Mental Geography

Concordia Professor Talks Montreal Multiculturalism

“What is especially interesting about today’s Montreal is the way it is bringing together the histories of the city, which were once so separate,” said Sherry Simon, at La Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

Simon, a Concordia University professor, headlined the fourth edition of the President’s Conference Series with a talk titled “The Flow of Languages, the Grace of Cultures,” on Oct. 2
In a packed auditorium, Simon discussed Montreal’s multilingualism and the historical factors that led to its present diversity.

“Multilingualism does not mean that languages coexist together in a kind of free floating mélange,” she said.

“Languages interact through translation, as languages are joined to others in conversation. The forces of history can sometimes redirect these currents in surprising and unpredictable ways.”

Simon highlighted French, English and Yiddish as the three main languages that influenced Montreal’s culture in the 1940s.

She named authors that impacted that era, such as Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen and Frank Scott. Simon said she believes that the intellectual and language differences created mental gaps between the writers of that time.
“These different mental geographies,” she said, “mean that even when these writers shared the same spaces, the feel of the place is different, giving rise to a sense of the uncanny.”

Towards the end of Simon’s lecture, she created an image that is meant to capture the way Montreal is viewed today.

“The Montreal of multiple modernities,” she said, “has given us at least three lenses through which we can read the city. Modern Montreal was born as a site of unequal and front transactions, yet today’s city is a laboratory of new forms of expression, new modes of contact across languages.”

The fourth conference series is entitled “Montreal: on the Stream of Languages.” Events are located at the Auditorium and Foyer of the Grande Bibliothèque, and will continue until Dec. 5.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 12, published November 2, 2010.