Saturday, January 25, 2014

How to talk about world literature

World trade
Reading scholarship on world literature, one encounters over and over the same attempts, in practically the same words, to come to grips with what world literature means. Nowadays, some writers dispense with Goethe entirely, e.g., a recent online article by Caroline Levine, chair of the English department at U. Wisconsin-Madison, reviewing new books by Emily Apter, Franco Moretti, and Eric Hayot. Whatever merits there may be in Levine's review, the general failure in world lit scholarship to define the parameters of the discipline means that Levine is simply reiterating what has been written ad infinitum about world literature. Such articles are like physical training; they keep the muscles active.

It may be that world lit is simply "untranslatable." Fritz Strich in the opening pages of Goethe und die Weltliteratur discusses the importance of translation in the world lit "enterprise" He also writes over and over again, with a certain sadness, that Goethe's vision has not been realized: "Trauer … wenn wir von Goethes hoffnungsreicher Verkündigung hören und immer daran denken müssen, wie ja doch niemals die Verwirklichung geschah" However, it seems to me that the case is the opposite. We have plenty of literary "Verkehr," at least in the "Greater Western" world. All of what Goethe envisioned has come to pass: foreign travels among intellectuals, journals, conferences, etc. As Strich writes: "Weltliteratur ist ja der geistige Raum, in welchem die Zeitgenossen, welcher Nationalität sie auch angehören, sich begegnen, zusammengehen u. gesellig wirken." Does that not sound like an MLA conference or a TED symposium?

Winckelmann colorized
Of course, Strich and others, though not Goethe, envisioned more far-reaching results from the enterprise (world harmony, peace among the nations, etc), to which I will return to in a later post. But just now I would like to mention something about the language in which Goethe expressed himself when he spoke about world literature. As he himself said, world literature is in the process of becoming. How, then, do you talk about something that is still in flux, in Bewegung, so to speak? Goethe, of course, was enamored of what was in motion. He appreciated what he saw at the perfection of certain Greek art, but the perfection was achieved through a process of growth. When he wrote about the art of antiquity, as in the essay on Winckelmann that I discussed in my last post, his prose is exquisite, commensurate to the subject. I find myself going back over individual sentences trying to pin down the structure.

The glories of ancient art, however, were unrepeatable. The past and the world view that was "complete" in itself were no more. The social and political configurations of the 19th century, however, were volatile, in flux, and literature of the future would necessarily reflect such movement. One might imagine that, had Goethe lived another decade, he would have arrived at a language in which to talk about world literature, as he had achieved a "classical" mode of expression after Rome. But perhaps it is simply the case that world literature, as he conceived it, a process of exchange and commerce, needed no further articulation. But what he has envisioned has certainly come to pass, and I share in the disappointment of those who react against the eroding effect of the process, what goes by the name of "globalization." But on that, too, I will write later.

Picture credits: The Great Immensity; Rutzen Verlag

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