The frontiers of our dreams are no longer the same (2)


Aquin wanted a total ‘national revolution’. He wanted to rebuild Quebec society from the bottom up. He wanted to start anew and this led him to analyse both the strengths and weaknesses of his own culture. He saw himself as a representative of the collective will of his people with all of the contradictions which that entails. This is an attractive formulation, a somewhat religious one in fact. It may explain the dark paradox of Aquin's suicide. He offered himself to the Quebec people as myth and this is inevitably the site of a death. No one individual can ever be the nation just as the nation can never be understood or experienced through one person, although we have witnessed many efforts to create and sustain the possibility of that myth (from Lenin and Stalin through to Mao, Thatcher, Reagan, and so forth). In death all of these ambiguities are frozen. In life they undergo neverending change which alters the myth, perhaps fundamentally and even leads to its unmasking.

Aquin experienced this gap in a very personal way. He grew frustrated with the slowness of change, with the time it takes for any community to alter its norms and values. His death was premature and a profound loss but its ambiguity may be at the heart of the dilemma which many people face and have faced in Quebec for the last fifty years. The simple terms within which national identity have been laid out means that any considerations about the future have to be deferred. It will suffice, the modern nationalist argument goes, to regain what has been lost, to live in our own country.

In a time when the very concept of the nation is undergoing complete change, when the ideals of the market economy have triumphed over all other ideologies, when Quebeckers voted for a trans-national system of free trade, no border is secure, no identity untouched. Nationalism in Quebec will prosper if its discourse remains frozen and resistent to the shifts of history, if it engages with the myths of its own ideology as if they have become real. As Eduardo Galeano has so brillantly argued: “What it all comes down is that we are the sum of our efforts to change who we are. Identity is no museum piece sitting stock-still in a display case, but rather the endlessly astonishing synthesis of the contradictions of everyday life? Eduardo Galeano, “Celebration of Contradictions? in The Book of Embraces , (New York: Norton, 1991), p.125.

To me the history of Quebec is full of extraordinary ambiguity, ranging from a long tradition of social justice to crass anti-semitism, from democratic practices to extreme forms of authoritarianism, from an exemplary openess to other cultures to narrowness and intolerance. This is not the place to examine all of these shifts, suffice to say that nationalists are rewriting this past in order to imagine a radically diffferent future. Yet there is something troubling about the strategy of post-referendum (1980 and 1995) nationalists, something which Aquin anticipated in the 1970's. There is a desire to downplay the heterogeneity of identity, to eliminate the contradictions of historical change, to freeze perceptions of Quebec's situation as if it has not evolved or undergone some fundamental shifts over the past five decades.

It is one of the errors of the nationalist movement to presume that all of this complexity can be magically excised through the political process. On the other hand, I would also say that the national imaginary cannot be rejected as irrational. The desire to find some coherence in the maelstrom of activities, thoughts and hopes which any community experiences at an individual and collective level must not be dismissed. To do so would be to deny the role of the community in building an image for itself — to deny the necessity of identity as a cultural, social and political process. Yet even as I say this, I am aware that the terms themselves (the social, for example) have been depleted in meaning by the very activities which should be enriching them. The polarities at work here, most fully symbolised by the terror which was unleashed in the former Yugoslavia, cannot be resolved within the framework of nationalist ideologies. The nation then, must be seen as a contingent formation and this inevitably creates serious problems for those beholden to its mythic underpinnings.