The Literary World System
How did this state of affairs come about? Casanova 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, Casanova claims, 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 Casanova 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.
Casanova devotes the second half of her book to exploring the means by which writers from the literary periphery have sought to break into the center--a myriad of struggles whose existence has heretofore been concealed by "the fable of an enchanted world...where universality reigns through liberty and equality." The breadth of her scholarship here is staggering: from South America to North Africa, Eastern Europe to East Asia; from the emergent Modernism of Ibsen and Yeats to the most recent postcolonial hybridities; from "assimilationists" like Naipaul and Cioran to "rebels" like Neruda and Achebe.
Aside from the uncanny consistency of these strategies across time and space--a consistency the recognition of which ought to have a liberating effect on writers working in the loneliness of peripheral obscurity--two overriding ideas emerge. First, that for well over a century literary innovation has been driven almost exclusively by the hunger of marginalized writers for international acceptance. Ibsen, Joyce, Faulkner, Beckett, Borges, García Márquez, Rushdie: By making themselves even more modern than Paris, the "Greenwich meridian" of literary modernity, these great revolutionaries remade the center in their own image, setting the standards of avant-garde practice for writers the world over. Second, that for all the inequalities of its imperial structure, the international literary sphere itself plays a liberating as much as a dominating role. Even as it forces writers from marginalized countries to submit to its norms as the price of recognition, it also frees them from domination by their countries' own nation-building projects and moral and aesthetic prejudices. Ibsen appealed to Paris and London in his struggle against Christiania; Joyce leveraged Paris against both Dublin and London.
Casanova's reluctance to acknowledge the positive dimensions of the international literary sphere is one of the book's flaws. That reluctance is ultimately a failure to come to terms with her own ambivalence, a failure that smacks of political correctness. On the one hand, she seeks, admirably, to serve the world's marginalized writers by restoring the "political and historical specificity" of their work, thus debunking the notion of literary universality as a product of the "inherent blindnesses of the consecrating authorities." On the other hand, equally to her credit, she clearly cherishes the notion of literary universality, of literary values that transcend political and historical particulars. Granted that her ultimate goal is "a new literary universality," rejecting her own impulses leads her to sequester some important truths. First, that writers at the center are also capable of revolutionary innovation; Modernism began in France, after all, and Frenchmen like Proust and Robbe-Grillet continued to play important roles throughout most of the twentieth century. Second, that peripheral innovation "liberates" the center as much as it does the rest of the world; only in a footnote does she admit, for example, that Claude Simon was as much Faulkner's disciple as was García Márquez. A less doctrinaire, more dialectical understanding of relations between center and periphery is clearly needed.