Excerpt of The Cultural Fatigue of French Canada by Hubert Aquin

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The Cultural Fatigue of French Canada

Translated in 2008 by Mathieu Gauthier-Pilote from:

Three excerpts published in Le Devoir, on November 8, 9 and 10, 2006

This is an unofficial translation of a few excerpts of La fatigue culturelle du Canada français by Hubert Aquin which were published by Le Devoir during the time of a symposium entitled "Hubert Aquin : cinq questions aux nationalistes d'aujourd'hui" (Hubert Aquin: five questions for today's nationalists). La fatigue culturelle du Canada français first appeared in Liberté in 1962. The excerpts published in Le Devoir were taken from Mélanges littéraires II - Comprendre dangereusement, critical edition established by Jacinthe Martel in collaboration with Claude Lamy, Leméac Éditeur (Bibliothèque québécoise), 1995.

Excerpt 1

Pierre Elliott Trudeau, lawyer, future Prime Minister of Canada
Hubert Aquin, writer, editor, producer, director, militant of the independence of Quebec

Is the Nation-State an odious trap in which the best elements of the left foolishly fall into because they are emotive; does the concept of Nation-State imply a kind of malefic and intrinsically negative ipseity that we should agree to ban forever from our minds, as one of the "transitory phases" of humanity, like others had to sublimate cannibalism? Here is the question to which Pierre Elliott Trudeau gives a brilliant and rhetorically convincing answer1 which, nevertheless, seems to me like a charade-question or, better, a dialectical trap.

Let me explain. By posing as a premise that separatism postulates a Nation-State, it is relatively easy if not pleasant to refute this aspiration of the French-Canadian nation to transmute into a Nation-State. Now, precisely, the Nation-State is a concept that is truly outdated and which does not correspond neither to reality nor to the latest data of science.

The nation is not, as Trudeau lets us understand, an ethnic reality. There are ethnicities no longer, or so little. Population displacements, immigration, assimilation (which Jacques Henripin rightly refers to as "language shifts") produced an interpenetration of ethnies for which one incontestable result, in French Canada for example, is the grouping no longer according to the principle of the ethnic origin (the race, as we were still saying only twenty-five years ago) but according to a homogeneous cultural group whose only verifiable specificity is to be found at the linguistic level.

It only suffices to look around oneself, among the people that we know, to quickly count the number of pure wool French Canadians: they are not the only "true" French Canadians! The Mackays, the Johnsons, the Elliotts, the Aquins, the Molinaris, the O'Harleys, the Spénarts, the Espositos, the Globenskis, etc., say a lot about the French-Canadian ethnie-nation. The "language shifts", of which speaks Henripin, have occurred to our benefit as well as to our expense, so much that the kernel of immigrated colonists who accomplished the survivance are today mixed, at the ethnic level, to all the contributions that immigration or the randomness of love have added to our national ethnic purity.

In fact, there no longer is a French-Canadian nation but a cultural-linguistic group homogeneous by its language. So will it be for the Wolof, the Serer and the Peul of Senegal who will one day become Senegalese, if nothing stops the schooling process whose upcoming result will be to give birth to a cultural-linguistic group of multiple ethnic origins.

Cultural Homogeneity and Pluralism

French Canada is polyethnic. And it would be pure folly, I convene, for the French Canadians to dream of a Nation-State when precisely the French-Canadian nation has made way to a global, coherent culture, whose basis is a linguistic difference. That we call this new agglomerate a nation, I do not mind, but then it can no longer be question of the nation as a ferment of racism and all its abominable derivatives.

What distinguishes Canada from French Canada, is not that the bigger one is polyethnic while the second is monoethnic, but that the first is bicultural while the second is culturally homogeneous (which does not exclude, thank God, pluralism in all its forms).

The Nation-State couple which Pierre Elliott Trudeau denounces does not correspond to reality and could constitute a sincere ambition but for a minority who, because of this fact, will never realize their dream. It would be more accurate to speak of a Monocultural State. If a few backwards people still dream of a pure French-Canadian blood, let us simply consider them to be intellectual delinquents!

Le Devoir
Wednesday, November 8, 2006


1. "La nouvelle trahison des clercs", in Cité libre, April 1962

Excerpt 2

Nationalism which at first surprises, like the son's first adolescent cry, ends up being considered with solicitude not only by the federalists, but by all the French Canadians tired of the very idea that they should be making an effort to exist outside the system of acceptation and grandeur which their leaders propose, these apostles of comprehension, of union, of greater ensembles, of the urgency of the great problems of the world or of religion.

This system (had it been thought out that it could not have been any more coherent!) works very well and since a long time, and does not at all imply the disappearance of the French fact in Canada, but rather domestication at all levels and in all consciences.

The proof of its efficacy reside in its diffusion inside French Canada, where all its best defenders are located because, in French and with emotion in their voice, they easily persuade their compatriots of the necessity to remain French-Canadian and prove d’un vieux souffle that "it is up to us to prove ourselves, because it is by being better French-Canadians that we will give English Canada the image of a vigorous French-Canadian culture."

"If Quebec became an exemplary province, if in it men lived under the sign of liberty and progress, if culture occupied a place of choice, if universities were brilliant and if the public administration was the most progressive of the country — and nothing in this presupposes a declaration of independence! —, French Canadians would not need to fight to impose bilingualism, the knowledge of French would become a "status symbol" for anglophones, it would even become an asset in business and administration." — Pierre Elliott Trudeau, "La nouvelle trahison des clercs", in Cité libre, April 1962, page 16. 1

A derealization

The logic of the system seems unconsciously faithful to its goal. Is it necessary to assess the operation, surely unconscious, of "derealization" of French Canada in its globality? The one who wants to succeed must renounce to the cultural push given to him by French Canada, and, initially, find himself in a situation of cultural fatigue, this interior dragon from which he must individually triumph to prove that, through him, French Canada has the right to exist!

But we forget that this can only be realized at the level of exception and, consequently, only values the individual since, for the culture which he incarnates, its devaluation finds itself involved in the "exceptional" triumph. "[...] The personal and localized success all the more tends to become an essential moment for oneself since collective success appears more compromised or more distant. (Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique, Paris 1960, page 572. 2 )

But why must French Canadians be better? Why must they "succeed" to justify their existence? This exhortation to individual superiority is presented as an inevitable challenge we must undertake. But let us not forget that the cult of challenge can only be conceived as a function of an obstacle, of an initial handicap, and can be reduced, in final analysis, to a test to which each individual is subjected.

Only exploit valorizes us and, according to this precise requirement, we must convene that Maurice Richard did better than our federal politicians. We have the sporting spirit nationally and since we dream of fabricating heroes rather than a State, we endeavour to win collective struggle individually.

Le Devoir
Thursday, November, 2006


1. « il n’en tient qu’à nous de nous faire valoir, car c’est en étant meilleurs qu’on donnera au Canada anglais l’image d’une culture canadienne-française vigoureuse ».

« Si le Québec devenait cette province exemplaire, si les hommes y vivaient sous le signe de la liberté et du progrès, si la culture y occupait une place de choix, si les universités étaient rayonnantes et si l’administration publique était la plus progressive du pays - et rien de tout cela ne présuppose une déclaration d’indépendance ! -, les Canadiens français n’auraient plus à se battre pour imposer le bilinguisme, la connaissance du français deviendrait pour l’anglophone un "status symbol", cela deviendrait même un atout pour les affaires et pour l’administration. Ottawa même serait transformée, par la compétence de nos politiques et de nos fonctionnaires » (Pierre Elliott Trudeau, "La nouvelle trahison des clercs", in Cité libre, avril 1962, page 16.)

2. « [ ... ] [L)a réussite personnelle et localisée tend d’autant plus à se poser pour soi comme moment essentiel que la réussite commune semble plus compromise ou plus éloignée. » (Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique, Paris 1960, page 572.).

Excerpt 3

What will happen to French Canada in the end? To tell the truth, nobody really knows, especially not the French Canadians whose ambivalence on this subject is typical; they simultaneously want to yield to cultural tiredness and triumph over it, they preach in the same sermon both renouncement and ambition. To be convinced of this, one can read the articles signed by our great nationalists, which are deeply ambiguous speeches where it is difficult to distinguish the exhortation to revolution from the call to constitutionality, the revolutionary ardour from the will to obey.

The French-Canadian culture offers all the symptoms of an extreme tiredness: it aspires, at the same time, to strength and to rest, to existential intensity and to suicide, to independence and to dependence.

Independence can only be regarded as a political and social lever for a relatively homogeneous culture. It is not historically necessary, no more than is the culture which reclaims it. It must not be considered a superior and privileged mode of being for a cultural community; but, unquestionably, independence is a cultural mode of being just like dependence is. In the field of knowledge, the modes of being of any given cultural group are equally interesting. Knowledge is concerned with realities, not values.

The running away

[...] Another way of derealizing French Canada is to only accept its administrative translation as a province. "Quebec is a province like the others", which amounts to accepting the reality of the French-Canadian culture only according to the legalistic terms of the Confederation which regionalizes and provincializes this culture. This reasoning is the inversion of the Other according to the size of the confrontation pole, but is also the same reasoning, structurally, in that it retracts the French-Canada/English-Canada axis which, historically and politically, is the most constitutive, and which does not exclude the multidimensional relations of French Canada with the world and history.

Altogether, our thinkers on several occasions refused the historical dialectic which defines us and called upon another dialectic which, by widening the confrontation or by reducing it excessively, meant a refusal to look at French Canada as a global culture. This refusal has constituted the ideological basis to several systems of thought in Canada.

Our thinkers deployed a big logical apparatus to exit out of the French-Canadian dialectic which remains, still today, exhausting, depressing, inferiorizing for the French Canadian. The "how to get out of it?" was the fundamental problem of our thinkers and their dialectic runaways do nothing but tragically express this morbid taste for exile which our letters, since Crémazie, do nothing but resound.

What they have fled, in ideological wasting or travels, it is an untenable condition of subordination, of contempt for oneself and one's own, of bitterness, of uninterrupted tiredness and a reaffirmed desire to no longer undertake anything.

The French Canadian often presents himself, through his leading spokesmen, as a blasé people who believes neither in themselves nor in anything. The self-devaluation accomplished its evil, after so long, and if it were necessary to quote but one proof of it, I would mention the delirious over-evaluation in which now gives the French-Canadian separatist. He pants in exhaustion, but it should be said, to excuse him, that if he does not do it, he very well risks, conditioned as he is to depression and to defeat, to think of himself as the last of idiots, and his own milieu never fails to let him know.

Le Devoir
Friday, November 10, 2006

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