I spent the week before Easter tackling Alexander Beecroft’s An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day – our reading group text this spring – properly from cover to cover. Here are some of my thoughts on it – not in the manner of a review, but more informally. First come general points, then comments on the individual chapters.
1. I liked the idea of ‘borrowing’ ecology as a framework for describing and explaining literary history in terms of complex interrelationships rather than narrow causal explanations. I also thought the concept of biomes worked well for thinking about literary cultures across wide divisions in time and space. However, I became more sceptical when, later in the book, biological concepts such as genetic diversity were applied in a narrower way in order to understand and predict certain developments. I’m all in favour of turning to the sciences for inspiration about new ways of thinking about literature and literary history – but I do not believe this should cross over into analysing them as if they were biological phenomena.
I also felt that the word ‘ecology’ tended toward emptiness on occasion, particularly in its adjectival form: preposing ‘ecological’ to X should not become a rhetorical device for acknowleding that X is complex without having to tease out the forms and workings of that complexity. That one encounters cybernetic metaphors (information reduction) as well, and reads very little about the role of the natural world in literary history, further made me wonder just what conceptual framework we are actually dealing with.
2. I am not convinced that a study of literature in terms of circulation (one of the primary aspects foregrounded in the book) does justice to it as a creative art form – but I accept that others may feel differently. Either way, there remains a problem of definition, because literature is in practice not understood just as the circulation of texts: the book also treats it as, for example, the practices employed by readers (something rather different) and, on occasion, begins analysing features such as style or plot structure after all. It’s almost as if Beecroft realizes in writing that the reductive ‘circulation’ approach isn’t enough, but doesn’t go so far as explicitly (re)formulating his understanding of literature to take this into account.
3. The status of the descriptors for the various ecologies (‘epichoric’, ‘panchroic’, and so on) is problematic. One encounters them preposed to a variety of different terms: to ‘language’ or ‘register’ as well as ‘literature’, for example. Perhaps, in the context of this study, there is a certain fluidity between all three of those terms – but equally, the global ecology chapter in particular did make me wonder whether the issues it discussed are really equivalent where language and literature alike are concerned.
4. Overall, I enjoyed the first four chapters, on epichoric, panchoric, cosmopolitan, and vernacular literatures. But there were times when I found the tendency toward selective focus reductive. There was, for instance, no space for examples from and developments in the German tradition with which I am most familiar. Take the treatment of vernacular manifestos, which concentrates on Dante and Ramon Vidal. What about Otfrid von Weißenburg’s reflections on the vernacular in the dedicatory letter of his Evangelienbuch? Is it omitted because it is too early? Because it doesn’t fit the concept as it’s being used by Beecroft? Or simply because it was one example too many to include?
It is very important to stress that this is not the criticism of somebody picking holes by pointing out omissions from the field in which he happens himself to specialize. That’s just not fair in the case of an undertaking of this kind. The point is more abstract than that. It concerns the way in which the balance between selectivity and generalization is handled, the fact that such questions arise – but fall, if you will, in empty air. There seems not to be any framework for addressing the fact that readers will have them.
The importance of creating such a framework when it comes to the valdity and transferability of a theory, is obvious; perhaps less immediately so are the consequences that the failure to do so has on a different (meta?) level. Not least in the current climate, in which strategic decisions are being made to support particular languages more than others, there is something very unsettling about research that passes, as obviously as it does silently, over certain fields as if this were a self-evident thing to do. It is worth repeating that this is not a value judgement about the act per se of focusing on particular fields in a project of this scope, and nor is it suggesting that there is necessarily anything sinister involved in so doing. Research can never cover everything, and is shaped by coincidences as much as by neat plans. There will always be a post-factum element to any rationalization about the finished product – but this does not obviate the need for engagement with, and articulation of, the dynamic of inclusion and exclusion that characterizes it.
5. I found that the last two chapters, on national and global ecologies, stepped down a gear. I can’t help thinking that this is related to the fact that these ecologies, unlike their more general predecessors, are linked to specific historical circumstances … but I need to think that through further. At any event: non-sequiturs began to appear, readability decreased, and the argumentation became less adventurous and less convincing. The examples with which the national literature chapter begins are just one illustration of this. Beecroft juxtaposes extracts from the first novels written in English and French from what is now Canada. The aim is to illustrate the ‘mutual invisibility of English-Canadian and Québécois cultures’. Some details are puzzling.
In the English passage, Frances Brookes writes of the (apparent) lack of human presence ‘up the river St. Lawrence, during a course of more than two hundred miles’. In the French passage, Philippe Aubert de Gaspé fils writes of a ‘cottage … hidden from view for travelers by a pine grove which protects it from the north wind’. As Beecroft himself notes, this latter location (St.-Jean-Port-Joli) lies further up the river, beyond the 200 miles in the first quotation. So far, so good — until one encounters the following synopsis of the two scenes: ‘the English ship gliding past the French village; the former seemingly unaware of the existence of the latter, which in turn has screened itself from the view of outside visitors’. This is problematic in three respects. First, it is a misrepresentation: the English quotation, as we’ve seen, actually describes the English voyage on a different stretch of river from that on which the French ‘village’ is situated. Second, the reader is left in some confusion as to what kind of settlement is involved: Beecroft refers to St.-Jean-Port-Joli first as a ‘town’, then quotes the French novel with its reference to a ‘cottage’, and then paraphases that in turn as a ‘village’. Third, writing that this place has ‘screened itself from the view of outside visitors’ arguably distorts the primary source, in which concealment is merely the side-effect of an effort to gain protection from the wind.
Now, it may well be that the wider textual context of both quotations would defuse the first two criticisms – that all would become clear if one read the surrounding material in both novels. It certainly is the case that the quotation about concealment and protection from the wind has an ambiguity that permits the paraphrase criticized. But that rather misses the point: in a book about literature, one expects features like ambiguity to be noted, and one expects accuracy in the uses to which quotations from primary texts are put. I don’t think that the wider point Beecroft is making suffers particularly from the iffy presentation in this case. But the ‘trust’ that one needs when reading a comparative book such as this, the confidence that one can rely on what is being said about sources with which one is not familiar, does.
6. So to the final chapter. This was – ironically perhaps, given that of all of them it concentrates most closely on the circulation that is foregrounded in the Introduction – purgatorial. It is in large part an enumeration of the relative strengths (in the subjective and objective senses) and future prospects of various languages and literatures. The combination of relatively banal remarks such as ‘For a language to survive and thrive, it must be spoken by young people, and ideally in many domains of their lives’ on the one hand, with grandiose references to ‘my “plot of globalization”’ on the other, did not endear itself to me. It’s not that the underlying question of ‘what happens next?’ isn’t interesting. It’s more that when one tries to envisage future developments, the qualitative unpredictability of literature as a creative art form is more obvious than ever … not least in a chapter whose argument – and this is precisely the point – is grounded so firmly in quantitative statistics about speakers, translations, and such like.
Where does that leave me? There is a great deal that I liked about the book, and a lot that I learned from it. The discussions of Greek and Chinese material, in particular, are very interesting in the best sense of the word. The trouble, I think, can be traced back to the expectations that the title and subtitle create. They both lay claim – the former geographically, the latter chronologically – if not to a totality, then at least a comprehensiveness that stands at odds with the selectivity of material and approaches that the book actually presents. What I take away from it is something akin to a partial toolkit – a bundle of very useful concepts and questions to think about, extend, apply and interrogate without being certain that all of them are necessarily the best ones for the job. Is this closing switch in metaphor away from an ‘ecology’ just a stylistic awkwardness on my part? I don’t think so.