|Sun Ji, "Memory City (Shanghai)"|
Europe in a sense made itself the world in the 19th century. It became privileged out of all proportion to the rest of the earth because of its early ability to capitalize on the scientific and artisanal know-how that it had accumulated over the centuries. This accumulation was an internally driven process: the various countries of Europe all contributed, in the various vernaculars, to the knowledge that would one day send us to the moon and enable heart transplant surgery. These achievements, along with the rising standard of living and in “improvements in the arts of living” transformed "the West" by early 20th century into a wealth-producing commercial society enjoying a rising standard of living and embracing institutionally secured ethical ideals and societal expectations.
Yet this Europe is no longer the world. The scientific premises on which rest the civilizational expertise of modern life are always and everywhere accessible, whatever one’s origins. The growing spread of literacy and education has increasingly permitted more and more people to participate in the accumulation and application of scientific knowledge and to share in the fruits of the wealth thereby created. And everywhere, of course, people are exposed to ideas of European origin, which are now felt by non-Europeans to be "universal."
Nevertheless, the West is privileged in one way that cannot be so easily assimilated by non-Westerners. The existence of national languages with long literary traditions is rare. Indeed, non-Westerners today, when they participate in the public sphere, generally write in one of the formerly colonial languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, or Chinese. The one major exception today is Japanese, as Japan itself came late to the notice of European colonists. It already had a vernacular literary tradition, after having imported Chinese writing in the 5th century, and was fortunate to escape the imposition of a colonial language.
|The Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist|
Thus, it is not a surprise that the major literary form worldwide today is the novel. As the rest of the world now comes to terms with "globalism" -- which simply means the spread of the processed that transformed Europe into a commercial society -- people everywhere are experiencing the same losses as ordinary Europeans once felt, trying to forge individual destinies when the earth continually moves under their feet. How, indeed, to live when everything that was solid has melted into air?
Picture credit: Earth Island Journal