For World Literature
January 11, 2014 9:50 AM   Subscribe

For World Literature "In this story of an ever-broadening canon, the study of world literature makes perfect sense. It is simply the latest chapter in the larger story of the widening horizons of literary study. Yet world literature has prompted an awful lot of hand-wringing. Isn’t it absurd to try to study the literature of the entire world?"
posted by dhruva (12 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't know about absurd, but it's damned difficult. For one thing, it requires considerable multilingual skills.
posted by kewb at 10:08 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Conventionally, we have read Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson as major American writers of the 19th century, though they were hardly known to their contemporaries,

Melville was most certainly known to his contemporaries. His first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (if that title don't fetch 'em, I don't know Arkansas), was a best seller, as was his second, Omoo. The man of the hour! American and English publishers both wanted his work. His ambitions rose as he engaged in the whale book. Art trumped commerce, critics were unkind, readers indifferent, his fortunes fell.

But known - absolutely, he was known.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:13 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


"Isn’t it absurd to try to study the literature of the entire world?"

No.

As someone who exclusively and explicitly studied the western canon in college and who is also very progressive and deeply opposed to western chauvinism, this is something I've spent a great deal of time thinking about and discussing with my peers.

I think a lot of stuff can be read in translation, but that (in keeping with my own experience) some facility with relevant languages is a very good thing.

The main thing that should be understood is that this is a very large undertaking. Four years of nothing but the western canon seems like a lot, but there's at least as many books that I consider essential that I've not yet read as those that I have (which I'm aware of by secondary sources and otherwise).

Expanding this, as I think it should be expanded, magnifies the scope of the endeavor hugely. But it's a worthy one.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:27 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


I would say "yes," but then, I also think that all attempts past and future to study the "Western" literary "canon" are philosophically bankrupt. If the only descriptor you can apply to the work you want to study is to do with the hemisphere it was written in, you're not going to have much luck identifying your own subject matter--so you'll probably go with whatever someone else identified as Western and Literary, and end up studying the favorite literature of whatever particular intellectual tradition you do it in. English professors in the US and the UK can probably agree that Shakespeare's in there somewhere; not sure of anybody else.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:10 AM on January 11


How is this even a question?

The arguments against it seem basically to be 'we might not do it as well as we could' and 'nobody will be able to do it all by their lonesome'. Those are stupid reasons not to do something.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:17 AM on January 11 [8 favorites]


A lot of 'world literature' is literature by and for the worldwide elite who have more in common with each other than they do with the vast majority of their countrymen.
posted by empath at 11:22 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


Wouldn't World Literature properly be just Literature, except for the hopelessly provincial?
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:34 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


I wonder how the argument would shift if it took into account works from non-Anglophone countries written in English. Or even - what constitutes literature? Is it different in different places? Do they differentiate by genre, purpose , writing style?
posted by divabat at 12:33 PM on January 11


A lot of 'world literature' is literature by and for the worldwide elite who have more in common with each other than they do with the vast majority of their countrymen.


True enough. I blame the academy. But - it wasn't always thus! Back in the day, Cuban cigar makers hired lectors to read them Zola, Tolstoy and Dickens to them to keep the day pleasing.

We seem not to be producing a lot of writers these days who could fulfill that role. Nor readers, I expect. I blame television.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:33 PM on January 11


Wouldn't World Literature properly be just Literature, except for the hopelessly provincial?

This. Also, "World Music".
posted by signal at 4:52 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


That's a really good essay. I think that the opposition to the idea of studying the literature of the whole world stems from the fear of not being able to read everything you're supposed to read. It's conceivable for a person to read the canon of a single nation, but the canon of the entire world... not even if you read nothing else your entire life.

To me, though, part of what I love about literature is that, as a hobby, it's functionally infinite. I will never have read a measurable percentage of all the books worth reading. That's a cheerful thought to me. I'll never have trouble finding worthwhile books to read.
posted by Kattullus at 7:53 PM on January 11 [5 favorites]


It's already absurd enough to study the literature of an entire nation, but no more absurd than studying the mathematics of an entire universe.
posted by forgetful snow at 12:52 PM on January 13


« Older What does it mean when America's top political wor...  |  Scott Hanselman has updated hi... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments