Literary World Systems

From William Deresiewicz, writing in The Nation on Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters:

[This] work amounts to a radical remapping of global literary space–which means, first of all, the recognition that there is a global literary space. [Its] insights build on world systems theory, the idea, developed by Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, that the capitalist economy that has emerged since about 1500 must be understood as a single global system of interlinked national economies. Some of these economies belong to the ruling “core,” others to the dependent “periphery,” but none can coherently be studied as a discrete entity. [The author] argues, convincingly, that an analogous literary system, a “world republic of letters,” has gradually taken shape since around the same time. In her analysis, a core group of nations–France, England and the founders of other “major” European literatures–having built up large reserves of “literary capital” over the past several centuries, control the means of cultural legitimation for the countries of the global literary periphery–a region that, as in the capitalist world system, has grown ever larger over the past two centuries with, first, the rise of European nationalism and, second, decolonization, as nations without previous literary standing, and writers from those nations, have sought international validation.

For it is an ongoing source of shame that so many of the finest exponents even of our own literature were acclaimed in Paris while still virtually unknown in London and New York…Joyce, though already recognized within the avant-garde, was unable to find a publisher for Ulysses until the book was taken up by the great French translator Valery Larbaud…It was also through France that much of English literature found an international audience…This isn’t true just of English literature, of course, but of all literature, which is why Paris has been the capital of literary exiles for the past two centuries. And it is also why Paris is the answer to the question of where translated writers “come from.” Borges and Kundera are just two of the many authors who became known in the English-speaking world–and the world in general–only after being consecrated by Paris.

How did this state of affairs come about? [The author] traces the emergence of an international literary sphere to Joachim du Bellay’s 1549 essay “The Defense and Illustration of the French Language,” which amounted, as she puts it, to a “declaration of war against the domination of Latin.” Over the ensuing century and a half, France built up its “literary assets” through, among other means, the translation and imitation of classical models, linguistic standardization and purification, and the refinement of poetic forms and meters, so that by the reign of Louis XIV–the age of Pascal, Molière and Racine–French had accomplished the unthinkable, displacing Latin as the language of literary classicism. As a consequence…English and other national literary identities emerged in competition with France. Finally, with the awakening to consciousness of nations like Germany–nations that, unlike England, Spain or Italy, had no literary heritage such as would allow them to compete with France on its own, classical terms–a new means of accumulating literary assets emerged. This was the path first articulated by Herder, the eighteenth-century German philosopher and great champion of folk culture: Instead of deriving from classical antiquity, literary capital would now originate in a nation’s unique soul or “genius,” as expressed in its traditional oral culture–an idea that would prove crucial not only for the emerging nations of Europe during the nineteenth century but for the postcolonial world today.

Whatever the terms under which it was conducted, however, it was this rivalry among national literatures that led to the creation of an international literary space. Indeed, it led, one might say, to the creation of literature itself–literature as an autonomous realm–for it was, paradoxically, through this same struggle that literary values were asserted independently of national political and moral agendas. By constituting a transnational sphere in which literature could be judged on its own terms, this rivalry enabled writers to appeal beyond their national publics, with their invariably conservative values. It made possible, in other words, the creation of an avant-garde. (And it is because of its unique hospitality to the avant-garde that Paris has endured as the world’s literary center.) Here is where [the author] parts company with the historicism that has swept literary studies over the past two decades. Rather than tying literary phenomena to underlying social and political developments, she charts an autonomous history for literature itself. The world republic of letters is governed by its own rules, keeps time by its own historical clock, partitions the world according to its own map and features its own economics, its own inequalities and its own forms of violence.

That was William Deresiewicz writing in The Nation on Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters.

The other person to read on literature as system is, of course, Antônio Cândido, who looks at literary works not as forms of individual expression but as events of a more sociological nature.

Finally, a piece related to the question of literary world systems and markets which I would like to read more detenidamente is Víctor Barrera Enderle’s Entradas y salidas del fenómeno literario actual o la “Alfaguarización” de la literatura hispanoamericana (Sincronía, primavera del 2002).

Axé.

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