Of Language; A Lesson from Brother Anonynmous

OF LANGUAGE; A LESSON FROM BROTHER ANONYMOUS, curated by Jenny Penberty, published by TCR The Capilano Review, Frebruary 2011, 900 words 



Jean-Paul Desbiens is the author of Les insolences du frère Untel ( Impertinences of Brother Anonymous), which consists in a series of polemical essays, published in the newspaper Le Devoir, corroborating with editorialist and politician André Laurendeau, who coined the term joual spoken by the youth, as more or less the language of the vanquished. Within the same year the editor of Les Éditions de l’Homme, Jacques Hébert (future senator, close colleague of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and founder of Canada World Youth) published the articles in book form. 130 000 000 copies sold in a country where 10 000 was considered a best-seller.


In his essays, Brother Anonymous criticizes the poverty of the spoken language, the lack of vision within the institutions and denounces the clergy’s obscurantism, thus exposing the need for major educational reform. His main critique is the degradation of language due to a lack of political infrastructure to protect the flourishing of French culture and identity. The Impertinences of Brother Anonymous is a critical text portending the loss of meaning, at a particular point in time, when Quebec was tragically submerged by an infinitely more powerful idiom equipped with a stronger system of capture. He deplores the lack of French in advertising and the general media, leaving a language and its culture on the verge of being drowned by American influence. His deep literary love for the French language with which he, as a writer, identified at all levels of his being, is what compelled him to fight against its gradual disappearance. There is no question that this text shaped the becoming modern of Quebec.


Upon his return from further studies in Rome in 1964, he was invited to join Minister Paul-Guérin Lajoie as his main counsel in regards to the creation of an entire new curriculum in liberal arts, with mandatory classes in philosophy and literature, to be implemented in the new CEGEP, a two-year program preparing students for university still in existence today. He also went on to become the editorialist in chief of the Journal La Presse in 1970 where he is known for his federalist views. It is also obvious that his thoughts on the necessary banning of English signage influenced greatly the following Official Language Act in Quebec, and later, Bill 101, defining French as the language spoken by the majority of the population, as the only official language of Quebec and framing fundamental language rights for everyone in the province. Jean-Paul Desbiens received the honours of Chevalier de l'Ordre national du Québec and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. He died in July 2006 and we celebrate this year the fiftieth anniversary of his manifesto.


When I was asked to look into Refus Global in the context of this issue, I revisited the manifesto written in 1948 by painter Paul-Emile Borduas and signed by the Automatists painters and other intellectuals.  Although I was moved by its very innovative lyrical qualities, the anti-clergy content, its critique of society and its sincere cry for the emancipation of the culture, it did not represent, in my understanding, the precursor of what is called the Quiet Revolution but had more influence within the already specific and sophisticated discourse on modern art happening in Quebec, which closely related in time and content with New York’s abstract expressionism. Borduas mentions ten years later from his flat in Paris, somewhat disillusioned, that its energetic proclamation was rather personal, naïve and not strong enough to be revolutionary. So I found it difficult to reinterpret its original dynamism and give it a second breath. As a result, I chose to explore a lesser known manifesto that is The Impertinences of Brother Anonymous, which is also less mystified, but extremely influential and closer to my own research.


By focusing on the chapters on language, I wanted to present this manifesto as an important document about the pollution, the noise, the interference, the snow, the bad reception, the gap, the compromised, the foreign particles, words falling off the page, discontinuities, a voice, a sound, a music, submersion, immersion, implosion, buried, forgotten, overpowered, bullied, domination, victim syndrome, auto-da-fé, a lack of response, a defeat, a let’s-be-practical, a lack of spine, a lack of destiny, a sigh,  a sellout, a caprice, a pile of lost love letters, a vocation, a resistance, a strong belief, a baby boom, a beat generation, an alarm clock, an axe, a je ne sais quoi… And contrary to common opinion still circulating today, someone who defends the protection of French language as a cultural identity in Quebec is not necessarily a nationalist, a separatist, neither a fascist nor a racist. 


Finally, in order to bring the author’s main ideas in the foreground of contemporary critique, I chose to reproduce a series of excerpts relating to the deterioration of language so as to understand the mechanisms into which any speech, and therefore any thought process, can be reduced, alienated and self-abased. I wanted to play with the effect of visual poverty, the impact of multinational repetition in our visual landscape, not only in the 1960’s Quebec, but today, globally, all language confounded. In order to illustrate my point, I replaced the word joual with the words Starbucks, Seven Eleven and Safeway. It is in my opinion that this gesture would not weaken or highjack but rather reinforce Desbiens’s thesis.