The Insurgent Prince
This is an unofficial translation of Le prince insurgé, an article written by Andrée Ferretti for Le Devoir and published Saturday March 10, 2007.
We were holding a meeting of the executive council members and the delegates of various action committees of the Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale (RIN) in the Greater Montreal region, an immense territory which, in our structures, included the municipalities of the North Shore and the South Shore, in a radius of many dozen kilometres. As soon as I saw him appear, as he was entering the room, I told myself: "He is a prince."
I was not mistaken.
Not because he elegantly wore an impeccable three-piece suit of English cut, neither because he had a majestic walk and a perfectly courteous salute, nor even because he enchanted me by his extravagance when, having hardly taken seat around the table, he suddenly invited us to discover The Beatles, affirming that this group was revolutionizing popular music, but because everything in the attitude of Hubert Aquin revealed a free man.
This was in September 1963.
For the first time, I was meeting in flesh and spirit a French Canadian who was in no way alienated, who was independentist by the nobility of his naturally free self, who fought for the emancipation of his nation, not only, nor initially, to free her from the colonialism which maintained her in a state of political, economic and cultural inferiority, but primarily to have her reach the dignity of her "being there" as a unique and irreplaceable existence in the world and history.
He was coming back from a trip to Greece from which he said that he had not returned, from which he said that he would return only with the proclamation of the independence of Quebec, an event that would make possible the advent of a national thought that would be both original and adequate to the level of development of Western thought. He was the first French-Canadian intellectual of haute voltige and great scope whom I met who did not have any tendency to hide and justify his self, not more than to dwell too long on our nationalist claims, who, on the contrary, considered that the time had come for the French-Canadian nation to free herself from it completely, to define and to situate herself as an already free subject, able to project itself in the world as carrying a new national conscience, different and creative, Québécois, something which Gaston Miron expressed a little later in a luminous sentence: "it is not the nationalism which matters, it is the national conscience".
I was dazzled without being subjugated, whereas on the contrary, it seemed to me, by observing their uneasiness, that several RIN leaders, including its most inspiring and mobilizing ones, were fascinated without being at all allured by the exceptional freedom of this compatriot of theirs. Although newly arrived in this assembly of the people in charge, I even had the impudence to think that the attitude so completely free of this battle companion rather worried them, because it suggested a possible insubordination to the programs and the strategies of the RIN. Which did not fail to occur on several occasions, particularly at the moment of the party's scuttling. Hubert Aquin, indeed, severely condemned this sabotage in a letter addressed to André d’Allemagne and to Pierre Bourgault, which one can still read in Blocs erratiques. This brief text shows, like so many others, the perspicacity of this committed intellectual and also the painful consternation in which the turpitudes, that this clairvoyance allowed him to see before everyone else, plunged him.
On the field
I had, between October 1963 and June 1964, the privilege to accompany him a few times in various regions of Quebec where we were invited to speak on the hustings of the same public meetings. I can testify that Hubert Aquin was not a speaker, but the audacity of his intelligence, the radicality of his thought, the acuity of his analysis, and the erudition of his remarks carried the speech beyond itself, letting it deploy itself in the appropriate language, in the complex remarks, required by the very complexity of the situation.
It clearly appeared to me that Hubert Aquin did not wish to arouse easy recruits. His profound pessimism before all our preceding failures prohibited it to him. Rather, he wanted to bring his compatriots to a deep and irreversible comprehension of the need for independence and its fundamental stake, namely the freedom to be oneself, whatever the provisional price to pay to acquire such a richness.
If it is undeniable that he did not have any aptitude to arouse crowds, I can on the other hand testify to his talent to wake up among listeners the need for interrogation and reflexion, and the desire for action, which inevitably appeared during the question periods, when, in an unforeseeable way, taking into account the tepid reception reserved to his speech, half of the people present were hustling to the microphone. Engaged then between the lecturer and the public, astonishing discussions, inseparably of a high level of expression and impassioned engagement, the result, I think, of the involuntary (since it was natural) projection which Hubert Aquin offered of himself: an insurgent prince. "You speak as in a great book", said to him, one evening, a very old man, "but I understand that you are a true rebel, like were our Patriots". He added: "Like Louis-Joseph Papineau, you are a Great Sir."
Because it was indeed that. The Engagement in the battle of a man personally liberated from the alienating consequences of the secular maintenance of his nation under the domination of a foreign State, whose interests were in opposition, and who consequently suffered in all the fibres of his being from the subjugation of his compatriots and their impotence to overcome it. "My country hurts me. Its prolonged failure has thrown me to the ground", will he soon write in Next Episode. He joined the renewed independence movement, which already mobilized thousands of militants, in order to fight along them for the freedom of his compatriots. Like several other combatants, he had an acute awareness of the vanity of the battles carried out on the enemy's field and inside the rules laid down by him. Unfortunately, not more than any of them, was he gifted for strategy. It is thus that in the summer of 1964, in the most madly paradoxical way, he announced with drums and trumpets that he was to enter clandestinity, a decision which led him, under less than three weeks, inside a Canadian gaol, from where he was soon transferred to a psychiatric hospital, which tells a lot about our collective propensity to discredit from the start any subversive political act. A few months later, he left the Institut Pinel, with the manuscript of Next Episode in his hands. A great novelist was born, was given to us.
He however re-enlisted himself, sporadicly, in militant action, up until a few weeks before the disappearance of the RIN. Our meetings, at this period, were rare and difficult, the men of this time, Hubert Aquin like the others, not appreciating women who affirmed themselves with assurance and a certain success.
Neither him nor me, however, were tempted to join the Parti québécois, in the first years of its existence. For my part, I nevertheless militated during election campaigns and referendums. As for Hubert Aquin, I am unaware of his relationship with the Parti québécois, if he ever had one. It is thus only at the end of the winter of 1975 that I saw him again, one midday, in his office of director of the Éditions La Presse where he had invited me to meet him, to have lunch. I had in front of me a demolished man. As princely, as insurgent as in the beginning of the 1960s, but so deeply wounded by our national inconsistency, the intellectual indigence and disloyalty towards the people of our political, economic and cultural elite and, most of all, by the inconsistency of the whole of the independence movement, subjected to the hegemony of the Parti québécois and its étapiste strategy, that he felt the distance between his vision of Quebec and its reality had grown increasingly insuperable.
With his habitual intelligence of the situations' contradictions and stupefying speeches, he saw the harmful effects of the galloping mediocrity at work in our society. "The poorer the discourse", he said to me, "the less it is representative and the more it is characteristic. Banality erected as a system is a true mask of the deficiencies of thought and feeling." And I saw that this perception he had of the degradation of our national society was making him suffer excessively. The difference between his thought and the expression of this thought and the common reference had become so great in his eyes that he believed himself forever deprived of any dynamic function.
The insurgent prince was alone, as it should be, but Hubert Aquin had apparently lost a little of the freedom which had up to that point enabled him to accept it.
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