The False Dawn of World Literature

By Yaseen Noorani
Submitted to Session P5203 (Arabic and the Limits of World Literature, 2018 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The term “world literature,” famously coined by the German poet Goethe in the early nineteenth century, envisions an assemblage of European nations that find self-expression in aesthetically defined forms of composition – poetry, drama and fiction. These works find their origin and continued sustenance in the classics of ancient Greek literature. What was regarded as Oriental literature was given a place in this order, but as an exotic, terminal branch that is of interest only in its instances that are palatable to Romantic aesthetic values. Nevertheless, world literature was conceived as an ideal unity of imaginative expression, an epitome of humanism. As this framework of world literature and its norms became dominant in Europe, intellectuals emerged in other areas who accepted these norms and sought to promote them among their countrymen. In the Arabic context, devotees of Arabic poetry were reluctant to accept the prestige and literary norms of European works and thus posed an obstacle to the formation of an Arabic national literature that could take its place in world literature. Two ambitious works published in Cairo in 1904 attempted to placate Arab resistance to European literary standards by recasting the Arabic poetic heritage as central to world literature. Sulayman al-Bustani’s monumental translation of the Iliad, with its extensive literary historical introduction and copious commentary, presented this epic as the European twin of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. Rawhi al-Khalidi’s book on Victor Hugo depicted the celebrated French poet and putative founder of Romanticism as the heir of a European poetic tradition originating in Islamic Spain. Al-Bustani’s and al-Khalidi’s works introduce the genres and aesthetic values of the Eurocentric framework of world literature in ways that enable the fashioning of an Arabic national literature that can fit into this order. Yet at the same time, they compensate for their subordination of Arabic to the canons of world literature by establishing an authorial position for Arabic in the structure and formation of these canons. They create a new version of world literature in which Arabic plays a central role. In this way, we see in the works of al-Bustani and al-Khalidi that the assimilation of Arabic, and presumably other non-Western literary traditions, into the universal framework of world literature, involved not only the recasting of the premodern literary heritage and its values, but the production of a national version of the universal framework as well.