- An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day by Alexander Beecroft
“Welch ein andres Meer der Vergleichung!” Herder exclaimed in 1797 while taking issue with the latest ranking of literatures in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. In this pan-European dispute between classicists and Enlightenment thinkers, the most contentious issue revolved around possible measures for comparing ancient Greek and Roman poets with contemporary writers. For Herder, though, the whole debate seemed utterly misguided, for every genre was different across time and space, and this difference revealed particular circumstances under which a Volksgeist expressed itself in language and literature. There was little substance—Herder used the German word “leer”—in comparing different literary texts the world over.
Of course, Herder’s intervention in that historical debate did not prevent literary critics from examining different poetic models side by side. Since then, his comments have contributed to rich investigations of differences between literary cultures separated by time or space. Alexander Beecroft’s An Ecology of World Literature is the latest major scholarship in this regard. With his rare ability to read ancient Greek and classical Chinese literatures, Beecroft offers a most refreshing and certainly the most ambitious set of world literary comparisons.
World literature has emerged as a dominant paradigm entangling literary studies with debates on globalization and multiculturalism, as well as with past and present cosmopolitan imaginaries. What makes Beecroft’s book so important in this trend is the discontent with which it responds to world literature as a primarily Western modernist invention, one that allegedly inspires even non-Western scholars and writers to work in vernacular terms. Beecroft acknowledges that reading the literatures of ancient Greece and early China does not originate in [End Page 274] historically documented “claims of contact,” but this speculative comparative exercise, as he posits, helps us think beyond the most influential world literary frameworks, namely the ones from Pascale Casanova, David Damrosch, and Franco Moretti (1). Although these thinkers put forth different methodological analyses of world literature, they equate it mostly with the European novel as an unquestionably universal form of writing. To expand this limited world literary horizon farther into the past and further to the East, Beecroft identifies six “patterns” of literary ecology (3). These six patterns, which he designates as epichoric, panchoric, cosmopolitan, vernacular, national, and global, illuminate common features of reading and writing at a far more planetary scale.
These literary ecologies are arranged spatially and, to a certain extent, they are also in accordance with historical time. Even though they overlap or coexist at many different points in world history, Beecroft defines them as distinct “limit cases” in which literary texts circulate uniquely between author and reader (36). First, epichoric ecologies make up “single, small-scale, political and/or cultural” contexts, with verbal art creating a specific sense of locality (37). Examples range from the Songs of Chu, a multi-authored anthology of poems also known as Chu Ci during the Warring States period to Pindar’s lyrics before the rise of the Panhellenic system in Archaic Greece. Embedded within local cultures, these works constitute literary analogues to Robert Redfield’s “folk societies” or Ferdinand Tönnies’s Gemeinschaften. Second, panchoric literatures compile epichoric literatures in an allegory of local traditions and new historical beginnings. Panhellenism and the Panhuaxia world thrive upon such intercultural syntheses whereby texts “exist with the explicit aim of asserting a common identity across a politically fragmented world” (69). In addition to referencing the Catalogue of Ships in Homer’s Iliad and Confucius’s Airs of the States, Beecroft explains how the Mu’allaqat and the Popol Vuh ought to be read as such epichoric anthologies with linguistic and literary imaginaries “larger than the local horizons of the polity” (98). Third, cosmopolitan literatures are characteristic of “universalizing” tropes and themes originally found in epichoric or panchoric traditions (103). While older literary ecologies give rise to or emerge from a sense of cultural unity in opposition to political struggle, cosmopolitan literatures...