Ottawa, Canada , 1947

John Ralston Saul  was born in Ottawa and studied at McGill University and the University of London, where he obtained his Ph.D. in 1972. He is an award-winning essayist and novelist. He was elected President of PEN International in October 2009 until October 2015. Saul has had a growing impact on political and economic thought in many countries. Declared a “prophet” by TIME magazine, he is included in the prestigious Utne Reader’s list of the world’s 100 leading thinkers and visionaries. His 16 works have been translated into 28 languages in 37 countries. Saul is best known for his philosophical trilogy Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense and The Unconscious Civilization. This was followed by a meditation on the trilogy On Equilibrium: Six Qualities of the New Humanism. His most recent work of fiction – the first in over fifteen years – is Dark Diversions, a picaresque novel in which he observes the life of modern nouveaux riches Americans.

Carmen Balcells Literary Agency represents the author for Spanish language and Portuguese language (Portugal).

"With his sophisticated international perspective and blunt freedom from cant, he offers a promising persona for the future: the intellectual as man of the world." The Washington Post

"[Saul has] the most wide-ranging mind and [is] one of the greatest organizing and focusing teachers we have." Sydney Morning Herald

"Saul has a keen eye for hypocrisy and pungently dry wit." The Independent (UK)

Bibliography

Novel

On the edge of the civilized world lies rotting Bangkok – a once beautiful Oriental jewel of a city, now devoted to a perverse mix of pleasure and pain. It is a place where violence meets innocence and the good die young, if they are lucky. This is John Field’s paradise on earth. A former journalist and free-lance everything, Field hears that his ex-wife and her lover have been murdered. Recalling the humanity once a part of him, he reluctantly enters a world he knows only too well, to search for whoever killed them. What he discovers in the teeming, sordid streets is a world out of control – a society of thieves and cynics and the living dead. What he learns will last him the rest of his days.

James Spenser is a man obsessed by beauty – a collector haunted by his almost supernatural response to art. A sophisticated, complex character, he would seem the last man on earth to turn to theft. But his target is exceptional: twenty 11 th-century Buddhas from the deserted city of Pagan, Burma – their value, $1 million each.   Teaming up in Thailand with Field, a drunken expatriate journalist, and Blake, an American Baptist minister-cum-guerrilla leader, Spenser finds himself unwittingly embroiled in a deadly web of private and public feuds: from the bizarre relationship between Blake and his girlfriend Marea, with whom Spenser, too, becomes involved, to the bloody rivalries of the guerrilla armies and opium dealers vying for power at any cost. Ruthless leaders and desperate individuals are brought face to face in a life and death struggle for supremacy.

On the surface, Baraka is a raw, exciting story of oil, arms, and guerrilla warfare in the Sahara. But the core of the novel is the friendship and love which link Anthony Smith, Martin Laing, and Martin’s wife Cosima – and the ambitions, desires and values which rip that love apart. It is also about the great moral confusion which prevails when the ‘villain’ may be the nice man next door, who does not believe himself a villain.   Set against the background of Morocco, Thailand and Vietnam, John Ralston Saul weaves a tale of an oil deal which turns into an arms deal, and an arms deal which turns into a bloody civil war. It is a tale of corruption, of courage, and of dreams found and lost.

The scene is set in France and its colony, Reunion Island. On 9 March 1968 a DC6 aircraft carrying General Ailleret, Chief of the French General Staff, his wife and entourage, crashed on take off from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. The only survivor was an air hostess. This is historical fact. The crash was variously attributed to an excessive fuel load (for the long leg to Djibouti) or possibly some over-indulgence on the part of some members of the crew who had not expected – and did not wish – to fly that night.

Charles Stone becomes obsessed with the life and death of General Ailleret. He comes to think that something quite different caused the fatal crash. He wants to know the truth. In the game he has embarked on – the exposé he is attempting – against the military/political hierarchy of France, Stone is soon in deep trouble. Indeed he does not understand the game, though he scents and hunts the evil in it.

Non-fiction

In  Dark Diversions  (originally published in French in 1994 as De si bons Américains), acclaimed author John Ralston Saul stages a black comedy of international proportions that takes the reader from New York to Paris to Morocco to Haiti in the 1970s and 1980s. When he’s not encountering dictators in Third World hot spots, Saul’s narrator moves in privileged circles on both sides of the Atlantic, insinuating himself into the lives of well-to-do aristocrats. Through his exploits we experience a fascinating world of secret lovers, exiled princesses, death by veganism, and religious heresies. The emotional fireworks of these inhabitants of the First World are sharply juxtaposed with the political infighting of the dictators and the corruption, double-dealing, and fawning that attend them. But as he becomes further enmeshed in these worlds, the outsider status of the narrator grows more ambiguous: Is he a documentarian of privileged foibles and fundamental inequity, or an embodiment of the very "dark diversions" he chronicles?

“Saul has the eye, the aloofness, the killer turn-of-phrase of a Truman Capote.” 
Le Figaro Littéraire

“A delightful novel, invigoratingly wicked.” 
Le Monde

“Crisp dialogue and evocative descriptions...An ingenious read, Dark Diversions will be a solid end-of-summer choice for a wide and varied audience.” 

The Winnipeg Free Press
 
"Clean and unadorned prose"
The Toronto Star

Canada has no better interpreter than prolific writer and thinker John Ralston Saul. Here he argues that Canada did not begin in 1867; indeed, its foundation was laid by two visionary men, Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin. The two leaders of Lower and Upper Canada, respectively, worked together after the 1841 Union to lead a reformist movement for responsible government run by elected citizens instead of a colonial governor.

But it was during the “Great Ministry” of 1848—51 that the two politicians implemented laws that created a more equitable country. They revamped judicial institutions, created a public education system, made bilingualism official, designed a network of public roads, began a public postal system, and reformed municipal governance. Faced with opposition, and even violence, the two men— polar opposites in temperament—united behind a set of principles and programs that formed modern Canada. Writing with verve and deep conviction, Saul restores these two extraordinary Canadians to rightful prominence.

In this startlingly original vision of Canada, thinker John Ralston Saul unveils 3 founding myths. Saul argues that the famous “peace, order, and good government” that supposedly defines Canada is a distortion of the country’s true nature. Every single document before the BNA Act, he points out, used the phrase “peace, welfare, and good government,” demonstrating that the well-being of its citizenry was paramount. He also argues that Canada is a Métis nation, heavily influenced and shaped by aboriginal ideas: egalitarianism, a proper balance between individual and group, and a penchant for negotiation over violence are all aboriginal values that Canada absorbed. Another obstacle to progress, Saul argues, is that Canada has an increasingly ineffective elite, a colonial non-intellectual business elite that doesn’t believe in Canada. It is critical that we recognize these aspects of the country in order to rethink its future.

In this essay, John Ralston Saul addresses the legacy of Joseph Howe, his famous defence in 1835, and his contributions to a distinctly Canadian position on freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Saul recalls a time when political debate was prioritized in society and covered by the media, and when the democratic foundations of this country were first articulated and pursued. In a style both humorous and emphatic, Saul provides a succinct look at Canadian history and our current whereabouts, and an ambitious rally for participatory democracy and intelligent media for the future.

John Ralston Saul is already explaining that almost all of the reactions to the crisis which officially began in 2008 have been little more than that – reactions to the status quo. Most of them have made the mistake of thinking that the crisis was provoked by a financial crisis. Saul says this is not the case, and the crisis is far broader and far more profound. He believes that the more we react to the financial crisis the more we will freeze ourselves into the old globalist system, which is already on its way out.   

Proponents of globalism predicted that nation states were heading toward irrelevance: that economics. not politics or arms, would determine the course of human events; that growth in international trade would foster prosperous markets that would, in turn abolish poverty and change dictatorships into democracies.  The successes of globalization include the astonishing growth in world trade and the unexpected “se of India and China, which seem slated to become twenty-first-century superpowers. But its collapse has Left us with a chaotic vacuum: the United States appears determined to ignore his international critics; in Europe. Problems such as racism, terrorism and renewed internal nationalism call for uniquely European solutions born out of local experiences and needs.  Elsewhere, the world looks for answers to African debt, the AIDS epidemic, the return of fundamentalism and terrorism, all of which perversely refuse to disappear despite the theoretical rise in global prosperity.   Insightful and prophetic, The Collapse of Globalism is destined to take its place as one of the seminal books of our time.

John Ralston Saul explains how our different qualities give us the intelligence, self-confidence and practical ability to think and act as responsible individuals. He argues, however, that when certain human qualities are worshipped in isolation they become weaknesses, even forces of destruction or self-destruction. In short, they become ideologies.

 How then can we use our qualities as positive forces in our own lives – and the life of our society? How can we use them so that each builds upon the other in order to reinforce us as humans?

Saul’s answer is Balance.

On Equilibrium is an intelligent, persuasive and controversial exploration of the essential qualities of humanity and how they can be used to achieve equilibrium for the self and to foster an ethical society. It is at once an attack on our weakness for ideologies and a manual for humanist action. It is the logical, compelling and humane successor to his philosophical trilogy Voltaire’s Bastards, The Doubter’s Companion, and The Unconscious Civilization.

In a startling exercise of reorientation, John Ralston Saul excavates our Canadian myths – real, false, and denied – and reconciles them with the reality of today’s politics, culture and economics. He attacks the denial of place into which our urban centres have fallen, delineates the dramatic differences between positive and negative nationalism, probes the implications of continuing decentralization and decries the shift in focus from the public good to narrow interest groups. He proposes solutions to our mid-life crisis in social policy by reminding us of the extent to which reconciliation and reform have always been, and remain, at the core of the country’s creation and survival.

 By building his reflections on the words of our novelists, poets, historians, songwriters, philosophers, painters and our most creative political figures over the centuries, Saul uncovers the startling shape of the Canadian experiment. With a balance of realism and optimism he convinces us that a country which is first an idea of a country is not a theoretical or utopian ideal.

This lecture October 6, 1995 at the Museum of Civilization inaugurated a series of lectures entitled The meeting-democracy and citizen.

“In the hope of career success, each of us – even writers – is forced to act like a courtier [...] The result is a rising cynicism among members of the elite because we know very well that courtiers are always cynical. The discourse of elite past two decades is a huge stained cynicism about what we can do, about democracy, about citizens. This is the same cynicism that was found at the court of Louis XV and Louis XVI.”

“Whenever governments adopt a moral tone - as opposed to an ethical one - you know something is wrong.”  John Ralston Saul 

Our society, John Ralston Saul argues in his 1995 CBC Massey Lectures, is only superficially based on the individual and democracy. Increasingly it is conformist and corporatist, a society in which legitimacy lies with specialist or interest groups and decisions are made through constant negotiations between these groups. The paradox of our situation is that knowledge has not made us conscious. Instead, we have sought refuge in a world of illusion where language is cut off from reality. Reconnecting language to reality, clarifying what we mean by individualism and democracy, making these realities central to the citizen’s life, identifying ideologies in order to control them, these are among the first elements of equilibrium which Saul proposes in these lectures.

A long and distinguished tradition of writers have used the form of a satirical dictionary to undermine the received ideas of their day. Voltaire wrote a sharply humorous “Philosophical Dictionary,” while Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of the English language was derisive and opinionated. These early dictionaries and encyclopedias were really weapons in a struggle for the soul of civilization between forces of humanistic enlightenment and the forces of orthodoxy and dogmatism. Their authors attacked and exposed the half-truths of their day by showing that it was possible to think differently about the social and political arrangements that everyone took for granted.

But as John Ralston Saul argues in this decidedly unorthodox book, modern dictionaries have once again been captured by the forces of orthodoxy-albeit this time a rationalist orthodoxy. Our language has become as predictable, fragmented, and rhetorical as it was in the 18th century, divided as it is by special interest groups into dialects of expertise that are hermetically sealed off and inaccessible to citizens. In The Doubter’s Companion a marvellous subversive contribution to the great 18th century tradition of the humanist dictionary, Saul skewers and discredits the accepted con tent of common terms like Advertising, Academics, and Air Conditioning (defined as “an efficient means for spreading disease in enclosed public spaces”); Cannibal, Conservative, and Croissant; Dandruff, Death, and Dictionary (“opinions presented as truth in alphabetical order”); and several hundred others, including Biography (“a respectable form of pornography”), Museum (“safe storage for stolen objects”), and Manners (“people are always splendid when they’re dead”).

 

There is much in this volume that will stimulate, offend, provoke, perplex, and entertain. But Saul deploys these tactics of guerrilla lexicography to advance the more serious purpose of reclaiming public language from the stultifying dialects of modern expertise.

 

In a wide-ranging, provocative anatomy of modern society and its origins, John Ralston Saul explores the reason for our deepening sense of crisis and confusion. Throughout the Western world we talk endlessly of individual freedom, yet Saul shows that there has never before been such pressure for conformity. Our business leaders describe themselves as capitalists, yet most are corporate employees and financial speculators. We are obsessed with competition, yet the single largest item of international trade is a subsidized market in armaments. We call our governments democracies, yet few of us participate in politics. We complain about “invasive government,” yet our legal, educational, financial, social, cultural and legislative systems are breaking down.   While most observers view these problems separately, Saul demonstrates that they are largely manifestations of our blind faith in the value of reason. Over the last 400 years, our “rational elites” have gradually instituted re forms in every phase of social life. But Saul shows that they have also been responsible for most of the difficulties and violence of the same period. This paradox arises from a simple truth which our elites deny: far from being a moral force, reason is no more than an administrative method. Their denial has helped to turn the modern West into a vast, incomprehensible, direction less machine, run by process-minded experts – “Voltaire’s bastards” – whose cult of scientific management is bereft of both sense and morality. Whether in politics, art, business, the military, entertainment, science, finance, academia or journalism, these experts share the same outlook and methods. The result, Saul maintains, is a civilization of immense technological power whose peoples increasingly dwell in a world of illusion.

Prizes

  • 1990 - Premio Letterario Internazionale (Italy),  por The Paradise Eater 
  • 1996 - Governor General's Literary Award for Non-fiction, for The Unconscious Civilization 
  • 1996 - Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres de France
  • 1996 - Gordon Montador Award, for The Unconscious Civilization
  • 1998 - Gordon Montador Award, for Reflections of a Siamese Twin 
  • 1999 - Companion of the Order of Canada 
  • 2002 - Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal
  • 2004 - Pablo Neruda International Presidential Medal of Honour 
  • 2010 - Manhae Literary Prize  (Corea del Sur) 
  • 2011 - Inaugural Gutenburg Galaxy Award for Literature 
  • 2011 - Writer’s Union of Canada’s Freedom to Read Award