Toward a Productive Interdisciplinary Relationship: Between Comparative Literature and World Literature

Article excerpt

Goethe's concept of world literature (Weltliteratur) has been subjected to much scholarly analysis in recent years. As Christopher Prendergast notes in the introduction to one of the most recent books devoted to this paradigm, Debating World Literature, Weltliteratur has primarily attracted interest "in two (often overlapping) areas of inquiry, comparative literature and postcolonial studies, most notably (and especially in the United States) in connection with the theme of globalization" (vii). The cosmopolitan nuance inherent in Goethe's vision of a mutually fruitful dialogue among discrete national literatures was enabled in the 1820s, when he created the paradigm, by improved communication infrastructures, increased translation activity, and a political atmosphere in which nationalist sentiments had been temporarily exhausted by the Napoleonic Wars and marginalized through the machinations of the Congress of Vienna. In this essay I will explore Goethe's Weltliteratur concept, the German view of the relationship between Weltliteratur and comparative literature, the conflicted interaction between world literature and comparative literature in the United States, and the potential of Goethe's paradigm to bridge the disciplinary divide between world literature and comparative literature through its use as a pedagogical tool in the world-literature classroom.


A renewed interest in Goethean Weltliteratur is the almost inevitable result in our day of developments that somewhat mirror, and advance, those of Goethe's time: the end of the cold war and the concomitant rise of global financial institutions and multinational corporations (including many publishing houses); the emergence of numerous authors whose political, cultural, and sometimes even linguistic allegiances transcend the bounds of individual nation-states; and technologies such as the World Wide Web. Thus Goethe's pronouncement in 1827 on the arrival of a Weltliteratur rendering national literatures rather insignificant (Goethe, cited in Strich, Goethe 397) (1) is more accurate today than it was in Goethe's age, because virulent nationalism became predominant in most European political and literary discourse in the period extending roughly from Goethe's death in 1832 until the end of World War II. To be sure, nationalism reemerged in the 1990s, largely in response to economic immiseration and a sense of political powerlessness attendant to globalization, but, like the Congress of Vienna in Goethe's day, transnational agencies such as the United Nations and the World Bank have attempted to contain xenophobia and ethnic conflict. Whether they will be as ultimately unsuccessful in this containment as was the Congress of Vienna in the nineteenth century is one of the great questions of our time.

Considering these historical parallels, it is not surprising that contemporary literary globalization is widely read under the sign of Goethean Weltliteratur. Concurrent with this increased employment of the paradigm as a heuristic tool in comparative analyses of today's transnational culture is the renewed flourishing of world literature as an academic domain in American high schools, colleges, and universities. World-literature courses were first taught in the United States in the 1920s by Philo Buck at the University of Wisconsin (Lawall, "Richard Moulton" 4). Though Buck had a personal interest in literature from the Indian subcontinent, his world-literature anthology is, typically for the early years of world literature as a pedagogical domain, quite Eurocentric. The various editions of his world-literature anthology contain only a smattering of works from Asia, though the number of such works increased from the first edition to the third. In the preface to the first edition, Buck explained his relative neglect of all but a few Asian works by noting he had included only those works with a "vital influence upon the European tradition" (v). …


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