Unit 2: World Literature and Comparative Literature Focus Questions

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Who was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and what did he mean by the term Weltliteratur?
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832) is generally accepted as having been the greatest German writer ever.

Weltliteratur is used in several of his essays in the early decades of the nineteenth century to describe the international circulation and reception of literary works in Europe, including works of non-Western origin.

‘World literature’, a term coined by Goethe to suggest the capacity of literature to transcend national and linguistic boundaries.

What are some of the ambiguities in von Goethe’s use of the term Weltliteratur?
– he pushed the idea of world literature in an age of intense nationalism.

– on one hand, the term “men of letters” suggests that Goethe, while thinking of Weltliteratur, refers an updated form of transnational communication among “world” intellectuals.

– alternatively, it refers to the commercial exchange of ideas between like minded writers (circulation of “high” cultural goods among the international elite)

How did individual interests and national literatures inform the conception of world literature?
Almost from the very beginning world literature had to enter into competition with the rising tide of national literature studies, and it was often recuperated by the latter to implicitly glorify some national literature or other.

In the early nineteenth century, the initiation and development of world literature as a subject of investigation depended on the influence of several key figures and the related development of a system of nation-states. Cross-border literary production increased in the early nineteenth century, particularly as periodicals flourished and translation enabled vernacular literature to find new readers. Such circumstances inspired Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, generally considered the greatest of German writers, to consider the role Germany would play in the rise of Weltliteratur, or world literature. He saw the German language as a way to mediate the translation of other literatures and thus facilitate a stronger German state, especially as Germany was not a unified country at the time. Thus, Goethe’s individual interest in the promotion of the German language, Germany’s political interests, and mutual understanding between nations more often in a state of conflict contributed to the conception of world literature in the early nineteenth century. Goethe was not alone in his efforts. Another German, poet and essayist Heinrich Heine, took up Goethe’s interest in the translation of culture between nations, particularly Germany and France. As such, there was an important dynamic between national interests and international communication, with the latter helping to delineate the former.

Literature as a tool of both nation building and cross-cultural understanding was not restricted to Germany. For example, Madame de Stael’s literary salon brought together writers from across Europe, and her own writing contributed to better knowledge of European literatures, again largely of Germany and France. Inspired by the comparative method, Philarète Chasles also worked to further the understanding of foreign literatures, especially English literature, in France. Following in part on the popularity of national histories and the interest of prominent literary figures in foreign literature, histories of world literature also played an important role in the early conception of world literature. This too was related to individual interests and national literatures, for no history of world literature could cover all works or nations. As such, selection, and therefore politics, played an important role in the determination of what counted as world literature.

How did Heinrich Heine understand world literature?
The same as Goethe, as an international circulation and reception of literary works
How did the practice of world literature change in the second half of the nineteenth century?
By and large they abandoned the original Goethean concept of Weltliteratur as the transnational contemporary circulation of ideas among the authors and leading intellectuals of, in first instance, the nations of Europe. Instead, they interpreted world literature as meaning either the archive of all that had ever been written, even if often, in spite of Chasles’ proposal, limited to literature in the more restrictive sense, or, more often, as the canon of “world masterpieces”.
How did Albert Guerard differentiate between universal literature, world literature, comparative literature, and general literature?
– universal literature = embraces all literatures, of all ages, in all languages, without insisting on their unity or their relations

– world literature = is limited to those works which are enjoyed in common, ideally by all mankind, practically by our own group of culture (the European or Western)

– comparative literature = is concerned with the mutual influences between various national literatures

– general literature = is concerned with those problems that are present in the literature of every epoch and every country

How did Rabindranath Tagore and Maxim Gorky interpret world literature?
– both inspired by Goethe, viewed as a method to which to provide exposure and better understand other cultures

– Tagore = inspired by Goethe, Tagore went to great lengths to claim literature as the expression of all humanity: “we pledged that our goal is to view universal humanity in universal literature by freeing ourselves from rustic uncatholicity; that wee shall recognize totality in each particular author’s work, and that in this totality we shall perceive the interrelations among all human efforts at expression

– Gorky = viewed world literature as a way to acquaint the Russian people with the literary achievements of the “East” as well as the “West”

How was world literature understood beyond Europe in the nineteenth century?
For most of its history world literature meant literatures of Europe.

Postcolonialism strove for a fairer representation of all kinds of minorities, also from, but not limited to, Western literature.

Concurrently, postmodernism sought to do away with all hierarchical distinctions altogether, and hence argued either the impossibility of a canon, including of world literature, or its individual and as it were coincidental nature.

What were the primary characteristics of Goethe’s humanism?
Goethe’s view of humanity was strongly influenced by his adulation of ancient Greece and Rome as interpreted by the Renaissance humanists and their more recent 18th century followers in the eyes of his detractors proves that his ideas on Weltliteratur were predetermined by a European “classical” norm, and hence inevitably Euro-centric.

– common humanity and universal humanity

What are the advantages and disadvantages of identifying Goethe as the key figure in the history of world literature as a discipline?
Goethe helped pave the way for Romanticism throughout Europe. In some way or other these works are also anti-authoritarian, whether it is against prevailing morals and religion. Goethe increasingly turned neo-classicist in art, although for much of his life he stayed non-conformist in morals and religion.

Goethe is not interested in drawing up a canon of world masterpieces, but is interested in what world literature can contribute to the humanity by fostering the circulation of what he sees as the right kind of ideas and forms.

How did Edward Said use humanistic philology?
As an instrument also for self-critically investigating the foundations of Humanism itself, and that European civilization undergirds.

He believes that far more than they fight, cultures coexist and interact fruitfully with each other and that the idea of humanistic culture as coexistence and sharing that these pages are meant to contribute

How did the approach of Ernst Robert Curtius differ from those of other German philologists such as Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer?
Unlike Auerbach and Spitzer, Curtius wants his Humanism to bolster a tradition limited to the West, and specifically Europe, and perhaps even Western Europe.

Curtius sees Goethe as the endpoint of a homogeneous European tradition that Curtius himself seeks to restore.

Auerbach does not chronicle the continuity of an unchangeable Western humanist tradition but rather the relentless “humanization” if that tradition from the ancients, both Greeks and Latin, as well as Judaic, through a progressive intermingling of styles high and low, to French realism in the 19th century, when there is no longer a distinction of styles and the only thing left to form the subject of literature is “man”.

Spitzer states that the Humanist believes in the power of the human mind of investigating the human mind. Spitzer does not say the European mind, or only Western canon, he talks about the human mind .

According to Claudio Guillén, what conditions were required for the transnational study of literature as practised by comparative literature?
The transnational study of literature is practiced by comparative literature, Guillen argues, could only come into being “when two events occur:
1) when a large number of modern literatures – literatures that recognize themselves as such – come into existence; and
2) when a unitary or absolute poetics ceases to be an accepted model.”
How did the existence of nation-states (and nationalism) contribute to the rise of comparative literature in the early nineteenth century?
What is the significance of the journal Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarum with respect to the history of comparative literature?
It was the first ever comparative literature journal. Brassai’s and Metzl’s journal not only reflected the multilingualism of the region, it actively promoted polyglottism as a standard for comparative literature.
What were the primary characteristics of the French school of comparative literature?
– scientism = meaning that phenomena in literature had to be explainable from ascertainable causes. This is where Taine’s famous triad “race, milieu, moment” appears, explaining, or reducing, everything human to the interplay between national character, the social environment, and historical time.

– factualism = meaning that such “elucidations” would have to happen on the basis of observable and demonstrable facts. In practice this meant “comparing” works, authors, etc. from at least two different European literatures.

In what ways did comparative literature change after 1945?
After WWII the United States becomes dominant in comparative literature studies; this brings with it a shift of attention to broader issues having to do with what we now call theory of literature, and also to literatures from beyond Europe.
In the twentieth century, how did the practice of comparative literature in the United States differ from that of the French school?
Reacting to the French School, postwar scholars, collectively termed the “American School”, sought to return the field to matters more directly concerned with literary criticism, de-emphasising the detective work and detailed historical research that the French School had demanded. The American School was more closely aligned with the original internationalist visions of Goethe and Posnett (arguably reflecting the postwar desire for international cooperation), looking for examples of universal human “truths” based on the literary archetypes that appeared throughout literatures from all times and places.
How has the place of world literature changed in the United States and Europe since 9/11?
Since the turn of the millennium the renewed and intense interest comparative literature in the United States has shown in world literature has propelled the discipline to the forefront of literary studies; a large part of this has to do with the reevaluation of America’s position in the world after 9/11.

It seems as it by necessity, then, and not from idealism or choice, that Etiemble’s 1960s call for including “the world” is being at last achieved: immediately so through he terrible events of 9/11, but more generally through the pressures of a changing world, the rise of the “global South”, the shifting of centers of power to the East, especially China and India

How are world literature and comparative literature at once related and different?
Categories: World Literature