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David Damrosch. What Is World Literature?

David Damrosch. What Is World Literature? Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press. 2003. xiii + 324 pages. $65 ($19.95 paper). ISBN 0-691-04985-8 (04986-6 paper)

WORLD LITERATURE (WL) is the 800-pound gorilla on the back of literary studies today. Everybody acknowledges that it is there, that it must be addressed and welcomed into the conversation; but nobody quite knows what to make of it, and in practice it usually proves to be a weighty embarrassment. Considering that human verbal composition spans a few thousand years and hundreds of languages, the scope of material threatens to overwhelm our ability to study it in any meaningful and enjoyable sense. The field of literary studies has reached a paradoxical place in its relationship with its material: deconstructed national traditions no longer provide sturdy paradigms, yet the comparativist perspective is more endangered today than ever. The old "cosmopolitan" view suffered its own provincialism of "dead white European males," but how can we open the field of study to the multitudes of different literatures and do them any justice?

David Damrosch proposes an understanding of WL that would render it more a blessing than a burden: it is "a mode of reading: a form of detached engagement with worlds beyond our own place and time." The study of WL, therefore, does not consist of sampling a smorgasbord of works from all tire world's written (and oral) cultures, nor of mastering a given canon of classics. Rather, it concentrates on following the movement of works that travel well between contexts, eras, languages. WL is itself a unique kind of language that "gain[s] on balance in translation"--new depths of meaning and horizons of interpretation. A scholar of WL should take care neither to deracinate a text from its native context nor to allow specialists' information to obscure its international character. The generalist's perspective requires its own discipline, a "triangulation" between the culture of origin, the foreign context of its audience, and the eccentric creativity of the interpreter who engages the work in ways that will unfold new insights.

People interested in the book's relevance for the field should start with the conclusion, where Damrosch addresses the thorny topic of WL pedagogy. The rest of the book offers a collection of readings of specific texts and authors, whose temporal reach, geographic and formal breadth (besides its astonishing linguistic range), erudition, rigor, and generosity of analysis yield an exemplary portrait of WL scholarship. Grouped loosely into three sections ("Circulation," "Translation," "Production"), the individual chapters stand on their own as delightfully written studies that can be enjoyed equally by scholars and a general audience. Whether discussing syncretist Aztec hymns, the erotic religious imagery of the medieval female mystic and poet Mechthild von Magdeburg, or the debates surrounding the writings of Rigoberta Menchu or Milorad Pavic, Damrosch sifts through historical and political issues without dogma or apologetics, attentive to the ambiguities that make works of literature intriguing, multivocal structures. He combines the humanistic values of older literary analysis with the cultural-contextual emphasis of contemporary criticism to create a sane, compelling model of literary study for the twenty-first century.
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Author:Rabin, Elliott
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2004
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