In November 2019, Martin Puchner, the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, and a prize-winning author, educator, public speaker, and institution builder in the arts and humanities, delivered the inaugural Princeton University Lecture Series at the University of Oxford.
A prolific writer, Puchner's works, which include a dozen books and anthologies and over sixty articles and essays, range from philosophy and theater to world literature and have been translated into many languages. Entitled 'World Literature for a Changing Planet' Puchner's three lectures discussed large-scale projects in literature and storytelling and what we can learn from them about the challenges of our own time.
World Literature: the curious history of an idea
On January 31st, 1827, the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe shocked his secretary by uttering a new word: world literature. Goethe had just read a Chinese novel and concluded that Europe needed to rethink its relation to the rest of the world. Humanity was entering a new phase: the phase of world literature.
Coined in provincial Weimar, the idea of world literature soon caught the imagination of Marx and Engels and was subsequently used by those seeking to promote national literatures, from Yiddish to South Asia, within an international context. What can we learn from this history? And what does the term world literature mean today?
Think Big! A modest argument about large scales
The idea of world literature contains an argument in favor of large-scale comparative projects. But most humanities disciplines have shied away from these sorts of projects, deterred by a skepticism with respect to grand narratives and worries about Eurocentric universalism. In this context, other disciplines from physics to biology have taken over the job of telling overarching stories.
Martin Puchner will argue that much gets lost when we neglect the big picture. But how should we humanists proceed, taking into account decades of critique? Through what kinds of collaborations can we insert what we know into the narratives our societies tell? In making this argument, Professor Puchner will be drawing on his experience with the Norton Anthology of World Literature.
Stories for the future, and how to get there
Based on the history of world literature presented in the first two lectures, Martin Puchner will seek to draw conclusions about the role of the humanities today. What he have in mind is something that might be called applied humanities. Scientists and policy makers have struggled to turn knowledge about global challenges, from climate change to the future of the European Union, into meaningful action.
But in order to motivate action, we need more than facts; we need stories. How can the history of storytelling help us meet this need? And what types of stories should we develop to meet these challenges?