From Zlín to the Royal Society
A review of A Life of Learning and Other Pleasures, by John Meisel
Academics, especially those whose writings and research have had genuine impact on events and decisions, are sometimes burdened by an understandable, if vaguely irritating, conceit. They will, if they attempt an autobiography, conflate events in their life with the huge historic trends or cataclysms that occurred during their period in history. Some will even connect their personal chronological pilgrimage with some greater global significance—or at least try. Politicians and business leaders, not to mention self-appointed cultural icons, also fall victim to this conceit. But John Meisel, originally from Vienna and a Canadian since 1942, is too superb a raconteur, too thoughtful an academic, too graceful and humble a writer even to be tempted by this all too common self-indulgence.
Instead, A Life of Learning and Other Pleasures is more of a warm and inviting train ride through many stages of a remarkable life. It is replete with adventure, discovery, danger, achievement, departures and arrivals in truly fascinating times and places. It is a history, literature review, geopolitical analysis, and personal and family story all in one. And where others would use self-preening, Meisel uses humour and incandescent humility. He is author, train conductor and remarkably engaging tour guide all at the same time.
For all his modesty, though, Meisel is a Canadian to be seriously reckoned with. A political scientist by training, he has chaired the CRTC and presided over the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Political Science Association during his long career. His use of scholarly networks and learned journals, which he often edited both in Canada and around the world, built bridges of understanding across English and French divides at home and throughout the Cold War world internationally. He is as much at home playing the violin (in the early Kingston Symphony Orchestra), advising premiers (Ontario’s Robarts and Quebec’s Lesage) and building a global political science journal (the International Political Science Review) as he is debating at the Trilateral Commission, bicycling to the market or regulating Canada’s broadcast industry. John Meisel makes “renaissance man” seem too limiting a term. And there is a difference between a renaissance man and a dilettante. In Meisel’s case, as this book reveals, there are threshold work, inquiry, research and hard thinking underlying his intellectual facility with political, sociological and public policy disciplines.
While he is a man of academic and political analysis, in this happy endeavour Meisel is also a remarkable colourist and warm-hearted social commentator. His life chapters are not only interesting chronologies of events in his youthful and eventually his more mature years—first growing up in eastern Europe, migrating across the globe as the son of a Bata Shoe executive, finally ending up in Canada and building an academic and cultural life—but also rich pastiches of the social mores and social frames through the times in which he passed. The journey you are on as a reader is that of a veritable pilgrim’s progress through the travails and risks of World War Two, life in exotic Mediterranean and Caribbean locales, a company town in middle Ontario, the ivy-covered walls of academe, federal, provincial and cultural policy politics and the world of international social and political research—with many interludes of great music, fascinating gatherings, interesting people, controversies and events.
At a time today, when the social responsibility of large corporations and some governments is very much in doubt, looking back through Meisel’s retelling of how, in the 1930–50 period, the Bata Shoe Company worked tirelessly to protect its employees from the Nazi onslaught—one of whom was John’s father—and the ensuing world-wide travels a young John along with his sister and parents endured (not all of which were pleasant or without drama) underlines not only how fortunate the author was, but also how decent and courageous the Bata Shoe Company family was. This story alone renders the entire book worth the time it takes to read it. The mix of overarching work ethic and focus on quality and value within a frame of humanity and internationalism appear to have shaped much of Meisel’s student, academic, public, professional and cultural life. Everything from his grip on languages, his approach to hard work and his commitment to humane and inclusive values seems to have flowed from the quite extraordinary corporate and social environment within which he grew up.
Most important for his many fans, students, colleagues, friends and associates at home in Canada and abroad, that environment shaped the kind of Canadian Meisel became and resulted in an amazing insight that has radiated from his academic and policy work ever since. Having seen the world at its worst and having been spared great sorrow or suffering by good fortune and shrewd, hard-working parents, his growth into an outstanding student and academic is recounted with a mix of humility, humour and good-natured scorn toward the unerringly self-reverential. This is a writer who takes his work and duties seriously, builds conscientious due diligence into his teaching and academic research, and elevates public service into an art form, but, at the same time, manages to eschew the temptation to see a terribly important person when using a mirror to shave. This separates Meisel from many an academic of his era (as well as politicians, journalists and business leaders) who, should a mirror be placed on their desk, might never go to lunch. John Meisel would go to lunch, in the sense of sharing, teaching, learning and growing—with students, intellectuals, political leaders, neighbours, artists, musicians and everyone else he came across in a life journey that embraces experiences of great breadth and depth.
John Meisel’s tale runs from Zlín (the epicentre of the Bata empire in Czechoslovakia) to Casablanca, from Haiti to Batawa in southeastern Ontario, to Queen’s, Yale, China and often back to Quebec. Reading this book is like having a long lunch with Dr. Meisel in a Prague café, where he links up creating the Quebec seminar at Queen’s in the 1960s, chairing the International Studies Council, helping the Atlantic Council get started in Canada, creating the genre of academic study of elections and political parties in Canada, while urging the Trilateral Commission to reflect on the poor and dispossessed.
A Life of Learning and Other Pleasures takes us unassumingly through how John Meisel became the national treasure he is, simply by being a decent, hard-working, youthful immigrant who made Canada better almost from the moment of his arrival. His autobiography is a journey through time and intellectual growth to maturity. It is a compelling anthology of events, times, people, writings and perceptions that shaped and changed the life of one of Canada’s greatest political scientists and intellectuals.
To meet or chat with Meisel is to be touched by a grace, intellect and decency that is anything but common. His memoir is the wonderful explanation, both humble and deeply informative, of how and why John Meisel became who he is. It is a great read.