“The Frontiers of our Dreams are no Longer the Same” Quebec Nationalism from an Anglophone Perspective
Part One (The recent victory of the Parti Québecois in Québec made me decide to publish this piece which originally appeared in Boundaries of Identity, edited by William Dodge and published by Malcolm Lester)
*Title is from (From Refus Global — quoted by Hubert Aquin in his essay entitled, Literature and Alienation)
It was an overcast day in 1977 when the great writer and Quebec nationalist, Hubert Aquin, committed suicide. I felt the pain of Aquin's death very deeply having followed his career and his writing for many years. While there was a profoundly personal side to Aquin's death, it was also a metaphoric and symbolic gesture. As he once said: “I am the broken symbol of revolution in Quebec, a reflection of its chaos and its suicidal tendencies.”1
On the 19th of October, 1976, a few weeks before the Parti Québecois election victory, Andrée Yanacopoulo, Aquin's wife, wrote him a letter in which she implored him to change his mind about suicide.
"In Quebec we don't live a normal life like people do elsewhere. In more ‘stable’ countries like France, England, or the United States each individual can, in an untroubled way, feel at home… but not here, not in Quebec. For many Québecois you represent the ideals of independence, the invincibility of a nationalist spirit. This only increases the meaning of your work as a writer. Your writing is, at one and the same time, authentically Québecois and universal. It is an act of escapism to commit suicide. It is an admission of failure. You have a responsibility to the Quebec community. If you commit suicide you will be killing a little bit of Quebec. You will be cutting of its future." 2
She went on to say that his suicide would reenforce defeatist attitudes in Quebec which he himself had openly critiqued. She did not want to bring up their son in a country which wasn't capable of instilling national pride in its citizens. She equated his projected suicide (about which they had argued for many years) with the destruction of a collective identity still in formation.
There is an attractive romanticism to Yanacopoulo's equation of Aquin and Quebec. It is also a potentially dangerous juxtaposition, for while it might be desirable to conceive of revolution through the eyes of one individual, it is a rather different thing to transform a community of six million people. At the level of myth, however, transformations can be imagined, even thought of as real, without having a direct impact on daily life.
Aquin wanted a total ‘national revolution’. He wanted to rebuild Quebec society from the bottom up. He wanted to start anew and this led him to analyse both the strengths and weaknesses of his own culture. He saw himself as a representative of the collective will of his people with all of the contradictions which that entails. This is an attractive formulation, a somewhat religious one in fact. It may explain the dark paradox of Aquin's suicide. He offered himself to the Quebec people as myth and this is inevitably the site of a death. No one individual can ever be the nation, just as the nation can never be understood or experienced through one person, although we have witnessed many efforts to create and sustain the possibility of that myth (from Lenin and Stalin through to Mao, Thatcher, Reagan, and so forth). In death all of these ambiguities are frozen. In life they undergo neverending change which alters their mythic status, perhaps fundamentally.
1 Gordon Sheppard and André Yanacopoulo, Signé Hubert Aquin: Enquête sur le suicide d'un écrivain, (Montréal: Boréal Express, 1985) p.15.
2 Gordon Sheppard and André Yanacopoulo, Signé Hubert Aquin: Enquête sur le suicide d'un écrivain, (Montréal: Boréal Express, 1985) p. 41.