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


    In addition, through these texts, the Greek Koine had become far more successful than any preceding language. (The Assyrian case, in comparison, was rather a failure; when the Empire collapsed, hardly anybody continued to speak Assyrian: most of the population had already gone over to speaking Aramaic). Perhaps it was in Greece that a model was established through which, in addition to imparting socio-cultural cohesion via texts, a literary language succeeded in gradually superseding local variants. Contrary to the popular image which sees a causality chain from "inborn identity" as it were to "language," and only finally to "texts" (literature), the Greek case already displays a different course, from texts to identity and language.

    Another crucial "shift" ought perhaps to be attributed to Greece, namely the clear proliferation of cultural and "literary," systems. While texts in Sumer, even those recited at public occasions, were composed by members of the elite, and texts in Babylonia, Assyria, or the Hittite and Egyptian Kingdoms were composed by the literati, Greece provides us with both elite and "popular" textual cultures. It is in Greece, moreover, that we can witness the emergence of multiple channels of propagation. On the one hand, there is the written product, aimed at the few, but eventually also marketable to the many; on the other hand, the oral product, such as the Platonic dialogues, aimed at the many, but often based on products made for the few. The source of the modern notion of "literature" as something connected with written texts clearly derives from Greece. The institutionalization of the book (though "book" in Greek, byblos, derives from the name of the Phoenician city of Gebal [*Gubl]), as Gentili remarks, generating this cultural cleft. While he points out (1984, 222) that "la scrittura fu sentita per la prima volta come vero e proprio atto letterario, letteratura tout court," he also writes (1984, 228)

    Accanto a questa cultura più propriamente letteraria ed erudita, che fiorì nell'ambito ristretto delle corti e dei cenacoli, patrimonio esclusivo di una élite di intellettuali, ebbe vita autonoma un'altra forma di cultura, che con termine moderno potremmo definire popolare o di massa, nel senso che era destinata a larghe fasce di fruitori e trasmessa oralmente in pubbliche audizioni, da parte di recitatori, cantori (rhapsoidoi, kitharoidoi, auloidoi) e attori itineranti (tragoidoi, komoidoi, ecc.), che esercitavano la loro professione ottenendo compensi ed onori e nelle feste istituite dalle diverse città del mondo ellenizzato.

    The matter of what the repercussions of such a situation could have been for deviating from accepted norms, that is in matters of accepted themes and forms as well as accepted ideas, is a different question. Obviously, both literati and performers could hardly express dissention, or engage in forms contradicting an accepted orthodoxy. In Greece, independent literati did emerge who had the courage to speak out differently, although, as is shown by the case of Socrates, they had to pay dearly for it. No such occurrences are known to us in more ancient cultures, with the exception of the Judaean prophets, who, like Jeremiah, were punished nearly to death by their ruler (Jeremiah, 38: 6-13).

    Throughout world history, models created in one culture could find their way to other cultures, if there was a reason for the other culture to wish to match itself with the culture from which the model was adopted. We are given ample evidence of contacts leading to "borrowings." Any group of people who match themselves seeking to measure up to any other group may always ask themselves: "Why don't we have all of these commodities and traditions?" For example, if in some institution recognized as reputable we find that everybody is equipped with advanced computers and related accessories, we naturally would consider ourselves to be deprived of something we should possibly possess ourselves if we wish to live up to the standards of that institution. This basic pattern of the relation between "possessing" versus "not-possessing" functions on any socio-cultural level, and for any number of people. It is my strong conviction that the repertoires just discussed were not invented in each culture individually or domestically. When a new institution was "needed" in a society, the idea of having it, as well as the repertoire involved with it, usually came from an outside source.

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AS/SA nº 1 (1996): 5 of 11

© 1996 Even-Zohar
© 1996 AS/SA

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