Edited By Jean Bessière and Gerald Gillespie
“World Literature”: A View from Outside the Window
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A View from Outside the Window
What kind of category is world literature? Seen from a safe distance, it appears to transcend all the limitations placed upon our engagement with what is beyond us, cancelling everything that circumscribes human selves located in geopolitical and cultural reality. Goethe finds the epitome of World Literature encapsulated in the sameness that he discerns in the popular trivial literature of the Chinese. He tells Eckerman that “the Chinese think, act, and feel almost exactly like us” (132), i.e., the enlightened nineteenth-century European. For Rabindranath Tagore, it represents the “entirety of the literary act,” not limited by narrow domestic walls of nation or “jati,” which he constitutes as a cultural rather than a political entity. In saying that literature is not bound by the possessiveness of property relations he poses Visva sahitya, World Literature, against the narrow “national” concept of literature (Tagore “Visva sahitya”). World Literature transcends property by belonging to the entirety of the human race, rather than the “jati” which produced it. In both definitions, the universal is broached as a category for rising above the particular.
How is this to be achieved in literary studies? Etiemble made a move towards a method when he identified “literary invariants” as same the world over (Etiemble 1958, 166). He refers to the conditions of literary production and goes on to assert that “reliable constants exist by which...
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