Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ron Dart's Spiders and Bees - Foreword by William Christian

Foreword to George Grant: Spiders and Bees by Ron Dart

The image of Ron Dart that stands out most strongly in my mind is a tall, lanky, dark-haired man on a snow-covered peak in the pristine wilderness of the interior of British Columbia. There is, in him, some-thing of Rousseau’s solitary wanderer. Although he’s innately social and seems to have friends of all sorts and conditions everywhere in the country, I think that he’s probably most truly himself when he’s alone with his thoughts. Because thoughts he has aplenty. He has published over twenty books. He produced one of the most innovative and imaginative literary magazines in the country. And although he ponders deeply on the wisdom of the past, that doesn’t prevent him from spreading his ideas by blogging in the present. He’s both a Renaissance man and a web 2.0 man at the same time.

Another image I have of Dart is the poet, sitting at my dining room table with my wife and me, talking with great affection, sensitivity and knowledge about many of Canada’s great poets from coast to coast. Some of them, like Milton Acorn, are well-known. Others are not. But Dart has a deep knowledge of their writings.

There is also Professor Dart, who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, BC, one of Canada's fine undergraduate universities. Dart is capable of producing first rate scholarship. One of his books was an edited volume that attracted some very fine scholars from across Canada and was published by one of Canada's leading academic outlets, the University of Toronto Press. 

Why then is Dart not as well known as he should be? If he taught in a major urban centre like Vancouver or Toronto there would be greater recognition of the range and quality of his output. I think the real reason, though, is the sheer originality of his thought, of which this collection of essays is a fine example.

The essays are loosely grouped around a common theme. The theme is the thought of a philosophical giant in the life of Canada, George Grant. Grant was famous in his lifetime. He was a fellow of the Royal Society in his forties, awarded seven honorary degrees, elected to the Order of Canada. There were few honours that an academic could win that Grant missed. His thought was controversial, but he had more devoted admirers than detractors. Still, it has only been since Grant’s death in 1988 that his philosophical legacy has been explored (‘unpacked’ is the word Dart uses) in increasing depth. The greatness of Grant’s genius is becoming undisputable, and Spiders and Bees is a valuable contribution both to the deeper understand- ing of this great philosopher and to the further development of Dart’s own philosophical insights.

Dart takes us into recesses of Grant’s thought that no one else has previously explored. One essay looks at the connection between Grant and C.S. Lewis. Grant had regularly attended Lewis’s Socratic Club when he returned to Oxford after the Second World War and Dart explores the impact of this association on him.

Another essay looks at Stephen Leacock and the Tory tradition. Leacock had been a teacher at Upper Canada College when George Parkin, Grant’s grandfather, was principal and William Grant, Grant’s father, was a fellow teacher. Later, after William Grant’s death, when Leacock was teaching at McGill, Grant’s mother Maude became Dean of Women there. Dart convincingly traces a connection between Lea- cock’s political ideas and Grant’s early writings on politics and the British Empire.

Whenever I discussed the Anglican Church with Grant, he was dis-missive of its theology and denied that it had much influence over his life. I took Grant at his word on this and Dart and I have had spirited discussions over the years on this issue. He is slowly prevailing. His essay on ‘Grant and the Anglican Tradition’ has almost convinced me that Grant minimized something that had, at one time, been of real importance to him. Dart has an uncanny ability, because of his great sophistication, to find connections between Grant’s thought and other contemporaries. The essays on Grant and Clark Pinnock, a contemporary of Grant’s at McMaster, and Preston Manning, founder of the Reform party are insightful, but the gem is the comparison of Lament for a Nation with the beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. What a wonderful idea to put two such different works together and learn so much from the juxtaposition.

The two most important essays, though, are those that explore the connection between Grant and India. Grant was deeply influenced by Hinduism and the Vedanta. Although he wrote very little about Eastern religion directly, it penetrated to the core of his writing on almost every other subject after about 1970 when the influence of his col- leagues in the Department of Religion at McMaster University—especially John Arapura—had made its impact. I once met Dr. Arapura and, in the course of our discussion, he said that he and Grant used to meet frequently at his house, where they sat and talked about philosophy... ‘just the three of us,’ Arapura said. ‘The three of you. Who was the third?’ I asked. ‘Oh, there was Dr. Grant and myself. The Eternal was always present too.’

You will enjoy this book even if you have never heard of either George Grant or Ron Dart. And I can assure you that, after you’ve read it, you will want to read more of both thinkers.

William Christian Guelph, Ontario

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