I see folks have been getting pretty "rory-eyed" (furious), as we say back home, over the freshly contentious Battle of the Plains of Abraham. To be more precise, there's been a partly manufactured battle over the re-enactment of the real battle. It's always good when an item of Canadian history stirs current interest and attention, and if a little controversy, factitious or otherwise, achieves that result - good.
The Battle of the Plains of Abraham, all understand, is not just any battle. It is the foundational one of this country. Beyond that, in the great wide world of people who are not Canadians, it also owns a special place as being the source event of one of the finest literary anecdotes on record. What schoolboy does not know the grand uplifting story of General James Wolfe the night before the crucial battle - anticipating he would not survive the next day - reciting sections of Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, laying particular stress on the famous line "the paths of glory lead but to the grave" and expostulating to his fellow officers: "Gentlemen, I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec tomorrow."
A hundred arts councils or the highest-minded conferences on literature will never have the force of this perfect fable in igniting some sense of the power or allure of poetry.
I can understand his sentiments - not, mind you, on taking Quebec tomorrow (my agenda is fairly crowded right now) but on the soothing balances and precise diction of the Elegy. As Samuel Johnson said so famously of it: "The Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo."
Well, regardless of current or past controversies, it's fair to say they probably don't make generals like that any more. It may be a caricature, but I picture the modern general plugged into an iPod streaming something a little less tranquil than the stately, eloquent cadences of the Elegy. Naturally, the story of Wolfe and the Elegy has been - in modern terminology - contested. Nothing associated with the Plains of Abraham, it seems, can wander far from some contest or other.
There is something like an infinite regression going on. The battle itself was naturally - tautologically - a contest. Under the always reliable rubric of "too good to be true," the story of Wolfe, haunted by the melancholies of the Elegy, has also been a lively contest for scholars and amateur historians. And now, what one would have thought of as an almost playground re-enactment has itself flared up into another contest.
The sovereigntist/nationalist wing of Quebec worked itself into a mighty exercise over the event, under the ever renewable argument that anything that might be said to demean Quebeckers, or act as a reminder to past "humiliations," is a calculated affront to Quebec. Viewed through that prism, there are probably lines in Gray's sweet poem that are a slur against Quebec's honour. Perhaps "nor cast one longing lingering look behind?" could be today's candidate.
The re-enactment histrionics puts the dictum of "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" into an odd twist. Here, it seems that those who wish to repeat (re-enact) the past will be condemned to pay a price for it. Somehow, staging a tourist theatrical of a long ago battle is said to be re-energizing the slumbering dragon of separatism.
Most curious of all is that the most strident voices against a neutral re-enactment come from the separatist camp. And why, you ask, would that be curious? It is the separatists who have been the most diligent re-enactors of all. Who, after all, brought to life the referendum on separation - that great democratic survey that is infinitely repeatable until one side gets the only answer that counts? The separatists insist that the referendum be re-enacted whenever they think "conditions are favourable." The No forces may win from here to eternity, and the answer is not final. The Yes forces win once - and no more re-enactments.
Some history is to be repeated and repeated until it is the right history. It is to that process we owe the delicious coinage the neverendum. And history itself, events that are closed, records in a book, the actors noted, the issues determined - such as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham - must never risk even the most stylized revisiting.
The final and finest irony of this pseudo-storm is that the contest over a fixed and dead event - the "results" are in on the Plains of Abraham - may be providing the fuel for the volatile and never conclusive process of yet another referendum. If Gray were still around, maybe he'd get a poem out of it. Nothing quite as good as the Elegy, needless to say. More likely a satire.