*Le Moyne, Jean
Le Moyne, Jean
French Canadian, 1913–1996
Jean Le Moyne published only one book in his lifetime, but this book is a milestone in the history of the essay in Quebec. Since it appeared in 1961, Convergences has won numerous prizes, and was reprinted regularly as well as translated into English in 1966.
The essays and articles Le Moyne collected and organized thematically were written between 1941 and 1961, and their subject matter ranges from the author’s father to friendship, from science to dreams, from the oppressive clericalist climate in Quebec to the place of women in its culture. A few of these texts—especially the biblical exegeses of the book’s fourth section—have lost most of their appeal, but Convergences remains to this day an object of intense interest and some dispute among critics (Jean-Marcel
Paquette, Jacques Pelletier, Pierre Nepveu) and fellow essayists (Jacques Ferron, André Belleau, Jean Bouthillette, Jean Larose).
Le Moyne’s most widely discussed essay deals with the work of his friend, the poet Saint-Denys Garneau (1912–43). Le Moyne was part of Garneau’s inner circle of friends—which included Robert Charbonneau, Claude Hurtubise, Robert Élie, and Paul Beaulieu—and participated in the publication of Garneau’s Poésies complétes (1949; Complete poetical works), his Journal (1954), and a selection of his Lettres à ses amis (1967; Letters to his friends). The opening lines of Le Moyne’s essay entitled “Saint- Denys Garneau, témoin de son temps” (1960; Saint-Denys Garneau, witness to his time) set the tone for what follows: “I cannot speak of Saint-Denys Garneau without anger. For he has been killed.” In reality, no one murdered Garneau, but, for Le Moyne, French Canada was guilty of causing the poet’s premature death. If Garneau did not produce the oeuvre that was expected from him, it was, according to Le Moyne, because French Canada forced upon the poet an unbearable sense of guilt in an atmosphere of spiritual poverty. The essay appeared during what was to be known as Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, where it struck a responsive chord in the intellectual upheaval taking place.
Other texts in Convergences are of equal importance. In response to a traditional obsession on the part of Quebec’s clergy and elite with their province’s “spiritual” mission in an essentially “materialistic” North America, Le Moyne tackled what he called “notre différenciation nord-américaine” (our North American differentiation), most notably in “Henry James et Les Ambassadeurs” (1951; Henry James and The Ambassadors). Challenging the fear of everything American that characterized Quebec’s high culture for years, Le Moyne compares Henry James to F.Scott Fitzgerald, and chooses the former as the model of a universal writer who, while being ever conscious of an emerging North American civilization, never forgets his European roots. For Le Moyne, the process of the adaptation of European populations to North American places and cultures is the American “devenir” (coming of age); it is an ever-changing duality, an
“American ambivalence” which only James managed to master. In the perception of this cultural process lies true grandeur.
Of the 28 texts collected in Convergences, seven deal with music, mostly classical; most of these bear the same title: “Rencontre de…” (Encounter with…). Le Moyne “encounters” Schubert, Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach (whose Art of the Fugue he ranks first among all forms of human creation), and Negro spirituals. Le Moyne was not a musicologist, but he loved music and wanted to locate it within the larger context of spirituality; his encounters are testimonies to a revelation. The “theological perspective” which Le Moyne says is at the core of Convergences is linked to the physical pleasure of music: “If Christ does indeed include everything, how are we to pray outside of our physical bodies and cut off from the rest of the universe?” Paradoxically, humor is not absent from such serious reflections: “No instrument has given me as much pleasure as the organ. Except the steam locomotive.”
Le Moyne’s book gave him a distinct reputation in Quebec letters. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he (along with Gilles Leclerc, Jean Bouthillette, and Pierre Vadeboncoeur) wrote nothing but essays. His robust prose is heavily tainted with a metaphysical vocabulary rarely found in the essays of those who followed him. But it is above all his iconoclastic views that made him so compelling at the time his essays were published, and that make him the subject of continued dispute. At a time when most intellectuals lined up on the side of the Quebec sovereignist movement, Le Moyne staunchly opposed nationalism. At a time of intense attacks on every form of institutionalized religion, he was a profoundly religious man, and wrote at length on spiritual matters (his frequent attacks on the dualism of the flesh and spirit were particularly vituperous). Fond as he was of French literature (Bloy, Bernanos, Teilhard de Chardin, Jouhandeau, Jarry), Le Moyne did not circumscribe his artistic interests to the French-speaking world. Not only did he comment on books by James and Fitzgerald, music by African Americans, and movies by the Marx Brothers (he praises their “radical anarchy”), but he went so far as to claim, in 1956, that he never felt at home within the culture of his native French province. At a time when many felt proud of their Americanness—their so-called “américanité”—he reminded them of their European cultural past and wondered if it was possible to express the reality of North America in the French language. For these reasons, Jean Le Moyne remains widely discussed and controversial among the essayists of contemporary Quebec.
Born 17 February 1913 in Montreal. Studied at the Collège SainteMarie, Montreal, B.A., 1933; began to go deaf; self-educated thereafter. Cofounder, La Relève (The relief), from 1934 (La Nouvelle Relève, from 1941); journalist, La Presse, 1941–41; city editor and literary critic, Le Canada, 1941–44; managing editor, La Revue Moderne (The modern review), 1953–59; also contributor to other journals, including Cité Libre (Free city) and Écrits du Canada Français (Writings from French Canada). Writer and researcher for the National Film Board, 1959–69. Special assistant and senior adviser to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, 1969–78. Married Suzanne Rivard, 1970. Named to the Canadian Senate, 1981–88.
Awards: Governor-General’s Award, 1961; France-Canada Prize, 1961;
Province of Quebec Concours Littéraires, 1967; Molson Prize, 1968. Officer, Order of Canada, 1981. Died in Ottawa, 1 April 1996.
Essays and Related Prose
Convergences, 1961; slightly different version, as Convergence: Essays from Quebec, translated by Philip Stratford, 1966
Other writings: edited works by the poet Saint-Denys Garneau.
La Bossière, Camille R., “Of Unity and Equivocation: Jean Le Moyne’s Convergences,” Essays on Canadian Writing 15 (Summer 1979):51–68
Nepveu, Pierre, “Le Poème québécois de l’Amérique,” Études Françaises 16, no. 2 (Autumn 1990): 9–19
Pelletier, Jacques, “Jean Le Moyne: Les Pièges de l’idéalisme,” in L’Essai et la prose d’idées au Québec, Montreal: Fides, 1985: 697–710
Pelletier, Jacques, “Jean Le Moyne, témoin essentiel: Une relecture des Convergences,” Voix et Images 54 (Spring 1993):563–78
Pelletier, Mario, “Convergences trente ans après,” Écrits du Canada Français 78 (1993):163–73
Simon, Sherry, “Le Discours du Juif au Québec en 1948: Jean Le Moyne, Gabrielle Roy,” Québec Studies 15 (Fall 1992–Winter 1993):77–86
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