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  • Cosmopolitan Shaw and the Transformation of the Public Sphere
  • Christa Zorn (bio)

And remember, Vernon Lee is an Englishwoman. . . . Vernon Lee is English of the English, and yet held her intellectual own all through. I take off my hat to the old guard of Victorian cosmopolitan intellectualism, and salute her as the noblest Briton of them all.

—Bernard Shaw, "A Political Contrast," The Nation, September 18, 1920

In 1920, when G. B. Shaw, somewhat nostalgically, gave tribute to Vernon Lee's cosmopolitanism, contemporary readers may have wondered about the implication, since World War I had radically changed the meaning of the term. Victorian cosmopolitanism, a product of European idealism and Kant's "world at large," had become an ambivalent term under the impact of British war propaganda with its emphasis on nationalism and patriotism. When Shaw applied the term to Lee in 1920, international thinking had just begun to return to the public sphere, but both writers' critical writing during the war provides enough evidence that forms of cosmopolitan consciousness persevered—at least among dissident groups—even when national pressure demanded intellectual conformity. In fact, one may argue that independent public intellectuals like Shaw and Lee, despite their minority status in the war, helped transform the public sphere and what theorists since Kant have called "the norm of publicity."1

While cosmopolitanism has recently made a comeback as a concept for rethinking global identities and attachments, the nineteenth-century version of the term basically meant the hope for a united, cooperative Europe. 2 In British literature, it could mean Anglo-European citizenship, and on the Continent, Franco-German rapprochement.3 Cosmopolitanism became a contested concept at the end of the nineteenth century and, especially, around World War I. On the one hand, the term reflected anxieties [End Page 188] about national identity; on the other, it projected the desire for an international order still to come.

In Britain and Europe, the public sphere had broadened since the late nineteenth century but shrank back into the boundaries of the nation-state when World War I was on the horizon and patriotic rhetoric homogenized public consciousness. Intellectual opposition became vilified as radical, unpatriotic, and by default, cosmopolitan. Such consolidation of public opinion—typical in times of national crisis—challenged the democratic function of an evolving public, which required and generated a form of public consciousness that, as J. S. Mill had argued, involved a complex dialectic of detachment and engagement as well as a consideration of a range of opposing arguments.4

The engagement and opposition of public intellectuals, such as Bernard Shaw and Vernon Lee, shaped a post-Victorian cosmopolitan style that, as this article argues, maintained its democratic function, which came under siege during World War I. Before the war, public opinion had increasingly become a site of contention for which the centralized, coercive authority of the Victorian sage, or "man of letters," was ill suited. With the emergence of a larger, more diverse audience at the end of the nineteenth century, "sage speak" had been replaced by the voice of the public intellectual, the worldly (and often socially engaged) critic who claimed to think for almost everyone else. But the democratic function of the critical intellectual was challenged in World War I when fear and uncertainty suppressed divergent opinions and governments demanded conformity.5 The critical public voices that serve as examples here found themselves temporarily marginalized when they expressed their opposition from detached viewpoints beyond national identity.6 Even though the situation could become detrimental for individual critics (as we shall see in the cases of Vernon Lee and Bernard Shaw), intellectual opposition became symbolic for the public culture of democracy and the guarantor of its renewal. This symbolic function, as Edward Said has argued in Representations of the Intellectual, is characteristic of the modern public intellectual who—even when beset with the problem of oppression or loyalty—has to keep his or her mission to intervene: "With regard to the consensus on group or national identity it is the intellectual's task to show how the group is not a natural or god-given entity but is a constructed, manufactured, even in some cases invented object."7...


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pp. 188-208
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