New Directions in the Humanities’s Updates

Two Theories of World Literature

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | Articel Link | by Michael Lind

Can world literature exist? It depends on what is meant by world literature.

The phrase Weltliteratur was coined by Goethe. The German polymath told his disciple Johann Peter Eckermann in 1827: “I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at times to hundreds and hundreds of men…. National literature is now a rather unmeaning term, the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.”

But what is world literature? World literature comes in two alternate, conceivable versions: contemporary world literature and global classicism. Contemporary world literature is the literature of contemporary societies — particularly works of literature that obtain an international reputation. Global classicism might be described as contemporary literature inspired by the multiple traditions of the premodern regional literate civilizations of Eurasia, including the Chinese, Indian, Greco-Roman, Euro-Christian, and Muslim.