Saturday, June 25, 2016

Nationalism and the Humanist


I know it will be hard to read this post as anything other than a response to Britain's decision to leave the U.K. That decision certainly precipitated this. But it only provides an occasion to voice some thoughts about a set of ideas I've been considering for a long time—the past five years or so. And my thoughts, which are mainly about nationalism as a global force, are not mainly about the U.K. alone—nor do I think that nationalism was the only reason why one might have voted to leave. (It obviously wasn't, and I don't claim it was.)

In particular, I've been thinking about nationalism as a force in global politics and modern global history. My analysis is that of a cultural scholar, not a political scientist, and it may come as a surprise to some of you that I have been thinking a lot about this, because it's not high on the list of my obvious published interests. A lot of my ideas take the form of broad generalizations without hard data, and some feel so blindingly obvious that I worry I'm speaking in platitudes. But I haven't seen anyone concisely express what I see anywhere, so I hope that sketching these out here might be of some value.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Diary: The death of Arthur

Arthur Hallam, remembered. (From Wikimedia.)
This week at work, I spent some time with a 1832 letter from Arthur Hallam to Emily Tennyson, as well as Martin Blocksidge's biography of Hallam. Hallam, the closest friend of Alfred Tennyson, died suddenly of an aneurysm at age twenty-two; the grief that the future Poet Laureate felt eventually gave rise to the great 1849 poem In Memoriam A.H.H., still one of my favorite works of literature. The last time I read it was in the summer after my sophomore year of college; I was just shy of twenty, studying abroad during the break in Cambridge, walking the same streets that Hallam and Tennyson had wandered 180 years earlier. Reading about them then, they belonged in the same patinated category of the historical as everything else I read for the first time that summer—Middlemarch, Hard Times, Cardinal Newman. And above all, there was the sense that the things they did and wrote were the products of people older than I was—like most literature. (Keats wrote his odes at age twenty-four! I still had five whole years to go until I was twenty-four.)

How unheimlich to revisit the story of Hallam now, on the other side of college, almost exactly six years later. Now I can really understand what it would mean to have died at twenty-two—myself, or one of my friends. Beyond that, it's surprising to find that, with time, I have grown less impartial, and more judgmental, toward young men like Hallam. It's the kind of judgment that comes from now having been there in roughly the same spots as Hallam and Tennyson found themselves—both in school and fresh out of it. At nineteen, I found it easier to treat their life decisions as historical abstractions: they were making career choices and impulsive travel plans, falling in love and out of friendships, in a sociological framework that no longer exists. I had anthropological detachment.