What is world literature? It’s a term that’s less than two centuries old and that came out of a conversation between Goethe, the German writer, and his secretary Eckerman.
“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.’ “
In the essay, Martin Puchner, who is the editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature, talks about how literature globalized. Books followed market forces too. Trade brought in literature from other countries into the western world. On the one hand, there were advocates of a nationalist literature, trends that we are seeing now replicating themselves in non-western countries today and on the other there were people like Goethe who saw merit in reading Sanskrit and Chinese classics.
“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.”
Engels and Marx were inspired by the idea of a world literature and extended their ideas to economics and philosophy.
“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.”
Read this brilliant article – Readers of the World Unite– on how the continuous flux of the forces of nationalism and globalization has shaped World Literature.