Citizens of the Cosmos: An Introduction to Literary Cosmopolitanism, Winter 2016 Svpplement

by André Forget

André Forget is Reviews Editor and a staff writer for The Puritan and an editor at Whether. He lives in Toronto.

The first person to ever call himself a “cosmopolitan” was a 4ᵗʰ century Athenian vagrant named Diogenes. Diogenes had come to the city after getting caught up in some rather shady financial business back in his native Sinope, and quickly became known for his extreme asceticism, bad temper, and often spectacularly rude publicity stunts. One day, one of Diogenes’ fellow-Athenians asked him where he came from. History has not recorded why—perhaps as an immigrant from a distant Black Sea colony, he spoke with an unusual accent, or maybe it was that Athens in the 4ᵗʰ century wasn’t all that big and strangers stuck out—but it could have been something more threatening, too: the Hellenic world was, at that time, riven by feuding city-states and proxy wars and shifting alliances, and it is possible that Diogenes, as a foreigner, was under some suspicion.

We don’t know why this Athenian was so interested in finding out where Diogenes was from, but we do know that Diogenes responded by brusquely asserting that he was a κοσμοπολίτης, a “citizen of the cosmos.” In the dangerous and unstable world of 4th century Athens, this was hardly an empty statement: an individual only had rights if they were a citizen of a particular city, and by answering as he did Diogenes put himself outside of political belonging.

And so from the very beginning, cosmopolitanism has suggested exile.

Exile, in all its shades of meaning, is a word that hangs heavy over the contents of this, The Puritan’s 5th seasonal supplement. Whether it is the Indonesian domestic worker in Noor Naga’s “Binti” who has been driven to Dubai by economic need, or the unnamed narrator who has found safety but not peace of mind in a large North American city in Yuliya Barranick’s “The Wall and the Bridge,” the forced hybridity that comes when one has been dislocated from one’s home is a ley line running through the whole collection.

But as Derick Mattern suggests in his poems “The Whitewasher of Chora” and “Profiterol,” one need not be forced to leave one’s country to feel an exile—for those who belong to marginalized populations, fear that what makes them different and distinct will be flattened out or erased makes cosmopolitanism both a matter of personal risk and a vitally necessary assertion of dignity. Martyn Wendell Jones pushes the idea even further in his personal essay “Trajectories,” suggesting that interactions across race and class lines within a single nation are some of the most profoundly cosmopolitan experiences we have, because they force us to confront the wells of otherness that exist within strangers we interact with in the most commonplace ways.

Domenica Martinello opens up a new dimension in the conversation, unweaving strands of heritage to reveal the contingency of culture. “Illiterate in three languages,” the speaker of her poem “Saucebox” struggles with the kind of mixed identity that so many in North America have been born into. For some, the poem suggests, cosmopolitanism is genetic. Telescoping out, Rudrapriya Rathore argues that it is in light of global catastrophes like climate change that we truly become “citizens of the cosmos.” In her essay on the work of the poet-ecologist Madhur Anand she explores the intersection between social and environmental crises, reminding us that “national” is not a scientific category.

These pieces fit into a long tradition of cosmopolitan literature, a tradition that has in recent years received a great deal of critical attention within academia. As the massive population movements that began with the breakdown of the European colonial order in the twentieth century have changed the demographics of Western nation-states that had before been relatively homogenous, the question of how to live generatively with difference has become an urgent one, and thinkers like Kwame Anthony Appiah, Paul Gilroy, and Martha Nussbaum have turned to the idea of cosmopolitanism as a way of answering it. All three imagine cosmopolitan values as being broadly humanistic and pluralistic, ways of reducing violence and hostility not by minimizing difference, but by encouraging people to see “humanity” as the primary locus of their identity.

But “cosmopolitanism” is a slippery word, and the political theorist who wants to use it as a panacea for post-colonial wounds should not forget that it has a shadow-side. Within a few decades of Diogenes’ grand rejection of parochial loyalties, his intellectual progeny, the Stoics, had re-constituted cosmopolitanism as a justification for the totalizing aspirations of the Roman Empire—a bit of intellectual ballet Britain would mimic centuries later to exculpate its own sanguinary attempts at global domination. Cosmopolitanism has as often been both an excuse for and by-product of imperialism as it has been a bulwark against chauvinistic nationalism.

Furthermore, while a city like Toronto can be home to a staggering array of cultural, ethnic, and religious difference, journalists like Desmond Cole have been quick to remind us that not all differences are equal. The city can celebrate the heritage of its West Indian population with one of the largest street festivals on the continent and also embrace practices that actively discriminate against this very same group—Toronto may be cosmopolitan, but this does not make it just.

Perhaps this is why literature is and has been one of the most powerful ways of engaging with cosmopolitanism. In fiction and in poetry, we have the freedom to talk about the painful scars of histories both personal and communal and the maddening challenge of living with each other’s differences; we can posit both the universality of human experience, and the experiences of very particular characters and communities confronting their own internal divisions, without needing to ever arrive at a proscription or a conclusion.

Despite its ambivalence, cosmopolitanism—as an experience and as an ideal—is something with which we must learn to live, and as Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Stranger, “There’s a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.”

I hope that this supplement, in some small way, has stepped up to it.

 


André Forget is Reviews Editor and a staff writer for The Puritan and an editor at Whether. He lives in Toronto.

☝ BACK TO TOP