Thursday, May 31, 2018

Europe and the world

Europe and the world
I have been working longer than is sane on an essay on Fritz Strich and Goethe's concept of world literature. Actually, not so much Goethe's concept but, rather, Strich's interpretation of that concept. Strich published in 1946 the first major study of the subject of world literature, Goethe und die Weltliteratur. Interestingly, in the century and a half after Goethe's death, despite practically every aspect of his life and work being investigated, his ideas on world literature stirred very little philological interest. Indeed, Hans Pyritz’s edition of the Goethe-Bibliographie, published in 1965, does not even devote a section to world literature. With the appearance of Strich's work in 1946, world literature scholarship took off.

The term "world literature," however, was already a buzzword by the end of the 19th century, but usually in the context of comparative literature or in reference to the great books of "the world" or to the circulation of books beyond their country of origin. The world literature publishing industry, as represented by anthologies and college textbooks, has likewise left the Goethean context far behind. The focus continues to be the "great books of the world," of all times and places. Thus, the Norton Anthology of World Literature includes (in volume 3), among others, the writings of Martin Luther, John Milton, The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, and "Indian Poetry after Islam." This is very sloppy intellectual work. In Goethe's conception, world literature concerned the active and continuous exchange of and encounter with living literary works of other nations. They were something like news in a bottle that had been cast in the ocean and turned up on another shore, bringing us information about the ways and folksways of other peoples. The distinction between then and now, however, is that when one read books of other cultures in translation, we understood that they had once been in a particular native language, which, as John Noyes has written, also conveys a particular cultural history.

Map of European languages
But what if no written cultural history exists in your native language, say, if you grow up in the those parts of the world that, until recently, had no written language? If you want to enter the public sphere as a writer, today most likely you will learn to express yourself in a so-called "world language": English, Arabic, Chinese, French, or Spanish. To what extent do these language, as powerful and as extensive as they are, continue to express a cultural history? Historically and concurrently, the most privileged writers in this respect have certainly been European ones. In Goethe's time, they wrote in their native languages, transmitting a cultural history of "Europe," which forms the basis of what is called and often criticized as the humanities. Moreover, European writers still enjoy large “native” publics and, therefore, continue to write in their own languages: Italian, Danish, Hungarian, Polish, and so on.

The interest of Strich in this respect was his focus on national difference and national language, which was not quite Goethe's focus. Indeed, Goethe was turned toward the world, but his world was mostly a European one. As Strich wrote, already in an essay in 1930 on world literature, Europe is not the world.

Images: Clker art; Pinterest

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