Elisabeth Strayer, World Literature and Questions of Scale in Victorian Studies
In his compelling essay “A View on the Unification of Literature” (1922), Zheng Zhenduo critiques the division of literary studies into linguistic and national categories. “We know that we should unify time, place, people and genre to pursue a thorough and encompassing study of philosophy. It is the same with regard to history, art, biology, sociology, and economics,” writes Zheng. “Why then should literature alone be an exception? Why are there only specific studies of authors, times, places, and genres, but no universal and unified study?” (60). Nearly a century later, the tendency to classify lingers; English departments remain largely separated from comparative literature, medieval studies, Romance languages, and their other academic siblings. Though interdisciplinary projects have begun to flourish (particularly in fields such as digital humanities), Zheng’s call to break down departmental walls has yet to see fruition on a grand, institutional level.
Similar concerns saturate the special issue of boundary2 online, as members of V21 express an urgent need to uncouple Victorian studies from traditionally rigid spatial and temporal boundaries. The essays under the heading “The Way We Write Now” invent “deliberately strange and experimental chronologies” (“Historicism: From the Break to the Loop”), from Ellis Hanson’s “kink temporality” (“Kink in Time”) to Anna Kornbluh’s repetition of “thought across context” (“History Repeating”). The “Empire and Unfielding” section takes up geographical subjects, valorizing innovative studies of space that destabilize colonialist viewpoints; Sebastian Lecourt, for instance, praises the work that Caroline Levine and Priya Joshi have done to “reimagine the term Victorian, not as a national or period marker, but instead as the name of a transnational media network” (“The Light of Asia and the Varieties of Victorian Presentism”), while Tanya Agathocleous traces Jyotirao Phule’s 1873 pamphlet “Slavery” as it moves between languages, nations, and centuries (“Jyotirao Phule’s ‘Slavery’”).
These conversations about Victorian studies slide fluidly into current world literature debates. Agathocleous’s methodology, in particular, brings to mind David Damrosch’s definition of world literature as “a mode of circulation and of reading” (World Literature 5). In his work on the Epic of Gilgamesh, Damrosch illustrates his theory by uncovering “the chain of significations that circulates from Babylon up into Assyria and that from there gets recovered in the Victorian era” (“Comparative Literature” 474). Gilgamesh likewise holds a fascination for Wai Chee Dimock, as she traces the “epic surface” through The Divine Comedy and Henry James alike (80). For Damrosch and Dimock, a single circulating text divulges a story of literary afterlives, of loss and rediscovery, of nonlinear and achronological “twists,” “turns,” and “coils” that evoke the alternative chronologies proposed within the essays of “The Way We Write Now” (Dimock 80).
But just how far can our approach(es) to the Victorian era stretch? When we track Gilgamesh’s nineteenth-century resonances, does the ancient Mesopotamian epic become Victorian literature? Could we classify Wide Sargasso Sea, too, as Victorian, while avoiding the tangles of anachronism? Transnational and achronological perspectives enrich our understanding of Victorian studies, while our ability to separate world and Victorian literatures fades. Jesse Oak Taylor poses a poignant and relevant question regarding how we interpret the “V” in V21: “What, if anything is distinctive about the ‘Victorian’ era, especially if one expands the purview beyond the literary and historical culture of a single nation?” (“Anthropocene Inscriptions: Reading Global Synchrony”). Determining the appropriate range of spatial and temporal boundaries required to carry out a distinctly “Victorian” project feels a bit like oscillating between the microscopic and telescopic perspectives of Middlemarch. Just how much time or space need we account for in the scope of our research?
While I anticipate that lively conversations concerning scale and methodology will continue for years to come, the confluence between world literature and Victorian studies can have immediate and useful consequences for acts of collectivity. Studying literature through a global lens often proves disorienting; rather than becoming experts, we continually venture from our comfort zones to engage with deeply unfamiliar texts translated (if translated at all) from languages that may also prove deeply unfamiliar. But this defamiliarization also lends itself beautifully to scholarly collaboration. In order to make sense of our material, we can – and must – call upon colleagues who work within other time periods, genres, departments, and disciplines. Thinking in vaster geographical or chronological terms can create a more generous, and presentist, approach to Victorian studies. As our methods transform, so will our very community of scholars.
Agathocleous, Tanya. “Jyotirao Phule’s ‘Slavery.’” boundary2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016. www.boundary2.org/2016/10/jyotirao-phule-slavery/
Damrosch, David. What Is World Literature?. Princeton University Press, 2003.
Damrosch, David and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “Comparative Literature/World Literature: A Discussion with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and David Damrosch.” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 48, no. 4, 2011, pp. 455-486.
Dimock, Wai Chee. Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time. Princeton University Press, 2006.
Hanson, Ellis. “Kink in Time.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016. www.boundary2.org/2016/10/ellis-hanson-kink-in-time/
Kornbluh, Anna. “History Repeating.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016. www.boundary2.org/2016/10/anna-kornbluh-history-repeating/
Lecourt, Sebastian. “The Light of Asia and the Varieties of Victorian Presentism.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016. www.boundary2.org/2016/10/sebastian-lecourt-the-light-of-asia-and-the-varieties-of-victorian-presentism/
Levine, Caroline. “Historicism: From the Break to the Loop.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016. www.boundary2.org/2016/10/caroline-levine-historicism/
Taylor, Jesse Oak. “Anthropocene Inscriptions: Reading Global Synchrony.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016. http://www.boundary2.org/2016/10/jesse-oak-taylor-anthropocene-inscriptions-reading-global-synchrony/
Zheng, Zhenduo. “A View on the Unification of Literature.” World Literature in Theory, edited by David Damrosch, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. 58-67.
edited by David Damrosch, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. 58-67.