- An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day by Alexander Beecroft
Critical attention to the discursive and structuring paradigm of “world literature” substantially increased after the end of the Cold War and the subsequent introduction of the internet. These two developments led to a rise in linguistic, economic, and cultural homogenization. In works such as his widely-discussed essay “Conjectures on World Literature” (2000), Franco Moretti proposed a “distant reading” to supplant New Critical “close reading” as a way to explore the broad evolution of literary genres on a world scale. In her book La République mondiale des lettres (1999), Pascale Casanova explores [End Page 575] the fate of texts as they compete in the socioeconomic sphere, a competition tilted in favor of languages (particularly French and English) spoken globally and with a worldwide marketing system, spreading centrally from core urban centers such as Paris, London, and New York to more peripheral sites of consumption and reception.
Alexander Beecroft’s book was clearly inspired to some extent by the broad systemic orientations of Moretti and Casanova, though he consciously resists the former’s “core-periphery model” (32) and uses what he terms “an ecological lens” to account for phenomena such as “oral transmission and circulation” unexamined in Casanova’s focus on the metropolis as the sine qua non of literary transmission (19-20). As is evident in the concept of an “ecology of world literature,” Beecroft draws on biological and environmental studies to create his own unique system for the examination of literary evolution. In doing so, he affords rare insights into how texts are transmitted across time and space, from local to regional to cosmopolitan to vernacular to national and finally global systems of circulation.
In summarizing the spatial arc traced by An Ecology of World Literature, one might find it disharmonious that this perceived pattern of circulation does not proceed systematically from smaller to larger spaces, for it seems counterintuitive that literary cosmopolitanism would precede vernacular and national development, but Beecroft is quite persuasive in showing this is not the case. That is because what he terms “cosmopolitan literature” is both congruent with but also subsequent to the works produced in empires such as Greece, Rome, and China, the gradual dissolution of which gave rise to vernacular and then, in the post-Westphalian seventeenth century, national literature. Prior to such imperial/postimperial literature in Beecroft’s evolutionary scheme is what he terms “epichoric” and “panchoric” literature. He defines the epichoric, a term borrowed from Roland Barthes, as a “’zero grade’ form of literary circulation” (59). Such works, usually transmitted in oral fashion and thus rooted in preliterate communities, can only be discerned as a “hypothetical possibility” established by often archaeologically based investigations (60). Epichoric literature, such as some Archaic Greek lyric and Native American ritual chants, are often swept by early scholars working under the aegis of contexts like Panhellenism into a broader network, so that their communal origins are either lost or discovered much later. This second stage, termed by Beecroft “panchoric,” constitutes an initial appropriative process to be repeated in later phases as well, whereby the literary output of discrete local spaces is brought into regional context and somewhat homogenized. In Beecroft’s reading, this was the fate of Homeric epic. Panchoric literature most properly belongs to empires such as Greece, Rome, and China as they are being established (and are thus more precisely preimperial) and therefore need “charter myths” rooted in the epichoric past to give their populations a sense of cohesion. The cosmopolitan stage tends to involve stylistic simplification and evolves during periods where the empire has fully taken root, but can be characterized as a popularizing phase, after stylistically [End Page 576] sophisticated, cultivated, somewhat elitist language and literature begin to lose their predominance. Thus, Beecroft’s first example of cosmopolitan literature is Pauline koinệ Greek. Paul’s epistles and the Buddhist writing of Master Mou (premodern Greek and Chinese are Beecroft’s specialties and are the most discussed bodies of work in An...