Reflections of a Siamese Twin

By John Ralston Saul

Over the past few years, novelist and essayist John Ralston Saul has established himself as one of Canada’s foremost public intellectuals. Throughout his critical writings he offers a humanistic vision of the public good that is opposed to the negative myths of ideology, propaganda, and corporatism (by which he means self-interest). In this new collection of essays he focuses this vision on Canada, offering a broad interpretation of the Canadian “idea” as expressed in history, politics, geography, and art.

Unfortunately, Reflections of a Siamese Twin is an uneven and, finally, disappointing book.

At its best, Saul’s writing is witty and provocative, suggesting new ways of looking at old problems and inviting debate. But at its worst, as it often is here, it is simplistic, superficial, and vague. His overuse of the word “myth” is symptomatic. What, for example, are we to make of a casual reference to Glenn Gould as “the mythological pianist”? Appearing without explanation, such a statement is practically meaningless.

The same can be said for many of Saul’s more advanced conclusions. One of his favourite generalizations, to take an obvious example, is his distinction between Platonic, written cultures and Socratic, oral ones. Now as part of a general historical debate this distinction is of some interest, but to say that Canada is a Socratic society and the United States Platonic is really pushing the theory too far.

And that’s just the beginning. Never a very convincing critic of the arts, Saul’s “big theory” of Canadian culture is yet another attempt to explain what distinguishes us from our neighbours to the south. Canadian art is “animistic,” a quality it shares with other northern countries such as Norway and Russia. Such an argument leads us to Saul’s Big Point: Canada, in both art and politics, is an “un-European” country, entirely different from the profoundly European United States.

One can tell from this that the argument is being driven by the familiar Canadian anxiety over American influence. It is a habit of mind that colours the entire book, and which leads to more than one embarrassing moment. In pursuing his “animism” thesis, for example, Saul dismisses the great American naturalist H. D. Thoreau as a mere Romantic suburbanite compared to his more manly Canadian counterpart, a Salish medicine man who has to undertake rigorous purification rituals in the real outdoors. Hard put to it, I can’t remember the last time I read something so silly.

Of course, there are some bright spots. Along the way there are a number of interesting insights offered, such as how the failure to provide adequate coat and boot checks at cultural events shows our denial of the reality of our weather (do I sense a bit of pique?). And much of what is said about Canada’s regional “victim mythologies” is bang on, though Quebec nationalists are too easy a target for the time spent destroying them here.

But despite its occasional energy and charm there is a terrible banality to most of what Saul is saying. At bottom, this is yet another book on the tired question of Canadian identity, leading to the familiar conclusions: Our complexity is our strength; the great theme of our history is compromise and reconciliation.

We should expect more from our public intellectuals.

Review first published November 22, 1997. It would be nice to see a Canadian writer from the left explain why Canada is, in fact, a more conservative country than the U.S. Most of our cultural differences, for example, stem from our fostering of establishments (political, financial, artistic) – a paralyzing condition that has never been dominant in the U.S. For some reason (I’ll let you figure it out), this is something that most prominent Canadian nationalists don’t like to talk about.


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