by Jeffersonian Democrat
Tue Jan 1st, 2008 at 06:43:01 AM EST
While reading the diaries of Mr. Schnittger and the informative and insightful arguments of European Identity within, it dawned on me that there was no discussion on the role, if any, of my particular field of study: Literature.
Of course, on the surface, it doesn't seem something as abstract as literature would have anything to do with the person on the street identifying as a Czech or as a European. Still, I ask, does someone like W.B. Yeats represent an Irish identity within the Irish national consciousness, and if so, how? Or how about Balzac for a Frenchman?
I think Mr. Schnittger is on the right track in his argument, particularly a common denominator needed for identity, however I am not of the opinion that it is Christianity. In fact, I believe that it may go deeper. Because identity is so intertwined in the nation, the attempt to understand identity lies within a particular nation's culture. I would acknowledge that Christianity is a denominator but I think we can go further and try to identify the lowest common denominator in which to measure identity. Religion plays a distinctive role throughout all of humanity and its identities but I have to be careful here as to how I use the word religion.
Nikolai Berdyaev in his Origins of Russian Communism argues that the Russian people are very religious and the Bolsheviks understood this. They merely exploited this belief system and replaced Christian Icons with Party portraits, for example. Yet the functioning of a religious belief system remained though officially atheistic concerning the question of a deity.
Diary rescue by Migeru
First, I need to define a term that I will use as a basis of my argument. My lowest common denominator here is the nation. In particular, the Latin "natio" as understood as a group of people united by a common ethnicity, territory, and language. I believe that this is an important concept and certainly a cornerstone of my argument. Before I started on an academic pursuit, I had a long career in the US military. I remember distinctly a strategy and planning conference that I attended on the FRY. An outside academic was briefing us on the demographic problems in Yugoslavia. The demographic map (unfortunately I do not remember the date of the demographics nor did it address immigration) clearly showed Europe's political boundaries coincided with demographic populations, e.g. the color pink for French fit neatly within the political borders of France. However when we looked at the FRY, the colored demographic representations polka-dotted the entire geographic map.
This idea of "natio" is important, as the first time a "natio" took political power was the first Nation-State as the parliamentary French Republic. This is why the United States does not fall into the category of being a "nation", rather it is a country made up of almost every nation on the earth. And if you will pardon a little of my American patriotism (not nationalism), I find this is what made the United States one of the most beautiful experiments of the Enlightenment. I will also return to this point in a moment in how the current political discourse in the US is a false narrative.
Here, however, I wish to return to the question of literature (and all the humanities also fit within the point, but particularly literature and language: a component of the natio definition I use) and the identity of citizens of the nation-state. I would like to quote one of my former professors, Benjamin Bennett, from the University of Virginia in his book "All Theater is Revolutionary Theater" (an exploration of contemporary problems in Aristotle's Poetics, but this point is relevant):
[...] Literature in the modern sense was thus born in the lap of the development and establishment of the major modern nation-states of bourgeois-industrial-parliamentary Europe, and I do not think this circumstance was an accident. The evidence after the fact is clear enough: the newborn concept of literature does not really begin to have an important function in the intellectual life until it is used to create the idea of national literatures, which in turn underpins the increasingly flourishing nineteenth-century production of histories of national literature and makes possible the increasingly common incorporation of national literature into school and university curricula, where it serves the nation-state by indoctrinating its young citizens with the idea of a cohesive and continuous national culture stretching far into the past. Already at the beginning of the nineteenth-century, the notion of national literature as such is so well established that Goethe feels called upon to conceptualize its opposite in what he calls "world literature."
I speak advisedly when I say that the concept of literature is used to create the idea of national literatures. For in reality, there is no such thing as a national literature except in the trivial sense of a collection of all the more or less poetic writings in a given language. Poetry, of course, does have a history and a historical identity, as do all the extrapoetic forms later gathered under the heading of literature. But these histories, to the extent that they are interesting in a "literary" sense, to the extent that they engage the evolution of genres and questions of hermeneutics, tend very strongly to develop across or between languages rather than within languages. Critical historiography laughs at us when we claim that one particular narrative is the correct way of looking at this or that aspect of history. But there are plenty of cases where we can assert confidently that a particular narrative grossly distorts history. And one of those cases is the fairytale that shows us a national literature developing in accordance with its own inner principles and occasionally (so we say) responding to external "influences."
I do not mean to say that the nation itself - the natio, the people, the Volk, the tribe - does not exist and does not have historical identity in the form of a culture, although we must be careful about the form of existence we ascribe to it. But precisely the main vehicle by which that culture is meant to be transmitted in the public schools of modern nation-states, the national literature, does in fact not exist in any relation to the technical concept of "literature" that would be deep enough to ground - precisely - a particular form of culture.
As happens with many demonstrably false or misleading ideas, however, the idea of the national literature is remarkably tenacious - tenacious, I suppose, in proportion not only to its obvious patriotic usefulness in public education but also to the amount of desperate industry invested in it by its sincere proponents. To this day, in the United States, the study of literature in broader than national terms is normally called "comparative literature," as if national literatures were the indisputably fundamental units of the discipline. What we have, then, in literature, is a firmly established institution with an inherent conservative tendency which probably contributes - not directly, but in a way of an illegitimate and self-obscuring conceptual operation that makes it difficult to criticize convincingly - to the maintenance of existing national structure and ultimately of nationalism itself in some sense. [...] pp. 220-221
Keeping Mr. Bennett's argument in mind, I wish to consider a bit of research I conducted from earlier this summer on Heinrich Heine. Heine illustrates Bennett's argument very clearly in his polemic Die Romantische Schule, as well as his essays Die Romantiker and Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland*. Especially Bennett's mention of the Fairy tale above. Heine rails against the German Romantics, authors like Novalis, Tieck, the Brothers Schlegel, et. al. for creating an idealized middle ages of the Catholic Church and aristocracy and purporting a myth of "Pan-Germanism" through their works: Pan-Germanism as an identity and a unification of Germans. As we all know, there never was any such thing as "Germans" but rather a collection of very different Germanic tribes. Germany, as a nation-state, did not come into existence until Bismarck. The purpose of this false "pan-germanism" at the time was to extinguish any revolutionary fervor and unite the peasant with the lord as a reactionary force against French Republicanism. Napoleon was exporting French Republicanism at the end of the bayonet and the aristocracy of all of Europe was threatened by its bourgeois revolutionaries. Heine, and many of the Rhinelanders, had a very favorable opinion of Napoleon and it took the Prussians to occupy the Rhineland to suppress revolutionary zeal. Heine, of course, spent a large part of his life in Parisian exile, where he made friends with and influenced a young Karl Marx, and died there.
Literature, here, as a "national" literature, is used to propagate a false narrative of what it means to be "German" - an identity. Of course, this movement extended into the fine arts and music and we need not to look further than Richard Wagner to support that assertion.
Even today Das Nibelungenlied is considered the "national" epic of Germany. However, there is no mention of Germans in that work. What we have are Nibelungs, Saxons, Danes, Burgundians, Icelanders and Huns. There is a scholarly argument that this identity with Gunther, Hagan de Troyes, the Nibelungs and their fate is directly related to the bunker mentality of Hitler and his die-hard compatriots holding out to the last man against the "Tartar hordes" of the east. Surely, Germanic pagan symbols and ritual, rather than Christianity, were the cornerstones of National Socialist propaganda and a very logical outcome of what the German Romantics started in the late eighteenth century. Let us hope that the false narrative of "Pan-Germanism" also died in the rubble of Berlin in April of 1945.
Nevertheless, the politics of identity is again at work today in attempting to rewrite history into a false narrative. This time it is in the United States and concerns the effort to establish the United States as a "Christian Nation." Clearly, the roots of the colonies in America are Christian in nature. American literature and letters reflect this as well (The Scarlet Letter, for example). This Christian nature was Calvinistic and is the source of the identity myths of America as "the shining city on the hill" and American Exceptionalism. However, the United States was founded on the same Enlightenment principles igniting Europe at the time. Most of those leaders, Deists and Freemasons, had no love of the authoritarian Calvinism of the colonies that led to such things as witch burnings. They were committed to Mankind and its inalienable rights. The Christian narrative is false.
Furthermore, as I argued above, the idea of a "nation" is false. The United States is a geographical political entity, a country, made up of almost every natio on earth. It is dangerous too, as natio leads to such things as nationalism, not patriotism. The identity of a nation, not to mention a Christian one, is a false narrative being propagated today within the United States.
Literature, too, is being used as the Romantics did in Germany. Included in the definition of literature I add public school texts. As Bennett points out above, public education serves the nation-state at a very deep level to indoctrinate its young into a cohesive idea of national identity and a single publisher in Texas publishes most textbooks in the US. What goes into those textbooks is carefully vetted by many different organizations with different political and educational agendas. A current example is the attempt to adopt the theory of "Intelligent Design" into public science curricula; clearly an attempt to indoctrinate the young with a Christian belief to further the false narrative of a Christian Nation. A narrative, I believe, just as dangerous as "Pan-Germanism".
So what does this mean for a European Identity? Should we promote "European" writers and other creators of art and culture? A "pan-European" system of public education to promote a European literature and culture? A European anthem, for example? It seems to me, developing a European identity would be difficult to do considering what I have argued here on the functioning of identity. Nevertheless, it seems to have been done with Germany and is in an attempted process within the United States. But is a European identity desirable? Would it be a true identity or another false narrative? We have seen the consequences of false narratives before.
Therefore I do not believe Christianity is the lowest common denominator of an European identity but I thought the argument was on the right track. I think we have to examine the question of natio and how it is taught within national education processes and its literature. Then, I believe, we can discuss whether the creation of a European identity is a noble and desirable goal.
[UPDATE]: Aw, shucks, now I am rescued - thanks. I feel both humble and guilty though. The better half is back from family visits while I had to stay home to take care of pets. Now I have "Komputerverbot" and I will spend quality family time with her. I will be able to comment off and on but I am afraid I will not be able to contribute anything substantial or well-thought out defenses to counter argument for the time being. I promise I will, though.
And Happy New Year!
*Heinrich Heine, Sämtliche Schriften, Deutscher Tashenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co. KG München, 2005