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THE COMPAKATIST REVIEWS DAVID DAMROSCH. What Is World Literature? Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003. xiii + 324pp. It is rare that one encounters a text that not only challenges and enhances our thinking about core issues in literary studies, but also helps teachers in a large lower division literature survey course. From its title on, David Damrosch's What Is World Literature? elegantly and thoughtfully interrogates in both theoretical and very practical terms what Goethe's term "world literature" might entail for literary scholars and teachers today. The phrase/term in German, "Weltliteratur," enters European literary theory in 1827 and opens Damrosch's remarkable study ofthe current range and use ofwhat has previously often been seen merely as a partisan canon of selected texts. Both Damrosch in 2003 and Goethe in his conversation with Eckermann, see their period as one where possible texts proliferate in ways that are framed by a shift in geo-topological consciousness. This study, although it complements the new generation ofworld literature anthologies, including Damrosch 's own very fine one for Longman, goes well beyond revisiting the debate over what should and should notbe included in any given volume or conceptualization ofliterature in global terms. The core achievement ofthis volume, in addition to its many graceful and marvelously innovative readings oftexts and images from a remarkable array oftraditions, contexts, and periods, is that Damrosch forthe first time fully theorizes how one might answer his title's question. Rather than offering a definition of literature per se, which he suggests can only be properly done within a given literary system (15), Damrsoch suggests innovatively that world literature is not "an infinite, ungraspable canon ofworks," but instead "a mode ofcirculation and ofreading" (5). Answering the fears offragmentation and avoiding the fall into generalizations and universalizations, he posits an answerto Charles Bernheimer's 1994 call to expand the canon. His answer, the circulatory model, allows the ground for selection as a "world text" to be the ways in which readers encounterthat text ratherthan some amorphous or outmoded assessment ofit as archetypical. In a startling metaphor that recalls Kleist's model ofthe asymptote from his 1810 essay "Über das Marionettetheater," Damrosch presents this new principle ofvariability mathematically, describing it as an elliptical space between the source and its receptions (300). The hermeneutic quandary ofa loss of meaning is answered by a generative, but not unbounded, model ofmeanings. It isjust such a wealth ofmeanings that characterizes the readerly experience ofthis study itself. The text is divided into three large parts, an introduction and a conclusion. Under the headings of"Circulation," "Translation" and "Production," Damrosch arranges his exempla ofthe interanimative experience ofencountering texts from radically disparate realms. From his initial close assessments ofEckermann's Gespräche, which he provocatively connects to a discussion ofJames Joyce and Bei Dao, as well as the usual French contemporaries, Damrosch embarks upon a series ofliterary critical moments that attend not only to texts from different cultures but also from different times. Indeed, his concern with historical sweep clearly distinguishes this study, whose care regarding modem postcolonial theory is enhanced by an inclusive historicism that insists on bringing Gilgamesh and Gilbert and Sullivan's 77ze Mikado Vol. 28 (2004): 157 KEVIEWS into a discussion ofburial rituals as well as a careful account ofthe Orientalist paléographie work ofthe 1870s. Each chapter within the three sections hinges on a surprising and productivejuxtaposition that combines comparisons between texts that share a historical connection with those whose connection is forged in the reader's mind. After the chapter centering on the Assyrian epic comes one that emerges from a reading ofAztec court poetry. A third chapter is inspired by Congolese novelist Mbwil a M. Ngal's reconsideration ofViconian historiography in the 1970s. After the chapters on circulation, Damrosch then undertakes the matter of translation. Using as his starting point an ancient Egyptian lyric, he moves from assessing "the complex dynamics oftransmission" to laying out with care the "irreducible problems that translation always faces" (147). With two further prime examples, the visions ofthe thirteenth century German mystic Mechthild von Magdeburg and the "littérature mineure" ofDeleuze's Kafka, Damrosch presents the complex network oflinguistic and cultural exchanges which both challenge and enrich the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0887
Print ISSN
0195-7678
Pages
pp. 157-158
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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