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  • Editor’s Introduction:Cosmopolitan Modernism, Polylingual Strategies and Cultural Hybridity
  • Jean-Michel Rabaté (bio)

In Against Sainte-Beuve, Marcel Proust famously stated that all great works of literature were written in a kind of foreign language. Closer to us, Jorge Luis Borges modulated an initial grand assessment about metaphors like that of “Pascal’s Sphere.” He begins in a major key: “Perhaps universal history is the history of a few metaphors,” to end in a minor key: “Perhaps universal history is the history of the various intonations of a few metaphors.” These various intonations are often foreign intonations, as most of the contributors to this issue devoted to cosmopolitan modernism, polylingual strategies, and cultural hybridity, make clear. Just as Robert Duncan could be fascinated by Greek sentences because they came from a language he did not know, Pound lost himself in the study of Chinese and China, while Eliot was fascinated by the otherness of Russian literature, music, and dance. As Derrida argued, we need to think in more than one language, which means to experience more than one identity.

A broader hospitality to verbal, linguistic, ethnic and conceptual otherness corresponds to a new perception of the modern; the modern appears then as more internationalist than Anglo-American—thus, we have here a strong cluster on Joyce, Eliot, Aragon, James and a few other “usual suspects” of high or later modernism. Accordingly, modernism has expanded; it has crossed new conceptual and geographical borders in order to turn into today’s diasporic and dialogic modernity. Such modernity relies on more than one language, more than one accent, more than one skin color. It is founded on a renewed sense of the marginalized, be it called the exotic or the exilic, which includes several “inner exiles,” as the Harlem Renaissance embodied one for mainstream American culture in the twenties; a modernist hospitality to the other will push forward the practice of translation, turning it into a creative and disorienting tool.

This is why modernist authors still sound like contemporaries. Their works talk to our current concerns with the politics of exile, displacement, homelessness, and globalized ostranenie. Several contributors link the theories of the Russian formalists, nuanced and refined by Mikhail Bakhtin, and those of Walter Benjamin, an exile in Paris for more than a decade, much as Joyce was an exile [End Page v] in Imperial Trieste. Nabokov spoke English as a child, and Joyce spoke in Triestine dialect with his family all his life. Authors like Teju Cole and Junot Diaz have taken the flame; they keep running through our new multitudes, carrying the torch of truth and singeing a few beards (to quote Karl Kraus) in their hasty and zigzagging progression. We will have to zigzag (an eighteenth century word whose etymology may be French or German, no one knows for sure) even more, not necessarily by learning new idioms, but by including more countries, like Alice Munro’s Canada, so as to enrich our intellectual maps. We have been made aware that we need to become comparatists. Indeed, literary and cultural reason is founded on comparison. [End Page vi]

Jean-Michel Rabaté

Jean-Michel Rabaté (, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania, is a curator of Slought Foundation, an editor of the Journal of Modern Literature and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has authored or edited more than thirty books and collections on modernism, psychoanalysis, and philosophy. Fortcoming books are An Introduction to Literature and Psychoanalysis, A Companion to 1922, and Crimes of the Future.



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