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Cross-Cultural Encounters between the Mediterranean and the English-Speaking Worlds


Edited by Christine Reynier


Translatlantic Aesthetics and Culture Series, vol. 4

Bern: Peter Lang, 2011. Paperback. 216 pp. ISBN 978-3-0343-0604-1. € 42.10


Reviewed by Claire Gallien

Université Paris-Diderot


Cross-Cultural Encounters Between the Mediterranean and the English-Speaking Worlds is the fourth volume of a series entitled Transatlantic Aesthetics and Culture. The general publishing line of the series is to ‘defamiliarise subjects by adopting an outsider’s view’ on them and this approach is taken on in the volume which concerns us here through a critical analysis of the shaping role of Mediterranean cultures on 19th and 20th-c. British and American literatures. The editor of the volume, Professor Christine Reynier, who teaches at the University Paul Valéry-Montpellier III, is also involved in the co-organisation of a seminar on the subject called ‘Les médiateurs de la Méditerranée’ and in 2010 she published a critical work entitled Les écrivains anglo-américains et la Méditerranée.

This volume is comprised of a general introduction, four different parts / entries into the topic of cross-cultural encounters between the Mediterranean and the English-speaking worlds, a note on the contributors and an index. The first part discusses artistic and poetic encounters between the United States and the Mediterranean world, while the second part focuses on aspects of Mediterranean culture in Englishness and Britishness as defined by writers such as Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Basil Bunting, Jeanette Winterson, and in the mode of romance writing. The articles gathered in the third part pertain to an analysis of the reshaping of stereotypes via the (direct or imaginary) Mediterranean experience of authors such as Orwell, Marie Corelli, or Victoria Cross. Eventually, the fourth part revolves around the role of the Mediterranean in the works of literary and art critics Clive Bell and Erich Auerbach.

As stated by Christine Reynier in the introduction to the volume, the case made in many different ways in the articles of this work is that English and American civilisations on the one hand and the Mediterranean, on the other, do not constitute worlds apart. Contrary to the a priori belief in separateness, Christine Reynier argues that British and American cultures not only draw from a long Mediterranean tradition but also, more importantly, that, in the process of ‘unearthing a wide variety of Mediterranean artistic and cultural forms’, they renewed and transformed them ‘in a double process of appropriation and accommodation, hybridisation and fertilisation’ [7]. Thus, by referring to concepts which are usually used by postcolonial literary criticism (such as migration, hybridisation, third space), Christine Reynier describes the articles contained in the volume as ‘bringing qualifications to such dichotomies as the North/South divide’.

However, the introduction itself is too short to critically engage in the explanation of what is exactly meant by ‘the Mediterranean world’ or in the problematic convergence of postcolonial and Mediterranean situations. Indeed, Christine Reynier provides a very loose understanding of the term ‘Mediterranean’, based on the definition given by Braudel of a space ‘covering the diversity of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean sea, from the olive groves to the palm-tree plantations’. However, the question of differential models of investment between the olive groves and the palm-tree plantations is not discussed here, nor is the political and ideological subtexts informing the process of appropriation investigated. The conflation of Renaissance Italy with Republican Spain and unofficially colonised Egypt, as it appears from the different articles gathered together in this volume, is highly problematic and the volume would have gained in cogency had it drawn clear distinctions between the different contexts of cross-cultural encounters and the different stakes placed in the process of cross-fertilisation. This being said, the unearthing of the Mediterranean subtext of English-speaking literature and its accommodation via spatial and textual translations open a highly stimulating field of inquiry, that takes us far beyond the Grand Tour.

Marc Smith’s article on importing Mediterranean Masters in the United States at the turn of the 20th century reflects on the changing perspectives on art which the appropriation of Mediterranean culture implied. By linking art movements to capital, Marc Smith addresses the question of ‘how market movements influenced importing and exporting countries’ and ‘how a country’s position in the art market impacted their culture and cultural perception, whether they were acquiring the artistic production of others or exporting a rich artistic heritage’? The key idea that Marc Smith develops here is one of a shift from Catholic symbolism to art as a metonymy for social power and hierarchical dominance:


The masterpieces lost their primary religious functions and were slowly stripped of their cultural specificities and were then transferable from one country to another. Time and cultural gaps make the original value and symbolism disappear. A country only imports canvas and attaches the values and symbolism that correspond to their time and society [28].

In Guillaume Tanguy’s study of The Custom and the Country (1913) by Edith Wharton, the acquisition of European art is analysed as a form of imperialism and a means of self-aggrandisement. Guillaume Tanguy exposes Wharton’s use of anti-mythology as a way to ironically deflate the impulse of her American contemporaries for art acquisition and her development of a counter-mythology (or, the rewriting of old myths) in order to highlight motives of monstrosity, voracity and mutilation. Wharton’s depiction of the interior of bourgeois households is, according to the author of this article, analogous to a mosaic, made of disparate and unfitting fragments, thus setting forth a ruthless critique of industrial capitalism.

To conclude this first part on ‘Ambivalent Encounters between the Mediterranean World and the United States’, Vincent Dussol offers a study of the American poet Ed Dorn’s Languedoc Variorum, as a personal and poetical response to the history and geography of the region. For him, Languedoc represented the land of the Cathars, a locus of heresy, where his dissenting voice would find scope to challenge poetical and political orthodoxies.

The second part on ‘Defamiliarising Englishness or Britishness as Openness to the Mediterranean’ is introduced by Fabienne Couécou, with her article on Ford Madox Ford’s appropriation of the technique of the Troubadours, namely the principles of pleasure and of ‘triple entendre’, in his trilogy England and the English: An Interpretation. By using such techniques Fabienne Couécou argues, Ford situates the other at the heart of his creative process.

Jonathan Pollock unearths another creative genealogythat of Lucretius, Bruno and James Joyce in Finnegans Wake. Jonathan Pollock explores a new dimension of Bruno’s legacy (the transposition of Bruno’s doctrine of the coincidence of opposites to the Joycean linguistic material having already been analyzed by Umberto Eco), namely Bruno’s atomism, itself derived from Lucretius’ doctrine, according to which the void has no limits and contains an infinite number of atoms moving eternally in all directions. Pollock’s careful reading of Finnegans Wake reflects on the appropriation of analogy between letters and atoms.

Claire Hélie’s article focuses on another epigone of LucretiusBasil Buntingand more specifically on the translation of De rerum natura into his Northern English poem, Briggflatts. If, as Claire Hélie argues, there is ample evidence of Lucretius’ seminal influence on the early career of the poet, after the 1960s, Lucretius’ presence in Bunting’s poems is more subtle. Yet, according to the author, this influence is more essential. Indeed, it corresponded to a period when the poet rediscovered his Northern English roots and advocated a Northumbrian Renaissance but did so through a transposition / ‘de-territorialisation’ of the scientific and philosophical contents of the Latin textnamely the notion of combination, clinamen, or slight deviation, and collisioninto the poetic form of the English poem.

Justine Gonneaud also examines the notions ‘de-territorialisation’ and ‘re-territorialisation,’ taken from Gilles Deleuze, in Jeanette Winterson’s appropriation and rewriting of the myth of the androgynous in The PowerBook (2000). Androgyny is understood here not only as a theme but as an agency power: ‘androgyny cannot be seen only as a result, as the mere addition of feminine and masculine characteristics: it asserts itself as a tool, an operator, a transformative power’ [107], thus provoking an ethical reconsideration of the relationship with the other.

As for Jean-Michel Ganteau, he offers, in his article entitled ‘Mediterranean Englishness: Another Progress of Romance’, an exploration of the European roots of contemporary English romance, or, as he puts it, of ‘the various aspects of the Mediterranean English compound’, laying a strong emphasis on the ethical turn implied by this assimilation. Ganteau argues that the recognition of this legacy is indeed based on the notion of openness, connecting the here and there, the then and now, following rhyzomatic breaks and creating a myriad of stories:


The soil of Medieval English literature proves to be foreign ground, and more specifically Mediterranean ground of both Greek and Roman origins. Chaucer’s Catholic Englishness is also ancient, Mediterranean Englishness. The fact that it should be literally trans-lated and imported through the means of romance argues in favour of a vision of romance as intrumental in establishing a pattern of relation and continuity with a Mediterranean intertext. Romance can thus be seen as a kinetic, dynamic mode, a Trojan horse allowing for the insertion of an element of heterogeneity within English culture [124].

The article by Marie-Christine Rochmann, which introduces the third part on ‘Shaping the Encounter between the Mediterranean and the English-Speaking Worlds: The Role of Stereotypes, although not directly linked to the Mediterranean world, explores the encounter between the coloniser and the colonised in the American context through an analysis of the rewriting of George Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians (1841) by the French writer Louis-Xavier Eyma in Les Peaux rouges (1854). As Marie-Christine Rochmannn asserts, the connection seems strange since both writers took antagonistic views on the Indian question. Indeed Catlin presented the treatment of the Native Americans by the Americans as outrageous, whereas Eyma legitimised the destruction of the Indians because his objective was to defend the Americans against the denunciations of the philanthropists in France. Rochmann presents Eyma’s rewriting of Catlin’s text in terms of opportunistic appropriation, using the ethnographical details provided by the American writer, and in terms of ‘twisted misappropriation,’ turning Catlin’s narrative into an Indian adventure story.

In her study of Marie Corelli’s Ziska (1896) and Victoria Cross’s Six Chapters of a Man’s Life (1903), Catherine Delyfer analyses the transposition of New Women narratives into the exotic and unofficially colonised Egypt. She contends that this transposition, or the geographical distance from Britain, allowed for a criticism of racial and sexual hierarchies, ‘thus redefining feminity and race, and ultimately undermining the notion of the white man’s burden’ [150]. She studies the formal and ideological interactions between the two genres of the New Woman fiction and the colonial fiction and explains how the colonial experience serves as context for the subversion of the marriage plot and the undermining of imperialist discourse and gender categories. However, Catherine Delyfer does not address the problematic connection between the Oriental locus, Egypt, sexual promiscuity and rape as set forth in these two successful Victorian tales. Finally, Anne-Marie Motard and Hubert Peres revisit Orwell’s experience of the Spanish Civil War and replace it at the heart of his later analysis of totalitarianism in 1984.

In the last part, on ‘Displacing the Encounter to Art Criticism and Literary Criticism: Towards a Reappraisal of the Role of the Mediterranean’, Christine Reynier proposes to re-read Clive Bell’s Art in the light of his controversial Civilisation. Indeed, even if they have up until now been read separetely, Christine Reynier proposes a reconnection of the Mediterranean values, as extolled in Civilisation, with the notion of artistic formalism, which lays at the heart of Art, and which she actually redefines as ‘cosmopolitan formalism’, or a dialogue between English individualism and Mediterranean disinterestedness [187]. Bell’s reconstructed ideal Hellenic civilisation, which he found best exemplified in the Periclean Athens, is based on disinterestedness, reason and tolerance. The result is, according to Christine Reynier, not a pure downgrading of England and Englishness but a call to change Englishness’ [182], with Mediterranean values erected as models for England to follow. Her analysis also leads to a reappraisal of formalist art as a committed form of art, based on the ethical dimension of disinterestedness.

In the final chapter, Martin Elsky revisits Erich Auerbach’s critical output from the perspective of the conflicts between centre and periphery and Auerbach’s attempt to find an alternative to German nationalism via a definition of France and Italy as centres for culture and art. 






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