Literature, science and nationality


Keywords: national sciences, national identity, model-centered vs. object-centered approach, (de)construction, Estonian literary history, Estonian language

The essay asks what are the relations, if any, between Estonian literary history and the (de)construction of Estonian national identity.

The essay looks at the humanities as sciences with a local object, which can be approached, however, in two different ways. The model-centered approach aims at contributing new knowledge to the model at hand, while the local material serves as a means to that end, whereas the aim of the object-centered approach is to reveal new insights into local material, while international models serve as means to the end. The two approaches have different consequences to the study of Estonian literature.

First, the model-centered approach takes no heed of the Estonian literary history as a whole,  whereas that is exactly what lies at the heart of object-centered studies. Second, the model-centered approach need not address the same traits of Estonian literature which are cherished by the object-centered research. Third, model-centered researchers prefer to think in English, using English terms, metaphors and lexical connotations, whereas an object-centered study of Estonian literature is usually a result of thinking in Estonian.

The object-centered Estonian literary history has contributed to Estonian nation-building, not after the 1930s, though. Model-centered literary research does not contribute to nation-building. Instead, it can help deconstruct the Estonian nation as the latter is greatly defined by its native language and the culture based on this language.

A literary history cerebrated in Estonian helps to build and maintain the Estonian nation. Should Estonian literature cease to be thought of in scholarly Estonian it would mean a step towards the extinction of the Estonian nation.

Note that our concern is not so much about the (however deplorable) loss of academic debates and literary history pivoting on national identity, but rather about that part of literary scholarship that normally makes its way to schools. A withdrawal of national literary history from schools threatens with a change in the ways of reading literature which are traditionally taught to students, thus contributing to the emergence new readers who fail to perceive the nation-centered aspect of any literary text. This would certainly contribute to the decline of national identity.

Tiit Hennoste (b. 1953), PhD, University of Tartu, Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics, Senior Researcher, tiit.hennoste@ut.ee


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