The emergence of World Literature is part of the irreversible process of Globalization reshaping every aspect of our lives in today’s world, from the World Economic Crisis to the Internet, the iPad and e-Book to the borderless world of the Global Villiage of CNN and the BBC World Service. In the realm of Literature, ideas, movements and sensibilities are restrained by national borders no more than the weather and the wind, and our emerging World Literature, the “Weltliteratur” prophesied by Goethe, is at the vanguard of an emerging global consciousness reshaping every aspect of human life. The following Dialogue presents an in-depth discussion of the dynamic emergence of World Literature taken as an excerpt from the novel, Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard. The participants, Nobel Prize winning German author Günter Gross and several leaders and activists in the global Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, including Professor Robert Sartorius of America, Dr. Wolfgang Spitzer, a Sinologist and scholar of Chinese Literature, Pari Kasiwar of India, and Jennie Zheng a Chinese-American graduate student, discuss in a Berlin restaurant the nature and possibilty of a true World Literature as the common heritage of mankind, its relationship to national literatures, its forms including the Global Classic, the Global Masterpiece and Window-on-the-World, the international role and dilemma of the artist or writer, and the role of “Global English” as the modern lingua franca and internatiional language shared by over two billion people across the world:
5. Republic of Letters (Berlin)
Günter Gross drew off a thimble-glass of Chartreuse and broke in on the line of conversation………”Robert and I have discussed all of this many times and we are now thinking of collaborating on a book—–I go back to the Gespräche of Goethe and Eckermann not far from us in Weimar—-and I think in this era of economic and cultural globalization and the advent of the shrinking technological world of the Global Village of satellite television, jet travel and the Internet, Goethe’s concept of ‘Weltliteratur’ or World Literature as you say in English—-grows more and more valid as it grows more and more necessary and unavoidable as the peoples of the world strive by inextricable necessity to build a common culture and a quantum of mutual comprehension, tolerance and understanding as a sustainable means of living and co-existing together on this fragile planet without annihilating ourselves in ecocide, environmental meltdown or irrational nuclear catastrophe…….
“You know Eckermann in his Gespräche was our Germany’s equivalent of Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson and he as Goethe’s personal secretary and out of a great love and reverence for Goethe recorded many of his conversations—-one of the most notable apropos of our conversation concerned his reflections while reading a Chinese novel at Weimar—-Goethe concluded: “I am more and more convinced,” he continued, “that poetry is the universal possession of mankind . . . the epoch of World Literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.” And in this he was seconded in his opinion by Marx and Engels in their Communist Manifesto in 1847 when they from their scientific socialist perspective also maintained: ‘National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature.’ For Marx and Engels, as for Goethe, World Literature is the quintessential literature of modern times, and for us in the age of the Internet it has become a palpable if unformulated reality.”
“Precisely….Yes……Absolutely!” interjected Sartorius “……….and Günter, as you go back to Goethe, Marx and Engels, so I am drawn back to the touchstones of my own intellectual development from the English-speaking tradition—-I am reminded of my graduate school reading of Matthew Arnold’s Function of Criticism at the Present Time and T.S. Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent……
Matthew Arnold maintained that the function and highest ideal of criticism and literature was ‘to make known and accessible the best that is thought and felt in the world’ and that necessarily requires an openness and attention to the best masterpieces of any and all nations and languages of the world as well as the classics of their literary and cultural traditions, past and present. T.S. Eliot similarly saw the reading of any modern work taking its place in the corpus of “the Tradition” encompassing the community of consciousness of past ages reflected in its literature, as well as his drawing on the diverse traditions of the world such as the Fire Sermon of Buddha and the Bhagavad Gita in the Waste Land….today the ‘best that has been thought and felt’ and ‘the Tradition’ is more and more globalized, and the fruition of the great conversation of our civilizations depends on our common sharing of these global touchstones, yet our institutions and our awareness of this lag far behind the new reality……”
“And if I may be allowed to second the opinion of my brother Laureate, V.S. Naipaul, in his Wriston Lecture…..” injected Günter, “…….our common heritage and our common work in literature is to serve the construction and preservation of ‘Our Universal Civilization,’ a framework and foundational common culture of mutual comprehension, tolerance and conversation enabling the aspiration, nurture and self-realization of individuals within the diverse but common heritage of mankind.”
“Well Robert…..” said Pari Kasiwar drawing the smoke down a long Benson & Hedges cigarette and exhaling it slowly as he rose to the vertical in his soft chair, speaking over his glass of rum coco on ice, “…..it sounds very noble and humanistic and all, but if I might with due respect be allowed to play the part of the Devil’s Advocate, isn’t this all a bit too romantic and overambitious, like building the Tower of Babel, and isn’t it similarly likely to dissolve into a ‘global babble’ of incomprehensible tongues in a dialogue of the culturally deaf?—–and after all who could possibly read all the literature of the entire world or have a shred of hope to comprehend it out of its cultural context?——aren’t we in danger of entering a kind of paper-thin poseur world of Literary Jet Setting and airport bookstore marketing?——-and aren’t we as likely to experience a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ as any harmonious or universal civilization?”
“Well those are very real dangers, certainly,” responded Sartorius. “……..which is exactly why our work is more vital and more important—–if we don’t build and maintain this common culture—a World Literature as well as world art, world music, world cinema, world media etc. providing the global common touchstones to build a common language and common consciousness then the world is heading for a certain crack-up. All the institutions in the world such as our UNPA will be meaningless and dysfunctional without a common language and new global consciousness to support them and a common culture to serve as their foundations……….that is why Günter and I are researching and co-writing our joint book on World Literature together…… and we are interviewing and collecting the multiple perspectives of anyone and everyone we run into in the process to sharpen our focus………………”
“Hear, Hear!” seconded Günter.
“But I do think your point about modern post-modern novelists being shallow and commercial is a significant danger. Many of the young post-modernists are part of what I term “Rafflesia Literature.” continued Sartorius.
“What?” asked Jennie.
“It’s a term I picked up on a trip to Singapore and then down to Sarawak in neighboring Borneo. You see the Rafflesia flower is the largest flower in the world, with a single blossom exceeding a meter or yard across, so it is a rather dramatic flowering that attracts a lot of attention. But if you go to look at a Rafflesia flower you must go quickly, because the Rafflesia flower, big and dramatic as it may be only lasts a day or two and then begins to rot and decay away. You see the Rafflesia plant is a rootless, stemless, leafless parasite which consists almost entirely of the flower. It survives by attaching itself to the Tetrastigma plant, which is a vine related to the grape family, from which the Rafflesia sucks out prodigious quantities of nutrients. The Rafflesia will rot away to death in a few days! This is a kind of metaphor for many of our recent popular post-modern writers. Their work is also rootless, stemless, leafless and parasitical. A real writer must be at least doubly rooted—rooted in his own deeper personal experience, observation of the world and consciousness, and rooted in his literary tradition as well. Many young writers are neither, and they reproduce what the marketplace demands, a kind of “McLit” as you say of cheap cultural relativism and deconstruction of tradition spiced with a yuppyish Jet Set international or cross-cultural lifestyle that exhibits neither deep personal experience nor rootedness in either of their cultures. The idea that a text is only a text and writing only about writing not about life and the world—there is no reality and no truth, a storytelling entertainment rather than a serious engagement and criticism of life, legitimatizes this superficiality. But ultimately these authors are a mere flash in the pan, like the Rafflesia flower and begin to rot! They deconstruct themselves and soon there is nothing left of permanent value” he explained.
“Writers!—–I believe the more people write the less they think, much less feel, until they fall into babbling cant and self-indulgence!…………” said Pari, slumping to the left of his high soft armchair while crossing his legs and exhaling smoke across the cluttered table, “Anyway, Robert, you know a good part of me wants to be convinced, I’m a frustrated writer myself so I have an egotistical interest in deluded hopes of becoming the new messiah as well as a soft heart for the Respublica Literaria so go on, please go on—tell me about your idea of World Literature…I am interested…..what would it look like and what do you mean by it exactly?”
“Ok, Pari………..….how would I put it….…..let me see……………….…..all right …………I would take world literature to encompass all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language. In its most expansive sense, world literature could include any work that has ever reached beyond its home base……………a focus on actual readers makes good sense: a work only has an effective life as world literature whenever, and wherever, it is actively present within a literary system beyond that of its original culture. Perhaps you are right in saying that the ambition to read everything ever published in the world would be a superhuman and impossible feat, but you could say the same thing of any national literature—–nobody could ever read all of it or all of its books, authors, periods or movements—-the key is like Arnold emphasizes, to make out the common touchstones, the island peaks prominent above the shifting horizon of the seas of space, time and culture, with a special but non-exclusive emphasis on the cultural classics and masterpieces of each major culture, made mutually accessible so as to develop common reference points for development of a common language and to enable a common conversation of ideas, values, sensibilities…between cultures and civilizations as well as of individuals as to the values, beliefs and assumptions discovered and shared which may make possible their sustained and sustainable living, working and aspiring together in our inescapably common world.”
“………..To my mind Pari, any idea of World Literature I would be interested in could be been seen in one or more of at least three basic ways: as an established body of world classics, as an evolving canon of masterpieces, and as a shifting selection of multiple Windows-on-the-World and we can and should approach or teach, read or write about each of these validly in each way relative to our particular situation, goals and needs……
“…..So what do I mean by this?……..The ‘Classic’ is often what is taught in a conservative or culture-building context like public schools—-it can be seen as a work of transcendent, even foundational value, often identified in the West particularly with Greek and Roman literature—-still taught today in our departments of Classics—–and often closely associated with the totemic values of each civilization. Here we have two modern difficulties;—the first being what we just talked about—-the needed effort to broaden the Classics to include the international foundational classics of other civilizations alongside the established classics of the West. Yes every educated person anywhere in the world should have some familiarity with Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Vergil, Dante, the Bible, Don Quixote, Voltaire, Faust, Flaubert and Shakespeare but they should also have some minimal familiarity with Confucius, Lao Zi, Li Bai, Du Fu, the Arabian Nights, Kalidasa, the Mahabarata of Vayasa, Popul Vuh, the Koran and Hadith, Tale of Genji, Gilgamesh and the Bagavad Gita. The classics inform us about works so deeply embedded in great civilizational cultures that familiarity becomes necessary to understanding not only their literatures but also their peoples, cultures and cultural perspective as a whole.
Yet the true classic also bears the value of a degree of universal validity, as a classic is a book that tells not merely the story of what happened at a certain time or place amoung men and women of a certain society, but rather it shows us what happens whenever there are humans. All educated persons, as “citizens of the world” should have a superficial acquaintance with them and specialists and professionals can take and develop such knowledge broader and deeper as needed.
The second major problem with regard to the classics is the prejudice against them in modern popular culture and the need to broaden horizons not only between cultural heritages but also between periods of history. Part of the modernist legacy of breaking with the past is an unhealthy tendency to overvalue and privilege ourselves and the present time over the peoples, cultures and insights of past times, often conveyed through the classics. I call this ‘Presentism’ or ‘Nowism’ which is a prejudice and parti pris of our age.
You can accuse me of being a prejudiced old man, but really I find today’s young people so unbearably provincial—-their live out their lives within the miniscule horizons of the Lilliputian Province of the Provincial Now. And because they don’t read, except on their iPhones or websites, they have almost never been outside that backwater in their whole lives. They go through life taking their latest Pop and sports stars as the fixed gods and constellations of their heaven, and they are all forgotten by the next decade, by which time the sky has fallen in on their little world completely. A healthy world literature is rooted in the classics and past masterpieces of all world cultures and grows, as Eliot observes, out of the long tradition from which it flowers and evolves.
“The ‘masterpiece,’ on the other hand, can be an ancient or a modern work and need not have had any foundational cultural force but is celebrated for its artistic excellence and the delight and meaningful experience it gives. Goethe clearly considered his own best works, and those of his friends, to be modern masterpieces and we could say the idea of “the masterpiece,” indeed, came into prominence in the nineteenth century as literary studies began to deemphasize the dominant Greco-Roman classics, elevating the modern masterpiece to a level of near equality with the long-established classics and following up on the Renaissance development of refocusing literature on the vernacular and the people as a whole rather than the classical literature of the educated elite. You might say the shift to the masterpiece paralleled the shift from an aristocratic to a more democratic, middle class order and assumed masterworks could engage in a “great conversation” on an equal footing with their aristocratic forebears ‘the classics,’ a conversation in which their culture and class of origin mattered less than the great ideas and sensibilities they expressed anew, especially in the new genres of the broader middle-class populace such as the novel, the essay, and the modern theatre and opera as epitomized by such greats as Cervantes, Goethe, Montaigne, Rousseau, Flaubert, Dickens, Mann, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Lawrence, Joyce and Hemingway.” continued Sartorius.
“And the Masterpiece can be either long or short……” introjected Günter, “Robert here is addicted to the massive tomes such as Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, Magic Mountain, Joseph and his Brothers and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He has two unpublished novels that rival War and Peace in shear heft and so frighten away any publisher. But I have become more of a minimalist in my old age, attracted to the short and powerful works such as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or the Greek tragic plays.”
“Yes, I have a weakness for what you might call “The Total Novel,” or “Total Fiction,” a species of the “Gesamtkunstwerk” like Wagner’s orgies of form, which combines realism and fantasy, myth and psychological verisimilitude, and which unfolds all the potential manifestations of reality and history…like Vargas Llosa’s La Casa Verde…and the Latin American savage baroque” rejoined Sartorius,
“……..Or what he really means, Ha. Ha! is that he has a weakness for Absolute Fiction…..” Günter cut back in, “………..where the fictions defeat all attempts to comment upon or clarify them!….Ha, ha, ha!……………..”
“…………or perhaps I have overlearned the lessons of your German model……alles gründlich machen, while you have ironically overlearned American economy in words……….but that is a matter of individual taste……some like the geometrical simplicity of Bach’s counterpoint in the Little Fugue, while others like the comprehensive development of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony……..both long or short are undoubtedly Masterpieces……….” said Sartorius, “……..but anyway for me all that’s neither here nor there: the ultimate measure of the value of a book remains not in its form or fame but in its ability to affect the living of life—“Has it helped any human soul?’”
“Finally…..” continued Sartorius, “……. Goethe’s disquisitions on Chinese novels and Islamic literature such as Firdausi and Hafiz, interest in works that would serve as windows into foreign worlds, whether or not these works could be construed as masterpieces and regardless of whether these differing worlds had any visible links to each other at all leads to the third major branch of our world literature—works of art as ‘Windows-on-the-World.’ Our modern potpourri of third-world novels is often of this nature, often perhaps not being of the highest artistic caliber but giving us a new perspective and window on the world that had not been brought to our attention before or people or peoples whose stories had not yet been told to the wider world. You might poo-pooh it as literary jet setting, but that is not so bad after all is it? —- especially as more and more people have opportunity and it may be a crude but useful first step in a further and deeper process of understanding. And encountering the new, strange and novel may be a great stimulus to our growth of comprehension as we find experiences that are vitally the same but not the same as our own……
………Of course as you know, these three conceptions and categories are not mutually exclusive, so there is really no good reason why we shouldn’t allow all three categories their ongoing value and include them all in various mixes, particularly as a single work may effectively be classified as a classic, a masterpiece and a ‘unique window on the world.’ I mean you can take Virgil’s Aeneid is the very type of a timeless classic, but it is also a masterpiece of its genre, the epic……..one stage of development in the long series of works from Gilgamesh and the Iliad up to Joyce’s Ulysses and Walcott’s Omeros. Equally, the Aeneid is a window on the world of imperial Rome—-even though it is set before Rome’s founding—in its underworld scenes of katabasis and epic similes it opens out with unconcealed directness toward Virgil’s contemporary world…….
“……….If you ask me the simplest question, ‘What is Literature” a propos of Einstein who maintained the simplest question of the child is most difficult and most theoretically complex to answer, I would fall back on his concept of relativity and say I have relatively little interest in attempting any firm definition of literature as such, since this is a question that really only has meaning within a given literary system. Any global perspective on literature must acknowledge the tremendous variability in what has counted as literature from one place to another and from one era and stage of cultural development to another; in this sense, literature can best be defined pragmatically as whatever texts a given community of readers takes as literature—meaning how and where diverse communities and their cultures habitually look in the course of their lives for spoken or written forms of meaning and understanding of their human condition and in their personal and social lives in a comprehensive way…………”
“But you know one thing that worries me is the rootlessness and superficiality of these ideas of a global culture and literature…..” chirped in Jennie Zheng, overcoming her initial accustomed posture of a tentative respectful deference to the elders around her and throwing back her long black trail of hair behind her head to break in a wave of rising self-confidence, “…Look……..From New York to Beijing, via Moscow and Vladivostok, and on to Jakarta and Mumbai you can eat the same junk food, watch the same junk on television, and, hear the same junk pop and rap music, and increasingly, read the same junk novels . . . Instead of ‘socialist realism’ we have ‘market realism’ and the books in the airport bookstores seem to be dumbed down and culturally and commercially correct so as to be saleable to prejudices of the newer Net and Jet Set…It’s often based on marketable formulas involving disembodied people whose lives and stories change as little from country to country as the décor changes from the Jakarta Hilton to the Istanbul Hilton—a kind of Disneyfication of the literary marketplace…….it seems like so much global local-colour pablum and not really worth the effort of reading it—-a kind of McLit!”
“Ha!—that’s the modern international market aesthetic for you……..L’Art pour le Buck” quipped Pari.
“Who is there to tell the truth anymore?” asked Jennie
“Truth!……Try to get a living from truth and you’ll end up standing in the soup lines!……….” Pari retorted, “……….and the writer who aims for intellectual prestige, formal originality or artistic merit is likely to have a day job!”
“Well, I do think it is a hard dilemma to resolve for a young international writer ” inflected Wolfgang drawing down on a Cuban cigarillo and adjusting his overtight tie and collar, “—-of course there are those who are only after commercial success and see a market niche of writing ‘ready-mades’ as pablum in a Post-Colonial voice cum Third-World pet for the Western market—giving them what they expect to hear—-But if you are a writer from a small country or a Third-world developing country with some imagination and integrity what are your options?—- The writer from a marginal culture is in a double bind. With little to go on at home, a young writer can only achieve greatness by emulating desirable foreign models—possibly only by studying and writing in an international language such as English instead of his own vernacular—–‘the need for an intercourse with great predecessors is the sure sign of a higher talent,’ Goethe said, and advised ‘Study Molière, study Shakespeare’ –yet these models can have a crushing weight even for the natives of their own country with a rich in-depth tradition, let alone for someone coming from a land and vernacular with a thin development of modern literature——–so let’s say he does study and benefits from the best quality models he can find in his own provincial country and from the world at large at a metropolitan center—and struggles to develop his own voice, perhaps succeeding after some time——then all of the sudden he is damned from all sides——his countrymen damn him for selling-out and being co-opted by the metropolitan center and its material and non-material rewards—-and his contemporaries in the international center condemn him for being derivative of their own culture, lacking the authenticity of his own culture and re-serving up a weak second-hand hash of his own Western education with an oversprinkling of cosmetic local colour!—-He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t! If he is a man or woman of wide sympathies and international civilization or develops universal themes he’s accused of being a sell-out for having the courage to develop beyond the provincial prejudices of his culture of origin—I think we have to cut young writers some slack and give them the freedom to be both citizens of their own home culture and with equal validity and acceptance, citizens of the world and of the Republic of Letters at large……
“…….In my own field of Sinology we have an example in Bei Dao. He is a Chinese poet who attained prominence in the West after moving to exile abroad following the Tian An Men incident in Beijing in 1989. Now I would call him a respectable if not great writer and poet, but we have some people like Stephen Owen writing in the New Republic saying that Bei Dao is mere fluff and rehashed Anglo-American sophomoric Modernism re-packaged in Chinese as a niche-market literary boutique product for a progressive Western market looking to invent a martyr to blacken their preconceived idée fixe of a totalitarian China, and of course he is politically under the thumb in China, so where does it leave him as an artist and author? —-it leaves him with no growing room to develop his talents in either direction, and I don’t agree that he is a mere derivative nullity and so I think is a damn shame!”
“Yes, I see what you mean and it’s a difficult yet universal problem” drawled out Günter Gross downing a Brandy Alexander and scarfing up on the corn chips and salmon-cream dip, “…..Contemporary poets who write in the “wrong language,” even like Chinese with hundreds of millions of speakers but without international currency abroad or acceptance at home, not only must imagine themselves being translated in order to reach an audience of an adequate magnitude, they must also engage in the extraordinary act of imagining a world poetry and placing themselves within it. And, although it is supposedly free of all prejudicial local history, this “world poetry” turns out, unsurprisingly, to be a version of Anglo-American modernism or French modernism, depending on which wave of colonial culture first washed over the intellectuals of the country in question. This situation is often perceived as the quintessence of cultural hegemony, when an essentially local tradition (Anglo-European) is widely taken for granted as universal, perhaps by accident of the legacy of the distribution of power over past two centuries of history; but we can’t forget that it is a universal problem even in present-day metropolitan centers.
No country is intrinsically and irrevocably the center of the world and cannot remain the center of the small part of the world it has become accustomed to be forever—- and metropolitan status can be gained and lost—-Perhaps China had metropolitan status during the Tang Dynasty when scholars from Japan, Korea, Vietnam and the environs traveled to Chang-an and wrote poetry in their home countries not in their native language but in classical Mandarin Chinese—-and lost it thereafter—and we can think of the Alexandria of the Greek Empire and the Baghdad of the Abyssid Caliphate. We think of London, Paris, and Berlin as metropolitan centers, but prior to the Renaissance who ever wrote or read a book in English, French or German outside their home countries—themselves very small with only a handful of millions in population?——–perhaps it is only after the Renaissance and Reformation that writers and scholars stopped writing in Latin and began to predominantly write in English, French, German and other vernacular European languages.
Latin was the lingua franca and the ‘international language’ or ‘Putonghua—common language” of its time and London, Paris and Berlin were mere provincial outposts where a vernacular book could only reach a few hundred thousand literate and interested persons at best compared to the whole of Europe for Latin, including the educated of one’s own country as well, all arguing for utilizing Latin and the benefit of two thousand years of cultural, linguistic and literary history and models. As you said of Goethe Wolfgang, the Chinese were writing world literature in the Tang dynasty when Germans were living in skins in the forests—
I recall Conrad in the Heart of Darkness observing that England for Caesar was a kind of primeval jungle like Kurz’s Congo —should we not equally say English, French, Spanish and German are all ‘Post-Colonial’ subaltern languages to Latin and Latin to Greek ad infinitum?—-and if everyone is a subaltern in the wider scope of things then the category loses its validity— what is the point of being ever a victim if everyone is a victim and no one, or at least no one still alive can be said to be responsible except the human condition ?
It’s simply a generalized universal problem—–if you wanted to speak to your civilization up to the 17th Century —the whole of Western Europe—you wrote in Latin—as did Sir Thomas More, Erasmus, Copernicus, even Milton and others and Latin contained the accumulated intellectual capital of the cumulative evolution of international civilization up to and including its time. Even Dante was somewhat revolutionary in choosing to write in his native Tuscan Italian—choosing to reach a much smaller audience geographically, but to reach all classes of his own native countrymen. ————-
Vernacular nationalism changed the writer’s audience by focusing his energies on mobilizing the consciousness of all classes of his own national people and relying on translation for addressing his wider civilization. In short, even if we put aside or solved the questions of political, military and cultural hegemony, most writers of most countries will still have to choose whether to write in the lingua franca—-the international language of their day or in their own limited national vernacular—Joseph Conrad chose English to reach the wider world—yet with the extraordinary facility of translation in modern times, even a writer from a small nation can be translated into twenty or thirty languages if he is prominent—-but probably has a serious marketing problem in trying to attain such stature outside his own small linguistic domain—in contrast to Conrad, Czeslaw Milosz attained world-class status in his own Polish, but it took the Nobel Prize to solve his marketing problem.
But fundamentally there can only be a limited number of international languages and metropolitan centers due to the limited linguistic capacities of human beings—-each person can only master a handful of languages at best, yet in a globalized world of hundreds of languages we all need to agree on one or a small number of languages as a common medium of communication accessible to all directly or indirectly, ——and the wider world by right of necessity and convenience has the privilege to adapt itself to the richest and most convenient metropolitan language and culture to serve as lingua franca—a shared international intellectual currency and shared banking channel for the shared intellectual capital of its era, though we know the choice is often forced by the inescapable legacy of past history.
Greek and Latin served these purposes in the ancient world long after the political power or imperial domination of those empires was reduced to dust and nullity, and the same could be said for Arabic and Persian at many points of history—–Undoubtedly much of our so-called Renaissance derived part of its intellectual capital from recovery of lost Greek and Latin classics retranslated from Arabic sources via Ibn Sina and Ibn Sind—Avicenna and Averroes——so I think the rhetoric of ‘Neo-colonialism’ is exaggerated—as are occasional calls to cease writing in English or French from writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o————
If America and Britain disappeared from the map in a geological cataclysm English would continue to be the lingua franca and international language of the rest of the world for three generations at the least simply because it is really the only language they all have in common—-every people and every writer must simply adapt to the fundamental reality that they exist in a much wider and older world than that of their contemporary home milieu—and every speaker and writer must simply grow up and adjust to the reality that they are but a small part of the multi-linguistic community to which they address themselves, now and for the future—-and they must adjust accordingly.”
“Well I can only speak as an Indian” lilted Pari in his Sub-continental high-tones, “—— From my perspective any possible solution needs to recognize that we don’t face an either/or choice for world literature and the use of English itself is constituted very differently in different cultures. A culture’s norms and needs profoundly shape the selection of works that enter into it as world literature, influencing the ways they are translated, marketed, and read, and as a by-product creating a great variety and flexibility in the ways this emerging World Literature will be manifested in various nations and national contexts—-which I think is a potential strength not necessarily a weakness——
In India, for example, world literature takes on a very particular valence in the dual contexts of the multiplicity of India’s disparate languages and the ongoing presence of English in post-Raj India.——to my way of thinking English can be seen in comparative terms as three distinct entities in India: as the language of the British Literature that featured so prominently in colonial Indian education; as the worldwide phenomenon of contemporary Global English; and as Indo-English, with its ambiguous status somewhere between a foreign and a native language. But fundamentally I think the whole world, and particularly the home metropolitan centers of America and Britain have to wake up to the fact that English is the common heritage of mankind and doesn’t exclusively belong to England or America as its proprietary chattel. We could say that English has passed the critical quantum threshold and we have entered the Age of Global English as a language and international lingua franca, and to a much lesser extent English Literature by extension at least partially has become a sub species of World Literature rather than a national literature of Britain or of America—-let’s call it World Literature in English—-take Salman Rushdie as an example. ———–
The reality is that you have perhaps three to five hundred million people speaking English as their native language in their home countries—mostly in America and Britain—but you now have well over a billion and a half people speaking English as a second language and still rising rapidly as international education penetrates more deeply to lower social classes and more widely geographically, particularly in the former Communist bloc and China—non-native users of English already outnumber native speakers two or three to one, not to mention the pre-existing reality that American, Canadian, Australian, Scots, Irish and other native speakers have already outnumbered the English themselves for more than a century.
What is the net result?—-English—both as a language and partially as constituted in its Literature—has become both an international language, a multi-national language and an extra-national language—-perhaps similar to the examples of Greek and Latin and perhaps Arabic we were just talking about where many more persons outside the home country spoke the language than within the country, which became but a province of the internationalized linguistic and cultural community. I think we have to re-conceive our notions of what a Global English language and a quasi-internationalized English Literature has become as well as make way for the new and emerging category of World Literature in all languages.—-But I think this is unsettling to the dons in Britain and America because though they are naturally proud and flattered at the global importance of their language and literature they have not psychologically adjusted to the fact that they are not the sole proprietor of their language or its associated culture anymore as they may at one time have imagined.—-
To use the modern corporate and political analogy we could say the English and English Literature, not to speak of World Literature in English now has as many ‘stakeholders’ as it has shareholders. I think the dons in America will wake up one day and find that the best American writers have turned from the great quest of the last hundred years to write the “Great American Novel” to the new quest of the next one-hundred years to write the “Great Global Novel!”—————-But if we think of how India would relate to this emerging World Literature you are conceiving, let’s remember India’s twenty-two principal literary languages themselves form a plenum comparable to that of all European literature, and the different Indian literatures are always strongly colored by the other languages in use around them.—– As a result, no Indian literature is ever itself alone: Bengali will be Bengali , Panjabi Panjabi , and Tamil Tamil —Hindi Hindi, Urdu Urdu——–. In a multilingual situation there cannot be a true appreciation of a single literature in absolute isolation——We might say the very structure of ‘Indian’ literature is comparative, and its internal comparative literature merges into its external comparative literature, at the same time that its Indo-English Literature merges into this idea of an emerging World Literature or you may say World and Comparative Literature if you like.”
“But doesn’t anyone of you think it would better for a writer or artist or reader to belong to some particular culture or tradition of his or her own rather than trying to become a ‘world writer’ and to belong everywhere and nowhere at once?” —-retorted Jennie with a rhetorically plaintive smile moving around the small circle of intent friends—–seemingly grateful for the physical relief of the surrounding masculine attention focusing on her ample if intelligent eyes and slightly poutish lips.
Sartorius responded to her, saying “Yes, Jennie, I think the question of rootedness and rootlessness is one of the key questions of our time, and our rootlessness, from broken families to nomadic lifestyles is one of the great causes of personal and social suffering and of mental dissociation and disease. Somehow we seem to have lost our souls and need to reroot and refind them. Perhaps we are reliving the alchemist’s delusions, projecting our lost soul onto the material world and seeking hopelessly to regain it in the accumulation of consumer goods, possessions, powers, pleasures and ownership in our materialistic culture. Perhaps we can seek reintegration and wholeness following the path of Jung’s archetypes and re-integration of a broken consciousness and becoming re-rooted within our own deeper psyches and unconscious life………..I don’t know………..
Yet there is no way to turn back the clock to a simpler imagined arcadia even if we wanted to. And despite all our literary theory and theorizing we know the great lessons given by the great novels of all literatures is that the human person is precious and unique; but we seem unable to set it forth except in terms of ideologies and abstractions, and so the great novels will always emerge idiosyncratically rather than by following any theoretical program…,,,,,,,,,,…I’m not a postmodernist or post-humanist in that regard—-I still believe in the possibility in literature of a model of reality—a deeper mimesis if you will,—-that is to say a theory and practice that represents things themselves, lived life and experience itself, and not merely their linguistic or cultural representation………………..As far as languages, literatures and nations are concerned there is no way to unglobalize the world………….and there is no way to unglobalize literature even if we had the desire—-as far as I can see as in much of life it is a question of striking a healthy balance or equilibrium between competing valid values—“
“…………..So you still think a World Literature can be rooted in real lived experience…..” she queried.
“——–For any given observer, or creative writer even a genuinely global perspective remains a perspective from somewhere—no one can observe the world from nowhere or everywhere and remain human. The human being is a “somewhere being.” The “Nowhere Man” of the Beatles, or the postmodern Whatever Man—or the postmodern Nowhere or Whatever Writer—- is a man in danger of losing his humanity, his individual “Somewhere Dasein,” his commitment to the potential value of his own life, his rootedness—‘being in’—-the living world of his living and livable life,—-and his vital connectedness thereby to something greater. But his Somewhere Life is also a journey—from a Somewhere to an Otherwhere and towards an Everywhere. Though he lives in and imaginatively contemplates a universe, a spacetime, that is “everywhere and everywhen,” he must encounter and experience the world within a given particular existence, a lived life and death, and see it with his particular eyes and communicate it with a particular voice rooted in a particular language and particular experience. Thus, though rising to approach a universal vision and voice through the writer’s living imaginative participation in the whole of the creation, the writers’ or artists’ contributions to the global patterns of the circulation of world literature take shape necessarily through, though may partially transcend their local manifestations. ———————-
I am attracted to the expression of Leopold Senghor, the Senegalese leader and poet who was associated with Aime Caesaire in his youth in the negritude or black consciousness movement in France———-yet in later life he tried to strike a balance between both cosmopolitan and African life—-between rootedness and openness————he advised the writer and culture to be rooted in its own soil, people, family, history, even race———–but, be equally open to the whole world and enthusiastically welcoming of the best of that wider world——to live and grow best the plant should be rooted in its own soil but should send out branches, vines and crawlers far and wide in every direction to catch the most nourishing sunlight, not only at home but abroad in the wider and cosmopolitan world———the ideal being to be both individual and universal——–rooted and yet open to the entire world——–rooted in one’s own identity, one’s own lived experience and one’s home and what one belongs to as well as rooted in one’s own personal consciousness and unconsciousness————-as well as the collective consciousness of one’s community and the universal collective conscious and collective unconscious life of humanity and the human spirit——I would hope such an ideal would prove possible——-I am still pursuing it but without much apparent success.”
With that the small circle of friends overheard the proprietor at the bar shouting out over the murmur of the thinning evening crown in high tones “Feierabend!………..Wir machen Feierabend……….Bitte, Meine Damen und Herren wir machen Feierabend!” and the friends realized that they had been talking for several hours without realizing how late it had become. They lingered and continued on with some late small talk and well wishes while every ten minutes the manager intoned above their heads “Feierabend!………..Feierabend!” and Sartorius had involuntarily called to his mind the echo of the words from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land “Hurry up please…..its time!……..Hurry up please………….its ti-ime!” as the friends wound up their pleasant symposium in Greek fashion by finishing all the bottles of wine and liquor they had liberally ordered. And then, being the last party to exit the restaurant and exchanging hugs and farewells, each returned to their particular lives in their partghicular direction, traveling apart together in ones or twos and ones again through the fog and darkness of the Berlin evening.
Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved