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  • Conservative in Form, Revolutionary in Content: Rethinking World Literary Canons in an Age of Globalization*
  • Rebecca Gould

“The merit of a literary history based on an aesthetics of reception will depend upon the degree to which it can take an active part in the continual integration of past art by aesthetic experience. This demands…a critical revision if not destruction of the traditional literary canon.”

—Hans Robert Jauss (127)

By way of substantiating his argument that “courses of fully global scope are becoming common” in literature curricula, David Damrosch declares in his edited volume on approaches to teaching world literature that “Western literature courses that would formerly have begun with Homer now often start with The Epic of Gilgamesh” (“All the World” 2). And yet teachers and scholars of world literature have a long way to go, for, while Damrosch’s optimistic diagnosis may accurately describe the range of courses available to students majoring in literature, it is far from evident that introductory courses to literature have globalized to an extent commensurate with other disciplines.

To draw on two prominent examples, while the faculty for the core Literature Humanities course at Columbia University recently voted to include the Gilgamesh epic in their syllabus, Literature Humanities at Columbia nonetheless begins with the more recent Iliad, as it did when Literature Humanities first began to be taught in the 1920s. Gilgamesh enters by the back door, as a complement to the more canonical Homeric text. Meanwhile, Yale University’s Directed Studies program-a non-mandatory [End Page 270] version of the Columbia Core-does not include any non-western text in its curriculum. While the advent of world literature as a field of study has begun to transform Comparative Literature departments across the world, it has been far less effective in translating its goals into terms relevant to the pedagogy of traditional core curricula. In these institutional contexts, there is a lingering perception that, if Homer cedes space to Gilgamesh, Valmiki, or Vyasa (the authors of the two major Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), the integrity of literature as a discipline will be diluted. Beyond the problem of non-inclusion, the application of different standards to different literary traditions intensifies the geographic divide.

Damrosch identifies three basic modalities that have evolved “from Goethe’s time onward” for conceiving world literature: classics, masterpieces, and windows on the world (“All the World” 3). Far from being mutually exclusive, these three modalities often supplement each other. As Damrosch notes, Goethe embraced all three modes, “cherishing the Greek and Latin classics he read in the original, promoting the modern masterpieces he and his friend Friedrich Schiller were composing, and enjoying Chinese novels and Serbian folk poetry as windows on very different worlds of culture and aesthetic expression” (“All the World” 6). Building on the example of Goethe, Damrosch forthrightly states that the windows on the world approach is pedagogically useful “as a way of opening out world literature courses beyond the boundaries of Western Europe” (“All the World” 7). And yet the very fact that, when they are taught at all, non-European literatures tend to be taught as windows onto their worlds-and that texts within these traditions are read contextually before they are read aesthetically-whereas European literary texts do not require a comparable preparatory framework should occasion concern.

Contemporary scholars of world literature are all too familiar with the pattern whereby Asian, African, and Islamic literatures are read for the window they offer on the anthropology of a given culture, and presented as adjuncts to a European core which is seen as requiring no contextualization. If the decontextualized Great Works approach works for the teaching of Greek and Latin literature, why should it not work as well for Sanskrit, Chinese, and Arabic traditions? Reversing the European angle of vision, shouldn’t it be possible to anthropologize the Greeks by reading Homer, Herodotus, and Aeschylus as windows on Greek civilization? Isn’t there an equally pressing need for a framework that considers what the Indian literary theorists such as Bharata, Abinavagupta, and Anandavardhana can teach us concerning the distinction between natural and aestheticized emotions in Sanskrit aesthetic theory?

In this essay, I...


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