The Literary World System | The Nation


The Literary World System

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

What are you doing? I mean, right now. You're reading a book review. A review of a book that, as it happens, is almost certain to become quite famous among intellectuals around the world over the next few years. And the reason it will become so famous is, in part, because of reviews like this one. After all, Perry Anderson, writing in the London Review of Books, has proclaimed that La République mondiale des lettres "is likely to have the same sort of liberating impact...as Said's Orientalism, with which it stands comparison"--a prophecy that, because it is by Perry Anderson, and because it is the London Review of Books, is, to an extent, self-fulfilling. So by reading this review--becoming one of the people who've heard of the book, who've begun to form an opinion about it, who might even buy it, read it, discuss it, cite it--you're not only learning about its impending fame, you're becoming part of the process by which that fame is established, a process the book itself calls "legitimation." (Translation, the act that has turned La République mondiale des lettres into The World Republic of Letters, is another step in that process.) And this is perfectly apt, because the mechanisms of legitimation--the global economy of prestige that ushers some authors into the international literary sphere while keeping others shut out--is exactly what Pascale Casanova's brilliant, groundbreaking book is all about.

About the Author

William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

Also by the Author

With its lack of art and absence of thought, the blockbuster Norwegian novel disappoints.

The unflinching fiction of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

To understand why it's groundbreaking, it helps to know how the international literary sphere is usually thought about--or rather, not thought about. Academic departments, literary academies, histories and reference works, honors and prizes: The institutions of literary life almost invariably partition the world of literature into discrete, autonomous national traditions--English over here, American over there; Italian in this classroom, Spanish in that; German Romanticism, French Symbolism, the Russian novel. Even the Nobel Prize, our one global literary honor, makes a point of emphasizing the national provenance of its laureates, so that it is understood that it is often a country as much as an author that is being recognized, and that the consecration of, say, a Saramago, shuts the door on all other Portuguese writers for the foreseeable future. As for the books that enter our national literary space from the outside (especially from outside the English-speaking world), do we ever think about why some reach us and not others? Where do translated writers "come from"? Are they simply the most celebrated authors in their own countries? (In fact, they often aren't.) If we think about these questions at all, we probably assume that the writers we become aware of are just better than the ones we don't. (But "better" according to what criteria, enforced by whom?) In other words, we've bought into the myth of an international literary meritocracy, or, in Casanova's words, "the fable of an enchanted world...where universality reigns through liberty and equality...the notion of literature as something pure, free, and universal."

Casanova's work amounts to a radical remapping of global literary space--which means, first of all, the recognition that there is a global literary space. Her 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. Casanova, a scholar at the Center for Research in Arts and Language in Paris, 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. And the capital of the world republic of letters, the place to which even other countries of the core must look for ultimate consecration and the global reputation it brings, is Paris.

That last idea might damage the English speaker's amour-propre, but our self-esteem should be diminished even more by the evidence Casanova marshals to support her thesis. 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. Faulkner, without a name in the United States until just three years before winning the 1949 Nobel Prize, was celebrated in France from as early as 1931. 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. In later years, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita and Naked Lunch would join the list of pathbreaking English-language novels first published in Paris. It was also through France that much of English literature found an international audience. Casanova lists Shakespeare, Scott, Byron and Poe among the authors whose works were long read in French translation, or translations based on the French, throughout Europe and Latin America. 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? 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.

Casanova is also surprisingly enamored of the great-man model of historical causation. Without du Bellay and Herder, apparently, literary history would have been completely different. Indeed, her whole account of the initial emergence of the international literary sphere, from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, is sketchy and dubious. Her Francocentrism requires her to minimize Dante's De vulgari eloquentia, a defense of the vernacular that preceded du Bellay by two and a half centuries, as well as to obscure the monumental achievements of sixteenth-century Italian literature--Ariosto, Tasso, Machiavelli, Castiglione--that ultimately flowed from it. And far from English literary identity's emerging in competition with France during the eighteenth century (if anything, cultural admiration traveled the other way at the time), we already find the language being defended as equal to Latin, Spanish, French and Italian around the time of du Bellay--a truer picture of the international literary space that had already begun to emerge during the Renaissance. Indeed, for all her remarkable knowledge of global literary developments, Casanova is surprisingly, even laughably, ignorant of the English literary scene, asserting at one point that Shakespeare had not yet become canonical by the turn of the twentieth century (about two centuries too late) because he was considered "subversive." Given that Britain has been France's great rival for literary pre-eminence over the past 400 years, this ignorance is rather too perfectly ironic.

Still, the main thrust of Casanova's argument, which covers roughly the last century and a half, is unimpeachable. She has created a map of global literary power relations where none had existed, and she has raised a host of further questions. What exactly are the mechanisms and institutions of legitimation? Just how important, for example, are book reviewers like me and readers like you? How applicable is her model to power relations within individual countries? What kinds of self-betrayals, for example, does New York exact, and what kinds of resistance does it provoke, from writers from the American hinterland? How relevant is her model to the other arts? (Undoubtedly, very much so.) Most important, how relevant is it to the world of today? Casanova herself acknowledges, in a brief chapter that feels like a late insertion, that the system of literary internationalism governed from Paris may have already given way to one of commercial globalization controlled by mostly American publishing conglomerates. With the development of mass-produced, globally marketed literary product that mimics, as Casanova puts it, the style of Modernism--she mentions "world fiction" like the novels of Umberto Eco and David Lodge, to which one might add the many books that piggyback on established literary "brands" (The Dante Club, The Jane Austen Book Club, Anna in the Tropics, etc.)--true literature, like everything else of any value, may be on its way to being replaced by a clever simulacrum of itself.

But the most important question her book raises, for me at least, is simply this: Why are we so lame? Why is American culture, and the American intelligentsia in particular, so closed off from what's happening in the rest of the world? Why do we still need Paris to tell us what's going on (if we still even listen to it)? If anything, the situation is more dire than it used to be, when instability or repression in Europe supplied us with a steady stream of émigrés who acted as a bridge back to their former world. Susan Sontag used to play a similar role, but she no longer does, and no one's taken her place. The more we impose our image on the world, it seems, the more foreign the world becomes.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.