Lister Sinclair was unwilling to be held slave to simple fact

By  Michael Higgins
  • November 20, 2006

The death of Lister Sinclair on Oct. 16 marks not only the passing of a national figure of consequence but provides the occasion for some serious reflection on the role of the public intellectual in our national discourse.

Sinclair's intellectual curiosity never knew satiety. Ever restless, inquisitive, probing and indifferent to academic boundaries or jurisdictions, Sinclair followed his unquenchable passion to know to the end of his life. Broadcaster, playwright, producer, host, CBC vice-president, genial polymath and a lover of the belle lettres, Sinclair was always the public intellectual.

Although formally educated at several fine schools — St. Paul's School in London, Eng. (while a student at this venerable institution Sinclair once told me that he was entertained in class by none other than that gargantuan master of paradox and subversive thinking, Gilbert Keith Chesterton), and earned a BA degree from the University of British Columbia and an MA from the University of Toronto — Sinclair's larger education came from his relentless engagement with the world of ideas, a world that was in no way delineated by fiefdoms of learning. In other words, he was at home as much in the world of the arts as he was in the world of the sciences.

And that is precisely as it should be with a public intellectual: emboldened by ideas of every kind and hue, prepared to comment on matters that cannot be easily closeted by the specifics of disciplines, and ever ready to exercise intellectual temerity when more sober heads would caution timidity. I know something of that bold and playful side of Lister from my many years of association with him as I prepared, wrote and narrated various scripts for the CBC Ideas series. He was host for Ideas from 1983-1999 and his voice became a national signature for this premier intellectual affairs program. But it wasn't just the voice, I very soon discovered. His sagacious oversight and irrepressible interest in all the various programs prepared for Ideas is a perduring testament to his intellectual agility and his deep spirit of collegiality.

I recall with special fondness his direct involvement with two reconstructed debates that I was commissioned to prepare. The first of these debates was On Socialism, Sex and Salvation: a Debate between G.K.C. and G.B.S. — Gilbert K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. On the face of it, the two men were strikingly dissimilar. Shaw was a socialist, an evolutionist, a teetotaller and an Irishman. Chesterton was a distributist — that is, he affirmed the principle of private property and he believed that effective self government required truly distributed private property — a believer in orthodox religion, a debunker of modern myths, an imbiber and an Englishman.

My producer, and Lister's long-time associate and friend Bernie Lucht, was firm of purpose in hunting down the actors appropriate for the roles of Chesterton and Shaw. He lured Herb Foster from New York, where he was performing in his one-man show on G.B. Shaw; Tony Van Bridge from out west, where he was touring with his one-man show on G.K. Chesterton; and Lister Sinclair from Toronto to take on the role of the often irascible, not infrequently doctrinaire and ever-polemical Hilaire Belloc.

Following On Socialism, Sex and Salvation — in which there had been a great deal of socialism, a little salvation, no sex whatsoever — Lucht decided to best it with another reconstructed debate.

I suggested the famous debate held at Oxford in 1860 between Soapy Sam Wilberforce, the Lord Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Henry Huxley, Charles Darwin's bulldog. It was my intention to recapture something of the fervour, intellectual intensity and moral earnestness of the celebrated debate occasioned by Darwin's 1859 book: On The Origin of Species. I soon discovered, however, that no complete transcription of their debate actually exists. In fact, there are competing versions of the exchange in various memoirs and papers of record for the day. It was not a matter of reconstructing debate; it was a matter of inventing one.

And so, at our dress rehearsal, with the imposing Douglas Campbell as Wilberforce and the veteran stage actor Colin Fox as Huxley, we proceeded to re-enact the debate. It was lifeless. It was Sinclair who once again saved the day by suggesting that we incorporate into the debate Vice-Admiral Fitzroy, the captain of the Beagle, the ship upon which Darwin gathered his data for his natural selection hypothesis. Like many good Victorians Fitzroy went mad, but not before I included him in the debate. But one problem still remained, Fitzroy actually appeared not to have been present when Wilberforce and Huxley went at it. Still, Sinclair persisted, and screen and stage actor Gillie Fenwick defossilized the debate, at least for a time, and dramatic licence once again had its day.

Sinclair's natural dramatic instincts, his unwillingness to be held slave to simple fact, his irreverent respect for scholarship and his rich fondness for the inexhaustible capacity of the human imagination to invent and complement our imperfect grasp of reality, spoke to a sapiential groundedness.

Canadian society has lost with the passing of Lister Sinclair not just a sonorous voice and commanding presence, but a fertile and playful mind prepared to talk about ideas in public and unafraid of the fallout that comes from fiery exchanges. The CBC owes it to Sinclair to cultivate his like and to eschew the solecisms, mispronunciations and intellectual frivolities of the new Bright Young Things.

(Higgins is president and vice-chancellor of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.)

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