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pascale casanova


ations, wrote Marcel Mauss, are recent things, far

from having completed their evolution.1 They remain a
tricky subject. Discussion often tends either to solipsism,
dealing with single nations as self-contained case studies, or
to denial: globalization, it is claimed, has mercifully transcended such
obsolete categories. Rather than choosing between national settings or a
global landscape, this essay will attempt to look at literary developments
on a national scale, but from a global vantage-point or promontory,
to borrow Braudels metaphor.2 And rather than taking nations and
nationalisms as unproblematic facts, it will approach them as cultural
artefacts, in Benedict Andersons term, constituted by belief in a collectivity as a primary form of identification. Mauss spoke of this as national
credit, emphasizing that it is a circular system: Collectively, the citizens
of a state form a unity in which belief is held in the national credit; other
countries have confidence in this credit, to the extent that they believe
in that unity.3
How, then, should we conceive the relations between literary nationalisms today? At the start of Imagined Communities, Anderson registers
three paradoxes that have perplexed contemporary theorists of nationalism: firstly, the objective modernity of nations to the historians eye
vs their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists; secondly, the
formal universality of nationality as a socio-cultural conceptin the
modern world, everyone can, should, will have a nationality, as he
or she has a gendervs the irremediable particularity of its concrete
manifestations; and thirdly, the political power of nationalisms vs
their philosophical poverty.4
In response, I would like to propose a structural hypothesis. The generalization of claims to nationhood in the nineteenth century might
be understood as a symbolic assertion of equality between the various
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national collectivities; an attempt to reset the clocks in an international rivalry, at once cultural, political and economic, in which the
older great powers of Europe enjoyed such an advantage that it was
impossible for newcomers like Germany to compete. Indeed Herders
category of people offered a new way of evaluating political legitimacy.
By contrast to the existing aristocratic and hierarchical world order,
nationality was a new system of thinking the collective, which threw
a gloss of seeming equality over the competitors. Seen through the
optic of the people, Herder argued, all nations were equal.5 The great
philological studies undertaken by nationalists in nineteenth-century
Europe, during literary capitals phase of accumulation, were also an
assertion of symbolic equality, as Anderson has pointed out: Bilingual
dictionaries made visible an approaching egalitarianism among
languageswhatever the political realities outside, within the covers
of the CzechGerman/GermanCzech dictionary, the paired languages
had a common status.6
Once aristocratic, literary capital now became national and popular, its
acquisition and accumulation supposedly open to all. Carried out by
means of a comparative history of peoples, this apparently egalitarian
revolution also involved a tacit struggle against the legitimacy of the
aristocracy, based as this was on a hitherto unchallenged monopoly of
antiquity. Proof of its success: the French themselves, who had provided
the model for the previous classical-aristocratic system, now felt obliged
to redefine their national culture and even to apply the German model
of philology to their literature, in order to keep their ranking in the newly
emerging world competition.7
Marcel Mauss, La Nation, in uvres 3: Cohsion sociale et division de la sociologie,
Paris 1969. Mausss anti-nationalist manifesto was published in 1920; despite his
previous pacifist convictions, he had supported Frances participation in the Great
War. The present essay is drawn from the introduction to Casanova, ed., Des littratures combatives: Linternationale des nationalismes littraires, Paris 2011.
Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th18th Century, Volume III: The
Perspective of the World, London 1984, p.19.
Mauss, La Nation, p.590.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London 1983, p. 5.
See Anne-Marie Thiesse, La Cration des identits nationales, Paris 1999, p.42.
Anderson, Imagined Communities, p.71.
See Thiesse, Cration des identits nationales, pp.509; and Ursula Bhler,
Universalisme universel ou universalisme particulariste?, in Casanova, ed., Des
littratures combatives.

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Constructing antiquity
But the proclaimed equality of the peoples creative power was only a
pretence. Time still conferred strength, and antiquity, authority, on
the terrain of symbolic struggle. National cultural capital was above
all constituted by accumulated time, stockpiled as assets. In What Is
a Nation?, Renan himself took this temporal capital, formed from an
accumulated past and transformed into a wealth of cultural gold, to be
a condition of the nations legitimacy. Thus he speaks of the common
possession of a rich legacy of memories: antiquity bequeaths capital, the
heritage of a collective past.8 Antiquity, whether as fact or construction,
swiftly became a stake in the symbolic rivalries between nations which,
despite their relative youth, imagined themselves to be old; or at least
were convinced that they existed long before, as a people.9 All the players
in this great game, which spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, would battle for possession of this cultural artefact, antecedence in
collective existence, as a source of power, prestige and legitimacy.
Like modernity, antiquity is a relative notion. An identity can only lay
claim to it in relation to others, which in turn affirm themselves to be
more or less ancient than the first. In Europe, prior to the late eighteenth
centurythat is, before Herderthe antiquity of an aristocratic lineage was calculated on the basis of its consanguinity with the Greeks and
Romans (fantastical, but universally held to be well founded), and thus its
direct descent from ancient nobility. In Herders novel system, timeor
at least, its social constructionwas still the measure of prestige, but the
meaning of antiquity was now contested; the singularity and superiority
of a lineage stretching down from Ancient Greece and Rome was denied.
For Herderianism, the aim was to prove that, just like the aristocracy
and indeed in competition with itthe peoples too could produce their
own antiquity, complete with epic history, nobility and legitimacy.
In the early 1760s, some years before Herders system was completed,
the young Scottish poet James Macpherson created a literary sensation
by rediscovering the songs of Ossian, a third-century ad Celtic bard,
orally transmitted from generation to generation by Scottish peasants.
Ernest Renan, What Is a Nation?, in Vincent Pecora, ed., Nations and Identities:
Classic Readings, Oxford 2001, p.174.
Anderson, Prface ldition franaise, Limaginaire national: Rflexions sur
lorigine et lessor du nationalisme, Paris 1996, p.14.


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Macpherson had recorded them from the very mouths of the people, translated them into English and had them published. Although
the songs were shown to be a forgery a few years later, the works of
the Celtic bard circulated rapidly throughout Europe and were a great
hitHerder himself made translations of Ossian and sent them to his
fiance. Their success can only be explained by the revolutionary character of Macphersons undertaking at the time: through the promotion
of this ancient work, the Scots were asserting that there was another
way of determining collective status and legitimacy. In his preface to the
anthology, the critic Hugh Blair explicitly endorsed Ossians work as a
Nordic epic, to equal the prestige of Homer.10
For the first time, a poetic cycle could claim to rival the classics in terms
of antiquity itself. The Ossianic Epic proved that it was possible to
measure antiquity by another yardstick than that of Ancient Greece.
Other civilizations were therefore just as legitimateindeed, just as
noble, since they had produced their own epics, an essential measure
of accomplishment. Ancient manuscripts were miraculously rediscovered in much of Europe as the nineteenth century wore on, attesting
to the great age (and thus to the legitimacy) of numerous national traditions: Every aspect of life was overgrown with a romantic yearning for
the past: the present, it seemed, could be justified solely by its roots in
history.11 This was why it was essential for a national collectivity to stake
a claim to antiquity, as a form of wealth: at stake was the recognition of
a collective existence, inextricably literary and political. In a formulation
that inverted the nationalist belief in tradition, a virtual synonym for
antiquity, Mauss would add: Whereas it is the nation that creates tradition, it is on the basis of this tradition that the nation will be built.12

International competition
Paradoxically it was through this battle over the same stake, waged with
the same weapons, that a properly international cultural and political
space was created during the course of the nineteenth centuryan
arena in which the nations were pitted against each other. As Thiesse
puts it: A vast workshop of experimentation, lacking a supervisor and
Thiesse, Cration des identits nationales, pp. 43,24.
Hagen Schulze, States, Nations and Nationalism, Oxford 1996, p.164.
Mauss, La Nation, p.600. See also Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: the
Medieval Origins of Europe, Princeton 2002.

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yet characterized by feverish industry, was established in eighteenthcentury Europe, with its highest level of productivity in the following
century. Its character would be transnational.13 So much so that one
might draw the conclusion: the more a space is shaped and polarized by
the assertion of nationalities, the more it is implicated in forms of internationalism. One consequence of this generalized competition was that
no political or literary national identity was finite, autarchic or closed
in on itself. Some rivalries, indeed, could forge collective forms of selfconception and definition.
Transposed to another field, this was the sense of Hannah Arendts
remark on the identity of the protagonist in Kafkas The Castle: Josef K. is
surely a Western Jew, not due to any typically Jewish trait, but the fact that
he is involved in situations and perplexities distinctive of Jewish life.14
National being is forged, not by a pre-existing essence, but by the relations of force between territories, whose struggles to give form to their
differences mutually constitute each others existence. As Mauss noted,
paradoxically: A curious thing is that the considerable increase in the two
preceding centuries of the number, the force and the grandeur of nations,
has led not to a homogenization of civilization, but, from certain points
of view, to an ever-deeper individuation of nations and nationalities. The
struggle for differentiation, in other words for recognition, produces
ever more identities. Nationalism, thendefined simply as belief in a
national entity, in as much as it offered a stable and definitive identity
was not an inalienable particularity but a relation.15
This is why national literatures have had few if any national characteristics: there is no definition in itself of a countrys literature that
Thiesse, Cration des identits nationales, pp.646.
Hannah Arendt, The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition, in Reflections on
Literature and Culture, Stanford 2007, p.84.
Mauss wrote: It would be worth looking again at the facts of a physiological
order which are directly connected to contacts, superimpositions, amalgams, mixtures, compositions, and the study not only of linguistic loans and even linguistic
facts, but also that of all the psychological facts. It would surely be seen that a good
number of them, which have been related until now to developments which are
autonomous and fatal, so to speak, are on the contrary due to these facts of the interrelatedness of different societies. Any given alteration that is ordinarily described as
the product of a national genius by virtue of a sort of sociological vitalism, is really
the product of a modification due to the environment characterized by the proximity of other societies (my italics). La Nation, p.628.



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could specify what it truly is, which others are not. This should be
understood in a double sense, since both direct and indirect relations of
force are in play, pitting literatures against each other and contributing
to their construction. On the one hand, every literary nationalism drew
a large part of its self-definition from its direct rivalry, often ancestral,
with other national spaces: French vs German, Scottish vs English, Irish
vs English, Czech vs German, American vs English. It was often the
negative features of others that helped to establish a nations own identity, Schulze noted in his study of the mechanisms of the formation
of European national identities in the nineteenth century. Wars often
played a role as catalyst: From the beginning, mistrust between neighbours, hostility and combat were means by which the European nations
discovered themselves.16
As an illustration of direct literary rivalry, let us take the example of
America. The founding period of American literature can hardly be
understood without taking into account the explicit rivalry of American
authors towards their British counterparts, and their desire to assert a
literary independence and self-sufficiency in relation to what had been,
up to that point, an unsurpassable British superiority. Walt Whitmans
writings contain magnificent pages on the power, novelty and immensity of American verse, while the United States themselves constituted
the greatest poem of all.17 Herman Melville compared Hawthorne to
Shakespeare, exhorted America to be heedful of the increasing greatness of her writers, and called for the foundation of a properly American
national literature. Let us away, he railed, with this Bostonian leaven
of literary flunkeyism towards England.18 It was as if, at the moment
of entering the international arena, Americans had set themselves the
explicit goal of dethroning the English; Melville indeed imposing a programme of work upon himself, to rival English writers.19 Paradoxically,
though, Melville did so by means of the yardstick par excellence of the
English literary heritage: Shakespeare. This gives an idea of the actual
dependence of American writers at the moment at which they proclaimed their emancipation.
Schulze, States, Nations and Nationalism, pp. 108,112.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855 edition), New York 2010, notably pp.5766.
Herman Melville, Hawthorne and his Mosses, in The Piazza Tales and Other
Prose Pieces, 18391860, Evanston 1987, p.247.
Philippe Jaworski, Melville et Hawthorne: Notice, in Melville, uvres, Paris
2010, p.1,345.

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A structural inequality
But on the other hand, international competition cannot be reduced to
struggles between neighbours, close rivals who offer each other mutual
recognition. Rivalry is structural and depends on the objectiveindirect,
therefore often unrecognized by the players themselvesrelations of
force between the protagonists. The relation of forces is also structural.
The totality of national worlds forms an immense universe of generalized competition. Each national spaceand consequently, each writer
who bears its markis strongly defined by the position it occupies
within the global order, in which it is confronted with the total structure of power, as constituted at any given moment. Contrary to their
claims, national actors are not equal. Indeed, the generalized competition is clearly a product of the actual inequalities between them.20 They
are unequal in grandeur, in force, in wealth, in civilization, in age, as
Mauss put it. Yet the major difference between them appears to lie in
the scale of their national self-belief. This could be very strong in the
national spaces that Kafka called small, where there reigned a collective
conviction that national identity was the bearer of an important part of
collective and individual identity; that it was the vessel for a form of collective honour, for which all were accountable.
In these places, national literatures became a central terrain for claims
to national existence; very little literary content could be imagined without a reference, direct or indirect, to the historical specificities of the
national space. Small literatures have generally had a very strong link
with anything that touches on national definition, history or honour. Yet
this link has become attenuated or forgotten in the oldest and richest
national literatures, which have seen a progressive separation between
the literary and political orders. The principle that structures the inequality between them is thus in inverse proportion to the strength (or
weakness) of the conviction that the national honour has to be defended,
perhaps above all through literary texts.
While the argument that follows will remain on the symbolic level, it should be
noted that to understand the global nature of this inequality in its entirety, it would
be necessary to take account of the economic sphere, which is of course determinant in the hierarchical competition between national entities. This inequality
is denied to such an extent that historical studies of nationalism often omit any
reference to it.



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Of course, the oldest, major literatures also assert forms of literary and
cultural nationalism, not least in declining countries like France. But
these nationalisms of decline or reaction operate within a field that generates its own forms of opposition. In contrast to emerging literatures,
here they represent neither the totality of national literary production
nor the dominant ideological outlook. Multiple contestations of nationalist belief make themselves felt in diverse aesthetic forms. Furthermore,
this nationalism promotes forms of aesthetic conservatism very different from those of combative cultural nationalist movements. Two
qualifications to this strict dichotomy between major and minor literatures should be entered, however. First, at times of great crisisfor
example, in 1940s France under the German occupationcombative
nationalist positions could also be the freest, the most autonomous.
Second, the infinite diversity of national literary histories and conditions
cannot, of course, be reduced to just two types. This categorization is
only introduced for ease of analysis; the reality is rather a continuum
of imperceptible shifts, slow historical change, endless nuances, and
finally the emergence of a universe of competition in which the national
question is gradually forgotten.
In his discussion of inequality between national groupings, Mauss
observed that young national spaces were still in formationironically,
as true today as it was in 1920and had often had to emancipate themselves from external domination in order to constitute themselves as
nations. The intensity of nationalist beliefs could be explained, at least
in part, by the brutalities and inequalities of international conflict:
The suffering of a people under a civilization other than its own, its every
day resistance, its effortsoften heroicto establish for itself a moral code,
a tradition, an education: these are modern facts which are noteworthy,
laudable and relatively common. That a people wants to have its men of
commerce, its jurists, its bankers, its teachers, its newspapers, its art, is a
sign of the need for true independence, total national liberty, to which so
many populations aspire, hitherto deprived as they are of these goods.21

To despise, minimize or discredit nationalist sentiment in literature

is merely to reproduce the ethnocentric prejudices of Westernin
particular, Frenchuniversalism. The propensity stems from a venerable critical tradition that sets a high store on interiority and aesthetic
self-sufficiency. But to dismiss the hypothesis of literatures national
Mauss, La Nation, p.603.


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foundation in favour of its absolute autonomy is another way to perpetuate a relation of power, based on a repudiation of other literatures. One
way of restoring a measure of equality in the critical treatment of different literatures would be through methods and instruments sensitive to
the fact that national feeling is central in some literatures, while in others it is simply the object of a collective amnesia.

Culture and imperialism

Inequality between literatures is of course a fact of structure and not of
value; the most important literary revolutions of the twentieth century
Kafka, Joyce, Beckettwere often the product of emerging national
spaces. Kafka himself was one of the first to speculate on this question. In his famous text of 25 December 1911, he explored a distinction
between literatures of small peopleskleine Nationenand the great
literatures, or groe Literaturen, of the more powerful states. Drawing on
his knowledge of contemporary Czech and Yiddish writing as examples
of minor literatures, Kafka offered a character sketch that suggests
some fascinating perspectives on the inequality between national literatures.22 For him, one of the criteria of a minor literature was connection
with politics. Here, he suggested:
The narrowness of the field, the concern too for simplicity and uniformity,
and, finally, the consideration that the inner independence of the literature
makes the external connection with politics harmless, result in a dissemination of literature within a country on the basis of political slogans.23

Using very different intellectual tools, and drawing a distinction between

third-world and first-world literatures, rather than small and large,
Fredric Jameson reaches conclusions that resonate strongly with Kafkas.
He highlights the foundational character of the national dimension
for third-world literatures, in the continual concern for the nation, in
the permanent anxiety of all nationals as regards the standing of their
national space in the great international rivalry. A certain nationalism is
fundamental in the third world, writes Jameson:
Let me now, by way of a sweeping hypothesis, try to say what all third-world
cultural productions seem to have in common and what distinguishes them
radically from analogous cultural forms in the first world. All third-world
Franz Kafka, The Literature of Small Peoples, in The Diaries of Franz Kafka, vol.
1, New York 1948, pp. 1915.
Kafka, Diaries, vol. 1, p. 194.


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texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific

way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or
perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly Western machineries of representation, such as the novel.24

In these cases, then, for Jameson as for Kafka, a direct link can be
established between literature and politics. And whether in the small
emergent nations of early twentieth-century Europe, as with Kafka, or
the postcolonial spaces of the age of multinational capitalism, as with
Jameson, the politics in question takes the quasi-systematic form of
the defence of the nation, of nationalism. Similarly, Kafka suggests a
striking relation between the national context, or lack of it, and the epistemological need for the political in order that thinking may connect up
with similar things:
Since people lack a sense of context, their literary activities are out of context too . . . Even though something is often thought through calmly, one
still does not reach the boundary where it connects up with similar things,
one reaches this boundary soonest in politics, indeed, one even strives to
see it before it is there, and often sees this limiting boundary everywhere.25

For Jameson, none of these cultures can be conceived as anthropologically independent or autonomous, rather, they are all in various
distinct ways locked in a life-and-death struggle with first-world cultural
imperialism.26 Third-world literatures can only be defined in a relation of dependence and thus of conflict. Kafka, for his part, writes in
October 1911, after his visit to the Yiddish theatre, of his desire to learn
more about Yiddish literature, which is obviously characterized by an
uninterrupted tradition of national struggle that determines every work.
A tradition, therefore, that pervades no other literature, not even that
of the most oppressed people.27 Two months later, in the December 25
entry, he notes that the pride which a nation gains from a literature of
its own and the support it is afforded in the face of the hostile surrounding world could also be attributed to the literature of small peoples, by
contrast to great literatures:
There are, to be sure, fewer experts in literary history employed, but literature is less a concern of literary history than of the people, and thus, if
Fredric Jameson, Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,
Social Text, no. 15, Autumn 1986, pp. 6588.
Kafka, Diaries, vol. 1, p.194.
Jameson, Third-World Literature, p. 68.
Kafka, Diaries, vol. 1, p. 87.

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not purely, it is at least reliably preserved. For the claim that the national
consciousness of a small people makes on the individual is such that everyone must always be prepared to know that part of the literature which has
come down to him, to support it, to defend itto defend it even if he does
not know it.28

The notion of combative literatures thus suggests the idea of a collective movement: these literary spaces are engagedto a greater or lesser
extent, according to their degree of dependencein struggles for recognition which are both political and literary. This common inclination
is embodied in a distinct way in each writer hailing from such a literary
space, and can be found, in diverse forms, in every text. These are what
Jameson has interpreted as national allegories.
While Kafka distinguished between great and small, T. S. Eliot
referred to mature and immature literatures; Marcel Mauss opposed
young nations to ancient ones, but also finished to unfinished ones.
Drawing on Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari have proposed a distinction
between what they call minor and major literatures; Jameson, as we
have seen, distinguishes third-world literatures from those of the first;
Franco Moretti, following Immanuel Wallerstein, uses a three-part division: literatures of the centre, those of the periphery and those of the
semi-periphery. My World Republic of Letters proposed a distinction
between dominant and dominated literatures, or between autonomous
and heteronomous ones. On consideration, however, perhaps the most
important opposition is between combative literatures and pacified or
non-engaged ones.
The study of literary nations and nationalisms would not be worth much
if it did not aim at the interpretation of literature on a global scale, and
not just the understanding of particular cases. It is by pursuing research
at this level that we can grasp the importance of national belief in texts
often presumed to have little connection with the history and tradition
from which they spring, and whose meaning has thus remained obscure.
Mausss study of the history of the nation was similarly undertaken
in the light of its global extension. But he counterposed cosmopolitan
utopianism to the realist utopia of internationalism. Cosmopolitanism
was a current of ideas and even of facts which really tend towards the

Kafka, Diaries, vol. 1, pp. 1923.


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destruction of nations and the creation of a moral order where they

would no longer be the sovereign authorities, creators of the law. By
contrast, internationalism would be the opposite of cosmopolitanism:
It does not deny the nation. It situates it. Inter-nation is the opposite of
a-nation. Consequently it is also the contrary of nationalism, which isolates
the nation. Internationalism, if we can grant this definition, is the totality
of collective ideas, sentiments, rules and groupings which have as their goal
to conceive of and direct relations between nations and between societies
in general.29

This essay has proposed a literary internationalism in Mausss sense,

which allows for nationalist belief both to be taken into account and to be
superseded in a relational and universal conception of world literature.

Translated by Nicholas Gray

Mauss, La Nation, pp.6301.