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Le Grande Triptych Humanism: Brinda Bose and Prasanta Chakravarty

January 18, 2012


Haruki Murakami’s much-hyped IQ84 that released worldwide in translation a couple of months ago is (Our) Big Fat Japanese Novel, three volumes in one. Closer home, Amitav Ghosh is in the process of completing the definitive South Asian Maritime Novel in trilogy. Young, prize-winning, promising writers from around the world – New Zealand, Malaysia, Bangladesh – are pledged to regale us with long large narratives that will tell us everything we ever wanted to know about their cultures, societies, lives – in trilogies and quartets. Intriguing? Indeed. Coincidental? Perhaps not.

Even as new literary canons are continually in consolidation, interrogation and re-formation, Franco Moretti – acclaimed, revered, preeminent theorist of the Novel and World Literature (which enjoy an odd synecdochic relationship) – has systematically constructed a blueprint for ways to appreciate the worth of such a grand, if loose, canon as World Literature by a particular reading technique he calls ‘distance-reading’.

Murakami, Ghosh and a host of other contemporary heavy-weights will easily constitute, in the very near future, an anthology of New World Lit in its tradition of sweeping, civilizational chronicles. We may well wonder at this incredible synergy between one of the world’s best-known literary critics/theorists and World Literature’s famous novelists: indeed, we may be watching, if we care to stop and stare, a demand-and-supply curve for an emergent Applied Humanism in mid-air, even as it begins to curl into a canon.

Grounds of Production

Let us take the most sophisticated idea of World Literature today, which shuns the borderless and levelled manifestations of airport novels and argues for a dynamic and diverse notion of cosmopolitanism. This is an updated version of Goethe’s concept of weltliteratur in the context of the reshaping (and in some cases, giving way) of two other critical projects—Postcolonial Studies and Comparative Literature. The definition as well as the body of texts that World Literature represents is unstable but the very processes of the production of this category are significant. One way to recognize and make sense of what constitutes World Literature, in the Anglophone world at least, is to look at the way its anthologies are being conceptualized and organized: a sort of undergraduate initiation to the ‘right’ kind of multicultural, plural texts.

Often such anthologies travel from classical Greece to Imperial Rome to Pre-Modern China to classical India to the Rise of Islam, paying lip-service to Japan and a monolithic idea of both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. They may move then to an Epic from Mali, throw in some vernacular and finally swim via nineteenth-century realism/symbolism to moderate mainstream twentieth-century texts.

This civilizational mode of doing literature is at best syncretic, and at worst sells a new imperial monolingualism through literary Area Studies.

The rise of Montreal and Dublin and New Delhi as centres of cultural production makes World Literature more imaginable. Why is writing trilogies and quartets suddenly the flavour of the season? Connected histories and world-systems have been in the air for a while, and the modishness of the Indian Ocean framework, for example, is eminently saleable. Area Studies initiatives and think tanks are mushrooming in new imperial colonies of literary production: there appears to be a return of an ameliorated version of the area studies paradigm in literary studies now, in fresh garb, making inroads into new markets like West Asia-North Africa, China or India. Quartets and trilogies, by their very ambition, take a grand swipe at the very materiality of life and enlarge its scope very consciously. They transcend geopolitical space and time. Instead of working out the full implications of everyday and local needs, relationships, conflicts and dialogic depth, their interest is in highlighting portability and movement. World Literature, as an operative strategy, therefore, disperses and elongates everydayness and dampens and dissolves its sharp edges.

Networks of Circulation

As grand World narratives move into new contexts and locations, there is an active uptake by which the producers and standard-bearers of this rubric cater to the implicit demands of receptors/readers. Indices of translatability and empathy with the new culture,the choosing of genres (why is the novel still the predominant form in World Lit syllabi?), and pricing equations surely play a significant role in determining which titles make the final grade.

But what about other modes of circulation? Alternate networks can re-code some texts in such a radical fashion that they jump publics and can no longer be contained within the circuits of global finances, technologies and expectations of the applied humanist brigade. For example, piracy as a counter-strategy undercuts the possibility of safe cosmopolitanism, working anthropologically, avoiding both the residual nationalisms of the comparatist and the market/digital networks of the free-floating liberal.

It is in this way that one can avoid the nativism and the ‘narcissism of minor differences’ and yet form radical heretical experimental networks. This we may then flag as literature’s oppositional political mode No 1.

Mode No 2 may simply localize our attention to the vernacular modern. With a clear understanding of the politics of language, it may first create, nurture and disseminate the more local and the regional and then move on cautiously toward global cooperations. This mode assumes completely different circuits of relationships with the texts themselves (where literary meanings and political movements work in tandem). Consequently, questions of circulation are based on a certain global undercurrent of solidarity, thus veering off the grandiose World Lit highway into bylanes and cul-de-sacs.

Those who Receive

What are the places in which the assessment of World Literature gets crystallized and elaborated? On the one hand you have the oldest and most secure of leisurely literary heritages, accumulated resources and readers – old Europe, mostly. The newcomer spaces ofliterary resource and consumption, on the other hand, are heteronymous, commercial and turbulent. Nationally, reader-groups are also polarized across metropolises and their others. Prestige and consecration build through watershed events,reviews, commemorations, public liaisons; these produce a specific history and aura around which readerships form. And then the ripple travels through translations, right reviews, imaging, word-of-mouth – every chip builds up an audience (really this readership is spectatorial), which is ready to come together and construct a consensus around favoured, chosen books. The chosen ones are large-hearted and never angry, shun sentimentalism, and have a humanist flavour that celebrates diversity and an understated maturity. These texts then gain a certain free autonomy around circuits that begin to emerge, develop and solidify in transnational chains, classrooms and book–clubs.

A Question of Method

Since someone like Moretti is sociological in a very formal sense, there is a sharp and fundamental difference with old school philologists and historicists: the obvious one is an insistence on dispensing with close textual reading. Indeed, designer humanism prescribes instead an unapologetic distance from the text, and context too. The gauntlet is thrown not only against various forms of nationalist literature but also against forms of the vernacular modern, varieties of historical phenomenology and minor forms of literary practice. In short, this undoes every one of the hard-fought and important methodological advances made in the past sixty-odd years.

The sidestepping of the question of language and power is equally disturbing. One of the main rigours of Comparative Literature is to equip the practitioner in two or more national languages or other oral literatures, but World Literature is perfectly comfortable with translations in English or French. The question of the dissemination of texts in original languages does not even arise: the travelling text is itself transforming! A Republic of Letters, indeed. This is our new multilingual and plural world which is not even seriously bilingual inits aspiration.

But the greatest casualty of such a ‘conversational’ (not dialogic even,forget sharply-confrontational) model is the privileging of an elongated version of literary history over literary analysis. In this deeper sense such formal cosmopolitanism is anti-intellectual at its core. We witness no new invention of categories but rather a rapid substitution of one set of metaphors for another, as civilizations converse with each other in ruthless bonhomie and re-mystification. We can rest assured when we have read a Murakami or a Ghosh trilogy that we now know all there is to know about contemporary Japan or the colonial maritime. Far-flung regions and cultures have begun to talk to each other in long pleasant novelistic monologues, and World Literature has made this possible, bringing them into one’s grasp – a new comfort-zone of fat tomes that we are to ingest, ironically enough, through the safety-net of ‘distance-reading’.

Brinda Bose and Prasanta Chakravarty teach in the Department of English at the University of Delhi.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Inasu Thalak/ poet,writer/. Paris permalink
    January 18, 2012 8:08 PM

    Dear DU Profs,
    Your analysis of what we have baptized as World Lit Today, is very true. In reality. it amounts to a “recolonisation” of our minds, tastes and perceptions by avoiding confrontational encounters or “face a face” with the other. As you have rightly pointed out, these cosmopolitan globetrotters and “discoverers” and “mediators” or “escorts”, are facilitated by
    the new technologies and the tycoons of word trade establishments in the West and their
    serviteurs in the rest of the world.Therefore the ubiquitous presence of English and French
    like in the heydays of colonialism. Proliferations of lit.festivals masterminded by the tradethirsty literati of these two languages promote gleefully this cosmoplitansm with hardly
    any opposition from the local tongues and their scribes. That is how, Paulo Coelho,becomes
    a craze in far away India, though nobody cares to have a closer look at life in Brazil through
    the Brazilian (Portuguese) language!

  2. Isabel permalink
    January 19, 2012 8:03 PM

    what about the whole idea of the ’empire writing back?’ or is the market in connivance with ‘area studies’ jingoism all that is there to it?

  3. Prasanta chakravarty permalink
    January 20, 2012 11:11 AM

    Dear Isabel,

    That is the precise shift that we are talking about: the empire has always written back, Or have thousand other preoccupations within its belly. And there used to be a purchase of that mode in the 80s and 90s. Not anymore. That mode is being suppressed actively in the name of ‘positive globalization’–by the powers that be, in publishing for sure. The modes of empire building are being more insidiously undertaken. World lit is one such way to normalize this new and consensual empire. In theory and in publishing–that is all pervasive.

    This is not to paint a pessimistic picture. We know there are always ways to outflank these strategies thankfully. But those stories cannot be accommodated within the world lit rubric.


  4. anonymous permalink
    April 19, 2012 4:26 AM

    I just want to point out that the novel is 1Q84 and not IQ84. It’s a grave mistake I think considering the plot very much relies on the title and vice versa!

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