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What is World Literature?

This is a very obvious question to start off with. Naturally, the course as a whole is
meant to answer this question -- World Literature (hereinafter WL) is in some sense
its contents, and the course is designed to acquaint you with those contents.
However, it is good to provide some basic concepts of WL so that you will understand
why the course is organized the way it is, and in order to justify some of its activities
and objectives.
The simplest way of thinking of WL is that it is literature that has a readership and an
impact beyond its original language and cultural area. Examples include the Bible,
and the plays of William Shakespeare, both of which have been translated into more
than 100 languages and are read or performed on every continent. Another example
of this is the Lotus Sutra from 1st c. India. It was translated into several languages,
including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, between the 3 rd and 13th c, and
later it went on to inspire Allen Ginsbergs Sunflower Sutra in the mid20th century. Clearly, the phenomenon of WL bears some relation to the broader issue
of Globalization. We will provide you with a working definition of Globalization in
Lesson 2, but for now, Globalization refers to the ways in which forces like travel,
migration, religious conversion, trade, war, colonization, and the general circulation
of ideas increase connectivity and interdependence of regional cultures; they
increase the interactions between groups of people that previously may have had
little or no contact with each other.
The first thing to consider is that WL is a category of literary production, publication,
and circulation that has "legs." This means that it is a work of literature that is a
touchstone of local culture; in other words, it becomes a standard for a local
culture. It then becomes an influence on a regional culture, and later a part of the
fabric of global community. It moves from local to regional to global.
In addition to having legs, World Literature is literature that gains in
translation. This means that it may inspire new genres, enrich a local tongues
vocabulary through the adaptation of new words, blend with regional concepts, or
take on new meanings at different times and places. These are works that are able
to adapt themselves to and acquire meaning in different cultures.
Simple as all this sounds, like most definitions it hides some complexities, only a few
of which will be aired here. The first one is that it is not so easy to define what
"literature" is, nor to determine where its boundaries lie. According to etymology,
"literature" is anything that is written or printed, i.e. composed of letters. "Literacy,"
after all, simply means the ability to read material of any type. However, scholars
with titles that include "Literature" tend to think of their object of study both more
narrowly and (surprise!) more broadly than that. More narrowly, in that the written
work we study is work of the imagination and not factual: poetry, stories, theatrical
pieces are literature; newspapers, legal documents, and chemistry textbooks are not

More broadly, in that works of the imagination can take forms other than writing.
Looking back to preliteracy, we have what is called Orature, namely poetry, stories,
theatrical pieces, songs, myths, and legends that were composed and transmitted
orally before writing was ever introduced into a culture. We assume that the stories in
Genesis, the first book of the Bible, were preserved in this fashion before being
written down. You may have heard of the Greek bard Homer, who is reputed to have
"composed" two lengthy epics orally, without writing anything down. Now let's fastforward to our own day, which is described by some as an epoch of "secondary
orality." Cinema, television, and popular music are three forms that are absorbed and
at times memorized by audiences without their reading anything. Should they be
included as literary forms too? What about role-playing video games such as Second
Life or World of Warcraft? They definitely engage the imagination, have plot,
characters, and other qualities that we associate with literature. Should they be
included as well?
We won't be exploring these issues in depth in this course, because our basic
information source is the printed Longman Anthology that does not contain
screenplays or pop songs. Hence, for practical purposes and simply for the purposes
of this course, we could formulate the following axiom: for a work to become part
of world literature, is must be written down. (Actually it also needs to be
translated, but we'll get to that point later.) Nevertheless, you should keep in mind
that many of the texts we are reading (e.g., Homer) began as oral compositions, and
that we will be exploring the role that modern technologies play in transmitting
literary texts.

What about the "World" part of World Literature? Is it the same "world" as when my
high school offered "world languages"?
This is the other complexity of our definition. It is relatively clear what English
literature is, or German literature: it is literature composed in those languages.
But clearly this does not apply to WL.
Let us introduce by way of explanation four major ways in which WL has been
conceived since the term was first used in the late 18th century.
1. WL as a comprehensive corpus of all literary texts in all languages of the world
2. WL as an anthropological comparison of how different cultures develop literary forms
3. WL as a hypercanon of "the best that has been thought and said" by selected writers of the world
4. WL as the process of diffusion of texts around the globe through translation, adaptation, rewriting, etc.

Conceptually, #1 is probably the easiest to grasp: world literature is simply all of the
world's literature. On the other hand, it is the most unwieldy to work with in
practice. #2 should be thought of in opposition to #4: rather than thinking about how
literary forms or ideas move from one culture to another, we instead look at cultures
that have no contact, but notice that each has developed myths, or each has
developed lyric poetry, etc. In actual fact, there are literary forms such as myth and
lyric that seem to be universal, whereas others, such as the novel or tragedy, seem
to have developed in a specific regions and been introduced elsewhere through
processes of globalization. A "canon" is a group of approved or highly regarded,
"must-read" texts. Any literary anthology, since it obviously must make selections,
posits its own canon, but the idea of canon invoked in #3 is more that of a national
literary canon, those texts that have proven enduring and have continued to "live" in
the culture. The "hyper-" of "hypercanon" in #3 indicates that WL is composed of a
canon of the best of various national canons, the best of the best. In fact, that is very
much what the Longman Anthology consists of. #4 focuses on the fact that when
literary forms or works "travel" from one part of the globe to another, they are
inevitably changed -- and they also alter the receiving culture's literary canon. WL is
that process of continual travel, rewriting, and mediation of literary texts across
cultural boundaries.
Here's a thought-experiment for you. Take a look at the syllabus, and especially at
the lesson plan for this version of CMLIT010. Then, using a simple ANGEL
assessment, RANK the four conceptions of WL in order of their importance in
determining course design and content. Which seems, based on the organization and
activities of the course, to be most important, and which least? Tell us what you think
Our own ranking would be:
1. (most important) anthropological comparison
2. learning the hypercanon
3. process of diffusion
4. (least important) comprehensive corpus

If you had a different ranking that's OK, you may have used different clues than we
did to come up with it. You may have stumbled over "anthropological comparison"
because you signed up to study literature, not anthropology! The reason it ranks first
is because the course material is divided by regions of the world, which indicates an
anthropological concern with the expression of different cultures through their
literatures. You will have noticed that the course is divided into 6 units. Each of these units focuses on a
geographic area, exploring the bases of regional cultures and charting their increased hybridity. Our units of
study are: First Civilizations, including Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome; India; China
and Japan; Arabia and its influence on Spain, Africa, and the Americas.The literature we will read is strongly
identified with the region of the world that it comes from, while at the same time holding enough interest for the

rest of the world to have become part of WL.

The editors of your anthology also seemed to have #1 uppermost in their minds -- it is the basic idea behind
many of the "Perspectives" sections, including the very first one, on creation myths. The first sentence of that
section (p. 28) is a classic statement of the anthropological approach to WL: "Every culture tells tales of the
origins of the world." Two literary forms are invoked here -- tales and (by implication) myths -- that carry a
universal content (the origin of the world) that is strongly shaped by the values of the cultures that tell them.

The foundational nature of many of the texts on the syllabus, from the Analects of
Confucius to the Qur'an, may have led you to select the hypercanon as the most
important element of the course. That is very understandable, and we certainly hope
you will come away from CMLIT010 with a command of a subset of the hypercanon of
WL. But if that had been our first concern, we might have organized the course
according to the ten best creative writers in world history, for example, which we did
not do.
The third is the process of diffusion. If that had been our first concern, we might have
begun the course with the history of writing technology, from cuneiform to the World
Wide Web. We might also have a long theoretical discussion of translation, which is
essential for diffusion of texts across the globe. Instead, we will examine these issues
with selected texts.
Finally, it should be obvious that no three-credit course can make much headway
with a comprehensive corpus of all the world's literary texts. We must be selective.
However, there is one important comprhensive aspect to this course and to the
anthology: we attempt to include something from all the world's continents.
For the Pennsylvania Department of Education, "World Language" is simply a different way of saying "second
language" or "foreign language," and in practical terms it means any language other than English. The two WLs
(World Literature and World Languages) share an idea of "world" as moving beyond the zone of familiarity of
the English language. However, World Literature does not exclude English-language works, though it does decenter them in relation to a course in English or US literatures.

Now for the Boring Stuff: Course Expectations

This course has a few expectations. The first of these is that you must read! There
are weekly quizzes you must take, weekly blog entries you must respond to, a U.S.
epic we will be creating as a group, the transformation of a text from one literary
form into another, and a mystery text analysis.
So, there are three basic elements that make up the course: 1) readings in WL
(mostly from the anthology but a few posted separately on ANGEL); 2) lesson
material, for example what you are reading now; and 3) exercises and activities, from
the simple and ungraded to the complex worth a substantial portion of your grade.

You will develop the ability to analyze a work of literature based on the following
1. geography and culturewhere does a text originate? What cultural values does it represent?;
2. formhow is this text written? Is it verse? is it prose? is it drama?;
3. themewhat are some of the themes in a text? Do these themes repeat themselves within one
culture? Within other cultures? Throughout time?;
4. process of disseminationhow do these texts reach other geographic areas? How do they affect other
cultures? How are they translated in order to be understood or adapted to another culture?
It should be apparent that most of these echo the different conceptions of WL. Specifically, the first, second, and
third can all be related to the anthropological comparison of cultures.

Reading Preparation
To prepare for your readings, you must purchase the anthology required for this
class. It is the Longman Anthology of World Literature, Compact Edition, edited by
David Damrosch. You can find the complete information for this text on your
syllabus. To help you and give you some time to purchase your textbook, I have
provided you with versions of the readings for the first week. However, I would like to
caution you that many of these versions have different translations from what is in
the textbook and this may cause a little bit of confusion at first. You will not be
successful in this class if you do not read!
There are approximately 150-200 pages of reading to do per week. This may seem
like a lot, but it's actually only twenty to thirty pages per day. Read daily and
manage your time wisely!
Although there is no strict deadline for a specific reading, you must do the readings
for a particular week within that week in order to keep up with the readings
themselves and to be able to complete the assignments for that week.
As youre reading, you should always be thinking of the four components I previously
mentioned: geography, form, theme, and process of dissemination. Its a good idea
to keep a record of those four components for everything you read. The first three
components will be more obvious at first, but as you read texts from other
geographic areas, the process of dissemination will seem cleared.