Nationalism and Modernism: A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations and Nationalism

Nationalism and Modernism: A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations and Nationalism

Nationalism and Modernism: A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations and Nationalism

Nationalism and Modernism: A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations and Nationalism

Synopsis

The first major study in over three decades to explore the essential arguments of all the major theoretical interpretations of nationalism, from the modernist approaches of Gellner, Nairn, Breuilly, Giddens and Hobsbawm to the alternative paradigms of van den Bergh and Geertz, Armstrong and Smith himself. In a style accessible to the student and the general reader Smith traces the changing view of this hotly discussed topic within the current political, cultural and socioeconomic arena. He also analyses the contributions of such historians, sociologists and political scientists as Seton-Watson, Reynolds, Hastings, Horowitz and Brass. The survey concludes with an analysis of post-modern approaches to national identity, gender and nation, making it indispensable reading to all those interested in gaining full and authoritative knowledge of nationalism.

Excerpt

When Benjamin West was working on his celebrated painting of The Death of General Wolfe in 1770, he was visited by Archbishop Drummond and Sir Joshua Reynolds, who warned West not to paint Wolfe’s death scene, unless he were to ‘adopt the classic costume of antiquity, as much more becoming the inherent greatness of…[the] subject than the modern garb of war’. Whereupon West, we are told, replied that

the event intended to be commemorated took place on the 13th September 1758 [actually 1759] in a region of the world unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and at a period of time when no such nations, nor heroes in their costume, any longer existed. The subject I have to represent is the conquest of a great province of America by the British troops…. If, instead of the facts of the transaction, I represent classical fictions, how shall I be understood by posterity!

(John Galt, The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West, Esquire, London, 1820:2, 46-50, cited in Abrams 1986:14)

Nationalism, in West’s understanding, is not the exclusive property of the ancients, nor is heroic self-sacrifice for one’s country. It is as much a phenomenon of the modern world as of the ancient. When the painting was finished, Reynolds, we are told, relented, and predicted that West’s painting would ‘occasion a revolution in the art’. He hardly realised that West was, in fact, one of the very first to portray a revolution in the style and content of politics, proclaiming an upheaval in society that has continued to our day.

Of course, we are privileged with the hindsight of that posterity to which Benjamin West, and the new age of which he was a child, had begun to appeal. We can see, as he could not, that he was painting an early icon of one of the great pillars, and forces, of modernity. Yet, when we look at his painting, it seems as old-fashioned as it is revolutionary. For, beneath the modern dress and the accessories of modern warfare, West has composed a pietà, a religious image of the dying hero as Christ. His painting, like that of Marat Assassiné by David, looks back to a Christian past, even as it looks forward to the modern age of secular nationalism. Perhaps, West is telling us, heroic self-sacrifice for king and country . . .

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