Nations’, wrote Marcel Mauss, ‘are recent things, far from having completed their evolution.’footnote1 They remain a tricky subject. Discussion often tends either to solipsism, dealing with single nations as self-contained case studies, or to denial: globalization, it is claimed, has mercifully transcended such obsolete categories. Rather than choosing between national settings or a global landscape, this essay will attempt to look at literary developments on a national scale, but from a global vantage-point or ‘promontory’, to borrow Braudel’s metaphor.footnote2 And rather than taking nations and nationalisms as unproblematic facts, it will approach them as ‘cultural artefacts’, in Benedict Anderson’s term, constituted by belief in a collectivity as a primary form of identification. Mauss spoke of this as ‘national credit’, emphasizing that it is a circular system: ‘Collectively, the citizens of a state form a unity in which belief is held in the national credit; other countries have confidence in this credit, to the extent that they believe in that unity.’footnote3

How, then, should we conceive the relations between literary nationalisms today? At the start of Imagined Communities, Anderson registers three paradoxes that have perplexed contemporary theorists of nationalism: firstly, ‘the objective modernity of nations to the historian’s eye vs their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists’; secondly, ‘the formal universality of nationality as a socio-cultural concept—in the modern world, everyone can, should, will “have” a nationality’, as he or she “has” a gender—vs the irremediable particularity of its concrete manifestations’; and thirdly, ‘the “political” power of nationalisms vs their philosophical poverty’.footnote4

In response, I would like to propose a structural hypothesis. The generalization of claims to nationhood in the nineteenth century might be understood as a symbolic assertion of equality between the various national collectivities; an attempt to ‘reset the clocks’ in an international rivalry, at once cultural, political and economic, in which the older great powers of Europe enjoyed such an advantage that it was impossible for newcomers like Germany to compete. Indeed Herder’s category of ‘people’ offered a new way of evaluating political legitimacy. By contrast to the existing aristocratic and hierarchical world order, nationality was a new system of thinking the collective, which threw a gloss of seeming equality over the competitors. Seen through the optic of ‘the people’, Herder argued, all nations were equal.footnote5 The great philological studies undertaken by nationalists in nineteenth-century Europe, during literary capital’s phase of accumulation, were also an assertion of symbolic equality, as Anderson has pointed out: ‘Bilingual dictionaries made visible an approaching egalitarianism among languages—whatever the political realities outside, within the covers of the Czech–German/German–Czech dictionary, the paired languages had a common status.’footnote6

Once aristocratic, literary capital now became national and popular, its acquisition and accumulation supposedly open to all. Carried out by means of a comparative history of peoples, this apparently egalitarian revolution also involved a tacit struggle against the legitimacy of the aristocracy, based as this was on a hitherto unchallenged monopoly of antiquity. Proof of its success: the French themselves, who had provided the model for the previous classical-aristocratic system, now felt obliged to redefine their ‘national culture’ and even to apply the German model of philology to their literature, in order to keep their ranking in the newly emerging world competition.footnote7

But the proclaimed equality of the peoples’ creative power was only a pretence. Time still conferred strength, and antiquity, authority, on the terrain of symbolic struggle. National cultural capital was above all constituted by accumulated time, stockpiled as assets. In ‘What Is a Nation?’, Renan himself took this temporal capital, formed from an accumulated past and transformed into a wealth of cultural gold, to be a condition of the nation’s legitimacy. Thus he speaks of ‘the common possession of a rich legacy of memories’: antiquity bequeaths capital, the heritage of a collective past.footnote8 Antiquity, whether as fact or construction, swiftly became a stake in the symbolic rivalries between nations which, despite their relative youth, imagined themselves to be old; or at least were convinced that they existed long before, as a people.footnote9 All the players in this great game, which spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, would battle for possession of this cultural artefact, antecedence in collective existence, as a source of power, prestige and legitimacy.

Like modernity, antiquity is a relative notion. An identity can only lay claim to it in relation to others, which in turn affirm themselves to be more or less ancient than the first. In Europe, prior to the late eighteenth century—that is, before Herder—the antiquity of an aristocratic lineage was calculated on the basis of its consanguinity with the Greeks and Romans (fantastical, but universally held to be well founded), and thus its ‘direct’ descent from ancient nobility. In Herder’s novel system, time—or at least, its social construction—was still the measure of prestige, but the meaning of antiquity was now contested; the singularity and superiority of a lineage stretching down from Ancient Greece and Rome was denied. For Herderianism, the aim was to prove that, just like the aristocracy—and indeed in competition with it—the peoples too could ‘produce’ their own antiquity, complete with epic history, nobility and legitimacy.

In the early 1760s, some years before Herder’s system was completed, the young Scottish poet James Macpherson created a literary sensation by ‘rediscovering’ the songs of Ossian, a third-century ad Celtic bard, orally transmitted from generation to generation by Scottish peasants. Macpherson had ‘recorded’ them from the very mouths of the people, translated them into English and had them published. Although the songs were shown to be a forgery a few years later, the works of the ‘Celtic bard’ circulated rapidly throughout Europe and were a great hit—Herder himself made translations of Ossian and sent them to his fiancée. Their success can only be explained by the revolutionary character of Macpherson’s undertaking at the time: through the promotion of this ‘ancient’ work, the Scots were asserting that there was another way of determining collective status and legitimacy. In his preface to the anthology, the critic Hugh Blair explicitly endorsed Ossian’s work as ‘a Nordic epic, to equal the prestige of Homer’.footnote10