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Reviewed by:
  • Other Renaissances: A New Approach to World Literature
  • Michael G. Malouf
Other Renaissances: A New Approach to World Literature. Edited by Brenda Deen Schildgen, Gang Zhou, Sander L. Gilman. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. xvi + 336 pp. $69.95.

The latest addition to the required reading list for anyone interested in how to read, teach, and understand world literature, Other Renaissances: A New Approach to World Literature offers twelve rigorous case studies from an interdisciplinary and international group of scholars on the transnational circulation of the concept of the Renaissance from its origins in Italy to its [End Page 384] nineteenth- and twentieth-century permutations in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Ireland, India, Mexico, and China, as well as among Jews in Germany, African Americans in Harlem and Chicago, and Maori in New Zealand. A formidable contribution to current debates over both the definition of world literature and the ways in which we organize it as a discipline, this “new approach” follows David Damrosch’s observation that world literature should not be perceived as a canon of texts but rather as a mode of circulation and reading by focusing on the complex processes of cross-cultural reception and understanding through which world literature as an idea and practice comes into formation.

While the case studies provide useful overviews of these various renaissances for the non-specialist, they also seek to intervene into debates over the construction and the purpose of the term for each period and region. Among the common set of questions that arise are issues of definition (what is a renaissance?), dating (when was the renaissance?), and legacy (how does its memory—and that of its central figures—change in national consciousness?). The fact that these questions haunt even the Italian model (does it begin with Dante or Petrarch?) is indicative of how these problems of definition complicate its utility in its international contexts. As Walter Andrews acutely observes in his essay on the Ottoman Renaissance, the term itself “is embedded in a broader biological metaphor that has long been used for describing cultural change” (18). So inextricable is this metaphor that the contradictions seem to escape us: if renaissance assumes that cultures, like bodies, move from youth to maturity to old age and then death, then when does the renaissance, which implies a recovery of youth, occur? As more than one essay in this collection asks, how can the revival of the past be modern? This includes asking whether the renaissance is a precedent or a synonym for modernization. Thus, it is this western definition of “modernity” that informs debates over whether the Ottoman culture ever had a renaissance or in the Egyptian case, over the role of the realist novel as defining the “success” of the Arabic Nahdah. But this temporal ambiguity also facilitates the concept’s adaptability, as Orit Bashkin argues regarding the Iraqi intellectual Zaki al-Arsuzi for whom the disjunctive nature of renaissance temporality was integral to his theory linking Arab linguistics to Arab nationalism. This paradox becomes part of the appeal of the rhetoric of the renaissance for postcolonial intellectuals looking to make the past relevant to a diminished present.

The discursive instability in translations of the renaissance concept across and within cultures also speaks to this complexity. The approximate definitions of the Arabic Nahdah—which can mean variously Renaissance, [End Page 385] Revival, or Awakening—refers to this problem that is apparent, as Kathleen Heininge observes, in the shifts in Irish studies among the Celtic Twilight, Renaissance, or Revival. The translations can also be contradictory. For example, the Iraqi Ba’ath has its roots in “awakening,” but can also refer to the Day of Judgment. Furthermore, the terms used for the late eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century Hebrew Renaissance oscillate between Hatehiyah [Revival, Rejuvenation] and Haskalah, which refers to the Enlightenment. And the terms can reveal conflicts between aesthetics and politics, as in the twin concepts of the Maori Renaissance and of tino rangitiratanga, or political and economic self-governance, a division also apparent in China between guxue fuxing [“restoration of antiquity” (116)] and wenyi fuxing [“a revival of literature and art” (117)]. In this way, as Gang Zhou acutely notes...