"The era of world literature is at hand" - Goethe

On the afternoon of 31 January 1827, a new vision of literature was born. On that day, Johann Peter Eckermann, faithful secretary to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, went over to his master’s house, as he had done hundreds of times in the past three and a half years. Goethe reported that he had been reading Chinese Courtship (1824), a Chinese novel. ‘Really? That must have been rather strange!’ Eckermann exclaimed. ‘No, much less so than one thinks,’ Goethe replied.

A surprised Eckermann ventured that this Chinese novel must be exceptional. Wrong again. The master’s voice was stern: ‘Nothing could be further from the truth. The Chinese have thousands of them, and had them when our ancestors were still living in the trees.’ Then Goethe reached for the term that stunned his secretary: ‘The era of world literature is at hand, and everyone must contribute to accelerating it.’ World literature – the idea of world literature – was born out of this conversation in Weimar, a provincial German town of 7,000 people.

Detail from Goethe, dictating to his scribe (1831) by Johann Joseph Schmeller. Photo courtesy Wikipedia Like the rest of Europe, Weimar fell under the cultural shadow of Paris. The city exported its metropolitan culture, making Europeans read French novels, recite French poetry and watch French plays. Many German artists and intellectuals responded to Paris’s cultural domination with a nationalist initiative. They collected folk tales and other components of popular and peasant pastime, valorising an entity called German culture. Indeed, they helped to make the essentially German idea of culture – as opposed to the Anglo ‘society’ or the French ‘civilisation’ – the foundation for a future nation state.

Goethe himself had been educated in the French manner. He agreed with German nationalists that cultural dependence on France must end. But he disagreed with their search for native German culture and folk traditions. Goethe searched for an alternative to both metropolitan culture and German nationalism. First, he turned to England, especially William Shakespeare, but soon realised that Anglo cultural dominance was no improvement. He needed something not just different, but bigger and better. The solution was world literature.

World literature originated as a solution to the dilemma Goethe faced as a provincial intellectual caught between metropolitan domination and nativist nationalism. In addition to Chinese novels, he had been reading the classical Sanskrit play Shakuntala by Kalidasa; he had studied Arabic; and he had fallen for the medieval Persian poet Hafez. All around him, his associates were dismissive of these interests. On his birthday, they gave Goethe a turban. Such pranks left Goethe undaunted. He persevered with his far-flung reading habits, hoping that others would follow his example. For Goethe, world literature represented the bold ideal of a world in which no single language or nation dominated. World literature was the cultural expression of a political order, one in which the world had moved beyond the nationalism and colonialism that were dominating the 19th century.

Goethe knew he would have to convert his contemporaries to the ideal of world literature. He also knew that he had a powerful ally: the reality of an emerging world market, including in literature. The availability of works from distant places, a relatively new phenomenon, was what had made possible the idea of world literature in the first place. This world market, as he saw it, gave a particular role to Germany: ‘Whoever knows and studies German, inhabits the marketplace where all nations offer their products; he plays the translator even as he reaps profits.’ Through translation, German publishers and writers could profit from cultural difference, bringing literature from distant lands to the beautiful Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, where Goethe liked to work.

Goethe’s insight that the formation of a world market had laid the foundations for world literature captured the imaginations of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. Engels, the son of a rich industrialist, had gone to Manchester to study advanced methods of industrialisation. Marx had gone to Berlin to immerse himself in philosophy. The two began to collaborate, bringing together Engels’s economic studies of industrialisation and Marx’s philosophical ideas. When asked to formulate a new programme for an obscure group of radicals in London, Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto (1848).

In a stunning paragraph from that text, the two authors celebrated the bourgeoisie for their role in sweeping away century-old feudal structures:
By exploiting the world market, the bourgeoisie has made production and consumption a cosmopolitan affair. To the annoyance of its enemies, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. … These industries no longer use local materials but raw materials drawn from the remotest zones, and its products are consumed not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. … In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have commerce in every direction, universal interdependence of nationals. And as in material so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become increasingly impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature.
World literature­. To many contemporaries, it would have sounded like a strange term to use in the context of mines, steam engines and railways. Goethe would not have been surprised. Despite his aristocratic leanings, he knew that a new form of world market had made world literature possible.

Marx and Engels described the world market as a result of European trade empires and colonialism. European (Portuguese, French, English) colonial officers had translated the Chinese, Arab and Persian literature that Goethe was reading in Weimar. Working with local elites and scholars from what Marx and Engels described, in the Manifesto, as ‘the remotest zones’, these colonial officials had produced the editions and translations of literature now reaching ‘every quarter of the globe’. Thanks to advanced printing machines, even the production of literature resembled the industry of Manchester.

The millscape view of Crompton near Manchester at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Photo courtesy Wikipedia Since a world market led to the idea of world literature, and European colonialism underlay the world market, wasn’t world literature therefore an extension of colonialism, a rebuke to Goethe? For Marx and Engels, world literature was bourgeois, ie capitalist and therefore imbricated with colonialism. But to reject world literature would be to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Neither globalisation, nor a global interconnected literary world were, themselves, the problem. Everything hinged on the how, on the terms of organisation. Globalisation was inexorable, and a world literature would also, inevitably, develop; the question was what kind. For Marx and Engels, it was important that world literature be put on a new basis, that it be international and emancipatory and cosmopolitan.

In holding on to the idea of world literature, Marx and Engels were also thinking of something closer to home: their own text. In their celebrated preamble, they announced that the Manifesto would ‘be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages’ – the original language, German, was tucked away in the middle. The Manifesto aspired to be a model of world literature.

Against the odds, Marx and Engels succeeded, though it took decades for The Communist Manifesto to be translated into different languages. In the process, its authors contributed a new genre to world literature: from now on, the combination of grand historical narrative and an urgent call to action that characterised The Communist Manifesto would be the hallmarks of many manifestos to come.

Ever since Goethe, Marx and Engels, world literature has rejected nationalism and colonialism in favour of a more just global community. In the second half of the 19th century, the Irish-born critic Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett championed world literature. Posnett developed his ideas of world literature in New Zealand. In Europe, the Hungarian Hugó Meltzl founded a journal dedicated to what he described as the ‘ideal’ of world literature.

In India, Rabindranath Tagore championed the same idealist model of world literature. Honouring the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the two great Indian epics, Tagore nevertheless exhorted readers to think of literature as a single living organism, an interconnected whole without a centre. Having lived under European colonialism, Tagore saw world literature as a rebuke to colonialism. But he also saw it as a rebuke to those hoping to cherish only South Asian cultural traditions as the alternative. Like Goethe, he rejected both colonialism and nationalism, insisting on an international, interconnected world built on more just terms.

For Tagore, world literature was to play an important role. In 1913, he would become the first non-Western writer to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. But his success also showed how easily world literature could be co-opted by nationalism, its old antagonist. Despite his political ideals, India in 1950 and Bangladesh in 1971 both adopted Tagore poems for their national anthems.

Though ironic, the nationalist appropriation of Tagore resonated with a core mechanism of world literature: translation. India chose ‘Jana Gana Mana’ (1905), a poem Tagore had originally composed in Bengali, and which was then translated into Hindi, though it deliberately contained nouns that were comprehensible in many Indian languages. After partition from Pakistan, Bangladesh used the first 10 lines of ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’, a Bengali song Tagore had written during Bengal’s first partition, in 1905. (Tagore also inspired the national anthem of Sri Lanka.) Around the same time, the newly constituted German nation state enlisted Goethe as the national poet. Clearly, a battle was afoot. While nationalists were able to co-opt world literature, their success only fortified the commitments of world literature advocates.

In the meantime, world literature thrived in the margins of nations and empires. In 1939, the Yiddish poet Melech Ravitch declared that there existed a Yiddish velt-literatur, spread between Warsaw, New York and Moscow. He praised this development as both an ideal to aspire to and as a market-based reality. He also lamented that the market for Yiddish literature was volatile and underdeveloped. (It would take until 1978 for a Yiddish writer to receive the Nobel Prize in literature: Isaac Bashevis Singer.)

The nationalism and fascism that flourished in the 1920s and ’30s were in principle deeply at odds with the idea, and ideals, of world literature. At the same time, the large flows of migration spurred by European fascism and the wars were a boon to world literature. This paradox was perhaps best represented by two German scholars, Leo Spitzer and Erich Auerbach. Both were forced to flee Germany due to their Jewish ancestry; and both found posts in Istanbul, from which they articulated their ideas of world literature. Though trained in Western literature, Spitzer took up Turkish, while Auerbach mostly stuck to what he already knew.

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