Colloquium: The Literary Construction of Cosmopolitan Identities

March 6, 2019 -
12:30pm to 2:00pm

This essay begins with a critique of several arguments against the possibility of cosmopolitan thought and practice, and therefore, of a “cosmopolitan identity”.

In the first part, it takes as a historical example various aspects of the cosmopolitanism of European Jews: was it real or imagined by antisemitic, xenophobic and nationalist citizens of Europe to justify exclusion and persecution? Was it forced upon these people by the oppression they suffered in the diaspora, or was it deliberate (and idealistic/utopian)?

The second and third parts study several manners of constructing cosmopolitan characters and collective cosmopolitan identities in literary fiction, first with the figure of Casanova, then through a detailed analysis of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Enchantress of Florence.

Some close readings lead us back to European Jews from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, with the legend of the Jewess of Toledo and its many rewritings.

Amitav Ghosh’s oeuvre and particularly his Ibis Trilogy introduce us to the represented fullness of a cosmopolitan world in the guise of a historical fiction situated grossly in the mid-19th century. But can this elaborate geographical, linguistic and symbolic construction, full of extraordinary personalities and unusual encounters, constitute a paradigm for a viable cosmopolitanism today?

The answer partly depends on what we mean by “narrative identity,” self-othering and the relational nature of selves in formation. But, in any case, literature and art can help because of their anaphoric character and the open-endedness of time in the aesthetic experience.

Reading available here


Location and Address

Humanities Center, Cathedral of Learning 602