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  • The Divided Legacy of the Republic of LettersEmancipation and Trauma
  • Vladimir Biti (bio)

Literature’s gradual emancipation from the restrictive horizon of traditional communities into the purportedly unlimited horizon of “world” community is today most often traced back to Voltaire’s canonization of the Republic of Letters undertaken in his The Century of Louis XIV (1751). Such a genealogy, however, runs the risk of undertaking a surreptitious canonization on its own. In The World Republic of Letters, for instance Pascale Casanova presents it in such a way as to legitimate her own managerial projection of a “world literary space.”1 She argues that today’s world literary republic, as “a market where non-market values are traded,” greatly benefits from Voltaire’s project of liberating literature from political, national, and economic constraints. As self-enclosed national literary spaces are today suspended, Casanova argues, literary texts “must be thought and described in the relational terms” of a coherent “global structure” that determines them.2 In this argument, “literature” makes sense only “by taking the route” “through the vast, invisible territory” that Casanova calls the “World Republic of Letters.”3 Casanova pitches this project “against the vast mass of conventional thought about literature” as a decidedly “abstract, hypothetical model.”4 This global and all-determining literary territory is consecrated by the Nobel Prize for literature delivered by the Swedish Academy, which, in Casanova’s terms, is estimated to be “totally independent in making its choices.”5 However, if we recall Casanova’s argument [End Page 1] about the mode of operation of the Swedish Academy presented in her book several years before, the academy’s consecration of the World Republic of Letters, far from having endorsed the republic’s autonomy, has been all the time clearly favoring one and the same “monopolist of universality,” that is, the French literary taste:

This new degree of autonomy came about as a result of the structural complementarity obtaining between the Nobel Prize and the power of consecration enjoyed by Paris. In effect, the Academy affirmed (or reaffirmed) the verdicts of the capital of literature and, as it were, grounded them in law: by making these decisions official, the Swedish Academy—with few exceptions at least through the 1960s—endorsed, ratified, and made public the judgments of Paris.6

We are brought to the conclusion, then, that the “world structure” that provides “intellectual categories, and recreates its hierarchies and constraints” in the mind of “writers, readers, researchers, teachers, critics, publishers, translators and the rest” has actually, from Voltaire’s time till today, been dominated and orientated by French literary authority.7 This seems to be considered as something to be welcomed, because the typical representatives of this French literary power enjoyed and still enjoy the “greatest autonomy,” unlike “the newcomers,” who, to get rid of nonliterary pressures at home, must struggle to be recognized by the French “central authorities.”8 Casanova infers that “literature itself, as the common value of the entire space, is also an instrument which, if re-appropriated, can enable writers—and especially those with the fewest resources—to attain a type of freedom, recognition and existence within it.”9

She therefore advises marginal writers to follow “the common value of the entire space,” that is, literature as it has been defisned by Paris. This stance is very much in line with the instruction recently given by the Princeton Enlightenment specialist Jonathan Israel. He states that “the Western World’s most basic social and cultural values in the post-Christian age,” such as democracy, equality, individual liberty, and so on, representing the quintessence of “Radical Enlightenment” thought,

especially in many Asian and African countries, as well as in contemporary Russia—has also become the chief hope and inspiration of numerous besieged and harassed humanists, egalitarians and defenders of [End Page 2] human rights, who, often against great odds, heroically champion basic human freedom and dignity . . . in the face of the resurgent forms of bigotry, oppression, and prejudice.10

In short, the enlightenment of the “Western World,” with France as its main trademark, holds the transnational Enlightenment torch that helps those newcomers from “borderlands” and “subordinated regions” to come to grips with the...


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