Three years ago, Martine Béland’s mother was dying. At the same time, a humpback whale (which is called humpback, for those who know about it like the author) went up the St. Lawrence towards Montreal, making the beautiful right next to La Ronde. At the same time, the whole world was beginning to settle in for quite a bit into the long time span of the pandemic.
For someone who would live his life from day to day, isolated in his little bunker of happiness with the curtains drawn on the existential fate of his being, nothing to report there. Just a few intersecting events, as they intersect in every life, at every moment. But for those who write, there is an opportunity here. Martine Béland took the ball.
This is his first try. She is a specialist in philosophy, vice-rector of the Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia, which has published many scholarly articles on Nietzsche. But in recent years, she wants to write something other than academic papers. She told me that she had figured it out, especially since the subject of her specialization was precisely a deeply literary, free thinker, who liked to stage images of fabulous animals to translate his ideas. Each time I teach Nietzsche myself, I remind the students of the fact that the principal interested party, an iconoclast to the end of his claws, would undoubtedly be against the fact of having become a classic of philosophy taught at the school.
And as the author with the fiery tone told me on the phone, her book is precisely a picture book. Somewhere between the theatrical monologue and the therapeutic confession. I saw clearly in my mind, as I read, the dreadful boulevard Taschereau where his mother received care, as well as the nursery school where she once wrote, only to suddenly and mysteriously stop after a move. Above all, I saw the photos of the sea beast’s tail with the Ferris Wheel in the background scrolling by, like a reverie in me. In the tumult of May 2020, the whale philosophically moved anyone who contemplated it with its slow majesty, pregnant with wisdom.
I did not find Nietzsche’s harshness in this book. I found sweetness, despite the criticism of her mother’s life. “I’m happy to hear that,” Béland told me, even though family members have been writing to him since the publication of his short essay to express their tenderness after reading them. There is this image, at the end of the book, which will remain with me for a long time, namely that the author sees herself as sheltered from the belly of her mother-whale, but in her carcass at the bottom of the waters.
She evokes what was not said in her mother’s family, she touches on it modestly and respectfully, about a past violence of which she does not know the details, but it is enough for us to understand. We feel the gentle wave propelled by his words, which have become an analogy of the waters pushed by the humpback. Béland becomes the beast herself instead of chasing it, she avoids the error of Moby Dick and losing battles, she avoids the failure of Nietzsche, I would say, who, by dint of running after warlike freedom, ended by getting burned. Béland lays down his arms, it’s a relaxing read.
Coincidences come up often in the book, just as they came up often in our conversation, until I dared to use the vaguely esoteric word from psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung: synchronicity, that is to say the somewhat fuzzy of significant coincidence. “That’s the right word,” she blurted. “It’s really that”, that is to say this meeting of events that go beyond chance, of which everyone has already had an intuition, but of which nothing will manage to demonstrate the links definitively, except in our mind. And I come to say to myself: isn’t this one of the features of the essayistic adventure itself, to pitch without apologizing on the side of the subjective intuitive, by mourning the demonstrative whose premises and conclusions so often seem preordained anyway?
Jung again, I thought about it throughout my reading. He who theorizes the archetype of the hero based on the myth of Jonah and the whale, better known as Pinocchio for non-Biblicals, by which one becomes the hero of his life by defeating the sea monster. Martine Béland is not the heroine of anything, and it was a balm for me to see this tenacious myth of a perfectly sensible life skilfully deconstructed, to rather catch bits of meaning when they pass in the river, nothing more.
This essay is part of a new collection at Leméac, edited by Mathieu Bélisle and named after the review he edits, L’intérieur. It can be read during a solo aperitif, or in a café under a spring sun, thinking of your mother. And if we have the chance, breathing the sea.