Monday, July 20, 2009

World Literature

In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

The above, from the 1848 manifesto of the Communist Party, is the most famous reference to world literature. Karl Marx, however, was indebted to Goethe for the concept of "world literature," which describes a process Goethe had been thinking about since at least the time of the Napoleonic wars  and which he first began to refer to by name in the 1820s. Goethe was talking about intellectual intercourse between nations, which he imagined would have the salutary effect of making people more cosmopolitan, thus less nationalistic or chauvinistic. By becoming familiar with the works of foreign authors, through translations or even in the original languages, people would learn to overcome the narrow ethnic and religious differences that had bedeviled Europe for centuries.

Of course, the nations of Europe had been engaged in such intellectual and cultural exchange for centuries, throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but by the beginning of the 19th century, this process seems to have gone into overdrive. Writers were now actually in a position, either through correspondence or in personal visits, to become acquainted with writers from other countries.

Obviously the increase in the possibilities of travel itself was the factor that made this rapid interchange possible. There was still considerable risk in overseas travel (which meant that the U.S. was a belated participant in this interchange), but Europeans of a certain class traveled all the time. Goethe was somewhat unusual in not having visited Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, or London. Paradoxically, in light of his later interest in literary exchange, even when he was in Rome he failed to interact with local literati and consorted almost exclusively with other Germans. Well, there was always something self-sufficient about Goethe, and, besides, everyone came to visit him in Weimar.

Nevertheless, by the beginning of the 19th century he was aware of this new and rapid interchange. More important, Goethe also connected it with the spread of trade and commerce. In other words, free trade would lead to free commerce in ideas. Note the language of commerce in an April letter to Thomas Carlyle, in which he predicted that "more or less free intellectual commerce [geistigen Handelsverkehr]" would occur via travel and the exchange of "cultural goods [G├╝ter]." Thus, contrary to Marx, it is not ideas that change material conditions, but the changes in the material that transform our intellectual or spiritual habitus: the improvement of living standards in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries rearranged the way people thought of themselves. Individual liberty was a growth product, along with separate bedrooms, the Argant lamp, and personal cleanliness.

Goethe has been accused of being "Eurocentric," insofar as the world literature he spoke of was only an inter-European product. In the meantime of course there has been a spread of "European" ideas to the rest of the world, in particular ideas of individual liberty and rights. But liberty and rights have to be embodied in a particular material culture, and at the moment many of the peoples longing for freedom live in cultures where the institutional arrangements are not conducive to freedom.  I am in a minority among my intellectual colleagues, however, in thinking that the more opportunity people have to make money, to travel, to buy whatever they like with their money (in other words, to enjoy the fruits of their labor and not be robbed of it by over-taxation or corrupt governments) will likewise lead to self-empowerment.

Many of my colleagues feel regret at the loss of the self-sufficiency voiced in Marx's opening statement, quoted above. That regret is another product of Western affluence. I venture to assert that the people working on the assembly lines pictured here -- when they pocket their earnings -- are glad not to be toiling in rice paddies or in other traditional labor. Modern work, according to Alain de Botton, needs to be reassessed. I certainly am grateful when I go outside at 9 a.m. and discover that anything I need is there because millions of people all over the world have gone to work and make the world function, especially for literary types like myself.

Picture credits: Big Picture; Harvard College Geoffrey Chaucer page

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