By Horace Engdahl
True “world literature,” according to Nobel committee member Horace Engdahl, will never be a common canon accepted by all, but a field of exchange and exploration. For Engdahl, the Nobel Prize serves as harbinger of such a community of interest across the globe and in the case of the work of its two Chinese-language laureates—Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan. Engdahl’s lecture, given at the University of Nanjing, November 2, 2014, invites international readers to explore the complex relationships between international genres and Chinese traditions.
Because of the attention that the Nobel Prize in Literature attracts across the world and because of its prestige, the Nobel laureates have come to be seen as forming a kind of international canon of modern writing. Today, candidates for the Prize are nominated by scholars in all parts of the world, and the announcement of the year’s winner gives rise to comment and discussion wherever there is an interest in literature. Is this to be taken as proof of the globalization of literary taste and of the gradual formation of a world literature that transcends national literatures? As we shall see, the matter isn’t all that simple to resolve.
In his 1895 will, through which he instituted the five Nobel Prizes, Alfred Nobel declared that it was his “express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatsoever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates.” He wished for the literature prize to have an international scope. At the same time, he designed the prize as an award strictly for individual achievements. It was never meant to glorify authors as representatives of nations or languages, or indeed of any social, ethnic, or gender group. Consequently, there is not a word in Nobel’s will about the importance of an “equitable” distribution of the literature prize between different nations or cultures. What was crucial to Nobel was that the prize-winning author should have contributed to the improvement of humanity (“conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”), not that the prize should flatter the self-esteem of this or that nation.
Where did the idea of world literature come from? Well, in the case of Alfred Nobel, this is quite clear. When he was in the process of drawing up his will, lying on his desk was the first issue of Magazine International, a French journal published by a union of artists from several countries. On its cover, Nobel could read a famous passage from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s conversations with Johann Peter Eckermann, in which Goethe hailed the emergence of a new phenomenon he called Weltliteratur: “National literature has no great meaning today; the time has come for world literature, and each and every one of us should work to hasten the day.”  This was uttered in 1827. Goethe then used the term Weltliteratur in several contexts in the last years of his life.
If one looks behind the great man and asks for the underpinning of his idea of a global literary community, the track will lead to the intellectual movement called the European Enlightenment. Alfred Nobel’s idea to set up a number of international awards for science, literature, and peace work may be looked upon as a late child of the Enlightenment. In the field of scientific research, a kind of international republic of learned people developed in Europe as early as the seventeenth century, with Latin as its mother tongue. Francis Bacon and René Descartes were among this republic’s legislators. Goethe, in minting the term Weltliteratur, proclaimed the time had come to establish a similar trans-border community for literature.
Early in the nineteenth century, the famous French author Germaine de Staël in her essays and novels had attempted to interpret the great European nations for each other and bring them closer together. Prejudices were destroyed and a wave of internationalism ensued, sometimes with a wider scope than Europe, stimulated by the growth of Oriental studies and an increased knowledge of Indian, Persian, Arabic, and also Chinese literatures. Comparative linguistics paved the way for the exploration of foreign civilizations.
If we study the relevant passage in Eckermann’s Gespräche mit Goethe, it transpires that Goethe’s world literature did not signify a huge compendium of all literature written by all peoples, but rather the possibility of dialogue between different cultures through their great writers. In West-östlicher Divan, Goethe had himself set an example by playing with a double identity as a German and a Persian poet. In his conversation with Eckermann on January 31, 1827, Goethe mentions a Chinese novel he had read in French translation that impressed him as being immediately understandable and close to his own taste, contrary to Eckermann’s assumption that a Chinese novel must be “very strange.” No, says Goethe, it is not as strange as one may believe.
The people in it think, act, and feel almost like we do, and one soon has the impression of being of one kind with them, it’s just that everything is done with greater clarity, purity, and morality. Everything in their world is reasonable and ordinary, without great passion and poetical verve, and bears a great resemblance to my poem Hermann and Dorothea and to the English novels of Richardson. It differs in this way, that nature is always involved in the lives of the characters. All the time, you hear the goldfish splashing in their ponds, the birds singing on their branches, the day is ever mirthful and sunny, the night ever clear. . . . And there is a large number of legends that accompany the narrative and are used a bit like proverbs.
This meditation on an unidentified Chinese novel in fact brings Goethe upon the idea of world literature and leads to the passage I quoted at the beginning of my lecture.
In agreement with Goethe’s idea of world literature, Nobel dreamed of communication without boundaries between literary minds, a type of communication that would lay the groundwork for a time when all cultivated persons would regard humankind as their proper nation.
The first attempts to write a worldwide history of literature were made by German scholars in the 1830s. They tackled the immense chore of charting the literary development of all civilized peoples beyond the Western sphere. The first published “history of world literature” appears to be Karl Rosenkranz’sHandbuch einer allgemeinen Geschichte der Poesie, printed in three volumes in Halle, Germany, in 1832–33. However, this line of scholarship evolved very slowly. The nineteenth century was primarily the age of the nations, and literary studies were overwhelmingly dominated by the effort to reconstruct indigenous traditions as the basic fact of literary history. For one hundred and fifty years, this remained the dominant trend in literary scholarship in Western countries.
We notice, however, in the last decades of the twentieth century, an increasing interest in what may be called the globalization of literature. World literature has lately confirmed its position as a genre designation in the book market and has become an important and expanding academic sub-discipline within the field of comparative literature, particularly in the United States.
This reflects an orientation in humanities toward multi-culturalism and also an enhanced interest in the effects of migration and exile on literary creation. Both as a market phenomenon and as an academic field, the use of the English language tends to be a marker of what is regarded as “international.” The dominance of English as a means of communication in the fields of trade, finance, technology, and the media gives to this development a semblance of inevitability. But in essence it implies an infelicitous limitation of scope. A truly international interchange presupposes that we liberate ourselves of the idea of a monolingual global culture.
A language, which is the foundation of any literary creation, is not synonymous with a state. A mere glance at the list of Nobel Prize-winners to the present day reveals the deficiency of a nation-based concept of literature. For several laureates, exile has been the inescapable condition of their work. Others have had a mixed or problematic national identity, like Samuel Beckett, an Irishman who wrote in French, or Elias Canetti, a British subject of Jewish origin from Bulgaria whose literary language was German.
Isaac Bashevis Singer was anchored in Yiddish and in English, and his imaginative recreation of the vanished Jewish culture of Eastern Europe presupposed the distance of a foreign shore and a modern, secular society. Great writers are seldom perceived to be representative in their lifetime. Quite often the reading public in their home countries has preferred other writers to those chosen by the Swedish Academy. It’s only afterward, when the masters are gone, that they are hailed as national icons, which is to say: not until their fellow citizens have transformed their image of themselves under the influence of these writers.
The attempts to describe the history of literature in an international, transcultural context have at least made clear that the autonomy of national literature is an illusion. There have always been, in all parts of the world, dominant literatures that have extended their sphere of influence to distant regions and countries, as did China in the Eastern world for many centuries, as did Italy and France for much of the modern era in the Western world. Important currents have tended to cross borders and to make themselves felt in all parts of the cultural community. This phenomenon has called forth various theories of literary diffusion, the most influential in recent years being Franco Moretti’s description of the inequality between center and periphery.
Moretti maintains that the life of literature consists of waves of influences flowing from the center, waves that disturb local development and change its course. The result is a great degree of uniformity, as regions are progressively pulled into a common market of books, ideas, and values. According to Moretti, the phenomenon was first observed in the wave of Petrarchism that washed across Europe during the Renaissance. In the eighteenth century, the poetry of all European countries was largely adapted to French models. But at the same time, the pattern from the center was applied in different ways on the periphery, depending on local traditions. The result is often a plot from the center combined with material and narrative voice from the periphery. Similar observations could be made regarding the spread of Chinese models, sometimes also of the Chinese literary language, to countries like Japan and Korea.
If you look at judgments made over the course of a century by the Swedish Academy, the institution responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature, you will notice that European and American writers dominate the list of laureates. The exceptions have become more numerous in later years, but it is clear that the basic ideas of literature and of literary excellence underlying the decisions of the Academy are of European origin and roughly correspond to the values embodied by what Harold Bloom and others call “the Western canon.”
Critics with post-colonial convictions have even argued that in giving the prize to non-European authors such as Wole Soyinka from Nigeria or Kenzaburō Ōe from Japan or Orhan Pamuk from Turkey, the Swedish Academy was doing no more than rewarding European literature in an exotic guise, thereby joining forces with cultural imperialism. However, taking a closer look at these and other cases will show that the interplay between local tradition and international genres doesn’t necessarily mean passive submission to Western models.
What, then, are the preconditions of a creative, non-oppressive, and generally accessible globalization of literature? First, of course, it presupposes communication between writers and readers across state borders and language divisions. The key word here is “translatability.” There is—as I already mentioned—a deplorable tendency in the international market to regard English as the potentially universal language in this as in other fields. This tendency must be resisted. The only universal language of literature is translation. This implies inescapable limitations. Literary forms with important untranslatable elements—such as the performance vital to oral poetry and storytelling, or imagery presupposing familiarity with a strongly conventionalized cultural code—will not be received in a globalized context.
The second precondition, after translatability, is autonomy. The process of forming an international community of writers and readers across national borders is synonymous with the liberation of literature from subservience to other social institutions, such as religion, politics, and pedagogy. Here we have to make a distinction. When I talk of the autonomy of literature, I avoid the term “freedom of expression” since the concept belongs to the field of civil rights and becomes too vague when carried over to the field of art.
The idea of the autonomy of literature implies that we ascribe an authentic value to literary expression as such, which raises literature above immediate moral, religious, and political considerations and makes us pay respect to the character of the literary work of art—its ambiguity and its status as an independent and irreducible reality, impossible to summarize or to regard as a simple statement. It also includes respect of the value represented by the whole literary tradition (not only the aspects that momentaneously seem correct) and a readiness to allow literature to develop according to its own laws (which is what “autonomy” means).
As a consequence, we can never demand a writer be committed to any other cause than the independence and dignity of the craft. The autonomy of literature precludes all kinds of moral rigorism. If a writer chooses to be a political activist, or to refrain from being one, this is a choice that lies outside literature and should not be taken into account in judging that writer’s literary work. This is the principle on which the Swedish Academy bases its evaluations. The decision to award an author with the Nobel Prize is never politically motivated, even if it is inevitable that it can be subjected to political interpretations.
This is a much-debated point. The Swedish Academy is often met with the accusation that its choice of laureate has been influenced by considerations of a political nature. Either, our critics claim, the Academy has wished to lend support to some ideological trend or to some candidate who deserves the Prize but has been previously excluded on the basis of his or her political affiliations. Such allegations are sometimes put forward to mitigate disappointment but also sometimes are intended to cast doubt on the impartiality and esthetical validity of the Academy’s judgment.
Let me state this very clearly. I have, during my sixteen years as a member of the Swedish Academy and of its Nobel Committee, never heard any member argue in favor of a candidate or try to exclude a candidate with recourse to political or ideological arguments. If such a thing should indeed happen, it would provoke immediate reproach from the other members of the Academy. The basis for our process of selection and judgment is a firm belief in the autonomy of literature and a sound indifference to the agitation that any decision may cause.
It is important to understand that the Swedish Academy is an institution that itself enjoys a far-reaching autonomy. It has no direct ties with the state and does not receive a single cent of taxpayers’ money. Thus, there is no way the Swedish government could influence the decisions of the Academy. Likewise, the Nobel Foundation, which provides the financial underpinning of the Prize, is independent from the state and works on the exclusive basis of the wealth originating in Alfred Nobel’s donation. Only this high degree of autonomy has made it possible to transcend the limitations of a national perspective.
Two examples will serve to highlight the intricate interaction between local inspiration and universal values in literature.
When Gao Xingjian 高行健 received the Nobel Prize in 2000 it was as a French citizen, but undeniably, by its language, his work is part of Chinese letters. As a result of his academic experience, Gao was particularly well-versed in French literature, and has been described by critics in the West as adapting Western avant-garde forms and attitudes to Chinese themes. This analysis, however, seems superficial in view of the crucial elements of Chinese tradition that can be discerned in his texts and which, paradoxically, have the effect of formal radicalism on readers whose understanding of literature is based on the Western canon.
In his important works for the theatre, Gao Xingjian rejects realism, the attempt to create an illusion of normal reality on stage. He makes a point of showing that the actions and the characters are not real, but part of a theatrical act. To a Western observer, this recalls the use of distance and the illusion-breaking presentation of the action in Bertolt Brecht’s plays. But in all probability, this aspect of Gao’s dramatic style is not primarily a result of Western influence. Rather, one has to keep in mind that Brecht was himself inspired by Eastern theatre when he used a third-person narrative instead of the first-person speech normally expected on stage. Classical Chinese theatre commonly employs monologues spoken aside, in which the actor talks in third person to the audience about the figure he or she portrays in the play.
Gao first adopted this technique in Between Life and Death (Sheng Si Jie 生死界), in which he wrote a monologue in third-person form. He elaborated this possibility in The Kingdom of Darkness (Ming Cheng 冥城), his drama about the philosopher Zhuangzi 庄子 and his wife, composed under the influence of Peking opera and Sichuan opera. The audience is invited to watch the actor perform inside the action, but also outside the action. Western avant-garde has attempted similar techniques since William Butler Yeats discovered Japanse Noh 콘 theater. Whereas the Western consciousness discerns only two levels, Gao discerns three: the ego of the actor, “the neutral actor,” and the role. The neutral actor is a position of reflection from which the actor is able to observe himself in his relationship to the role and to the audience. Notably, the actor who watches himself from the outside can correct his or her acting. The ego-centered consciousness isn’t dissolved, as in meditation, but transformed into a kind of third eye, enabling the actor to step in and out of the role at will. “Thus,” writes Gao, “the inner world of the actor expands, and the audience watches not only the play; also the actor’s presentation becomes visible as a kind of theatre.”
It has been pointed out that Gao had studied French literature at university, and was a translator of Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. Clearly, one may find parallels to his ideas in the works of these writers. Still, there is no doubt that the origin of the emancipated use of personal pronouns in Gao’s prose lies in his adaptation of traditional dramatic forms and in his view of the Chinese language, rather than in any impulse from the liberated syntax of Western avant-garde writing.
According to the writer, the development of his rich and original prose style, as employed particularly in Soul Mountain (Ling Shan 灵山), with its infinitely subtle observations of human moods and fugitive impressions, was guided by qualities inherent in the Chinese language itself, what Gao calls “the fleeting nature of Chinese.” He writes: “In Chinese, reality, recollection, and vision are an eternal present, which
Soul Mountain is a novel of pilgrimage in which the protagonist travels to himself. The events seem to take place on a mirror-like surface, dividing fiction from life, imagination from memory. Gao’s handling of personal pronouns brings about an erratic duplication of the narrator’s position. The reader sometimes has to change perspective from one phrase to the following. By virtue of its polyphony, by its crossing of genres, and by the author’s scrutiny of his own act of writing, Soul Mountain recalls the idea of universal poetry found in German Romanticism, but most of its qualities can be explained by the novel’s affinity with Buddhist practices.
A different but no less complex relationship between international genres and local tradition occurs in the writings of the author who was officially saluted as the first Chinese to win the Nobel Prize in Literature: Mo Yan 莫言. Every reader of Mo Yan is aware of the importance in his writing of the rich narrative material originating in the oral tradition of his homeland in the region of Gaomi in northeast China. Mo Yan has pointed to William Faulkner as a source of inspiration, but one immediately has to recognize a number of classical Chinese novels and tales, Chinese popular opera, and other indigenous expressions.
As a writer of epic prose, Mo Yan is both modern and pre-modern, sometimes intellectual and sophisticated, sometimes effortlessly naïve. In his social analysis he addresses problems his Western colleagues haven’t yet acknowledged. This is the case with the daring relation of the battle over human fertility attempted in his brilliant novel Frog (Wa 蛙). The literary form of this and other novels by Mo Yan transcends the dichotomy of West and East, and reveals itself as immediately accessible to readers in all parts of the world, in spite of its deep roots in Chinese experience and language.
Mo Yan is a writer who strikes the Western reader as being very indiscreet in his way of addressing social issues. He throws himself headlong into human experiences of the most painful and repulsive nature, though without a hint of cynicism or voyeurism. He seems to assume the task of illustrating events that are almost inconceivable to the pampered public of today. In his novels, readers find scenes of war, torture, starvation, slaughter, childbirth, brutal repression, and monstrosities the equal of which is rarely to be found in the work of other contemporary authors.
Mo Yan has taken it upon himself to paint a dauntless picture of twentieth-century China. He is, in spite of his declared loyalty to the governing party of his country, one of the great social critics of our time. Sober and precise in his realism, Mo Yan is nevertheless a romantic in his love for his native district of Gaomi, where he spent his childhood. He makes the fields, mountains, and rivers of this landscape shine with an almost divine radiance. His brain seems to be a repository for the memories of his clan, for popular superstitions and the art of survival, for legends and individual testimonies of times in which normal history-writing was, for various reasons, impossible.
Mo Yan’s class-oriented analysis of society doesn’t prevent him from telling stories that accord with ancient notions. (One recalls Goethe’s remark about the eighteenth-century Chinese novel he had read, which had “a large number of legends that accompany the narrative and are used a bit like proverbs.” ) Thus, although his form often seems close to the masters of magical realism in South America or to that great inspirer of the modernist epic, William Faulkner, Mo Yan is firmly anchored in the Chinese tradition of oral narrative.
As a youth, some of his favorite reading included examples of old, popular narratives that are sometimes close to oral tradition but not identical with it: the fourteenth-century Chinese novels The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguozhi yanyi 三国志演义), Water Margin (Shuihuzhuan 水浒传), sixteenth-century novel Journey to the West (Xiyouji 西游记), and the seventeenth-century collection Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi 聊斋志异) by Pu Songling 蒲松龄, an author who was from a town very near Mo Yan’s hometown in Gaomi.
In Mo Yan’s marvelous short story “The Transparent Radish” (“Touming de hongluobo” 透明的红萝卜), the narration gains intensity by the means of amplified “supernatural” sensations that express the highly excited emotions of the characters. A reader has to wonder whether the intensive concentration on the human body in Mo Yan’s prose makes him a modern or a pre-modern writer. To a European, Mo Yan sometimes comes across as a counterpart of the French sixteenth-century master François Rabelais rather than a proponent of modern prose.
What Mo Yan has produced is definitely something other than the kind of novel developed by the great European authors of the nineteenth century, who abandoned the episodic structure of earlier novels and renewed the genre under the influence of drama, incorporating the Aristotelian principles—the unity of time, place, and action—and aiming at a totalizing structure, which progresses from opening through build-up and culmination to resolution and end. In contrast to this ideal that is generally embraced by Western novelists, Mo Yan’s narration is decidedly episodic.
His characters usually change very little in the course of the action. They stand in contrast against a background that swarms with life. Their time is measured by public upheavals rather than by private choices. One is reminded of Osip Mandelstam’s thought that since there are no individual destinies in the chaotic, conflict-ridden modern world, in which people are thrown in various directions by overwhelming forces, it is impossible to write like Tolstoy, having serene confidence in the spiritual order underlying the apparent disorder of events.
Mo Yan has created a land of his own, which he calls “the northeast region of the Gaomi district,” that is a parallel to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. This literary province becomes a miniature China in which all things and all eras, from the post-imperial world in which women’s feet were still bound to modern shopping malls, find a place. With a fine stroke of self-irony, Mo Yan quotes an imagined conversation between himself and William Faulkner, in which the latter interrupts him, saying: “Younger highwaymen are always bolder than their predecessors.”
In Frog, the text grows from the resemblance between the frog and the infant, the tadpole and the sperm, visually and phonetically. The Chinese title of the book, Wa 蛙, means both “frog” and “infant”: the word is pronounced similarly but written with different signs. In the novel it is said that the sound of the bull frog recalls the whimper of a baby. Mo Yan ends his tale of the brutal one-child policy of the Maoist era with a chilling view of the unrecognized dilemma that opens up to our future society, both in the West and in the East, as a result of the increased use of insemination, surrogate mothers, and other agents of mediated births.
Frog thus touches on an aspect of human life—fertility—that is fundamental to all societies but has so far received very little attention in literature. The battle of the uterus has been raging since time immemorial. It is one of the most dramatic yet least highlighted phenomena of the human world, and by taking a daring glance at it (that is daring also in its literary form), Mo Yan places himself at the front line of contemporary social criticism, globally speaking.
As I hope I have made clear, it is impossible to describe either Gao Xingjian or Mo Yan in terms of a struggle between center and periphery. Their writing has roots in both indigenous tradition and in Western literature, which has, after all, been well known in China at least since the 1920s. In order to describe the relationship between Western and Eastern models in their work, one must set aside the idea of a circle with center and periphery, drawing instead an ellipse with two centers or an image of two celestial bodies gravitating toward each other.
In recent years, critical voices have been heard finding fault with the way in which worldwide literary exchange and its institutions have developed. One of the strongest of these voices is that of Emily Apter, professor of French and comparative literature at New York University, who in 2013 published a book with the title Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability. In this book she claims that the study of world literature, originally undertaken with the aim of shedding light upon non-Western literature and of enlarging its circulation, has had the detrimental effect of homogenizing literature and of pushing writers toward international forms and themes, thereby causing blindness to concepts and devices that are specific to certain cultures and very difficult to carry over into a foreign surrounding.
Grounding her starting-point in thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Barbara Johnson, Abdelfattah Kilito, and Édouard Glissant, Apter illustrates how “world literature” has come to serve market-oriented and Euro-centric ideas of translatability and universality, how it has contributed to the consumption of foreign cultures reshaped into an easily digestible, often Anglicised form, offered for sale as genuine “Asian literature,” “Islamic art,” and so forth. In this process, the truly original creations of non-Western literatures run the risk of losing their specificity and of being reduced to exotic themes and to a simplified “commitment” in the name of human rights. The focus on social criticism destroys the aesthetic dimension.
We have to be on our watch against the danger of a false kind of universality taking the place of true universality. But, all things considered, it seems that the exchange between East and West that occurs in the writings of authors like Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan is of a new kind, one that post-colonial theory is unable to describe in any meaningful way.
To “hasten the day of world literature” as Goethe requests, we have little need for a benevolent and “equitable” literary criticism, which would attribute a value to literary creations simply out of respect for the otherness of their cultural origin. The proof of that day will come when great authors are brought into contact with large numbers of foreign readers by being translated, read, and criticized, and by being quoted, imitated, and made the object of literary emulation. In short, what should really be called “world literature” emerges whenever a writer turns out to have a voice strong enough to carry over distances in time and space the way Goethe experienced when he encountered that Chinese novel in the winter of 1827.
The ambition to grasp literature as a universal phenomenon must take some other form than the hopelessly expanding reading lists onto which learned scholars once tried to fit at least some masterpieces of each and every nation. True “world literature” will be a field of exchange and exploration rather than a common canon accepted by all. The Nobel Prize may serve as harbinger of such a community of interest across the globe.
-  Johann Peter Eckermann, Ernst Merian-Genast, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens: 1823–1832 ( Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life, 1823–1832) (Basel: Birkhäuser, 1945), 1:214. From conversation dated January 31, 1827. Translation by Horace Engdahl.
-  Ibid., 1:212–13.
-  Gao Xingjian 高行健, “The Dramaturgy of the Play and the Neutral Actor” (“Juzuofa he zhongxing yanyuan” 剧作法和中性演员), No-ism (Mei you zhu yi 没有主义), Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi 天地图书有限公司, Hong Kong (1995): 253–66.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe, 1:213.
Horace Engdahl, born 1948 in Sweden, is a writer and literary critic, specializing as a scholar on Romanticism and early modernism. He was cofounder and editor during 1977 to 1988 of the important aesthetical journal Kris, and has produced numerous essays on historical and theoretical problems related to literary form. In 1997, he was elected to the Swedish Academy and from 1999 to 2009 served as its permanent secretary. He has been a member of the literary Nobel Committee since 1998. His publications are mainly essays and collections of aphoristic texts.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 5 No. 1