Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Orientalism and the Nineteenth-Century Nationalist: Michele Amari, Ernest Renan, and 1848

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Orientalism and the Nineteenth-Century Nationalist: Michele Amari, Ernest Renan, and 1848

Article excerpt

During the nineteenth century, European intellectuals began to overcome the repugnance for the Middle Ages that characterized early modernity. Philologists resurrected the same medieval epics once avoided as repositories of dry scholastic minutiae, or tedious records of battles fought by barbarous heroes with outmoded weaponry for unaccountable motives. During the eighteenth century, Voltaire had been able to dismiss Dante with an epigram: "No one reads Dante any more" (Caesar 46). By the middle of the nineteenth century, Dante's fortunes had shifted appreciably. In 1844, Mazzini wrote: "The thought that was in Dante is the same as that which is now fermenting in the bosom of our own epoch, and we feel this instinctively; therefore it is that we press around him with fresh ardour.... [His] aim is the national aim--the same desire that vibrates instinctively in the bosoms of twenty-two millions of men, and which is the secret of the immense popularity Dante has in Italy" (Caesar 554 and 558). The new burdens of nationhood account for this transformation in Europeans' attitudes toward the medieval. The emergence of the modern nation-state required Europeans to define their cultural identity, and to catalogue the cultural heritage of their nation. Medieval literary and intellectual history provided a wellspring of material to serve this process. (1)

This turn to the medieval past generated a revitalized appreciation for the literary monuments that Europeans now recognized as the origins of modern linguistic and cultural traditions. However, the philological enterprise brought some European scholars into contact with a very different body of linguistic and cultural history, one that could not readily be cast as a reflection of contemporary sensibilities and urges. The growth of Orientalism exposed European intellectuals to the culture of Islam (as well as the Far East). (2) The intensification of academic interest in the Orient had, like the medieval fad, roots in contemporary political actualities. During the course of the nineteenth century, the European states involved themselves increasingly in the southern and eastern Mediterranean. Orientalists might find themselves recruited to support their nations' activities as specialists who could elucidate the inscrutable languages and cultures of the regions where their nations had growing military or economic interests. However, unlike the medievalism of the nineteenth century, Orientalism had little explicit connection to nationalist sentiment. The Orientalist philologist would not, as the Romance or Germanic philologist might, emerge from the archives with a newly discovered national monument. Rather, his labors generated knowledge about a distant part of the world, one that presented a dark, dystopic mirror image of European modernity--much as the medieval had functioned, in fact, for the intellectuals of the Enlightenment.

Some nineteenth-century Orientalists, however, were also nationalist intellectuals involved as scholars or as activists with the problems of nation formation. And some European nations had had a history, during the Middle Ages, as Islamic states. For Orientalists who wrote about the origins and the history of national sentiment, or whose research focused on the Islamic history of their own nation, scholarly and patriotic concerns at times overlapped. In this essay, I will consider the careers of two scholars whose work as Orientalists presents a suggestive counterpoint to their work as nationalist intellectuals. Michele Amari (1806-89) was a Sicilian nationalist converted in midlife to Italian unification, an active figure in the Risorgimento, and the father of Sicilian-Arabic studies. Ernest Renan (1823-92) was a Semiticist remembered today chiefly for his work on Hebrew literature, for the separate peace he made with the Catholicism of his nation and his own youth, and for his penetrating essay on national sentiment, "What is a Nation? …

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