I. Even-Zohar: "The Role of Literature in the Making of the Nations of Europe: A Socio-Semiotic Examination"


    The highly-established nature of the "European model" is evidenced by its repeated and successful use in one culture after another in Europe itself. But it is also corroborated by cultures which did not establish themselves on European soil.

    The first such example is the case of the Hebrew nation, now established in the State of Israël. The creation of this modern nation, which began to plant itself in Palestine towards the end of the 1800s, was initiated in Germany around the beginning of that century, almost at the same time as the German nation. Throughout the nineteenth century, in a laborious process, the new identity, which also generated a new socio-cultural and ultimately political entity, was generated through a newly developed literature and a reorganized language - Hebrew adapted to new objectives. 6

    The second example is the making of the modern Arab nations. This case also displays many of the ingredients recognizable from the European model. The so-called "revival" of Arabic language and literature, first in Egypt and Lebanon during the nineteenth century, although it clearly made use of materials available of old, was a different entity. The nature of the new literature, the position held by its agents, its impact on the acts of the people, first the intelligentsia, and later gradually among larger groups, is of European origin. It is of course not a simple case of export, as it were, but it certainly is an adaptation of the European, primarily French, model to local conditions. It also combines a whole set of operations carried out deliberately by both rulers and intellectuals to attain the status of "a modern state." These are not disparate ideas about this or that literary genre, but rather touch on the very structure of the activity of texts. Needless to say, this also entailed the gradual adaptation of the old literary language to the new objectives. Although it has never become a uniformly spoken language like German and Italian, Arabic has liberated itself from ossified traditions to become a flexible tool in the implementation of the intellectual project of forming the modern Egyptian and other Arab nations. 7

    The third and final example of export of the European model may seem out of order, but I believe that it is a rather perfect demonstration of the established nature of the model. When Lazaro Ludoviko Zamenhof created the Esperanto language in 1887, among his first and major concerns was to set up literary activities. Literature has become a major preoccupation for this international community, which rapidly produced translations of the masterpieces of Western literature and original works. Zamenhof, whose acts as a creator of literature were mocked by the competitors, i.e. movements for the promotion of other international languages, seems to have fully internalized the European model for the creation of nations in order to create an international community united through a similar, if not identical, sentiment of cultural cohesion. Words used in Esperanto like "esperantistaro" for "the community of Esperanto speakers," "Esperantujo" for "the home of the speakers of Esperanto" are perfect equivalents to names of a nation and a country in the "national" languages. Nothing like this was initiated by other synthetic international languages. Perhaps this might be a partial explanation for the relative success of Esperanto and the failure of all the others.8

    Finally, it is likely useful to note that this model of the making of nations was not utilized in the United States of America. This North American nation was born out of rebellion against Great Britain, but it did not attempt to detach itself from the English literary or linguistic traditions. It is true that textual activities, mostly of popular and less institutionalized nature, have been instrumental in distributing stories, myths and images that made "the American spirit," creating a growing sentiment of distinction. However, this did not affect elite literary production which sought to be accepted in the British center almost as far as the beginning of the twentieth century. And although it had to distinguish itself from its motherland and previous oppressor, this new society had no trouble using the same literary language. Change on the linguistic level did not occur as it did in Norway, where a Norwegian language basically identical with the Danish was distinguished from the Danish through a series of planned reforms. Americans, though they developed their own styles and preferences, never really attempted any heavy reforms, nor have they ever sought to replace English by some other language. Change occurred in the American variant of the English language as the realities of language use in the United States gradually found their way into stylized literary language, through a lengthy negotiation between norms and tastes. The American nation is thus not a creation of or through its literature, nor of or through its language, but was rather unaffected by them. The "European model" is thus not universal, but I hope to have demonstrated that the image of literature in contemporary Europe is based on longstanding and concrete realities.


6 For the Hebrew case see Shavit (1987), Even-Zohar (1990). [BACK TO TEXT]

7 For more details about the making of modern Egyptian nationhood see Gershoni 1986, Mitchel (1989). [BACK TO TEXT]

8 See also Lieberman 1979. [BACK TO TEXT]

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AS/SA nº 1 (1996): 10 of 11

© 1996 Even-Zohar
© 1996 AS/SA

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