Winter 2005 - Volume 8 Number 1
George Grant: Redefining Canada
Montreal: XYZ Publishing
Almost everyone gets George Grant wrong. A sneering liberal commentator, vexed over Grant's most influential book Lament for a Nation (1965), dismissed him as a pathetic member of the downwardly mobile colonial elite whose only lament was that he and his ilk no longer dominated Canadian culture. There was nothing so wretched, he said, than an obsolete aristocrat down on his luck. At about the same time, James Laxer (see the review of his Red Diaper Baby elsewhere in this issue), the future leader of the radical left wing of the New Democratic Party was seen holding Grant's volume aloft and shouting "Everyone must read this book!"
That liberal continentalists should disdain him as an archaic conservative and radical nationalists should embrace him as a fervent anti-imperialist says much more about his enemies and his allies than it does about the man. Like the phrase "red tory" which he did much to inspire but did not much like, Grant was not a bundle of internal contradictions, he was merely complex. Few outside of Canada have heard much about George Grant, and it would not have surprised him to learn that only a few more remember him within. His pessimism was genuine, but it was not cynicism. Now, almost twenty years after his death, he haunts people who are serious about how technology, social class and empire need to be understood. He is still central to the thought of cultural critics like Arthur Kroker. Those who control the levers of power have rarely heard of him. Too bad. George Grant's essays and books are essential to anyone who wishes to interpret properly the influence of technology on our economic, educational and political institutions. He is also crucial to anyone who wishes to remain a Christian. These are seldom interests that lie within the same person, though Marshall McLuhan and, perhaps, a few of his younger followers remain as iconic exceptions.
The fashions of postmodernism wear badly on the frame of George Grant, but T. F. Rigelhof has done a singular service in writing this personal, informal account. It is as nice an introduction to what Mark Kingwell (see the review of Catch and Release, also in this issue) has called "the first truly public intellectual Canada has produced." If he can engage people's interest enough to tempt them to read Grant in the original, he will have done an admirable job.
An excellent, comprehensive biography of Grant already exists, of course. His friend William Christian wrote it and has edited Grant's letters for publication. Other volumes chronicle his life, notably Larry Schmidt's George Grant in Process, and attest to his importance to Canada (e.g., Peter Emberly's Loving Our Own). This book lacks the scholarship and the sophistication of the othersto say nothing of Arthur Kroker's treatment of Grant, McLuhan and Harold Innis in Technology and the Canadian Mind. This, however, is Rigelhof's greatest strength. He brings George Grant intimately and humbly to life. He reminds us that Grant was the first man hired by York University, that he resigned before he taught his first class because he was told to use a philosophy "textbook that made fun of Christianity and Platonism," and that he refused to accept credit for this courageous actsaying only: "Yes, well, I have a very courageous wife." No one will learn much about Grant's teachersPlato and Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Simone Weilbut they will learn something about Grant as a teacher. With this knowledge in hand, they might be encouraged to read what Grant actually wrote about both the immediate and practical questions of our age and about the eternal question of the human condition. His opinions are not those we all share, but his way of knowing is to be praised and to be emulated, at least by those with the passion and compassion to try.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at email@example.com or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.
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