THIS ESSAY IS ALSO AVAILABLE IN BOUNDARY 2, 40.2 (2013)
If you want to understand some of the last decade’s renewed interest in the category of “world literature”—if, that is, you want to understand the real achievements of the concept as refurbished by Pascale Casanova, Franco Moretti and others, and perhaps also to begin repairing its weaknesses—it will help if you first understand the ways in which Samuel Beckett’s Molloy is most like the Charlie’s Angels movies. One way to get at their resemblance would be to list some of the complaints that viewers have leveled against the latter. It has “no plot,” wrote one critic of the first Angels movie, released in 2001, and, indeed, fails to meet the basic demands of continuity; “it’s difficult to tell how one punch leads to another.” The San Francisco Chronicle warned that Charlie’s Angels lacked not only clear sequencing, but also characters that one might care about or indeed any discernible individuals at all, though, of course, it fully agreed the movie was fragmented, less a coherent story than “bits of scenes … overly stylized and self-conscious.” The BBC elaborated on the point: The picture “leaps from one small scene to another,” it said, dispensing in the process with “real drama and proper exchanges.” In literary history, these deficiencies are known, collectively, as “undermining the edifice of realism” and are the sort of thing that novelists get a lot of credit for attempting. One student of modernism has written that Beckett, no less than Columbia Pictures, devised a “new set of technical tools that made it possible to escape meaning—which is to say narration, representation, succession, description, setting, even character.” Indictment: Charlie’s Angels “exists in a reality unto itself.” Tribute: Beckett “created the most independent world conceivable.” The medium changes, and calumny is transposed into praise.
This will seem like a joke, but we might, in fact, want to take seriously a certain plain, verbal fact, which is that people who don’t like big-budget action movies often describe them—spontaneously, unwittingly—as though they were modernist novels. Perhaps a moment’s reflection will make this less surprising. For what Molloy and Charlie’s Angels share is easily named; it is the aesthetics of abstraction, the pressure exerted upon narrative by de-specification. This, too, comes into focus when refracted through the criticism. Here is Perry Anderson on blockbuster cinema: “The basis for the fortune of Hollywood” has been “narrative and visual schemas stripped to their most abstract, recursive common denominators.” And here is Terry Eagleton on the literature of the mid-century: “Beckett’s works take a few sparse elements and permutate them with Irish-scholastic ingenuity into slightly altered patterns.” Recursion, permutation, slight alterations … Samuel Beckett and Hollywood film, these exact contemporaries, these children of the year 1906 … Spotting the two of them together, in tandem, now becomes a minor test, an opportunity to demonstrate one’s intellectual steadfastness: Are you willing to approach the culture industry and the art novel with the same aesthetic priorities? Can you hold the one to the same standards that you hold the other? Devotees of Beckett’s fiction might, of course, still conclude that they dislike Charlie’s Angels, but they aren’t going to be able to dislike it for insufficiently reminding them of Middlemarch.
Indeed, watching Charlie’s Angels with Beckett open on your lap is a chance to remind yourself of the rigorous formalism of much Hollywood film, which after all has its own particular way of “refusing to yield to the usual requirements of legibility.” What we will want to say back to anyone incapable of appreciating such a radiance is that they don’t really like film qua film, that they bring with them into the movie theater the worn-out expectations generated by older narrative modes, to the point where they can no longer tolerate a cinema set free from extra-cinematic demands, liberated, more than any Iranian neorealism or the interminably filmed conversations of the French New Wave, into color and kinetics and pace. What offends is not the brainlessness of Charlie’s Angels, but its aestheticism, for which that other is code. A movie “without … purpose,” objects Roger Ebert, to which the only answer is: Exactly.
Turning to Beckett, we will want to repay the favor by pointing out the plebeian and atavistic quality of late modernist prose, the way in which it liquidates the conventions of novelistic realism in large part by reactivating the cadences of folklore and myth. Beckett’s was not an uncharted path to abstraction, but precisely an antique and subliterary one: Here’s a story about “two men … one small and one tall. They had left the town,” some town, no particular town. We could say, more precisely, that Beckett’s prose achieves its high degree of abstraction by deploying at once two literary registers that we typically regard as opposed: folklore, which is Beckett’s debt to an Irish Revival that he officially scorned, but also a minutely interiorized and doubting ego borrowed from lyric poetry—a blocky folklorism, then, that has no need for novelistic particularities, plus a dismal lyricism that blurs whatever few specificities remain. Molloy often reads like myth retold by some tormented prose-sonneteer. “He wore a cocked hat” could be the beginning of a song or a children’s rhyme. But Beckett’s narrators will glaze any such bare fact: “It seemed to me he wore a cocked hat.” We might, in the same spirit, call to mind Adorno’s observation that European modernism was basically just an extension of nineteenth-century horror fiction—or rather, that it was an unlooked-for recombination of neoclassicism and its Gothic opposite; abstraction made eerie; Palladianism with the lights turned out: Conrad’s ghost ships and vampire derelicts, Eliot’s bridge-crossing zombie-shades, not to mention the too easy instances of the Czech were-roach and the twelve-tone music that survives now almost only on the soundtracks of scary movies. To this list we can add Beckett’s writing of the rotting flesh, whose signature tic is to say “death” wherever ordinary English would say “life,” and whose stories center on old men who beat up their even older mothers; on those who live within earshot of abattoirs; on menacing cops and unexplained kidnappings and rectal births. It has taken a sustained effort, of a more or less ideological kind, to get lots of people to agree that this was ever “high culture.” We can praise the Hollywood blockbuster for its euphoric and unweary modernism; or we can conclude that modernist art is less the negation of pop culture than its distension and making-arduous. Either way, it will be hard to escape the impression that modernism, determined to purify itself of mass culture, keeps rediscovering itself in its hated opposite. Charlie’s Angels only had one sequel; Molloy produced two.
We can begin now to say why this pairing should matter to anyone wanting to study something called “world literature.” The problem with conventional accounts of modernism and aestheticism is that they tend to mistake abstraction for autonomy; abstract prose gets to count as self-sufficient, a writing apart from the world, answerable to no agencies or institutions, borrowing elements from empirical reality only to transfigure them, no longer constrained to file reports on the really existing, to serve out its time as the gazetteer of circumstance. If an artwork is any object unshackled from the demands of mere use—a jug too lovely or fragile or pointy-handled to pour from—then the virtue of abstraction will be that it unfits language for the purposes of ordinary communication and so shifts it over to the realm of art. This is what makes abstraction easy to mistake for autonomy or why it is easily misperceived as its vehicle. In Beckett’s prose, then, one finds a more or less strenuous refusal of context:
• “And I, what was I doing there, and why come? … these are things we must not take seriously.”
• “Shall I describe the room? No.”
• “For the particulars, if you are interested in particulars….”
What jumps out in these lines, and the many more like them, is that Beckett cannot, in fact, quietly bypass readerly expectations; the apparatus of realism has to be acknowledged so that it can be tauntingly canceled by professions of ignorance and amnesia. My mother has died. “I don’t know how.” I used to love a woman. “I’ve forgotten” her name. The most telling variant of this tic, also utterly commonplace in Beckett, is the withdrawn specification. A concrete detail of a realist kind is offered to the reader as bait and respite and then in the same sentence negated, like so:
• “A little dog followed him, a pomeranien I think, but I don’t think so.”
• “It was a chainless bicycle, with a free-wheel, if such a bicycle exists.”
• “The dog was uniformly yellow, a mongrel I suppose, or a pedigree, I can never tell the difference.”
It is rhetorical tether-snippings such as these that lead some readers to deem Beckett’s writing independent and self-directed, unbeholden to the objects it just barely names—or fails to name—or names multiply—“literature rescued from dependence,” as one admirer has it. A self-sufficient literary language, then—except, of course, it is nothing of the sort. Autonomy, I think, except I don’t think so. When “abstraction” renames itself “autonomy,” the concept gets freighted with political claims that it cannot make good on. A writer’s withdrawal from reference is thought somehow to model or to guarantee or to act as signature for a second withdrawal, a retreat from institutions, as though an art for art’s sake did not in some entirely ordinary way have to be produced and announced to the world and disseminated and exhaustively explained. You can say that all art begins, in a fabulating spirit, by separating itself from reality, and you can praise abstract art for resolutely guarding that partition. Or, if you have come to distrust representations as such because they inevitably convey some ideology or another, you can say that an abstract and experimental writing works to unsettle our relationship to language, making it difficult for us to sink back into our usual lexical stupor, irritating us into inhabiting speech less thoughtlessly. Or you can simply marvel that the abstract artwork is the last thing in the world that isn’t expected to do anything, the only object still exempt from the calculus of efficiency, the only one of us who gets to stay out late because it doesn’t have to work in the morning. Humanity delegates its relinquished autonomy to a special class of objects, so that these can enjoy liberty in its stead. The abstract artwork is, in this sense, a labor-saving device, a metaphysical appliance, freedom’s automatic spray tube dishwasher. But having made any of these arguments, what do you then say when you discover that the US government began buying up modern art in the 1940s, that the State Department helped promote abstraction abroad as something like the official aesthetic of the United States, or indeed that many of the journals in which abstraction was argumentatively furthered received funding from the CIA—that the CIA’s first head of counter-intelligence was famous first for founding a quarterly of modernist poetry and that the CIA regularly recruited agents from the Kenyon Review? Even abstraction has its political uses, chief among them to mime an independence from such use. Autonomous art was nakedly heteronomous—this may be the only paradox of twentieth-century aesthetics that Adorno missed.
Hence Charlie’s Angels. If it is writers like Beckett that you want to understand, then the virtue of talking about commercial film first is that no-one has ever mistaken Hollywood’s motley geometries and dream states for political autonomy. The freedom from reference, which we might also call an indifference to local content, is itself produced by a system and historical occasion—immigrants, in the Californian instance, learning to tell stories to other immigrants, conglomerating and simplifying their inherited narrative forms, which is what lends Hollywood movies the character of a sailor’s yarn, and then streamlining these further once the industry discovers that such reduced forms export especially well, like fortified wines and salted meats, playing with equal facility in nearly any national market or communal VCR, on the simple theory that a viewer in Chongqing is unlikely to commit to a 60-hour film dramatizing the contradictions of US drug policy on the streets of post-industrial Baltimore. The global dominance of Hollywood cinema cannot be separated from the basically Galilean quality of its cinematic space: bodies in motion against green screens, CGI cannonballs dropped from the world’s interchangeable towers.
Once one grants this last point—that abstraction itself has a material underpinning and that it emerges more easily in some historical locations than in others—then the task is simply to extend this insight back to Beckett (and Gombrowicz and Borges and Kobo Abe). This is where Pascale Casanova comes in. Modernism has had its own distinctive patronage institutions, whose needs it roughly serves, and it is the great virtue of Casanova’s World Republic of Letters to help us spot one, alongside the university and the American state, that we might otherwise have missed. The easiest way to come to grips with her argument is to resolve it back into its component parts—to realize, that is, how programmatically Casanova has grafted Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory onto Pierre Bourdieu’s account of distinction or cultural capital. First Bourdieu: In order for a literary scene to exist, a national language needs to possess nothing so interesting as a rarefied temperament—neither a linguistic cache of ensorceling Indo-European roots nor a secret, primeval resemblance to ancient Greek—but an entirely mundane, nuts-and-bolts literary infrastructure: a leisured elite, schools willing to teach its patricians the skills of higher literacy, a caste of professional writers, bookstores, libraries, publishing houses, state patronage for the arts, and a functioning feuilleton. Any nation with these many latter will be able to convince itself that it also has the former. Then Wallerstein: Not all nation-states possess these resources to the same degree, and the ones that possess them in superabundance—France, Britain, more recently the US—get to tell the rest of the world what counts as literature. It’s worse than that: The literary salarymen of the great European metropolises—editors, critics, translators—have always played a unique mediating role in the global literary system, claiming for themselves the authority to choose which of the world’s aspiring novelists will get access to the large and university-educated readerships over which they stand guard, and the first issue to be decided by young writers on the literary periphery—in the Sudan, say, or in Gujarat—is thus whether or not they are going to write in ways designed to appeal to such people. What Casanova has persuasively established is that there are world cities of literature, places, above all Paris, where authors—and not just French ones—are certified as literary. The best thing about her book, in this sense, is that its title is simply wrong, utterly contravened by her own argument, which describes nothing like a “world republic of letters,” with whatever faded egalitarian associations that term still has, but rather a literary world system, neo-colonial in effect if rarely in intention: stratified, full of power imbalances, “a world of rivalry, struggle, and inequality.”
The point that we do not want to overlook is that a certain orthodox conception of High Literature—the aestheticist account of autonomous writing—is made possible only by this empire-not-republic of letters. That point comes in a weak form and a strong, which depends on the weak. The weak version says that all novels, even realist ones, will seem more abstract or aestheticized when lifted out of their various national contexts and read by foreigners who won’t understand their more sectional references—German readers, say, for whom the names of São Paulo neighborhoods are just sounds, so many swayings of the verbal hips. Against the old prejudice that condemns all translations for being dull photostats of their originals, this idea holds that translation is in many cases just the reverse—the key, indeed, to making a work literary, and that a certain loss, a smudging of the detail or declaring-irrelevant of the particularities, is intrinsic to this process. Literary aestheticism is in large part the effect of being republished elsewhere; we call autonomous those works whose dependencies we are unable to spot. To this idea—that a novel is more likely to get treated as literature once it travels—the strong version of the argument adds that the literary world system is designed to reward writers who have, as it were, preemptively de-nationalized, whose writing comes pre-abstracted, obligingly stripped of geographical and historical markers, proper-name-avoidant. Tolstoy positions a character in Смоле́нск, and a Russian reader in the 1870s recognizes a western border town, a fortress defending the route to Moscow, a crossroads-which-is-to-say-battlefield, a place where Napoleon once attacked. Tolstoy’s translator positions that same character in “Smolensk,” and a reader in Minnesota in 1930 thinks … nothing much, probably … that he wishes the book came with a map … that he likes a good Jewish joke. Smolensk has become a city I just about recognize as Russian, barely more than a spot-marking X. And then Beckett writes, in Molloy: “I beg your pardon, Sir, this is X, is it not?, X being the name of my town.” Modernism ratifies the condition of literature in translation, neither presuming local knowledge nor offering to produce it. And “world literature” is the name for a certain tendency towards abstraction within the global literary system, the propensity of works aiming for an international readership to make themselves frictionless. There is to that extent a social history to literary autonomy, a social history, in other words, behind the kinds of writing that feel licensed to dispense with social history.
Such, in a nutshell, is Casanova’s splendid revision of the concept of Weltliteratur, which here stops functioning as the name for an (especially tedious) canon and instead makes its rightful contribution to a materialist history of letters. One marvels, indeed, while reading her book, at the determination-unto-mania with which Casanova transposes into the sphere of literature arguments borrowed from Braudel and dependency theory and the like, casting about for belletristic semi-peripheries, programs of poetic import-substitution, &c., and almost always identifying plausible candidates. It makes a person wonder into how many other non-economic domains world-systems theory could be usefully extended: Is there a cinematic world system? Probably. A musical one? A culinary one? And yet Casanova’s argument is, for all that, rather broken-backed; there is a fracture running through her very great book. Here’s the tricky thing: Casanova helps us see that the world’s publishing centers have had the power to declare writing literary, to consecrate a foreign production as Literature, and she argues that the abstraction characteristic of such writing is produced by the unevenness of the global literary system. Abstract writing—or concrete writing read as abstract—involves a false universalization imposed by the biblio-metropolis. She herself speaks in this regard of the “structural ethnocentrism of the literary world.”
And yet—and here’s the puzzle—Casanova aggressively prefers such abstract and falsely universal writing, routinely declaring international modernism superior to rival literary modes, and expressing a certain pity for the African and Asian writers who don’t get to enjoy its bogus autonomy—“nationalist” writers, these would be, and literary realists: “conservative, traditional—in a word … ignorant.” She begins her book by explaining how a certain illusion of autonomy is produced and concludes it by patly reinstating that illusion. The matter comes to a head when she explains what distinguishes the semi-periphery in her ingenious model. One of Casanova’s advances over postcolonial studies as practiced in the English-speaking countries is that she has salvaged from Wallerstein this exceedingly generative concept, which adds a complexifying third term to the seesawing dichotomies of center/periphery and metropolis/colony. In Casanova, the semiperiphery—that which is neither metropolis nor colony proper—is the domain of the “small languages”—Bulgarian, Romanian, Swedish, and so on—languages, that is, with established print traditions, working presses, national or regional canons, &c, but whose literatures arouse little interest outside their borders and whose native readerships are by global standards so small as to support little professional literary activity. Writers on the semi-periphery thus face a choice, whether as burden or luxury, that genuinely colonized writers do not; the bifurcations in the literary world system crystallize in front of them: Is one to become a national writer or an international one? That choice isn’t fully available on the periphery, at least in the sense that Ngugi was doing something quite drastic in opting for Kikuyu, language without novels, whereas Josep Pla, in opting for an already belletrified Catalan, was merely clambering on board a regional donnée.
The point that we won’t want to miss is that this geopolitical distinction—national v. international—is, on Casanova’s understanding, pegged to a second, properly stylistic distinction: realist v. modernist. Writers who do not care if foreigners read them write stories about their home countries in an accessibly middling prose. Realist fiction thus becomes the symptom-in-literature of a region’s more general backwardness; it is intrinsically parochial, requiring the specifications that anchor prose to a particular pace; and writers who have the option of writing like Beckett and don’t take it stand accused of pursuing a retrograde policy. This is a point Casanova makes repeatedly and in the tones of a Viennese economist instructing protectionist Argentines to stop subsidizing wheat farmers. Such is the uneasy surprise of her book: Its entire conceptual framework is borrowed from the great anti-colonial sociologists, and a reader goes in thinking that she is trying to figure out what literature can contribute towards the liberation of colonized peoples. But it turns out that all she really cares about is the liberation of literature, and that she likes African and Latino writers most when they can serve that other end. It’s like getting to the last page of Wallerstein and finding out that he’d been promoting free markets all along. Casanova thus reliably inverts the anti-colonial position, championing Caribbean and Arab and Asian writers when they take up European intellectual tools against their own peers, as when she praises the Algerian novelist Rachid Boudjedra for “employing the weapons of writers in the center in order to subvert social and religious proprieties [in North Africa].” What in the first twenty-five pages she exposes, with great agility, as the “naïve” idea of a “pure, dehistoricized, denationalized, and depoliticized conception of literature,” she reinstates gullibly in her final paragraphs as a “truly autonomous literary revolution,” commending modernist fiction for generating a second “independent world” to shadow the one we actually live in, which I think anyone would have to admit is a rather peculiar definition of “world literature”: a literature as little as possible about the world.
There is more to be said about this cinching together of nationalism and realism, as about its setting over and against a modernism that gets to count as international, since it turns out that very little about this scheme will survive closer inspection. Casanova’s account starts unraveling, as so often, around the antithesis to which it is tacked: nationalist realism vs. internationalist modernism. We can start shouting out the names of argumentative threads as they come unfastened. There are, by my count, three important points to be made against Casanova:
–Realism is every bit as international as modernism, at least in the sense that Casanova means it: a widely diffused set of narrative techniques or formal structures, written on every continent, referring back to the same few models—Scott, Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy—and less attentive to local content than you might think. Another way to make this point would be to say, as Franco Moretti has, that the realist novel was a basically imperial northwest-European literature, or that realism was once the name for the encroaching standardization of world fiction, an innovative form, to be sure, but also an inertia, a stable “Anglo-French paradigm … third-person historical novels, and not much else”: Benito Perez Galdós, Park Kyung-ni, Fenimore Cooper. The insidiously realist novel proved so compelling a form that it convinced writers in southern Europe, Asia and elsewhere to find the most British possible stories to tell about those places or convinced them to trick out French plots with characters bearing assonantly local names. This is the occasion to recall Roberto Schwarz’s great argument that the European novel was not, in its very form, suited to the colonies, but that early Brazilian novelists did not know this. Once a literary critic has separated realist fiction back into its distinct conventions—free-indirect discourse, marriage plots and multi-plots, character sketches, &c.—there is no reason to think of these as any less abstract than the studied imprecisions of late modernism: easy to carry, iterable, geographically indifferent.
–Modernism is every bit as national as realism. There is, indeed, an unmistakable nationalism hitching a ride on Casanova’s argument, offering as it does a Third World anti-nationalism which tends nonetheless to endlessly reconfirm the preeminence of the French. This is no mere prejudice on her part: Casanova does provide some rather good reasons for thinking of Paris as the imperial arbiter of the Modern or for thinking that to become a modernist in Scandinavia or Ireland was in some more or less self-conscious way to Gallicize, and her account accordingly assigns a special, diagnostic role to those foreign writers who were upfront about apprenticing to los franceses: Rubèn Dario, Georg Brandes, August Strindberg, Beckett himself. It is just that having made this point, she can no longer claim that modernism is, unlike realism, the authentically international position, since its transcontinental abstractions have always carried some secretly national commitments. That of course the same point can be made about an international-but-really-Anglo-French realism only tightens the screw: In addition to there being two international modes of prose fiction, there is also none.
–The nation repeats at the level of content. Casanova makes the case for scores and scores of writers that they can’t be read in a narrowly national frame. She asks us to see any national literature as just one more place where international literary rivalries get played out, a perpetual, fraught recombination of foreign elements in which the indigenous contribution often recedes away to nothing: Canadian literature pits Anglophile novelists against Americanized ones. Modern Irish literature, which, from the vantage of 1870, one might have expected to be a running contest between the Anglicizers and the Gaelic nativists, decides instead to remodel itself on French, Russian, and Italian precedents. Casanova has a good time detailing such geo-literary twist and turns and has written perhaps the only literary history that sometimes reminds one of spy fiction: Ibsen “affirmed his determination to introduce realism into the theater and henceforth to use French literary tools for the purpose of devising a distinctively Norwegian style freed from German constraints and control.” And yet this analytical sophistication comes at a certain cost, allowing one to forget that at the straightforward level of setting and character, the modernist novels that Casanova champions are no less nation-bound than the realist ones she finds contemptible. Faulkner, after all, is a regionalist, the cornerstone of Southern literature seminars, a modernist-of-one-county. Even Beckett’s Molloy grudgingly admits its Irish setting, and not only because the novel shares its name with a Victorian poet who wrote songs with titles like “The Kerry Dance” and “Thady O’Flynn.” If you read carefully, you’ll work out that Beckett has set his story on an island and that there is a sea, tellingly, to the east; you’ll spot the odd local custom or identifying mark: “And da, in my part of the world, means father.” We could grant for the sake of argument that modernism is in literary history the properly international term, and we would still have to conclude that its internationalism is available in its pages only as form, in which case, Casanova, having laid out the distinction between an international modernism and a nationally minded realism, is not actually choosing one side of that antithesis, but rather a particular way of breaching it: the internationalized narrating of the nation. Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist ends when Stephen Daedalus resolves to leave Ireland, which is another way of saying that the novel itself never gets to leave, that it does not follow Stephen, that it is forever stuck in Dublin; it fails to complete the character’s cosmopolitan turn. Casanova’s point would be that Stephen’s cosmopolitanism has actually been present in Portrait all along at the level of technique, the tangible, typographic sign of which are the dashes that Joyce uses instead of quotation marks, which are, of course, not really an innovation, but simply how many continental European writers handle dialogue: Russian, French, Spanish. Cosmopolitanism is available to Joyce as an ethos, as a principle that characters can discourse about; and it is also available to him as a punctuation mark; but it remains oddly absent at the level of content. That is the condition of modernism.
Here, then, is a proposal, and it is the suggestion that actually concerns me here: In a tinkering spirit, one has to wonder about the unnamed counterpoint to Casanova’s chosen aesthetic—not a single-nation modernism, which is what she prefers, but a realism of many nations—Joyce’s Portrait, flipped. Ask yourself: If it is literary cosmopolitanism that we are after, why are we settling for Joyce’s Europeanized quotation marks? Why are stuck extrapolating the politics from a typographic convention? More broadly: Why is the argument about world literature proceeding entirely at the level of form and technique? Don’t you want to read novels whose narrators themselves travel from continent to continent—and not just from the provinces to Paris, or from Sussex to London, or between neighboring countries—but properly global novels? But then where are those titles? How many can you name? One begins to wonder whether the novel, as a form, in any of its modes, can absorb properly global or transcontinental content, since even on Casanova’s own account, this possibility seems entirely foreclosed. It’s the option that doesn’t even come up. Her formalism is to that extent a grave limitation, and one begins to suspect that an internationalism of content would be the utopian term that eludes her rickety conceptual scheme—utopian, that is, simply by virtue of being missing. We are accustomed to thinking of form as sedimented content—the formulation is Adorno’s—and we want to say in this spirit that certain literary techniques carry the globe with them. But then where are the naively planetary novels of which these techniques are the vaporings? Do we have in front of us the strange case of a sediment that precedes the object of which it is the residue? How could a novel make good on Joyce’s Hibernio-Slavic quotation dashes? Is it possible to reconstitute the body from that trace? Could a world literature actually tell stories about the world?
All one needs to know about Franco Moretti, meanwhile, is that he has written a book, The Modern Epic, which is perhaps the most bizarre contribution to literary history in the last generation, a book about “world texts”—“supranational works” of vast “geographical ambition”; of, indeed, “global ambition”—in which he for all intents and purposes identifies no such works. The real head-scratcher in The Modern Epic comes in the closing pages when Moretti confesses that he had meant to write a study of novels that conceptualize time into very long periods—super-historical novels, you might call them—but that he had realized as he wrote that he was interested in geographical expanse instead: spatial immensities rather than chronological ones. And yet none of the works he writes about are geographically expanded, which leaves the reader in the odd position of having a deflationary counter-epiphany. Moretti is surprised to have written the book he did, and the reader is surprised that he didn’t actually write that book. His key titles are two national allegories (One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children); a city novel (Ulysses); Wagner’s Ring cycle, which Moretti himself calls “spatially concentrated,” “a grand world, but one made up of few places”; and Goethe’s Faust, which so defies Moretti’s attempts to classify it as a “world text” that he finally breaks down and concedes that it is “a kind of national saga” after all. Instead of the modern epics that his title promises, Moretti has spread out before us a set of more or less unconvincing proxies: Maybe literary crowds and choruses can produce the effect of the world, by reproducing in prose what the planet feels like. Or maybe multiethnic nations can stand in for the world. Maybe department stores can. Or people walking shop-lined streets. Maybe we can say that an epochal and multi-generational narrative is about the world, provided we agree to read time as though it were space. But then why would we do that? Any solution this labored obviously discloses the actual problem, which is that extended space does not seem to be directly representable, and Moretti has not paused long enough to ask why. Why should we have to go through the detour of time? Why this nervous list of approximations? What becomes clear is that the one thing that Moretti most wants—the thing, too, that he has confoundingly convinced himself he has identified—is actually missing. So why do the theorists of world literature routinely make a hash of “the international” and “the national”? And do we have any counterproposals to make back to Moretti in a cooperative spirit? Where, finally, are the books he thought he was writing about?