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


    Lest the term "socio-cultural cohesion" seem vague or empty, let me explain here that it refers to a state in which a widely-spread sense of solidarity, or togetherness, exists among a group of people, which consequently allows a non-physical means of imparting behavioral norms. It seems that the basic key concept to such socio-cultural cohesion is readiness, or proneness. This phenomenon is a mental disposition which propels people to act in many ways that otherwise might be contrary to their "natural inclinations." For example, going to war, being prone to die in combat, would be the ultimate case, and is amply repeated throughout human history. To create a large network of readiness (or proneness) on a significant number of issues is something that, although vital for any society, cannot be taken for granted. For example, no government can take for granted that people will obey "laws," whether written or not, unless they are successfully persuaded to do so. Achieving obedience by physical force, such as military and police efforts, can be effective in the short run, but sooner or later such measures will become ineffective, partly because few societies can afford to keep a large enough body of law enforcement individuals.

    It is thus my contention that it was "literature" which served as an ever-present factor of socio-cultural cohesion in our society. This does not mean that it always was the major or sole factor, but perhaps it was the most durable one, and probably one which was most often combined with others (for instance, accompanying certain rituals or other physical performances, like constructing edifices or performing dance and music). Its ubiquity and longevity may be attributed to its institutionalization and conspicuousness, since we find it over and over again in those cultures which gradually superseded Sumer, namely the Akkadian and the Hittite, as well as in Egyptian society, which certainly developed somewhat separately. The term "Akkadian" is here a general term for many different societies where variants of the Akkadian language and "literature" were used, obviously including early Akkadian society as well as the Babylonian and Assyrian states, but also the cultures of a large variety of organized states between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean, such as Ebla and Mari, Yamhad, Ugarit and Canaan. None of these, with the exception of Canaan or Phoenician culture, abandoned the Sumerian-Akkadian system of writing, although it was gradually, and in various degrees, simplified by all of them.

    The hidden link between all these societies and "Europe," which has been covert for many centuries, is becoming more and more evident with our improving knowledge of these cultures. The Phoenician origin of the Greek alphabet, also reported by the Greeks, is not contested. Even the very name Europe, which, according to Greek mythology has to do with the city of Tyre, may have derived from the Phoenician-Hebrew word '`ereb', meaning both "evening" and "west." In the context of the institution of "literature," however, with all of its components, this link cannot be presented as indisputable. Nevertheless, it can be claimed today, with all due reservations, that it seems more plausible than not, in view of the evidence gathered by the deciphered documents of these cultures, that "literature" found its way from Mesopotamian through Hittite (and perhaps Luvian) intermediators to Greek culture, whence it spread, in a chainlike process, from one European society to another through the ages.

    This hypothesis will not be examined in detail here; nor shall we attempt to ponder literature in the court of such rulers as Ashurbanipal, with his library of 25,000 clay tablets. Suffice it to iterate that textual activities, the totality of which I call "literature" for the sake of convenience, persist throughout the history of all of the above-mentioned cultures. A few words of reservation are however required here. Despite the compelling power of the Sumerian-Akkadian model, evidenced by the obvious success of a repetitive repertoire of beliefs and customs, we must not fall into the trap of anachronism. It is not easy to assess the level of socio-cultural cohesion in these societies, and the contribution of textual activities to its success, in more than general terms. There is, on the other hand, evidence of more than one failure. For example, the seemingly rapid collapse of Assyrian culture may perhaps be attributed to a rather low cohesion, which in this case clearly suggests a failure of the socio-semiotic textual culture.

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AS/SA nº 1 (1996): 3 of 11

© 1996 Even-Zohar
© 1996 AS/SA

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