John Ralston Saul's Reflections of a Siamese Twin: An Exchange

Article excerpt

ACCORDING TO PETER C. NEWMAN IN MACLEAN'S, "John Ralston Saul can claim shelf space with such seminal thinkers as Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan and George Grant." Saul has risen to almost mythic status in anglophone Canada, and he's done it quickly. That's something rare in Canadian intellectual life: a writer of serious philosophical works, whose name echoes outside the halls of academe. Numerous interviews and articles about and by Saul, in both electronic and print media, have turned him into Canada's philosopher laureate, and the recent appointment of his wife, Adrienne Clarkson, to the office of Governor General has only added to the mystique.

Saul's most recent book, Reflections of a Siamese Twin, is his take on "the trajectories of Canadian history." In mid-January, Montreal's Le Devoir published a review of the book, by Gerard Bouchard, noted Quebec historian and brother to Premier Lucien Bouchard. A week later, Le Devoir published Saul's response. We thought Inroads' readers would be interested in the exchange.

John Saul's "Siamese" vision

by Gerard Boucharde

("La vision `siamoise' de John Saul," published in Le Devoir in two parts, January 15 and 17, 2000. Translated by Anne Michele Meggs.)

(Part 1)

Siamese logic: that which has the property of affirming logically and simultaneously the truth and its opposite, depending on whether the subject is referring to himself or his double.

JOHN SAUES BOOK, Reflections of a Siamese Twin, received almost unanimous critical acclaim from the Quebec media. One might be justifiably astonished by this. To be sure, the author has everything it takes to appeal to many Quebecers. Here is a highly respected English-Canadian intellectual, who has expressed considerable interest in and curiosity about the francophone fact, who would like to break down the "two solitudes" equitably and with good will, and who claims to object to the "simplifications" which up to now have passed for realistic views of our mutual realities. On top of these eminently favourable and welcome predispositions, the author reveals a social-democratic sensitivity and an adherence to the noblest of humanist traditions. These qualities, I hasten to add, are reflected in his treatment of several of the issues he tackles. This book is also set apart by the very important, even predominant, place accorded historical references. To a large extent, these references provide the basis for the book's reasoning, which is not often the case in this type of essay. It is precisely this aspect which is most compelling. Imagine our surprise, therefore, in discovering a rare accumulation of errors, distortions, untruths and, yes, simplifications.

Canada's origins: a "Socratic" approach?

According to the author, Canada's creation in the 19th century was inspired by a grand humanitarian ideal: democracy, freedom, inclusion of "otherness," respect for differences, a spirit of dialogue, and, above all else, a spirit of liberal reformism. The 1867 Confederation embodied "Canadian" liberal values, was born in the cradle of democracy and tolerance, thanks to the enlightened initiative of reformist minds and in spite of opposition from conservatives and Ultramontanes. Moreover, this country was apparently founded on a triangular pact (anglophones, francophones, First Nation peoples). We learn that "[...] if there is a characteristic proper to Canada, it is that [it has not] rigorously set out to eliminate differences" (page 438(1)). More than anything else, the activity of the Northwest Mounted Police represents "the practical application of the more restrained, cooperative Canadian approach, which had been developing since the eighteenth century, if not before" (p. 109). As for the spirit which guided inter-ethnic relations (the "triangle"), John Saul sees it as "an illustration of the Socratic" and "humanistic" approach so typical of Canadians, as opposed to most Western countries which preferred rather the "Platonist" approach, that is to say, pure reason, order, authority (pages 110-111). …