This article studies the notion of “national character” as it is formulated in literature and as it influences literary praxis. Starting from the insights of image studies or “imagology” (a comparatist specialism developed over the last five decades, mainly in France and Germany), national thought, as one of the most pervasive and enduring cultural ideologies, should be critically and systematically studied in its literary manifestation. In order to propose an agenda for such a study, I survey the existing constructivist and structuralist literary practice, drawing two general conclusions: (1) It is possible to make an analytical distinction, based on cogent textual observation, between the discursive registers of factual reporting and stereotyping. That distinction revolves not only around the commonplace nature and intertextual dissemination of certain characterizations but also around the individual text’s strategies of characterization: the quasi-psychological (“character”-based) motivation that a given text may adduce for cultural patterns, and the way a text constructs salient features concerning a given nation as “typical” or “characteristic.” (2) “Deep structures” in national stereotyping, involving the construction of binaries around oppositional pairs such as North/South, strong/weak, and central/peripheral, should be addressed diachronically and historically. The end result of such (historically variable but unfalsifiable) stereotypical oppositions is that most imputed national characteristics will exhibit a binary nature, capable of attributing strongly contradictory characteristics to any given national group (“is a nation of contrasts”). I propose that national stereotyping be studied at a more fundamental level as a pattern of Janus-faced “imagemes,” stereotypical schemata characterized by their inherent temperamental ambivalence and capable of being triggered into different actual manifestations.
On the basis of these insights, it must be possible to move from textual analysis and intertextual inventory to a pragmatic/rhetorical study of national characterization and national stereotyping, taking into account a text’s audience function. This ambition (i.e., to address the dynamics of national stereotyping as a historical, audience-oriented praxis rather than as a textual feature) raises a challenge of its own, largely revolving around the hermeneutic and/or historical distance between a text’s provenance and its audience; but some possible ways to address that challenge are also indicated.