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Stefano Evangelista, Literary Cosmopolitanism in the English Fin de Siècle, Citizens of Nowhere

Oxford: OUP, 2021, 218 p.
Cornelius Crowley
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Stefano Evangelista, Literary Cosmopolitanism in the English Fin de Siècle, Citizens of Nowhere, Oxford: OUP, 2021, 218 p. ISBN: 978-0-19-886424-0

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1We are habitually advised not to judge a book by its cover. Instead, we are to delve beneath the surface, search for the kernel truth which the writer has staked out for readers. Stefano Evangelista has produced a work of literary history which addresses a topic—literary cosmopolitanism—located in a specific time and place—English Fin de Siècle. The title sounds a discreetly dissonant note: literary cosmopolitanism is not self-evident. Writer and reader, in our modern and national literary cultures, commune through a shared vernacular vein of exchange. Whether the vein be that of Whitman or George Eliot, Émile Zola or Anton Chekhov, there is an expectation that the writer will sound out a note in key with a specific language and culture. However purified, the idiom is la langue de la tribu. ‘Literary cosmopolitanism’ goes against the grain, against the implication of a necessary and sustaining nativist vein, against the piety of a literature of the ‘mother tongue’. We note the switch to French in the title: Fin de Siècle, the suggestion that there is something decidedly un-English in the sense of an ending or, God forbid, a decadence, exhaustion of energies as the sign of the times. Such an intimation is best confined to a gallic quarantine: surely Fin de Siècle can be only marginally or not at all English? C’est bien compris. The book carries an additional title: Citizens of Nowhere, words now resonant not of the William Morris fantasy world so delicately sketched in News from Nowhere, rather of the robust Bunyanesque allegory which the sociologist David Goodhart proposed in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, a crude demarcation between the ‘Anywheres’ who voted Remain and the ‘Somewheres’ who voted Leave and are presumably located in the specific location of what is English and real. Stefano Evangelista does (discreetly) invite us to attend to the intimations of our contemporary culture wars: ‘While not engaging explicitly with the political situation of the present, this book argues that literature written over one hundred years ago is full of tensions and insights which are still surprisingly relevant to key issues that preoccupy us today: the cultural and emotional challenges of migration and uprooting, the tolerance of cultural diversity in a liberal state, the uneasy balance between patriotism and nationalism, the limits of universalism and the pressure of ethical obligations towards strangers in a global society’ (5).

2Taking in the visual impression produced by the book’s cover, we ponder the pale gold of the Japanese lantern framed by the wooden jambs of a door open on the semi-darkness of sky and the darker mass of trees beyond an expanse of water. The reclining figure of a young girl looks outwards, beyond the glow of the lantern, into the half-light of a Norwegian midsummer night. The painting, by Oda Krohg, is entitled A Japanese Lantern (1886). The scene is one of absorption, a suspension of daytime occupations. If this is the emblematic motif placed on the threshold of a book which addresses the topic of ‘literary cosmopolitanism’, what is focused on is not the thrust of the pen in the writer’s hand. ‘Literary cosmopolitanism’ might be an invalidation of the heroic fantasy act of writing as doing, of a certain naïve trope of écriture masculine. In lieu of which, a suspension of time and of doing; agency deferred, provisionally or terminally, in exchange for a supplement of reading, a pure vacancy not to be gainsaid. At the very least, there is an invitation, by way of Stefano Evangelista’s scrupulous literary history, to attend to what goes on before the accomplishment of the work, any work, so that a flow of writing will, at most, be readable as the after-effect of a prolonged waiting, a gathering of diverse impressions, readings, jottings. If beyond this Nordic emblem of suspension and absorption, we were to seek a tutelary figure of the writer as a modality of waiting and accumulation, suffice it to look to the figure of Marcel Proust, who in the fin de siècle and for the years which followed, was absorbed in his labour of temporisation, preparation for and deferral of the work to be done, always already in progress.

3The writers foregrounded by Stefano Evangelista can be ‘creative’ (or occasionally creative) writers. The book begins with Oscar Wilde, bearer of the suggestion that secondarity and imitation always precede and already discount any illusion of originality. There is no bowing here to the primacy and integrity of unschooled but inspired energies. Hence the question that is voiced by Stefano Evangelista, by way of a quotation from Wilde’s essay ‘The Writer as Critic’ (1891): ‘Could the cosmopolitan spirit of ancient Alexandria be rekindled in the present?’ (46). This comes immediately after the presentation of Wilde’s quest for an Alexandrian temper in the present: ‘for Wilde, the cosmopolitan Hellenistic metropolis, poised between East and West and home to different ethnicities and religious communities, suggested an alternative model of cultural development, which is not identified with the birth and development of the nation, but rather with migration, contamination, and the constant uprooting of ideas and art forms from their native soil’ (46).

4The suggestion is that the cosmopolitan is a tone or a stance, not in any sense a theme or a motif. To be understood as a deflection of the blunt thrust of definitional interpellation. If therefore one is still cabined and confined within categories of exclusive definition, one has not become attuned to the finer distinctions which literary cosmopolitanism both requires and enables. Before Wilde, Pater is summoned up in Stefano Evangelista’s hinting at the procedures of a cosmopolitan subtlety of discrimination: Pater ‘now associated cosmopolitanism with habits of discrimination and comparison that characterized good criticism: it denoted a type of intellectual distinction that combined power of observation with the capacity to situate one’s point of view always in a longer historical perspective and in relation to the wider world’ (2). Literary cosmopolitanism might thus be modernist, insofar as it is inescapably modal. It will not however be avant-garde, if by that we are to understand a forward thrust whose concomitant is the obliteration of whatever has gone before.

5A sustained argument, one which addresses both the scope of our contemporary academic inquiry and the impasses of our politics, by way of an engagement with an object of cultural history—Fin de siècle literary cosmopolitanism—is presented here by Stefano Evangelista. The terms of the inquiry are set out in a substantial introductory chapter (1–31), followed by three studies of writers emblematic in their marginality: Oscar Wilde, with the focus on his writing of Salomé in French; Lafcadio Hearn, ‘another uprooted Irishman’ (75), traveller in and observer of America, notably through his exposure to and alteration by ‘the multi-layered fabric of the city’ of New Orleans (83), its people and language creolized, author of an ‘early apology of translation as a fine art’ (86), who would eventually settle (though settlement is not the appropriate term for his serial expatriations) in Japan, thus becoming a Hermes broker of things Japanese; George Egerton, born Mary Chavelita Dunne in Australia in 1859, ‘like Hearn, the child of an Irishman serving in the British Army’ (119), here focused on for her espousal of ‘The Myth of the North’, an agent in a Scandinavian turn taken by the English and anglophone cultural imaginary through her work as a translator, through the foregrounding, in her ‘psychological narratives [on] women’s spiritual journeys into what Egerton called the terra incognita of their inner selves . . . in crossing national boundaries Egerton’s women experience displacement in both body and mind, straying beyond the horizons of expectation of their contemporary society’ (121).

6Displacement and cosmopolitan venture are not therefore to be read and discounted as the conspicuous elite performances made possible, for the few, in an imperial culture of mobility and commodity. The book suggests we are to demonstrate greater patience, less critical knowingness. Cosmopolitan gestures, openings, linguistic engagements, are better comprehended as a vital necessity for these marginal figures located close to the seams or the fault lines in the imperial fabric of the culture. As to the two final chapters, Stefano Evangelista offers an interesting vignette of the periodical press of the time, focusing on ‘the short-lived ambitious magazine Cosmopolis’ (186), an initiative of the Belgian Ferdinand Ortmans between 1896 and 1898, with ‘each issue simultaneously published in London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and New York’ (189). The technical pre-conditions are those of a now continental and intercontinental print-culture. The editorial commitment is to the Goethean ideal of comprehensive exchange and understanding to be fostered by a cosmopolitan world literature. This follows after the presentation of a magazine still in mass international circulation, Cosmopolitan, its first issue, in March 1886, printed with the motto ‘The World is my Country and all Mankind are my Countrymen’ (169). That Henry James placed short stories in both publications is evidence of the breadth of the cosmopolitan readership he was aiming for. A warning also that we should avoid too sharp a demarcation between highbrow and middlebrow.

7The final chapter is entitled ‘Those Who Hoped: Literary Cosmopolitanism and Artificial Languages’. It presents the period’s two experiments in a universal language: Volapük, devised by Johann Martin Schleyer, a Catholic priest, in 1879, Esperanto, invented in 1887 by Ludwik Lazarus Zamenoff. The Cosmopolis-Cosmopolitan study and the focus on the invention of universal languages are together crucial to the slant that is achieved here on the topic of ‘literary cosmopolitanism’. If Stefano Evangelista’s book displays the kind of ‘intellectual distinction’ which Pater called for and is invoked in the introduction, if his study goes beyond the gallery of eminent literary cosmopolitans which it could have offered, had the focus been kept on Henry James and his peers, this is because it situates the iconic figures of James and Wilde within the supporting and conditioning layers of an epoch. But if the chapter on the invention of a universal language is entitled ‘Those Who Hoped’, the implication is that cosmopolitanism is to be interrogated and responded to as an aspiration or a hope, one which is utopian, still there as a possibility to be taken up.

8From the introduction, Stefano Evangelista sketches the contours of the adversary: a cultural and political nationalism which, by the end of the 19th century had consolidated its reactionary guise: ‘from being associated with liberalism and the left, nationalism turned to being, in Hobsbawm’s words, “a chauvinist, imperialist and xenophobic movement of the right, or more precisely, the radical right”’ (7). Empire is thus the global extension of the self-secure deployment of the national: ‘Increasingly, therefore, the empire provided a global stage in which the new radicalized and chauvinistic English nationalism described by Hobson clashed with other forms of progressive nationalism, such as the Irish’ (12). This, one can argue, is overgenerous to an Irish nationalism, which in its pre- or post-independence guise was scarcely or was never ‘progressive’, by any of the criteria through which we might substantiate what it is we mean when we say ‘progressive’, if by that we refer to a liberality in the tolerance of differences and in the performance of refining distinctions. Wilde, Hearn, Egerton were never to be counted among the tutelary figures of a post-independence southern Ireland. If the idea of progress and the progressive suggests a linearity of historical necessity, then nationalism before and after 1914 was unquestionably the most powerful world historical agent of the epoch, its coercive preemption of possibilities proving far more effective than the claims of any cosmopolitan liberal democracy or any cosmopolitan social democracy. If we were to name the emblematic figure of Stefano Evangelista’s adversary in the book, we might suggest J. R. Seeley, quoted here for his remark in a lecture on Goethe, on the ‘cosmopolitan characterlessness of his early years’, which he outgrew ‘to become a fully-fledged German author’ (42). Seeley was an exemplary late Victorian imperialist, his pronouncement on what is and what is not ‘characterless’ offered out of a security of judgement that is as consummately national imperial as his writings on the ever-fortunate effects of English imperial expansion.

9In the short conclusion, titled ‘Citizens of Nowhere: One Last Ghost’ (256–59) Stefano Evangelista comes back to Wilde, quoting his remark in ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ that ‘A map of the world which does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing’ (257). He also quotes Lafcadio Hearn, who in an 1889 essay published in Harper’s wrote of a kind of ghost that is the fellow traveller of the cosmopolitan subject: ‘the sum of all lost sympathies brought into being by the impossible desire to encompass the whole world’ (258). While it is always possible to produce a reading of the cosmopolitan moment which unquestionably imploded in 1914, that will allow the cultural historian to tick off the symptoms suggesting that literary cosmopolitanism of Fin de Siècle or Belle époque Europe was always the mere side effect of an imperial capitalism, concomitant of an elite culture of conspicuous consumption, what is thus ignored are the subtler suggestions that are being offered in the inquiry carried out here by Stefano Evangelista. Literary cosmopolitanism, Stefano Evangelista suggests, is not une extension du domaine de la littérature : extension du domaine is a riff on an expansionist imperial trope. Those who write their strident opposition to a perceived cosmopolitanisme, Moréas or Barrès (58–60), or their English counterpart, J. R. Seeley, subscribe to a programme of imperial self-affirmation and aggrandizement. Does literary cosmopolitanism perhaps work a shedding of pieties and securities rather than a progressive accumulation of the freight of wordly experiences? Hearn’s evocation of ‘ghosts’ has affinities with James’s suggestion of haunting disturbance, the intensive effect of an enduring dispossession, of the cosmopolitan traveller’s not being at home anywhere. The conclusion to the book carries a more secretive and intimate suggestion than we might harbour, were we to cling to a comprehension of ‘literary cosmopolitanism’ as a glittering surface effect of the imperial or imperial-capitalist extension of reach, before the fatal collapse of 1914. And if literary cosmopolitanism is not une extension du domaine, then it is not to be comprehended as ‘always and only, ‘merely’, an effect of late 19th-century commodification, derivative of an imperial capitalism.

10Back to the cover. Literary cosmopolitanism is attentive to the recalcitrant specifics of languages, which are not to be dissolved, not to be erased or written off in any sweeping gesture of judgement. In that sense, yes, we read the book from the cover. Immediate impressions do matter, notably the threshold image of the painting by Oda Krohg, an invitation to absorption and to the suspension of judgement. To proceed slowly. Having come to the end of Stefano Evangelista’s book, the reader has been alerted to quieter and more convivial resonances in the designation ‘Citizens of Nowhere’. Lafcadio Hearn is the threshold god in whose company we close the book. Here is Stefano Evangelista’s final troping of ‘nowhere’, by way of the figure of Hearn’s ‘Composite’: ‘a combined image of the people and places that his “civilized” or modern nomads have left behind in the course of their lives’, ‘the sum of all lost sympathies’ brought into being by ‘the impossible desire to encompass the whole world’ (258–59). The suggestion is that it is as the sum of ‘lost sympathies’ that sympathies live on, reverberating in a cosmopolitan literature and in lives lived in planetary place and displacement.

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Cornelius Crowley, « Stefano Evangelista, Literary Cosmopolitanism in the English Fin de Siècle, Citizens of Nowhere »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 96 Automne | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2022, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/12059 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cve.12059

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Cornelius Crowley

Université Paris Ouest Nanterre

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