Friday, May 9, 2014

World literature and the "sick, sad world"

Returning to the subject of my previous post, I do agree with critics of world literature when they speak of the "entrepreneurial, bulimic drive to anthologize and curricularize the world's cultural resources." That quote is from a review by Gloria Fisk of Emily Apter's book Against World Literature. Apter's "beef" seems to be with the idea that such anthologies assume that literature is "translatable," whereas a translation of, say, Dante's Commedia, is in no way commensurate with the original. Duh!

Apter's argument, as per the n+1 critics mentioned in the previous post, is a critique of the nexus between world literature and the economic processes of globalization. The anthologies thus obscure what Fisk calls the "extra-literary implications" of world literature, i.e., the links between "the commercial, the literary, and the curricular." Again, duh!

Paris on a Rainy Day, by Gustave Caillebotte (1877)
These critics are belatedly proclaiming what Pascale Casanova already laid out in wonderful detail in The World Republic of Letters, in particular, that literatures existing on the margins, if they are to become commercially successful, follow the trends set by the center. Casanova discussed the way that literary reputation in the 19th century followed what had been blessed with success in Paris. (For a Frenchman, France is still the center of the world.) An example in our present time would be Salman Rushdie, who is probably more popular in the West than in India. Rushdie's subject, at least in Midnight's Children, was the effect of the processes, first unleashed in the European world, that have undermined and transformed the traditional order of society. Those processes have been market-driven. We live in a capitalist world, and it is not surprising that literary "products" are marketed the same way as other products in the marketplace. And that there is competition.

If we wish to preserve literature, to set it apart from transient market products, we must insist that the literary heritage preserves "values" that are worth preserving. Those works that we consider great are foundational to civilization. The past was never a golden age, but in the long stretch of history, certain values have been transmitted, even during the most terrible cataclysms. Their survival suggests that they are essential to the human condition and, indeed, to the continuance of civilization: love of family, sacrifice for others, courage, self-discipline, self-reliance, inner cultivation, patriotism. Aristotle summed them all up long ago, and no one has improved on them. (To judge by this world literature reader for 10th-graders, these anthologies are introducing students to these values.)

Antigone and the body of Polynices
As Marilynne Robinson writes in her recent collection of essays, "The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another." But what if such goodness is in conflict with other values? Thus, a major preoccupation of the Western literary tradition, since Sophocles and the Old Testament, has been what the Marxist critic Georg Lukács called the breach between inner and outer worlds. Antigone and Oedipus may have had fewer distractions, but the condition of the individual under advanced capitalism, despite a panoply of choices, is in essence the same. When push comes to shove, one is often still faced with choosing between incompatible alternatives, between what we love or desire and what we are required to do. The world, it seems, has always been a "sick, sad place," one in which literature and art recall us to our better selves.

And what has been the academic response to this inheritance? An attack on the literary patrimony, which has been rechristened as "patriarchy." It is not only "capitalist structures" (as Fisk writes) that inflict "violence" on the world; violence is inflicted daily on our own literary and, indeed, cultural inheritance in college classrooms.

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