The Invention Of Ancient Peoples

If I had been alive in 1861 to hear Massimo d’Azeglio say, “We have made Italy; now we must make Italians”, I would have asked him, “If there are no Italians, why should you wish to make an Italy?” For the paradox of 19th-century nationalism in general is that “the People” were created by the elite. A certain slice of the differentiated multitudes was firmly told that it was in fact a unity. That unity was expressed in their all being obliged to adopt the new cultural practices that the elite told them had been their own all along, apparently unnoticed by themselves.

The chosen people was to be identified primarily by their national language – except that they didn’t actually speak it, but rather a bunch of dialects that paid no attention to borders, and so the standard national language had to be created for them by philologists. Just across the frontier, meanwhile, a different gang of philologists was dragooning the same bunch of dialects into a different national language. . The respective tongues having been “purified” of foreign “contamination”, the resulting more or less artificial languages were imposed by the national school systems, with punishment of deviant speakers. The next generation spoke the artificial language as their mother tongue, the first to do so, and this was then described as the awakening of the ancient nation. In the same way the people were equipped with a cuisine, folk customs, art, history and mythology. No sooner had they been told what their folklore was than they began to generate some; which the elite then used as confirmation of what it had been teaching. The question of what made the disparate groups a single national entity prior to their being assigned a national culture was answered solely in terms of the national culture that they were subsequently assigned. It is as if I should paint all the local lampposts blue, on the grounds that they had always been blue lampposts but were somnolently unaware of their azure unity.

In those days, history was written not in terms of “What happened?”, but in terms of “How did We become Ourselves?”, with the assumption that the nation that had just this minute been created by the philologists had always existed so to speak in ovo, perhaps even in some other time and place. The new nations were led to believe that a personified History had awarded them a noble Destiny – without, of course, ever doing the same for the neighbours.

In the ex-Soviet world we are seeing a re-rerun of the old nineteenth-century circularity, whereby national-romantics believed simultaneously that their pet nation already existed but also that it had to be created from nothing. Soviet nationality policy is now a dirty word, a forgotten dream in which different nations were brothers, marching together towards a just society. Now, instead of proletarian solidarity we have “Culture”, which apparently means the factory and office workers of Slobovia learning the peasant dances of their remote ancestors so as to differentiate themselves from the factory and office workers of Rhubarbia, whose remote ancestors danced differently. This ethnokitsch is designed to prevent them from thinking of one another as brothers, or from remembering the whole notion of a just society.

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  1. Written by Bill Chapman
    on March 17, 2011 at 11:41

    I’m sure you’re right. The colour of telephone boxes, the shape of bread, the language spoken and cultivated, and so on, all serve to separate the workers of Slobovia from the workers of Rhubarbia.

    There is a language which has (almost) no native speakers, and was planned as a second language for us all. For nearly 125 years people of different nationalities have found common ground through Esperanto. I wish it were used more widely.

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