Wednesday, February 8, 2017

World Literature and "Universal Language"

Arashi Beach, Aruba
Minae Mizumura, in The Fall of Language in the Age of English, makes the argument that if one is to enter the world of learning, one must be able to read the “universal language,” for it is only, as she writes, “in the single universal language … that knowledge is best pursued.” (Italics in the original.) In the West, that language was for a time Latin, to which Greek was added during the Renaissance, but the overwhelming importance of Latin as the language of learning is indicated by the fact that all learned men wrote in it. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, all lived in different regions of Europe, and their work traveled from one region to another over two centuries, thanks solely to Latin, the language in which they wrote. Something similar happened in the humanities: Erasmus, though born in Holland, traveled all over Europe. Others who wrote in Latin include Thomas More, Martin Luther, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, and Leibniz. It turned out to be “economical” to write in a universal language.

These writings in Latin and Greek constituted "universal libraries." For a while the two classical libraries remained at the top in prestige; they possessed, after all, in quantity and quality, the greatest accumulation of knowledge. In time, texts in the classical languages were “steadily transferred to local libraries,” to vernacular languages, which eventually caught up and surpassed the classics in the accumulation of “universally applicable knowledge.”

If it is more “economical” to write in a single universal language, how is it possible, asks Mizumura, to pursue knowledge in disparate languages, as happened in Europe beginning in the 18th century, when national languages came into their own? Major writers of the Enlightenment — John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Kant, to name a few — wrote their most important works, after all, in their own languages. She finds that Europeans were able to “ to purse knowledge efficiently even when national languages replaced Latin as a tool for learning.” The reason: the pursuit of knowledge in Europe was carried out by people who shared a common cultural and religious history, not to forget that they were also strongly influenced by the abstract concepts of Latin and Greek learning. I would only add that it is not paradoxical that they wrote in a national language, and still gave birth to “universal” concepts and values.

Intellectuals did not only read books written in their own language. They “frequented” other national libraries, and many continued to have personal interactions across Europe. National languages thus functioned as universal languages and as national languages in their regions. In time, however, three languages — French, English, and German — became the main media of exchange, with works of “less major” languages translated into these three and thereby receiving a wider audience. She cites the example of Kierkegaard, who could have written in German, but he chose Danish in which to write his critique of Hegelian philosophy. It was, later, through posthumously published German translations, that his work became more widely known.

Something of the crucial importance of French, English, and German as “universal languages” in the distribution of knowledge can be see in The Magic Mountain. As I mentioned in my previous post, I am reading the novel during my stay in Aruba. In the chapter “Research,” Hans Castorp, to while away the hours shivering on his balcony under his camel-hair blankets, has purchased a number of books on anatomy, physiology, and biology. They are written, as Mann notes, in German, French, and English.

As Mizumura writes (thus alluding to the title of her book), this “tripolar system” fell apart in the course of the  20th century. Increasingly, “the world” was no longer represented by the West. Non-Western intellectuals began to enter the world of learning, and if their works were to attain wide distribution, to enter into “the universal library,” then they, too, had to write in the universal language, namely, English,  “the language that circulates most widely.”

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