Essay in French | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Essay in French

The hallmark of the French Canadian essay is that it is both personal (or subjective) and creative. The essay stands apart from any writing that claims to offer an objective explanation of reality or explores a preordained, objective truth that is assumed to be valid for any time and place.
Parent, \u00c9tienne
\u00c9tienne Parent's thought dominated the first half of the 19th century in French Canada, incarnating, as no-one else, the ambitions of a new intellectual and political elite (courtesy Archives Nationales du Québec \u00e0 Québec/P1000, S4, PP19).

Essay in French

The hallmark of the French Canadian essay is that it is both personal (or subjective) and creative. The essay stands apart from any writing that claims to offer an objective explanation of reality or explores a preordained, objective truth that is assumed to be valid for any time and place. The essayist is not at the service of the truth, a cause or a class: he proclaims and defends his own irreducible sincerity and recognizes that, while his experience and the account he gives of it are subjective, they may still serve as a model to others. The essay may range from popular to scholarly treatment of a subject. The writer may just as easily deal with a scientific subject as with a theological, literary or political one, and his tone may be polemical or discursive. The literary quality of an essay, as of any other genre, rests in the quality of the writing, in the capacity of the author to interpret the world about him, to reconstruct it and awaken in the reader as much admiration and wonder for the interpretation as for the reality being interpreted.


Pamphlets and Polemics

Philosophical and political essays, pamphlets, manifestos and polemic exchanges are all arguably forms of the essay. When placed in their original contexts, they afford excellent opportunities to observe sociopolitical and cultural phenomena of their eras. Polemical texts and pamphlets are not always self-evidently critical in nature, and they are made all the more effective when the author's indignation is camouflaged. A complete polemic structure is to be found as an undercurrent in accounts of early voyages, in private and administrative correspondence and in the writings of religious orders in New France. Generally addressed to authorities in the mother country, these texts crystallize metropolitan antagonisms around Canadian situations. They contain a double contradiction, expressing the New World in the linguistic and cultural codes of the mother country, which is itself replete with antagonisms such as those between Recollets and Jesuits or, at another level, proponents of evangelization and champions of exploitation.

The texts of Cartier, Champlain, Lescarbot, Biard and Sagard, and the JESUIT RELATIONS (seeEXPLORATION AND TRAVEL LITERATURE IN FRENCH) should be read in the context of the actual conditions in which they were written (literary strategies, thinly veiled battles to obtain local credit, privilege and power). So, too, should one read the protests of Canadian naval personnel against French officers during the Seven Years' War. Essays of protest continued to be written after the Conquest, and pamphlets regarding the GUIBORD AFFAIR (1869-74) and the battle between Monseigneur BOURGET and the INSTITUT CANADIEN carried the genre into the late 19th century. Parliamentary battles in the Canadas gave scope to the pamphleteer and essayist as well: oratorical jousts were taken up and exaggerated in the polemics between francophone and anglophone newspapers (eg, in the Anti-Gallic Letters).

Striking examples of the use of polemical essays in political settings include exchanges during the MANITOBA SCHOOLS QUESTION (1890-96), the anticommunist campaigns of the 1930s (Pamphlets de Valdombre, 1936-43) and the CONSCRIPTION debates during the 2 world wars. In 1960 Jean-Paul DESBIENS, in LES INSOLENCES DU FRÈRE UNTEL, and Gilles Leclerc, in Journal d'un inquisiteur, took up the language debate and other matters with vehemence. The authors offer pragmatic commentary on current events, using this as a device to discredit the targets of their scorn, hoping thus to alter the attitudes of the reading public. Since the QUIET REVOLUTION there has been an explosion of polemical writings about independence, unionism and native people by leftist individuals, groups and magazines. More recently feminism held the limelight, with its radical challenge to all the institutions that have traditionally excluded women.


Political Essay

Political essays may be distinguished from other works in the fields of history, sociology and political science as the products of a more personal and untrammelled quest. Memoirs, reminiscences, notebooks, diaries and autobiographical fragments all overlap partially and unevenly with the political essay. Among the best political memoirs in French are the 3 volumes by Georges-Émile LAPALME, the leader of the Québec Liberal Party who was caught between Premier Maurice DUPLESSIS and Prime Minister Louis ST-LAURENT. He makes some lucid comments on the subject of the limits of political action.

The major political or ideological essays of the 19th century were not the work of orators or public figures (Papineau, Mercier, Laurier) but the discussions and chronicles of some leading journalists (Étienne PARENT, Arthur BUIES). L'Avenir du peuple canadien-français (1896), by sociologist Edmond de Nevers, was a cultural and deeply political essay, a mixture of idealism, pessimism and prophecy. In the 20th century as well, the best political essays have been the work of a few well-educated journalists (Olivar Asselin, Jules Fournier, André LAURENDEAU) and nationalist historians (Lionel GROULX, Michel Brunet). They raised (or revived) the question of Québec's relations with London and Paris and with English Canadians; they were as concerned about war and conscription as about elections.

The birth of political magazines free from party affiliation - CITÉ LIBRE (1950-66) and PARTI PRIS (1963-68) - led to a proliferation of the political essay. The collection of articles, studies and testimonials about the ASBESTOS STRIKE, La Grève de l'amiante (1956), which appeared with a comprehensive introduction by Pierre Elliott TRUDEAU, was the prototype for numerous other collections. Many were the products of conferences, such as that held in Cerisy-la-Salle, France (Le Canada au seuil du siècle de l'abondance, 1969), which had brought together Francophones of every persuasion. Independentists produced manifestos, declarations and testimonies, but also a few essays of a more structured nature, such as Le Colonialisme au Québec (1966) by André d'Allemagne.

A Marxist-tinged theory of decolonization, inspired by the experiences and rhetoric of developing nations, marked a number of the essays published at the beginning of the Quiet Revolution, in particular NÈGRES BLANCS D'AMÉRIQUE (1968) by Pierre Vallières. Neo-federalists (most of them in the group around Trudeau and Gérard PELLETIER) began countering the arguments of the fervent neo-nationalists. They seemed to be calmer and more staid than their antagonists, but they were just as lively in their use of history and statistics. Essays in their true form were rare: the writers slid easily from a constitutional treatise or thesis to a circumstantial or journalistic approach.

Some of the meatiest and most thought-provoking essays written since the late 1960s are Le Canada français après deux siècles de patience (1967) by political scientist Gérard Bergeron; LA DERNIÈRE HEURE ET LA PREMIÈRE (1973) by Pierre VADEBONCOEUR, trade unionist turned writer; La Question du Québec (1971) by sociologist Marcel Rioux; and Le Développement des idéologies au Québec (1977) by political scientist Denis Monière. The most trenchant political essays are perhaps to be found in certain novels (eg, those of Hubert AQUIN and Jacques FERRON).

Québec political essayists have been obsessed since the mid-1960s by the state and the constitution. Subjects now discussed move beyond partisanship and dogma to a new definition of the central issue: the division of powers is not solely a Québec-Ottawa dispute; it is also an issue for Montréal and its suburbs, the regions of Québec, women and ethnic and marginal groups. The postreferendum period was marked by important essays on language and culture as well as economics and the role of the state. Among the less systematic but more intense and vivid of the collections were those of columnists Lysiane Gagnon (Chroniques politiques, 1985) and of Lise Bissonnette (La Passion du présent, 1987), whose "Les Yvettes" served as a stimulus for the Non faction. René Lévesque contributed his memoirs (Attendez que je me rappelle ..., 1986). Then there was a study of international as well as national politics, more precisely, the Québec-Ottawa-Paris triangle, by former minister of intergovernmental affairs Claude Morin.

Since the midseventies, the literary journal Liberté has published the best political essays on topics such as language and translation, official bilingualism and biculturalism, culture, money and the State. It has dedicated special issues to topics such as referendums, majorities and minorities and Anglo-Montrealers. Many contributors to Liberté include political articles in their collections of essays. For the late André Belleau (Surprendre les voix, 1986), BILL 101is not racist, but anti-racist, a tool of development. So thinks Jean Larose, whose la Petite Noirceur won a controversial Governor General's Award in 1987. Larose is a vivid polemicist in la Souveraineté rampante (1994), addressed to shy, tired, soft sovereigntists.

For Belleau, Larose and Liberté's editors, François Ricard, François Hébert, Marie-Andrée Lamontagne and their friends, it is not difficult to be a Québec independentist without being a narrow, ethnic nationalist. For Mordecai RICHLER's followers, it is impossible. For college teacher Nadia Khouri (Qui a peur de Mordecai Richler?, 1995), there is no real difference between right-wing Canon GROULX and René LÉVESQUE or Le Devoir; bad Québec's ideological elites are opposed to good old grass-rooted people.

Original points of view on individual and collective identity may be found in Lise Gauvin's Lettres d'une autre (1984), whose main question is inspired by Montesquieu: "Comment peut-on être Québécois(e)? " The second volume of former minister and poet Gérald Godin's Ecrits et parlés is about Politique (1993), before and after 1976, when he defeated Premier Robert Bourassa in his own riding. Critic and novelist André Brochu's La Grande Langue (1993) is an ironical panegyric of English as a language of power. Genèse de la societé québécoise (1993) by sociologist Fernand Dumont is a strong synthesis of French Canadian history, memory, consciousness. Dumont published also Raisons communes (1995), a collection of substantial articles on foundations, collective identity, democracy, intellectuals and citizens, and French (a "language in exile").


Literary Essay

Unlike literary criticism, which necessarily passes judgement on the work under study, the literary essay freely considers the written work, offering nondefinitive, personal comments on its aesthetic value. The literary essay first appeared in newspapers and magazines of the mid-19th century as well as in papers presented in literary circles, at the Institut canadien and in similar reading groups. These first stirrings prepared the way for true literary essayists, Étienne Parent and Napoléon Aubin, Abbé Henri-Raymond CASGRAIN, Octave CRÉMAZIE, Arthur Buies and a few others who were prompted by religious and moral concerns to deal with aesthetic questions.

The literary essay developed along nationalist and regionalist lines in Québec in the early 20th century, thanks to Laval professor Camille ROY, who explored the "nationalization" of French Canadian literature in some 30 essays. He was followed by Olivier Maurault and Émile Chartier of Université de Montréal, and other major voices of nationalism such as Lionel Groulx, who concentrated on the land, the parish, the family, religion, customs and ancestral traditions - and by the next wave, regionalist writers associated with the journals Le Pays laurentien, La Revue nationale and L' ACTION FRANÇAISE (later L'Action canadienne-française and then L'Action nationale).

The "Parisianists" ("exotics"), who followed modern French thought in their subjects and writings and often sharply disagreed with the first group, included Paul Morin, Marcel Dugas, Jean Charbonneau, Robert de Roquebrune, Olivar Asselin, Victor Barbeau and his Cahiers de Turc (1921-22; 1926-27), and the people associated with LE NIGOG, Cahiers des Jeunes-Canada and LA RELÈVE. In the long run, the often vigorous disagreements led to an affirmation of a French Canadian literature that was autonomous yet always strongly influenced by France.

With this ideological battle behind them, writers could finally pay serious attention to the different genres of expression. From 1940 to 1960 the literary essay was particularly important. The many publications included writings about Canadian as well as French authors; general studies of French Canadian literature by critics such as Roger Duhamel, Benoît Lacroix and Séraphin Marion; specialized studies of THEATRE by Léopold Houlé and Jean Béraud, of poetry by Jeanne Crouzet and of the novel by Dostaler O'Leary; and histories of literature by Samuel Baillargeon, Berthelot Brunet and Auguste Viatte.

The proliferation of literary essays has been boosted since the Quiet Revolution by the development of the teaching of Québec literature (seeLITERATURE IN FRENCH: SCHOLARSHIP AND TEACHING). Analyses of literature and of literary movements (the historical novel, the novel of the soil, literary nationalism, Parti pris, the AUTOMATISTES, surrealism) were accompanied by many essays dealing with literary genres: the novel (Gérard Bessette, Yves Dostaler, Jacques Blais, Maurice Lemire, Gilles Marcotte, Mireille Servais-Maquoi, Henri Tuchmaïer); theatre (Michel Belair, Beaudoin Burger, Jacques Cotnam, Martial Dassylva, Jan Doat, Jean-Cléo Godin and Laurent Mailhot, Chantal Hébert, G.E. Rinfret); poetry (Paul Gay, Philippe Haeck, Jeanne d'Arc Lortie, Axel Maugey); and the literary essay (Jean Terrasse). There were treatments of specific subject matter (themes of the family, of winter, etc), a host of monographs on French Canadian writers, general studies of Québec literature (Guy Laflèche, Gilles Marcotte, Jean Ménard, Guy Robert) and histories of literature (Pierre de Grandpré, Laurent Mailhot, Gérard Tougas). There are also collective literary essays such as the Archives des lettres canadiennes, and anthologies, including L'Anthologie de la littérature québécoise (directed by Gilles Marcotte) and the Dictionnaire des oeuvres littéraires du Québec (directed by Maurice Lemire) - highly useful works, although their contents tend to be literary criticism rather than essays. Only rarely do Québec essayists study broad issues the way Europeans do. Finally, most Québec literary essays are aimed at students and professors in both foreign and Québec colleges and universities, though they are occasionally intended to reach a larger public.


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