The Love of Strangers
At a time when the very concepts of nationhood and citizenship are being questioned, it is almost uncanny that Stefano Evangelista is discovering that exactly the same debates were happening over a century ago.
His AHRC Fellowship ‘The Love of Strangers’ was begun not long after the then Prime Minister David Cameron called a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, and unleashed a debate about British identity in a global world.
Evangelista’s work on 19th-century literature shows that the 1890s – a decade that coincided with the height of British Imperialism – also saw extensive discussion of what it meant to be a cosmopolitan. As Evangelista argues, cosmopolitanism – an idea derived from the Ancient Greek for ‘world citizen’ – offers a radical alternative to nationalism, asking individuals to imagine themselves as part of a community that goes beyond national and linguistic boundaries. Evangelista says that cosmopolitanism gave rise to new ways of writing, reading, translating and circulating texts, creating new understandings of individual and national identity, new forms of ethics and new configurations of aesthetic and political engagement.
Nationalists, whose views by and large dominated the late nineteenth-century British press, accused cosmopolitans of being out-of-touch, unpatriotic and unethical. The cosmopolitans themselves, however, subscribed to a very different code of ethics that looked beyond the boundaries of nation and language, and towards an inclusive notion of citizenship. It is little wonder that cosmopolitanism became a particularly attractive notion for the disenfranchised: women, sexual radicals, exiles and religious and political dissenters.
“19th-century journals and newspapers staged this kind of debate over the notion of national citizenship, world citizenship and patriotism. Until a few years ago [cosmopolitanism] was a word that was used very rarely and now all of a sudden it’s used a lot in political discourse once again,” says Evangelista. In her speech to the Conservative Party conference in November 2016, for instance, Theresa May referred to the idea of ‘world citizenship’, when she stated: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
“Cosmopolitanism is often set against patriotic citizenship – citizenship that is about getting on with people on your street, with the people from your town – but if you look at the history of this concept, there is no opposition between the two. There isn’t even an opposition between being patriotic and being cosmopolitan”, explains Evangelista.
Evangelista argues that drawing parallels between world citizenship and a liberal metropolitan elite might be politically convenient – but it is a misreading of the history of cosmopolitanism as a philosophical idea and as a lived experience. He says cosmopolitanism cuts across classes and races – and that global migrations, up to and including the present refugee crisis, reveal how important it is to see cosmopolitanism as a broad and inclusive category that facilitates identities and ways of being.
“Back in the 19th century, some people used to draw pictures to show how citizenship works,” says Evangelista, who points to the use of the image of concentric circles as an illustration of the concept. “George Eliot uses that: you start from allegiance to your family and then you go on to your village, your town, et cetera et cetera. You grow ethically and as a human being, and you can embrace the whole of the world. As it grows to an outer circle and further out, you’re not cancelling the loyalties that are inside, you’re progressing.”
Another image that was popularly used was a series of steps to indicate progressions of differing loyalties.
“In the context of the 19th century and the British Empire, you have the idea of being loyal to the nation but also being loyal to the Empire,” says Evangelista. “Loyalty, national loyalty, is a series of steps, and you can progress higher and higher, but as you go higher you don’t actually lose touch, you progress - it doesn’t mean you lose touch with your community.”
Evangelista is keen that his research in drawing together the links between these ideas of cosmopolitanism and patriotism has an impact today – and he suggests that politicians and policymakers would benefit by understanding that the two concepts are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
“Cosmopolitanism is linked to ideas of migration and mobility, which are pretty classless – migrants, economic migrants, are not a phenomenon of now. Some of the authors I work on are Irish migrants who went to America, so not [people who were] economically privileged at all; the notion of world citizenship, of cosmopolitanism, enabled them to forge an identity for themselves which was the product of not being in a privileged position. It’s not something that only rich people can make, [it’s] something into which people are forced by underprivileged economic and social situations, and they turn it into a strength, they turn it into a positive identity.”
He says that the same thing happened for those outside the societal power structures.
“Cosmopolitanism became attractive to women precisely because they felt they had a different bond to the nation than their male peers - that they could build and connect with a different type of community across borders,” he says. “[Oscar Wilde] was repeatedly attacked for being unpatriotic when he wrote Salomé in French. What is particularly interesting is that Wilde was sent to prison in 1895 for homosexual offences, and at that point, when he was being tried and found guilty for those offences, in the press he was also being criticised again for being unpatriotic. Patriotism and citizenship had nothing to do with what he was actually being tried for, which was to do with sexuality. But that rhetoric was used in a punitive way, in order to create a barrier around someone who came from outside, from Ireland - that rhetoric of being unpatriotic can be used in very different contexts, it’s a very flexible one.”
Evangelista had initially wondered whether he would find the idea of cosmopolitanism fading during the 19th century as the nation states rose and empire extended. In fact, the opposite happened.
“The debate on cosmopolitanism emerges in moments when there is a stark polarisation between cosmopolitanism and nationalism,” he says. “And, I think, the same thing is happening now - at [this] moment.”