Ibsen and Cosmopolitanism: A Chinese and Cross-Cultural Perspective

By Ning, Wang | ARIEL, January 2017 | Go to article overview

Ibsen and Cosmopolitanism: A Chinese and Cross-Cultural Perspective


Ning, Wang, ARIEL


Abstract: This essay suggests that a discussion of Henrik Ibsen and his relationship with cosmopolitanism should start with the redefinition of this controversial concept. After reconsidering cosmopolitanism, I note that Ibsen's relevance to cosmopolitanism can be broken down into three topics: his cosmopolitan ideas and diasporic experience; the cosmopolitan subject matter of his plays and the global significance of his works; and his position in world literature. I analyze his most representative play, Peer Gynt, from a cosmopolitan perspective and argue that Ibsen's cosmopolitan elements find particular embodiment in the different adaptations and productions of his plays in China.

Keywords: cosmopolitanism, Henrik Ibsen, diaspora, Peer Gynt

I. Why Should We Talk about Cosmopolitanism Today?

Although cosmopolitanism became a cutting edge theoretical and intellectual trend in Western academia in the late 1990s, it has a long history, or a sort of "prehistory," dating from antiquity. It is worth revisiting this concept before dealing with Henrik Ibsen's relationship with it and his position in world literature and drama. As an interdisciplinary concept and critical discourse, cosmopolitanism dates back to ancient Greek philosophy, especially that of Diogenes of Sinope and other Stoics. Cosmopolitanism is primarily a political and philosophical concept with a strong ethical core. It tells us that all human beings--regardless of the ethnic groups, countries, or regions with which they are affiliated--belong to a single social community or a sort of "imaginary community." This notion is very close to the current theoretical discourse of globalization, according to which people live in a huge "global village" and share a fundamental set of ethical principles and rights that transcend individual nations or countries.

Literary and cultural studies scholars have long been interested in cosmopolitanism and tried to find its elements in literary works. The late Dutch comparatist and sinologist Douwe Fokkema was among the earliest comparatists in the contemporary era to deal with this topic in conjunction with comparative and world literature. In his response to globalization, he transcends the old-fashioned Eurocentric or Westerncentric view of cosmopolitanism and calls for reconstructing a new cosmopolitanism in a global context. Although globalization often results in cultural homogeneity, he is more concerned with the other pole of globalization in culture: cultural plurality and diversity (Fokkema 1-17).

As a Chinese scholar of comparative and world literature, I deal with the issue of cosmopolitanism chiefly from two perspectives: a literary and critical perspective in general and a Chinese perspective in particular. I believe that world literature is closely related to cosmopolitanism since many literary works are written both for the author's domestic readers and a broader global reading public. Ibsen's works should be viewed as world literature since his plays are mainly written for readers and audiences across different cultures. In this essay, I first offer my own tentative theoretical (re)construction of cosmopolitanism from a global as well as Chinese perspective. I argue that cosmopolitanism can be described as having the following ten characteristics:

(1) as something that transcends nationalist sentiment;

(2) as a pursuit of moral justice;

(3) as a global and universal human concern;

(4) as a diasporic and even homeless state;

(5) as something decentralizing, which pursues a pluralistic cultural identity;

(6) as in the service of human happiness and unity;

(7) as a political and religious belief;

(8) as the realization of global governance;

(9) as an artistic and aesthetic pursuit; and

(10) as a critical perspective from which to evaluate literary and cultural products. …

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