les Têtes à Papineau."
In such a broad sweep, there will almost inevitably be some inconsistencies. There aren't many, but to take a representative example: "A criticism of Quebec which is frequently expressed is that shared values at a certain point become suffocating because they inhibit individual expression....in reality, however, the opposite seems to be the case." On the very next page, however, he remarks that Quebec "is still under a great deal of stress because of the unresolved issue of its relationship with Canada. This, I think, exaggerates the comfortable solidarity of a settled community and creates an unhealthy tendency to mass consensus about television programs, filmmakers, athletes-whoever or whatever is held to embody Quebec at a given moment."
As a cultural journalist, his main concerns have to be with high culture. How else to explain his occasional lofty dismissals? He says, for example, "It is hard today to fill a hall for the patriotic ruralistic warbling of Gilles Vigneault." The ROC (Rest of Canada) for him is much too much Toronto. So English-speaking readers elsewhere in Canada will at times, one assumes, only be able to agree with him in part. For instance, "Today Canadian movies can still not be seen in Canadian theatres, and our legitimate theatre, founded with much fanfare in the sixties, has collapsed before a tidal wave of international mega-musical drivel."
Much of the present-day vitality of cultural life in English in Quebec comes from immigrants from Ontario and elsewhere in English-speaking North America. There's a long history of this, from before Scott Symons, to today's Ann Diamond, Marianne Ackerman, David Homel, and many more. It's hardly surprising then that they're more inclined to idealize or romanticize where they are, and be a touch less respectful of where they've come from. Conlogue, for instance, lets today's francophones off too easily with regard to their attitudes to Native issues.
The marriage metaphor isn't there, but he does touch on love, or its blind, one-sided variety, early on. On his second page he states, "The massive descent of Canadians on Montreal last October is a metaphor for cultural deafness. The English speakers who went there thought they were demonstrating `love'; French-speaking Montrealers felt invaded by a callous throng with which they have nothing in common."
In at least in one respect, Conlogue is in agreement with many of his fellow English-speaking Canadians: he's of a mixed mind whether this country can manage to keep together. Deep pessimism is, at times, relieved by deep optimism: for example, on the penultimate page he states his belief that "we may design the first federal state in the world in which a minority can be said to have been `recognized' as an equal partner."
Some important, influential Quebec writers don't share this ambiguity. Le Devoir of November 19th for instance carried as its major op-ed (or Idées) article, Yves Beauchemin's "The Impossible Recipe", sub-titled "Simultaneously promoting bilingualism and French is as difficult as making a chicken salad that's vegetarian."
Beauchemin (whose photo appeared in the same issue as part of a long article by Le Devoir's Paris correspondent on his books being pirated in France) is unequivocal: "If you soften up, or fall back, your adversaries will always demand more. Let them have your shirt, and then you'll find you sometimes lose your pants....Bilingualism will make French once again just a language of translation...."
Anyone wanting to understand how Canada got to its present state of affairs will find Conlogue's book enlightening.

 Alexander Craig is a journalist who lives in Sherbrooke.


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