‘World Literature Certainly Sounds Like a Nice Idea’

It was with some mealy-mouthedness that I asked Emily Drumsta, in a recent interview that will become part of our series on Iraqi poetry, about Nazik al-Mala’ika’s place in “global poetry”: arabian_nights

Drumsta replied, quite reasonably, that she wasn’t sure what “world poetry” meant, except where it stood as a euphemism for Western poetry. Fair enough, and surely the most sensible position.

Then, this week, I was curious when I noticed that n+1 editors had twisted themselves around the idea of World Literature. (Ignore, if you will, the odd antipathy the eds seem to hold for the “Koran.” Or rather, don’t ignore it; it’s part of the picture.) Some literature, they write, has always had a broad, global-ish appeal, moving from language to language and eating up readers’ and listeners’ time and attention:

The Thousand and One Nights, common property of literate [?] peoples in much of the Middle East and southern Asia, was in that sense world literature; so was the Sanskrit literature that was read, into colonial times, beyond the boundaries of the Raj.

But the sort of “World Literature” that’s taught in universities came with Goethe, according to n+1, as:

…the ideal of Weltliteratur in its modern form dates to Goethe, an indisputably great writer, so Germans say, who happens not to translate very well. “I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind,” Goethe said in 1827. “National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.”

First, it’s unclear why this would be a starting point. I imagine fourth-century Romans and tenth-century Iraqis also had concepts of World Literature, and am not quite sure how the line is drawn from Goethe to today — except that Goethe is “Western,” and what we’re looking at is not so much “World Literature” as “World Literature (in English).”

Indeed, it seems clear that Goethe’s proclamation started very little, as the story of literature in the 1800s and 1900s was arguably its nationalization. Even in Arabic, it began to make sense to talk about an “Egyptian novel” vs. a “Palestinian novel,” which was different from a “Lebanese” or “Syrian” novel and certainly a “Moroccan” one. (Whereas to call Mutanabbi just “Iraqi” or al-Ma’arri just “Syrian”?) In some cases, the new difficulties censorship offices made for moving books contributed to these developments, but also, as elsewhere, the militarization of borders.

Literature worked within national identities and against them, but in both cases had to contend with their red tape.

For English-language readers, n+1 writes, “World Literature has consisted mainly of texts from abroad read in translation” — although quite arguably that is not the case: “World Literature” from Arab countries means Hisham Matar and Leila Aboulela more than it means Ibrahim al-Koni and Amir Tagelsir. This may not be the case for Latin America, but it goes ditto for India and Pakistan.

N+1 editors also argue that a certain flowering of global literature (in English) lived and died with Salman Rushdie (?), but they do make a decent point about the shrinkage of audiences for literature in (currently) wealthy countries and that, therefore, “One temptation is for writers to hope that enough thin-sliced national audiences, stacked together, might be world enough to support them.” This goes triple for publishers who hope that by selling into “new markets” they can continue to support their businesses.

As such, “Global Literature can’t help but reflect global capitalism, in its triumph, inequalities, and deformations.”

When discussing literature as a product, the essay makes more sense when talking about its global flows. More”goods” (including literature) head from the wealthier countries to be dumped in the poorer ones. Some “fair-trade” and “organic” local” literature exists (small presses), but in all places it is dwarfed by literary Monsanto.

But that the essay comes almost entirely from the point of view of the Anglophone world makes it, all told, a very odd sort of worldliness. There is no discussion of different literary cultures, different literary and aesthetic values, or the weight placed on forms that have been most particularly developed among Global North-ish minorities.

While the essay does pit Monsanto against a slow-food movement, it doesn’t really talk about what “the best food” is, or whether we can really have a global idea of “the best food.” Shakespeare is certainly appreciated more “globally” than Mutanabbi — surely in part because “global” literary tastes have been shaped to a large extent by Anglo literary transmissions. Ultimately, the n+1 eds pit the Monsanto World Literature (in English) idea against an “internationalist” literature — which, yes, is more or less what you think they mean. They write:

A developed internationalist literature would superficially resemble the globalized World Lit of today in being read by and written for people in different countries, and in its emphasis on translation (and, better yet, on reading foreign languages). But there would be a few crucial differences. The internationalist answer to the riddle of World Lit — of its unsatisfactoriness — lies in words never associated with it. These include projectopposition, and, most embarrassingly, truth.


The difference, crudely, is between a product and a project.

Ultimately, then, the essay doesn’t touch what “World Literature” means to (Anglophone) readers so much as the choices that lay before an (Anglophone) writer: Are you a “global citizen” or an internationalist one?