The Cosmopolitan Republic of Letters and the Mezzaterra

I don’t have much to say here because I am trying to use my writing energy to move my Ahdaf Soueif essay along–trying to work through the doubts I expressed last week, just to put enough into words that I can at least feel better what the project is now. Here are some excerpts from my notes that I think are going to be helpful as I do this, comments that are playing off each other in my mind as I work.  First is a quotation from an essay in World Literature Today by Ales Debeljak, called “In Praise of the Republic of Letters”:

It is true that we readers are the citizens of various nation-states, each with our own home address and hometown. Yet the moment we open a book and yield, in our unique ways, to the adventurous challenge, we take part in the same ritual. We assert that our place of residence is in the same community, in the Republic of Letters. It cannot be found in any world atlas; its borders are unstable and are passionately negotiated time and again. With every story read, with every verse quietly recounted, we renew our citizenship in the Republic of Letters. Many opportunities arise and dissolve within it, faces distorted by horror offer a hand to fantastic patterns of paradise, and every page read turns a new chapter in a reader’s biography.

We can all become citizens in this republic, without restrictions. The only condition required to obtain citizenship is a human capacity for empathy – that is, the capacity to put oneself in someone else’s shoes.

I’m also thinking about–or perhaps, thinking along with–Anthony Appiah’s idea of cosmopolitanism, and particularly of cosmopolitan reading. Here’s an excerpt from his essay “Cosmopolitan Reading,” in the collection Cosmopolitan Geographies:

Cosmopolitan reading presupposes a world in which novels .. . travel between places where they are understood differently, because people are different and welcome to their difference. Cosmopolitan reading is worthwhile because there can be common conversations about those shared objects, the novel prominent among them. Cosmopolitan reading is possible because those conversations are possible. But what makes the conversations possible is not always shared culture . . . not even, as the older humanists imagined, universal principles or values . . . nor shared understanding . . . What is necessary to read novels across gaps of space, time, and experience is the capacity to follow a narrative and conjure a world: and that,  it turns out, there are people everywhere more than willing to do. . . . [W]e do learn something about humanity in responding to the worlds people conjure with words in the narrative framework of the novel: we learn about the extraordinary diversity of human responses to our world and the myriad points of intersection of those various responses.

These ideas resonate, for me, with Soueif’s notion of the “Mezzaterra”:

This was the world that my generation believed we had inherited: a fertile land; an area of overlap, where one culture shaded into the other, where echoes and reflections added depth and perspective, where differences were interesting rather than threatening, because they were foregrounded against a backdrop of affinities.

The rewards of inhabiting the Mezzaterra are enormous. At its best it endows each thing, at the same moment, with the shine of the new, the patina of the old; the language, the people, the landscape, the food of one culture constantly reflected off the other. This is not a process of comparison, not a ‘which is better than which’ project but rather at once a distillation and an enrichment of each thing, each idea. It means, for example, that you are both on the inside and the outside of language, that within each culture your stance cannot help but be both critical and empathetic.

Sadly, I think The Map of Love is ultimately pessimistic about about these Utopian theories of literary coexistence. In the Preface to her essay collection Mezzaterra, Soueif describes that space as diminished, hardened, under threat. In The Map of Love it is still conjured up as an ideal, as the characters cross and recross boundaries, at once critical and empathetic, having the kinds of conversations enabled by the narratives they read and create. But there seem to be forces that are stronger than that willingness, and these bring both of the intertwined stories to unhappy endings. Maybe the weakness of empathy as a moral and political force is suggested in this bit from Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: “the great lesson of anthropology is that when the stranger is no longer imaginary, but real and present, sharing a human social life, you may like or dislike him, you may agree or disagree; but, if it is what you both want, you can make sense of each other in the end.” The little caveat “if that is what you both want” is hardly noticeable in the longer passage, but every day it seems we have reminders that progress towards understanding, towards reconciliation, relies on mutual effort and willingness–on genuine conversation.

5 Comments to The Cosmopolitan Republic of Letters and the Mezzaterra

  1. March 14, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Rohan, I don’t know if it would give you any new or helpful material, but Soueif read a letter home on the radio this morning written specifically for a slot called ‘Letters to the Arab World’. I’ve just checked and it is available on the BBC I-Player if you go to Radio 4 at 9.45 am Monday March 14th. Can you backtrack on the BBC in this way from Canada? If not it will be repeated at 00.30 GMT tomorrow morning.

  2. March 16, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    Oh, these are very important thoughts, Rohan. And any writing you do that is inspired by them will be wonderful and important. Those recurring references to empathy, and of willingness to engage and to listen, and to (at least attempt to) embrace difference rather than be threatened by it . . . these are great preoccupations of mine as well.

    And just listened to the Soueif’s radio commentary. It sounded so much like one of her novels–the names, the deep attachment to family, the sensory details. Thanks for Annie for noting it and to you for posting it.

  3. March 21, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    It sounds to me like you are making progress here, however slow it may seem. I particularly like that note at the end about “what they both want”. This is so crucial and yet so easy to miss in many discussions of intercultural research and dialogue.

    Writing a piece for Open Letters seems like a great idea. I look forward to reading it.

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