Most will know that the genesis of “world literature” can be traced back to Goethe. Indeed, it seems that he first utters the phrase in the early-middle nineteenth century. He states that in an age where globalization is beginning to make itself felt more readily among the common people, “national literature” – which is to say German literature, English literature, Italian literature, and so on – must give way to “world literature.”
For the 200 years or so that followed this pronouncement, critics have sought to tie down the idea of “world literature” – what is it? how is it different to “national literature,” or simply just “literature”?
Today, the attempts to theorize world literature fall into two camps. On the one side is a belief that world literature is simply the best literature that each nation has to offer; and on the other side is a belief that world literature is not an object at all, but rather a process. For those who fall into the second camp, as described here, the problem with world literature as the best of national literature is that it makes it an impossibly large area of study. Given that many scholars struggle to keep up with a very limited area of specialization (such as Irish literature, 1900-1920), they ask whether one can really ever claim to be an expert in “world literature.” Rather, it seems as though we must think of world literature as a process – a way of reading, not an object of study.
This is the position to which my thoughts are most closely aligned. That said, my particular view of world literature as process differs from those posed by people like Damrosch, Moretti, and Casanova. Let me briefly explain:
I think physics gives us an interesting way into this debate over world literature. More specifically, for me the idea of entropy describes how we should think of world literature. Imagine, if you will, national literature as an inflated inner-tube of a bicycle tyre. According to entropy, the air in an inflated inner-tube is in a highly ordered state (because it cannot move around much). This is a “low” state of entropy because entropy describes the disorder of a system – no movement means highly ordered; means low entropy. Interestingly, national literature orders literary work in just this way. Books stop being just books; they become part of a literary tradition, an element of the canon, related to a genre, and so on. That is to say, they are arranged in a very particular way – they are ordered.
For me, world literature describes the point at which this ordered system is put to flight. Put simply, world literature is the “leak” of national literature. One thing is always true in the study of literature: one cannot satisfactorily define national literature. As soon as we think we have a binding definition something happens and the definition is shown to be incomplete. What is “American literature”? That which is written by resident “Americans”? That which is written by Americans abroad? That which is written by first or second generation immigrants to America? Can American literature include texts written in German or Japanese? What is the coherence between these questions? How is one to position the explosion of diasporic literature that occurred in the middle to late twentieth century? To which national literature do these texts belong?
We can ask similar questions of every national literature; and in each case, the coherence of a national literature is seen to stutter and ultimately fail.
Although most critics try to explain away this failure of structure and thereby continue to use the (decrepit) idea of national literature, I think we should embrace this feature of national literature. Indeed, it is important that we should do so because as physics tells us every system must leak in this way. Actually, the second law of thermodynamics says that ordered thermodynamic states will inevitably and irreversibly become less ordered over time. This is world literature, the leak of national literature – the literature that escapes the organizing grasp of national literature.
The ramifications of thinking about world literature as the leak of national literature – as the entropy of national literature – is wide ranging, and therefore material for another post at a later date. Perhaps thinking through the meaning of world literature as the entropy of national literature might be enough for now…
Like the post? Why don’t you read the rather more formal essay, “On World Literature: When Goethe Met Boltzmann,” which was published in Textual Practice (2014). The essay has recently been included in the Routledge Lives in Literature collection, which offers free access to research focused on some of Literature’s most notable figures. Click here for the direct link to the essay – “On World Literature: When Goethe Met Boltzmann”