Cultural diversity and national identity

September 26, 2023 in Uncategorized

DERMOT ROANTREE [Excerpt from editorial of Studies, autumn 2023] :: The emergence in recent decades of what Jürgen Habermas calls a ‘cosmopolitan Europe’ has certainly helped to dissipate the more aggressive energies of the older order of fully sovereign nation-states, but it has not erased the sense of national consciousness in each of the states within it. We still speak meaningfully of the art or literature of France or Italy or Ireland, and we understand it to mean that nationality, to some extent at least, has a shaping role in artistic composition. There need be nothing hubristic or xenophobic about this. Recognising a kind of ‘national character’ or Volksgeist, to use the language of Johann Gottfried Herder, the 18th century critic of the Enlightenment, may simply be about esteeming cultural diversity and acknowledging that the language, the collective historical memory, the received habits of mind, and even the landscape of a country may have a bearing on the native imagination and give its aesthetic productions an exceptional character. In other words, it can be thought of in cultural rather than political terms.

Which is not to say, of course, that it is not problematic. The cultural can quickly become political. The 19th century Romantic spiritual descendants of Herder drifted with unnerving ease into ethnocentrism, nationalist exceptionalism, and racism. Habermas, who has frequently addressed the knotty issue of cultural diversity, notes that historically European nation-states ‘set themselves apart from one another polemically’. Cultural difference degenerated into a destructive nationalism; and since 1945 Europeans have had to learn ‘the painful lessons of how differences can be communicated, oppositions institutionalized, and tensions stabilized’. Habermas’s hope for the European project lies in his belief that ‘the recognition of differences, the mutual recognition of others in their otherness, can also become a distinguishing mark of a shared identity’.

No doubt Ireland’s colonial experience intensified the native sense of the ‘national character’. In his 1997 book Strange Country, Seamus Deane noted Ireland’s historical refusal to ‘surrender its particularities’, viewing the absorption of Irishness into some larger transnational or universal entity as ‘an impoverishing process that eliminates traditional practices and customs… that are vital to the preservation of the native community’s distinctiveness’. What must be remembered, however, is that distinctiveness does not imply isolatedness. Irish culture has always been interconnected in many ways with many other cultures – has always gained its distinctiveness from the specific ways it has received, responded to, and contributed to the greater human enterprise of imagining and articulating the experience of human existence. Cultural interconnectedness is not merely a product of late modern globalisation.

Consider Ireland’s illuminated Gospel manuscripts from the early Middle Ages – the books of Durrow and Kells, for example. In many respects they appear as quintessentially Irish, yet the interplay of cultures in these works is complex. They merge pre-Christian Celtic art – itself already indebted to earlier La Tène traditions – with artistic elements from the Picts, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Celtic Britons, as well as from Gaul, Italy and the eastern Mediterranean. As historian Jennifer O’Reilly summarises, these features were not slavishly copied in the Irish scriptoria, but ‘quite transformed and exuberantly assimilated into the Insular repertoire and idiom’. She notes the paradox that the Celtic art of these manuscripts was ‘energised and… brought to its greatest period of creativity and originality by cross-fertilization with other traditions, both from neighbouring regions and from the Mediterranean world’. There is probably no period of Irish art and literature about which this could not also be said.