World Books: Two theories of world literature


Michael Lind in The Smart Set:

Can world literature exist? It depends on what is meant by world literature.

The phrase Weltliteratur was coined by Goethe. The German polymath told his disciple Johann Peter Eckermann in 1827: “I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at times to hundreds and hundreds of men…. National literature is now a rather unmeaning term, the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.”

But what is world literature? World literature comes in two alternate, conceivable versions: contemporary world literature and global classicism. Contemporary world literature is the literature of contemporary societies — particularly works of literature that obtain an international reputation. Global classicism might be described as contemporary literature inspired by the multiple traditions of the premodern regional literate civilizations of Eurasia, including the Chinese, Indian, Greco-Roman, Euro-Christian, and Muslim.

Goethe contributed to both kinds of world literature. He owed his early fame to The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a novel for a bourgeois readership that was strikingly modern for its time and translated into many languages. But in his subsequent literary career, after repudiating romanticism for classicism, the Sage of Weimar experimented with premodern and foreign models, adapting genres and forms from ancient Greece and Rome as well as medieval European balladry. Among the recondite late works of his old age are poems inspired by the medieval Persian poet Hafez, the West-Eastern Diwan (1819), the very name of which evokes cross-cultural exchange.

The two versions of world literature follow these two trails blazed by Goethe. There is the contemporary world literature of Werther and there is also the self-consciously classicist world literature symbolized by the West-Eastern Diwan. The one has a vast potential audience, the other a small but sophisticated audience.

More here.