W. D. Lighthall and David Ross McCord: Antimodernism and English-Canadian Imperialism, 1880s-1918

Article excerpt

Focussing on W.D. Lighthall (1857-1954) and David Ross McCord (1844-1930), two self-defined English-Canadian imperialists, this paper argues that English-Canadian imperialism was both a school of nationalism and an attempt to make sense of modernity, not by rejecting it, but by creating an antimodern space, an intellectual and at times physical retreat from modernity's relentless commitment to innovation and transience and rootlessness. Lighthall, as a writer, poet and historian, and McCord, as a determined collector and museum builder, sought refuge in an idealized French Canada and Aboriginal culture at the same time as they worshipped before the cult of militarism with its promise of national and masculine rejuvenation. In the long ran, as much as both men resisted modernity they ironically accommodated it. For example, Lighthall's antimodern novel, The Master of Life, was dramatized into a modern spectacle for visitors to Lake Champlain in the summer of 1909. McCord's National Museum, as a museum, was part of the modem project of selection, order, meaning and knowledge.

We might even say that to be fully modem is to be anti-modern: from Marx's and Dostoevsky's time to our own, it has been impossible to grasp and embrace the modern world's potentialities without loathing and fighting against some of its most palpable realities.(f.1)

Marshall Berman

Idealization is very frequently a defensive ideology and an expression of tension within society.(f.2)

Gerder Lerner

In an exchange of several letters discussing the transfer of his National Museum to McGill University, David Ross McCord and his very good friend, William Douw Lighthall, addressed each other as [Symbol Not Transcribed] and Tek, short for Tekenderoken, respectively.(f.3) Certainly these were the natural, private and affectionate sobriquets that friends very often share. But they were, I think, much more significant: [Symbol Not Transcribed] is the Maltese Cross and the symbol of the Knights Templar; Tekenderoken is the Iroquois name Lighthall received from the then Caughnawaga Iroquois. To Lighthall and McCord these names were positively premodern and medieval, they symbolized order, tradition and uncomplicatedness. To the historian, [Symbol Not Transcribed] and Tek offer a convenient point of entry into the private lives of two English-Canadian imperialists in particular, and into English-Canadian imperialism in general. It is my argument that these private names were part of a much larger pattern: the attempt to deal with, and make sense of, modernity, not by rejecting it, but by creating an antimodern space, an intellectual and at times physical retreat "from some of its most palpable realities." Precisely because their lives -- the commitment to imperialism, the invention of an imagined French Canada, the fascination with Aboriginal culture, and the emphasis on militarism and the cult of manliness -- parallel the period from c.1880 to 1918, when the age of imperialism and Canada's great economic and social transformation towards modernity intersected, Lighthall and McCord afford an opportunity to rethink imperialism as, in part, a process of resistance to, and accommodation with, modernity.(f.4)

This process of resistance and accommodation can be at once described as, and explained by, antimodernism. Defined by T.J. Jackson Lears, antimodernism is "the recoil from an 'overcivilized' modem existence to more intense forms of physical or spiritual experience."(f.5) In opposition to modernity -- its unbearable lightness, anonymity, and its awesome capacity to obliterate tradition -- antimodernism venerated, in its various guises and forms, the idealized premodern community of face-to-face contact, rootedness and connection. Essentializing things agrarian, traditional, ordered and unencumbered by modern complexity, contradiction and transience, antimodernism promised authenticity in a world of simulacra and offered therapeutic tonic to the unease of modem life. …