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Your language or mine?

Michael Cronin

An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day, by Alexander Beecroft, Verso, 320 pp, £19.95, ISBN: 978-1781685730

At 15,600 feet the porters decided they had had enough. The German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and his three companions ‑ Bonpland, Montúfar and José ‑ had no option but to continue their ascent of Chimborazo in the Andes alone. Their feet and gums bled, their hands froze and they became increasingly dizzy. But they never made it to the top. At 19,413 feet above sea level, faced with a huge uncrossable crevasse, they had to turn back. In early afternoon of June 23rd, 1802, though they conceded defeat, they also realised that no one had ever come this high, not even the early balloonists in Europe von Humboldt so admired.

Another more lasting realisation came to the German scientist as he looked down from the mountain. He began to think of all the plants, rock formations and the measurements he had taken in the Alps, the Pyrenees and on the island of Tenerife. What he saw was connections, linkages. He later expressed this vision in a sketch of Chimborazo in cross-section where, as his most recent biographer, Andrea Wulf, puts it: “Humboldt showed plants distributed according to their altitudes, ranging from subterranean mushroom species to the lichens that grow below the snow line. At the foot of the mountain was the tropical zone of palms and further up, the oaks and fern-like shrubs that preferred a more temperate climate.” This Naturgemälde, or “painting of nature”, showed that nature was a global force containing corresponding climate zones across continents. Von Humboldt was less interested in taxonomic differentiation ‑ the prevailing paradigm ‑ and more attuned to climactic connectedness. In other words, he noted how similar conditions could produce strikingly similar responses in very different parts of the world.

Alexander Beecroft is similarly impatient with attempts to survey the literatures of the world driven by the lure of the taxonym. He claims that the ordering of the different writings of the planet using the convenient shorthand of geography (“Latin American writing”) or the slide rule of time (“Renaissance Prose”) obscures more than it reveals. Moreover, previous attempts by Franco Moretti and Pascale Casanova to sketch out the literary landscapes of the planet largely either ignored the pre-modern and the pre-Western or, as in the case of the Harvard scholar David Damrosch, were only concerned with what the West has made of the pre-modern. Beecroft, as a scholar of ancient Greece and classical China, is sensitive to these omissions and partiality. His bold move is to take the ecological notion of “biome” ‑ the set of typological conditions of climate and terrain found in different parts of the world and generating similar kinds of adaptation in plants and animals ‑ and apply it to literature.

Literary biomes are “particular patterns of ecological constraints operating on the circulation of literary texts in a variety of different historical contexts”. So what might these constraints be? Beecroft lists off the linguistic situation, the political world, economics, religion, cultural politics (literature as folk-art, elite activity or mass-produced commodity) and the technologies of distribution. The circulation of Homeric poetry between city-states in classical Greece or the use of Sanskrit to compose inscriptional poetry in Java and its later substitution by poetry in Javanese or the jockeying for position between different national literatures in the modernist metropolis of Paris are “not so much competing models for understanding how literature circulates, but rather different concrete answers, emerging in specific contexts, to the same set of problems about the interactions between literatures and their environments”.

Six patterns are used to describe the nature of these interactions and each of these is the subject of a chapter in the book: the epichoric; panchoric; cosmopolitan; vernacular; national; global. The epichoric refers to an extremely localised literature, a form of oral storytelling practised, for example, by an indigenous people with limited contact with the outside world. The panchoric is the ecology of a small-scale polity where literary and other cultural artefacts begin to circulate more broadly and where there is a sense of some kind of shared cultural unity. An example here would be the panhellenic culture of archaic and classical Greece. A cosmopolitan ecology is to be found whenever a single literary language is employed over a large territorial range and for a prolonged period of time. Greek, Latin, Chinese and Arabic are clear candidates here. They are generally the consequence of the construction of great world empires, whether those of Alexander the Great, the Han in China or the Islamic caliphate. Vernacular ecologies emerge when a variety of a locally spoken language acquires sufficient cultural resources to begin to compete with the dominant cosmopolitan language, as with Italian and French in the European Renaissance. National ecologies develop out of vernacular ecologies and are linked to the democratic revolutions and emerging nationalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Crucial to these ecologies are the developing disciplines of literary history, which trace a progressive narrative for national literatures from rustic beginning to modern flourishing. The final literary ecology, the global, is for a form of “literary circulation that truly knows no borders”. The language that is seen to be at the heart of this particular form of ecology is English, with all the questions this raises in terms of the tension between the “local” origins of this literature (US, Canadian, Indian, English, Scottish, Irish, Australian) and the “global” nature of its dissemination and impact.

Ecology is often associated with a distinct celebration of the local and threading through Beecroft’s arguments is a recurrent concern with the relationship of the “local” to larger frames of meaning. However, the US critic makes the point early on in his discussion of panchoric literature that the very notion of the local only makes sense if it is local to something else. A local that has no local is a universal. When Greek and Chinese writers begin to construct a panchoric literary identity they draw on pre-existing cultural elements in ways that are both identifiable and incoherent. In the collection of three hundred songs in classical Chinese known as the Canon of Song (Shi Jing), whose editorship is attributed to Confucius, and in Homer’s Iliad, there are sections that ostensibly bring together the constituent parts of Chinese and Hellenic culture to create a greater whole.

In the first section of the Canon of Song, known as the “Airs of the States”, the geography of places mentioned is notional rather than real. There is no year or even century when all “the states represented in the Airs of the States might have co-existed”. In the ‘Catalogue of the Ships’ section in Book Two of the Iliad, we find a list of the twenty-nine lands (and cities located within them) that have sent troops to fight at Troy. There is again a problem with the geography. Some places mentioned are extremely obscure, others do not appear to have ever existed and others again had ceased to exist by the time of the classical era. Beecroft’s argument is that this geographical imprecision is not so much to do with the ineptitude of the compilers as with the imperatives of identification. If the locations are too specific or limited in number, potential candidates for this new panchoric ecology will feel excluded. A mixture of seemingly exact description (even the most obscure places make it to the list) and extensive range (taking in a large number of territories) means that local allegiances are accommodated in the emerging cultures of panhellenism and the Zhou dynasty. But this is a local that only makes sense in the context of larger frameworks of identification. The song “Mary of Dungloe” contains a very specific reference to a town in Donegal and is an important point of reference for natives of the town. However, the song itself is dispiritingly weak on specific geographic detail (“I wish I was in sweet Dungloe / And seated on the grass”) and thus serves its purpose admirably as a more generic form of Irish emigrant homesickness. The reference is local enough to excite local (Donegal) interest but not local enough to exclude other more generic (Irish) interests.

A language is a dialect with a bayonet. A language is a dialect with an army. A language is a dialect with a regional assembly. These are common, rule-of-thumb descriptions to deal with the vexed question of what is and is not a language. Beecroft adds his own and claims that a “language is a dialect with a literature”. It is not enough to develop a writing system. Missionaries and field linguists have done this for centuries for the speech varieties of countless groups around the planet. The crucial difference is the aesthetic self-awareness which means that certain conventions of diction and syntax makes these conventions culturally prestigious and desirable. What happens in the case of cosmopolitan languages ‑ Arabic, Greek, Sanskrit, Persian, Latin, Chinese ‑ is that the conventions become attractive to many millions of non-native speakers of these languages. Not only this but long after these languages cease to be the primary instrument of military conquest or trade they continue to exert a considerable influence. Persian as a cosmopolitan literary language was used at the Ottoman court in Istanbul, the Safavid court in Esfahan and the Mughal court in Delhi for centuries after the eclipse of Persian imperial power. Latin continued to dominate the intellectual and religious life of the Christian West for over a thousand years after the fall of Rome. Explanations for the enduring prestige of cosmopolitan languages can be found in the fact of generally low literacy and non-use of vernacular languages for literary purposes. Using a cosmopolitan language was the most effective way of putting a literary text into wide circulation. The elite education provided by the universities of Bologna, Oxford, Heidelberg and the Sorbonne or the preparation for the civil service examinations in China emphasised the centrality of cosmopolitan literary languages, even when vernacular languages acquired increasing prestige. This is, perhaps, not so surprising, in that in addition to continuing low levels of literacy there was often a wide gap between the vernacular the people spoke and what the writers wrote. In other words, learning the literary form of the vernacular did not necessarily make communication any easier.

An unfortunate consequence of the nationalisation of language in the nineteenth century is that national literary histories were keen to demote the role of cosmopolitan languages. These languages were seen to trouble a story of spontaneous, indigenous, organic growth. At worst, they were the malign remnants of foreign occupation, at best, a harmless hangover from a past best forgotten. In the debate that rages in France in the late seventeenth century between the Ancients, championed by Boileau, and the Moderns, led by Charles Perrault, the prestige of the classical authors of antiquity is pitched against the technical inventiveness of the great minds of modernity. The Moderns will over the course of the long nineteenth century emerge victorious and classical languages will eventually disappear from the curricula of many (though by no means all) educational systems in Europe. Beecroft worries about the consequences of this for Western understanding of its own intellectual traditions.

Closer to home, one might wonder at the effects of the almost complete invisibility in Irish formal education of Latin writings by Irishmen and Irishwomen for over a thousand years. From the correspondence of Columbanus to the voluminous neo-Latin writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, over a millennium of Irish experience and expression remains largely unknown and unread, forever isolated beyond the pale of national vernaculars. The exclusion from this past means not only the loss of this invaluable record of speculation by both native and newcomer on the island of Ireland but it also results in fatally truncated understandings of the national languages of Irish and English, whose development has been enduringly marked by the influence of the cosmopolitan literary language of Latin.

The growing prestige of vernacular languages in different parts of the globe began to undermine the position of the dominant cosmopolitan languages. French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese began to argue the case for the suitability of their languages for literary expression. In the Greco-Roman and Christian cosmopolis, Armenian, Coptic and Syriac emerge as the earliest European vernaculars. The earliest literary texts in Syriac date to the third century AD and literature dealing with Manichaean topics appear in Coptic in the same century. The Armenian alphabet. dating back to 405 AD, allows initially for the translation of works from other languages and subsequently for the production of a literature by indigenous authors in Armenian. Beecroft argues that the most promising regions for the development of a vernacular literature ecology are those places on the periphery of a cosmopolis but outside the reach of a centralising imperial state while still being subject to the influence of a cosmopolitan literary culture. He claims: “Such regions are especially likely to develop vernacular literatures when their own spoken languages (as is true in contexts from Japanese to Irish, from Tamil to Javanese) are unrelated to the cosmopolitan language, making the resources and energy required to learn that language greater, in the long run, than those required to literize and literarize a vernacular.” Ironically, in the Irish case, it was this very distance from the dominant cosmopolitan language that would make them efficient teachers of Latin in the Carolingian and Merovingian educational renaissance. They approached it as a foreign language and produced effective grammatical and teaching materials for European populations for whom Latin was equally a foreign language or had become so due to increasing vernacular estrangement from the language of a vanished empire.

As vernacular languages take on the trappings of state and nationhood in the nineteenth century one of the problems was what variety of the language would become the literary standard? If Alessandro Manzoni, author of I promessi sposi (1827) declared in the revised edition of his novel that he was going “to wash his sheets in the Arno” and embrace the Tuscan dialect, what about the rest of Italy? In the year of Italian unification, 1870, it was estimated that about 2.5 per cent of the Italian population spoke the standard Italian based on this dialect. The present-day Han Chinese population speak a large number of mutually unintelligible languages and “even the roughly 70 per cent of Han Chinese who speak so-called Mandarin dialects average only 72 per cent mutual intelligibility on the lexical level, or roughly the same percentage as between French and Spanish”. These figures, of course, do not take account of the fifty-five recognised minority language groups in China which make up almost ten per cent of the population. The prevalence of a national language literary ecology has meant an almost axiomatic equation of one state, one language with the inevitable exclusion and marginalisation of less-favoured dialects and minority languages. Another more perverse effect is illustrated by the tick box essentialism of ATMs. In many countries, the customer is frequently invited to choose between different languages of instruction which are literally flagged by the national insignia of particular nations. For the hapless Irish or Canadian tourist whose finger hovers over the Union Jack, there is that fleeting moment of ontological doubt as to whether culture and language are a neat fit. Does speaking English make me a flag-bearer for British culture (whatever that might mean)? Thus, the single nation-language-culture of national literary ecologies produces strange pathologies of definition and confinement. It is little wonder that one of the most persistent demands of contemporary European populism has been the rigid enforcement of national language tests and the removal of supports for translation and interpreting services into the mother tongues of migrants. As the 2015 general election manifesto of the British Conservative Party put it, “Being able to speak English is a fundamental part of integrating into our society We have introduced tough new language tests for migrants and ensured councils reduce spending on translation services.” Speaking the shibboleths of the tribe is in this view the ultimate way of marking belonging.

Speaking English, of course, is not only a Conservative Party dream ticket to integration. It is also, increasingly, it would seem the indispensable calling card for participation in the agora of world literature. English is the source language for more than half of the translations done in the world, even though percentage figures for translated literature into English generally hover around 3 per cent. The emergence of English as a hyper-central language in a global literary ecology has, some argue, consequences beyond hogging shelf space in international airport bookstores. In a study of contemporary Italian fiction carried out by the writer and critic Tim Parks and his colleagues in Milan it was found that more and more Italian writers were tending to place adjectives before nouns, using possessives rather than reflexives to indicate body parts and expressing subject pronouns, all properties typically associated with the English rather than the Italian language. The American sinologist Stephen Owen, writing on contemporary Chinese poetry, claimed that the use of spare, translation-friendly diction, universal themes and strategic dashes of local colour was evidence of a writing directed primarily at Western, primarily English-speaking, markets. If location was a central part of the plot of the nineteenth century novel (Balzac’s Paris, Dickens’s London) is it anything more than decorative detail in Scandi-noir, the scenic Bond-like backdrop to a plot that could be situated anywhere? Beecroft is less pessimistic about this emerging global literary ecology and sees as one of the most notable features of the present moment the prevalence of multi-strand narration, or what he dubs “the plot of globalization”. What he has in mind here are multi-layered novels  like Roberto Bolaño’s 2066 or Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, where the narration moves across a variety of different places, periods, languages. The Sea of Poppies (2008), the first novel of Ghosh’s trilogy, concludes with a “Chrestomathy” which provides an (occasionally misleading) guide to the numerous indigenous words from different languages and various proto-Global Englishes employed in the work. This hybridised English is markedly different from the dismal mono-speak envisaged by some of the more pessimistic critics of the current global political ecology. More fundamentally, however, the vast majority of non-European languages still find themselves excluded from the global literary system due to a paucity of published translations.

A work with such an ambitious title invites derision. Is this a crackpot literary scientist with a vision of world domination that does not so much challenge old taxonomies as create new ones? Beecroft does much to allay one’s fears. His scholarly background in classical Chinese means that there is a noticeable absence of the Eurocentrism that has bedevilled other similarly wide-ranging surveys. He is frank about what he knows and does not know and the breadth of his reading is extensive and persuasive. Inevitably, in a work of this nature, the mapping of the contours can make you long for more oases of textual detail but readings of individual texts where they do occur are generous and insightful. The American critic has climbed his own particular mountain and for students of the world’s literatures there is no turning back.

Michael Cronin teaches in Dublin City University. His Eco-Translation: Translation and Ecology in the Age of the Anthropocene will be published later this year by Routledge.



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