Notes on What is World Literature? (2003) by Daniel Damrosch

Daniel Damrosch’s What is World Literature? (2003) departs from J. W. Goethe’s famous formulation about world literature. The term was registered by Johann Peter Eckerman, an author whose entire work is barely know these days. From Eckerman’s works, his conversations with Goethe are an exception since they register the daily live routine of the famous poet and also some moments worth studying, as it is the case of the famous conversation about world literature. As Damrosch registers, Goethe coins the term when discussing poetry as a “universal possession” that is always “revealing itself everywhere” (1). Goethe goes on and states that the “National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to haste its approach” (1). The thing, for Damrosch, is not that Goethe seeks to impose an agenda, or to merely point towards the possibility of a canon, rather world literature should be understood less as “a set of works than a network” (3). Then, world literature is more a system that connects than an accumulation of works. Damrosch takes world literature as something that “encompass all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language” (4). With this in mind, the task of world literature should be to turn visible how “a work only has an effective life as world literature whenever, and wherever it is actively present within a literary system beyond that of its original culture” (4). 

In a way, what Damrosch is looking for is to connect old (and always present) topics in literary studies. Some of these could be the literariness coined by Jakobson —a hundred years ago—, the problem of the canon and, without openly engaging with it, the problem of taste and status championed by Pierre Bourdieau. The book is an ambitious project that is, as it is mentioned later, subject of current studies and reflections. Divided in three parts (circulation, translation and production), each describes three literary works that better exemplifies what is world literature and more importantly how to engage with it. Whether we read about Gilmanesh, Kafka or Rigoberta Menchu, Darmosh displays erudite analysis. Close readings, rhetoric and sociohistorical analysis, biography and philology coexist without any apparent method or problem. Since world literature is only worried about “a mode of circulation and of reading” (5), there is not necessarily a method for reading world literature, but an attitude. This attitude would be that of Goethe himself, namely, “to look about me [oneself] in foreign nations” (1). 

While the readings offered in every chapter are strong and persuasive, one ends with a familiar feeling. This is that reading without the lenses of world literature is basically reading with the lenses of literary criticism in general. However, Damrosch would insist that world literature, as a way of engaging with texts, consists in a particular understanding of what work literature is (281). Irremediably this is a contradiction, for Damrosch himself renounced in the “Introduction” to any definition of the literary since “this is a question that really only has meaning within a given literary system” (14). One can, then, easily say that world literature itself might be “something that really only has meaning within a given literary (or world) system”. 

Despite this contradiction, the three elements that Damrosch depicts as the pillars of world literature, are worth some thought. World literature would be first “an elliptical refraction of national literatures”, secondly, a “writing that gains in translation”, and thirdly “not a set canon of texts but a mode of reading: a form of detached engagement with worlds beyond our own place and time” (281). In way, then, these three characteristics of world literature go back, and are tied up, irremediably with the so called “ontological gap” in comparative literature proposed by René Wellek. While the latter depicted the gap “between the psychology of the author and a work of art, between life and society on the one hand and the aesthetic object” (136), the elliptical refraction that Damrosch is pursuing is that focus that happens when the two focal points of an ellipsis swerve. Namely, these two points would be the national in one side and the worldliness in the other; the literary source and the host; the original and the translation; one world and the other. World literature, then would be something that “goes in two directions at once” (289). Hence, more than a line, or a gap, (world) literature is yet another of the world’s spheres, another expanding bubble, that, as everything alive someday, sometime, has (had) to crack-up.