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Philosophy and Rhetoric 35.3 (2002) 244-265

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Community, Assimilation, and the Unfamiliar

Tim Donovan

We are five friends, one day we came out of the house one after the other, first one came and placed himself beside the gate, then the second came, or rather he glided through the gate like a little ball of quicksilver, and placed himself near the first one, and then came the third, then the fourth, then the fifth. Finally we all stood in a row. People began to notice us, they pointed at us and said: "Those five just came out of that house." Since then we have been living together; it would be a peaceful life if it weren't for the sixth one continually trying to interfere. He doesn't do us any harm, but he annoys us, and that is harm enough; why does he intrude where he is not wanted? We don't know him and don't want him to join us. There was a time, of course, when the five of us did not know one another, either; and it could be said that we still don't know one another, but what is possible and can be tolerated by the five of us is not possible and cannot be tolerated with the sixth one. In any case, we are five and don't want to be six. And what is the point of this continual being together anyhow? It is also pointless for the five of us, but here we are together; a new combination, however, we do not want, just because of our experiences. But how is one to make this clear to the sixth one? Long explanations would almost amount to accepting him in our circle, so we prefer not to explain and not to accept him. No matter how he pouts his lips, we push him away with our elbows, but however much we push him away, back he comes.

— Franz Kafka


I want to introduce this essay on Edmund Spenser's early modern dialogue View of the Present State of Ireland with a contemporary question influenced by Franz Kafka's epigraph: What are the principles that presuppose an understanding of community? I have purposely stated the question of belonging as "an understanding" rather than "what are the principles that we presuppose as. . . ." After all, who is this we that so easily gathers identity within the common usage? I begin with a question to maintain uncertainty, [End Page 244] which indicates a responsibility to greet the unfamiliar, all the while knowing very clearly that the concept of community naturally presumes some common measure of familiarity. Yet as Kafka's allegory implies: What presupposes the propriety of those familiar experiences we name our own?

Spenser's dialogue is undoubtedly challenging, a challenge that has drawn an enormous amount of recent critical analysis from literary critics and historians. Still, a general difficulty persists. Michael Donnelly summarizes the difficulty quite well when he notes that the View is quite "anomalous in the Spenserian oeuvre," a rather strange dialogue that seems uncharacteristic of the poet's humanist image (1). The challenges certainly begin with the troubling difficulties of an argument that concludes with the stark political necessities of enforced famine, massive relocation, and ethnic cleansing. Furthermore, the anxious burden of justifying this dire program expresses itself in a tone that would be thought intemperate even by many of Spenser's contemporaries (McCabe, 116). More important than the dialogue's dire tone of determination, there is a continued resonance of enforced cultural assimilation and genocide that haunts our contemporary world forewarned by arguments of pathology and apartheid. However, a glance at recent political news would indicate that these forewarnings are repeatedly ignored. I believe the challenge that the View evokes dwells in the traditional lineage of the concept of community. Thus, we cannot so easily dismiss Spenser's dialogue as merely an early modern problem; nor can we dismiss it as another diatribe in the long-standing tradition of racial screeds. The political problems that the dialogue engages foreshadow current...


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