The Aesthetics and Politics of Belonging: National Poets between “Vernacularism” and “Cosmopolitanism”

TitleThe Aesthetics and Politics of Belonging: National Poets between “Vernacularism” and “Cosmopolitanism”
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsJuvan, Marko
Conference Name"Longing and Belonging." 6th Congress of the European Network of Comparative Literary Studies
Date Published08/2015
Conference LocationDublin & Galway
Keywordsnational identity, national poets, romanticism, world literature

Jameson’s thesis about national allegory of (post)modern Third-World literature is pertinent for the nineteenth-century First-World literature and its dialectics of “longing and belonging” because of two reasons. First, “longing” of writers-intellectuals, who recognized their subaltern position not only in their respective societies but also within the emerging world literary system, proves to be an aesthetic form articulating their libidinal investment in “belonging” to their nation’s imagined community. Second, since Linda Hutcheon taught us that literary historical narratives of postcolonial literatures often emulated their Western postromantic predecessors, it is reasonable to assume that, in literatures, too, allegorizing identity politics through aesthetic discourse has its roots in (post)romantic Western nationalism. Henceforth, the twentieth-century postcolonial “desire for national self-determination” (Hutcheon) echoes the same longing of peripheral national movements across nineteenth-century Europe. Their representative writers were also able to grasp their dependencies created by the asymmetries of the world-system.
Experiencing various facets of subalternity, the protagonists of the nineteenth-century national movements in East-Central and Northern peripheries of Europe understood their dependency on foreign imperial powers and ruling classes. Consequently, as subjects of national ideology whose transnational laws they were applying to a particular community in statu nascendi, they needed recognition of their subjecthood by the Other. Since they acted both as bearers and servants of nationalist ideology, their desire for being desired was split between two unequal Others. Firstly, the role of the Other was assigned to the imagined community of their proper nations. Secondly, their longing for being recognized was directed towards the universal, law-giving Other – the symbolic order of “generally European” normative cultural tradition. In the emerging inter-state and world-literature systems, it was core European powers that claimed possession of this cultural capital and thus figured as the only legitimate representatives of the symbolic universality of cultural values, such as aesthetic perfection, cultivated language, and well-developed media and institutional infrastructure.
Ever since the late eighteenth century, when First-World literatures began to produce national allegories, the newly invented figure of “national poet” (Nemoianu) started to play the role of an instrument calibrating the level of a particular national literature against canonic standards of world literature, classical and modern. From among a host of literary producers, the poets elevated as “national,” such as Schiller, Burns, Moore, Mickiewicz, Petőfi, Eminescu, Hallgrímsson, or Prešeren, had to meet at least two sets of expectations. They had to intervene importantly in the ideology and politics of a respective national movement, mainly through what Even Zohar calls “culture planning,” while their literary texts had to have topmost merits for the aesthetic cultivation of vernacular and the narration of nation. That is to say, for the ethnic community of their native country, the work of national poets, proving international standards of their literary language, articulated or invented the national past, pronounced national longing, and envisioned national future. National poets thus represented their respective nations in their need for recognition by the Other symbolized by the emerging space of world literature and empowered through the inter-state system dominated by core countries. It seems that European national poets, involved in politics of pre- or post-1848 national movements, generally showed anti-classicist vernacularist tendency (see Terian). Hence, oeuvre of several national poets tends towards creative emulation of folklore, expressive individual spontaneity, originality, historicist or antiquarian evocation of national past, and an openly political or satirical discourse. However, endeavoring to ennoble their vernacular and seemingly homegrown traditions, they paradoxically follow the transnational pattern – that of a national bard. In Nemoianu’s opinion, it was Germany, with Schiller and Goethe, that represented another model of national poet. It is based on the universality of the classical tradition merged with romanticism. Such a “cosmopolitan” and “affiliative” orientation (Terian) towards universal canon is also characteristic of Slovenian national movement and its national poet, France Prešeren (1800–1849). In Slovenian long nineteenth century, Prešeren was relevant as a figure of the singular “national classic” whose oeuvre compensates for the apparent lack of classical and modern traditions in Slovenian language and who is on par with the peaks of European hyper-canon. Slovenian cultural nationalism, backing Prešeren’s canonical afterlife, thus preferred to affiliate Slovenians to the values of the dominating Other, while sublimating the resulting inferiority complex in several defense mechanisms.

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