The Uses and Abuses of World Literature

Article excerpt

We urgently need maps of the mind to supplement and interpret our maps of the globe, if ever we are to orient ourselves and feel at home in the new environment in which our generation must live and work out its destiny. (Christy and Wells v)

Canon defence is national defence. (Morrison 9)

A host of critics have argued for the importance of literature in the creation and maintenance of a nation's self-image. In the last fifty years, this debate has encompassed scholars and activists from Edward Said-whose important work on the relationship of literary study to empirebuilding laid the foundation for a new field-to Frantz Fanon, who emphasized the work of national culture in incarnating the postcolonial nation, to Toni Morrison's contrapuntal reading of American literature.

Within departments of literature in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, these debates have brought about a new and arguably more complex understanding of national literatures. To give a concrete example, the Modern Language Association now recognizes the category of "Literature of the United States in Languages Other Than English." In addition, that understanding of national literature has been shaped by theories of the constitution of the nation as, for example, Benedict Anderson's "imagined community" or Homi Bhabha's "narration."

At the same time as national literary categories are changing, and perhaps as a result, nonnational categories are also proliferating. These nonnational categories include the rise of Commonwealth Literature and Third-World Literature in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the more recent additions of Postcolonial Literature and World Literature in English.

There is a large and compelling body of work discussing the role of culture in the formation of the nation. The question I wish to discuss here is as follows: If the evolution of the canon of a national literature maps a changing view of that nation, what then is mapped by nonnational literary categories? In particular, in the much-heralded age of globalization, what is the role of a category like "World Literature in English" in producing a particular vision of the world?

The category of "World Literature in English" has its roots in a number of fields. In particular, I will be tracing the early history of the concept of "World Literature" as it evolved into "World Literature in English" and "Comparative Literature," respectively. In this article, I will provide an overview of nineteenth-century discussion of World Literature, and then move on to focus on those critics who were directly involved in the institutionalization of World or Comparative Literature in the latter half of the century. During this period, this nominally global category reinscribed a very specific view of the nation's relationship to the rest of the world. Further, I believe that in understanding the role of World Literature in nationalist projects over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there may be useful clues for understanding the nationalist projects embedded in accounts of global culture in the twenty-first century.

This article is part of a current debate about the definitions of and differences between Comparative Literature and World Literature. However, the two terms were often used interchangeably in the nineteenth century. Even today, critics in both Comparative Literature and World Literature almost invariably cite Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's concept of Weltliteratur as a common foundation for their fields. A distinction can be made between a sphere of common cultural influence-a literature of the world-and a comparison of distinctive cultural spheres-a comparison of literatures. However, much of the ongoing "crisis in Comparative Literature," to quote Rene Wellek's oft-cited essay, derives from the question of whether or not such a distinction is meaningful or even possible. Nor does the choice of one term over another correlate directly to one definition over another. …