Dr.Dawg

Battle scars

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Looks like the Plains of Abraham battle re-enactment is not a go. I think that's a pity.

These re-enactments are seldom what they seem. I have mused on them before, getting tripped up, mind you, by not being aware at the time of the sheer scope of these historical re-plays.

One thing for sure: they are not merely pageantry. And for those directly involved,
it's not just playing. There is an experiential aspect to it, but I wonder how one could ever compare the original with its copy in that respect. No one dies. The fear is absent. Try to imagine that fear, the fear of being wounded before the word "anaesthesia" was coined. The American Civil War combined pre-anaesthetic medicine with proto-modern weaponry, leading not only to the worst battlefield carnage in its history right to the present (618,000 dead), but also frightful pain and suffering. 112 Unionists and 150 Confederates per thousand were wounded.

The re-enactments don't get at any of this. But that may not be as important as it may seem at first. With respect to the US, I have said that their popularity indicates, at least to me, that the Civil War isn't over. What about the battle of the Plains of Abraham?

The re-enactment of this decisive battle--or was it really decisive?--is not an annual event. In fact, it's the 250th anniversary of the real thing, complete with defiant masked ball and the eventual rout of General Montcalm's forces.

The last one was held a decade ago, when the Parti Québécois was in power, and everything went off without a hitch. But to Quebec souverainistes today, this is an exercise in triumphalism, pure and simple, and they plan to protest the events should they go on.

Everyone seems to be backing away, from the Prime Minister to the premier of Quebec. It's all up to the National Battlefields Commission now. The result, I think, is a foregone conclusion.

Some thoughts: history isn't in the past, but the present. We construct histories, narratizing fragments and imbuing them with meaning thereby.

Memorials and re-enactments are deeply ironic. For example, during the tourist season, the fortress at Louisbourg does daily re-enactments of life as it was when the place belonged to the French. But these are performed by local Nova Scotian English-speakers. The very muteness of Louisbourg speaks volumes. The "living history" here remains a snapshot, life marooned in time, but the French are English. And as they re-enact their historical moment for us, the dramatic irony of that moment is almost palpable. The characters in their period costumes play their roles with gusto, seemingly unaware, as they cheerfully go about their daily business, that theirs is a tragedy as yet to unfold.

As a historical site Louisbourg is a triumphalist construction. The very absence of tension in its (re)presentation ironically underscores that fact, contrasting starkly with the vigorously contested cultural and political debates that are carried on today about the place of Quebec in Confederation. The distancing in time of what is portrayed keeps the "French fact" at a safe remove.

A re-enactment of the battle of the Plains of Abraham, however, has no such remove. I, for one, want it to go ahead. And I want the
souverainistes out to protest it, and any federalists who want to support it, and the history buffs, and the media, and the cultural critics. Because all of that, too, is part of the spectacle, the history, the meaning: a battle that is not yet over, carried on by other means.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on February 12, 2009 4:53 PM.

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