Sheila Grant and Lament for a Nation

George Grant always claimed that Lament for a Nation had been misunderstood.
— Sheila Grant, "Afterword," Lament for a Nation
Ron Dart with Sheila Grant at the grant home in halifax

Ron Dart with Sheila Grant at the grant home in halifax

Lament for a Nation has been called “a masterpiece of political meditation” (Peter Emberley) and it “encapsulated the difference between the Tory vision for Canada and the continentalist, mechanistic, commercialist view” (Segal). There can be no doubt that this compact political missive summed up much about Canadian politics, political theory, philosophy and theology - it has, sadly so, been misread by ideologues that shrink Grant’s grander vision of thought and action to their tribal agendas.

Sheila Grant, after George had died (and significantly encouraged by William Christian—one of the finest Grant scholars), wrote an “Afterword” to Lament for a Nation - the “Afterword” is a must read for those keen and committed to a fuller understanding of the meaning and significance of Lament for a Nation.  I was fortunate to meet with Sheila Grant a few times (both at the Grant home on Walnut Street in Halifax and when she visited her daughters in Vancouver on the West Coast of Canada) and we, also, had a lengthy correspondence when she was alive (plus some fine phone conversations) - we talked much about her journey with her husband, George Grant, and the multiple misunderstandings of Lament - Sheila’s “Afterword” succinctly articulated many of her legitimate concerns.

Sheila began her “ Afterword” by suggesting that when the “New Left”, in the 1960s, adopted Lament as their manifesto of sorts, for a revived form of Canadian nationalism, they misunderstood the more complex nature of the text. Sheila questioned the obstinate fact that many who read Lament simply ignored Grant’s more ponderous philosophic-theological insights in Chapter 7 (that dealt with the tensions between “necessity” and the “good”).  Hegel, for Grant, was the dominant philosopher that had done much to be the apologist for the liberal read of history - many follow Hegel in arguing that liberalism is the “necessary” intellectual way of thinking and being for our age and ethos. But, Grant asked, is Hegelian liberalism necessarily “good?” There is an obvious tension between these two ways of living in time and history. Should the thoughtful merely doff their caps and genuflect to the necessity of Hegelian liberalism or is there more to thinking and being than merely an uncritical Yes to Hegel and clan?     

There can be no doubt that Chapter 7 in Lament moves the discussion beyond historic events into the larger realm of liberal necessity (Fukuyama’s “end of history”) and alternate views of reality worth  being open to and living for. Was Grant a determinist and fatalist that assumed there was truly no substantive way to question or oppose the dynamo of Hegelian liberalism? Some have argued such is the case. Sheila Grant, in her “Afterword”, makes it abundantly clear that Grant was not a pessimist, cynic or skeptic - “it always matters what each of us does” he often said and “repeated throughout his life”. It would be simply foolish to assume Hegelian liberalism would have the ultimate or penultimate word. Sheila made this clear when she stated, “For one who believes, as Grant did, that the spiritual life is open to all, pessimism, is not an option”.

Sheila brought to an end her “Afterword”, reflecting yet further on  George’s use of Virgil in Chapter 7, in which those in the direst part of the underworld “beg Charon to rescue them” - their hands reach out to the furthest shore. Was Grant suggesting that, in our time, we were immersed and enfolded in a “sinister region” and did not know it? Was the reaching out of the hands to that further shore a turning against time, history and matter to a better world, a world beyond the Platonic world of shadows? Or, as Sheila suggests, was George Grant looking for and gazing at the “good” that could orient those in time to a sounder and more meaningful manner?

The final couple of paragraphs in the “Afterword” bring the reader to one of Grant’s favourite places - Terence Bay where coast, rock, weather and water mix and intermingle. I have had the privilege of spending time at the Grant cabin at Terence Bay and sat on the time worn rocks that overlook both the Bay and ocean. Sheila rightly suggested that it was the “austere and unchanging beauty” of Terence Bay that became for Grant “an image of the timeless: a holy place. From a cabin he built on a hill, he would look across the ocean inlet to the towering rocks on the further shore, and quote the line that ends Lament for a Nation”.

Chapter 7 in Lament, as Sheila rightly suggests, is central to Grant’s political, philosophical and theological jeremiad and masterpiece - those who ignore Chapter 7 will misread the deeper purpose of Lament and distort Grant’s larger questions and concerns. There is, in short, much more to Lament than merely a lament and the journey into Grant’s distinction between Hegelian “necessity” and the Platonic “good” is the entrée portal - Sheila Grant, in the “Afterword”, pointed the way - Chapter 7 is now the meditative challenge before us. 


Fiat Lux

Ron Dart