Sophie Elkan’s Ambiguous Dream of the Orient. On Cultural Identity and the National Literary Canon

The aim is to consider the formation of a Nordic literary canon from a cultural semiotic perspective as presented by Yuri M. Lotman and others, by means of a discussion of a Swedish and Western identity and self-understanding as mirrored and enacted in several works by the Swedish writer Sophie Elkan (1853–1921) set in Sweden, Egypt, Lebanon, and Constantinople. The works examined are the novel Drömmen om Österlandet [The Dream of the Orient], and two short stories, “Herr Schwartz” [“Mr. Schwarz”] and “Ställ ut armeniern!” [“Sling out the Armenian!”], all published in 1901. I propose an understanding of the literary canon as a kind of cultural, collective memory. Elkan’s narratives, set in Oriental milieus, are demonstrated to create their own semiotic spaces, where the semiospheres of traditional Western and Eastern cultures overlap in surprisingly new constellations. Her stories question otherwise not explicitly articulated cultural norms and enquire into presupposed normative Swedish or Western cultural identities. According to the argument of cultural semiotics, it is essential to all national literatures, their canons and the cultural identities they foster that challenging stories like these, stories which stage cultural clashes, cultural misunderstandings and cultural differences, are narrated, discussed and interpreted.

author Helena Bodin

In Rethinking National Literatures and the Literary Canon in Scandinavia, edited by Heidi Grönstrand, Dag Heede, Anne Heith, and Ann-Sofie Lönngren, 78-103. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing House.

Keywords: Sophie Elkan, cultural semiotics, literary canon, Orientalism, Armenian genocide 
published April 1, 2015