Saturday, October 31, 2015

George Grant.

Having devoted my last post to Glenn Gould, here is more Canadian Content in the form of a 1973 episode of the CBC interview program Impressions featuring a conversation between historian Ramsay Cook and political philosopher George Grant. Though I've been reading Grant's work for years, I don't think I've ever mentioned him on this blog; the above interview offers a concise introduction to some of his characteristic themes and concerns revolving around questions of national identity, the relationship between religion and culture, and what it means to live in an increasingly technological society. All of these questions matter as much to us in the second decade of the twenty-first century as they did when Grant wrote about them in the 1960s and '70s, which helps to make Grant's work yet more timely for us today. Though Grant's most famous book remains Lament for a Nation, his great apologia for Canadian nationalism, I think that a better introduction to his work for interested parties may be a book like Technology and Empire. One of the essays featured in Technology and Empire, "In Defence of North America," can be read for free thanks to its republication by Communio in 2011. Written in 1968, at a time of considerable political and social ferment on both sides of the Atlantic, "In Defence of North America" may be as good a place as any for the novice reader of Grant to begin, and as a further enticement I offer these excerpts:
. . . those who know themselves to be North Americans know they are not Europeans. The platitude cannot be too often stated that the U.S. is the only society that has no history (truly its own) before the age of progress. English-speaking Canadians, such as myself, have despised and feared the Americans for the account of freedom in which their independence was expressed, and have resented that the other traditions of the English-speaking world should have collapsed before the victory of that spirit; but we are still enfolded with the Americans in the deep sharing of having crossed the ocean and conquered the new land. All of us who came made some break in that coming. The break was not only the giving up of the old and the settled, but the entering into the majestic continent which could not be ours in the way that the old had been. It could not be ours in the old way because the making of it ours did not go back before the beginning of conscious memory. The roots of some communities in eastern North America go back far in continuous love for their place, but none of us can be called autochthonous, because in all there is some consciousness of making the land our own. It could not be ours also because the very intractability, immensity and extremes of the new land required that its meeting with mastering Europeans be a battle of subjugation. And after that battle we had no long history of living with the land before the arrival of the new forms of conquest which came with industrialism.

That conquering relation of place has left its mark within us. When we go into the Rockies we may have the sense that gods are there. Bu if so, they cannot manifest themselves to us as ours. They are the gods of another race, and we cannot know them because of what we are, and what we did. There can be nothing immemorial for us except the environment as object. Even our cities have been encampments on the road to economic mastery.
Much of the above resonates with my own experience, both as an American who has spent time in Europe and as an American living in Canada who has come to appreciate a particularly Canadian sense of place which regards the land as something incompletely conquered and, in some sense, alien. The contours of the relationship between Europe and North America and the role in both places of cultural Christianity (or, in a broader sense, the Hellenic inheritance) are rather nicely captured in this admittedly long and dense but lucid paragraph close to the end of the same essay:
I know how distant from North Americans is the stance of contemplation, because I know the pervasiveness of the pragmatic liberalism in which I was educated and the accidents of existence which dragged me out of it. To write so may seem some kind of boasting. But the scavenging mongrel in the famine claims no merit in scenting food. Perhaps for later generations of North Americans it is now easier to turn and partake in deeper traditions than they find publicly around them. The fruits of our own dominant tradition have so obviously the taste of rot in their luxuriance. It may be easier for some of the young to become sane, just because the society is madder. But for myself it has taken the battering of a lifetime of madness to begin to grasp even dimly that which has been inevitably lost in being North American. Even to have touched Greekness (that is to have known it not simply as antiquarianism) required that I should first have touched something in Europe which stayed alive there from before the age of progress through all its acceptance of that age. By touching Europe I do not mean as a fascinating museum or as a place of diversion, but to have felt the remnants of a Christianity which was more than simply the legitimising of progress and which still held in itself the fruits of contemplation. By that touching I do not mean the last pickings of authentic theology left after the storms of modern thought (though that too) but things more deeply in the stuff of everyday living which remain long after they can no longer be thought: public and private virtues having their point beyond what can in any sense be called socially useful; commitments to love and to friendship which lie rooted in a realm outside the calculable; a partaking in the beautiful not seen as the product of human productivity; amusement and ecstasies not seen as the enemy of reason. This is not to say that such things did not or do not exist in North America (perhaps they cannot disappear among human beings) but their existence has been dimmed and even silenced by the fact that the public ideology of pragmatic liberalism could not sustain them in its vision. The remnants of that which lay beyond bargaining and left one without an alternative still could be touched even amidst the degeneracy of Europe's ruin. They generally existed from out of a surviving Christianity or Judaism (neither necessarily explicit) which pointed to a realm in which they were sustained. I remember the surprise - the distance and the attraction - of letting near one at all seriously a vision of life so absent in day to day North America. I remember how such a vision inevitably jeopardised one's hold on North America: how it made one an important stranger in the practical realm of one's own society. But the remnants of such a Europe were only one remove from what was one's own. It was the seedbed out of which the attenuated Christianity of our secularised Calvinism had come. To touch the vestiges of this fuller Christianity was a possible step in passing to something which was outside the limits of one's own.
To read the rest, click here. To read even more Grant, get your hands on a copy of Technology and Empire. AMDG.