Sunday 21 July 2013

Re-imagining Nationalism in Literature

Samuel Selvon's "The Lonely Londoners"

There can be few more contentious topics than nationalism. In the UK – or, more accurately, in England – nationalism is seen inextricable from racism, zealous hatred and kneejerk reactionarism. Ask someone to describe a nationalist and they will likely describe an EDL member, a staunch opponent of immigration, a white supremacist etc etc. 

It has become a sort of Nietzchean slave morality – a belief defined completely by an opposition to another, and therefore an unsubstantial one. It creates an ‘us v. them’ scenario – those within the haven of our national boundaries (with justifiable reason to be there) versus those without.

This highlights the arbitrary nature of modern nationalism, specifically English nationalism. During World War Two, when Britain was under a real threat of invasion by the forces of Hitler’s Germany, such nationalism became almost a practical necessity, if a sometimes unpleasant one. Nowadays, with most of the world connected in an open forum of information exchange, it feels archaic and redundant.

Johann Gottfried Herder first coined the term “nationalism” in the 1770s while developing his philosophical concept of the “Volksgeist”, or “spirit of the people”. Seventy years later, another prominent German writer, Arthur Schopenhauer, would pour scorn on the concept, and on people who hold nationalism up as a defining facet of their character;

“The cheapest sort of pride,” Schopenhauer wrote, “is national pride; for if a man is proud of his own nation it argues that he has no qualities of his own of which he can be proud.”

Schopenhauer was writing over 160 years ago, but his comment on nationalism and national pride still stokes the fires of debate today. The truth is – speaking from my experience as an Englishman – the majority of English people would readily distance themselves from the “nationalist” tag, while simultaneously attempting to renegotiate some semblance of national pride from elsewhere.

For example, you may cry when England lose a penalty shootout, you may proselytise about the unparalleled beauty of the Peak District or the Lakes, you may feel a flush of pride when watching footage of the Olympic closing ceremony – but are you a nationalist? No way!

Nationalism is an increasingly awkward concept, particularly now that transnational borders are becoming more fluid and global mobility is more readily accessible. It seems to me that a person should align their pride to their surroundings and to their community – on as wide a scale as they may wish – rather than practice a simple, blind loyalty to a sovereign state.

Literature thrives off this awkward pairing of the individual human soul and the arbitrary groupings of nationality. Passages in Milan Kundera’s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” , for example, act as symphonic love letters to the Czech capital Prague, but are told through the eyes of exiles and neurotics, each dislocated from the city in their own unique way.

Another example is Salman Rushdie’s “The Moor’s Last Sigh”. In his 1995 novel, Rushdie deconstructs what is supposedly a key aspect of nationalism – language; exposing it as the organic, polymorphous beast that it truly is, all the while in the midst of a Portuguese merchant enclave in India, and later in southern Spain.

The blisteringly brief, but nonetheless brilliant novel “The Lonely Londoners” by Samuel Selvon is amongst the most immediate examples of negotiated nationalism in literature. Penned in 1956, the novel charts the life of a group of West Indian immigrants who arrived in London following the British Nationality Act of 1948, the parliamentary bill that effectively ushered in the first waves of migrant workers from the Commonwealth.

The book examines the different cultures emanating from distinct Caribbean islands and their transplantation into a metropolis on the cusp of the next stage of its evolution, cultures that become unintentionally homogenised as the émigrés clamour to find their place in a new society. In the eyes of the indigenous Brits, this gaggle of lonely Londoners are refugees from only one nation: “Black”.

Trinidadian, Jamaican, Antiguan, Barbadian, even Nigerian; none of these distinctions matter in the eyes of the racially suspicious post-war Britons that Selvon’s characters come into contact with. It is this aspect that makes the novel one of the most fascinating critiques of modern nationalism and identity in twentieth century literature.

As the global community continues to develop, and artistic inspiration ceases to be limited by parochial geographical locale, the debate surrounding nationalism – and the great art and literature that springs forth from it – can only become more fascinating, more discomfited and more vital to our sense of human identity, than ever before.

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