The Name of History

by katiclops

Our hallway is always changing.

Nothing major, just little things. We first noticed a small big horned sheep perched on one of the ledges by our flat. Later, the sheep at moved to a different ledge. A Superman appeared one day, stuck in the grate, flying out of the wall. Two days later he was holding the sheep.  Then the sheep was wearing a bow on the window sill and Superman’s cape was on backwards. Every day is a little bit different, nothing shocking, but just changed enough that you notice, vaguely stringing together unrelated narrative. We also now have two giant inflatable exercise balls that are covered with stickers, and roll from one end of the building to the other. I am sure they are a fire hazard, but it does keep you engaged enough that you notice.

The latest addition is this sign we saw as we grappled the bikes into the lift: “Don’t forget YOU need a poppy.”

Considering the benign state of most of the other hallway decor, I thought this sign to be almost forceful in it’s conviction. It might as well have been taking a stance on the death penalty, it was so relatively political. At the same time it was also humbling in it’s own way. To think our phantom artist had not only noticed the date, but also taken the time to go out and fashion this pathetic little art installation installation reminder in our lift.  That this was something that really mattered to him. Convictions make me emotional.

Remembrance day always kind of sneaks up on us. It arrives with the Day of the Dead, poppies, blossoming on lapels everywhere as the pumpkins are ushered away, bright red splashes of pain against the monochrome of grey and drizzle. A somber pre-emptive precursor to Christmas displays.

Every since working at Vimy Ridge, the first two weeks of November never fails to take me back to quiet, empty battlefields, filled with bleating sheep and tombstones. I spend the first half of the month faded into seasonal memory, mulling over details of the past and the Somme.

Doubtlessly prompted by the encroaching commemoration, this article  in the National Post ran November 2 (Canadians Should Be Sued for their Neglect of their own History, by Kelly McParland). I have been thinking about it ever since. The article attributes Canadians lack of understanding and appreciation of history due to our sterile, limited exposure to it’s content:

[Canadians seem to want to believe that our national history is one of the most tedious subjects in the world.] If you’re curious about one of the starker differences between Canadians and Americans, it’s this: Americans treat their history as Hollywood, one long glorious tale or heroism and tragedy played out over several centuries of war, romance and intrigue, with courageous heroes and alluring heroines. Canada makes teenagers memorize body counts. We don’t even try to make it interesting.

*    *    * 

Yesterday was a grey and drizzly kind of day. The kind of day when way, way too brightly coloured leaves fall off the trees, the day is noticeably too short and where you run around with a bit of a frantic desperation wondering where your week has gotten away to. Winter is going through the motions to make good on it’s promise, and many of us have been tipped off into the world of commemoration and meditation on fall, on death and wars. Late last night after wallowing in grey, chilly energy all day, I set about to make things right with some stretching and watching a bit of a film before crawling into bed. I wanted something light, funny, perhaps even a bit thoughtful. Given my recent contemplations on the French  Le Nom des Gens (or in English The Names of Love), promised to fulfill all of these requirements and more.
NB: available, sub-titled on Canadian NetFlix!

The film is funny, punchy and very French. It features two random people in France. Baya, a young and sexy strong female lead, who is convinced that by exploiting fascist right-wing males through sex, she will be able to convert them to her leftist ways of thinking. Naturally, she ends up falling in love with Albert, a bumbling, boring ornithologist.

Super saturated colours soak the film. Understated yet stunning actors.
Moments of the type of real life romance that is so rarely portrayed in North American films:
Albert is standing waist-deep in a pond, about to lift a huge, dead snow-white swan out of a lake. He is wearing hip waders, when suddenly – his mobile rings. He pauses to pick up the phone – his mother is dead. He hangs up the phone. Pauses. Gathers up the dead swan again in his arms, floating weightlessly on the water, as he stands, stunned in the pond, holding this huge beautiful limp white bird. Grief floods over his shocked face. End scene.

It is a romantic comedy, but the romance is a backdrop to the rest of the film, the comedy a veil. Instead this film looks at our personal relationship with politics, and questions their links with our history.

Baya prides herself on being Arab/Algerian and French, as the movie unfolds we learn that Albert’s past is just as controversial (if not more so than Baya’s). We also see how the past can be incredibly traumatizing. How erasing some of the past is the only way that some have learned to cope. How then can we trace our political convictions to a history we have forced ourselves to forget? Ultimately the movie suggests that by focusing on making love, not war and by rejecting the past without forgetting it, the world becomes a better place. Differences are cast aside and through sex, France moves forward.

I don’t intend to offend by using this lens to critique McParland’s article, but frankly, Canadians have their hands tied in our educational approach to our own history and our policies on multi-culturalism. My great grandfather was on the other side of the First World War. Do you think these stigmas had dissolved twenty or thirty years later during the Second World War? I can think of a half-dozen people off the top of my head whose last names were changed when they arrived to our country. Let alone discuss our bloody and glorified colonial pasts. Canada was effectively still a colony during the First World War. Part of the importance of Vimy Ridge is the fact that it was instrumental in cementing Canada’s independence from our Mother country; but it was an old school way of gaining independence: through blood. If anything, by approaching history from a more objective, universal point of view more Canadian youth will be emotionally engaged in learning about how they fit into the narrative. What was happening in Africa? What was happening in Romania? Where are you from, what was your family doing in 1919? <br<Appearance can be deceiving.

Canadians tend to be politically correct to a fault, often camouflaged as “politeness.” In my personal experience to avoid offending people this tends to take two forms: to entrench ourselves in a past so distant it is universal (i.e., ancient Egypt, Rome), or to focus so heavily on the sterility of details it absolves us of all the deep emotional attachments that could offend.  Glorifying people in a story-book “tale of heroism” perpetuates inaccurate historical stereotypes of right and wrong. The First World Was was ultimately the war to end all wars, the end of Imperialism; how can you say one side was heroic and glorious? How can you tell that to descendants that were so ashamed of their involuntary involvement in the battles that they changed their names and forgot their language to leave it behind? Shame is rampant in our society. It shuts down important conversations. War should not be forgotten, nor should the brutality of colonialism. But heroism implies villains, and should not be used as a tactic for engagement.

One of the best books I read in my time entrenched in France was All Quiet on the Western Front, which tells the story of schoolboys sent off to war. It’s poignant and engaging, and about two third through the book you realize that this is a story about the other side. It is a perfect accessible example of the travesty of war: perhaps this should be the type of Hollywood recounting given to youth. Canada is an unsettled collection of recent and ancient refugees.   We can not forget the past, we can not gloss over it’s horrific details, but we also can’t pretend it is a common thread that ties us all together. A well-rounded approach to fewer events might help more Canadians connect to who they are, rather than an alienating Hollywood approach that glorifies tragedy.

Poppies grow over the graves of all soldiers without discrimination, a perfect, tragic metaphor for the universality of death.

Lest we forget.

Langemark, German cementary in Belgium, Fall 2007

– Day 3 –