Life In The Land Where Hell Is Both Bad And Good

Life In The Land Where Hell Is Both Bad And Good

‘C’EST L’ENFER’: LIFE IN THE LAND WHERE HELL IS BOTH BAD AND GOOD  by Peter Stuart

We often hear the expression uttered here in Québec: ‘C’est l’enfer!’ In other words, ‘It’s Hell!’, or, ‘It’s Hellish!’ But what exactly do people mean by this? At first blush, we might think that they are ascribing a uniquely pejorative connotation to this popular colloquialism. But no. Just as the English expression ‘It’s terrific’, has taken on a different meaning over the years, from its original meaning of ‘terrifying’, to ‘fantastic’, so to has the notion of ‘Hell’ taken on a different meaning for Québecers. 

We now use this expression for both positive and negative usages. If a situation is genuinely Hellish in a bad way, we can easily say, ‘c’est l’enfer’, and really mean it. However, by the same token, if a situation is fabulous, or if an athlete or other person achieves something great, we often hear local Québecers describing their achievements by saying, ‘Ouin, c’est l’enfer’…so and so won the gold medal in ski jumping and so on. Or, ‘Did you see Sidney Crosby’s winning goal at the Olympics in overtime?’ ‘C’était l’enfer!’ 

As a devout and practicing Roman Catholic, I find it somewhat bemusing to see how Hell has somehow been at least partially rehabilitated amongst French-Canadians, to the point that we now ascribe a positive connotation and denotation to it in many circumstances. The same goes for the expression ‘Écoeurant’, or ‘sickening’ (as in ‘it makes me nauseous’). This expression would normally make one think that something was bad, in the sense that it evoked a bad reaction from the person, either literally or figuratively. 

However, more and more, we hear people talking about seeing things such as a really good show, and saying that it was so good that it was ‘écoeurant’, or ‘sickening’, which is somewhat akin to the popularity of the Anglo-North American youth-cultural usage of the word ‘sick’, to describe anything which is ‘cool’ in a sort of offbeat kind of way. 

But getting back to things of a ‘Hellish’ nature in Québec, we also have another expression in our city and province which is diabolically clever in its usage: When Québecers are not quite impressed with something or someone, either with their performance, or that they’re not living up to expectations, we say that this person or thing is ‘c’est pas y’able’, or more precisely, ‘ce n’est pas le Diable’. In other words, ‘it’s not the Devil’. 

This, I feel, comes from Québecers’ ingrained sense of fatalism and cynicism about being governed by powers above and beyond our control: We’ve been so used to being in a state of powerlessness for so many centuries, observing our people flailing about trying to make something of themselves, that when somebody does or has in the past made an attempt to rise above the fray and make something of themselves, either in the fields of business, politics, the arts, or sport, many Québecers have stood by on the sidelines and have cynically downplayed whatever or whoever it is who is trying to rise above the fray by saying ‘c’est pas y’able son affaire’. Or more precisely, ‘It’s not the Devil, there, what he’s attempting to do’. Meaning, ‘we’re not all that impressed’.

Luckily, there have been Québecers and other Canadians who’ve seen fit to not to be ground into the dust by such forms of fatalism and defeatism: They are the Guy Lalibertés of Cirque du Soleil fame, the Céline Dions, the Bombardiers of this world, who’ve gone out, literally, and conquered the world with their talent. Unfortunately, many of them have had to leave Québec and Canada to do so, only to come back triumphally a hero in their homeland. This only goes to prove the Biblical adage that a prophet is never recognized in his own country. 

Let’s hope that the likes of Mayor Regis Labeaume, with his plans for a new Colisée, to bring back the Nordiques and world class events to our city, can defeat the naysayers and truly bring something which is ‘l’enfer’, and ‘écoeurant’ to our city, in the good sense of the word, so that all those pooh poohers can be proved wrong, and will not be able to say that ‘c’est pas y’able’.

Maybe we want to be ‘able’ to bring the ‘Devil’ to Québec City. Like the Ozark Mountain Devils said in their song from the mid 1970s: ‘If you want to get to heaven, you’ve got to raise a little Hell!’

Now that’s what I call ‘l’enfer’!!!

Categories: News
Tags: Peter Stuart

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