Robert Lepage:
Connecting Flights: In Conversation with Remy Charest

by Robert Lepage, Remy Charest, Wanda Romer Taylor, John Ralston Saul,
208 pages,
ISBN: 1559361654

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Brief Reviews
by Alexander Craig

"The existence of a nation," runs one of Ernest Renan's most famous observations, "is a daily plebiscite." It is of course rather more complicated than that, as the great French historian indicates in the rest of this lecture to the Sorbonne in 1882. This new translation by Wanda Romer Taylor of What is a Nation? Qu'est-ce qu'une Nation? (Tapir Press, 55 pages, $8.00 paper, $10 including shipping, from Tapir Press, 91 Langley Ave, Toronto, Ont. M4K 1B4) has been published facing the French text. It shows well how some of these historical puzzles continue to be reflected, in, for example, today's Canada.

In his judicious introduction, the philosopher Charles Taylor notes that Renan understood that the "the fundamental ambiguity or malaise known to all forms of nationalism exists in the nation's relation to history, its source of founding truths and myths. But Renan also highlighted another source of ambiguity-that the nation is conceived from the start as one among many."

Unsurprisingly, then, Renan's thoughts provide matter for discussion and reflection by nationalists and anti-nationalists alike. The straightforward, simplistic, blanket condemnation of nationalism by such as Russell, Orwell, and Trudeau, are understandable in the light of this century's history, but Renan chose to take a much longer look. "Through their diverse and often opposing powers, nations serve the common purpose of civilization; each sounds a note in the great concert of humanity, which, finally, is the highest ideal reality we can attain."

He seeks precision "in these difficult issues since the least confusion about the meaning of a word at the outset of the argument, may, by its end, lead to the most grievous of errors." (He manifested this concern throughout his writing: in A Skeptic's Prayer, for instance: "O Lord, if there is a Lord, save my soul, if I have a soul.")

Throughout he takes the long view. "Human wills change, but what in our material world does not? Nations are not eternal. They were begun, they will end. A European confederation will probably replace them. But such is not the law of the century in which we live. At the present time, the existence of nations is a good thing, even a necessity. Their existence is a guarantee of liberty, which would be lost if the world had only one law and one master."

Writing in a period when France still suffering from the defeat by Prussia and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine, he carefully distinguished his views on nationalism from German romantic exclusivism. Nationalism, he said, is necessary at this stage of civilization, it is an advance on tribes, or cities, or empires. Yet it cannot, he goes on, be based on race, religion, or language. He deplores historical circumstances where "we limit ourselves, we confine ourselves. We leave the open air of the great field of humanity to lock ourselves up in little factions of compatriots. There is nothing worse for the mind; nothing more deplorable for civilization."

It is then, as can be seen, a serene and philosophical text. Civilization in the 113 years since he gave this lecture has undergone some of its most dreadful divisions ever. Yet so much of what he says still has a bearing on how we face our particular problems. Indeed, his final two sentences sound rather too familiar: "Perhaps, after many fruitless attempts, we will return to our more modest empirical solutions. The best way of being right in the future is, at given times, to know how to resign oneself to being out of fashion."

Alexander Craig


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