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World Literature'

‘World Literature'

The Value of an Unstable Category

Michael Chapman

The last decade has shown renewed interest in the object and/or concept ‘world literature'.  I say renewed interest for, as Damrosch's book What Is World Literature?1 (2003) reminds us, the term has a history dating back to Goethe's (1984) coinage (‘Weltliteratur') in his interviews in 1827 with his young disciple, Johan Peter Eckermann.  Weltliteratur offered Goethe a new literary perspective and cultural awareness, a sense of a rising global modernity.  Linking modernity to capitalist economy Marx and Engels in 1848 would go on to employ the term:

In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climates....  And as in material, so in intellectual production....  National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

                                                                                  (1952: 415)


            It is no coincidence that renewed interest in world literature in the 1990s and onwards should have coincided with the end of Cold War politics and a new global diffusion of products both economic and cultural, a new time-space compression in information flows and human mobility;  and that interest should be most evident in the academies and publishing houses of the United States.  The new millennium, after all, is almost synonymous with the global expansion of American interests.  Indeed, Julien (2004: 116) discerns a connection since the fall of the Berlin Wall between political/business realignments - a time characterised, via Wallerstein's (1997) world systems theory, as global or neoliberal - and the methodological reorientation of major funders of human and social science research.  The US Social Science Research Council, Julien observes, has sought to promote transnational, multiregional studies that many see as portending the end of the deep knowledge of language and culture in specific locations associated with what in Cold War division was known as area studies.

            Or, as the point is put by Moretti (2000: 57) - like Damrosch, a prominent voice in current world-literature debate or controversy - the world critic or global comparatist studies ‘wave patterns of transformations sweeping around the world';  local specialists study the individual works, ‘the trees' in the local, or even national, plantations.  But, to pursue Moretti's metaphor, the plantation (or the Nike sweatshop) in the poor South and patterns of consumerism in the rich North are not unconnected.  The last decade has produced unresolvable conflict between the capitalist erasure of local or regional difference and ‘fight backs' by specific religious and social movements.  As the US military has discovered to its cost, there is no undifferentiated ‘Iraqi people', but Sunnis, Shi‘ites, and Kurds.  World systems theory is not monolithic;  it is entangled in multiple modernities in which, as Wilk (1995: 22) phrases it, ‘global structures may be utilised for the expression of our common differences'.  By the same token, the object and/or concept world literature involves both waves and trees.

            I repeat the formulation ‘object and/or concept world literature'.  My point is that the category remains elusive.  It was unstable, even arbitrary, from the moment of its initial articulation.  Damrosch succinctly summarises the difficulty:

What does it really mean to speak of a ‘world literature'?  Which literature, whose world?  What relation to the national literatures whose production continued unabated even after Goethe announced their obsolescence?  What new relations between Western Europe and the rest of the globe, between antiquity and modernity, between the nascent mass culture and elite productions?

                                                                      (2003: 1)


Such questions and others were debated in Stockholm at a symposium which, at the end of 2004, I attended together with about 30 academics (including Damrosch) from around the world.  The purpose was to contribute to a large and ongoing project on Literature and Literary History in Global Contexts, funded by the Swedish Research Council, the aim being to find suitable methods and approaches valid for studying and analysing literature globally, or to use the title of the symposium:  Studying Transcultural Literary History.  That the symposium ended with no conclusive answer to the question posed by Damrosch's book What Is World Literature? did not - I suggest in this paper - detract from the value of the discussion.

            Although Goethe (Strich 1949: 13) thought of world literature less as a set of works - an object - than a field of relations (a field to which nations bring their ‘intellectual treasures'), the propensity is to imagine world literature as object.  It is a propensity and an approach which, at the outset of the Stockholm symposium, provoked a certain ‘national' defensiveness, rivalry and even chauvinism:  Chinese literature is older and therefore more venerable than European literature;  who is the greater, Shakespeare or Goethe?  World literature as object - as a list of competing works - has prompted Guillén's (1993: 38) retort:  ‘The sum total of national literatures?  A wild idea, unattainable by practice.'  Goethe, in fact, was rescued from national or imperial self-projection - the assumption of the elite work lurks in his use of the term ‘intellectual treasures' - because he lacked a secure cultural base:  he had an uneasy sense of mid nineteenth-century Germany as provincial, or what we might call today a periphery.  (See Damrosch 2003: 8)

            World literature as object, nonetheless, constitutes one direction in the current revival of interest.  The multi-volume anthology, World Literature and Thought (Gochberg, et al.: 1997), provides an example.  As general editor Gochberg (1997: ix) explains:  [The volumes offer] ‘a rich treasury of selections from many of the world's major civilizations.'  From philosophical treatises and love lyrics and from ancient Akkadian to modern English, the selections have been chosen for their ‘lasting historical or intellectual significance, as well as for their readability' (ix).  The purpose of the project is summed up, quaintly, with allusion to Dr Johnson:  ‘he who tires of the wealth of humanity and its works revealed in these volumes must surely be tired of life;  for there is represented in World Literature and Thought all that life can offer' (xi).

            We are transported back in sentiment here to an Arnoldean view of literature and culture.  There is none of the rancour that has characterised struggles for political/textual authority in neo-Marxism, feminism, Africanism or postcolonialism, as signposts to the literary-cultural scene of the last thirty years.  Yet to limit the project to Arnoldian touchstones would be unfair.  The selections in World Literature and Thought are generous and wide-ranging in comparative scope.  Antiquity is not as in most Classics departments in Western, indeed in African, academies, for example, confined to Greece and Rome.  Concise introductions to the sections and to individual works or extracts provide illuminations across time and cultures.  Of particular interest to Africa might be the inclusion of Egyptian, Ethiopian and Swahili texts;  there is a Nyangan epic;  there is oral poetry from the Fulani, Igbo, Yoruba,  Ijaw and Hausa traditions;  and, closer to the south of the continent, we have examples of San, Khoi and Zulu expression.

            As I have suggested, the method is comparative, but is not curtailed by what in comparative study is identified as the ‘pre-Treaty of Versailles' stage:  two great art works in two great languages from two homogeneous European nation states.  Rather the project is ‘post-Treaty of Versailles' in its non-hierarchical mapping of multiple civilisations, multiple nations.  As Volume 4, ‘The Twentieth Century', is yet to appear, commitment to a third stage, post-World War II decolonisation, and to comparative insights ‘post-Berlin Wall', cannot be gauged.  A shortcoming is that although translation is implicit in the design, there is no attempt to incorporate a theory or an approach to crossing languages and cultures.  The requirement of readability in the target culture - the US college - favours the domestication (the making familiar) rather than the foreignisation (retaining the strangeness) of the source culture/text.  As a result, all texts are reproduced as though originally conceived and expressed or written in smooth-flowing English.  Another shortcoming is inevitable:  the limits of space guarantee limits to the reproduction of longer works.  Thus Shakespeare appears not as a playwright but as a sonneteer, and the novel - arguably the most widely travelled genre of the last 150 years - is reduced in its representation to token fragments.

            Shortcomings notwithstanding, World Literature and Thought wishes to be emancipated to its immediate audience: the US college.  It subscribes partly to Bernheimer's (1995: 44) report in 1993 to the American Comparative Literature Association on the state of the discipline: comparatists were prompted actively to reconceive, to expand the canon.  Although it does not pursue the full implications of a report that urged greater attention be paid to various contestatory, marginal or subaltern perspectives;  although it does not address Bloom's (1987) qualms about including in the canon minority voices (women, gays, Hispanics, etc), the 4-volume project at least counters the conservatism not only of Bloom but of others, such as D'Souza (1991), who have expressed reservations about dilution and diffusion of the curriculum in book lists being opened to too many windows on disparate parts of the world.

            What I shall term the ‘great civilisations' approach to world literature did not unduly engage the energies of the Stockholm symposium.  There is limited value in prolonging argument as to whether Shakespeare is or is not greater than Goethe.  Instead, debate quickly identified a fairly widely agreed first principle of any attempt to answer the question, what is world literature?  In fact, Gochberg (1997: ix) - despite his flourish about ‘all that life can offer' - himself identifies the issue:  ‘We have chosen works because they exerted a significant influence on their own or later times, frequently even well outside their original cultures.'  Or as Damrosch (2003: 4) puts it:  ‘I take world literature to encompass all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their own original language.'

            Such a circulation model, of course, has its own difficulties.  Who or what ensures that a work circulates?  Clearly the ‘treasure' of the text alone is not a sufficient guarantee;  rather we enter a complicated network of powers, whether religious, economic, cultural, political, or economic.  We enter a world in which regimes of truth-imposition or routes of travel or dissemination are unequal in influence or cash.  Circuits involving the rich North (the North Atlantic conglomerate) and the poor South (constellations which might include China, India, Brazil, South Africa) remain caught up in the binaries of metropole and periphery.  Alert to the fact that texts which circulate must find willing publishing outlets and willing readers (that is, a market), Damrosch elaborates on his definition of world literature:  circulation beyond the original culture which is dependent not only on what is in the text, but also on reception.  His own book is intended, accordingly, to clarify ways in which works of literature may best be read, or received [because] ‘just as there never has been a single set canon of world literature, so too no single way of reading can be appropriate to all texts, or even to any one text at all times' (2003: 5).  Just as a work may be classified as Literature (capital L) in one period and not in another, or as a particular work may be adjudged greater than another in one period and not in another (we recollect Eliot's resurrection of the metaphysical poets as precursors of modernist sensibility), so world literature may be conceived not as object, but as concept.  Indeed, Damrosch's approach - in contrast to that of the World Literature and Thought project - is conceptual:  ‘The variability of a work of world literature is one of its constitutive features' (2003: 5). 

            The greater part of discussion at the Stockholm symposium considered matters of concept, circulation and reception:  whose literature, whose world, what design, what methodology, who values what?  Such questions are germane to several of the more pertinent articles in the field.  To make random reference, Aldridge (1986: 33) talks of the ‘difficulties of pointing to remarkably successful examples of the pragmatic application of critical systems in a comparative context'.  To which Prempati (1987: 63) adds: ‘I do not know whether the innumerable Western critical models which, like multinationals, have taken over the Indian critical scene would meaningfully serve any critical purpose at this juncture.'  Tying comparatism to asymmetries of power Smith (1988: 54) notes that ‘the imperial self's [i.e. the North Atlantic centre's] system of self-securing is not necessarily "corrected" by cosmopolitanism.  Rather in enlarging its view "from China to Peru" it may become all the more imperialistic, seeing in every horizon of difference new perspectives of its centrality, new pathologies through which peripheries of its normativity may be defined and must be asserted.'

            This last point touches on the problem of the work from a marginal culture which, in order to secure a ‘North Atlantic' readership, may have to emulate desirable international models.  Myoshi (1991) and Venuti (1998) both make the point:  a post-World War II reception in the US probably has less to do with genuine openness to other cultures, more to do with American interests and needs.  As Ali (1991: 140) tartly puts it: ‘same junk food, same junk novels.'  Instead of new preoccupations and styles arriving at the North Atlantic market from the margins - for example, magical realism from Latin America or folk hyper-realism from Africa - we have ‘market realism' (Ali 1991: 140-5):  a modernist/ postmodernist internationalism adopted by the Latin American or African writer who, very often, has long left or been long exiled from home, and who plies the North Atlantic literary or academic circuit.

            Despite concerns that world literature may subjugate different local, regional or national traditions to what in the title of her article Abu-Lughad (2001) calls ‘global babble', there are compelling counter-arguments, many of which are summarised in Damrosch's (2003: 1-36) Introduction to his book.  While it may be true that the marginal or provincial writer feels pressure to emulate the centre, it is also true that inherited traditions can exert a crushing weight on the metropolitan work.  Free of inherited tradition (as Proust or Woolf were not), writers like Joyce or Walcott had greater opportunity to be cosmopolitan.  Yet to be cosmopolitan (itself a problematic concept, as Appiah has recently shown)2 is not to belong nowhere:   Joyce's Ireland or Walcott's Caribbean give local strength to their authors' respective sensibilities and styles.

            Damrosch (2003: 25) draws a distinction, accordingly, between world literature (literature that comes from somewhere in order to circulate) and a notional global literature which, unaffected by any specific context, may be read at airport terminals anywhere:  Wilbur Smith's Africa as a creation of Hollywood.  Avoiding any either/or in the global/local equation Cooppan (2001: 33) believes that a world work may be at once ‘locally inflected and translocally mobile' or, as Dharwadker (2001: 3) phrases it, ‘a montage of overlapping maps in motion', a concept which invokes Ortiz's idea of transculturcion, cited by Perez-Firmat (1989: 25) as a ‘liminal zone or impassioned margin, where diverse cultures converge without merging'.

            Thus a world literature from, say, an Indian perspective will not be identical to a world literature from, say, a Brazilian perspective.  (These two particular cases are cited by Damrosch, 2003: 26-7.)  As Dev (1984: 14) has it, in India in its multilingualism, in its class and cultural diversity, there cannot be a true appreciation of ‘a single literature in absolute isolation'.  In Brazil a different set of forces might prevail.  To summarise Carvalhal (2001: 147-54), in Brazil the forces shaping any concept of ‘world' must involve the complex relations among people of indigenous, European, and mixed descent;  inter-American relations within Latin America vis-à-vis the United States;  and lasting ties to Portugal, Spain and France.  Whereas European scholars usually see world literature as radiating outwards from metropolitan centres to relatively passive provincial recipients - Carvalhal's argument continues - Brazilian scholars are moving beyond the paradigm of ‘Paris, cultural capital of Latin America' to emphasise a two-way process that is as much attuned to Brazil's dynamic heterogeneity as to the cultural authority of Paris.  To reiterate, a perspective on world literature is a perspective from somewhere.

            The argument identifies here a key difference between the approaches of Damrosch and Moretti, the latter of whom, as a result of his book Atlas on the European Novel 1800-1900 (1998) and his article ‘Conjectures on World Literature' (2000), has been extensively quoted in debates on the topic.  Moretti (2001: 55-67), whose views I have already introduced, utilises Wallerstein's world systems theory as an index of literary circulation.  If a consequence of globalisation has been the dissemination of the centre culture to the margins, then we may identify an analogy in the dissemination of the novel:  the major travelling form of literary modernity, arising to prominence in story/plot expectation and generic stability (from romance to realism;  from folk types to psychological interiority) in Europe and, as a global forma franca, transferring its sanctioned patterns only with difficulty to places and spaces on the margins of the European centre. 

As I interpret Moretti, the further the novel travels from its stable centre, the more it is in danger of expressing an unintentional disjunction, even a discordance, between plot (the story-purpose travels reasonably well) and style (that is, language transference from one set of cultural codes to another).  The critic at the margin may wish to tie a distinct contribution to a heterogeneity of style or an oral residue (say, in Amos Tutuola's The Palm-wine Drinkard);  but Moretti - I return to an earlier observation - concludes that the ‘close read' of the individual, local or national work should be left to the local or national critic.  A distinctive ‘narrative voice' (2001: 66) - he isolates the term - may be a valuable feature of the indigenous tradition or the regional temper:  a feature that no doubt affects the relation of content to form.  The ‘localised' narrative voice, however, enjoys little purchase on the North Atlantic circuit, the power circuit of novelistic innovation and dissemination.

            Moretti's argument is not endorsed by Damrosch (2003: 25).  The latter believes that a neglect of close reading severely diminishes the experiential value of literature's variability.  We are reminded that Wallerstein distinguishes between the history of the world as cultural homogenisation and cultural differentiation;  between globalisation as paradigm of modernity and paradigm of multiple modernities.  One solution to the world literature problematic (Damrosch refers to the Indian and Brazilian cases mentioned above)

is to recognise that we don't face an either/or choice between global systematicity and infinite textual multiplicity, for world literature itself is constituted very differently in different cultures....A culture's norms and needs profoundly shape the selection of works that enter into it as world literature, influencing the ways they are translated, marketed and read.

                                                                      (2003: 26)


What then distinguishes the study of world literature as object (a list, a syllabus, of treasures) from world literature as concept, in which the circulation of texts beyond the original culture is determined not simply by textual immanence, but also by reader reception, reader demand?  The distinction is not unfamiliar to a literary-critical shift from Arnoldian/Leavisian/New Critical considerations to context-based considerations.  Indeed, discussion at the Stockholm symposium invoked formulations identifiable within current post- debates (both postmodern and postcolonial):  metropole/periphery, centre/margin, all implicated in asymmetrical power;  multiple perspectives (world literature not as a window, but as windows on the world);  world literature as literature from somewhere;  readers - those who interpret the significance, the value - as readers of particular ideological, cultural, educational and class persuasions;  the question not only of what is world literature, but of what is literature.

            The question, what is literature?, forces one to complicate, to qualify, any circulation model.  For if measured in sales alone, world literature would replicate what Damrosch designates ‘global literature':  that is, a literature of no particular context.  A few examples:  the contemporary or near-contemporary novel of outdoor adventure or indoor intrigue, of crime, mystery, or sexual proclivity;  the biography of the world figure (Clinton);  the self-help or motivational or pop psycho book (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus).  The cultural critic, of course, will identify in such books a context, an implicit ideology:  the North Atlantic reading group;  white, middle class;  educated;  sexually broad-minded; politically cautious.  The language will be English or French, but predominantly English with French having to rely for its world reach - despite its cultural and diplomatic pretension - on English translation.  Given the sales power of mass literature, therefore, and to avoid the concept world literature being subsumed under the mass, the following sub-categorisations - introduced to discussion at Stockholm by D'haen - proved useful to refinements of argument (D'haen drew on Bourdieu's distinctions of social circuits):

§                the circuit of mass literature

§                the circuit of educational literature

§                the circuit of prestige literature

(In the South, one might wish to distinguish between ‘mass' and ‘popular', the latter encompassing the serious political intent of vox populi.)

            Such sub-categorisations permit flexibility of selection, perspectives, and purposes in any project-pursuit designated as world literature.  Shakespeare, for example, may inhabit both educational and prestige circuits, or, granted his popularisation in film adaptations and heritage promotion, the Bard of Avon might even touch a mass market.  Nonetheless, asymmetries of power persist:  whereas Shakespeare circulates in African education, the African praise poem as a staple form of African expression is unlikely to circulate in British education.  As a Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee circulates in the prestige domain at both centres and edges, but in sales, reviews and acclaim more in North Atlantic influence than in that of his home country, South Africa, where the prestige circuit is uneven in terms of sales and acknowledgement.  (Shortly before he relocated to Australia Coetzee had earned official opprobrium for his novel Disgrace, which was interpreted by ANC governmental sources as suggesting that South Africa, under black-African rule, was doomed to the twin failures of self-righteous political correctness and crime-ridden violence.)

            As a result of his Nobel achievement, Coetzee's circulation will have increased in direct sales, university prescriptions, and in translated versions of his works.  (A film edition of Disgrace is in the offing.)  Coetzee is a ‘world literature' figure.  Nonetheless, his circulatory significance is relatively insignificant in comparison to that of Dan Brown.  Again, should we wish to avoid equating world literature simply with mass North Atlantic literature, refinements are necessary to considerations of what circulates.  Here Goethe provides Damrosch (2003: 11-12) with a useful guide.  In his complex response to the foreign text the German writer partly projected his national recognition outwards, partly responded in fascination to cultural difference.  At one end the foreign text may be enjoyed for its novelty, at the other for a gratifying similarity that we find in, or project on to, the work.  There is also - Damrosch continues - the middle-range response to what is ‘like-but-unlike', and it is this like-but-unlike quality ‘that is most likely to make a productive change in our perceptions and practices' (12).

            While a response to a text may involve, almost simultaneously, all three dimensions, it is useful for the sake of sharpening our focus on world literature to examine the dimensions separately.  The work of novelty - for example, the San/Bushman story - is probably least likely to circulate;  the work of gratifying similarity - Wilbur Smith's Blue Horizon - is most likely to circulate widely.  What though of today's serious writer whose eye is not primarily on the preoccupations of the North Atlantic circuit:  Nadine Gordimer, André Brink, Milan Kundera, Garcia Marquez, indeed J.M. Coetzee?  Such writers - I venture - owe the success of their circulation beyond their own culture to the like-but-unlike quality of their stories.  They are usually novelists or short-story practitioners, story-plots travelling with greater ease than ‘non-story' poetry.  Their foreign content - apartheid South Africa, communist east Europe kitsch, Latin American cultural hybridism - has to find consonance with North Atlantic novelistic recognitions in character portrayal, concerns and style.  Behind the ‘national question' Gordimer's characters (they are usually white English-speaking South Africans) occupy private lives which, although influenced by local political demands, are in their aspirations, disappointments, desires and conversation not entirely alien to educated, middle-class readers in London, New York or, in translation, Paris.  The advantages of such bifurcated vision - a trait of the circulating writer from the margin - may also, of course, have its disadvantages:  we return to earlier comments on originality and derivation.  Is Soyinka's style original in its incorporation of Yoruba myth or is it imitative in its Euroamerican modernist ‘defamiliarisation'?  Or, may Soyinka's gifts not be like-but-unlike?

            That more questions than answers are provoked by the term world literature is not peculiar to the literary domain.  Commenting on the dramatic rise of world music Bakan (2004: xi-xv) asks, ‘But what exactly is world music?'  Having conceded that as all the world's musics - past and present, traditional and familiar, Western and non-Western, classical, popular, folk and tribal - exist in the world, should not all or none logically be categorised as world music?  In a fundamental sense the term world music, like world literature, is either meaningless or, at least, arbitrary.  What has given the term its classificatory potential, however, is that world music has come to designate an extension beyond existing Western categories (classical, rock, ‘mainstream' jazz).  Traditional musics of African, Asian, Native American provenance, certain musical traditions of North America and Western Europe (Irish traditional, Cajun) and Western-influenced popular styles built on the roots of traditional musics of non-Western origins (Ladysmith Black Mambaso's isicathamiya, especially when ‘co-opted' by Paul Simon) have begun to designate the field world music.  Whatever the value, however, the metropolitan centre still classifies margins in contrast to its own perceptions of who is self, who is other.

            To return to world literature, Damrosch in his book avoids the ‘great civilisations' approach of World Literature and Thought.  Rather than confining his purview to the classic (the work of transcendental, even foundational, value) and the masterpiece (the evolving canon, whether ancient or modern, but without necessarily any foundational cultural purchase), he permits us ‘multiple windows' onto the world.  He takes comparative study beyond the pre- and post-Treaty of Versailles stages, which I referred to earlier on, to engage with post-World War II decolonisation and, a fourth stage, a world in anticipation of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Not in sympathy with Bloom's return to Western foundations and masterpieces, more in sympathy with Bernheimer's challenge to comparatists to recognise an increasingly multicultural world even from the vantage point of US hegemony, Damrosch in What Is World Literature? suggests something of his own tenure in the academy.  (He is professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, and a recent past president of the American Comparative Literature Association.)  If, as he says, his ‘case study' chapters are aimed primarily at his US audience, then his purpose may be to challenge what in Ivy League universities remain quite conservative literary curricula (English and US-American touchstones).  I am surmising the point;  Damrosch does not state any programme.  Nonetheless, instead of Homer's Odyssey or Iliad as foundational examples (the Western academic choice), we have a chapter on The Epic of Gilgamesh.  (See Sandars 1960)  Instead of confining his focus to the cuneiform inscriptions on the stone tablets (the ‘text'), he permits questions of context to intervene:  who recovered the tablets from the lost city of Nineveh and to what purpose was the recovery put?  A chapter on Kafka returns this master of the universal (read, Western) ‘Kafka-esque' to his ethnic origins as the Jew of Prague.  From a ‘window' opening onto the Third World, the testimony of Guatemalan activist and Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú is studied not only in relation to an ethics of witness (when, in revolutionary politics, is truth verifiable as an individual experience, when as the reportage of an exemplary tale?), but also in relation to an ethics of authority and ownership.  Who is the ‘author', who gets the royalties, when the marginal foreign text (Me Llamo Rigoberta Menchú...) is ‘improved' in its translation for Western consumption, in the case of Menchú's story by the Paris-based anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos?  The issue led to acrimony between Burgos and Menchú.  (See Burgos 1985;  Menchú 1984)

            So at the Stockholm symposium so in Damrosch's case studies, the category world literature may be seen to be susceptible to a critical language and manoeuvre that interprets not only with, but also against, the grain of textual intention.  We recognise in the discussion of I, Rigoberta Menchú (the title of the English translation) the ploys of Derridean deconstruction, Foucauldian asymmetries of power, and - possibly influenced by his late colleague at Columbia - Saidian ideologies of representation.  Is world literature commentary when so framed - I have already implied a connection - so very different from postcolonial critique?

            In pursuing the question it is instructive to turn to Damrosch's case study of Milorad Pavić's Serbian novel, translated into English as Dictionary of the Khazars (1990), a novel which in the 1990s gained currency in events ‘post-Berlin Wall'.  In his chapter on Pavić, titled ‘The Poisoned Book' (2003: 260-76), Damrosch adopts the approach of ideology exposure familiar to postcolonial literary studies.  The gist of his argument is that in praising the experimentalism of Pavić's fiction, or rather metafiction, Western European critical reception acknowledged and appreciated the textual play of a postmodernist:  the subtitle of the novel, ‘A Lexicon Novel in 100 000 Words', seems to endorse a language game.  But in its travels - in its translation, in its relocations to new literary circuits - Pavić's primary purpose had become obscured.  This was the re-assertion of Serbian nationalism, a consequence of which would be the break-up of Yugoslavia in the vicious ethnic-identity politics of the Balkan wars.

            Such a ‘poisoned' outcome would cause the postcolonial critic - however enamoured of small differences at the expense of larger (Yugo) unities - to pause and consider the cost of literature in relation to human suffering.  In contrast, Damrosch's chapter ends on an upbeat note that bears little dialectical, or even didactic, relation to his own negative critique:

In Dictionary of the Khazars, the nightmare of history becomes the dream of world literature:  a space of freedom from the limited viewpoints that enmesh nations and individuals alike, not excluding the book's own author.  The reader's meal on the mailbox, and its hinted romantic aftermath, can form an antidote to the poison with which the book itself was written.

                                                          (2003: 76)


One is reminded here of Benjamin's (1977: 243) observation that Fascism aestheticises politics.  Or, closer to current debate, I was struck at the Stockholm symposium by the different temper and tenor of response to Moretti, respectively, by Damrosch and Julien, the latter of whom is professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University. 

Whereas Damrosch's main difficulty was Moretti's ‘homogenising' interpretation of world systems theory and the attendant danger of erasing the value of the ‘close reading' of literary variability, Julien (2004: 113-29) in satellite link-up with Moretti introduced to her opposition a more impassioned political commitment.  To Moretti's assumption that the novel is a mature European form the transfer of which to the margins is inevitably fraught with difficulties of adjustment, she invoked Said's (1993) counter-claim:  that there could have been no heyday for the European novel without Empire;  that the European novel was enabled by contact with spaces beyond Europe;  and that, consequently, the novel form in its ‘rise', or history, has always been more ‘creole' than identified by metropolitan critics like Ian Watt (1957).  In the African context we are reminded of Hofmeyr's (2002) observation that The Pilgrim's Progress circulated first as international literature in its missionary travels, in its adaptability to foreign contexts and converts, only later to be reined in by Leavis as a national text of vernacular English strength.  Sympathetic to invention at the margins (Achebe's narrative voice is not discordant or derivative, but captures effortlessly a rich commerce of tradition in modernity), Julien concludes, sceptically, angrily, that in Moretti ‘we have not gone far from home at all:  his new world literature amounts to an old world order' (2004: 117).

            Similarly a political tendency was evident at the Stockholm symposium when Cornis-Pope and Neubauer spoke to their massive project of re-positioning the literatures of the former European communist bloc within a transcultural, transnational context:  a context pertinent to post-Berlin Wall realignments.  To quote from the Introduction to their History of the Literary Cultures of East Central Europe:

The primary inspiration for our project is thus an ethical imperative.  The question [they return to tensions in post- debates between the relative values of overarching narratives and local stories] is not whether literary histories based on consensus are possible, but whether a history can be instrumental in moving a transnational public towards morally and politically desirable consensus....A history of East-central Europe will make sense if it furthers, on however small a scale, the communication between the peoples of that region...to assist us to reconsider our national prejudices.

                                                          (2004: 15-16)


Although Cornis-Pope and Neubauer do not invoke the term postcolonial - the term has connotations of the ‘South' - their project shares with postcolonialism a rehabilative moral and social purpose.  Its textual representations are underpinned by the materiality of political life;  its agenda seeks an emancipatory future.  The project struck accord at the Stockholm symposium.  Whether the drive is to broaden the curriculum or to broaden a moral universe, the drive is to avoid reactive nationalisms in an increasingly mobile, transnational world.

            If the study of world literature is by default the study of modernity, whether in contemporary or ancient example, then we are reminded that modernity is a configuration more complex and challenging that of the West and the rest;  that centres and peripheries are not so much distinct entities as interacting sites which make visible the idea of the world.  Why a symposium on transcultural literary history in Sweden?  Is it because this rich, relatively homogeneous society - its generous aid to peripheries notwithstanding - is uncertain of its own identity in contexts of global circulation?



My subtitle suggests value in the admittedly unstable category world literature.  So far, however, I have posed mostly the problematics of definition.  Is the category ultimately unmanageable:  as object, an endless selection of texts reflecting the preferences of any particular editor or editorial team;  as concept, endless case studies which, while avoiding the sharp, sometimes prescriptive politics of postcolonialism, raise not unconnected issues as to whose truth, whose power, whose culture is to prevail?

            To pursue links to post- debate, the shift from postcolonial prescription (according to Young (2001: 11), ‘the assumption guiding postcolonial critique is that it is possible to make effective political interventions') to what might be called a literary descriptiveness has its own limitations.  (I have mentioned Damrosch's odd inability to follow through on his own best insights into Pavić's ‘poisoned' book.)  At the same time, the less prescriptive approach permits space to reconsider fields or maps of enquiry, as well as particular works, which have fallen outside the priorities of what in post- debate can become repetitive of the dominant ‘agenda'.  (A ‘postcolonial' Shakespeare, for example, is more conveniently located in The Tempest than in The Winter's Tale.)

            Let me take in illustration what I term the post- conundrum:  arguments circling endlessly around a dilemma that arises from an ideological predisposition as to whether the ‘dissensus' of local stories, local knowledges, or the ‘consensual' narrative of explanation is the surer path to truth and justice.  Or, to turn within such a conundrum to Africa, whether a field - as Mbembe (2002) puts it - that has been dominated by two major historiographical traditions of nationalist Marxism and nativism can retain explanatory persuasion in the time-space compression of global circulation.  In short, is African identity at the turn of the millennium adequately understood or articulated as exclusively ‘racially and geographically based and almost constantly under siege from imperial or neo-imperial forces from outside'?

            The point - Gilroy's (1993) metaphor of a Black Atlantic diaspora comes to mind - is well put by Hofmeyr and Gunner (Gunner, incidentally, attended the Stockholm symposium) in their Introduction to the special issue of Scrutiny 2, ‘Transnationalism and African Literature':

Much scholarship in the humanities is in the process of taking a transnational turn.  Central to these developments has been a focus on ideas of circulation.  If identity is no longer shaped in static entities like nation or region, but is rather shaped by a series of global flows and patternings, then questions of transnational circulation become critical.

                                              (2005:  3)

The term transnational is formulated by Cornis-Pope and Neubauer as key to a reconceived ‘East Central' European literature.  Earlier on I alluded to transnational circulation in relation to Hofmeyr's observations on Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.  The ‘transnational turn', referred to here by Hofmeyr and Gunner, also identifies the principle and method of an ambitious project, co-ordinated by Hofmeyr and drawing on work collected by Fawaz and Bayly (2002), not on a Black Atlantic, but on an Indian Ocean diaspora:  how to explore southern constellations in which the African east coast has long been caught up in circuits of trans-ocean intervention.  While texts are to be employed as repositories of human experience - shipwreck accounts, proselytising tracts, reading and debating records, some inspired by Gandhi's stay in South Africa - the project suggests not so much a literary-aesthetic as a social-history dimension.  (See Hofmeyr 2006)

            Nonetheless, recent foregroundings of the term transnational are a reminder that literatures at the margins have never made entire sense, ethically or aesthetically, without transnational consideration.  If the category world literature is able to release slightly the pressure of a prescriptive postcolonial agenda, we in South Africa - my immediate readership - may wish to return ideas of global circulation to our own literature:  Pringle, we recall, cannot be understood or appreciated outside of a traffic between Augustan Romanticism and the eastern Cape Frontier;  Campbell requires European modernist reference;  Plomer's Turbott Wolfe connects us before the Achebe/Conrad controversy (see Achebe 1988) to both a ‘heart of darkness' and Bloomsbury aesthetics;  Mofolo's Chaka subjects the Zulu kingdom to Greek or Shakespearean dramatic inheritance.  Even Soweto poetry invites transnational comprehension:  the Harlem Renaissance, Brechtian anti-poetry, the US beat generation, and - African tradition and international modernity circulating - simultaneous commitment to Shaka's praises and the voice of Malcolm X.  The township material - in its poverty, its desire for justice, its climate of revolt in the 1970s - lent to Soweto poetry a local projection onto the anti-apartheid conscience of the world.

            World literature - we are reminded - offers a perspective from somewhere.  If this is more evident in a conceptual frame, it is not to dismiss the value of world literature as object:  that is, as a list of significant works.  Should my focus on Damrosch's approach have seemed to sideline the ‘object' frame of the multi-volume anthology World Literature and Thought, this has not been my intention.  I have acknowledged appreciation of the array of texts that the project makes available to literary readers, most of whom, like myself, are by attachment to our own ‘localities' circumscribed in our range of knowledge and reference;  circumscribed linguistically, culturally and philosophically.  As a critic whose field has become ‘southern Africa', for example, I was reminded by the chosen extract from Camões's Os Lusiadas (in translation, The Lusiads) that this Portuguese Renaissance epic is less concerned with Da Gama's rounding of the Cape;  more with his arrival - a mercantile rather than a cultural arrival - at the Indian spice-port capital of Calicut, where serious ‘transnational' business deals had to be negotiated. (See Camões 2001)  It was instructive, also, to encounter the several entries on Chinese literature and thought:  minds and sensibilities outside of the Western or African purview, but indicators of the importance of a civilisation that is beginning to play a decisive role in the 21st-century world.  I didn't know that Ts'ao Hsueh-ch'in's (2001) novel Hung-lou-meng, first published in 1791 and translated as The Dream of the Red Chamber (1958), had attracted so much commentary, initially in China, more latterly in the West, as to have created a scholarly discipline of its own:  Red Studies, which in its aims and reach is comparable to Shakespeare Studies.  One is tempted to add to one's reading list this Confucian, or Taoist, or Buddhist morality tale, which has been interpreted as both a tragic story of star-crossed lovers and a veiled depiction of degeneracy among the wealthy class of a feudal society.  A comparative essay on The Dream of the Red Chamber and Romeo and Juliet?  (See Ts'ao Hsueh-ch'in  2001)

            I deliberately introduce here the academic or student exercise.  My attempt is to lend to the category world literature a design that might negate charges of unmanageability and encourage teachability within the constraints of the curriculum.  For without teachability world literature remains so abstract, or arbitrary, as to fail to percolate down from academic-journal debate to groups of peers and students, where paradigm shifts may be explored, tested in seminar interaction, illustrated in the analysis of actual works, and returned with substance and clarity to ongoing knowledge production.

            Let me draw to a conclusion, therefore, by turning the category to specific perspectives.  How might world literature impinge on South Africa?  The mass circuit - the shelves of Exclusive Books bear this out - favours the latest ‘global' bestseller from the London or New York publishing industry;  the latest motivational or pop psychology book on (middle-class) intimate relationships.  Is this internationalism or colonial dependency?  Or continuing white suburban privilege?  The educational and prestige circuits, taken together, may value several importations:  the Bible, Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Shakespeare, English Romantic poetry, Dickens, Conrad, modernist influence whether from Britain or the United States, children's books such as adapted versions of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer;  Harry Potter, books adapted to films such as The Lord of the Rings or the British period novel.

            What, in contrast, has the world wanted from South Africa?  Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, Van der Post on the Bushmen, Nobel Laureates Gordimer and Coetzee; Brink, Fugard, Wilbur Smith, Mandela's autobiography and, released in 2006 simultaneously in 19 countries, Mandela, the Authorised Portrait, a 365-page book that includes 60 original interviews with international and local personages including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nadine Gordimer, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and U2's Bono.  (World literature, indeed!)  To extend South Africa to Africa:  Nobel Laureates Mahfouz and Soyinka, Senghor's Négritude, Achebe, Ngugi.

            My list is certainly not comprehensive;  it is deliberately eclectic, even cavalier. The exercise, nevertheless, provokes a category reconsideration.  Imagine that in global times one chose to construct a syllabus not under the rubric ‘South African Literature', but under that of ‘Literature in South Africa'. The mass circuit, according to sales, would need to include, among other bestsellers, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which is read by more South Africans than is Coetzee's Disgrace or Slow Man.  The educational circuit would have, alongside Shakespeare, the Harry Potter novels;  more promising from the local perspective might be a recent interest in attractively produced children's versions of rich and diverse African folk traditions.  The prestige circuit would include, alongside the Gordimers, Brinks and Coetzees, an international dimension:  Roth, Kundera, Rushdie, Marquez.  The poetry volume or playscript would require special subsidy.  So would most local literature not written originally in English.  While Afrikaans still commands a small but loyal market, the position of African-language literatures - reliant on school prescriptions - is dire.  Whatever its global expansion, world literature contains within its category the death of languages.  Yet, as my inclusion of Kundera and Marquez under the heading ‘Literature in South Africa' suggests, translation, alongside comparison, gains in stature as a necessary methodological component, a necessary practical application, of the field.  Such a category reconfiguration presents a further challenge, at least to the literary critic:  how to ensure that the ‘sociology' of literature (why does The Da Vinci Code circulate in South Africa?) subserves, rather than subverts, the literary pursuit:  what concerns, what qualities in, say, Marquez appeal to the South African reader?

            Despite the value of the exercise, I return to my point that as a field of study world literature requires a systematic mapping, a curriculum design, more manageable than that offered by arbitrary book lists. Instead of starting with texts, therefore, we might follow Damrosch and start with categories of concept in which, according to any particular perspective (world literature as a literature from somewhere), texts are utilised as illustrations of issues, themes and genre-preponderance that have world reach.  Whose world?  The example that follows neither endorses any asymmetrical relationship of the West projecting its centre power onto the margins nor wishes simply to reverse the binary as the ‘empire writing back'. Rather the design permits difference within nodes of coherence across regions or nations.  Whether the ‘home perspective' is the West, the East, or Africa, or the North or the South, interaction is sought in the organising metaphor of multiple modernities.

§                Ancient Pasts/Magical Enlightenment.  Whether one selects The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Mahabharata, or any particular folk tradition, similar literary-critical challenges are encountered:  recovery, translation, mediation, the bridge between past and present significance (hence, the text in relation to context and reception), novelty or commonality of generic classification.

§                Are Sacred Texts literature?  Religion, tradition, modernity, transculturalism, syncreticism, the oral and the written, the nature of belief, the potency of belief as peacemaker or, alas, warmonger.  (I am currently reading Jaroslav Pelikan's fascinating Whose Bible Is It?  A History of the  Scriptures through the Ages.)

§                The ‘Classic'.  Timeless or timebound, the universal or the particular, adaptation.  (Should Classics syllabuses in South Africa confine attention to Greece and Rome or is San/Bushmen tradition our ‘Classical' inheritance?)

§                Old World, New World.  The Renaissance, individualism, voyaging, colonialism, migrations.

§                ‘Masterpieces'.  National and/or postcolonial perspectives, mass/educational/ prestige circuits, the ‘male' gaze.

§                Modernisms (including postmodernisms). Centres/edges, realism/ fictionalisation, high art, democratic purpose.  (We are reminded that modernism in both its content and styles arrived at the metropole from various ‘edges', whether the US, Sweden, Ireland or Romania, to mention a few.)

§                Politics and art.  Limits, strengths of localities, individual truth/exemplary truth, testimony as genre, the ‘popular'.

§                The Rise of the Novel.  Romance/realism (we are transported back not only before Defoe, but before the Don Quixote), the woman's voice, consumerism from the railway bookstall to the airport terminal.

§                Who wins a Nobel Prize?  (Most recently, in 2006, the novelist Orhan Pamuk from a Turkey located strategically between West and East, between secularism and Islam.)

Using the ‘category as concept' approach we experimented at my university with a modified Honours module on postcolonial literary studies.  The problem is that postcolonialism is not proving to be very attractive to students many of whom associate the term with what they refer to not only as ‘politics', but a politics of blame, in which the present younger generation is expected to atone for the sins of colonialism and apartheid.  The module was renamed ‘Writing across Worlds'.  While key postcolonial issues were not ignored, a language of political prescription yielded to a language of literary description according to which ideology critique - the colonial/anti-colonial discourse - was turned from statement, or declaration, to embodiment in the aesthetic object:  in short, the novel, the poem, is not reducible to the diagram.

   This could suggest a nostalgia for New Criticism;  there is no return, however, to an apolitical world, particularly from the perspective of Africa, South Africa or, broadly, the South.  We cannot examine or value Heart of Darkness (1994) [1902] - one of the texts on the course - as a masterpiece not of meaning, but of ‘be-ing'.  What we - literary academics - may be reminded of is our particular area of expertise, namely literature, and how literature in what Attridge (2004) terms its distinctive quality, or ‘singularity', can contribute to a particular form of insight and - dare one re-introduce the word - appreciation.  (I resist Goethe's ‘intellectual treasures'.)  Conrad was not free of several presuppositions, even prejudices, of his age;  his modernist manner of making us ‘see', his shifts of register, of voice, between author and narrator, and his style of evocation, however, all complicate any judgement that, as Achebe (1988: 9) would have it, he was a ‘thoroughgoing racist'.  There is a qualitative difference - an art of singularity - between Heart of Darkness and its predecessors in the Victorian adventure inheritance:  a mass literature that, indeed, threatened to reduce Africa to a boys' own yarn devoid of serious concern.  To enter again an ‘art' dimension need not deflect young South Africans from political consequence.  (Student registrations, incidentally, showed an increase.)

   If I have not answered in any definitive way Damrosch's question as to what is world literature.  If the category remains unstable, I hope that my discussion of the object and concept has stimulated thought on the capacity of literature and literary study to contribute to the ‘transnational' exchanges that increasingly characterise the times.  What I do not wish to have endorsed is Moretti's erasure of local distinction in global circulation.  Modernism from a southern perspective, for example, need not focus on Conrad or Eliot or Woolf;  it could look back to the North and forward to the South via Césaire, or, closer to home, Opperman or Douglas Livingstone.  As the module to which I have referred concludes in its summary statement:  ‘Writing across worlds?  It is significant that Rushdie's novel The Moor's Last Sigh alludes in its title to Shakespeare's Othello.  Such are the postcolonial "translations" of the world which we [at least, we in literary-education] all inhabit'.

University of KwaZulu-Natal




1.              As is apparent in the frequent references, I am indebted to the synthesis of debates and illuminating contribution provided by David Damrosch's What Is World Literature?  I was inspired to look through ‘South African' eyes at the category world literature after discussion at the Stockholm symposium, in which I participated and to which I refer in my paper.  (Stockholm 4-6 November 2004).  The proceedings are in press.


2.              Cosmpolitanism is ‘not the name of any solution, but the challenge' [of the next, more global epoch].  (See Appiah 2006: 11)



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