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


    The Italian enterprise, although it culminated at almost the same time as the unification of Germany (1870-71) with the creation of the Italian state (1861-1870), already had both the French and the German precedents as possible semio-cultural models. Indeed, there was nothing inherent that would have convinced the population of Italy to become "Italians," members of a nation called "Italian," had there not been entrepreneurs, who like their German counterparts, used the reputation of texts written in a language hardly anybody actually spoke, to popularize the same kind of package deal which had crystallized in Germany, i.e. the packaging of a language with a "nation," whose existence was substantiated, justified, motivated, and defended by coupling the wealth of narratives about its alleged common "past," generally a somewhat distant one, with the glory of the linguistic tool developed at some time by some of its members.

    The language we now call "Italian" was perhaps in even a poorer state than French or German from the point of view of its actual distribution. It was una lingua morta, as Tullio de Mauro (1984) states in his classic Storia linguistica dell'Italia unita. Out of the approximately 22 million inhabitants of the peninsula, about 600 000 persons could understand Italian. Even the major writers in this language, like Manzoni, used French more fluently at the time the Italian state was founded. However, it was due to the literary and intellectual efforts made by Manzoni and a group of intellectuals, gradually supported and mobilized by the clever prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia, Cavour, that the idea of an Italian "nation," based on the language used by the great founders of its literary tradition, Dante, Bocaccio and Petrarca, successfully gained ground among ever-growing parts of the population. However, the unification of Italy was only the first step towards the creation of the nation. Not only were there discussions about which inhabitants would join the new nation, but it indeed took many years, until the 1980s, or more than a hundred years after the political unification, that Italian actually became the spoken language of the majority of Italians. As De Mauro states in the Introduction to the second edition of his book, (1984, xvii): "L'italiano era ancora vent'anni la lingua abituale d'una minoranza. Oggi è la lingua abituale della maggioranza degli italiani, anche tra le mure domestiche, dove più hanno resistito i dialetti." There were of course those who were not happy with the inclusion of all inhabitants of Italy into the new nation. Some would have preferred to have it based, for example, only on the middle classes. Others, like Cavour himself, were not at all happy with the exploits of Garibaldi, who brought the South and Sicily on a golden plate to the monarch. Cavour would have preferred a state without the South, but could not reject what popular ideology, devised by "literature," already presented as a national cause.

    As was the case in Germany, no actual vernacular could be made into the common tongue. Italian, although historically based on the Florentine language as tamed and standardized by Dante and followers, was no longer identical with the kind of language actually spoken in Toscana, and more specifically Florence, at the time of the unification. Manzoni, whose official task was to make recommendations about the language to be adopted by the state, while briefly entertaining the idea of adopting the contemporary Florentine variant as a basis for the modern tongue, withdrew from this idea, to support a hybrid fabrication, based on selecting and combining several local norms.

    In both Germany and Italy, both prior to the political unification and after it had been achieved, thousands of agents had to be recruited to popularize the texts of the few initiators, and to spread the language they used in these texts. The main burden fell on school teachers, and the Italian intellectuals produced texts to provide these teachers with all the necessary arsenal for their task. Texts prepared for children, like D'amici's The Heart (Il Cuore), or Collodi's Pinocchio, were deliberately tailored for, and served as perfect imparters of, socio-cultural cohesion. Clearly, Italy simply did not exist as a coherent entity without its new language and re-established literature. No wonder that doubts and discontent with this entity, especially after the strong policy of the fascist government against the dialects, have led to various symbolic upheavals against the unified language, which, in the eyes of dissidents, has led to the destruction of local cultures. Literature in the vernacular was created as an act of protest, as is evidenced in the case of Pasolini, who accuses the official Italy of having committed cultural genocide. On the 8th of October 1975, a short time before he was murdered, he published a piercing article in Corriere della sera, where, about the presentation of his film Accatone on television, he says:     "Tra il 1961 e il 1975 qualcosa di essenziale ha cambiato: si ha avuto un genocidio. Si ha distrutta culturalmente una popolazione. E si tratta precisamente di uno di quei genocidi culturali che avevano preceduto i genocidi fisici [...]" (reprinted in , Torino 1976: 154). 5

    It will be necessary to omit detailed consideration of the other cases specified above, such as the Czech and Bulgarian ones, although each of these cases brings more nuances to our understanding of the function of literature in creating the nations of Europe. This would require a much longer presentation than can be offered here. Instead, to conclude this somewhat serpentine excursion, I would like briefly to discuss the function of "the European model" for non-European cultures, and what seems to be its conspicuous absence in some cultures.

5 I am grateful to Alon Altaras for this quotation. [BACK TO TEXT]

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AS/SA nº 1 (1996): 9 of 11

© 1996 Even-Zohar
© 1996 AS/SA

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