poetic nationalism

Daufridi said, very softly, “It is unwise to love anyone or anything too greatly, de Talair. People die, things are taken from us. It is the way of our lives in this world.”

“I have reason to know this. I have lived twenty-three years with that truth.”

“And have therefore moderated your passions?”

“And am therefore resolved that I will not live through the death of my country as I endured the death of the woman I loved.”

It would be obtuse to point out how uneasy such sentiments — even by known, loved characters, from stories we remember — make me now, and for good reason. Even before our current state of national affairs, asking us to make the leap from love of people to love of the place they call home, and the customs that shape that place as unique, is…fraught.

But I keep coming back to it. Uneasily, a little sheepishly, I admit that the stories I value most have that strong current of love of (fictional) country in them. Hell, most of them are even named after the countries in question. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Malafrena. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. In each instance, the main characters love people, but more than people they love place. And not just the receding knife-points of mountains, or the mirror of a lake, but the customs of the area that mark that place as different from all others.

Of course though — and I regret that I do this now, take things apart this way now; while necessary it is an unpleasant way to look at literature or media of any form; constantly dissecting — in each instance stated above, the characters embracing these poetically nationalist sentiments were of the aristocracy. Landed gentry, in the case of Piera and Itale of Malafrena, and the prince in the case of Alessan of Tigana. Neither author, I don’t believe, asks us to suspend our knowledge of the limits of such sentiments. Both books feature poorer people saying, essentially, that it doesn’t matter who’s in power, the rivers will still flood and life will still be hard. Etc. But their less poetic realities aren’t allowed to eclipse the flowery, insistent love of the landed aristocracy (dispossessed or otherwise) for the lands they call theirs.

I hate that I see that, as an adult looking back on tales I loved. I hate that I can look on my favorite quote from Malafrena, retrieved again and again with love:

“Is it so easy?” he said after so long that Itale, befogged with exercise, fresh air, beer, and well-being, was not sure what he was talking about. “You set out…you set out to make yourself. To make the world. All the things you must do, and see, and learn, and be, you must go through it all. You leave home, come to the city, travel, miss nothing, experience it all, you make yourself, you fill the world with yourself and your purposes, your ambitions, your desires. Until there’s no room left. No room to turn around.”

“There is, here,” Itale put in. “I told you. I’m as empty as that beer-jug. Air, sunlight, silence, space.”

“That won’t last.”

“It will. It’s we who don’t last.”

Estenskar leaned against the doorway, gazing out into the country darkness.

“Now that I know that I can’t choose,” he said, “now that I’ve finally learned that there are no choices, that I can’t make my way and never could, that it was all deceit and conceit and waste–now that I’ve given up trying to make my way, I can’t find it, I can’t hear the voice. I’m lost. I went too far and there’s no way home.”

–and question whether Estenskar’s idea of home and country remotely lines up with what the uncelebrated, unquoted people of the city think of as home and country. Estenskar, himself as much a poet as Bertran de Talair, and with a similar reputation for moving the masses to action with his words on often political topics, nevertheless speaks — his hard times notwithstanding — from a very different place than most of the populace of Malafrena (which serves as a fictional country straining under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, FYI). The mountain ranges and alpine villages and lakes and quaint country customs he writes of with, yes, love, are as accessible to him as the thronged city streets of pseudo-Vienna. Like Hemingway thumping on about Africa from the north woods of Michigan, it’s easy to sing the praises of Somewhere Else when you can afford to leave, and to pine for Somewhere Else once you have left. Even when your vaunted otherwhere is somewhere you claim, loftily, as home.

For the people who cannot leave, the rose-tinted glasses of distance aren’t a lens through which they get to look. For the people who cannot leave, poems urging them to rise up in the streets and slay those who would rule over them aren’t just words to hoist glasses to in taverns. They’re verses that can and will get them killed. In their homes, sometimes. In front of their families.

When we are asked to believe in the countries of fictional characters, and especially when the vast majority of characters we are shown from the countries in question are appealing and lovable, it can be easy — it feels good — to take them at their word. But when you put the book down and see such sentiments reflected in the real world, about your own country, it doesn’t feel good anymore.

And that sucks. It is a necessary and important resignation to make, I suppose, as someone who lives in the world, but it sucks. We want — I want — to believe in Tigana, in Malafrena, as places as beautiful and deserving of awe and affection as the characters who live there believe them to be. But the characters have time to write about their love of country only because they have the money and leisure with which to do so. And blind flag-waving is dangerous. And you have to be living under a rock not to see the consequences of that playing out today.

It makes the magic on the page less magical, honestly. Necessarily so.



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