Saturday, May 6, 2017
Is "World Literature" relevant today? (part 2)
Goethe lived in “a European world” in which learned men like himself could read and speak several languages. For instance, he was able to read French works in French, English ones in English, Italian ones in Italian. For languages with which he was unfamiliar, he read translations, as in the case of Chinese and Middle Eastern poetry. He even felt that translations of his own works helped him to understand them better. As he wrote to Boisserée (April 24, 1831):
Bei der Übersetzung meiner letzten botanischen Arbeiten ist es ganz zugegangen wie bei Ihnen. Ein paar Hauptstellen, welche Freund Soret in meinem Deutsch nicht verstehen konnte, übersetzt ich in mein Französich; er übertrug sie in das seinige, und so glaub ich fest sie werden in jener Sprache allgemeiner verständlich sein, als vielleicht im Deutschen.
The mutual familiarity of Europeans with the works of other Europeans had been standard for centuries. Whatever their political and linguistic divisions, they were united in a common Christian culture. Following the fragmentation of Europe in the Middle Ages, learned people had continued to communicate in a universal language, Latin. Thus, the discoveries of Newton, Galileo, Kepler, and so on traveled all over the continent. With the invention of printing, books in translation began to appear, of Latin works as well as of works in the vernaculars. Long before Goethe considered the topic of world literature, “Europeans” (avant la lettre) were already communicating and sharing both their literary works and their scientific discoveries. As the wealth of the western European nations increased via the application of scientific discoveries and the fruits of colonization, a new European “culture,” i.e., one shared by the various countries, was developing. It comprised an increased standard of living and common ideas about what constituted the good life. Like all "cosmopolitans," they believed that everyone shared their views.
We all feel ourselves to be the center of our world, and Europeans were only different in that they traveled far and wide and became the center of an increasingly larger world.
There are exceptions, however, which I will discuss in the next post.
Picture credits: Leonel Graça; India the Destiny