Saturday, July 15, 2006

REVIEW: The World Republic of Letters

The World Republic of Letters
Pascale Casanova
Trans. M.B. DeBevoise
Harvard University Press - 2004
420 pp ISBN 0-674-01345-X

Funny thing about the universal; it’s an ideal of our own making whose reality we must acknowledge, whose impossibility we constantly sign by hedging the concept about with incessant qualifications. As generations of critics assailed one or another writer for failure to achieve the universal, did it not occur to some among their readers that it was a severely attenuated conception of the universal that was marked so readily by these outliers? In our own time of "culture wars," a time when any number of people have been ready to credit the West with the very invention of the idea of the universal, it has always seemed a bit odd that the universal was an idea whose time had still to come, an idea that had not already occurred to everyone. Pascale Casanova writes that "It is because this idea of the universal was universally acknowledged (or nearly so) that Paris came to be invested with the power of conferring universal recognition" (29). Let sufficient weight fall upon that phrase, "or nearly so." If there have been those recalcitrant readers who refused to acknowledge the idea of the universal, then even Paris could not achieve, on behalf of any given work, a truly universal recognition. Elsewhere, Casanova remarks that literature might be defined "as a unified field (or a field in the process of being unified)" (103). So it would seem that we have created for ourselves the problem of a universal that is only nearly so, defining a field that is unified, or in the process of becoming unified. For a concept that had started out with such great hope, the unified universal seems always to be receding before us.

And thus it must be with any world republic of letters; in the same sense that the fact that so many of us speak of globalization can never mean that our definition of the global will itself be global, it is inevitably the case that no matter how appealing we may find the world republic of letters, not everybody is a republican. Like Plato’s ideal republic, Casanova’s republic of literature is something that can only exist in, well, literature. But at least Casanova permits entry to poets. Alluding to Henry James, Casanova argues that "Understanding a work of literature . . . is a matter of changing the vantage point from which one observes it–of looking at the carpet as a whole" (3). Not to strain the metaphor much farther, but it does seem the most common of sense to remark that even the figure in the carpet viewed from sufficient distance to take in the whole must appear quite differently to those standing in different parts of the room, at different heights, different, perhaps, even to the owner of the carpet versus those who have been told not to track their feet across it.

Still Casanova is not simply reiterating the Eliotic conception of tradition and the individual talent, with its peaceable kingdom of constellated greats awaiting the entry of newer talents around which to reconfigure themselves. If there is such a thing as a literary space, then it is a striated space, a contested space, a space every bit as pock-marked, rippled and oddly shaped as Einstein’s universe. Literary space contains black holes, regions of such powerful gravity of reputation that no light can escape; vast tracks of emptiness; neighborhoods of blinding light and even empires in conflict. And it is on that score that Pascale Casanova, working very much with the conceptual frameworks laid out by Pierre Bourdieu, has perhaps the most useful insights to offer. For if there is one universal on offer in this book, it is an intricate mapping of the processes by which authors, literary traditions and critical apparatus contend with the political powers of what Éduoard Glissant terms "vehicular languages." Glissant himself, in his relations to William Faulkner (notably expanded upon by Glissant in his recent study Faulkner Mississippi) could almost be a casebook for examination of the issues addressed by Casanova. The cover of the Harvard University Press translation of Casanova’s book displays a solar globe transected by lines of type in different languages, fixing, as it were, global lines of literary migrations. One set of such global transits is beautifully laid out in Casanova’s tracing of the lines of Faulknerian flight, tracings that demonstrate convincingly the ways in which what were often taken in the official literary centers of the world "only as formalistic devices" (336), were often seized upon in other parts of the world as tools of liberation. This, on my reading, is one of the most crucial insights in the book, for it makes the case that those critics who for so long have opposed literary innovation to political liberation were quite simply asking the wrong questions. If, as Casanova argues, "no literary project, even the most formalistic, can be explained in a monadic fashion" (320), then there should be little to surprise us in the fact, long documented, that generations of Caribbean and African writers found liberatory spaces in the pages of Shakespeare’s Tempest, or in the understanding that a novelist as racist as Faulkner could be, could at the same time afford radically liberatory opportunities to authors working their way toward a braver new world, witness García Márquez, or Glissant himself.

Along the many routes these discussions follow are to be found any number of startling propositions. Perhaps the most startling comes in the discussion of Kafka, which takes an oblique course from the itinerary set out some years ago by Delueze and Guattari in their work on "minor" literatures and languages. In Casanova’s reading, Kafka’s work can be amazingly understood "as entirely translated from a language that he could not write, Yiddish" (269). While that is no doubt a highly arguable assertion, it links in revelatory ways to the movements through the literature of languages that hardly anybody in the West can read, such as Ngugi’s Kikuyu. Ngugi first came to world attention writing in English, and his Kikuyu texts even now must appear in English to be read by many outside Kenya. Yet it does make a difference that Ngugi is able to publish in both languages, that Milan Kundera, a Czech writer, presents the French versions of his works as the authorized texts, that James Joyce conducted a revolution in and against English.

It would seem, finally, that the one sure effect the conception of the universal has had in the world is quite different from what we were all taught when reading Aristotle in school. Casanova writes that:

the notion of universality is one of the most diabolical inventions of the center, for in denying the antagonistic and hierarchical structure of the world, and proclaiming the equality of all the citizens of the republic of letters, the monopolists of universality command others to submit to their law. Universality is what they–and they alone–declare to be acceptable and accessible to all. (154)

The dream of universality proclaimed at the center is an impossible dream, but it has had a universal effect, and here Casanova for once appends no qualifiers, no "or nearly so." Throughout four centuries of literary history, across broad swathes of the globe, a universal effect of domination has produced the same modes of response in artists the world over. And if we may sometimes cavil at Casanova’s claims for the novelty of her approach, if we might find her Paris-centric view of the republic of letters more than a little dated, few comparativists have done such a thorough job of anatomizing the writers’ responses to linguistic and political domination . It would be difficult to conduct a tour of the world’s literatures from Dante to Achebe and not fall prey to a certain amount of over generalizing; it might seem suspect that the tour ends crowning the same European texts that had been the verbal icons of the very modes of criticism Casanova is attacking, but Casanova is nowhere on surer ground than in tracking this one universal:

Although they sought a way out from a situation of domination that, despite its historical differences, was very similar structurally, Joyce and Beckett completed and crowned the genesis and emergence of a world republic of letters: in coming full circle and rediscovering the inventor of weapons forged against Latin oppression, they restored to Dante’s work its full subversive charge by raising it as the standard of their own revolutionary ambitions. (330)

This is not to say that Ngugi and Achebe should write like Beckett and Joyce; they do not. It is to say that they have found themselves in the same predicaments that those Irish artists had faced before them, and that they formulated similar strategies in response. Casanova could be over-optimistic in her hope that "the present work may become a sort of critical weapon in the service of all deprived and dominated writers on the periphery of the literary world" (354-55), though that’s a far better motivation than most, and it may well be that the periphery of the literary world is as likely to be found in the suburbs of Paris as in the outer reaches of what was once called the third world (a fact that Casanova appreciates), but her mapping of the responses to domination among many of the world’s best, and most republican, artists is among the strongest feature of this book.

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