La République mondiale des lettres is a brave but flawed book.footnote1 Pascale Casanova enters the game, increasingly played out not only in literature but also in literary criticism, nowadays routinely known as going global—although to her great credit she refuses to traffic in the term ‘globalization’ and its tacky Third Way idées reçues. In the pages of the NLR and more extensively elsewhere, Franco Moretti has sought to map literary history onto ‘geography’, space onto time. Space inflected by time, moreover, yields a geography that is fluid rather than fixed. As borders blur, nation-states implode and the ‘world’ both speeds up and contracts, ‘migration’ has become the new buzz-word. Re-writing the literary map against this background calls for special ways of thinking and seeing, whose own borders are, necessarily and often productively, also blurred. The customary starting point for this project is the idea (and the ideal) of Weltliteratur, sketched by Goethe as the dream of ‘a common world literature transcending national limits’. ‘We hear and read everywhere’, Goethe wrote, ‘of the progress of the human race, of the wider prospects in world relationships between men. How far this is the case is not within my province to examine or to determine: for my part I seek only to point out to my friends my conviction that a universal world literature is in process of formation.’ What Goethe imagined here was a kind of grand cosmopolitan gathering of (some of) the literatures of the world to engage in what an influential commentator on Goethe calls ‘an international conversation’.footnote2

Goethe’s idea, however generously conceived, is of its time, and hence circumscribed and constrained by the presuppositions and preoccupations of an age that is no longer ours. In the first place, although Goethe’s aspiration is towards a transcendence of the ‘national’ (‘national literature has not much meaning nowadays’), the parties to the imagined conversation are essentially national literatures. World literature concerns ‘the relationship of nation to nation’. Secondly, there are the limiting implications of the central, even privileged, place assigned by Goethe to Europe in his account. While it would be absurd to accuse Goethe of a kind of blind Eurocentrism, given the extraordinary sensitivity with which he entered into the spirit of Persian and Chinese literatures, in several of the fragments there is what appears to be a virtual identification of world literature with European literature (‘a European, in fact a universal world literature’, ‘European, in other words, World Literature’). But, for all its limits, Goethe’s example matters a great deal. If we start here, it is at once to acknowledge those limits and then to take from him what is useful for our own times.

A later definition by one of the founders of the discipline of comparative literature, Richard G. Moulton, describes world literature as ‘the auto­biography of civilization’. The definition is at once curious and attractive, but also problematic, principally because the analogy with autobiography not only reads back through time from what is essentially a very modern notion, but also implies a view of the history and structure of world literature as a single, coherent story told by a single subject. In today’s conditions, we are more likely to want to break up and diversify this story and its subjects according to the plurality of human cultures. Perhaps, then, we might start to re-define the idea of world literature in terms of an observation by Carlos Fuentes, to the effect that ‘reading, writing, teaching, learning, are all activities aimed at introducing civil­izations to each other’. This version, which resembles the characterization of Goethe’s idea as an ‘international conversation’, is likely to speak to us more powerfully and directly. But it too is problematic. In the first place, such ‘introductions’ do not necessarily constitute a polite get-together. The terms on which civilizations ‘meet’, both in and out of books, are not necessarily, or even generally, those of equal parties to the encounter. Moreover, the effects of such meetings can range widely across a spectrum from exhilaration to anxiety and vertigo, as questions are raised, problems explored and identities challenged.

Furthermore, in so far as Fuentes’s view is a version of what we now call ‘multiculturalism’, there is the quite fundamental issue as to who actually gets invited to the meeting in the first place; as the Japanese–American poet, David Mura, has argued, for many literatures multiculturalism is a matter of sheer ‘survival’, of whether or not there will be any representation at all at the international rendezvous. This is a two-way consideration, involving both terms of the expression ‘world literature’: it concerns not only who is included in the ‘world’, but also what belongs to ‘literature’. Indeed arguably the most basic question—or at least the first—has to do with what counts as ‘literature’. What is normally understood by it in the West (imaginative writing, plays, poems, novels, etc.) is of relatively recent invention. The history of the idea of ‘literature’ in fact reveals a process of increasing specialization of meanings, whereby ‘literature’ is originally equated with all kinds of writing; then, in the post-Gutenberg era, with printed works; and only much later restricted to the notion of works of the imagination. Above all, we need to sever the idea of literature or, more generally, verbal art from a fixed attachment to writing. Henry Louis Gates has shown how the European Enlightenment established a link between ‘reason’, ‘civilization’ and writing, thus confining oral culture to a position of inferiority, often attaching the pejorative valuation ‘barbaric’ or ‘savage’. The argument that a culture attains to civilization only when it is capable of ‘inscribing’ itself not only devalues the oral tradition in the name of a specious fable of ‘development’, but also overlooks the very real ambiguity of the acquisition of writing: at once an immense cultural gain, but also helping to institute structures of power and domination, within which those who have the skills of writing and reading enjoy advantages over those who do not. Finally it also overlooks the simple fact that, both historically and geographically, the oral vastly exceeds the written; the former is and even today remains the most fundamental mode of mankind’s self-expression.

How then does one enter, delimit and define the object of study known as world literature? To some extent, help has been to hand from the now well-established ‘world-systems’ theory, developed in that paradoxically specialized branch of historiography known as world history, and whose most distinguished practitioners include Fernand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein, William McNeill and Janet Abu-Lughod. McNeill divides human history into three constitutive phases: first, from around 3500 BC (early Mesopotamia) to 500 BC; secondly, from 500 BC to 1500 AD; and thirdly, from 1500 AD to the present. The first phase witnesses the emergence of four major civilizations: the Middle East (Egypt, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor); India; China; and Greece (defined, in conjunction with the later emergence of the Roman Empire, as the starting point of a ‘European’ civilization). The second phase (500 BC to 1500 AD) is at once a period of the consolidation and extension of the above, along with the birth of Christianity, the rise of Islam in the seventh century AD, the creation of the Ottoman Empire and the installation of feudalism (notably in Europe and Japan). The third period, from around 1500 AD onwards, is broadly the period of the creation of the ‘modern’ world, crucially linked to the so-called ‘rise of the West’, fuelled by economic take-off in Europe, the expansion of the world trading system and the related colonial adventures of ‘discovery’ and conquest (initially of the Americas and then later vast portions of the globe), and issuing finally in a form of modernity that McNeill calls ‘global cosmopolitanism’.