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Open Access Hoe literair internationalisme organiseren? - De ‘vervlochten’ geschiedenis van de Belgische PEN-club (1922-1931)

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This article focuses on prevailing views on literary internationalism and the way it was institutionally organised and developed in the Belgian PEN Club. The organisation of the Belgian PEN and the way internationalism was set up there cannot be discussed independently of developments in the rest of the international intellectual field. It was an ‘entangled history’. I have limited myself to a comparison with other countries and literatures where it was hard to implement the original PEN model with a single coordinating branch for each nation state. What arguments were used to mark off autonomous entities from each other in an international intellectual world that became increasingly institutionalised between the wars? The Belgian case was interesting when it came to answering these questions. It was only in 1930 (formally in 1931), after lengthy discussions reflecting on these issues, that the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking authors in Belgium went their separate ways. In an article he wrote about the PEN Club in L’Europe in 1926, Stefan Zweig offered an interesting analysis of the difference between internationalism and cosmopolitanism. In Zweig’s opinion, the aims might have been more focused. The members of the club did well to opt decisively for genuine internationalism: ‘ce qu’il nous faut, c’est un internationalisme sincère, prêt à yous les sacrifices, une fidelité durable et indissoluble à la seule veritable patrie, qui est pour nous la communauté de l’esprit européen’. Has the PEN Club ever come anywhere near the ideal that Zweig outlined, the achievement of a sincere internationalism loyal to only one native land, ‘la communauté de l’esprit européen’? In fact to a certain extent it has, in that it was initially a chiefly European affair, but in other respects it has not at all. Previous research has already pointed out that, in spite of the noble aspirations of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation and the related International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, it has never been possible to become detached from the power politics of governments and from affinities with such categories as race, nation, religion, class and so on. In addition, it was all too easily assumed that resourceful institutions with complex information networks and equally complex decision-making processes would smooth away any differences. Another of the principles of the PEN Club was to encourage intellectual cooperation and in this way it expressed the cultural internationalism that first saw the light in the shadow of the First World War. Such equally ingenious constructions as the voting procedures used in the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation regulated the balance between the large and small PEN centres with their proportional expectations. There are nevertheless also major differences between the PEN Club and the ICIC. In the first place there were few indications of direct political involvement in PEN by the great powers (the symbolic significance of PEN was too small to warrant it). Another difference is that in the view of the protagonists in PEN the cultural world order was not defined by a dialogue between major ‘civilisations’. There was little or no talk in the PEN Club of any ambition to mediate between civilisations. The literary world order was defined by dialogue between autonomous literatures. The basic entities involved in the organisation of literary internationalism were literatures and cities. These were supplemented by such additional entities as (native) countries, nations, world empires and regions, but the basic foundations consisted of a metropolitan literary culture. The world’s literary system is more complex than any economic world system with its clearly identifiable dominant centre and peripheral (or semi-peripheral) areas. The PEN Club does not fit into a model that takes Paris as its absolute centre. Between the wars, Paris was at most just one of several centres. If we nonetheless persist with the centre-periphery model, the PEN Club symbolises the loss of the French centralist model of culture that applied to the old nation states of the nineteenth century. The PEN never clearly defined what autonomous literatures were, though the Belgians (and others), with August Vermeylen at the forefront, requested a vague definition. What we see here at a macro level are the same mechanisms as those for determining who could be recognised as a ‘real’ writer: everything occurred in the form of co-option. ‘Real’ writers determine who the other ‘real’ writers are by means of all sorts of mechanisms and media for consecration. Representatives of ‘autonomous’ literatures within PEN determined what the other autonomous literatures were. In accordance with this organic process, the regulations under which it was hoped to organise literary internationalism were repeatedly discussed in the course of the 1920s. It was not until the congresses in The Hague and Amsterdam in 1931 that consensus was reached. The unitary Belgian branch of the PEN Club ceased to exist at the end of the 1930s too, at the same time as the end of the discussions on the organisation of the international club. The broad, interwoven view of the Belgian PEN Club demonstrates that the Belgian compromise, with alternating chairmanship and peaceful coexistence, can also be seen as a choice made out of sheer necessity, determined in part by centrifugal literary forces in other countries. The French-speaking Belgians were especially uncomfortable with the self-confident Flemish writers in their ranks. There was never any doubt about the autonomy of French and Dutch literature in the international PEN Club. But Belgium was by no means the only country where it was hard to implement the original PEN model with its single coordinating branch in each nation state. The organisation of a Yiddish PEN (a literature without territory) saw to it that for a long time two separate branches were not tolerated in a single city. This was compounded by the fact that the problems with national and regional attachment and the urge for independence always manifested themselves together with and building on other fault lines, including those between generations and political persuasions. This was the case in Germany even before the breakthrough of fascism. It was not easy to organise literary internationalism, let alone define it.

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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Universiteit Gent

Publication date: December 1, 2011

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