Monday, January 5, 2009

Readings 2k9: A Fair Country

A Fair Country
by John Ralston Saul

The first book I completed in 2009. It was a good way to start the year. I've been following Saul's writing since the early 90s, with his "philosophical trilogy" of Voltaire's Bastards, A Doubter's Companion, and The Unconscious Civilization. Those books dissected things wrong with Western society-at-large; disconnections between understandings and aims, between aims and achievements. His next book, On Equilibrium, tried to suggest remedies; it encouraged a move away from reason, or what passes for reason among the élites of society, and toward a more humanistic balance of other qualities, including memory, common sense, and creativity. His book Reflections of a Siamese Twin was an attempt at reconsidering Canada, its history and reality. It could be seen as applying some of the ideas in the earlier books to the case of Saul's home country. A Fair Country demands to be read in light of the previous books; another consideration of Canada, it again considers the failure of the élite class (in Canada), again imagines new ways to understand Canadian history, again suggests ways to construct society with less of a ruinous focus on reason.

A Fair Country does this by arguing that Canada is a Métis country, a country born of — or at least a country that acts in line with — Native concepts of integration of the other, of fairness, of equality. It's an interesting, and in Saul's hands exciting, argument. Saul's approach here is a re-imagining of Canada as a unique thing in the world. It suggests what we have to offer to the global community. It analyses who we are; the characteristics we can't see, or often have not seen. It's powerful, and as a Canadian, as someone who has read a fair amount of Canadian history, I find it convincing and suggestive. This is a reading of Canada and its history as a creative act.

The immediate objection, and one that the book never squarely addresses, is to wonder why and how the social ideas that Saul identifies as being characteristic of Canadian Native societies developed over such a vast geographical spread, in coastal and land-locked nations, among peoples who sometimes had no obvious connection to each other at all. This is a worrying omission. Presumably, Saul would argue that the things he's talking about are things common to North America, or the Americas in general, and that the United States was not influenced by these ideas because that country always imagined itself as an embodiment of the ideas of the European Enlightenment. He does note in what is effectively an aside that the realities of South and Central America seems to resemble what he identifies as the Canadian reality. It's viable, but tenuous; I can't help but think the book might have benefited from examining these sorts of issues a little bit more.

But to me Saul's arguments about Canadian history do have the ring of truth, particularly in his analysis of what was happening in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In his view, the European colonists in the lands which would later be a part of Canada were deeply affected by the Native societies around them — indeed, not only around them, but integrated within them, or even better, into which they became integrated. Saul gives several examples of how intermarriage counted as ‘marrying up' for Europeans, and how European and Native negotiators interacted; how the more perceptive of the Europeans came away with a respect for the way the Natives conducted business. For Saul, this shaped later aspects of Canada, such as Confederation, even without explicit Native involvement. Hence, he argues, Canada is not fundamentally a Judeo-Christian country; it is not only not a traditional Western nation-state, it is not traditionally Western.

The colonial mentality which has marked much of Canadian history can thus be identified easily in both past and present: if somebody is acting according to ideals developed in New York or London or Paris simply because these ideals come from Imperial centres, they're acting like a colonist. Canada's élites, says Saul, often operate along these lines; hence, the country's decline as an economic power, its increasing reliance on the resource sector of its economy, its increasing lack of control over its own resources (directly caused by foreign ownership within the Canadian economy), and the inability of the élites to recognise these things as problematic.

Many of the arguments in the book have been broadly foreshadowed in Saul's previous books. Canada as a place that embraces complexity. The significance of the oral as opposed to the written word. The incompetence of the élites, their tendency to not act in the service of the larger community without even realising it. New concepts and symbols emerge as well: the relevance of the Native experience, the significance of the word Welfare as opposed to the word Order in early Canadian historical documents, the image of society as an ever-expanding circle constantly integrating new arrivals within itself. In that sense, the book is a step forward; Saul keeps thinking, and the book reflects the expansion of his previous thoughts, both in terms of philosophy and of history (it's interesting reading the book not long after Ronald Wright's What is America?, which looks at the United States implicitly from a Canadian perspective, and devotes much time to considering the Native experience in the lands which now make up that country).

Having said all this, there are areas of Saul's arguments which I would argue with or which seem to me to be incomplete. These have mainly to do with his thinking on place and on creativity. Saul identifies an aspect of the colonial mentality as placelessness; a sense that the colonial is only in Canada as an accident, that Canada (or other colony) is an unreal place, and that real places are elsewhere, closer to the heart of Empire. This is to some extent familiar from his other books, and so far I have no argument with it. Saul then goes on to argue that part of the ineluctable reality of Canada is the nature of its place, and that there are five fundamental aspects of place in Canada: urban places, agricultural rural places, wilderness places of forest and rock, then barren places north of that (effectively a second wilderness place), and then the subarctic North proper. Saul claims that the latter three places cannot change their use; that the wilderness cannot be made rural or urban. I'm not entirely sure about this; in particular, I don't see why, if patterns of settlement and climate continue to shift, urban areas can't spring up in some of these places. But basically this is fair enough.

My problem is where Saul then takes this argument. After having defined a particular characteristic of Canada's urban centres — "They are gradually turning into primary sites of experimentation for the mixing of races and cultures" (p. 46) — he then tries to minimise their importance, by saying, for example, that "neither the urban nor the rural have been able to turn themselves into Canada's underlying source of wealth" (p. 47) and that to embrace the urban as of primary importance "is to cut ourselves off from our particular reality — to cut ourselves off from ourselves, our real life in our real country." By pages 283-4, Saul is saying that cities are potentially "new garrisons" (following from Northrop Frye's warning of a colonial "garrison mentality" in Canada, viewing the country as a small garrison of people from elsewhere fighting to maintain Imperial culture in a place with no inherent value of its own) which one way or another distances people from the land around them. In this way, argues Saul, city life risks dividing humans from the natural places which make up most of the country.

It seems to me that Saul is wrong here. It seems to me that the cities of Canada are (or should be) the particular reality of their citizens, and that an engagement with that reality by definition means that they cannot be garrisons in the sense he means; in other words, that cities are no more or less likely to be garrisons, to breed that colonial mentality, than any other place in Canada. If you're prepared to deny what's around you, you'll do so irrespective of where you are; if you're not, you probably won't.

I think further that Saul is looking at cities through the wrong lens. The question of how much wealth is generated by a given city is of interest in certain contexts, but, as he himself implies, not when examining the core nature of these places. That is, a city like Montréal is of primary importance as "a site of experimentation for the mixing of races and cultures"; I'd argue that this adheres fairly closely to the ideal of what a city is. I think a city is not primarily about generating wealth, any more than a human being is ‘about' eating and reproduction. Instead, both are about art, about culture, about history: about creation. About making new things. Especially, about making the greater world around them new. You can argue that cities might be more efficient if they made more money, but I don't think you could argue that this would make them better places, or more "real". (In fact, it seems to me Saul's missed a bet here: are Canadian cities perhaps unique due to an integration of rural and wilderness areas into their history and ongoing development in ways which are not common in the rest of the world?)

Now, Saul's general approach, that the idea of movement from hunter-gatherers to farmers to urban life is simply one of unquestionable progress to be unreservedly hailed, is one I would agree with. My point of disagreement, ultimately, is with his analysis of culture, of creativity. I think he undervalues these things, and I see this elsewhere in the book.

A Fair Country is a book concerned with language — can you write a book about Canada and not have it be concerned with language? — and it has many wise things to say about language use, particularly in terms of law or philosophy. But I have qualms with its analysis or assumptions about the creative use of language.

Consider the following statement: "Our universities — anglophone and francophone — are largely constructed as pale imitations of European models led by language. And so ideas — to say nothing of literature and history — are separated out by language, as if that were the ultimate statement of meaning, as if an Alberian novel had more to say to a francophone or a Sri Lankan novel had more to say to an anglophone just because it was written in their language, even if the experiences and influences are completely different." These sentences are problematic because Saul's confusing two different things: ideas, and literature. He's right that it's foolish to expect philosophy and history to appeal to people because they're written in a specific language; in those cases, the ideas are what matter, and the literary form, including language, is accidental. Literature is a different kettle of fish. Novels and poems (to a lesser extent, because less purely verbal, film and plays and graphic novels) are language. A translation is really a rewriting; it's not the original text. What that text is, is something dependent upon the language in which it's written.

For me specifically, I don't see why a Sri Lankan novel might have any more or less to say to me than an English-language novel set in Montréal; it might have more to say to me due to other aspects of it's subject, of course, and then again it might be more immediately accessible because I'll have fewer assumptions to set aside — the extrapolations that I and the hypothetical other Montréal writer may have made about our common experiences will be different, which is presumably something that's less likely to occur with a Sri Lankan writer. And, of course, I think most people read (I certainly do) not to confirm their reality, but to broaden it, to find new things, to in a sense experience new feelings and the perceptions of some other person. From this perspective, a foreign author writing in one's first language is a fantastic luxury. But the truth is that in the end experiences, shared or not, are irrelevant; the use of language is all. It is language that makes a text.

To be even more specific: I find, let's say, both Mordecai Richler's novel Barney's Version and the poetical works of Émile Nelligan to have some relevance to me, as a person and as a writer. I don't mean that latter in any specific sense or any precise influence, only that these creative works seems to me to harmonise with something in me (questions of relative quality, of course, are completely beside the point here). I'd say those works are more relevant to me than, say, The Great Gatsby, Vanity Fair, or Une saison en enfer. They are less relevant to me than, say, John Crowley's Ægypt quartet, the poems of Percy Shelley, or Notre-Dame de Paris. Same sequence of writers: American English, British English, French. Widely different reactions. The point: the country of origin of a writer is not significant in determining whether they speak to a reader. It is entirely a function of the use of a shared language. This recognition is lacking in A Fair Country.

Put another way: the best way to teach literature in English (for example) is in just that form — incorporating texts from around the world which were written in the English language. It is not as desirable, but probably still somewhat useful, to teach the literature of England, the literature of the United States, the literature of Canada. My experience at a primarily English-language Canadian literature tended to be a mixture of both, with the first predominating. I read English writers, American writers, and Canadian writers, all in English. But I also read some French-Canadian writers, in translation. According to Saul, this is apparently unusual, as he claims Canadian universities "soft-pedal the idea of Canadian literature" (p. 99). I can only say that I haven't seen that in any immediately obvious way.

Three last points about this subject: One, the quote from Saul above is in the context of arguing that creativity needs an interrelationship with place to flourish. I'm a bit more agnostic than that; I think creativity is wilder than that, and that while a healthy relationship with place is likely to spur creation, it's not absolutely needed. Two, Saul refers in this section to Canadian literature as "successful," which I think needs to be qualified; it seems to me that Canadian literature has not yet produced a story or character with world-wide resonance, something like Faust or Don Quixote. On the other hand, there may well be something in the Native myths which are just less well-known; and it may be that William Gibson, in effectively inventing the genre of cyberpunk, produced that kind of broad imaginative creation that I'm talking about here.

Thirdly, Saul consistently uses the word "Romantic" and its derivatives — in the general sense of Romanticism — as a term of opprobrium. Given the incredible range of meanings for that word, I would have liked to have seen some hints from Saul about what Romanticism means to him. I'm not sure his arguments about imaginative creation hold up given his perspective on Romanticism. On page 276: "If we cannot explain ourselves to ourselves, no one outside Canada will be able to imagine us. We need to be extremely clear, unromantic, comfortable with what is original or atypical about the Canadian experiment in order to create an imaginative space." Is a "clear, unromantic" perspective compatible with "creat[ing] an imaginative space"? Maybe; it's not obvious either way. Four pages later, Saul refers to "an obsession with clarity" as a Western, un-Canadian, characteristic. Which seems contradictory in a non-illuminating manner. At the very least, given Saul's interest in place, some interaction with Romanticism, and its own obsessions with place, would be intriguing.

These thoughts aside, A Fair Country is an important book. It's a search for a Canadian philosophy; a philosophy derived from place, of particular interest in these days when the apparent placelessness of the internet engages with the specificity of experience in specific places. Saul's own personal experience of the country and his status here inform the book; he can draw on his experience of what he has seen and learned first-hand about the country, and presumably he can write with some assurance that the book will become a part of the country's discourse — that what he says will be heard.

That's an encouraging thought, because Saul's voice is worth hearing. His articulation, the style of his arguments, are worth reading, worth engaging with. Above all, his passion for his country, and his engagement with its history, is worth experiencing; it has the capacity to inspire engagement in others.

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