Reading Uncle George

“Brilliant column by Terence Corcoran!” S. is reading the National Post (April 21, FP 11). I make a snatch. Yes. Corcoran is reviewing Michael Ignatieff’s family memoir, True Patriot Love, which predictably describes at length Ignatieff’s famous Uncle George: George Parkin Grant, author of Lament for a Nation, the Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, first published in 1965, still read and still loved.

Corcoran’s complaint is that under the guise of recounting family history, Ignatieff is attempting to enlist Grant and his fame in support of Ignatieff’s own political prospects as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. The problem, as Corcoran so correctly points out is that is that George Grant was deeply hostile to the Liberal Party, its history, and all its projects. He disliked many aspects of modernity, but disliked especially Liberals with a capital “L.”

One can see why Ignatieff would want to appropriate Grant. There’s the matter of his fame. But beyond that there’s the fact that everything Grant wrote about Canada is informed by a power and passion that captivates readers to this day. Lament and all the other books, mostly collections of essays, reflect deep knowledge of political philosophy, the Biblical scriptures and the great theologians, and life-long contemplation of the human condition and an indubitably compelling moral commitment. And this deep fund of philosophy and moral thinking is harnessed to an argument for Canadian nationalism! Could a politician ask for more? Lament shows us our country, our own dear Canada, sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of eternity. It is done in plain English, a straightforwardly beautiful English. The recitation of Canadian history is familiar, and the place names. The book will be read as long as there is a Canada.

Consider the last sentence: “Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore.” The quotation is from Virgil, Aeneid (Book VI): “They were holding their arms outstretched in love toward the further shore.” At this point in the argument it is no longer clear whether Grant is talking about our love for the eternal moral order or – indeed – our love for Canada. But the heart leaps.

Corcoran’s right. Ignatieff’ has set himself an impossible task. Grant can’t be made into a Liberal with a capital “L.” He’s too large, for one thing. He’s too grand. He can’t be forced into the mold of party politics. But there’s more. An attempt to turn his writings into political prescriptions would make us into a nation of monsters. Consider first his deep-seated anti-Americanism. Grant’s hostility to many aspects of modernity involves him in a rejection of the United States beside which Europe’s shilly-shally anti-Americanism pales. Then there’s his disdain for material acquisition, and for projects to enhance a country’s wealth or rescue one from recession. (Corcoran’s good on this subject and I’m looking forward to a review of the Ignatieff by William Watson.)

There’s his support for oligarchy.  For goodness sakes! Grant defends the Family Compact, and Chateau Clique! “They were more willing to use the government to protect the common good. They were more willing to restrain the individual’s freedom in the interests of the community.” And there’s the fact that the Canada Grant teaches us to “lament,” never existed; it was not a “Canada” that included the West; or indeed the Maritimes. The Quebec that Grant admired died with Duplessis. No, there’s nothing in Grant to support a Liberal Party program. There are true things to be learned about humanity and about politics from Lament and Grant’s other writings. But there is no prudent political prescription for a political party, Liberal or Conservative. As he himself knew.


5 Responses to “Reading Uncle George”

  1. 1 John April 22, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    “shilly-shally anti-Americanism” – a great line. May I pinch that from you?

    Then there’s the matter of MI’s soft-Nietzschean defense of human rights.

  2. 2 janetajzenstat April 22, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Hello John. Take anything you want from the blog. We use a Socratic approach. There’s no political economy in the world of ideas. If I give you an idea, or phrase, I haven’t lost it. J.

  3. 3 george April 24, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    “George Grant as a political prescription would make us into a nation of monsters”…isn’t that a bit harsh?

    Yes, his economic nationalism would not be popular with economists, but are there not other, more practical, ways in which we could turn back from “the universal and homogeneous state”?

    Promoting knowledge of our history and our literature might not be bad idea; or is there nothing left of CANADIAN history and CANADIAN literature? Then, how about Conrad Black’s idea of using the CBC and Radio-Canada to reconnect with our European roots, by buying up BBC or France Télévision programmes?

    In other words, Grant can at least inspire us to step away from contemporary mass culture. Can’t he?

  4. 4 S. April 30, 2009 at 4:54 am

    Sorry, but you must not have glanced at the book. I’m not impressed by it, but surely it is no clearer than in the section on Grant that Ignatieff is not in fact harnessing his family history for such political purposes. Rather he is entirely critical of his uncle, and explicitly refers to Grant’s dislike of the Liberal Party, and the ways in which Ignatieff (right, if we’re being honest) disagrees by acknowledging the most critical nation building phase of our political history occurred at the behest of the very party that Grant despised, right as he did saw the end approaching.

  5. 5 rodcros July 14, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    George Grant still carries some weight with my generation of Canadians. His pessimism ignited our nationalism; his acceptance of the inevitability of American domination left us determined to prove the prophet wrong. But the stimulus and the passion came from Lament For a Nation.

    Michael Ignatieff uses Grant to establish his Conservative chops. Last week in London he served notice in the Berlin Lecture that the CPC is no legitimate heir to the support of Progressive Conservative voters. He stated in his lecture that Progressive Conservative leaders subscribed to a liberal-demoncratic tradition very like that of the Liberal Party of Canada. He’s not wrong in this.

    Then Tom Flanagan writes the think-piece in the Globe accusing Liberals of squealing like little girls over a few attack ads, and Harper finds himself inadvertently tarred with the Republican brush. All of the sudden Uncle George starts to look pretty good to us wannabe Canadian nationalists, and Harper’s made-in-America politics doesn’t look Conservative at all.

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