I noticed during the State of the Union the other week, how frequently the theme of economic nationalism was invoked (bringing jobs back home, rewarding companies who base their manufacturing here, etc.).
And judging from the polls afterwards, it worked -- across the political spectrum. This got me thinking about nationalism in general. If ideas about "the Nation" strike such a chord, how might they affect aesthetics?
In an essay in the latest New Left Review, literary historian Pascale Casanova argues that feelings about "national identity" are actually a central, if sometimes unconscious, element of literary production.
Even writers who eschew such identification, embracing a sort of cosmopolitanism, are only able to do so because of the confidence their national culture affords them. In other words, if you're a writer from an older literary cuture, one already respected on the world stage, you don't need to worry about your right to write.
But for nations just emerging, the driving aesthetic often has to do with discovering, refining and battling for a national identity. And making the case that one's own culture can stand, aesthetically at least, toe to toe with the giants.
One might imagine, by extension, that an important step in such aesthetic nationalism would involve fighting off the images cast upon your culture by the more powerful.
These ideas came to life for me as I was rereading a poem by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. Poland, as a national culture, is certainly in a state of (re)emergence, since it only recently has escaped (yet again) the domination of its aggressive neighbors.
Zagajewski's poem records the aesthetic after-shocks of such a history:
POEMS ON POLAND
I read poems on Poland written
by foreign poets. Germans and Russians
have not only guns, but also
ink, pens, some heart, and a lot
of imagination. Poland in their poems
reminds me of an audacious unicorn
which feeds on the wool of tapestries, it is
beautiful, weak and imprudent. I don't know
what the mechanism of illusion is based on,
but even I, a sober reader,
am enraptured by that fairy-tale defenseless land
on which feed balck eagles, hungry
emperors, the Third Reich, and the Third Rome.
The picture painted of Poland by more powerful nations here reminds me of Donald Lopez's classic book on the cultural history of Tibet, Prisoners of Shangri-La. In it, Lopez examines how that country has been portrayed in books (and skewed translations of Tibetan texts) by Western scholars, New Agers and explorers.
This "mystical kingdom" has been seen as everything from a utopia ("Shangri-La") to a sort of medieval slave state; its people portrayed sometimes as superstitious and even barbaric -- at others, deeply wise (if idealized) magicians. But like Poland, however Tibet is pictured, it generally ends up seeming like a place lost in the past and its own passivity. It's rarely an actor on the modern stage.
The Poetics of U.S. Nation Building
But the nationalist muse doesn't only inspire smaller, less powerful countries. As U.S. literature came into its own, as Casanova points out, it too competed on the stage of international cultural politics.
Throughout the 19th century, U.S. writers, in their own quest for cultural independence, saw themselves in competition with Britain. This nationalist impulse reached a high point in Whitman (who has been hailed as "America's Shakespeare"). As Casanova puts it:
"Walt Whitman's writings contain magnificent pages on the power, novelty and immensity of American verse, while the United States themselves constituted 'the greatest poem' of all."
It's amazing how such poetic nationalism persisted -- especially in view of how dominant the U.S. became by the mid 20th century. As late as the early 60s, for example, poet George Oppen criticized U.S. poets for looking away from their home soil -- and toward "the exotic arms of Zen" -- for inspiration. Oppen remarked that for his generation, developing a more homegrown poetics (Williams being the ground breaker here) was considered the radical position to take.
Why? "We grew up on English writing..." he wrote, and "the more open society [of the U.S.] made possible the literary career of the obviously non aristocratic spokesman who, once he tired of Invocation to Someone Else's Muse, had to make his own poetry."
Nevertheless, I'm not sure how appealing such ideas are for U.S. poetry anymore. A few years back, I remember attending literary events attempting to answer the question of "What's American about American Poetry" (as if few knew anymore).
But I wonder, if the national economic ideology shifts away from the globalism of the last 25 years or so, how might this affect poetry, or our aesthetics in general. Thoughts?