Literature, Politics, and Nationhood
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 Shell (Comparative Literature and English/Harvard) explores the relationship of kinship to nationhood by challenging the basic assumption that we can always know the identity of our true parents. In so doing, he speaks urgently but ploddingly--and unconvincingly--about fundamental human problems. By insisting that parental ties are always in doubt--that we all could have been switched at birth, for example--Shell reassesses the concept of family as a means of analyzing Western political and social thought from antiquity to the 20th century. He contrasts the seemingly attractive motto that ``all men are brothers''--a recurrent theme in Western thought--with what he perceives to be its inevitable corollary: that those who are not my literal or figurative brothers are ``others'' or animals, not human at all, and undeserving of the rights granted to brothers. This dialectic, he contends, is the source of nationalism and other inter-group antagonisms that are the eternal scourge of Western society. A parallel argument running through the book (made with particular force in discussions of Elizabethan England and pre-Revolutionary France) holds that the metaphor of universal brotherhood has led to a idea that may lie at the source of Western anxieties about sexuality: If everyone is my sibling, then any act of sexual intercourse is incestuous. Shell spans hundreds of years, looking at, among other scenarios, the Spanish Inquisition, America's Civil War, and contemporary, bilingual Quebec. He analyzes literature from Racine to Twain and draws upon a wide body of work by sociologists, anthropologists, theologians, historians, and others to support his theories. Hugely ambitious and erudite, but repetitive and full of academic jargon. Moreover, Shell's premise about the absolute uncertainty of parenthood, while technically accurate, denies common sense--and his theory falls to take into account fully the widely accepted scientific theory of the 'selfish' gene, which dictates that genes themselves, not ideas about kinship, determine human alliances and antagonisms.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-19-506864-5
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1993