Articles may take a long to mature, some more than others. One such article began 6 years ago, as a subplentary lecture at an ESSE conference, after which it was kept on the back-burner. When earlier this year the journal Languages Cultures Mediation published a CFP on cultural representation of and engagements with 'crisis', however, I was prompted to return to this text and to rethink my ideas. Like most of my recent work, the article itself deals with a geopolitical crisis: it examines how the Italian Risorgimento, which had a profound impact on the shape of English literature, did not leave a similar imprint on Irish literature. Even so, I was struck by the fact that a few Irish poets did address the Risorgimento and that in doing so they expressed a variety of positions (isolationism, catastrophism, liberalism, realism) that were informed by a complex constellation of geopolitical factors. In lieu of the abstract, I thought I'd post the introduction to this article (which can be found in its entirety here), because it illustrates how our own current geopolitical moment helped me find a new angle. The issue as a whole contains a variety of illuminating reflections the ways in which throughout history 'crisis' has played a role in different languages and cultures.
After the end of the Cold War, certain thinkers and analysts began to harbour hope for the emergence of a post-national order, in which peace would be maintained through economic interdependence and international institutions. Francis Fukuyama famously maintained that “the world in which [people from the West] live is less and less the old one of geopolitics” and that “the rules and methods of the historical world are not appropriate to life in the post-historical one” (Fukuyama 1992, 283). The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 is only the most recent reminder, however, that geopolitics, or the “influence of spatial environment on political imperatives” (Howard 1994, 132), remains of paramount importance. In one of the most-cited articles on the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, prompted by the annexation of Crimea in 2014, John Mearsheimer argues that Washington had been misguided in maintaining that the Kremlin would not interpret military actions near the Russian border as a geopolitical threat: "the two sides have been operating with different play books: Putin and his compatriots have been thinking and acting according to realist dictates, whereas their Western counterparts have been adhering to liberal ideas about international politics. The result is that the United States and its allies unknowingly provoked a major crisis over Ukraine" (2014, 84). Mearsheimer’s reliance on a contrast between liberal and realist approaches to foreign policy has been subjected to critique from various points of view (e.g., McFaul 2014, Sestanovich 2014). The role of literature and the arts in the formation as well as the response to this crisis deserves further scrutiny, however: like canaries in a coal-mine, cultural artefacts and activities may reveal aspects or perspectives that tend to remain under the radar in political analyses. The 2012 television adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard (1925), for instance, was inextricably bound to the annexation of Crimea: expanding on Bulgakov’s portrayal of revolutionary Kyiv in 1918, the series “portrays Ukraine as a hotbed of all sorts of revolutionary chaos and a place which already due to its geographical and cultural proximity poses a constant threat to the stable political order in Russia” (Zabirko 2019, 12). If anything, a consideration of such cultural interventions may help us situate geopolitical crises in their longue durée.
To further explore the ways in which culture and geopolitics are mutually constitutive issues, this article examines how the nineteenth-century struggle for the unification of Italy, better known as the Risorgimento, left an imprint on Irish literature of the Victorian age. Although the nineteenth-century Risorgimento and the contemporary situation in Ukraine are vastly apart in space and time, a juxtaposition reveals some surprising continuities in the ways in which these international conflicts are framed. While today’s Western commentators tend to talk about the Ukrainian ‘crisis’, Victorian public moralists such as Matthew Arnold addressed the Italian ‘question’ (e.g., Bevington 1953). To call a geopolitical conflict a ‘question’ rather than a ‘crisis’ is to invoke a range of assumptions. As Holly Case has argued (2018), in the nineteenth century the genre of the ‘question’ developed into a mode of public discourse that was characterised by a tendency to interweave disparate issues: by bundling various questions, thinkers could present a solution that would solve different problems in one single stroke. This discourse had different outcomes: it cleared the road for the horror of the Final Solution, but it also contributed to the establishment of a liberal world order invested in the creation of international institutions that would safeguard and maintain global peace. The Second World War seemed to mark the demise of the ‘question’ as a way of addressing societal issues, in favour of the crisis paradigm. It is telling, however, that in twenty-first-century Russia the question discourse seems to have resurfaced along with the nineteenth-century notion of a Great Game between the different Great Powers. Given the possibility that we may be “on the cusp of another age of questions […] we might do well to consider what the first one wrought” (Case 2018, xv). A reconsideration of the Italian question from an Irish point of view is a rewarding case study. As recent research has shown, Irish literature was determined not just by its place within the United Kingdom, but also by geopolitical forces that operated on a larger, global level. By situating Irish poetry of the Victorian age in the context of the ‘Italian question’, I hope to complement ongoing investigations into the geopolitics of nineteenth-century Irish literature, and to thus subject the cultural mediation of geopolitical crises to further scrutiny.