Sunday, January 9, 2011

such a man or what a man

I was trundling through Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism, when, on one of its five hundred and ten pages (ten more if you count the index), I came across this footnote, which stood out, dealing, as it did, with an idea different to the ideas on the rest of the page -- all of a sudden she was talking about writers --

The emancipation of nations from domestic rule and the overlordship of an international aristocracy [during the first decades of the 1900s] was accompanied by the emancipation of literature from the 'international' language of the learned (Latin first and later French) and the growth of national languages out of the popular vernacular. It seemed that peoples whose language was fit for literature had reached national maturity per definitionem. The liberation movements of Eastern European nationalities, therefore, started with a kind of philological revival (the results were sometimes grotesque and sometimes very fruitful) whose political function it was to prove that the people who possessed a literature and a history of their own, had the right to national sovereignty.

-- a point that struck me harder than it might have, because, a few days before, I'd seen Sue at the Whispering Gums blog discussing Katharine Susannah Pritchard's first book, The Pioneers, published in 1915. Pritchard was an Australian patriot at a time when the nation was still very young, and The Pioneers ends with a boy called Dan telling one of his parents about a conversation he's had with his grandmother:

"… she told me that my four grandparents were English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh. 'They have quarrelled and fought among themselves, but you are a gathering of them in a new country, Dan,' she said. 'There will be a great future for the nation that comes of you and the boys and girls like you. It will be a nation of pioneers, with all the adventurous, toiling strain of the men and women who came over the sea and conquered the wilderness ... You will be a pioneer too, Dan ... a pioneer of paths that will make the world a better, happier place for everybody to live in."

The newly independent countries of Europe fuelled their literary traditions with retellings of national myths and legends, in Finland the Kalevela, in Estonia the Kalevipoeg. Naim Frashëri, an Albanian writer who was so admired that the country later put his face on two banknotes, crowned his oeuvre with a epic poem about Albania's fifteenth-century hero-lord Skanderbeg.* Pritchard had to concoct her own myth -- Australia the purifier, fusing and healing the arguments of the old country. Corny or aspirational? is the question at Whispering Gums, but I think the answer is Necessary. Some circumstances justify unreasonable aspirations.

This man who had returned home could not remember any time in his life that had not been animated by his determination to become a man of importance; it was as though Ulrich had been born with this wish. It is true that such an urge may be a sign of vanity and stupidity; it is no less true, however, that it is a very fine and proper desire, without which there would probably not be many men of importance.

(Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, translated by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser)

The aspiration is not merely to become a country, but a country of importance; to have the aspiration itself is a kind of dignity, or dignity in its jelly or egg state, and no cornier than the child who wants to grow up and be Napoleon, and who, growing up, discovers that they will never be Napoleon. The "results" of that desire will be "sometimes grotesque and sometimes very fruitful."

The only snag was that he did not know either how one became such a man or what a man of importance was. In his schooldays he had taken Napoleon for one; this was partly out of youth's natural admiration for criminality, partly because his schoolmaster emphatically represented this tyrant … as the most tremendous evil-doer in history. The result was that as soon as he escaped from school Ulrich became an ensign in a cavalry regiment.

In Simon Ley's The Death of Napoleon, Napoleon himself failed to become Napoleon, and instead ended his life selling (if I'm remembering this rightly) melons.

* The independence and the literature didn't come at the same time. All of those examples date back to the 1800s.

The day after I made this post I came across Karolína Ryvolová writing about Romany literature on the Transcript website -- a young literature, she says, in an early stage of development. "The lack of any written canon is the reason why their current writing must be regarded as a literature in development, self-taught in many respects, meeting and grappling with many challenges and as yet striving towards literariness." The interesting thing -- in light of everything I've written above -- is that she tells us this young literature does not lean on myths.

Romany writing portrays convey the Romany people’s tradition of strong community bonds and reflect the disintegration and/or loss of these; they speak of age-old traumas such as persecution, both civil and during wars; they mourn the disappearance of traditional lifestyle and values, call for a stronger adherence to the concept of romanipen (‘being a Rom’), and simultaneously celebrate the vast opportunities of today, stressing the utmost importance of education ... Their primary function is to record and inform, not to enlighten spiritually ... The autobiographical aspect is still overwhelming, allowing little space for hyperbole ...

From this article you could conclude that a group's myths and stories are more likely to be written down by its litterateurs than by the "folk" whose oral traditions they are. An undercurrent: "the Roma need some litterateurs!" But then in a profile of Ilona Ferková she identifies oral storytelling as one of the "certain traditional values" that Roma writers like to incorporate in their work. The short Ferková story that she's chosen introduces us to a Roma man in a hard-luck modern setting; he sits down with another character and tells him a story. The author writes down the story as if she's transcribing him. Conkers is a written record of an oral tradition with a bit of a fictional preface added. But the story is not transformed in a literary way. (Define "literary" for the moment as "an event that can only take place in writing.") It is only an oral story that happens to have crept onto paper. (The fictional preface, with the invented character, leaves it half-shifted into the purely fictional or literary, but the transition is incomplete. The characters in the two halves of the story -- Conkers the oral tale-teller, and then the husband in the tale he's telling -- have different thicknesses; one is invented by a single author the other, denser, has been assembled by a multitude. The told character is more substantial than the teller.) So then Ryvolová's call for literary Roma can be reiterated.


  1. Fair enough, DKS. I can live with necessary. In fact, my emotional self prefers it.

    That said, aspirations can easily turn from profoundly positive to negative. I've just read The feast of the goat...

  2. Oh, ow. And the Lord of the Flies boys started off with good intentions too. Is it possible, I wonder, to have a nation (good or bad, however it ends up) without some myth-making groundwork in the background?