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  • Editor's Introduction:World Literature and Global Health, Reconfiguring Literature and Medicine
  • Karen Thornber (bio)

Increasing scholarly attention to cosmopolitanism, globalization, and transnationalism in the last two decades has led to burgeoning interest in the phenomenon of world literature. Conferences, articles, and volumes on various aspects of world literature are proliferating as never before, although definitions of the field are numerous and constantly in flux. In the early nineteenth century, German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) introduced his vision of Weltliteratur (world literature) as the circulation of writing across national borders in Europe and of non-Western literatures into Europe. Scholars such as David Damrosch have expanded the term to encompass "all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language," paying particular attention to the way "a degree of distance from the home tradition can help us to appreciate the ways in which a literary work reaches out and away from its point of origin."1

More recently, Martin Puchner has defined world literature even more globally, as "literature written for the world, literature that is relevant to the world and engaged with the world ..., literature that has been taken up by the world."2 Many have critiqued the field of world literature for aspiring to an impossible totality, depending too heavily on translations, eschewing close readings, and remaining persistently Eurocentric.3 Another criticism that can be raised is that, despite its emphasis on literature "for the world" and attention to examining how creative works "reach out and away" from their points of origin, scholarship on world literature remains relatively silent on [End Page x] the relationship between world literature and many urgent matters of global significance.

Certainly, scholars of comparative and world literature have for decades engaged with fundamental social and political concerns. In the 1950s and 1960s many focused on the global disaster of World War Two and the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as on the need to combat the isolationism of the postwar United States in an era when the earth's population was in danger of being destroyed by nuclear holocaust. Subsequent decades witnessed literary studies opening up more fully beyond formalism to deal seriously with the effects of colonialism and decolonization. More recently, intense anxiety about the social and cultural effects of economic globalization, alongside the impact of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has stimulated works as diverse as Gayatri Spivak's Death of a Discipline (2003), Emily Apter 's Translation Zone (2006), David Damrosch's The Buried Book (2007), and Djelal Kadir 's Memos from the Besieged City (2011), all of which engage with broad transnational issues. But to date, despite several prominent exceptions, world literature scholarship has not fully addressed the relationship between world literature and such global problems as human rights abuses, trauma, poverty, slavery, environmental degradation, and health and disease.4 After two generations of great concern with the tensions and problems of the Cold War, and of neocolonialism and neoliberal economic expansion, it is now appropriate for world literature scholarship to deal more rigorously with a broader range of issues.

Troubling as well is the focus of the field of literature and medicine on Anglo-Euro-American cultural production and by extension on Anglo-Euro-American medical practice.5 As varied as Western cultural production and medical practice both are, they do not encapsulate the great diversity of literature and of health care worldwide. It is imperative to widen perspectives in order to understand better not only a broader range of cultures but also our own expectations for health and literature, our own biases and limitations. World literature scholarship is well placed to assist in such endeavors, but only if greater emphasis is placed on embracing comprehensive yet nuanced outlooks, in terms of both discipline and geographic range.

The theories and practices of world literature have the potential not only to broaden the field of literature and medicine but ultimately to promote health and well-being.6 To begin with, the field can expose health care professionals, as well as society more generally, to a wider variety of approaches toward illness; in the...


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