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Current Issue: #221 Science & Canadian Literature (Summer 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 221 (Summer 2014) is now available. This special issue focuses on science and Canadian literature and features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Vitriolic Quixote

  • George Grant (Author)
    English-Speaking Justice. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • William Christian (Editor) and Sheila Grant (Editor)
    The George Grant Reader. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by George Elliott Clarke

English-Canadian polemicist George Grant (1918-1988) lived out his biblical threescore-and-ten as both a vital pacifist and a vitriolic philosophe. Though a conservative who loathed the American assault on Vietnam and pitied the devastation of Nazi Germany by "technological war" (between the United States and the Soviet Union), his essay titles often use the combative phrase, "In Defence of...." His sermons—those poetry-infused meditations, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965) and English-Speaking Justice (1974)—offer elegiac embraces of stolidly conservative políticos, like John Diefenbaker, together with ferocious evis-cerations of their charming liberal foes, like John Kennedy. Grant’s destruction of the hypocrisies of "progressive" courts and legislatures are scathingly comic. Yet, he can carry his calculated offensives too far, as when, in his 1983 attempt to rehabilitate the anti-Semitic French writer Céline, he sympathizes with Adolf Hitler’s "agony of loneliness in the gaudy decay of pre-World War I Vienna, and his identification of the Jews with that society...."

The image of Grant that emerges from the short essays compiled in The George Grant Reader—ably edited by his biographer, William Christian, and by his widow, Sheila Grant—is that of a Canuck Don Quixote: a knight tilting at machine-guns. One sees Grant fighting—flailing—to preserve the wisdom of "the ancients" or "the great minds of the past" (especially Plato) and the revelation of Christ against modernity’s terrific—and terrifying—mania for technique, the Molochian power that allows human beings (mainly of the English-speaking persuasion), to dethrone God and manipulate Nature and human nature for their own purposes. To Grant, this vision of "scientific" progress is Gothic horror: it replaces divine truth with rights-based regimes, thus robbing human beings of "nobility" and making them into things instead.

Scholars debate whether Grant’s work is a mishmash of Plato, Martin Heidegger, Friederich Nietzsche, Leo Strauss, and Simone Weil. Let them: Grant is a guerilla believer who uses the bons mots of these thinkers as he feels just. Crucially, Grant iterates a phrase from Strauss—"oblivion of eternity"—in his essays, usually without attribution (or even quotation marks), for it specifies the ideational flaw in secularized Judeo-Christian civilization. By putting Darwin ahead of Genesis, "Freudian sex" and "Marxian economics" ahead of The Gospels, moderns forget that, to quote the conclusion oí Lament, "changes in the world . . . take place within an eternal order that is not affected by their taking place." Grant deflates the vanity of historicism by insisting that the eternal—or, the divine—exercises an invisible sovereignty over human destinies. Thus, Grant employs the temporal term tradition as a synonym for perceived truth. In a 1954 article, he states that the religious "live in tradition"; in Justice (1974), he warns that a "lack of tradition of thought [that is, religious philosophy] is one reason why it is improbable that the transcendence of justice over technology will be lived among English-speaking people." For Grant, to live outside of tradition or philosophy or eternity (these are all related ideas for him) is to live outside "the matrix of nobility."

Significantly, Grant loves chivalric words like noble/nobility, excellence, virtue, and great. He peppers his essays with references to the plight of "human nobility in the modern world," to "human excellence," to the loss of "the goodness once defined as the cultivation of virtues," and to the "Classical Greats" (a phrase illuminating his respect for "the ancients"). Grant’s adoration of concepts like greatness, nobility, and virtue suggests he read the French Jewish intellectual Julien Benda, whose masterful—and austerely Platonist—anti-nationalist polemic, La Trahison des clercs (1927), is echoed, ironically, in Grant’s archly nationalist Lament. Grant agrees with Benda that the erection of a "universal and homogeneous state" would be an impious tyranny, and he borrows Benda’s citation of Hegel, namely, that "Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht."

Grant’s refusal to define his medieval-romantic terms weakens his arguments, however. He makes reckless assertions, for instance that France once had a "noble stature." But his prejudices pose an uglier problem. Grant halves the world between the white, Protestant, Anglo-dominated West and "Asiatics"—or "Asians"—his code name for Buddhists, Hindus, State Communists, and, perhaps, Jews. True: Grant lauds all of these groups, deeming them to be more faithful than Occidental infidels to ideals of sacrifice. Yet he can write with aplomb about the "mystery of the Jews" and decide that living with this "mystery" requires "reverence and good judgment." At best, the argument is patronizing; at worst, it is much worse. Too, Grant’s discourse on the West ignores dissident (particularly racial) minorities—save Quebec Catholic francophones. Then, his eccentric Orientalism omits Islam and Muslims. Sadly, when Grant uses the word our, he always means Anglo-American, sometimes European or Judeo-Christian, but never any multicultural plurality.

Grant conceives women’s struggle for gender equality as a vanity that renders them the prey of technology, specifically in the quest for economic "success." For Grant, this appetite reduces women to objects of biological manipulation and instruments of "feticide." In a 1988 essay, "Triumph of the Will," he holds that the liberal-ordained supremacy of the individual "will" over "Truth, beauty, and goodness" means that all—especially pregnant—women are "freed from the traditional constraints against killing." Hence, Grant eyes feminism as the ally of a rights-based "fascism" engendered by "intellectual oblivion of eternity."

In his introduction to the reissue of English-Speaking Justice (where Grant first attacks abortion), Robin Lathangue posits, contra William Christian, that Grant was no mere academic philosopher, but a "public intellectual." Sure, but more importantly, Grant the writer is a superb controversialist, one who damns his opponents as "Procrustean" (another favoured word) and who sculpts choice, balanced sentences and witty metaphors to declare his love of the "good." His finest essays remain fresh, pungent interrogations of "our" assumptions. They aspire to a beauty appreciating that "the beautiful at its heights gives us purposiveness but its good transcends us (oh dangerous word)." They also ask, perhaps dangerously, who among us happy moderns should escape whipping?

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MLA: Clarke, George Elliott. Vitriolic Quixote. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #170-171 (Autumn/Winter 2001), Nature / Culture. (pg. 198 - 199)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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