The large umbrella category in the title of David Damrosch's What Is World Literature? permits its author to complete one mental jeté after the other as if it were all part of the same dance, á la Gene Kelly's famous rain routine. The book's choreography is choppy, chronologically and otherwise; however, its topic is something that literary folks have only begun to think through, and hardly anyone is able to dance through the program gracefully. Nonetheless, Damrosch is willing to ask some questions about the dance that moves continually from the sidewalk into the street and back again.
Another strong point of this book can be found in its insistence on incompleteness, an acknowledgment that no one is in a position to provide a full context for a text, especially ones from other cultures, from other languages. As we have known at least since Walter Benjamin, history, which includes world literature, is mediated, most often by those whose interests influence the reports. Reading is an insufficient condition for understanding [End Page 234] history and acting upon it. Perhaps the best we can hope for are readers who know that they are partisan and non-omniscient, not that this is the best for which Damrosch hopes. His allegiance is to "detached engagement."
Damrosch wants to have his culture and oppose it too—at least by gesturing in a direction that might be interpreted as oppositional. He begins What Is World Literature? with an epigraph from The Communist Manifesto, causing at least one reader to think the Manifesto and its critique of capitalism must have special significance for the author (the quotation comes from volume 50 of Great Books of the Western World according to Damrosch's bibliography), but The Communist Manifesto never comes up again in Damrosch's book. Now that's detached engagement.
The randomness of topics and texts in Damrosch's philosophically innocent book illustrates the amorphousness of world literature, as well as its strength as a vehicle for promoting multiculturalism. We have semi-independent chapters on Mechthild von Magdeburg, on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Peter Eckermann, on Franz Kafka, on Rigoberta Menchu, and on Milorad Pavi?, among others. Damrosch's definition of world literature does not delimit the category to something functional: "I take world literature to encompass all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language" (4). His statement requires that he define literature, and he does not tackle that vexed issue. Damrosch's aims are mostly not about the "what," but about the "how"; he is concerned mainly with method. He wants to clarify "the ways in which works of literature can best be read" (5).
Damrosch, at times, endorses canons but is not prepared to spell out what distinguishes literature from great literature or from great world literature. One place where readers witness Damrosch's allegiance to a highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy is when he tells us, "Perhaps we need to think of this poem [a love lyric from ancient Egypt] less in a context of Heinrich Heine and William Shakespeare and more in a context of Willie Nelson and Linda Ronstadt" (156). Also, Damrosch is willing to talk about literary hierarchies, for instance, in his comments about some Aztec poetry. "Not all of these poems are likely ever to register as true literature . . . " (86-87). Subsequently, he moves closer to taking the reader toward an answer: "Great works of literature do have a transcendent quality that enables them to reach across time and space and speak directly to us today" (135). What is this "transcendent quality"? Since we are talking about written works, often works in other languages, in what sense can they speak "directly"? They speak directly when they sound the same as the reader, when the text mirrors the reader's concerns, the reader's politics, the reader's Weltanschauung. Call this a version of "identity politics," or what Emmanuel Levinas would call the world reduced [End Page 235] to the Same. Why would we be...