Saturday, April 29, 2017

Is "World Literature" relevant today? (part 1)

"Imperial Federation Map of the World"
The concept of world literature has been around going on two centuries — Goethe’s ruminations on the subject began in the late 1820s — yet one cannot help feeling that Goethe therewith released a demon into the world. There is a decided motility about the term: almost every writer on the subject begins by wrestling with a definition, as if to capture a moving target. I am reminded of the category of the sublime, which lay dormant for so many centuries: then, toward the end of the 17th century, the world felt a need for it and has henceforth also been struggling to define it. In both cases, one suspects that, had the terms not existed, they would have had to be invented. Despite the spread of the term “world literature” among comparatists in the 19th century, it is surprising how little philology there was among Germanists on the background or the sources of Goethe’s thinking before the appearance in 1946 of Strich’s Goethe und die Weltliteratur, even as seemingly every other aspect of his oeuvre was being subjected to examination.

Strich, however, had been working in this field since the 1920s: his first essay on world literature was published in 1928. His foray into the subject seems to have been precipitated by the vexed position of Germany among the nations after World War I. In the 1928 essay and in those that followed, he described the peaceful literary commerce among the various European vernaculars in the early modern period. This commerce had led to pan-European literary movements, ranging from the Renaissance to the Romantic period. So it is today, for instance, that "Baroque" art is recognizable (at least to scholars), whether it was created in Spain or in Germany. This cross-borders exchange — occurring even when Europe was wracked by the Thirty Years War — suggested to Strich the promise of world literature as articulated by Goethe in 1828:

If we have dared to announce a European, indeed a universal world literature, we do not mean that the various nations should take notice of one another and their various achievements.  In this sense, such a literature has already existed for some time and continues and renews itself more or less.  No! we mean rather that the living and ambitious literary artists [Literatoren] learn from one another and, through affection and common purpose, find themselves compelled to be convivially [gesellig] productive.

For Goethe the exchange of literary products, correspondence among authors of various nations (for instance, his own correspondence with Carlyle and other European writers), translations, and so on seemed to promise that the peoples of the world were in the process of becoming better disposed toward others. World literature as UNESCO avant la lettre.

This was also the message of Strich's Goethe and World Literature (English, 1949). In 1946, after two world wars, in which Germany’s international stock had reached its nadir, Strich still held that the goal of world literature was to unite all humans into what he called “einer übernationalen, allgemein menschlichen, humanen Kultur.” In the 1950s, however, as Europe came to terms with the world-wide legacy of colonialism and as the formerly colonized territories began to assert their own identities, Strich’s optimism was considered passé and his interpretation too “European.” Even as Goethe and World Literature unleashed a world literature industry, it was Erich Auerbach’s more pessimistic essay from 1952, lamenting what he saw as a growing world monoculture, that set the tone for much of what has followed.

Auerbach, who wrote only this single essay on world literature, has been for a number of years a touchstone for “postcolonial” scholarship on world literature. This is the result of the translation and publication of his essay in 1969 by Edward Said, for whom Auerbach was exemplary of a “critical consciousness” that did more “than strengthen those aspects of the culture that require mere affirmation and orthodox compliancy from its members,” that resisted “the kind of filiation that is representative of traditional literary production.” Writing in 1983, Said even claimed that Auerbach’s Mimesis was not simply — as it might appear to most readers — “a massive reaffirmation of the Western cultural tradition, but also a work built upon a critically important alienation from it.”

The postcolonial negation of allegiance, of filiation, of culturally transmitted values, i.e., of “Eurocentrism,” however, simply reiterates the process that made “the West” so powerful by the beginning of the 20th century, namely, the constant circulation of goods in the modern marketplace, which is not solely a matter of goods, of the everyday consumables of the market place. Such circulation demands erasure, the jettisoning of what was loved only yesterday in favor of new goods, among which can be included literary and critical movements and attitudes. The postindustrial world is just as impatient with filiation as was Edward Said. His critique of the European literary canon and its humanistic values reflects one of the most characteristic features of Western life of the past several centuries: the abrogation of the intellectual and cultural authority of the past, with the battle of ancients and moderns marking an early milestone. Rejection has been naturalized by the ideological discourse of progress.

The postcolonial critique is of course only one of many academic trends (Marxism, deconstruction, feminist studies, ad nauseum) that purport to tell us how bad and irrelevant “Western culture” is. And Western scholars today, especially in the U.S., lured by the latest fashions, have jumped on this bandwagon. One might suggest that the number of academic conferences, especially on an international level, from Angola to Manchester, validate Goethe’s concept of “fruitful communication.” Indeed, postcolonial scholarship has become a virtual cash cow, an opportunity for the like-minded to gather together.

I see I have not got to the question posed in the title of this post. Part 2 to follow. Stay tuned.

Image credits: World Literature 101; Repeating Islands; Postcolonial Networks

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