Are their intellectuals better than our intellectuals, asks modern Greek literature specialist Gregory Jusdanis.
“Our”, in this case, means American, and “their” means – well, pretty much anywhere else, but preferably somewhere where they are not too rich and a bit oppositional and anti-Yankee.
“In Istanbul last month,” writes Jusdanis, “I rediscovered what I treasure whenever I go abroad: the well-roundedness and cosmopolitanism of intellectuals in comparison with whom we here appear narrow and specialized. They seem to have mastered their own respective literary traditions, are knowledgeable about American writing, and are well-versed in world literature as well. They make a point of reading in traditions outside of their own.”
Over the years, he has noticed in conversations with Greek intellectuals “their command of world authors”. They all appeared to read regularly the TLS, New York Review of Books, and often the London Review of Books. And this has led him to dwell on the disparity in interest and command of world literature between intellectuals he meets abroad and those in the United States and to question the distinction between margins and centre. “Who,” he asks “is provincial and who cosmopolitan?”
But is the New York Review of Books not read in New York (and Ohio) as well as in Greece, the TLS and the LRB in London, Newcastle, Swansea and Dublin?
Jusdanis is certainly on to something when he writes that “[p]eople in imperial centers don’t feel the same pressing need to learn other languages or have foreign works translated into their own tongues. Complacent in being on top of the world, they don’t experience the anxiety of being late or being peripheral.” He may to some degree be viewing his foreign intellectuals with rose-tinted spectacles (I too have a tendency to think that “foreign” equals wonderful), but it is probably the case that in general not having English as one’s native language makes one more likely to read more widely and know more things.
But surely being peripheral geographically can also often feel like being peripheral intellectually. Perhaps the Greek intellectuals who devour the New York Review of Books, TLS and LRB do so because there is no Athens or Salonika equivalent which excites them quite so much or has quite so wide a perspective and reach. It would scarcely be surprising if an intellectual journal emanating from the Greek capital should concern itself – particularly at this time – with national problems, perhaps almost to the exclusion of other concerns. And this is all very fine, but as Conor Cruise O’Brien once said a propos of whether Ireland should or should not join the European Economic Community, “I don’t want to be all alone in the dark with Cathleen Ni Houlihane.”
Sean O’Faolain and Peadar O’Donnell kept a major intellectual journal (the subject of a recent drb essay by George O’Brien) with an international perspective going in Ireland throughout the supposedly dark days of the 1940s and early 1950s. The Bell finally went under in 1954. During the much better economic times of succeeding decades nothing very substantial in literary journal form ever came along to replace it. Did Irish people in their more affluent state feel that they no longer really needed to think about their circumstances (to “have a national conversation” as we say in post-Robinsonian Ireland), or were they just for the most part content with what they could hear from London?