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


    One can easily claim that under different circumstances, such a region as Savoy, annexed by France only towards the end of the nineteenth century, could have become Italian. On the other hand, Northern Italy could have become French, had there been no Risorgimento in Italy.

    In the German, Italian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Czech and perhaps even the modern Greek cases, "literature" has been even more indispensable for the creation of the "nations" under these names. In each of these cases, a small group of people, whom I would like to call "socio-semiotic entrepreneurs," popularly known under various titles, such as "writers," "poets," "thinkers," "critics," "philosophers" and the like, produced an enormous body of texts in order to justify, sanction, and substantiate the existence, or the desirability and pertinence of such entities - the German, Bulgarian, Italian and other nations. At the same time, they also had to bring some order into the collection of texts and names which in principle could be rendered instrumental in justifying what their cause.

    In order to understand just how literary German identity is, we need only reflect on such a case as the Duchy of Luxembourg. Such duchies existed all over the current German territory; and their inhabitants each spoke their own local language. There was nothing "natural" in their consent to be united with Prussia in order to create the German union, nor was there anything "natural" in their acceptance of the language called "High German" (Hochdeutsch), unilaterally standardized, with a dose of fabrication, by Gottsched and his followers (see Blackall 1978; Guxman 1977). But it was the reputation of the texts produced in this language by the generation of Goethe, Schiller and others which eventually created the new German nation. The idea of the nation, aspiring at integrating the inhabitants of a certain politically fragmented territory, struck roots with great success.

    It is by now widely accepted that there would have been no German nation without the German literature, which could not, in its turn, have become unified without a well-defined and standardized language. This package deal, consisting of a nation, a language, and a literature, was not, strictly speaking, new. As Goldstein (1912, 20) states, "Bismark hätte die politische Einheit nie schaffen kennen, wenn nicht vorher von unsern Klassikern die geistige Einheit begrändet worden wäre" [Bismark would never have been able to create the political unity, had our Classical writers not founded prior to it a spiritual unity]. However, in the German case, it had to be deliberately planned and implemented, rather than achieved through unguided development. This implicated, as in the French precedent, ignoring and even banning anything that did not conform with the unified institutions. Thus, all linguistic alternatives which did not conform to the new standard were reduced to the dubious status of "dialects" (in Germany), or "patois" (in France, where a "patois" is not even considered to stem from the "authentic" French language).

    For the new socio-cultural cohesion aspired at by the entrepreneurs of such an undertaking, the act of establishing a national language, and a national literature, is equivalent to the act of acquiring self-identifying, and self-edifying commodities, typical in other periods of ruling groups only. The sentiment of the ruler had now moved, or perhaps more accurately, had been moved, from the individual ruler, or aristocrat, to the whole anonymous body called "the nation." Each member of this body, by virtue of participation in "the nation," had now earned the right to claim a share in the acquired goods. Thus, demonstrating the suitability of the German language for any spiritual and intellectual task clearly meant, from the point of view of the Germans, "we no longer need to feel inferior to the French, or any other nation" (Blackall, 1978). To have a literature capable of competing with other literatures, because it has acquired such admirable exponents of the stature of Goethe and Schiller, is clearly with "a great nation." The stature of such figures as Goethe is a complex outcome of the combination of his activities as an intellocrat, to borrow Hamon's & Rotman's (1981) term, and the effect of his writings.

    For any individual in a community, the greatness of the nation is also capable of conferring individual greatness: "I am great, because I belong to a nation which has generated Goethe." This is not at all different from the kind of sentiments involved in any competition: "I am great because I belong to a nation whose basketball team has won the European championship." It simply "pays" to be member of such a nation, and this bonus becomes a very powerful factor in strengthening and nourishing the sentiment of "belonging."

Last page Next page

AS/SA nº 1 (1996): 8 of 11

© 1996 Even-Zohar
© 1996 AS/SA

E-mail to the editors
Pour écrire à la rédaction