Arcard, Lepage, Majzels and Post-history in Quebec
Quebec entered post-modernity perhaps in 1980, perhaps in 1995 when the political forces that had been driving counter-culture were dealt significant blows to their ability to act as brave voices of a silent majority. Already in the Déclin de l’empire américain (1986) characters were filling the existential vapidity left by the collapse of their Marxist-Leninist dreams of youth by diving into sexual obsession. For all Denys Arcand’s pretence to transcending the political, politics would slip back into his work by the time of his sentimental paean to privatized heathcare, Les Invasions Barbares (2003). In the film, Rémy is eased to his death far from the maddening crowds of the public hospitals, by now an embarrassing and inefficient relic of the days when “lutte" primarily signified “class struggle” and not, as Elvis Gratton thought, “wrestle”.
If the decline of Quebec’s era of politicized culture plunged it into a period of darkness (une deuxième grande noirceur?), it wasn’t unique in a world in which monetarism was replacing Keynesianism in economic policy as fast as postmodernism was replacing Marxism in critical theory. Earlier in the century Hannah Arendt had feared that politics might disappear from the world entirely (politics may no longer “have any meaning at all,” she worried). For her, totalitarianism was the ultimate form anti-politics could take. Daniel Bensaïd rethinks this in the context of the triumph of market capitalism:
Politics finds itself crushed between the order of financial markets—which is made to seem natural—and the moralising prescriptions of ventriloquist capitalism. The end of politics and the end of history then coincide in the infernal repetition of the eternity of the commodity. (1)
This is played out in Invasions. As much as the peripheral story of 9/11 “barbarians” hints at the emergence of the new historical meta-narrative of the War on Terror, the events the characters go through very much take place in a world in which history is over. Death itself has become a commodity, a humanitarian luxury product that rescues the individual from the cruel anonymous egalitarianism of public healthcare.
History, in the Fukoyaman sense, appears in various guises in Robert Lepage’s work. The Moulin à images is a veritable Debordian spectacle of post-history. Wary of falling into the genre of “Parcs Canada” triumphalism, Lepage is careful not to ignore the moments of conflict in Quebec’s history but these are nonetheless subsumed into a larger anti-ideological narrative centred on technological progress: history is the transition from waterways to roads to rail to air.
Not that Lepage is entirely comfortable with the death of history. Its corpse loiters on his stage as tragic nostalgia. In Dragon bleu, idealism has brought Pierre Lamontagne all the way to Shanghai where, turning his back on “Ce vieux Québec, s’enfermé sur lui-même avec le même projet nationaliste qui va nulle part,” he has assimilated linguistically, culturally and sexually to his adopted home. Maoism brought Lamontagne to China, but capitalism has caught up to it just as surely as it did to Gilles Duceppe and Pierre Karl Péladeau. Lamontagne daydreams about the women dancers of the Peking Revolutionary Opera; between scenes we see images of the heroic Chinese masses holding aloft Coke bottles instead of Little Red Books; Claire Forêt, Lamontagne’s ex-wife, shows up with the latest in hipster kitsch from Canada: a peasant cap with a red maple leaf instead of a star. History (and, with it, the possibility of glory) is reduced to the trivialities of commodity culture—worse, the same Western commodity culture (even the same commodities) Lamontagne fled.
Lamontagne retreats into calligraphy and tattooing. His politics only resurface in a moment of indignation at his ex-wife for thinking she can show up and fix a midlife crisis by shopping for a commodity-baby in rural China. History has given Lamontagne his edges: his compassion, his resistance to capitalist utilitarianism, his openness to the Other, but it has left him in solitude. Post-history leaves empty subjectivities grasping at commodities for salvation. Lamontagne gives up creation and becomes an art dealer. Unable to create, he can only buy, sell and promote in the purgatory of Bensaïd’s “infernal repetition of the eternity of the commodity.”
He forges a relationship with a young artist, Xiao Ling, whom he represents and markets. Claire Forêt, however, worries that the market for artists is too small in China. She tracks down Xiao Ling (she’s hoping to get her baby) in another city where she works knocking off nineteen Van Gogh self-portraits a day. She thinks Xiao Ling’s only hope of making it is by moving to Canada where the art market is more developed. Forêt, archetypal Canadian entrepreneur, orients art—like life—towards successful commodity production and distribution. In one of the three endings of the play, she brings Xiao Ling with her to Canada, saving her from the fate of living the eternity of the commodity in a place that ranks lower on the international hierarchy of commodity production.
Lepage’s 1998 film, Nô, makes his boldest claims on history, tackling some of the sore (if well documented) points of Quebec’s political history. The film features bumbling, comic felquistes, a polite but out-of-touch federalist ambassador and his gallocentric Outremont wife, a sympathetic but hopelessly geeky anglo. Irony separates the spectator from engagement with the historical moment and imposes a post-historical gaze on the events. Politics are laid out as the politics of the moment, a moment that is romantically charged with conflict and that will die, at the end of the film, with the results of the 1980 referendum. This is not to say that the film offers a “neutral” or anti-ideological bilan of the political situation in 1970. The Canadian federalist project comes off as distinctly parochial: the official representation of French Canada at Expo ’70 in Osaka is a production of a period farce from France that the ambassador’s wife finds poorly executed and the joual-spouting lead actress thinks is “de la marde,” only selected “parce qu’on est un peuple colonisé” whose own culture is undervalued. The lapse of almost forty years allows us to find some detachment from these events that have been so often reconstructed, through the romantic lens of Falardeau, the quiet tragic lens of Breault or the vindictive lens of so many English-language documentaries. But if the film depicts who we were in 1970, it seems to imply that we are that no longer. The film ends in 1980 with Michel, felquiste-now-turned-péquiste, and Sophie, the actress, shutting off the televised results of the referendum to focus on each other, precipitating the post-1980 shift away from politics in culture. Their rediscovery of each other marks their entry into post-history.
If history is dying in Lepage, it is utterly extinguished in the work of Robert Majzels. City of Forgetting takes place entirely in the realm of post-history. Ché Guevara, Le Corbusier, Paul de Chomedey, the Greek goddess Clytemnestra hang out in the tourist traps of Montreal with punk rock street urchin Suzy Creamcheez. Stripped of their historical context, history appears only as hubris. Ché Guevara spouts Marxist jargon as if it were an insane banter divorced entirely from normal life, which it is, in the novel, since Majzels inserts quotations into new contexts (Guevara’s Many Vietnams speech makes for an uncomfortable job interview; 46). Frustrated that he can’t make sense with the words he knows, Guevara succumbs to that postmodern truism: “No way to fix a meaning with any certainty” (63). Stripped of the glory provided them by history, the characters bumble around Montreal as homeless oddballs. They interact with Montrealers, who we meet as shoppers or police who try to stop them from interrupting the cycle of shopping. The novel, then, takes place in Bensaïd’s “infernal repetition of the eternity of the commodity.” It’s a world the characters are unable to enter, chained as they are to history.