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Rethinking World Literature

May 13th, 2013

By Jeremy Schwab

In 2007, the publishers of the Norton Anthology of World Literature chose CAS Associate Professor of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature Wiebke Denecke to take part in a massive, ambitious new project—creating a world literature anthology for the 21st century. The third edition of the anthology was finally published in March of 2012. In an interview with CAS News, Denecke discussed the shifting landscape of world literature and looked back on her journey to becoming a world-renowned expert in East Asian literature.

At the outset of the project in 2007, Norton assembled over 500 professors to dissect and discuss the previous edition, and did an exhaustive search to choose the small group of eight editors for the new one. The publisher asked Denecke to be the editor in charge of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese literature. Later, they added Mesopotamian and Egyptian literature to her plate due to her past experience with other ancient ideographic languages.

The six-volume anthology took four years to pull together. “I finished actually the day I went into labor with my son Simon, in the fall of 2011,” she recalls. “I literally handed in the final proofs that day.”

The field of world literature is relatively new, and evolving quickly. The editors of the Norton anthology wanted to take a very different approach for the third edition than had the editors of previous editions (which were published in 1956 and 1995). They sought to build from the ground up an anthology that reflected the experiences of people in every time period and every part of the world. To do this, they went beyond what is traditionally thought of as literature.

“The traditional Great Books courses cover the enshrined ‘Masterpieces,’” explains Denecke. “But we took the cultural approach, in two directions; that is, ‘Why did these texts become important in their original cultural context? And how can they matter to our lives in the globalizing world of the 21st century?’”

The editors included excerpts from political manifestos; for instance, futurism, Dadaism, and communism. Studying these alongside great novels, poetry, and ancient texts like the Bible and Tao Te Ching allows for a fuller understanding of humanity.

“We wanted to open it up well beyond the current narrow definition of literature which is obsessed with the novel—the darling genre of our age,” says Denecke. She describes the emerging world literature paradigm as non-reductionist. Many theoretical paradigms of the past decades such as deconstructionism, postmodernism, or psychoanalysis apply a top-down theory to literary texts from other places and times. The new World Literature paradigm, instead, takes a ground-up, open-ended approach that develops theories based on actual texts from other cultures and periods. “Only in this way can we overcome the engrained habit of imposing Western literary categories onto the rest of the world and develop a true understanding and respect for other cultures.”

“The question is how to teach this literature,” she says. “How do you compare separate cultures? It opens up questions we can’t treat in that reductionist fashion, really. It’s actually a double challenge: you’re kind of poking both the Eurocentrists and the too culture-specific philologists out of their holes and say, ‘Let’s look at all these traditions together, in mutual illumination.’”


From Szeged to Boston

Denecke’s journey to becoming one of the world’s foremost experts in East Asian literature began in an unlikely place: a Hungarian home for handicapped children, where she volunteered soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain. She was inspired to work at the home, in the southern city of Szeged, by a concert tour that had taken her to Hungary and Romania during the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Enthralled by the foreign culture surrounding her, the native of Germany also delved into Hungarian literature.

“Hungary was interesting,” recalls Denecke, a CAS Associate Professor of Chinese, Japanese & Comparative Literature. “Their language is non-European, and their history and literature reflect the persistent struggle between aspiring to be a legitimate part of Europe but also being proud of their mysterious Asian roots beyond the Ural Mountains.”

Despite a budding interest in the stories and languages of other cultures, she decided to study medicine. Typical of her, Denecke did not study medicine in Berlin or Paris. Rather, she launched out boldly to forge her own path, choosing to study Chinese medicine in Dalian, a city in southern Manchuria where very few people spoke English.

“I wanted to be in a place with almost no foreigners,” she says. “There was such a large degree of cultural difference: what you say and don’t say, when to laugh.”

Clearly, new cultures and languages were what captured Denecke’s very active mind, and soon her medical studies gave way to a study of the classical Chinese language. “Classical Chinese packs so much meaning into so few syllables. I liked the way the language and its literature trains you to see the world in great, astonishing nuance,” she says. Confucianism and early Chinese philosophy and poetry captivated her in particular.

Denecke had worked in hospitals in Japan towards her medical degree, and once she made the career switch she completed her Ph.D. in East Asian languages at Harvard University. Before joining the Modern Languages & Comparative Literature Department at BU in 2010, she served as an Assistant Professor at Barnard College/Columbia University and a Fellow at Columbia’s Society of Fellows and Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.

Denecke carved out a niche in classical Japanese and Chinese language and literature. Her expertise and commitment soon attracted attention in her field, and in 2007 the publishers of the Norton Anthology tapped her for a leading role—and the rest is history.

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