What would France be without Joan of Arc? This absolute myth of a simple shepherdess who, several centuries before feminism, took the head of the armies of the kingdom and had Charles VII crowned in Reims. We can reread the pages of the best historians, from Michelet to Jacques Le Goff via Régine Pernoud, to check if all this has happened, it is clear that some characters are larger than life and that the reality sometimes exceeds the fiction.
It is with this same jubilant delight that the writer Carl Bergeron set out to unearth one of the great figures of our history. The one he calls “the Great Mary” (The Great Mary. Or the luxury of holiness, Éditions Médiaspaul) and who is none other than Marie de l’Incarnation.
Let’s say it right off the bat, it takes a lot of nerve to write such a book at a time when the denigration of our history has become a national sport. As often happens, the news is responsible for giving it an even greater resonance. While churches are being burned in the west of the country and that some describe our missionaries as the authors of “mass killings”, Bergeron was not afraid to let himself be carried away by the bewitching prose of Marie Guyart, founder of the Ursulines.
He does it neither as a judge in charge of deciding the good of the wicked nor to take refuge in a mythical past. He does so as a writer anxious to penetrate the very way that this leading woman who faced all perils could perceive herself. However, his discovery is fascinating.
Not only the Correspondence of Marie de l’Incarnation a literary work of the caliber of Confessions of Saint Augustine and Interior castle of Thérèse d’Avila, he says, it is up to us to rediscover in this work real nuggets worthy of a contemporary.
Colonized countries are so made that they ignore their history and what it hides greatness. Marie of the Incarnation will have had the defect of being attached to what she already describes as a “floating and uncertain country”, oscillating “from the beginning between the appearance and the disappearance”, adds Bergeron.
No one has read a single syllable of these Correspondence at school. With the exception of obscure academics, says the author, who hastened to prepare it for their sauces: the literary ones by making a forerunner of the writing of the intimate; psychologists auscultating her sexual frustrations, some not hesitating to describe her as crazy.
Bergeron, for his part, decided to rediscover in this work what Jean Le Moyne called the “luxury of holiness”, the fruit of a time when everything was not judged by the yardstick of the surrounding materialism. In doing so, he is not only doing the work of an exegete, he wants to force us to rediscover an era that the Quiet Revolution erased from our memories as it had been mythologized for a century to serve as a refuge for the powerlessness of French Canadians.
But, Bergeron tells us, these “courageous critical examinations” also provoked “excesses that flirted with self-hatred”. A hatred which today reaches new heights in anti-racist and decolonial movements for which the entire history of the West must be passed through profit and loss.
As a sovereign writer, Bergeron therefore allows himself the luxury of rediscovering with a new eye a work of which “less light peoples” could have made, he says, “the cornerstone” of their heritage. Starting with this beautiful language of the XVIIe century which delighted La Rochefoucauld and which offers us fine and earthy descriptions.
After having been giant clam frogs, Quebecers find a way to be fiercely anticlerical today while hatching an unbridled messianism. Fortunately, Carl Bergeron arrives at the point to force us to come out of this posture which only shoots ambulances. It forces us to look at the letter-writing as in itself as a larger than life subject. A character who, through her epic crossing where she grazes the icebergs, her upstream river escorted by Innu, her knowledge of several Indigenous languages and her fight against the elements, is well worth Alexandre Dumas’ heroes.
The writer thus reconnects in his own way with the vision of a historian like Maurice Séguin, who saw in New France the only moment in our history when the inhabitant of this country was able to act not as a dominated, but “by self ”. The only one where the Canadians “were not lost in their century,” wrote his colleague Guy Frégault.
You cannot found a country without drawing on history. With this book, Carl Bergeron forces us to renew the thread of a hated past. No longer as a compensatory mythology, but as an inspiration for this country “which thwarts all calculations”, already said the Great Mary.
To be French is to vibrate at the coronation of Reims and the feast of the Federation, according to Marc Bloch. From Marie de l’Incarnation to Gaston Miron, Bergeron wants to reconcile us with ourselves. And with a story that, he says, despite betrayals and defeats, has never been so exciting.
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