Unit 2: World Literature and Comparative Literature Focus Questions
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.
– 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)
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.
– 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
– 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”
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.
– common humanity and universal humanity
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.
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
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 .
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.”
– 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.
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