Academic fashions – or trends, perhaps, because it sounds a bit more neutral – are curious things. Where they come from, how they develop, at what point they cross back into the tacitly accepted mainstream that they began by leaving. I am reminded, to draw the metaphor out a bit further, of one of the short prose pieces in Christoph Ransmayer’s Atlas eines ängstlichen Mannes. It describes a tributary of the Mekong that, for part of each year, flows backward before returning to its ‘normal’ confluence with the great river. Innovation, new directions, mainstream … would it be a step too far to suggest there is something unnatural about an endless quest for novelty?
Perhaps. At any event, these watery musings began when I was thinking about an area that has become increasingly prominent in recent years – Mediterranean Studies – and how my own medievalist research on the lands around the Baltic might relate to it.
It’s not hard to see why the Mediterranean has become one of the regions (I use the term loosely) of choice with which to think about cultural exchange and intermingling. The diversity of the material around its shores lends itself very well to questioning received notions of difference and separation, and to developing an inclusive approach to a common or shared space that replaces approaches fragmented along the lines of nations, disciplines, or languages.
And yet there is a sense in which focusing on this particular part of the world is, in its way, surprisingly conservative. It happens to include the homes of the two classical civilizations that are central to the canonical self-image of Western culture. It happens also to contain areas associated strongly with what would once have been referred to as ‘world religions’. There would be a certain irony if this meant that the pursuit of an approach to literary and cultural history that aspires so pointedly to inclusiveness and drawing new connections – became bound up with specific areas and sets of disciplines to the exclusion of others.
As someone who works primarily on German and related languages, I obviously have a vested interest in all of this. I also, as I tried to indicate in the first version of this blogpost, think that we would do well to reflect a little bit more on how the contemporary political situation in Europe relates to positions and priorities in research of this kind. In the present rewriting, though, I’ve decided to save that for another time and place, and instead get straight to the point: my own field has a contribution to make to thought on shared cultural spaces as well.
And so, without further ado, here are three reasons why it is worth seeing – the pun was, in my defence, accidental – the Baltic alongside the Mediterranean when it comes to formulating new ways of thinking about the literature of Europe and beyond.
1. Physical geography. The Baltic is, like the Mediterranean, an enclosed sea with an opening to the west. This not only provides a starting point for more theoretical reflection (e.g. on the configuration of such ‘hollow spaces’). It also provides a point of comparison that allows the two areas to be seen alongside each other, both in general terms and with respect to specific thematic questions (e.g. nautical voyaging as a means of transfer and exchange).
2. Europe. Part of what makes the Mediterranean so interesting is its potential to support reflection on what ‘Europe’ actually means: this is obvious from the transition to Asia and Africa that it embodies. At first glance, the Baltic might not appear to lend itself to such questions. But it does if one looks toward its eastern end and modern-day Russia. It also does so, I would suggest, in more historically nuanced ways. Think about such things as colonization along the Baltic coast, or the conversion of Scandinavia, in the Middle Ages. They are equally relevant to understanding ‘Europe’ because of the insights they give into the historicity of the concept.
3. Comparativity. Drawing connections like this would also be a way of building a bridge between Medieval Studies and fields such as Comparative or Global Literature. Spaces such as enclosed seas make it possible to obtain the structural legitimacy that can otherwise be elusive: medievalists need to do more than abitrarily cherry-pick texts to set alongside each other if we want to be comparative in a meaningful way. It is not hard to see, finally, that the logical next step is to look futher afield to other parts of the globe. Black Sea. Persian Gulf. Perhaps even – to return to the beginning – the South China Sea, into which the Mekong flows. But that runs into questions of definition that are too much for this blog post. You can start thinking about them for yourselves by looking at this map on Wikipedia, or (if you have access via JSTOR) this article on enclosed and semi-enclosed seas.