It is a hallmark of Traditionalist metaphysics to consider the modern concept of “story” or “fiction” to be hopelessly neutered and in all psychological respects, useless. The process by which history became a science has relegated the proudest traditions and myths of the volk as “mere stories”, on par with the musings of undergraduate fiction writers in the eyes of postmodernist thought. Jordan Peterson has spilled much ink on the psychological significance of both story and storyteller. His recent series on the psychological significance of biblical stories may be the pinnacle of this kind of research in it’s secular form, but the prevailing opinion in the modern world is that art has no effect on us; it is mere entertainment which we consume and jettison. The loss of myth and the democratization of the role of storyteller have of course brought modern man tumbling down into the muck where mere fiction, bare of any super-real content, usurp the role of the weltanshauung and leaves the modern wage-slave searching for meaning in a morass of postmodernist, relativist fiction, relating only vaguely to the fictionalized problems of ordinary people, lacking heroes, and reading the regurgitated and reconsumed, beaten-to-death themes birthed from and interred back to the concrete of the modern city-state.
The fictions which guide modern man are not necessarily the products of corporate pop-culture, broadcast to televisions and bound up in books. Most often, they infiltrate the collective unconscious of the population and become a structural part of their “spirit” or the force which animates them as a whole. For this reason, one of the most powerful kinds of fiction is historical revisionism, where the past of a nation can be portrayed in a way which heavily influences the attitudes of the people in the present. This is the kind of fiction which influences Mavis Gallant as she writes from the point of view of Linnet Muir in Varieties of Exile. Another powerful kind of fiction is constructed identity of the individual, particularly when it is in opposition to the spirit of the nation they belong to. Though Linnet Muir can be described in this way, it is not nearly as prevalent an influence as it is in The Man Who Read Voltaire, where the narrator’s father is shown to be as a confused man, with an eclectic identity and a conflicted sense of belonging, which is apparent in the scattered attitudes of his family as an external manifestation of his mental state.
Varieties of Exile is caught up in the fictions of Allied myths and propaganda surrounding World War II. The efforts of the Allied governments to cover up the atrocities they committed have led to a complete whitewashing of the details of the war, and the creation of an archetypal saviour myth. It is near-impossible to find a Western person who knows of the Bleiburg Massacre, the Betrayal of the Cossacks, or Operation Gomorrah. Even more difficult is to find one who knows of the Allied involvement in Soviet death camps, the ethnic cleansing campaigns of Eastern Europe, the targeted extermination of Christians in Bolshevist Russia, or the Polish ethnic cleansing campaigns against Germans in the Danzig corridor. And any mention of assassinations and false-flags (such as Operation Torchman) meant to keep the war going to profit American arms-dealers under Lend-Lease will call forth slurs like “conspiracy theorist” quicker than one can provide the testimonies of politicians and soldiers who were there.
It is with this mythology of the divine Allied forces descending from the clouds to save Europe from populist nationalism (the irony of such a premise lost on the subjects of such propaganda) that Linnet Muir insists Churchill is the one to blame for allowing only whites to enlist in the Navy, and of course Uncle Joe (death toll: 66 Million) would be appalled if he knew such a requirement existed.
Linnet is already infested with the unholy offspring of Freudian and Marxist thought which continues to ravage the Western world today. Her identity is entirely negative, based on her opposition to ideas rather than her loyalty to them. She is a Socialist only insofar as she is anti-capitalist, a Marxist only insofar as she despises meritocracy, and a Freudian only insofar as she feels constrained by her sexuality. The irony of this negative identity is that it could very well describe a Fascist just as easily as a Marxist-Leninist Socialist, but Linnet clings to specific writers and ideas for what meagre positive identity she possesses. Her loyalties and enmities are flimsy, and based on value she herself reads into reality by fictionalizing the world around her to match her conception of superreality: the truth which transcends and unites the varied, subjective experiences of the world is above and more than the mere “reality” which Muir experiences.
Muir’s narratives and fictions are the products of post-modern and post-structural movements, and as such she seeks to problematize and rewrite both the historical record and the cultural assumptions which underpin her life in the “present”. The most obvious example is her Freudian analysis of “a wartime ditty, popular with the troops, ‘Rock me to sleep, Sergeant-Major, tuck me in my little bed’”. She claims it is “innocently homosexual” in an attempt to make her analysis seem moderate, and is confused and even shocked that she offends and disturbs the men in her office (Gallant, 756). This Freudian analysis attempts to sexualize the ancient Indo-European Männerbund, the organization of adult men and the bond of unity they felt, superior to the family-bond, as warrior-ascetics and blood-brothers. The new narrative which Muir seeks to impose is the Freudian/Feminist narrative of freedom as sexual liberation and rejection of traditional family organization. The Männerbund did reject family organization, but it did so as an initiatory organization with religious significance, and rejected the duties which marriage and fatherhood would impose on men who were sworn to uphold the ideals of godly Virtue.
Granted, the modern military and the decadent role of the soldier are far cries from the blood-brotherhood and warrior-shamans composing the proto-knightly order of the Männerbund, but the faint echo of that ideal is one which soldiers still feel today, and one even the laymen in Muir’s office understood, which is why they were appalled by her Freudian deconstruction of one of their private, spiritual institutions. This form is representative of Muir’s basic use of narrative structure: she uses modern ideas that suit her life and experiences to redefine the world around her, effacing the narratives that represent a super-reality and replacing them with the flimsy modern constructions which she believes in, instead. It is a peculiarly Western kind of individualism which underpins and justifies her replacement of superreality with her own subjective experiences and feelings.
In terms of Freudian deconstruction, Muir tries to sexualize and complicate the patrician rite of inheritance when she discusses remittance men, calling it a “male battle” (Gallant, 747) and subtly making it about the father’s need to control and even possess the women, like a lion killing the cubs of the previous alpha male. Banishment, however, is an ancient ritual of the European stocks, representing the failure of the son to be initiated into the patrician rite and a vote of non-confidence in his ability to lead the clan. It divorces him from the land containing the bones and spirits of his ancestors for failing to uphold the rituals of the ancestor cult, and as such turns him into a wandering nomad with no family and no history.
The sexual deconstruction is flimsy and implicit, but the Marxist one is obvious and runs through the entire story. Muir is appalled by wealth, obsesses over the rich, and expresses disgust at “class insanity”. Like most Marxists, however, she is haughty and bourgeois, looking down on remittance men whose children don’t attend university, who are educated in history and the arts, who “probably… had been taught that the past is better than now, and somewhere else better than here”, and whose accents are “innocently irritating” (Gallant, 750). The irony is that Muir loves refugees, so long as they aren’t English. She’s even disgusted at them speaking French (Gallant, 750), but later criticizes her French-Canadian fiancee behind his back, because he doesn’t speak French (Gallant, 756). Muir is typically Western in this equation of what is bourgeois with what is aristocratic, and her disdain for the past makes it clear why her modern constructions appeal to her more than any historical superreality: she just doesn’t care. She is a disciple of the Enlightenment and believes in the Myth of Progress: now is better than then was, because now is now, and then was then. She lives without a culture of her own, and attacks cultures arbitrarily.
It is primarily the displacing effect of emigration to the Americas and the totalitarian power of a dominant American culture with no roots of its own, spurred on by the driving need to expand, colonize, and industrialize, that causes these European traditions to be swept away. The modern city-state is so isolated from outside culture that even the divide between country and city can be a bitter one. This division dates back even to the time of Christ, from rural Galilee, being spurned by the cosmopolitan elite in urban Judea. Cosmopolitanism, however, is a distinct issue, and it will suffice to speak here of rootless, displaced people who are moulded by the urban culture of their new host nations rather than their individual cultural backgrounds.
The Man Who Read Voltaire shows the magnetic pull of the modern city-state upon such people, who have lost their myths and been forced into an uncaring economic system which uses them as fuel rather than as living parts of a larger organic unity. It is a people brought up to idolize a system of entitlement and laziness that is inconvenienced by the process of building a family home by hand (Sileika, 388-9). Consumerism is the thought process which idolizes the incremental progress of factories churning out slightly faster cars year-after-year (Sileika, 395). The failure of this philosophy and the discontent of the consumer class becomes more evident year after year, but in the postwar era, full of hope and with burgeoning economic prosperity, the West was optimistic and arrogant.
The family in The Man Who Read Voltaire is archetypal. German* immigrants, with extended family who were victimized and destroyed by Allied war crimes against civilians, speaking in hushed tones about Dresden (itself a deflection by the author to avoid talking about Operation Gomorrah; admitting to a lesser crime to distract from a greater one) (Sileika, 391), and only speaking German* in private, never daring to let the Canadians hear them and never even referring to the name of their language: it is always a private form of communication (Sileika, 395). This German* identity is hinted at when the mother mentions an attempted hate crime during the war, where someone stuck their rifle through the door at night (Sileika, 390).
The experience of a displaced people, searching for a new identity and seeking to belong to something, makes them ripe to be swayed by the excesses and the myths of the great American future. The influence of American stories is explicit in The Man Who Read Voltaire, with the children being influenced by shows, advertisements, and superhero stories coming from across the border through the radio (Sileika, 389). This fiction of the bright future ahead of the burgeoning American nation creates a sick jealousy on the part of their Canadian neighbours, who desire strongly to have that identity for themselves. Even the mother feels the pull of the American myth, foreshadowed by the father telling her “Money again. That’s all you ever talk about” (Sileika, 387) and becoming explicit at the end, when she asks Dave if America was beautiful (Sileika, 402).
This jealousy and competition is one of the defining features of the Canadian/American relationship; it is obvious in the attitudes of the father and the uncle, and in their relationship. The American uncle sees the father as being backwards and superstitious, clinging to cultural, racial, and religious identities that are anachronistic and don’t belong in the New World. The father sees the uncle as being a traitor, abandoning his past and selling his identity to the new industrial colossus. This latter attitude is the more powerful one, simply because all urban identity is constructed and out-of-touch with superreality because of how insulated it is from nature and organic human relationships.
This is why the uncle, like Linnet Muir, has to point and gesture towards writers whose ideas he has appropriated (Voltaire, in this case) and has no ability to explain his feelings himself. The father, though disconnected and at a loss to explain to his children what their birthright is, can very clearly criticize the uncle’s decisions: “That uncle of yours works on the assembly line at Ford… Your aunt is a saleslady at Kroger’s” (Sileika, 401). It is also significant that the uncle and aunt bring brands with them. Lucky Strike cigarettes, Ford cars, Kroger’s. Dave’s aunt gives him an American dollar, and his uncle buys them each a pound of candy. This is glamorous to the boys, but their father recognizes the shallow consumerism which defines the uncle’s life, and which he and the aunt were willing to abandon their heritage to achieve. They’re traitors to the weltanshauung, who have thrown in their lot with a new culture and abandoned their heritage.
Both of these stories represent situations that still live today. The immigrant story becomes more and more common as Canada admits 1.25 million new people each year. Furthermore, the aggressive secularization of multicultural and multiracial societies pushes more and more people, whose heritage has been washed away through the generations, to become bitter and over-critical like Linnet Muir, seeking to spoil what cultural identity others do have, out of jealousy. The narrative of a dominant culture, in both cases, acts upon the individual and they either long to participate in it, or reject and attack it. Ironically, both cases are defined by the narrative, and it does become part of their identity, even if they claim to hate it and rail against it. That is the power of the narrative: it totalizes and effaces all that came before it, and must be engaged on its own terms. Perhaps Muir is right to oppose something so devastating, though she should do so by reasserting the older, more powerful narratives rather than the newer, weaker ones.
Author’s Note: I originally wrote this essay for an English class where I was purposely kept in the dark about the authors’ lives. Though it was not explicit in the story (hence, my misreading) Antanas Sileika’s The Man Who Read Voltaire is about Lithuanian immigrants, not German ones. The point I make in the essay still stands, but I felt the need to come clean about my misinterpretetion.
Gallant, Mavis. “Varieties of Exile.”
Sileika, Antanas. “The Man Who Read Voltaire.”