French Canadian, 1948–
Jean Larose is many things to many people. For some, his statements about Quebec’s political status within the Canadian Federation amount to sheer provocation. Others accuse him of elitism, because he has pointed out the shortcomings of the contemporary educational system, and is said to disdain mass media culture. A few nationalists reprove him for his use of European philosophy and literature. Still others think of him as one of the most important voices in the field of the Québécois essay. Despite these controversies, all would agree that, with four books in print, Larose has shown himself to be someone to be reckoned with in today’s intellectual debate in French Canada.
Le Mythe de Nelligan (1981; The myth of Nelligan), Larose’s first book, is closer to traditional literary criticism than the other three. The poems of Émile Nelligan serve as a starting point for the author’s investigation of the origins—both of the poet and, by extension, of the nation. Born to a French Canadian mother and an Irish father, and confined to an asylum for most of his adult life, Nelligan was the sort of literary figure that lends itself easily to myth, and Larose uses that myth to scrutinize Quebec family ties from an anthropological and psychoanalytical point of view. In using a pastiche of the Marquis de Sade’s epigraph to La Philosophie dans le boudoir (1795; Philosophy in the Bedroom) as the epigraph to his own book, Larose underscores the link between generations and between Europe and North America: “The son will prescribe the reading of this book to his father.” Just as the complexity of family symbolic structures lies at the core of Larose’s thought, so does the intricate web linking Quebec to France.
If Le Mythe de Nelligan was praised within literary circles, it did not get the media attention La Petite Noirceur (1987) was to receive six years later. Soon after it appeared, this collection of essays was nominated for the 1987 Governor-General’s Award (which it subsequently won)—a prize given under the aegis of a federal government agency— and polemics raged. “Anti-Canada book up for national prize,” read one headline. Most of the uproar came from a literal reading of the book’s final chapter, “‘Si tu reviens au Canada…’: Lettre à une amie” (‘If you come back to Canada…’: letter to a friend). Here, in a letter to a fictional friend living in New York, Larose advises against coming back to the native country. His statements about Canada as a whole were designed to be provocative: “Leaving is the writer’s last recourse against Canada.”
The debate surrounding that essay diverted attention from the main issues in La Petite Noirceur, namely the relationship between culture and nationalism in Quebec. Larose’s position was already clear from the title he gave his book: his petite noirceur (small darkness) refers to Quebec’s grande noirceur (big darkness), the period that preceded the so-called Révolution Tranquille (Quiet Revolution) of the early 1960s. It is commonly accepted that the Quiet Revolution brought French Canada from being a closed and culturally retarded society into an open, modern nation. Not so, says Larose, who shows that the attitudes and misconceptions that precluded Quebec from producing any sustained culture for such a long time have remained the same up to this day. The author uses Lacanian theory—in a broad sense—to demonstrate how Quebec has not managed to move from imaginary modes of conscience to symbolic ones, how images matter more than the ways in which they are organized into symbols. Cultural mimesis is not culture, according to Larose.
L’Amour du pauvre (1991; Love of the poor) did not stir the same emotion throughout Canada as Larose’s previous collection, although it raised many of the same issues from a slightly different perspective. What he had first called petite noirceur had transformed itself into pauvreté (poverty). Larose traces that poverty in a number of works of art, from movies to poems, as well as in the realm of teaching (the essays on that subject are the most controversial of the book). His general diagnosis remains that which he exposed in La Petite Noirceur: Quebec’s intellectual poverty derives from its refusal to admit the distance between object and subject. The familiarity that prevails in Quebec’s culture prevents its intellectuals from becoming part of “humanist modernity” in its fullest sense.
This situation will not change until Quebec’s intellectuals realize that, in order to liberate oneself, one has to fight against a “maître” (master).
La Souveraineté rampante (1994; Cringing sovereignty) is more explicitly political than Larose’s previous works. This short pamphlet groups four texts that deal with the sovereignist movement’s pusillanimity, and the cultural prejudices of a few of Larose’s opponents. These essays are united by one theme, the resentment of Quebec nationalists toward their perceived colonizers. As a counterpoint to this resentment, Larose promotes a view of independence that is not based on traditional nationalist values, but on “vraie
souveraineté” (true sovereignty) or “souveraineté souveraine” (sovereign sovereignty)— on a sovereignty that imposes itself shamelessly but in a positive rather than negative sense. For Larose, one has to be at the same time “québécois, américain et universel” (Québécois, American, and universal). Literature, argues the author here as in his other essays, should be at the forefront of that new political stance.
The essayist’s description of his own writing posture in that book is worth quoting, for it characterizes his style in all of his books: “Thus I could not keep my reflections to myself. Some will find them arrogant or rash, especially as they are not without my usual dose of exaggeration, but this gives me the opportunity to find a more universal truth than that which is limited to reasonable and profitable discourse…” In a nutshell Larose gives his concept of the essay. Reason is important to prose writing, but it cannot bring full light to any given subject all by itself. It needs be mixed with exaggeration, as long as this is intentional. When Larose states that his motto is “juger raide” (judge tough) or that he wishes to “se dresser contre” (rise against), he never loses sight of his writing persona, that of a free intellectual promoting the radical use of language.
Born in 1948 in Valleyfield, Quebec. Studied at the University of Paris VIII-Vincennes, Ph.D., 1979. Professor of French studies, University of Montreal, since 1979. Contributor to various journals, including Liberté, Québec Studies, La Revue Belge de Cinéma (The Belgian review of cinema), La Deriva delle Francofonie, Québec Français, and Le Devoir. For many years created radio programs for the French network of Société Radio- Canada.
Awards: GovernorGeneral’s Award, for nonfiction, 1987; Victor-Barbeau Prize, for nonfiction, 1992.
Essays and Related Prose
Le Mythe de Nelligan, 1981
La Petite Noirceur, 1987
L’Amour du pauvre, 1991
La Souveraineté rampante, 1994
Dumont, François, “La Littérature comme point de vue: Trois essayistes québécois contemporains: André Belleau, Jean Larose et François Ricard,” Itinéraires et Contacts de Culture 18–19 (1995):89–96
Lévesque, Claude, Le Proche et le lointain, Montreal: VLB, 1994
Melançon, Benoît, “La Fiction de l’Amérique dans l’essai contemporain: Pierre Vadeboncoeur et Jean Larose,” Études Françaises 26, no. 2 (Autumn 1990):31–39
Milot, Pierre, “La Division institutionnelle du travail intellectuel,” in Pourquoi je n’écris pas d’essais postmodernes, Montreal: Liber, 1994:11–28
Montreuil, Sophie, Le Travail du recueil, Montreal: University of Montreal Department of French Studies, 1996
Pelletier, Jacques, Les Habits neufs de la droite culturelle: Les Néo-Conservateurs et la nostalgie de la culture d’ancien régime, Montreal: VLB, 1994
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