"Feeling" for the nation?
This seminal text about nationalism, first published in 1983, seems particularly useful today, when new forms of nation-ness can be perceived in a muting world balance. Anderson sets the origin of the idea of nation in the Middle Ages, when some
languages ceased to constitute the privileged access to the truth, the idea that communities were ruled by élites endowed with divine powers faded away and a new historical consciousness began to emerge. All these factors are unavoidably intertwined with the emergence of what Anderson calls “print-languages”, some selected groups of vernaculars which became official and assumed a status of power in relation with other sub-standard varieties.
The role of language in constituting the idea of nation is emphasized throughout the book, especially when Anderson discusses the relationship between native languages and imperial languages in colonized territories, in particular referring to the South-East Asian territories. It immediately reminded me of another good read, “Empires of the Word” by Nicholas Ostler (2005, Harper&Collins).
Anderson coined the expression “imagined communities” which resumes the whole meaning of his book: nations are historical products, the constructs of collective imaginations triggered by a convergence of historical events.
As any articulate thought about nationalism suggests, it always important to reflect upon the value sometimes attributed to these historical constructs. Are really worth sacrifice? Blood? Anderson does not give any answer, on the contrary, trying to be as scientific as possible, he aims at analyzing the existent, which is that “it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism - poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts - show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles” (141).
As this year Italy is celebrating its 150th anniversary as a nation, this book seems more apt than ever. In the song festival “Sanremo” the Italian actor Roberto Benigni exalted the patriots who died for the Italian flag during the Risorgimento. He highlighted their youngness, their limitless love for this “idea” which was only in their head yet. And he chose to interpret one of these young soldiers who, going home at dusk, tired of the daylong fighting and aware that he is risking his own life every day for an idea/ideal, first mutters and then sings “Fratelli d’Italia”, that will become the Italian national anthem a short time afterwards.
What does Anderson say about anthems? “The image: unisonance. Singing the Marseillaise, the Waltzing Matilda, the Indonesian Raya provide occasion for unisonality, for the echoed physical realization of the imagined community” (145).
What do I say? I must confess: I was nearly crying when he sang it. I am not sure I feel nationalist, much of what I intellectually like goes in the opposite direction, but I can not deny that I miss my country when I am abroad and that I “feel” something towards it. This constitutes evidence that the imagined community is real in our heads and our hearts, no matter how much we try to suffocate it rationally. This does not mean it should exist, I am only testifying.