Tuesday, August 18, 2009

World Literature

This sculpture, commemorating German writers and poets, was on the "Walk of Ideas" in Berlin in 2006. All of the "Ideas" sculptures showcased German inventions, in this case, Gutenberg's invention of printing. Although Gutenberg's first and most famous printing job was the Bible -- thus Luther is represented toward the top of the stack of books -- note that otherwise all the writers honored are from the "modern" period. In connection with world literature, my special topic, it is fitting that the sculpture is grounded in Goethe. World literature is really a phenomenon of the manufacture and circulation of printed books. People speak incorrectly of world literature -- or at least of Goethe's concept -- when they include works of past masters, say, Homer or Dante, under that rubric.

The circulation of literature and indeed of "art" before the modern era was of a different order. I speak not of folk art or oral poetry here -- what Goethe would have called "Weltpoesie" -- but of the products of "culture," so anathematized by Rousseau. In this connection, an exhibition that I saw last week -- at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. -- brings out the difference between the modern and pre-modern: "The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in the Moscow Kremlin." The objects on view are quite sumptuous, even the equestrian trappings. (See the gold and jewel-encrusted bridle below.) The objects are for the most part ceremonial gifts from the Ottoman sultans and Safavid shahs. Despite the religious and political differences among the tsars and the sultans, each was eager to impress and flatter the other with gifts. Some of the earliest gifts -- arms and armor from Iran -- are from the 16th century. The gifts accumulate in the 17th century, with the increasing number of diplomatic missions between Russia and the Ottoman empire.

This was "exchange," made possible only through very labor-intensive craftsmanship. Its aim was splendor and its enjoyment was restricted. I am not sure one can even speak of enjoyment, since these gifts were not so much for personal adornment as to underline the representative status of the recipient. They were more like the kinds of objects made for churches throughout Christendom.

The modern world, with all our mechanical and technological know-how, has obviated the necessity for such a cumbersome production of goods. Thus, goods (including books) circulate freely and rapidly. More people have access to the intellectual products of other lands, if not in the original languages, then through translations. Thus, the process of world literature. It is no accident that this phenomenon is accompanied by the growth of democratic institutions and the growth of individual rights. In the West at least (and increasingly in the rest of the world), men and women no longer labor under the despotic conditions that produced the beautiful gifts of exchange between the tsars and the sultans.

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