Des étoiles nouvelles. Quand la littérature découvre le monde

Des étoiles nouvelles. Quand la littérature découvre le monde
William Marx

Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 2021
128 pp., illus. 9 b/w. Paper, 16 €
ISBN: 978-2-7073-4683-4.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
August 2021

One of the many paradoxes of the globalization of culture has been the rapid fading out of comparative literature. The rise of world literature, which studies everything but only in English, as well as the current hegemony of postcolonial studies, which has raised a deep suspicion toward all traditional Western literatures, have had a devastating impact on the comparative analysis of national literary studies and traditions. Key in this regard is the convergence of these phenomena with to two other trends: first, the increased importance of “theory”, which in practice often goes at the expense of close reading and perhaps even the reading of primary materials in themselves, second the inevitable tension, in terms of attention (that is, time), between the reading of literary texts, often long and extremely time-consuming, and the new, more fragmented forms of cultural consumption and interaction in the digital era. Comparative literature has faced serious problems in elaborating new theoretical and methodological models (in addition, it also used to be a somewhat undertheorized field characterized and exemplified by sometimes nonacademic practitioners such as Ezra Pound or T.S Eliot).

Hence the choice to make for comparative literature to survive: joining the winning team and reorienting itself according to the new standards of world literature, postcolonial studies, distant reading, cultural critique, etc., or trying to reinvent the discipline, not from scratch, but with the help of new questions, new stakes, new perspectives. The most ambitious and coherent enterprise in this regard is undoubtedly the research program developed by William Marx, who now holds the chair of comparative literatures (please notice the plural) at the Collège de France, the most prestigious advanced studies institution of the country.

Marx’s work, which is now becoming available in English as well (see the recent translation, with Belknap-Harvard UP, of his essay The Hatred of Literature) is a noncanonical voice in French literary history, theory and comparative studies, a deep lover of literature who is not afraid of challenging certain ideas too easily taken for granted since many decades, such as the intrinsic superiority of avant-garde and innovation (and thus the no less intrinsic neglect and despise of canonical, if not utterly traditional writing) or the perhaps naïve belief that modernist writing is the only possible way to achieve social as well as political relevance and effect. In the opening lecture of his chair (a free upload can be found here: https://books.openedition.org/cdf/10167), Marx has set out the general principles of his way of seeing the discipline. This program is obviously informed by the many critiques addressed to old-fashioned definitions of literature or nation and takes logically into account the necessary rejection of all kind of Western biases in the study of reading and writing. Yet at the same time, the underlying message of this lecture-manifesto is a very positive one: the idea is less to criticize the past, necessary as this remains, than to reinvent a new tradition, based on a very open, almost anthropological approach of the literary fact as the source of many unforeseen and above all mutual discoveries. The last word is not without danger, given its colonialist undertones, yet in Marx’s view the crucial idea is that of shared re-enchantment: thanks to the efforts of defamiliarization, thanks also to the commitment to see ourselves through other eyes and to be curious about lost or forgotten or neglected human creations, it becomes possible to provoke an original sense of wonder and amazement but also of knowledge and why not mutual understanding.

Des étoiles nouvelles. Quand la littérature découvre le monde («On New Stars. When Literature Discovers the World») is a brilliant illustration of these general theses. Modestly presented as a variation on the subfield of “geocriticism”, the study of the spatial dimension of literary fiction, with now the stars and the sky occupying the center of attention, Marx’s book is at the same time a vital contribution to the theoretical foundations of comparative literature, involving among many other things a reflection on the multilayered notion of “image” as well as a critical dialogue with some caveats but also prejudices of world literature and postcolonial studies, and a remarkable journey through time and space, from the Western experience of the New World to the modern writing back of the Empire, as well as through genres, medias and spheres of communication. The stars as seen by travelers and observers, the stars as evoked and described in literary texts, the stars as shown in comics and movies (Marx is not afraid of moving back and forth from Mallarmé to Tintin or George Lucas), the stars as objects of scientific, ideological, and political controversies, all these stars are seamlessly united in an overarching narrative that discloses on each page new objects, new visions, and above all new relationships, laying bare the human endeavor to collectively make sense of its environment, where microcosm and macrocosm can never be completely dissociated. At the end of the book, the reader feels awe (yet without fear, as the modern doxa of the sublime still wants to hold it) and gratefulness for an achievement that has the elegance of putting between brackets the immense erudition that supports the project (and by doing so should succeed in encouraging all readers and writers to build and reshape their own relationship with literature and culture).