Christian Thorne–World Literature as Counter-Revolution


For more on the subject of world literature, see Christian Thorne’s interview with Joe Cleary that was published in our series “Re-read, Re-examine, Re-think”

Poetry for when the tariffs come down

The current interest in world literature tends to boil down to a single open-ended recommendation: that we be curious about what happens to literature when it travels outside of its home country and, often enough, outside of its native language. What happens to American literature when non-Americans get their hands on it? Do readers in China tend to understand Dostoevsky differently from readers in Russia? Why did German readers take so quickly to the Latin American Boom novel? How did Män som hatar kvinnorMen Who Hate Woman—morph into the leering demi-blason of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Do different countries have different cultures of translation?—different standards for what counts as a good rendering?—different foreign literatures that they tend to favor? Or is everybody really just reading Swedish crime novels?

This particular conception of world literature is most often traced back to Goethe, which is both plausible and a bit of a problem. For any biography of Goethe will tell you that he was an oligarch from the banking city of Frankfurt and a counter-revolutionary official in one of Germany’s petty autocracies, the kind of guy whose finance ministry responded to peasant grievances by ordering that the Bauer be punished for having dared to complain; the kind of guy, I mean, whose government shut down any student societies they suspected of democratic sentiments and who paid informants to keep tabs on the political attitudes of their classmates and professors (Rothe; Wilson). The question, of course, is what we should make of these biographical prompts. Is it possible that a theory as manifestly liberal and world-loving as Weltliteratur could carry the marks of Goethe’s social and political positions? Is world literature poetry for patricians? Is it anti-Jacobin?

Anyone who has pored over Goethe’s scattered comments on the topic would, I think, have to say yes and yes. Of course, the cosmopolitanism of world literature as usually presented is entirely generic and low-stakes—an internationalism born of buying the right books, the worldly-wisdom of the Duolingo app and the laboriously mastered subjunctive. But to all this ¿Donde está la biblioteca?, Goethe’s original account adds some more specific features that have proven easy to overlook. I’ll just name three.

1) World literature is, above all, a contemporary project undertaken by living writers. It’s not that Goethe meant to dissuade anyone from reading books that were both foreign and old. As a young playwright, he made his name by writing pseudo-Shakespearean rant; and he closed out his career a half century later by publishing a twelve-book homage to the Persian ghazals of the fourteenth century. His own engagement with the literary past would thus be hard to dispute. But Goethe maintains even so that world literature comes into being only when living writers keep tabs on each other’s work and, better still, when they enter into conversation across national boundaries. “Living, striving literati should get to know each other, and through their own inclinations and similarity of tastes, find the motive for corporate action” (qtd Strich 350). Kenzaburō Ōe conducts an open correspondence with Günter Grass about the legacy of World War 2 in their respective countries. In 2016, the Goethe-Institut matches German poets with South Asian ones, so that they can translate each other’s work, even if they don’t understand each other’s languages. Langston Hughes befriends the Hungarian Arthur Koestler—in Turkmenistan. Thus construed, world literature has the surprising tendency to push us away from the classics, since the idea, rather, is to track new, transnational literary constellations as they emerge, or, indeed, to help foster their emergence, even if that’s not how W. W. Norton seems to understand the matter.

2) World literature is a project of mutual correction and expansion. If you are a writer and you spend most of your days in London, one good reason to read Indian and Somali and Chilean literature is to learn about ways of writing that the British haven’t gotten round to yet—to encounter new techniques, new styles, perhaps entire new forms or genres. Irish and Egyptian writing gets imported to fill a niche, to remedy a deficit in domestic literary production, to furnish the book stalls with the things that we don’t make. It is important to notice that world literature, on this understanding, cannot be pitted against this or that national literature. We don’t advance the cause of world literature by repudiating (as provincial or exclusionary) the framework of Pakistani or Polish literature, or by insisting that there is finally no such thing as “Mexican literature.” Quite the contrary: World literature battens on the national literatures that it at once subsumes-and-retains. It needs the national literatures, since there will be much less reason for me to read Jamaican novelists if it turns out they are all writing like Faulkner anyway. Goethe, in fact, sometimes seems to suggest that the character of a national literature will only become apparent once it is assessed by foreign readers (Strich 349). American literature is manifestly diverse, and the critic in New York is accordingly likely to brag about its breadth and variety and fine gradation—to insist that American literature is no particular way. But critics in Paris are in a good position to spot what American writers do more often than French writers, or what they do to a perfection. They will be quicker to announce—and perhaps to admire—the distinctive features of American fiction and poetry, because they will not accede to that Whitmanesque literary narcissism that holds that we are all things and all ways. World literature is an active process of learning what foreign writers do better than you do.

3) World literature is writing under the sign of the market. You don’t need someone with a Warwick PhD to tell you that world literature is the poetry of global capitalism. It should be apparent to anyone who re-reads the paragraph I just wrote that Goethe has patterned his argument on the classical, more or less Smithian defenses of international trade: National literatures should not try to be self-sufficient. At any given point in time—though, of course, changingly—your national literature will do some things better than others. As of 1600, German poets hadn’t figured out yet how to write sonnets or classical epics. American writers in the 1840s wrote almost nothing that we would recognize as a realist novel. Home-grown, ethnically English modernism was pretty tepid as modernisms go—an avant garde from the middle of the pack. What your literature does best, meanwhile, will be more apparent to remote readers than to local ones. Italian writers are well advised to let Danish and Russian and Turkish critics tell them what they are doing right, and this in much the same way that Italian farmers need to know that Dutch greenhouses can grow bell peppers but not olives. The national character of any country’s literature gets bestowed upon it comparatively and from without—which is to say, internationally. Most important: All readers gain simultaneously when nations practice a free trade in letters—and when local writers agree to lean in to their already established advantages. (“The immediate consequences of a general world literature; the nations will be quicker in benefiting by each other’s advantages” (qtd Strich 351).)  Brazilian and Indonesian and Norwegian literatures should therefore figure out ways of exchanging what each does best. Columbia should export magic realism for roughly the same reasons that it exports coffee.

Goethe, it is worth noting, is entirely upfront about all this. Sometimes his language is figurative: The German language, he says, is “a market where all nations are offering their wares” (qtd Strich 28). Goethe’s great twentieth-century expositor says that you should “enrich your own personality with the geistiger Gut aller Völker, the spiritual goods of all nations” (Strich 30). A translator, meanwhile—back to Goethe—is a “middleman” in the “generalized commerce of the mind,” the one who “makes it his business to promote trade.” Translation, indeed, is “one of the most important and worthy businesses in all of world trade” (qtd Strich 17). The interesting thing about those last two sentences is the way in which the commercial metaphor in the first edges back towards a factual claim in the second. Maybe translators are like import-export houses; but then again, maybe they are best understood as actual businessmen, at which point it becomes salient to remark that Goethe sometimes draws strong and entirely literal connections between Dichtung and the economy: World literature, he says in one draft, has become “inevitable,” given the “ever-increasing speed of Verkehr”—of traffic, commerce, and intercourse (Strich 45). Weltliteratur is literature for free-marketeers—poetry for when the tariffs come down.

Goethe occasionally refers to “European or world literature,” which is doubtless exasperating, insinuating as it does that Weltliteratur could come into being and still omit most of the world, though non-European versions of this German program are easy enough to devise (qtd Strich 251). Oxford’s “very short introduction” to Native American Literature begins, in its very first paragraph, by assuring readers that American Indians have always been traders: merchants of the high desert, brokers of the wet prairie, a paleo-bourgeoisie who collected goods from far-flung regions, seashells and chunkey stones and grizzly-bear teeth. That opening paragraph also suggests that Native literature works on these same commercial principles, “displaying a dynamic world inextricably connected to and even fascinated with other worlds” (Teuton xix – xx). Trade is the key to understanding indigenous art. A people receives: “By the late twentieth century a number of Native poets received extensive formal training” (104). A young Blackfeet poet has an Irish-American for a mentor at the University of Montana and sets out “to adapt western poetic forms” (ibid). And a people also gives: “If Native Americans were hopelessly conquered, how could they be sharing traditional knowledge at Princeton? (74)” Native poems and novels are thus documents of “interaction” (xix)—ledgers, I think such books are called—and we’ll want to look back now to see that Goethe and his expositor have their own words for “interaction”, several of them, in fact, in emphatic synonymy. “Keine Weltliteratur ohne Wechselseitigkeit und Gegenseitigkeit und Austausch.” “No world literature without mutuality and reciprocity and exchange” (Strich 69).

It is worth underscoring here just what it is that Goethe expects from the international trade in poems and plays. Again: World literature arrives in any one country to augment its national literature—to extend its catalogue of titles and perhaps in some sense to plug that literature’s gaps. The word in German for this kind of add-on is Ergänzung, which your dictionary will instruct you to translate as “supplement,” though in English this could quickly prove misleading. The curious thing about the word “supplement” is that it strictly means “to supply a deficiency” or “to make up a lack.” You take a vitamin supplement because you’re a vegan and won’t otherwise get enough B12. If you need a supplemental policy, that’s because your employer has left you underinsured. And yet the word “supplement” has tended to drift over time to designate things that are genuinely optional or indeed supernumerary. For twentieth-century newspapers, the “Sunday supplement” was the insert that contained the week’s only comic strips in color, alongside puzzles and celebrity profiles; supplement here names that-in-the-newspaper-which-is-not-news. You might read it, but then again you might just hand it to the kids. Admissions offices at American colleges often discourage their applicants from sending “supplementary letters of recommendation”—more letters, that is, than the admissions officers have asked for; more than they want to read. German Ergänzung, meanwhile, can sometimes refer to a mere “addition,” but what keeps it from naming an unwanted or trivial addition is the root that it permanently flaunts, that second syllable -ganz-, which is the ordinary German word for “whole.” An Ergänzung contributes towards making something whole. Why this matters should become apparent if I now remark that the counter-revolutionaries of Goethe’s generation typically spoke of the French republic as a malign solvent, as an engine of disintegration and fragmentation, as violently sundering the still living bonds that had bound Alteuropa together. Burke describes the process by which “men dissolve their ancient incorporation”; the “dissolution of an ancient society … hath taken place in France” (E. Burke 1992, 164). The state, Burke says, is “not morally at liberty … wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of [its] subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an asocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles”—though this, of course, is precisely what he took the Jacobins to have done (E. Burke 2014, 101). Thus, too, Goethe: “Everything on earth seems at once to come apart. In the states most adamant, the basic laws fall apart. And property breaks loose from its old owner. Friend breaks loose from friend. In this way, too, love breaks loose from love.” (qtd Rothe 79) Or there’s this, from the West-East Divan, first published in 1819: “North and West and South splinter apart, thrones explode, kingdoms tremble: take flight to the pure East to taste the air of the patriarchs! Amidst loving, drinking, singing, Khidr’s spring will make you young again” (113). I trust this makes the matter sufficiently clear: Revolution is the crisis; world literature will be its overcoming. In an age of social fragmentation, you read Hafez—or mock-Hafez—because he will transport you back before the Day the Thrones Exploded, rejuvenating a Europe-of-three-compass-points by re-acquainting you first with the habits of patriarchy. Goethe often says that world literature is one of the best ways for the learned members of any country to acquaint themselves with the cultures of other nations, and finally to accept or “tolerate” these (qtd Strich 359). It is easy enough to applaud this biblio-pacificism, provided we also say clearly that world literature, in this configuration, is meant to revive the ancien regime, to reknit the social bonds that the Revolution has severed. Weltliteratur is a making-whole is restoration. Literature is ligature.

The question at this point is whether you think Goethe is right about any of this? Do you, for one, think that the most conspicuous thing about markets is that they overcome differences and divisions, rather than create them? Do you think that international trade is first and foremost the creator of benign human connection? It is easy enough to see that Goethe is offering a literary riff on eighteenth-century doctrines of doux commerce, which riff one is tempted to paraphrase in the accents of a Montesquieu: Where the ways of man are gentle, there is world literature; and wherever there is world literature, there the ways of men are gentle. The natural effect of world literature is to lead to peace. The hard part comes once we acknowledge that the notion of sweet trade is one of the capitalist era’s stupider myths, one that redescribes as irenic and collaborative a system whose very defenders more typically call it “competitive” and “disruptive”; or once we remark that the theory of world literature resembles nothing so much as Thomas Friedman’s claim that no two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought each other—No two countries that have both read Turgenyev…. For once we do that, we will find ourselves obliged to ask about world literature all the difficult questions that dissident economists have taught us to ask about international trade. Do all countries have equal access to world literature and do they all benefit from it equally? Do French and American authors gain readier entry to the international presses than do Nigerian or Filipino ones? Do a nation’s writers have to change the way they write—do they have to manufacture a different literary product—in order for their writing to circulate internationally? Does world literature sort Korean and Guatemalan writers into winners and losers, and does it do so in patterned ways? Can world literature induce a nation’s writers to prioritize the needs and desires of foreign readers over the needs and desires of local ones? Are small languages more likely to suffer from literary trade dependency, which we might define as the ability of foreign readers to dictate the shape of one’s national literature, including their ability to withdraw their interest from it altogether? Can world literature introduce distortions into a nation’s writerly economy, perhaps by herding all of a country’s poets and novelists into the same few export niches, in a manner that generates literary monocultures—endless fields of Rushdie, vast plantations of Garcia Marquez? Can countries with more developed literary institutions inhibit poorer countries from developing literary institutions of their own? Do talented writers tend to exit the smaller, regional, and often dominated vernaculars in order to add to the literary riches of the larger, mostly imperial languages? Is there conflict in world literature, and not just concord? Do rival literary groups seek to remold world literature each to its own advantage?

The danger of drumming out these questions in such brisk tattoo is that they will drown out Goethe’s own misgivings about the market. For anyone who continues to read in Goethe’s essays will eventually realize that he was not the altogether enthusiastic adherent of trade that his isolated statements sometimes make him out to be. He does, after all, begin to suspect the obvious, which is that an expanded, energized and international market for books will tend to produce a highly commercial and consumerist literature—boarding-school apologetics masquerading as feats of the imagination (Tom Brown’s Schooldays, but this time with wizards); some improbably famous pornography that you can download on your Kindle so that no-one on the subway will know what you’re reading (you know, the one about the aspiring young professional woman who learns to love getting dominated by a billionaire); serial killer novels from the UK, serial killer novels from Japan, serial killer novels from Argentina; not, at any rate, the transnational salon of fine song and keen judgment that the elderly German poet once promised you. Goethe’s way of putting this is to say that he dreads the coming literature of the multitude: “What appeals to the multitude will spread endlessly and, as we can already see now, will be well received in all parts of the world, while what is serious and truly substantial will be less successful” (227). And yet he continues to hope that the market in foreign literatures will remain open to true poets and their discerning critics. World literature might well produce, as its most public face, a sink of ephemerally cosmopolitan hackwork, a kind of world-pulp, and yet it will at the same time make it easier for “the serious-minded” to find each other in their own market niche, where they can “form a silent, almost secret congregation” (ibid). This is presumably what Goethe had in mind when he said that the writers of the world must find a “motive for corporate action.” That last phrase is especially suggestive, because it suggests that Goethe is trying to figure out how to revive, at least in spirit, one of the corporate bodies of the vanished Ständestaat. World literature should allow writers to gather as though they were organized into a guild or medieval university, and is thus how the old Gelehrtenrepublik—not just “the republic of letters,” but “the republic of learned men”—will survive in a liberal economic order otherwise primed to distrust such closed institutions. What we can say now, then, is that Goethe’s conception of world literature takes it cues, not only from Adam Smith, but also from Metternich. In the ten or fifteen years before Goethe started commenting on Weltliteratur, the major political project across the continent was the making of a new European federation—a Europe of peace and order to be created via vigorous diplomatic exchange and the ruthless repression of populists, nationalists, and the Left. An American admirer of Metternich’s singles out the prince-chancellor’s ethos of “conservative internationalism” (Egedy). One Dutch historian credits him with attempting a properly “European ‘security culture’ marked by a preference for multilateral problem-solving through international congresses, ministerial conferences and international commissions” (Clark summarizing Beatice de Graaf). “Europe,” Metternich once said, “has become my native country” (qtd Egedy 139). The counter-revolutionaries, said the important Burkean intellectual who served as Metternich’s secretary, were building “a great political league, which with some justification has been dubbed the European Republic” (ibid). And world literature came into being as the writing of this royalist anti-republic: “European, or world literature,” to quote Goethe again; a parallel order of congresses, conferences, and commissions for writers without portfolio; the Concert of Europe in prose and rhyme.

Learning still from Casanova

At this point, the student of world literature has two options. You can convict Goethe of having freighted Weltliteratur with some outmoded Biedermeier ideology and resolve to redo the concept without all that unpleasant business about markets and patriarchs. In practice, this is likely to mean turning every West African novel you ever read into a delivery system for some generic, vacant “alterity”—“I believe that one of the fundamental desiderata of a World Literature course should be the inculcation of an appreciation for the nuances of alterity” (Pizer 15)—without ever pushing yourself to say how le livre de l’Autre is produced and distributed. The alternative would be to hew all the more closely to what is most unpalatable in Goethe’s presentation. For the latter’s theory of freie Marktliteratur is not simply an error, and the mystified position is not the one that tactlessly blurts out world literature’s dependence on the market. It is the one that touts literature’s cosmopolitan encounter with the other while maintaining a discreet silence about transnational fiction’s conditions of existence. A great many of us have explained what we find least convincing in Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters—I certainly have (Thorne)—but all too few of us have taken the trouble to build on her achievement and where necessary amend it. Her insight continues to outstrip ours. One easy way forward would be to scour the classics of dependency theory and world-systems analysis in order to see which of its many claims we could poach and repurpose. Among the gawkish charms of Casanova’s work is her evident resolve to model The World Republic of Letters on Wallerstein’s Modern World System without ever bothering to cite it, her method apparently having been to write the word “literary” wherever Wallerstein had written “economic” and then to see whether she could make the resulting sentence stick. This procedure has much to recommend it—but then why stop with Wallerstein? World-systems theory didn’t stop with Wallerstein. Doesn’t the study of world literature deserve its Samir Amins and Andre Gunder Franks and Janet Abu-Lughods? I’ve already begun to catalogue the questions we might yet ask about world literature, but that list could easily be extended, like so:

-In one recent year, publishers in the UK brought out some 186,000 new titles and editions. Uganda, by contrast (and in another recent year), published 288. What, then, are the differences between a literary scene whose bookshops are full of imported books and one whose bookshops mostly stock domestic manufactures?

-A different question that might at first sound like the same question: What are the differences between literary scenes where translated titles make up a large percentage of new books and ones where they don’t? Translated titles make up some 3% of the new books published in the UK every year, but roughly half of the new books appearing in Denmark or Finland. Can we say in some general way what kind of effects it is likely to have when translations make up such a large percentage of a country’s publishing list?

-Do we know why some countries and not others emerge as regional literary hubs—as satellites, that is, to the properly global literary centers? Can we say, for instance, why Latin American publishing, once it took its transnational turn, was coordinated from Argentina and Spain and not, say, from Columbia and Mexico (Santana-Acuña)?

-If we pause to remark that some countries have achieved mass literacy and established commercial publishing houses only late in the day, much later than the modern book trade’s Gutenbergian heartlands, it might occur to us to wonder whether literature is produced differently in such countries—countries, that is, where the entire apparatus and ideology of literature have been borrowed en bloc from abroad? Does publishing, in other words, display latecomer effects? And if so, can these effects be discerned in the literature itself?

-Similarly, is there a difference between a literary form in the country of its origin, where it first appeared as an attractive innovation, and that same (but maybe no, not same) form when adopted by writers in other countries? The literary historians have identified scores and scores of such cases, but would it be possible to establish some defensible generalizations on this topic? Ask first about something moderately concrete: What’s the difference between the French realist novel and the various latecomer realisms? And then see if you can extrapolate: What’s the difference between any literary form and latecomer versions thereof?

-Is it possible for writers in a particular national language to import a literary form without first having written in the mode to which that form was initially a response? It is often observed that literary modernism never took root in China, first because it was largely sidelined by the politically committed literature of the 1920s and ‘30s, and later because the Communist government would not publish it (eg Denton). We also know that when censorship eased in the 1980s and ‘90s, Chinese writers began eagerly experimenting with foreign models, many of them by that point postmodern (Zha). So what do we make of this postmodernism that did not follow a modernism? If we identified five or six instances of such leapfrogging, would it be possible to come to any general conclusions about it?

-Goethe himself observed that national literatures can suffer from trade imbalances (Strich 159). For many decades, nobody outside of Germany much wanted to read what German poets were writing. The Germans were reading the French, Italians, English, and Spanish, but they weren’t being read in return. His point, finally, was that this situation had changed in his lifetime; that the imbalance had been addressed; that Germany literary goods were at last available in sundry European marketplaces. We might then ask about the effects of such a switchover. Could we perhaps study various national literatures in two cross sections each?—the generation before their most prominent authors became fixtures of literature in translation and also the generation after. Could we say anything in general about such turning points? Do national literary scenes change when they get incorporated into world literature?

-What if, say, Native American writers wanted to delink from world literature? What would they have to do to take charge of their own writing and so to undermine the adventitious authority of non-Native editors, scholars, and lay readers? What are the obstacles to this project and how could they be cleared?

Of course, if questions aren’t your bag—if, say, you expect something less tentative from an essay—I can offer you theses, which I will count off.

Thesis #1) There is a social whole that may be called world literature, which came into existence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when translations between the vernacular languages began to compete with the scholarly networks of international Latin, and which has since expanded from its European origins to cover the globe.

Thesis #2) No analysis of individual national literatures can be made without placing them in the context of a commercially and academically organized world literature.

Thesis #3) The study of world literature is incomplete if it fails to consider what lies outside of it: the literature that stays in place, poems without a passport, novels without exit visas, the literature that remains national or provincial, the writing that, in some cases, sees world literature as its enemy.

Thesis #4) Since the Second World War, at the latest, English has been the globe’s dominant language, and its presses have been able to impose relative order on world literature. What is world literature in the age of the Big Four?

Thesis #5) Anyone reading under the rubric of world literature will have trouble so much as spotting the existence of other transnational literary systems, though once glimpsed, these other systems will provoke questions of their own: Do other systems merely produce alternative conceptualizations of world literature—different reading lists, with a different mix of national literatures? Or are they rivals to world literature in the form that has come down to us, which is above all a market literature? Is it possible to generate a transnational literary system by other than commercial means?

Five theses. But then theses are just questions masquerading as findings, and these five should not be understood as the considered products of study and reflection. They, no less than the questions, are on loan from the Braudel Center. They are what our conclusions might look like if we were capable at this moment of drawing conclusions—a measure, then, of the work to be done.

Reading Joe Cleary

To resume: Literary historians still have a long way to go to catch up with Pascale Casanova; we are, if anything, in danger of letting the trail that she blazed in 1999 grow over with the banality of ethics. This all by itself is reason enough to hail the publication of Joe Cleary’s 2021 book on Irish and American modernisms. For Cleary is one of the few literary historians of note to have adopted Casanova’s model in some at least semi-systematic fashion. I should say upfront that anyone opening Cleary’s volume for the first time may not be able to tell as much just by scanning its table of contents: a chapter on Yeats and Pound, a chapter on James and Eliot, one on Fitzgerald and O’Neil, a standalone chapter on Joyce. Disappointed readers might at this point wonder why nobody had told them we were experiencing a Hugh Kenner revival. But the book is called Modernism, Empire, World Literature, and most of its considerable interest is generated by the way that Cleary lets that third category monkey-wrench our settled perceptions of hyper-canonical authors. In practice, after all, don’t we most often use the rubric of world literature to convince students to read writing from Asia and Africa and South America? What would it mean, then, for the concept of world literature, having first sherpa’d us into the undervisited fastness of un-American books, to whip round and swallow up our literary proximity? Strange, you say—this account of world literature, Cleary’s, that includes no literature not written in English. But then that strangeness is very much to his point. To announce that The Great Gatsby is best understood as “world literature” is a little like telling a fan of Conogolese soukous that Aerosmith was the real world music all along. It’s irritating, but you might learn something by losing your grip on some too convenient categories.

I can put this another way. Readers are likely to warm to Modernism, Empire, World Literature when they begin to notice that a book that seems to be about an overfamiliar canon-of-two-nations is in fact about a transnational system of literary production and the competition for attention and prestige that, crackling across all such systems, precludes the smooth functioning of their circuits, the uptown hum of well-reviewed books in wide circulation. That said, the essentials of Cleary’s argument are easy enough to telegraph:

1) that modernist literature, in the English-speaking world, was largely the creation of Irish and American writers, who typically wrote with easily politicized chips on their shoulders—a grudge against English writers and critics for presuming to tell the world what counted as belles lettres, and for occupying all the seats at literature’s high table. One of many reasons we might consider modernism important, then, is that it marked the moment when Irish and American writers joined forces to overturn a thoroughly entrenched literary hierarchy. The old story you were once told about modernism—that it was an insurgency against a routinized academic art undertaken by avant gardes and experimentalists—gets overwritten here by a second, less familiar story, which is that it was a mutiny launched by the periphery of the literary world system against that system’s overendowed center;

2) that this literary revolt tracks other major geopolitical shifts, and especially the rise of the United States as a global superpower and the epochal decline of British imperial might. Britain gets recast as junior partner to the US: modernism was, among other things, the playing out of this process in literature—and may not have succeeded had it not been accompanied by extra-literary changes on a large scale;

3) that many important modernist works reflect on these geo-literary rivalries in their own pages. The literary historian might still want to set aside his copies of The Golden Bowl and Pound’s Cantos for as long as it takes to understand how trans-Atlantic publishing was organized in the year 1900 or 1925. But when he resumes his reading, he will find that the period’s poems and novels record their own fraught sense of transnational literary relations, which can serve as provisional and vernacular maps of the literary system, to be tested, no doubt, against the independent findings of the literary sociologists.

Specialists of various kinds will have their own reasons for consulting Cleary’s splendid book. Students of literary modernism could see the book as putting a cap on three decades worth of research into the peripheral modernisms—“Modernism and African Literature” (Woods); “Modernism and Caribbean Literature” (Gikandi); “The Theory and Practice of South Asian Literary Modernisms” (Banerjee)—by making it clear that even such hyper-canonical American figures as Henry James and T.S. Eliot are best understood as peripheral modernists in their own right, sharing more with George Lamming or Amos Tutuola than with Marinetti or Baudelaire. Students of Irish literature, meanwhile, might want to mull Cleary’s big geopolitical revision to older accounts of the innovations that originated west of Liverpool: Irish modernists entered the scene as the informal allies of their American cousins. Together they opened a war on two fronts against the English literary establishment, centered in London but transnational in reach. Two of Cleary’s key figures, O’Neill and Fitzgerald, discussed in a single chapter, are Irish-Americans and can thus seem to embody that alliance in their very persons. One of Cleary’s more intriguing stories is his account of how that alliance broke down, as the US (and not Ireland!) asserted its position as the new headquarters of the world literary system, framing itself henceforth as the modernist (and then postmodernist) literary nation par excellence, and so relegating late twentieth-century Irish writers to world literature’s B team: Banville, where once there was Beckett.

For anyone, finally, still hoping to devise a more materialist account of world literature, Cleary’s (repeatable?) accomplishments are fourfold:

1) He retains the basic categories of the old nationalist literary histories—American, Irish, British or English—while demonstrating that these very categories only function relationally, within a transnational system. It is forever tempting to explain literary modernism as the effect of big changes that happened first outside the domain of literature: industrialization, urbanization, the accelerated pace of steamer and rail. Maybe modernist literature is but the reflected image of the skyscraper and electric light. But what Cleary is able to show is that this explanation won’t do—that each nation’s modernism came into being only in conjunction with the multiple modernisms of many nations, each experiencing these other modernizations at different times and different speeds. One immediately wishes for scholarly volumes that would attempt the same argument for other schools and periods—and rushes, perhaps, to outline them. Can we reconceive of American postmodernism as a specific position within an ensemble of international postmodernisms? Could we convince les romanistes that Flaubert was only possible because he was in conversation with realisms that were not French?

2) He relaxes Casanova’s relentless emphasis on Paris as global literary center in order to emphasize experiments that originated on the literary periphery. Casanova, despite finally knowing better, sometimes gives the impression that poets from Denmark and Ireland and Senegal had to travel to Paris to learn how not to write like provincials. In this regard, Cleary sounds like no-one so much as Samir Amin announcing that Marx had been wrong, that world-historical transformations are more likely to take place not in the core of the world-system but at its subordinated geographical margins. And, indeed, Cleary’s reasoning is based on some not unconvincing economic analogies. Historians of the seventeenth-century have observed that the merchants who built Atlantic capitalism—the in this case English enterprisers who fundamentally (and violently) transformed the Atlantic rim in order to furnish Western Europe with various hot-weather commodities—were not London’s most successful merchants, at least not at first. If they had been successful to begin with—or if they had enjoyed better connections to the royal establishment—they wouldn’t have needed to attempt something as preposterous as the Caribbean sugar plantation, the farming and export on an industrial scale of a non-native plant on islands with no existing infrastructure and no available workforce. Innovation—and, indeed, innovation at the periphery, falls to those with no easier options (Brenner). So, too, with literary modernism: It is Cleary’s hunch that English writers, propped up by a transnational literary establishment whose aesthetic criteria already favored them, could afford to embroider gradual, twice-generational refinements on the realist novel or lyrically to coast on Tennysonian fumes, whereas American and Irish figures writing in those same modes could only render themselves redundant. From the modernism that overturned this literary culture, then, we would want to draw two conclusions at once, which are really the same conclusion run in opposite directions: that literary innovations are, if anything, more likely on the periphery than at the putatively cutting-edge core, as writers attempt to pull free from hierarchies of distinction that never seem to work to their advantage; and that the world’s economically underdeveloped regions are therefore not fated to supply world literature with the traditional, the folkloric, and the re-enchanted.

3) He brings to the fore Casanova’s rather muted perception of rivalry within the literary system, helping us perceive world literature as an arena of conflict, and not as a list of “books to read before you die.” For many readers, Casanova’s great achievement was to help them see that powerful institutions, concentrated in just a few of the planet’s cities, get to create world literature—get to determine which books will pass from the small (and often dominated) languages into the large (and often imperial) languages, get to decide which books will get translated and reviewed and taught. This has been enough to make her book a generational touchstone. If we wish now to add to The World Republic of Letters an expanded account of national literary rivalries, either within the system or at its borders, then this is only because she has so convincingly described that system’s success—i.e., its relative closure—such that we now need to ask how subordinated writers, and foreign ones, no less, have ever managed to compel the system to change its standards of literary judgment. What lies beyond the system’s closure? Many of us grew up reading Haruki Murakami, because he offered a Japanese variant of postmodernism; and J. M. Coetzee, because he offered a South African variant of postmodernism; and Roberto Bolaño because he offered…. But it is enough to read that sentence to wonder what else those countries had to offer, outside of this Penguin-curated po-mo; to wonder that is, about the novels that we didn’t get a chance to read, about how and why they got shut out, and about whether some of them, at least, wouldn’t have forced us to revise or expand our rather settled criteria for judging contemporary fiction.

4) He pushes readers to identify major changes in the literary world system—transformations, that is, in the organization of world literature. In this, he is very much unlike Casanova, who encourages an almost sepulchral perception of continuity across several centuries; a literary world system ­that is and always was run out of Paris; a French-but-international neoclassicism giving way to a French-but-international-Enlightenment; giving way to a French-but-international realism (in the manner of Balzac); giving way to a French-but-international modernism (in the manner of Mallarmé); a four-century Frenchness which may finally have petered out around 1960, with the rise of New York, so let’s stop the book before we get there. Cleary breaks with Casanova first by assigning Paris a partner, identifying London as a second Western literary center, co-responsible for organizing world literature, at least by the nineteenth century; and next by spending the bulk of Modernism, Empire, World Literature documenting London’s eclipse, its drastically reduced ability to set the global canon. ­His arguments thus serve as a prompt to think about how else we might periodize the literary world system, and about how and why the institutional organization of world literature sometimes changes. Have there been other major geographical shifts in the world literary system, in addition to the one that Cleary identifies? Was there a world literature before the one centered on France? Does the literary world system simply track the capitalist world system? Does literary authority follow on from economic power and military might? Surely that would have to be one’s first hunch, but then how do we account for the central role played by France, which no economic historian has ever thought was the world economy’s preeminent power at any stage? Conversely, many economic historians hold that Antwerp and then Amsterdam were the dominant entrepots in the seventeenth-century version of the world economy. But then there doesn’t seem to have been a Dutch variant of world literature, one that held, I mean, even for readers outside of the Low Countries. But then if world literature does not, after all, trot obliging behind the world economy, can we say why not? Can we identify its independent sources of authority and the mechanisms by which these sources sometimes move? The mutation in the world literary system that we will presumably most want to talk about is the one that scholars will have the hardest time studying, which is the transformation that might or might not be underway right now; the one that may transfer the headquarters of world literature to precincts far away from New York and so out of the hands of Simon & Schuster; the one that may yet lead to a version of world literature in which nobody reading this essay now is likely to have any say.


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Christian Thorne is co-editor of boundary 2 and the author, most recently, of Deconstruction is America. He teaches in the English department at Williams College.


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