Reviews

Mary Anne Perkins, Nation and Word: 1770-1850: Religious and Metaphysical Language in European National Consciousness. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1999. ISBN: 185928-286-5. Price: US$94.95.[Record]

  • David P. Haney

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  • David P. Haney
    Auburn University

Mary Anne Perkins's Nation and Word, 1770-1850 shows many of the strengths of her important study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's mature metaphysical theology, Coleridge's Philosophy: the Logos as Unifying Principle (Oxford, 1993). As in the previous work, she brings together a diverse group of Romantic-era ideas in which language, philosophy, and theology are interwoven in complex ways. Perkins presents a very different kind of history from that to which we have become accustomed in Romantic studies: instead of anecdotal detail and the elevation of material culture, this study self-consciously embraces a traditional notion of the history of ideas, arguing for the real political effect, both positive and negative, of unified philosophical concepts. The idea of the "nation," which emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but which is highly relevant to the late twentieth century's proliferation of nationalisms, is examined along the three interrelated axes of language, theology, and national identity. She focuses mainly on the development of nationalism in Germany, England, and France, with some interesting additional attention given to Slavic forms of nationalism in this period. Perkins begins by establishing the importance of the link between the evolution of national identity and vernacular language, a link informed by Romantic interest in the origins of language and rooted in the earlier vernacular translation of the Bible in England and Germany. The rise of the vernacular enabled the identification of Protestantism with patriotism in those two "nations" (even before German political unification), specifically through a Romantic connection between the "Word" as the divine logos of John's gospel ("In the beginning was the Word . . .") and language as the expression of national character. In France, by contrast, language was connected to national identity on social and political rather than on philosophical or spiritual grounds: French was the language of enlightenment and freedom. In any case, the laws and processes governing language are found by many writers of this period to be parallel with the development of political entities, and for the Romantics language, rooted in the divine logos, becomes a performative world- and nation-creating dynamic force. This confluence permits German culture, in the writings of Fichte and Schelling, to view itself as a linguistic unity fulfilling the a prophetic Christian mission, and it enables even the secularized French unity of linguistic and political destiny (which was accompanied by its conservative, Catholic other side). The Romantic interest in the complexities of the symbol helped fuel a transference between biblical and political prophecy. Prophetic language appeared in national senses of mission and in revolutionary rhetoric. This is not exactly a "secularization" of religious prophecy, but a symbolic rather than literal appropriation of it, enabled by the constitutive, performative role of language that could further national identity and engage in a dialectical relationship with history itself. National missions were interpreted variously: England's was based on historical and political example, Frances's on a revolutionary political revelation, and Germany's on the civilizing influence of its intellectual, artistic, and cultural achievement. Judaism played a positive and a negative role in this process, both as the archetype of the chosen nation (for Coleridge and Rousseau) and, particularly in Germany, as the outcast nation to be replaced by modern, often explicitly anti-Semitic nationalism. Messianic nationalism adopted either the Slavic model of the nation as parallel to the suffering Christ, or the German model of the divine-human archetype of the heroic individual. Following Coleridge, Perkins argues that the "idea" of the nation is incarnated in particular discourses including law, sovereignty (the monarch both as divinely anointed and as representative of the general will ...