Monday, January 23, 2006

On roots and La Patrie

I linked to an interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy on Saturday and quoted what he had to say on revolution. I also gave a quick summary of the distinction he made between the United States and France. Here is what he says in full

"In France, with the nation based on roots, on the idea of soil, on a common memory . . . the very existence of America is a mystery and a scandal." This is a particular source of pain, Mr. Lévy says, for "the right." ... America gives the French right "nightmares," as the country is based on "a social contract. America proves that people can gather at a given moment and decide to form a nation, even if they come from different places." The "ghost that has haunted Europe for two centuries"--and which gives fuel, to this day, to anti-Americanism there--"is America's coming together as an act of will, of creed. It shows that there is an alternative to organic nations."
In French, there is a word for their country, la patrie (and in Italian, la patria) for which English has no real equivalent. The literal translation would be 'fatherland', which just sounds German to our ears. You might occasionally hear 'motherland', though personally I can't remember the last time I did. Now, of course, in the US, there's 'homeland', as in the place that needs security, but that has none of the marital ring of 'patrie'. So why do we, here or in America, not have such a word?
Obviously, French and Italian are Romance languages and inherited the word from Latin. However, English imported tens of thousands of other words from Latin, so why not that one? Is it something to do with ethnos, the soil, the racial memory, sources not available to the US? Maybe, but this country has those sources, and yet is equally bereft. Is it something to do with those sources plus a republic? In Ancient Rome, the patria took the place of the king as the object of the citizen's devotion. The empire that followed the republic only made political use of the term to direct obedience to the pater. Italy here would be the case to study as it only grew from geographical expression to country in the 1860s, as a monarchy, and became a republic only in 1946. So was patria used between unification and and post-war referendum?
I wish I could now go on to answer those questions, but I can't. I invite contributions.

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