- Beyond the Right to Literature
Tenemos que reconocer—al menos yo lo reconozco—que los críticos somos algo así como una incómoda parodia del Rey Midas: todo lo que tocamos se "convierte" no en oro sino en literatura.—Antonio Cornejo Polar, Escribir en el aire
[We must recognize—at least I do—that as critics we are a bit like an uncomfortable parody of King Midas: everything we touch is "converted," not into gold, but into literature.]
Early in the nineteenth century, Goethe suggested, in one among varied and multifaceted remarks regarding the dream of a Weltliteratur that would transcend national boundaries, that the particularities of a nation were like its coins, distinctive characteristics that, instead of hindering, made possible exchange with other countries.1 Thus, despite the specificity of each national literary tradition, it was the supposed generality of a third term—one abstract and neutral, prior to any comparison and beyond any localism—that permitted the imagination of a world system. This abstraction, which made possible the work of bridging local particularities, was, it appears, the very concept of literature. After all, on another occasion Goethe would claim, according to Eckermann, that he was increasingly convinced "that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men."2 The universality of the concept would, in turn, rest on the universality of humanity itself, so that, when recommending a Chinese novel, Goethe attempted to overcome Eckermann's resistance by assuring him that "the Chinese think, act, and feel almost exactly like us; and we soon find that we are perfectly like them" (Damrosch, 11). [End Page 177]
Thus, throughout the scattered texts in which Goethe describes various ideas regarding the concept of a world literature there are moments in which Weltliteratur seems to be a project yet to be implemented—through attention to different literary traditions, translations between languages, the abandonment of local prejudices—and others in which world literature is an already existing object, a sort of global literary archive waiting to be uncovered by adventurous cosmopolitan readers. This tension between historicist and universalist definitions of literature, present already in Goethe, is what this essay is going to explore, through a discussion of an incident in which the uneasy oscillation between the two positions has significant political implications.
From the universalist perspective, literature is thought to have been produced in different corners of the globe even before the invention of expressions such as "world literature." Differences between languages and literary traditions would not obstruct translation and appreciation since in the end the languages and traditions—like coins—referred to the same concept. This type of reasoning has an established place in the field of literary studies. It has not been uncommon, after all, for literary theory to emphasize precisely literature's lack of fixed borders, its malleability, its adaptability, its lack of place, and its unbounded capacity for assimilation. Indeed, a not insignificant portion of the reflection on literature denies the specificity of the literary phenomenon, suggesting that it is not a historically contingent activity. The examples abound, in both literary history and criticism, often imbuing the concept of literature with a diffuse aura of naturalness and inevitability.
Ultimately, what happens with the idea of literature does not seem to be entirely different from the account traced by Dipesh Chakrabarty and others regarding the notion of history.3 Just as we tend to think that every society must have its history, which would in turn be a variant of a general idea, each society would also have its literature. Thus, just as we might not be surprised to find, on the shelves of a library, books with titles such as History of England, History of China, and History of the Incas, it would not be extraordinary if the library also housed volumes on "English Literature," "Chinese Literature," or "Pre-Hispanic Literature." However, it appears that, in the case of historiography, when under pressure something akin to a definition of the practice is produced, outlining the specific norms that regulate it and describing, for instance, its particular construction of temporality, as a result...