But in the reading of all these dissertations, manuscripts, drafts and articles, we can’t help noticing the same names coming up. Homer. Quixote. Hamlet. Jane Austen. Proust. Kafka. And the tradition of criticism and theory has its all-stars. Benjamin, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, just to stay in the register of those who have already passed on. And within those critics’ long list of publications, just a few items come up for repeated citation. Indeed, we comparatists have our model organisms and we are often content to keep on extracting new information from them. But whatever the “incredible advances” that may have come from reading and rereading the same books, isn’t it also worth finding out if there are, as Professor Patel promises in his realm of study, “questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire of animals”—sorry, works of literature—“that are studied”?
Here though we get into a different realm of problems. For once we have admitted that we really ought to study a more diverse range of literary works, the suggestions come pouring in, for many among the thousands of neglected works have their advocates. (There is a school of thought that says we should hand off the unread works to computers, to graduate students, or to native informants to read for us, but I reject that as being inequitable and a sure way of keeping the existing hierarchies in place.) Should we sort the available reading material by authorial gender, skin color, religious affiliation, citizenship, class status? Fine; but are those criteria created to suit the picture of the world we already have, or are they apt to disturb the pre-existing categories? There are national interests promoting the Great Writers of this or that country, as allegedly there are delegations sent to lobby the committee members of the Nobel Prize for literature. There’s some justice in this. Here we are talking about the issue of literary cosmopolitanism in a Special Administrative Region of China. It would not be a bad thing if every member of the ICLA had spent at least a week reading the great poets and novelists of China before coming. I don’t know if that has happened. I recommend it though. However, even if you acquire those works in translation or spend a few years learning enough Chinese to read them in the original, you will still have to work out the conceptual apparatus with which you’re going to handle these texts. What in them strikes you as good or bad may not have much to do with the good or bad as judged by Chinese readers of different eras. What seems meaningful or artful to you may not have ever caught the attention of a Chinese reader. Not that the non-Chinese reader must abide by the judgments of Chinese readers; but when you’re dealing with a different intellectual world, I think you should at least figure out what the local expectations are, even if in the end you depart from them. Or imagine that you are a Chinese student embarking for the United States or Poland or Egypt to study literature. You have in your bag the eighteenth-century novel Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber), a well-worn copy that you’ve been reading since you were a teenager. To explain to your teachers and fellow students in that foreign land what you’ve found precious about that book will be no easy task, as the terms of value you’re used to using don’t have easy equivalents. You may have to fall back on the most general sort of recommendation (“read it, it’s great, we all love it”). Or you can describe it in the terms circulating in the classrooms where Homer, Proust, Defoe and the gang are taught, an alienating and possibly exciting experience. Translators, of course, have to use the terms of the language they translate into. The same goes for interpreters. David Hawkes, the extraordinary English translator of the first two-thirds of the Story of the Stone, tried to express something of what he had experienced by reading and thinking about that novel for several decades when he dubbed it “a Symbolist novel.” Now of course the literary histories will tell you that Symbolisme is a particular outgrowth of certain cultural and intellectual trends in Europe, etc., and that the application of the term to a Chinese document can only be a kind of analogy. Nonetheless, if you know what Symbolism is, Hawkes’s use or misuse of the term directs you to certain properties of the novel that are at least more interesting as a description of its world than would be, say, “realist,” “romantic,” “allegorical,” or a handful of other words that have been offered as blanket descriptions of this tremendous and internally variegated book. Hawkes did what he could and his can never be the final word. But the imperfections of his strategy remind us that it’s not enough to read exotic books, we have to have a new or at least an open-ended terminology, a poetics, with which to understand them. You would not get much out of Chinese drama if you came to it with the expectations of a person familiar only with Greek, Shakespearean, or Brechtian drama; the conceptual vocabularies afforded by that prior experience would not get you far, and you would need to learn more from the plays and from the people who have given them their attention over the years. Not only what to read, but how to read must be controversial; and in choosing how to read we can’t be led by authorities, for the same national, class, religious, gender and other partial interests are just as eager to impose on us the official way to read as a woman, as a Korean, as a nomad, as a proletarian, and so forth. Since disagreements make the life of culture, let us not, in the name of diversity, imprison ourselves in a new type of uniformity. Now what does this mean for practical undertakings? What should I tell you to do? (As if a room full of highly-accomplished, autonomous people will ever do as they’re told.) What would be good for the field, what should we encourage and what should we stop doing? I don’t think we need to mandate diversity, require people to read more texts from previously under-discussed cultures, though doing so is beneficial. Nor should we stop giving prizes for books about Proust; I’m sure there are still great books about Proust to be written. This kind of diversity slating involves a predefined set of criteria and can be gamed, like any diversity mandate, to achieve results that are only superficially diverse— what one of our confrères has called “a compromise between foreign [i.e., European] form and local materials.”
If it has to be a compromise, I would prefer it the other way round. What we should reward is reading that seeks to make discoveries, to put what’s known on one side, to circumvent the inherited definitions. This desire admittedly puts us on boggy intellectual ground: if we can’t be sure that we have a definition of literature that is cross-culturally valid, how do we shepherd the examples into the Noah’s Ark of comparative literature? The vague rule of thumb that seems to operate permits the continued recruitment of poems that look like those of Goethe or Wordsworth, novels that look like Trollope’s, and so on. Let’s imagine a more abstract definition and see what it includes. You know such previous attempts at an abstract definition as Shklovsky’s, Tynianov’s and Eikhenbaum’s, definitions that could contain quite a lot of phenomena that were not recognized as suitable objects of study by faculties of literature in their time. Maybe these can serve as opening moves in our attempts to find what we can learn from the verbal culture of this or that non-mainstream population. What are the uses of language in culture X that cause it to do more than proffer information or convey demands? What specific kinds of relation obtain between the merely functional acts of speech and those that are memorable or impressive for some other reason? What is the biggest scope of variety that we can anticipate among cultures X, Y, Z and on to infinity? On what scales, with what instruments, can we recognize our new model organisms?
I see these perplexities about what to read and how as being already inscribed in that foundational text for many of us, the conversation between Goethe and Eckermann in 1827 that launched the term Weltliteratur, “world literature.” I’m sure you already know it and so I can be brief in outlining the problem areas. Eckermann finds Goethe reading a Chinese novel and says, oh, how strange that must be, and Goethe replies that it’s actually not a bit strange, but quite like the novels of Richardson and the like: tales of civilized conversation and flirtation between men and women, only of course with a lot of unusual cultural background. And then Goethe goes on to predict that the age of world literature is at hand, and that national literature is already rather meaningless: everybody does and should read books from all around the world. So far so good. Then Goethe seems to take a step back, because he says that where aesthetic criteriaare concerned, the only way is to take our bearings from the ancient Greeks, who were and are the true classics. “We must not think that the Chinese are the thing, or the Serbians, but in our need for something exemplary we must always go back to the old Greeks…” All right then! The inventory of things to read is wide open, but the methods, the standards, the how and why to read—those we have already in the form given us by the ancient Greeks.
Reassuring, isn’t it, as a program for world literature? You can read anything, but you won’t have to learn any fundamentally new tricks. In fact, if you are tempted by the norms and modes of Chinese, Serbian, etc., literature into thinking there may be some new aesthetics and hermeneutics out there worth acquiring, you should strenuously withstand that temptation. The true image of humanity in its beauty, says Goethe, has been discovered once and for all. Other nations can at most provide quaint diversions; only the Greeks can be our guides. So enjoy diversity from the safe harbor of uniformity. As a description of what people actually do, I think this is not far off, but it doesn’t describe what I think we should do if we want to enlarge our repertoire of “model organisms.” And something else in this Goethean program is as if calculated to get my back up. That is the rhetoric of the inevitable march of history, the subsumption of local differences into a unity, the consigning of what local, idiomatic and specific to the past: “National literature is now nearly meaningless… the age of world literature is at hand… everyone must contribute to hastening its approach.” Such language has, to my ear, a tyrannical ring, the chant of progress without freedom. “There is no alternative” (Margaret Thatcher); “we will bury you” (Nikita Khrushchev); “resistance is futile” (the Borg, from Star Trek); bigness wins and wins absolutely.