What Is World Literature?

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World literature was long defined in North America as an established canon of European masterpieces, but an emerging global perspective has challenged both this European focus and the very category of "the masterpiece." The first book to look broadly at the contemporary scope and purposes of world literature, What Is World Literature? probes the uses and abuses of world literature in a rapidly changing world.

In case studies ranging from the Sumerians to the Aztecs and from medieval mysticism to postmodern metafiction, David Damrosch looks at the ways works change as they move from national to global contexts. Presenting world literature not as a canon of texts but as a mode of circulation and of reading, Damrosch argues that world literature is work that gains in translation. When it is effectively presented, a work of world literature moves into an elliptical space created between the source and receiving cultures, shaped by both but circumscribed by neither alone. Established classics and new discoveries alike participate in this mode of circulation, but they can be seriously mishandled in the process. From the rediscovered Epic of Gilgamesh in the nineteenth century to Rigoberta Menchú's writing today, foreign works have often been distorted by the immediate needs of their own editors and translators.

Eloquently written, argued largely by example, and replete with insightful close readings, this book is both an essay in definition and a series of cautionary tales.

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What People Are Saying

Wai Chee Dimock
A stunning achievement. Damrosch gives 'world literature' the largest possible scope—ranging from cuneiform to hieroglyphics, from low German to Nahuatl—a jaunt across several millennia and a dozen languages.
Wai Chee Dimock, Yale University
Wlad Godzich
Displaying great intelligence, immense literary and historical culture, and unassuming modesty, Damrosch intervenes in contemporary debates over 'world literature.' Readers will be dumbfounded by his range. He treats cuneiform-inscribed shards, Egyptian hieroglyphics, medieval German female mystics, Inca chronicles, Kafka translations and contemporary Native protest literature will equal philological attention, poise and erudition.
Wlad Godzich, University of California, Santa Cruz
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691049861
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 3/10/2003
  • Series: Translation/Transnation Series
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 697,450
  • Product dimensions: 6.08 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Read an Excerpt

What Is World Literature?

By David Damrosch

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-04986-1



"I am more and more convinced," Goethe remarked," that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men ... I therefore like to look about me in foreign nations, and advise everyone to do the same. National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach." Speaking to his young disciple Johann Peter Eckermann in January 1827, the seventy-seven-year-old Goethe used his newly minted term Weltliteratur, which passed into common currency after Eckermann published his Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens in 1835, three years after the poet's death. The term crystallized both a literary perspective and a new cultural awareness, a sense of an arising global modernity, whose epoch, as Goethe predicted, we now inhabit. Yet the term has also been extraordinarily elusive, from the moment of its formulation onward: 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 relationsbetween Western Europe and the rest of the globe, between antiquity and modernity, between the nascent mass culture and elite productions?

If we look to Goethe for guidance, the perplexities only multiply, fueled by his constantly shifting personality-his unstable mix of modesty and megalomania, cosmopolitanism and jingoism, classicism and Romanticism, wide-ranging curiosity and self-absorbed dogmatism. Eckermann's account is both a portrait of the great man and the record of his inability to grasp his subject; Goethe is a diamond, Eckermann tells us, that casts a different color in every direction. Eckermann, on the other hand, is a diamond in the rough: of humble origins, largely self-taught, an aspiring poet and dramatist, he seeks to model his life and work on Goethe, whom he knows he can never measure up to. Both Bild and Bildungsroman-objective portrait of Goethe and subjective autobiography of Eckermann himself-the Conversations with Goethe is a gallery of scenes of instruction, seduction, influence, and transmission, all of which have much to tell us about the worldliness of literature. Looking at Goethe's Weltliteratur within the multiple frames Eckermann provides, we can already find all the major complexities, tensions, and opportunities that we still encounter today as we try to grasp our rapidly expanding world and its exfoliating literatures.

Indeed, for Eckermann Goethe is the living embodiment of world literature, even of world culture as a whole. Late in his account, he records Goethe's remark that "the daemons, to tease and make sport with men, have placed among them single figures so alluring that everyone strives after them, and so great that nobody reaches them"; Goethe names Raphael, Mozart, Shakespeare, and Napoleon as examples. "I thought in silence," Eckermann adds, "that the daemons had intended something of the kind with Goethe-he is a form too alluring not to be striven after, and too great to be reached" (271).

Even to be as close to Goethe as he is, Eckermann has come a long way. Raised in rural poverty, he had managed to find a clerk's job at the local court. "At this time I heard the name Goethe for the first time and first acquired a volume of his poetry. I read his poems, and constantly reread them, with a pleasure that no words can describe ... it seemed to me that in these poems my own hitherto unknown essence was reflected back to me [zurück-gespiegelt] ... I lived for whole weeks and months in these poems ... I thought and spoke of nothing but Goethe" (Gespräche, 21). Friends at court arranged a two-year scholarship for Eckermann to study law at Göttingen. His fellowship ending, he could not bear to pursue a legal career. Living penuriously on the last remains of his fellowship, he wrote poems and composed a work of literary criticism, Contributions to Poetry, with Particular Attention to Goethe, and sent the manuscript to Goethe, hoping he would recommend it to his publisher. Some weeks passed; hearing nothing, Eckermann decided to risk everything and go see Goethe in person. It took over a week to walk to Weimar. "Along the way, often made wearisome by hot weather, I kept repeating to myself the comforting feeling that I was proceeding under the special protection of benevolent spirits, and that this journey might have important consequences for my later life" (Gespräche, 30).

This is an extreme understatement. Eckermann at this point had no resources whatever, no prospects; he could only hope that Goethe-one of the most eminent writers in Europe and subject to an incessant stream of visitors, pleas for assistance, requests for references and reviews-would take a special interest in him and help him to some sort of literary career. Cast in the fairy-tale role of donor figure, Goethe does all this and more: he strides into the room, an impressive figure "in a blue frock-coat," Eckermann says, oddly adding, "and with shoes." He sits Eckermann on a sofa and says the magic words: "'I have just come from you,' said he; 'I have been reading your writing all morning; it needs no recommendation-it recommends itself'" (Conversations, 1). Not only does he arrange immediately for the book's publication; at their next meeting, a few days later, he takes over Eckermann's life. Speaking with "the impetuous and decided manner of a youth" (2), Goethe enlists Eckermann to organize and assess an archive of his early notes and manuscripts, and commands him to move to Jena, where Goethe will be living in the fall.

Goethe's reaction was, in fact, a little less surprising than Eckermann's account suggests. Discussing the book's genesis in an afterword to her definitive edition of the Gespräche, Regine Otto notes that when he sent Goethe his manuscript in May, Eckermann had written a cover letter detailing his administrative abilities and indicating his availability for a post as personal secretary, should Goethe have need of someone deeply acquainted with his works and sympathetic to his views (Gespräche, 686). As Eckermann reports it, though, Goethe's response is not only spontaneous but magically swift: "I have already written about a lodging for you and other things necessary to make your stay pleasant," Goethe tells him, including letters of introduction to close friends of his in Jena. "'You will enjoy their circle,' said he; 'I have passed many delightful evenings there. Jean Paul, Tieck, the Schlegels, and all the other distinguished men of Germany have visited there, and always with delight; and even now it is the union-point of many learned men, artists, and other persons of note" (Conversations, 3). The fairy tale is coming true.

Eckermann's admission to this charmed circle is his introduction to the world of world literature as Goethe practices it: less a set of works than a network. As Fritz Strich has observed, this network had a fundamentally economic character, serving to promote "a traffic in ideas between peoples, a literary market to which the nations bring their intellectual treasures for exchange" (Goethe and World Literature, 13). In 1847 Marx and Engels adopted Goethe's term precisely in the context of newly global trade relations: "The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionaries it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed" (Communist Manifesto, 421). The paragraph that begins with these sentences ends with the lines that form the first epigraph to this book: "National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature." For Marx and Engels, as for Goethe, world literature is the quintessential literature of modern times.

The dramatic acceleration of globalization since their era, however, has greatly complicated the idea of a world literature. Most immediately, the sheer scope of the term today can breed a kind of scholarly panic. "What can one make of such an idea?" Claudio Guillén has asked. "The sum total of all national literatures? A wild idea, unattainable in practice, worthy not of an actual reader but of a deluded keeper of archives who is also a multimillionaire. The most harebrained editor has never aspired to such a thing" (The Challenge of Comparative Literature, 38). Though it has a certain surface plausibility, Guillén's objection is hardly decisive; after all, no one denies that the term "insect" is viable, even though there are so many billions of insects in the world that no one person can ever be bitten by each of them. Still, the sum total of the world's literatures can be sufficiently expressed by the blanket term "literature." The idea of world literature can usefully continue to mean a subset of the plenum of literature. I take world literature to encompass all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language (Virgil was long read in Latin in Europe). In its most expansive sense, world literature could include any work that has ever reached beyond its home base, but Guillén's cautionary focus on actual readers makes good sense: a work only has an effective life as world literature whenever, and wherever, it is actively present within a literary system beyond that of its original culture.

A viable concept when delimited in this way, world literature still consists of a huge corpus of works. These works, moreover, stem from widely disparate societies, with very different histories, frames of cultural reference, and poetics. A specialist in classical Chinese poetry can gradually, over years of labor, develop a close familiarity with the vast substratum beneath each brief T'ang Dynasty poem, but most of this context is lost to foreign readers when the poem travels abroad. Lacking specialized knowledge, the foreign reader is likely to impose domestic literary values on the foreign work, and even careful scholarly attempts to read a foreign work in light of a Western critical theory are deeply problematic. As A. Owen Aldridge has said, "it is difficult to point to remarkably successful examples of the pragmatic application of critical systems in a comparative context. The various theories cancel each other out" (The Reemergence of World Literature, 33). Or as the Indian scholar D. Prempati has pointedly remarked, "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."

Some scholars have argued that literary works across cultures do exhibit what Northrop Frye thought of as archetypes or what more recently the French comparatist Étiemble has called "invariants." In his lively polemic Ouverture(s) sur un comparatisme planétaire, Étiemble argued that common literary patterns must provide the necessary basis for any truly global understanding of literature. Yet such universals quickly shade into vague generalities that hold less and less appeal today, at a time when ideals of melting-pot harmony have faded in favor. Scholars of world literature risk becoming little more than the literary ecotourists described by Susan Lanser, people "who dwell mentally in one or two (usually Western) countries, summer metaphorically in a third, and visit other places for brief interludes" ("Compared to What?" 281).

A central argument of this book will be that, properly understood, world literature is not at all fated to disintegrate into the conflicting multiplicity of separate national traditions; nor, on the other hand, need it be swallowed up in the white noise that Janet Abu-Lughod has called "global babble." My claim is that world literature is not an infinite, ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading, a mode that is as applicable to individual works as to bodies of material, available for reading established classics and new discoveries alike. This book is intended to explore this mode of circulation and to clarify the ways in which works of world literature can best be read. It is important from the outset to realize that 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. The variability of a work of world literature is one of its constitutive features-one of its greatest strengths when the work is well presented and read well, and its greatest vulnerability when it is mishandled or misappropriated by its newfound foreign friends.

A work enters into world literature by a double process: first, by being read as literature; second, by circulating out into a broader world beyond its linguistic and cultural point of origin. A given work can enter into world literature and then fall out of it again if it shifts beyond a threshold point along either axis, the literary or the worldly. Over the centuries, an unusually shifty work can come in and out of the sphere of world literature several different times; and at any given point, a work may function as world literature for some readers but not others, and for some kinds of reading but not others. The shifts a work may undergo, moreover, do not reflect the unfolding of some internal logic of the work in itself but come about through often complex dynamics of cultural change and contestation. Very few works secure a quick and permanent place in the limited company of perennial World Masterpieces; most works shift around over time, even moving into and out of the category of "the masterpiece," as we will see in the third chapter below.

As it moves into the sphere of world literature, far from inevitably suffering a loss of authenticity or essence, a work can gain in many ways. To follow this process, it is necessary to look closely at the transformations a work undergoes in particular circumstances, which is why this book highlights the issues of circulation and translation and focuses on detailed case studies throughout. To understand the workings of world literature, we need more a phenomenology than an ontology of the work of art: a literary work manifests differently abroad than it does at home.

The rich variability of world literature is already fully evident in Goethe's conversations with Eckermann. Goethe had a lively sense of the ways his own books could benefit by translation, even as he himself read voraciously in a surprisingly wide range of foreign literatures. Having found in Eckermann the perfect middleman for his own literary trade, Goethe arranged for his disciple to settle into lodgings near him, first in Jena and then permanently in Weimar. There Eckermann met many of Goethe's visitors from all over Europe and began to take part in the network's activity. He published poems, collaborated on opera libretti, made translations from French, read widely, at Goethe's request, so that he could bring significant new writers to Goethe's attention, and kept a detailed journal recording his conversations with Goethe, with an eye toward eventual publication.

Through these conversations, we gain a nuanced picture of Goethe's manifold encounters with foreign texts. He constantly recommends to Eckermann books he has been reading, in English, French, Italian, and Latin, and he reads translations as readily as originals, even in the case of his own works. "I do not like to read my Faust any more in German," he remarks at one point, but in a new French translation he finds his master-work "again fresh, new, and spirited"-even though the translation is mostly in prose (276). Eckermann's initial response to Goethe's poetry, of finding his own essence reflected back to him, thus parallels Goethe's experience of the international circulation of his work, which he regularly describes in terms of "mirroring" (Spiegelung). Goethe reads English and French commentaries on German literature with great avidity, finding the foreign perspective sharper and clearer than German criticism can be. As he wrote in an article for his journal Kunst und Alterthum, "Left to itself every literature will exhaust its vitality, if it is not refreshed by the interest and contributions of a foreign one. What naturalist does not take pleasure in the wonderful things that he sees produced by reflection in a mirror? Now what a mirror in the field of ideas and morals means, everyone has experienced in himself, and once his attention is aroused, he will understand how much of his education he owes to it" ("Some Passages," 8).


Excerpted from What Is World Literature? by David Damrosch Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents



INTRODUCTION: Goethe Coins a Phrase 1


Chapter 1: Gilgamesh's Quest 39

Chapter 2: The Pope's Blowgun 78

Chapter 3: From the Old World to the Whole World 110


Chapter 4: Love in the Necropolis 147

Chapter 5: The Afterlife of Mechthild von Magdeburg 170

Chapter 6: Kafka Comes Home 187


Chapter 7: English in the World 209

Chapter 8: Rigoberta Menchú in Print 231

Chapter 9: The Poisoned Book 260

CONCLUSION: World Enough and Time 281



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