2023 Balzan Prize for World Literature
David Damrosch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University and Director of the Institute for World Literature, began as a specialist in the early epic tradition of world literature. In The Narrative Covenant (1987), he traces the dynamic development of the Bible’s major historical narratives, especially the Pentateuch, and highlights their generic variety and aesthetic quality. Twenty years later, he returns to an even earlier text that played an important role in this study as the premise of the biblical epic. In The Buried Book (2007), he tells the story of the rediscovery of the Gilgamesh clay tablets, which were lost for two thousand years, and provides an introduction to this great epic and its modern reception.
What Is World Literature? (2003) had a major impact on the development of comparative literature studies in the USA and beyond. In case studies ranging from the Sumerian Gilgamesh to Ancient Egyptian poetry, from medieval mysticism to postmodern metafiction, he looks at the ways works change as they circulate beyond their culture of origin. Against the long-held notion of world literature as an established canon of predominantly Western classics, he argues – quite in the spirit of Goethe – for an idea of world literature that emphasizes the circulation and reading of literary works: “works of world literature take on a new life as they move into the world at large.” This new life is the result of a transculturation process that adjusts the works to other cultures.
An important role in this reframing is played by translations that contextualize old and new works again and again and make them accessible to a new readership. David Damrosch sees the accelerating pace of globalization as an opportunity for writers, especially from outside Europe, to reach a broader audience and promote a genuine dialogue across cultures. At the same time, he is aware of the risk that such a dialogue is missed, because “works by non-Western authors or by provincial or subordinate Western writers” are “assimilated to the immediate interests and agendas of those who edit, translate, and interpret them”.
In further books (How to Read World Literature, Comparing the Literatures, and Around the World in 80 Books), numerous (co-)edited standard works (among others, The Longman Anthology of World Literature, Teaching World Literature, and World Literature in Theory), and collected volumes (including World Literature and Postcolonial Studies), David Damrosch has expanded and updated this approach. Above all, he complements the dimension of transnational circulation of works with the aspect of an immanently world-literary production, such as in the case of authors who write across several languages and cultures.
He is aware that he benefits from the hegemonic status of global English through his location in the US context. It is all the more impressive how attentively he takes up the impulses of other scholarly traditions, how vigorously he insists – against prevailing presentism – on the historical depth of world literature studies, and what a stupendous wealth of works by non-Western cultures he covers in his analyses. Even though he rejects the “ideology of original-language work” and advocates a critical-reflective use of translations, he is able to read many of the texts he treats in the original, including German, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Greek, Nahuatl, Old Norse, Akkadian, and (biblical) Hebrew, not to speak of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
With his wide-ranging oeuvre, David Damrosch is one of the most respected and influential figures of contemporary world literature studies.