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A Series of International Events

Source: petersmap.com
Source: petersmap.com


This term I’ve been involved in the organisation of LitSoc’s ‘Series of International Events’, a lecture series in collaboration with Trinity’s cultural/linguistic societies, designed to bring world literatures to the forefront of our discussions each Tuesday in the Global Room.

The aims of such an event series are fairly self-evident: “to promote intercultural dialogue among the College community and encourage members to explore outside the literary canons we’re familiar with”. That’s the tagline we’ve been using. Succinct. Benevolent. Marketable. International Literature is an area in which I have a personal interest, so I benefit a lot from the events too.

But sometimes when I’m up on the podium, welcoming attendees to these events, my southern-England dulcet tones radiating outwards from an expository microphone, I meet the gazes of the audience and catch a look behind their eyes, which seems to be asking a quiet question - ‘Is there something more to these events?
Is there, dare we ask, a political undertone intertwined within the choice to host them? Is this, dare we suggest, about Brexit & how we relate to other countries?’

The answer, I suppose, is both yes and no. More no than yes, but still not no.

So, first off I ought to admit: personally I wasn’t in favour of Brexit. If you were, I respect your right to an alternate opinion, and in all honesty I’ve no idea how negotiations will really turn out, so perhaps you’re right and my apprehensions are unfounded. But to be honest I’d rather have stayed in the EU.

Nonetheless, even when there’s a bit of ‘continental drift’ going on in the diplomatic sphere of the moment, I don’t believe there has to be a similar divorce or separation at a socio-cultural level, amongst our everyday lives. In the realm of interpersonal friendships, love/romance, popular culture & the discourse of the arts – music, illustrations, cinema, TV and yes, of course, literature – the international dialogue that history has forged need not be subsumed by reshufflings in the political strata. Amongst our daily interactions we can still remain an international confraternity of individuals.

I take my model for this concept from the author Stefan Zweig and his book ‘The World of Yesterday’. Growing up in Vienna in the early twentieth-century, Zweig lived through a time when national and political differences also undercut the potential for Europe to coexist congenially, and did so on a much larger scale. Nonetheless, during the Great War, Zweig travelled to neutral Switzerland and fused with a group of prominent writers, spearheaded by Romain Rolland (a famous French novelist), whose collective aim was to promote international understanding and conscientiousness in opposition to the violence and bloodshed playing out elsewhere across Europe.

Comprising artists, musicians & polemicists from all over the Continent, such as Masereel and Guilbeaux – even brushing shoulders with James Joyce in the cafes of Geneva – Zweig & Rolland’s intellectual circle nurtured an image of mutual fraternity and communal friendship among the realm of the arts. Politically impotent as this was, their friendly interaction in Switzerland held some symbolic value within the public sphere, since comparatively over the border German & French men were uniformly murdering each other with guns and bombs and bayonets. Brexit is not remotely comparable to the scale of the First World War. It would be facetious for me to argue so.

I mention Zweig mostly for the basic template he affords to me, of a group of artistic individuals who continued to maintain fraternity & friendships, regardless of political developments happening elsewhere in the world. LitSoc’s ‘Series of International Events’ is primarily also about culture and friendships; it tries to exist outside of current politics. It’s about microcosms, not macros. It is only when viewed within the larger context of ongoing Brexit negotiations though, that the occurrence of these international events might also be seen to accrue some sort of symbolic value and didacticism, in relation to wider happenings, placed in parallel observation.

How far you want to push that association I’ll leave up to you. You are the audience, after all.

When someone asks me if I have a ‘favourite period in literary history’, I’m increasingly inclined to the twentieth century, simply because it comprises what I call ‘The Reign of the Philologists’, the omnipresence of professional translators, whose endeavours to bring us new stories, from all over the globe, expanded our literary horizons in every conceivable direction, so we can ‘live’ through the diverse experiences of authors in every location, rather than sticking to our own. Instead of remaining confined within my Anglo-centric narrative and my single lifespan, I can journey inside books, wandering with a Hungarian couple through the Umbrian mountain towns (Antal Szerb), or putter upriver in a sleepy steamboat of post-Imperial Venezuela (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), or plough the fields of Nigeria with yam farmers of the Ibo tribe (Chinua Achebe – not technically a translation, but still a literary representation which previous canons could not offer). I can go everywhere. India, Japan, Colombia, Canada, Sicily, Poland, Moscow, Prague. I can ‘travel’, I can explore, through the map of literature with a complexity and variety of destinations never available to readers before.

How much more has our understanding of the world been enriched by this opening of the original canon to a whole planet of writers? Coming to terms with the ways of other cultures teaches us that our original knowledge-base is inherently finite, it has boundaries alongside beauties, and when we step outside those borders there is no limit upon the amount of new things it’s possible to know. There’s a lot to be said for looking ‘outwards’ rather than only in.

Looking in can be helpful too. That is how we come to terms with our self-identities. The Irish Cultural Revival, for example, required the country to look ‘inwards’
to the cultural heritage that made it more distinct, as an oppositional act of definition. England too has its myths, its Arthurian legends to ground its identity. It looked inwards before it looked out. This act of self-comparison requires us to look both ways. It asks us to wear a Janus face, observing geography as well as history. Ireland looks out to the globe through its widespread Diaspora, and its inclusion in the EEC in 1973. Britain, despite its recent developments, also explores and engages with heterogeneous cultures around the world. London stands as testament to that multicultural inclination. Granted, early voyages exported certain errors of colonisation, yet they also rode the crests of the waves of curiosity.. From the vantage point of the starry-eyed sailor, who leaned upon the windswept prow, gazing wistfully out to the horizon, at a glistening, steam-wrapped coast, we glimpse the outline of a common archetype. Locked within the human psyche, there will always be some curiosity. No amount of diplomatic disjuncture, or political stipulation, will ever definitively reverse that trend. ‘History’ is a sequence of interactions, an exercise in curiosity, a much longer and variegated ‘Series of International Events’.

That same curiosity is what has driven me to decide to head on an Erasmus in the upcoming Hilary Term. I’m off to Bologna, in northern Italy, to sample the food and sunshine and culture, and broaden my experiences of the word. I love Ireland, and will miss it dearly, as I will miss the LitSoc committee, who’ve made this last term of events both pleasurable and possible. But since one side of my Janus face is a necessary nomad, those invisible winds are filling my sails and calling my soul to fly these nets, to journey across the Irish Sea. I hope that these winds will guide me safely in to the peninsular port.

Our last International Event is about Japanese Literature: Tues 5th Dec, in the Global Room, 18:30 onwards. Afterwards, all linguistic/cultural societies that we’ve collaborated with previously are invited for a ‘global gathering’ of presumptive pints. Alternately, enjoy your Xmases, have a good 2018, and I hope Trinity treats you kindly! Personally, I won’t see you, because I’ll be somewhere else.