Renowned Canadian poet David Solway once embraced the received wisdom of the left-wing intelligentsia then came 9/11.
Canadian poet David Solway
‘It is in its way a perversely exhilarating spectacle,” writes David Solway, summarizing the message of his just published book, The Big Lie: On Terror, Anti-Semitism and Identity. “Not many people get to see in their lifetime a civilization coming to pieces before their very eyes, like a star going supernova.”
Solway, whom some consider Canada’s greatest living poet, equally at home amongst both anglophone and francophone literati, is himself something of a creative supernova: (retired) college teacher, educational theorist, travel writer, producer, scriptwriter and the recipient of numerous prizes. He’s also a contributing co-editor of the review Books in Canada, in whose pages and elsewhere he continually gives evidence of being our most elegantly insightful literary and cultural critic to boot.
The Big Lie was conceived in an act of war. Although Solway has always been an aesthetic conservative (“Canadian poets, learn your craft/and celebrate the hundredth draft”), it took the events of 9/11 to rouse him from the “ignorance and laziness” of half a lifetime’s default identification with the leftist ideology his cohort internalized in the student-revolutionary sixties.
The Islamist assault on America plunged Solway into “a kind of Cartesian interrogation, a relentless scrutiny of the values and beliefs I accepted as gospel.” Six years on, this radical reappraisal of principles plus meticulous research has produced The Big Lie. The book is an idiosyncratically formatted polemic, composed of theme-linked literary and political sorties, and fleshed out by the poignant chronicle of Solway’s personal sojourn, from secular and even arrogant indifference to Israel’s fate toward a proud, informed and loving embrace of Jewish destiny.
The Big Lie joins a swelling tributary of books produced by a special breed of political evangelicals: former leftist intellectuals (“mugged by reality,” in Irving Kristol’s memorable phrase) from whose eyes the scales have fallen through personal or political trauma. Some familiar exemplars of the type: Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, Christopher Hitchens, Alain Finkielkraut and Michael Novak, to name but a few.
Driven by savage indignation on one hand and remorse on the other (intellectuals, their whole identity deeply invested in ideas, experience particular shame in admitting bamboozlement by their ideological gods), some reformed leftists, and now Solway, have harnessed their intelligence, high seriousness and rhetorical prowess to prophetic warnings of the abyss into which they suddenly find themselves staring with horror.
Their “conversion” lends credibility to their writing. For they escape from the dark side at great personal expense — the loss of friendships, professional reputation, career advancement in many cases — and most important, the blow to their intellectual self-esteem. As Solway ruefully notes in his preface: “For this book was written against the grain as I came to realize that I had been wrong about nearly everything.”
Converts share an impatience with received wisdoms, and a burning sense of mission that those who “got it” from the beginning can’t approximate — “it” being the truth that the left has indeed been wrong on every meaningful historical question for 200 years, up to and including the existential threat posed by Islamofascism, and the invidious canard that Israel is the “problem,” while a Palestinian state — “Islam’s Trojan horse,” Solway calls it — is the “solution.”
The Big Lie is an anatomy of our times, a vivisection of the West-hating mindset that leads to active complicity with our enemies. The main thrust of the book — not entirely original, but more exhaustively researched, more passionately and eloquently articulated than other polemics of the genre — is to limn the seamless relationship between anti-Semitism and Islamist terror; to provide forensic evidence of a dangerously irresolute society; and to articulate the sad reality that we have, at our peril, evaded, conciliated, appeased and equivocated in the craven hope that history will pass us by.
The book ends on a humble note: “I have no prophetic pretensions. I can only say what I see, and write in the hope of a miracle.”
True poetry, Solway once said, is a “form of prayer.” When the writer’s motive is pure, and the writing sufficiently brilliant, prose can be, too — for The Big Lie, it seems to me, springs from an innately devotional sensibility — and prayers sometimes do, I have heard, produce miracles.
Barbara Kay "What rhymes with ‘I was wrong’?" National Post, (Canada) 11 April, 2007.
Reprinted with permission of the author, Barbara Kay, and the National Post.
Barbara Kay is a Montreal-based writer. She has been a Comment page columnist (Wednesdays) in the National Post since September, 2003.Copyright © 2007 National Post
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