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The English film director David Lean had a string of international successes during the 1960s, with grand epics such as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago.” Nearing the decade’s end, he took a decidedly subtler turn by making “Ryan’s Daughter,” a tragic romance loosely based on Madame Bovary transposed to 1916 rural Ireland. Released in 1970, “Ryan’s Daughter” went down as both a commercial and critical flop, and Lean was so demoralized by the harsh appraisal that he did not make another movie for nearly a decade and half.
Nonetheless, when “Ryan’s Daughter” played in Montenegro, it made an impression on one moviegoer, for whom it would become an enduring favourite. Decades later, in a new memoir, “Lost in Canada: An Immigrant’s Second Thoughts,” Lydia Perović mulls over what struck her mother ⁠—the aforementioned moviegoer — about the film. It dawns on her that perhaps she had been drawn to the “stubborn, free spirit” of the female protagonist, Rosy, as an escapism from the more settled features of her own life in the former Yugoslavia.
Perović’s memories of her mother are a moving witness to the power of art to open up new vistas in an otherwise confined place. Having grown accustomed to going to the movies as a teen (she reportedly watched every flick released at the local kino between the ages of 16 and 21) Perović’s mother continued to be a cinephile, introducing Perović to a variety of classic Hollywood and continental flicks.
That influence has lingered. An immigrant to Canada from the small nation-state of Montenegro, the younger Perović moved to Toronto in the late 1990s following the aftermath of the civil war that led to the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. A novelist and cultural critic, she exemplifies the formative power of culture.
Culture and memory reach a personal inflection point following her mother’s death in the autumn of 2015. On a trip to Montenegro, during what turns out to be their final days together, Perović asks to examine her mother’s mouth, and then advises her that she must have a proper dental checkup, a practice rather uncommon in non-high-income countries. Her mother humours Perović by pretending to listen, and three days later, she is gone. Gradually in the ensuing days, weeks and months, the author finds, “my life strikes me as a business thoroughly unreal.”
This experience of remembrance and grief opens up in Perović ruminations on where she is from, why she left, what she feels are central to being human— “the consciousness of our own mortality” and the “dread and joy of the possibility of freedom,” as she puts it— and where she finds herself: a Canadian cultural landscape that is parched and narrowed.
Being an agnostic, the newly bereaved Perović does not avail herself of the solace of religion. Rather, she sees the power of art to deepen our awareness of those two central factors of human existence of mortality and freedom. It is from this vantage point that she observes the importance of arts and culture to a free society, and the lamentable state of their decline (in her view) in anglophone Canada.
Perović’s natural community in her adoptive country is the one that forms through her writing. As a journalist, Perović has also witnessed the near gutting of the cultural media scene that makes the Canada of present-day seem bloodless even when compared to the cash-strapped independent outlets of 1980s former Yugoslavia.
For Perović, the problem is not merely economic, it is also cultural. She notes that in parts of Eastern Europe, there are fewer independent media organizations today under democratically elected strongmen such as Orbán of Hungary or Vučić of Serbia that there had been during the heyday of communism. The privatization and monopolization of media means that state propaganda (exemplified most potently in Putin’s Russia) is more sophisticated, championed by powerful cronies, and greased by cash of dubious provenance.
Perović argues that in parts of Canada’s cultural institutions, we are mimicking the worst aspects of authoritarian societies through outrage and denunciation, redolent with “Soviet flair.” She senses something new in the cultural developments of the last decade, in fights over cultural appropriation and the trend of embedding the social justice mission in the production of art. “Having left a political culture where freedom of speech needs defending, I find myself in another political culture where freedom of speech needs defending. It is bizarre but I know there are worse fates.”
It is easy to feel stuck thinking about critical issues such as free inquiry in the abstract. Perović seems to feel them more intimately. She raises the decline of the practice of friendship in urban life, for instance, seeing in the disappearance of a “disinterested relationship where both sides give increasingly and correspondingly in a virtuous circle of intellectual, emotional and ethical investment,” a source of loneliness. From this springs many of our common societal vices. While individual intimacy is important, it cannot bear the weight of needs that requires a living community. Even if the solace offered by the presence of art, music, and literature is significant, we still need civic and private spaces to share our experience with others.
Culture does not exist in a vacuum, and while it may form independently of politics, it is inevitably shaped by it. Perović’s book is ostensibly about the decline and dearth of culture in Canada but ends up being about much more, including the fate of liberalism in Canada. Perović is taken with political theorist Janet Ajzenstat’s hypothesis that the main division in political life is not along the political spectrum of left, right, and centre but rather one that is cleaved between classical liberalism and romanticism. Romanticism in practice, according to Ajzenstat, is characterised by “impatience” over slow-going reforms and thus tending towards populism and revolution. This view would place liberalism at the centre of political life, holding at bay “illiberalism both right-wing and progressive.”
A full-throated defense of liberalism has recently been taken up by Francis Fukuyama in his “Liberalism and its Discontents.” Fukuyama argues that in our current post-liberal state, we have moved from “moral to cognitive relativism.” Moral relativism allowed that in a plural society, people may disagree on the ultimate meanings that could be relegated to private life, while still being held in check by “a hierarchy of factual truths.” The current situation where facts are emotive and tenuous, increasingly leads to fanaticism and ideological certainty. For Fukuyama (and it is plausible to imagine Perović agreeing with him, at least on this), when it comes to the issue of identity politics, it is liberalism, “with its premise of universal human equality, (that) needs to be the framework within which identity groups struggle for their rights.”
The irony is that there is a penchant for liberalism’s defenders to romanticize liberalism itself. Shorn of its proper origins, liberalism is often presented as the only sane and proper option, emerging from centuries of trial and error. What is then left unsaid is the tendency in liberal societies for an all-encompassing spiritual flatness, a torporific disinterestedness when it comes to fundamental questions of what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Although Perović does not explicitly put her finger on the liberalism’s spiritual listlessness, she gestures at some of its effects. As she observes, “Are our lives good? … We should give it some thought. Even though my beloved liberalism would rather look away when asked about it.”
Perović’s position is that liberalism offers a way out of the inescapable trap of identitarianism. By putting all our “chips on irreconcilable differences,” we could become trapped in a never-ending game of political vindictiveness. She laments the decline of a culture for all, and points to the part-Indigenous, part-South Asian playwright Yolanda Bonnell, who did not want white critics to review her play “Bug.”
Given Perović’s roots in the Balkans and its modern tragic history, it is understandable that she is very uneasy about the notion of “blood and belonging” compared with a more porous membership in a community attained by the simple aspirational act of sharing in its values.
But being part of any human community demands more. In some of liberalism’s assumptions there lurks an implicit notion of a place like Canada, is a blank slate, an unpeopled land where liberal values can have a free run unsullied by the obstacles faced in the old country with its tribal conflicts. While Canada may be a newer polity, it nonetheless has a longer history and tradition than this assumption wagers. One of the main challenges for us today is that two sides are required to remain intact in some form in order to be reconciled; the previous colonial practices of forced assimilation and cultural genocide were gestures of erasure. We need newer gestures not of erasure but of forgiveness, reparation, transformation, and the possibility of friendship; these require more resources than liberalism could supply.
Could some of the resources that we need be found in culture? Perović’s chapter on finding a deeper link with Canada through the stories of Alice Munro is a wonderful illustration of the possibilities of art to both transcend and connect cultures. Against the backdrop of grief and middle age, two-plus decades into Canadian life, Perović comes across two stories by Munro that (however improbably) involve a connection to Montenegro: “Albanian Virgin” and “Tricks.” She senses that in Munro’s characters, what is given and what is chosen are live questions, and that her protagonists, often women, search for, stumble, and sometimes attain freedom at a great cost. Perović’s concluding lines on Munro offer hope: “The question of whether I belong in Canada remains to be settled. What is clear, however, is that a place exists for me in Alice Munro’s stories.”
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