Monday, May 5, 2014

World literature in a "sick, sad world"

"Making the Good Book Safe for Capitalists"

Anyone who has read this blog may have recognized that I stand somewhat apart from the political consensus of the culturati. I am drawn to the 17th and 18th centuries, especially the Enlightenment, because of the appeal to reason and to critical thinking. Reason and critical thinking, however, are simply categories for evaluation, tools for navigation in the modern world of change and uncertainty. In this world there are, as it were, only goods now, not the Good, no certainties to guide us. I don't hold with those philosophes or intellectuals of the 18th century who imagined that technology and science would lead to a world of consensus, one absent inequities, but we in the West at least have managed to pull off a good trick. I am also not an optimist that the rest of the world can be peacefully brought up to the standards of the West -- although I just read the other day, something I find a bit hard to believe, that the "average" Chinese now earns what the "average" American earned in the 1950s -- but the modern industrial order seems inexorably to be making the world alike in that respect. I guess this makes me a conservative.

I am continually taken aback at how many people in the literary world, people who care about literature and the arts generally, as I do, are against this ameliorating vision. Indeed, they are reflexively leftist. One of the "benefits" of getting a Ph.D. was to discover the roots of this reflexive tendency at its source, the university. Anyone who is not of this persuasion has the feeling that leftist thinking has been imbibed with the mother's milk and become naturalized. In other words, one is imprisoned in a mental paradigm that is, simply put, self-evident. No "right-thinking person" would think differently.

"Hands of Unity" by Dick Termes
I am aware that those on the Left also think that I, too, am trapped in a mental paradigm, but, in their view, my paradigm is an evil one; I, on the other hand, merely believe that they are guilty of irrational thinking. The difference between us comes down to our view of the world in which we live. To me it is not the "sick, sad" one of the editors of the online magazine n+1, who recently penned a contentious piece on world literature entitled "World Lite." There were several things in the piece I agreed with, especially the criticism of the "elite global village" of writers all speaking the same language and absorbed by the same subjects (and food), with only the softest of criticism of the economy that makes their lives so comfortable. The essay has the earnestness of undergraduates of my youth and the wide range of reading of the intellectual strivers of that same era, but it is burdened with Leftist assumptions, principally that literature should engage and transform consciousness and thus lead to healing a "sick, sad world." (Should that be "sick, fat world?)

The n+1 "critique" is very Frankfurt School, recommending a project of "opposition to prevailing tastes." The editors believe that the major international authors have thrown in the towel as far as contributing to radical change. Instead, "a smooth EU-niversality prevails." What they call "World Lite" now "has its own economy, consisting of international publishing networks, scouts, and book fairs. ... And it has a social calendar full of litrary festivals, which bring global elite into contaact with the glittering stars of World Lit." And what happens at these festivals?

"No debate; no yelling; some drinking; lots of signing of books. They are like peace conferences, though the national constituencies haven't been consulted."

As I mentioned above, the editors of n+1, like most of the Left, believes that literature should heal the world; that it does not to so appears to lead to despair, evidenced by a book by Emily Apter (with a tenured position at NYU, certainly part of the elite global village decried by n+1) entitled Against World Literature. I won't review it in this post, but it is, as Apter puts it, an "anti-capitalist critique" invoking the usual specters -- capitalism and the global economy. This critique has a long heritage, going back to Marx and pervading the 19th century, though the belief in literature's power to make the world a better place is rooted in Goethe's pronouncements. Goethe of course was cautious about what he called world literature, and his comments on Saint-Simon's followers in his letters to Carlyle and elsewhere suggest he would not have been a socialist.

I have gone on too long and will return to this topic soon. Stay tuned.

Picture sources: Brane Space; Times of Malta

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