The Relevance of Cosmopolitanism

By Joseph O'Neil

I have always been very aware that literature is subject to categorization by nationality, partly because none of the resultant categories easily includes me or, indeed, my writing. I was born in Ireland, as befits an O’Neill, but what followed was a hotchpotch in which even the question of a native tongue was unclear. My Turkish mother spoke French to me, my Irish father English. At preschools in Mozambique and Turkey, I picked up and forgot infantile Portuguese and Turkish (and never understood the Arabic in which my maternal family chattered). When I was 5, in Iran (where apparently I involuntarily learned some Persian), an American family friend taught me how to read and write in English. Then came the Netherlands, where I went to British and French international schools and equipped myself with memories of a marginally Dutch childhood. Then, after a decade as a Londoner, I spent a decade in New York, where I added a U.S. passport to my Irish one.

As a writer, I have found all of this somewhat oppressive. Practically every writer can make unself-conscious use of autobiographical cultural stuff in the knowledge that it will ring a bell with a communal, very often national, audience, which then may become the writer’s core readership. As for multicultural or multiethnic novelists, most can choose to occupy territory complicated by merely a single hyphen (African-American, Korean-American) and settle there, at least for the purposes of handy professional identification. I haven’t had this option: there are few Irish-Francophone- Turkish-Dutch-Londoner-American lots out there. True, it’s always been open to me to do a Conrad or a Kafka and elevate myself by genius into a universal stratosphere. But that requirement seems a little unfair, not to mention tricky.

Lately, however, it has come to seem that personal placelessness may no longer be quite so anomalous. The increasingly unruly and powerful flows of information and capital and humans mean that boundaried worlds, including nation-states, are leakier and more permeable than ever. The laws of cultural causation are changing accordingly, with interesting literary consequences. Take the question of hierarchy. Artistic predominance has always been closely connected to national power: recently, books about Newark Jews, say, have excited the borderless attention once provoked by fictions of Hertfordshire gentry. But economic power is increasingly deconcentrated and diffuse, and so too literary authority. A Keralan fiction (in English) is more likely to be hegemonic than a Kansan one. Ditto a play set at Microsoft versus a play set in Maine.

More profound is the question of moral authority: a writer, however properly self-oriented, must usually, in order to write to others, be perceived to write for others. The moral authority of modern novelists, like that of modern governments, generally arises from communal legitimation. Because a Zemblan author writes in Zemblan about Zembla for Zemblans, he enjoys Zemblan legitimacy; therefore (in accordance with the literary comity of nations) he becomes legitimately of interest to non-Zemblans, too. Conversely, because Milan Kundera, say, no longer writes in Czech as an autochthonous Czech(oslovak) about matters Czech(oslovakian), but rather in French as a naturalized French citoyen du monde, his moral authority qua writer is put in doubt, because he is perceived as writing for no legitimizing community. (Beckett transcended this problem but, as with Kafka, see under: Genius, nonapplicability of rules to.) That is, until now. Here one comes to the issue of cosmopolitan (or, twisting the idea a little, post-national) literature.

There is a venerable tradition of being critical of nationalism and its assumptions. Nationalism proposes that a person’s freedom is justly maximized if the obligations limiting that freedom are set by the group with which he has most in common—i.e., his nation. A Frenchwoman’s freedom is best entrusted to a French government. Cosmopolitanism, by contrast, proposes that, as an ethical and therefore political matter, a person can belong only in a global community. Therefore a person’s freedom is qualified by obligations to others arising irrespective of the nationality or proximity of the other, or—nodding to the contribution of Emmanuel Levinas—l’autre.

The relevance of cosmopolitanism is fast becoming more than theoretical. As a matter of daily reality and to a degree previously unknown, we are faced with the experiences of others everywhere. This imposes new demands on consciences and nationalistic categories. Literature is not immune from such demands; one might even suggest, since we writers are concerned with reality and conscientiousness, that literature should be unusually interested in these demands. This does not mean that a new artistic regime is upon us. Writers, in order to produce something truly worthwhile, must be ruled only by their deepest impulses, which can come from anywhere and lead in a million valuable directions. But it does seem that those who internalize the new world have every chance of writing something newly interesting.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/08/the-relevance-of-cosmopolitanism/307530/