Contextualizing World Literature

by Jean Bessière (Volume editor) Gerald Gillespie (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 166 Pages


This book revisits the notion of World Literature and its applications in Comparative Literature. It suggests the notion not as a means to sift out international paradigms for reading literatures, but as a set of guidelines for the construction of interlocking and/or reciprocally illuminating multilingual literary clusters. These ensembles are of very diverse shapes: the world, a region, a country, a language block, a network of cross-cultural «interferences» – while the so-called minor literatures invite to question the use of these ensembles. Within this frame, fourteen essays respond to the basic paradox of World Literature: how may specific methodological and critical outlooks allow expression of the universal? The answers to this question can be arranged in three groups: 1. Recognition of the need to break loose from European or Western critical perspectives; 2. Presentation of macro- and microcosmic dimensions connectedness and its processes; 3. Definitions of the methodological efforts and hermeneutic orientations to be applied.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • New Comparative Poetics
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Henry James à la quête des universaux
  • “World Literature”: A View from Outside the Window
  • “Salut au Monde”: The World as Envisioned by World Literature
  • A Moving Target…
  • By Land or Sea: Models of World Literature
  • De la Weltliteratur en temps de guerre et de crise : Romain Rolland et Thomas Mann, un maillage international
  • L’effet-monde et le particulier littéraire
  • Goethe, China, and World Literature
  • The Well-Tempered Relativism, Or How to Compare the Incomparable
  • World Literature and Minor Literatures
  • Translation and Comparative Literature
  • Caught in Complex Webs: World Literature – a South African Perspective
  • Afterword I
  • Afterword II
  • Contributors/Contributeurs
  • Series index

← 8 | 9 → Introduction


Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3


Stanford University

The present volume, Contextualizing World Literature, has its roots in a special program which Steven Sondrup, as then incumbent President of the International Comparative Literature Association, asked its editors to design for the triennial congress of the Association held at Paris in July 2013. Because of exceptional interest in the topic on several continents, we proposed a Presidential panel dedicated to “World Literature.” This expression, starting from the famous Goethean coinage “Weltliteratur,” has known diverse translations and applications. For example, “Universal Literature” has been used earlier in English, while “Littérature universelle” has been in constant use in French until francophone writers as a set have more recently employed the expression “Littérature-monde.” It should be remarked that this latter expression originally was intended neither as a translation of Goethe’s formulation nor of the cognate English version, but to designate in particular the world dimension of Francophone literatures. “Littérature-monde” is nevertheless today utilized to translate the more broadly focused term “World Literature.”

To nourish the debate about World Literature we issued a call internationally to faculty members from diverse cultures, diverse countries, diverse languages, diverse orientations in Comparative Literature and urged each to choose his or her subject freely. At the same time, we decided that the group of living past Presidents of ICLA constituted a valuable reserve list to call upon, because of their knowledge of worldwide developments in Comparative Literature studies over recent decades.

The response to our call for position papers was gratifyingly strong in quality and variety, and audience participants in four separate sessions at the congress workshop joined actively in the open discussion that followed each set of presentations. This allowed us to avoid giving a central place in the congress to problems of terminology, though these surfaced, ← 9 | 10 → but, rather, to consider “World Literature” above all as a question relating to the international, as against local, status of all literatures and to various orientations for pursuing Comparative Literature. Even though reference to “Weltliteratur,” or “World Literature,” is an old tradition of Comparative Literature, today it occurs with unequal frequency according to specific countries, cultures, critical traditions, and systems of education. Thus there was a double reason for raising World Literature as a currently pertinent subject both at the Paris congress and afterwards in this volume on “contextualizing” the term: firstly, in order to understand the unequal usage of this reference; and secondly, in order not to dissociate it from the world-related state of many literatures, and the relative isolation of some, which we recognize today. This determination itself in turn proved to raise many issues which the contributors to our volume engage.

The success of the congress workshop encouraged us to consider combining the views of the selected panellists from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America with statements by those in our reserve list to achieve a richer cross-section of the global picture. Only one past President of ICLA, though enthusiastically endorsing our project, has been prevented by other commitments from entering into the widened symposium. Similarly, only one of the original panellists in the congress workshop has withdrawn with regrets because of onerous publication conflicts. It is clear that any current set of informed views of Comparative Literature scholars about World Literature, a subject-matter that ultimately must aspire to include all cultural territories globally, can only suggest the kinds of similarities and differences to be encountered in an ongoing collective effort to survey the whole territory. But by the same token, it is equally clear that in order to devise approaches and methods suited to that task it is important to bring together active practitioners and theoreticians both from the older homelands of Comparative Literature and from the newer regions where our field is flourishing. This present volume hopes to demonstrate with real examples the historical and geocultural requirements of such wider-range research.

In facing the actual variety that the term WL implies, the editors have realized there are a number of different ways in which cross-referencing among the twelve chapters could be arranged, and we sincerely hope readers will consider other natural categories than those we have chosen. A very powerful historical sense runs as an undercurrent in all the position papers. What distinguishes one group, however, is a bias or tendency to problematize the lingering mental habit of some Comparative Literature scholars who cannot break loose from their quite natural orientation to Europe as the standard measure against which to assess other cultural complexes and who are not yet ready to see the world-relatedness of ← 10 | 11 → non-Eurocentric cultures truly without blinkers, that is, from other distinct geocultural vantage points. Another group goes at the same matter with a distinct emphasis on presenting the macro- and microcosmic dimensions of regional and world connectedness and its processes. A third group, focusing on the methodological challenges, posits both the general propositions in any hermeneutic effort and looks at a case history exhibiting how the world dimension can pervade even single works of fiction set in a distinct culture. As the thumbnail mention of individual essays further below will instantly suggest, there are many overlappings that tie together findings and approaches in all three parts of the volume.

These individual instances of overlap should be seen in the light of general features of the discourse on World Literature which stand out in the present volume. The various speakers’ propositions can be read from the perspective of relativizing the notion of “World Literature” in more than one way. They can be regarded as a sceptical or cautious critique of the notion of “World Literature,” principally in the context of countries that are non-Occidental, emergent, and/or defined by specific kinds of multilingualism and multiculturalism, traits which are historical and largely antecedent to Goethe’s formula (e.g., the Indic region discussed by Chanda). In addition to criticism of the eurocentrism of the notion World Literature in its earlier phases comes criticism of its historical and of its contemporary pertinence, once we truly consider the world in its entirety and the actual diversity in status of literatures and of countries or nations. Often we can read the figuration of “World Literature” in the context of a nominally single country (e.g. South Africa as discussed by Viljoen). To speak in the sixteenth-century terminology of the Renaissance, “World Literature” would be identifiable both in the world’s macrocosm and in its microcosms. Which raises a question: Would it accordingly be requisite to read the notion of “World Literature” not as that which allows us to sift out international paradigms for reading literatures, but as a set of guidelines for the construction of interlocking and/or reciprocally illuminating multilingual literary clusters? These ensembles are indeed of very diverse shapes: the world, a region, a country, a language block, a network of cross-cultural “interferences,” etc. We face furthermore an enormous task which so-called minor literatures pose for the notion of “World Literature” (e.g., as Symington explores this). There is a paradox in the notion of literatures being rearranged according to a point of view, which may be singular (for example, that of a critic), even if the aim is to be objective; the universal is expressed according to a particular singular outlook (according to the reader, David Damrosch would say). The same sort of question arises when we start from so-called minor literatures: Does their singularity (their minority status) distance them from or render them more like the world’s large literary ensembles, and does ← 11 | 12 → it facilitate or diminish their power of circulation? As several contributors have stressed (e.g., Valdés and Figueira), comparatists must remain alert to the negative homogenizing potential of translation, to the ways in which dominant lingua-francas – today, above all, English – may mask and suppress vital elements of cultural expression.

From the perspective of a critical interpretation or characterization of the universalism which the reference to “World Literature” entails, are we therefore called to respond according to a universalism internal to the works considered? These would then be carriers of linguistic and symbolic traits of universalization, even though such traits are not necessarily or obviously what governs the form or organization of a specific work. It seems clear that one pragmatic way we can classify works is according to their circulation. This circulation is often attached to these vast geopolitical movements which have left their imprint on history (a subject illuminated by Saussy). Initially there is not a circulation peculiar to all literatures, but to certain literatures as part of vast geopolitical and cultural movements. Thus, for example, we can erect a typology of circulation following that of empires. Here “World Literature” meets “World History,” such as this has occurred over the course of five centuries, for example particularly in North and South America, after European nations initially established overseas colonies. Nonetheless, a formal approach retains great attractiveness, as suggested in the third unit by Spiridon and Block de Behar. We can classify according to the reconstruction of paradigms that allow us to read kinds of universalism or universality. The universalism of literatures is a finding that we may seek to ground on evidence; their universality is an interpretation which presupposes a critical constructivism that can be shared and communicated.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 166 pp.

Biographical notes

Jean Bessière (Volume editor) Gerald Gillespie (Volume editor)

Jean Bessière is a Professor emeritus in Comparative Literature at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. He was the ICLA President from 1997 to 2000. He extensively lectured abroad. He coedited two ICLA books (Théorie littéraire: Problèmes et perspectives; Histoire des poétiques) and recently published Le Roman ou la problématicité du monde (2010), Questionner le roman (2012), Inactualité et originalité de la littérature française contemporaine (2014). Gerald Gillespie is emeritus professor of Comparative Literature and German studies at Stanford University and a former president of the International Comparative Literature Association. His recent publications include: Proust, Mann, Joyce in the Modernist Context (2nd ed., 2010); Ludwig Tieck’s «Puss-in-Boots» and Theater of the Absurd (2013); The Nightwatches of Bonaventura (2013); and, as coed., Intersections, Interferences, Interdisciplines: Literature with Other Arts (2014).


Title: Contextualizing World Literature