Presence of the Past

  • William F. Pinar
    Moving Images of Eternity: George Grant’s Critique of Time, Teaching, and Technology. University of Ottawa Press (purchase at
  • Nicole Perry (Editor) and Marc-Oliver Schuster (Editor)
    Vergessene Stimmen, nationale Mythen: Literarische Beziehungen zwischen Österreich und Kanada/Forgotten Voices, National Myths: Literary Relations between Austria and Canada. Innsbruck University Press

Vergessene Stimmen, nationale Mythen/Forgotten Voices, National Myths is a bilingual collection of seven articles and a selection of lyric poetry predominantly drawn from an international conference—“Austria and Canada: Cultural Relations”—that took place at the University of Vienna in 2014, and that was planned and organized by Nicole Perry (Canada) and Marc-Oliver Schuster (Austria). While the conference was thematically dedicated to exploring diverse forms of Austrian-Canadian cultural relations in various domains, this volume contains contributions solely on literature and is divided into two sections: “Forgotten (and New) Literary Voices” and “National Myths and How They Are Dealt with in Literature.”

Four of the authors examined in part one—Hans Eichner, Henry Kreisel, Carl Weiselberger, and Monique Bosco—share a common traumatic past as Viennese Jews who escaped the Shoah before being caught in the Nazi death machine and who, after roundabout journeys, settled in Canada and distinguished themselves in successful careers. Unlike them, translator/poet R. Von Paschen was born in Canada, works in North America and Europe, and teaches at the University of Vienna. All these writers thus have a deep connection to Vienna and explore the imprint of Austria’s past, shadowed by atrocity and the superficiality of romanticized images of the capital. Its darker underside lingers in their psyches and finds an outlet in fiction and in poetry.

The first two papers focus upon Eichner, the renowned scholar and editor of Friedrich Schlegel’s works; they have the advantage of being written by his friends, Hermann Patsch and David G. John, who share their insights into his life as well as his novel (Kahn and Engelmann) and poetry (Little Blue Book). Patsch’s article places Eichner’s life and work in the context of “the North American experience of exile of persecuted Austrian Jews”; he provides points of contrast with two contemporaries (Egon Schwarz and Ruth Klueger) who settled in the US and maintained closer connections to their birthplace than did Eichner, who “distanced himself from his native country” and felt at home in Ontario, finding personal and professional fulfillment after a tumultuous early life. The past, though, did not entirely disappear, for in later life he published his “family saga,” a fictionalized exploration of the impact of the Shoah that contains three poems from his youth spent in London with fellow Jewish refugees. It is to these and other poems that John turns in “Hans Eichner’s Poetic Legacy.” He discusses the poetry, written between 1937 and early 1950, collected in the Little Blue Book, as well as later lyric poetry reflecting an idyllic Ontario landscape, where Eichner found peace and solace. A mixture of dark and light tones also marks the poems of Von Paschen, selected from VICE VERSA, that appear here in both languages, revealing ironic perspectives on Vienna, its people, and its past.

Essays on the literary works of Kreisel, Weiselberger, and Bosco—by Eugen Banauch and Yvonne Voelkl—examine their generation’s grappling with the traumas and moral issues of the Shoah, and also point out the unfortunate disregard of these authors in Austria. They are the forgotten voices, old and new, we must hear again.

Three essays on “National Myths” round out this fine collection: J. E. Magnet’s examination of Canada’s myth of two founding nations, F. P. Kirsch’s exploration of the Heimatsroman and the roman de la terre, and Julia Kerscher’s discussion of Thomas Bernhard’s Der Untergeher. By examining the mythic underpinnings of the stories that cultures create, we better understand the process of national and personal identity formation.

A link between these essays and William Pinar’s scholarly study of George Grant’s “critique of time, teaching, and technology” might be the continuation of the past in the present. Moving Images is as much a thorough, endnote-studded exploration of his thought as it is a devoted testimonial from Pinar to his “icon.” It is both a continual engagement with many authors, past and present, who impacted Grant, and an endorsement of his views on the dangers posed by an uncritical embrace of modernity, technological progress, and materialism. For those familiar with Grant’s work, this will not be news, but Pinar’s seven chapters present a compelling case for the validity of Grant’s ideas today.

At the core of this book is the contention that Grant is a progressive Christian Platonist who rejected progressivism after a youthful affair with it during his years of teaching adult education; the goal of training citizens for democracy and freedom that Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy championed was replaced by an embrace of Plato and Christ and a view of education as the pursuit of truth and morality. The modern emphasis upon reason as “instrumentality” directed toward the outcomes of mastery of nature and self via STEM, social science, psychology, and psychiatry has led to “catastrophe”; the vaunted freedom that such education should lead to has become instead a dead end of narcissism and exploitation. The “Sputnik effect” upon education has been to accelerate the homogenization, conformity, and mediocrity of students and the merger of industry, capital, and business with universities: an unholy alliance. In place of scholarship, research has dominated the academy and bound the teacher to the production assembly line to meet the required quota of publications. In place of this “idolatrous” condition, wherein the researcher must labour for the gods of profit and prestige, the authentic scholar will make study once again a holy service dedicated to Truth, his desk an altar, the study hall or library a “sacred space” wherein he labours for no other reward than to obtain a glimpse of “revelation” and a hope that one day there might be a successful transition into eternity. Alas, Pinar informs us, neither Grant nor he has made that leap; they hover on the edge of the temporal moment, striving for “attunement,” “presence,” “humility,” and “piety.”

A curriculum specialist, Pinar maintains the primacy of the curriculum and its obligation to question what knowledge is worthy of being taught; judging from his study of Grant, it would be less of the STEM subjects and more of theology, philosophy, and art. Nowhere is there an argument to be found in favour of balance and an engagement with rapidly developing technologies for which youth must be prepared—and, yes, to earn a living as well as to contemplate in their cubicles and to wish that their days might be “[b]ound each to each by natural piety.” We leave William sitting on the rock, renouncing the idols of the marketplace and academy.

This review “Presence of the Past” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Aug. 2020. Web.

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