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  • Weltliteratur as Anti-Fascism: Philology and Politics in Luigi Foscolo Benedetto’s “Letteratura mondiale’”
  • Charles L. Leavitt IV

Political, economic, and cultural globalization has in recent years occasioned a renewed interest in Weltliteratur, the call for a world literature first developed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1827, and renewed by Edward Said in the early 1990s.1 With what has been called the “reemergence of world literature” as a critical model, scholars now seek to transcend Weltliteratur’s originary Eurocentricism, and to develop a critical practice characterized by a pluralistic vision of global cultural interaction.2 As it is currently formulated, world literature endeavors to encompass a multiplicity of texts and traditions, not bounded by national canons, but receptive instead to the interrelated yet variegated historical development of literature worldwide. The central problem of the study of world literature now is therefore one of methodology, as scholars work to develop reading strategies and interpretive techniques that might make Weltliteratur a truly global phenomenon. From Franco Moretti’s “distant reading” to Vilashini Cooppan’s “uncanny reading” and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s [End Page 1171] “cosmopolitan reading,” from Stephen Greenblatt’s “mobility studies” to Sarah Lawall’s “reading for the world” and Wai-Chee Dimock’s “literature for the planet,” the debate today centers upon “how to read world literature,” as David Damrosch poses the question.3

The search for a methodology of Weltliteratur largely entails the development of new critical paradigms, but, beginning with Said, it has also occasioned a re-examination and rehabilitation of world literature’s historical formulations. Yet even as the practice of reading world literature aspires to “the thinking of culture both nationally and transnationally, locally and globally,” in the words of Vilashini Cooppan, disciplinary histories remain notably circumscribed (“Ghosts” 19). The venerable Italian tradition of the study of world literature, for example, has yet to receive full attention, occluding such essential texts such as Giuseppe Mazzini’s 1829 essay “Di una letteratura europea,” Arturo Farinelli’s 1924 “II sogno di una letteratura ‘mondiale,’” and Armando Gnisci’s 1984 La letteratura del mondo.4 Scholars would benefit from a more careful consideration of the range of paradigms for reading trans-nationally that have been adopted worldwide, and would do well to consider in particular Italy’s many contributions to the historical development of the study of world literature.

The present essay seeks to begin to remedy this lacuna in the scholarship, calling attention to the 1946 essay “La ‘letteratura mondiale’” by the eminent philologist and comparatist Luigi Foscolo Benedetto.5 I believe that Benedetto’s essay is of particular significance today because it mirrors the contemporary resurgence of world literature in having emerged from a social and political imperative, rather than as a result of a purely disciplinary or academic exigency. Current approaches to world literature attempt to construct an adequate cultural corollary to globalization, just as Benedetto’s “letteratura mondiale” attempted to [End Page 1172] refashion cultural globalism in the light of anti-Fascist internationalism. Indeed, “La ‘letteratura mondiale,’” a call for world literature in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, can serve to remind contemporary scholars of Weltliteratur’s geopolitical inheritance, and of its important role in Europe’s social and political reconstruction after the victory over Fascism.

Published in February 1946, less than a year after the deposition of Benito Mussolini, and months before the birth of the Italian Republic, Benedetto’s essay was arguably the first attempt to rethink the study of world literature after the crises of totalitarianism and the war.6 Combatting Fascist ideology, Benedetto strove to disturb the foundations of nationalism and to reveal the international underpinning of literature. Benedetto’s world literature was not merely a call for the expansion and internationalization of the canon, which the author recognized “can always be reproached as arbitrary and unjust,” nor was it a defense of great books, “the classics of humanity, the so-called ‘library of the human race’” (“La ‘letteratura mondiale’” 8).7 Instead, it was a call for a new mode of reading, one that would work actively to debunk the ideologies of cultural autarky and essentialist nationalism, to demonstrate culture’s persistent historical internationalism and...


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