Edited By Jean Bessière and Gerald Gillespie
Goethe, China, and World Literature
Brigham Young University
Even before the expression World Literature – or even the widely used German term Weltliteratur – came to designate a new direction in literary studies, the latter was an expression with a rather vague meaning for most students of literature. Those with a particular focus on German literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth century associated it with Goethe and the breadth of his literary creativity and intellectual stature. It is, however, not an expression that Goethe coined, but he is unquestionably the figure who made it a prominent term in literary scholarship (D’haen 6-9). Because Goethe used the term on various occasions and in a wide variety of contexts, it is difficult to understand exactly what he meant by the word whose coming importance he may have suspected and certainly would have vigorously advocated. My intention is not to offer yet another exposition of the various broad conceptions he may have entertained with regard to the expression, but rather to discuss the role it played in conjunction with another aspect of his cultural and literary-critical background in the development of one aspect of his shifting sense of the term and its reflection in modern literary analysis.
Even outside any particular context, what seems clear to anyone encountering the expression is that it denotes an amiable and encompassing engagement with literature. At the time Weltliteratur had become a relatively frequent term in Goethe’s critical vocabulary, the established nations as well...
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