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Introduction: The (re)turn of world literature

No other approach to literary studies has known as spectacular a success in the new millennium as that which goes by the name of “world literature.” In fact, both the term and the study of what it covers have a long history. Until recently, though, these led a rather hidden existence. Most students of literature were aware, even if often only vaguely, that Goethe, somewhere rather early in the nineteenth century, had used the term Weltliteratur. Beyond the rather narrow circle of comparative literature scholars the concept had never really gained much currency until recently. Even within comparative literature, for a long time the subject remained a

minority concern at best, for much of its history restricted to a small elite of European academics, or European-born literary scholars exiled or self-exiled in the United States of America. Moreover, regardless of its “global” claim, world literature in its orthodox guise largely limited itself to the comparative study of some major, and sometimes some minor, European literatures. In the 1970s to early 1990s the subject seemed almost dead and buried. As of the turn of the twenty-first century, though, world literature has suddenly resurfaced. In fact, it is not only rapidly becoming the new paradigm for the study of literature in the USA, but also increasingly around the world – in Europe and in the fast-developing academic environments of, for instance, East and South Asia. The return of interest in the subject was heralded in 1994 by the collective

volume Reading World Literature: Theory, History, Practice, edited by Sarah Lawall. In 1999 there followed Pascale Casanova’s République mondiale des lettres. Franco Moretti in 2000 published “Conjectures on World Literature” in the New Left Review. This article immediately drew heavy critical fire, and became the focus of much vigorous debate springing up in English on world literature. The various reactions to his article by Christopher Prendergast, Jonathan Arac, Emily Apter, and others provoked Moretti to “More Conjectures on World Literature,” published in the New Left Review again in 2003. Prendergast in 2004 collected a number of articles, some of them, like his own leading off the volume, reactions to Casanova and Moretti, in Debating World Literature. Moretti continued the debate with Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary Study (2005), and “Evolution, World

Systems,Weltliteratur” (2006). In the meantime had appeared David Damrosch’s 2003 What is World Literature? which quickly became the reference for most further discussions of the subject. In 2004 there appeared the English translation, The World Republic of Letters, of Casanova’s 1999 French volume. The 2004 American Comparative Literature Association report on the state

of the discipline, prepared by Haun Saussy, with reactions by a number of leading American comparatists, among whom David Damrosch, Emily Apter, Djelal Kadir, and Françoise Lionnet, largely concentrated on the question of world literature. The expanded version, published in 2006 as Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization, added further reactions from the likes of the eminent structuralist scholar Jonathan Culler and the postmodern specialist Linda Hutcheon. John Pizer in 2006 gave The Idea of World Literature. The same year also saw the publication of Emily Apter’s The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature, which, even though its title makes no mention of it, is also heavily concerned with world literature. Mads Rosendahl Thomsen’s Mapping World Literature appeared in 2008. Meanwhile, most leading journals in the field of comparative literature had also jumped on the world literature bandwagon. The British comparative literature journal Critical Comparative Studies published a whole issue on “Comparative Literature and World Literature” in 2006, with contributions by David Damrosch, Susan Bassnett, Jonathan Culler, Tomas Docherty, Djelal Kadir, and Linda Hutcheon. Many other journals carried important articles on world literature too, as did for instance Comparative Literature Studies. And the pace keeps accelerating. In 2009 Damrosch, who had quickly established himself as the most productive scholar in the field, published a small booklet on How to Read World Literature, for use in class, or by students. That very same year he followed up with an edited volume, Teaching World Literature. At the very moment of my writing the book you are now holding, a Routledge Companion to World Literature and a Routledge Reader in World Literature are in press. How did all this come about so suddenly, and where did it all start? What does it mean for how literature is read, taught, studied, and thought about worldwide? Although the term “world literature,” or more accurately Weltliteratur,

may not have quite originated with Goethe, his use of it certainly made all the difference as from then on it spread like wildfire all over Europe. Unfortunately, though, Goethe never clearly defined what he meant by the term, and consequently it assumed various guises as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries wore on. Goethe probably simply meant the term to refer to the increased circulation of works of literature among European writers and intellectuals. Very rapidly, though, it also came to stand for the totality of all works of literature in the world, past and present. Hence, the nineteenth century saw the rise of comprehensive, at least so in intention, histories of world literature. In the beginning this was a German specialty, but the German example was widely followed almost everywhere, and this down to the

present. Most of these works paid scant attention to developments outside of Europe. Some paid them no attention at all. Many of these histories gave their own national literature disproportionate space. Almost all concentrated, besides, on a few “major” European literatures. Chapter 1 traces the early history of Weltliteratur, discusses the various translations of the term in a number of European languages and literatures, and briefly preludes upon the discussion of its relationship with comparative literature to follow in another chapter. Alternatively, over the nineteenth century there also arose the interpretation

of world literature as the canon of the world’s literary masterpieces. This canon was largely confined to European works. The aesthetic ideal largely determining the criteria for the selection of the canon was heavily indebted to humanism. Moreover, Goethe himself was heavily influenced by the classical tradition underlying humanism. All this has led to the charge that world literature is inherently Eurocentric. Chapter 2 examines this charge. Almost concurrently with the spread of the term and idea of world litera-

ture there also emerged the beginnings of the discipline of comparative literature. In Chapter 1 I already briefly review how within comparative literature the issue of world literature led to a quest for terminological precision. In Chapter 3 I discuss how comparative literature, over the course of its history, has dealt with world literature. The first half of the chapter concentrates on the period up to, roughly, WWII and the continental European tradition, or on what is commonly labeled the “French” school of comparative literature. The second half focuses on the so-called “American” school rising to dominance after WWII. A major difference between European and American ways of dealing with

world literature lies in how research in, and the teaching of, world literature have been incorporated into university curricula. Until very recently in Europe interest in the subject has almost exclusively been the province of research. In contrast, in the USA it has, from very early on, informed course work on all levels of university education, and most particularly so undergraduate survey courses. The specifically American pedagogical investment in world literature is the subject of Chapter 4. In Europe, the focus on research has led to systemic, rather than, as in the

USA, pedagogical approaches to world literature. Chapter 5 discusses a number of these systemic approaches, briefly stopping at some Central and Eastern European theories from the middle of the twentieth century, and then quickly proceeding to more recent theories of French and Italian origin. The latter have significantly re-invigorated the debate on the subject. As such, they form the main interest of Chapter 5. Already for Goethe, translation was an essential ingredient of world litera-

ture. Much neglected in most earlier study of literature, translation since the last quarter of the twentieth century has developed into a major field of study of its own. With the renewed interest in world literature translation studies has come to occupy a central position in literary studies. Chapter 6 traces the rise of translation studies in relation to the study of world literature.