An Interview with Professor Norman Cornett – L’Heureux Naufrage/Fortunate Shipwreck

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JO: We have invited Professor Cornett here today to discuss issues surrounding a film called L’Heureux Naufrage/Fortunate Shipwreck: The Ambient Emptiness of Postmodern Society made by Guillaume Tremblay.

Professor Cornett held a dialogic session on Sep. 22, 2014 in Montreal with the filmmaker and other people from the film.

JO: Could you start by talking about yourself and your field of expertise.

NC: For 23 years, I have led what I call dialogic sessions. In all fairness here, I am referencing Mikhail Bakhtin, the Soviet Literary critic, and his notion of the dialogic imagination. I believe learning takes place in the interstices between our imaginations and our reasonings and I want to bring the best available experts to the most number of people possible so I create these dialogic sessions.

JO: And your background is that you are a professor of religion?

NC: Yes, my specialty is religious studies and I did my Phd. thesis on the history of religion, culture, and politics in Quebec society which is a very rich focal point of the documentary. I was working on the relationship between religion and culture that led me to work with the concept of D.W. Winnicott’s idea of what he called transitional objects. In popular culture in the comic strip Peanuts, Linus’ blanket is a transitional object and in the studies of D.W. Winnicott, the mother’s breast is the transitional object, enabling the newborn to make the connection between the internal and the external. My research expands on that notion and I in fact maintain that the arts create a transitional space between the material and spiritual realms so that the aesthetic constitutes the threshold of spirituality which has led me to lead dialogic sessions with novelists, with poets, sculptors, painters because I am exploring that transitional space.

JO: Quebec in a sense had its own “transitional object” and that might be considered the Catholic church. The language of the film begins with the real corporeal control the Church beset upon early Quebec society with the real power/knowledge social conditioning imposed. Can you give us a very brief set of comments on such impositions made on early Quebec up to the 1960s by the Church? How Believers were told was the only way they could believe?

NC: As you quite rightly point out, Mr. Oscar- the documentary opens with essentially a footnote. At the time of the Conquest — we’re talking 1759-1760– the French government left and the British came and essentially the Church fills in that vacuum. One could propose a mid-wife metaphor, that the Roman Catholic church mid-wifed the French descendants.

Now part of this vacuum was that that created a remarkable space for the Roman Catholic church.

They were filling in the gap right up until the Quiet Revolution and it increases and of course society is growing demographically, the society is growing, remembering that Quebec or, as it was called, French Canada, until the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, had one of the highest birthrates in the entire developed world .

So who is taking care of this growing Francophone population? The Catholic Church. Until the Quiet Revolution, all health issues, all education issues, all social welfare issues – they’re being taken care of by the Church. And here is the flip side: there are no unions, there are no salaries. You basically have a labour pool of tens of thousands of free labour and they’re using it in the hospitals, the nurses, in the schools, then the Quiet Revolution – a paradigm shift in Quebec society. The church is divested of health, education, and welfare, and the Quebec state now starts to assume full-faceted nationhood, not to say nationalism.

JO: Then the film moves into, as the subtitle of the film suggests, “the ambient emptiness of postmodern societies”- citing singer/ thinkers like Yvon Deschamps, Ariane Moffatt, Denise Bombardier speaking about a “hole in his life, something missing”, “the emptiness I want to fill”, “we are devoid of answers, devoid of a path.” Granted that there is a global sensation of emptiness, this sort of ambient emptiness and the malaise in modern life, is there something specific perhaps to Quebec in this regard?

NC: Well, first a preface: when you mention these singers /thinkers, in fact they had 60 hours of footage so they have set up interviews with these individuals that everyone can consult on the website. Denise Bombardier actually opens up the documentary and calls for a “spiritual revolution” in Quebec to meet the need you have just highlighted.

What fascinates me as a religious studies scholar is that the film is a case study, a microcosm. And by concentric circles, the film moves out looking at North American society, then continues to expand, dealing with Western Europe and prominent philosophers who have that critical distance from religion and from Quebec society.

And that brings us full circle to your pithy question because in fact by beginning with the particular case of Quebec society and then opening up, we see the big picture of Western society’s emptiness. And that much of the documentary then addresses the issue of values.

What values does everyone have? In this society one year ago today, what happened?- – The Charter of Values… But when you situate/ locate values, whatever everybody holds dear, within the context of an election, when you make those values serve a political agenda, they become hostage to an electoral campaign, and to what extent are we really dialoguing about that which each of us considers sacred, no matter our belief system or our lack of one?

JO: The philosopher Slavoj Žižek speaks to how we have come to a point in the world where “the system has lost its self evidence, has lost its automatic legitimacy”, and he talks about “how now the field is open.” I do wish the film might have examined the possibilities of other spaces where ideology’s hold has been destabilized, not just the impossibilities of other spaces.

In the film, sadly, Leopold Lauzon, the economist/ columnist, speaks of

“No place to take a step back, contemplate, mediate, introspect- what I call prayer.”

But then anthropologist/ filmmaker Bernard Émond speaks of the space of the secular…and presences he feels:

“It sometimes happens that I feel a presence. Presence I feel in nature when listening to Bach or Mozart or before the beauty, the intangible of the world or before a kind of gesture. Maybe there’s a presence and maybe it’s just a delusion and I’ve created the illusion of the presence…In a traditional sense, I do not have faith but I definitely feel the need for something.”

Because to be sure there are new forms of believing that are not part of an ideological system that is out there. It might be kids going to raves which may seem like very ephemeral things.

In your dialogic discussions with Jazz musicians like Tord Gustavsen …people who reacted to his music showed that there are other systems out there or anti -systems…those who responded were believers in his music, they were believers in other spaces where the sacred exists. I do wish the film might have looked a little more into that.

NC: Yeah, it’s a point well taken . This is in fact what led me into being a religious studies scholar – to explore the relationship between aesthetics and spirituality. One could argue that religion in the doctrinal, dogmatic institutional sense in Western society including in Quebec does not hold water anymore .

In fact, in the film Frederic Lenoir says looks what’s happened here. Three major systems of thought, three ideologies– 1. Institutional religion no longer being considered valid 2. Communism which has been undermined 3. Free-market that capitalism lost its grip …So where do we go now? How do we get our bearings… Where, what is our frame of reference now. How do we build, construct a new frame of reference?

JO: But those other frames are out there already.

NC: We’re looking for them and finding them

JO: African Americans and people of African descent were able to take Christianity and create/ make it into a liberating theology through syncretic means and that’s one of the things I don’t think the film addresses, the fact that Christianity, sure, had this hold but there have been ways in the past that people were able to construct alternative systems of belief on top, next, or apart from it ….do you want to speak about that?

NC: I see the documentary Fortunate Shipwreck as a postmodern call to go back to the sources. Let’s get beyond the dogmas, beyond the institutional religion and let’s go back to the poetry of these values…We are going to need new concepts, new language but we can take those original creative thoughts and we can make them our own. …When you reduce the human condition to a matter of reason, we’re not doing justice to the full human condition and that’s where someone like Andre Malraux wrote his seminal work The Human Condition

JO: And also his Musée Imaginaire

NC Western society’s belief is that people have believed they are on an ascending arc of progress…Except, guess what happened? WWI …and they used all their technology and all their science and all their culture for mass murder, ostensibly the most sophisticated, most educated society in the history of humankind and what this did was pull the rug out form the rationalist pre-suppositions .

JO: We’re getting to a point where we can examine this, look at this.

NC: And the film, Fortunate Shipwreck brings us back to this

JO: In the dialogic sessions, you’ve been able to show us another idea of believers as with the dialogic session with Tord Gustavsen where people had this experience that was not a religious experience yet they were able to feel the sacred, they were able to not feel that emptiness without a religious framework.

NC: The conceit of institutional religion is that you can box, you can commodify and contain belief and that clearly is not the case. What strikes me in my work with artists, no matter what discipline they work in, is that many artists perceive themselves as engaged in what I would call a spirit quest and many people, whether it be the music of Tord Gustavsen or a film of Guillaume Tremblay, likewise see themselves as spiritually engaged… touching what I consider the ultimate in the human condition.

Because for Gustavsen, his jazz is an extension of his spirituality. My Phd. work comes out of the work of “incarnational theology” and what led me to this is what I would call a false dichotomy. Throughout the history of religions, there is a specific term called Manichaeism– the material is bad, the spiritual is good. But that’s a false dichotomy. The reality is that the material and spiritual go hand in hand. There’s a synergy.

And even the most spiritual artists expresses that spirituality through material means.

JO: I did have one concern about the doc and I found it very subtle. Eric Emmanuel Schmitt came out and started talking about his own favorable experience with Christianity, then the philosopher André Comte Sponville spoke about “even as a non-believer” when he got older and had kids, he said- he had to give them some sort of values: “Thus I soon found that the values I had to transmit to my children were the values I had been given myself…You have no choice but to offer the values your parents gave you.”

I felt taken aback by this statement. It seemed his only place to get values was from Christianity. Then Frederic Lenoir says, “ I am completely atheist. I am totally anti-Christian. But I believe in equality, human rights, freedom of conscience. They have no idea that these values might not exist in our societies without their source- the message of the Gospels…” I saw this come up a few times in the film. I felt a little uncomfortable that there was a little bit of a Christian exceptionalism.

NC: Yes, that’s a very interesting point and thank you for bringing it up, Mr Oscar.

And you’re right. We should be going to this documentary with critical lenses. It cannot answer all the questions. In fact it rather wants to raise questions rather than give answers. And keeping in mind that…everybody in this documentary comes out of Western, a.k.a. Christian society culture, even if they are atheist and take oppositional stance to organized religion. There is a critique of organized religion in the film…So we’re hearing a slice of the post-modern world and it is a Western slice.

That said, many of the speakers have the honesty to give us the caveat, like the journalist Guillebeau who says look — there are these values that we hold dear. They’re not the exclusive domain of Christianity but it’s good to know where we got it from.

JO: Because I was a little concerned, there were some points where they did not say “this is where we got it (values) from ” but rather “where it (values) came from”.

NC: I’ve seen the film 12 times and this is something…

JO: Well, it was a slippery slope where I felt at times there was Christian exceptionalism, that some of the values of love, compassion that they were saying we had to remember, that these came from Christianity. For a moment in the film, I felt a little uncomfortable.

NC: In all fairness, Mr Oscar I think you have got a point and I think it’s well worth pursuing. You’re right, there is that overall impression. I do appreciate, however, when someone like Bernard Émond says, “ I’m not sure I could even call myself a believer,” and you see the cogs in his mind going…what I admire in the film is the emphasis on values that are universal for all people, in all places. I hope Quebec society in the wake of the Charter of values using the entire notion of values as a thin edge of the wedge in a political campaign…

JO: I mean the complete embodiment of ideology….the Charter was.

NC: …And this is where I see the value of the film getting us out of this political pressure cooker…One of the revealing moments in the film is when André Comte Sponville speaks about the conferences he gives on values… He says, “I’ll ask you in the audience- how many of you have actually invented a value. Which of us in this auditorium has received a value.” And the question becomes where did we receive these values. Well, we received them from Western civilization which ad fontes has its roots in Augustine in The City of God and that’s where you see the interstices of religion and society in Western civilization.

JO: Anthropologist Bernard Émond definitely saves the day for me in the film, in terms of what I felt was beginning to be a call of Christian exceptionalism . You’re right about Émond because he says he “preferred his realization of Christianity as one possible avenue from which to anchor”… Of course we are in day and age where we understand Belief systems. We are in an open field.

NC: That said, your point on Christian exceptionalism is worth elaborating because the danger here is that we would take part of the truth as all of the truth

JO:   One of the things I would like to have seen in the film, to be very frank with you, are Other voices that have been in this society for many years. I can think of someone like Dany Laferrière. I would love to have seen his reflections on this because in his book Chronique de la Dérive Douce is book about the emptiness that he felt, that he saw when he came to Quebec society.

NC: Your point is well taken…The director and production company of the film said they perceive this documentary as the beginning of dialogue…And there was a point when they asked me would you collaborate with us so we will have a series of public forums in which we open dialogue.

JO: Because in the film, Jacques Grand’Maison ,sociologist , priest, and author says:” No one possesses the truth, we need all other truths as well.”

Now there is this belief in contemporary society, in its distance from the feudal lord and the Fordist assembly line… We definitely for the first time in history can make history, insert ourselves in history…we do have the choice to hodge-podge various “belief systems” whether we Believe in them or not and instead believe (small b) and make/fashion ourselves, but yes there is still this danger of closing yourself, but we are at a point where we can construct our own cosmologies.

As a religious studies scholar, how do you feel about the time we are in because the film has brought these questions up? A person who is, say, using social media– say Instagram –can put their photographs up there and show their world…How do you feel abut these other systems of possible belief that are coming up where people can fashion themselves? There are Other stems of belief out there, people can make themselves, put their ideas out there and then share them and come to some sort of consensus.

NC: And you’re now addressing a crucial issue . .There’s a basic philosophical distinction here -in Latin terms – forma and substantia. We can have the form – complete, orbed, but do we have the substance? What I see being said in this documentary, Fortunate Shipwreck, is okay we have the form, we have got consumer society, we’ve got everything we want right now with the Instagram and we’re worldwide, we’re wired with the web, we ve got it all- and yet we seem to lack the substance,

JO: So even in the “open field” as Zizek calls it, after ideologies (if you could say that), after the systems of Belief as constraint, we’re still lost .

NC: Well, we’re still searching. And this gets me back as a religious studies scholar to the field of hermeneutics which is essentially the science of interpretation and I would maintain that humans are meaning-seeking creatures. Even in a tragedy- -in a car wreck– we’re looking for meaning in that because we’re hard-wired hermeneutically to seek meaning, to make sense out of life which gets us back to the very subject of this film. What is our reason for being , what is the meaning of life? We have this drive in us , even out of chaos. to make order, to find some sort of meaning in it .

JO: There is this philosopher from Martinique, Édouard Glissant, and he has this idea he calls ” the new region of the world.” The fact that as Father Benoît Lacroix says in the film, “We can’t live without rites,” without thought, without dreams.” And he’s speaking about the quintessential time we live in after ideologies have this complete hold, where social conditioning becomes massively challenged and questioned.

Maurice Blanchot has this interesting idea he calls “the community of lovers.” The community of lovers happens in instances not as a solid mass, but as moments of “belief.” How do you feel about other ideas of believing that can exist without ideology, without the constraints of religion?

NC: Well, I think perhaps we can ask ourselves, what new ideologies lie on the horizon. If you’re a historian, you see the evolution of ideas and how some morph into others. Darwinism which was science morphed into social darwinism

JO: Morphed into morphed into morphed into…

NC: I think we need to have our radar on still, see the big picture – what other ideologies lie on the horizon. As we look at the former Soviet Union like a phoenix rising from the ashes and now asserting itself in what would seem to be the rebirth of the Cold War ..what will this develop into? And China, ostensibly communist, winning the game of neoliberal capitalism on a worldwide scale…their investments in Africa… they’re buying out Latin America…so we want to always hone our vision to look for what’s coming next

JO: Any other things to add?

NC: I’m interested you mentioned Blanchot because what strikes me, and which relates to the film and its parallels with a school of philosophy called personalism, talking about “the lost generation” – those who cannot believe in these meta-models for society.

They [the personalists] believe it’s got to get down to what Martin Buber would call an “I and Thou” relationship, a personal engagement, and the commitment we have to each other which of course goes hand in hand with my dialogic understanding of education but at the end of the day it comes down to “I and Thou” and therein lies the ultimate questions and the values that will inform our relationship.


JO: I think we got it! Thank you Professor Cornett.



Information on Norman Cornett

James Oscar studied closely under the Martiniquan poet Edouard Glissant. He has published as a poet Perch at Black Night, Pegasus Press 2009, Notes for the White Arboreal, 5X8 Press 2014, The Horns of Moses, Magenta Press 2014. His work surrounds poetics, anthropology, and issues of "post" nation.