|Trans||Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften||15. Nr.||November 2003|
5.3. I First Learned about
Russia from Dostoievski. Literature as an Imaginary Way of
Understanding Another Country
Peter Horn (Pretoria) [BIO]
Human sciences, because they aspire to be "sciences" tend to treat humans and societies like timeless objects, and abstract from their rich variety and diversity by subjecting them to the abstractions of statistical means and other generalisations.
Yet our experience of individuals, groups, societies and nations is more like a narrative construction. Even ideas (like the Orient) have a story and a history. The most common form in which we tell such stories is in the form of praise poems, like the one which was written in Xhosa in 1954 about Nelson Mandela:
Kuba iziwana ziyagqushalaza.
Mighty nations stand in awe
Because a tiny nation is in turmoil.
Or in the form of an epic which goes into more details about the deeds of an individual or the founding of a nation (e.g. Vergil).
Modernity is characterised that rather than the heroic individual the average human being is of interest to the reader, and thus the novel becomes a form of "gossip". "Gossip", the everyday talk about other people is an important instrument for the furtherance of our social competence. Novels are also able to portray the "inner" life, e.g. the mystical discourse as a self-definition of marginal classes.
Literature is a form of enhancing one's understanding of one's own and other countries. The narrative form of the novel allows us to understand aspects of multicultural societies, problems of migration, poverty, and the consequences of globalisation in a way in which human "sciences" cannot. There is a growing understanding that fiction and narration are highly interesting tools in transcultural understanding.
Languages are fundamental to the understanding of our self and our society. Languages are essential identifiers for nations, even where a nation has more than one language. As seen in the case of Bangladesh not even the common religion could prevent the breakup of Pakistan, when the central government did not accord Bengali (Bangla) and the culture of the people its rightful place.
We do have to translate in order to understand texts from other
cultures. While it is normally supposed that something is lost
in translation, one can also insist that something can also be
gained. Translation is not only about texts, we ourselves are
"translated", willingly or forcibly across the world,
as tourists or migrants, refugees or workers. Thus we are constantly
forced to adapt to new languages and cultures.
© Peter Horn (Pretoria)
5.3. I First Learned about Russia from Dostoievski. Literature as an Imaginary Way of Understanding Another Country
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For quotation purposes:
Peter Horn (Pretoria): Report: I First Learned about Russia from Dostoievski. Literature as an Imaginary Way of Understanding Another Country. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW: http://www.inst.at/trans/15Nr/05_03/horn_report15.htm