Progress without freedom? Is that a willful paradox? Certainly not: we should by now be familiar with the changes in the social fabric around the world that promised freedom to people who would cast off their old ways, and delivered some technological and economic advances that had at best an extremely indirect, and sometimes a contradictory, relation to freedom. I don’t lay the responsibility for this lamentable situation at Goethe’s feet; after all, he was born in 1749, and the world of his adult years was just discovering the concept of progress. But I do note that his model for the inevitable progress of world literature is entangled in a family of concepts that has been put to extremely dubious political and social uses.
Comparative literature, as has been observed countless times by people present here, their teachers, their teachers’ teachers, etc., has long been intertwined with the idea of world literature. Is comparative literature indissolubly wedded to it? Do we have an alternative genealogy, a different schema to orient our research and our action in the world?
We do. Not that we need to claim an ancestor for every idea we put forth, but the fact that someone else conceived of the work of comparison in different ways, as enabling different consequences, should give us heart. Many of you know of Hugo Meltzl de Lomnitz, the German-speaking comparatist who together with the Hungarian-speaking mathematician Samuel Brassai founded the first comparative literature journal in 1877. I do not think it has been adequately noticed to what degree Meltzl’s programmatic editorials are directed against the notion of world literature as put forth by Goethe and his successors. This was, alas, necessary: many of those who praised Weltliteratur in the years of the resurgent Prussian Reich saw in it the triumphant advance of specifically German literary culture to cover first Europe and then the globe.
Meltzl attached comparative literature to what he saw as the interests of humanity in preserving cultural diversity from imperial oppression and the tyranny of bigness. He states:
a journal such as ours makes in principle allowance for every still minor literature, or every literature that is still counted as minor. Indeed, from the comparative-literary standpoint, the importance of one literature at the expense of others ceases completely; – they are all equally important, whether they be mental creations belonging to European or non-European, or cultured or so-called savage, peoples. Indeed, for the languages and folk-song culture of certain small tribes of Europe, which are hated, derided, or, in the best case, regarded with indifference by the larger peoples of Europe with a race-antagonism that can otherwise only be observed in relation to the savages of exotic countries, the comparative principle will offer asylum to the oppressed, and it will be just as accommodating and helpful to all others. [Here we mean especially Jews, Armenians, Gypsies, Chizeroths and Burins (in France), smaller Slavic dialects, Finnish and other Turanian tribes, such as Laplanders; also the dispersed fragments of greater nations, such as: Csángó-Hungarians in Moldavia, and Transylvanian Saxons etc. etc.] In these small and minute folk literatures … there often lies hidden a complete and magnificent world of the most informative and primeval ethnological-literary-historical reminiscences and similar treasures.
As Meltzl observes elsewhere, for a linguist there are no unimportant languages, and a literary scholar should not let hierarchies of value and restrictive notions of genre be the excuse for ignoring vast domains of human history and intellect. His frank hatred of nationalism blends into his contempt for Eurocentrism in such passages as this: “One cannot say that any nation is inferior to another. Cannibals, for example—are they any worse or any poorer than we are? Certainly not, my skeptical friend; they are to be ranked above us Europeans who are so good at murdering each other with the utmost refinement of our torpedoes, our Krupp guns, etc., and equally good at ruining each other with the most shameless usury.” Meltzl’s journal aimed to create awareness and appreciation of writing in Hungarian, an island of difference among the other interrelated literary languages of Europe. Offering translations from the Hungarian, essays in Hungarian, and arguments in German for the value of this supposedly minor literature, Meltzl’s journal demonstrated some of the tendencies of its time in Austro-Hungary, the moment after 1867 when the Kingdom of Hungary got its own parliament back and the notion of relative national autonomy within a federative empire was in the air. Conflicts around ethnic leadership continued to plague Austria-Hungary; in that context, the first comparative literature journal’s policies appear firmly on the side of openness and equality. It frequently published translations of and articles on poetry in dialects, such as Sicilian, Provençal, and Scots, that were being pushed off the map of newly unified and standardizing nations. In a time of pogroms and anti-Jewish hysteria, it celebrates manifestoes of tolerance like Lessing’s drama Nathan der Weise, the object of a special number in 1879.
There is however one noticeable exclusion among the calls for openness. Meltzl refused to count Russian among the ten languages to be used in his journal. Given that the 1870s and 80s were a time of tremendous creativity in the Russian language, with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov all active, this exclusion may seem perverse, and Meltzl offers no explicit reason for it. We can however read fairly clearly between the lines of his editorials, when he says on the one hand that “a very significant political role fell to Russian among the Slavic languages: but this is completely irrelevant in relation to purely literary and comparative-literary-historical matters. Classical and truly universal creations of the mind precisely cannot be created through diplomatic or undiplomatic, through bloody or peaceful, military campaigns.” More energetically, in the second part of Meltzl’s editorial he protested against the tsarist government’s suppression of the “little languages” of the empire.
Our secret slogan is rather: let nationality, as the individuality of a people, be holy and inviolable! … For a human population, however unimportant it may be from the political standpoint, is and remains from the standpoint of comparative literature no less important than the biggest nation. Just as the most imperfect remains of a language can offer the most precious and instructive examples for comparative philology, so is it as well with the spiritual life even of peoples without literature(as we call them), whose national individuality we not only must refrain from disturbing with our missionary meddlesomeness, but which we are obliged to preserve by every honorable means and maintain in the most unaltered condition. (From this comparative-polyglot point of view, the previously mentioned order of the Russian Interior Ministry of May 16, 1876, forbidding the literary use of the Ruthenian or Belorussian language, must still be accounted no less a sin against the Holy Ghost if it had been perpetrated against the folksong traditions of an obscure Kirghiz tribe, instead of against a nation of 15 million.)
With language, of course, went culture, religion, group identity, and the basis for demanding political autonomy; and in 1877, as you’ll recall, the Poles, Finns, Lithuanians, Latvians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Moldavians, and a host of other nationalities, not to forget the Jews, were held tightly and uncomfortably in the grip of Greater Russia. In order to halt the process of nation-building, the minority-language press in Russia was tightly controlled when not, as in this case, simply closed down. Meltzl deems this a “sin against the Holy Ghost,” I suppose because the Holy Ghost is said to inspire both prophecy and translation, and because it is written in the Gospel of Matthew (13:21) that blasphemy against the spirit shall not be forgiven—strong words for Meltzl to be using against a tsar who liked to invoke the will of God as backing for his autocracy. In terms of cultural accomplishment, there was little to distinguish Ukrainians from Meltzl’s Hungarian neighbors: two peoples with a long history of writing and publishing, with libraries, churches, philosophers, poets and dramatists, only one people was subjugated to a harsher empire than the other. But Meltzl’s point is that even if directed against a tiny group with an exclusively oral culture, the offense is equivalent. With his sensitivity to this sort of injustice, Meltzl, I think, would feel quite at home in our age of species extinction, language death, the tyranny of majorities, and the clear-cutting of small cultures.
I would go as far as to say that Meltzl’s little, obscure text offers a cure for Goethean world-literature. Rather than telling us that literature is a competition where bigger will always be better and the weak go to the wall, Meltzl’s vision is of a democracy of letters where nobody is too small to count.
What goes wrong, I think, in the discussion of comparative and world literature is the confusion of cosmopolitanism with bigness, power, wealth, fame, and success. Marx and Engels were not the first, nor the last, to point out how similar the Goethean model is to patterns of global trade and colonization. A similar slide is noticeable in the scholarship. Studies of world literature quickly become studies of the circulation of literature, which means literary markets, the pursuit of prestige, the competition for market share, and that absurd prize they used to give away every year in Sweden. All that is worth knowing and part of the reality of literature, but the literary critic who’s not careful will get swept into “seeing like a state,” as James Scott put it, into thinking that the knowledge that maximizes power is the knowledge that’s naturally most desirable. I am now in a position to define what I meant by “literature with and without borders.” The Goethean program, too, is directed towards a goal that would be a literature without borders. But it would result in one huge literary culture with global circulation, a culture that had surpassed the now obsolete national literatures (“Nationalliteratur will jetzt nicht Vieles sagen.”) Meltzl’s picture of comparative literature disregards the borders because it knows that within and across every border are cultural units that are not accounted for by the borders—the Kirghiz, the Bielorussians, the peasant cultures that he evokes merely schematically; alien cultures surrounded by majority cultures that think of them as backward and undeserving. Previous scholarship on Meltzl has tended to catch itself on the two horns of universalism and nationalism.
But the model of Meltzl’s undertaking is actually somewhat more complicated than is indicated by such polarities and paradoxes. It can be exemplified concretely—I’ll start doing so with an analogy. By drawing up my title as I did, I wanted, of course, to pay homage to Médecins sans frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), the medical charity originating in France and now active in many parts of the world. We probably think of what we do as Literature Without Borders. Yes, but how do we get that way? It’s not enough to pretend to disregard borders, or to apply a psychological eraser to them. Borders are a pesky fact, and for doctors in particular—for doctors are educated in national medical colleges, licensed and renewed by national medical associations, they apply treatments and prescribe medicines according to national schedules, and so forth. Doctors, in short, are very much withborders in the normal way of things. The exception involves a story. Médecins sans frontières began in a crisis. Between 1967 and 1970, the Nigerian government was dealing with a rebellion in the southern province of Biafra, where much of the country’s oil wells were located. They used military raids and blocked the entry of food and supplies, resulting in a disastrous, intentionally-caused famine. A few French doctors sent by the International Red Cross to attend victims of the famine were shocked by what they experienced and when they returned home, broke the tradition of professional discretion, not to mention the carefully maintained neutrality of the Red Cross, and denounced what they did not hesitate to call a genocide. Expecting trouble from the Red Cross, they founded a new organization in 1971 that became Médecins Sans Frontières. Throughout the history of the organization—well chronicled by Peter Redfield—the mandate to serve populations and to testify to their oppression have been in tension. It has often happened that the MSF mission in a country is expelled for what is termed political meddling, a meddling that the MSF personnel feel is necessary in order to prevent greater injustice and suffering.
This schematic history shows us something rather different from the merely categorical or dialectical transcending of a conceptual limit. A crisis occurs, as in Biafra, when people within a set of borders are being deprived of the protections they need to survive. People outside those borders notice. They offer support, guided by the idea of a common humanity or a shared potential that everyone has. And in offering that support they may incur the wrath of the authority that polices the original border and that was causing the deprived population to suffer. This pattern, as I’ve put it in the broadest outline, is common to the origin-story of MSF and to the origin-story of comparative literature if we take Meltzl’s editorials as our canon. The Bielorussians and Ukrainians of 1876 were deprived of their spiritual-material basis, their language and literature; scholars outside the Russian Empire, even though unable to read anything written in those minority languages, rally to the support of the oppressed speakers and writers; and although nothing concrete may be achieved thereby (the ukaz against minority languages was not lifted until 1905), a bond of common humanity is affirmed and the support network is readied for the next time a group of people are barred from speaking and writing in their language, whatever that language may be. If Goethean Weltliteraturhas often been likened to the organs of international commerce, Meltzl’s comparative literature has the profile of an NGO. The latter suggests an identity for Comp Lit that is a little less like Coca-Cola and more like Amnesty International.
Though Amnesty was created in the depths of the Cold War and Médecins sans frontières emerged from the interethnic struggles that followed decolonization, NGOs were a product of the nineteenth century. They go on being necessary even as the element that gave them some leverage—public opinion—fades to insignificance. They will be needed as long as borders are used to block communication, exclude undesirables, and frustrate transparency. The tyrants of the nineteenth century were nothing to those of the twentieth and twenty-first. The prohibitions against which Meltzl rails so vividly—“sins against the Holy Ghost” and so forth—resulted in the deaths or banishments of a few thousand Poles and Ukrainians. That is already too many, but if you think about the means that were put in the hands of the successor states of the tsarist empire, and of other empires and confederations around the world, they shrink in comparison. Nobody, I suspect, in 1877 could have imagined the extermination campaigns, forced resettlements, and forced assimilations of the twentieth century, or that a million or so people could be herded into concentration camps, pressed to forsake their language and culture, and watched at home and in the street by means of human and mechanical spies for any sign of suspected disloyalty; we have made possible an entirely different scale of brutality. So, to sum up: The topic of “world literature” usually goes in the direction of opposing nationalism to cosmopolitanism, the particular to the general. But the emergence of institutions “without borders” has typically involved a different logic: a detour through the subordinated or unwilling national, in the name of whom a cosmopolitan public can be summoned to action or sympathy. Just as Médecins sans frontières arose to confront that form of modern biopolitics that consists in the deliberate abandonment of populations, so Comparative Literature included among its beginnings advocacy for writers muted by national language policies. Though he is infinitely less famous, writing in an obscure self-published periodical for fellow specialists, Hugo Meltzl deserves some of the fame and attention that has gone to Goethe for his statements on “world literature,” and by tracing their different paths we can better understand the powers of our discipline. It is, moreover, Meltzl’s model that stands the better chance of raising “questions that can only be addressed by expanding the repertoire.”