An interview with David Damrosch

Dylan Suher

For a prolific scholar whose work covers such a wide range of topics—from ancient Akkadian poetry to the internecine disputes within 20th century American university literature departments—David Damrosch is refreshingly aware of his own limitations. In his 1995 book on the history and future of the American academy, We Scholars, Damrosch writes, "To be a truly multidisciplinary scholar, one would have to be the 'ideal reader with an ideal insomnia' whom Joyce desired for Finnegans Wake. Gradually, and to my regret, I have learned that I do, sometimes, need to sleep." This synthesis between the desire to realize utopian ambitions (world literature, collegial and productive scholarly collaboration) and a pragmatic awareness of how those ambitions have been hindered by historical circumstances and practical concerns has characterized Damrosch's career.

Currently the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature and Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, David Damrosch began his career in the study of a much earlier iteration of world literature. In his 1987 book The Narrative Covenant: Transformations of Genre in the Growth of Biblical Literature, Damrosch investigates the influence of ancient Near-Eastern literature (such as the Epic of Gilgamesh) on the narrative structure of the Hebrew Bible. This desire to explore literary eclecticism eventually led Damrosch to begin to question the organization of the modern university, resulting in books like We Scholars (1995) and Meetings of the Mind (2000), a comic memoir of Damrosch's struggle to meaningfully collaborate with three colleagues of vastly different critical and personal inclinations. Beginning with What is World Literature? in 2003, Damrosch has turned his attention to the "problem" of world literature. Although the concept of world literature may have its origins in Goethe's airy fantasies of "poetry [as] the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men," Damrosch himself gets down to the brass tacks of how to realize a world literature: anthologies, freshman survey courses, and books for the lay reader. To paraphrase Gramsci, Damrosch evinces a pessimism of the Norton's, but an optimism of the will.

The following interview was conducted in person in David Damrosch's office at Harvard, and edited for clarity, structure, and length.

—Dylan Suher

Why don't we start with what you did this summer: for the fourth year in a row, you directed the Institute for World Literature, a four-week program that brings together scholars, students, writers, and translators from all over the world to share knowledge and discuss the course of world literature. Can you talk to me about the genesis of this idea, and how it's evolved?

I started thinking about what became the Institute some years ago. I was going around giving talks in different places, and people seemed quite interested in the idea of thinking more broadly about world literature in a global context, but it seemed rather ephemeral, because so few places really train people to read much beyond a certain rather specific range of material: usually they're trained in their national tradition, and maybe in a regional one, or maybe their tradition in relation to Europe. So I thought of the School for Criticism and Theory that's been at Cornell for a number of years now, and they have a six-week summer program, started some thirty years ago in the period of the theory boom, for just this kind of idea: let's get people together to really think seriously about theory and then they can go home and use what they're doing. So I thought that that would be an interesting model.

But I also thought we should be global and not just talk about it, so it was important for me from the beginning that we rotate around. We go on a three-year schedule between Asia, Harvard, and either Europe or the Middle East. Unlike in the School for Criticism and Theory, where you do one seminar for the full time, we have two two-week sessions, so everyone can take two seminars. Ideally, you take one from an eminent, older scholar person and one from a really cool younger person, because the field is evolving so much that I think a lot of the best work now is done by younger people. People in their thirties are doing work that is qualitatively better than what I was doing in my thirties, there's no question about it, so we try to get those people teaching for us also.

In your book What is World Literature?, your answer to the title question, I think, is relatively innocuous: "I take world literature to encompass all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language." Yet, the very concept of world literature seems to incite a whole host of negative reactions (for example, the one we published in this very journal). So to add a question to your original question: what is world literature and why does it seem to make people so angry?

Well, happily, it seems to be interesting to a lot of people as well. But it's very interesting to me to think about that question because I think we're seeing a real paradigm shift underway under the influence of globalization: from the Western European focus of most comparative literature study towards a more global focus.

I think you can best think of this in terms of Pierre Bourdieu's theory of the cultural field, and of course any time an individual—and, all the more when some movement or a new perspective—begins to enter into the field—inevitably the proponents of that position will be staking out positions in relation to the existing discourse, and the people already active in the cultural field will have mixed feelings: some enthusiastic about the new perspective, some less so. And to the extent that any new movement is coming into scholarly discussion, it will take up a certain amount of discursive space that other people have been occupying. Hence it's an inherently conflictual situation—Bourdieu uses a military metaphor, the prise de position. And I think to some degree this is not only inevitable but healthy. When it's done well, this is how fields evolve.

What distresses me is when people get really angry, because I think that anger tends to rather short-circuit intellectual engagement. So when the prise de position gets militarized to the extent that it becomes a kind of cartoonish polemic in which people are constructing straw figures, which they then triumphantly demolish—I think this kind of polemic is not at all helpful.

Let's expand on this idea of discursive space and taking up space or a position in the cultural field. Some people will say if you focus on world literature, that privileges already overprivileged centers of economic and cultural power, centers of textual circulation. So why study these texts that have already made it into broad international circulation over texts that, for whatever reason, have remained isolated in their home territories? Why study "the winners"?

That's a very good question. I think that when the discussion gets ratcheted down to stark binary oppositions, it's rarely taking account of what's really going on. To some extent, a focus on world literature is a canonical focus and is inherently (as has been theorized by say, Franco Moretti, or differently by Pascale Casanova) an unequal system in which certain countries and certain cultures and certain centers have an advantage.

Franco's viewpoint is that if you just want to wish that inequality away, that's just wishful thinking, and inevitably you're going to have to begin from certain modes of transmission. One of the things I think that the study of world literature should do is to bring into this discourse all kinds of works that have been little circulated outside their home territories.

So I think it would be a mistake to think of this kind of study of circulation and reception as simply a passive acceptance of works' getting into the market. At least, in my case as an anthologist, I am always trying to push the market very hard. Let's say I make a claim that Aztec poetry becomes world literature by getting translated and circulated. Otherwise, no one is reading it outside Mexico and even almost no one in Mexico. So it gets read as a result; and I, by translating some Aztec poetry myself and also publishing in my anthology translations that were long out of print, bring into circulation a minor literature that no one else has been looking at for a long time. And the anthology provides a venue for reading these poems and a context for teaching them.

Now there's no way this stuff is getting out to readers abroad except by some kind of circulation, some kind of translation, because who's going to decide to read Nahuatl unless they have seen it, unless they are a heritage speaker (of which there are almost a million in Mexico, but beyond that, there aren't very many). So, you know, I don't think the study of world literature necessarily simply privileges the existing order.

Just to expand a little bit more on the critique of what's being privileged: the older comparative literature was, after all, largely limited to a couple of major powers in Western Europe. It was really just French, German and English, some American, a little bit of nineteenth-century and possibly some twentieth-century Russian literature, but most of Europe itself wasn't even in that discussion. Most Eastern European literatures were never discussed; Arabic literature of al-Andalus was never discussed; Icelandic literature was almost never discussed. So you'd be very hard put to find a comparatist of a generation ago who was reading and studying Icelandic, or even Portuguese, even Czech, even Polish, and these are major, major traditions. So it seems to me, one of the things that's happening is a long-overdue expansion of the field.

So we're talking about anthologies, we're talking about canons, we're talking about comparatists and the comparative literature institution, but what's at stake for a reader who has left school way behind? What can they gather from this discussion? How can it benefit them?

I think one of the things that's very interesting in this whole debate, and sometimes confused, is that there are several different kinds of world literatures even in one country. You have a world literature for a general readership, you have an academic world literature for undergraduates, and then you have a scholarly world literature where it's for advanced scholarship—these are quite different things and have different protocols and purposes.

The broad world literature for a general public tends to be mostly contemporary literature, with a few masterpieces from elsewhere. A lot of the interest in promoting world literature as a field comes about because people are curious about the wider world, and I think, in a quite readerly way. Literature, to my mind, provides a privileged mode of access to other ways of constructing reality, and if you're interested in that, then you should be interested in a broader range than what you only find in your own home tradition.

But one of the issues with that mode of reading is the risk of tokenism: that someone reads one book by Haruki Murakami and then decides that they understand the Japanese.


So how can someone who isn't in the academy, who has limited time and limited energy to research these things, ensure that they're reading these works in an ethical way, that they understand what their place is in the literary tradition, that they're also not tokenizing these works?

Here again we'd want to distinguish between the scholarly approach and the readerly approach, because I think serious engagement with world literature at the scholarly level does not rest with tokenism, but means learning languages, reading deeply into the field, and I think all of the interesting work in world literature today from a scholarly side involves intensive engagement with selected periods, cultures, and sets of authors.

For the general reader, of course, it's a slightly different thing because from classical Greece you may be reading one epic by Homer. Well, is that tokenism? You're not also reading the Iliad as well as the Odyssey? You're not also reading the great lyric poets? I mean, what a classicist would think you need to know to know Homer is not what the general reader needs to know to enjoy Homer. So the issue of tokenism has to balance with the question: Is it better to read something rather than nothing from a culture? An extreme kind of tokenism is simply erasure; if I had to choose, I'd begin with one and hope that people get excited and want to read more. And what you find is when a world author really takes off, that actually produces a lot of interest in that culture. So, you know, agents are trolling the cafes of Istanbul looking for the next Orhan Pamuk—and several more have already been found. The success of "Nordic noir" is producing vast amounts of translation and new international publishing possibilities for writers in small Scandinavian countries. So the first approach to a new culture will always be the first approach, and then the reader will decide, oh, I want to read more like that, or they'll go someplace else.

The other thing to be said about that, and you see people thinking about this already in the nineteenth century: even scholars only have so much time, and general readers, probably much less. No one is going to read fifty works each from a hundred different countries. I mean, that's five thousand works—it would take a while, maybe a lifetime.

It's not just a question of how open the market is to new works; it's also a question of what a reader can absorb. I've just agreed to do a book for Penguin for a general readership, and I had to decide how many works to discuss. I wanted more than the dozen or so to which Id give detailed attention in a scholarly book, but I didn't think it would work to have a page each on the close to five hundred authors that we included in the six-volume Longman Anthology of World Literature. So I'm calling the book Around the World in Eighty Books, with a strategic emphasis on classic works that people will recognize, together with as many less-known works as I thought I could fold in to the discussion, from the Popol Vuh to Nguyen Du's Tale of Kieu, the foundational work of modern Vietnamese literature. And even among the canonical classics, there are really only a very few books that most readers know outside their immediate tradition. I'll be including the Portuguese national epic, The Lusiads, and the Guatemalan Nobel Prize winner Miguel Angel Asturias, and the great midcentury novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, who was both a best-selling writer and also the first woman ever elected to the Académie française—these are little known outside their respective cultural spheres, and I'm hoping to encourage general readers to seek them out.

Particularly in smaller cultural markets, a number of the forward-looking comparatists in the nineteenth century who were really interested in getting the word out would decide, all right, I'm going to put my money on this author, who I think is one of our best authors, and who is also, among our best authors, the one who is most likely to have resonance outside of home. They would often pick the national poet at that time, Sándor Petőfi, the Hungarian, for example. One of the early comparatists, Hugo Meltzl—the founder of the first journal of comparative and world literature—got Petőfi translated into thirty-two different languages in his journal. So that was a very targeted idea. Or Georg Brandes, the great comparatist from Denmark, who was really concerned about the lack of interest in Scandinavian literature, promoted very heavily Ibsen and Kierkegaard. He put his money on those two people, and with a lot of success. And you know, it had a huge effect around the world. Now yes, the Japanese writers who got inspired by Ibsen in the 1890s didn't know very much, if anything, about the great variety of Scandinavian literature. Was that tokenism? Well, Ibsen had a huge effect on Meiji-era drama and prose, and I think that's a great thing.

So this brings up another question. What can be done both by academics, but also by readers, by publishers, by magazines, and by the literary press to ensure that we promote world literature and that a balanced, vibrant picture of what world literature is or maybe should be is maintained?

Well, there is not one view of world literature, so the question is balance. And one reason why we have these debates is that old battles are also being fought again on this new ground. Most of the issues around world literature versus comparative literature or postcolonial studies today can already be seen decades ago, just within American studies.

If you look at Gerald Graff's book Professing Literature, he's showing how many of the debates around the time that he's writing (circa the 1980s or so) were there in the teens and the twenties and thirties. So you had the philologists against the critics, for example, early in the century. This conflict morphs into the New Criticism versus the new historicism; this can now morph into the "new humanists" versus the postcolonialists; this can now morph into any of the above versus world literature. And in their debates decades ago, scholars asked questions like: how much linguistic rigor do you need? The philologists said, the critics are merely vague appreciators, aesthetes who are just skimming across the surface, with not enough cultural grounding, not enough linguistic grounding—exactly the same critiques that are now being leveled against world literature. And another big debate that persists: should the study of American literature focus on a few great authors, or should it be a much broader thing?

This goes on through the century: competing anthologies, courses, views. The Western Canon by Harold Bloom discusses about twenty-five works. I think comparative literature used to assume—and the world literature studies of a generation ago used to assume—that you studied a few masterpieces from around the world. Now there's much more interest in looking at a much broader range of materials. So to me, the balance does mean a mix of great classic works that have name recognition and are likely to find readers easily. And my strategy is always then to find ways to hang on to those writers, some fabulous, lesser-known writers, that I want people to come to read.

Additionally, most people only encounter world literature within their own cultural space. It's what's available to you in translation or in the languages you can learn in school, which is a very select set of languages in almost every place (really, any place), and it's particularly selective in most places; or it's what you read in translation, what's in the bookstore, what's reviewed, what's talked about.

To that degree, world literature actually differs in different parts of the world. One of my complaints with people who are criticizing world literature studies today as being Americanism exported is that the people who say that are just not paying attention to the variety of world literature in different places. They never talk about what's been published in Estonia for the last twenty years, what's been published in Japan for a hundred years—there have been anthologies of world literature in those places, there are magazines—competing magazines—of world literature in Poland today. Unless you're going to look at that, then you don't even have a way to begin to discuss to what extent there's an Americanization, which is real, but limited and complex and part of a much richer global scene than many people realize.

So proper balance means, for one thing, that the balance will be different in each cultural sphere. And maybe different in even say a large country like the United States, because there would be a kind of world literature for general readers that is probably different from what it would be for academic readers.

Thinking about what world literature looks like in different parts of the world: you've had a fairly substantial level of engagement with China recently, co-editing an anthology of world literature with Chen Yongguo, a professor in the School of Humanities at Tsinghua University. So what was that process like? What does world literature look like in China?

I would say, as a general principle, more than any particular work that I think one needs in a world literature anthology, you want to have a presentation that helps people think about how their own literature relates to the wider world around them and particularly to the subaltern cultures which they tend to not see. So it was quite interesting when I was doing this anthology together with Chen Yongguo, that's coming out now from Peking University Press, that he wanted more American literature and more French literature than I had had in mind to put in. To me, that was a surprise. So we include some writers like Saul Bellow whom I wouldn't have thought to put him in an anthology today—although he's a Nobel Prize winner and a very interesting author—but he's not so current in our discussions in the United States as various other authors. Whereas Yongguo really wanted Saul Bellow.

Which Saul Bellow?

"Looking for Mr. Green." It's quite an interesting story. It deals with racial and gender politics, and I didn't know it! It's more interesting than most of Bellow's novels, in fact, and a relatively early work. So that actually taught me something about American literature I didn't know. Although I had been a fan of Bellow's, I didn't know that one.

Conversely, I was pressing for the inclusion of Vietnamese literature, which my Chinese colleague had never read. And it seems to me that it's very important in the Chinese case to get them to think about the wider East Asian sphere. We've got Korean and Vietnamese and Japanese works, so that's a kind of a balance. And also it's important to have Chinese works in there.

In the Chinese context, world literature often means foreign literature—anything outside China. You sometimes see that in America, of course, too. Some teachers of American world literature courses don't teach any English or American literature because they say, "Oh, students get that anyway." I think it's much more important to have an integrated presentation that shows how your culture is part of the world. And that's really a political as well as an aesthetic agenda, of course.

And you've also written about the need to re-situate the historical framework. A lot of these anthologies are arranged, if not strictly chronologically, into historical periods that correspond to traditional Western ideas of what these periods should look like (i.e., medieval, early modern, etc.). So how should we also readjust the historical framework so as not to privilege the West and the contemporary?

Actually, Emily Apter has a nice short chapter on this, "The Problem with Eurochronology," in her new book Against World Literature. I think it's really a great issue to explore. She talks there about the twentieth century; it seems to me the issues get much more complex when you then get to earlier periods because periodization over the large scale has remained very Western. Even when a literary history is written by scholars outside the West, they have often adopted Western styles of periodization. Sisir Kumar Das, for example, in his history of Indian literature, ends up mapping a British-style long nineteenth century onto Indian literature. Even though he's very much about vernacular Indian traditions and doesn't want to just show their relation to England, the actual temporal frame he adopts looks a lot like British literary history. So I think we need to become aware of this problem, and work against it, and shape the historical frame towards what's appropriate for the actual material that we're dealing with.

The other thing I think about literary history is that, particularly for general readers or introductory anthologies, maybe we want to think about reversing the direction and go more from the present to the past, or counterpointing early and late, and just shake it up. Even as, say, we put together Kafka's Metamorphosis with Ovid's, you then want to say, ok, what is modern about Ovid? I think part of the problem with the eurochronology, particularly as we find it in academic institutions in this country, is that there's some assumption that you have a century or a period and one follows neatly from the next. Whereas to me, it's much more like what T.S. Eliot says, that there's what he calls an "ideal order" that constantly changes. Let's say it's a conflicting order or a shifting order: what you've read is in your mind, and any writer has in their mind a lot of stuff that they haven't periodized.

I also think even these larger categories of say, the ancient and the modern are simplistic categories that we need to question, because in antiquity, there are relatively archaizing and relatively modernizing writers. It's much more interesting to think about how these categories need to be adopted across periods and within them fractally.

What first got you interested in world literature studies?

I think I first got interested in world literature—well, I'll give you a couple of different instances, not too long a set of answers. So one is that my parents were missionaries, they met in the Philippines, back just before World War II. They were there for about a dozen years, and it was in the prime of their life. My father learned the Igorot language in the mountain provinces in the Philippines. They moved back to the US by the time the Korean War happened, before I was born, but I grew up hearing about this other part of the world that they knew well and felt connected to.

A second thing was an art history survey course I took as a freshman in college, which was just a typical Western art history course (from the Greeks up to the Renaissance in the first semester). My particular section leader was a young assistant professor who was a specialist in Mesoamerican art. And he put in a week on Aztec and Mayan art just because he could. No other section had it; I just happened to be in that section. I got interested in Aztec art and wrote my little term paper on a statue: a very interesting, mysterious, uncanny statue of a goddess named Coatlicue that's in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City.

And to try and understand its iconography—I was just a freshman, I wasn't doing real research—but I looked around a little and came upon a book by Miguel Léon-Portilla called Aztec Thought and Culture. Léon-Portilla was using a lot of the Aztec poetry in order to understand the thought world because, for him as for me, literature is a privileged mode of access—not the only one, but a great one to see inside other people's minds, never simply reflecting reality but refracting it in interesting ways. So he quotes a lot of this poetry. And I thought it was beautiful; I'd never seen anything like it. Now I was reading a translation of a translation, because I was reading English translations of his Spanish translations of the Nahuatl. But I said to myself that if I ever got the chance, I'd love to study that language. And then, in graduate school, I found a course being offered in Nahuatl in the anthropology department. The enrollment doubled when I signed up. My director of graduate studies, Bart Giamatti, threatened to defenestrate me when I asked for credit for this, but he did give me credit. So even at Yale in those days, they were beginning to think, well, if you're strange enough to want to do this, go ahead!

Thinking about Yale, then: you've described yourself before as, what was it, "recovering structuralist"?

"A structuralist in recovery!"

"A structuralist in recovery." So you were a graduate student at Yale, in the late seventies, when Paul de Man was there, when J. Hillis Miller was there—

—and Peter Brooks, who was very important to me.

Right. So what was it like being a graduate student in that environment, and how did it shape your critical lens?

While I was at Yale, there was a sort of European theory-based kind of comparative literature, and I was doing the undergraduate Literature major, very much centered on theoretical questions. But I also used to say that my major was "necrolinguistics," because I was interested in several so-called dead languages, so I was studying a lot of that. On the one hand you've got this structuralism turning into poststructuralism. Geoffrey Hartman was my dissertation sponsor; and there was Peter Brooks, and I studied with de Man as well. But then I also was working with people in ancient and medieval literatures—Egyptian, Greek, Latin, Old Norse, Middle High German—and they had a very different commitment to reality, even though they had a very strong sense of gaps, aporias, not in the deconstructive sense but because so much of the record was missing. It was quite interesting to have these two perspectives that seem so opposite but actually, similar things might come up. From the kind of indeterminacy of the text that de Man would talk about in Rousseau or Schlegel to the indeterminacy that you simply don't know what an unusual heiroglyph meant or what the lost half of that text had been—that contrast is very interesting to me.

I then went on the job market and got hired by Columbia. So having gone from Yale, where I'd arrived as a freshman the same year de Man published Blindness and Insight, to teaching at Columbia two years after Said had published Orientalism, suddenly I found myself in another context again, where people were thinking of reality and history quite differently than how Hartman and de Man were thinking of reality and history. That had a huge impact on me. It would have been hard to be in that environment and not be very much changed.

Your father was a missionary, and then you begin to study scripture from an academic viewpoint—what was his reaction? What kind of transition was that?

I think he was pleased and slightly puzzled, I suppose? You know, I feel that any form of serious criticism is some kind of autobiography; it relates to your background, and it's good to be aware of that. One doesn't need to necessarily overemphasize it, but I certainly come out of a certain context. You could say one of the first places I learned—maybe the first place I learned—literary analysis was listening to my father's sermons. Week in and week out, he was a very good preacher, and as he went on in life he stopped using notes and would just preach without a written text. He would make these beautiful expositions of a little episode in one of the Gospels and so on. It was also interesting because, if you go year in and year out, there's a three-year cycle in the Episcopal Church, and that same text comes back three years later. The preacher has to say something different than he or she had said three years before, six years before, nine years before.

So I got a sense of evolution, indeterminacy, and also saw how much of my father's own biography would come in. References, say, back to the Philippines, would come in to his exposition of something in the Gospels. So I haven't thought about it this way before, but undoubtedly a lot of my sense of what one does with a literary analysis came from that, and, of course, always for the purpose of building a community, with an ethical purpose. That remains very important to me.