[This text was originally published in the Oh Canada catalog.]
In 1996, about sixteen years ago, I wrote the following text in preparation for my first performance in Montreal:
French is the most beautiful language. Anything you might want to say automatically sounds better when spoken in French. One sentence in English equals at least two sentences in French. Everything is not only longer, but also more beautiful.Sixteen years ago, it seems, I wrote more poetically than I do now. At the time, I believed I was writing as simply as possible but did not know what lay ahead. Today, I am writing these (hopefully simpler) lines on a flight to Japan. I moved from Toronto to Montreal about ten years ago, and still don’t speak or understand French. But, as I travel, it strikes me that I really don’t speak or understand Japanese. When someone speaks to me, slowly and clearly, in French, I probably understand about thirty per cent. When someone speaks to me in Japanese, no matter how slow or clear, I understand nothing. I feel guilty about my lack of French, because in Quebec language is so politicized, while in Japan I feel virtually no guilt, perhaps partially because I am only visiting, but mainly because there is no expectation from the Japanese people I meet that I should speak their language.
French is the language we use to clarify and illuminate sentiment. It’s delicacy reveals what the rough-hewn edges of English do not.
Language destroys what it creates, is inhuman, makes true intimacy impossible, separates us more ferociously than the crumbled stone edifice of the Berlin wall. But within the humble clemency of the French tongue all is forgiven.
Politics is a disciple of language. Legal documents form a literature within which it is possible to destroy peoples lives in a much more concrete manner than the great romantic poets had even imagined. But every word one writes has consequences. And it is no coincidence that so many of the great works of literature and philosophy were originally formulated in French.
And when Europe becomes the most violent bloodbath that the millennium has yet to experience, as seems likely within the next hundred years, it is even more likely that the epitaph for the millions of mutilated and dead will be written within the supple intonations and tonalities of the ancient yet incalculable French language.
Personally I do not speak, read or understand a single word of French. I am speaking only hypothetically.
Near the end of his life Rainer Maria Rilke switched from German to French for the following reason: in German there is no word for absence which also implies presence and fulfillment. In German, absence is only emptiness...
The last time I was in Japan I walked by an art school and there seemed to be a gathering inside so, unsure if I was allowed, I wandered in. It was an opening for the end of year show and the teachers were leading a group of students around the room, stopping in front of each work in order to critique it. The spirit was not convivial: only the teachers spoke, the young artists being critiqued did not reply and the other students also said nothing. From a distance it was extremely clear who was in charge, as each student became tense and uncomfortable when their turn came. (I fear writing this since it verges on caricature and stereotype, and for all I know I might have only been projecting these dynamics, might have had it entirely wrong. They were speaking in Japanese so of course I understood nothing. Nonetheless, this is how it appeared to me at the time.) I stayed as far away from the procession as possible, looking at artworks I had no context for and did not particularly understand.
I was standing in front of a child-like drawing of a girl in bed smiling. It was all bright colors and naïve lines. As I was looking, the artist came up beside me, I did not yet know she was the artist, she couldn’t have been much more than twenty-five, and started grilling me, wanting to know what I thought. I was often asked my opinion in Japan, as if a Western opinion came from a significantly different place, had a different value, was exotic. I looked at her drawing and couldn’t think of a single thing to say, but, since there was no getting out of it, said that I found her work playful. “What does playful mean?” she asked, she didn’t understand the English word, and I tried to explain, saying it was like having fun. “Do you mean it’s happy?” she asked. From the way she asked I felt, for her, happy was an important quality in a drawing, something she was going for. “Yes,” I said, “I mean it looks happy.”
The first time I created work in Montreal – a performance entitled En français comme anglais, it’s easy to criticize – we rehearsed in a working class, francophone neighborhood in the east part of the city. The building was a former warehouse converted into artists studios and its most memorable feature was a large smokestack. As I walked to rehearsal each day, the first thing I would see was the graffiti on the smokestack spelling out the word “OUI” in giant black letters. I can’t quite remember, but this was either just before, or just after, the second referendum, and that OUI was a call for Quebec to separate from the rest of Canada. As a recent arrival, every day, that OUI said to me that we don’t exactly want you here. (Or at the very least I should learn French if I desired to stay.) At the same time, almost everyone I met was essentially kind to me and curious about what I was working on.
Much later, in 2009, my friend Sylvie told me she saw a documentary on Quebec television that clearly demonstrated that bombs thought to be planted by the FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec) in the sixties and seventies were in fact planted by the mounted police. The reason was to make the protesters seem more violent than they actually were, at first as a pretext to declare martial law, which Trudeau did in 1970 (the year before I was born), and later as a pretext for further arrests. Rumor has it that in 1970 the American minimalist Carl Andre threatened to read the FLQ manifesto as part of his exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, and therefore the exhibition was cancelled. Andre’s purpose was likely to express sympathy with the FLQ, to support them, and perhaps also to align the aesthetic radicalism of his sculpture with radicalism of a more directly political kind. (I wonder if I am doing something similar here.)
Clearly the slight anger I occasionally experience, in Montreal, directed towards my lack of French is connected to history, a history I have only read about and feel little connection to. Then again, I ask myself what history can embody connection for me. Living in Montreal, I suppose, I feel as much resonance with this history as I do to any. With Canada’s current right wing government remaking the country as rapidly as they can legislate – remaking it into something that is, to me, terrifyingly neo-liberal, militaristic, corrupt, oil and prison crazy and perhaps much worse – Quebec’s desire to separate once again has the strange taste of sanity. In the most recent election, Quebec went orange (meaning NDP, our mainstream left-wing party) while the rest of Canada did not. It was a clear sign of Quebec’s differing values, not only that it is a more socialist province, but also that they took the risk, the leap of faith, to vote for a party that allegedly had only a slim chance.
The night I arrive in Japan we go to see the band Maher Shalal Hash Baz in concert at a small, dirty club called Shinjuku JAM. I am here to begin a collaboration with the band’s leader Tori Kudo. On the plane I was thinking over and over again about Quebec and Canada, in order to finish this text, but now such concerns feel irrelevant. Home is once again, for the time being, in the past. Hiromi is at the concert with me, she helped organize my residency here, and as we watch the band (who are spectacular, music has always meant the most to me) I look over at her, remembering something she told me during a previous visit: that the individual does not exist, the individual is a Western invention. I want to believe this is true, and also that it is a hopeful idea. That connecting with some larger idea of humanity or nature might offer up possibilities, either for me, to mitigate my depression, or for politics. But also: we become what we invent. We are products of the culture in which we were raised.
I believe I have to end this story by attempting to answer the question why, after all these years, I still (basically) do not speak or understand French. And to be honest, though I have many theories, I genuinely don’t know. I have tried to learn many times but it doesn’t seem to go in. There is something like a mental block. Some might say I’m simply lazy, but for me laziness has few negative connotations. In his seminal essay The Praise of Laziness, the Croatian artist Mladen Stilinovic writes: “Knowing about laziness is not enough, it must be practised and perfected. Artists in the West are not lazy and therefore not artists but rather producers of something.” He concludes: “there is no art without laziness.” However, if I thought that laziness was only great, I would not be quite so ashamed of the fact that I have spent my life doing the things that come easily to me and avoiding what was more difficult.
These days, Canada is clearly heading in the wrong direction (like most of the other countries in the world), and I believe we will manage to go quite far towards destroying what is best about it. I could condemn myself for this pessimism, or defeatism, but I can’t because I believe my thinking on these matters is basically accurate. (Unfortunately, almost everyone I know agrees.) Though I live in Canada, though I am a citizen, I feel powerless to alter the situation in any significant way. The fight will be too difficult. Sometimes I wonder if I would simply prefer not to know, not to see things so clearly, or at least not to see them in this way.
So perhaps there is a connection between my inability to learn French and this more general desire not to know. I travel a great deal, mainly to places in Europe where I do not speak the language, but the last time I was in Australia I was on a streetcar and started eavesdropping. This is horrible, I thought to myself, burdened by a sudden comprehension of the small talk around me. The things they were saying felt awful: trite, bland, small-minded, backward and petty. I likely would feel something similar if I understood the French conversations that surrounded me on the streets of Montreal. But misanthropy will not save us, neither will ignorance, and we must keep the hope alive that something within us still might.