Entering into a conversation with Mathieu Bélisle is not easy.
Posted at 5:00 am
The literature professor at Brébeuf College is interested in many things, including Russian writers, the protection of French, physics, the American imagination and religious culture.
With him, thinking is an adventure. He is not a thesis intellectual. He tries to understand the world around him, to explain himself. The choice of subject involves him on a path that he discovers by treading it.
What do we talk about during our too short one hour interview? I’ll throw it on his foreword to the upcoming reissue of the book The Two Kingdoms by Pierre Vadeboncoeur.
“It got me thinking about freedom,” he says. It almost seems like she has some bad press with us. We are ironic about ‘freedom’, we reduce it to the caricature the right makes of it. It’s like it’s a silly business. †
The tone is more incredulous than shocked. He wonders what it says about us. “Basically, we may never have felt very comfortable with freedom,” he analyzes.
Vadeboncoeur saw freedom as an ideal to rise to. ‘He’s a free man like we’ve had too few in Quebec. There was no trace of calculation in him. Nor was it the caricature of the authentic human being who thinks without thinking and acts without worrying about the consequences. He wanted others to be free too. †
To be free, according to Bélisle, requires a constant effort of clarity. And he thinks Quebec is a bit lazy.
“I think we’re being careful. We’re moving forward in a narrow corridor of thought. Intellectuals often speak like experts, and their interventions consist of saying, ‘It’s very complicated, there’s no easy answer, here’s why. ..” They dare not go beyond this observation for fear of getting wet. Vadeboncoeur said society needs strong individuals who push through their ideas, and there is a lack of them. †
We define ourselves too much by opposition. There is a huge negative energy coming from No† Same Global denial, this root of modern Quebec, remains a no. Where is he, yes? An identity cannot be defined only by the negative.
In his eyes, we have gone from one unanimity to another. “Ideas have changed since the Great Darkness, but conformism is never far away. †
I read Mathieu Bélisle’s two public essays, Welcome to the land of ordinary life and The Invisible Realm† However, I knew less about the author himself.
Chance wanted him to tell about his childhood on the excellent program the day before our interview the 21st by Michel Lacombe.
This resident of Drummondville was the son of a minister. “It’s true, when I was 7 years old, I read the Bible,” he confirms. But his career branched out into literature long ago. Moral ambiguity attracts him more than certainties.
During the 1995 referendum, he taught French in Dawson Creek, a remote town in northeastern British Columbia. After a PhD from McGill and a postgraduate from the University of Chicago, he became a CEGEP teacher. He is also editorial secretary of Disadvantagean admirable magazine devoted to the world of ideas.
He sees that English is taking up more and more space among his students. “I once heard a student ask his colleague: ‘What is the meaning of this poem?† If they don’t speak French during a literature course in a French-language CEGEP, when will they? †
Belisle stops. “I don’t want to exaggerate, it remains a minority in the training and it exists just as well in other CEGEPs, he adds. But it still stands out. A colleague of Cégep de Rosemont received a question in English during her course. The student did it without realizing it! †
For a long time, he did not advocate making Bill 101 applicable to CEGEP. His idea changed “one or two years ago”.
In recent months, teachers have started a spontaneous movement. While the two major unions oppose it, in 24 of the 48 CEGEPs their local unions have taken a stance in favor of Bill 101.
I tell Bélisle that this would not change the disturbing trend observed in his training – after all, he works in a French-speaking CEGEP.
It goes on with other arguments. These are convincing. “How many states fund public second language education at such a high level? We are the only ones who do that. †
These graduates of English-speaking CEGEPs will then use English more often at university and at work, Bélisle laments.
The Legault government has proposed a compromise: cap registrations for the Anglophone network at the current level. “But it creates a perverse effect, regrets Bélisle. Dawson is already the most popular and conditional CEGEP. The CAQ would only make it more prestigious, which would make the skimming even worse. Do we want the language of the elites to become English again? †
“Law 101 is not a failure,” he continues. It is an exaggeration to claim it. I recently said this to my former student Sophika [Vaithyanathasarma, candidate de Québec solidaire dans Marie-Victorin] : Without Law 101, we probably would never have known each other. It’s already a lot. But contrary to what we try to have ourselves believe, the battle is not over. †
Bélisle’s post-doctorate focused on ‘imaginaries from elsewhere’. The theme is also central to his essay on the United States imposing its culture and colonizing consciences.
In The Invisible Realm, he is surprised that it is fiction that connects reality. The example of September 11 strikes him. Attacks already imagined on television have been shown on the small screen. This time it was true and it was hard to believe. As if we become the unbelieving spectators of our lives.
A similar phenomenon repeated itself during the pandemic, he says. This will be the subject of his next essay, which will be published in May.
COVID has shown us unease with old age and death. Taboos have not disappeared, they have just changed. It used to be sexuality. Now it is death. What does it mean to die? How do we prepare for it? We don’t talk about it.
In 1937 her grandmother lost her brother. Rawdon’s house turned into a funeral home, the body was displayed on the kitchen table. It was part of life.
During the first wave, deaths were reduced more to statistics. And we forgot that the living conditions of some seniors have long been scandalous. Why wasn’t that a priority? Maybe because we don’t want to imagine what old age looks like, replies Bélisle.
“Paul Ricœur spoke of the joy of living until the end. Even old and sick we can rejoice to see the sun rise in the morning. And then you’re not that old at 80. I even know a woman who is over 100, she still reads and she stays. †
Thinking can also be an adventure, right up to the end.
Questionnaire without filter
Coffee ritual: I drink an espresso with vanilla soy milk in the morning. I already have good natural energy. If I drink too much, I become unbearable.
Recently read books: profane relics, a collection by Pierre-Marc Asselin. In his news February 15, 2039, he envisions a theme park on the patriots. It’s funny, brilliant and absurd. i also read everyday life, by Adele Van Reeth and the magic lanterna collection of Jean Paul, a German writer from the 18thand century.
Music I listen to: The group Goldfrapp, the singers Pomme and Clara Luciani. I discovered them thanks to my daughters.
Living or dead people I would like to dine with: I would like to bring together some great names of literature and thinking, such as Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Fernando Pessoa, Franz Kafka. But I would also be very curious to meet young Quebecers of 2050, whom I would ask what they think needs to be done to have a happy life.
Favorite library: Bound: the public library of Amsterdam, an architectural masterpiece built on the model of the tall narrow houses that made the city famous, and the library of the Arsenaal, a small Parisian jewel.
Event I would like to attend? The fall of the Berlin Wall.
Recommended work to my students? End of a gameby Julio Cortázar and A garden at the end of the worldby Gabrielle Roy.
Who is Mathieu Belisle?
Graduated from McGill University (PhD) and University of Chicago (Postgraduate) in Literature with a specialization in the history of the novel and its relationship with humor and the miraculous.
Professor of literature at the Jean-de-Brébeuf college since 2003.
Member of the editorial board of the magazine Disadvantage†
Author of three books: The Funny Novel – The Work of Laughter with Marcel Aymé, Albert Cohen and Raymond Queneau (2010), Welcome to the land of ordinary life (2017) and The Invisible Empire – An Essay on America’s Metamorphosis (2020).