By Anis Shivani
“If we Germans do not look beyond the narrow circle of our own environment, we all too easily fall into…pedantic arrogance. Therefore I like to look around in foreign nations and advise everyone to do the same on his part. National literature means little these days; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everybody must endeavor to hasten its coming.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, January 31, 1827 
In the 1820s, talking to his youthful assistant Johann Peter Eckermann, the venerable literary statesman Goethe offered some reflections on Weltliteratur (world literature) that contain the gist of all the important considerations that continue to be relevant to this protean concept today.
One has to understand the status of German literature at the time to make sense of Goethe’s concern with provinciality. Germany was then in the shade of France, the overwhelming cultural power on the continent. Goethe’s growing interest in what we would today call “minority” literatures, both European and otherwise, was part of his project of charging German literature with enough doses of internationalism to overcome the dominance of France. Germany itself represented to some extent a minority literature, so the need was indispensable for it to traffic in ideas that were different yet similar.
The remark above came after Goethe’s enthusiasm for the Chinese novel, about which Goethe elaborates: “The people think, act, and feel almost exactly as we do, and very soon one senses that one is like them, except that with them everything happens more cleanly, lucidly, and morally. With them everything is reasonable, steady, and without great passion or poetic verve and in this respect is very similar to my Hermann und Dorothea as well as to the English novels of Richardson. It differs, however, in that with them external nature always lives side by side with the human figures.” 
We can see here the beginnings of what would later become formalized as “comparative literature.”
Elsewhere in the ‘Conversations’, Goethe observes that “Now we [Germans] are also supposed to be Greeks and Latins, and Englishmen and Frenchmen to boot.”  The solution to the confusion, for Goethe, was always to turn to the Greeks, as a way of rooting new developments in literature in the ultimate classicism. Goethe notes too that “It is very nice that now, with the close contacts prevailing among the French, the English, and the Germans, we are in a position to correct each other,” because he felt that Germans lacked in the “field of aesthetics,” not having a “man like Carlyle.”  In connection with old-German studies, Goethe advised: “It is good that you gradually acquaint yourself with everything from Germany as well as abroad, for in that way you come to see where the higher world culture, which a poet must have, can be found.” 
These remarks point us to an understanding of world literature as the indispensable core knowledge every writer must attain — not that this is a fixed curriculum of some sort, with a hierarchy of texts, because the requirements will be different for each writer based on his own position in literary space. In the ‘Conversations’, we find Goethe at various times appreciating Shakespeare, Manzoni, Byron, Molière, all kinds of world literature that he felt should feed into German art to energize it and give it universal importance.
It’s important to clarify what world literature is not: It is not a naive attempt to aggregate the core of all the classics of various literatures, an approach we see in contemporary anthologies of world literature. Nor is it an assessment of the most recognized and lauded works of literature at a given point in the world as a whole.
In other words, we are not talking about adding up or arriving at static conclusions about what really matters on the world stage, according to familiar criteria for similar evaluation within national literatures. For world literature to mean something — and two hundred years of continuous reflection by some of the greatest writers and critics would suggest that Goethe’s concept, though embryonically formulated, is one with abiding relevance — it must be more than an internationalized version of Mortimer Adler’s Great Books curriculum, or any misguided attempt at permanent canonization.
The key concept that confronts world literature is nationalism. From Goethe onwards, those who have been interested in world literature have tended to be anti-nationalists. National literatures are formed along with national identities; and as these identities remain continually in flux, shifting in relation to changes in world politics, so do national literatures. By understanding world literature, Goethe thought that Germans would have a better understanding of themselves as Germans — but not as Germans defined once and for all.
The great advocates of comparative literature in the 1930s and 1940s — heroic critics like Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer — were anti-nationalists par excellence, rebelling against the political strictures of their times. Auerbach and Spitzer wrote great works in exile,  their disciplinary orientation very much a rebuke to the raging nationalisms then threatening to reduce literature to mere accessory of temporizing politics. And again today, if world literature is to have a meaning, it must find ways of transcending the various short-term politics congregating around the contested concept of globalization.
Just as those skeptical of economic globalization today might assail the hegemony of Americanization (in consumerism and personal style), those resistant to literary globalization might argue against the predominance of English as the lingua franca of the twenty-first century.  The concern, as with globalization in general, is uniformity, a monolithic dominance that crushes diversity of local expression.
Such fears, it would seem, are exaggerated, since it can easily be argued that translation into and out of English is just as likely to revive a local or national literature as it is to sideline it. The translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali was part of the reason behind his Nobel Prize, but surely this must have led to more widespread translation of Bengali literature into various languages than would otherwise have been the case — leading to its quicker incorporation into the mainstream of world literature.
Translation, as Lawrence Venuti  and others like Gregory Rabassa  and Masao Miyoshi  have pointed out, is a concept fraught with difficulty — not at all the naive commonplace notion of cumulative assimilation of a foreign culture into an accessible language. A fundamental question all translation must confront is the degree to which the work’s foreignness might be downplayed or emphasized. It can be argued that playing it up probably contributes to enhancing its stature within world literature. The general criticism is that the dominant centers of literary production — New York would offer the biggest source of anxiety — tone down foreignness to domesticate exotic literature, as it were; literature functions then as validation of existing national values.
Venuti has demonstrated this in connection with the translation of Italian writer Giovannini Guareschi’s ‘Don Camillo’ novels after World War II, which gave the impression that not only was communism a vulnerable foe but that communists were good folks who could be persuaded to assimilate into mainstream culture after all. This fit well with American cold war policy with respect to Italy. The Guareschi episode is a dark stain on the otherwise generally impeccable translation record of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Guareschi today is not part of world literature; his work is too banal, even had its exoticism been retained in translation, which it was not.
Goethe’s reflections open up some fruitful lines of inquiry, which have become all the more valid since the relative eclipse of the founding ideas of comparative literature in the wake of deconstructive theory’s hegemony: What are we supposed to learn from world literature that we can’t learn from national literature? Is world literature always elitist — to the extent that cosmopolitanism is also elitist and presumes high levels of education? What institutional constraints typically prevent a work from entering world literature, despite its manifest quality?
One way to subsume these questions is to ask, Does localized multiculturalism, of the kind prolifically produced in America, translate well? The question is very much relevant because it would seem that there is a great deal of confusion — or false identity — between the ideas of multiculturalism and world literature.
World literature is not multiculturalism, whose characteristic is essentialist identity. Multiculturalism’s thrust toward localized authenticity — a faux sincerity that doesn’t accord well with the postmodern economy — is in conflict with world literature which presumes a world audience. This yields the discomforting speculation that for a work to become part of world literature it must be stylized or formal to a certain extent rather than being truly regional in orientation. To the extent that multicultural literature encourages comfort or belonging, it is inimical to world literature.
A certain placelessness — not to be confused with notions of artistic pseudo-exile — seems to be essential to appreciate world literature. Goethe, though closely associated with the Weimar region in the average reader’s mind, seemed happiest when he was wandering around, particularly in balmy Italy, moving from place to place, restless and energized; shunning affiliation with the Weimar court set him free for a second burst of productivity.
What makes a work travel well is a really important, and possibly unanswerable, question. Despite their so-called “difficulty,” William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, and Orhan Pamuk, to name three of the giants of recent literature, accomplished just that. The centers of world literature — Paris, London, and New York, above all — help decide which works ascend to the pinnacle of world literature, but the various energies at play are too diffuse to permit easy generalization.
Such a generalization has recently been made by Pascale Casanova,  who adapts sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory to the organization of literary capital in metropolitan centers and third world peripheries, thoroughly exploring how writers of minor literatures try mightily to find their place in world literature.
For Casanova, Paris has been and still remains the true capital of world literature, notwithstanding London in the nineteenth century or New York in the twentieth. Perhaps a necessary condition for world literature is that there ought not to be a single hegemonic capital. Barcelona, even during the repressive Franco years, was the capital for Spanish language writing all over the world, helping to instigate the Latin American “boom” of the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps New Delhi will play a similar role in shaping world literature, with the rise of international publishing in India, determining celebrity and status in New York rather than the influence flowing the other way around. Perhaps Beijing will also play a similar role in the near future.
Aside from her reductionism with regard to Paris, Casanova offers perhaps too schematic an account of assimilationists versus revolutionaries: think of Naipaul, trying to be more English than the English, versus Rushdie, attempting to bend English toward an Indian manifestation. Even with supposed polarities like Naipaul and Rushdie, it can be argued that Naipaul has more than a bit of the revolutionary about him, while Rushdie carries more than a hint of the assimilationist. The Nobel Prize perhaps leans a bit more on the side of the revolutionaries — those who aggressively seek their place in world literature by disobeying existing literary norms — but in fact the conservative Naipaul has won the Nobel Prize already whereas Rushdie still hasn’t.
Casanova explores in much depth the efforts of writers within minority literatures — Rubén Darío, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Juan Benet, Danilo Kiš, Milorad Pavić — to take their rightful place in world literature. Among the options open to such writers are translating their own works in dominant languages like English and French, or seeking to elevate their national literatures by reviving moribund works or lending respect to popular works — thereby interjecting themselves as part of a collective whole into world literature.
Contrasted to the idealistic image conjured by Goethe’s original notion of world literature, Casanova imparts a somewhat cynical Darwinian dynamic to the whole venture within postmodern circuits of literary organization. It’s a helpful view to the degree that it dispels the notion that whatever is worthwhile organically rises to the top of the scales, and to the degree that it interferes with the mania for authenticity (manifested in a non-universalizable multiculturalism) dominating the leading literary capital today, New York. The beguiling paradox that apparently only a work definitely asserting its nationality can overcome nation-orientedness and become part of world literature probably has less substance than at first meets the eye.
This question also has to be addressed in the context of English’s unprecedented role as global lingua franca; it appears that no previous language has had as much universal cachet as English today, though it’s possible that at times its influence may be more superficial than profound (as in the case of Chinese commercial usage, for example). In any event, the heavy shadow of a flattened international English affects the question of what enters world literature via the instrumentalities of New York. Are certain writers more amenable to translation than others — writers already plugged into a basic acceptance of neoliberal verities, or at least not overtly resistant? One might think of the international popularity of Haruki Murakami — and to a lesser extent Banana Yoshimoto — as possible instances of ease of translation.
Many of the questions raised here can be fruitfully applied with respect to the recent integration of Pakistani fiction writers in world literature in a very big way: Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Azhar Abidi, Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam, Ali Sethi, H. M. Naqvi, and most recently, Jamil Ahmad, have together created a new literary space. The cumulative weight of this writing — which portends more exciting work to come — is too much to be a coincidence. Yet why did it happen at this particular time, and how have these writers gone about making their claim to join world literature? These facts can be appreciated by contrast with the remarkable current absence of Bangladesh from world literature; in terms of political importance, and exploitation of literary capital concentrated in the world centers, the conditions simply don’t obtain for Bangladesh to attain a similar prominence.
Among the peculiar phenomena are that a large proportion of these writers have returned to Pakistan after attaining celebrity status in New York and other world literary capitals; many of them also have MFA degrees from America or Britain; and a number of them have worldly backgrounds (rare these days for literary writers) in business or law — Wall Street, in shorthand. Hanif, Hamid, Mueenuddin, Sethi, and Naqvi have returned to Pakistan, shunning the choice of remaining in New York or London; there they often contribute English-language journalism in a largely Urdu-speaking country on national politics; and they seem generally reluctant to have their works translated into Urdu!
Thus, even while winning major international awards (Hanif won the Commonwealth prize for best first book, Mueenuddin won the Commonwealth prize and was finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, Mohsin was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, etc.), yet exercising the choice to reside in Pakistan (Mueenuddin famously manages his mango farm in south Punjab), they are injecting their country into world literature for probably the first time. The issue of translation doesn’t arise in their case, but it’s interesting that as a rule their writing is generally reluctant to be formally experimental; they’re choosing to speak to the audience for world literature in a language and style not subject to the vicissitudes of translation in the broader sense of the term.
As a group, certain generalizations seem helpful: they shun grand (or grandiose!) narratives, they have little taste for magic realism, they are not given to radical views on class, and they are making intentionally limited claims to history. It is possible to tease out any number of counter-tendencies toward the growing New York international style. Hanif, as far and away the most important writer among them, is an outlier with respect to the generalizations here, the figure most given to a revolutionary rather than assimilationist tendency. Despite the far broader literary space of India, these writers have managed to carve out an autonomous literary space for Pakistan, without compromising on pure artistic standards. If world literature has any validity as a concept, the new wave of Pakistani fiction amply illustrates it.
By way of contrast, New York is promoting an endless ream of South Asian ethnic fiction — often by young females like Preeta Samarasan, Sarita Mandanna, and Anuradha Roy — clearly geared to the international marketplace, and widely translated. Even if such writing sometimes originates in India, it fits perfectly with the New York international style, with its faux epic dimensions, realism that for all its insistence only scratches the surface of emotion, and all the bells and whistles of a postcolonial exuberance that betrays an underlying insecurity. In the wider Indian sphere, however, a new generation of supremely confident writers like Manu Joseph, Murzban Shroff, and Rana Dasgupta are charting an independent literary space that clearly does not take hints from New York.
The eternal conflict in understanding this concept is that language is national, whereas world literature is international. In the case of Pakistan, as we have seen, the most popular language of modernity happens to coincide with the language of educated Pakistanis; for writers not so lucky, the road to inclusion in world literature is a little harder. Even as the diversity of Pakistani life is being brought to a world audience, the essentialist notions of Pakistan, especially for its own citizenry, are being dissolved. This is the kind of paradox world literature revels in.
As both Goethe and Herder understood, world literature is inseparable from world history; recall that Herder understood folk poetry from around the world as Humanitat (the universal language of humanity).  There is great respect for diversity in these formulations, and despite some of these ideas being hijacked later by romantic nationalisms, their core concern with citizenship of the world is undeniable. How we define the growing possibilities of international literary exchange is inextricably bound up with the notion of world literature — the technology is in need of revived liberal ideals.
For Goethe, the writer of any nation must think beyond national bounds, regardless of the state of dominance of his own literary space at any point in time. Where these spaces merge, for various institutional reasons, not the least having to do with language and translation, is where world literature resides. It is something constantly in fluid motion, the most exciting territory for both “provincial” and “metropolitan” writers to lose their fixed identities, the shining hard core of the cosmopolitan enlightenment project for which Goethe was a late proselytizer. And it is an entirely more rewarding way to approach the question of literary value than the distorted perspective offered by multicultural stylizations tending toward obscure nationalisms.
Auerbach’s concern that standardization would be both the realization and termination of world literature, because it would represent the end of multiplicity, remains relevant. But world literature is an ever-growing reality, as standardization and differentiation both proceed apace. World literature in the end is tantamount to enlightenment or cosmopolitan values; there is fairness to the extent that countries moving toward enlightenment join world literature. The concern with major and minor literatures, consistent from Goethe to Casanova, evokes hierarchy, but world literature’s special province is to dissolve these hierarchies for new configurations. As Goethe trenchantly brought out the paradox: “What does it mean to love one’s country and to be active as a patriot? If a poet has spent his life in the endeavor to vanquish harmful prejudices, to abolish narrow attitudes, to enlighten the spirit of his people, to purify its taste, and to ennoble it morally and intellectually, what more is there for him to do? What else can he do to prove his patriotism?” 
The utopian dimension of world literature, which Goethe clearly recognized, provides hope even today: eventually culture will win over politics, as world history (freedom) is superior to national biases. This analysis also suggests the utopian promise of a return to comparative literature over postcolonialism, the field that has unfortunately taken precedence.
Anis Shivani is the author of ‘My Tranquil War and Other Poems’ (2012), ‘The Fifth Lash and Other Stories’ (2012), ‘Against the Workshop’ (2011), ‘Anatolia and Other Stories’ (2009), and the forthcoming novel ‘Karachi Raj’ (2013). Other books recently finished or in progress include two books of poetry; a novel; and two books of criticism, ‘Literature at the Global Crossroads’ and ‘Plastic Realism: Neoliberal Discourse in the New American Novel’. Anis’s work appears in the Boston Review, Threepenny Review, Iowa Review, London Magazine, Cambridge Quarterly, Times Literary Supplement, and many other journals.
‘What is World Literature’ is taken from Anis Shivani’s forthcoming book of criticism, ‘Literature at the Global Crossroads’, and previously appeared in Boulevard. Reprinted here with kind permission of the author.