How Should We Remember?
- Jocelyn Létourneau (Author), Howard Scott (Translator), and Phyllis Aronoff (Translator)
A History for the Future: Rewriting Memory and Identity in Quebec. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Adele Holoch
In a place where memory is a motto, what role should the past play in shaping the future, and what are the responsibilities and ramifications of remembering? Jocelyn Létourneau’s A History for the Future, a collection of articles previously published in Canadian, American, and European journals, considers “the challenge of turning [the past] into a narrative that will contribute to building a better society and establishing a legacy that is liberating for the heirs—in this case the Quebecers of tomorrow.” A scholar of twentieth century Quebec history who holds the Canada Research Chair in the History and Political Economy of Contemporary Quebec at Université Laval, Létourneau won widespread acclaim and Quebec’s 2000 Prix Spirale for non-fiction for the original French edition of his work, published in 2000 as Passer à l’avenir: histoire, mémoire, identité dans le Québec d’aujourd’hui.
In its English edition, translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott, Létourneau’s work stands as an important contribution to the continuing consideration of Québécois identity. Neither a retelling of Quebec’s history nor an attempt to map its future, A History for the Future is instead a remarkably nuanced and insightful exploration of how Quebec’s complicated past can be transformed “into a regenerative consciousness through the production of a narrative of recognition, mourning, and hope.”
If Quebec’s motto, je me souviens, suggests that the process of remembering is a cornerstone in the preservation and ongoing creation of Québécois identity, Létourneau argues that Québécois’ collective memory is too firmly rooted in a history defined by obstacles and losses, and their hopes for the future too fixed on the idea of an independent state, to serve as a viable foundation for the future. In his first chapter, “‘Remembering (from) Where You’re Going’: Memory as Legacy and Inheritance,” Létourneau describes a writing exercise wherein a group of undergraduates were asked to describe the history of Quebec from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Reflected in the students’ responses was an understanding of Quebec’s history as one of oppression, and a belief that Quebec’s collective cycle of defeat could only be broken when Quebec establishes its independence. Ils se souviennent. Létourneau writes, “In fact, their memory is precise in that it is simple, focused, and assured. And that is certainly a problem, if not a failure, in terms of a memory for the future.” For Létourneau, Quebec’s identity hinges not on a fixed, absolute history, but on a defocused process of remembering that will “open the future as wide as possible . . . [and] create conditions such that the concept of fixity never prevails.”
Significantly, the open future Létourneau envisions for the Québécois community is one wherein the apex of possibility is not necessarily political sovereignty. In his second chapter, “Going from Heirs to Founders: The Great Collective Narrative of Quebecers as Revisited by Gérard Bouchard,” Létourneau argues that Quebec’s “constitutive ambivalences, its intermingled facets, its constant fits and starts” are fundamental to what Quebec was, is, and will be. Through the remaining chapters of A History for the Future¸ “What History for the Future of Canada?”, “The Fate of the Past: Risks and Challenges of Turning the Past into Narrative (Notes on Jacques Godbout’s The Fate of America),” “Toward a Revolution of Collective Memory: History and Historical Consciousness Among Quebecers of French-Canadian Heritage,” and “What Should We Pass On? Moving into the Future,” Létourneau threads his argument that Quebec’s hopes for the future should rest not on an independent state, but in the continued play of the tensions that have made the Québécois community what it is today. He asks, “Are ambivalence and cohabitation, in tension with the ‘other’ necessarily suicidal options for the community, an abdication of the task to be accomplished, a rejection of the utopian solidarity? Could it not be, rather, that they express a certain reflective wisdom—a wisdom tested by the ancestors and bequeathed to their descendants—in the building of a present and a future along the felicitous line of pragmatism, mutual respect for cultures, and friendship?” Quebec’s constitutive ambivalences, Létourneau concludes, are neither a failure nor a barrier to a distant, neatly articulated and perfectly realized identity, but rather, central to a promising future for the community.
A thoughtful testament to the complexity of Quebec’s history and an insightful and ultimately hopeful consideration of the community’s future, A History for the Future: Rewriting Memory and Identity in Quebec is an essential text for anyone interested in Québécois identity.
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MLA: Holoch, Adele. How Should We Remember?. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #192 (Spring 2007), Gabrielle Roy contemporaine/The Contemporary Gabrielle Roy. (pg. 173 - 174)
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