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Debate on nature of world literature increases

Author  :  Ma Hanguang     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2018-08-06

World literature has once again become a hot topic in Chinese academia in part due to the growing popularity of books like What Is World Literature by the American literary historian David Damrosch and The World Republic of Letters by the French literary critic Pascale Casanova.

Casanova proposes exploring world literature by treating it the same as the world of letters, which refers to an integrated literary space independent of national borders that only evolves with time. She suggests that the latter concept can be regarded as equivalent to the former. Some scholars have agreed with this line of reasoning in light of the current global literary disparity and the dominance of some countries’ national literature. To them, it seems this offers a way to bridge literary divides between the core and the periphery, the advanced and the backward as well as divisions between different nationalities and countries. 

The name “world republic of letters” meets the expectations some people have for literature: One is that with historical progress and social development, literature that transcends nationality, country and region would no longer be divided by these intrinsic benchmarks. Instead, it would comprise an integral whole—a unified “world literature” that embodies humanistic concerns.

Second, those countries and nationalities that are politically, economically and culturally vulnerable hope that their own literatures might have the opportunity to join the chorus of world literature and gain recognition internationally in the struggle for survival.

But theoretically speaking, world literature involves the relationship between the Self and the Other. Without the Other, the Self would not exist. It cannot be called “world literature” if the so-called advanced cultures just replace and assimilate the backward cultures or only a single voice is allowed to be heard. World literature also involves the relationship between the core and the periphery. The core is defined in opposition from the numerous peripheries. Therefore, in the field of world literature, there must be non-mainstream literatures apart from the mainstream. In addition, without being immutable, the two are mutually convertible. 

In reality, as the process of globalization continues, each country, nation, group or individual cannot diverge from this historical tide, which witnesses some developed countries trying to expand their influence in scramble for cultural leadership while some developing countries attempt to keep a foothold. Therefore, there has always been contradiction, opposition, debate and confrontation between the two major sides in contending for cultural discourse. There is even a state of internal competition respectively between members of developed countries and those of developing countries. But the concept of a “world republic of letters” neglects such opposing relationships—the existence and occurrence of everything in the global literary context has been rendered seemingly natural and fair.

As a country that promotes global peace and stability while being a responsible actor in international politics, economy and culture, China should have the courage to break the cultural monopoly of the West. At the same time, it must be soberly acknowledged that not each piece of its writings is a refined work of world literature, each trend of which should represent where the literature worldwide is headed. Strengthening the Chinese voice in the arena of world literature must be done on the foundations of the contributions the country has made to world culture. 

This involves other relationships that need to be managed in the construction of world literature. When constituting world literature, it is necessary to first strike a balance between the work itself and its global and national traits. Works of world literature should be accepted and recognized by most people worldwide, transcending in some sense the personal experiences of individuals and reaching beyond the interests of regions, nationalities and countries. In addition, the works could be able to offer all humanity a unique way to understand the world, and the solutions to resolve common dilemmas that humans encounter. Modern and contemporary Chinese literature has done a lot in this respect with some remarkable achievements. The creations of a number of writers such as Lu Xun, Yu Dafu, Lao She and Shen Congwen have won extensive recognition globally.

The other relation to be dealt with is that between the modern values of literature and tradition. New problems have emerged in the process of modern social development, prompting reflection on modernity from a variety of perspectives, which also leads to the covert breeding of the anti-modernity trend in some research fields. In fact, the conflict between modern civilization and traditional society has been explicitly revealed in literary works early on such as Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen and Leo Tolstoy’s The Cossacks. Though the authors are in some sense sympathetic and even aspire to the nomadic traditional social culture of the Roma and Cossacks, their works have clear-cut motifs critisizing such nomadic traditional society’s repulsion against modernity and the fact that modern people would ultimately fail to subsist in such traditional society. Such examples of anti-modernity sentiments are what we should be concerned about. 


Ma Hanguang is from the School of Humanity at Heilongjiang University.


(Edited and translated by BAI LE)

Editor: Yu Hui

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