Saturday, December 10, 2011

The History We Don't Know

Jeffrey Simpson is full of praise for Richard Gwyn's two volume biography of Sir John A. Macdonald. And he mourns the place which history holds in modern Canada:

In schools, history remains an orphan, barely taught, often entirely neglected. In the media, ahistoricism reigns. Even in universities, it’s alarming to be among graduates for whom Pierre Trudeau is a vague figure, Sir Wilfrid Laurier an inconnu, and Sir John A. the man with a big nose on our currency.

The Harper government's plan to celebrate the  200th anniversary of the War of 1812 illustrates how little history it knows. But then that's not surprising for a party whose historical memory begins with Preston Manning.

Many people laugh at Sir John's weaknesses. Some years ago, as we were entering Bellevue House -- Macdoanld's former residence in Kingston -- I asked our ten year old son what he knew of Macdonald. "Canada's most famous drunk," was his answer. Simpson and Gwyn do not excuse Macdonald's failings:

Macdonald was a man of many imperfections, which is perhaps why he expected less-than-angelic behaviour from his fellow men. He drank a great deal, went missing in action for stretches (including long vacations in England), held the Indian affairs portfolio but made egregiously wrong decisions at key moments.

But those very failings enabled Macdonald to free himself and this nation from the prevailing ideologies of the time. Simpson writes:

he had a vision of a country with all its crinkled diversity and improbable distances. He loved the British connection, but, as Mr. Gwyn explains, always sought distance between the Mother Country and the new creation, the strategy adopted by his successors until Britain ceased to be a world power. He held the English Protestants and the French Catholics together more in a marriage of convenience than a tight embrace, despite factional tensions over language and religion. They’re still together in that distant but enduring relationship.

In an age noted for its inflexibility, Macdonald was notoriously flexible. He understood the country to its core -- something the present government doesn't. Rather than accepting Canada as it is, the Harper government seeks to remake it in its own image.

Harry Truman once said, "My debt to history is one which cannot be calculated. I know of no other motivation which so accounts for my awakening interest as a young lad in the principles of leadership and government." It's a shame Mr. Harper didn't bring Truman's knowledge of history to his job.


kirbycairo said...

We must, of course, put people in their historical context. However, Mr. Macdonald's failure in regard to the Aboriginal people should never be forgotten.

Owen Gray said...

True. The whole Louis Riel affair is deservedly infamous.

On the other hand, he possessed a genius -- and a generosity of spirit -- which our present prime minister lacks.

kirbycairo said...

Indeed. One's admiration of historical figures is always a strange thing. That is how I feel about Coleridge, I spent a couple of years writing a book about him and I came to profoundly admire and despise him at the same time.

Owen Gray said...

That's the problem with great people, Kirby. Their gifts are usually counterbalanced with equally great flaws.

The story goes, I believe, that Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan after an opium induced dream.

Perhaps, if he had been able to dream without the aid of artificial stimulants, Coleridge might have finished the poem -- and it would still be a masterpiece.

kirbycairo said...

Well, Coleridge did, indeed have significant personal flaws, though I don't believe that we should ever include addiction as a "personal" flaw - particularly in an era in which very little was understood about the whole notion of addiction. And, of course, many of Coleridge's problems in life were connected to his addiction.

However, Coleridge's inability to maintain consistency or follow through on things seems to have been a character trait that pre-dates his addiction.

Most strangely of all, part of his interest and charm is the wide-range of his mind and the fact that his work is a series of threads that never come to completion. Amusingly, William Hazlitt once wrote a book review of Coleridge's Lay Sermons which had not yet been written (a new form of journalism Richard Holmes called a "pre-emptive" review) in which he called Coleridge's writing career an "endless preface to an imaginary work."

Owen Gray said...

Sometimes truly brilliant people have a hard time bringing things to completion.

I'm thinking of Orson Welles -- a truly brilliant man, who had his own addictions.