TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. Mai 2010

Sektion 5.1. A common place: national cultures, European heritage
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Adina Ciugureanu (Ovidius University Constanta, Romania)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Section report 5.1.

A Common Place: National cultures, European Heritage

Adina Ciugureanu (Ovidius University Constanta, Romania) [BIO]

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The purpose of this section was to explore concepts of ‘European’ identity from both the perspective of a common historical and cultural ground and, especially, from the varieties that make its regions distinct. The participants in this section focused on the exploration of the relation between the local and the national as well as on the regional and its connection to, or its drawing on, a common ground, generally acknowledged as European.

The papers presented at this section discussed the concept of identity in Europe in various centuries spanning from ancient Greece to the twenty-first century blogs, crossing twelfth century Britain, Renaissance, early modernity, Victorianism, twentieth-century (Post)modernism and exilic literatures. Thus, Leonor Santa Barbara (Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal) described in Identity in Ancient Greece,the concept of identity in the Homeric poems (the Iliad), in which the values of the Greeks (the Achaeans and the Trojans) are identified as courage, justice, hospitality, and religious duties. Later, these values became an emblem for the Greek identity in opposition to non-Greek, that is the Barbarian. Although the idea of the Self and the Other in discussing or questioning identity seems to be more recent, it is obvious that identity, in the sense of belonging to a certain community, is an issue to be found with ancient peoples too. It is, according to Professor Santa Barbara, during Alexander the Great’s reign that identity was granted a cultural dimension. The interconnection between culture and identity is thus historically rooted in ancient Greece.

At another time (the twelfth century), in a different place (Britain), two texts (Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and Thomas of Monmouth’s The Life and Passion of Little Saint William the Martyr of Norwich) establish a line of founding fathers (Brutus and King Arthur) who had settled the British patria, and hence British identity, as dated in history, and Christian identity as its adopted religion. The paper, History Making in Twelfth-Century Britain between the National and the Supernatural, held by Estella Ciobanu (Ovidius University Constanta, Romania) discussed the two texts revealing the relationship between their two major dimensions: the national and the supernatural in the construction and legitimation of identity.

As it has become obvious, with the birth and spread of Christianity, identity does no longer mean belonging to a certain community, culture and sharing a common language, but also being a Christian. What weighs more in legitimating Britain as patria? Its roots in the history of Rome or Christianity as the adopted religion? In tackling this topic, Estella Ciobanu reconsiders the definition of identity by describing it as a mixture of the national with the supernatural.

Charles Moseley (Hughes Hall, Cambridge, Great Britain) started his presentation with a reference to Brutus, as well, yet, this time the name of Brutus was introduced to represent the basic root in Elizabeth I’s family tree. Interestingly, English identity seems to pay tribute both to the Roman and to the Greek heritage as, besides Elizabeth I’s claim in her genealogical tree that she is a direct descendent of Brutus, there are two more metaphors to take into account: the “New Troy,” which London stood for in early seventeenth century and the statue of George II dressed in what seems to be a Roman imperator costume, at the entrance of the University Library, Cambridge. Professor Moseley’s paper questions the concept of English/British identity as it was represented in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century in British culture in general and in Shakespeare’s Henry V in particular in his challenging paper “What is my nation”?...England, Britain and the Other.What is my nation? - is a question that does not concern only history, but also culture as, contrary to the claim of a coupled Roman and Greek origin (Britannia comes from Brutus, London is the “New Troy”), there is a third possible root for the concept of Englishness, which one may find in Geoffrey of Monmoth’s History: the Arthurian legends. The three roots have been turned into suitable metaphors and widely used to express the image of Englishness and Britishness throughout ages to suit political and ideological purposes. “What is my nation?” raises a more profound question: who are we all?, where do we come from?, what is our nation?, European? Other? What is our real identity? And how can we discern, in unveiling it, history from myth?

Mihaela Irimia (University of Bucharest, Romania) argued in her paper The Anatomy Lesson and the Order of the Cosmos in Early Modern Europe that Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is an intellectual and cultural palimpsest through the demonstration of the correspondence between the microcosm of the human body with the macrocosm of our world. The 17th century study also processed and reprocessed the medieval theory of humours, to which it added the author’s own, Burton describing himself as a new Democritus. Based on ancient philosophy to which Burton adds his Renaissance views, the text became a source of reference to the next generations of poets and philosophers, while emphasizing a topos of European identity with manifestations in more than one culture. Professor Irimia presented a brief history of the humours, from the four elements (earth, water, fire, air) to the four temperaments (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic), and exemplified it through medical texts, literary texts and painting. The theory of humours and the anatomy lesson have exceeded the frontiers of the cultures that produced them and have proven an identity component shared by every European culture.  

People’s concern to represent the world, illustrated by the microcosmic anatomical revealing of the body in Rembrandts’ The Anatomy Lesson,  was represented in nineteenth-century England, in full industrial progress of the British Empire, by a giant globe designed and erected by James Wyld the Younger in Leicester Square in 1851. The globe measured 60 feet in diameter with a circumference of 190 feet and a total surface area of 10,000 square feet. The globe stood, according to the paper Wyld’s World: Cartographic Desire and the Imperial Imagination presented by Matthew Graves (University of Aix-en-Provence, France), as a “spectacular geography,” yielding evidence of the power relations that existed in England and the world at the time. The fascination of the Victorians, among other nations, with maps and globes were not only a cultural symbol, but also, and more importantly, since Wyld himself was a member of the Parliament, a political symbol expressing both the imaginary and the status quo of the British Empire in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Dr. Graves brought in an issue which supported the previous views expressed in the session according to which an empire, like Britain, needed metaphors and images to legitimate its political and cultural supremacy in the world (which the giant globe represented in this particular case). Moreover, the paper reinforced the idea that Europe itself needs metaphors and images to legitimate its culture and, at times, its politics and ideologies: the globe and, generally, maps are symbolical representations of nations’ expansionist desires (Hitler, Stalin) and, more importantly, of “the internationalist ambition of bringing the globe to the people as a potent symbol of the common home”.  In his presentation, Matthew Graves seems to have supported the latter point.

Continuing the discussion on culture in the Victorian Age, Adina Ciugureanu (Ovidius University Constanta, Romania) argued in her paper Italian Culture, English Heritage: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and “Aurora Leigh” that Elizabeth Browning’s major text is not only a Bildungsroman and a Künstlerroman, but also the first epic in verse written by a woman. Inspired by Carlyle’s hero theory, the condition of England (with its hottest issue which was prostitution) and by Goethe’s Bildungsroman theory, Elizabeth Browning writes an epic in which she describes the progress of a young lady into womanhood (marriage) and career as a poet. Moreover, the background of the story is not only England, depicted as cold and unwelcoming, but also France, stereotypically described as corrupted, and, especially, Italy, seen as the real cradle of art, poetry and beauty. Professor Ciugureanu’s paper introduced a new topic in the section agenda: the way in which German Romanticism (represented by Goethe in this case), Italian Renaissance culture, and the Homeric epic worked in the making of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. In trying her hand at writing an epic, this so-called perfect genre, never before tackled by women, Elizabeth Browning surpassed her Englishness and, by mixing various cultures and genres, acquired a true European identity. 

France, as the cultural background of surrealism in fiction and poetry is discussed in the paper Surrealist Fiction in Romania and its European Emergence presented by Alina Buzatu (Ovidius University Constanta, Romania). As the author argued, surrealism in Romania drew on the French model, yet provided alternative definitions to those pioneered by André Breton, for example. The Romanian experimentalist fiction writers at the beginning of the twentieth century continued the surrealist doctrine established in Europe, but also, and more importantly, enriched it theoretically, through their manifestoes, written and published in French (Dialectique de la dialectique, Cubomanies et objets), and concretely, through their fictions. The examples analysed in Alina Buzatu’s paper include Romanian writers such as Gellu Naum, Virgil Teodorescu, and Gherasim Luca who, despite their large European contribution, are less known outside surrealist circles and, generally, outside Romania.

In his presentation For the Common Roots: Europe and National Culture, Edward Esche (Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, Great Britain) discussed the later novels by Joseph Roth, a Jewish journalist and novelist, who was born in England in 1894, lived in Berlin and Paris in the 1920s, and wrote and published in German. The presentation raised two issues: one, the Europeanness of Joseph Roth, who in one of his letters to a friend described, as early as the 1920s, what seemed to be the ideals of the European Community to come; two, the unbelievable status of a writer born in England whose works have not, until now, been translated and published in his native land. Apparently, there is a project by Granta Books to publish his major work in the near future. As for the former issue, Joseph Roth seemed to see in Paris the capital of Europe and in the patriotism and nationalism of its inhabitants the wonderful value of the feelings that people need to have and express as components of a unitary “European conscience”.

At another time, the seventies, writers like the Englishman David Lodge were concerned in their fiction, among other things with the idea of travel, at academic level, thus emphasizing the similarities and contrasting features of British and non-British way of life. In Shifting Identities and European Landmarks in David Lodge’s Fiction, Lucia Opreanu (Ovidius University Constanta, Romania) explored the interaction between different values and mentalities in an increasingly globalized space and the ways in which the various protagonists of Lodge’s Trilogy and apparently less famous Therapy and Paradise News are shaped by their cosmopolitan experiences. While the previous papers discussed the various influences which European cultures have had upon one another, and mainly upon the Anglo-Saxon world, Lucia Opreanu’s paper introduced a new dimension to the question of experiencing British identity, namely confirming or undermining European stereotypes not only on the old continent, but also in the United States.

Another attempt to offer a globalized dimension to identity in the last decades of the twentieth century is offered by Nicoleta Stanca (Ovidius University Constanta, Romania) in her paper A Common Quincunx in Seamus Heaney’s Writings: Irish National Culture, European Heritage. The author started from Heaney’s claim in Frontiers of Writing (2000) that in his poetry and prose he will explore the “possibilities of Irishness, Britishness, Europeanness, planetariness, creaturileness, whatever”. The symbolical image chosen by Heaney to connect Irishness to Europeanness and to illustrate, through an Irish pattern, the common European identity is the quincunx, made up of five towers with five imaginative centers which connect spaces, poets and traditions. This is the image which Nicoleta Stanca uses to present Heaney’s poetry and to extend the idea of Irish identity to Europe as Heaney himself has risen from being a national poet to becoming a world-wide iconic representative of Irishness. 

The presentation made by Alina Clej (The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA), Identities in Exile, is part of a larger project on “Writing in Exile,” focusing on storytelling and narrative as means for contriving a new cultural identity. Professor Clej explored the hybrid form of identity lying at the crossroads of different linguistic and ethnic experiences and the concept of in-betweenness with Giselle Pinau, a writer coming from an immigrant family from Guadaloupe. The double origin of the writer (Caribbean and French) seals the fate of many second-generation immigrants in France, obsessively explored in many immigrant narratives. The novels discussed in the presentation were Un papillon dans la cité (1992), La grade drive des esprits (1993), and L'exil selon Julia (1996), in which the heroines attempt, with varying degrees of success, to create an imaginary redemptive space in which they could feel at home. Most interesting was the discussion of the bilingual discourse used in the text (French and Creole), which, according to Professor Clej, serves to conjure the absent origin, while creating, at the same time, a sense of dissonance that interferes with the illusion of an authentic representation.

In her presentation, Ignotum per Ignotius or if Curiosity Killed the Cat: An Insight into the Wonders of Europe, Otilia Pacea (Ovidius University Constanta, Romania) discussed a highly interesting, possible connection between Wünderkammern, the cabinets of curiosities, so popular at the turn of the 17th century in Europe, and the weblogs on which their authors display all sorts of virtual objects in the 21st century. In the 17th century, the wealthy and the well-connected were collecting all sorts of strange things and displayed them in special rooms, properly and specifically designed. Three hundred years later, the cabinets became outdated, but various strange things are still displayed on the recently invented weblogs. Web enthusiasts and enthusiasts of all kinds are now gathering information and display it for free, within a postmodern mambo jumbo of found virtual objects of desire. The paper explored paradigms of curiosity at the graphical and textual level by a comparative analysis of the most popular European /British or Irish vs. American blogs, over a span of seven years. The question which the paper raised was the extent to which the habit of collecting and displaying objects is revelatory of individual and / or group identity in the past and nowadays.

Although the papers were extremely different in the topics chosen for discussion, they all focused on the relationship between personal and national identity, between local nationalities and Europeanness, revealing a few facts that can be mentioned in conclusion. First, European cultures, deeply tributary to ancient Greece and Rome, are more intertwined than it might be noticed at first sight. Traces of English, Italian, German, French culture are blueprints that contributed to the creation of various other cultures which we generally label as “national.” In reverse, “marginal” cultures may be discovered to have influenced European culture to an extent which has usually been neglected or forgotten by mainstream studies. Second, Europeanness cannot and should not be discussed only in terms of the cultures comprised within its borders. The emerging immigrant culture, hybrid, creolized, challenges the already established European hierarchy and reveals a Europe, or at least parts of it, seen from different lenses, the lenses of the Other, the people who arrive to this “new” land bearing the cultural legacy of the colonies. Third, the culture of weblogs, which exceeds any possible borders and frontiers has introduced a new dimension to the concepts of “national,” “local,” “European.” The “common place” of cultures, usually imagined as territorial, has lately turned into an inter- and intra-national, virtual territory. 

5.1. A common place: national cultures, European heritage

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For quotation purposes:
Adina Ciugureanu: Section report 5.1. A Common Place: National cultures, European Heritage - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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