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


    Nevertheless, even where its power in imparting cohesion may have been less than crucial, literature never relinquished its hold as a signifier of power and distinction, which possibly has been its primary function as an organized activity. By adhering to the habit of perpetuating textual activities, rulers propagated the idea of their superiority, distinguishing themselves from the rest of society, or from "lesser" rulers, as it were. As Gentili (1984, 153) puts it, discussing Greece in the sixth and fourth centuries B.C., "attraverso l'opera dell'artista, il ricco signore o l'aristicratico della città e sopratutto il tirano miravano a nobilitarsi e a consolidare il proprio potere politico."

    In short, possessing a "literature" belonged to the indispensabilia of power. But what does "possessing a literature" mean, and what in fact are the indispensabilia of power?

    This is perhaps the right moment to state explicitly that the concept of "literature" used here does not necessarily coincide with the popular notion of "a collection of accepted texts, produced by and for individuals to read," which is more or less a modern image. Here "literature" signifies a whole aggregate of activities, only part of which are "texts to be read," or "to be listened to," or even "to be understood." 1 In short, these activities include production and consumption, a market and negotiational relations between norms. When a ruler maintains these activities this means that he has to spend resources on the upkeep of agents of production of both written and oral texts, often sung or recited with musical accompaniment rather than merely read aloud, as well as agents charged with accumulating and storing such products. The Assyrian emperor Ashurbanipal invested considerable resources in copying the Babylonian inventory of canonized texts. 2 Having "literati" in court (Tadmor, 1986) was, without doubt, a token of power and prosperity. It is not insignificant that such commodities should figure among the obligatory repertoire of tributes from minor to major rulers. The Assyrian king Sennacherib, for example, boasts of the reciters, both male and female, he forced Hezekiah, king of Judah, to pay him as part of a bountiful tribute. 3

    "Possessing a literature" is thus undoubtedly equivalent to "possessing riches appropriate for a powerful ruler." It is therefore an important item of what I have called "the indispensabilia of power." Semio-culturally speaking, "to be" some distinct "person-in-the-culture" (Voegelin 1960), at whatever level, always involves employing and having a distinct repertoire of commodities and procedures. For example, to be "a Frenchman" is likely to entail a preference for drinking wine rather than water at mealtimes. To be a great king or emperor has similarly, since time immemorial, necessitated possessing edifices of some magnitude, with sculptures and wall-paintings or reliefs, and much more. If these commodities do not yet exist, it then follows that their creation must be undertaken. It also necessitates various other ingredients, actually too many to be described here in detail, among which engaging the services of reciters or "poets," or dancers and singers, or an ensemble of performers called "a theatre," is included. The Andalusian Khalif `Abd ar-Rahman III kept ministers who also could entertain by reciting Mozarabic poetry (alternating Arabic with Romanic; Ramón Menéndez Pidal, (1926, 552) while Al-Mansur was fortunate enough to have Ibn Darraj al-Qastali compose a laudatory poem in honor of his conquest of Santiago de Compostela in 997. 4 Harald the Hard-Ruler (eleventh century) kept nearly 500 poets, some of whom accompanied him, like the Khalif's most valued poets, on many daily tasks (Turville-Petre 1968), as well as to war. In short, clearly a "checklist" of indispensabilia with more or less the same items is perpetuated throughout the history of Western civilization. "Literature" almost always figures, in one form or another, among the most prominent items of these indispensabilia.

    While the ancient cultures of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt only hint as to how large a portion of the population textual activities could impart socio-cultural cohesion, it seems that for the first time in World history we witness some clear evidence of such a function in Greece. We may, naturally with due caution, perhaps call it a shift, or perhaps even "the Greek contribution," which could not have emerged, however, without the invention of the alphabet in Canaan. Without delving here into a discussion of the difference between Athenian and other Greek communities, clearly what we have at the dawn of Hellenistic times is a shift from a repertoire possessed by rulers and their entourage to one possessed by "the people," although "the people" would include only a select segment of the population at large. The textual activities now taking place outdoors are not confined to public hymns, or stelae with inaccessible inscriptions, but are more and more reaching large audiences. They even allow social criticism and a less than reverent treatment of rulers (in particular within tragedy and comedy).

    Moreover, stories of yore, gradually forming a widely accepted canon, become basics of schooling, and self-distinction, for ever larger groups. It could even be said that for a member of the Greek community, and certainly for a member of a Hellenistic community, there is already a clear-cut cultural repertoire, intimately linked with textual activities, and internalized to such a degree that it constitutes part of the individual's self-image, and sense of identity, distinguishing him from the rest of the world, the barbaroi.

1For a more complete discussion of the concept of "literature" please see Polysystem Studies, Even-Zohar, 1990.[BACK TO TEXT]

2In this process the Babylonian gods were also converted - notably in Enuma Elis, The Epic of Creation - to their Assyrian counterparts, thus appropriating the texts, rendering them as it were Assyrian rather than Babylonian. (The author is grateful to Itamar Singer for this observation.)[BACK TO TEXT]

3For more about political ideology in Assyrian inscriptions see Tadmor, 1981.[BACK TO TEXT]

4Ibn Darraj al-Qastali. Diwan. Mahmud Ali Maki, ed., Damascus: Al-Maktab Al-Islami 2_1968: 314-320.[BACK TO TEXT]

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AS/SA nº 1 (1996): 4 of 11

© 1996 Even-Zohar
© 1996 AS/SA

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