Brazen Giant with Conquering Limbs

The title is from Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus", which was excerpted in Knopf's poem-a-day series in a passage from Esther Schor's Emma Lazarus. The passage reminds us of the initial mockery that greeted the monumental Liberty Enlightening the World, which bears in its title and land of origin the French ties to the New World. I think these ties highlight the problem behind contemporary claims to "world citizenship", which are levelling in their shared, "enlightened" philosophy.
While it appears that civilization has reached a philosophical ideal, I would argue: not so fast. Auerbach, in "Philology and Weltliteratur" explains a point that extends beyond literature, and which I will paraphrase for this larger context: the point of being a "world" citizen ceases to be "at once realized and destroyed" once this "world" is a standardized world that speaks a single literary language.
I got the impetus to write this post, which has been a long time coming (and will likely spill into further posts), after reading a post on this topic by a blogger I really admire. The post is nominally called "The Man from Nowhere" - but this formulation is a riposte to the Theresa May comment that, "If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere." It is important to clarify the provocation behind the post, because I am sure many will therefore question why I am taking issue with it. But I do have a point of contention: namely, world citizenship, in my understanding and experience, is less something that can be claimed than it is aspirational - read: ideal. Once it is claimed, it is levelled, beneath a "brazen giant with conquering limbs".
Tension and disagreement must remain: this is a prerequisite for "fruitful discourse", which is to be differentiated from "imposed uniformity" (I use Auerbach's terms). Plutarch's Socrates says he is a citizen of the world, wherein world is defined as comprising universal truths; but knowing Socrates' view on the attainment of truth, we should be wary of the implications of this affiliation.

It is no accident that the post on the topic of world citizenry that I took issue with was posted by a scientist (specifically, a historian of science).
Christopher Prendergast, in "The World Republic of Letters" explains that the enlightened 17th and 18th century "literary republic" - which, I'll add, often stands as the ideal of world citizenry called on to this day - comprised scientists and philosophers, and not writers and poets, which, I need to emphasize, is critical to recognize. Jebb, for example, writes in "Humanism in Education" : "there is a danger lest analogies drawn from studies conversant with different material should be pushed too far, and what is called the scientific spirit should cease to be duly tempered by aesthetic and literary judgement". Prendergast also emphasizes that these scientists of the "literary republic" were engaging in scientific dialogue, in which national characteristics were irrelevant.
That said, I don't think that co-mmunication can be possible without the existence of universals, which are what sentient human beings aspire towards. But expecting that they are a birth right or something some of us can call on from our global family legacy is presumptuous. From a cultural perspective, even natives can feel alienated from fellow natives; even those who ostensibly share the same universal beliefs can feel alienated through the manifestation of those beliefs.
It is important to distinguish ideals from reality; it is important to distinguish the universal from the standardized lest we are to be conquered by giants of our own making.

Brush: Misprinted Type.

No comments:

Post a Comment