Dept. of English, Nadelberg 6, Great Lecture Hall
Progress and Primitivism: Highland Scotland, the Metropolitan Readership and James Macpherson's 'Ossian'
James Macpherson's immensely successful, but also highly controversial, Ossianic prose poems from the 1760s provide an ideal example through which we can study the confluences and conflicts between some of the most influential strands of eighteenth-century thought: on the one hand, the preoccupation with progress, modernity, rationalism, Enlightenment, supposedly universal standards of social and cultural achievement (often connected to the emulation of Classicist models), and the imposition of these standards on others by assimilating more 'backward' parts of the national population as well as by empire-building abroad; and on the other hand, counter-strands of sentimentalism, a validation of individual and cultural idiosyncracies, and a romanticisation of 'the primitive'. Macpherson moves at the interface of these strands: He came from the supposedly 'backward' Scottish Highlands which were, at that time, undergoing a radical and often traumatic assimilation into the British nation-state and capitalist modernity. Sympathetic to the plight of Highland culture, but also a believer in modern aesthetic fashions and determined to make his way in the metropolis, he 'translated' traditional Gaelic literature into a modern English form which became a centre-piece of contemporary debates on civilisation, noble savagery and national identity. Macpherson played an important role in the emergence of the Romantic movement in the later eighteenth century, and also remained a key influence on subsequent romanticised images of the 'Celtic' world until the present day.
This guest lecture introduces Macpherson and his works, charts their position within the abovementioned developments, and draws connections to more contemporary debates from late-twentieth and early twenty-first-century postcolonial studies, such as cultural hybridity, the problem of elite cosmopolitan writers with 'third-world' origins marketing themselves and their 'exotic' backgrounds as commodities for western metropolitan audiences, and related questions of commodification, complicity, resistance and subversion.
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