The Brutal Size of World Literature

by Walt Hunter

This short essay is part of a larger project in which I argue that the development of the modern lyric is inseparable from the development of global capitalism. The lyric is born, or born global, if you want, from the legal and political enclosures that drive the early-seventeenth-century expansions of the modern world-system. It is therefore marked in its contemporary forms by the precariousness and exclusions that accompany the elimination of the space of the commons.

I want to think about what that means in the context of the resurgence and expansion of world literature as a discipline. There is a pronounced tendency in some versions of world literature and global studies to elide gendered and racialized distributions of global vulnerability. In this way, world literature reproduces the very gaps it is meant, in its most optimistic moods, to anneal. To incorporate this critique into world literature would be to practice an act of disciplinary disobedience. 

I teach a class called Theories of World Literature, and I start the class with three poems. One of these is John Donne’s “The Good-Morrow.” The good-morrow, famously, makes the world co-terminal with the room of two lovers. Donne writes, “Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone, / Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown, / Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.” If we fixate too much on Donne’s language of praise and paradox, we miss a more obvious diagnosis: the making of one world is conjoined with the logic of global capitalism, here glossed in terms of possession, fear, and control. This mid-seventeenth-century conflation of the room of the lovers and possession of the external world is a picture-perfect materialist conception of history—at least according to Friedrich Engels, who writes, in the preface to his 1884 Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, “the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life.”[1] Its further, marked conflation with the “room” of the poetic stanza makes this poem a theory of world literature: that is, a standing-point from which literature (the synecdoche of the room/stanza) is inseparable from global capitalist relations of production and reproduction of life.

So the origins of the lyric are soldered to the creation of a global capitalist system—in the second poem, by John Keats, via Spanish conquest. Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” fixates, in the sestet of its sonnet form, on the moment of Cortez, or of Balboa—many have noticed Keats’s “mistake.”[2] We are in the early 1500s, the period to which Keats, writing in 1816, looks back. The Chapman syllables (1614-1615) he hears inscribe a third significant moment, when the first enclosure laws are passed in England (1608, 1621), a period that Christopher Hill has described as exceptional in its social misery.[3] One mystery here, though, is why Keats opts for the Italian rather than English sonnet form. It is because Wyatt translates Petrarch into English at the same moment that Cortez brings into view the modern world-system. Keats’s origin myth of the lyric is at the same time a questioning of the lyric subject: the subject instantiated as the effect of a view of land, which then brings a turning, then another view, this time of each other, and then a surmise. Keats uses the sonnet to look back, but as he looks back, the figures conjured from his listening, from the sounds of Chapman, look outward, then to each other, and then begin guessing forward, wildly. The colonial gaze is shared, brutalizing the Levinasian ethics of the face, which here brings about an ontology of a different kind, a collective realization, not of otherness, but of complicity in violence towards the other. The syllables that Keats hears in Chapman trigger a theatrical moment of silence, in which the syllables of every later lyric subject are doomed to fall again and again. The “I” of lyric thus has a precise origin point, at least from the perspective of the early 19th century: in the ethical gaze that inaugurates not peace, as Levinas would have it, but the total destruction of the world.

I read these two poems of the metropole as anticipating the critique I’m suggesting here, raising the question of whose world is it when we refer to world literature. This question appears quite explicitly in the work of the contemporary Iraqi poet Manal Al-Sheikh. Born in Nineveh, Al-Sheikh fled Iraq with her two children for Stavanger, Norway, becoming a Guest Writer at the ICORN Center (International City of Refuge Network). Al-Sheikh’s writing is inextricable from the global displacements and altered patterns of labor that have affected women to disproportionate degrees. Here is her poem, called “A World”:

A couple of doves

And a wall edge

How extensive the world’s heart is![4]

Al-Sheikh’s poem, with the indefinite article in its title, knows the destruction of a world. This is what the poem points to. It is not the assertion of a different point of view—the agglomerative model of world literature that Rabindranath Tagore criticizes as “my ploughland added to yours and to someone else’s.”[5] It is the knowledge, rather, of the loss of a point of view, as Jonathan Lear would say.[6] In that case, the proper activity of world literature is to listen to this knowledge wherever it can be found.

What this poem has in common with the previous two, and especially with Donne’s, is its sense of extension rather than accumulation. Here, in this place, is an entire world. It reminds me vividly of a particular passage in one of Rosa Luxemburg’s speeches from 1914. For Luxemburg, the propertied bourgeois woman claims that her house is the world. For the global proletarian woman and the refugee, in contrast,

The whole world is her house, the world with its sorrow and its joy, with its cold cruelty and brutal size. The proletarian woman travels with the tunnel workers from Italy to Switzerland, camps in their shacks and sings while drying her baby’s laundry, beside dynamited rocks hurled into the air. As a seasonal land worker she sits in the din of railway stations on her modest bundle, with a scarf covering her simply-parted hair, and waits patiently to be relocated from east to west. Between decks on the transatlantic steamer she migrates with every wave that washes the misery of the crisis from Europe to America, in the motley multilingual crowd of starving proletarians, so, when the backwash of an American crisis froths up, she returns to the misery of the European homeland, to new hopes and disappointments, to a new hunt for work and bread. (emphasis mine)[7]

This sense of being forced to dwell in the world, without having a world of one’s own, structures Al-Sheikh’s recent poem “Pennilessness”:

           I'm orphan enough to be a stakeless tent

           I'm sad enough to be a mere kiss in the crowds

           I'm hungry enough to dare announce my organic pennilessness

           And hang on my tent opening a signboard saying:

           "Organs herein are unsuitable for human consumption"

           I'm violent enough to cause all impudent ships to drown

           And have of blood enough to menstruate for all the village ladies for more centuries to 


           And have of loneliness enough to always cast insults against every knocking at the 

neighbor's door 

           Of wars also do I have enough to give well-selected heads to everybody starving for

sleeping and dreams

 And of pagan heritage do I have more enough to cast my mystic ancestors' flags into a                                                                                                

saturnine history mouth 

          Of death do I have enough to prepare for him an evening with no moon to wane nor sun                                                                                                          

to succeed

           Also do I have of homelands quite enough to ask all the murdered to inherit their final 

resting place                                                                                                                           


I wonder why all this world is within my reach,
But you are forever out of my reach[8]


In its inventory of contemporary figures of the global, “Pennilessness” turns a logic of scarcity into an ironic catalogue of excess. The world within the reach of Al-Sheikh’s poem is a world of abundance, a copious offering of wars, blood, fugitives, death, loneliness, orphans, hunger, and violence. The poem lays bare the fictions of community, personhood, legal status, rights, family, social welfare, and citizenship that are denied to the speaker.

So I teach a class called Theories of World Literature, and I start the class with these poems because I believe there has not yet been a theory of world literature. In an interview, “Literature is Against Us,” Anne Boyer has recently described literature as an act of violent dispossession. The plural subject “us” that Boyer uses stands for “everyone who has been taken from, everyone who makes and maintains the world that the few then claim it is their right to own.”[9] Al-Sheikh’s poems are the making and maintenance of a world from which they are expelled. The euphoric excesses of certain Anglophone strands of lyric today are the negative images of the violent, unequal distribution of global vulnerability, born on the back of the female refugee. And the putative ecstasy of a revolutionary poetic stance can hide the deeply gendered inequalities of globalization. To write in and through and about such a world—whose brutal size and cold cruelty are relentlessly on display in even the most canonical, metropolitan works of poetry—means to practice a global poetics. This is not a depoliticized, multicultural congress of world literature, but rather the re-politicized poetics of globalization.





[1] Friedrich Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. 11 October 2010. Web. 26 September 2015. 

[2] See Charles J. Rzepka, “‘Cortez: Or Balboa, or Somebody like That’: Form, Fact, and Forgetting in Keats’s ‘Chapman’s Homer’ Sonnet.” Keats-Shelley Journal 51 (2002): 35-75.

[3] Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution: The Making of Modern English Society, Vol. I 1530-1780. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967. 73.

[4] Poem and translation sent by the author (27 November 2012).

[5] Rabindranath Tagore, “World Literature.” In Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Writings on Literature and Language. Ed. Sukanta Chaudhuri. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001. 150.

[6] Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. 32.

[7] Rosa Luxemburg, “The Proletarian Woman.” In The Rosa Luxemburg Reader. Ed. Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004. 242-245.

[8] Poem and translation sent by the author (27 November 2012).

[9] Anne Boyer with Amy King, “Literature Is Against Us.” Harriet. 30 August 2015. Web. 26 September 2015. 

Walt Hunter's picture

Walt Hunter is Assistant Professor of World Literature in the English department at Clemson University. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in ARCADE, the Boston Review, College Literature, Cultural Critique, Jacket2, the minnesota review, and Modern Philology. His current book project, “Ecstatic Call: The Global Lyric from Yeats to the Present,” looks at modern and contemporary lyric as a social form that makes visible processes of globalization.

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