The Transnational Fantasy: The Case of James Cowan

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Author: Peter Mathews
Date: June 2012
From: Antipodes(Vol. 26, Issue 1)
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,938 words

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Recent criticism has seen the rise of an approach to literature that views texts as products of "transnationalism," a move that arises from a growing sense that, in a global age, authors should not be bounded by the traditional limits of national culture. In her book Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation (2006), for instance, Rebecca Walkowitz looks at how this trend has evolved in world Anglophone literature, extending from canonical writers like Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf to such contemporary authors as Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, and W. G. Sebald. In the field of Australian literature, the question of transnationalism is often linked to issues of postcolonialism, as reflected in recent critical works like Graham Huggan's Australian Literature: Postcolonialism, Racism, Transnationalism (2007) and Nathanael O'Reilly's edited collection Postcolonial Issues in Australian Literature (2010), both of which examine how Australian literature and culture have metamorphosed in the new global context. While there is little doubt that world literature has been affected in important ways by this broadening of the literary stage, there seems to be a widespread conflation between two similar but different terms: the transnational and the transcultural. For while it is true that the culture of many countries arises from a cosmopolitan and diverse assortment of influences, this loosening of cultural boundaries between nations is far from being simultaneous with the decline of the state.

The notion of escaping the logic of the state through the practice of transnationalism is an elaborate illusion that unravels when examined with a more critical eye, a fantasy that sits at the heart of the work of Australian author James Cowan. Despite the fact that Cowan has published more than twenty books, winning the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medal in 1998 for his most famous novel, A Mapmaker's Dream (1996), his work as a whole has received little critical attention in the broader context of Australian literature. Cowan's best-known writings are cosmopolitan in scope: A Mapmaker's Dream , for instance, is the fictional diary of Fra Mauro, a historical figure that Cowan plucks from the Renaissance to serve as a postmodern meditation on the advent of both colonialism and modernity, while A Troubadours Testament (1998) relates the quest of a twentieth-century British academic to discover the secrets of the medieval French troubadour and poet Marcebru. In his most recent non-fiction works, similarly, Cowan has examined the lives of Saint Anthony and Saint Francis, while his latest offering, A Spanner in the Works: Science and the Spiritual Life (2007), looks at the way in which the development of technology has had a devastating effect on humanity's existential sense of itself. If one were to read the work of Cowan from A Mapmaker's Dream to the present, therefore, the overwhelming impression would be that he is a true cosmopolitan who seeks playfully to interweave history and meaning, private and public, fiction and non-fiction. In short, based on his work from the past fifteen years or so, combined with the knowledge that Cowan has spent much of his adult life...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A296953136