When I grow up, I want to be Véronique Dassas. Born in Bordeaux, she lived for a long time in Montreal, then in Italy, and she plans these days to return to Quebec permanently, to be closer to her children and grandchildren. But it is not the migration of his person that I want to emulate, it is the migration of his thought over the course of a lifetime.
One certainly does not go without the other, however, I know that. To think well, you have to look elsewhere, breathe the air, and come back. I had the impression, reading it, of a thought that is shelled against the provincial reflection that too often watches for those who do not risk to dissect the world by living it. As I write this, I have in mind Western canons like Immanuel Kant and Socrates, famous for their attachment to their little habits in their towns, while Véronique Dassas doesn’t care about any of this, just as she couldn’t care less about notoriety and posthumous glory, certainly sought, whatever one may say, by the other two.
When I received his book, Chronique d’un temps fou, I thought his publisher had mistakenly put two copies in the envelope, it was so thick. But no: we do publish 400-page essays intended for the general public in Quebec. Allow: Hooray! I settled in with the trial, worried about managing my time in the days ahead of me. The book brings together forty years of chronicles of the author, it is her first book just for her. After three pages read, time disappeared, only to begin to exist again ten days later, amazed by so much general culture generously shared, cultural curiosity judiciously invested and speculative peregrination on which one embarks as if on the back of a goose of which we no longer know whether it is flying north or south.
So that the reader can sit in the text from the first pages, we start judiciously with articles written recently for the magazine Liberté, around the COVID-19, but then we walk in reflections on the American wars in Iraq , then we come back to the present to the one in Ukraine (What’s new on the war?, it titles ironically at one point), to branch off between the two towards a reflection on the problem of immigration in Italy. In the last third of the book, there are texts that plunge us back into cultural debates from another era, around the feminist critique of The Decline of the American Empire, by Denys Arcand, for example, and I thought to myself, that it is interesting to see how the debates age well sometimes. The cultural chronicle, just like the chronicle in general, only makes sense, I believe, when it knows how to age. Just like these texts on cultural figures who form the horizons of his mind, including two on the thinker and novelist John Berger, whose program Ways of Seeing I hastened to listen to these last few days, which makes an astonishing reading of our relationship to visual art. “You’re lucky to find out,” she said, nonjudgmentally about this hole in my culture.
I spoke to the author the day before she returned to Montreal for the launch. I take this from our conversation: Quebec must welcome it as an incredible chance found. Let us offer her radio broadcasts, forums of all kinds, because she will help us breathe easier. A small example: from a Jewish father, she was always skeptical of nationalisms, but she realized when she arrived here in the 1970s that all the people she found interesting were separatists. But she never uses the empty phrase “meeting the other”. She doesn’t need it, she does it.
When she speaks of immigration to Europe, the Quebec reader will of course think of Roxham Road. She abhors (she uses the word “horror” as only Europeans know how to do, with drama and tremolo in her voice) the refugee camps scattered around Europe which has become a fortress against foreigners. Do we want to make Quebec a fortress too? Are we doing it already? I don’t know, but the question certainly arises. When she tells the story of Aeneas, mythical founder of ancient Rome and migrant at the same time, against the Italian conservatives who claim to belong to the old empire, I had a little ASMR thrill.
On COVID-19, she pretty much says this, and I agree 100%. It was a wonderful speculative time, let’s face it. Everyone became a philosopher for two years. And then presto, it disappeared. The fate of the old, the poor, the racialized and the young, the environment and authoritarian excesses: everyone cared about it during those crazy times that were fortunately over. These are no less important questions today. She remained optimistic, on the phone, despite my pessimism on this side of the Atlantic: “all that” (still that expression for COVID-19, eminently philosophical) lit “fireflies”, not headlights when same, but there is something left, some remember, she believes. Prophetic announcements from some excited thinkers during the pandemic fell flat, and we laughed at them together, but something remains, she says. I hope she’s right.
The consistency of a thought, over decades, is such a beautiful thing to see unfold. Hats off to editor Mark Fortier, at LUX, for having had the flash of genius to want to bring together the work of this essential Quebec thinker of 2023.