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


While Hellenistic culture was appropriated as part of dominant Roman culture, it produced a domestic Roman repertoire - both commodities and patterns of behavior. Thus, although Greek texts were adopted, domestic works were produced along the same lines. It is evident that it might never have occurred to Virgil to produce his Aeneid had the Homeric text not been established as a distinctive feature of "a great society."

    The compelling presence of both Greek and Roman models goes on to have a decisive impact on the acts of organizers of society throughout the Middle Ages and the Modern Age. Although the ethnic variety of Europe was almost as large during the Middle Ages as it is nowadays, the inheritance of the Roman Empire, and the unificatory interests of both rulers and the Church, did not encourage the emergence of local entities. As Várvaro so succinctly puts it, referring to the fifteenth century, "[...] non può certo parlarsidi una precisa diffusa coscienza di distinte identità nazionali" (Várvaro 1985: 10). In what would eventually become Germany and the Scandinavian countries, with the conspicuous exception of isolated territories like Iceland (and to some degree Norway), the acceptance of Christianity delayed the development of local separate cultural entities for centuries. When the success of a local insurrection could not be secured, however, without attracting the consenting spirit of larger segments of the population, Europe begins to create its new nations. And to do that, old sets-of-operations are utilized with skill, as if they had been acquired through formal schooling.

    There is no need to expand here on the reasons why Alfonso X "the Wise" should have decided to impose Castilian by decree (although he himself preferred using Galician (or Galego-Portuguese) for his own poetical writings). This was immediately linked with the making of indispensable texts, such as a translation of the Scriptures (which had been carried out before, by Jews, but without any major implications for the larger community), and others. Without Castilian, the socio-cultural cohesion imparted through texts which carried beliefs to be shared by all, a unified Spanish nation would not have emerged. This is, of course, not a clear-cut case, since the rulers of Spain, in order to accelerate this process of cohesion, expelled all those segments of the population which could not be assimilated into the new national identity.

    Spain is among the first cases of success in imparting socio-cultural cohesion to a large population which had long been divided. This success is fully evidenced through the ventures of the Spaniards in the New World. The relative unity of Spanish in Latin America is a testimony to this. Other cases have not been so successful: When emigration takes place from France to the New World, a unified French culture is not really successfully implemented. Although they kept their separate ethnicity after the British occupation, the Quebec inhabitants of French origin were "brought back," as it were, to become part of the new French nation only through the endeavours of French missions in the nineteenth century. Even today, this acculturation enterprise has not integrated the French Quebec people with continental France. In the Italian case, emigration to the Americas, even during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, turns out to have taken place before socio-cultural cohesion was successfully imparted to the population of the Italian peninsula. Most so-called "Italians" did not yet consider themselves as "Italians," and more often than not had no access to the newly invented identity of the national "Italian," which was expressed in attempts to speak a "dead" Italian language (De Mauro, 1984).

    In short, French, German and Italian identities, or "nations," from the point of view of socio-cultural cohesion, are late inventions. In making them, the time-honored set-of-operations was mobilized and utilized, naturally augmented and adapted to local circumstances. Texts, produced together with a new or a re-standardized language, functioned in all of these cases as a major vehicle of unification for people who would not necessarily consider themselves as "belonging to" a certain entity.

    In the French case, the turning point was the French Revolution. Everything that had previously belonged to the court and the aristocracy was now appropriated by the bourgeoisie. The "common people" had to wait quite a long time before they enjoyed full access to the commodities and socio-cultural items of the defunct aristocracy, except during the several chaotic years of revolution, when attempts were made to draw this segment, too, into sharing the general identity. However, the bourgeoisie, who nevertheless constituted a relatively large percentage of the population, especially since it merged with the old aristocracy (Mayer, 1983) by perpetuating and expanding the repertoire of its predecessors, and by enlarging the school system, giving literature, both as an institution and a major generator of socio-cultural cohesion, its prominent position in the French socio-cultural organization. Let us remember that, just as in pre-reconquista Spain, the large majority of the people living within the confines of France did not even speak "French" until around the end of the eighteenth century. They had to be persuaded gradually to acquire this knowledge, which could not have become possible without the many texts that have been instrumental in this enterprise, and in which many of the ideas necessary for persuading people were explicitly introduced. This process of integration went on throughout the nineteenth century, and was set in motion each time a new piece of territory was gained by France. It was even implemented in the distant colonies in Africa, where children in school read about "nos ancêtres les gaulois," like their continental French counterparts.

Last page Next page

AS/SA nº 1 (1996): 7 of 11

© 1996 Even-Zohar
© 1996 AS/SA

E-mail to the editors
Pour écrire à la rédaction