Friday, September 11, 2009

Gopnik on Ignatieff

"The Return of the Native," Adam Gopnik's report on Michael Ignatieff is, for me, a kind of literary perfect storm in which a swirl of my own interests coalesce: a cultural critic like Gopnik (an old favorite), talking about a Canadian political philosopher (who has risen to leadership of the Liberal Party in Canada) who spent years abroad, all ending in a closing scene at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, our hometown of sorts. Of course, such a conflation also gives rise to all sorts of narcissistic longing ("Why couldn't I be writing this article?") and guilt-ridden introspection ("Should I be returning to my home and native land?").

The tale is a boilerplate classic: the return of the philosopher-king, from the abstractions of reflection and purity of philosophy, to the darkness of the political cave and the dirtiness of pragmatic compromise. But, despite my distaste for Ignatieff's stance on war, I found myself intrigued by his work and want to read his biography of Isaiah Berlin.

It also got me thinking about the possibility that we might be able to distill a uniquely Canadian contribution to political philosophy, or at least a uniquely Canadian sensibility, which Gopnik also finds in Charles Taylor. Gopnik (himself a Canadian ex-pat) sees this as a certain communitarianism:

[T]he belief that the right of the community can trump the rights of the individual--and that this is not incompatible with liberalism but exactly what humanizes it--really is a distinctly Canadian intuition. It is arged in different ways, and with different emphasis, by the influential McGill philosopher Charles Taylor--who, as an N.D.P. candidate in the 1965 elections, was defeated by the newcomer Trudeau in his first run for Parliament [never knew that!]--and by the essayist John Ralston Saul and the Queens University philosopher Will Kymlicka.

Food for thought. It's got me dreaming up an "interim" course on Canadian political philosophy, perhaps in Ottawa or Montreal (in January?!), focused on Trudeau, Taylor, and Ignatieff. But that's just in the dream stage right now.

But the article also showcases Gopnik's prose, and seemed to bring out a hint of nostalgia as he recounted their travel to Stratford, a nostalgia that is, I confess, contagious:

We drove through the beautiful and prosperous South Ontario farm country, with Suzssanna [Ignatieff's wife] riding shotgun, and the Canadian lawyer and literary agent Michael Levine behind the wheel. Though it was a lovely summer evening, some small residual breath of the fugue state that makes small boys lose their gloves for good--the sense of scale, of endlessness that is part of Canada--seemed to infuse the scene. Canada is a big country.