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The Rhetoric of National Character:

A Programmatic Survey

Joep Leerssen
Modern European Literature, Amsterdam

Abstract This article studies the notion of ‘‘national character’’ as it is formulated

in literature and as it influences literary praxis. Starting from the insights of image
studies or ‘‘imagology’’ (a comparatist specialism developed over the last five decades,
mainly in France and Germany), national thought, as one of the most pervasive and
enduring cultural ideologies, should be critically and systematically studied in its lit-
erary manifestation. In order to propose an agenda for such a study, I survey the
existing constructivist and structuralist literary practice, drawing two general con-
clusions: () It is possible to make an analytical distinction, based on cogent textual
observation, between the discursive registers of factual reporting and stereotyping.
That distinction revolves not only around the commonplace nature and intertextual
dissemination of certain characterizations but also around the individual text’s strate-
gies of characterization: the quasi-psychological (‘‘character’’-based) motivation that
a given text may adduce for cultural patterns, and the way a text constructs salient
features concerning a given nation as ‘‘typical’’ or ‘‘characteristic.’’ () ‘‘Deep struc-
tures’’ in national stereotyping, involving the construction of binaries around oppo-
sitional pairs such as North/South, strong/weak, and central/peripheral, should be
addressed diachronically and historically. The end result of such (historically vari-
able but unfalsifiable) stereotypical oppositions is that most imputed national char-
acteristics will exhibit a binary nature, capable of attributing strongly contradictory
characteristics to any given national group (‘‘is a nation of contrasts’’). I propose that
national stereotyping be studied at a more fundamental level as a pattern of Janus-
faced ‘‘imagemes,’’ stereotypical schemata characterized by their inherent tempera-
mental ambivalence and capable of being triggered into different actual manifesta-

Poetics Today : (Summer ). Copyright ©  by the Porter Institute for Poetics and
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268 Poetics Today 21:2

On the basis of these insights, it must be possible to move from textual analysis and
intertextual inventory to a pragmatic/rhetorical study of national characterization
and national stereotyping, taking into account a text’s audience function. This ambi-
tion (i.e., to address the dynamics of national stereotyping as a historical, audience-
oriented praxis rather than as a textual feature) raises a challenge of its own, largely
revolving around the hermeneutic and/or historical distance between a text’s prove-
nance and its audience; but some possible ways to address that challenge are also

Literature, like real life, is suffused with problems of national identity and
national confrontation. Such matters make themselves felt, either in explic-
itly thematized or in subtly (or insidiously) implicit form, from Shakespeare
to Thomas Mann and from Dostoyevsky to Yehuda Amichai, from Luther
to Mussolini and from Tomáš Masaryk to Nelson Mandela. The question
of cultural, national, and ethnic identity is particularly noticeable in the
field of literature, which of all art forms is most explicit in reflecting and
shaping the awareness of entire societies and which often counts as the very
formulation of that society’s cultural identity. Actors in literary texts are
often characterized, both in their appearance and in their narrative role,
according to conventions and indeed stereotypes regarding their national
background; the local and international spread and reception of literary
texts takes place in a process frequently marked by the force play of national
likes or dislikes, while in the polysystem of world literature as well as in the
academic discipline of literary studies, the category of nationality occupies
a paramount, but by no means unproblematic, taxonomical status. Even so,
literary studies, to the extent that they have often concentrated primarily
on the aesthetic function and formal or poetic aspects of literary texts, have
tended to turn their attention to other matters than the role of literature in
national or ethnic stereotyping, or the role of such stereotyping in literature.
However, political and ideological developments over the last two de-
cades (involving the reemergence of nationalism in Eastern Europe, the
rise of Euro-skepticism in Western Europe, and the intensification of ‘‘iden-
tity politics’’ in our increasingly multicultural societies) have given fresh
urgency and relevance to the study of national and cultural identity con-
structs and stereotypes. As a result, the study of literature is now increas-
ingly preoccupied with cultural stereotyping and identity constructs, espe-
cially in the fields of postcolonial and feminist criticism; a similar trend is
noticeable in the adjacent field of cultural history. It is a good time to take
stock and to draw attention to the existence of a specialization of long stand-
ing within comparative literature, ‘‘imagology’’ or image studies, which
deals with the discursive and literary articulation of cultural difference and
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Leerssen • The Rhetoric of National Character 269

of national identity; and to assess the insights and possible future develop-
ments of this specialism. A promising perspective seems to be indicated by
the ‘‘pragmatic turn’’ that has been making its presence felt of late in literary
studies and that increasingly sees the dynamics of literary representation in
terms of its audience function.1

From Typological Inventories to Structural Analysis

For the best part of this century, literary scholars have addressed themes
such as ‘‘Spaniards as represented in English literature’’ or ‘‘French views of
Germany.’’ 2 The value of such earlier thematically oriented surveys varies.
They are often based on a diligent and exhaustive search through the pri-
mary literary record and as such still have a bibliographical value; but in
many cases they do not problematize the subjectivity of their literary source
material or reflect on their a priori assumption that their investigation ad-
dresses what is believed to be a preexisting, autonomous and objective thing
called ‘‘nationality,’’ which is in the second instance represented, manipu-
lated, or distorted in literary mimesis.
From the midcentury onward, however, comparatists in the wake of
Marius-François Guyard have become increasingly aware that the literary
sources with which they dealt were not merely a record of the ‘‘representa-
tion’’ of a given nationality but, rather, constituted a cultural praxis articu-
lating and even constructing that nationality.3 In other words, imagology

. In what follows, I limit myself largely to a very specific set of cases in collective stereo-
typing: national stereotypes within Western Europe. To be sure, the patterns and features
addressed here can also be registered in other forms of collective stereotyping: ethnic-racial
imagery both within Europe and regarding other parts of the world (indeed, the distinc-
tion between ‘‘nation’’ and ‘‘race’’ in stereotyped thought is never clearly defined), as well as
other collectivities (e.g., sexual stereotyping).Witness the ‘‘gendered’’ nature of many national
stereotypes, or the degree to which patterns of national-ethnic denigration resemble each
other whether they are applied in an intra-European or colonial context; in both regards, the
image of Ireland provides a case in point (see Cairns and Richards ). However, while
there are clear parallels, there are also differences. Not wishing to introduce additional vari-
ables and different contexts into the limited scope of this introductory survey, I have restricted
my examples to the mutual perceptions of Western European nations, leaving the wider ap-
plicability of the findings open for now.
. On the early history of such studies, see generally Fischer . A searchable bibliographi-
cal database of such studies is in the process of being posted on the Internet, at www.hum.uva.
. To be precise: when I refer to nation and its derivations, I exclude the usage where the term
refers to a state or polity (as with expressions such as ‘‘United Nations,’’ ‘‘the national debt,’’
or ‘‘the national football team’’); as to the analytical need for that distinction, see Roobol
, especially . Nationality is used, therefore, not in the sense of ‘‘citizenship’’ but rather
in the sense given by the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘‘national quality or character’’; ‘‘in litera-
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ture, art, etc., the quality of being distinctively national’’; ‘‘a national trait, characteristic, or
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270 Poetics Today 21:2

moved into a constructivist paradigm. It was seen that stereotyped markers

of national identity were invoked as shorthand ciphers for collective literary
characterization in the narrative assignation of actorial role patterns; that in
the cross-national dissemination of literary texts and themes, the reception
of ‘‘foreign’’ influences was filtered through a priori assumptions of national
character; and that in the various instances of texts describing a given
nation’s ‘‘character,’’ their relations were predominantly of an intertextual
nature. Comparatists came to refer to national images not as mimetic rep-
resentations of empirical reality but as objets discursifs (e.g., Lipiansky ,
in phraseology borrowed loosely from Foucault) or as ‘‘objects of World-’’
(e.g., Dyserinck , following the ontology of Karl Popper).
This shift in image studies—away from a thematological inventorizing
of text instances and toward an investigation of the complex links between
literary discourse, on the one hand, and national identity contructs, on
the other—was not often sufficiently appreciated at the time. For René
Wellek (), imagology was a form of literary sociology that only dis-
tracted from the true goal of literary studies, the formulation of a theory of
literariness; for others who, in the wake of Hans-Robert Jauss, thought that
the entire national paradigm in literary studies was outmoded and obso-
lete (Jauss , ; Fokkema ), imagology was the futile flogging of
dead horses. Both critiques are shortsighted: the discursive fabric of nation-
ality constructs was not as extraneous to literary praxis or literary art as
the cosmopolitan idealist Wellek would like to believe, and the fact that
scholars have now transcended an old nationally based ‘‘paradigm’’ in their
theory does not retroactively annul the presence of national thought, over
many centuries, as an active, shaping force in literary and cultural history at
large. However, although such critiques were refuted (Dyserinck  and
Prawer : –, against Wellek; and Gsteiger , against Jauss), and
although the interest in comparatist imagology was kept alive—largely by
comparatists around the Belgian scholar Hugo Dyserinck and his depart-
ment at Aachen University—image studies was at best a marginal pursuit
in the worldwide field of literary studies during the s and s. Its re-
vival from  onward was triggered by the realization that the ideology
of nationalism, and the underlying psychologisms of ethnic prejudice and
national thought, were as present, and as potentially virulent, as they had
always been; additionally, there was an upsurge of interest in image for-

peculiarity.’’ In this sense, the term is an extrapolation and, as such, close to the notion of
‘‘culture’’ as used in the social sciences: ‘‘Culture is not a real thing, but an abstract and purely
analytical notion. In itself ‘it’ does not ‘cause’ behavior, but denotes an abstraction from it,
and is thus neither normative nor predictive but a heuristic means towards explaining how
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people understand and act upon the world’’ (Baumann ).

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Leerssen • The Rhetoric of National Character 271

mations and identity constructs in the adjacent scholarly field of cultural

history (Leerssen b).
Meanwhile, however, imagologists had made progress and had moved
the study of national stereotypes in literary discourse from the inventory
of their constituent elements into the analysis of their structural makeup.
National stereotypes were no longer studied as Stoffgeschichte but were con-
sidered in their structural interconnections and occurrence. One key insight
that helped to move the study of images out of the inventory of particular
cases and into a structural analysis was the realization, formulated around
the mid-s, that national characterizations take place in a polarity be-
tween self and Other and that the dynamics between ‘‘auto-image’’ and
‘‘hetero-image’’ tends to show invariant dynamics in various different na-
tional or cross-cultural confrontations.
From that point onward, the study of national stereotypes could move be-
yond merely inventorying the ‘‘vocabulary’’ of national prejudice in differ-
ent texts and turn to its ‘‘grammar.’’ This shift was also made possible by an
enhanced appreciation of the historical development of national thought.
Until well into the s, national thought was considered either in ahis-
torical terms (as the manifestations of a categorical essence in the human
collective) or else in a very crude historical periodization (as something that
appeared, more or less out of nowhere, with Romanticism). Studies of na-
tionalism in political and intellectual history, pioneered by Hans Kohn and
Isaiah Berlin and further bolstered by scholars like Elie Kedourie, Ernest
Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, and Otto Dann, pointed the way toward a more
refined long-term periodization, while conferences during the s and
s provided occasions for scholars working in different periods to col-
late their findings.4 Thus, a more properly historical analysis of ethnic and
national stereotypes is now possible in the light of an emerging long-term
historical understanding of their different manifestations at various periods
in European literature.

Structural Patterns 1: A History of National Characterization

Collating various historical typologies of national confrontations and image

developments makes it possible to outline a generalized longue durée peri-
odization of the development of national characterization in European lit-
erary history. That process may be summarized as follows:

. Dann ; Gellner ; Hobsbawm ; Kedourie ; Kohn , . Among the
conference proceedings that have proved of seminal importance are Blaicher ; Dyser-
inck and Syndram , ; and, more recently, Barfoot ; Beller ; and Montandon
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, as well as Berding  and Giesen .

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272 Poetics Today 21:2

A. Ethnocentrism dates back as far as our records reach and appears to

be present in all human societies; likewise, there is a long-standing readi-
ness to register and reflect on the fact that humanity is divided into ethni-
cally or tribally distinct societies with different cultural patterns and values.5
However, a systematically diversified and particularized assignation of
characters to specific ethnic groups (as opposed to incidental instances of
finger-pointing and name-calling) appears in European written culture
only during the early modern period. In the course of the late sixteenth cen-
tury and the seventeenth century, a systematization took shape in European
attitudes toward nationality, whereby character traits and psychological dis-
positions were distributed in a fixed division among various ‘‘nations.’’ This
process was most clearly visible in neo-Aristotelian poetical writings in the
wake of Scaliger and had stratified into a regular taxonomy of national char-
acterization by the midcentury, as can be seen from Jules de La Mesnar-
dière’s Poétique of . La Mesnardière’s extensive list of national character
attributes (prescribing how the playwright should characterize Germans,
Spaniards, Italians, etc.) is a locus classicus that has by now been frequently
commented upon.6
What made this poetic distribution of national characterization impor-
tant was that it took place alongside parallel developments that gave new
and added meaning to the concepts of ‘‘nation’’ and ‘‘character.’’ ‘‘Charac-
ter,’’ until then largely understood in the Theophrastic sense as the appear-
ance or gestalt of an individual or social type, came to be seen more and
more in the sense of essential nature and combines the two senses into the
meaning that is still current nowadays: a fundamental predisposition that moti-
vates behavior. ‘‘Character’’ became that inherent personality blueprint that
offers a psychological underpinning and causation (and hence an interpre-
tative frame of reference) for behavior and acts (you act like this because you
are like that). When applied to nations and other collective human groups,
this notion of character adds to the Aristotelian notion of the proprium (a core
property, common to every member of a species and differentiating that
species from its nonmembers) the overtones of psychological motivation.
This psychological meaning of the term character as ‘‘motivating essence’’
is to some extent a seventeenth-century development and arises alongside

. At least as far as the Old Testament and ancient Greece (regarding which, see Hall ;
Hartog ); for a majestic study of the enduring influence of the ethnic tables in Genesis X–
XI, see Borst ; or, to look in a different direction, we may find traces of ethnocentrism
in the vocabulary of tribal in-group formations, as Emile Benveniste () has suggested for
the Indo-European root *arya.
. By Stanzel , ; Zach . For a more extensive analysis of seventeenth-century
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developments, see Leerssen b.

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Leerssen • The Rhetoric of National Character 273

neo-Aristotelian poetics, with their insistence that the acts and occurrences
of the muthos should be properly motivated by the personality and disposi-
tion of the actors.7
B. Likewise, in the same period, the term nation began to acquire a more
specific and politically meaningful charge (see generally Dann ). Am-
biguously hovering between a sociological meaning (‘‘commoners’’) and an
ethnic or racial one (‘‘an ethnically distinct society sharing common cul-
ture and descent’’), ‘‘nation’’ became more and more the category of human
aggregation that linked culture and polity. For enlightenment philosophy,
nations (defined and characterized as such by their respective ‘‘national char-
acters’’) became an increasingly important taxonomical category—witness
Giambattista Vico’s Principi di una scienza nuova d’intorno alla natura delle nazioni
(), Montesquieu’s L’esprit des lois (), Hume’s essay ‘‘Of National
Characters’’ (), or Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations ().
With Johann Gottfried Herder’s cultural philosophy, culture became the
defining principle of ‘‘nations’’ as the principal, most organic subdivision
of humankind, and with Rousseau, the ‘‘nation’’ and its volonté générale be-
came the sole legitimate and sovereign mandate giver for state power. The
consensus of the Enlightenment attitude toward national character is per-
haps best summed up by the entry, in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie,
under ‘‘caractère des nations,’’ where a contrastive list of national particu-
larities is drawn up on the basis of clichéd commonplaces in order to define
the European moral landscape:
National characters are a certain habitual predisposition of the soul, which is
more prevalent in one nation than in others (even though that predisposition
need not be encountered with all the members of such a nation). Thus the char-
acter of the French is their airiness, gaiety, sociability, their love of their kings
and of the monarchy as such, etc. Each nation has its particular character; it is
a sort of proverb to say: airy as a Frenchman, jealous as an Italian, serious as a
Spaniard, wicked as an Englishman, proud as a Scot, drunk as a German, lazy
as an Irishman, deceitful as a Greek.8

. See also Genette , who likewise draws on La Mesnardière (among others) to illus-
trate the importance of psychological (characterological) motivation for the purposes of neo-
Aristotelian vraisemblance. The development of the notion of character during this period is
admirably charted by Louis Van Delft ().
. Encyclopédie, s.v. ‘‘caractère,’’ subentry ‘‘caractère des nations.’’ In the original: ‘‘Caractère
des nations consiste dans une certaine disposition habituelle de l’âme, qui est plus commune
chez une nation que chez une autre, quoique cette disposition ne se rencontre pas dans tous les
membres qui composent la nation. Ainsi le caractère des François est la légèreté, la gaieté, la
sociabilité, l’amour de leurs rois & de la monarchie même, &c. Chaque nation a son caractère
particulier; c’est une espèce de proverbe que de dire, léger comme un françois, jaloux comme
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un italien, grave comme un espagnol, méchant comme un anglois, fier comme un écossois,
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C. The nineteenth century is the heyday of national thought. Under the

impact of philosophical idealism, the concept of ‘‘character’’ once again
shifted and was promoted from the status of ‘‘temperamental and motiva-
tional predisposition’’ to the ontological status of a Platonic Idea, an in-
forming Geist. From Fichte and Hegel onward, it was felt that each state
should incorporate the nationality or Volksgeist of its inhabitants and that
therefore the state should be based on the organic unity, solidarity,
and homogeneity of its constituent nation.9 Meanwhile, the comparative
method in philology and ethnology had, on the basis of Franz Bopp’s
and Jacob Grimm’s successes in comparative linguistics, obtained a far-
reaching impact on attitudes toward human diversity. Herder’s cultural
philosophy was taken to ‘‘scientific’’ extremes, and cultural difference was
stratified into a biological ‘‘family tree’’ model of descent and genotype,
classing languages and literatures into the ethnic vocabulary of ‘‘Ger-
manic,’’ ‘‘Slavic,’’ ‘‘Celtic,’’ ‘‘Semitic,’’ and so on.10 The conflated vocabu-
lary of race and culture helped to lay the basis for a virulent ideology of the
nation-state and of the ethnic-racial purity of the state’s citizenry.
As part of the same trend, nationality became a touchstone for literary
praxis: literature became less and less the cosmopolitan pursuit of written
culture in a transnational Republic of Letters, and more and more the mani-
festation of the nation’s character by means of verbal art. Literature was
seen by nineteenth-century philologists as the very speech of the Volksgeist,
and literary artists felt that the highest artistic pinnacles were to be achieved
only by an organic commitment to one’s traditions and culture.11
D. In the present century, finally, national characterization, having be-
come one of the commonplaces of Western thought and writing, has gained
an added twist: its ironic usage. Further on in this article I shall have more
to say on the topic of the relation between irony and commonplace or (in
particular) national stereotype. Suffice it at this point to say that national
characters, if they are used by modern authors such as E. M. Forster or
Thomas Mann, are often deployed in a backhanded way, as manifestations
of the mock security of their bemused characters. Authors tend to be ironi-
cally equivocal as to whether the national characteristics they invoke are to

ivrogne comme un allemand, paresseux comme un irlandois, fourbe comme un grec.’’ The
definition follows the general definition of character as a disposition habituelle de l’âme.
. This is why Karl Popper (), in his Open Society and Its Enemies, decries Hegel as the
philosopher of ‘‘the new tribalism.’’ See also Leerssen a.
. Cf. MacDougall ; Stepan ; Davies ; and Augstein .
. For philology as the study of the national character as expressed through its language and
literature, see the nineteenth-century quotations given in Dyserinck : –; Kedourie
: –; Davies ; Werner . An example of a literary artist following the agenda
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of national commitment is the early W. B. Yeats (cf. Leerssen ).

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Leerssen • The Rhetoric of National Character 275

be taken seriously or as a jocular reference to trite commonplace (Leerssen

d). It should be pointed out, perhaps, that if such stereotypes are used
half-mockingly, they are by the same token also used half-seriously, and that
they at least acknowledge and reinforce the currency of the prejudice they
claim to transcend.

Structural Patterns 2: A Grammar of National Characterization

The attribution of characteristics to national or ethnic groups appears in

many cases to obey structural rather than case-specific patterns. That is al-
ready obvious from the banal and famous example of stupidity jokes: the
same set of jokes involving extraordinary stupidity are told featuring Bel-
gians (in Holland or France), East Frisians (in Germany), Newfoundlanders
(in Canada), Irish people (in England), or Kerrymen (in the rest of Ireland).
The attribution of stupidity is obviously not derived from a cogent case-
specific observation concerning the group in question but determined by
the need to predicate an actorial role on an available group. The insight
that national characterization takes shape in the interplay between an auto-
image and a hetero-image was a vital first step in the process of looking
at such stereotypes in terms of their grammatical patterning rather than
merely in terms of their ‘‘vocabulary’’ (what they said about whom).
Whether Germans are portrayed like this or like that, whether the char-
acter of Flemings or Spaniards is seen in one modality or another, is vari-
able, and in its variability it seems to be determined not by empirical reality
(how people purportedly or allegedly ‘‘really are’’) but rather by the way in
which the discourse regarding them is constructed. In the eighteenth cen-
tury, Englishmen are depicted as suicide-prone splenetics; the next century
sees them as unflappable, self-controlled phlegmatics with a ‘‘stiff upper
lip.’’ Germany for Madame de Staël is a country of tender individualism,
metaphysical and musical sensibility, and romantic idyll; one century later,
the imagery is dominated by Krupp engineers, scientists, and bemonocled
Prussian officers.
This poses the intriguing question as to what governs such discursive
shifts and volatility. Indeed, structural or at least invariant factors can be ex-
trapolated from the changeable mechanism of character attribution. I will
briefly present, by way of example, three of them: the invariant opposition
between South and North, between strong and weak, and between central
and peripheral.
A. The opposition between North and South activates an invariant array
of characteristics regardless of the specific countries or nations concerned.
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Any North-South opposition will ascribe to the northern party a ‘‘cooler’’

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temperament and thus oppose it to its ‘‘warmer’’ southern counterpart.

The oppositional pattern ‘‘cool North/warm South’’ further involves char-
acteristics such as a more cerebral, individualist, more rugged, less pleasing
but more trustworthy and responsible character for the northern party, as
opposed to a more sensual, collective, more polished, more pleasing but
less trustworthy or responsible character for the southern party. Democ-
racy, egalitarianism, a spirit of business enterprise, a lack of imagination
and a more introspective, stolid attitude are northern; aristocracy, hier-
archy, fancy, and extrovert spontaneity are characteristic of the South. This
opposition will be encountered wherever a European North-South com-
parison is made: between Denmark and Germany, between Germany and
Italy (thus in Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger), between England and the Con-
tinent (Charlotte Brontë’s Villette), between France and Spain. Moreover,
the North-South opposition can work in intranational, regional terms as
well as between countries: the same array is activated in the opposition be-
tween Prussia and Bavaria (already in Mme de Staël’s De l’Allemagne []),
between northern Italy and Sicily (witness Giovanni Lampedusa’s Il gatto-
pardo), between Yorkshire and Surrey (as in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and
South, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, or Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End), be-
tween Paris and the Midi (Alexandre Dumas’s Le comte de Monte-Cristo).12
As result, any given point on the European map can be contradicto-
rily constructed as ‘‘northern’’ or ‘‘southern’’; any given country, region,
or nation can be juxtaposed either with a northern or a southern counter-
part and can accordingly be invested with contradictory sets of character-
istics. Flanders, when seen from a Dutch perspective like that of Anton van
Duinkerken (), is ‘‘southern’’ and hence full of ebullient, sensual quali-
ties: its Catholicism is that of Breughel and Rubens, its cuisine and feasts
are collective explosions of joie de vivre. The same region, when viewed
from a French perspective, is ‘‘northern’’ and hence full of mystical, quiet
introspection; its Catholicism is that of Jansenism, of the silent béguinages of
Bruges and Ghent, of the meditative paintings of the Van Eyck brothers; its
cuisine is that of beer rather than wine, its landscape a rain-sodden coastal
plain (see Dyserinck ). Similar contradictory characterizations, which
are obviously governed by the contextualization as ‘‘northern’’ or ‘‘south-
ern,’’ can be found for almost any European region or nation between Lap-
land and the Maghreb.
B. The second structural factor is that of weak versus strong. Images of

. This pattern has been operative for a long time in the European imagination and de-
rives from a link between temperament (in the old humoral sense) and climatological circum-
stances, which can be traced back as far as Hippocrates. An exemplary case study of such
Tseng 2000.5.22 09:29

climatological temperament attribution is Zacharasiewicz .

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Leerssen • The Rhetoric of National Character 277

powerful nations will foreground the ruthlessness and cruelty associated

with effective power, while weak nations can count either on the sympa-
thy felt for the underdog or on that mode of benevolent exoticism that
bespeaks condescension. Spain as a world power in the seventeenth cen-
tury provoked, throughout Europe, fear and disgust, and a strongly marked
discourse began to focus on matters like the Inquisition, the ruthless con-
trol of Crown and Church over the individual, and the genocidal policies
in the Americas. The specific allegations of cruelty featured in this leyenda
negra could by the late seventeenth century be transferred wholesale to simi-
lar allegations concerning France,13 while the Spanish decline from world
power and its occupation by Napoleonic France made it possible for a more
romanticized image to emerge: the Spain of castanets, bullfights, balmy
evenings, and colorful passions schematized in Washington Irving’s Sketches
from the Alhambra or Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen. Thus, an amelioration of a
given image is made possible by a decline in political power. The converse
process can be charted with regard to Germany, which, in the rosy-tinted
representation of Mme de Staël, has all the charms of a politically weak
country, while the Germany of the Wilhelminian period has all the repul-
sive hallmarks of efficiency, power, and ruthlessness. In other words, it is as
if during the nineteenth century Spain and Germany swapped actorial roles
as one nation declined and the other rose in international stature (Leerssen
C. Specific sets of attributes are activated if a nation or region is con-
structed as central or peripheral. Centrality carries with it the connotation
of historical dynamism and development, whereas peripheries are stereo-
typically ‘‘timeless,’’ ‘‘backward,’’ or ‘‘traditional.’’ It is a commonplace to
say of remote corners that they have been ‘‘bypassed by history’’ or that
‘‘time has stood still here.’’ In our chronotopical view of the world, journey-
ing away from the centers of societal activity means metaphorically jour-
neying backward in time. This may apply to exotic extra-European travel
descriptions or to ethnographical commonplaces that certain remote tribal
societies ‘‘still live in the Stone Age,’’ or it may apply to the view that the
provincial countryside moves more slowly and is ‘‘closer to nature,’’ as op-
posed to metropolitan ‘‘life in the fast lane.’’ The entire genre of the rustic
novel, from George Sand to Thomas Hardy to Marcel Pagnol and Graham
Swift’s Waterland, partakes of this commonplace as much as the topos in

. Lurid Dutch descriptions of cruelty could ascribe the same standard set of horrid acts
to Spaniards (Spaensche Tyrannye) in the early seventeenth century, to the French in the late
seventeenth century and most of the eighteenth (Franse Hranny), and incidentally (in )
to the English (Engelsche Heranny); the process of transference obviously follows closely the
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development of political hegemonistic threats as felt in Holland. Cf. Beening .

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278 Poetics Today 21:2

late Victorian adventure romances that explorations into the undiscovered

corners of the world may lead us to the remains of a still-persisting past:
the dinosaurs in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, the traces of a masonic
civilization founded by Alexander the Great in Rudyard Kipling’s Man Who
Would Be King, King Solomon’s mines in H. Rider Haggard’s book of that
title (Leerssen a).

Structural Patterns 3: The Ambivalence of the National Imageme

and Its Unfalsifiability

Having thus looked at national stereotypes as structural elements in a gram-

mar of characterization, it becomes interesting to return from the actorial
patterns to the actual actors in the multinational soap opera called Europe.
The various national characterizations attributed to the different nations
and countries of Europe turn out to be highly variable according to context,
historical moment, or discursive configuration. Whether a given nation is
configured as central or peripheral, northern or southern, threatening or
harmless, will call radically different predicates into play. Accordingly, we
see over time how the images of various nations are likely to undergo re-
markable oscillations and changes, some of which have already been men-
tioned (Spain, Flanders, Germany).
These changes do not occur by way of falsification. Old images are not
abrogated by new developments; they are merely relieved from their duties
pro tem. They remain subliminally present in the social discourse and can
always be reactivated should the occasion arise. Thus, the leyenda negra
image of Spain, after having been overtaken by Carmen-style sentimental-
izations for more than a century, could be reactivated to evoke the intol-
erant harshness of the Franco period. After a century of English imagery
centered around a phlegmatic dandy with a ‘‘stiff upper lip,’’ Churchillian
war propaganda in the period – could effortlessly reactivate a gruff
John Bull of eighteenth-century vintage.14
There are reasons why this should be so. Over time, as current stereo-
types are found inadequate, they are not so much canceled and forgotten as
giving rise to their very opposite. By the mid–eighteenth century, when the
hate-image of Irish brutes and rascals became threadbare among English
audiences, it was replaced by its very contrary: stereotypes of soft-hearted,
sentimental Irishmen. As a result, from ca.  onward, two contrary types
have become current: Irish rascals and brutes, on the one hand, and doe-
eyed ballad-singing dreamers, on the other (Leerssen ). Both can be
Tseng 2000.5.22 09:29

. Cf. Ben-Porat  for similar findings.

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Leerssen • The Rhetoric of National Character 279

activated according to the needs of the given situation (terrorist violence or

a folk music concert). Once such stereotypes are formulated, the texts in
question remain in currency long after the circumstances of their concep-
tion have passed; they are there to be read and will keep the imagery alive
for as long as they find readers. The choleric John Bull squires in Anthony
Trollope’s Barsetshire novels or Eliot’s Silas Marner are as much part of the
available discourse as the unflappable stiff-upper-lipped gentlemen such as
Phileas Fogg (in Jules Verne’s Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours) or John
Galsworthy’s Forsyte family.
The end result of such a historical process of old stereotypes giving way
to inverted new counterparts is one of strongly ambivalent imagery. The
available discourse concerning a given nation’s character tends to be highly
contradictory. The French are either Cartesian rationalists or passionate,
sanguine emotionalists. The Swedes are suicidally melancholic or rational
and sexually liberated. The Dutch are either staunch individualists defend-
ing personal liberty or moralistic pettifoggers maintaining strict social con-
trol over each other’s conventionality.
At this point, a deeper-seated pattern seems to emerge. Most national
images can, in all their contradictory manifestations, be collapsed into what
I term an imageme, a ‘‘blueprint’’ underlying the various concrete, specific
actualizations that can be textually encountered. I would suggest that ima-
gemes are typically characterized by their inherent ambivalent polarity. An
imageme is the bandwidth of discursively established character attributes
concerning a given nationality and will take the form of the ultimate cliché,
which is current for virtually all nations: nation X is a nation of contrasts. Thus,
Ireland’s imageme might be that of nonrational ebullience (be it in sen-
timental song or mindless aggression), Germany’s that of a penchant for
systematic abstractions (be it in the form of metaphysical systems or orga-
nizational efficiency).
National imagemes are defined by their Janus-faced ambivalence and
contradictory nature. They define a polarity within which a given national
character is held to move. As a result of their ambivalent polarity, their vari-
ous manifestations (national images such as we actually encounter them)
are highly impervious to historical obsolescence or desuetude. Once the
idea that Flemings are sensual, Irish are sentimental, or Germans are effi-
ciently systematic fails to meet with a given audience’s concurrence, the
effect will be that the opposite pole of the selfsame imageme is activated:
that of Flemish mysticism, Irish violence, or German musico-philosophical
abstraction, which is considered to complement rather than contradict the
stereotype in question.
Tseng 2000.5.22 09:29

In other words, the currency of a national attribute means it is tacitly ac-

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280 Poetics Today 21:2

companied, in the discursive tradition, by the latent presence of its possible

opposite. That is one of the reasons why the affirmation of national clichés
is so peculiarly suited to the trope of irony. If, in one possible definition,
we understand that an ironic utterance simultaneously asserts and denies
that which it proposes (‘‘What tender-hearted people the Germans are!’’),
then it will be obvious that irony calls into play radical ambiguities that are
well suited to the contradictory ambivalence of imagemes. Thus, the ironic
deployment of national stereotypes in twentieth-century novels (Forster on
England, Italy, and India is an obvious example, as is Mann on Germany)
seems to be rhetorically effective in part because it partakes of the ironic
potential that is inherent in cliché once its clichéd nature has become obvi-
ous.15 I shall suggest a further reason for the privileged relationship between
national stereotypes and irony toward the end of this article.

A Rhetoric of National Characterization (1): A Typology of the

Discourse of National Stereotype

National characterizations, like other stereotypes, function as common-

places—utterances that have obtained a ring of familiarity through fre-
quent reiteration. Their strongest rhetorical effect lies in this familiarity
and recognition value rather than in their empirical truth value. Historical
studies of discursive corpuses containing images concerning a given nation
concur in the finding that these corpuses have a high intertextual cohe-
sion; the remarkable concord of the semantic register of various images as
brought forward by individual texts is demonstrably the result of later texts
echoing, citing, or referring to earlier texts. Even when an author claims to
write from direct, empirical experience concerning the nation in question,
it will usually transpire that that experience was preceded by preparatory
reading on the topic. As Walter Lippmann ( []) put it in his seminal
work on public opinion, we read about the world before knowing it. Hence,
it can be argued that national images in their function as commonplaces
refer primarily not to the nation in question but to the currency of other,
previous images about that nation.
Imagologists have accordingly decided that national images and charac-
terizations should in the first instance be studied under precisely that aspect

. The work of Ruth Amossy on cliché, commonplace, and stereotype has already drawn
attention to the ironic potential of cliché—with, for a paradigmatic starting point, Flaubert’s
Dictionnaire des idées reçues (Amossy and Herschberg Pierrot ; Amossy and Rosen ).
This raises the fascinating question as to the precise point at which cliché becomes recogniz-
able as such and hence open to ironic deployment. It is obvious that this point is not reached
Tseng 2000.5.22 09:29

by all readers at the same time: irony often goes unrecognized.

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Leerssen • The Rhetoric of National Character 281

of their commonplace nature: the aspect of their intertextuality, recogniz-

ability, and vraisemblance. Rather than study Mme de Staël’s De l’Allemagne as
to its fidelity to a ‘‘real’’ Germany (to which access could be gained only by
way of other mediations and representations), imagologists have opted for
the more promising approach of studying such a text historically and inter-
textually against a whole tradition of texts dealing with Germany, starting
with Tacitus’s Germania and subsequently leading to the germanophilia of
French Romantics like Gérard de Nerval. It is from this intertext that the
functional effectiveness of Mme de Staël’s text can be assessed.
Perhaps this insight should also suggest an additional inference. If na-
tional characteristics work on the basis of vraisemblance rather than vérité (to
recall the neo-Aristotelian opposition), on the basis of the ease with which
readers can recognize the purport of a given text, then such recognizability
necessarily calls the comprehension of an audience into play. Much as in
the distinction between vraisemblance and vérité, the audience’s acceptance of
utterances as valid plays a cardinal role in the process of national image for-
mation, and a ‘‘pragmatic turn’’ may be in order to address the functioning
of national imagery in terms of audience recognition. National stereotyping
takes shape not just in the binary polarity between texts-that-represent and
nations-that-are-represented but also in the triangular situation of texts,
represented nations, and an audience’s Erwartungshorizont. It may be useful,
therefore, to progress from a grammatical, structural analysis of the dis-
course of national characterization toward a rhetorical, pragmatic analysis.
A necessary first step must be to define more clearly what we mean by the
discourse of national characterization and what distinguishes it from other
types and modalities of discourse (e.g., factual reporting or lyrical poetry).
To begin with, we must ask ourselves about the specific status of the liter-
ary genres in the field of national stereotyping. While that question (which
might otherwise raise the dreary specter of the definition of ‘‘literature’’)
can only be addressed in the broadest of terms, a few things are worth point-
ing out. Those discourses that traditionally count as the province of literary
studies (the novel, drama, poetry) are by no means the least important ones
when it comes to the formulation and dissemination of national stereotypes.
A number of reasons for this fact can be given. Since (as I have hinted when
speaking of the early modern development of the notion of ‘‘character,’’ and
as I shall further specify below) national characterization usually involves
the idea of the motivation of behavior, descriptions of national peculiari-
ties will often gravitate to the register of narrativity—exempla, myths, par-
ables, and jokes, as well as novels or drama. Accordingly, it is no surprise to
find that the systematization of national character in the seventeenth cen-
Tseng 2000.5.22 09:29

tury is to a large extent undertaken in metaliterary discourse, especially the

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282 Poetics Today 21:2

tradition of neo-Aristotelian poetics. More particularly, a study of authors

who have been active in both fiction writing and cultural criticism indi-
cates that national stereotyping is engaged in more freely under what Mann
(: ) called the ‘‘schützende Unverbindlichkeit der Kunst,’’ under the
cloak of fictive conventions and in the context of narrative characteriza-
tions rather than in nonfictional, referential prose.16 To put things bluntly:
national stereotyping is easier in a context that requires the reader’s willing
suspension of disbelief. In many cases, therefore, national stereotyping is
not merely a matter of affixing certain psychological traits to a given nation
or ethnic group but also the attribution of certain actorial roles to a certain
nationality within a narrative configuration. In all these cases, it is obvious
that analyzing the mechanism of national stereotyping must call into play a
certain amount of literary expertise on the scholar’s part (Leerssen d).
What is more, texts that enjoy the status of literary canonicity have a
longer shelf life and a more extended currency than other genres. The
national images formulated in literary texts (e.g., Shakespeare’s plays) will
therefore remain operative in the cultural system for a far more extended
period (and with all the added prestige of having been formulated by a
famous author) than instances from other, more ephemeral texts (geogra-
phies, political commentaries, etc.).
However, while the specificity of literary texts is beyond question, it is
not absolute. The discursive modalities peculiar to national stereotyping
(as opposed to, say, factual reporting, metaphysical meditation, or lyrical
evocation) are relatively genre-independent, and it is these modalities that
need to be pinpointed in order to focus on possible pragmatic analyses.Two
grounds for distinguishing the textual-discursive mechanics of stereotyp-
ing, as opposed to other forms of representation, may be summarized as
A. Stereotypes are concerned with explaining cultural and social pat-
terns from a purported character. Empirical reporting of verifiable facts
(‘‘Holland was one of the first European republics,’’ ‘‘Spain is a largely
Catholic country’’) is not in itself part of the stereotyping complex, even
though it may be deployed in a tendentious way. By contrast, national
stereotyping is specifically concerned not with reporting facts concern-
ing a given nation but with defining its character—in the aforementioned
motivational-temperamental sense of the term, the sense that emerged in
the course of the seventeenth century.

. Spiering () juxtaposes fictional and nonfictional writings of certain British authors
on the topic of national identity and comes to the conclusion that fiction allows for more
Tseng 2000.5.22 09:29

drastic affirmations than nonfiction.

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Leerssen • The Rhetoric of National Character 283

On the surface, this means that the discourse of national stereotyping

deals primarily in psychologisms, ascribing to nationalities specific person-
ality traits (witness, again, the ones listed by the Encyclopédie in the fragment
cited above: French gaiety, Italian jealousy, etc., all of them markers from
the realm of emotion and psychological temperament). More fundamen-
tally, a nation’s ‘‘character’’ in this sense is that essential, central set of tem-
peramental attributes that distinguishes the nation as such from others and
that motivates and explains the specificity of its presence and behavior in
the world. Thus, national stereotyping sets in when the utterances concern
in some way a psychologism or temperamental predisposition (the Encyclo-
pédie’s ‘‘habitual predisposition of the soul’’) and when the attributes predi-
cated to the nation are held to be typical and characteristic (‘‘more prevalent
in one nation than in others’’)—in other words: a psychological proprium.
This criterion allows us to leave factual sociological or historical obser-
vation out of our analysis and to include tendentious or stereotyped char-
acterizations. To state that Holland was one of the first European republics
is not in and of itself a matter of national stereotyping, but to imply or state
that this fact bespeaks a ‘‘typical’’ love of liberty in the Dutch ‘‘character’’ is.
To state that pragmatist philosophy is a stronger tradition in England and
idealistic philosophy a stronger tradition in Germany may be a valid obser-
vation in the field of the history of philosophical thinking and can be put to
the test by charting developments in the academic praxis of the countries
and their respective universities; to imply that the two nations in question
are somehow ‘‘characterized’’ by this fact, to accord this fact a symbolic
meaning in the field of collective psychologisms, is where factual report-
ing shades into national stereotyping (Leerssen ).17 It is obvious that
in actual practice the two descriptive registers are closely intertwined, and
their difference is much less obvious than what I propose here by way of an
analytical distinction.
B. National stereotyping works on the basis of what I have termed an
effet de typique (Leerssen c): the conflation between the salient and the

. Ben-Porat  furnishes an interesting case in point: whereas one would expect that the
‘‘hooked nose,’’ so prominent in anti-Semitic caricature, would function among contempo-
rary audiences as an obvious and unmistakable signal of anti-Semitic tendencies, in practice
this predicative connection proves to be fairly weak, and hooked noses by themselves can be
taken as attributes of widely different personality types. The anti-Semitic content is activated
only if the nose as a ‘‘category label’’ is associated with a stereotyped Jewish predicate, that is,
with a predicative psychologism. For this reason any pragmatic research on the connotations
of a given nationality or culture cannot afford to merely chart the connotations triggered by
the mere mention of a continental, national, or religious designation (Europe, Germany, Jew)
but must pay attention to its specific contextualization and narrative deployment—which
Tseng 2000.5.22 09:29

includes the genre conventions of the text of its occurrence; see also Ben-Porat .
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284 Poetics Today 21:2

representative. In stereotyping, qualities or features that are ascribed to a

given nationality are posited as typical of the nation in question, in a pecu-
liarly double sense of the term. On the one hand, ‘‘typical’’ (as in ‘‘I saw a
typically Spanish bullfight’’) means that a certain type (Spanish) is marked
and characterized and that the attribute or characteristic in question (bull-
fight) is representative of the type at large. On the other hand, typical means
that the attribute in question is salient, nontrivial, remarkable, and note-
worthy and that a bullfight is something that strikes the unwary observer
as something out of the ordinary. Thus, it may be true to say that Span-
iards do not practice polygamy, but it cannot be typical since (unlike bull-
fights) monogamy does not mark Spaniards as a distinct type, does not make
them stand out from the default value of European manners and customs.
Hence, the effet de typique, which canonizes salient features into represen-
tative propria, will account for the tendency in national characterization to
gravitate to the restricted register of caricature. Certain traits are singled
out and foregrounded because they are typical in both senses of the term:
they are held to be representative of the type, and they are unusual and
remarkable. Witness (to give trivial examples) English bowler hats, Dutch
wooden shoes, German lederhosen, or French berets. The effet de typique
is linked to the register of exoticism, which, as anthropologists have put it,
conflates the distinct and the distinctive (Foster ).
This mechanism can be observed even at the microlevel of single utter-
ances. The proposition [] ‘‘Spaniards are proud’’ is, as anyone will immedi-
ately recognize, a stereotype, whereas the proposition [] ‘‘Spaniards are
mortal’’ is a mere fact.Why are two similarly constructed propositions, both
straightforward affirmations, recognizably different? In proposition [], the
predicate mortal is nonsalient; the prevalence of mortality outside Spain (be
it among Italians, bacteria, flowers, computer programmers, horses, or an-
cient Babylonians) is not at issue. Once we realize this, we see the difference
with proposition [], which places the predicate proud in a privileged salient-
cum-representative relationship with the subject-class Spaniards. In effect,
proposition [] is shorthand for ‘‘The quality of pride is more remarkably
pronounced in Spaniards than elsewhere.’’ Thus, the effet de typique allows
us to distinguish the discourse of national stereotyping from other registers
or modes of discursive representation.

A Rhetoric of National Characterization (2):

The Pragmatics of Commonplace

Once the discourse of national stereotyping is properly specified in its

Tseng 2000.5.22 09:29

typology, we may approach an exciting task for the future: to assess its
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Leerssen • The Rhetoric of National Character 285

audience-function, its pragmatic functioning. Since stereotypes appear to

function primarily because of their intertextually established recognizabil-
ity, they can be properly described in the cognitive terms of schemata being
activated by triggers, and an entire dynamics of the way that certain texts
serve to affirm or deny current stereotypes, echo them or ironically sub-
vert them, contradict them or endorse them, becomes describable.18 What
is more, it becomes possible then to allow in our analysis for the fact that
one and the same text may for certain readers exemplify a type, whereas for
other readers it controverts it, while yet other readers may not even notice
this aspect.
An example of the possibilities opened by such a ‘‘pragmatic turn’’ lies
in the further elaboration of the ironic potential of stereotype deployment.
Not only does that ironic potential lie in the utterance that simultaneously
affirms and undercuts a proposition; more recent analysis has further speci-
fied the idea that this ironic duality results from a ventriloquistic quality
in the utterance, which, as Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson have put it,
‘‘mentions’’ rather than ‘‘uses’’ a given proposition. Irony, in that view, is
the mocking echo of a tacitly presupposed intertext of earlier, similar state-
ments (Sperber and Wilson ). This accounts, I propose (following Ruth
Amossy), for the fact that clichés, once they are established as such, be-
come peculiarly suited to ironic echoic mention, and it explains why so often
the deployment of national stereotypes will drift to the genre of caricature,
humor, and not-wholly-serious perpetuation. As Heinrich Plett () has
pointed out, the same typographical symbol that signals quotation can also
be used to signal ironic distance.19
Even the authors of the Encyclopédie were already aware that national
characters are schemata, intertextually established commonplaces, ‘‘une
espèce de proverbe.’’ But if we take the commonplace, conventional nature
of such characteristics to be a type of intertextuality, we should add that it is
of a problematic kind. For the intertextuality of cliché is peculiarly unspe-
cific. A textual utterance invoking or triggering a current ‘‘everyone knows’’
consensus as to the nature of a given nation does not need to involve any
specific source references to author X or description Y but rather refers to
an unspecified ‘‘discourse,’’ to a scheme, to general knowledge in the ab-

. An early example of this approach (albeit in text-analytical rather than empirical terms)
was given in Teeffelen .
. This tropological aspect of irony will overlap, in postromantic authors from Gustave
Flaubert and Thomas Hardy to Henry James and Thomas Mann, with that situational or
existential irony which is based on the awareness that all human expectations reflect simplistic
and limited worldviews and will be confounded by the chaotic complexities and intractable
Tseng 2000.5.22 09:29

confusion of real life. Cf. Leerssen d.

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286 Poetics Today 21:2

stract, or to received opinion, whose vague, textually unspecific nature is

indicated by the terminology one encounters: ‘‘collective memory,’’ ‘‘cul-
tural memory,’’ ‘‘cultural literacy,’’ or a ‘‘reader’s competence,’’ which rests
on the collective-anonymous hearsay of on-dit, discours préalable, discours so-
cial, opinion du public, or even ideolo/—all of them terms 20 that in fact boil
down to an acknowledgment of ignorance as to the precise textual prove-
nance and consistency of this intertextual referencing. What is activated is
neither empirically verifiable hard-core information about the real world
nor a textual construct linked to any specific source but rather a set of amor-
phous, inchoate notions that are widely known and current in their broad
flavor but unspecified as to clear authorship. Stereotypes and prejudices
may be defined by that very aspect: they are the kind of things we cannot
place as to where precisely we have learned them. They were infused into
our cultural literacy at an early, informal stage of our socialization process,
in early childhood, as part of texts that by themselves are ephemeral and
unmemorable ( jokes, comic strips, B movies, proverbs or turns of phrase,
publicity billboards or television shows). The schemata that remain in our
awareness as a residue of all these small, individually unmemorable cul-
tural socialization experiences are therefore unclearly source-anchored. At
best, the general schemata to which a cliché’s vraisemblance refers the pub-
lic can be exemplified by prominent representative texts or authors who
are individually specified—but only à titre d’exemple. Barring such pointers
(‘‘London that evening exuded a Dickensian lugubriousness’’), the prove-
nance of clichés (their currency as commonplaces, from which they obtain
their familiarity) is unspecific and vague.
The conclusion to be drawn is, as I see it, threefold. To begin with, prag-
matic analysis cannot be undertaken on the basis of incidental, individual
textual samples. If one wishes to get at all close to the proper discursive
contextualization of any given textual utterance in terms of the unspecific
discursive schemata that text activates, then one must attempt to inventory
as broad a corpus of intertextual connections as possible and to establish
a fairly inclusive corpus of other texts dealing with the character of the
nation in question. In other words: text-specific pragmatic analysis cannot
dispense with the working basis of a broad and inclusive inventory of re-
lated texts, and the historical typological gathering of the intertextual ‘‘tra-
dition’’ representing a given nation remains as important now as it was fifty

. Most of the terms will be encountered in Amossy and Rosen .The notion of a discours
social was coined by Duchet (). The interesting conjunction, between the goût du public as
a literary form of ideolo/ involving both bienséance and vraisemblance, on the one hand, and the
audience’s preexpectations as to how a world should be properly represented and motivated,
Tseng 2000.5.22 09:29

on the other, is made in Genette .

6104 Poetics Today / 21:2 / sheet 23 of 214

Leerssen • The Rhetoric of National Character 287

years ago.21 What is more, it is in this of all fields that literature, while play-
ing a role and obeying a set of conventions that are particularly its own, is
most closely intertwined with other forms of discourse. When contextual-
izing a literary text in its ‘‘social discourse’’ and in the tradition from which
it derives its national imagery, we should cast the net far and wide, reach-
ing from history writing to political discourse and from cultural criticism
to entertainment ‘‘pulp.’’
Moreover, it should be obvious that one cannot hypostatize all the vari-
ous possible reactions and scheme activations triggered by a given text into
an ideal-typical, generalized reader (‘‘the’’ Reader, with a capital R). The
contentious nature of many reactions triggered by texts like, for instance,
The Merchant of Venice or Heart of Darkness must indicate that different readers
will, on the basis of one and the same text with its substantially uniform
set of textual stereotypes, activate strongly divergent sets of schemata and
connotations. That divergence should not be seen as a complicating factor
in one’s research but rather as precisely the central issue that pragmatic-
rhetorical analysis, of all approaches, should hope to address. For it is in this
area that the most intriguing questions are still to be asked. For instance,
take the fact that the Encyclopédie, in its entry on national characters, should
point out that the French nation is characterized by its ‘‘love of their kings
and of the monarchy as such.’’ For a contemporary reader, such a statement
written on the eve of the French Revolution must raise a smile. But is the
irony a situational, unintended one, discernible only to latter-day readers
with their superior hindsight—merely a gratuitous piece of political piety
regarding that king known at the time as Louis le bien-aimé, which only in
subsequent decades was to develop its added ambiguity? Or is it a piece of
Voltairean sarcasm, intended to have the very barb that still raises our eye-
brows two centuries later? While that question is not in itself answerable in
any clear-cut fashion (except perhaps by dint of diligent historical contex-
tualization), it does point up the fact that such interpretations and possible
modalities of irony are by no means clear-cut. What is more, the histori-
cal distance between text and reader poses, in this of all topics, a major
As I indicated above, national characterization develops and changes
. For an example of such a compendious typological inventory, see Leerssen . One
may go further and voice the wish for a comprehensive bibliographical database listing all
existing imagological studies regarding national representations. Much material has been
gathered and collated by the Aachen Program around Hugo Dyserinck; and the bibliogra-
phy in Beller  goes some way toward meeting that requirement. It is envisaged that it, or
a similar database, will be posted on the Internet at Further initia-
tives in this direction are being contemplated by the Huizinga Institute, the Dutch National
Tseng 2000.5.22 09:29

Research Institute for Cultural History (www.hum.uva.hl/˜huizinga).

6104 Poetics Today / 21:2 / sheet 24 of 214

288 Poetics Today 21:2

over the centuries; as a result, a given utterance from  should not be
conflated with a similar utterance from , despite possible superficial
similarities. However, from a pragmatic, reader-based perspective, the texts
from  and  are in a sense contemporary in that they are both
simultaneously available in the here and now, albeit to a heterogeneously
composed readership. Some of us may choose to read earlier texts through
postmodern, ironic glasses; others cannot help but see the Shylock in Shake-
speare’s Merchant of Venice or the Fagin in Dickens’s Oliver Twist through
the intervening filter of anti-Semitic discourse of the period –; the
schemata triggered by Shakespeare and Dickens also include Der Mythus
des . Jahrhunderts and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This leads to re-
peated, anguished political controversies involving the mutually contradic-
tory principles of the inadmissibility of anachronism, on the one hand, and
the impossibility of transcending our own position in time and history, on
the other. Rather than wishing to explain the problem away or to ‘‘resolve’’
it, I feel that such factors should point us toward a more precisely informed
appreciation of the two contradictory modes of literary historicity: the his-
toricity of its production and of its reception (Leerssen ).
In addition, it may well be that we should add a third dimension to that
multiple historicity: not just the temporal order of literary production, or
the temporal order of literary reception, but also the temporal order of
readers’ literary socialization. While this process of ‘‘becoming a reader,’’ of
acquiring the various schematas and literacies that make up a reader’s com-
petence, cannot be reconstructed in detail, let alone generalized from the
available individual life-stories, certain patterns may be meaningful enough
for the purpose of informed pragmatic analysis. We may, by way of a work-
ing hypothesis, entertain the possibility that the acquisition of conventional
representations tends to precede that of counter-stereotypical representa-
tions—that an established set of children’s classics, from Enid Blyton to
Tintin and Astérix, will be of the sort to fix the conventional national at-
All these factors involve complexities that cannot be adequately an-
swered in the scope of this survey; a reception-oriented and reader-oriented
approach to national stereotyping, while it will complement the research
and insights gained heretofore, will also raise methodological and proce-
dural problems of its own. The audience function of stereotype cannot be
gained, I fear, from anecdotal empiricism dealing with decontextualized
in vitro reading experiences. A pragmatics of national stereotype is an ex-
. In this field, much is to be expected from future cooperation with developmental psy-
chologists and pedagogicians; witness the work of Martyn Barrett (; Barrett and Short
Tseng 2000.5.22 09:29

) and Emer O’Sullivan (, ).

6104 Poetics Today / 21:2 / sheet 25 of 214

Leerssen • The Rhetoric of National Character 289

citing future prospect for literary studies, but it is a departure that should be
added to, rather than replacing, the historical and text-grammatical study
of that discourse.


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